Those who know me, know that I rarely let a chance go by to give an opinion on politics and so-called current affairs. When going to organised political discussions with mainstream journalists, I’m even more likely to proffer a provocative question and get into sometimes heated exchanges with the assembled speakers. But tonight’s discussion, one of the last of the week long Bath Literature Festival, on the upcoming election and UK politics in general, hosted by the BBC business editor Kamal Ahmed, left me so stunned by the lack on any meaningful appreciation of the disenfranchised political landscape, that though fuming throughout at many of the panel’s opinions, I could not bring myself to vent my fury, so futile did I think would be the likelihood of meaningful dialogue ensuing.
On listening to the guests, the Guardian journalists Gaby Hinsliff and Rafael Behr and the Times political sketch writer Ann Treneman, I wondered whether I’d slipped into a sci-fi alternate reality, where humanoid automatons mouthed inconsequential newspeak, self-referential dialogue intended to numb the senses and convince the attendant crowd that all was well in the corporate landscape, that there really was a difference between Ed and Dave and that those who thought differently were apathetic, angry, but were never to be described as informed or engaged or, perish the thought, sick of the whole parliamentary and journalistic charade.
And, yes, this dystopian reality has a name. It’s called the Westminster bubble. It’s a space inhabited by mainstream politicians and journalists, who each confirm each others’ biases about the state of British politics and the “apathetic” British public, discuss the minute differences in neoliberal austerity policy, without any apparent awareness or admittance that there have been alternatives offered to the economic neoliberalism that has been taken as gospel for over 30 years, and that has been foisted on the western world with ever greater force and conviction since the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailout, the greatest con in modern human history.
Not only have alternatives been offered and more or less ignored in the mainstream news editorials (unless spoken of one-step removed from the UK, as with discussions on Syriza and Podemos in Greece and Spain respectively), but the general anger and supposed apathy that has often been cited by mainstream politicians has time and again been misinterpreted and often deliberately so, by a political class that feels confident in supporting the reassertion of the power base of a class-based financial elite that has amassed untold wealth in the past 7 or 8 years, while the majority of the population feels the sting of economic belt-tightening and the poor and vulnerable struggle and are demonised and blamed for the worsening economic conditions of the middle classes.
The assembled writers held court, prompted by the BBC business editor, but they all might as well have been talking gibberish for any of the sense they made to me. They spoke of the difference between the main parties, disparaged ever so fleetingly the “radical” ideas of the Green party, and could not countenance the possibility that anything other than neoliberalism, the belief in the power of controlled free trade and the banking cartels’ ever greater hold on the wealth of nations, would be a dangerous throwback to vote-sapping 70s and 80s Labour militancy. It was as if Thomas Picketty and Syriza did not exist. These were journalists speaking inside a rarified echo chamber, and no one but me seemed to notice or seem shocked at what was being passed out as political expertise. And you wonder why people are disengaged in the political process? You wonder why people want a revolution, to throw this whole hypocritical, corrupt mess into the fire and to start again?
Sitting in the audience I pondered on whether to speak out, whether to disrupt proceedings, by simply screaming out in indignation when Times political sketch writer Ann Treneman – who seemed to have a good laugh at the supposed failings of the Green party – described Boris Johnson as different to David Cameron, as if there was any real ideological difference between the two old Etonians, who both believe in neoliberal free market economics as if it were a holy truth written in stone, and who approach foreign policy as if they were colonial generals fighting the Boer war.
This is class politics plain and simple, but whereas at least in the 1970s there was some semblance of a balanced debate, what passes for debate these days is to present right, slightly less right and bourgeois liberal as if they were any significant political difference between them. Gaby Hinsliff and Rafael Behr may well work for the Guardian, but much like the Labour party and the Conservative party, the differences they present are all superficial. When you delve under the surface you find a peer group, often of Oxford educated careerists, who see the world in much the same way and have a basic set of parameters as to what is considered acceptable public political discourse.
Yes, I could have shouted out at the insanity of austerity policy, the monumental shifting of public money – £500bn – from public to private hands, over the past three years in Britain alone, to say nothing of interest rate fixing and general corruption in the banking system that has gone unpunished. I could have shouted out that the financial system, built on a debt-based philosophy that has become so unbalanced that it is sucking up any real wealth and creating a concentration of power in the hands of a few people that is unprecedented in human history, must be ended to prevent mass social breakdown. I could have explained that corporate and military working in tandem are directly responsible for the destruction of the environment and continuing chaos in the Middle East, Africa and the borders of Russia, as well as poverty and social alienation in the west. None of this is even news to most of us even barely engaged in political discourse. How can it be that an event as this did not even get close to discussing such matters?
The lack of a meaningful debate left me perplexed but with a weary sense that I should have known better. I had wanted to believe at least a morsel of truth might fall out from the mouths of these seasoned Westminster commentators, but there was not even a whisper of recognition, not even a knowing aside and, as stunned and angry as I was, fuming under my breath, I cannot say I was surprised. It was a spontaneous booking on the final day, and Jon Ronson was sold out, so I got more than I expected, which was the maximum political ignorance dressed up as expertise. I could have spoken, screamed, tried to reason, maybe even stood up and decided to disrupt proceedings. But what would it have achieved?
Would I have managed to sound reasonable in the Guildhall building, surroundings that could not be more redolent of colonial opulence and a deluded sense of superiority if it tried, telling these journalists that they were part of the problem, that not a single word they said sounded remotely close to describing the political problems we face? That whether Ukip, or Labour, or Conservatives, or Lib Dems rise or fall, it is the same economic elite that continues to suppress truth and the real possibilities of tackling the crisis of our age? Would they have been any more convinced if I had told them that I spent five years working at both the Times and the Guardian, have seen and experienced the inner workings and the off-the-record disdain for the public, and regard them both as two sides of the same coin, both backed by corporate advertising revenue, and so both limited to running narratives that do not threaten the main orthodoxy of economic growth and military might and right?
Would they have even cared, closeted in their bubble, their comfortable salary and their belief that parliamentary politics is still relevant to the majority of people? No, I held my tongue. Listened to the bubble doublespeak rolling forth in ever so polite tones from the chosen journos, marvelled at the nonchalance with which they dismissed the issue of climate change, on the very weekend when even the Guardian posted a headline grabbing excerpt from Naomi Klein’s book on the environment This Changes Everything, with a quote from the book which reads: “It is our great collective misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate threat at the precise moment when an elite minority was enjoying more unfettered political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s.”
And I wondered whether they were even aware how irrelevant they have become, unable or unwilling to challenge the oppressive and delusive political discourse of the day. Gaby Hinsliff suggested the problem with democracy is that we have too many B-list politicians. I would suggest that we also have too many B-list journalists as well. And, yes, there is a problem with a prime minister who weekly refuses to answer questions at the despatch box when pressed by the opposition, which is an insult to parliamentary procedure that should cause outrage. And there is a problem with Ed Miliband, but it is not so much that he looks and talks like a geek, but that he is too afraid, unable or unwilling to challenge the banks, the corporations and the unaccountable power and wealth of City of London, to speak with greater urgency on behalf of the majority, who have been fed the lie of economic austerity, a policy that he will not challenge in any meaningful way. Whether you vote for red or blue, or even yellow for that matter, the same government get in. And Ukip are, as the comedian Mark Thomas says, just the Tories after a few pints at closing time, boorish and foaming with xenophobic bigotry.
There are many political problems to be tackled and on a weekend when hundreds of thousands marched in support of real action to tackle climate change, where we have a multitude of successful activist groups, social media campaigns and the ever on-point Russell Brand reminding us why the democracy we have is a sham and riddled with corruption, I am reminded how a simple debate on politics including celebrated mainstream journalists, two of whom work for a paper still described by too many people as leftwing, can be so far removed from the daily experience of a politically engaged public, that it can stun me to such an extent that it takes me a few hours even to muster up the words to describe the mind-numbing experience. If this is an example of the accepted political discourse, then a day of reckoning for Westminster and its cursed bubble is surely not far away. And it will be nothing less than they deserve.