Why it’s a matter of personal interest
I have two great nieces – Amelia and Abigail – and a great nephew, Charlie Thomas. I see less of them than I’d like but like most people these days I see lots of photos on Facebook and short videos of their progress through the early stages of their lives. I’m very aware that inevitably I will play only a small walk-on part in their lives. I’m already in the section of Life’s Warehouse marked old models – or even obsolete. When they are young adults trembling on the edge of adulthood if I’m not already history I will be at the very least a largely decorative part of the family’s constitution – to be given birthday cake, congratulated on reaching such an age and patted on the back of the hand.
What follows is, therefore, is inevitably more for them than for me or indeed for most of you who will read these pieces. Thus, this is not quite the piece I originally conceived of writing. It has arrived in this shape largely because having felt moved by recent developments to react to what is being set forth as the narrative of Labour’s leadership election I have been forced into a period of considered reflection. The political subject may seem an odd address to infants but like it or loath it the choices made in the next weeks will shape their future in a way politics will no longer be able to shape mine.
I also write this knowing it will hardly charm the committed or indeed arouse more than a passing nod from many of those to whom it is addressed. Moreover, those of you who have any interest in this subject will also usually have long ago made-up your minds about politics; parties and politicians.
You will not be easily persuaded by anything I say. Yet I will persuade myself I must still try.
Part I – Why Politics Matters:
Politics is boring. Politics changes nothing much. Politicians are in it for themselves. Political Parties are all the same. Most ordinary folks thinks politics doesn’t really affect them. Most ordinary folks express a perceived self-interest when they vote. Those with a perceived interest are usually by definition those with some financial stake in society and, therefore, their larger part is predisposed to be ‘conservative’. Voting is regarded largely as an exercise in private interest rather than a participatory act of the collective polity.
All these dull clichés literally govern our lives.
As a society we have a long history of disdaining all politics. It is not a new contempt. It at least as old as the Whigs and Tories. It is not that political causes per se do not matter to us as individuals – they do – LGBT rights was the cause of my lifetime – but perhaps Nuclear Disarmament was the political issue that generated most engagement of my generation – as it had previously in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s under the banner of CND.
Political subjects that arouse similar individual interest and active commitment today might include – Climate Change – the exploitation of natural resources – genetic crops and industrial agriculture – modern slavery – the use of animals in laboratories – animal welfare and animal rights, including say Fox hunting – all of these own a political dimension but generally they are single issues of particular interest to an activist campaigning minority but still with a wider social resonance. They are the subject of general conversation over dinner and amongst friends. These days in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo we might also add in freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression and perhaps the moral issues of euthanasia; capital punishment and abortion. However, politics and party politics in particular are not so highly favoured. They do not fit in to the single issue concerns that generally concern us. Does that matter? It does – it is just that we do not quite appreciate how very much.
For half a century now fewer and fewer people have joined political parties – let alone been party activists. It is not because joining large organisations is itself unfashionable – as the burgeoning memberships of the National Trust and English Heritage illustrate. Similarly, charities and smaller niche interests attract large memberships of so called ‘friends’. These active memberships are hale and hearty. It is true that sometimes these memberships also buy some privilege – like advance ticket purchase in the case of Theatre or Opera or sport – or invitations to the steward’s enclosure in the case of Ascot; Henley; or Wimbledon. Football patrons are offered a similar hosts of freebies and special offers. Wine Societies thrived on this same basis in the 1980’s.
Political parties by contrast have not thrived. The public remains politically unengaged – at best – downright hostile at worst. Politics, if ever it was, is most certainly no longer amongst the polite interests of the aspirant lower middle and middling middle classes. For them it is a non-subject – although perhaps that is more true of Conservative voters who predominate in this group than those who own other political allegiances. And in Scotland in the last ten years – alike Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century – it is positively smart to be seen to be a Nationalist.
Politics, however, remains the peculiar obsession of the social elites above the middling sort. That is mainly because they perceive it to be their personal business. Thanks to Trades Unions that political elite has expanded to include others drawn from a wider social and economic milieu. The activist working class and even underclass who like those at the very top are often politically engaged because they see the outcomes in terms of their own lives.Though interestingly and as with acting – politics once in a family often then remains an inter-generational family interest. All my family are political and hold strongly progressive values even if Mum and I were the most active politically of our family. We as a family branch were also the outsiders – both Labour supporters – in a largely Conservative world both in Ireland and later in Maidenhead and its conservative social acquaintance. It interests me that some Irish Catholic families from the same social strata of Irish society became strongly Labour in the post war diaspora whilst others were deeply Conservative.
My later status as an “out gay” man in hostile times of my teens and twenties made a political career difficult and I did not pursue one for that reason. I had as it were chosen my cause – and with the later advent of AIDS I had another cause to pursue.
It may well be, therefore, that one or other of my great nieces or nephew(s) may take up the cause of party and of politics on one side or another.
Politics is an acquired taste. Like all such tastes once acquired it usually remains a lifelong passion. Politics never makes for polite conversation. It is a minority interest, alike Philosophy and Religion and like both of these uglier of the three sisters, Politics matters very much. It also matters very much in modern democracy that there are viable vehicles for political aspiration and expression.
One of the great falsehoods peddled by received wisdom is that party politics changes nothing very much.
Party politics has changed us time and again in my lifetime – first, in the post war decade of Attlee; then it refashioned us in the 1960’s of Kennedy and Wilson; it once more altered our world in the 1980’s of Reagan and Thatcher; though largely forgotten Blair and Brown, alike Clinton, also changed the terms of the political trade in the 1990’s; and the current Conservative leadership personified by David Cameron had to reinvent itself largely in terms of the perceived Blair hegemony.
This catalogue reminds us that in politics as in much else in life – fashions come and go. As with clothes we often change our politics with the times without ever realising we’ve made a conscious choice to alter our views. In politics these fashions and fads successively most favour one party or group of parties over the other. Success breeds success but it also breeds reaction. Attlee was a socialist until we all became socialists; just as FDR’s New Deal was a commie trick until it became the blueprint for the postwar world. Goldwater was the nutter whose time came in Reagan; Powell and Milton Friedman were the gurus of Thatcher. Politics’ job is partly to make unpalatable truths into accepted facts; and to tame the wild ideas of extremes into domestic pets beloved by the ordinary voter.We rarely acknowledge it but party politics shapes the world about us in more ways than we are apt to think – as absentmindedly we plan our weekends with friends or order takeaways from our mobile apps or check ourselves into airports using our mobile phones.
Were I to posit that the choice of say nursery or school; or whether children had a chance to learn music; or the opportunity go to theatre or opera; or the experience to travel abroad and to learn a foreign language; or the chance to play sport with proper facilities – were not matters of general concern to the welfare of all of us – most parents would laugh me out of court. Yet the context that will shape the world where these activities takes place and determines who has access to them – party politics – is generally thought to be a matter of no more than of passing interest to those same devoted parents.
Politics will indeed shape our children’s world whether we wish to see it and acknowledge it or not. Moreover, as we can see from the long post war period of progressive hegemony from 1940 to 1970 followed by the equally long period of dominance of Conservative political ideas from the later 1970’s to 2008 – it is unarguable that the world made today will define our children’s tomorrows in ways we can only half-imagine. If party politics matters then the parties are important to us as they are in democracies the vehicles of delivery of political aspirations; so, additionally the ideas that fire the politics matter for they will determine the routes those vehicles can take.
The significance of this Labour leadership election is that it is taking place at a hugely significant time in our political affairs.
We are at one of those inter-generational defining moments – moments when political ideas that will shape the future are being tried and tested by both arms of the body politic. Will Obama be followed by Clinton and thus secure a new progressive dominance in US politics or will the now more ideological right of the Republican Party take full control of the agenda by winning the White House? The election here in May with the relatively familiar style of David Cameron – resting so heavily on its imitation of Tony Blair- has obscured the fact that the future politics of the UK is also at a profound turning point.
Our place in Europe and the survival of the UK as a political union are only the obvious things now at stake – but there is much more as we now face the consequences of globalization of finances, world trade and as national economies respond and nation states struggle to come to terms with this upheaval. The instabilities in the middle East with ISIS and the Caliphate not only drive terrorism they also drive pulses of migration.
Migration and population have long been the most powerful forces in History. They brought down the Roman Empire and made the Middle Ages and unmade them in the Black Death; they colonised North and South America; they help spawn the tumults of World War twice in the last century.
How we will come to face that future will in part be determined by whoever Labour chooses as its leader. For he or she will help determine how the political nation makes that turn it now faces and ultimately shape the direction of that turn itself. Sometimes the parochial is the global as much as the personal is the political.