I adore politics. I’ve always been fascinated by politics, ever since I was a little girl and I used to watch my dad frowning at Mr Heath when he came on the telly. (I think quite a lot of people frowned at hapless Mr Heath. Looking back, it seems astonishing that such a person ever became Prime Minister.) When I was a teenager I studied the political history of the 19th century and my head spun with the fascinating charm of Palmerston and Disraeli, the iron resolution and utter eccentricity of Gladstone, the extraordinarily lonely position that Peel took on the moral high ground. (The way I saw it, when I was idealistic and sixteen, he repealed the Corn Laws and smashed his party to save his country. I thought that was completely magnificent.)
I can talk about politics until every last cow is home. But I don’t write about politics. I hardly ever put a word of politics anywhere near social media. Because you might as well light the blue touch paper and retire.
I want to say that the Twitter and the Facebook have made politics too combustible, too tribal, too reductive, too Manichean. But I think there was always an element of that, long before the internet came along. Every newspaper article about why the Tories were bosh or why Labour was flailing or why the Liberals should be the future (but were not) would get the green ink brigade going. There was always that entrenched fanaticism that would not listen to reason.
My formative years were in the eighties, and I remember vividly the Miners’ Strike and Greenham Common and Clause 28 and people hating Mrs Thatcher like they hated a sworn enemy. They didn’t just disagree with her policies, they really hated her. They got a mad look in their eyes when they spoke her name. People called her ‘Mrs Thatcher The Milk Snatcher’ because she stopped school milk. I remember thinking that she did quite a lot of hating herself; I sincerely thought she hated the miners and the gays and probably me too, because she didn’t seem very keen on women. I felt small and furious and disenfranchised. Labour was an absolute shambles at that time, having wild internal rows, riven with factionalism. The SDP had seemed for five minutes to be the Answer to Everything, and then it wasn’t. I remember despairingly voting Green, because at least I might be able to save a few polar bears.
So it’s not as if things have changed that much. Social media simply amplifies tendencies that were there already. It’s just that millions of people now can get out the metaphorical green ink instead of only a few, and also they can do it any time, anywhere, and instantly. They can start political rows at the touch of a key, when they’ve had wine, or bad news, or not enough sleep.
I sense there is quite a lot of Object A and Object B. People are sad or upset or devastated by something in their own life, and they take it out on a convenient public Aunt Sally. Much easier to shout at the Minister for Paper Clips than face one’s own despair.
Anyway, that’s why I don’t go near politics on social media. I absolutely cannot take the shouting for a single moment. Also, I gave up tribalism years ago so I would piss everyone off, because I’m in none of their camps. I’ve ended up as a sort of pragmatic centrist. I like honour and honesty and competence and somebody who sounds like a human being. I like people who fix problems and answer the question and appear to have a soul. I don’t give a fig whether they worship Keynes or Orwell or Rousseau or Locke; if they get things done and can string together a simple declarative sentence and have an actual heart, I’ll vote for them. This means the Left would call me a sell-out and the Right would call me a wimp. And who knows that they don’t have a point?
I’m telling you all this because I’m about to break my own Golden Rule. I’m going to talk about politics.
You would think that there was enough going on with the pandemic and all. You would have thought this might be a muted time for politics as the world faces a complex and unfamiliar threat. You might have thought that the old divisions would seem foolish and paltry as everyone united against a common foe.
Can you hear the sound of hollow laughter?
There’s Left and Right Covid now. There are the mad deniers who think it’s all cooked up by the Chinese, or the Democrats, or the Deep State, or someone in a basement who’s got something to do with 5G. There are the herd immunity people and the listen to the scientists people and the Why Can’t We Be More Like Sweden people. There’s the libertarian wing who think it’s an affront to human freedom to be asked to wear a mask. (I saw two people literally screaming at each other about this last night. I was watching a documentary and they were in a shop and they were screaming about freedom. I’m almost certain that one of them mentioned Jesus, although I couldn’t work out what he had to do with it. It was a Costco, I think, somewhere in America. Screaming about masks and freedom and Jesus.)
I see all the furious factions out of the corner of my eye. I have to ration the real world at the moment or I shall run mad. There are days when I’ll only look at the news once, and quite often look away again. But I see the livid opinion pieces and the violent headlines and the blurred video clips of the marchers and protestors. I feel the anger, in the very air. I sense the two sides drawing further and further apart from each other, yelling across unbridgeable divides.
I say to myself: I’m not going to write about politics, I’m not going to write about politics, I’m not going to write about politics – because everything is on a hair trigger, more than ever.
And then there was a whipped vote against free school meals.
We humans are in the middle of an unprecedented event. Although clueless and incompetent political operatives have been driving me nuts since the beginning of this pandemic, I’ve taken a deep breath and cut them some slack. They have impossible decisions to make and their lives consist entirely of rocks and hard places. Besides, they have mothers who love them and I don’t want to write something in the red mist of rage which would make those mothers cry.
I kept thinking: someone must have a plan. I had a sudden, giddy hope that there would be a secret Sir Humphrey somewhere who would know what to do. There would be brilliant people working away behind the scenes, figuring this thing out, hardly eating or sleeping. I had an idiotic optimism, somewhere in the back of my mind. I tend to think the best of people. I have an enduring belief that most people are mostly marvellous, so I always get a bit of a shock when I discover they aren’t.
I held on to hope as if it were a lifeboat in a stormy sea.
But the free school meals thing sort of broke me.
I rang up a friend who is very, very understanding and who doesn’t mind it when I shout.
‘They are spending,’ I bawled, ‘twelve billion quid on a Test and Trace thing that does not work, but THEY WON’T FEED THE CHILDREN.’
My friend is usually optimistic and pragmatic, but she had nothing for me. I heard her despairing sigh echo down the telephone line all the way from Wales.
‘I know,’ she said.
This is where sophisticated political operatives would give me a pitying look. This is where they would tell me that I am being simplistic and reductive and probably stupid. They would tell me that decisions are complicated, that there is a law of unintended consequences, that there are many metrics to be taken into consideration. And they are probably quite right.
But I still don’t get how we can be living in the 21st century, in the world’s fifth biggest economy, in one of the most advanced societies the world has ever seen, and there is twelve billion pounds for something that does not work but no money for hungry children. There is seven thousand quid a day for a single management consultant, but no money for kids who don’t have enough to eat. There is a hundred million here and three hundred million there for no-bid contracts to firms who appear to have zero expertise in the things they are getting money to do, but there is nothing for a little girl who comes to school without breakfast.
That’s when I think: maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I really am stupid. Maybe this whole holding on to hope idea was just sheer wish thinking.
But here is what I really don’t get. Let’s be horribly cynical just for a minute. The great brickbat against the Tories was always that they hated poor people. Labour hated the rich and the Conservatives hated the poor. (The liberals, in all their various incarnations, were supposed to love everybody, which is why they always looked so exhausted.) Mrs Thatcher probably didn’t really hate the miners and the gays and me, but she acted like she did. And then you’ve got a whole load of confirmation bias kicking in and instead of an ordinary, flawed woman you end up with a devil who takes away your milk.
So if I am a committed right wing person now, and I’m sick of the stereotypes and the insults, and I don’t want people to think I hate poor people and don’t want them to have shoes, I spy a gloriously cheap win. Free school meals are back of the sofa loose change compared to the £12 billion on the Test and Trace thing that does not work. Free school meals are the current darling of social media, because of the moving campaign by Marcus Rashford. The right wing person thinks, ‘Everyone on Twitter will love me and I get to look like a decent human being and nobody ever again can say that all Tories hate poor people and don’t want them to eat food.’ It’s all upside. Even if you don’t believe in free school meals, you vote for them anyway because you restore a bit of trust in politics and look all lovely and saintly and Emily Maitlis actually smiles at you on Newsnight. You are not a devilish milk snatcher! You are a doughty defender of people in need! You have a soul!
As it is, the open goal was missed, and everyone goes back to looking at all those many, many contracts which were awarded to companies which, mysteriously, appear to be party donors, and draws their own bitter conclusions. Isn’t there anyone in a back office somewhere who knows that politics is perception? And the perception just now is: the children are not important. The perception is: nobody cares. This may be right, and it may be wrong, but that’s what it feels like.
I don’t know. Maybe the whole not caring thing doesn’t really matter. Maybe we don’t elect people to care, but to make sensible decisions on our behalf. But I am a foolish old bleeding heart, and I do yearn for even the appearance of someone caring. Just a little bit. Instead of going on the telly and trotting out the party line and staying on message and trying desperately to remember the exact words the whips’ office told you to say.
Peel wouldn’t have done that. And you damn well know that’s true.