The collapse of the old order in the West provoked a collapse in confidence in ‘professional politicians’. It was a boo phrase as reliable as ‘heretic’ in the medieval church. A speaker wishing to endear himself or herself to the audience only had to say that the country was sick to the back teeth of them to earn a round of applause.
On a material level, there were rational reasons for the loathing. We do not say often enough that Western societies have failed their peoples. The average Briton or American has not had a pay rise for over a decade. Growth rates in Britain appear to have taken a permanent knock, and that is before Brexit. Any people can put up with suffering if they know it is a temporary measure. Give them austerity without end and permanent wage cuts and they will revolt.
As important as the economics is the psychology behind the revulsion. Even in the good times, there was always something inhuman about professional politicians. They were too calculating and too cold; they had one eye over their shoulder and the other assessing the odds. You never got a straight look from them – or a straight answer. The triumphs of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, and their counterparts in Hungary and Poland were the triumphs of authentic amateurs over yesterday’s phoney men. At least that is what they wanted you to believe.
Amateur politicians now rule us. And as ought to be clear, they are a disaster. Politics may not be a profession with entrance exams and formal qualifications, but statecraft remains a skill politicians must master if their country is not to suffer. For instance, a professional politician would not go on holiday to Israel and hold secret bilateral meetings with the prime minister and his subordinates without telling the Foreign Office. The British government, like every other government, has its foreign policy. It’s not Priti Patel’s place to invent a foreign policy of her own, to reveal dissension or make promises on Britain’s behalf that cannot be kept.
By rights, the Foreign Secretary should be furious. Unfortunately for us, the Foreign Secretary is Boris Johnson. He understands that class-ridden Britain grants a special dispensation to faux-aristocratic eccentrics, who can quote Tacitus and the Beano in the same sentence. If he were working class, Johnson would never get away with his Wodehousian poses. Indeed, he would never have had the self-confidence to think of trying to get away with it. His act – and everyone who knows or has studied Johnson says that the Foreign Secretary is the most calculating political actor of our time – is based on a cool understanding of the double-standards that lie deep in our culture. He cannot control his tongue; he does not bother with detail. If he were in nearly every middle- or working-class job, he would be fired. As it is, he is a Foreign Secretary, who places British citizens in danger through his incontinent blabbering.
Supporters of Brexit and Trump on the one side and Corbyn on the other have this much in common: they all believe that they are the enemies of ‘the elite’. In one sense they are right. They would not be in control of the US, UK and Britain’s official opposition if the Anglo-American elites had not failed us so badly.
But now they are failing in turn, it is important to know how to fight them. To my mind, it is no good countering Johnson, Farage and Trump by saying ‘yah boo and sucks but they are rich elitists too’, as so many on the left do. Equally, it is no use thinking you can defeat Corbyn by pointing out that he and so many of his lieutenants are the children of privilege, as so many on the right do.
From the Gracchi onwards, radical change has happened only when the ruling class splits. If you doubt me, consider that since the 1960s there were electoral gains to be made by mobilising anti-immigrant sentiment. The mainstream parties were sensibly wary of playing to nativist fears too blatantly until, first Farage, and then Gove, Johnson and the other Brexiteers, decided that the race card was the card that could win them a referendum. The masses, or at least the 52 per cent, had the elite leadership and elite approval they always need, and acted accordingly.
Equally, old-time socialist religion has always won the loudest cheers in the Labour conferences. But with all Labour’s leaders since 1983 saying they would not have the money for social democracy if they scared off private enterprise, the members’ visceral instincts never overwhelmed the party. Now they have a leader who promises them that socialism without tears is possible, they can let their feeling run riot.
Charges of hypocrisy get you nowhere in these circumstances. For if their supporters sincerely believe that Brexit or socialism in one country are feasible political projects, they won’t care that Johnson went to Eton or Seumas Milne went to Winchester. Rather than waste time, it is better to stick to the best democratic line of attack and hold them to account.
Much though many on the right do not want to admit it, they are the elite now: the people in power who are running Britain and America. Right-wingers can, if they must, deplore liberal elites in the arts or Hollywood, but the elites that matter, the elites which stand above all others in the Anglo-American world, are the supporters of Brexit and Trump.
To put it another way, the men and women who clawed their way to the top by denouncing the political class are the new political class. Ours is a time of proudly amateur political leaders, and look at the mess they are leaving us. After the dismal displays of Patel and Johnson, perhaps the ‘next big thing’ will be the return of professional politicians. They may not have answers to your problems. But then the professional surgeon who operates on you may not cure your sickness. That’s no reason to prefer a quack instead.