The furore over ‘bigotgate’ annoyed me for several reasons. To me, the fact that a politician said something spiteful and ill-considered behind someone’s back is a non-story. Clearly it wasn’t Brown’s considered opinion that Gillian Duffy was ‘bigoted’, he was just letting of steam and exaggerating to make his point (his point being: Grr I’m tired and frustrated and pissed off). End of.
But here I am writing about bigotgate, because it made me think about the nature of political discourse.
We give our politicians a pretty hard time (especially recently when trust and respect for them have all but evaporated) and we are right to do so. But it’s not all their fault. Put simply, politicians can’t say anything sensible. When they come across as being dishonest, or evasive or unpleasant, sometimes it’s because they are dishonest and evasive and unpleasant. But sometimes it’s because they have no choice – – the nature of the relationship doesn’t allow them to be straightforward, and that’s everybody’s fault: the public, the politicians themselves, the media, etc.
Take bigotgate: Brown made an ill-considered comment in private that he never expected to have to justify. We’ve all done it. I dread to think how many times I’ve slammed the phone down and said “wanker” just loud enough for my colleagues to make out. It doesn’t mean I’d want to go on national TV and explain to the nation why the caller in question was a wanker. It just means I was angry or annoyed or just showing off. For most of us this is called life – but for Gordon Brown it’s a disastrous ‘gaffe’.
Take the parties’ failure to be upfront about coming spending cuts: Yes, they’ve all failed on this one. But what are they supposed to do? Who’s going to be the first to come out and say, “Yes we’re going to brutally slash spending on vital public services so you can watch your grandma die in a hospital corridor while your house gets robbed.” Would we thank them for it? Of course we wouldn’t. The media would pounce on it, the other parties would have a field day, and the honest guy would finish last. No matter how much we might all individually welcome the honesty, the system of which we are all a part would make it a huge mistake.
Take the controversy over equipment for troops in Afghanistan: Soldiers complain that they haven’t got enough equipment. Whether or not that’s true, a sensible response is: Of course they do. Do you ever have enough equipment in a war? If I was risking my life in a far-off country, I’d sure as damn it complain about not having enough equipment. If things improved, I’d keep complaining. As it is, I work in a fairly well-equipped office, but I still complain about the size of the kitchen, and the lack of staples in the stationery cupboard, and the fact there’s no one on reception first thing in the morning. That’s life. I’m not suggesting for a moment that there isn’t truth in the concerns expressed by soldiers – of course we should take their concerns very seriously and investigate them properly. I’m just putting things into a sensible real-life context. As a private citizen, I can do that, and if people take issue, fine. For a politician to do so would be suicidal.
A lot of this is the media’s fault, but I’m inclined to see it as a more systemic problem, and I’m not sure how it can be addressed. The idea that we’re ready for a ‘new politics’ looks shallow – the Lib Dems, who claim to offer some sort of bright new dawn, have indulged in their fair share of negative campaigning in this election. I don’t expect major change in the political discourse whoever wins tomorrow.
But when we’re throwing our hands in the air in despair at our politicians, let’s consider for a moment the situation that we’ve put them in. I’d love them to be more honest, but if they were, would the world really thank them?