Never mind bureaucracy. Forget technocracy. Put to the back of your mind the rising lawyerocracy, like those 1,000 puffed-up, demos-fearing lawyers who yesterday insisted that the EU referendum result is not binding. For there’s a worse ‘ocracy than those, one which has an even greater draining effect on politics, one which leeches the life and colour from public debate. And that’s the sneerocracy, the rise of a meme-making, mick-taking, cynicism-stoking Twitterati and commentariat who never — but never — give a politician the benefit of the doubt and whose trade is snide rather than substance.
Consider the fall of Andrea Leadsom. I know, I know: the only thing we’re meant to say about Leadsom is ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’. The stupid woman said something stupid and therefore she deserved to be destroyed, amirite? Actually, her fall is more complicated than that. It deserves analysis. For it speaks to the spread of the sneerocrats, who are like a carbuncle on political life, ready to drag down any politico who misspeaks, says something off-colour, cracks an unwise gag, or commits some other breed of thoughtcrime. Very few survive the barbs and memes and petitions of the sneerocracy.
It was the intolerance aimed at Leadsom that was alarming. As it happens, I think she was wrong to say that having kids gives one a greater stake in the future. But we seem increasingly incapable of simply saying ‘I disagree with you’. In these feverish, always-on, politically tribalised times, ‘I think you’re wrong’ has been replaced with ‘OMG. I can’t even. WHAT IS THIS RUBBISH’. The former nurtures debate, the latter destroys it. In the sneerocracy, whose kingdom is Twitter, whose heroes are the snider newspaper commentators (no names!), and whose weapons are photoshop and arch 140-character putdowns, politicians are never wrong or misguided: they’re ridiculous or pathetic or evil, creatures to be sneered at rather than engaged with.
So it was that Leadsom was not merely criticised — as all politicians ought to be — but set upon, viciously, branded backwards and insane and possibly not fully human. The attacks on her were infinitely uglier than anything she actually said. The sneerocrats never say ‘You’re wrong to say that’ — they say ‘You can’t say that’. And in the process they freeze debate, make politicians more cautious, shrink the parameters of acceptable thought. You can laugh at Leadsom’s demise all you like, but you must realise that we’re losing something rather more important than this lady who, in my view, isn’t quite ready for high political office: we’re losing the ability to have cool, deep debate; to disagree; to discuss; to do politics at all.
That’s the end result of the sneerocracy, of the tweeting-and-bleating outrage machine: politics itself becomes impossible. Dreading being Twitch-hunted, politicians keep their more experimental or eccentric ideas to themselves. Fearing the wrath of a snidey commentariat, politicians play it safe. It’s always the weirder, more colourful or most principled politicians who get it in the neck from the sneerocrats: Boris, Farage, Gove. The end result? Greyness. A bland, safe, Blairite wasteland where ideas and argument ought to be. The bores win. The technocrats stride to power. The ‘safe pair of hands’ — who never say anything daring or provocative or stupid — come out on top. Like Theresa May.
The more we mock the politician who dares set foot outside the borders of acceptable ideas, the more we turn politics into the preserve of the dull. It’s the final irony: the sneerocrats think they’re being edgy and funny, yet they help to keep politics edge-free and wit-less.