BT somehow managed to destroy my phone line on Thursday night/ Friday morning, so this post is coming to you rather later than planned. I still don’t have a dial tone, but I have my net connection back. Hurrah! It felt like I’d had a leg cut off. Or at least a metaphorical leg. There wasn’t actual blood, or anything icky like that…..
Anyway, as everyone in the entire world knows by now, David Davies has resigned from the Conservative front bench and from his parliamentary seat in order to fight a by-election on the issue of 42 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects. In his announcement, he said he was doing so because he wanted to make a stand about the erosion of “British liberties” by the Labour government. In the immediate aftermath the BBC website seems to have produced two main commentary pieces on the issue, one by Nick Robinson, and another by a political correspondent, Jo Coburn. The original piece by Nick Robinson (who has responded to criticisms of his initial entry here) focuses, as many of his blog posts do, on the backstage shenanigans that may or may not have accompanied the event. Jo Coburn’s aim is to discuss what David Davies’ motives may have been.
The thing that strikes me about the coverage is that, in amongst all the speculation as to whether David Davies and David Cameron don’t like each other, or whether David D was losing influence in the shadow cabinet and hit on this strategy as a way of refreshing his personal profile, there’s very little attention given to the possibility that he had no ulterior motive for his actions, and that he genuinely did resign on a point of principle.
Despite the people who are complaining about BBC bias against the Conservatives, I don’t think this is a party political issue. In fact, I think a government front-bencher resigning on this issue could expect to be accused of undertaking a move designed to bolster backbench and grassroots support ahead of a bid for the leadership of the Labour party. What I think this does demonstrate is the extent to which we’ve crossed the line from healthy scepticism into unhealthy cynicism. This isn’t an original point. Lots of people have made it before me, but I think the un-checked spread of cynicism is doing enormous damage in all areas of life, not just in politics.
Look at the evidence. All Incapacity Benefit claimants are routinely suspected of fraud. Every asylum seeker is routinely believed to be lying about their experiences. All Muslims are routinely assumed to be hell-bent on destroying “our” way of life. Just about the only thing that the directors of Shell and their striking tanker drivers have in common is that everyone assumes that both groups are only interested in feathering their own nests at the expense of everyone else. (A spokesman for petrol retailers says pretty much exactly this during this programme.) And all politicians are assumed to be liars and cheats, capable of saying or doing anything in order to get their grubby little hands on power, or money, or fame.
I know some people reading this may be getting ready to criticise me as some sort of hippy-dippy, naïve idealist. I’m not. Of course, some benefit claimants lie, and some asylum seekers are really just economic migrants, and so on for each of the examples above. I wouldn’t for a minute deny it. What I object to is the way in which we increasingly seem to believe that everyone is guilty of something, that everyone is lying, that everyone is on the make.
I don’t want to sound too precious here, but I think this is doing enormous damage to the fabric of society. Pretty much every human relationship is built on trust. I think we’d all agree that a relationship where both partners think the other is cheating is unlikely to be successful, but the same thing applies to the looser relationships between members of the same society. If we, as members of a society, don’t trust each other, then we’re unlikely to be successful either.
I’m not, by and large, a believer in psycho-social models of depression. I don’t think I’m depressed because my parents made some horrendous mistake when they brought me up. I don’t think I’m depressed because I’m relentlessly pursuing material goods at the expense of human relationships. But I do think the much-reported drop in happiness between 1957 and 2005 (which would fall into the sub-clinical category, for the most part) might have something to do with the breakdown of social trust. I’m making a bit of a habit of quoting Bill Bryson, but he wrote something that I think is relevant here:
‘There used to be a kind of unspoken nobility about living in Britain. Just by existing, by going to work and paying your taxes, catching the occasional bus and being a generally decent if unexceptional soul, you felt as if you were contributing in some small way to the maintenance of a noble enterprise – a generally compassionate and well-meaning society’
Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island, p. 253.
I think historically there are a few reasons for this breakdown of trust. It would be a mistake to blame any one individual or political party too far, but it didn’t help when it was reported in 1987 that Margaret Thatcher believed that, “you know, there’s no such thing as society“. In the same interview she emphasised the importance of looking after “our neighbours”, so the comment is not as baldly uncaring as it’s usually taken to be, but it did seem to reflect a widespread view at the time. The pitched battles that we saw during Mrs Thatcher’s time in power – the inner-city riots of the early 80s, the miners’ strike, the poll tax riots in the early 90s – reinforced the idea of a society at war with itself. The contrast between the desperate poverty in the North and the conspicuous consumption in the Southeast made it easier to believe that Mrs Thatcher was governing in the best interests of a few people, but at the expense of many others.
It may be a function of my age (I did most of my coming to political consciousness while Margaret Thatcher was prime minister) that I identify the 1980s as the point at which society started to fracture. The seeds were possibly sown a lot earlier, but I think there’s no doubt that by the end of Mrs T’s premiership the broad social consensus that had fought the second world war, and created the NHS and the Welfare state, was in serious danger of breaking down. The outright social warfare of the 80s has faded since then, but I think the pre-existing cracks have been worked at and widened by the kind of cynicism that seems to be everywhere these days.
The tragedy is that this galloping cynicism isn’t, for the most part, justified. Most people aren’t on the make. Most people are still, to quote Bill Bryson again, “generally decent”. I think that applies whether the people concerned are politicians, or journalists, or company directors, or trade unionists, or whoever.
I don’t have any ready answers for why we’re all so cynical. I think quite a lot of people would argue that it’s a result of the Iraq war, and the way the case for war was made by the government. But it’s striking that, even though plenty of Americans feel they were lied to in the same way, they don’t have the same kind of desperate cynicism about all politicians that we seem to have. The outpouring of support for Barack Obama as the “new Kennedy” seems to reflect that.
On the other hand, I know many British politicians would argue that they have to “spin” everything because it’s the only way they can overcome the cynicism of the media. Equally, the media would argue that they are only reflecting the cynicism of their readers and viewers, and that their audiences are cynical because politicians spin. It’s hard to blame either side without resorting to cynicism myself – do I write “journalists will write anything to sell newspapers”, or do I write “politicians will say anything to get votes”?
Still, the one thing I am certain of is that this kind of unceasing, unnecessary cynicism is making everything worse. If we could only train ourselves to think the best of people then, yes, sometimes we’d wind up being disappointed and taken advantage of, but we’d break this endless cycle of distrust that’s making us all so stressed, and angry, and unhappy.