Have you ever dreamed about waking up, only to wake up again? In the film Inception, dreams form an endless Russian doll, with the dreamer going deeper into dreams within dreams within dreams. It makes waking up a slow process, step by step, your eyes opening time and time again as you come closer to perceiving the real world.
So it is for me and my politics. I haven’t had one political awakening; I’ve had dozens. I’m still not sure that the way I see the world today is the right one. Frankly, the level of conviction most political writers seem to have these days strikes me as indulgent narcissism.
My first political memory is staying up late in 1992 with my father, nestled on the sofa in the upstairs living room of our house in Birmingham. As the results ticked in, and his hopes for a Labour victory expired, I felt his sense of despair as if it were my own. I believed it was my own for a long time: I had a sort of lizard-brain level conviction that I was Not a Tory.
Around this time I remember walking home from school with my good friend Catherine, who had no such in-built disdain for the Conservative party, and wanted to know why I was so passionately against them. In an instant, I conjured up a rationalisation for my stance: the mess the government had made of child support laws had pitted my parents against each other during their divorce. They had stayed friends, I maintained, until the Child Support Agency ruined things.
Catherine nodded wisely, and said that made sense. But I felt awkward, because I knew it wasn’t true. Yes: I had a vague inkling that my parents had found the CSA hard to deal with. But I knew the truth was that I hated the Conservatives because I loved my father. The feelings came before the reasons, not the other way around.
I continued to consider myself Not a Tory for years, with other vague political identities layered on top, like George Bush is a Bad Guy and Northern Ireland is Important (I had a boyfriend whose dad had served there, and who had friends caught up in the Omagh bombing). But honestly, I paid almost no attention to politics.
In 2002 I had an interview for a graduate trainee scheme at Reuters where they asked me to name “a news story from the last few months”. I stared blankly until the interviewer generously reminded me of a few: a Foot and Mouth epidemic, a postponed General Election, the Soham murders, the death of the Queen Mother. I didn’t get the job.
In the end, I came to politics through policy. I was a journalist at a magazine called Property Week, where I was assigned the job of reporting on tax and planning policy (as well as industrial warehouses). I loved it. I saw how incentives and rules create system-level change, or system-level failure. I never got the hang of reporting on deals — the life blood of the magazine — but discussing and explaining policy? I had found a metier.
So I went to work for the Liberal Democrats, as a policy adviser on housing and local government — that’s when I fell in love. Because joining a political movement is exactly like falling in love. The feelings come before the reasons.
I went to party conference, in Harrogate, and I stayed up until 3 in the morning, then kept myself awake during the day by chain-drinking caramel macchiatos. I felt like I was part of something. I belonged. I gazed longingly at the most senior political advisers, like Charles Kennedy’s handsome press officer, and his handsome speechwriter, and I dreamed of being like them.
My addiction to The West Wing bears a lot of responsibility for this, of course: this was my Aaron Sorkin phase, where I believed earnestly that all problems could be resolved if we were all just a bit more articulate, clever and brave.
Then came the coalition, in which I worked as Nick Clegg’s senior policy adviser. I’d long since been able to observe intellectually that the Conservative Party was not the exclusive force for evil I’d been brought up to believe it. But I think I only emotionally absorbed this when I was working day after day alongside talented, wise, compassionate and thoughtful people who chose to wear a blue rosette at election time. There are still Conservatives I’d cross the road to avoid. But there are far more I’m privileged to call friends.
I shared an office with Steve Hilton, the maverick adviser to David Cameron. At one point he introduced me to a policy specialist who was advising on the introduction of elected Police and Crime Commissioners. “You know how I’ve told you that everyone who’s against PCCs is just an establishment bore who has to be ignored,” Steve told this adviser. The adviser nodded. “Well, Polly’s the exception. You can listen to her.” And most of the time, this was the spirit of the coalition. We mostly found ways to listen to each other, instead of starting with the assumption that our opponents were wrong. It made for better government. I believed in it.
But my illusions that you could win hearts and minds with decent government and reasonable compromise were shattered by the 2015 General Election. The morning after, Paddy Ashdown stood in our Lib Dem HQ among the hungover and the heartbroken hangers on, who couldn’t bear to face the reality of going home. Perched on a chair, his voice cracking, he asked: “Why would anyone compromise in the national interest ever again?”
He reminded us that politics is feelings, not facts. We’d placed our faith in facts, and reasonableness. We’d tried being clever, articulate and brave; and discovered that the public preferred intransigence.
I miss being partisan. It’s so comfortable to be right all the time, and there’s no view better than the one from the moral high ground, from which your enemies are the ranged forces of evil. It’s the way to make money as a columnist. It’s the way to win votes at the ballot box. But even these victories are less valuable than the feeling of being surrounded by your tribe and the warm fuzzy glow of righteousness. I miss it. I just don’t feel that tribal belonging any more. I’m a political apostate.
In fact, I think we do better when we listen to each other with an open mind. I think politics should be about finding a way forward together, not winning and making the other guys shut up for a few years. I think all our parties, and every individual within them, are wrong on some things and right on some others. And I think the same of myself.
Humility needs a place in our politics. I hope some day it will take the place of the hubris we see from our current crop of leaders.