The personal and the political

On the magnetic board above my desk, I have a column written by Caitlin Moran at the end of 2013, about “beliefs”. (I’ll link it here, but it’s behind the Times paywall. Yes, I pay for it – I like the writers and as an aspiring writer myself*, I believe we should pay for content. Anyway, as you were.)

I re-read this column a lot – even though she’s written far more emotion-driven, evocative pieces, this is the one I go back to, time and time again. It’s a perfect example of a writer pointing out something that is so simple and obvious that when I first read it, I remember thinking “Oh God, yes! That is exactly the problem! How do we not see it?”

I’ll quote some of it for context, otherwise whatever I go on to say will make even less sense than usual:

‘But always, these revolutions – however many buildings burn, economies tank and people die during them – begin with a simple, ancient problem: two, or more, bunches of people who think they’re right, arguing it out. Heat and shouting. Tribal loyalties. Your vote inherited from your father and your father’s father (“We are of the left”; “The only way is right”). People bellowing, fists clenched, for decades at a time, over what they believe…’

‘The system is no different across so many countries: it’s basically people arguing that they’re right, against other people who also believe they’re right. This is how nations run things. On… feelings.’

…what we need to do is stop talking about our political feelings and beliefs, like teenage girls on a sleepover, and find out, once and for all, what actually works.’

‘…we “buy” our prime ministers and presidents and chancellors with less research and care than we buy an iPhone… I know which smartphone operating systems are most likely to work. I do not know which systems of economy or education or healthcare are. No one does. We all still vote, however.’

I didn’t watch the leaders’ debate on Thursday, because I had tickets to see Dylan Moran and I knew exactly where I’d be on the receiving end of more wisdom. I did watch Coalition this week – the Channel 4 drama about the aftermath of the general election in 2010, and “drama” though it was, the main thing I took from it was “Jesus, how is it that in 2015, we are still relying on a small group of middle/upper-class white men in suits, who all know each other from school, to do the nation’s admin?”

How are we still at this point?! Is it not staggering that the last time we had a Chancellor of the Exchequer who’d actually studied Economics – which should surely be a minimum sodding requirement for that job – was in 1993? It’s just… odd.  Strange that we’ve not made it past party politics yet. Bizarre that the people who know the systems – education, healthcare, legal – and who’ve worked in them for years, are not the people running them. A committee of headteachers – with decades of combined experience behind them – running our education system seems a much better fit than a lawyer, or a journalist. A group of experienced GPs, surgeons, nurses and psychiatrists consulting on how to run the NHS must surely be a better idea than getting a man who once failed to export marmalade to Japan to do it. A team of economists – from different schools of economic thought – hashing out how best to balance the books must be better than anyone we’ve had for the last 20-something years.

The popularity contest element doesn’t help – journalists become ringmasters of the media circus surrounding general elections, asking useless things like: who do you like more? Who would you have a pint with? Who would you trust to babysit your toddler? It doesn’t matter. I would definitely have a pint with Boris Johnson, but I run screaming from the idea of him running the country. (He’s going to have a bash at some point, I’m sure, and people you consider to be halfway-sensible will be taken in by his ruffle-able hair and clueless-posh-boy shtick.)

I can’t remember who I was talking to about ‘never ever voting Conservative ever’ – it could have been any number of people – but they said “all right, but can you really see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister?” As if I’d suggested Ross Kemp, or Keith Richards. I imagine – or hope – my reply was a rather shrill “yes, I can actually! Because all that matters is what Labour’s policies are and whether they actually deliver, not whether Ed Miliband can look dignified while being photographed eating a sandwich. No-one looks dignified mid-mouthful – you should see me eat a pear. I go at it like a hungry spaniel.”

It’s no good sitting back with a sigh and going “yes, it’s all very well talking about committees and things, but that’s never going to happen, is it?” Change will come, I’m sure. I don’t know when, but I don’t think it’s that far off – we will realise that we need more than what we’ve got. We need a better system. One that doesn’t rely on inherited ‘beliefs’, foggy and instinctive; one that doesn’t guarantee that those who are elected to lead are simply the smoothest speechmakers, the soundbite sweethearts, the photogenic buffoons. Maybe it will only be a matter of years, maybe it will be decades – but we will look back, one day, and wonder why it took us so long to ask for more.

*It’s rather depressing to still be describing oneself as an “aspiring” anything at the age of 25. Blargh. 

On the Bambi bookshelf…*


*I’m trying to think of a name for this bit, seeing as I’m working on actually fulfilling one of my new year’s resolutions, which was to read more. Suggestions less twee than this are more than welcome.

 Having finished Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things – and I remain in awe of her prose skills and slightly irritated by her lack of facts and figures, I’ve moved on to the equally breezy and uplifting Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. It’s not the ideal choice for a migraine-suffering, anxious hypochondriac, especially since the first two chapters are about aneurysms and brain tumours respectively, but it’s edge-of-your-seat reading. Marsh is unflinchingly honest about his work – he doesn’t shy away from admitting to mistakes and moments of arrogance, and he knows how to make the most of his subject matter.

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