Monday, 27 April 2015

In Praise of Idiots Redux

Michael White, that most Guardianista of Guardianistas, has had a pop at the electorate:

But millions more, not just the poor and demoralised, will forget, shrug or even boast “I never vote” before turning back to something that seems more important: football, golf, Spotify, Britain’s Got Talent. They don’t bother to engage, let alone to make the connections between what happens to them and the difficult policy choices that bring it about, good or bad.

This, in the intense minority sport of being a Guardian reader is a terrible sin. Only topped by thinking The Sun is a rather better written newspaper and certainly a better read. The electorate shouldn't be going about their lives as normal (or as normal as us politicians allow them to live). No those electors should be "engaged".

I beg to differ. Indeed back in 2009 I wrote this piece in praise of idiots (the word deriving from those ancient Athenians who chose not to engage in politics):

Now the good left-wing liberals at the Guardian think this grumpiness, this disengagement, this disinterest is a problem. And that’s where I disagree – the core consideration is the extent to which we are able to live as Greek idiots. Quietly, privately, without bothering our neighbours with our problems – and when such people want change they will get up from their armchairs, walk away from the telly and vote. The idea that not being bothered with voting most of the time makes them bad people is a misplaced idea – they are the good folk.

Above all we should listen quietly to what this “apathy” calls for – it is less bothersome, less interfering, less hectoring and more effective government. Such people want government to be conducted at their level not to be the province of pompous politicians with overblown and lying rhetoric. And they want the language of common sense, freedom, liberty and choice to push away the elitist exclusivity of modern bureaucratic government.

Above all today’s idiots want to be left alone to live their lives as they choose. For me that’s the essence of politics – I praise these idiots and applaud their apathy. 

And yes, I do think people should vote. Yes I think people should take the trouble to understand what's being offered to them by politicians. But I also think this obsession with 'engagement' and 'participation' is misplaced - if people want to be engaged they will get out from those armchairs. A year or so before I wrote that piece, over 400 residents of Denholme had crammed themselves into the Blue Room of the Mechanics Institute. They did this because something was happening that mattered to them - Bradford Council working with developers was planning to dump the city's rubbish in a hole just outside the village. They didn't want this to happen (and it didn't).

The wealthier we get - collectively and individually - the less important politics becomes and the more important it is that politicians are humble enough to recognise this fact. When we consider something to be fundamental or existential then we are engaged - look at the turnouts in the Scottish referendum last year. But even though this current election is unusual and hard to call (as the pundits put it), the result will be a government. And that government will change some things and tinker with other things but for most people the worst outcome will be mild irritation. There'll still be a school down the road, a hospital in the city and policemen driving around. Buses and trains will still run. The supermarket will still be open.

There's an image in Asterix in Britain of an Ancient Briton stood on his (prized) lawn with a spear pointed at the Roman soldier. "My garden is smaller than your Rome but my pilum is harder than your sternum" says the Briton as the soldier orders him out of the way. Until that tipping point is reached, people - in the tradition of those Greek idiots - will look to family, friends, colleagues and neighbours long before they consider politicians and the antics we get up to.

Here's to those idiots. And Down with The Guardian.


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