Political elites and why we think we need them

Scenes Frontispiece

The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. George Eliot

The only thing that has kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism — the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.  GK Chesterton

We have been told a lot lately that recent political upheavals represent a revolt against the “club” of “elites” dominating western politics. On reflection, I wonder if it actually meant the opposite: the realisation “elites” are not very elite at all, but in fact every bit as flawed and tangible as ourselves, just as they always were in the days before television. I was thinking this, recently, wandering around the National Portrait Gallery transfixed by the mesmeric eyes of inane bully Henry VIII – and wondering if we have traded these faintly Tory myths, for the more dangerous oil paints of the Spectator butterfly.

George Eliot’s words from the 1850s are a double-edged sword. Writing in “Scenes on clerical life” she pointed out the great secret of progress, and good politics: normal people like ourselves. This is not always easy. It was, I think, one of the great joys of Coalition for many Liberal Democrats, one which we were too slow at times to appreciate, that we were actually changing quite a lot. With hindsight, I wonder if it felt hard to believe the strength of policies like the Pupil Premium and Shared Parental Leave, not because the Tories did it, nor even that Nick Clegg did it, but because we did it.

I wonder if we should consider this anxiety more because it is common. Despite coyness, most people, some of the time, feel vulnerable and need hope from connection with heroes who might be better than us.

George Eliot was an insightful but also well-connected woman. She was born in Nuneaton (2016: 66% leave vote) and died an established member of the liberal elite in a house in Chelsea recently bought by Mayor Bloomberg-billionaire and former NYC mayor. She came across Queen Victoria, Carlyle and Gladstone. However, she was in a minority which proved a rule: most people’s heroes had not been seen until they came on the TV, a century later. Now Nuneaton and Chelsea’s view of politics has converged in a number of ways.

It has been well-reported that in our post-deferential age that petty corruption is more transparent and that this has bred cynicism. As liberals, it is good that we have the internet, camera phones, the Tax Justice Network and Transparency International to expose slack behaviour. This, obviously, represents part of the difference in perception between the infidelity of, say, Presidents JF Kennedy and FD Roosevelt, compared to President Bill Clinton.

But I wonder if something spiritual has happened too, and fairly recently, with TV and the internet: semiconsciously, we can no longer delude ourselves with the hope our leaders might be gods – and thence use them as an emotional tap. Instead, we are left “grieved” by reality, which Eliot’s part contemporary Wordsworth feared in The Prelude:

to have a soulless image on the eye

          That had usurped upon a living thought

          That never more could be

And alongside this personal need for mysticism is an important social one under pressure.

According to Yuval Noag Harari’s “Sapiens” – released in 2014- humans were able to climb from the middle to the top of the food chain about BCE 40,000, in part because we were able to form nations of thousands and millions around abstract myths rather than plain instructions which could only coordinate groups of a hundred:

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.

Harari’s recent words have an echo in the old conservative ideas of GK Chesterton who feared the void that would be created by the collapse in mainstream religion. Chesterton directly challenged the realistic fiction of Tolstoy – and by extension – Eliot.

Because we are such a rational bunch, liberals are not always great at empathising with the madness of others.  Time has been kind to our and Eliot’s view over the past 150 years. Indeed, her very name is proof of progress: It seems bizarre that one of Britain’s greatest authors had to pretend she was a man in order to be considered a good writer. This is not coincidental: fortunes of Britain’s scapegoats have risen in tandem as material progress – driven by the trade in products and ideas- has allowed people to distract themselves with purpose in the real world from nasty spirits floating in the clouds. It is why, obviously, we must fight hard against a hard Brexit.

But though we must fight on against it, we might also reflect that material progress cannot occupy all of the people, all of the time. Without a secular god in Downing Street, people may now need a Brexit Butterfly – or Donald Trump, floating alongside in his eponymous jet. Eliot and Chesterton were both right.

Whilst one of these spirits might well mean the end of civilization – it is not necessarily the end of liberalism, yet. It is possible Emmanuel Macron can offer something for people to pin their hopes to, simply because no one knows anything about him. And we may need to re-appraise where the political angst is coming from. Not just away from croaked elites – who are, in fact, much less croaked than Henry VIII- but also away from the perceived bigotry of the electorate. I sense America missed out on the great presidency of Hillary Clinton not just because she was too female or too well educated –but too like her voters, rather than Donald Trump who offered a skyborne fantasy. We might also speculate that not all Brexit voters were driven exclusively by xenophobia, but something just as dangerous: boredom with bland, competent sane politicians like Clegg,  Cameron and all the Eurocrats, who were actually quite a lot like their voters.

In the meantime, by listing those who protest most against “elites” – oblivious to the privilege which shields them from their own chaos – we can be confident about where to focus our fire. And whether it is Steve Hilton or Bannon, Jeremy Corbyn or Daniel Hannan, I think their own supporters might feel the same, too. As Woody Allen famously observed in Annie Hall,insecure lovers squabble because the loathing they project on each other, is typically the repressed loathing they feel for themselves. Despite the vague schematics for post-Brexit utopia, the real reason Hannan et al are rebelling against the “elite club”, is the fact they “don’t want to join a club that would have someone like themselves as a member”.

* Douglas Oliver is secretary of the Liberal Democrat History Group and is based in London.

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  • Wow Douglas. That is ‘Well Deep’.
    I have printed a copy off and I think I will have to read it though a few times.
    ‘Because we are such a rational bunch, liberals are not always great at empathising with the madness of others.’
    This is the line that troubles me though. I think in trying to empathise and concluding that people are mad is maybe to expose that maybe we do not empathise very well. Most people’s are a lot more simple and look to more basic needs/wants before having the luxury of inquiring into such thoughts. Liberal judgmentalism can be lofty and remote. I fear that putting the price of beer up to £4.00 a pint and a packet of cigarettes to £10.00+ might well be rational but is felt as an attack by a massive group of people and on their way of life from the elites that are generally immune to these attacks. It is no coincidence that every time you see a populist politician they invariably have a pint in their hand. Is there a subliminal message here that we need to hear.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Feb '17 - 1:13pm

    Did those who voted in the EU referendum in 2016 take account of the possible cost of a divorce settlement, of costs in the billions of pounds or euros to provide for the future pensions of EU civil servants and the UK’s share of borrowing that the EU has, etcetera?

  • Michael Cole 18th Feb '17 - 1:38pm

    “I sense America missed out on the great presidency of Hillary Clinton not just because she was too female or too well educated –but too like her voters, rather than Donald Trump who offered a skyborne fantasy.”

    Hillary Clinton was, in my view, a very poor candidate. She and the Democrats who selected her are largely to blame for the election of Trump.

  • Hilary lost because Americans tend not to vote for the same party for more than two terms. In retrospect there was a lot of over confidence born from the belief in the End of History narrative and the mistaken belief that international politics is more than a side issue in national elections. Trump won because there were enough Republicans and conservatives to tip the balance. In the case of Brexit Conservative voters have been heavily anti EU for decades and it was a ballot steeped in Conservative party bickering. Plus no one is entirely liberal or socialist in a simplistic party loyal way so there were enough Lib Dem and Labour voters stepping out from the ranks to vote leave. Again over confidence in the rightness of the pro-EU cause flying in the face of abundant evidence that a significant number of UK citizens simply do not view the EU worth supporting. I’ve always suspected that the reason referendums on the EU were promised and then dropped was because there was a strong suspicion amongst Europhiles that they would lose.

    I think most of this article is pop psychology of a slightly cod aspect born of a belief that disagreement is matter of obvious sanity v insanity. Let’s just imagine that I as a Brexiter implied that remain voters were in fact mad and then insisted this had something to do with the loss of godheads or whatever. Now, granted that might pass in a Daily Mail article, but it would it would not make it true. In reality remain voters see the EU as a good thing for a variety of reasons and Leavers see it as at best unnecessary and as bad thing for a variety of reasons.
    Plus If you’re really fond of logic be realistic. Trump is not going to suspend democracy. The Americans will have another election in four years and then another four years after that. It isn’t the end of the world. It’s just the republicans in power for a bit. I wouldn’t vote for them, but I’m no going to get hysterical about it.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Feb '17 - 10:08pm

    “liberals are not always great at empathising with the madness of others.” Indeed, we have a role in pointing out these errors, from The Prime Minister’s decision to invade Egypt at Suez in 1956 to the decision of another PM to invade Iraq from Kuwait. The current PM has changed opinions so as to follow opinion rather than lead it. This is about one person one vote,

  • Paul Murray 19th Feb '17 - 6:37pm

    I was listening earlier to some remarks made by Pierre Moscovisi and Joseph Stiglitz at Davos that gave me pause for thought.

    Moscovisi made an obvious point (this is not a direct quote it’s the nearest I can recall) saying something like : ‘There is economic, social and cultural anger as some people think they are the losers of globalization’.

    Looking at the rise of the far right in both the USA and Europe, Stiglitz said (again paraphrasing): ‘The surge in populism has everything to do with economics… It’s very hard to reverse technology, but economic policies shape technology. Why are we innovating in ways that create more unemployment rather than innovating to save the planet?’.

    Economic policies *shape* technology. So policy choices by politicians result in technological innovations that creates more unemployment. A different set of policy choices could result in innovation that alleviates unemployment and saves the planet.

    That sounds like a pretty sound case for saying that the public are not so far off the mark when they see the reduction in the life chances of their children and lay the blame at the hands of the “elites”.

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