Compassion – the Missing Ingredient in our Politics

Yesterday I posted about the lack of ambition in UK politics. Of course, it’s not quite true to suggest that many of the parties or their leaders have low expectations. What I’m saying is that their ambition is limited only to the immediate, and based almost completely on the interests of a subset rather than of everyone.

My suggestion is that if you want people to be interested in the political process, this is shortsighted. It’s well known that people, and often those who don’t vote regularly, care and sometimes passionately about many inherently political issues. They just don’t link the issues to the people and institutions who are supposed to be sorting those issues out. Or worse, they do link them but think those people and institutions simply don’t understand or don’t care.

Political parties occasionally fixate on the gaps in their own reputation that seem to prevent their reaching more people. David Cameron famously attempted to “modernise” the Conservative Party when he became leader. More recently, Michael Gove (of all people) gave a speech in which he suggested that the Tories should be the “warriors for the dispossessed”, mirroring the “Good Right” movement spearheaded by the prolific and tireless Tim Montgomerie, the Times columnist and one-man Conservative think tank. Even Boris Johnson has been making noises about more moral politics in the press this week.

It’s easy to be cynical about such rhetoric. In Gove’s and Johnson’s case, it’s easy to see why they might be hammering out a slightly different message from their party’s suffocating but undeniably disciplined economic message. What’s perhaps harder is to recognise that they might be on to something. They may have stumbled upon the most important missing ingredient in our politics.

That ingredient is compassion. This is often thought of merely in terms of sympathy for those who are suffering, but it goes beyond that. Compassion is to suffer with others, with an accompanying desire to alleviate the suffering.

Our politics sorely lack compassion. I was struck reading this horrific BBC article about just one failed asylum seeker in London how a senior politician would naturally react (in public) to such a story. They would make some sympathetic noises, certainly; perhaps even offer to write a letter to the relevant Minister. They might refer back to policy decisions their party had taken, especially ones that were tangentially related, in an attempt to suggest that they have helped the person by association. But they’d also be cautious – perhaps suggesting that it’s important to look after the vulnerable but at the same time referring to the equal or greater need to ensure that only people who have a legitimate reason to be in the UK should stay here.

This is particularly true of the way we treat immigrants and asylum seekers. A friend of mine commented on a recent Facebook post:

I really think the way we treat immigrants as a society is the issue above all others that we’ll look back on and say ‘how did we ever think this was acceptable?’

But it applies, probably just as much, to the vulnerable in our own society – a group that encompasses the homeless and disenfranchised, disabled people, sexual or lifestyle non-conformists, low-skilled workers, even people in receipt of any kind of benefits other than pensions.

Most of all, in order to be truly compassionate, you have to be able to feel compassion for people that you might at best ignore. That’s what our politicians are particularly bad at. We’ve moved so far away from that as a society that it’s now not only acceptable to ignore such people; it’s part of political campaigning actively to sneer at them, to judge them and to punish them.

I’m not suggesting this is easy. But if politicians truly believe in public service and the public good, they must start to grapple with this – and how to reintroduce compassion into what they and their parties say and do.

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On Sincerity

I often lament the fact that I have grown up as part of the most ironic generation of all time. The so-called “millennials” are surely characterised most of all by their sub-absurdist approach to everything, whether it is in trivial matters of appearance or in serious matters of the heart or of the head.

As Stewart Lee once put it in If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One (not verbatim, so apologies if this is inaccurate), the last taboo in comedy is someone on stage “attempting to do something sincerely and well”. He says this as he prepares to exorcise the villainy of advertising by playing his favourite song, Galway Girl, which was ruined in and by a well known cider advert.

I often think he’s bang on the money. It’s not just comedy though. It’s the whole of life. People find Lee divisive because he stands outside comedy even as he participates in it. Yet that is how people of my age and younger seem to deal with everything, especially the things that truly matter.

As someone who aspires to be a creative person from time to time, I find this crippling. The self-consciousness that characterises modern life in the UK is suffocating. The temptation to laugh at oneself, let alone at others, is overwhelming. Yet this must be resisted, even in the face of accusations of pretension. The reality is that not everything is pretentious or inherently insincere, however much our absurdist culture likes to think so.

What prompted this? The experience of listening to Sufjan Stevens’ masterpiece, released today, entitled Carrie & Lowell.

An album about grieving his estranged mother, it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human and to be a complex man of sometimes tenuous faith. It is painfully honest, so much so that at times one feels almost as if one is intruding on something that should have remained private.

I wrote this about it elsewhere:

This album is triumphant: bleak, gut-wrenchingly honest, full of grief and doubt, but at the same time strangely resolute. When I hear it, I don’t want him – or anyone – to have experienced the incidents, situations and emotions that formed him into the person that made this record. But at the same time, it’s quite easily the best record he’s ever made, and probably the best record he’ll ever make. He must feel extremely equivocal about having created it (something that’s apparent in the interviews he’s been doing around the album, but also in some of the moments on the album itself, like the exhausted exhalation at the end of John My Beloved).

It’s times like these that you realise what inferior art is for; to give creations like these the backdrop they deserve, like a diamond on a black velvet display board.

It is not enough to live vicariously through the sincerity – the bravery – of others. Those people who are willing to put their heads above the parapet in creative or cultural terms, and get shot at for their trouble, are meant to inspire us. Ultimately they should challenge those of us who are lazy enough to believe that it’s ok merely to snipe at others and wear a mask ourselves. To my shame, that has described me for most of my life.

I don’t want to do it any more.