Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
The danger with 850 weekly words is the risk of metaphor-itis, an inflammatory condition whereby every input signal is subconsciously processed, and transformed into a choice image for the way we are now. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as – fittingly, for this week’s topic – a reasonably well-known ancestor of the world-famous welfare reformer Lord Freud once said. (Except – even more fittingly – Sigmund probably didn’t: the quote is apocryphal.)
So, ankle deep in rainwater, poking a stick into the blocked drain in the back yard of our Brighton flat, trying to free up the crisp packets and bits of cellophane deposited by the angry wind, the conscious part of me was simply cursing the wretched Green Party, whose maladministration of Brighton has left it nearly the worst council for recycling rates in the land (hence all the crisp packets).
Vote Green, Get Rubbish, as Mr Cameron should have said. (Think of the trouble he’d have avoided, had he done so.) What Brighton has “got”, thanks to its Green council, however, is literal rubbish; not the stuff of political metaphor.
But what lies beneath? Eventually – a sackful of muddy rubbish later – my stick found its mark, other people’s refuse was poked loose, and the water ran free. The ozonic air tickled my ankles dry, and I shook my drain-clearing stick at the sky, and cried: this is a Tory stick! This is the story of our Tory-led government! Fixing the drains when the sun don’t shine!
I was shouting at the anti-stick fraternity, Mr Miliband’s 35 per cent, who marched through London last Saturday. The 35 per cent: “What do we want? Blocked drains! Where do we want them? In the mansion-taxed houses of the super-rich, because after we’ve increased year-on-year spending, there’ll still be enough to send a man round to make sure my nan’s are OK!” (And Ed, fumbling at the rear: “What sort of a man? Not an eastern European man, because we’re vaguely alarmed about UKIP, and we’ll make Polish men redundant, or something, to be announced at the end of a wide-ranging policy review!”)
Poking about in drains to clear up mess – vital, but hardly glamorous: no wonder so many want to avoid the details. I propped the stick upright and sighed, content with my subconscious work: a metaphor was born.
Well, maybe. Or perhaps simply an inflammatory process, the febrile result of spending too long in cold, muddy water. I took an aspirin, lay down on my bed, and wondered: why does politics irritate me so much these days?
On the one psychopathological hand we have UKIP, desperate to split the Right because it hates David Cameron, the first Tory PM since 1997. (The monomaniacal obsession with Cameron among Ukip supporters on newspaper websites justifies “pathological.”) What’s the point in trying to defeat socialism, red or green, when a liberal like Douglas Carswell apparently sees Gladstonian principle in the xenophobic outfit he’s joined? (Is Mike Read No.1 yet?) Carswell’s leader defines himself through negativity and a Jeremy Clarkson-like delight in being offensive (this is “authenticity”). The Right is broken; past saving.
On the other hand, that marching army of the 35 per cent, denying that debt has anything to do with Labour’s post-2001 spending policy, which should, if anything, have been accelerated, because increasing debt is the sum total of Keynes’s message to the planet, and what about those gas bills and stuff.
The Left’s delusions, mirroring those of the UKIP Right, transcend the merely fiscal. Two columns in The Guardian this week seemed to argue that ebola is a manifestation of Right-wing racism, or at least provides succour to such.
Political malady to this degree is beyond the therapeutic reach of aspirin. So why bother trying? We’d retire to Spain, but Farage will probably make that impossible. Cue Kate Bush, at her warbling best: don’t give up. Our end is in our beginning, and this week’s ending begins with Lord Freud.
The backlash against Labour’s smear of the Tory minister is worth watching, as a tonic whose efficacy reaches well beyond the specific application. The Question Time audience voiced their displeasure at Angela Eagle, who had thought she’d be cheered simply for mouthing Labour’s shitty little “Tories hate disabled people” meme. Her panicky gaze doesn’t know where to settle: anywhere, it looks to me, but on the eyes of another human being.
Whose words are more psychologically revealing? Freud’s clumsy, but well-meaning, construction, as he thought aloud about how to unblock the path to work for some of the most disadvantaged Britons? Or Eagle’s (and Labour’s pet “charities’”) manufactured outrage, pushing a false meaning into the mouth of a man? Anything for a quick cheer, eh, Angela? Push the button. Only it didn’t work.
Retain an atom of hope that pathological, despairing nihilism, whether that of Left or Right, can be outdone by good people trying to be rational and kind (not a straightforward tension to resolve.) Specifically: it’s worth keeping people like Freud in government, and those like Eagle out of it. Metaphorically: better to be stood over a drain, trying to unblock it, than claiming the ownership of virtue, while inhabiting a moral sewer.