Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
Do you remember Six Degrees of Separation, with its plot about a Kandinsky double canvas? “Chaos/Order, Chaos/Order” sing-songed Stockard Channing, while spinning the painting on its vertical axis, revealing first “Black Lines”, then “Several Circles”, then “Black Lines” again, then back to “Several Circles”, and on, and on. Chaos and Order blurred into Chaos-order, revealing the truth of the film: Either/Or is a fiction.
Life imitates art and is rarely dichotomous, no matter how much we would wish else. Consider the man a few feet to my left, making coffees for the early morning Stevenage crowd. Is he satisfied? Or bored?
There is skill in the way he juggles the customers and their practically-infinite demands. “I’d like a soya latte, extra hot, to have here but in a takeaway cup.” “Camomile tea, please.” “Flat white. Chocolate; yes.” Chaos/Order in the coffee bar. There is happiness in a job well done. I wonder if there’s sadness, too.
Elections, as important as morning coffee, aren’t free from dichotomisations. As John Rentoul wrote last week, they work by mapping multidimensional choices into as close to a binary switch as our polity can manage. Tax and spend? Or debt-discharge and fiscal prudence? Producers, or consumers? Or, as Mr Cameron is trying to frame the poll’s meta-narrative: Labour chaos, or Tory order?
But Either/Or is fiction; so is all art; in art lies truth, truth revealed through (by definition) fiction. The Kandinsky canvas from Six Degrees doesn’t exist, except that it does, because of the film, which (by being untrue) has turned fiction into truth (the film exists and so does chaos/order within it.) If I were slightly religious I’d be very tempted to talk about Easter here.
I’m not religious but I am slightly political, so instead I’ll talk about UKIP.
It’s not the sheer nastiness of deliberately picking on a group of people in order to raise the blood pressure of UKIP voters that repels me from Nigel Farage. (Imagine having a conversation – we are told that such a conversation took place – with another human being about “Which group of people would it be most advantageous to demonise, in terms of making people pointlessly angry? TB do you think? Or AIDS?” “Let’s go with AIDS, that reminds them of gay people, so we get a double-whammy.” “Fnarr, fnarr [sound of rich banker, honking].”)
Nor is it the futile marginality of this politics. In terms of “How should we structure and fund our health service?”, picking on a few thousand people is completely marginal. We could shoot dead everyone who turns up at A&E with HIV (why not? It would appeal to some target group of voters somewhere) and the problems of state-delivered health would still remain.
No. It’s the infantilism of the deliberately false dichotomy that depresses. UKIP’s pretend-dichotomy (“Either you’re ‘brave’, and agree with Nigel, or you don’t care about border control/the NHS”) is itself a choice, a deliberate attempt to frame the question in such a way as to leave it unanswerable. Choices are moral entities and so we are permitted – required – to judge them.
For what it’s worth (who cares what I think?): no, of course I don’t think the NHS should be a life-saver for anyone in the world who wishes treatment for their illness. I think the government should bear down harder on the various “college visa” abuses; I think, too, the NHS could be tougher in billing foreign governments.
But neither do I think we should leave people who do end up here to die from a treatable virus. Leaving HIV untreated in Britain would be in every case, every case, a self-defeating British health policy.
UKIP’s damage to politics is that making such a point, one that blends Either with Or, and involves a few “Perhaps” (it took me all of four sentences) becomes impossible in the noisy insistence that (1) every choice is easy and (2) only traitors or fools don’t agree with Nigel’s easy choices. We are asked to become brutal, in order to prove our loyalty to Britain. We are asked to view anyone who refuses to join in the brutality as suspect. But you are not (necessarily) in favour of open borders, should you reject the demonisation of immigrants. It is astonishing, though not a matter for pride, that this requires to be spelled out.
The electoral conundrum (Either/Or in a multifold world) is solved by choosing, I’d suggest, not binarily for some objectively-universal Either/Or, but between a series of suggested, subjective ones: Farage’s, Mr Miliband’s, Mr Cameron’s, Ms Sturgeon’s. For what it’s worth, again, here is my judgement.
The choices posed by UKIP (as with all parties) are fiction; in his fictive art, the false dichotomies he proffers, lies the truth of Farage’s politics: they are indecent. There are markers of civility we use to determine whose choices to trust (much more important in an election than we ever discuss). Farage fails that test by a country mile (just as Ken Livingstone did; just as George Galloway does.)
Vote for a decent centre-Right government, not socialism. Vote for the liberation of working families from tax, not cats-cradle welfare traps. Vote for messy, plural schooling systems, not state-sanctioned comprehensive failure. Vote for painful incrementalism in our relations with the world, not Soviet-era quotas for plumbers and baristas.
Vote with humanity, and never against it: so vote Conservative, and not for UKIP.