What’s going on?

Peter Jenkins

  • How Britain votes by Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice
    Pergamon, 251 pp, £15.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 08 031859 2
  • Partnership of Principle by Roy Jenkins
    Secker in association with the Radical Centre, 169 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 22100 4
  • The Strange Rebirth of Liberal Britain by Ian Bradley
    Chatto, 259 pp, £11.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2670 1
  • Report from the Select Committee on Overseas Trade, House of Lords
    HMSO, 96 pp, £6.30, October 1985, ISBN 0 10 496285 2

Accompanied by a growing pile of political books, I spent most of September and half of October travelling from pillar to post and from party conference to party conference – from Blackpool to Torquay to Dundee to Bournemouth and back to where we began in Blackpool. For years now I have set out on this dismal pilgrimage filled with hope and health and holiday sun, only to return filled with alcohol, tobacco fumes and hot air. The conference season is an annual ritual, a ceremonial enactment of the entire political liturgy, including the beatification of leaders and the veneration of relics, all of it carried out in front of the altar of the television cameras.

The importance which the conferences have assumed in the political calendar over the last twenty years has a lot to do with the fact that they are there to be televised while the House of Commons is not. So, because there is something to point the cameras at – ‘if it moves, film it’ is the principle of political journalism in the television age – the viewers are offered hushed commentaries about the liturgical meaning of the reference back or the remission of composites.

Out of the conferences come images, distilled from the continuous flood of daytime transmissions for encapsulisation in the main nightly news bulletins – priceless moments of political prime time which show Kinnock up or Thatcher down or Owen playing prime minister for a day. And built around those images come ideas and patterns to be repeated through the political year, whether true or false – a seasonal yield of misty perceptions which are all we know of political reality.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has remarked that politics is ‘what’s going on’, or something to that effect. But how the hell are we to know what’s going on, I thought while on my way to the Trades Union Congress? What is going on is in some part what we say is going on: but if we don’t know what is going on, then what is going on? I’d often written that appearance in politics is the greater part of reality and been taken to be making a point about media manipulation. What I had meant was that the muddle of events could have no meaning without some principle of interpretation, and that what we choose to think is going on, the appearance of events, becomes the wrapping for what is imagined to be reality. The invisible man needs clothes.

The conference season would need a theme, a shape, a meaning – how else could one write about it interestingly? This year it soon acquired one. ‘Three-party politics are here to stay’ became every commentator’s punchline. Here, yes: but to stay? And yet if we all said so, and went on saying so, and more and more people came to think so, and behaved accordingly, then what was quite possibly only the appearance of things would have become the reality. Only, of course, if we were sufficiently correct in the first place, for myths are not spun from nothing. But what if we were right to think that we felt the tremor of the ground beneath our feet, a rumbling earthquake that would slowly change the political landscape? Gramsci once felt the same: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born – and in the state of interregnum there arise many morbid symptoms.’ Gramsci was referring to the death of capitalism, while we are talking about the death of socialism.

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