Tuesday 26 August 2014

Whatever happened to the big issues?

I must confess feeling a moment’s sympathy for Austin Mitchell, the retiring Labour MP for Grimsby, wriggling on the hook of his BBC interview for saying the unsayable: distinguishing between the different contributions of men and women MPs.

I can’t say I agree with him (he says quickly). But this issue about Big Issues versus domestic issues does need a bit of unpacking, because I do think something is going on.

I don’t believe it has anything to do with the influx of women MPs. I think it has to do with the demise of socialism as a coherent intellectual force, but there is a problem – and it does become evident at times these, when (for example) a ferocious insurgent force starts cutting people’s heads off.

I’ve also been wondering why the Big Issues have begun to disappear from public discourse, and actually they have been disappearing for some time.

It is as if mainstream politics no longer aspires to create major change. Minor tweaks they can handle, but we have stopped believing that major shifts are possible and we shrink from the disappointment and prefer not to discuss it.

Is the design of money, or the banking system, fit for purpose? What is their purpose anyway? If the middle classes are entering willingly into indentured servitude to their mortgage provider, what can we do about it? What about the new servitude by monopolistic employers like Amazon, and any of the other issues around growing poverty or ill-health?

These are issues that modern politics was forged to tackle, but for some reason it all seems too difficult now. It is all so intractable or ... what were those issues again?

Instead, the left has fallen back on issues where they still can aspire to make change happen: making sure that people are described accurately – women, disabled people, people who are different in some way.

These are useful projects. Somebody has to be vigilant about whether we ought reasonably to be offended by something or other a Top Gear presenter may have said.

Descriptions matter, I’m not saying they don’t – but when the politics of language pushes the rest aside, it seems to me that what it does most of all is remind us of our own powerlessness.

I’m suggesting that we have abandoned the old levers and the old issues because we can’t bear the sense of disappointment: there is no coherent ideology available which seems capable of looking forward to any kind of new order.

So we amuse ourselves by feeling nostalgic about the old order (we couldn’t go back to the ‘Spirit of ‘45’ even if we wanted to), and inspire ourselves by policing our adjectives.

And behind all that, there is something even more frightening. It is a political class that seems unable to abandon the assumptions of a generation ago, and are therefore able to do little about it as those assumptions crumble one by one into dust – except sharpen up their Blairite rhetoric for defending the increasingly indefensible status quo.

What else is there?

Last year, a book by Peter Mair called Ruling the Void seemed to say something related to this, describing the looming crisis in Europe as the political elites render themselves increasingly impotent and people turn to some rather unpleasant populists – as they will.

Mair called this the Tocqueville Syndrome: if the political elite becomes impotent, then why should we put up with them any more?

This is a sharp dilemma and becoming ever sharper. When the economic system has been shaped to funnel power and wealth to a tiny elite, and our political rulers are unwilling or unable to tackle this, then they will eventually be swept aside by those who can.

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