Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Clegg's Diana Moment?

There was an interesting discussion earlier today on the Left-wing blog Though Cowards Flinch (I don't normally go there, but Alix Mortimer tweeted me in its direction) on the meaning and durability of "Cleggmania". Paul Cotterill argued that "the sudden desire on the part of a section of the public to be feel attached to some kind of sudden mass movement of emotion is a bit like Dianamania." As in 1997, he thinks, people want to feel they have "an active part in a some kind of anti-establishment swell" - an essentially shallow emotion, he implies, casting Nick Clegg in the role of Diana's brother Earl Spencer who briefly articulated a public mood but was "no real reformer, no real catalyst for change." David Cameron gets to be the Queen, "struggling to cope with forces he doesn’t understand." (Perhaps he forgets that Her Majesty soon recovered her popularity and five years later was cheered in the Mall by crowds almost as large on the occasion of her Jubilee.)

Cotterill is a believer in the myth of the anti-Tory majority; he imagines that the Clegg bounce reveals a public desire for "real political change, of the kind that involves real shift in power over material resources". He means socialism, I suppose. Good luck with that. A somewhat deeper analysis came in a comment from Hackney landlord and occasional blogger John Q Publican, who challenged the comparison with the florid but transitory reaction to the car-crash at the Point D'Alma. He thinks something profound is going on:


The expenses scandal left most of the country not, as people keep trying to say, anti-politics but anti-politician. We’re looking at potentially the highest voter turnout since WWI and an immense flood of non-party, issue- and policy-based activism. That’s not anti-politics; that’s what politics looks like. The oligarchy haven’t seen it for so very, very long that they had genuinely forgotten what a politics looks like.


I sort of agree (though not, obviously, about the highest turn-out since WWI; in the 1950s, turnout percentage was in the mid 80s, and we won't see that again.) However, John Q fundamentally misunderstands the Diana phenomenon. He dismisses it as "a Murdoch-manipulated outbreak of public hysteria which resulted in very little except the deaths of millions of innocent flowers", unlike the "real political shift" indicated by the Lib Dem surge. Wrong.

Dianamania was not manipulated by the media. The media no less than the Palace were knocked sideways by the strength of the public reaction - though, fleeter-footed than the Windsors' triple-barrelled flunkies, they learnt quickly how to dance to the new popular tune and were soon joining in with "Show us you care, Ma'am" headlines. It was, however, a case of "I am their leader, I must follow them". The crowds began assembling in London before dawn - and this was long before Twitter. It was a real, if transitory, phenomenon.

As Anthony O'Hear wrote at the time:

For once, those who usually lead and form public opinion could only watch and follow....Some of us may have felt we were in a foreign country that week, but we weren't in Iran or Israel. The crowds were British in their restraint....And their emotion, it has to be said, was genuine, misdirected maybe as in the case of the man who said Diana's death meant more to him than that of his parents, and, in that sense, irrational, but it was not insincere or superficial. Whatever it was people felt, they really felt it...


So what was it? Not grief, though it bore the appearance of grief, for it ended with the funeral (as did the sense of constitutional crisis that had been generated). That a few years later Prince Charles was able to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles amid widespread public approbation, if not exactly enthusiasm, was testimony to the shallowness of Diana's grip on the national psyche. Was it anger, then, at the old system? Not really (and here's a key difference with today's political mood, which is fuelled by anger). It was more like a huge national party, a collective celebration of a new, more emotional, less hidebound way of being British. It was so powerful because it had been a long time coming, and so widespread because the ground had been prepared well in advance.

"Sometimes" wrote O'Hear, "in the history of a people there is a defining moment, in which a nation discovers what it has become. In such a moment, it decides what it wants to be. It resolves what it will go on to do."

Dianamania is something now looked back on by many with embarrassment, as a "moment of madness" in which the country found itself swept up in an orgy of grief. Certainly, it went nowhere - far from becoming the Evita figure many predicted, the princess herself has been largely forgotten and written out of history. What remain are a few vivid memories: the crowds growing by the hour, stupified by mourning for someone they never knew; the mountains of flowers; the sudden, but temporary, collapse in support for the monarchy; Earl Spencer, a largely expatriate serial adulterer and deserter of women (as well as a bear of very little brain) speaking for England, if not the world; Elton John; and, of course, Tony Blair.

Diana's posthumous triumph was at least as much Blair's, though neither Paul nor John Q mention him. He rode the tidal wave of sentimentality and shallow grief with the skill of a champion surfer. The Diana moment was about the triumph of feeling over logic, but it was also about the desire for a change of mood, an end to the old way of doing things, shaking off the shackles of deference and tradition. In a strange way, it was about hope. And it was democratic - though very far from being egalitarian - but also, as democratic sentimentality tends to be, rather bullying. Those who didn't share the mood felt alienated and excluded, while those who did imagined, somehow, that their emotional directness gave them a moral superiority. It was a touchy-feely era, after all. Bill Clinton was in the White House and no-one had heard of Osama Bin Laden. One of the decade's best selling books, you may remember, was John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Blair and Diana in their different ways (but not, perhaps, so different) embodied the new national mood. Although the media were as taken aback by the scale of Dianamania as the Palace was, the signs of a sea-change had been detectable for years. Diana herself prefigured it. In her transition from royal wife to free-floating uber-celebrity, famous for being compassionate, she demonstrated that personality and image now mattered more than institutions, history or, indeed, actual achievement. Her intuitive grasp of media manipulation was comparable with Blair's: think, for example, of the way she stitched up her ex-husband on Panorama.

While she was the harbinger of the new society, Blair did not so much create the mood as transmit it, reflecting the nation back to itself. That, briefly, made him untouchable. In retrospect it has made him unspeakable. Because the new mood turned out to have been a fantasy, and New Britain has soured into cynicism. All that remains is the emotional self-indulgence that seeks someone to blame.

There are definite similarities between what happened then and what appears to be happening now. Just as Dianamania didn't come from nowhere, it appears that Cleggmania didn't either. Political Betting notes that the move in the polls towards the Lib Dems had begun prior to Thursday's debate, and suggests that "a myth is being created" that the surge was entirely the consequence of his strong performance. I concur. While Clegg's performance was stronger than that of the other leaders, it was not exceptionally so. Had the tide been with Cameron that day, it's quite conceivable that post-debate polling would have reflected a belief that he "won". Likewise with Brown. A large section of the public was primed to be receptive to the Lib Dem message and responded accordingly.

One point on which I share John Q's analysis is that the swing to the Lib Dems - which is really a swing away from the two major parties and, even more, a swing away from "business as usual" - has been a long time coming. He traces it to the Iraq war protest - which is, perhaps, when the feeling that there was an arrogant and out-of-touch political class first became palpable, even the received wisdom. Iraq has scarcely featured in this campaign - and even the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan has largely been ignored, perhaps because (unlike Iraq last time) it's difficult to portray it as no more than Blair's folly, launched on a lie. It's not easy to get fired up against an honest mistake. But I think we can go back even further. Back beyond Dianamania itself, even.

In the run up to the 1997 election, Blair and his henchmen (or puppet-masters) Campbell and Mandelson succeeded in making the question of trust in politics synonymous with "Tory sleaze". In so doing, they encouraged suspicion. The idea that politicians - British politicians - might be institutionally corrupt scarcely existed before the exposés of the early Nineties. Once they had alerted the public to the possibility of corruption, and the media to its newsworthiness, it was only a matter of time before the spotlight turned on them. And once it did - harmlessly at first, as when Blair sidestepped the Ecclestone affair by declaring himself "a straight sort of guy" - the eventual reckoning was inevitable. As Bagehot warned, magic does not long survive exposure to the daylight.

Or perhaps the seeds of this extraordinary election were planted earlier still. When four Labour frontbenchers defected to form the SDP, their new movement (in alliance with the old Liberal party) quickly established a monumental lead in the polls. There was heady talk of breaking the mould of British politics. The mood passed - pessimism, or common-sense, or tradition reasserted itself - but it is at least possible that without the Falklands factor the mood of dissatisfaction with the conventional parties would have swept the Alliance into power. Whether it reflected a longing for consensus politics or a desire for something entirely new, the brief flowering of the SDP demonstrated that, even then, the big parties had surprisingly shallow roots. Since then, their active memberships have shrunk dramatically.

As the Telegraph astutely observed this morning, the mood of this campaign resembles a by-election. One polls put Labour support lower than Michael Foot's in 1983, and Peter Kellner (of all people) has been speculating about a possible Lib Dem majority. People are not thinking rationally about what set of policies they would prefer on the economy, law and order, education and so on - or, at least, that is not the predominant consideration. The appeal of Clegg is that he is (or, rather, appears to be) none of the above. That they might not agree with his policies doesn't matter, because this election is not about policies - not even about the economy, which given the size of the deficit it ought to be. That is not to say that the popular mood is irrational, however. Far from it. The system has become the main issue - and the only way to effect real change in the system is to break it, which means voting for whichever party looks plausibly able to do the smashing up. Right now, that's the Liberal Democrats.

I don't much like the way this is going, largely because I believe the change David Cameron offers would be more profound and democratising than anything likely to emerge from a hung Parliament. But then I was never really caught up in Dianamania.