One reason for the abject decline of British politics – and maybe American; I’m less qualified to say – is the poor impression that is given in today’s media of politicians. Yes, I’m aware that politicians have always been denigrated, probably from the ancient Greeks onwards, and in Britain at least since those scabrous cartoons by Rowlandson and Gillray in the public prints of the eighteenth century. But not, I think, so universally. That began so far as Britain is concerned with the ‘satire boom’ of the 1960s, which amused us all so much: That Was the Week That Was, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye and Spitting Image; which – or so the more serious-minded of the satirists may have hoped – would keep our public servants up to the mark.
Except that it seems not to have done. If present-day satirists and popular newspapers are anything to go by, things have remained the same, or even got worse. Politicians (we’re told) are all out for themselves, on the make, corrupt, greedy, over-ambitious, habitual liars, hypocritical, sexual predators, ignorant, out of touch, possible paedophiles… all the worst you could say of anyone. Politics, whichever party is involved – there’s little discrimination exercised here – must be the least respected profession there is in Britain today; lower even than Estate Agents. Which may explain – with dreadful irony – why better men and women no longer enter it. Why should they put up with the abuse? Which in turn, of course, makes the politicians we get even less worthy of our respect.
The ‘satire’ movement was one of the fruits of the reaction against dumb over-respect towards our ‘betters’ that came after the last War, and which (the reaction, that is) also brought in socialism and the welfare state. But there’s little connexion between them. Socialists had no respect for Tory ‘vermin’ (Aneurin Bevan’s term for them), but retained some for their own MPs. The reason for this may be that the latter were their own sort: workers – i.e. people who had had a job. That’s no longer true in this age of ‘professional’ politicians, whose only ‘jobs’ have been as student union leaders or Central Office researchers, or in political journalism – which can’t really be counted as a ‘job’. (This may explain why Dennis Skinner retains the affection of voters on all sides: he used to be a miner.) In this sense they’re not really representative. (The original name of the party, remember, was the ‘Labour Representation Committee’. It’s not that any more.) Conservative politicians are generally hardly any better connected with the people they represent, apart from those in finance, law, or through highly paid Daily Telegraph op eds. As for the Lords: as it happens more of them may have been genuine toilers in their former lives; but their new titles, of course, cut them off.
This, and the scandalous conduct of some MPs – the expenses scandal, non-attendance, suspicions of a Westminster paedophile ring in the 1970s, clashes of interests, dodgy dossiers, other lies – are meat and drink to those satirists and newspaper owners who want to undermine our respect (that word, again) for the political class. So far as the satirists are concerned this is probably only for fun. For the financially-expatriate billionaire newspaper owners, however, there may be a hidden additional motive behind it. It’s interesting that, although they were associated with popular protest in the 1960s and ’70s, most of the political satirists of that time were not socialists, or even Labour, but Right-leaning anarchists; and not solid or serious, but merely cynical. Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, both of Private Eye, are two examples. They lampooned everyone and everything. Hislop’s Have I Got News for You has been running for twenty-eight years. Though it may have lost its edge recently it is still followed by several millions, who are likely to have their tired old prejudices against politicians generally – not just those they don’t agree with – repeatedly confirmed. And tabloid newspaper owners and editors, whose personal and ideological interests are only furthered by the growth of a cynical view of all politics – politics after all provides the only solution, short of rebellion, to most of the ills that their class has inflicted upon us – encourage this hugely. It’s an excellent way of keeping the proles confused, apathetic and plaguing both houses. I’m sure this had much to do with the Brexit vote. You can see something similar in Trump’s America: in the mistrust of politicians he creates with his accusations against the Mainstream Media of ‘fake news’, so that no-one knows whom to trust; and the assumption hidden behind it all that there is no objective truth, or even close-to-truth, so that you have to make your political decisions on the basis of what source of information best feeds your prejudices.
It’s almost as though there’s a great conspiracy behind this, concocted by Western democracy’s enemies to post-modernise and undermine the political process itself. Perhaps Putin is behind it. It fits in with his other highly suspected ‘interventions’, in the US Presidential and Brexit votes. Put people against their politicians, of whatever colour. Then, in one way or another, Russia – without any serious democratic restraints – can step in and win the Cold War that Reagan thought he had won, but without reckoning on the superior strategy of a chess-loving nation.
Solutions? Democratise the press. Enact a law that says that politicians must have had proper jobs before becoming MPs. Encourage (non-partisan) political education in the schools. Talk with some decent politicians – I’ve met a good many. And have a chat with the satirists. (Well, that would be a start.)