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Artillery Row

Retail politics

Beware a politician who has a book to sell

I’ve always wondered what is behind the phenomenon of women who watch Informative Murder Porn. In Britain, it seems every big-budget drama is exclusively about murder, crime fiction seems to be about 50% of any high-street book display and true crime podcasts are so big they have their own specific section on Spotify.

Maybe it’s just a trope that this market is solely women, but it’s certainly confirmed by my anecdotal experience, and the suggestion seems to be that the US market for true crime is 80% female. Scott Bonn suggests that this is down to women’s higher empathic tendency;

Based on my experience and research, women’s fascination with true crime is driven by their empathetic nature. In particular, women empathize with the victims in true crime stories who, more often than not, comprise other women. Female fans identify with and can easily imagine themselves in the role of the victim in frightening true crime tales. The old religious adage, “There but for the grace of God go I,” applies here.

However, the empathy that female fans manifest is not limited to the victims. It is my observation that women strongly empathize with, and seek to understand, the motivations of the perpetrators—especially male perpetrators—in true crime stories. I believe this has to do with a female desire to feel safe and secure.

There’s no reason to think that this is an exclusively female psychological trait; it’s possible that crash compilations are highly popular with men for the same reasons, and I used to have a friend who would watch F1 and cycling only on the off chance that there would be a crash.

Perhaps that’s why the compilation video of Liz Truss’s awkward interview moments with Steven Edginton, for GB News America, is doing so well. 

I think it’s important to state that I am not going to use this article as a vehicle to lay into Liz Truss. Frankly, I don’t think that would be very interesting, original or enlightening; sufficed to say as each clip ends I keep expecting to hear the French horn play the ‘bum-bum-bum’ from the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme.

Rather, I am going to talk about what this video reveals about the character of our politicians. Edington’s exposure of the disconnect between Truss’ statements about being a cultural conservative and wanting to reduce immigration and her actions in government (many such cases!) reminds me of a line in Out Of the Blue, the biography of her rise and fall (mostly her fall) by Harry Cole and James Heale; one former adviser calls her ‘a retail politician’. It’s a perfect moniker for an increasingly familiar character in politics.

There’s a difference between substance and perception, and Britain is blighted by the fact that the latter is more powerful

Whilst retail politics means ‘meeting and talking to voters to appeal personally for their support’, a retail politician is someone who is primarily, overwhelmingly and often solely focussed on selling a political good (them) to the market (the electorate). They are politicians without ideological foundations, who are nonetheless clear on their principles and commitments; namely, self-advancement.

As opposed to a conviction politician, who holds a set of political beliefs based on fundamental ideas and values regardless of their popularity, a retail politician prefers to trim their sails to the demands of the electorate, or the overwhelming political consensus. A conviction politician, to paraphrase Shimon Peres, listens to the beat of their heart; a retail politician listens to the beat of opinion polls.

The problem with retail politics is that by shedding the principles with which a conviction politician anchors themselves and instead throwing their sails to the wind, as that wind changes they must tack or jibe with it. To sail upwind would slow their progress too much; after all the aim is not to arrive at a particular destination, but simply to get as far as they can. 

But trying to ensure you’re always running before the wind comes with problems in politics. If you have a track record of taking different positions – as Truss does – it is relatively easy for someone to point out these inconsistences – as Edginton does – and almost impossible, when confronted with this, to look like a serious politician – as Truss doesn’t. Her instinctive passion for self-promotion has left her with her profile raised immeasurably and her credentials damaged irrevocably, but it ensures she serves as the example par excellence of retail politicians.

That video was released on 23rd April, the same day that Frank Field died. The comparison between the two could not be more stark. 

I am not going to pretend I know a great deal about Frank Field, but sometimes you don’t have to know a great deal about someone to tell a great deal about them. Field was one of the few conviction politicians left in Britain, a man of independent mind and consistent principles, who campaigned relentlessly and tirelessly on behalf of society’s most vulnerable, to gather up in the arms of your love those who expect no love from above. He was, as Obadiah Mbatang put it; ‘a man of deep Christian faith – but still had doubt – who wasn’t preachy or pious or even attempted to appear perfect. Just driven by concern for the poorest, concern for decency and concerned by what he thought was true and didn’t remotely care if it wasn’t fashionable.’

Field’s deep and often vocal Christianity provided the anchor that all conviction politicians require – not unlike Margaret Thatcher, with whom he shared an unusual friendship. To paraphrase her, Field believed that ‘what is morally right eventually turns out to be politically expedient’. A retail politician like Truss might be said to believe that what is politically expedient eventually turns out to be morally right.

There’s a difference between substance and perception, and Britain is blighted by the fact that the latter is more powerful. But it doesn’t have to be this way; voters care just as much about integrity and character as a whole as they do about stances on particular issues; voters may not like what you say, but they like to know where you stand. Frank Field was a shining example of how, even in our cynical age, a politician can change the world for the better simply by being who they are. Would we had but a hundred more of his ilk.

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