Robin McAlpine: Ignore ‘origin stories’ – political debate deserves better


CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine argues that political action matters more than personal background

I WAS BORN in a field.

No, literally. In a field. In the rain. And lightning. In fact, after being struck by lightning a family of ravens adopted me and fed me worms and bits of dirt to nurse me back to health. I was seven years old before I knew what socks were – before that my only clothing was made from moss and twigs. My ears fell off one winter.

I think it’s important that you know all of this. Without this information you might (mistakenly) have judged me on the basis of my actions and behaviour. In fact, you should judge me ‘in context’.

Because until you understand my struggle, my pain, you can’t understand my motives and my values. And it is of course my motives and my values that you should judge me on – not my actions, my behaviour, my performance, my track record or my achievements.

Such is the mantra of modern politics. It is the child of many of the developments of recent years. Of New Public Management (there is only one way to run a country, your job is to pick the ‘best egg’ to do what is inevitable anyway).

Of celebrity magazines and kent faces eating bugs in the jungle (my raven family would heartily approve). Of social media and Instagram where nothing is authentic until it is faked to within an inch of its life.

It is the child of crisis PR, the weird and hypnotic language of the celebrity apology, the tour of the chat shows to show remorse, the period in rehab. Of ‘look over there’ distraction. Of Tony Blair taking his jacket off. Of the collapse of the politics of authority.

And it really makes me feel queasy. I mean, do you remember that time Nick Clegg filled us in on the number of sexual relationships he’d had? Don’t think too hard about the austerity deal I just helped George Osborne impose on Britain’s poorest people – imagine me taking my Y-fronts off.

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I’ve felt a similar degree of queasiness throughout National Ruth Davidson Week. I would never mock or belittle someone’s mental health problems. Many people in my life have struggled with varying degrees of poor mental wellbeing, some minor, some very serious indeed.

And do you know my general conclusion about them all? There isn’t one. Some of them are dear, dear friends I love very much. Some of them are just arseholes who happen to have mental health issues. It’s not a qualification, it’s one part of the many many things that make us all who we are.

So, in my mind, how much discount does Ms Davidson get from her support for the so-called ‘rape clause’ (or a hundred other awful things) because of the genuine hardship she faced in the past?

Well, none of course. I know many people who struggled with their sexuality when they were young or had terrible low-self esteem or who have faced trauma. They didn’t all process this pain by being deeply complicit in the most vicious attack on the poor and disabled in a generation.

Now of course this is a dangerous issue to raise – I’m more than concious of the risk of doing anything other than the ‘safety first’ approach of letting her completely off the political hook for a while and cooing about her bravery.

I know that, in part, its a trap. I know that, in part, there is the careful calculation that it is very difficult for people to suggest that this is, well, a bit cynical.

But that’s the point. As far as I can tell we’ve just gone through a week in which the most probing question Ms Davidson has faced is something like ‘yes, but please tell us just how incredibly brave are you?’.

If we consent to a world in which TV channels will allow politicians on for a puff piece directly after they’ve refused to come on air and answer important questions about current political issues (because they are, you know, not a good ‘look’) then we degrade public debate.

And if we let politics become one endless Facebook feed of politicians telling you what to think of them on a personal basis, we waste time. There is more than one serious issue at play in UK public debate; is there really time for origin stories?

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Nor do I take at anything like face value the idea that this is a service to the public. There are many, many advocates for the need to encourage people to talk about mental health. The best of them would never risk the impression that it was part of a book promotion tour, publicity for their new film or concert tour or a piece of political PR.

I mean, Alastair Campbell isn’t someone I tend to say an awful lot of good things about but he waited until life after politics to make a valiant contribution to the debate when there could be no hint of ulterior motive (and at a time when it was much, much harder to say what he said).

Davidson has had an utterly charmed political life. She is the figurehead the unionists recognise they need and she’s the acceptable face of the Tories for the identity politics/Remain set. She’s protected from criticism in unionist/Brexit media and also in unionist/Remain media. And that’s basically all of the media.

In fact, the last time I can remember a politician who received that much unchallenged political hype it was Jim Murphy.

So I say now what I said then; you can’t judge political leaders on what they do with unlimited opportunity if you can’t see how they cope with adversity. The first moment of adversity and Jim Murphy collapsed; the first hint of adversity and Ruth Davidson disappears.

The BBC thinks she’s the future whereas I think she looks awfully flakey and surprisingly untested.

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Of course it’s unfair to single out only Ruth Davidson because its endemic. Every politician seems to want you to be their friend, to explain away their mistakes and flaws as a totally understandable result of some heart-rending personal tragedy or whatever.

I raised my eyebrows at an International Women’s Day interview with Nicola Sturgeon in which she ruminated on whether the ‘male-dominated’ political culture she grew up in had made her too aggressive. Well I know politicians who grew up in the same era and in the same culture but who are kind, gentle and patient. Some are even men…

It’s one of the things I quite like about Corbyn, who has the good grace to seem a bit uncomfortable talking about himself. It’s the only think I like about Theresa May – you say: “She seems like a robot when asked personal questions’. I say: “Brilliant Ms May, this pish about cornfields has nothing at all to do with your ability to govern so let your contempt run free…”

Sure, there is a place for politicians to show their human side. The occasional profile piece in a Sunday supplement, the occasional and judicious visit to the chat show sofa (if you want to – Just Say No Theresa…)

But it doesn’t belong on the politics pages, on serious political TV programmes or within a hundred miles of important decision-making. And political commentators and writers who allow themselves to be used in this way really should know better.

Because the stuff about being born in a field and raised by ravens wasn’t really true. I was born in Bellshill Maternity Ward and had a happy and loving childhood with a great family in a friendly, cohesive village community.

Having now (shamefully) revealed my non-deprived childhood, do you feel it necessary to reassess my political views one way or another?

No? So why is so much of UK political discourse take up with endless personal soap opera?

Picture: CommonSpace