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Politicians Aren't Evil

When it boils down to it, UK politics is a popularity contest. Competing personalities, policies, and slogans fight it out to win our allegiance — they might even try to make a positive difference, while they’re at it.

This was all well and good in the days of yonder, when satellite TV offered just two channels and Sundays were dedicated to Church services, crosswords, and perhaps a Victoria sponge. But skip to 2024, and this contest has been stretched to unfathomable proportions. Competing against the cacophony of social media soundbites, algorithmic disinformation, and — let’s face it — a whole lot of much better TV, our politicians have been forced to succumb to rhetorical sensationalism.

Desperately seeking to regain a captive audience, figures across the political spectrum have ramped up the toxic rhetoric, and you can’t fault their enthusiasm — only by studying countless hours of reality TV could politicians have perfected such displays of spite. Nobody could have guessed the phrase ‘got a text’ would enjoy such a prolific afterlife as a means of undermining political opponents, yet here we are hearing Cabinet Ministers described as “c@$&!” and “evil f%^*!pigs” on a  ‘professional communications platform’. Kemi Badenoch surely has The Traitors to thank for her involvement in the ‘Evil Plotters’ WhatsApp group, allegedly established to challenge Sunak’s leadership last month. ‘Trussonomics’ was presumably dredged up from The Apprentice’s business proposal archives.  

This development was, perhaps, inevitable. Like the directors of all good horror films, politicians clearly recognised that gorier really is better when it comes to rousing public support.

And, like dutiful lambs to the slaughter, we have followed their directive. Flocking to pub corners, keyboards, and pre-eminent student publications, we have fed the rhetoric of the ‘evil politician’. We have, I’m afraid to admit, sunk to their level.

But our politicians are not evil. They were elected by thousands if not millions of voters — they must have displayed some degree of humanity to have won the hearts of constituents.

More to the point, Westminster is a vast, bureaucratic machine; by channelling the blame for political failures onto a single individual, voters are losing sight of the bigger picture. I’d be the first to concur that Boris Johnson was a hugely flawed Prime Minister, while the sheer irony of Liz Truss’s latest publication, Ten Years to Save the West, might be funny if her fifty-day premiership hadn’t condemned the UK to a cost-of-living and inflation crisis. Yet very few policies offer direct reflections of an individual’s beliefs, and suggesting that they do is a convenient, politically lazy way for politicians to gain support.

Crucially, the tactic has reduced the space for conversation, compromise, or constructive action. In 2023, a Labour campaign suggested Rishi Sunak personally believed that adults convicted of sexual assault should escape prison sentences. Political allegiances aside, this is clearly untrue; the basis of Sunak’s policies had far more to do with — admittedly objectionable — funding cuts to the police, judiciary, and court system. Yet the campaign appealed to a voting public that views politicians in moralising, polarised terms.

Misled by this ‘good versus evil’ paradigm, which implies that individuals can single-handedly resolve systemic issues, voters increasingly view ‘moderation’ in disdainful terms. Policies are valued on the strength of the conviction with which they are held, rather than their inherent credibility. The term ‘U-Turn’ has developed pejorative connotations, discouraging politicians from changing their minds for fear of losing support.

Correspondingly, centre-ground thinkers have been pushed out by the headline-grabbing, persuasive rhetoric of more radical alternatives. Take Suella Braverman: few had heard of ‘Suella Fernandes’ when she first came to government in 2005. Yet, in recent years, her inflammatory comments — many of which would curl the toenails of the most xenophobic Brexiteer — have made her a household name and leadership contender.

Herein lies the great irony. In pitching politics as an apocalyptic, moral battle, politicians have re-captured the attention of a distracted voting public. Simultaneously, their polarising rhetoric has bred politicians who project increasingly ‘evil’, headline-grabbing personas. Only if voters refuse to sink to their level can we regain the nuances of effective government. Occasionally, mundane ‘Victoria sponge’ politics is exactly what our country needs.

Illustration by: Ruby Pitman

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