You know the worst thing about having a blog? When your old boss calls you up and asks why you haven’t posted for two days. Such a guilt-trip.
I kid, Chris, I kid.
Actually, i’ve been cogitating* about political fashion. No, not the compulsory dark suit, white shirt, red or blue tie funky fashion combo that is the definition of hip and cool for today’s cabinet minister. (mmmm. Sexay!) but what political skills, style and approach are fashionable and why.
Let’s take George W Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama. In the 2000 election I remember more than anything the phrase “want to have a beer with”. It seemed, in that year, that the voters sine qua non for a President was a good buddy who’d down a couple of brewskis, have a view of the Seattle mariners or the Patriots, and tell dirty jokes. Eight years later, and it’s all about the rhetoric bay-bie. If you ain’t got a soaring speech to lift the heart you’re nowhere, daddio.
This strange shifting of importance happens in anti-fashion too. Remember “Sofa Politics”, the big bad of Blairism? Casual decision making, on the fly. Quick responses to emerging problems. These were deemed, universally, to be a prime sign of Bad Government (TM). Why, how could decisions be right when they were taken without minutes, without proper reviews, cabinet committees, etc etc etc. You could build a tower to the moon with the articles the Guardian alone published on the topic.
Fast forward a scanty year or so and what’s the worst thing in the world? To be a ditherer. Urrgh. Who would want to be the sort of slow coach dumbo who sits around having reviews and meetings and considering options when there’s decisions to be made, Oh, only if we had an active going for it leader prepared to take risks and break the rules rather than a fuddy duddy who loves only experts and reviews and processes. Boooring!
Or lets take speeches. As of today making a speech without notes is like, the coolest thing. “Omigod”, journalists think. “He remembered it all!”. We also know that sentences are bad. Todays leader must speak in fragments. Make firm assertions. Lift his eyes to heaven. Insert strange non sequiters. Let moonlight take the night.
Yet these too will pass. Soon an article will appear praising paragaphs and joined up arguments. If memorising speeches is fashionable today then not making speeches at all will be way cooler tomorrow. One day candidates will be deemed the apex of fashion if they stroll up to the podium and say “My speech today is available on my website. Be careful out there.” Even better would be giving an entire speech in Lolcat.
So what has changed? What makes beer-downing matter one election, speechmaking the next? What changes to make Sofa government iniquitous, then reviews a sign of weakness and delay?
Firstly, I don’t think it’s the Peepul. The peepul have differing priorities all the time, but they’re pretty consistent in what matters to them. They’ve elected soaring orators and old school fixers, they’ve elected optimists and pessimists, they’ve elected trusting naifs and paranoid freaks. Why? because they’ve convinced them that they’ll do what they want.
I’ve got a controversial suggestion. It’s that the media sucks really, really badly.
I know I go on about it a lot, but it’s important. That isn’t their fault, but because they don’t actually know how to report politics in a way that makes it interesting, instead they report the glamour of politics. Government publishes review on Juvenile offeders? Boooooooooo-ring. Man says “Government Sucks Moose cock” while not readin’ teleprompter? Now Thatz Interestin’!
If you’ve got three hundred words or 45 seconds to explain an issue, well, you’re not going to do it. So you resort to reporting the fashion statement “So John, Is this incredibly complex and important thing we’ve spend thirty seconds explaining bad for the government?” “Well. Alan, there’s no doubt it’s a huge embarrassment because they certaily don’t want this conversation to be playing in 3 million homes”.
I’ve actually come to believe that the question “So what impact will this have on the governments reputation/ the campaign/ the mood of the conference” should be banned forever and all who ask it consigned to the hell of digital radio news. It’s a second order question to which the only possible answer is self referential. It cannot add any knowledge of the topic to the viewer, and only reduce the stories significance to the impact it has on the stories protagonists, not the viewer. It turns Politics into spectacle, not reality.
If we treat politics as an activity that impacts only those within the playground- politicians, loser bag carriers like me, journalists and commentators, then we’re left with no choice but to describe everything in terms of the impact on these players. If an event happens, then who suffers, who gains? Why, those involved in the story. In that case, _anything_ that appears significant to those in the game is significanct. Speechmaking ability becomes as important as what’s in the speech, personal charm as important as tax policy.
It’s the fourth wall problem. As long as you think you’re reporting to an audience that is fundamentally disinterested and uninvolved, you’re reporting on a closed little world of gossip inunendo, fashion and ups and downs. That’s a partly accurate reflection of what politics is, unfortunately. I don’t think I know anyone in Westminster who doesn’t indulge in and enjoy those conversations, whether journalist or politician. I certainly do.
Yes, amongst the miniature Secondary school that is full time politics, fashions do change and we kid ourselves that they matter. So Labour activists in 1992 laughed at boring old John Major as he fought a relelntlessly 1970s style campaign, while we were the epitome of political fashion, with big rallies and sharp logos. In 2004, John Kerry tried to look down with the pro-gun kids by going hunting, and succeeded only in looking like the uncool kid trying too hard.
But here’s the thing. these things matter only to us. Of course, once they become a dominant media narrative, they become self fulfilling- Al Gore’s dull and wooden, George Bush would be a good guy to have a beer with, John KJerry’s a snob, Gordon Brown is a hard worker who is a bit boring and slow, David Cameron’s a sunny optimist (or whatever he is) and they get fed back in a self confirming cycle, but ultimately they are irrelevancies to those who matter. amazingly, despite all the crap that gets flung at them, they mainitain steadfastly that they care about crime, education, the economy, healthcare and public safety. Hardly ever do they mention speeches, beer or reviews.
The question is, will those who decide and report on poitical fashions ever be able to accept that?
* For cogitating, yu can also read, staring blankly into space, random unconnected thoughts popping into my brain.