General elections don’t happen very often so it’s odd that this one should be so dull. The campaign has slipped from the headlines and radio presenters have even taken to reassuring listeners it will soon be over. It’s not as if there’s nothing at stake. The parties are not the all same: everyone will be affected, for better or for worse, by which eventually forms the next government.
The politicians’ refusal to meet the public has sucked the life out of this election. Instead, we have talks to people whose work is interrupted by politicians feigning interest in tyres or doorframes, and speeches to party members designed only to catch the next headline. But the headlines are all the same because political language has been vacuum-packed, emptied of all meaning. In the blue corner is a ‘long-term plan’: in the red it’s ‘a better plan’. This is not Newspeak: it’s Nonspeak. The only candidates who do speak with frankness—or the pretence of it—are insulated by not having to act on their words in government.
It’s partly due to a breakdown in trust between leaders and citizens that was evident in Question Time, a rare moment of real dialogue between them. Politics hasn’t adjusted to the ubiquity of cameras and the speed with which recordings circulate. When any elector can broadcast an unguarded moment that might dominate the headlines, it’s understandable if candidates are on their guard. They will eventually adapt, as they did to newspapers, television and universal suffrage, but for now politicians are caught like rabbits in the lights of the selfie phone.
Artists should be able to disrupt this broken relationship but they seem absent from the ritual of collective self-examination. A few have offered party endorsements, but that is just the act of a citizen: anyone with a little fame can do it. The distinctive creative power of art—much vaunted when artists defend their funding—is to challenge convention, stale thinking and (self-) deception, blowing air into stale rooms. Where is it? We owe the election’s only powerful image not to artists but to the Amnesty International campaigners who put body bags on Brighton beach to represent the failure of European governments to prevent careless death in the Mediterranean Sea.
Albert Camus, perhaps the greatest French writer of the last century, is a model of how artists can balance engagement with independence. For Camus, it is the writer’s independence that gives value to their engagement. Like George Orwell, he saw writers as custodians of language. In reading the best of them we sluice cant from misused words, and are reminded of what really matters—in life, as well as in elections. So here is a little clean water from Albert Camus’ 1957 Nobel Prize speech:
For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.
That is worth holding onto in the torrent of nonspeak that will crash over us in the coming days.