Planning for a home-grown Nigel
Mindful of the influence British politics has on ours, we might watch their election more closely
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
In London for a few days last week, I ran into a few old friends, most of them of the left-liberal persuasion. In the past, we would talk politics of the ideological and parliamentary kinds, but now I noticed them avoiding these topics. Having watched a couple of their general election "debates", I had been moving towards tentative understandings of what was happening. "It is like watching children having a make-believe debate," I hazarded to a couple I've known for many years, both having long worked in the upper echelons of the British media. There followed an embarrassed giggling and a rapid change of subject.
It's the strangest election I've ever witnessed, and I've struggled to put my finger on the reason why. The candidates and party leaders appear to lack nothing of the zeal and enthusiasm that has attended every UK election since I first began to be interested back in the 1970s. They argue and point-score as much as Blair and Major, Thatcher and Foot. On the surface at least, there is no diminution of intensity in the discussions. But still something is missing, and it's difficult to take any of it seriously. They are, indeed, like little boys and girls declaiming lines they have learned off by heart, playing a game called "elections" they picked up from their older brothers and sisters.
The scariest thing is how alike the candidates are - leaving Nigel Farage aside for the moment. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband could be three posh kids larking around at one of their birthday parties. The female candidates are even more indistinguishable, but in a different way, evincing earnest opinions and positions about every worthy thing. It's like a girls' election is taking place inside the boys' one, because somebody's parent has insisted. The boys don't take it very seriously, but are being quite sporting about it.
There is content to this election, one gathers, but it hardly matters. It's like gravel in the plastic toytown teacups, affecting teaness. Everyone makes believe it's real while knowing it's pretend.
In the current edition of the Spectator, editor Fraser Nelson writes about the tone of the election as mimicking the angry populism currently infecting Britain - "list the villains and shake your fist at them".
The way I'd put it is that this may be the world's first election directed at the world wide web. In the online world, people pretend to care about things they know nothing about, affecting a pseudo-rage about public events that is really rooted in more personal grievances, competing to be the most compassionate, correct or condemnatory of all. The power of the internet has scared politicians so much that they have adopted its style. And this may be why the intensity of the rhetoricising in this election is so out of synch with the context or content. What's on show is an entirely new kind of leader - one who has been purged of beliefs and given transplants of plastic passions and silicone emotions, which are nonetheless vented with enormous noise and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.
This is the future - for us as well, because British politics has exerted such a profound subconscious influence on ours. Given our geographical proximity and historical linkages, it should hardly be surprising, yet we rarely refer to it. Mostly we maintain the fiction of outright disconnection - two adjacent sovereign states in parallel mode, discussing in the main their own affairs, driven onwards by different drums.
This too is a pretence. In fact, with perfect post-colonial consistency, our politics involuntarily reconstructs itself every decade or so, in accordance with shapes and shapers that first manifest "across the water".
The connections show themselves not so much in ideology or ideas, as in personality and demeanour. Having no class structure, we are suspicious of demagogues and idealists, and yet we are heavily influenced by the personal traits and quirks of British politicians. We had no equivalent of Margaret Thatcher, but the Iron Lady has had a profound impact on our politics, most obviously in the initial posturing of the Progressive Democrats, and more paradoxically in the way Charles Haughey and his finance minister Ray MacSharry adopted a quasi-Thatcherite resolve in their late-1980s grappling with economic annihilation after a decade of recklessness. This demeanour was lately rebooted by the current coalition in pursuit of Angela Merkel's austerity agenda.
Our lefties, of course, have always been moulded to a British model. Michael D was our Tony Benn, Richard Boyd Barrett our Ken Livingstone in a jumper, and Mick, Ming, Ruth and Clare vying to be Screaming Paddy or Patricia O'Sutch.
Bertie, Enda and, to an extent, Micheal Martin, have all been re-workings of the Blair prototype: presentable hail-fellows-well-met who could press the flesh and exhibit a plausible sincerity while remaining a blank slate for anyone to write on.
By coming from behind to wipe Gordon Brown's eye for the Labour leadership, Blair made it possible for outsiders to dream of gaining and holding power. Absent that precedent, nobody would have looked twice with a straight face at Enda Kenny with a view to moulding any kind of leader above captain of the Dail karaoke team.
David Cameron has made almost no impact on Irish political culture, having dropped like a hot spud the Big Society palaver that got him elected last time. In time, it emerged that Cameron, too, was a blank slate onto which a range of extremely interesting but invisible individuals got to doodle their ideas. Now that I come to think of it, this may have played a role in the inspiration of Enda's public persona and role as Taoiseach over the past four years.
Ed Miliband is Cameron Lite - not surprisingly, since he was elected leader of the Labour Party because he was not his intelligent brother David.
Then there's Nick Clegg, a man thrown beyond the limits of his ability by the British public's strained efforts to escape the straitjacket of the straight-choice vote.
As to what the present strident blandness of British politics portends for ours, the indications are not immediately propitious. The prospect of several Clongowes or Glenstal boys outposhing one another is bad; far worse, dread thoughts of several Nicola Sturgeon clones trading platitudes in shoulder pads.
There's always Nigel. The Ukip leader is the most interesting figure on the British political landscape. As yet, we have no one even remotely resembling him, but history urges us to pay close attention.
My English friends tend to smirk and look at their shoes whenever Nigel's name is mentioned. This is because, being mainly Labour luvvies, they buy into the Guardian caricature of Farage as a borderline racist spiv with that somewhat paradoxical British anti-value, "no class".
To me, Nigel reads straight and smart, and yet he is undeniably an aberrant figure in contemporary British politics, a product of the enforced non-discussion of immigration insisted upon by the tsars of political correctness. Avoidance has shovelled the UK's demographic and cultural nightmare under the carpet, where it is easily exploited by figures a lot more sinister than Nigel.
Farage is the kind of figure who erupts from silence. His own man, by no means a natural politician, he has been propelled into the public arena by virtue of the cowardice of mainstream politicians, who send mixed signals about immigration because they know it concerns many people but is a dodgy topic under PC rules.
None of the mainstream figures has had the bottle to grab the nettle, so we get Nigel - who reminds me of a tinny transistor radio turned up full volume to enable it to be heard at all. There's something slightly too obvious about him - like a poorly drafted comic character in EastEnders, a likely lad with an overly-developed patter and excessively large lapels. Farage says wholly predictable things in a wholly foreseeable way, but he represents something of the suppressed feelings of Britain's uneasy gut, and the studied condescension he attracts from the media is the most reliable indicator of his significance. The straight-choice vote system will probably do for Ukip this time, but Nigel is a precursor to something we will hear a great deal more of, there and here.
The nearest we've got to a Farage might be someone like Michael Healy-Rae - not necessarily for his politics, but for the way he speaks his truth without fear or affectation. Despite the colourful construction of the Irish personality, Irish politics has not lately thrown up many such characters. The suffocating climate of political correctness cultivated by our ditchwater-dull media scene has essentially stifled all eccentricity among what are laughably called our public representatives. Hence, in recent times, we've tended to elect mantra-spouting automatons who look and sound like some B-movie notion of a central casting politician.
And this is just the most visible symptom of our entirely moribund politics. With everything decreed and dictated from outside, our Government is such in name only, our Opposition having abandoned its purpose to propose itself as worthy of the trust of our foreign paymasters when the electoral wheel turns again.
But we may have seen our future and his name might be something like Nigel. On the immigration question, we're not yet quite in the same boat as the UK, although it won't be long. Here as there, empty platitudes and moralistic bullying have caused us to avert our eyes from the changing profiles of our major cities and towns, a transformation no one was ever asked to vote on but everyone is expected to accept and support.
But the issue on which we make a break from the present torpor is more likely to be something immediate and particular - possibly some form of Euro-scepticism arising from the continuing uncertainty and weakness of the currency. For a moment last November, it looked like it might be water charges, but the local Red Kens put paid to that.
The pretext is unimportant, however, and it will arise willy-nilly. What matters is that, at this very moment, there is some politically unlikely personality, nonetheless rooted in actually existing Irish reality, finding themselves nightly watching Newsnight to escape Vincent Browne, and unconsciously picking up the underlying meaning of Nigel Farage. Without knowing what is happening, this strange beast already slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.