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The Dangers of Polite Demagogues

September 3rd, 2018

The cartoonist known as Pont is perhaps best remembered (if at all) for his Punch series on the English character. The cartoons depict a certain type of pre-war English upper middle class life (dressing for dinner, hunting, country weekends, clubland, patient, stoic enjoyment of outdoor pursuits, bewilderment at Abroad and the need to Keep up Standards, often to the point of absurdity) laced with endearing eccentricity. It is a life which has largely disappeared, save for those (often foreigners) wealthy enough to indulge in some of its nicer aspects. Yet some of his gently humorous observations still resonate: Absence of Decision is the ideal gift for Mrs May when she finally retires. A Tendency to Be Hearty quietly pokes fun at the Farages of this world. The Importance of Not Being Alien speaks for itself.

Two of his cartoons – Political Apathy and the Importance of Not Being Intellectual capture a very English mistrust of Big Ideas and and the excitable politicians promoting them. Big Philosophical Ideas are for Foreigners. Odd really since Locke, Paine, Burke, Mill and Adam Smith have a pretty good claim to have come up with the ideas which have shaped an important strand of Western political thought. Still, Utopian politics have never had much purchase in English politics, at least since the Civil War. If anyone felt the need to start reshaping societies radically, there was America available or, later, the Empire. No Napoleons for us, thank you very much!

Some of that scepticism has been felt about politicians who were charismatic, fluent, outsiders in some respect and, possibly, unreliable or dangerous. Non-U, to coin a term. But at various times, oh so necessary. Disraeli, rescuing the Tories from the electoral wilderness. Later, Lloyd George. Or Churchill. The latter two reached their zenith in wartime, when ordinary rules no longer apply.

But Mosley (arguably as talented and charismatic) was not trusted, the English instinctively viewing him as a Roderick Spode rather than a new Messiah. Angry, foam-flecked shouting is associated with dangerous, possibly religious based, idees fixe (Ian Paisley and his Whore of Babylon) or encouraging violence (Scargill ruining the miners’ case by talking about overthrowing the government). Even when radical change was wanted, it was a conventional, polite, taciturn, traditional leader (Attlee) who was trusted to deliver it.

Radicalism does not necessitate ranting and rallies (though it does need thoughtful preparation) and, if a bit of passion is needed, well, Welsh politicians are always available. (Scots politicians touch us in other ways.) There was something admirable in a determination not to reward demagoguery.

A stereotype no doubt and probably no longer true, if it ever was. There was demagoguery aplenty two years ago and last year. Still, it is true that manners, how people behave, speak and look has always played a part in how politicians are assessed. This tendency seems more marked nowadays with the perpetual search for the charismatic, authentic (policies an optional extra) politician who will make people feel good and inspire them while not frightening the horses or, at least, not too many of them.

Viewed in this light, Corbyn captures the zeitgeist almost perfectly. Mild-mannered, patient, with the air of a kindly, determined uncle with gentle eccentric hobbies (allotments, manhole covers) only becoming exasperated at being unfairly pressed, as anyone would, really (or so his supporters say) and yet, on stage, able to generate adoring loyalty and admiration.

Little wonder at the frustration of those who see a petulant evasiveness, questionable judgment, malicious indifference to those outside his circle and passive-aggressive response to criticism or challenge behind it. Not hard to be calm, after all, if others to do the ranting for you; even easier to claim it has nothing to do with you, should someone be so rude as to complain.

Meanwhile, the Tories, lumbered with a dutiful leader doggedly pursuing an ill-thought through policy which its main proponents can now barely explain, let alone implement competently, pathetically latch onto the latest saviour politician for the post-May deluge (Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Javid, Hunt, Raab) each time one manages to walk and talk in public without falling over.

Let’s take Rees-Mogg who, with his suits, 8-year old’s haircut, devotion to Nanny and courtly fluent politeness, could have walked straight out of a Pont cartoon. He talks beautifully, has lovely manners charming even his most determined opponents and has the requisite amount of eccentricity.

Or Johnson with his messy hair, ill-fitting clothes, classical aphorisms, rather-too-pleased-with-itself wit and carefully crafted bumbling persona. That either of them should be viewed as serious contenders for the highest office suggests a failure to listen to what they say, to see that they mostly talk nonsense, sometimes dangerous, ill thought-out and harmful nonsense. It is a measure of how out of ideas and talent the Tories seem to be that amateurish eccentricity, incompetence in office and Boys Own enthusiasm are even thought of as serious contenders.

Against them, Corbyn, catering for the 1960’s nostalgia market, can almost look like the grown up. Almost.  Some of his criticisms are well-founded; some of his policies sensible in aim, if not execution. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Easy to see the dangers in excitable ranting. Less so when dangerous ideas or plain nonsense are spoken quietly. Mildness is not the same as moderation. Bad ideas do not become better because they are presented fluently. Fervour is not a substitute for thought. If the English have been good at not falling for obvious demagogues, they seem now all too willing to fall for polite ones.

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