I blame John Peel for dying. Or rather I blame Tony Blair for replying to the death of John Peel in the way he did.
It is 15 years since the disc jockey died. Such was Peel’s popularity that Tony Blair felt compelled to make a statement almost immediately. It followed a large number of other Prime Ministerial statements on famous people’s deaths. For some of us it was an already wearying trend. I wouldn’t say that it is a foundational issue of trust in our society, but surely we ought to assume that when a celebrity dies the Prime Minister of the day isn’t privately punching the air and exclaiming: “Good, we got another one!”
But for whatever reason, Mr Blair acted as if a failure to issue a swift response might leave room for doubt. So out the statements of commiseration came. And kept coming. Until one day Mr Blair ended up hoist with his own petard.
A few weeks after the death of John Peel a vastly larger number of people were killed as a tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean. More than 200,000 lives were lost in that terrible event, and for a short period, as the full extent of that tragedy became clear, some of the press did not know what to do. Among their number (especially among those portions of the press that were expressly hostile to Blair) there was a faked-up outrage along the lines of “Why has the Prime Minister not yet issued a statement condemning the tsunami, or otherwise explaining why he was opposed to it?”
The trouble with dog-whistles
Again, you might think that the Prime Minister’s condolences on such an occasion could be taken as read, or you may not. But a political leader who insists on commenting on everything will, in this fallen world of ours, find themselves having to respond to everything. So it was on that occasion when a clearly fraught Downing Street rushed out a statement to show that the Prime Minister was indeed not only saddened by the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives but also opposed to the natural disaster in question.
I thought of that strange episode last week as I noticed the lead story on the front page of the BBC’s website, which was that Theresa May had condemned President Trump’s recent tweets about four American congresswomen. And I immediately wondered – assuming that anything survives from the age of Twitter outrage – what historians will make of episodes such as this. Putting aside the rights or wrongs of Trump’s comments for a moment, what a historian may find interesting is that the most powerful person in Britain, at the most significant moment in recent British history, should have felt impelled to comment on Trump’s tweets.
Of course there are those who insist that this is different, that on this occasion (unlike any other occasion with President Trump) some Rubicon has been crossed, that a line must now be drawn and a heap of other clichés. But I cannot quite see how this is so. Similar things have occurred throughout the current Presidency. And people who are interested in outrage machines and their workings really ought to have figured out by now that the piling up of affront against the 45th President does not always work against his interests.
Immigration, citizenship and those "go home" tweets
The point is not the tweets, but rather how British politics in particular got caught in this strange, reactive mode. It is possible that it is the effect of minority government or a government in its last days. But the trend has gone on even when Theresa May’s government looked comparatively strong. So here is a trend which must be identified if it is also to be reversed.
In the aftermath of the Trump tweets No 10 fell into the reactive mode. But the reactive mode is catching, for once the most prominent political figures condemn a thing the same is expected of everybody else as well – more junior politicians, other public figures, even light entertainers. Theresa May’s condemnation of the Tweets ensured that the media got the opportunity to pursue the two contenders for the Tory leadership for replication of her comments. Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson were expected to make statements on the matter. And any unwillingness to condemn the President was once again portrayed as being a reflection on the character of the person not doing the condemning. And – ergo – a demonstration that the candidate was a racist by proxy.
And here is just one of the many things that is wrong with this style of politics. It has a set of expectations built into it. On this occasion the first assumption was that the President’s Tweets were indeed racist. The next step is to presume (or pretend to assume) full agreement with the worst interpretation of the tweets for anyone who does not publicly condemn them. This of course bypasses a whole set of other perfectly permissible other reactions including, though not limited to, “Not my business”, “Not my thing”, “Not my style” and “Not my problem”.
Boris has a dream
Most importantly it ignores the permissibility of the reaction that almost every mainstream British politician would feel and ought to be able to say. Which would be something along the lines of: “I don’t much care for the tone of these comments, but worse things happen at sea and frankly we have to get on with our best allies rather than pretend that our role is to lecture them like some glorified school prefect.”
Assuming that Boris Johnson does end up becoming the leader of the Conservative party and thus Prime Minister, this is a very good time for him to change the game. He who feeds the outrage machine, the announcement machine, the condolence machine and related devices will find themselves caught in the workings and dragged along remorselessly. Lured in by the media, previous Prime Ministers have found themselves hopelessly enmeshed. But at the outset of his Premiership, Boris Johnson has an opportunity to stand clear and refuse to feed the machine.
The world is a hideously complicated place. The variety and multitude of potential reactions to that complexity can create a cacophony. To make it stop, it is only natural that a desire should emerge to simply sing along with the chorus. But that is to mistake reaction for action and response for leadership. A better way would be to try to locate and then move to a different beat. What was it that Thoreau said? “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears.”
If there is one beat that our next Prime Minister should hear it is the one that reminds him that Britain has been a serious country in the past, and can be again. But that in order to be a serious country again our political leaders must step outside of the march of reaction and get back to that path of action we used to recognise as reality.