Has the constant criticism of politics run out of steam?

By Robert Ede January 26, 2015 10:06 am

In 2004, eminent philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour wrote an influential article entitled: Has the critique run out of steam? Latour argued that social scientists, in seeking to deconstruct and question the assumptions of the ‘pure’ sciences, were left almost paralysed; having debunked everything they were left with nothing to say with empirical certainty. He appeared concerned and regretful that his cherished critical ideas had been taken too far. Citing the example of global warming, Latour explained how such criticism has been misappropriated by the anti-science field. If nothing in the sciences could be certain, so the theory goes, then surely all evidence of man-made global warming was open to contention? In the wrong hands, Latour warned, such ideas could spawn a deep cynicism, fuelling the Merchants of Doubts. This incorrect application of social construction “could destroy hard-won evidence that could save lives”.

Reading this piece on critical science studies, I found myself drawing comparisons with how we critique our current political system. The deep resentment of the so-called “Establishment” within Westminster politics is undoubtedly widespread. Posh boys, career politicians, out-of-touch, elitist, sexist – whatever the moniker of choice, the point is essentially the same: the vast majority of our mainstream politicians are not representative of us. The evidence is certainly supportive of this.  But is criticising the establishment with such a populist trope actually effective? Do we just end up with a cynical politics where we lampoon our elected representatives at every turn?

As a population, we increasingly expect our MPs to be all things to all people. Under the critical gaze of 24hr news and the relentless social media machine, they must look relaxed whilst every aspect of their existence is scrutinised – from eating a bacon sandwich to meeting heads of state. The next unforgiving meme, viral video or twitter storm is always nearby. They must know the price of a pint of milk, whilst simultaneously be briefed on every aspect of their party’s economic manifesto.

This has a straight-jacket like effect on much of mainstream politics, with politicians starved of breathing space in which they can simply be themselves. The fear of failure is everywhere; in a world where a simple tweet can end a career, only a few are brave enough go beyond the key policy messages that are drummed into them by the party whips. Every event, meeting, conversation is carefully stage managed to avoid our politicians from wandering from the script. And when the parties do look to grapple with content, it’s done in negatives – endlessly lambasting the records of their rivals in the “green-bench pantomime in Westminster” that is so derided by those outside the bubble of SW1A.

All this constant scrutiny is self-defeating.  We end up cynical of politicians, politicians end up cynical of the public and politics suffers, with low voter turnout and levels of engagement. This apathy can have a darker, more dangerous edge too, acting like oxygen for extreme views that wouldn’t ordinarily have a place in our politics.

The public are not blameless in this. We have helped foster this almost irreconcilable dissatisfaction in the ruling elite.

Furthermore, it would appear that the dangers of this unhelpful, tiresome criticism are being recognised by some, such as former Tory MP Matthew Parris.

“The world of politics would be right to be cynical about the population” said Parris in a recent episode of the BBC’s Week in Westminster. “People complain when politicians tend to agree with each other and don’t seem to be offering much of a difference….and people then complain when they seem to be accentuating those differences. The public always complains”.

This sentiment is undoubtedly shared by many in both Houses. However, practically no one apart from Parris feels prepared to admit it – it is impossible for either politicians or the media to openly criticise the public, as they are the lifeblood for both.

But as we gear up for the longest election campaign ever, I believe we would do well to reflect on Parris’ conclusion.

I would argue that it is time we became more careful in our questioning of the Establishment. Of course, being patient and not sweeping in our criticisms is neither sexy nor straightforward. A blind criticism of everything Westminster stands for is a much easier idea to understand but, as Parris alludes to, we lose the meaning of critique in such gross generalisms.

We need to challenge our media to focus on policy not personality, to encourage our politicians to take clear stances that can voters can believe in, and to take it upon ourselves to debate the things that matter between ourselves, in our own communities. Example could be drawn from the recent Scotland referendum, where the entire population became re-engaged in the democratic process. Perhaps then politicians would do a better job at promoting their own trade.

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary” Churchill said. Britain’s most famous Prime Minister was right, but so too should we take heed of Latour’s prophecy and keep our critical powers preserved for the things that really matter. Lest we be left powerless in the end.

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