Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Politics should rise above playground abuse

Eric Pickles is not a slim man, you may have noticed, and he has long been subjected to the familiar jeers of the ‘who ate all the pies?’ sort - in this, he is a successor to John Prescott. Ed Balls is afflicted by a stammer – it is, for example, ‘impossible’ for him to start a sentence with an H. It is largely kept under control but it has emerged at a few moments, ruining high profile appearances in the House of Commons and prompting mockery.

Ed Miliband can appear socially awkward and seems unable to eat a bacon sandwich in public without pulling a face which looks as though he has swallowed a particularly energetic wasp, much to the amusement of many. Gordon Brown is Scottish and blind in one eye, justifying the charmless Jeremy Clarkson’s description of him as a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’.

Picking on such characteristics, over which people have little control, reflects the standard pattern of primary school bullying. In such circumstances it may provoke guffaws amongst a bully’s peers, laughter amongst a gaggle of skinny teenagers on a chilly, windswept sports pitch; but by the time most of us reach the sixth-form and the junior common room, it is those slinging such abuse who look like the idiot. But in politics, pitifully, this bullying remains a daily feature of the soap opera.

For all the high profile and worthy campaigns against bullying, it sadly seems increasingly to invade public life and appear as a form of entertainment. A couple of weeks ago The Apprentice returned to our television, expanded to include 20 candidates, all - probably deliberately - selected for their ability to behave with competing ghastliness. The seam running through the show seems to be bullying, the wannabes competing viciously between each other while Alan Sugar barks nastily from above. Perhaps the absence of this mean streak made The Great British Bake-Off such a success.

There is, of course, a rich history of clever, acid – and frequently rude – barbs being flung across the chamber of the House of Commons but it is too easy to look back with rose-tinted spectacles and paint politicians of the past as master orators, always ready with a cleverly constructed aside. Few will forget the hitherto mild-mannered, 'dead sheep', Geoffrey Howe bringing out his rapier and sticking it into his colleague and boss with such vigour.  For every perfectly judged quip, such as when Michael Foot said of Norman Tebbit, ‘It is not necessary that every time he rises he should give his famous imitation of a semi-house-trained polecat’, there was a Tony Banks. The late, former Sports Minister, once dismissed Margaret Thatcher as a ‘half-mad old bag lady’ and said, when Hague became Conservative leader, they had ‘elected a foetus as the party leader’, adding ‘I bet a lot of them wish they had not voted against abortion now’. 

We can look much further back into our political record. Lord Kenneth Baker, who held several cabinet posts under Margaret Thatcher, is a great enthusiast of political caricature, which has a long, venerable, and excoriating, history. He is a trustee of The Cartoon Museum and collects 18th century cartoons, recognising the importance of works by the likes of James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. These artists could be particularly vicious, never shy of focusing on a public figure's physical defects if it suited them. Gillray reserved special scorn for the Whig politician Charles James Fox, who often appeared, gruesomely, in his works:

Charles James Fox sharing a chamber pot with Lord North (a modern twist of this can be found here)
Baker himself, wasn't spared. Inspired, perhaps, by his oleaginous image, he was transmogrified into a slug by the Spitting Image team, though it was his decision to douse himself liberally with hair oil.

At what point does a clever - if deadly - political putdown become school-boy nastiness? Footballers are constantly reminded that they are role models and what they do on the football pitch is replicated up and down the country. Spit excessively, and children playing footie in the school yard will spit; swear and they will swear.

Politicians also bear this responsibility. The jibes above have little or nothing to do with the achievements - or otherwise - of our politicians, they focus on aspects the individual is powerless to alter. Mockery becomes cruelty when the victim is powerless to resist. When politicians descend to such cheap ridicule so casually, it is no wonder that public forums - such as social media - can become dominated with equally facile abuse. Politicians will not always succeed but they should try, if only for the sake of healthy debate in public life, to aspire to something better.