Not Giants but Windmills, And The Fantastic Certainty of Anti-Politics

In the improbable circumstance that Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were to walk into a bar together, I have little doubt that, assuming its customer base were suitably weighted to reflect the demographics of the United Kingdom, each would find a receptive audience and a hearty welcome. It would also be the beginning of a pretty good joke.

They are the anti-politicians.

Like many others, I struggle to understand anti-politics - or, as it is sometimes called, ‘new politics’ - I am also not sure whether it is a phenomenon that is always worth understanding. After all, new politics is old. Very often it is just politics by another name. Whether it is the Liberals in 1974 or the Greens in 1989, political insurgency has been done before. Sometimes better. In the early eighties Roy Jenkins and the ‘Gang of Four’ broke the mould of British politics. At the next election, although they nipped at Labour’s heals in terms of vote share, they won a few dozen seats and Mrs Thatcher was re-elected by a landslide. The mould of British politics has been broken so many times that I wonder who keeps on putting it back together.

WHETHER it is on the nature of capitalism or the European Union, our anti-politicians - whisper it quietly -  have a point

Revolution is rare. Of the two significant reforming governments of the late twentieth century, it took a war to elect one; while re-reading the Conservative’s 1979 manifesto, what is striking is its timidity: the major reforms came later.

Two events of 2015 captured, in part, the nature of anti-politics: after the election and during the debate on Syrian air strikes, protesters declared “Not In My Name”. Forget the narcissism of the statement, it misunderstands the nature of democracy - whether we agree with decisions or not, they are done in our name. We cannot logically accept those we do agree with as being ‘in our name’, while others not. The process which delivered the NHS also gave us the Iraq War. Like them or loathe them, they were done in our name. That bumper sticker which reads “Don’t blame me. I voted UKIP” somewhat misses the point. The genius of House of Cards (and, as a purist, I speak of the original BBC version) is that, by breaking the fourth wall, it becomes analogous. By watching we are accomplices. Everything Urquhart (or Underwood) does is in our name.

This is not to dismiss anti-politics completely. Boris Johnson's anti-political charms are more based on style and perceived charisma; but Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, both "straight talkers", also represent fundamental challenges to our political order. What they are trying to do is shift the paradigm from anti-establishment positions. Whether it is on the nature of capitalism or the European Union, our anti-politicians - whisper it quietly -  have a point. Concerns over inequality are pertinent; in a democracy it is right that we should debate issues such as freedom movement of people or sovereignty: the EU is not perfect, nor is our economic framework.

Where anti-politics fails is in its simplistic fanaticism. If you substitute “neoliberalism” for “EUSSR” then you could be having a political debate with either a Corbynista or a Kipper. The argument is essentially the same. “Those over there are not giants but windmills,” Said Sancho Panza to valiant Don Quixote.

Mad Alonso Quijano had his squire. Where is their equivalent? Therein lies the innate irony of anti-politics: it is bred from disaffection or alienation, political failure or conspiracy but the anti-political become devotees. The rejection of the status quo is absolute. The faith is that of the convert.

OUR society is built to see doubt as a weakness. Weakness is bad.

My question about new/anti-politics is, where is the doubt? It does not take a Cartesian skeptic to see that there is none. It is not belief built on truths, but truths built on existing belief. In defiance of enlightened ideas of exploration, the certainty of belief is often terrifying. 

Our society is built to see doubt as a weakness. Weakness is bad. Whether it is mental or physical health, frailty or lack of resilience is seen as weakness. Politicians declare themselves ‘conviction’ politicians. The Lady was not for turning, and Blair had no reverse gear. Churchill declared that we would never surrender. Yet he spoke at a time when there was a genuine existential threat to the country and Europe’s freedom in peril. The same cannot be said of his successors. Our idols are heroes without flaws. They are also fantasies. As we saw after the Paris massacre leaders need to reassure but surely that can be tempered with greater nuance. Even Achilles was imperfect; wise Socrates spoke of his own ignorance.

2015 was the year of new politics. 2016 will be as well. We’ll probably claim it about every year until 2020.

It was said of Pope John Paul I that his brief papacy was like a meteor which lit up the sky and quickly disappeared. There is a similarity with politics and anti-politics. Are our times so exceptional to think otherwise? It seems unlikely. After all the United Kingdom is a country which has just re-elected David Cameron. The fact that UKIP and the Greens won one seat each with a combined 5 million votes was met with a resounding “So what?”

I may be wrong about all this though. But I don’t doubt that somewhere there is a lesson here.

As for the punchline, answers on a postcard…

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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