Monday, October 19, 2009

Politics is driven either by emotion or a thirst for power – which do you prefer?

A few days ago I started to write a blog post in response to Tom Harris' "nationalism is an emotion" piece, but I gave up after twenty minutes, realising that there was just so much I could say on the matter that I could be sitting there for hours. So instead I restricted myself to a (relatively) pithy tweet. But the gist of what I was going to say is that all 'good' politics is driven by an emotion of some sort or another, usually one that is just as basic, primal, childish as the one Harris imagines to be the essence of nationalism. It can be summed up in three short words - 'it's not fair'. Idealistic young recruits to the Labour party through the decades (perhaps not so much recently, but let's not quibble) have been motivated by their indignation over poverty and social injustice - the unfairness that some people have so little while others have so much. The equivalent young idealists joining the Tories will often have been motivated by the perceived unfairness of the state deciding how to 'spend people's money for them'. These are visceral emotions, powerful enough to trigger a lifetime political vocation because they engender a burning desire to put these injustices right for people. It's precisely the same for Scottish Nationalists - a whim to redraw a line on the map, or occasional irritation at being called "English" while on holiday in Malaga, is not enough to hook someone into a lifetime of political drudgery. Rather, the unfairness which political nationalism might be seen as an emotional reflex to is our untapped potential as a nation, that holds people back and suppresses general quality of life. What does the emotion of nationalism look like stripped of that vital quality? Look no further than Jim Sillars' "ninety-minute nationalist" phenomenon. After all, polls show that the vast majority of Scots regard themselves as Scottish more than British. So it seems that most of us are 'afflicted' by the emotion that Harris identifies, but only a minority channel it into constructive political action. Surely the latter group ought to be lauded, not denounced?

Perhaps the reason that Harris cannot see it that way is that he has long since moved on from the time when idealism was ever the driving force of his own politics. Try to convince Harris that something is simply the right thing to do, and more often than not he won't tell you why you're wrong on the merits of the argument - he'll simply say "we tried that in the 1980s, middle England rejected it, some of us have grown up and moved on". In other words, the 'mature' politics Harris believes in is triangulation, policy determined by calculation not principle, power at all costs the sole objective.

But, you might object, don't all politicians have to get real sometimes, make messy compromises that they wish they didn't have to make? Of course. But the ones who remain in touch with their ideals - or 'emotions' as Harris would have it - never lose sight of the bottom line, the longer-term goal that all the pragmatic compromises will ultimately be a means to realising. I believe that the SNP, for all their imperfections, still fit into that category - New Labour most certainly do not. Perhaps the most telling moment came when the Labour manifesto made the astonishing claim that "New Labour is the political wing of the British people". Strip that down and what does it actually mean? Whatever you want, we'll give it to you. That is the philosophy of a business trying to attain profit and prestige, not of a political movement with roots, principles and a purpose.

So what led me to write a post on this topic when I'd abandoned the idea a few days ago? Ah yes, it was Jeff's post, taking exception to Harris' characterisation of the SNP conference as a "hate-fest". Actually Harris had at the same time also suggested that one of the favourite pastimes of Nationalists is "alphabeticisng their grievances". What on earth is this guy's problem? It would be one thing if his jibes were actually likely to resonate with the public, but for there be the remotest chance of that his own party's public face would have to be a model of positivity and constructiveness. Instead, they're led by Iain "the Snarl" Gray. No, I can only think of one credible explanation for Harris' bitterness, it's an outlandish one but it's the only thing that fits - he must have been bullied at school by a Nat. If I'm right, perhaps I can suggest a remedy in language he ought to recognise and appreciate - "grow up, Tom, it's time to move on from the grievance".


  1. Pleased you were motivated to write this. I thought Tom Harris' post didn't deserve a response it was so ridiculous.

  2. Maybe Tom has missed the point that Labour had more of a natural following when they were driven by emotion, or call it heart-felt principles. They lost that when they moved to the right of caring conservatism.