Politicians in the UK are not a popular bunch. From expenses to plebgate, the British political class seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, deploying the same pre-fabricated scandal response package with each successive mishap. Overall, this creates an environment in which politicians are so toxic that nobody has any interest in defending them. Personally, I have some sympathy. I often struggle to get my point across and avoid saying something potentially hurtful one-on-one to people I have known for years; trying to do the same thing for sixty million people – most of whom you have never met – is a monstrously difficult and utterly thankless task.
All-in-all, this is a situation that suits nobody. It harms democracy, in that even good intentions are often taken as bad simply because nobody has any trust for the messenger. If you appear to be concealing something, that naturally invites speculation regarding exactly what you are concealing and why. Put into an atmosphere of general mistrust, this invites wild and negative speculation about true motives and intentions, and raises suspicion not just about what the politician in question has said in the past and says in the future, but the past and future comments of all politicians. The inability or unwillingness of the political class to deal with these problems is, frankly, infuriating.
You wouldn’t tolerate it in a five-year-old
At times, politicians being interviewed come across as though they were a five-year-old being quizzed about some instance of naughty behaviour. If you ask a five-year-old whether their room is tidy and they answer “my room has maintained a good level of tidiness over the past three weeks” (supposing, in this alternate universe, that most five-year-olds are media trained), you know full well that they haven’t tidied their room. Not only is it barely fooling anybody, but it’s insulting everybody who sees past the fairly shallow ruse. Avoiding answering fairly simple questions is really not that clever, yet by employing this very basic technique, politicians communicate several things.
Firstly, they communicate that they aren’t willing to answer the question. If this is the case, they should probably just say. If they’re worried about the soundbite, they should realise that a journalist determined to put a spin on an interview will probably be able to do so by selectively quoting them. For people watching the interview, however, a simple “I’m not answering that” is less cloyingly awkward than some contrived misdirection. Secondly, and somewhat by definition, they communicate that they think the technique they are employing will actually work. When people see through it, which they will at least some of the time, they will rightly feel like they are being taken for idiots. Thirdly, they implicitly communicate that, to some degree, they don’t consider the question worthy of answering, which is dangerous when some people will feel that the question deserves a response.
People are lied to all the time by all manner of people. As such, we get really rather good at spotting dishonesty. From kids, to colleagues, to partners, people are almost unnervingly good at identifying duplicity, even in those we have never met. In addition to this, dishonesty is an almost universally disliked quality. Nobody likes those who are trying to deceive them, and when the default form of political communication is oddly contrived deceit, this is a huge problem for the credibility of the system as a whole. By contrast, people are actually very used to disagreeing with others, and the vast majority of people basically accept this as an unavoidable fact of daily life. In my view, politicians ought to stop being so afraid of disagreeing with people; I find myself far more amenable to a straight-talking Conservative MP than someone like Peter Mandleson, a Labour politician who seems to find speaking honestly about as easy as fish find walking.
It’s not just the blatant avoidance of difficult questions that politicians share with youngsters. They also have a remarkable propensity to issue the kind of thoroughly insincere apology normally seen when a five-year-old is forced, by an adult, to apologise to another child following some kind of dispute. We’ve probably all been there, on both sides of the insincere apology, and probably also witnessed it as a third party. It’s not convincing, and there’s an air of pointlessness about the whole ceremony.
Public apologies in the UK have a weird sense of ritual to them. Firstly, the scandal will break. The party in question will say nothing for a few days, before appearing at a press conference and pretending that the events in question were the result of some strange and temporary madness and completely at odds with their actual attitudes and behaviour. Then, they will utter a curious idiomatic expression: “I take full responsibility”, which can have a number of different meanings. Occasionally, someone will actually take full responsibility for their actions. A far more common usage, however, translates roughly as “I will pretend to be responsible for this until people stop talking about it, after which I will carry on exactly as before and suffer almost no personal consequences”. Highlighting the ubiquity and meaninglessness of the phrase, one of the suggested options on Google when searching for “I take full responsibility” is “I take full responsibility meaning”.
The phrase seems to have acquired, in the minds of those who say it, some kind of scandal-washing magic powers. However, its repeated use not only makes the phrase itself somewhat farcical, but really calls into question the attitudes of those saying it. If you say that you take full responsibility for something and do not appear to either suffer any personal consequences or meaningfully institute changes, it does somewhat imply that you don’t really consider it to be that important. It would be far better, in the long run, if people only apologised for things they actually feel responsible for and plan to do something about. Otherwise, the only realistic conclusion is that they just don’t care.
PMQs: a credibility-destroying farce
Prime minister’s question time is one of the most well-known and least-liked parts of Britain’s democratic process. With the infantile, sneering put-downs, the unfathomable shouting and jeering and general school playground atmosphere, PMQs is where what is left of a politician’s credibility goes to die. It is, at times, basically unwatchable, as grown men and women attempt to drown out those speaking, while the speaker of the chamber looks like a supply teacher on the last day of term. It is a thoroughly undignified process that, to my mind, serves no identifiable purpose and does considerable harm to the image of politics and thus the democratic process itself.
Politicians must understand that when they shout down another politician, they are not just jokingly putting down someone who they can patch things up with over a (subsidised) drink at the House of Commons bar later on. What they are also doing is shouting down all the people who hold the view being shouted over, and showing contempt for that opinion. When someone agrees with a view being expressed, how are they supposed to react when another politician won’t even let a speaker finish uninterrupted? It’s unreasonable to expect all politicians to agree with you, and virtually nobody does, but it is not too much to ask that they at least respect other politicians, and more importantly those whose views they represent, and let them finish their sentences.
A sea change is needed
A common theme running through all this is that politicians need to be less afraid and more honest. They must simply accept that, in a country of sixty million people, they simply cannot make everybody happy, nor should they expect to. When they do upset people, however they should react as they would to a friend or colleague; either apologise genuinely and sincerely, highlighting what they think they did wrong or, alternatively, stand their ground, defending and explaining their actions. When the response to every single criticism is to offer an elaborate yet meaningless apology, the politicians look spineless and the system looks farcical. A sea change is needed in the way politicians communicate with the public. Instead of viewing the public with contempt and trying to avoid question and deflect criticism, politicians need to communicate in a way that makes it look like they consider the opinions of their electorate as worthy of respect.
Of course the public and the media play a role in this ridiculous circus, demanding apologies, twisting words and generally buying into the entire soap opera. However, changing the way the public and the media treat politicians is, much to their disappointment, beyond the scope of party strategists. All they can realistically change is the way their own party interact with the media and the public, and major political parties must accept (genuinely) that they bear a lot of responsibility for the toxicity of the British political system. It is a system in which someone like Ed Miliband is ruthlessly mocked for sounding a bit weird, and doesn’t feel like he can stand up and tell people doing the mocking that they’re childish bullies. He is then criticised for not knowing how much milk costs and can’t just admit that he doesn’t really do his own grocery shopping because, as the leader of the opposition, he has more important things to be doing, all the while issuing bizarre statements about how he “feels respect for white vans” or something like that.
Politicians, who clearly don’t always believe in their own apologies, look cowardly and dishonest. They appear afraid of speaking their minds. It is this that really drives the popularity of Nigel Farage. He has views, and he sticks to them. I don’t for a second doubt that Nigel Farage wants to reduce immigration, nor do I think there is any possibility of him apologising for this desire. It is this brand of honesty (or at least partial) that forms a large part of Farage’s appeal. Instead of trying to outdo Farage on immigration and Euroscepticism and continuing to lend him unnecessary political capital, the Westminster parties should try to start communicating like him, instead of acting out of fear and repeating the same meaningless clichés time after time after time.