The fault lies in ourselves, not just the politicians

Slagging off politicians is so often the default of Slugger comment, sometimes  down to  the level of that useful word “trolling,”   which  for me recalls the fate of the troll in “ The three billy goats gruff,” when the troll richly  deserves to  get crushed to bits. It ought to occur to people by now that life demands a bit more than a bilious attack, a rant or a sprint down a favourite cul de sac.

Hand on heart  I  sympathise  with  politicians as a class  after nearly  half a century of acquaintance  at all levels with quite a few of them  in London, Belfast and Dublin. I would guess that meaningful access to the best of politicians has become more difficult for this generation of political reporters, due to the rise of media management for 24/7 news. And in NI, the enduring habits of conspiracy continue to inhibit anything like candour: but that’s another story.

Two very different recent posts tried to address  the problem of the deficit in political talent  which  so many people seem to think is universal. Ed Straw asked if there was a competition in incompetence in UK politics.  Limiting her attention to the home front, Helen McNeill called for more input from civil society. I sympathised with her but identified the constraints. To Straw I did own little bit of semi-trolling and blamed the people “the bastards”, who get the politicians they deserve. My rare rudeness was met by complete silence. Which was interesting in its way. Blaming “the people” is beyond contemplation.

I was comforted  when a more sophisticated version of my case appeared from that most original commentator Janan Ganesh in the FT (£)focusing first on that favourite new Slugger target ( me included) Theresa May.

Before  I quote him, we might just reflect that so far it’s working pretty  well for May. Her much criticised attack on Brussels for interfering  in the election will have helped to  obliterate UKIP in the  English local elections and  the Tory revival in Scotland can hardly be put down to English nationalism. In France too, if the conservative candidate Francois Fillon  hadn’t refused to be replaced over those compelling corruption charges, would we not be seeing the usual alternation between Left and Right?

Theresa May’s terse, scripted style of speech could be the impatience of a serious politician with momentous work to get on with. The trouble is that it could also be the paranoia of a deeply average one in continual fear of exposure. Either way, it is rational. The repetition of slogans in lieu of answers carries no cost. Voters take so little notice of politics that a thousandth prime ministerial allusion to “strong and stable leadership” seems to them as fresh as a line coined on the spot. If this reads like an attempt to blame the public for the debasement of political communication into disembodied catchphrases, it is. Mrs May could not survive an election campaign saying so little so often if people paid attention.

The influx of a few hundred thousand people should not be enough to skew a great party to the left, and perhaps to ruin. In the mid-20th century age of mass participation — when Labour claimed 1m members in a less populous Britain — the centre might have held against the new arrivals. In 2015, when there were just 200,000 members, the centre folded like a deck chair.

In all three cases — Labour’s mess, lacklustre office-holders, impoverished rhetoric — it is short-sighted to blame the proximate culprits.

In my role as a commentator, I encounter just two attitudes to politics: indifference and obsession. A civic culture needs more hobbyists, engaged enough to scrutinise the news and join a party, but removed enough to bring a perspective born of civilian life.

People must get involved to salvage the product. The reluctance is understandable. Politics is full of people who discovered it in their youth and called off the search for other interests. On the right, there is something of the humid handshake and the sweaty upper lip about it. On the left, there is teenage shrillness and a taste for activism as an end in itself. If most citizens want no part of this world — this eternal students union — that is natural. But do not then feign surprise when this sect of obsessives has a material effect on your lives. You left them to it.

Our nearest equivalent for originality (   sometimes stretching to perversity ) is Newton Emerson. While of course he has plenty to say about politicians on all sides,  his latest is in the Irish News is about  Michelle O’Neill who is  the political leader Gerry Adams  thinks  we deserve. I  must say, she doesn’t  seem like a  new broom, more a robotic straw woman.

The fault  lies with the media for kludging O’Neill into a trite peace process narrative of the progressive new leader, apparently based on little more than observing her youth, gender and failure to turn up for work in a balaclava.

A better analysis of her promotion is needed and deserved.

The key question arising over O’Neill’s leadership is not whether she is proud of the IRA (she has said that she is) but whether her party will ever return to Stormont.

O’Neill was openly and single-handedly appointed by Gerry Adams to be ‘northern leader’ in this period of Stormont limbo, so her qualities as a politician send a message on that question.

There may be some squeamishness in the media over acknowledging those qualities, for fear of seeming biased, prejudiced or rude. However, the blunt facts of the matter are that O’Neill has never been considered among the top tier of her party’s talent, that she is a dogmatic hardliner on the “freedom struggle” and that there is precious little evidence of her ever leading anyone.

On the contrary, Adams frequently speaks for her at press conferences, patronisingly asks if she has anything to add and even refers to her as “missus”. His behaviour towards her can seem like a disrespect agenda. It is certainly in sharp contrast to how he treats Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin deputy president and O’Neill’s approximate counterpart in the Dail.

Could that be precisely the point?

Perhaps indicating less respect for Stormont is the signal O’Neill has been chosen to send – and hardliners are the target audience.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London