The danger of making politics a dirty word
The problem is not 'total politics', but paralysis.
Imagine, if you can, that there had been no Hutton Inquiry, no dodgy dossiers, and no war on Iraq. Suppose that most of us had never heard of a low-profile government scientist called Dr David Kelly. What issues would have been dominating British politics now, as the new political season prepares to kick off with the party conferences and the return of MPs to parliament?
Would we have been preoccupied with a principled public debate about the economy, Europe, the health service, the war on terror, third world debt or some other big question of our time?
Not likely. Instead, what passes for political debate would have been all about allegations of sleaze and scandal and lying and spin, against a background of petty backbiting and buck-passing between government ministers and departments, the media and other elite institutions.
In other words, the details might be different, but the big picture would be more or less the same as it is now. The fallout from the Bush-Blair war against Iraq and the Hutton Inquiry has not come out of the blue. It has rather reinforced what were already the dominant trends in public debate. Politics had been reduced to personal squabbles and a grim sifting through of the elite’s dirty washing long before Dr Kelly killed himself in the woods.
This is it, and has been since the old programmes of both left and right were exhausted, with nothing emerging to put in their place. Over recent decades, we have witnessed the end of what had been the core of political life – the great debate over how best to create the Good Society. Government has become an increasingly depoliticised, bureaucratic, managerial affair. The much-derided emphasis on presentation – ‘spin’ – is merely a symptom of this problem, disguising the empty hole at the heart of all the major parties’ programmes.
Particularly under Tony Blair’s New Labour government since 1997, public debate has become an argument about personal character rather than political principle, a beauty contest to decide which politician has the most honest face. Thus Blair famously asked people to support him, not because of any principle he stood for, but because he was ‘a pretty straight guy’.
This helps to explain why sleaze and cover-ups have become the standard by which governments and politicians must now be judged, rather than according to their public policy commitments. We now face the bizarre state of affairs where the debate about the Iraqi war does not concern the big principles of foreign intervention, but the minutiae of who inserted which sentence in what document, and who whispered whose name to whom (see Counting the minutes, by Brendan O’Neill).
The demise of political debate predates any of the issues that fill the news today. Yet, especially through reactions to the Hutton Inquiry, the problem is now being turned on its head. We are being told that politics is the problem, that there is too much politics in public life, and that political debate is too confrontational. Anybody who questions this view is effectively accused of dancing on the grave of Dr Kelly, widely seen as a victim of politically motivated ‘dark actors playing games’.
As it does with so many backward bandwagons today, the opposition Conservative Party most forcefully expresses the anti-politics trend. Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has said that Blair should be called to account and kicked out of office, not for anything minor like waging war on Iraq, but if he is shown to have played any part in leaking Kelly’s name to the media.
And what was the worst thing Duncan Smith could think of to say about the Blair regime’s alleged meddling over the Kelly affair? ‘We have now got a government’, he declared to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, ‘that believes in total politics’. There can be no more damning accusation today than to accuse a politician of believing in politics.
In fact, as we have often argued on spiked, the problem is more that New Labour believes in nothing of substance in political terms. Yet the strengthening consensus is that a belief in ‘total politics’ is a problem. The aftermath of Hutton is likely to bring this to a head, making politicians even more reluctant to take a bold stand, and elected governments even more willing to hand their responsibilities over to ‘non-political’ authorities like an unaccountable law lord. Far from ‘total politics’, we are faced with the prospect of total paralysis in the political arena.
This anti-politics mood is a far bigger problem than anything Hutton might reveal. Of course nobody wants to defend the petty shenanigans of today’s politicians or the charade of most parliamentary debate. But in its broader sense, politics is about much more than that. It is about humans taking action to change their circumstances, as they have done through history to drag society from the caves to something approximating civilisation. Today’s anti-political climate calls all of that into question. A society which assumes that all politics is a lie, which believes in nothing or nobody, is unlikely to be capable of achieving worthwhile changes.
Far from revelling in all of the dirt-digging that is going on, those who want to see far-reaching change need to stand up for the principle of politics. For example, the current assumption, underlined by Hutton, is that it is illegitimate for anybody to pursue a particular political interest. That is ultimately why a partisan operator like Alastair Campbell is mistrusted, while a law lord like Hutton who sits above it all is endowed with the wisdom of Solomon.
However, political parties, as the name suggests, are set up to be partisan, to fight for particular interests, not to act as neutral administrators. It is through the open clash of these competing political visions that we might hope to achieve clarity about where society should be going, as a precondition for making progress towards those goals.
There is no going back to the left v right politics of the past, and nor should we want to attempt it. Today’s debates will necessarily be conducted in a new political language, with people divided along new lines (perhaps between those who advocate change and those who are uncomfortable with it). The future shape of politics remains to be decided. But we will never get there if we do not start challenging all of the anti-political rubbish of contemporary culture, and making the case that there is nothing wrong with ‘believing in total politics’.
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