The Language and Philosophy of Our Politics is the Problem

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, September 8th 2012

The British party conference season just began this week with the gathering of the Greens (of England and Wales) with their new leader, Natalie Bennett.

This has become increasingly not just an age of economic crisis, but one of how politics is done and articulated across the West, from Scotland and the UK to the wider world.

People are anxious, concerned, worried about money, bills, household debts, the future of their children and grandchildren and more. They crucially in large numbers don’t see politics as offering adequate explanations.

It is even more serious than that. The language of politics increasingly throws up a set of impenetrable barriers between politicians and public. Politicians increasingly struggle to be heard or comprehended across the noise and diversions of society. Voter concerns battle to find recognition beyond the token engagement of the focus group and opinion poll.

Take the soon to be released book by some of the brightest sparks from the Tory parliamentary intake of 2010, the Free Enterprise Group. They have declared that ‘the British are among the worst idlers in the world’ and then went on to claim, ‘we work among the lowest hours, retire early and our productivity is low’. That does seem a bit patronising and dismissive to ‘the struggling middle’.

Another example is the language and motivation of cutting disability benefits. This seems from the words of government ministers to be for a range of reasons from impatience at welfare recipients and their ‘dependency’, anger at the actions and existence of the welfare state, to a belief in the benefits of cost-cutting and outsourcing.

It is no wonder that such a mixture leads to anger and opposition from people living on disability benefits. An approach which tried to understand anxieties would stress the importance of offering people more choice, and stress supporting people to aid them, if possible, off benefits and into employment.

David Davies, a senior Tory MP, this week talked of the need for the government to undertake economic ‘shock therapy’, which invoked all sorts of unpleasant images. Other Tory MPs as the crisis of young people, housing and lack of pension provision gathers pace, articulated the belief that ‘the state was the problem undermining personal responsibility’, and that what was needed was ‘greater self-reliance’. These sounded like long forgotten hit tunes from a distant, bygone era.

Then there is the constant evoking of public spending cuts and the rhetoric of ‘cutting harder, faster and deeper’, which seems to elicit a masochistic delight on the part of some of its advocates. It is not surprising that many voters run a mile from such an approach; less we forget terms like ‘public spending deficit’ and ‘national debt’ mean nothing to most people, so all they hear is the inviting of pain and difficulty.

The most serious obstacle to how our politics is discussed these last few decades has been the philosophy of globalisation and the simplistic way it is presented by the political classes. This age of interindependence and change is posed as a threat and an unstoppable juggernaut coming to get voters.

There are numerous globalisation mantras. One is to reference the threat from competitors: the ‘we need to compete with China, India and Brazil’ argument. Another was perfectly captured by Tony Blair as Prime Minister when he rounded on his anti-globalisation critics. To want to ‘debate globalisation’, he claimed, was like wanting to debate that ‘autumn followed summer’.

The problem with this line is that it makes complex economic and social change the equivalent of an elemental, natural force like a hurricane. Little wonder when many voters see it in such terms.

A revealing example of the increasing gap between our political classes and most voters was shown this week on ‘Newsnight’ in a discussion on child poverty. Tracey Nugent, a single mother from Glasgow, calmly and powerfully told her testimony about bringing up her son and the difficult transition from welfare to work. The reality was she was still struggling, poor and unable to properly provide for her son. It even affected and changed the tone of Jeremy Paxman.

Yet the three male participants in the studio, and in particular the policy wonks from the Centre for Social Justice (set up by Iain Duncan Smith) and Save the Children, talked an abstract, technocratic language from the world of grand visions and social engineering. It seemed even more wrong after Tracey’s dignity and first hand experience.

There are numerous reasons why this form of interpreting the world has grown up and taken a stranglehold on politics in Britain and across the West. One is the dominance of the last coherent ideology left standing: market fundamentalism, which despite its faults and failings, all the main political parties feel they need to compromise with.

Another is the sheer complex nature of many of the problems facing societies: economic, social, financial, demographic. They can’t be explained in the old tub-thumbing style of Nye Bevan.

One thing missing is a degree of empathy, emotional intelligence and feeling by the political class about what worries voters. New Labour, the Cameroon Conservatives and the SNP, have all tried to emote and feel a bit, while embracing the world from a technocratic, managerial vantage point.

The language issue isn’t just a media or communications problem. It is also about values and philosophy. Our politics have been reduced to a spectrum of talking policy jargon at voters, or telling them they have no option but to change, and at worst, insulting and patronising them.

The current state of the world began by invoking ‘the change mantra’ if you can remember Blair and Cameron at their peak in the good times. But it has since fallen into appearing as the new status quo and doesn’t translate easily into more difficult, bleak times.

This transition happens to all successful politicians eventually as the weight of being an incumbent takes effect. Witness Obama’s uncomfortable shift from the light and lift of ‘Yes We Can’ to ‘the change is you not me’ this week.

Change is a constant in human life and politics. Cameron and Clegg, Miliband and Balls, Salmond and Sturgeon, have to realise that the language of ‘no change’ is part of the problem. And that from the US Presidential election to next UK election and Scottish independence referendum, the language and vision of change is central to shaping the debate and winning the argument.