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By Elizabeth Culliford (Proposition) and Harriet Smith Hughes (Opposition)
Elizabeth Culliford and Harriet Smith Hughes debate whether our politicians deserve the chop for their outbursts or whether we should let bygones be bygones
Gaffes tell us the truths our public figures don’t want us to hear.
Gaffes never lie. While politicians may not be telling the truth – Sarah Palin can’t see Russia from her window and Todd Akin won’t be giving sex-ed classes anytime soon – they are telling us about their beliefs, unpolished and without notes. There’s no such thing as a politician saying more than they should have said, because when microphones are left on or tweets fly straight past the press office, political figures are finally saying what they should have said before. Andrew Mitchell should have mentioned that the first insult that pops into his head is about social class, and Diane Abbott could have explained that it is fine to generalise that ‘white people love to divide and rule’ earlier on.
Some gaffes are just embarrassing mistakes, like Joe Biden cheering a wheelchair-bound man to ‘stand up, let ’em see you!’ Toes curl, but it shouldn’t take column inches. The real issue here is that as we don’t hold referendums on every decision but entrust that power to various personalities, the electorate should be aware of the type of person representing the country and making the choices. In a PR-dictated world most speeches say very little and these slips are all we have to hear the individual’s actual thoughts. Often, 140 characters can tell you more about the people running the country than whole party conferences.
There is also the question of competence. If someone can’t manage to type out an inoffensive hashtag then they are ill-equipped to deal with the art of foreign diplomacy, and if someone doesn’t understand the basic science of the female body then they aren’t qualified to make abortion laws.
Being caught out doesn’t always do harm. Reagan’s ‘we begin bombing in five minutes’ – though not a stroke of diplomatic genius – did show a sense of humour, whilst Gordon Brown’s annoyance at bigots might have won him some friends. But when nobody is laughing it is because politicians have revealed what was previously hidden behind smiles and handshakes, meaning that their role as a representative of the people has been falsely gained.
Offhand comments aren’t trivial distractions from the actual issues – they are a peephole to see what is shaping the issues themselves. If Romney isn’t interested in the ‘47%’ who don’t pay income taxes then that is useful to hear.
So yes, we know that politicians are just like the rest of us. We understand that they are human. But being human means that if you go around saying that ‘there’s nothing wrong with maintaining ethnic purity’ (worrying, from Jimmy Carter) or that women might as well ‘lie back and enjoy rape’ (a nice little gem from Clayton Williams), then you should not be in politics.
We can’t allow the media’s disproportionate emphais on gaffes to dictate the debate.
There are days when politics seems to be just an extended exercise in propriety. No wonder election turnout is so low – when the Westminster bubble’s shiny, sudsy surface of soundbites, grip-and-grins and grandstanding is all the majority of voters experience of politics. Politicians are condemned as dishonest and disingenuous for their rictus grins and photo ops. And yet they are living in fear of a minor embarrassment or a human mistake. We revel in their stupid slip-ups, and then despise them for being cautious. Apparently what the people want is a parliament of perfect beings. The result is a parliament of automatons.
The media plays a huge role in perpetuating the problem. When broadsheets dine for days off Jeremy Hunt being unfortunately burdened with a faulty handbell… well, that video was yawntastic, but the Guardian’s still milking it for occasional quips. If a good member of the British citizenry is involved, the bloody saga will run for weeks. Gordon Brown’s “bigot” embarrassment: a gift to weary newspaper editors and panel show comedy writers nationwide. But don’t try to pretend that it was actually significant.
The poor guy had been campaigning all hours of the day and night for weeks – he was understandably crabby, and hardly Little Miss Sunshine to begin with. What a harassed and exhausted man bitches about in his car is not politically important. Yes, it was stupid. But if you’d been weathering an onslaught of punter ignorance and indignation for days, you too would be bitchy. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be an excellent representative of the people. Politeness is a rubbish measure of political worth.
There are exceptions – for instance, the sporting of an SS uniform at a wedding. That is politically significant, because it reveals dangerous hidden beliefs and sympathies. Pleb-gate is just such an instance. Remove all the media fodder (oh the insult to our darling boys in blue!), and you have the Tory chief whip calling someone a “pleb”. The fact that this is a stock insult in Andrew Mitchell’s vocabulary – reached for without pause in a moment of anger – is politically significant. This is a man who thinks poverty amounts to an affront. And apparently David Cameron feels this is forgivable – perhaps, just maybe, understandable?
There’s a massive difference between allowing politicians to be human, and letting a real offence slide. If the political world miraculously matured enough to enable politicians to actually get on with policy, free of fear of petty scandal, everyone would benefit. Politics would become more open, and politicians more easily assessable by the electorate (…and we would all live in peace and harmony, and have unlimited access to free chocolate cake). Meanwhile in Westminster, petty propriety prevails, but Andrew Mitchell still has a job.