There are some things we are not supposed to be passionate about, like doing the washing up. Then there are the things we pretend to be passionate about in job interviews, like “managing people” or “creating content”. Then there are the things we are supposed to be passionate about, like love, family and maybe football.
Then there is politics. Some people feel obliged to care deeply about it, even though they don’t; others see it as the height of bad manners to talk about it. Politics can stir up intense feelings of rage, but also of boredom. And even politicians seldom confess to being interested in it. How passionate should we be about politics?
I reached political maturity around the time of Tony Blair’s second election victory, when voter turnout slumped to an all-time low and there was much talk of “political disengagement”. For a long time, the number of people who reported having no trust in politicians or political parties had been steadily growing. And that bedrock of scepticism had been reinforced by some of the consequences of New Labour’s success. The party’s newfound centrism gave ballast to the idea that ‘they’re all the same’, and therefore that there was no point in voting (despite the Conservatives at that time steering well clear of the centre ground). And the professionalisation of Labour’s media operation, while undoubtedly restoring credibility to the party brand, caused many to avert their eyes. Politics, they thought, is about passion, beliefs, and a vision for the future. Why are these middle-management types talking to me as if I’ve come to John Lewis to complain about my curtains? …
… Of course there should be passion in politics, in the sense that people should fight for what they believe. But if our fragile democracy is going to survive, we need to cultivate another, much rarer passion: for democratic politics itself, and for the moderation required to practise it meaningfully. Moderation is an old virtue, much out of fashion. It is a philosophy of compromise, of recognising the validity of your opponent’s position, of taking small, incremental steps towards your goals. It clashes with the zeitgeist of “authenticity”. How can you be truly authentic when you have moderated your position in order to take into account the existence of opinions, beliefs and interests different to your own? Moderation is shy and does not like praise, yet it is the very essence of our democracy. As the dark clouds of history gather, we have to find a way to sing the praises of moderation. And to do that, we probably have to get passionate about it….
Being passionate about moderation does not mean you have to quell the flames of your own politics, however radical they might be. But it does require also cultivating a kind of love for politics itself – not despite of its shabby compromises and disappointments, but because of them.
Anyone with a partisan political commitment will recognise that this is a hard trick to pull off. In the run up to the 2015 general election, I had dinner with some friends who knew about my activism in the Labour Party and were undecided on how to vote. They asked me what I thought about the election. I responded with some mealy-mouthed comments about how no single party or government can deliver the kind of excitement and success that people have come to expect from politics, and how they should weigh up their decision carefully based on all sorts of considerations both ideological and tactical. They looked thoroughly disappointed. Clearly they expected a full-throated defence of the Labour manifesto and a rousing call to the ballot box. They wanted to be pitched, and instead they got an earful of equivocation.
But if I had given that pitch, I would have been misrepresenting the realities of party politics. I would have been perpetuating the myth that manifestos are deliverable; that the only thing stopping politicians from delivering them once in power is their own deceitfulness. Politics is inchoate. Almost nothing can be guaranteed. The only true and faithful political slogan in history is the one used by the Indonesian politician Jun-Jun Sotto: “I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise anything.” That was what I was trying to say at that dinner. Labour will do its best, but it can’t promise anything. It didn’t go down well. In retrospect, I probably ought to have applied a bit more snake oil….
My father brought me up as a liberal. If he hadn’t been so taken with the liberal idea that parents should influence the development of their children as little as possible, then I’m sure he would have made me recite John Stuart Mill’s harm principle every night. I grew up as a happy little freedom-warrior, confident that my dad was right and that allowing individuals to do what they wanted was the guiding principle for the good life. That kind of pure liberalism makes for a more or less angst-free childhood: you have few obligations to others except not to cause them harm, and no great expectation is loaded upon you so long as you are not bothering other people.
But as adolescence arrived, so did the doubts. My background was one of extreme privilege, and I couldn’t help noticing how relatively easily I progressed through my teenage years. It occurred to me that this idea of liberalism, which gave me such licence to “be myself” and pursue whatever I wanted, might not work so well for those born on the less fortunate side of the “liberal” economy. And then, in early adulthood, the real thunderbolt. After a lifetime of my father promising that he would not accept the family title when his own father died, he performed a U-turn. I had been brought up to believe that the English class system, an affront to the liberal idea of individual merit, was a blight on our society; that snobbery was the highest sin; and that the monarchy was there to make us all feel inferior. Now, when it came to it, he was prepared to do his small part in perpetuating it all. For years I had been questioning whether the ideal of liberalism could survive on contact with the real world where power, wealth and opportunity was entrenched. Now I had a kind of proof. I still believed in the liberal dream of freedom, but realised I had to reinforce it with a red-hot streak of socialism If I were to make sense of a world where some are more free than others. There is something unsound about liberalism left to its own devices. The passion required to defend liberalism, to make its vision of the world a reality, strikes the liberal as somewhat suspect. The liberal’s natural stance is one of compromise and accommodation – that is sort of the point of it. But that undermines the liberal’s ability to muster the passion needed to defend the principle of liberalism itself.
Our political system is going through a similar period of angst. Representative democracy is steeped in liberalism. It is designed so that every individual is given a free and equal say in things. Its institutions are set up to allow different individuals, groups and interests to compete within a mutually accepted framework. It presumes that no one type of politics or ideology is better than any other, just that certain individuals and groups may be granted, by elections, temporary authority to make decisions on everyone’s behalf. And it guarantees the rights of individuals and minorities to be protected against the power of the majority. On paper it all works beautifully. In practice it is undermined at every turn, mainly by itself.
Liberalism may have provided the bedrock for moderate democratic politics, but it has also made us strangers to each other. The cult of the individual has manifested itself in all sorts of different ways: consumerism and free markets, but also sexual, religious and racial freedom. And throughout this period, individualism has underpinned the growing sense that democratic politics does not work. What we have gained in individual autonomy, we have lost in our ability to think collectively. Our inflated sense of ourselves makes the very idea of representation, of handing over power to someone else to make decisions on our behalf, harder to accept. We are used to seeing ourselves as empowered individuals, yet we find that in politics we are each a tiny voice in a cacophony. We never get what we want from democracy, yet we have forgotten how to work with others, to negotiate with opponents and to prioritise our goals so that we get at least some of what we want. In short, liberal individualism has made us unequipped for democratic politics.
Recognising this does not mean giving up on the liberal dream…. If we believe everyone should be free to be themselves, and that everyone should have political rights and representation, then we have to come to the defence of our moderate liberal democratic system. It isn’t easy, as the contortions of this essay demonstrate. But what is the alternative?