What has happened to the quality of political debate and discussion in modern Britain? I don’t know about anyone else, but I find I too often turn on the radio or open a newspaper, or worse, look at a current affairs website only to be confronted either by heated polemic that can verge on the abusive or by bland government- or political party-approved ‘statements’. There seems to be almost nothing between these two extremes, with the notable exception of comedy radio shows and political cartoons. Increasingly I find my sympathies are lying with the likes of Ronald Searle (whose cats have more brains than the entire membership of the House of Commons) or indeed the late and very much lamented Jeremy Hardy. And I don’t believe for one moment that the situation will get any better once Brexit has, or has not, happened, nor if Donald Trump loses the next US election. I think we can get round abusive polemic, whether from the hard right or left, by laughing at it. Pompous or self-righteous people detest being laughed at. But it’s the bland, officially approved statements that really worry me.
The rot began in the Blair years, when the Prime Minister actively encouraged press officers and a series of spin doctors to draft and approve ministerial statements. The process faltered during the Gordon Brown administration, together with the financial crash, but resumed under the Tories – if anything, gathering pace. Today it seems well-nigh unstoppable. I feel very strongly that this political double-speak is profoundly undermining our democracy – simply by avoiding any scrutiny. In effect, politicians of all parties can can do what they want without being held to account. It puts me in mind of the years when we were house-hunting in the Fens, in the late 1970s.
In those days many older properties were starting to shift on their foundations, as the soils beneath them shrank and dried out, following years of intensive agricultural drainage. We got very good at spotting freshly-applied wall plaster or stucco. Once indoors, we kept a sharp lookout for new wallpaper – which would, as the saying goes, ‘paper over the cracks’. But it was those cracks that were telling potential buyers the truth. Personally I’d be prepared to forgive a politician if he or she came out and admitted they’d made a mistake. It might show they were human. But no, they send for the spin-doctors and spout their reassuring wallpaper words. It’s so depressing.