Monday 23 March 2009

The Joy of Party Politics

I remember when Margaret Thatcher resigned.
I had never known another Prime Minister.

I did not really remember the miner's strike, just really the word. Power cuts when I was very young and hearing the miners blamed. The Falklands meant nothing, it had happened when I was four.

What I did know was when Thatcher got in, the country had been going up shite creek faster than a slut down a slide. It had been a mess.

My teens kind of tended to incline me to the view, comparing the two parties, that the creeds offered were quite simple.

It seemed to me that the Labour Party was a kind of unholy alliance between nice people with nice ideas that never worked in practice together with unscrupulous militants who sought to establish a dictatorship of some kind. John Smith on the one hand, Arthur Scargill on the other.

Whilst the Tories were an unholy alliance between the worst elements of the ruling classes- the likes of Michael Heseltine- with decent people who could see working with these types as the only way to ACTUALLY make things better for the common man. People like John Major.

I guess I genuinely felt back than that it really was a kind of Hobson's choice. Working with the Tories meant working with bastards. But bastards who had a vested interest in keeping society functioning. And many people of principle made that choice because of the alternative. Labour governments seemed only ever to be inept, or authoritarian.

I joined the Tory Party in 1994 as a direct response to Blair being elected Labour leader. Many saw him as the great new hope.
I thought he reminded me of Hitler.

My parents had always been quite apolitical. My Mum didn't vote and my Dad had voted Liberal Democrat in 1992 as a protest vote.

I guess my Toryism wasn't Conservatism in the old sense. It was very much of the radical Thatcherite kind. The classless Free Market, economically liberal, Anti-Europe, C2 type. Essex Man Toryism. The figures I admired in the party were Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley.

And I became quite the young activist.
I was on my Branch committee at seventeen, as well as the Policy Committee. I earned my spurs in the party by canvassing a council estate in a hopeless ward in the 1995 local elections. Yes, me. Wondering round in a suit and a blue rosette.

I loved it. Politics. Campaigning. Knocking doors. Meetings. Constituency functions. Being pretty much a generation younger than anyone else on the committee, I had this powerful sense of- going somewhere.

I guess I had my life plan all figured out. I figured the Tories would be out for two terms. But the wave that brought them back in would carry me with it. They'd lose in 1997 and 2001, but win in 2005. And my aim was to be contesting a parliamentary seat for the Tories in that election. A hopeless seat maybe. But maybe a good performance might land me a safe seat for the election thereafter.

Were any of my convictions sincere? To an extent, yes. They weren't well thought through, no. But at the time, they were as well thought through as most of the right wing blogs one sees about the place. I read the things they write and think 'I said stuff like this at Policy Committee Meetings many years ago...I believed this stuff back then'. And older members would nod wisely thinking 'This lad will go far'.

The 1996 Party Conference at Bournemouth. How can I NOT remember it? I look back on it and a part of me thinks that the future could have been very different. I was eighteen. And very politically ambitious.
I went to the launch meeting of Conservatives Against a Federal Europe. Brilliantly conspiratorial. There was a sense there, I think, that once the Major government had gone, the Eurosceptics would inherit the party. Simply being there, you felt you were on the winning side.
I remember enthusiastically forcing my hand in to Teddy Taylor's and kind of cocking up by offering him a drink, not being aware the man was teatotal...

And I met Portillo...

I can remember the very last day of the conference sitting next to a very pretty blonde girl from Folkestone who spoke of Michael Howard with gushing praise. I wasn't his biggest fan because I disagreed with his hang' em and flog' em policies, but she spoke highly of him. Nice girl. And now the Conservative candidate for Chatham and Aylesford, I find. Ms Tracey Crouch. I explained to her I was the new Vice Chairman for Aberystwyth Conservative Students (membership about 7, I think). We exchanged details with a view to organising some galvanising event. It never happened.

It was a euphoric feel, that final day. Major made a good speech. One couldn't help feeling that if optimism and sheer determination counted for anything, maybe there wouldn't be a landslide.

As I was waiting for the train back to Aber, I saw Peter Lilley at the platform. I kid ye not. I couldn't resist it. I had to go up and chat to him and tell him my honest opinion that I saw him as the best candidate to follow Major after the inevitable defeat. Not strictly true, Portillo was, but hey, if the guy was to win, It certainly wouldn't have been bad to be the guy he chatted to last in Bournemouth who told him to. You'd think hundreds of people approach them; they don't. And I actually encountered the lovely Ms Crouch again, who appeared from nowhere. I gathered he'd met her before.

The 1997 election shocked me profoundly. In terms of scale of defeat. To be honest, I rather took the view that organising any kind of resistance at Aber to the Unions dominance by Labour and Plaid Cymru was rather pointless. The Tories were yesterdays news or now. The Tories needed a rethink after such a huge defeat- and so did I.

I was briefly Chairman of the University Tories, but kind of dropped out. Sex and Drugs were far more appealing ways to spend time.
And I needed to clarify my own political outlook.

After I graduated, I did get back involved. Part of that had to do with Portillo's return to politics. I liked the things he was saying and I liked his vision of where he thought the Tories should go. A true liberal party. Economically and socially liberal. A party that didn't alienate ethnic minorities and gay people by pursuing policies with a whiff of Fascism to them. I believed it was perfectly possible to have a party that believed in limited government on all counts. One that would on the one hand roll back taxes and cut red tape, but would also legalise drugs and stop pushing family values.

And I wanted to be in the party, at the thick of it, fighting that corner. But also, I'd missed it. Missed sitting at committee meetings gesticulating with my pen. Missed door knocking. Missed the blue rosette and the clipboard.

Fact is, there's nothing like it. You have to experience it to feel that. Politics is- it's a buzz, it is. No two ways about it. All of it. And canvassing especially. Going on a charm offensive, standing there on the doorstep in your crisp suit and your sprayed curls and looking into the eyes of the housewife and yes the words you're saying are 'Well, yes, if we win control of the council we plan to...' but your eyes are saying 'Would you like to fuck me? Would you? Then vote Tory!'

Yes, I missed it.

To be honest, I had in many started to move so far away from my party in terms of privately held opinions, that it really would only take actually reading Das Kapital to make me realise that I had in reality been a Marxist a long time, without really knowing it.
But at the time, I certainly believed that government by the Tories HAD to be better than government by Labour (which I still believe) and why leave a party you have a good track record in that can give you what you always wanted.

Those magic words...
'I therefore declare *** ****** to be elected to serve as member of parliament for this constituency'.

Christ. That moment HAS to be better than sex with someone you love. 25,000 odd people sticking a cross by your name.

I guess by this time I was quite cynical. The whole things a game, but since it is, it's a great game to be playing. And if I made it to parliament, as long as I didn't care too much about a ministerial career, I could use the media spotlight to advance some highly liberal causes.

It never came to pass, of course. Life- took a different path. Because I had other facets to my life and- things came tumbling down, no secret about that.

But I suppose once all the dust settled from my life collapse in my twenties, it really did have a number of effects.

One was a certain relief that at last I really could be totally honest with myself and others about the things truly believed. I was freed from the burden of pretending to think things I didn't think, simply to further a political career. Secondly, I realised I actually cared very passionately about a lot of things I had never really cared about before this collapse. I felt the same passion I had always felt for politics- but differently. Now I actually felt passionate about real issues, not passionate about blue rosettes.

I actually cared.

And part of this was the realisition that there wasn't really a political movement with a place for my beliefs anyway, but even if there were, they'd never now choose me as a candidate. I'd blown that.

But...I missed it. And I knew I always would.

Meeting in drafty sports halls, committee meetings in smoke filled rooms, the networking, the constituency functions where you walk in knowing you're simply going to work the room, its a room filled with power and influence and you are going to make them love you.
And the thrill of campaigning. The race of the pulse as you prepare yourself to go out canvassing, is like preparing to go out on stage. And just as exhilerating. You make sure you haven't got a hair out of place, your shirt is immaculate, your shoes polished, you have that look between a cherub and Adam Ant in a suit.

It is one of those things that if you have had it in your life, nothing else can ever compare.

My partner at the time found it something hard to get used to. We were engaged, we lived together. But I think she found it difficult to get her head round her relative importance in the scheme of things. I think she basically accepted it, that most of the time, she got more time than The Party did. Because the demands of the party were less. But if it ever came to a choice, The Party would win. The phrase 'I would sell my own grandmother for The Party' was irrelevant, I'd never need to, though I would have done. I might have to sell her, she realised that, and I wouldn't have thought twice.

Even though she could never remember which party I was a member of...

I remember polling day morning, 2001. Her asking me 'Who do you want me to vote for then?'

She had no idea. I never talked politics with her, really. She knew it mattered to me. She didn't care who won. But she knew I did. And knew, furthermore if everything came to pass the way I hoped it would, that the time we spent together would one day end. That one day she would simply be a smiling face at constituency meetings, that if all came to pass the way I wanted it to, she'd see more of me by watching Today in Parliament, than she ever would in the flesh.

But she was prepared to accept all that. Even accept the fact I would sleep with other people than her simply to further my political career. Because she understood what she was to me, understood the place Romantic Love held to me. That to me, life is about a work-play balance. Politics was work, she was play.

I guess I look back at those times and I feel a bit uneasy. I shake my head at how devoted I was to a political party. Because these days I despise them all.

I don't despise my attitude though. I think THAT was right. I think I showed the right attitude one should have to causes.

I guess the way I feel about it now, is that it shows the tragedy of our system. Most people make the majority error. I made the minority error.

The way I felt about The Party was right, I think. One should have that attitude to something. To one's place in life. The thing is, the only institutions and causes on offer in todays world are so unworthy of it.

So many people make the opposite mistake. Of thinking that sort of devotion is never worth it.

As a society the lack of any decent higher principles to serve, has turned us jaded. Because we are so used to the idea that single minded devotion to a cause is sinister. We associate it with shouting and screaming Brownshirts, or Trotskyite lunatics.
And thus we seek to find fulfillment in shallow, trivial things. I don't just mean sex and drugs. I mean selfish, introverted things. The idea that Romantic Love can give you total fulfillment is only one up on individualism, perhaps we could call it dividualism.

People who, like I did, believe that total fulfillment can come through total subservient devotion to serving a party are mislead too, and those sincere and honest ideals are warped to produce the power matrix.
But we're far better people than those who never feel that, who never feel that unique fulfillment that being part of a mass movement can bring.

Orwell struggled with this, I realise. Struggled with the dynamics of all this. Orwell described the need to be part of 'working, striving, triumphing, persecuting' movement as sex gone wrong. I think he was wrong there. But on the right lines. Because I do believe that part of the greatness of man is that our highly increased sex drives gives us so much excess sexual energy we need somewhere to put it. No matter how much sex we have, it can never be enough. That surplus energy drives us to seek our fulfillment in building communal efforts, our urge to live on after our death drives us to create things of which we can be part that will live on after we die. Orwell being, in his heart a loner, recognised this, but could not see that it is not this destruction of this dynamic we should seek, but a way of turning it to positive use.

The difference between myself and Winston Smith is quite simple. Winston never quite understood INGSOC. I do.

I am honest enough to admit to myself that if I lived in 1984 world AND I WAS A MEMBER OF THE INNER PARTY, I'd be quite happy. Every single drive of mine would be met. I would look upon INGSOC as the ultimate system of perfection.

Part of the reason 1984 works is that Winston HAS to be a member of the OUTER party, a member of the Inner party wouldn't feel the way he does.

1984 doesn't entirely address this. The final chapters. The pathetic contrast between O'Brien and Winston. Time and time again one sees the intellectual superiority of O'Brien over Winston. Winston's heart may be in the right place, but he has no guiding principles. Just a dislike of INGSOC. And that is not enough. When O'Brien replays the tape where Winston proudly declares he would commit atrocities in the name of the Brotherhood and uses that to demonstrate that Winston cannot claim moral superiority, Winston cannot reply.

And yet the response is not so very hard. It is the response that Von Stauffenburg might have given, or Morpheus in The Matrix. O'Brien knows the response, Winston doesn't.
I sometimes wonder whether Orwell isn't in fact subtly making this point. O'Brien clearly does not love Big Brother, not really. He is no fool. Otherwise he would not be able to empathise so clearly with Winston- even if this empathy is to be misused. If, as he claims, he co-wrote the 'book within a book' he is at heart, with Winston. Winston is indeed right to see O'Brien as sympathetic. He is. He sympathises with the fact that what really drives Winston is that the system is based on manipulation of people's drives and that he is in on it and Winston isn't.

But O'Brien is actually the key. O'Brien understands. Winston is merely a plot device, he isn't a hero, any more than O'Brien is a villain. Winston's journey of discovery is in fact a journey by the reader in to the pathetic reality of why his type of people either blindly support totalitarianism or get wiped out. Symes or Winston, they are both equally feeble.

The reality is, it is in the perversion of the O'Briens of this world that such systems triumph. Nobody has cozened O'Brien. He did it to himself. Consciously.

The last few chapters aren't so much a study of INGSOC, but a study in how good people become servants of it. Not slaves, up till then, we've seen the slaves, this goes deeper, the servants.

Why O'Brien, a man who can truly understand the workings of it all, so much so he can contribute to writing a book explaining in humane terms the perversion that is INGSOC, still ends up serving it.

Evil systems are not created by individuals, they develop. Standing up and saying no, is a risk. If no one else says no, you go to Room 101. It really is an act of faith. O'Brien serves INGSOC because it can serve his drives. He has no faith that life can be different.

When I say I have no regrets in life, I mean it. Sometimes that surprises people.

But I mean it.

I have no regrets because I am not a Winston. I am an O'Brien. I am driven the way he is, I think the way he does. Do not think O'Brien is a man of no feeling. Remember, he wrote the book within a book which shows that he can feel, emote, understand. It's merely that he has learnt to warp his own passions and feelings.

I feel I have been freed from that. For good or ill. I am an O'Brien who has fallen foul of INGSOC and now seeks it's demise.

Because I no longer have anything to gain from it's success. So my book within a book, my 'Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism' really is written, not to lure people into a false Brotherhood to lead them to Room 101, but to actually stop INGSOC in it's tracks. My Brotherhood, is for real.

For the reader dear to my heart who asked what I ultimately wanted out of life, I hope this post has clarified that.

To eat, sleep, drink and beathe the revolution. What else could I possibly want?


Old BE said...

Fascinating stuff. I know that "buzz" only too well! I actually thought I wanted to be involved in politics after I stood for council. Soon wore off.

Blogroll link updated :-)

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

I guess I agree with part of your post.

I figure Voting Labour in the days of Michael Foot and Arthur Scargill, if you actually understood what you were doing and were not just mindlessly voting a party ticket, had to be the political equivalent of self harming.

I can't say such stuff ever made me want to join the Conservative party, any more than Tony Blair made me want to Join New-Labour.

I don't have a good opinion of MPs. New Labour seem worse than any others in my memory for plain dishonesty. They lie to get elected. I guess most do but they are so blatant and barefaced about it.

As for their expenses and rules, they almost seem designed by crooks. In fact that latest MP the one who was claiming an allowance on his parents place that was only 8 miles from his own. The one who said he never broke any rules and has stopped doing it anyway. So if he really didn't think what he was doing was immoral then why stop?

I figure the thing you really need to keep in mind is that any government that is too powerful is a threat to those they govern. Their idea of keeping us safe is protective custody.

We need less government, enough to give the people room to breathe.

But revolution? No thanks, not unless it is more like the glorious revolution.

X. Dell said...

Very interesting post. Really ties together the theme of the blog, your own personal history, and your observations about "political" parties.

(1) I have discovered, just annecdotally by talking to people, that if you really dissected the true ideology of the average American, it would be Marxist. Not surprising, really, since most people are working class. The irony is, however, that they see themselves and their ideals as the antitheses of Marxism, mostly because they've been taught that it was a ruthless, irrational evil as evidenced by such parties as the KGB and Stalin.

(2) The fervor that you had for politics is something that I can certainly understand. Were I a normal person, I probably would have felt the same way about many a leftist party. But I'm not mch of a joiner. I didn't get out of political activism because I wanted to, but because many of the groups I worked with rejected me for interpersonal reasons. I still support them when I can, for I believe that the things they stand for are correct. But I've always seen the difference between good intentions and weak people. So far, I find it a superior position than being a strong people with horrific or selfish intentions.

But the crux of it is this: how much can one devote to party politics while retaining her autonomy?

(3) I realize that the British Conservative and Labour parties are in little way analogous to our Democratic and Republican paries. Yet, I couldn't really distinguish core differences between their ideologies, only surface ones.

(4) Would political office definitely be out of the question? People can rehabilitate their image, you know.

Anonymous said...

You never cease to amaze me.