Thursday 22 March 2018

Television review: The politics of the dinner party

*British General Election (All Channels)
* Newsnight (BBC2)

Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Cartoon by Jim Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The news that Ed Miliband had had a brief dalliance a long time ago with the then BBC2 Newsnight economics correspondent Stephanie Flanders, was interpreted in some papers as a sign that there is something "caddish" about Ed.

This interpretation was based on the fact that Miliband's present partner, Justine Thornton, then a "clever young environmental lawyer", first met him in 2004 at a dinner party hosted by Flanders, and was not aware that he was "secretly going out with" the hostess - as it happened, Thornton was not particularly attracted to Miliband anyway because on the night, he kept talking about economics.

He was just back from Harvard, you see, where he had been lecturing on the subject. Now there's a few things that we can take from those opening paragraphs, and probably the least of these is Ed Miliband being a "cad" or even a bounder.

The main thing we take from it, is the outline of a world which we can see in its full and terrible dimensions in the coverage of the British general election. A world of ambitious lawyers and journalists and academics and "advisers" who have all presented themselves in front of us for a few weeks, in order to lay claim to that which is rightfully theirs, before they return to the places where they live, and the dinner parties that they enjoy there.

To watch this campaign is like watching the members of a private club jousting with each other over the coffees and brandies, indeed one of these nights on Newsnight I am expecting them to dispense with the media formalities and just show us the candidates and their interviewers dining.

It is no longer a mere generalisation to say that such people know one another, that they were members of the same societies at Oxbridge, that they eat together and in some cases they live together.

It's the truth, and they just can't hide it.

The questioning may be "tough", but they all understand that that is the nature of the game. These journalists have brilliant careers to forge too, which reminds us that the aforementioned Stephanie Flanders is now JP Morgan Asset Management's chief market strategist for Britain and Europe.

But being frightfully clever, they are aware of their distance from the actual world which they are destined to rule, so they subject themselves to a certain amount of gentle mockery.

Newsnight had a "funny" item in which "ordinary people" were asked if they had read a party manifesto. Like the barrister who never asks a question without knowing what the answer is, presumably they knew that none of the ordinary people had read a manifesto, ever, nor would they ever read one should they live to be a hundred.

Of course they hadn't, nor should they, nor are they meant to read such things - which might have led to a discussion about the nature of dinner party politics, about its lack of importance to anyone but the diners themselves, about this thing which they wrongly describe as "apathy".

People are not apathetic to anything that matters to them, as the Scottish referendum showed. But they know that this game is not for them, it's for club members only. Which really should give rise to a Newsnight debate on this very subject, except that might be a bit awkward, like a guest becoming a tad introspective over pudding.

So they softly chide themselves as nerds, anoraks, geeks, just overly brainy people all round, the type who will actually read a manifesto - Ed Miliband made an unfunny crack during the week about actually writing one.

And when all this is over, they will laugh about it again at the sort of social occasion described by the author and film-maker Jon Ronson when he was asked by the New York Times who he would invite to a literary dinner party: "I'm glad this is a theoretical question", he said, "because the chance of me hosting an actual dinner party is zero. My social introversion makes the thought horrific. I recently went to a party with the author Sarah Vowell, and after about 45 seconds we glanced at each other and quietly left. So I'd invite Sarah Vowell and two other introverts. I guess Salinger and Pynchon. Then we wouldn't have to have a dinner party at all."

Sunday Independent

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