Dear Reader, I have a series of confessions to make. I have been known to scowl, to exhibit a blank, confused expression, to tap my finger repeatedly on my upper lip, to scratch my head or even my armpit. I have drunk a cappuccino and got foam in my beard, eaten a bacon sandwich and dripped fat and ketchup, sneezed suddenly whilst talking and had to wipe my hand on a tissue. I have been known – and this may shock some readers – in what seems the sadly distant past, even when it was only an hour ago, to kiss my wife. Whisper it softly, but I even on rare occasions spend time in the bathroom, bathing or…well, you get the idea.
Now I’m sure none of you have ever done any of these things, but being the antisocial fellow I am I have. And when I do them I suspect the expression on my face might not always look entirely neutral or intelligent. Mercifully, in such moments of weakness I am not being continually photographed by journalists eager to portray me at my worst.
My easily mockable expressions in these circumstances have, I think, little bearing on my views about deficit reduction policy or the treatment of young offenders. But for some reason journalists do appear to think it relevant to broadcast photographs of Ed Miliband in similarly mundane facial contortions.
It’s not big. It’s not clever. And it’s only funny in the same shameful way that the Hucklebery Finn story of “tying a tin pan to [a stray dog’s] tail and see him run himself to death” is funny.
Everyone know this. And yet the journalists publishing such photographs do not attract much opprobrium because it is felt that they illustrate something relevant about Ed Miliband – namely that he is a geek.
We live in an age of geeks. Popular television shows such as the IT Crowd and the Big Bang Theory exalt the role of the geek. Even our top comedians are the geeky Alan Carr or Michael McIntyre. At some level this is the natural extension into our age of that great transition in the model of the hero from the strong and brave Heracles to the clever, resourceful and geeky Jason. If we want to be entertained then we still like the smoothness of a Simon Cowell or a Brian Cox. But we only truly respect even these cool folk because underneath it we believe they have true knowledge and skill – they may have the cool face, but we know they have the heart and soul of the geek. We might like to giggle a little at geeks, but that only doesn’t seem bullying and shameful to us precisely because we know that in truth we admire geeks. We need them. It’s to geeks we go to get anything done.
That’s the thing about Ed Miliband. When people first came across him, they thought he was a geek – they thought he knew how to do something or other really well – and that was a good thing. Being a geek was his strength, his calling card. Folk might giggle a little at his awkwardness, but they would respect him because they would believe that he would get the job done.
Latterly, by contrast, I’ve come to doubt whether Miliband is in truth a geek at all. What is his special realm of knowledge where he focuses his attention to the exclusion of his social skills, that is somehow relevant to the issues of our age? Does he grasp some underlying truth about the economy? I’ve never seen it. Does he have some special insight into foreign policy in the age of the rise of China and re-assertion of Russia? Struggling. Does he have his finger on the pulse of societal anger about the banks and the financial crisis, or some insight into the moderating of capitalism in an age of inequality? Shrug. Does he have a vision for the future of the country within the developing Single European State or alternatively for Britain’s future outside the EU? If so, he’s never shared it with me. He doesn’t even appear to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all Labour council group leaders.
I’m not actually saying this to say some point or to be nasty. I just don’t know what he does. When I call someone a geek I do so affectionately, meaning it as a compliment (indeed, quite a strong compliment as I mainly mean “Someone like me.”). Absent that affection and that sense that the term “geek” is intended to point to some strength, some special realm of knowledge, describing him that way just seems like empty bullying.
So what if Ed Miliband spills ketchup when eating bacon sandwiches? So what if he bites his lip with his top teeth when exhibiting a querying expression? Everyone does that, and photographing him doing so is just harassment. What I care about more is that Ed Miliband – whom opinion polls still suggest might be Prime Minister in a year’s time – has offered no indication of knowing about or how to do or how to lead anything useful. I wish he were in fact a geek. Then I would know what his true contribution might be.