Political Heroism

“Politicians are boring.”

An oft-spoken statement perceived as empirical truth within western culture. Politics is boring, and the people who work in politics are boring. How could it not be boring? You’re sat at a desk, wearing a grey suit working with numbers and statistics and other people sat at desks wearing grey suits. Just say the words out loud. Politics. Government. They just sound boring.

This is not a recent development. Politics has always had a unique ability to attract the dullest of the dull, despite the showmanship and presentation skills necessary to thrive, now more so than ever before. Truthfully, I am clueless as to why. Almost everything in our lives derive from politics, encompassing everything from the price of your sandwich to what you learn at school. Few people would go on record to say they find the price of sandwiches a riveting subject, yet food prices are relatively imperative to our everyday lives. It determines whether you’ll have the money to do things you actually find fun (or rather, things with traditional connotations of fun), such as buying video games and movies. Or sandwiches.

The functions of everyday life are dependent on the decisions made by politicians, yet I don’t think we describe our everyday lives as boring. Mundane, perhaps, yet we nonetheless maintain an active interest in them. Because they’re our lives. Duh.

To take a different approach, politics is about change. Even the Conservatives change things. This is because human beings rarely experience contentment; there is always something more to be done, and we do not hesitate to make our opinions on what should change be known. For example, many think sandwiches should be cheaper. Well, I’m assuming they do. I don’t even buy sandwiches that often. I don’t know why I keep using this example. Anyway – sandwich prices are not exactly the most exciting of topics, but because we want things to change, we therefore uphold an active interest. And we still see it as boring, which is silly, because the prospect of change is never boring; you either love it or you hate it. Politicians never stop banging on about it, either. Even governments talk about change as if they didn’t have the power to do anything about it.

So, if we take an active interest in our everyday lives, which politics rules, and if we’re intrinsically attracted to change, which politics brings, then why do we continue to see politics as something so fundamentally dull and boring?

There are two parts to the problem. But first – a history lesson…

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having a little chuckle

Modern history operates in stages, wherein a socio-economic narrative is in place for a few decades, before it comes crumbling down and gets replaced with something new. Keynesian social democracy was dominant from the 1930’s all over the western world, delivering a mixed economy – both private and nationalised industry – and mass redistribution of wealth, free education, full employment, all that jazz. However, the economic crises of the 70’s led to its abandonment and replacement with neoliberalism, heralded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The two ideologies could not be more different: neoliberals support full privatisation and despise the welfare state, espousing individualism over collectivism.

Neoliberalism failed in 2008, when we underwent the worst recession since the Great Depression (the crisis which sparked the introduction of social democracy in America, under Franklin D. Roosevelt). That was almost ten years ago, and we are only now experiencing the political ramifications. Unlike in the 1930’s and in the 1970’s, there was no coherent narrative replacement for neoliberalism, and no politicians inspiring enough to deliver the necessary change. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 was a fairly massive change for UK politics, as was the election of Obama in 2008. Ultimately, however, the neoliberal status quo was upheld – even if Obama did deliver a slew of necessary social and economic reforms to America.

The inability for politicians to think creatively, beyond the boundaries of ‘political common sense,’ has fostered an angry global populace with a burning passion for change of any sort. Currently, ordinary people are the ones delivering that change by not voting the way the establishment (and I hate using that term, because they’re just ordinary people at the end of the day, too, but I don’t have another word to hand) wants them to, working in tandem with politicians who have blown up from the fringes. Politicians who are also wildcards, frustrated with the political stagnation of decades past. They come in all different shapes and sizes. Jeremy Corbyn. Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump. Nigel Farage. Marine le Pen. Emmanuel Macron. Justin Trudeau. Jacinda Ardern. Jacob Rees-Mogg. Boris Johnson. To name a few. Say what you will about those people, but they make people feel excited about politics.

By restricting creativity and freedom in political thought (and I don’t mean ‘we should respect Nazis), and by being so fundamentally rigid and dull, politicians have brought this revolution upon themselves. This is a global fightback against how politics has been managed for decades, and, in the case of Trump, it endangers the very fabric of society and democracy. When you need things to change that badly, the first prick to say he’ll fix all your problems looks far more attractive than the grey men in suits who have been doing the same things for so many years.

Change, however, is not a political creed in itself. Many of the figures listed above are polar opposites to one another, only united by the populist thirst for change. This is how the same country can vote for a continuation of David Cameron’s Conservative government, then a xenophobic and economically crippling Brexit destined to make him resign, then fall in love with Theresa May’s hard-right political platform, and then almost completely reject her at the ballot box for the previously-hated Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist utopia.

This is because, in our desire for change, we cannot settle on what kind of change we’d like to see. We don’t know what we want, to put it frankly, and nobody can agree on anything. Which brings the responsibility back to the politicians, and to the aspiring politicians. It is their job to provide clarity and leadership, to radically think outside the box, and write a new political story for a new generation. No easy feat. But that’s not even the hard part.

What will prove even more difficult is the real political revolution which needs to be undertaken. One which is far more fundamental and seismic, needed to challenge and uproot our most basic perception of what politics is and the role that it plays in society. A root-and-stem upheaval. A complete redefining of the political culture which has dominated for centuries. Creating the next grand political narrative is easy-peasy in comparison to this, because this is more than just what kind of economy and society we want. This is about our national culture, and our perception of politics.

And the blame lies at the feet of the politicians.

Long-term political apathy is the fault of dry, boring politicians, who have populated global government and the civil service for decades, permeating the notion that politics is the preserve of the uninteresting. This is because politics has become a career in itself, as opposed to a microcosm of society at large. It is a misconception so ingrained within our cultural conscience that literally any change is seen as better than what we’ve got at the moment. I’m talking about politicians who seem to have little to no interests outside the worlds of Westminster and Washington – or, if they do, then they rarely express it. Or they’ll express it, but in an awkward, embarrassing way; politicians seem to have a unique talent for coming off as completely detached from anything resembling normality. This is because there are precious few in government who have a grasp of the industries and areas they claim to represent. As politics is, or should be, representative of society, they will at least have a rudimentary understanding, but Jeremy Hunt’s knowledge of the NHS is equal to a newborn baby’s relationship with speech in comparison to the doctors who work within it. Many politicians will place their ideological preferences above practical considerations, which doesn’t exactly help the issue. He’s long gone now, but John Whittingdale’s brief time as Culture Secretary was a nightmare for all of us who work within and follow the UK’s creative industries, because he clearly had no idea how the BBC actually worked, or why it’s such a national treasure.

And, to top it all off, they’re boring. You do not look at and listen to the vast majority of politicians and feel any inkling of inspiration or desire to go into politics, let alone feel motivated to create social change. Macron quotes fucking Hegel in his interviews. Trump can’t spell.

We no longer live in a world where being boring in politics is an option. The kind of fundamental cultural upheaval I’m writing about has already occurred, and continues to roll on, in society at large. It’s the world of politics which is playing catch-up. The next crop of political leaders need to be both interesting and similar to us – similar in our speech and mannerisms, as well as our daily struggles. Emmanuel Macron – who I’m a fan of, despite the caution that some of his remarks over summer have given me – captured it perfectly in a recent interview with de Spiegel, where the title of this piece comes from.

Macron: For me, my office isn’t first and foremost a political or technical one. Rather, it is symbolic. I am a strong believer that modern political life must rediscover a sense for symbolism. We need to develop a kind of political heroism. I don’t mean that I want to play the hero. But we need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives. If you like, post-modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy. The idea that you have to deconstruct and destroy all grand narratives is not a good one. Since then, trust has evaporated in everything and everyone. I am sometimes surprised that it is the media that are the first ones to exhibit a lack of trust in grand narratives. They believe that destroying something is part of their journalistic purpose because something grand must inevitably contain an element of evil. Critique is necessary, but where does this hate for the so-called grand narrative come from?

DER SPIEGEL: Why is this narrative so important?

Macron: I think we need it badly! Why is a portion of our youth so fascinated by extremes, jihadism for example? Why do modern democracies refuse to allow their citizens to dream? Why can’t there be such a thing as democratic heroism? Perhaps exactly that is our task: rediscovering something like that together for the 21st century.

Like myself, Macron is interested in radical transformation. In another cracking piece, this time from The Guardian, he said this:

“If I don’t radically transform France, it’ll be worse than if I did nothing at all.”

Macron is well aware that the problems cannot just be solved through surface-level reforms, which he is implementing. He’s aware of the deeper, structural issues. He knows that politics has to fundamentally change, and he knows that he is France’s manifestation of the global yearning for change: young, charismatic, intellectual, he is the first President to not come from either of the main political parties. He set up his own movement, En Marche!, in April 2016. Nobody knew who he was. In May 2017, he was elected President of France in a landslide, and En Marche (now renamed La République En Marche!) won its own landslide majority in the parliamentary elections. Half of the LREM MPs are not conventional politicians, either, but rather doctors, teachers, scientists, creatives, and so forth. If that’s not radical…

We need something like that in the UK. The House of Lords is home to many specialists from various fields, yet the Commons is not. Politics needs to become more closely intertwined with the outside world. People who know what they’re talking about and have extensive life experience need to become more closely involved in politics. In this sense, the responsibility lies at the feet of those who are inspiring and exciting, as well as possessing valuable life experience. To make it clear: I’m not saying people who spend their entire career working in politics are fundamentally boring. You can live and breathe politics and still be an interesting person. You can study politics and still be cool (because politics is cool, obviously). I do not advocate throwing every ageing white MP out of office, or some kind of ‘Are You Actually Interesting’ test for parliamentary candidates (although that’d be pretty funny). Yet, what I wrote at the beginning is undeniable: politics has always had a unique ability to attract the dullest of the dull. And that just won’t cut it anymore.

We are on the precipice of Macron-level change occurring here in the UK. I do not yet know what form it will take. A long-held belief of mine is that basic political education should be included on the national curriculum, giving school children a working knowledge of government and political parties (not ideology), so as to understand the grave importance of politics in our lives, as well as instil a sense of public duty. I think that would be a good start. But beyond that? Well, I’ll keep thinking, writing, and making YouTube videos, and get back to you.

What I am clear on is that we do need the kind of political heroism that Macron talks about. That politics needs to become exciting to people; it needs to feel real and close, it needs to feel tangible, rather than cold and distant. It needs to become synonymous with positive change, and debate over what kind of change can be classified as positive needs to begin now. I don’t just mean the reintroduction of social democracy that Corbyn’s Labour favours (or whoever your preferred politician currently is): I mean bold, new ideas. Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia For Realists is a fascinating read for anyone similarly inclined, making a practical and pragmatic case for the introduction of a universal basic income, a shorter work week, and open borders. I’m not quite sold on UBI yet, but it’s nonetheless the kind of radical thinking that needs to be more prevalent. As Bregman continuously reiterates, abolishing slavery was once radical, as was education, employment, human rights, democracy…

Politics is on the verge of death. It’s deflated. It’s stagnating, surviving on a broken drip-feed. It’s easy enough to identify the problems and to say we need change, but it’s far more difficult to actually steer that change coherently. I get that I’ve said a lot of vague bullshit about needing political re-invigoration, and I’ve only proposed two concrete policies. I know that it’s easy for me to blame everything on politicians and civil servants because I’m an outsider who doesn’t have to deal with the reality of parliamentary operations day-in, day-out. And I know that the politicians mentioned in this piece are driving tremendous interest in politics, particularly from young people, be that in support of their work or rigorous opposition. Nonetheless, they are mere drops in a bucket that needs to overflow. The conversation needs to begin somewhere, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that I want to play my part in riding this wave of change, whatever that part may be, and whatever the change may be. I don’t truly know yet – all I know is that it’s coming, and that we need to band together to help deliver it, unified by, as Obama said – the audacity of hope.

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