We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Post activist politics

I first noticed it in about 1975, or whatever was the year of the first referendum about what was then called the Common Market. (The one where they said that Nobody Is Suggesting Political Union.) And what I noticed was that party workers below the rank of Household Word had become superfluous to political requirements. The Yes campaigners and the No campaigners had duly assembled themselves and had begun to harass people in the street, but they were brushed aside, the way we now brush aside charity clipboarders. We already knew, from our TV sets, what the arguments were, and we did not need further interruption to our lives and daily routine when out shopping.

It is a commonplace that television has done terrible things to crime, by showing so much of it, and by emptying the streets of law-abiding, telly-owning citizens; and to education, by making it possible for children to be amused and diverted for hours on end without having to be literate. It would be very odd if television had not done equally deranging things to politics.

The usual way that the impact of television on politics is discussed is to talk about the way that the senior politicians now present themselves, more chattily and less like ship’s foghorns, with more charm and less Churchillian bellowing. That is all true as far as it goes, but there is also the destructive impact upon politics lower down the political food chain. Simply, as that referendum showed, party workers have become insignificant. Oh, they are still worth having. But they are no longer essential. They are like actors in provincial theatre companies.

In the old days of Churchillian bellowing, the top politicians were, then as now, the ones who did the important political communicating, but the machine they used to do this was run by the lesser mortals, the party workers, who organised the meetings, arranged the chairs and assembled the audiences. Remember those meetings? You probably do not remember them, because they died out a long, long time ago.

And once the party workers became superfluous, so their opinions started to count for less.

The Thatcher era disguised all this, because the Thatcher era was an era of extremism. But this was not because extremist party workers took over the parties. It was because the times were extreme. Britain faced an extreme crisis. It was about to turn into South America. This required extreme measures from an extreme government, like: the government only spending as much as it could get from taxation; like: shutting down industries that were losing a million quid a day; like: crushing the trade unions that would, uncrushed, have crushed the life out of the country. Extreme policies like that. But all this extremity was imposed by Mrs Thatcher, from the top. And she did all this in a rather Churchillian manner, despite all those elocution classes, which further interrupted the inevitable emergence of the new political world which we now inhabit. For twenty more years, politics remained a furious row between political partisans, some of whom said Britain should have more government than it could afford, and the others of whom said it should have less, with the softly centrist activists being being drowned out by the shouters. Ah, the good old days, when voting counted for something!

The reality underneath all this rowing was and is that the voters want something that few party workers of any persuasion want. The voters want as much government as the country can afford, no more, but no less. And, following Thatcher, this is what they have had, much to the disgust of the party workers.

But, who gives a toss what the party workers think? They are unnecessary. If the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader have something they want to say to the people of the country, they say it to the TV cameras. They do need to address any mass meetings. The activist classes, frankly, can go screw themselves. It is nice for a top politician when they agree with you, but if they do not, tough. What can they – we – do? Write angry letters to the newspapers? Rant away on our websites and blogs? Yawn.

Thus neutered, we activists leave the political parties free to fight their fights without us, uninfluenced by our opinions, which in practice means them all concentrating on marginal, decisive seats, and with tiny variations on that “as much government as we can afford” theme, with a bit more spending here and a bit less there, a few pennies on or off this or that tax. Extreme statements are carefully avoided, for fear of frightening that precious marginal, middle ground. The politicians raise their millions, and spend them on elaborate television commercials and giant posters that mere party workers have no hand in designing or displaying. Polling organisations measure the results, and ordain where more millions shall be spent, and on what further commercials and posters. Peter Oborne was on the telly last week moaning about all this, and he called it “post-democratic” politics. Tosh. The democratic process is rolling on triumphant. But it is post-activist politics, politics done only by politicians and their staffs, without the footsoldiers. It is different.

Despite perhaps being oversimplified, the above ruminations do, I think, make some sense both of the atmosphere of this present general election, and, in particular, of the extreme reluctance that we Samizdatistas have shown in posting stuff about it. We have had nothing to agree with, and nothing much even to disagree with, other than the usual stuff that we always disagree with. Nothing is being said during this campaign which makes us either particularly happy or particularly disgusted. Hence our relative silence on the subject. We, after all, are fully paid up members of the activist classes, and we do not matter any more. The political argument goes right past us now.

This posting complements the earlier one I did about voting decline. That was about what political activists used to do, but no longer do, for the people. This one has been about what they used to do, but no longer do, for the politicians. The activists now burn the candle, so to speak, at neither end.

Maybe one day, we activists will again count for something. Our now insignificant websites will, I personally believe, eventually add up to something very big indeed, and in the USA you/they can already feel this new world coming into being. But what that something will be for the rest of us, I will leave to future postings.

1 comment to Post activist politics

  • The thing is if parties have become ideology-free zones (that is what you’re getting at, yes?) why give money to one? Or, more to the point, who is going to fund them?