Hate The Current Generation Of Politicians By All Means, But Cynicism About Politics Disempowers Us All – Column 13.6.09


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 13.6.09

TO NAPLES, EARLIER THIS WEEK, to watch Andy Arnold’s Tron Theatre Company, from Glasgow, open a new show staged in the underground aquifers and water-tanks beneath the ancient city centre; and to admire the efforts of the organisers of the city’s new theatre festival – Napoli Teatro Festival Italia – to create something, in their city, that will attract headlines beyond the perennial Neapolitan stereotypes of poverty and organised crime.

Arnold’s show, like many others in Naples over the last few years, touches on the trauma suffered by the city at the end of the Second World War, when its people were caught up in a nightmare of defeat, starvation, betrayal and horror.  And the city’s fascination with this period in its history is understandable, given the extent to which the political settlement reached in those desperate months has shaped its destiny ever since.  With the fascists defeated, a share of power was effectively handed by the victorious Allies to the godfathers of Italian organised crime; and Naples entered its long postwar period of ambiguous rule, in which formal political structures coexist with, and are often corrupted by, informal and criminal centres of power.

The city works, after a fashion; and for a visitor, its mixture of vibrancy, chaos and ruined grandeur is thrilling. Yet many of the decisions that affect the life of the city’s people are made without any semblance of transparency or accountability.  And if Naples still suffers in almost every area of its life from the grip of its local mafia network, the Camorra, and from the failure of Italy’s elected politicians to confront it, it is still nothing like a real “failed state”, a place where civic order has given way completely to brute force, corruption and gun law.  It is not a Somalia, nor even a Lebanon, where, earlier this year, I saw  gleaming black cherokee jeeps full of fleshy young men with bulging shoulder-holsters cruising the streets near the family home of  the recently-assassinated Prime Minister, implicitly threatening violence to anyone who challenged them, and their dominance of the territory.

All of which gives rise to some worrying thoughts about where Britain’s political life may be heading, following the recent expenses scandal, and the consequent collapse of any remaining faith in our political class.  It’s not that the anger and contempt of millions of ordinary voters is hard to understand.  This is a country where large numbers of our chosen elected representatives have traded their birthright of public respect and credibility for a load of material tat; it is an infinitely depressing story, and one without excuse.

To the evident delight of the political right, though, the British people now show every sign of throwing the baby of possible good government out with the bathwater of the current failed generation of politicians.  To say that we need democratic renewal is fair enough, as is the argument that Britain would now benefit from an early general election.  But to judge by the general tenor of conversation that I hear on the streets, that is not the principal  conclusion most people are drawing.   On the contrary, most seem inclined to conclude that politicians are essentially corrupt, and politics essentially useless; that voting is a waste of time, and that however greedy, incompetent and unpleasant the masters of our broken economic universe may be – with their multi-million pound bonuses and private stashes of colossal wealth – they are somehow less of a problem than our hated political class, without whom we would all be better off.

Which, of course, is exactly the conclusion the political right would want us to draw, at this particular turning-point in economic and political history.  In itself, it’s a nonsensical view, of course; compared with a real failed state, Britain today is a paradise of civic peace, good governance and decent social provision, most of which we simply take for granted.  But the more we despise our politicians and law-makers, the weaker they will be, and the less capable of bringing the major players of trade and commerce back under the reasonable legislative control from which they made such a spectacular escape during the 1990’s; it’s therefore small wonder that the Daily Telegraph, of all papers, chose this moment to turn the ire of the people away from billionaire bankers and failed city directors, and onto the relatively petty crimes of our elected representatives.

Yet if we allow ourselves to be manipulated into concluding that politics is bunk, and politicians always the worst of those who exploit us, then it seems to me that we will gradually find ourselves in the position of a people who have sliced off our own hands – the collective institutions we need, to administer justice, to protect the weak, and to create civil space in which people can truly flourish – because we found some dirt under our fingernails.  Political renewal is never easy, of course, or achievable by governments acting alone; and it is certainly a waste of time for Gordon Brown to attempt it now.

But unless we, as citizens, can learn how to distinguish our disgust with the current generation of politicians from a general disaffection from politics, then we risk living through an age of decline, in which our collective institutions, held up by belief and civic engagement as much as by stone and mortar, gradually crumble away, like the ruined palazzos of Naples.  And when that happens, we will find ourselves becoming vulnerable to the true monsters of unaccountable power.  Vulnerable, that is, to the thuggery, intimidation, impoverishment and paralysis that inch closer to us every time we confuse contempt for politicians with contempt for politics; and that threaten us with the reality of all those horrors – chaos, brutality, meltdown, collapse – that currently stalk our Westminster headlines as mere metaphors,  but which may some day come back to haunt us, in real life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s