Monday, May 03, 2010

Vote Early, Vote Often

Politics both requires and denies the creative response. It requires it, obviously, because art reflects - art enhances - art uncovers; but it also denies it: for "a week is a long time in politics" - and the language of politics can often seem so debased; even as we talk glowingly of "political theatre." There's an invisibility of politics in our everyday life; and yet everything has a political dimension. The more statist a government is, the more this becomes apparent - so a trip to the shop queueing for bread in Soviet Russia; a conversation with neighbours in the old East Germany; a kiss in public in contemporary Dubai - these simple acts are defined and determined by politics. Capitalism, by outsourcing so much to the "capital markets", (it outsources everything except ultimate responsibility), tries to deny politics. Finance is more important. The free market is more important. The bail out of a bank is outsourced to the public; yet the bail out of a country - like Greece - is to fend off the market. Either way the people pay.

In "ancient times", politics was something to which we might be indifferent. The body politic related to the city-state, rather than the rural poor. The vote moved from property to person (and then in only a limited way) as recently as 1832. Read "Middlemarch" for a primer in local politics in the first half of the 19th century. Perhaps, in a mature social-democracy, we hoped to have gone back to a previous time, where the cut and thrust of politics didn't bother us - we are governed; not ruled. In return for not considering revolution, we accept a state that governs by consensus. It is no surprise that when that consensus breaks down, as it did most recently during the Thatcher years, that politics becomes raw and we, the consensual abstainers, become, against our will, politicised.

It goes without comment that whenever there is any discussion of Scotland or the North that the eighties/Thatcher are referred to in a highly negative way. Yet politicians from Blair to Clegg (never mind Cameron), will express their "admiration" for Thatcher. Language is used to provide us with two parallel worlds; a bit like this week's Dr. Who episode, where "a crack in time" sees people and events literally "running out of time", so that they do not exist; are erased. Of course, you can no more erase the physical effects of Thatcher than you can the grimmer concrete buildings of East Germany. But you can erase the media perceptions. That is why the incident in Rochdale between Gordon Brown and the redoubtable Mrs. Duffy resonated so much. The south of the country in particular had forgotten entirely that such northern towns existed. We all know that Coronation Street or Albert Square are mythical places now; so it's a shock to find anything of them remaining.

Memory is false of course, and becomes determined by narrative. Always nostalgic, Andrew O'Hagan, writing in this week's Guardian, speaks of the pet dogs of his youth. They are random curs brought back from the pub by his father. Yet the animals in books he mentions are sentimentalised ones. There is no "Kes"; he doesn't dwell on the rabbits of  "Watership Down" and he certainly never mentions the demon rats of James Herbert or Stephen King's Cujo. The 70s we remember through signifiers. Mention of the new Robin Hood film takes me back to the Disney version and the cut out characters that were free within every cereal box. I don't remember the 70s as grim in any way: I was a child then, and parents, as not all parents did, protected us. More than that, the re-writing of the narrative of "hung parliaments" that David Cameron (my age, but not my memories, I'm sure) gives us seems a wrong one. For many of us, growing up in the seventies wasn't a picnic, but it was also a happy time, a simpler time, a fairer time.

And language gets mangled at election time as politicians attempt to connect with the voters, when mostly they can hide behind a technocratic vocabulary of KPIs and the like. Gordon Brown and his front bench refer to the hundreds of "children's centres" they've created, not the branded "Surestart" centre, returning political language back to the every day. Mangling still goes on of course. Straight-talking SNP members are drilled to talk about a "balanced parliament" rather than a "hung parliament" or "minority government". It's a corruption, that can so easily become normalised - first via the media, and then in everyday speech. Becoming quick at linguistic catch-up is the contemporary equivalent of a BBC accent; it will distinguish you from the Mrs. Duffy's of the world. Yet her accidental intervention of the campaign has also given the campaign its linguistic highlights. Not just Brown's phrase "bigoted woman" (he seemed to struggle for a definition of what she was - obviously not a racist, certainly not a Tory or a rightwinger) but her brilliant formulation, "These East Europeans, where are they all coming from?" It's easy to sneer at that linguistic muddle, yet we all know a little what she means. Who amongst us could name all the accession countries that joined the EU alongside, and after Poland? Cheap flights, European football qualifying groups, and the Eurovision song contest haven't quite educated us about the "new Europe" - after all our political classes never told us what it was, or why it was, or what it would mean. (Those anti-European Tories for instance, were more in favour of a wider-Europe than a deeper one.)

And in the dog days of the campaign, where, save for the debate-initiated bump for the Lib-Dems, the polling figures are today what they were a month ago; the language has to change again. There is no room for any more of Gordon Brown's tonguetwisters on the economic changes; no room for David Cameron's weekly brand-management (a new message every day, from Big Society to contract with the people); no room either for the Lib-dems mix of brilliant clarity ("scrap Trident") and muddled hobbyism ("regional quotas for immigration will....blah, blah, blah). The Labour leaflet coming through my door today is explicit on what the LibDems will do ("They will scrap child trust funds") and vague on what a vote for Labour will mean (broad statements on the financial recovery, for instance) whilst reverting to the race memory: "a vote for the Lib Dems will be a vote for Cameron." Yet Cameron is not Thatcher; we hardly know whether to believe the images, after all this political class has so discredited itself in the yet to be forgotten expenses scandal. Language was used to cover up what in any other walk of life would have been called "fiddling expenses" or "defrauding the company."

In the public sector, you have to walk a language tightrope every day of course. Many council workers have been sacked for far less than the idiot at the Foreign office who though it would be funny to suggest that the Pope open an abortion centre or whatever. The tsunami that will engulf public sector spending, whoever gets in power will be calibrated in a way that talks of efficiency savings, preserving the frontline, restructuring etc. etc. The Arts Council, British Council, and many Universities have already been down this route - worryingly so, given that they are clearly bodies involved in the "knowledge economy" - as their funding allocations have been quietly whittled down.

Having an election on a bank holiday week - in Britain! What can they be thinking of? The schools will be closed again on Thursday then - and maybe many parents faced with 2-days of childcare might decide to have the rest off. The postal votes will already be winging their way in, even as the postal workers have quietly agreed a pay settlement which will be beyond what the rest of the public sector will get. Perhaps its the large dose of the West Wing that I've seen in the last few years, but I'm more trusting of the polls than I used to be. We are, it seems, a predictable bunch, at least en masse. There will be local whirlwinds more than national hurricanes perhaps; and it will be all about how the numbers stack up. There are differences between the parties, of course there are; but both Labour and Tories will be hoping it's still a swingometer, left and right, rather than some kind of 3-D model that accounts for a 3rd party and the Celtic fringes.

If these are, indeed, the last days of Gordon Brown and the New Labour in power then perhaps its no surprise how hard it is to fashion a narrative. We no longer have a protagonist for our story; our new actors are more brat-pack stars than leading men; there are so few black, asian, female, disabled, or even working class characters in the story that its like a remake of some earlier show; rather than an exciting new format. All of the parties could launch their final push with a hyperbolic "You've 72 hours to save Britain" and that even I would think that they're all partially right, but at the same time, that it's clearly hyperbole, says to me that politics in this country is only just beginning; and that, in terms of the creative writer or other artist, means that we will have to hold back our response. "The 21st century is when it all changes", says Captain Jack in Torchwood. The 21st century may be finally about to begin.

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