Not Events, Dear Boy: reading the real politics

One of the stupidest mistakes I ever made was my decision, when choosing one of five A-Levels to drop, to give up Politics. I should have dropped Latin, but I thought I wanted to study Classics at university (ha). In the event, I dragged myself through two years of a self-taught dead language A-Level, applied for Classics, started my first year at Oxford, and hastily switched over to History after about four weeks. No, they probably shouldn’t have let in someone this idiotic. The world works in mysterious ways.

Our hotch-potch political systems and traditions are pretty bizarre, compared with the younger, presidential-republican models we see all around us; on the other hand, they’re reported in far less detail than, say, in the French press: Le Monde is full of MPs using every obscure trick in the book to dodge unfriendly laws in the Assembly. So I decided it was time to pick up my political education, and learn a few more of these peculiar secrets, from three authors at the heart of the whole thing, and then tell you what I found out.

Wait, you cry. There’s a small problem. If I think about British politics any more, I might have to dissolve myself in a puddle of acid to escape my own despair and faint nausea. Fear not, I’m aware of this problem – which is why I didn’t publish this post after the Brexit result, but waited until silly season to force it on you. (Theresa May is in a polo shirt in Switzerland and Gary Lineker is in his underpants on national television – there’s officially no news.) If you need more persuading, this is not a post about how government works, or about party politics. There are no Tory, Corbynite or Blairite policies or plots in sight. If you want to read yourself into that pile of alternating inertia and horror, you’ll find plenty of coverage elsewhere. Instead of focusing on “events”, I’ve tried to find out more about what some people might call “real” politics: which people change things, for better or worse, and how it happens.

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson’s Live from Downing Street (2012), an easy-going but authoritative history of the changing relationship between British power and British media, from obscene Victorian political caricatures to Bigotgate and I Agree With Nick. Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, has won parliamentary awards for her achievements in the House; despite probably being the hardest-working politician we’ve got, she still found time to write Honourable Friends? (2015), her surprising and entertaining “outsider” account of her first term in Parliament. Andrew Marr, Robinson’s predecessor at the BBC, is not only the host of his own current affairs show, but a novelist – as we voted on EU membership, I was reading Marr’s darkly satirical version of this scenario, the devilishly tongue-in-cheek and uniquely well-informed Head of State (2014).

If you’re worried about left/right or party balance, Robinson is a self-confessed former Youth Conservative, while Marr is a known leftie who was political editor of The Independent before joining the BBC. More important, in my view, is their expressed feeling (this is Robinson quoting Marr) that joining the officially impartial BBC amounts to having your “trousers pulled down and your organs of opinion removed” at the door, and that (this is Robinson’s own view) there’s often not much left of them on your way back out. Caroline Lucas, though an impassioned progressive, has found success in Parliament precisely through working so effectively across party lines: “My own feelings are not quite that tribal … For me, it is more about the individuals“.

I’m inclined to accept their word in good faith – for a start, I picked these three authors because they’re widely respected across the spectrum and known for their fairness. Perhaps more to the point, one of Britain’s biggest problems now is the understandable but extreme cynicism directed toward politics of all forms, to the point that we’ve “had enough of experts” and will vote ourselves off a cliff to spite the establishment, and that it takes the brutal assassination of a backbench MP for ordinary people to remember that politics can and should be about public service. In other words, if you don’t have an open mind to hear from these people, there’s not much hope – and not much point in you reading on. So on that basic assumption, here we go.

The media

The press is sometimes called the “fourth estate”. This is a reference to pre-democratic Europe, when kings pretended to consult his subjects through three “estates”: assemblies representing the Church, the nobility and the towns respectively. The idea is that the media is so influential that it has become the country’s fourth political institution. Live from Downing Street is full of anecdotal and photographic evidence of the media’s power to make or break leading politicians.  Nick Robinson gives his reader a real sense of history and societal progression, flowing breezily back and forth through the twentieth century, somehow never losing us between Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson. Without this instinctive feel for how social, cultural and political forces come together at times of national change, he wouldn’t have become such a successful broadcast journalist. Thankfully for us, it translates effortlessly to the page.

The book’s momentum doesn’t slow as it moves into the present day. Robinson refers to what the public sees in the world of politics as the tip of the iceberg, and his job as being to uncover the rest. He guides us self-deprecatingly through some of the greatest achievements and challenges of his reporting career. But his belief in broadcast news as a vital public service doesn’t prevent him from perceiving or voicing criticism of the media culture that has developed in Britain with the advent of rolling news coverage and social networks. He regrets the replacement of “current affairs” discussion by often hollow “news” provision. He discusses the media’s role in demonising Gordon Brown, for reasons little to do with his leadership (“By the time he came to power the press had already turned against New Labour and soon they turned against Brown personally”), and the toxic effects of the 24-hour news cycle’s impatience and demand for government “action” – sometimes premature, sometimes uninformed, often irreversible.

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“skips lightly through the great battles… a fun, well-paced account” – Sunday Times

It was particularly poignant to read the book as the Chilcot inquiry reported. For Robinson, the build-up to the Iraq War was “the point in my career when I have most regretted not pushing harder and not asking more questions” – a moment of journalistic failing, when reporters took the lead from a political establishment guilty of terrible oversight. What to do, though? Live from Downing Street makes it clear that we can’t do without the media. Without it, there’d be no one in the lobby at Westminster to get the inside opinion of individual MPs – a very hard-won privilege, Robinson explains – no one running down to their basement in their boxers to broadcast live for Radio 4; no one sitting in the long-banned press gallery recording the true atmosphere or meaning of a parliamentary debate by noting different MPs’ facial expressions and surveying the whole scene – it turns out that seemingly bored MPs, filmed for the news while slumped back in the benches, are often simply trying to hear better by getting closer to the speakers behind them.

By the end of Live from Downing Street, you can’t help but share Robinson’s pain: “What was the point of all those battles for the right to report what is being done in our name if a growing number believe politics is, as best, irrelevant and, at worst, an establishment plot to do down ordinary, hard-working people?” He’s not pinning it on them, though – Robinson makes clear that the media and political class have a joint responsibility to deliver the clear-cut facts craved by an untrusting public: from politicians, this means being “more honest about past mistakes, and more open about their uncertainties”; from journalists, this requires giving “politicians and others a little more space to think aloud … before they are condemned”. His utterly readable account of what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in a half-century of broadcast journalism is a funny and plain-speaking window onto recent British politics, as well as a thoughtful and convincing meditation on how we could all do better.

Parliamentary proceedings

That exact description can also be applied to Caroline Lucas’ story of her frustrations and accomplishments in Parliament, Honourable Friends. If I had to pick one thing I learnt in my Politics class that really astonished me, it would be the whip system. Even though Andrew Marr’s fictional EU referendum takes place during the summer recess, the staggering political conspiracy that follows can only be pulled off with the help of the chief whip: the man or woman who leads a political party in controlling its MPs’ voting choices. Those who’ve watched House of Cards will know what it’s all about – “whipping” the necessary votes through a mixture of promised favour, party “spin” and outright bullying. Unfortunately, Caroline Lucas confirms (and I believe her) that this is fully as unpleasant and undemocratic as Kevin Spacey plays it: “I have seen MPs being forcefully pushed into the Aye or No lobby by the whips”.

Their power doesn’t stop there, though. Lucas, sole MP for her party and therefore the only MP of 650 who can vote completely freely, has observed how the whip’s office blocks reform and debate – the very reasons Parliament exists. They control, for instance, which MPs sit on which committees – and “generally try to keep people with too much expertise or independence of mind off these committees”. They have blocked proposed legislation that would change the status quo and so reduce their power in the Commons. They have made themselves indispensable, because MPs often turn up to vote without having been present for the preceding debate – sometimes, they vote as the whips tell them to simply because they have no idea of the ins and outs of the bill in front of them.

Lucas has encountered plenty of other day-to-day obstructions in her fight to represent her constituents and her party. The Speaker of the House decides which amendments to a bill will be debated – as in the Syrian intervention vote, this can silence all opposition with a selection of amendments that change a bill’s detail but favour its principle. Private Member’s Bills, the only bills that come from opposition MPs (which is how we abolished the death penalty), must be backed by 100 MPs, but are debated on the day when fewest are in the House. Complex issues are forced into black and white because it is impossible to abstain in a Commons vote, creating a “with us or against us” culture. I could go on – and I knew none of this before reading Honourable Friends?.

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“She has made one hell of an impact in the House.” – Conservative Speaker John Bercow

But this book is no tirade. Lucas is no more bitter, morally superior or crusading on paper than she is in person. Honourable Friends? is an open-minded and softly spoken guide for the uninitiated to where our democracy has become undemocratic, hearing from people on all sides of the chamber. It is also a perfectly relatable look at this weird institution, not through the accepting eyes of the political mainstream, but through the bemused eyes of “one of us”, with all the silly trivia you might expect: “until 1998, MPs wishing to raise a point of order during a vote had to wear a hat – indeed, a collapsible top hat was kept in the chamber in case it was needed.” Nick Robinson also shares such gems: if the rule whereby MPs are only addressed as honourable “friends” if from your own party is telling, so too is the custom, last used (predictably ineptly) by the Lib Dems in 2001, permitting any MP  to shut the press gallery by shouting, “I spy strangers!”

And here lies the problem. Like Oxbridge, Parliament has many traditions that are both at once: comically absurd and seriously damaging. One of the funniest images in Honourable Friends? is  every single MP dropping their lunch/meeting/conjugal visit at the ring of a bell, and running to the Chamber. This is because votes are not scheduled precisely, and MPs still have to vote in person, by walking (or being pushed) through the yes or no doors. Is this harmless British nonsense? Aside from the rudeness and inconvenience involved, “MPs spend about 250 hours over the course of an average Parliament just running around the building and queuing to vote,” Lucas tells us. “Electronic voting would save at least £30,000 a year in the direct costs of this wasted time … To hold six votes in the European Parliament takes one and a half minutes: holding six votes in the Westminster Parliament takes one and a half hours.”

This is one of many fights that Lucas has brought to the Commons. Unlike many on the left today, inside and outside Parliament, she does not simply trash those with whom she disagrees – she campaigns, hard, with whoever will work with her, on specific, simple and properly researched reforms. Honourable Friends? doesn’t just offer a summary of the shameful mechanisms keeping Parliament from its true purpose, but also reveals the mechanisms that a decent parliamentarian like Lucas can use to overcome them. She shows us concretely, through her own story, how an opposition MP can “put an issue on the agenda”. This is no dull policy book – it’s written for you and me, by a witty and down-to-earth conversationalist – but it’s certainly not lacking in substance.

I bought this book when it was first published, not because I’m a diehard Green voter (my record says no), but because I trusted Lucas to bring a fresh perspective and to teach me something, with no agenda beyond improving things for everyone. If you want to know where the real challenges, and the real opportunities, lie in getting something done in Parliament, read Honourable Friends?. If you want to know what a fine constituency MP of any party looks like, read Honourable Friends?. If you want to know what British politics should look like across the spectrum, read Honourable Friends?. When your book is endorsed by both Zac Goldsmith and Naomi Klein, you must be doing something right.

The referendum

You could interpret Andrew Marr’s Head of State as a blackly comic cautionary tale of what happens to British politics without the checks and balances of Parliament, however flawed. There’s not much I can say about exactly what does happen, because an early plot twist is one of the most enjoyable things about the novel. Fortunately, that still leaves the pre-referendum Marr, gazing into his crystal ball to sketch out a future that’s now played out, with plenty to tell us.

The outcome of Marr’s EU referendum seems to depend a lot on his book’s post-Johnson, post-Cameron prime minister. This unnamed man is a political hero. He is fairly adored by the nation, and his Remain campaign relies upon both his persuasive charisma and what it has already achieved: a breakthrough in pre-referendum EU renegotiations. While many fine points of Marr’s referendum mirror the actual 2016 vote with impressive prescience (like the importance of Birmingham as a “swing” city, ultimately voting Leave), this utopian PM returning from Brussels triumphant is a product of pure fantasy. May, Johnson, Merkel et al. have had to discuss the ‘new deal’ David Cameron brought home in February 2016 – in order to address whether the Leave victory takes it off the table – but during the actual referendum campaign, I don’t recall the Remain side bringing it up at all. I honestly don’t remember what it involved.

The idea that such a deal could make all the difference suggests either that Cameron failed to bring back what he should and could have, or that no one, even someone observing as closely as Andrew Marr, predicted the nature of this historic vote. As far as it was about the EU at all, our referendum wasn’t a disagreement between those satisfied and those unimpressed by proposed reforms to Britain’s membership. Instead, those who believe the EU itself is a bit crap in some (unavoidable) ways, but that it is still Britain’s only viable future, have faced off against those who believe that the EU is fundamentally awful, in unavoidable ways, to the point that it’s time to abandon ship.

Marr’s wistful portrait of a prime minister so beloved that voters and even newspaper editors could be persuaded to “[go] with their man” may simply be another part of a utopia where the Independent hasn’t ceased printing but is “reviving”. But the novel is also imbued with the sense of political and general exhaustion that was invisible to London before the 24 June result, but has been permeating the rest of the UK for years. It’s a witty, cheeky story told both playfully and cuttingly, but Marr sounds a rare note of bitterness when discussing the unpaid intern culture in British media and other graduate industries: “what a fucking con”. At a political funeral, the pallbearers, evoking the weary litter-carrying slaves of the ancient world, are BBC work experience kids. In another prescient turn, Marr refers naughtily to “Lord Osborne” – for many, the current controversy over Cameron’s resignation honours list is just another disappointingly predictable offence by the political elite.

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“it is Marr unbuttoned… witty and wicked” – New Statesman

The conspiracy at the heart of the novel is crazy, ludicrous, hilarious – and yet, a member of the intelligence community remarks sarcastically, “of course it couldn’t happen”. British politics, in other words, already beggared belief in many ways before the EU referendum (examples from the book p. 327) – only now, it’s become so sensational that we’ve grown tired of it. How did Marr know that we would all feel this way after the referendum? “Everything that could be said had been said, endlessly, over every medium.” This is Britain’s comedown from a heady trip of a summer that confusingly combined Machiavellian schemes with shocking incompetence. I imagine that when Head of State was published in 2014, it was received as the fun, knowing poke it is – but with a lot more emphasis on the “fun” than on the “knowing”.

Nick Robinson and Caroline Lucas weren’t any the wiser about how this would all turn out: Robinson correctly predicted that the EU would split the Tories, but he was off by about 20 years, and failed to predict that they would so seamlessly (supernaturally?)  stitch themselves back together again just as Labour crumbles into a staggeringly oblivious orgy of self-destruction. Lucas, meanwhile, actually joined a 2011 cross-party initiative to bring forward the referendum date, in order to move on with committed, British-led EU reform – once we voted to remain.

Still, we have as much – if not more – to learn from their writings as from Andrew Marr’s semi-fantasy. There is much to be proud of, and ashamed of, in British politics. Those who shape it don’t have to be the leaders of the government and the opposition. If these outsiders have the integrity to do as they think best, the tolerance to collaborate with those from different “tribes” and the humility to identify and acknowledge collective and individual failings, there’s hope yet for this peculiar isle.

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