An American Marine, in Vietnam and seeing for himself the unspeakable brutality of the actions he was required to participate in, baulked at what he had just done in the first few days. “This is war. This is what we do”, he was told. Slowly, gradually, perhaps almost imperceptibly, he came to see it as normal – to believe it. The actions of the Americans in Vietnam, the actions of the North Vietnamese forces, were nothing substantially different from previous wars: what had changed, perhaps, was the reporting of it. War had always been brutal, but never in that way had it been beamed back into people’s homes and seen on their television screens. Yet that extra glare of publicity perhaps did one thing. The use of napalm against civilian targets is now banned, as is US use of Agent Orange. War, however unspeakably cruel it will always be, is perhaps less so than before.
Politics, of course, does not match such levels of barbarity. Nothing could. For all the negative stereotypes around politics, for every cynical viewpoint expressed by a non-voter that ‘they’re all the same’, ‘they’re all in it for themselves’, ‘they’re as bad as each other’, ‘they care only about getting votes’ or ‘all they do is attack each other’, I always used to argue fervently against it. We can change things, and it doesn’t have to be like this. The nastiness, leaking, briefing and counter-briefing, attacking opponents for the sake of political point-scoring, Machiavellian plotting, seeking to generate and exploit scandal, deliberate twisting of words out of context, and all the toxicity associated with modern politics could be beaten.
Then, and I keep trying to pinpoint when, something changed. Soundbite politics had been around for a while already, but now the negatives took over. Perhaps it was the mass use of social media, opening it up for all to see. A Twitter-based assault on someone’s integrity in 140 characters (as was then) could not be proven wrong without a detailed response. It could come at any time of day or night, retweeted by thousands before the victim was even aware. A lie, it is said, can be half way around the world whilst the truth is still putting on its boots. Never was that more apt than when describing social media.
Or perhaps it was the election of Donald Trump – which left the Right feeling they could say anything they wanted, however offensive, ‘because Donald Trump could get away with it’, and which sent the Left into an existential paroxysm of anger, vented at anyone who got in their way. Maybe it was Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party, leading to Momentum and a ‘newer, kinder politics’ which was ‘kinder’ only in the sense that the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 was responsible for lies. Could it have been the reaction to the Brexit referendum, where instead of working together to make it work, many on the losing side of the referendum threw a tantrum – and then many on the winning side responded by throwing their own tantrum straight back at them?
Most likely it was gradual, a combination of all of the above. Right now, the harsh reality is that there exists no political party of any substance worthy of a vote. Politics has become dominated by ‘whataboutery’ (mention a scandal about one party and instead of answering, it will direct you to a similar scandal about its opponents which it considers to be worse), fake news (inventing statistics, or treating proven-false predictions as gospel) and tribalism (to the point that some politicians will refuse to make friends with people of different political views, perpetuating an echo chamber and promoting misunderstandings).
Even deciding which Party is the ‘least bad’ has become difficult. Democracy, the ballot box, must always remain important: it’s what we fought those wars in the first place to defend. It’s why my great uncle died hours after being rescued, a PoW forced to work on the Burma railway, why my grandfather never slept after the horrors of World War 2 and why my great-grandfather fought in every major battle on the Western Front in World War 1. So we mustn’t drift into not voting; even a spoilt ballot would be better than that. And maybe, just maybe, the added spotlight on the wrongs of politics will – as it did with the evils of war – lead over decades to a change, to people not getting away with what they did before. But if you ask me why I’m now an Independent, it’s very simple. I’m not prepared to excuse the cesspit of Party politics. I’m not going to use the puerile defence that “This is politics. This is what we do.”