The problem is not us. It’s you
John Bercow’s attack on Heat-reading, ‘under-informed’ voters shows that he doesn’t understand the crisis of politics.
If there was ever a man capable of betraying the true sentiments of the contemporary British political class post-MPs’ expenses scandal, it would have to be John Bercow.
He is the quintessence of the modern member of parliament. There’s his allegiance to the world of party politics in general rather than any political ideas in particular – certainly if rumours of his abortive defection from Tory to Labour in 2007 are to be believed. There’s the jaunty, not entirely serious demeanour, even when affecting sincerity. And then there’s his post-expenses scandal promotion to his current position: speaker of the House of Commons, a role in which Bercow actively represents and protects the elected house’s interests.
This week, in a lecture to the Hansard Society and Political Studies Association, Bercow addressed himself, once more, to the question of what is to be done in light of the reports produced by those crusading, anti-corruption knights of the realm, Christopher Kelly and Thomas Legg. ‘We have to make it crystal clear’, he declaimed, ‘that we will dynamite the past arrangements, practices and, crucially, cultures that allowed the expenses disaster to take place and will do so with as much vigour as Guy Fawkes intended to apply here in 1605. Nothing else will allow us back in to the national conversation.’
Taken by itself, Bercow’s attack on the ‘practices’ and ‘cultures’ that laid the ground for ridiculous, borderline-illegal mortgage and expense claims seems of a piece with much of what the political parties themselves have been publicly stating. Something Must Be Done. The system must be overhauled. Politics will be cleaned up. Without this reforming zeal, the public will continue to distrust us, their untrustworthy representatives.
But there was something else to Bercow’s speech, a sentiment that undermines the grovelling and the scraping and the bowing. And we’ve seen it before, too: in the claims of Tory MP Anthony Steen that people were just jealous that he had a large house; in the backbench discontent following Sir Thomas Legg’s audit of MPs’ expense claims; and, more broadly, in the whispered indignation of MPs that it’s not our fault. This ‘something else’, this other sentiment, tells a different story to the official tale of corrupt politicians and corrupting remuneration structures. It suggests that the expenses-induced political crisis, the ‘crisis of trust’, is not the fault of parliamentarians; it’s the fault of the electorate.
This transfiguring of the political crisis as a crisis of the public’s engagement with politics was the real underpinning of Bercow’s speech. We’ve changed, he seemed to be saying, like the embittered half of a broken relationship.
For a start, we no longer show deference towards parliament (amongst other institutions). He does admit that this has its upside. A critical attitude to our rulers is better than unquestioning veneration. But we’ve gone too far, he said. Healthy scepticism has become unhealthy cynicism. We just can’t help but think the worst of politicians: ‘It is a cruel paradox that at a time when MPs have never worked harder, their standing has rarely been lower’, he remarked sadly, resentfully.
Our estrangement, our cynicism-breeding distance, from MPs partially has its roots in ‘profound social changes’ he argues. Too many of us are marginalised. We don’t engage in politics because we feel separate from its practitioners on the grounds of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social class, geographical location and family status. In fact, the list of marginalised categories is extensive enough to include pretty much everyone. Outside the mainstream is mainstream.
But Bercow’s view of a changed public, cynical and estranged, goes further, and deeper into the minds of Britain’s political class. The quasi-sociological portrait of mass dislocation is really just window dressing, a justification for their underlying disdain towards the public. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bercow’s euphemistic distinction between the ‘super-informed’ and the ‘under-informed’. This, for Bercow, is the key distinction in the citizenry.
‘[T]he “super-informed” [are] those whose access to multiple news channels and mastery of the internet means that they are capable of acquainting themselves with more information about politics than any humans in history.’ These are the people who are engaged in politics, the activists who give evidence to select committees, the self-selecting members of the public who care about the ‘big issues’ such as global warming or world poverty. They are ‘a wonderful set of souls’.
And then there’s the flipside, the ‘under-informed’, the tabloid-reading, TV-guzzling masses. For this section of the public the arrival of ‘more television options and the availability of celebrity magazines mean that it is possible to avoid political news almost entirely’. These people are the problem, Bercow was saying. Their disengagement from politics, their cynical, ignorant disregard for the work of politicians is the issue that has to be addressed.
In this weasel distinction between the super-informed and the under-informed, a resurrection of the snobbish distinction between the educated and the uneducated, Bercow captures the displacement activity of Britain’s ruling elite. It’s not me, it’s you. The problems of political disengagement, of dwindling electoral participation, are seen as problems of a disinterested, easily distracted electorate. Too many of the enfranchised simply aren’t ‘informed’ enough, aren’t knowledgeable enough, to grasp the vital work parliamentarians are doing – hence, the cynical response to the expenses scandal.
By shifting the blame in this way, the solutions involve drawing the public in. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with parliamentary politics that can’t be corrected by getting the public to see what goes on in the Houses of Parliament. Bercow even suggests opening up the House of Commons at the weekend so that people can have a look around – a form of show-and-tell and no less patronising.
Much like the predominant rhetoric of transparency, the suggestion is that this is all a problem of the public’s perception, of how and what they see. If the public would just alter their perception, if they would just abandon their jaundiced perspective and come on into the Commons, perhaps even give evidence to a select committee, as Bercow suggests, then everything would be all right.
But all this misses the point. People are estranged from parliamentary politics, not because of an obsession with celebrity or proliferating TV channels, but because there’s no actual substance, no actual ideas to engage with. Issues and ideas – big issues and ideas – from education to Europe, from free speech to immigration, are not debated in any meaningful way. They are constrained by consensus. The electorate is not disenfranchising itself on a diet of Heat magazines and I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here; we are disenfranchised by the dearth of political contestation. And that’s the key: the political crisis is not a problem of the electorate – it’s not even a problem of money-grubbing MPs.
This is a crisis of politics itself. No tours of Westminster, no semi-coerced involvement in select committees will alter this. What is needed is not a set of technical fixes or gimmicky reforms, but a real debate on real issues, from the economy to the monarchy. This is why, as the 2010 election approaches, spiked’s ‘Vote for Politics!’ campaign and coverage will set out to re-politicise politics, to turn a technical exercise in legitimacy provision for an estranged, scandalised elite, into something in which people might genuinely want to have a say.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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