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Have a look at yourself!

December 19, 2010

Do we get the politicians we deserve? Are they built in the image and likeness of the voters? In our burgeoning blame culture, do we make enough use of the mirror?

I woke on Saturday morning to the sound of an Italian journo discussing Silvio Berlusconi on Radio Scotland. He was of the opinion that Berlusconi had survived this week’s votes and may well survive an election in the next few months, because, at some level, the Italian voters were prepared to accept his flaws because they saw a version of themselves in him. In short, they knew he was a flawed entrepreneurial self publicist who ran close to the wind, but that was ok.

What sort of people are these, I thought.

And then into my head, bold as you like, walked Charles J Haughey.

Charlie’s (note the familiar term) pre-eminence in Irish politics was a thing of great wonder. He did politics almost transparently – courted Republicanism when it was a vote getter, became European when it suited, refused to support the Falklands war to the great chagrin of Mrs Thatcher and the Irish opposition. Everything he did was calculated. Privately, he had affairs, received wild amounts of money from business men, lived a life style that was basically unthinkable in the Ireland of the 70s – flew to Paris for hand made shirts, kept horses and a big country house – none of which was remotely feasible on the money he had earned. He owned an island off the Kerry coast – Inishvickillaune. I remember standing on a glorious beach one summer’s day watching a helicopter making trip after trip out to the island with supplies for his holiday occupation and wondering how people could accept the sheer bling of it all.

But they did; time and again they voted for him – despite it all. Indeed his roguery seemed to make him even more attrjactive. He was ‘Charlie’, a ‘cute hoor’, ‘Didn’t he do well for himself alright?’ they would say, shaking their heads at small country rumours of his dalliances, his extravagances, his mysterious dealings. It was as if there was, somewhere in the national psyche, a grudging admiration for the chiseller who got things done, had a bit of brass neck, and had a rare ould conceit of himself.

I think stereotypes affect national identities more than we would like to think; it’s a brave Scot who remains sober in England at Hogmanay, and most Welshmen will admit to a love of singing and rugby, at least when they are abroad, whilst the English generally revel in their stiff upper lips and unflappability if Johnny Foreigner is about. It always seemed to me that C J Haughey represented an Irish stereotype that many voters weren’t altogether unhappy about: quick witted, daredevilishly prone to risky behaviour, corner cutting, charming but unlikely to be put upon by the big boys. Isn’t it the stuff of a thousand Barry Fitzgerald films? So they turned a blind eye to his obvious faults and took an exciting vicarious ride on his coat strings, seeing him as a representative of this plucky little country, that took on the odds and sometimes won, through sheer cheek and derring do.

And I wonder if this applies to Berlusconi who is, after all, a cartoon Italian stereotype – with the weakness for beautiful women, the dealings behind the scenes, the expensive style, the cocky approach to life. As for many of the Irish with Haughey, millions of Italians will be affronted by such a man being the public face of their country, but perhaps just as many, like the scooter riders in Rome, and the fashionistas in Milan, will not be too unhappy that he is living their stereotype for them.

To continue this essay into stereotypes – or at least stereotypical attitudes, you could hazard a few similarities between Italy and Ireland as well, in the twentieth century: a cosy relationship between the state and an autocratic church establishment, a domestically matriarchal but publicly patriarchal society, rural economies remaining important for a lot of the century, and a late catching up with the rest of Europe economically and statistically. Maybe Haughey and Berlusconi are the political equivalents of naughty boys playing with matches and cigarettes behind their parents’ backs to the great amusement of their younger siblings – till, of course, the house burns down.

As it was in the UK, when Thatcher and later Blair pandered to the voters’ personal greed and okayed an acquisitive and ever shallower society, so Haughey laid the foundations for the cataclysmic mismanagement of the Celtic Tiger, and Italy may well have their turn in the financial whirlpool as well.

All of which brings us to Scotland – and do we have our stereotypical mirror image at the bottom of the Royal Mile? I happen to think that a lot of what is wrong with Scottish politics comes from a relentlessly negative media causing rampant disinterest amongst the voters. London Labour’s refusal to treat the new Parliament as important in terms of its candidates didn’t help either. However, I am prepared to suggest that maybe a certain Scots stereotype is quite pleased with Maximum Eck – proud of the country, happy to sing its praises, but never going to rock the boat too wildly: the folk who really didn’t like Jack McConnell’s ‘best wee country’ approach. And there are others even more terrified of change who like to see Iain Gray in the mirror, with the feartie approach of ‘no can do on our own, let London be responsible for us’.

Stereotypes, of course, need challenging. If we want our politics to change, the change begins at home. Let’s hope a consignment of mirrors can get through for this Christmas!

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