Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
“What will historians think of us?” I asked myself. I was finishing reading The Epic of Gilgamesh – the Sumerian epic, some of which dates back to around 3000 BC. Occasionally I checked my twitter feed #reshuffle, to see who had been knifed and who elevated in our Mother of Parliaments. I couldn’t quite muster the Fleet Street fervour fizzing round Westminster like a hyperactive berocca – perhaps because, with an extremely marginal seat to battle to retain, I was not expecting to be personally affected, but also because I wasn’t sure that in the bigger scheme of things it warranted quite so much hype.
In fact, historians may not be able to think that much of us at all. I doubt that contemporary documentation of our works and days, increasingly held in The Cloud or online, will survive in quite the same way as the timelessly tangible clay tablets from which we are able to piece together information about the Sumerian and Babylonian civilisation and literature. Will our greatest legacy be excavations of endless plastic bags and food containers? Or is someone, somewhere, laying down our great literary works in un-perishable form? And is it remiss of me not to know?
But perhaps the fact I don’t know points to a certain lack of perspective into which we have all been sucked by a 24 hour news cycle and the endless stream of byte-sized digital input. Yes, this enables us to follow world events more intimately than ever before, and find out about them sooner; but has technology enabled us to distinguish between the important and less important, amidst this maelstrom of information? I fear it may have done the opposite – especially amongst those of us in the political and media classes.
This week has been saturated with talk of women in politics. To his critics, David Cameron was apparently misogynistic when there weren’t more women in cabinet; now he’s apparently misogynistic when there are. Women are great and should be promoted – but not when they’re Tory, according to one female Labour MP (etc, blah).
Of course equal opportunities and a representative Parliament matter. But when the news of the MH17 crashed onto our twitter feeds, it was a wake-up call. As we commemorate a hundred years since the start of the First World War, the toxic situation in Ukraine has not gone away since it first hit our news – the MH17 crash just brought it home.
Neither has the dangerous and tragic bloodbath in Syria, or the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Egypt is hardly stable. The emerging fall-out from the rather asymmetrical Palestinian-Israeli death toll (around 340 Palestinians including many civilians and children to seven Israelis,) following the murder of three Israeli boys will not go away. The rise of radical Islam in Africa continues – yes, even when #bringbackourgirls has stopped trending.
Greece’s borders are frighteningly porous, and their economic and social situation still precarious. The West is still deep in debt, and Europe looks no nearer to twigging that its unpopular idea of a command-and-control mega-state is a toxic fantasy. On the one hundreth anniversary of the First World War, the global dominoes are once again lined up ominously. This is infinitely more serious than whether the newly appointed, bright and talented Minister or Cabinet Minister happens to have a bosom.
We all enjoy a moment of drama as each of these dominoes comes to light and revel in #worthyworry. But I do not see much evidence that as a political culture, this dangerous reality is taken with the seriousness it needs.
The evidence that the icebergs looming over our political horizon are not the West’s focus is stark in the Western response to major global events. Syria – a panicky laying down of red-lines which precipitated a frenetic call-back to Parliament; America and Europe’s pathetically unwise prodding of the Russian bees’ nest, with a “You can’t come to my G8 Birthday Party” naivety which must have caused Putin much mirth. Malcolm Riftkind said it best as he described Putin as an opportunist, with the West leaving the doors open for him to walk through.
It would be an indication that things were being taken seriously and strategically were energy security to become an over-riding political narrative. Is being dependent on Russia, the Middle East, and recently China for our energy infrastructure and investment the best idea right now?
It can seem that were a fraction of the intellectual energy in Western politics spent working out “what to do” as there is spent working out “how to look electorally” we might be in a better position. As the digital age dawned in the late 1990s, Blair mastered cosmetic-popularism politics, and the rise of the focus-group. Obama perfected the science and machinery of it, and now western democracy seems preoccupied on endless polling for the right “messaging” to seduce its public.
But you only have to look at the rise of the UKIP protest to see how this has failed. People are not naïve. They can see terrifying icebergs on our horizon. When your political ship is entering dangerous seas, you want those running it looking to the horizon and working out how to deal with the emerging storm. In the repeated emphasis on the necessity for a ‘long term economic plan’, the Conservatives demonstrate that they get this more than any other party. But the increasingly dislocated political and media class urgently need to ‘Get Real’ if we are to prevent future historians despairingly condemning us, if or when one of those global dominoes topples – just as it did a century ago.