Trial and retribution

19 Jan 07
PETER WILBY | Thirty years ago, Enoch Powell observed that ‘all political lives… end in failure’. He might now say that they all end in derision.

Thirty years ago, Enoch Powell observed that ‘all political lives… end in failure’. He might now say that they all end in derision.

As the prime minister embarks on his last months in power, he is savagely impersonated by Robert Lindsay on Channel 4’s The trial of Tony Blair, and seen compulsively washing his hands like Lady Macbeth.

David Blunkett’s political epitaph, in 2005, was to be portrayed on Channel 4 as a clumsy, lust-driven lover. Next month, John Prescott will get similar treatment in ITV’s Confessions of a diary secretary. As the Observer’s Peter Conrad has observed, ‘an eschatological rage’ fuels these satires.

Why do we hate our politicians so much? Democracy wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not all our leaders could be expected to meet the standards of Nelson Mandela or even Clement Attlee, but they were surely not supposed to arouse a loathing more appropriate to the Stuarts, the Bourbons or the Kims of North Korea?

Moreover, this particular government has presided over a decade of unprecedented prosperity, without any hint of the economic crises that punctuated British history in the preceding 70 years. Mainly for that reason, we keep voting for them. And if the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophe, launched in the teeth of passionate public opposition, the results have not directly affected the great majority of Britons who do not have relatives or friends in the armed services.

So it is not quite enough to say that our politicians turn out to be rotten leaders and bad people, always letting us down. Other explanations for our hatred make more sense. A fiercely competitive media, dedicated to cheap theatrical thrills rather than sustained policy analysis, has induced profound cynicism in the population, which grows further when leading politicians themselves play the media game.

You could argue, too, that the constant scrutiny of 24-hour news makes us over-familiar with politicians. Just as no man can be a hero to his valet, so no leader can be a hero to a voter who, almost daily, sees him (or her) sweating under the TV lights.

But there is something more in the anger that Blair and his ministers seem to provoke. What specially enrages us about New Labour, I suspect, is that we feel it tries to micromanage our lives. It doesn’t just want to make us better off materially; it wants to make us better people: eating good food, exercising regularly, drinking moderately, giving up smoking, recycling our waste, and so on.

Governments used to focus on economic management. They tried to support the sterling exchange rate and, in extremis, devalued the currency; they manipulated interest rates; they put tariffs or quotas on imported goods; they ordered banks to squeeze credit or reduce the quantity of money they printed.

They also owned all the major public utilities and, as recently as the 1970s, tried to control wages and prices across industry, and to manage disputes between employers and workers.

Rightly or wrongly, politicians have abdicated such responsibilities. Economic decisions, they believe, are best left to the market or delegated to such bodies as the Bank of England. Their attention has switched to the social sphere, a development that began under Margaret Thatcher and accelerated under John Major but has reached its apotheosis under Blair.

We feel we are in the presence of a constantly nagging parent, or a particularly guilt-inducing vicar. Private Eye’s spoof, of the Rev A R P Blair presiding over St Albion’s Parish, captures it exactly. It explains why the most damaging political stories now concern alleged ‘hypocrisy’, whether it is a minister choosing a private school for her child or another stacking up carbon emissions on overseas holidays. How dare they keep telling us how to behave, when their own standards so often seem deficient.

Quite often, like children who go running to Mummy every time something vexes them, we ourselves prompt our rulers’ intervention. Social irritants that we might once have ignored or felt able to deal with locally (noisy children kicking footballs or youths riding around on motorbikes, say) we now look to central government to stop. There is no problem, however small, where we (or at least the media) do not expect a ministerial view, if not action. All too often, ministers respond, getting a newspaper headline for some half-baked, back-of-the envelope idea and, when these ‘initiatives’ fail, our rage against our rulers is compounded.

We have reached the strange situation where, against Blair, even Saddam Hussein attains a sort of posthumous nobility. And the title of Channel 4’s satire suggests that, while we might not literally put nooses round our leaders’ necks, we’re willing to do so metaphorically.

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