News from Nowhere: Tedious Times
When the people cry out for more entertainment in their daily politics, the rise of the morons is pretty much guaranteed.
We in Britain have in recent weeks been relieved, and somewhat surprised, to find ourselves starting to live in increasingly uninteresting times.
There’s still of course the daily surge of worrying economic reports – including this month’s warnings from the Bank of England of the longest recession since records began, and the biggest single hike in interest rates since 1989. But, amidst all the talk of fiscal doom and gloom – and as we await the government’s autumn financial statement, due later this week – nothing much else has actually been taking place. Nothing at least on the scale of the seismic shocks of the last year or so.
Earlier this month, Collins Dictionary announced that it had chosen "permacrisis" – the state of being in a permanent crisis – as its word of the year. It then seems reasonable to suppose that any kind of respite from that condition, if only a relative relaxation of our ongoing emergency footing, would be gratefully received.
On his recent return to office, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove announced the UK government’s "utter determination to try to be as dull as possible". He explained that "after twelve months of turbulence, after a rolling news buffet, an all-you-can-eat story extravaganza, boring is back."
The closest that Rishi Sunak’s premiership has so far managed to approach the kind of sordid scandals that characterised the previous two administrations was the revelation that the freshly-appointed Minister without Portfolio (a non-job for a no-hoper) had sent expletive-laden messages to Liz Truss’s Chief Whip because he felt snubbed that he hadn’t been invited to the Queen’s funeral. It had been the most interesting thing he’d done in his notoriously lacklustre career.
The Prime Minister responded that these texts were unacceptable. That must have come as a shock to the Minister, who had for most of his years in office succeeded in getting away with extraordinary levels of crass incompetence almost unscathed.
Last week, following further allegations of misconduct, the Minister resigned. It was the first scalp of the Sunak premiership.
But that’s about the extent of the comic controversy that "Little Rishi" has as yet provoked. This is very good news for the Conservatives. And so, at the end of last month, an opinion poll showed that, shortly after Liz Truss had plummeted her party’s popularity to a stunning low, things swiftly turned around and there was no longer very much separating the approval ratings of the new Conservative Prime Minister and the Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition.
Both men are efficient and hard-working. Both lack the charismatic panache and ideological zeal of their immediate predecessors. They are highly-informed policy wonks. They’ve broken with modern political tradition by throwing actual facts at each other in parliamentary debates. The outrageous insults, defamatory remarks and self-aggrandizing claims chucked around by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have been abandoned. This new mode of partisan conflict has become something of a battle of the nerds, a pair of pragmatists vying for the sensible centre ground.
We’re still of course faced with the horrors of war in Europe and the spectres of economic crisis, social injustice, and climate change. Yet the presence of a little dull calm in our nation’s public life may offer us opportunities unseen in recent years to develop the arguments and strategies – and even perhaps the possibility of consensus – necessary to begin to address these urgent concerns.
Our leaders may however of course choose instead to squander this rare chance and plump instead for a return to the reign of panic and chaos. Sadly, that seems to be the most likely outcome, an option which has lately tended to be encouraged by a series of impetuous electoral mandates, as voters have repeatedly put the most outlandish and divisive politicians and policies into power.
It is famously said by the English that the people of ancient China would curse their enemies with the terrible words, "May you live in interesting times". This is not however true: the provenance of that antique proverb looks to be entirely apocryphal – it appears to have been invented in England a little over a hundred years ago.
Although the sentiment of this saying has echoed through the decades, it now seems that there are growing numbers of people who prefer the perils of energetic populism over the daily grind of our more humdrum histories. We therefore end up voting for the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and other charismatic would-be demagogues, because at least they spice things up.
They give us something to talk about in the pub and on the bus. And in our heavily fortified subterranean survivalist bunkers... where one suspects the conversation might otherwise become a bit repetitive.
When the people cry out for more entertainment in their daily politics, the rise of the morons is pretty much guaranteed.
As a weekly commentator on the idiosyncrasies of British politics, I must admit to missing the madness of the incumbencies of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Thanks to their eccentricities, these columns used to mostly write themselves. The media’s satirists didn’t need to caricature the realities of the UK government: they could simply chronicle its absurdities. Factual literalism was the new surreal.
There was nothing especially new in this fusion of excitement and angst in the statecraft of the UK. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Britain’s Colonial Secretary had supposed that by "living in interesting times" his countrymen also found their existences full of "objects of anxiety." Indeed, those particular interesting times eventually plunged the planet into a sequence of catastrophic conflicts which purged the global hegemonies of the European empires.
Today, we may similarly be witnessing the next stage in a process that leads towards the end of centuries of western domination, the disintegration of what we have come to know as the established world order.
(Of course, the forces of American globalisation continue to fight back, and the recent purchase by the Disney corporation of the international rights to the UK’s long-running television series Doctor Who is just one very minor example of this reactionary imperialist phenomenon. One might imagine that, in response, radicalized British science fiction fans would wish to launch retaliatory strikes against Star Wars conventions across the east coast of the United States, were it not for the fact that their mothers don’t like them going out on these cold nights after dark, not even for the cause of national cultural autonomy or when muffled in their extra-long multi-coloured scarves.)
The process of this dissolution of monolithic power, though perhaps inevitable and proper, is clearly fraught with dangers, not least the dual strands of apocalypse threatened by environmental collapse and nuclear Armageddon. We might therefore be grateful for a quieter brand of leadership which eschews flamboyant grandstanding and the vainglorious posturing of political one-upmanship, and which seeks instead to quietly negotiate as safe a path as possible through these difficult days by attempting to make them as uninteresting as it possibly can.
The sight of Messrs Starmer and Sunak comparing their counts of the country’s economic beans may not make for the most enthralling parliamentary theatre imaginable, but it seems preferable to the spectacular farces and tragedies that for the past few years we’ve been forced to watch.
Rishi Sunak’s administration has proven, in its opening weeks, to be a case of what the BBC’s political editor has described as a "don’t-know-yet government." Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party has faced similar criticisms for its reticence to leap into policy commitments. But, after two Prime Ministers who tended to act first and ask questions later, a greater degree of thoughtfulness in Downing Street may not be at all a bad thing.
The tortoise may be slower and duller than the Mad March Hare, but it’s less likely to break its own pandemic restrictions, lie to parliament, or crash the economy in a blaze of crazed fiscal experimentation. The tortoise is also a creature which seldom, if ever, attempts to foment armed insurrection against the core democratic institutions of its own state in a desperate bid to cling onto power.
It is, after all, infinitely better to see restraint in a leader than to see a leader who ought to be in restraints.
Sometimes, then, we can really appreciate the value of a quiet and uneventful existence, sitting on the fence right in the centre of the middle ground. Welcome to the comforts of what we might call a mediocracy.
Yet Sunak and Starmer don’t hold the monopoly on this sudden lack of drama in Whitehall and Westminster. There are other newly-tapped reserves of diazepam-grade tedium seeping up through the sediment of British public life.
Perhaps the most notable recent example of this phenomenon was provided by our parliament’s Mr. Mogadon himself, the Right Honourable Matthew John David Hancock MP. (More commonly known as Matt, as people like to walk all over him.)
For by far the least interesting development which has somehow grabbed this month’s headlines and hijacked political chatter came when it was reported that the former Health Secretary – who’d resigned in disgrace last year – had been suspended from the Parliamentary Conservative Party for agreeing to appear on a reality television show set in the Australian jungle, a series in which celebrities are forced to endure unpleasant trials involving pits of crawling invertebrates (No doubt an average afternoon for a Tory backbencher.)
Indeed, the deputy chair of his constituency’s Conservative association – once an ostensible ally of Mr. Hancock’s – told the nation’s press that he looked forward to watching his 'MP enduring the worst of the bushmeat trials'. (Again, possibly a normal evening in rural West Suffolk.)
Mr. Hancock had been forced to quit Boris Johnson’s government in June 2021 after CCTV footage emerged showing the Health Secretary breaking Covid-19 restrictions (and his marriage vows) by engaging in a romantic clinch with a female colleague whilst he was supposed to be at work. (Once more, possibly par for the course in that administration.)
The wannabe star of reality television was clearly already accustomed to being caught in compromising situations on camera.
The news of his suspension came exactly a decade after future Culture Secretary – and Boris Johnson cheerleader – Nadine Dorries had lost her party whip for precisely the same reason – on the same TV show (That’s probably not quite as tawdry as it sounds – although it might be.)
Mr. Hancock defended his decision by arguing that being paid to appear on reality television while he was supposed to be working for his constituents in the House of Commons was a way to get his ‘message heard by younger generations’. It’s unclear what this message might be, but, if he remains true to his past form, it may not in fact be quite as suitable for family audiences as he might suppose.
Meanwhile, another Conservative MP faced full suspension from the House of Commons this month after parliament’s Standards Committee condemned his ‘cavalier’ attitude to lobbying rules.
The dreary Mr. Hancock himself could never, however, be considered so much of a cavalier, certainly not in the romantic or adventurous sense of the word. He was always a blunt roundhead to Boris Johnson’s bullish roister-doister and laughing chevalier – as tepid as Sunak and Starmer though lacking their intellectual capacities.
In stark contrast to Matt Hancock’s latest sorry scandal, and the square-headed leaders of the government and the opposition, the most interesting (and, frankly, the most dangerous) person in British politics is the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman.
A far-right eccentric who makes Liz Truss look centrist and sane, she’s also known to her colleagues as Cruella and Nutella.
She’s been responsible for at least half a dozen digital security breaches. She’s been disingenuous in disclosing details of the timeliness with which she reported those breaches. She’s shown brazen indifference to multiple reports and warnings of the plight of asylum-seekers held for extended periods in overcrowded and underfunded detention centres – refugee families packed "like animals" into makeshift facilities redolent of wartime prison camps.
She has even endeavoured to legitimise her heavy-handed tactics by stoking hysteria about what she has called an "invasion of migrants", a phrase from which her own Immigration Minister and the Prime Minister himself have rightly sought to distance themselves.
So, if that’s what it takes to be interesting in today’s politics, then please God give us a bit of boring every day.
It would take a braver man than most, and a foolhardier one, to favour Ms. Braverman’s peculiar brand of callous machismo above the prosaic politics of Sunak, Starmer, and even the graceless figure of Matt Hancock. Yes, they may be as dull as dishwater, but, in a face-off between those three stooges and our latest version of Maleficent, Mistress of Evil, you’ll find me out in the kitchen, stacking the dirty plates and pulling on my marigolds.
After the melodrama of this summer, we might now concede that Oscar Wilde was wrong. There’s only one thing better than being talked about. And that thing is not being talked about. A bit of peace and quiet would hardly go amiss.
But nothing lasts forever, or for long at all in today’s political climate. One fears that the current state of calm will soon once more come tumbling down around our ears.
And, under those circumstances, it’s clearly vital that we do our best to ensure that the crumbling edifice of the Conservative Party doesn’t bring the more necessary institutions of Britain’s parliamentary democracy down with it.