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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June, 2005, 08:49 GMT 09:49 UK
A Point of View

By Brian Walden

In his weekly opinion column, Brian Walden considers spin and how it has resulted in politicians losing control of the democratic agenda.

I never like it when I have to admit to myself that something important has changed forever. I'm at ease with the cosy and familiar. But events sometimes force us to say publicly what we've suspected privately for a long time.

The British general election and the French and Dutch referendum results make one thing glaringly obvious. Politicians have lost control of the democratic agenda. The people no longer pay much attention to them. What's worse, politicians don't command respect.

You may rightly think that I've been very slow to come to an obvious conclusion. But I've clung to the hope that democratic politicians would maintain some prestige because I dread the alternatives.

French woman
Uncertainty lies ahead for Europe

I've encountered politicians who, however self-confident, have understood how vital it was that politicians should command at least a measure of popularity. I once heard Nye Bevan tell a group of left-wing Oxford undergraduates: "Look, without democracy we've got nothing. Once we're not listened to we're finished."

I don't relish the present political decline and though I want to be frank about it, I don't want to magnify it. I dislike hype, because of the harm it does. The constant striving to exaggerate every problem in order to capture the public's attention runs counter to the need to give people some reassurance, because we all need some stability in our lives.

So let's be clear: the democracies of Europe aren't about to collapse because the citizens don't esteem their politicians. Nevertheless, the contemporary suspicion of political authority is so strong as to be profoundly unhealthy. Eventually it will produce dangerous tensions unless something is done about it.

Of course no matter how serious an issue may be, there's nearly always some humour in it. I can see the amusing nature of politicians being shoved aside so that the public has more time to hear the political wisdom of footballers, pop stars and soap opera celebrities.

'Dangerous tensions'

There was a deputy leader of the Labour Party 40-odd years ago called George Brown, who became foreign secretary. When somebody said something he didn't like, he announced: "I shall treat that with a total ignoral."

These days George would be treated with something close to a total ignoral himself. Politicians cut no ice with people today. It's the stars who are well-known for singing, dancing, scoring goals and trying to do good, who get the attention. They've taken all the chairs the politicians used to sit on.

In Britain there has never been less interest in politicians. A handful of ministers are recognised, a couple of Tories and Charles Kennedy - and that's about it. In France rather more names would be known, but there politicians are even more unpopular. President Chirac has a 24% popularity rating, the lowest since polls began.

Naturally one laughs to see all these self-important big-wigs, like Chirac, less trusted than entertainers and footballers. But my laughter is a little hollow.

At least in Britain at the top of politics the penny has dropped. My thoughts on the subject have been stirred, not by those who have no patience with politics and have always despised politicians, but by the recent comments of senior politicians themselves.

Some of the Conservative Party's liveliest young MPs and supporters have been writing about how to rejuvenate their party. What is refreshing is their candid admission that politicians are neither liked nor believed. They state bluntly that Conservatives are hated in many quarters and must face this unpalatable truth.

Just as I was thinking how defeat concentrates the mind, I read at the start of this week an equally frank view from one of the victorious side in our recent general election. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, described a revealing conversation with her bin men. It ran like this: "Hang on a minute aren't you that Tessa Jowell, works for Tony Blair? Your government is just for prats you know, not for real people, not for us."

I don't see how testimony like this can be brushed aside. The Americans used to have a wonderful phrase about those just elected. They said such legislators were "fresh from the people". Well our brightest and best who are fresh from the people seem united in believing that something has gone badly wrong.

Relentless

Obviously the central question is why the public is reacting in this way and whether anything can be done about it? Tessa Jowell has no doubt where the blame lies. She says: "People are fed up with spin and it's spin that makes them fed up with politicians and politics."

I'm sure that's true, but I think the problem goes wider and deeper. After all there's nothing mysterious or uniquely modern about spin. It means putting a favourable slant on a news story and it's been going on since Julius Caesar was bribing the voters in ancient Rome. But I'll tell you what is new, its systematic relentlessness - that's new. This organised, disciplined, universal spinning has gradually destroyed many politicians hold on reality.

The classic illustration of the mindset produced by an endless diet of spin has been the bewilderment of some European politicians at the results of the French and Dutch referendums. Poor Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg presiding over the EU Council of Ministers, has become so enmeshed in spin that he literally can't accept that it is possible that the vote can go against his expectations. When told the result he responded that the voters must be asked to vote again "until they get it right".

Some spin doctors, and even some of the media, have gloried in the skills of manipulation used by cold professionals who've got no time to waste on sentiment

Spin is denounced because it distorts the truth. But it has another consequence that's less noticed, but just as important. It forces modern politicians to become, in part, actors.

They have no factual record they can rely upon, they've spun it away - and they daren't unspin and say: "Sorry, I exaggerated in my earlier accounts, let me now give you a more accurate picture." That would be political suicide.

So the politician has to act out a role in a story. And, since everybody is spinning, there has to be somebody who acts as a co-ordinator so the yarn isn't riddled with blatant contradictions. This person is a playwright, who coaches everybody to speak their lines properly. This play isn't pure invention. There's much of the truth in it, but it's a play. It isn't history.

I suspect that Tessa Jowell's dustmen, like the majority of voters, don't bother with all these niceties. The response most frequently made on the doorsteps at the last election was "I don't believe a word any of you say". Now there was no golden age when politicians were particularly popular. But there are limits to how much cynicism and contempt any system can bear indefinitely. Public life is despised. so who will want to go in to it if that doesn't change?

Jeered

Such concerns have been rather jeered at in recent years. Some spin doctors, and even some of the media, have gloried in the skills of manipulation used by cold professionals who've got no time to waste on sentiment. But the last election shocked the leaders and every party now promises to reach out to the voters.

If politicians are going to make an attempt to recapture trust, may I make a suggestion? Be bold and tell people how difficult it is to govern well. Nothing demonstrates a greater contempt for people's intelligence than to tell them that you expect pretty quickly to solve the transport problem, wars in the Middle East, crop failures in South America and illiteracy in the inner city - and all of it would have been settled years ago if it weren't for the incompetence of the other lot.

Why not say that government is much more complicated than business, or medicine, or the armed forces and that you expect to fail more often than you succeed. Remind us of Abraham Lincoln's words. He said: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me." As Lincoln understood: all you can truly promise is to do your best.


I agree, politicians have lost sight of the democratic agenda. It seems to me that we have modulated somehow into a "government knows best" era regardless of the will of the people. It is a sad consequence of the huge majorities Labour have had that they have used it to push their agenda through and frankly abuse the trust of the electorate. If government proposes changes the people don't like, it is their duty to sell it to us and explain their reasoning, a process distinct from spin. We are an intelligent and well informed nation, and if we still don't like an idea having listened to all sides, democracy must prevail and a compromise found, not just ploughed through on the back of a majority. Nobody said politics was easy, least of all democracy as a system. But I haven't seen a huge amount of democracy at work in our government recently. Its most disconcerting.
Amanda, Middlesbrough, UK

I wrote to Tessa Jowell, my local MP, to ask how she would be voting in the forthcoming "ID Card Bill". I asked her how she felt ID cards would benefit this country, and she failed to answer. In her (clearly form) letter she responded that as ID Cards had been on the electoral manifesto for Labour, she would be voting for them - an ugly piece of circular logic that has no grounding in political philosophy or belief. I couldn't believe the Jowell piece when I read it. It has become abundantly clear that even when politicians turn around and say "enough spin! We're going to be more honest with our constituents, we're going to listen," this turns out to be yet more spin and dishonesty.
Simon Scott, United Kingdom

Governments have dug themselves into this current situation. From suggestions to "bury bad news" on September 11th to Saddam Hussein's WMDs that could be launched in 45 minutes. Putting a favourable spin on news is one thing but resorting to outright lies is another. Tony Blair tried to trick the public into war in Iraq and then forced it through parliament in the face of massive public opposition. He may be the worst offender but I doubt he is the only one. Politicians have no one to blame but themselves for the current atmosphere of political apathy.
Matt, UK

Is the current unpopularity of politicians without reason? I don't think so. I'd say that whilst they are passing legislation under a party whip such as the anti-terror legislation, the mental capacity bill and the forthcoming bill on inciting religious hatred, they should realise that these laws will alienate them from the people they are elected to represent. The party whip has been also used so many times for issues of morality that it undermines the existence of the whole party system. What we really want is local representation, where our local MP represents our interests. Once they are lost in a party machine they become remote and this is why we dislike them.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

We are too used to the concept of progress. Back in 1945 the incoming government made reforms that changed ordinary people's lives, more than any government has managed since. Today it is unthinkable that a government could make such reforms. In fact today we have to manage insoluble problems; climate change, pollution, terrorism, social disorder. We have to come to terms with the fact that progress is over, and the best the politicians can do today is slow down the rate at which things get worse. When politicians lack vision, then it is not surprising people lose interest. However losing interest is part of the vicious circle in which things will continue to get worse.
Geoff Payne, England

I totally agree, the inability of a politician to answer ANY question truthfully and without evasion irritates me to the point of apoplexy. I usually end up turning off TV interviews in disgust. I'm surprised old Jeremy Paxman hasn't had a breakdown by now... Politicians have to be prepared to honestly admit mistakes, and the media have to be prepared to give them a break when they do... The egomania has gone too far...
Phil Symons, U.K.

At last, someone who understands exactly how it feels to have been in the electorate for the last 8 years. It's such a shame that I had to leave my country of birth to get away from it. If the UK is ever governed honestly again then perhaps one day .....no, forget it.
Simon, Channel Islands

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