And so they’re off. The great donkey derby that is the general election lumbers out of the starting gate, and even Jeremy Vine’s hyperactivity cannot obscure the fact that 4 weeks is a long time to endure the tedium of carefully crafted spontaneity and meticulously rehearsed off-the-cuff invective. Politicians of all hues will insult our intelligence and prostitute their own, whilst the pundits will attempt to convince us that if they don’t perform their vital function of telling us what we really think, we’ll never be able to work it out for ourselves. There will be no subject so complex or so nuanced that it can’t be condensed into an attention-span-stretching 20 seconds and, if there is such a subject, then it won’t be addressed by any of the donkeys in the derby or their trainers, or any of the race commentators.
Of course it’s easy enough to trot out this cynical, world-weary anti-politics. There’ll be a lot of it about during this campaign, and the usual suspects will be blamed for it. Take your pick from any of the following that strike your fancy:
- All the parties are the same anyway.
- All politicians are expense-fiddling liars on the make.
- The spin-doctors have destroyed political discourse and reduced it to sound-bites.
- The first-past-the-post system disenfranchises the majority of voters.
- The media have transformed politics from serious debate about issues into a mindless celebrity beauty pageant.
- The politicians have transformed politics…ditto above.
- Big business/the unions (delete according to taste) have got the parties in their pockets.
- The electorate are too stupid and obsessed with tittle-tattle and gossip to engage with the democratic process.
- Enter your own personal cynical insight here if none of the above appeals.
OK. Well, I’ve got news for you. I’ve been assiduously polishing my magic wand whilst you’ve been assimilating the post so far, and in the last few seconds I’ve been waving it with Vine-like excess. It’s been a startlingly successful effort. Every single one of my cynical objections has been dealt with and banished, including the six you added at the end of the list. Spin doctors have been rounded up and spun into earth orbit. Politicians have all eschewed make-up and air-brushing, and are now parading about proudly grinning with wonky, yellowing teeth, and the first clothes they laid their hands on. All members of the electorate have taken vows never to read OK magazine again, nor to give a monkey’s toss about the state of Katie Price’s breasts. They’ve all joined the Open University instead, and are even now embarking on the works of Adam Smith and Leon Trotsky. The unions and big business have constructed a money mountain out of their erstwhile political donations, and any party that wants some help with funding can go and grab a handful from it. We’ve got proportional representation, and no political interview is permitted to be less than one hour in length, nor are interruptions from the interviewer allowed. Finally expenses have been discontinued, and no political party is suffered to put forward any policy in the centre ground, but must choose from the extreme left or right.
Excellent. I don’t know what your additional six items consisted of, but whatever they were, they’ve been sorted as well. So democracy should be in fine fettle now, and voting will no longer be a turn-off but a vital, exhilarating contribution to the common good. Except. Oh, bugger.
Except that we’ve been deluded into thinking that democracy is an individual pastime, no different in essence from voting in the X-Factor. That by voting we can somehow take forward our own individual interests. That politics is like a pick’n’mix sweet counter in which we can select our favourite orange creme, but ignore our unloved nut cluster. That identifying interests that we have in common with others is a sort of ego annihilation, and a defeat for our personal independence. But in truth democracy is not about us as individuals. It is the right to be insignificant, to make no personal difference. The true threat to our democratic health is not spin-doctors, or the media, or expenses scandals, or sound-bites, or the distractions of celebrity culture. It is the the myth that we should form our political judgements by totting up whether we’ll be 50 quid better off under this party or that, and that collective interest is no more than a quaint hangover from the past.