Wednesday 27 January 2010

Falling out of Love with Politics

I sat up half the night on April 9th 1992, waiting on the very tight British election to be called. It was supposed to be a narrow but comfortable win for Labour after thirteen years of Conservative rule. But in the end, it went to the wire and Labour lost.

Since then I have waited up on many an election, including the 1997 Irish election, when I think news emerged that Fine Gael's Nora Owen lost her seat. (Her constituency was one of the trial constituencies for electronic voting).

Over the years I have always tried to keep abreast of key political developments in Ireland, Britain, America, and, during and after living there, France. I was never a true political anorak, however. I always failed to muster the interest in peripheral figures or precise election tallies for example.

I became (an inactive) member of a political party, though again, I failed to be interested in the down and dirty of local political activism. I have a deep admiration for those volunteers who organise, discuss, canvass, and so on. They have amazing perseverance and unshakable resolve. They are truly remarkable, and they are the life blood of democracy. But unfortunately I found the minutiae and machinations of local political life terribly boring. Local constituency meetings often get bogged down in mind numbing procedural and organisational matters. A bewildering diversity of opinion is aired at them, and much of it is pretty bland, and a lot of it, I have to say, is downright lamentable. Some one will pipe up about economics without the faintest idea of how economics works, someone else will rage about banks, or someone will issue a general fatwa against farmers. It isn't an enlightening place to be. One interesting thing is how the multitude of voices, noise essentially, gets filtered as it passes up through the layers of an organisation, to emerge at party level at something that is coherent enough to call a policy.

Eventually I had to admit to myself that I'm not really a political animal and that my interest is more in the theory than the practice!

Nevertheless, I managed to remain very interested in the theory part! And I kept hooked in to the main national, and party, debates. But over the last 12 months I have noticed a change in myself. I am reading the political sections of the newspapers less often (I used to track them religiously), and I'm finding myself less and less in front of a political program on TV (Despite making a brief contribution myself to a recent edition of the Frontline). I think that unconsciously I have begun to tune out from politics.

I think I know why. Pure disillusionment. I have ceased to believe that any substantial change is possible no matter who you vote for. The structure and culture of say the Irish political system is set in thick granite. It cannot be shaken. A decade and a half or tribunals revealling the noxious relationship between politics and business has not lead to a new dawn. In fact, bar minor changes, the old system rolls on. And on political reform one report after another rolls out (on say Seanad reform) only to be quietly shuffled off to gather dust. And make no mistake - the proposed banking inquiry will deliver the same quantity of change: none.

Regarding the theory - I am still fascinated by the big questions. About the shape of a constitution, the structural biases of a polity, how much the state should be involved in the economy, where the line should be drawn between the rights of the individual and those of the collective, the efficacy of supranational organisations, the effect of globalisation on the state, and so on.

But on the practical side and the nitty gritty, I feel that life is far too short. It might be fun to know how a glacier shapes a valley over a million years, but few would derive much excitement from watching its progress in a day. The same is for me and political change. It just feels as though it isn't happening, so I am not going to bother watching too closely. I will continue to vote and keep an eye on developments, but my passion for politics has cooled.

In a way I feel a little liberated, though perhaps it is only a fool's paradise. I can gladly miss the six o'clock news (like I did today, home early from work and got back into a fantastic book) and I can mostly forget about the papers! A great ocean of time has opened up before me and I feel free enough now to explore it without being weighed down by the most common emotions relating to Irish politics - frustration, bewilderment, sadness, embarrassment, and often, anger. Time to forget about political life and get on with the real thing.

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