Sunday 16 June 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Greens take a leaf from the book of feelings'

The Green surge shows how you can take the tools of populism and use them for the good, says Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Bobby Gillespie, singer with Primal Scream, perhaps the most debauched rock and roll band of the last few decades, thinks everyone needs to calm down a bit. Gillespie caused outrage when he appeared on Newsnight recently and said, among other things, that Madonna was "a prostitute" for appearing at the Eurovision in Israel. Gillespie, it should be said, did stress that he has nothing against prostitutes.

What was interesting about it all was Gillespie's reaction to the furore caused by his comments. "Everything is emotional," he said in an interview last Friday, "There's no critical thought. Why not put your energy towards something you should be angry about, like Tory austerity?" He talked about the "intolerant culture" we now have and said he believed there was such a thing as a "digital lynch mob".

When a guy who has made a career out of whipping young - and not so young - people into a frenzy, is appealing for everyone to be less emotional and more rational, and to focus less on online culture wars and fits of outrage and more on actual real politics and economic policies, it's fair to say we may have reached a tipping point in the politics of feeling.

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No one is talking about Tory austerity in the UK right now. Politics right now in the UK is largely about how everyone is feeling. For example, we had Theresa May's emotional resignation speech last Friday, which seemed to lead to a brief bounce in her popularity. May, often viewed as a closed, unreadable, secretive, austere figure, seemed to enjoy a brief bounce in popularity last Friday as she finally gave in to the spirit of the age and broke down in tears for the cameras. You were tempted to think that if only she'd shown some more feelings before now, things might have worked out better for her. But she didn't. Theresa May refused to participate much in the politics of feelings, and when she did, like with her Dancing Queen moment, it didn't really work. May approached her premiership, and its defining issue of delivering Brexit, as a thinking matter, not a feeling matter. She dealt with the impossible arithmetic of her Brexit deal as a kind of a Rubik's Cube, where trying to get all the sides lined up together can seem impossible. Each time she tried to get one side lined up that threw out another side. But she struggled grimly on, with a touching belief that logic and sense would win out at the end of the day. The UK didn't want to crash out. It wanted to leave with a deal. This was the deal on offer. So take the deal. It's a no-brainer. Except, unfortunately for her, it wasn't always brains that were engaged.

Of course you could argue that Theresa May could have done a bit more to bring the troops along with her, rather than the slightly hectoring tone she employed. She didn't ever manage to enthuse people with a compelling story around Brexit. Clearly she subscribes to Bobby Gillespie's disapproval of the fact that everything is emotional.

But the problem is that Brexit was a feeling. No one even knew what it was when they voted for it, and arguably they still don't. It was about a rather vague notion of taking back control. It was primarily an emotional howl based on a simple compelling narrative of nostalgia and resentment.

And it's only going to get more emotional. Because there is a massive clamour afoot now to get Boris made PM. Boris, we're being told, is the only man who can save the Tories and who can see off Farage. As The Daily Telegraph put it last week, "Who else, ask Boris's fans, can change the mood in a shopping centre by entering it? Or make an audience smile before starting to speak?" Boris is the one who can give the party some energy again, we're told. Boris is the man who will change the whole feeling around the Tories.

You may recall that the last time the Tories based a strategy around neutralising Farage, we got Brexit. This time we're probably getting Boris. Boris, who will face exactly the same impossible situation Theresa May faced. Boris, who will not get a better deal from Europe. Boris, who does not demonstrate the same sense of duty as Theresa May. Last Friday, Boris praised May for her stoicism, and you sensed it was something of a dig. Stoicism, to Boris, is probably a dull, lifeless kind of thing, the opposite of feeling, the opposite of reacting to everything, the opposite of electrifying a shopping centre.

There may come a time when Theresa May's plodding sense of duty will seem like a golden era of politics compared to Boris's shopping-centre energising. May's obsession with details, and the specifics of things, may some day very soon seem like very desirable qualities next to Boris's tactic of, "Just get on with it and to hell with the details". Boris will be exciting, but politics is just as much about dull details and the specifics of things.

But maybe the truth lies somewhere between thinking and feeling, between Theresa and Boris. In his book Nervous States: How Feelings Took Over the World, William Davies paints a picture of a world where "knowledge becomes more valued for its speed and impact rather than its cold objectivity, and where emotional falsehood often travels faster than fact". He points to how feelings like nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear have disrupted the status quo. But Davies does not believe that cold hard facts are the best way to combat the high emotion that has driven the rise of populism. He argues that centrists, rather than waiting for everyone to calm down and look at the cold hard facts, need to "dig deeper into our emotional and physical selves in search of the common world. If those committed to peace are not prepared to do this work of excavation, then those committed to conflict will happily do so instead."

This was, for example, very much how Emmanuel Macron defeated the far-right in France. He recognised the right were giving people a narrative they could emotionally engage with and he did the same. He told a story, he used symbols, nostalgia for France's past. He evoked empire and kings and greatness and epic history. He campaigned in poetry and theatrical set pieces.

If the RTE/TG4 exit poll is anything to go by, the Green Party has had a great election. As much as the rise in environmental awareness has been driven by science and facts, overwhelmingly it is a feeling. It's about young people rising up, about images of sea creatures strangled by plastic, it's about David Attenborough, and Netflix. And it's about a very powerful narrative. Maybe the other political parties here have a lesson to learn from the Greens. That you can take the tools of populism and use them for good. The Greens were really the only party with a compelling story to tell in these elections, and, like Brexit, it was a narrative based on fear, anger, and indeed nostalgia.

But above all, it was based on something that many political parties do not offer young people - hope for the future. And maybe that is how the forces of darkness will be beaten at their own game. With a bit of feeling.

Sunday Independent

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