Monday 16 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'It's past time to drop the X Factor politics'

Our PR-led political system can't fix serious problems, but the problems we face are as serious as it gets

Illustration by Tom HaLLIDAY
Illustration by Tom HaLLIDAY
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Last week, our Taoiseach, Bruce Willis, kicked ass. Someone sent an envelope containing white powder to the Department of Health.

Everyone immediately assumed it was just some clown with baking powder, but the emergency services couldn't take a chance.

Staff in the office where the envelope was opened had to be tested. Any place that might have been contaminated had to be screened off and examined.

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Yes, we all knew it was almost certainly the work of an eejit, but the Salisbury poisonings were the real thing and it's not something you can take lightly.

The situation was under control, appropriate experts were on the job.

Which is when the Taoiseach took the opportunity to show off his Bruce Willis impression.

"If you want to come after us, come after us," Varadkar drawled, "but don't come after our staff or our families."

I like to think that before addressing the Baking Powder Terrorists the Taoiseach took out his Die Hard costume and dressed for the part. Torn vest, a submachine gun cradled in the crook of his arm, barefoot and oblivious to the shattered glass on which he walked.

If these were serious would-be killers, it was a reckless provocation. Since they were eejits, it was a gratuitous piece of playacting. Either way, the Bruce Willis act was foolish.

The adults in the vicinity averted their gaze.

We live in unsettled times. There are dangers we haven't seen in this part of the world for a long time.

Very serious things may well happen across Europe and further afield that make the problems of Brexit seem a pantomime.

Is there a reason both we and the British people have ended up facing this perilous period with governments made up of cartoon versions of politicians?

Never have so many fools been evident in UK politics: May, Grayling, Bradley, Johnson, Rudd, Raab, Rees-Mogg, Leadsom, Gove, Fox, Davis... truly a vast sea of inadequate mediocrity.

Fascists rise in eastern Europe, Trump is tearing up the international rule book, Putin is flexing his muscles, Merkel is floundering and Macron has been found out.

In this country, there are braying thicks on the FF benches who make Willie O'Dea seem a venerable statesman.

The Dail is awash with handshakers and funeral attenders, focused on harvesting goodies for the constituency. They don't care what happens to the country as long as they hold on to their seat.

There's a drink-driving lobby in the Dail. I repeat: there's a drink-driving lobby in the Dail.

We have an official "opposition" that simultaneously denounces the Government while repeatedly voting to keep them in office.

In a weird mirror image of our current political clown show, why does so much of the opposition to the FG/FF cartel emerge in the form of eejits?

Racist eejits, fascist eejits, swivel-eyed anti-vaccine loons, not to mention self-important terrorists who come at us with a ballot paper in one hand and a packet of Odlums finest baking powder in the other.

I suspect that both the rise of clownish politicians and the emergence of the Eejit Brigade stem from the same thing: the collapse of the credibility of the centre-right political consensus.

From the 1970s onward, the major political parties in most western countries edged closer to one another, settling into a centre-right consensus. They retain their historic differences, but most parties can and do - with minor adjustments - join in government with any of their opponents.

For a long time, this smug set-up accompanied a level of prosperity that seemed to be here to stay. Across Europe and the USA, it hugely benefitted the few, while providing enough for the many to keep most of us quiet. Politics became little more than deciding which party, or combination of parties, might best manage this apparently perpetual stability, in which each generation would have it better than the last.

Then, 2008 arrived, and brought the banking collapse. The prosperity had mostly been based on debt; even the recovery was based on more debt.

All the political and economic assumptions of the pre-2008 era are in tatters.

One of the effects of the prolonged period of centre-right consensus was the marginalisation of seriousness. The rise of X Factor Politics was a victory for those best at manipulating image.

Enda Kenny - for all we mocked him - was an amateur, with his yarns about "the man with two pints" and imaginary meetings with ministers who weren't there.

Varadkar, though, is a PR pro. The Irish Mirror got Freedom of Information data on Enda's final 17 months in government, in which his office spent €16,200 on PR and advertising. That is, €1,080 a month.

The Mirror compared that with the first 17 months of Varadkar's reign, in which the figure was €1.8m. That is €105,000 a month.

Varadkar, like his friend Macron in France, is all image.

Theresa May was terrific at convincing the media she was a politician of substance, until reality popped up.

From the FG/FF cartel to the snobby EU mandarins, the smug consensus prevailed. It largely eliminated real political conflict and facilitated the rise of those who specialise in PR.

Another effect of those years was the build-up of anger among the people who saw the growth of huge inequality and unfairness, while politicians bowed and scraped to tax-dodging mega-corporations. The centre-right consensus forgave the debt of the rich, by turning it into public debt, and imposed austerity on the many.

They were politically impregnable, so they treated all complaints with contempt. The anger festered.

The politicians watched with complacency the rise of startling levels of economic inequality and spoke with what seemed like approval of "disruptive factors" that attacked jobs, created "precarious" pay and conditions that turned many workers into servants.

They not alone facilitated the greed of the few, they insulted the many. When Varadkar spoke of "benefit cheats" it was clear he wasn't just talking of people who commit fraud. The term embraced all of us who contribute to and occasionally benefit from social insurance.

When Varadkar's friend Macron spoke of "slackers" and "people who are nothing", he expressed the contempt of the smug for those who work for a living.

In this view of the world, we who work hard for decades are the takers; they are, in Varadkar's mad claim, the "people who pay for everything".

Those who were great at polishing their image have been bugger all use dealing with real problems - like the housing crisis and the health chaos.

Meanwhile, the festering anger gave the USA Trump. It gave Europe Brexit. In parts of the continent it provides a recruiting ground for fascism.

Already unable to deal with the problems of governing, the smug PR specialists in power are destabilised by the anger of those whose complaints and fears they ignored.

And, among the swivel-eyed anti-vaccine loons are those who encourage us to turn our angry eyes towards the traditional easy targets - immigrants, "outsiders", Travellers, Jews.

We've too often taken our politics as entertainment, but it's past time to get serious.

The handshakers and funeral attenders can't deal with this, nor can the X Factor politicians and their image makers.

They can't fix the housing market - they broke it.

And they can't fix the political crisis - they created it.

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