The Scorn of the Literati

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), June 4, 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Scorn of the Literati

Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)

A L Kennedy, James Fenton, David Hare: these and other writers fill the media with their elite disdain for politicians. John Lloyd denounces them

Like many in this election campaign. I have had something like a Bryan Gould experience. It is. wrote the former Labour shadow cabinet member and contender for the party leader ship. the mystery of a large poll lead. concomitant with being able to find "virtually no one who likes the government".

My experience was milder. I have been able to find without seek ing people who like the government: but I did have a conversation with an acquaintance who had voted Labour before and now "can't just can't". A criminal lawyer. he said that "Jack Straw was just too much". I asked in what way. "The abolition of trial by jury." I said this was only for minor cases. He said it was a sign of worse to come. I asked why that was bad for his clients. "It'll be much tougher to get them off!" This he said in a way intended to make clear that these would mainly be the guilty.

Gould wrote his observation in the Guardian on 4 May. and got it on TV by means of a short Channel 4 documentary screened at peak time on 6 May. His doing so illustrates a curious dichotomy in our present intellectual life. The broadcasters and the publishers are now more full of voices and images denouncing the government than ever before.

I did not draw the same conclusions from my "can't vote Labour" conversation as did Gould. I was struck not by the profundity of my acquaintance's dislike, but by its shallowness. He did not move to denounce Straw or Labour with passion. or even with much knowledge.

His was the gambit of a liberally inclined man who wanted a simple agreement: "Isn't this government awful!" This is the way in which the government is now framed. It is being so framed by the media. whose more intellectually inclined practitioners know, from an acquaintance with modern communications theory, that events are constantly "framed" or "privileged" or "foregrounded" by the dominant powers. Thus, in the past century, the dominant Europeans framed Africans as savage, women as inferior. Jews as grasping. More recently, organised labour has been framed as destructive, feminists as shrill, immigrants as threatening.

The media have spent time and money on trying to de-frame such groups. In the course of this, another frame has been created: the one for the politicians. It is a thicker and more rigid frame than previous ones -- because it is almost universally applauded by most sections of the media. It has thus become "common sense".

The style of educated discourse about politicians is now one of high scorn -- a huge victory for the left elite's views over the past three decades. The journalistic squibs of the most ambitious young leftists of the 1970s -- in particular, their deep contempt for mainstream politicians -- have seeped into the mainstream of the profession. In the current campaign, this has been accentuated by the employment in the media of creative writers to comment on the election.

The less they know about politics, the higher is their scorn. The Scots novelist A L Kennedy, who writes an occasional column in the Guardian, admits (16 May) she knows little about politics, but believes, nevertheless, that politicians are less than human. Listing people she has met (or created) as drug-dealers, murderers, chequebook journalists, she continues: "And then there are the politicians ...they have rabidly embraced sociopathic levels of irresponsibility and deception while creating world visions which are dangerously unhinged from any recognisable reality."

Kennedy is the quintessence of this kind of writing because it depends, avowedly, not on aknowledge of politics, but on a higher sensibility: a moral intuition that politicians are rotten people pursuing phantasmagoric goals. The novelist Robert Harris does know about politics, however -- he was political editor of the Observer and then a widely admired columnist for the Sunday Times.

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