Truly, Madly, Politically: David Davis's Snap Resignation Struck a Chord with People Because It Was Spontaneous and Unscripted. Is It Time for Politicians to Get Emotional?
Fieschi, Catherine, New Statesman (1996)
We all know a week is a long time in politics--but a weekend? Long enough, it seems, for a man to go from nuts to visionary. The David Davis saga brings to the surface the myriad underlying assumptions, relational synapses, summary judgements and convenient shortcuts that underpin political life. If politics were a good book, it would more often look as it did over the past few days--full of surprise, spontaneity, revolt, disbelief, judgement, repentance, suspicion, self-sacrifice, posturing and even conversion.
Questions abound--will Davis's stance help the cause for which he is fighting? How split are the Tories? More fun, how furious are they? Above all, does his grandstanding damage David Cameron? These are all good questions but they miss what is really interesting: namely, what happens when spontaneity and its handmaidens re-enter our field of political vision. Ironed out of the news scripts by spin masters such as Alastair Campbell, spontaneity leaves politicians flipping frantically through their lines. Cueless and clueless--witness the headlines that followed his resignation announcement--Davis was pronounced "crazy". Anyone so committed to a position that they decide to resign their seat in the Commons and their post as shadow home secretary had to, well, have a screw loose.
It had to be cynicism or manipulation--a thinly veiled ploy to make a play for the leadership of the Conservative Party. But within two or three days of his resignation, the tide was turning. A "principled streak" emerged from the stories. "Vainglorious and mad but rather terrific", as one columnist put it. The certainty that Davis was nuts (or nuts and evil) was replaced by a surge of support--"Principled and brave, yes. But Davis still looks an oddball", read one headline in the Guardian. It took hundreds of column inches to arrive at the startling conclusion that Davis might have made a reasoned stance. Why such reluctance to believe that, principled or not, useful or not, misguided or not, riddled with ulterior motives or not, this was a decision born, as decisions usually are, of a combination of emotional reasoning and strategic rationality?
One of the obvious aspects of the Davis affair is that the public's support for his stance is partly explained by the excitement of knowing it was not scripted. It was not managed by the party. The Tories were forced to react. The public and the commentariat were forced to react. And in this early summer of political discontent the important contrast is not between the two (or three) parties, between the two (or three) leaders), between old and new, ill at ease and at ease with a vengeance, but between spontaneity and script, managerialism and politics.
All this was made abundantly clear at a Demos event at the Hay Festival a few weeks ago, when we hosted a debate on politics and emotions. Over the course of an hour I had an ill-formed hunch confirmed--namely, that at a time when our political script is punctuated by self-hatred, irritation, disappointment and anxiety, we have to have the guts to ask what land of relationship we want to politics. If the David Davis episode illustrates anything, it illustrates that.
This could turn out to be the richest of political moments: the moment at which we finally turn the corner and square our political operating system with the lives we lead and the things we feel. Let's not blow it because we don't "do" emotions.
My own frustration is that, in my "native" social science discipline of politics, and in the policy arena, and even in the acute world of informed commentariat, emotions never figure in ways that are less than patronising and mocking. I spent ten years studying the far right across the world and only rarely did anyone care to mention that emotions might, conceivably, be part of a phenomenon whose most obvious manifestations were fear, authoritarianism and mass ritual. …