The battle for credibility: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Hilary Mantel edition

19 February 2013

Why can’t politicians resist the temptation to comment? Hilary Mantel’s piece in the LRB is about as political as the pasta I was eating when David Cameron stopped darkening Indian doors for a moment to make what political strategists and pundits term “an intervention” on the matter.

What possessed him (and Ed Miliband, who followed him into the mad breach)? The question is best answered, I think, by Peter Oborne in The Rise of Political Lying and much of his other writing. Oborne describes how political reality has changed. There was a time, at least in theory, when politics was determined by arguments over a verifiable truth; but this has been replaced by a competition of narratives. The era of ‘truth’ might be defined simply as: which ideas work. And the era of ‘narratives’ might be defined as: which ideas are most attractive. The former is battle of results, the latter a set of pitches. The first is a clash of ideas and records, the second a test of credibility. The one is fought over the whole country; the other is aimed at a handful of targeted voters, and a complicit media.


Oborne reasoned that the new order’s revolution was to elevate action to the status of achievement. The logic is that action implies achievement and is therefore sufficient – why bother proving that an idea works if it only needs to credible. This insight has been echoed by Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell at various stages of their careers, by numerous liberal champions and by several warriors on the left – Austin Mitchell’s cauterisation of successive governments’ failure to reform the Common Fisheries Policy springs to mind.

These figures do not share much in common beyond the belief that action is insufficient, and an observation that action is always spun with the “right language”. This does not necessarily mean political correctness, although one might argue that PC is the lingua franca thanks to the dominance of liberalism in modern life. The “right language” is that with which people can identify; used to elaborate stances with which they sympathise. There is much to be gained, it is supposed, by showing opponents using the wrong language; or, better still, goad them into using the ‘wrong language’ preferably while striking the wrong pose. This suggests a binary world of right and wrong; but the morality is invariably a sham of synthetic indignation manufactured for effect. A small housing benefit cut is presented as a “bedroom tax”, while the government can professes disgust at the debt-reliant opposition even as it raises the national debt to unprecedented and perhaps unsustainable levels. At least there is irony in politics.

These tactical set-pieces and linguistic gambits are not limited to high politics. It is important to be “on message” at all times. The message doesn’t always have to be political; in fact, the received wisdom is that it is good for a politician to map their hinterland and personality. The tactician’s creed decrees it sinful to miss an opportunity to make ‘the right noises’ on subjects (like popular novels and the royals) that might appeal to some voters. To do so may leave one vulnerable to the ‘out of touch narrative’ or give the other guy a chance to exploit. The received wisdom is not poor: it’s a fine thing for a politician to appreciate the world outside his window, but he must be genuine. Yet because sincerity is no longer prized it is acceptable, at least in some reaches of Westminster and Fleet Street, for a politician to comment on something of which they have little or no knowledge and still less sympathy. This is why politicians have a ‘line’ on Hilary Mantel and the Arctic Monkeys.

Yet they do not learn from the embarrassment of being caught out. One cannot even be credible without being sincere. The counter-argument, that Mantel and the Monkeys are trivial, misses the point. If we can’t trust a politician with the trivial, should we trust them with the serious?

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  • suemccafferty

    A ‘small housing benefit cut’ you call it. I agree that the proposed saving from the reform of less than half a billion is miniscule in terms of the overall housing benefit bill. The impact on the victims however will be enormous. A cut of £20 per week may seem insignificant to many but when you must replace that £20 out of meagre disability benefits (and let there be no mistake, the DWP acknowledge the disabled form the majority group affected) then it becomes something more than a piffling inconvenience. Whatever your political views the bedroom tax (or whatever you wish to call it) is an ill-thought-out policy with enormous social, political and economic consequences.

  • judyk113

    Er, how many pieces has the Spec now run on Hilary Mantel’s take on Kate Middleton today? I think we’re up to four so far, but maybe a few more have escaped my attention. And they’re all basically running the same elitist, self-important line about how the tabloid press and of course lowly twitterers and bloggers have failed to display the required level of understanding shared by all of yourselves about how of course Hilary Mantel wasn’t really criticising Kate Middleton. On the contrary, using language like

    But Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished

    suggests an agenda which is dismissive, vindictive and not aimed at enlisting our sympathy for her plight.

    Throughout her article, she writes of Kate Middleton as if she was entirely devoid of human agency and the unwitting pawn of an unspecified but supremely powerful state agency who decided to put her into place as the next but one royal consort. I know that the courtiers of St James and Buckingham Palace are likely to be somewhat odd, but would they really light on the daughter of a couple of ex airline staff now running a party goods website as the next in line?

    What gets up my nose about all your posts, apart from the obvious groupthink is your sheer self-importance and vanity. Why can’t politicians resist the urge to comment, you ask? Perhaps this is a question you should have asked of yourselves. or at least ensured you didn’t all find it necessary to indulge yourselves. Anybody would think there was no scandal about 1200 NHS patients dead unnecessarily and no-one taking any punishment for presiding over it going on.

    Why on earth shouldn’t politicians comment instead of leaving unanswered sneering about Kate Middleton by patronising novelists like Hillary Mantel and equally patronising pontificators like yourselves? Why shouldn’t they have a line, if you do? It’s quite an interesting exercise to think about rewriting your post above, substituting the words “Spectator journalists” instead of politicians.

    • Simon Semere

      Deary me! Tea with that humble pie anyone??

    • Amanda Kendal

      Yes Judy. Well done. Mantel does write that way precisely because of what she is actually condemning: the entire circus that exists (and has existed for centuries) around the monarchy, whereby people treat the lives of those in the royal family as though they were public property.

      For goodness sake – the subsequent commentary has included observations that her ‘bump’ is now visible. What on Earth is that if not proving precisely what Mantel set out to illustrate?

      And at the end of the lecture, it is entirely clear that she is calling for less of this freak show-like approach, and one of more humanity.

      It wasn’t literary authors who were chasing Diana down an underpass the night she died. It was paparazzi, in the full and certain knowledge that they would be able to sell pictures to some rag or other (including the ‘Mail’, which is particularly guilty of deliberately distorting what Mantel said), which would in turn be snapped up by members of the public desperate to scrutinise said pictures. It’s nothing other than a form of voyeurism.

      • Simon Semere

        How can she be ‘condemning the circus’ when what she has said is far worse than anything the press have ever said about Kate. Sounds like a desperate PR to me.

    • NorthBrit

      Look up the correct use of “yourselves”. It is quite different from the way you are using it. I hope that is sufficiently dismissive, patronising and sneering for you.

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