When the journalist Heather Brooke doggedly pursued her campaign to gain access to the details of MPs expenses, I’m afraid I didn’t see her as a fearless warrior from the Fourth Estate. I saw her as an American who didn’t understand the delicate and, yes, hypocritical ecology of British politics. I still stand by that judgement. Brooke’s campaign did much more harm than good to our politics.
I revelled in tales of duck houses and porn, and often marvelled at the amazing capacity of some people to claim for every last teabag and bin liner despite earning a basic salary well over twice the average wage. Of course it was wrong and had to stop.
Having never earned anything like an MPs salary, and being so poor at handling my own finances that I’ve rarely even claimed legitimate expenses, I don’t think I can be accused of being self-interested here, but I still think that the problem with Brooke was that she went for the wrong target in the wrong way, and thereby unleashed the dangerous anti-politics mood that’s poisoned political culture ever since. She helped to create two tribes – politicians and voters – the former venal, calculating, immoral, and the latter imbued with the highest virtue.
Last night’s BBC Question Time encounter with the party leaders displayed this in all its ugly glory.
The consensus amongst the commentariat is that the winner last night was the audience. I beg to differ. The politicians made unambitious pitches which were rightly received with scepticism. But the audience, or at least those who were asking questions or making comments, were too often relishing their right to make unchallenged and dubious assertions, and not to listen to the answers. It’s an angry mob mentality which mainly seeks corroboration for its prejudices, and would be indignant at the thought that they should themselves be held to account.
I am a political partisan, which makes me responsible for my views. If someone disagrees which me, I should listen to their arguments, factual or philosophical, and either dispute them, or modify my position. Having passion and getting angry is good, but only if it is for a purpose, and if it is open to challenge within accepted limits. (This brings to mind Alexei Sayle’s old line, “I argue empirically,” as he nuts an opponent.)
The anti-politics, ‘they’re all the same’, ‘they’re only in it for themselves’ mood is corrosive. It is also inherently conservative, and it disenfranchises or silences other perspectives, and thereby props up the status quo. Two tribes – Voters Vs Politicians – ensures that we have Two Nations. The Powerful and the Powerless.