It’s taken me quite a while to work out exactly what I want to say in response to this unexpected event. And it really was unexpected. The day the election was called, I was travelling to visit my parents; when I left the house at 10 am or so everything was normal, and by the time my parents picked me up from the station about 2pm, their car radio had gone into “OMG, major news event, we’d better throw a million reporters at this one”-mode .
Truth be told, my instinctive reaction to the election was and is – “Well, I don’t really want to dignify that with a response.” Next to a series of Big Brother, a general election is the least dignified spectacle you will ever have to watch, and you can avoid Big Brother a lot more easily. Basically, thousands of people, many of them otherwise intelligent, spend six weeks or so running around like toddlers on a sugar rush, desperately trying to get public attention of any kind by pulling stunts so embarrassing people collecting money for a telethon would reject them, whilst mouthing insultingly simplistic sales pitches that even they can’t quite believe they’re mouthing. It’s like one of those low-rent shop openings where they hire some poor mug to dance around in a costume outside whilst a cheap PA system blares at you about the many bargains to be found within, except low-rent shop openings aren’t generally thought worthy of round-the-clock media coverage.
However, that’s ultimately an emotional reaction. So I have a distaste for people behaving like prats in public? So what? Is there any sort of intellectual justification for having those kind of feelings about something which is, after all, a central institution of democracy?
George Orwell once wrote that “often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next.” And the truth is that pretty much all of Britain’s political parties, in the modern age, are run by and for humanists on Orwell’s definition – people for whom the most important thing in life is, in practice, what happens in this world. Whether they actually formally wear that label or not (or even reject it), most politicians and political activists act as if this is true. Incidentally, I have no doubt that in doing that, they are representative of most of the electorate; most people in general act as if this is true, including some who nominally have a religious faith.
Whilst it isn’t remotely wrong to regard what happens in this life as important, once you start regarding it as the only important thing, it inevitably tends to lead politics in some unfortunate directions. The material well-being and economic prosperity of the electorate tends to become, not just an important thing in politics, but the only thing, because if all we have is this life, what is more important than our well-being during it? Having a wider vision for the future of society, having ideals, anything to do with the spiritual side of humanity, gets correspondingly downgraded.
And the result is elections where everything centres around “who gets the stuff?” Taxes, economic policy, health care, education, that’s what the debates about all those kinds of issues all really boil down to – “Old people? Kids? Poor people? The rich? Who should get the stuff?”. Even an issue like Brexit, which at root is a question of political principle about what kind of relationship the UK and the rest of Europe should be in, has become all about “who might lose some stuff when we leave?” and/or “was being in the EU really good for us? I mean, in terms of getting stuff? And did it stop us controlling immigrants, who might take our stuff?”
Hopefully, you’ve got the point: the overwhelming tone of general elections, just like that of politics in general, is both materialistic and all about voter self-interest. This has become the conventional wisdom; only the other day, I heard a BBC reporter say something to the effect of “well,what really determines elections is whether voters feel more prosperous as a result of the last X years”.
That’s something I’ve heard mentioned in more or less every election I can remember, and, if true, it’s a far more cynical view than anything I’ve expressed in this post. So is that all that matters in politics now – whether we think we’re getting adequate amounts of stuff? Incidentally, the same journalists who mention this are often the same ones who ponder on falling voter turnout and wonder “why people are increasingly disengaged from politics?” I dunno, maybe because you and the politicians treat us all like dumb cattle that only need to be provided with as much hay, straw and artificial food pellets as possible to stay content and supportive? Heaven forbid it, but maybe some of us are starting to get resentful about this, and, at heart, know what a limited view of humanity this is.
And is it surprising that, around the world, recent elections have led to success for fringe parties – populist right-wingers of various kinds, neo-Nazis and so on? After all, although they might use economic arguments (“Immigrants took our jobs!”), their fundamental appeal isn’t about material well-being, but feelings of national or cultural unity. Fascists have ideals (horrible ones) and understand the human spirit (its dark side). As someone once pointed out “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, at least its an ethos.”
Conventional politics has become all about whether you, the voter, are better off with lower taxes and more money in your pocket or higher taxes and more schools. It’s stopped being an ethos and become a marketing exercise, and at root this is because, as a society, we’ve increasingly lost any religious beliefs we ever had, and so any belief in any ideals higher than material well-being.
One of the great ironies of this process is that the more militant opponents of organised religion in this country are invariably on the left in politics (conservative atheists tend to find it easier to accept religion as having value as a traditional institution whatever their personal views about it), and are often just the sort of people to bemoan the decline of the Labour Party or of socialism in general. My response to that would be “You cut down the tree you were sitting in: don’t blame anyone else when it falls and takes you down with it.”