Politics with invisible inverted commas

Mark Lawson
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:20

WITH all its talk about 'back to basics', the Government asks us to view it in artistic terms, as an expression of classical or traditionalist politics: a reaction against the fancy modernist stuff that people have been doing recently. J B Priestley rather than James Joyce, the British Museum rather than the Pompidou Centre, Kingsley Amis rather than Martin.

But I have alarming news for Mr Major. He and his Cabinet are in fact engaged in a risky and rather avant-garde project. They are, by design or accident, Britain's first post- modernist government.

Although the term is promiscuously applied to a variety of artistic methods, post- modernism essentially involves irony, parody and a refusal of illusion. In architecture, its most famous expression was buildings wearing their guts out front. In literature, the post-modernists most often show their hands by, well, showing their hands.

For example, the author 'breaks the frame' of the story (the character 'Martin Amis' turns up in Martin Amis's Money). Or, rejecting the pay-off promised by traditional narrative, two different endings will be offered to the reader (John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman). Crucially, 'truth' is held to be an elusive commodity. Historical novels will contain deliberate mistakes, characters will turn out to have misled the reader in a trick called 'unreliable narration'.

The post-modern tone is one of knowingness. All events and pronouncements take place within invisible inverted commas. The world is too old and complex for certainty and so Art is a game. Its products and statements are slippery, contradictory and artificial. The only proper response of the audience to this is to take the nod and wink back, adopting an attitude of cynicism and beady amusement at the whole affair. You can begin to see how John Major's government may be regarded as post-modernist.

Take for example, the matter of Mr Major and the IRA. On one page a character says: 'It would turn my stomach to speak to the IRA.' A few pages later it is revealed that the same character knew when he made the first statement that talks were being held with the IRA on his behalf.

'Hang on a minute,' says the adherent of old-fashioned narrative, 'that character was lying]' But the post-modernist politicians and their supporters in the journalistic establishment look wearily at each other and reply: 'Don't be so nave. In this scene, Mr Major is experimenting with the device of unreliable narration. It's all the rage in politics these days. This is a complex world we live in now. What is 'truth', after all? You don't mean you still believe in what the characters tell you? I think it's time you grew up]'

Although John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, presents himself as a fan of traditionalist teaching, he is clearly a post- modernist. Some listeners to Radio 4's Any Questions? last weekend, for example, may have found Mr Patten's behaviour rather bizarre. One moment he was telling a member of the studio audience that there was never any excuse for stooping to personal abuse. A few minutes later he was offering to take Tony Blair slowly through a document and teach him joined-up reading.

In traditional politics, we might have used words like 'hypocritical' and 'erratic' about Mr Patten, but with our post-modern perspective we are able to see that he was playing ironically with the now outmoded idea of political consistency: skittishly juxtaposing conflicting statements.

Baroness Thatcher, though called very many things, has probably not been described as post-modernist. Yet her evidence to the Scott inquiry is best understood in these terms. Her complaint that, with so many pieces of paper flapping around it was extremely difficult (a) to read them all and (b) to arrive at any clear definition of the truth, would have been music to the ears of the university departments that she spent much of her time in power trying to close down.

Equally, in classical politics it would have been thought sloppy or ridiculous for a Prime Minister famous for interference and attention to detail to claim later - while discussing the sale of arms to Iraq - that she had never really got involved in the nuts and bolts of government. Yet we are sophisticated enough an audience to know that Lady Thatcher was using irony, rejecting, in the post- modern way, the classical rules of character consistency.

Umberto Eco once explained post-modernism with the analogy that, whereas lovers would once have said: 'I love you', they are now forced to say: 'As a Mills & Boon character would say 'I love you.' ' Modern British democracy makes the same adjustment for political discourse. With invisible inverted commas around his pronouncements, a prime minister is saying: 'As a politician running for re-election would say, 'I will not raise taxes.' ' A politician giving evidence to a commission is saying: 'As a politician giving evidence to a commission would say, 'I did not know about that.' '

It has been said of the concept in its artistic applications that 'post-modernism means never having to say you're sorry'. What this meant was that the convention could become an excuse for sloppiness. Inconsistent characterisation? Deliberate. Unbelievable? So is life. Political post-modernism also allows this cop-out. Kenneth Clarke, the traditionalist might object, does seem to have held a large number of different views at different times. Ah yes, but this is clever and sophisticated modern politics. He knows it's a game and the press and voters know it's a game.

The surprising aspect of this to me is how willingly the public seems to have accepted these new arrangements. Perhaps the English are relieved to be told that politics really isn't to be taken seriously. Perhaps they fear seeming nave: 'Oh, look, Mr Major is using the new device of unreliable narration] It's in all the papers.'

In literature, the fashion for post-modernism was followed by a reaction in favour of strong, straight narrative. You hesitate to think what the political equivalent of this might be, although it is not impossible to imagine the appeal of a type of demagogic politician who 'at least says what he believes in, at least you know where you are'.

For the moment, though, post-modern politics prevails. He was lying] No, he was employing deliberate strategy. That's a contradiction] It is nave to expect anything else. The politicians nod, the voters wink. A terrible cynicism descends on both sides. I don't think it is Trollope that John Major reads at nights at all.

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