Joyce McMillan: Let’s hear it for non-conformists

We need political candidates willing and able to think for themselves and not be bound by the party line, writes Joyce McMillan

Russian president Vladimir Putins media guru Vladislav Surkov, left, is a master of public manipulation. Picture: Getty
Russian president Vladimir Putins media guru Vladislav Surkov, left, is a master of public manipulation. Picture: Getty

HAVE you got any idea what’s going on at the dawn of this new year? Or are you completely confused and pretty much inclined to go to the pub? I only ask because the talk of the political steamie this week – in some quarters at least – has been a brief film by director Adam Curtis broadcast as part of The Wipe, a review of 2014 masterminded by the satirist and columnist Charlie Brooker.

Curtis’s film suggests, in essence, that the whole political world is now beginning to take a leaf out of the book of one Vladislav Surkov – artist, advertising man and legendary media adviser to Vladimir Putin – Surkov’s central theory being that if those in power keep changing their narrative, throwing out mixed signals and producing new narratives that relate only vaguely to the facts, then all political opposition will become hopelessly confused and unable to mount a coherent counter-attack.

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It’s a pessimistic thesis, of course; Curtis’s film, in its coherence and elegance, partly disproves his own theory. What it suggests, though, is that democratic politicians now face fierce new challenges from a generation of power-holders – both political and commercial – who are becoming ever more adept at manipulating public perceptions, and that, in response, they will have to raise their game and start “doing politics” in ways that provide them with new sources of strength, legitimacy and creative resistance.

Which is why it is slightly depressing, as 2015 dawns, to glimpse – right on our own doorstep – the unedifying spectacle of Scotland’s political parties apparently selecting candidates for the forthcoming general election according to the rules laid down by the Blairite Labour Party back in the 1990s: that is, with immense regard for the supposed political virtues of loyalty and obedience, and very little regard for the need for flair, integrity and original thought. The case that has received most publicity is that of Craig Murray, former British ambassador in Uzbekistan turned SNP activist, who, by his own account, was knocked back as a possible SNP candidate mainly because he refused to say that he would vote to retain the bedroom tax, if instructed to do so as part of some Westminster deal.


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The truth is, though, that no major political party in Britain has a particularly attractive record on this front. Back in 1999, when candidates were first selected for the new Scottish Parliament, both Labour and the SNP thoroughly blotted their copybooks in this area, rejecting figures as distinguished as the late SNP thinker Stephen Maxwell and the Labour MP Mark Lazarowicz. And we can bet our bottom dollars that, in committee rooms up and down the UK, this winter, possible candidates for all leading parties are facing similar demands, that they park their consciences and their capacity for independent thought at the door and subscribe instead to the modern deity of perfect party discipline.

Yet while no-one would deny the need for a reasonable minimum of party unity, it’s also increasingly clear that the exaggerated demand for obedience is driving energetic and independent-minded people away from formal politics in their droves. If Scotland’s 2014 referendum campaign demonstrated just one thing, it is that people are far more interested in politics, and far more capable of being fired up and engaged by political debate, than most conventional party politicians ever imagined – provided they can involve themselves in a range of different ways and without necessarily mortgaging their souls to an ideal of party unity.

And although the SNP’s post-referendum talk about involving non-party figures as future candidates proved a predictable non-starter, it seems to me that it’s time for our political parties to start engaging with the issues raised by their recent culture of obedience, in at least three ways. Firstly, they need to start talking about it, not only in private but in public, and debating how they might begin to strike a more mature balance between conformity, creativity and conscience.

Secondly, parties need to take a radical look at their internal structures. Conformity to the party line was less problematic when policies were debated fully and publicly, and agreed through a visible conference process; it does, on the other hand, take a particular kind of compliant personality to accept what may now be nothing more than the day-to-day tactical responses of a sofa-bound inner circle of advisers in an office several hundred miles away.

And then, finally, politicians need to take a long, hard look at their current fear-driven relationship with the media, which is often blamed for the imposition of this rigid demand for unity. For the brute fact about politics is that great politicians are the ones who stop responding to the political weather created by the media, and start changing it by the sheer energy of their arguments. Margaret Thatcher undeniably achieved that in the UK in the 1980s and Alex Salmond did it in Scotland over the past 15 years, bringing the idea of an independent Scotland from the margins into the very centre of our national debate.

To achieve that kind of shift, though, parties and politicians need a powerful combination of fresh thinking and grassroots strength. Like the current Syriza movement in Greece, they need to challenge existing political and media systems, rather than meekly complying with their demands. It’s for this reason that the SNP – until 2007 a noisy and rambunctious party of opposition – needs to think twice before it proceeds any further down the boring road to Blairite conformity; they should consider what these top-down methods have done to the grassroots vitality of the Labour Party in Scotland, over 20 years, and take that warning seriously.

And, above all, every party which seriously contests the current trend of western politics needs to remember the message of Adam Curtis’s film. For against the haze of confusing and dispiriting images and narratives pumped out by those in power, the only effective weapon is greater creativity, more wit, better songs and, above all, stronger, more truthful stories, which connect with the deep reality of 21st-century lives and offer not despair and disempowerment but the credible image of a better future and the chance to begin to make it real.


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