Alex Massie

Our Dismal Politics: Charlatanry and Deceit All Around

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Fraser rightly draws our attention to the highly entertaining extracts from Peter Watt's book published by the Mail on Sunday. Granted the whole enterprise is accompanied, as is traditional in these matters, by the sound of many an axe being ground and some of the details - to say nothing of the quotations - are close too being in the too-good-to-be-quite-true camp. Nonetheless, the general spirit of the thing seems persuasive.

So it's worth highlighting another, minor, passage that actually doesn't have anything to do with Gordon Brown at all:

Some of our politicians could be touchingly naive. During the 2001 General Election campaign, some bright spark came up with the idea of campaigning at motorway service stations, to show we were so determined not to take votes for granted that we had Ministers campaigning on the way to and from their higher-profile appearances.

The main photo opportunities were at Fleet services on the M3, and we arranged for Tessa Jowell to call in on the way back to London from an event in Dorset.

My tram contacted the local Labour Party and arranged for 30 members to get to the service station half an hour before Tessa arrived. Our trusty volunteers did their best to look like ordinary punters having a breather from a long car journey. Tessa arrived on cue with TV crews, and chatted to folk who 'happened' to be at the service station. We got the story we wanted, that we were fighting tooth and nail for every vote.

Afterwards, Tessa came to HQ to thank me and the team for the smooth organisation of the visit. She had been pleasantly surprised by how friendly the customers at the service station were. She said the warmth of her reception had convinced her we were going to win.

I simply didn't have the heart to tell her there was no way we would let a senior Minister walk into a service station in the glare of the media and meet random members of the public.

Nonetheless it is useful to be reminded just how much of what we'll see on our TV screens this year is in fact a fraud. As a general rule you might assume that any time you see a politician, a TV crew and a member of the "general public" you should presume that the game is rigged and the whole thing's a set-up.

This doesn't, of course, apply to your local candidate or the chaps knocking on doors. They may not tell you the truth, but they're probably not playing a game of political charades. Hell, we expect politicians to be less than entirely forthcoming but we can, I think, at least demand that they lie openly and honestly rather than engage in the kind of absurdity the former General Secretary of the Labour party details here.

For that matter if politicians really want to restore their standing with the public they might consider treating the voters as somethnig other than easily-gulled fools. This is so even if, in fact, a large number of voters actually are easily-gulled fools.

Sure, this would take a better class of politician - and, perhaps, a better class of journalist too since even though TV needs pictures there's really no need for them to acquiesce with this sort of thing; indeed in as much as TV plays along with it they're accomplices to the act of deceiving the public - but right now, as I say, you should probably assume that most of what happens on TV between now and election day is a kind of political Truman Show* in which you, dear reader, are supposed to play the part of the poor sap Truman.

All the parties, not just Labour, have cast you in this role. May you all be brave enough, like Truman, to see through the fraud and make it off the island...

*About which, incidentally, more another time. Remind me not to forget about this.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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