The politics of abuse, and the abuse of politics

Today, the more acrimonious an argument or election contest appears to be, the less likely it is that anything of principle is really at stake.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

A new law of political life seems to be emerging everywhere from the UK to the USA or Italy. The more acrimonious and bitter an argument or election contest appears to be, the less likely it is that anything of principle will really be at stake. The greater the sound and fury, the more likely it signifies nothing. Indeed, the shrillness of political rhetoric now seems to increase in reverse proportion to the substance of the issue being shouted about.

A prime example of this law in operation is the neverending rows between New Labour prime minister Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown. (Indeed we might call it ‘Milburn’s Law’, after the arch-Blairite stirrer, if anybody outside Westminster knew who he was.) As the friction between the two camps increased again this week Lord Hattersley, former Labour deputy leader, declared that in all his 50 years in the party, ‘I’ve never known a time when the infighting in the Labour Party was so bitter’.

That is quite a claim, given Labour’s bloody history of internal feuding. Hattersley may not quite be old enough to remember Labour premier Ramsay MacDonald splitting the party and forming a national government with the Tories. But he was in the thick of it as the Labour left fought running battles with the party leadership through the Seventies and Eighties, and when the ‘Gang of Four’ leading members of the Labour right quit to form the SDP in 1981.

Yet Hattersley has a point. Rarely before can the conflicts among Labour Party leaders have been so bitter and personalised. And that relates to the fact that never before has such a dog-eat-dog conflict been so devoid of political meat.

Blair v Brown is not right v left, or moderniser v traditionalist. It is just Blair v Brown, a personal struggle over which one of them should occupy the spot at the top of the greasy pole, the prime minister’s office in 10 Downing Street. For a Labour MP or thinker to be called a ‘Blairite’ or a ‘Brownite’ today means little in ideological terms. It merely denotes that they are considered to be a personal follower of either the prime minister or the chancellor, an acolyte of one or the other cult leader.

Blair v Brown is a leadership spat for the age of managerial politics, when a political leader is likely to stand on the strength of their personality and character rather than policies and convictions. The factions hurl abuse at one another because they have little else to offer by way of a critique.

We have noted before that there is really nothing to choose between Blair and Brown in ideological terms. Equally importantly, however, they have nothing much in common ideologically either. There is no old-fashioned sense of party loyalty to bind them together or restrain their infighting, no overarching common cause that might make them willing to set aside their personal grievances. The only interest they share is in retaining power. They are members of an election-winning machine rather than a political party. And no sooner are elections over than they recommence squabbling over the spoils.

As the row between the Blair and Brown factions over when the former will stand down intensifies, leading members such as Lord Hattersley are worrying that this self-destructive struggle could ruin the Labour Party. But not for the first time among those friendly critics of New Labour, this gets history the wrong way around. It is only because the Labour Party has already long since been ruined as a movement and reduced to an empty shell that these personal cliques have been able to take over from the political wings, and personal abuse has replaced political debate (see After New Labour, what’s left?, by Mick Hume).

It has also been possible to see the new law of politics at work in the Italian election campaign. There has been widespread comment on the amount of name-calling and bitterness between the two main candidates for prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi of the centre-right and Romano Prodi of the centre-left. As Dominic Standish reports elsewhere on spiked, this trading of personal insults has become a poor substitute for political arguments (see Prodi v Berlusconi: Italy’s ugliest election?). Because there were no major ideological differences between the candidates, the election became a personality contest between the flamboyant but dodgy media magnate and the grey Euro-crat, and a catfight to see which could insult the other and their supporters more effectively. And again the closer the two sides’ policies became, the more acrimony they injected into their exchanges, like squawking birds squabbling over the same slender perch.

The international pattern of the new law has been confirmed in recent elections elsewhere in the West. In last year’s US presidential contest, for example, many commentators noted the unprecedented levels of partisan hostility between Republican supporters of George W Bush and Democrat supporters of his opponent, John Kerry. Yet despite all of the scaremongering about Bush and his neoconservative allies being a uniquely right-wing force in American history, there was little of substance to choose between the actual programmes offered by him and Kerry. When it came to representing distinctive worldviews, the Republicans and Democrats were not genuinely ‘partisan’ at all. In America as in Italy and Whitehall, abuse and personal acrimony acted as a substitute for political argument once more.

As political contests sink further into the gutter of abuse, public cynicism about and alienation from politics can only intensify. But that alone will do nothing to put a stop to this political charade. Instead it risks leaving the elite free to carry on with the circus in their own isolated world. As we have noted before on spiked, the New Labour cabinet already rules through the modern equivalent of kingly court politics, where unaccountable factions manoeuvre for influence and the crown far removed from the electorate, like second-rate Shakespearian characters on a stage. In this sense the Blair/Brown issue looks far more like an impatient prince waiting to succeed to the crown than a democratic contest for leadership of a party and a nation.

As the new law of politics takes effect, and the volume and the viciousness are cranked up while the substance disappears down the pan, it becomes less and less likely that anybody much will be listening. The effect of all this is that we are being offered no alternatives, no real choice about the sort of society in which we wish to live. There is a pressing need – and, given the rotten state of the old parties, a timely opportunity – to challenge this abusive excuse for politics. That would be something to shout and scream about.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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