30 June 2006

Portentous prose about nothing

Here in England following the World Cup is a lot of fun. What I like best is the eloquent, well-informed moaning about England's inevitably lame performances. The calibre of the commentary on football, from professional journalists and the people who ring talkback radio, is very high. (Motoring is another field where the quality ofjournalism is far greater than you'd expect.) Ultimately of course (whatever Bill Shankly said) it’s only an entertainment and the commentators realize that.

The mismatch between the tone of equally high-calibre political journalism and its content is more jarring. Much attention is lavished in this country on the precise timing of the end of Mr Blair’s Prime Ministership, the qualities of his likely successor and other trivia. Serious, competent journalists and politicians spend a great deal of energy giving us their views in well-crafted portentous prose. (See here for a recent example.) Good luck to them, and it can be as entertaining as football journalism. Unfortunately it can also distract us from what politics should be about. It’s another branch of the celebrity-driven news and entertainment industry that threatens to crowd out politics and policymaking as far as ordinary members of the public are involved.

Is this emphasis on image and personality a symptom or a cause of public disengagement from politics? Politics and economics are about vision and strategy, priorities and trade-offs; but you will rarely hear them discussed or even read about except in the more serious journals. Their presence in the mass media are almost totally eclipsed by fatuous speculation or frivolity. As the gap between normal people and politicians widens, so it’s being filled with frothy stuff that signifies nothing. Politicians are becoming a priesthood, as remote from the people that pay their salaries as the elite multimillionaire footballers in their private jets.

Part of the reason is that they express their intentions in terms of money spent, institutional structures or vague promises about almost anything – except verifiable outcomes that are meaningful to natural persons, as distinct from corporations. We expect no better nowadays; the opinion formers are largely acolytes to the political caste, beneficiaries of the same mystique they bestow on our masters.

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