A long long time ago I was watching a TV programme on which Dennis Potter, Rene Cutforth and Colin Wilson were talking about life, from which, come to think, two of them have already departed. All three were distinguished in their own way. Rene Cutforth was the best radio broadcaster I have ever heard. Dennis Potter was Dennis Potter, a crazy, mixed-up brilliant dramatist and Colin Wilson was the man who kept our interest in the paranormal going single-handed until the X Files and Fortean Times arrived to help take the strain and make the world safe for incredulity.
Still, being distinguished doesn’t make you like-minded, and there came a moment in the discussion which I shall always remember for the electrifying way in which it divided the participants. Either Wilson or Cutforth said he had no time for politics, and the other one, either Cutforth or Wilson, said he couldn’t agree more. Dreary, waste of time, pointless, fruitless, etc, etc. But Dennis Potter was beside himself with disagreement.
“You’re so wrong!” he said. “Politics is life! Everything is political! Everything we do is political in some way or another, every choice we make, every action we take! To deny politics is to deny life!”
Wilson and Cutforth glanced at each other, as if in the presence of a relative who had just dropped all his food down his front, and after a few moments more of non-communication, the conversation passed on to more harmonious fields. Probably none of them remembered the moment, but it stuck with me for a long time, because of Potter’s passion and the fervent apathy of the other two. Trouble was, I could see what both sides were driving at. In a way, everything IS political. Assuming you have some vision of how you would like society to be, then everything you do can be measured against that vision. On the other hand, Wilson and Cutforth were dead right. Politics IS the most boring thing in the world. So who was right?
I can’t remember when it was that I suddenly realised the truth, but I did finally tumble to the fact that what Potter meant by politics and what the other two meant were quite different things. Potter was using the word “politics” in a rather continental, intellectual sort of way, meaning anything to do with progress, the improvement of the world, the reorganisation of human society, etc.
The other two meant something much more small-minded and mean. They meant “party politics”, all the games we play at elections and between elections, in and out of Parliament. It’s a very limited use of the word politics. Unfortunately, it’s the way most of us in Britain use the word all the time. When someone is described as being “politically motivated”, no-one is suggesting he’s trying to improve the world - he is being accused of trying to gain party political advantage for his side. “Playing politics”, “making political appointments”, all these assume that politics is just about the Parliamentary soap opera.
There’s a very good example of this in the current Radio Times, when Andrew Duncan asks Anna Ford in an interview if she still supports Labour and she replies doubtfully (his choice of adverb): “Yes - in that I believe we have inequalities because of our class system which people deny still exists. And I don’t like the pretence that women have equality, because they don’t....”
What’s interesting here is that Duncan asks a question about party politics, and Anna Ford answers it as if she was being asked a question about real politics, the result being that she sounds as if she is not answering the question at all. But then nobody with any sense would want to answer the usual media questions about politics which are always about party politics (Who’s to blame? Should he be fired? Did he mislead Parliament? Where will the money come from? Who is responsible for the leak? How will this affect the party’s poll ratings?) and never about real politics (Is it a good idea? Is it right for Britain? Will it make the world a better place?).
Next time you hear, watch or read a political interview, ignore all the questions and answers which are about party politics, and weigh the rest. I think you will find you have been short-changed. I also think you will find yourself tempted in future to avoid all interviews between interviewers and politicians, both of whom are playing the same dreary game. Party politics, in any case, was perfectly summed up long ago by H L Mencken when he said that democracy was a system in which both sides tried to convince the electorate that the other side was unfit to rule the country - and both sides were commonly right.
Or, to put it another way and bring it up to date, an opposition is only a government which has not yet had the chance to discredit itself.
The Independent Wednesday July 22 1998