Words by Ed King
I move around a lot, for work. The polite term is peripatetic.
And for the first time since 2008 I find myself in Birmingham during the Conservative Party conference, with all the fervor and false promise such a political bandwagon contains – whatever its colour scheme.
But this isn’t a party political rant. No, this is a dig at the electorate. And not all electorates; the ones that rise to their murky surface when such a pertinent opportunity to shout at city centre shoppers comes around. The mouth with the megaphone – standing in front of a table adorned with buzz words, petitions and slogans, berating one agenda or another with fumbling intelligence. Again, a polite word to use.
Last week I was standing on New Street trying to find a Western Union; my archaic (apparently) iPhone 3, G, S, C something or other churning through too much information to fit on a hand held screen, when through the bulwark of my earphones I hear something about the Scottish referendum. A well dressed man in his 50’s was chastising the “Tory government” and “Labour council”, terms he delivered with equal derision, about welfare reforms that either one had made, proposed or protested. Or one had proposed they would make which made the other protest.
At least, he was protesting – extending a voluble invitation to join said action as ‘the number of billionaires and millionaires in the city rocket at the end of September’. And for the period of time I was listening to this call, the Scottish referendum seemed to be the underpinning case in point. Although what that point was remained frustratingly unclear.
I walk up to him and wait.
Me: “…yes, hello. I was just listening to you and wanted some clarification. Are you calling the Scottish referendum undemocratic?”
The gist of our following exchange came down to the following:
Megaphone: “…so you’re in favour of cutting children’s services then?”
I have made no political stance or mandate endorsement.
Me: “I’m in favour of rational debate, ask me a rational question.”
Megaphone: “(a little louder) …so you want to cut money to children’s services?”
Me: “That’s a loaded question. Ask me a rational question.”
Megaphone: “(a little louder still) …you want to cut money from children’s services, you want to take money from vulnerable children??”
Me: “That’s a loaded question. I’m not answering that. I’m interested in rational debate, ask me a rational question.”
Megaphone: “(loud) RATIONAL DEBATE, THAT’S A LUDICROUS STANDPOINT. YOU WANT TO TAKE MON…”
I have about 15 minutes in situations as circular as this before my blood sugar levels kick in; I had not wanted an argument about the funding of front line services. Plus this was going nowhere but louder. Thankfully I remembered where the Western Union was.
The politics of government, be they party line or not, are historic and complex. The fact that elections are often campaigned on issues (such as the economy) that the general electorate is not qualified to adequately address (not a seasoned economist with relevant experience and knowledge, e.g. practical applications of a national fiscal strategy) reminds us how difficult democracy can be. But it’s a better system than autocratic rule, so we trudge through – the lunacy of planned obsolescence in a representational arena withstanding.
But one thing we have control over is the delivery of ourselves, the manner and approach in which we conduct our debate. Our democracy. The world’s largest library is available to us on phones, in coffee shops and ironically libraries – spilling information across subjects from stem cell research to X Factor, and if we chose to engage there is more information available to us in the UK now than at any other time in our history. You get free wifi in MacDonalds.
And whilst I believe the diversity of opinions is a healthy foundation, even if the opinions are not, I also believe the appropriate understanding to debate them is important. Even if it’s so you can honestly say, “…I didn’t know that.”
Without fact based understanding you can start to rely on rhetoric that’s angry and divisive, as arguments without substance are usually just shouting matches. Topics become footballs and purported ideals take to the streets. The issues that should be on the table become too muddled to address, with compassionate progression slowing down to a limp or a crawl. At best.
But the most worrying outcome, to me, are the avenues of hate this kind of discourse opens up; the rivulets of camouflaged anger, once a political arena becomes a place to justify the prejudices and peccadilloes of a frustrated ‘voter’. There are political parties based on this – with one in particular (even in its increasingly, mercifully, diluted apparition) gaining more traction than is comfortable. We are not yet safe from the ghosts of Mosley and Powell.
Perhaps I’m over concerned. I do tend to watch my home city’s cultural fabric expand like I’m marking growth spurts on the kitchen wall; incremental is not a word I would use (I get this with many aspects of popular culture – who the f*ck is Pitbull?).
And perhaps my professional lifestyle makes me miss the subtle accumulations – the gradual build of concern that pushes reasonable people onto inane battlefields. After all, I’m not always here. Perhaps I don’t fully understand the problems facing the British electorate? I come in and out of the UK for work reasons.
I’m peripatetic. At least, that’s the polite term to use.
Ed King is editor of Birmingham Review. Follow him @EdKing2210