A couple of weeks ago, Russell Brand gave an interview to Newsnight. Under the questioning of the newly hirsuite Paxman, Brand (someone whose stand-up I find an irritating parade of tics and preening bell-endery, but whose writing in various places makes me want to read it a great deal) gave a slightly rambling, but entertainingly spirited display of bar-room eloquence on his dissatisfaction with the political system.
It’s pretty fair to say that this has attracted fair amount of comment and criticism over the time since it aired. Paxman himself weighed in during the interview, then Robert Webb (sometime working partner of David Mitchell and someone for whom I have a sneaking regard) pointed out that actively disengaging from the voting process may not be such a great idea. Brand also responded to that. Paxman, it seems, took some time to ruminate on this interview for a while before venturing the opinion (via an article in the Radio times) that, at least in some ways, Russell Brand might even have a point. Of course, this led the BBC News website to ask a small selection of MPs for their opinions on the matter . Shockingly (Oh, how I wish there were punctuation marks for sarcasm) none of the politicians spoken to seemed to agree. and Menzies Campbell even had his little sideswipe at Brand into the bargain. What is interesting is that all of them acknowledge serious failings, but seem to offer little remedy.
Now, finally, Nick Clegg has decided to blunder into the discussion. His criticism of Paxman is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, he thinks of Paxman (and by extension other journalists and commentators, one might imagine) as essentially parasitic. and phrases his criticism in exactly those terms, by saying (with my emphasis added):
“Here is a guy who gets paid a million pounds, thereabouts, paid for by taxpayers. He lives off politics and he spends all his time sneering at politics.”
This is interesting. He thinks of Paxman as an irritant. An inconvenience. Paxman doesn’t live off politics. He is a journalist and talks about a number of things, but politics is one of the things he comments upon. Notice also the wonderfully weasely deployment of the words, “paid for by taxpayers“. I’m only surprised to didn’t put the “hard-working” bit in as well, a seems to be a requirement for anything announced recently. But anyway, yes, he is (at least in part), Nick. As are you. So you may want to keep quiet. It’s Paxman’s job; an academic might specialise in issues connected to slavery, for example, but that doesn’t mean they live off slavery. He tries to ram the point home ny saying,
At the end of the day I have got this old-fashioned view that if you want to improve something, get stuck in and get your hands dirty.
Yes, quite. and you’ll be very sure to get the thuddingly obvious photo-op with the jacket off and the sleeves rolled-up to illustrate that, won’t you? Can’t venture off message.
Clegg also complains that Paxman sneers at politics. I disagree. If he sneers at all, I rather think it’s at the conduct of politicians. and politicians are not politics. Looking at the conduct of politicians and the conduct of politics with a sceptical eye is not sneering: it is the role of a journalist in a free society. And the conduct and attitude of many politicians in recent time have been worthy of a very healthy degree of scepticism. But then, when the Guardian did that with GCHQ and the NSA, you weren’t that happy either, so it seems the journalists are on a hiding to nothing, really. Then he moans about Paxman admitting that he himself didn’t vote in 2010. Well, I like watching the odd F1 car race, but it doesn’t mean I have an interest in being a race engineer for one of the teams. Just because you choose to comment on something does not make it a requirement to participate in it.
The problem is something that Brand did touch on. And on that BBC web page, Menzies Campbell pretty much admits as much. And it’s this: politics IS important. But PARTY politics is becoming increasingly incestuous, distant and irrelevant. Perhaps, as Zoe Williams writes in the Guardian, this is why the Lobbying Bill is worrying so many in the Westminster bubble?
One of the consequences of the free(r) movement of information is something that our neo-liberal chums in the coalition should be happy about: markets work better with perfect information. And the political system is a marketplace like any other: a market for ideas.
And herein is the problem: fewer of us want to buy the ideas on offer. As Menzies Campbell said, they are all broadly similar. The statistics that Zoe Williams quotes in her Guardian piece are quite interesting to pause at for a second or two. The numbers of people affiliated to non-party politically aligned organisations is growing, and beginning to make party membership look less significant by the week. Four million people are in the National Trust. Now they may not be a political party, but they may campaign on issues that might be of relevance to their members. Ironically, this is the exact liberalisation model that the coalition is proposing for schools, universities and hospitals. But it seems they’re less keen on using it in their own back yard.
This is why Clegg doesn’t like Paxman or Brand talking the way they do. To acknowledge any other kind of political process, or consider these kinds of non-party aligned groups would be to risk having people turn away from the current one. And that process is one those in Westminster control; it is one they understand. Like any other marketing department in one of the big supermarkets, they really don’t want you to switch. so PMQs and the media tone has become a bit like watching ASDA, Sainsbury and Tesco fight out with Price Checks. “Choose us! Not the other one! We’re cheaper! We’re better value!” they cry. But they don’t want you to even consider whether you should even be shopping at one of their supermarkets at all.
The Lobbying Bill hasn’t gone away. It’s just been punted to the long grass for a while in the hope we’ll forget it’s there. It’s just another symptom of the increasing distance between Westminster and the rest of nation. The risk is that, paradoxically, tightening the rules in his way will only serve to strangle the flow of debate (the lifeblood of a democratic society) in the body politic. And it’s well known if you stifle the flow of blood for long enough, eventually you run the risk of gangrene setting in: it will only make the death throes worse.