25 January 2018
No Ribbons For Donald
The decline in political manners
by J.R. Thomas
Mr Trump continues to electrify the news-pages with his own inimical style of communication. Not just his remarks about “shxxxole” countries, but also ones aimed closer to home – such as the new American embassy in London. That is a controversial move and a seemingly bizarre one, moving from an embassy building of some architectural distinction in one of London’s most prestigious locations, to, er, Battersea. The new embassy building is also of some architectural merit, though one commentator wittily suggested it referenced the Tower of London – a square block by the Thames, surrounded by a moat.
Mr Trump though was a bit more plain spoken – he said the old embassy building had been sold for “peanuts” for a new one in an “off-location” costing US$1.2bn dollars; “Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon – NO!” The President might well know a thing or two about property development and the importance of location, and he is probably right. But he opened up what he might have called a “shxxxtorm”. In waded London Mayor Sadiq Khan, always happy to extend his remit to encompass digs at the US Administration, saying that anything that caused Mr Trump not to come to London was good by him and Londoners, who he said find “his policies the polar opposite of our city’s values of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance”. Maybe so, Mr Mayor, but not to the taste of a former mayor, who countered that “US-UK relations must not endangered by some puffed up pompous popinjay in City Hall”. Yes, that could only be our Foreign Secretary, Boris, in his own inimitable style. Gentlemen; gentlemen! Where is the language of diplomacy, of conciliation, of polite interchange of fundamentally differing views, the coded words which mean “you are a moron but given you represent the electorate and it is best not to upset you, my remarks must be circumspect”.
We are increasingly living in a world where our leaders and representatives speak in ways that used to get us barred from our local pub (or sent to bed without any supper). Mr MacDonnell, who may soon be our Chancellor of the Exchequer, repeated, approvingly, suggestions from a far-left group that Andrea Leadsom, a serving cabinet minister, should be lynched. The persons of the press invite him on every occasion he rises to convey his views on economic direction to explain whether he actually thinks that, and if not, why he does not apologise. Why does he not indeed? It was a tasteless remark and surely not something he countenances in any way. Simply apologise and then he could get on with advancing the ideals of Marx and Lenin, who he praises as his economic inspirations.
In another attack on a serving cabinet minister, the justice minister, David Gauke, was accused of “lack of spine”; the same vicious commentator also attacking the Prime Minister herself, accusing her of ”timidity and lack of ambition…which means it [her government] constantly disappoints; time to raise your game, Prime Minister”. That was Nick Boles, Winchester, Oxford, Harvard, MP for a safe Lincolnshire seat, former minister of state. Oh, and Conservative MP. There was a time when the Chairman of Mr Boles’ constituency party would have invited a sitting member who spoke so about his party leader over for sherry on Friday night. In public he would have said nothing, in private he might not have said much either but it would be very much to the point. Which is (please excuse the vulgarity) “piss out of the tent, old boy, not into it”.
In 1957 Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister. He had been noted as a man of the utmost courtesy and charm, not inappropriately for someone who had spent most of his political career in the Foreign Office or shadowing it. The public would have been astonished to find that Sir Anthony was in fact known in private for his short fuse, foul temper, and use of appalling language. Eden knew that if that ever got out he would be ruined; his colleagues knew it too but nothing leaked until long after his retirement. He was followed by the remarkable Harold MacMillan, the great Edwardian actor manager – a profound and impatient moderniser under the highly traditionalist mask; SuperMac carried through an almost complete somersault of many Tory positions but concealed beneath a cloak of traditional appearances and unflappable behaviour. And he was followed by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, another man of impeccable manners and restraint. Those were very different days; Aneurin Bevan, a Labour cabinet minister, in 1947 called the Tories “worse than vermin”; it almost finished his career, condemnation coming more strongly from his own colleagues (who knew this would be viewed with great distaste by the electorate) than from the Conservatives – who knew a gift-horse when they heard one.
The ever dropping standards of public discourse, the flinging of abuse, vulgar speech, is unquestionably undermining the already drooping public opinion of politicians. Gordon Brown must rue the day he smiled and nodded agreeingly with Gillian Duffy about east European immigration, only to get back in his car with his TV microphone still on and call her “a bigoted woman”. He never recovered from the slur; now one suspects he would have put it on Twitter and it would have passed almost unnoticed. That was just ten years ago.
There almost seems to be a race to the bottom now. Backstabbings are carried out in full public view; ministers are neither quietly consulted about job moves in advance nor politely pretend that their family time matters more than high office; abuse is hurled around as if in the backroom of some pub; and (and perhaps this is the really worrying factor) no consideration is given to what might happen tomorrow or next week, or next month. Twitter is the most absurd possible medium for expressing complex views and pursuing difficult lines of argument; it is either totally banal or deeply unpleasant. (Yes, Mr President.) Use it for advertising or organising lunches; it is fit for little else. The sheer nastiness of public life – and the media sense that anything, but anything, is fair game – is clearly putting many upstanding citizens off any participation in public life. That, at a time when we need intelligent responsible citizens to support a democracy which is more consultative and participatory than ever before, is deeply concerning. It means that we draw our leaders and opinion-shapers from an ever smaller pool of those willing to help out – and given the psychological and social costs of public life we ought to worry more than a little about what drives those who do participate in it. David Cameron (just one example who, whatever one might think of his politics, seems a well-adjusted intelligent sort of figure) should not have left politics with such obvious relief.
It is true that we do expect more from our leaders than we impose upon ourselves, not least because their examples lead to changes in how we behave and what we ourselves adopt as acceptable ways of doing things. In return we have to treat such figures with some respect and honour, and require our media to meet those standards. Let us hope we have reached a low point and that standards will now recover. So, Mr President, switch off Twitter, rein in the urge to react quite so directly and publicly, try a few well-crafted, kindly, and thoughtful speeches; they may just change the world.