30 DECEMBER 1972, Page 13

Shirley Robin Letwin on the masks of politics

"That insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician,'' said Adam Smith in passing, and no one contradicted him. For everyone knows that the politician dissimulates, though some say he should and others that he should not. He performs before an audience. Performance is what goes on •in the theatre. The theatre is the home of illusion, and illusion is deception. Therefore the politician is taken to be a master of deception.

That the politiciab both gives and should give a performance is the argument of The Theatre of Politics.* Mount defends the theatrical element in politics not, however, in the usual half-hearted or cynical way, as an inescapable evil. He treats it instead as the essence of what is wanted in an association of free men under law. Any alternative to it, he argues, would replace persuasion by imposition. And he sweeps into his bag of ' imposers' many famous 'liberals' — Jay, Galbraith, Boyle,

Crosland., Plumb and Popper because they hold "the belief that the masses are not qualified to exercise choice."

Mount's remarks on Popper are the most striking, because Mount holds that the "piece-meal social engineering" advocated in The Open Society is not significantly different from the Marxist position. Popper believes, as Marx did, that "continuous social change is here to stay." Like Marxism, which sees politics "as a battle plus pilgrimage plus science," Popper sees it as a 'pilgrimage' towards better things and regards science as the only rational method for setting the course. But whereas Marxists have considered what is to be done if the "masses do not agree with the wishes of the social engineers," Popper "ducks the problem," overlooking "the relationship between the engineer and his clients which is the crux of politics." Popper seems to think that it will suffice if his social engineer is directed by "rational humanitarian morality."

But Mount asks, what if "rational humanitarian morality" does not fit in with the public's preferences? "What if we do not want reform, alteration, or innovation in a particular field?" According to Popper, the social engineer should press for reform despite that resistance, and the rest of us should pay attention. If Popper's social engineer is much milder than his Marxist counterpart, he too believes that "people don't know what's good for them," Unlike Burke's politician, a " local man" who "shares the preconception of his time and place," Popper's social engineer is an expert whose knowledge is general and abstract. Facing disagreement, he does not attempt to 'persuade.' or to supply 'reasons' for doing one thing rather than another; instead he proffers 'evidence' and ' refutations '; and respects no dissent except from others who are presumably certified as equally expert Social engineers.

Mount thinks about these matters in a very different way. For him politics is not a matter between the expert and his untrained and sometimes recalcitrant client. He regards politics instead as "the transaction of public business." In the course of it men "act for, against, with and upon each other ... protest, bargain, persuade, and decide." The relations between the " political actor" and his audience is a "relationship between equals" and the results are therefore "eternally unpredictable."

Mount's view is refreshing, a welcome echo of the premises that underlay the classical statements in favour of political freedom. Unfortunately the book Is not as orderly as might be hoped: arguments enter unannounced and vanish mysteriously; irrelevancies turn up; brilliant insights disappear in the confusion. Nevertheless the jumble of observations begins to take shape, and is well worth attending to, if one sees how his defence of politics as theatre is related to his assumptions about the character of political association, even though Mount has not made that relation clear.

An association of free men, according to Mount, has no purpose other than to make rules that will enable its members to live together in a congenial manner while leaving each one free to make his own life as he will. Although there is some degree of agreement among them, they have no fixed common end — such, for instance, as

would be followed by a factory that wants to turn out some given number of shoes. Unlike an enterprise, a political association has a much more shifting area of agreement, the boundaries and content of which are determined, as each issue arises, by the views of its members. What its members regard as part of the 'public good' depends entirely on their choices; their choices are responses to their interpretations of the world; although it may be possible to predict roughly haw a group that has long been associated will tend to interpret things. It may, in short, be possible to know how things generally happen in such an association; but it is not controlled by ' scientific laws' or 'laws of history' that would dictate what must necessarily happen.

Because political argument, on this view, must start from 'maxims' — loose statements about likely consequences, as distinct from 'laws 'which lay down inevitable patterns — the conclusions that emerge from political argument are never definitive and absolute. Political argument must rely on examples and illustrations, all tending to show that one alternative policy is more ' reasonable ' than another — but all always capable of being met with another set of examples and telling points.' Since political arguments, unlike a geometric demonstration, can never command the rational and inescapable assent of anybody who understands it, some method needs to be used to decide whose argument is best. That method, in a free association, is to win over to one's position as much support as possible. And so it follows that political argument within a free association necessarily brings together the politician and the audience, which includes other politicians as well as the public. This audience is as necessary to him as he is to it, just as in any other theatre.

The performance required of the politician is particularly difficult now because he can no longer see himself or be seen as a holy man acting on behalf of God. Lacking sceptre, crown and throne, he is recognised by the audience as a man playing a role, who may get his lines wrong, and who may be trying to exploit the audience for his own purposes rather than helping them to realise theirs. What can an actor in so exposed a situation use to establish his impersonality and his case? All that is available is the art of rhetoric. But the difficulty is that rhetoric is bordered by sophistry. How can one tell when rhetoric descends to sophistry? Mount does not provide any catalogue of symptoms, but the main lines of the distinction are clear enough. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Sophistry is a form of psychic coercion, because it aims to discourage the listener from making up his own mind for himself. Rhetoric belongs to a free society; sophistry to a slavish society.

Those who deny that the politician must consider and speak to the convictions of his audience, Mount argues, are thinking of something other than an association of free men. They may mean that it is possible for someone to demonstrate conclusively just how a political association should act; in doing so they deny that men are free to interpret and choose as they will. Or they may mean that the politician should be concerned with some end other than enabling the members of a political association to live as they choose. In either case, the need for an audience is ruled out and the image of the theatre of politics becomes inappropriate.

Mount seems to desert this line of argument when he proceeds to liken the theatre of politics to the 'theatre of embarrassment,' for a form of theatre in which the distance between the actors and the audience appears to be abolished and in which it is pretended that the show is entirely spontaneous. Despite his holding the theatre of embarrassment to be inferior as art, Mount believes that it is the model of politics and that political drama of this sort is essential to prevent the public from being estranged or ' alienated ' from government. Here Mount has been badly misled by current obsessions.

If politics were conducted like the 'theatre of embarrassment,' it would become a covert attempt to impose on the public rather than persuade it. The ' happenings ' that distinguish the theatre of embarrassment are excellent analogies of the worst sort of sophistry in politics, the use of marches, mass meetings, and demonstrations. These get their effect by threat, Their message •is: We have the power to make them do as we wish. They recognise no obligation to offer reasoned arguments in favour of their proposals.

That the politician has such an obligation, Mount makes clear when he distinguishes between conventional and avant-garde theatre, The latter, he says, "is an exploration of sensation." It uses novelty merely to shock. It cultivates incoherence, incongruity, inconsistency. A constant blast of noise and a rapid parade of disconnected images are designed to disorder the audience's established modes of thought. Thus, it is hoped, the audience will become dependent on a steady supply of new and jarring sensations, will become accustomed to preferring the violence of revolution rather than the serenity of peace.

Conventional theatre, on the other hand, breaks "fresh ground with old spades," assimilates what is different and changing

to what is already familiar. For those who prefer to live in peace under law, it is clearly preferable that politics should approach the conventional theatre, where the dramatist and players observe "the traditional virtues of clarity, restraint, and truth to life." These are the virtues of genuine political rhetoric, designed to woo the audience into listening attentively and sympathetically rather than into following blindly, designed to persuade and not to dumbfound.

On the makeup of good rhetoric, Mount has much to offer. The politician should not indulge in the "empty sonorities " of the Kennedy-Sorenson style or retire into "the short verbless sentences of Edward Heath," neither of which is a suitable "working political language." He must hold his audience yet must avoid "verbal delirium." Above all he must not pretend to be anything but an "interpreter and protagonist." He could not, even if he wanted to, be only recording the people's wishes, since his own preferences enter into his selection of issues and arrangement of argument.

Selection of this topic at this moment in time, his choice of this piece of evidence and those friends to support his case, even his preference for this kind of suit or hat — all are proclamations of the kind of person he is and of the kind of values he wishes to promote . . . The octave of public behaviour which he has selected . . has already limited him to a certain range of values. It is up to him to make articulate the precise composition of his beliefs within that range.

To avoid sophistry, then, the politician must refuse to give his recommendations the aura of higher truth, on the one hand, and avoid, on the other, the pretence that he is merely stating the 'facts' rather than recommending a choice from among a number of plausible alternatives. He has an obligation to make plain what beliefs underly his recommendations; and to carry the audience he must of course appeal to their preferences and convictions. But he may not speak as though he were simply giving the audience what it wants. This is the tendency that Mount finds objectionable in Enoch Powell's populism,' an inclination to speak as though he were accepting and following public sentiments without at all judging them. Mr Powell would be more candid and convincing if he made it clear why he prefers to encourage rather than discourage those sentiments of the audience.

A politician, then, is less "insidious and crafty" the plainer he makes it that he is engaged in a performance. His choice is never between rhetoric and what Baldwin praised as "plain unadorned statements of cases" but between various styles of rhetoric, or between rhetoric and sophistry. The politician to mistrust is the friendly fellow who invites us into his parlour and talks to us straight from his warm heart, or the cool fellow who proves all his points with irrefutable demonstrations and diagrams. The politician who presents himself as an actor on a stage is no problem; he performs, and we can take it or leave it. If that stage is ever abolished, and actors merge with the audience, we will have reached the setting of 1984.