Why the soundbite culture is destroying democracy
People are angry. Wet and angry. It rains a lot and it’s dark, but then again it’s December. Elections aren’t meant to happen just before Christmas. There’s nothing festive about an election. Maybe there was back in 1997: Things are Going to Get Better. They did for a while. Now they’re worse. Much worse. You’d think voters would blame the Tories but then there’s Brexit, and there’s Jeremy Corbyn. Brexit is something that we have to ‘get done’, apparently. No one really knows why, only that ‘we voted for it’ and if we don’t leave the EU it’s surrender, the end of democracy. For those who don’t want Brexit, who care more about all the stuff that matters like food banks and schools that are part-time because they’re broke and the slow death of the planet we live on, we are so flabbergasted that we’ve been rendered almost speechless. OK, it’s true that Jeremy needs to clean his glasses and stop looking permanently startled. The Lib Dems can’t shake off the coalition years. It turns out being in bed with the Tories gives you a nasty and recurrent rash that takes a decade or so to fade. Boris Johnson lies and lies and lies and everyone knows it, but that’s just what he does, and nobody believes in the truth fairy anymore.
But there’s something else going on.
I’ve been spending a lot of time away from the UK this past year and I wanted to come home and see what was happening in our third general election in four years, (apparently it’s alright to ask that question of the electorate several times, just not the other one). What I’ve seen and heard over the last two weeks suggests deep trouble ahead.
It’s not Brexit that’s the real problem. The paradox at the heart of Britain’s self-destructive frenzy is that Brexit isn’t actually about the EU, though it’s hard to say what it is about, exactly. There’s certainly a good dose of not liking foreigners, and a sense of the EU representing the unfathomable complexity of the modern world which it’s so tempting to turn away from. The anger about a promise being made and broken is palpable – people have spat those words at me with venom on the doorstep. Yet it’s odd that this is this broken promise they worry about and not all the others – the ones about a fair society, a protected NHS, Britain a powerful voice for good in the world.
The anger is real, especially among the old – yet it seems to me it is the young who have most to be angry about, since it is they who inherit a world of zero hours contracts, unaffordable housing and runaway climate change. Perhaps it’s that the old are angry on their behalf; perhaps it is guilt. Perhaps these older Britons think if they can turn back the clock they can start again and get it right this time around.
What the Tories are doing is obvious, and it is shaming. Their cynicism is staggering, even by the remarkably low standards of modern politics. They talk only of Brexit, of ‘the will of the people’, of ‘getting it done’. Senior politicians know – or they should – that they have a responsibility to govern for all of society. But the Tories are being ruthless in using division to win this election, as ruthless as drug dealers pushing a cheap and certainly harmful drug. What happens to all that anger when Brexit no longer gives the punters the high, when cold turkey kicks in? What happens when the curtain is pulled back on the Wizard of Oz and only Boris Johnson is sitting there, his every joke falling flat, his once affable charm turned rancid?
The BBC is blamed for bias, but it’s superficiality that is the BBC’s and all the other broadcasters’ sin. The era of the soundbite is finally in this election taking its toll – and the price it demands is that we are not expected to know the difference any more between lies and truth, between wrong and right.
Should we despair? Perhaps not. Knocking on an unpromising door I was bitten by a Rottweiler. An old man heard the yelp (mine, not the dog’s) and came to see what the commotion was about. Though I think his vote was beyond persuasion, he offered me a plaster and his dog’s apology. Small kindnesses can be built upon. We vote for hope. It is all we have.