Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The malignant rise of gesture politics

All is fair in love and war and, I suppose we have to accept, politics as well. ‘Twas ever thus perhaps – only someone seriously ignorant of history would say that politics has ever been free of cant and cover up and of posturing and play-acting.  As Harry Truman said “If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen” – no doubt Cicero would have said the same. He did say “Nothing is more unreliable than the populace, nothing more obscure than human intentions, nothing more deceptive than the whole electoral system.” so he knew the stage on which the noble Romans did their stuff – and things haven't really changed much in a couple of millennia.

So if modern politicians believe, with Cicero, that the populace is unreliable, and that the electoral system cannot be relied upon to deliver the “right” result, then they must conclude that they have to rig it – literally in some cases (how many voting systems are truly democratic?). Manipulating the electorate, rather than outright corruption, is the preferred route – at least in what we in the richer countries call our “Western Democracies”.   As I say it has always been around - but in the television and now internet age the manipulation takes a very overt and sometimes insidious form. It was in the 1960s that politicians not only became brands but began to be sold as smartly packaged icons with their “values” reduced to soundbites and visual imagery. Kennedy was elected in 1960 because he was better looking than Nixon – there were other reasons but JFK’s absence of five o’clock shadow swung it for him. But Tricky Dicky learned his lesson as Joe McGinniss brilliantly told us in The Selling of the President – his record of how the Nixon brand was successfully marketed in the 1968 Presidential campaign. Nothing has changed in 40 years and the approach that got Nixon to the White House – suitably updated to use modern media – is what every political candidate uses today.

But what about what happens when a politician is actually elected – when he has to face the reality that governing is a bit different from campaigning? Some never stop campaigning of course – Clinton and Blair were masters of this. Others embrace the responsibilities of office differently and actually want to do things – even things based on some belief or moral imperative. This is likely to be discouraged, at least in the British system, by the Civil Service. As Sir Humphrey put it in “Yes Minister” "Government is not about morality, it is about stability; keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow." The opportunity to “do things” comes rarely -  the main imperative in Government is continuity which will not only be less of a shock to the system but also increase the chances of re-election – at least in the good times. Steady as she goes. Politicians tend not to be re-elected if they are perceived to have let their ideology run away with them. So when some of President Obama's opponents accuse him of being a “Socialist” they are consciously playing the “Beware of ideology” card even though the charge against Obama is patently absurd. In European terms Obama is pretty close to the Christian Democrat centre-right positioning of a Merkel, a Sarkozy or a Cameron - he is certainly no socialist.  But his modest reforms of the indefensibly elitist American healthcare system   are seen by some on the Right as too statist and in some way un-American.  Unfortunately for him Obama has had to try and change healthcare at a time when the American economy is in peril so whilst nobody reasonable could charge Obama of doing something that is morally wrong (the reverse applies) the charge that it is unaffordable at this time is more credible.

Timing in politics is everything. Tony Blair was elected at a time when the British economy was improving – he did not inherit an economic mess from his predecessor. And from 1997 for ten years, and through three General Elections,  Blair and his Chancellor Brown were secure because of the apparent strength of the British economy – if ever there was evidence that the message is “Its the economy stupid” this was it. The charge that Blair ran a Leftish government , recently made by a number of distinguished commentators, just doesn't stick – any more than the charge that Obama is a socialist has credence.  Blair was also a Christian Democrat.

The main charge against Blair is not that he tried to shift the centre of gravity of British Government to the left (it stayed roughly where it was during his administration) but that he used the shock of 9/11 (and to an extent 7/7) to pursue ideological goals abroad. At home Blair was content to luxuriate in the warm glow that comes from an economy that has full employment, low inflation and seemingly plenty of opportunities for wealth creation – not least a buoyant housing market and a long share price boom.  This allowed him to indulge an ideology abroad that we now see was as much his as it was that of President Bush. Blair may have been a junior partner in the military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq but he was no less committed to the neo-Conservative ideological driver than George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest. This was not gesture politics at all – any more than Margaret Thatcher’s taking on the Unions twenty years earlier can be so described. Blair did what he did, as Thatcher did what she did, because he believed it to be right. This is not to say that Tony Blair eschewed gesture politics – he almost invented the genre! He governed by soundbite – even when recognising that this might be counter-productive. His remark when entering into negotiations on Northern Ireland in 1998 was a revealing classic “This is not a time for soundbites. We’ve left them at home. I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders…”. That you really couldn't make up!

Which brings us to David Cameron. I cannot recall a Prime Minister who made so many “profound” statements on such a wide range of subjects in such a short space of time. Even Blair couldn't cram so much into, say, a week as the present incumbent of Number 10. This might be harmless if it was just rhetoric and bombast – sound and fury signifying nothing. But sometimes its almost as if Cameron also believes that he has the hand of history on his shoulders. So after the riots of last summer he immediately said   “We will not put up with this in our country. We will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets.” Five months on has anything really been done to reduce the “culture of fear” – not that any of us can see it hasn't.  Or maybe that “culture of fear” was just a soundbite and the riots were a deplorable but one-off series of incidents that were unlikely to recur. Who knows? Its for sure that the Prime Minister didn't, and doesn't.

It is of course on Europe that we see David Cameron at his gesture politics worst. I have written elsewhere about how Cameron tried to ingratiate himself with the large number of Eurosceptics in his party in Brussels in December last year. At the end of this blog I said the following:

“Losing your rag can be quite effective - but you can only do it once if you want to be seen as credible rather than just a noisy troublemaker. And as these realties begin to become apparent to the Eurosceptics they will once again turn their fire on Cameron - and this time he will have no more cards to play”.

This is precisely what is happening now. Cameron did the big “Standing up for Britain” gesture in December and infuriated his European partners by his distancing insouciance. He has followed this up recently by lecturing the EU about how they should “sort out their problems”. In December Cameron’s actions could be hailed by those antipathetic to the “European project” as supporting their cause – and they did this with glee. Barely a month later these same applauders are now booing from the side-lines again. The Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan probably summed up the mood with his latest blog which said:

“So now we know: no repatriation, no renegotiation, business as usual. December's 'veto' turns out to be nothing of the kind; at best, it is a partial opt-out. Britain had asked for concessions in return for allowing the other member states to use EU institutions and structures for their fiscal compact. No such concessions were forthcoming, but we have given our permission anyway.”

In December Cameron said after the Brussels Non-Veto “I said to the people of Britain that if I couldn’t get a treaty that was good for Britain, I wouldn’t sign up to it, and I was good to my word.” This is empty gesture politics for two reasons. Firstly even if there had been a veto then it is a very particular and narrow definition of Britain's interests to say that it is in them to distance the United Kingdom from Europe in this way. Many in Britain may share the view that we can exist as a sort of semi-detached member of the EU. But the counter-position - that we are inextricably tied to Europe and that we should  play a central part in European governance - is at least equally as credible. Second it was clear then, and is even clearer now, that Cameron was primarily concerned with his awkward squad Party members who were then using the call for a referendum on EU membership as a Trojan horse for their ultimate goal – of withdrawing the UK from the EU completely. Cameron was buying off this lot with his Brussels posturing but it was a pyrrhic victory and whilst he is not quite back in the Euromire he was in before Brussels he is not far away from it.