Saturday, 28 April 2012

A voice to the voiceless

Curious how interesting conversation can be on Twitter despite the draconian limitations of its format.

Today an exchange with a fellow tweeter Diana Smith (@mulberrybush) introduced me to a remarkable video, Game's Over (@GamesOverFilm):

Ironically, Diane is based in Stafford where we used to live. A shame our paths didn’t cross at that time. Still, at least our 140-character exchanges are making up for it now.

What frightened me most about the government that took power in Britain in 2010 was not so much its delusions, its mendaciousness or even its incompetence, but its indifference to the plight of others.

‘Lack of compassion can quickly slip into cruelty, and this is going to be a cruel government,’ I told a friend who’d voted Tory.

‘Oh, come on,’ she replied, ‘you’re not giving them a chance. And how can they be worse than Gordon Brown?’

That comparison with Brown was striking. In trying to understand politics, I find myself increasingly using two sets of polar oppositions based on terms which might at first glance not seem that opposed: politician and statesman on the one hand, empathy and charisma on the other.

The essential task of a politician is to win office, and charisma helps enormously. David Cameron had bags of it, as did Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and they won the highest offices in their respective countries.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, was a hopeless politician and short on charisma. He came across as boorish, churlish, uncouth. His defeat came in large part because voters chose charm over unsmiling competence.

For competence is what Brown had in spades. And he made up in empathy for what he lacked in charisma. He could understand the pain felt by people whose suffering he didn’t necessarily share.

The effect was striking. Within eighteen months of the most serious economic crisis the world had seen for a century, the Brown government had Britain back to growth with unemployment falling.

That’s statesmanship.

Cameron’s crew have taken us back into recession and sent unemployment climbing towards record heights, and it isn’t just incompetence. As Game's
 Over shows, the fundamental problem is that they don’t care.

Their charisma makes them articulate, even inspiring. Most of the people they are harming are tongue-tied or even voiceless.

A politics that matters, a politics that leads to justice will set as its key goal to give such people their voice. To speak for them when that’s necessary, but far better, to help them speak for themselves. For that we need statesmen not politicians and, while charisma will do no harm, what matters far more is empathy.

That’s why next week’s election in France is important. Sarkozy has panache  but no empathy and, as he
’s shown over five years, precious little competence. His challenger, Fran├žois Hollande, has made a virtue of his very ordinariness. What he has promised to do is to speak up for the powerless and he shows every sign of meaning it. 

Of course, like all leaders of the Centre-Left, he can disappoint too. He’s started talking about the need to limit immigration, a subject he’d studiously avoided previously. But then, you do have to get elected to do any good and, with 18% of the electorate voting for the far right, he presumably feels he owes them some concession.

Still, he’s ordinary and empathetic, and he’s up against charismatic and remorseless. And at the moment the polls are showing him on 55% to the incumbent’s 45%, with nearly a quarter of even the far right voters coming over to his side.

Maybe, just maybe, the French are showing us that our celebrity-obsessed societies are beginning to see through charisma and understand that a good politician can’t hold a candle to a real statesman.

We in Britain also have a leader of the opposition who’s having trouble connecting with the electorate, a Gordon Brown rather than a Nicolas Sarkozy. Though his Labour party sits on a comfortable lead over Cameron’s Tories, Ed Milliband is simply not setting the electorate alight. On the other hand, every time he speaks out he does so with increasing authority and he shows his ability to empathise with the marginalised, the underprivileged, the suffering.

A government led by such a man won’t be perfect, any more than a government led by Hollande would be, but it will at least aspire to social justice and decency. There’s no such aspiration today, as Game
’s Over shows. A society which at least sets out to ensure none are excluded, all have a voice, is a better and healthier place for everyone to live, whether we are among today’s victims or not.

Mr Ordinary may win in France next Sunday. And if he does he will set an example for us on this side of the Channel.

One I hope we shall emulate at the earliest opportunity.

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