Who slurs wins: dirty politics in Britain and America


Boris Johnston and the man he wants to replace David Cameron

As we have seen with the internecine warfare in the Tory Party over Brexit, often the bitterest political battles are within parties rather than between them. In the main, parties are broad coalitions, but even those focused on a single issue, or formed around an individual, have their moments.

You don’t have to look far for examples: patricide with the ejection of Ian Paisley as leader of the DUP, matricide when the Tories dispatched Maggie Thatcher. The SDLP in its prime was riven by tensions between its tribal chiefs: Hume, Mallon and McGrady; and as we have seen recently, it is not slow to dispatch a leader it believes is past his sell-by date.

In most political systems, much of this power play goes on behind the scenes; erupting only when party discipline breaks down or an individual loses the run of him or herself and goes public – Boris Johnston’s Brexit buffoonery is a case in point.

If the stakes were not so high, the Blue-on-Blue Brexit battle would be entertaining. There’s some entertainment to be had in hearing members of the Government rubbishing its own policies, turning on their Prime Minister, and deriding the competence of bodies such as the Treasury and the Bank of England.

These ghosts will come back to haunt them when the vote is passed.

Winston Churchill, who knew the value of political insurrection, once observed: “The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you.” Jeremy Corbyn would agree with that.

In Britain and Ireland these tensions bubble to the surface like magma oozing out of an active volcano, with the occasional eruption. The United States does things differently.

It has institutionalised internecine political warfare with the primary elections system – the blooding of presidential candidates by their own parties. The primaries have dominated US politics for the past 18 months or so. We still have to get through the conventions before the general election proper begins – but we now have a clear idea about who will be battling for the presidency.

The American system is designed to introduce a degree of paralysis into the body politic. Members of the House of Representatives go before the voters every two years; the President’s powers are checked by Congress and the Supreme Court; and even a two-term president, such as Obama, becomes a lame duck once the primaries begin and the focus shifts to the next holder of the office.

The primaries are always been a blood sport; but this time round the level of invective has been particularly unedifying. It has brought the political process into disrepute.

Billionaire Donald Trump’s rise has shocked the Republican establishment, and his party ‘colleagues’ have been unsparing in their condemnation of his racist and misogynistic comments. Like the Brexiteers he has not been afraid of twisting the truth to suit his narrow political ends.

Hilary Clinton, unquestionably one of the best-qualified candidates to challenge for the presidency, has also had her own challenges with the doggedly determined opposition of Bernie Sanders. Like Trump, Sanders has played the anti-establishment card, and his campaign has done all it can to hole Hilary below the waterline.

But this week Clinton secured her grip on the nomination. That in itself is a milestone. She is the first woman with a credible chance of becoming President. But Sanders and his supporters continue to undermine her candidacy, to such a degree that you would imagine they’d prefer to see Trump in the White House.

Politics is a rough and dirty trade. Not for the faint-hearted.

Those in favour of the system say it tests the candidates for the ordeal to come. Those who cannot stand the heat are weeded out; political arguments are honed, and the electorate gets a chance to ‘test’ the candidates to destruction.

That is all well and good. But a system that allows an individual like Trump to rise to the surface must be deeply suspect, as is an electoral process that sends into the final phase of a campaign, two candidates handicapped by wounds inflicted by their ‘own’ side.

On the Democrat side, the primaries have ensured the right result. Clinton is a class act, with all the potential of being a first-class president.

But the Republicans have failed their country by their inability to contain a populist demagogue, worse they have failed those of us who have no vote in the election, but who will be directly affected by the decision made in the coming November elections.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on June 9 2016