Here are some things politics is not.
Politics is not a religion – the leader you idolise is a graven image. Politics is not self-help – government is about changing society, not boosting your self-esteem. Politics is not a lifestyle statement – if you are seeking affirmation, try Oprah.
If these strike you as statements of the obvious, be aware that you are shuffling onto the wrong side of history. For day by day, politics is becoming an exercise in mass redemption and politicians more interested in saving your soul than saving your taxes.
Last week, a US politician inadvertently gave the game away while celebrating the defeat of Donald Trump’s proposed healthcare law. After outvoting the President, Chris Murphy, a Democrat senator from Connecticut, declared: ‘Last night proved, once again, that there is no anxiety or sadness or fear you feel right now that cannot be cured by political action.’
The lot of the American poor when it comes to healthcare is not just a market failure but a moral stain on one of the richest countries in the world. We must allow for the fact that this is a debate which provokes fierce passions.
Nevertheless, the senator’s statement is pernicious and should alarm anyone who believes in a free and ordered society. For what he describes is a total politics – all-encompassing, inescapable, the answer to every ailment that might befall you. This is not a politics for fixing potholes but for plugging spiritual gaps in your life.
Is that really so bad? Can’t politics be about solving social problems and making you feel good about yourself? It’s a pleasant thought but the truth is that political achievement and individual happiness are more often in competition than comity. Politics is a business of winners and losers; the millions you want spent on one good cause others wish to see dispensed to another.
When you allow your political party to define who you are its strategic setbacks become your personal failures. This is the very embittered identity politics which gave rise to Donald Trump and which in this country has coalesced around movements such as Scottish nationalism and Corbynism.
Adherents say ‘old politics’ has failed them and must be replaced with a new way of doing things. There is a good deal of truth to this part at least. Politicians have grown too distant from those they claim to represent and the spoils of capitalism, which government is supposed to ensure are divvied up more equitably, seem to accrue only to the super-rich.
But instead of proposing greater fairness or more accountability in politics, the identity-pushers say we need more politics, just the right sort of politics.
In the days following September 18, 2014, the SNP’s membership rolls were flooded by 100,000 fresh names, many of them new to politics altogether. These desperate souls were still in the shell shock of defeat. They had not been convinced so much as converted during the referendum and because nationalism was now bound up in their personal identity they took the Yes campaign’s loss as a personal bereavement.
The Nationalists grasped this early on and repackaged themselves as a therapy group of sorts. Members were sold personalised Sturgeon sweatshirts and giant foam fingers declaring ‘I’m with Nicola’. A booth was set up at party conference where members could pose for pictures holding up a sign that read ‘See me, I’m SNP’ and everything from tote bags to golf balls were made available with the branding ‘Scottish N Proud’. In scenes reminiscent of Billy Graham’s 1955 Scottish ‘crusades’, thousands flocked to concert halls across the country to hear Nicola Sturgeon preach the second coming of independence.
The movement around Jeremy Corbyn is replicating many of these tactics. It offers up the Islington North MP as a secular messiah, the only man who can redeem our fallen political system. The slogans are slicker and the T-shirts hipper but the conflation of party and personal identity is the same. To believe in Corbyn is to believe in a better world and to doubt him is to be cruel and callous and a defender of the status quo. Politics is supposed to be about making people’s lives easier but this is a platform for making politics people’s lives.
Overlooked in all this happy-claptrap is whether the ‘new politics’ actually works. Mr Trump has achieved little except providing endless material for late-night satirists. The SNP has spent ten years in government with not much to show for it. If Mr Corbyn makes it to No 10, now a troubling possibility, the outcome will be much the same.
Why are these ‘radical’, ‘anti-establishment’ movements so torpid and timid? You might assume this is because they feed on grievance – resolve the grievance and those who exploit it become surplus to requirements. That is only part of it, though. The fatal flaw in identity politics, what makes it a dead-end if you want to get things done and not just get them talked about, is that each of us has our own identity. When the personal becomes political, politics grinds to a halt. We all want different things and no politician can deliver to everyone’s satisfaction.
Whether it’s independence or equality or national rebirth, we are destined to be disappointed if we believe any leader can achieve our personal vision on a grand scale. What we really need is a healthy dose of humility. We all have problems, we all encounter injustices but they can only be solved by working together.
A friend who helps out at Glasgow South West Foodbank tells me they desperately need funds or they might have to close before Christmas, the worst time of year for families who have nowhere else to turn. If you want to make politics about who you are and what matters to you personally, make it about community and neighbourly work like that.
Political saviours will only let you down.
A Sunday newspaper reports that the SNP is launching a new drive. Is it (A) health, (B) education, (C) the Vauxhall Corsa, or (D) independence?
The answer is D. Of course it is. Nicola Sturgeon, pictured, is obsessed with independence. The constitution should take out a restraining order against her.
The latest wheeze is to rebrand separation as a ‘Left-wing’ alternative to the Tories – because nothing says socialism like cutting £15billion from schools and hospitals. There are Scooby-Doo villains with less harebrained schemes.
It’s five years since the SNP rolled out the Yes campaign. For five years breaking up Britain has been Miss Sturgeon’s goal on waking in the morning and what she dreamed of at night. I think she needs a hobby: jigsaws, roller-skating, Scottish country dancing.
Or, I’m just throwing this out there, she could try running the country for a bit.
A giant portrait of Jeremy Corbyn has recently been unveiled on the side of a pub in Islington. Critics say this points to a Soviet-style personality cult developing around the Labour leader. Given Mr Corbyn’s long-standing support for the IRA, however, I’m just surprised that the enormous mural has appeared in London and not Belfast.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Have your say on the issues raised here by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering to reference the column. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.