Simon Carr: Pessimism is the only response to politics

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The Independent Online

I've become less cynical about politics recently. It's a tactical retreat. You have to believe a bit, if you want to do more damage. Now, I'm less cynical but more pessimistic. There's an intractable problem underlying the set-up of representational democracy. It's the flocking. It's our flockable nature we can't get away from. Willie Donaldson alerted me to it, years ago, but I didn't realise that the low instinct had a higher application.

After living some years in the financial and social wilderness, his first book had put him back into salon life. He was there among the Illuminati, in a class of superior moral and intellectual habits. Coincidentally, he had a petition he was putting about, to get someone out of prison; he sent it to one of the rising stars (now fallen).

The first question asked by that young writer, the most brilliant of his generation, was not "What's the prisoner's name, what's the crime he was accused of?" No, the question was, "Who else has signed?" And he came back a week later with this response: "My agent has said it wouldn't be a good idea to be associated with these people at this stage of my career."

But I can't claim the high ground, I'm no better than I ought to be. Who is? We're all guilty of it. It's a law of life. We like to flock together. So, in politics, it's not: "Who will benefit from this proposal, by how much and at what cost?" No, the first question is: "Who else agrees?" We don't want to get caught out in the wrong company.

So what, for instance, do you think about elections for local police chiefs? When the idea was first floated in London in the 70s it was fiercely resisted by the Conservatives. Why? Because it was being proposed by the left. Militants like Bernie Grant wanted to bring a largely white police force under the control of a largely black citizenry. Now the same idea proposed by the right, the left shy away from it. They fear it will be used to promote populist, immigrant-bashing authoritarianism.

How about Iraq? The question as to knocking Saddam off his perch? While America was supporting Saddam, the left agitated and demonstrated and campaigned against the brute. When American neo-cons took up the fight, the left abandoned it. They didn't care to be seen in disreputable company. Saddam himself was incidental to their moral scheme, as it turned out.

School vouchers? They started out life on the left. They were a way of getting disadvantaged inner-city children into middle-class schools. Now the right have taken them up, the left argue that middle-class parents will benefit more. The who, again, much more important than the what.Incidentally, the modern consensus politicians talk about is a result of triangulation (the art of pinching popular parts of your opponents' programme). It's the equal but opposite confusion. Would Labour be offering cuts in inheritance tax if the Tories weren't? But that's for another day.

And finally, and most important of all, the European Union. In the 1970s, the Conservatives proposed entry so Labour opposed. When the Tories started opposing it, Labour started finding merit in it.

But here my instincts get into conflict. The power centre of the EU, the Commission, is the least democratic institution in modern politics. But therefore they don't suffer from this flocking problem. They've cured the problem of democracy. The patient has died, but the operation was a success! A cheerful pessimism is the only proper response to all this.

Is Hillary destined for power?

Will she or won't she? Surely she will, it's irresistible. Never mind Iowa or New Hampshire, the narrative is stronger than the momentum.

Hillary Clinton, left, must become the next president of the United States because she's now part of a tradition. And for those of us who like to talk about a "political class" her victory is a final confirmation that the thing actually exists.

If she makes it, that means we'll have had a Bush as president then a Bush-in-Waiting down there in Florida Jebb Bush is only 54.

After his go, that little Chelsea Clinton will be ready to come on stream. That would be half a century dominated by two dynasties, like in a book.

* Here's a trick question. Why do American women drink more beer than English women? It's a very good question to ask Americans because the answer is flattering to that country, in its current travails. And not just because American women drink more beer. I'm faffing about a bit to give you time to realise you can't answer the question. The reason that American women drink more beer than English women is that there are more American women.

By extension, whatever you want in America there is more of it. Clever people, stupid people, fat people, thin people, high culture, vulgar culture there's more of everything in America. Orchestras, school homicides, archaeologists. They have the most boring people in the world, and the funniest. They have the worst sit-coms and the best. The most in-bred rustics and the most cosmopolitan cities. The stupidest presidents and the most sophisticated political processes. I can't think why I don't want to live there any more.

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