Politicians on trial: Why we need more from this election than slogans and abuse
'I want to start a debate about...'
It's become a familiar refrain from politicians and public figures over recent decades. We have problems facing the state of our economy, public services, deficit, security, infrastructure, communities, etc, etc, etc. Solutions are not straightforward but it's clear that we can't carry on as we are. We need to think creatively about fresh alternatives, and to negotiate deep-felt differences in the process. So we need a serious debate about...
Not a word of this is a lie. We do face challenges as a nation. Solutions are not simple. People have different opinions about what we should do. We live in a democracy. And so we should – must – have a debate about what we do.
That it precisely what elections, supremely general elections, are supposed to be: the moments, regular if not necessarily frequent, when the nation pauses momentarily, draws breath, looks around and asks what kind of country we want to be and how should we get there. Ask any Briton – indeed, any Westerner – what she thinks is important and admirable about their national politics and 'democracy' and 'free speech' are likely to be up there with 'rule of law' and maybe 'human rights'. A general election is the national moment of democratic speech par excellence. It is only natural for us to be enthusiastic about another one.
We're not, of course. Brenda from Bristol was speaking for many when she said incredulously, 'You're joking? Not another one! Oh for God's sake. Honestly, I can't stand this. There's too much politics going on at the moment.' Even those who like the business of politics (we have a few in the Theos office) sighed a little at the prospect.
Now, the obvious reason for this is that we have had quite a few 'national' elections of late. The 2017 general election follows hot on the heels of the 2016 EU referendum which followed the 2015 general election which followed the 2014 Scottish independence referendum which...it's enough to sate the hardest political junky.
Yet, this wasn't just over-familiarity. After all, if each and every one of those elections had been paragons of democratic speech and deliberation – real, meaningful, helpful national debate – then we should, in theory, itch at the prospect of another.
The reason we don't is because they aren't. Indeed, if the three or so weeks of semi-official campaigning so far are anything to go by, the election has been an exercise in saying as little as possible, as frequently as possible, or as colourfully as possible.
Strategists at Tory Central Office have clearly been reading Alastair Campbell's handbook in their determination to have the prime minister repeat the phrases 'strong and stable' and 'coalition of chaos' as many times as it's possible within grammatically recognisable sentences. It's a kind of a game of Just a Minute that's gone slightly wrong: 'speak for a minute without hesitation and deviation but with as much repetition as possible'.
This is usually just wearying but can abruptly rise to supreme comic effect, such as when Mrs May was asked on BBC Radio Derby whether she knew what a 'mugwump' (more of which below) was, and she replied 'What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership.' This isn't debate and it isn't democratic. But it is funny.
The PM may not have known what a 'mugwump' was but Boris Johnson presumably did, as he called Jeremy Corbyn one or, more precisely a 'mutton-headed old mugwump'. The word has various possible origins and meanings but it would be an exaggeration to say that any of them was overwhelmingly positive. Whichever iteration Johnson intended, the intention was clearly one of mockery and abuse.
Not to be outdone, Labour's Deputy Leader Tom Watson shot back that Boris Johnson was 'a caggie-handed, cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about'. Most of us will be no clearer on precisely what this means than they are on mugwumps, but the effect is apparent, even if the meaning isn't. The exchange sounds as if James Joyce's Finnegans Wake has leaked from the page onto the campaign trail; like that novel the effect is entrancing in short paragraphs but bewildering and exhausting over a prolonged period.
For his part, the Labour leader has eschewed such name-calling and, while honing in on a few slogans – 'Theresa May is strong against the weak, weak against the strong' – has avoided mantras and slurs. Nevertheless, lest this seem an unduly partisan article at this sensitive time, it is worth noting that it was (New) Labour the developed the media tactics – 'simplify and repeat ad nauseam' – and then deployed them to such effect under Tony Blair. I once heard Alastair Campbell give a public talk about his party's election strategy and it made the one presently adopted by the Tory Party seem positively broad and discursive by comparison.
This is point at which author (and reader?) stands back and complains heartily about mendacious spin doctors and their puppet politicians, who seem determined to treat their electorates as if they are educationally sub-normal. But consider this: even after Theresa May's endless parroting of 'strong and stable' for a fortnight, a YouGov poll suggested that only 15 per cent of the population recognised it. Jeremy Corbyn's comparable slogan 'For the many not the few' was recognised by two per cent. Alistair Campbell, when explaining his tactic, said that he forced cabinet ministers to repeat endlessly the same crafted slogan interview-in-interview-out for an entire campaign because if they did, there was just a chance that a majority of people might remember it by the end. He was clearly right.
This is the heart of the matter. We get the democracies we deserve. If we, as a people, are disengaged with the democratic process, cynical about the people who govern us, disinterested in their plans for our common life, the tone and content of public speech and debate will simply grow emptier and shallower, which will, in turn, give us all the more reason to be disengaged, cynical and disinterested. By contrast, an informed and engaged public is less likely to allow their leaders to get away with mere sloganeering and abuse.
We should be realistic here. No-one is expecting electorate to read manifestos, never the most gripping from of literature to curl up with on the sofa. But political speech is made constructive less by the politicians who speak it than by the audience who hears it. We owe it to ourselves to listen carefully.
Nick Spencer is acting director at Theos, the religion and society think tank.