What do the following five political exchanges have in common?
Secretary of State, with hindsight, do you think the government underestimated the pandemic threat, and should have closed the border, and locked down earlier?”
“The government is doing everything in its power to protect the health of our people, our fantastic NHS, and the economy of the nation, through the successful roll-out of our world-leading vaccination programme going forward.”
“The Prime Minister surely had a point when he remarked that Mrs Thatcher, who was warning of the dangers of globing warming 35 years ago, was ahead of her time when she closed down the mines.”
“For the Prime Minister to traipse north of the border, and make light of Mrs Thatcher’s decimation of Scotland’s heavy industry, demonstrates an abominable and unpardonable lack of either judgment or sensitivity.”
“Would the Prime Minister agree with me that the SNP’s carping over the cost of the upgrade to the Continuous-At-Sea-Deterrent is akin to a eunuch quibbling over the cost of Viagra?”
“Police Scotland have been explicit that it is only legal to ride an e-scooter on private land, so when the First Minister tried one out while campaigning in Troon, she was clearly breaking the law. Officers have had to spend a significant amount of time dealing with her silly stunt.”
“It is common sense not to take action against the First Minister.”
“Any Foreign Secretary who continues to sip piña colada, poolside on Crete, and refuses to speak to his Afghan counterpart, while we continue to witness the terrible scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport, has to consider his position.”
“The Foreign Secretary has my full support. And I am not going to take lectures from an opposition party whose multifaceted mismanagement of foreign policy while in government has more than contributed to the crisis we now face.”
Would you consider these interchanges to be, in their way, unremarkable, or are they strange? In the first example, it is evident that the cabinet minister’s response to the BBC reporter, concerning the government’s management of the pandemic, is a non-sequitur. In the second example, concerning Mrs T. as environmentalist, a member of an opposition party purports to be offended by an allegedly insensitive remark by the PM. But nobody seriously believes that the opposition member has been traumatised by the remark, which he clearly perceives as posing more of an opportunity than a threat. This is a classic example of “humbug”. The outrage is sham outrage. The third exchange, comparing Trident to a treatment for erectile dysfunction, is an extract from Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster. The question is a “plant” from the government back benches. It is not a sincere enquiry; indeed it is hardly a question at all. All that is required in response is acquiescence. The point of the plant is not to receive an answer, but merely to pour contumely upon an opposition party. It’s a gag. It doesn’t matter that it is clumsy and distasteful, so long as it is contemptuous. In the fourth example, the First Minister of Scotland is taken to task for breaking the law. But the complainant doesn’t seriously expect Police Scotland to place the First Minister under arrest. The opposition member knows his complaint is both trivial and vexatious, and he can hardly be surprised when Police Scotland shuts the matter down. Again, the outrage is faux-outrage. In the last exchange, concerning the evacuation from Kabul, the terrible scenes at the airport are of only marginal relevance to the business of getting the Foreign Secretary the sack. The response is an example of the polemical technique of “whataboutery”, the tu quoque logical fallacy or argument ad hominem, characterising the opposition as the pot calling the kettle black. Neither question nor response is going to improve the situation at Kabul. Both are entirely devoid of a creative idea to enhance an evacuation. Something akin to Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk, is entirely lacking.
What is the meaning of this elaborate gavotte? Are our politicians aware of the fact that they inhabit a surreal world of humbug? In his tract On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005) – the author uses the starker term – Professor Harry G. Frankfurt asks why there is so much of the stuff around. What is the origin of humbug? Why does it survive and flourish? Does humbug have any adaptive value?
The origin of humbug lies in the whip. The whip is the machinery that maintains a political party’s internal discipline. The government has a chief whip, sundry assistant whips, and there is a whips’ Office. Traditionally, the whip is seen as a powerful, intimidating and Machiavellian figure, simultaneously charming and obnoxious, and occasionally utterly terrifying – Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart in the television drama House of Cards. Gavin Williamson, when he was chief whip, captured this sense of the steel fist within the velvet glove when he chose to have on his desk Cronus, a tarantula, as his amanuensis. It’s the sort of accoutrement a Bond villain might have favoured, stroking one of Cronus’s eight limbs. “Ah, Mr Bond, an unexpected pleasure…”
The whip’s office is shadowed by a similar apparatus within the opposition parties. Given that government and opposition parties are by nature constantly at loggerheads, you might expect there to be little cooperation between the whips’ offices, but in fact there is considerable cross-party collaboration, through what are known as “the usual channels”, simply in order to stop parliamentary business from descending into chaos. Thus, for example, there is the practice of “pairing”, when an MP unable to attend for a vote will pair with an opposition member, who will abstain in order to maintain the parity that would have existed had both MPs been present to vote.
The whip can be exerted with varying degrees of ferocity. Obedience to a “three-line” whip is absolutely mandatory; the issue in question is underlined three times on the parliamentary order paper. To defy a three-line whip is a misdemeanour that puts the perpetrator beyond the pale. A minister who defies a three-line whip is expected to resign. Paradoxically, a member who rebels in this way is not actually whipped; on the contrary, the whip is withdrawn. The rebel’s suffering ceases, and he enters an anodyne, twilit zone, after the fashion of a concentration camp inmate who ceases to barter what pitiful baubles he may possess, and starts to smoke his own cigarettes. Thus, the member is cast into outer darkness.
Not all issues are whipped. Members are free to vote as they choose, on “issues of conscience”. Examples of issues of conscience might be, from one end of life, the legalisation of termination of pregnancy, and from the other, assisted dying, or even – heaven forfend it should ever reappear on the order paper – capital punishment. The existence of an “issue of conscience” begs the question: over what sort of issue might a member conclude, “I don’t have to worry my conscience about that!”?
So you vote through a bill for which you have no enthusiasm, presumably, because the overall direction in which the government is moving is to your taste. No doubt the first time you do it is the most difficult. You pass through the “aye” lobby, virtually unnoticed. It is a banal excursion, like a walk in the park. You resume your position on the green benches, perhaps with a sense of relief, unaware that you have just pawned your soul. That wasn’t so hard! The ayes have it. Unlock!
The corollary to the reality of the whip is “the surreality of humbug”. The government is compelled by the exigencies of realpolitik to push through a measure that is deeply unpalatable to the electorate. A thick-skinned political elder statesman is wheeled out in front of the TV cameras, a heavyweight and a big bruiser, a party grandee who is capable of expounding what he and everybody else knows to be humbug, all the while keeping a straight face and a steady voice suffused with gravitas, “his lips dripping” – as Dr King said of the Governor of Alabama – “with the words of interposition and nullification”.
“Prime Minister, did you make clear to the President your frustration at his refusal to extend the deadline for withdrawal of troops from Kabul?”
“Let’s be clear, the immediate phase of the evacuation has actually been a very considerable success by the military.”
Once you have identified humbug as the currency of political discourse, you might feel tempted to enjoy it for its comic value, much as you might enjoy a satirical game show on radio or TV. You tune into Any Questions or Question Time as you might tune into Mock the Week or Have I got News for You, not to find out what’s going on in the world, but for a good laugh. This is dangerous. It means you have moved beyond the realm of cynicism into a fey state of irresponsible indifference, puerile, bordering on madness.
I guess the acquiescence to the whip is a gradual and insidious process. After all, it’s your career; and you have mouths to feed and school fees to pay. You need to progress. Yet what shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? When you lend your support to some cause you do not believe in, when you express an emotion which you don’t actually feel, when you aver that something which you perceive to be black is actually white, you sacrifice your humanity. Once the process is complete, you have lost touch with reality. You have become, through and through, a party man. You, yourself, are the embodiment of self-deception. You are humbug.
Once you recognise that the origin of humbug is the whip, then you see the entire structure of our political institutions collapse like a house of cards. No whips: no parties. Would that be propitious? Careful what you wish for. It is the most natural thing in the world for a group of people, in pursuit of a common goal, to organise. It is well recognised that totalitarian regimes hate political parties (apart from their own), just as much as they hate trade unions, and seek to outlaw them. Once in power, they push through parliament an “Enabling Act”, necessary “because of the supreme national existential crisis we now face”, banning all opposition. So, long live political parties! Yet how refreshing it would be to hear an exchange like this:
“Your Prime Minister fouled up, didn’t he?”
Only the truth will make you free. Even, perhaps especially, if you get your jotters. This is the final corollary to the exposé of humbug. No whips – no parties. No parties – no politicians. At least, no professional politicians. Why not elect members of parliament the way we might elect a committee to run a golf club, or a kirk session, or an amateur orchestra? Elect, for one term only, men and women of independent mind. Typically this might be a person from any walk of life – doctor, lawyer, clergyman, entrepreneur, nurse, shopkeeper, teacher, plumber, carer, refuse collector – somebody from the real world, perhaps entering the sixth or seventh decade of life, effective, humane, experienced, and wise, looking for a change of direction, a person who might be persuaded, albeit reluctantly but out of a sense of civic duty, to stand, once, for parliament. The lure of re-election would no longer be an enticement. Every vote would be a conscience vote.
“Absurd!” I hear the professional politicians say. “Hand the country over to a bunch of amateurs? How could they possibly cope with the complexities of high finance, jurisprudence, international diplomacy, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune referred to by Mr Macmillan as ‘Events, dear boy’? They would be found wanting at every turn.”
No change there, then.
One thing the “bunch of amateurs” would have which the current incumbents lack, is a sense of humility. They would create a government by recognising individual talent within their midst. The Ministers of Defence, Health, and Education (as examples), would ask the leaders of the armed forces, the doctors and nurses, and the teachers what they needed, and not tell them how to do their jobs. Most of all, they would do that which the liberal democracies of the western world have been unable to do since the end of the Second World War. They would bury the ancient hatchets of tribal affiliation and declare a truce, nay an armistice, in the endless political parties’ internecine warfare. They would not have to “reach across the aisle” because the aisle would no longer exist.