SO FAR during this election campaign, only two events, both televised, have had a real effect, capturing the public’s imagination. The first leaders’ debate triggered the vertiginous rise of Nick Clegg, whose LibDem party gained over ten percentage points in the polls in just 90 minutes without him needing to say anything new; and then there was yesterday’s astonishing Bigotgate blunder by Gordon Brown, when he revealed himself as two-faced in his dealings with a 66-year old retired Labour widow who dared to question him on the national debt, student loans and immigration. Welcome to the brave new world of British politics, where reality TV has merged with real life.
In some ways, yesterday’s saga did serve a serious purpose: it confirmed Brown’s character flaws, his inability to deal with anybody who disagrees with him or to take responsibility for his actions (until he was forced to) and his shocking disdain for his party’s traditional electorate. It also demonstrated how the politico-media elite is disconnected with what matters to the majority of Britons, including the old “working class.” Regardless of one’s views on the matter – and I, unlike Gillian Duffy, am very supportive of Eastern European immigration – it is madness to want to shut the issue down and demonise those who worry about these things. That way leads to populist backlash.
In other ways, however, the saga was a deeply depressing tragicomedy: in a more edified world, we should be talking about public spending cuts and all of the other extraordinarily serious economic, social and cultural issues facing modern Britain. Instead, the nation appears to be only interested in image and personality; what matters are not the issues but politicians’ reactions to them, the way they project their emotions in public, the way they smile. Ordinary people who happen to stumble on fame are briefly propelled into the limelight, showered with attention (and in some cases cash) and then promptly forgotten.
Yesterday’s most important news story was Spain’s credit downgrade, an ominous sign that the sovereign debt crisis is spiralling out of control. The eurozone is starting to look like a giant game of dominos – and unless the rest of the world gets its act together, it too could soon be forced to start playing. This story is highly relevant to Britain: the state is collecting 40 per cent or so of GDP in revenues and spending 52 per cent (on OECD stats) – as anybody who has ever had to run a household, a company or any kind of budget knows, such a large overdraft is unsustainable. Countries aren’t immune to the laws of economics. Yet instead of this dominating the discussion, Bigotgate was the only story in town. Another important development yesterday was the discovery of a way to reduce the chances of dying from bowel cancer – again, an important yet overlooked subject in the election campaign.
No single individual or group is solely responsible for the electorate’s infantilisation – but politicians, both directly and via their mismanagement of the education system, are the number one culprits. Sections of the media have long been allergic to numerate, rigorous analysis of policy; that has not helped either.
This has turned into an ostrich election, where the looming fiscal tightening is relentlessly downplayed: tonight’s debates will be the last opportunity for the leaders to show that this election is not a giant con.