E Jane Dickson: We've become a nation of drama queens

How have we allowed this flouncy grandstanding to replace political discourse?
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The Independent Online

There's a special kind of discourse most of us reserve for personal relationships.

Man wonders mildly if there are any of those nice cheese biscuits left. Woman, rather less mildly, wonders what he's getting at. Is he saying she's fat? Perhaps he'd be better off with a thinner wife, one who snacks on dust while preparing six-course banquets, in a French maid's outfit, for her lord and master? Because if that's what he's saying, there's an obvious solution. The divorce papers are right here in her hand...

We know, even as we rant, that this is not a great way to behave. Certainly it's not a style of argument you'd want made public. Unless, that is, you're a politician in conference week, when hysterical nought-to-60 unreasoning is cheered to the rafters.

Coalition Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's "obvious solution" to the national deficit was a spectacular feat of reductio ad absurdum. "The number of children that you have is a choice," he pointed out. "And what we're saying is that if people are living on benefits, then they are making choices, but they also have to have responsibility for those choices. It's not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices."

The chopped logic of this statement would make Lewis Carroll weep. First off, we have the "if some, then all" fallacy – some people living on benefits may be making choices, others, through circumstances beyond their control, face cruelly limited options . But it's the hysterical escalation of the argument, vaulting from fact (there are too many children living in poverty in Britain) to questionable opinion (too many poor children are being born) to pie-eyed political masterplan (only the better-off should breed) that really gets the party faithful clashing their flippers.

How have we allowed this flouncy grandstanding to replace political discourse? The whole of Whitehall, it seems, is hooked on hyperbole and pointless phrase-making. If I hear another minister telling us that "we have to share the pain", I may open a vein (and I sincerely wish each repetition didn't conjure a vision of George Osborne as Flashman in straining breeches, preparing the country for the roasting that will make a man of it). Appropriate portioning of national resources is something I feel we could all understand – in a galaxy far away it may still be called taxation – but this government's creepy, false-bottomed emphasis on "fairness" is like the mother who catches her bulging-pocketed brat swiping sweets from a toddler and enjoins both children to "share nicely".

What kind of Californian nonsense is "sharing the pain" anyway? The nation of shopkeepers has become a nation of drama queens, and the collusion of the media more interested in empathy than in analysis doesn't help. Who cares what the Leader of the Opposition had to say in his maiden speech? The cameras were only ever waiting to swing round on his brother for what we were breathlessly assured was the last act of a "real-life Greek tragedy". It was this prurient obsession with psychodrama, far more than any talked-up notion of sibling rivalry, that pushed an able and graceful politician off the front bench.

Then, as we waited for the announcement of the Shadow Cabinet, the only show in town was Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, who will doubtless be billed as New New Labour's very own Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. I have a sense, though that the cameras will wait long enough before the eminently sensible Yvette poses with a frying pan and a cowering Ed. I'm glad of it, because I don't think I can stand to see another career sacrificed to our ravening need for cliché and "human drama".

It is not so very astonishing that two members of the same family should share the same aspirations. Must we have blood and tears to retain our interest in the political process? Do we really think that the function of a democratic electorate is to pass judgement on the personal dynamics of a selected group of individuals? If so, we are dangerously close to confusing politics with yet another reality show.

Britain is bursting at the seams with "the greatest leaders we never had". (So why didn't we vote for them, then?) There's nothing we like better than a missed opportunity. We remind ourselves sagely of Shakespeare's "tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune", and when that tide is missed we're curiously content to languish "in shallows and in miseries". It is more suited to our national sense of theatre than Beckett's bracing "Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better", but it is singularly unsuited to the political arena.

The prosaic fact is that neither Greek tragedy nor the heart-bursting Shakespearean stuff is much like real life. And it is spectacularly unhelpful to confuse them with the political process. Politics is no respecter of unities. Careers do not progress inevitably from hubris to nemesis. Government – and more particularly shadow government – is a process of fits and starts and grinding gear changes. It is about decisions advanced on decisions already taken. Sometimes, it is about decisions reversed. Crowd-pleasing, Jeremy Hunt-style set pieces will always be part of it, but podium theatrics go only so far. It is the pragmatic, thinking-on-the-feet stuff, the sense that destinies can in fact be changed, that makes politics worth getting excited about. The rest is soundbites and fury, signifying nothing.