António Rolo Duarte
Most people do not follow politics most of the time. Apart from the small group of policymakers, journalists and intellectuals who follow the daily happenings of Westminster, individuals generally catch only a few snapshots of political action every now and then. From these bits of information, they construct their own narrative about what particular parties, policies and politicians represent. Above all, it is from this broken narrative that they derive their opinion – and ultimately, their vote.
The problem, of course, is that the narrative which people construct from these snapshots rarely reflects the events on the ground. Few people could discuss this issue better than Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, and he astutely does so in his insightful new book Politics: Between the Extremes (published by Penguin).
He argues, and perhaps rightly so, that this pervasive personal zoetrope is the main reason why the Liberal Democrats got hammered in the 2015 general election. The majority of the public built their own narrative about Nick Clegg’s leadership from two key events: entering a coalition with the Conservatives, and raising tuition fees against the party’s own campaign promise.
From this selection of information, a party which promised fresh, competent and honest leadership was painted in people’s minds as a party of cheaters and backstabbers, filled with politicians who are “just the same” as those from the traditional parties. By attempting to negotiate deals within a coalition government, and indeed by entering a coalition in the first place, the Lib Dems were seen as a “soft” party, which bent to the desires of the Conservatives. It was the way the public felt deceived by the Lib Dems, largely from personally constructed stories which focused on broken promises, which ultimately shaped their decision to abandon the party in the election.
The interaction between the public’s personal narratives of politics, and what actually goes on in the legislative and executive, is only one of the many themes tackled by Clegg in his new book. The volume is not an attempt to settle old quarrels or justify controversial decisions. It is, instead, an appropriation of his experiences in government for a deeper theoretical and empirical observation of the position of liberalism and the politics of compromise in the twenty-first century.
In this sense, the book is as much a memoir as it is a political thought monograph. It is, above all, a radical yet almost academically-styled defence of the centre ground as opposed to the politics of anger, grievance and hatred, and the populism and factionalism, which at this very moment challenge political sanity from Britain to Austria, France to the United States. I spent an enjoyable few evenings reading the book, and can thoroughly recommend it.
On the way identity politics is changing the conventional right-left divide (pp. 4-5):
New divisions are hardening in our society between those who feel comfortable with the pace of change in a modern, globalised economy and those who feel disoriented by it; between those who feel at ease with the growing diversity of society and those who feel alienated by it; between those who relish the opportunities offered by information technology and those for whom it remains a mystery; between those who celebrate the openness of Britain to the outside world and those who wish to seal her off from the outside world.
Identity politics – where you live, what country you come from, what community you inhabit, what religion you practise – is displacing conventional left-right arguments about state, market, tax and spend.
On the importance of messengers and messages (pp. 18-19):
Stories enable you to understand something instinctively, to feel and see it for yourself, in a way that is much more compelling than simply following a logical argument to a rational conclusion. It’s the difference between showing and telling. In the end, people follow stories, not policies, in politics.
The Brexit campaign told a story – Britain can be great again if it “takes back control” – which was far more compelling than a barrage of statistical predictions about household finances from George Osborne.
On the mannerisms of British politics (p. 46):
Politics is not a “normal” job. It is a competition for power pursued by people who are often powerless; a race for voters’ affections by people who are invariably held in contempt by them; a clash of high ideals steeped in petty rivalries; a vocation devoted to shaping the future, conducted in an out-of-date setting; a game of teamwork populated by fragile egos and loners; a profession that requires calm, considered judgement, composed of individuals who are strung out and exhausted; a trade that relies on the semblance of normality, conducted according to the most peculiar traditions in the land.
António Rolo Duarte is editor-in-chief of The Manchester Magazine. He is a Politics and International Relations student at The University of Manchester