Politicians have always needed, to some degree, to guard their tongues and keep themselves in check. The trouble now is that the modern media hugely magnifies the smallest error. Fifty years ago, a politician's main contact with the electors was through public meetings attended by, at most, a few hundred people. Indiscretions, if they ever got wider currency, could easily be denied. Now, they reach every corner of the nation almost before they are out of the politician's mouth. A career can be ruined by a single sentence, uttered at dawn in a hot television studio while under the influence of a hangover. Most politicians must feel as though they are living in a large and peculiarly touchy family, where just one ill-advised remark can send the crockery flying and cause lifelong rifts. The effect is a very curious one. MPs of all shades, frontbench and backbench, fall over each other to get into television and radio studios. Their aim then is to get out again without saying anything of the smallest interest or significance. Their audience is not so much the listening and watching public, as the party leader's office and the party whips' office. They want to be known as people who can be relied upon to put the party line and to sustain five minutes of questioning without causing embarrassment. Those are the rules of the game. But a game is all it is: though played by very clever people, it is ultimately as meaningless as the glass-bead game played in Hermann Hesse's novel.
Is this because politicians suspect, deep down, that government itself is becoming meaningless? If the market is indeed, as many argue, all-powerful and irresistible, politicians are right to distrust passion. Jimmy Porter, in Osborne's Look Back in Anger, first performed 40 years ago, thought there were no great causes left. That is manifestly untrue, as our report on inequality showed last week. When 447 dollar-billionaires own wealth that exceeds the combined annual incomes of half the world's peoples, there should be more than enough injustice to stir a politician's anger and an ample spur to putting the world to rights. But what if the world simply cannot be put to rights? What if international capitalism is so deeply entrenched that no single country can stand out against its worst effects?
That seems to be the conclusion of most conventional politicians, even on the left. All they can do is tinker at the edges, soften the market and offer, as Labour does, better ways of making Britain competitive. Listening to this, young people who have a real passion for changing the world might agree with Ms Short's advice to her hypothetical daughter and decide not to enter politics. If they want to save the planet or improve the lot of the world's poor or persuade humans to treat their fellow creatures more decently, they might join Greenpeace or Save the Children or the animal rights movement. Those groups contain real passion of a sort that it is almost impossible to find in Westminster. Much worse, the young may decide that the only way of advancing change is to join a terrorist movement. That is the real and terrible danger of taking the passion out of democratic politics.Reuse content