If you’ve ever wondered why the Commons is too small for everyone to sit down, the answer is that Winston Churchill, when debating the rebuilding of the chamber in 1943, pronounced; “We wish to see our Parliament a strong, easy, flexible instrument of free debate. For this purpose a small Chamber and a sense of intimacy are indispensable.”
The change from warring with rocks to warring with words is the moment that marks the transition from barbarism to civilisation. It is the moment that disparate individuals first become a society, and the democratic governance of that society is only made possible by the constant testing of ideas in the crucible of informed and passionate scrutiny.
You see, having someone challenge you on your beliefs can only ever be a good thing. If they are right then you come out of the discussion corrected, and if they are wrong then you gain, according to J.S Mill’s essay On Liberty; “what is of almost as great benefit, the clearer and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
My worry is that truth and error are colliding less often and less hard, both in the electorate and in the elected. The result is that voting is becoming a matter of whim, or yet worse, habit.
On the face of it, this worry should be soothed by a brief trawl around the internet. Blogging and forums give easy access to an egalitarian soapbox from which any opinion whatsoever may be yelled. However, the problem is that, far from allowing everybody access to arguments from every point on the political spectrum, it simply presents people with more ways to readily reinforce the ideas that they held instinctively. What the internet really does is create self-contained, self-confirming communities that exist in isolation from each other.
Liberals, be honest, when was the last time you read a Peter Hitchens article? Peter Hitchens readers, how many times this week have you visited the New Statesman website?
On the rare occasion somebody does sally forth to raid the enemy newsfeed, there is never any consideration of ideas, anonymity producing the tendency to demonise, rather than dispute, disquieting views. If you doubt this, try scrolling down any comments page and compare the number of gracious concessions with the number of Hitler comparisons. If you still don’t believe me after that, it’s probably because you’re a Nazi.
Worse still, this malaise has spread from its home on the internet. Television interviews are losing their depth as they move towards easily digestible sound bites in an effort to attract more viewers.
Even Paxman is mellowing with age, more cynical now than pugnacious, and it has been a long time since I’ve watched Question Time without thinking the words “Avoid The” should be added to the title.
In the print media, the spectacle of Johann Hari shamefacedly returning his Orwell prize proves that we cannot trust others to perform the essential duty of criticism for us.
You can see the result of this apathy occurring in politics, as the confrontational atmosphere drains away. With no analysis being done, Cameron can get away with responding to questions with puerility like, “I’m in favour of crime rates going down!” (Needless to say, this nugget of political genius received triumphant mooing from the herd behind him.)
Compare this to an episode of Prime Minister’s Questions from the Thatcher era, where you can feel the rolling waves of anger coming from the grizzled Northerners on the Opposition benches, as cold blue capitalists stared down fiery red socialists and the heckles rang with an enmity close to personal hatred.
Now they have the feeling of simply going through the motions, and it strains my imagination so little to image Cameron and Milliband sharing amiable conversation in identical pink Ralph Lauren polo shirts, whilst Clegg pours them another glass of chardonnay from the House wine cellar.
This is because the real division is no longer between the people in the parties, but between the parties and the polity.
MPs, regardless of loyalty, have far more in common with each other than any of them do with you or me, let alone anybody who doesn’t own a ceremonial gown. This was wonderfully evident on last week’s Question Time when Owen Paterson tried the cringe-worthy line “we’re all in this together.”
The line may have been insincere, but the booing that followed it certainly was not.
We are creating a vicious cycle. The less we engage, the more easily we allow the political classes to pursue an untroubled life in the Common’s bar. The more that happens, the less relevant politics appears, and so the less we all engage with it.
There are other contributing causes, of course: the honourable struggle of reactionary against revolutionary reduced to bickering between different colours of welfarist liberal, whipping so harsh that George Osborne is reaching for his wallet, and the increasing trend for politicians to be life-time professionals on a well-worn groove from school to the cabinet, for whom politics is not a calling but a profitable career.
However, if we do not show an appetite for the real meat of politics, we have no right to complain about the current diet of sweet, smooth mush in the form of slogans and spin, or the chaos that will result if we allow the lunatics who run the asylum to do so unsupervised.