Taking the P out of politics
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
In the debate about declining standards of grammar and punctuation prompted by Lynne Truss’s Christmas bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, one question has yet to be raised. Whatever happened to the capital P? As in the phrase, ‘politics with a…’
We are at the end of a year in which the shrinking scope of British politics has been made smaller, more petty and personal than ever before. Little wonder that so many are now tempted to take the p out of politics altogether.
The Lilliputian scale of political life was illustrated by yesterday’s big story about the Tory party’s proposals to review the penalty points that drivers get when caught by speed cameras. Those one-eyed roadside spies are widely considered to be a public nuisance. But that is no excuse for elevating them into a major political issue on which the Opposition declares its intention to fight the next election. One can almost hear the clarion call to arms: ‘We stand for life, liberty, and… a detailed audit of Britain’s 4,500 speed cameras.’ That should end voter apathy at a stroke.
New Labour has led the way in degrading politics. The Government has promised around 30 new pieces of legislation before the general election. Not one is about how the economy should best be organised. This has been a bedrock issue of debate for well over a century. Now, however, the economy has been depoliticised and handed over to the bean-counters at the Bank of England.
Meanwhile, the Government shuffles piles of pettifogging policies that look like the half-baked products of a restless regime with few ideas but plenty of time and MPs on its hands. New laws and rules to regulate the use of microscopic human tissue in medical research, or to set up a register of men who have been accused (but not convicted) of domestic violence, or to clog up the roads with jobsworths called ‘jam busters’ (why not ‘car tsars’?), will all be useless to society. Indeed, most will be considerably worse than useless, since they extend state intervention into yet more areas where it has no business. Once governments concerned themselves with defending the British way of life. Now they want to define the way the British live.
Politics is no longer a great debate over how best to create the Good Society. Since the old programmes of both Left and Right were exhausted, and with nothing emerging to put in their place, government has become an increasingly bureaucratic, managerial business.
Many of today’s allegedly big debates are disputes about minor technical matters. Questions of precisely how a hospital should be allotted its funds or exactly which way students should pay for higher education are issues of accountancy rather than ideology. With personal character filling the void where political principle ought to be, public debate frequently degenerates into a tacky beauty contest to decide which statesman has the most honest-looking face.
This year they even managed to make the debate over a major war into a small-minded affair. In all the furore surrounding the invasion of Iraq, there has been no argument over the central principle of Britain and America launching foreign wars of intervention. It has been reduced to a petty, personalised row over who inserted what word into which dodgy dossier, or who whispered David Kelly’s name to whom. Whatever one thinks of the war, it is coming to something when infantile sneering about ‘Tony Bliar’ can be lauded as meaningful opposition to military intervention.
In 2004, politics seems set to become more tame and timid still. This year the Tories attacked Tony Blair for believing in ‘total politics’. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, has just dedicated his new year message to denouncing ‘yah boo’ politics. In the through-the-looking-glass world of Westminster, it seems that there is nothing more damning today than to accuse a politician of believing in politics or wanting to win a debate. The forthcoming report of the Hutton inquiry is likely to bring these anti-politics trends to a head.
Just this week we have glimpsed the shrivelled face of tomorrow’s politics. The Department of Health apparently now wants to solve the problems of the NHS by picking on a few ‘health tourists’. And to judge by their latest pronouncements, education ministers think the way to improve our children’s future is to get rid of ‘violent’ children’s television (Tom and Jerry?), and to get travel agents to grass on parents who book holidays during term time.
Nobody should want to turn the political clock back, even if it were possible. But sights need to be raised before our light is blocked out entirely by a wall of pointless policies. Old Father Time, pass that scythe.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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