Philip Cowley: politics for morons

October 6, 2006

THE AMAZING MRS PRITCHARD

BBC1, Tuesdays, 9pm

If you made it through episode one of The Amazing Mrs Pritchard in a single viewing, you are made of stronger stuff than me. I had to watch it in small bursts, not least because I kept running out of things to throw at the television. And because the neighbours complained about the obscenities I was hurling at Jane Horrocks.

The premise of the series is simple. Standing for election as a protest against the existing parties, Ros Pritchard (Horrocks) is catapulted into 10 Downing Street on a surge of electoral enthusiasm for a different sort of politics: "I will never lie to you. I will never mislead you." She is also helped by a £10 million donation from her former employer and the widespread defection of female MPs from other parties - women being, of course, much more sensible than men.

That a party such as the Purple Alliance could do well in an election is not pushing reality too far. Anti-politics is already popular stuff. When novelist and country-and-western singer Kinky Friedman can run for Texas Governor with a slogan of "Why the hell not?", Pritchard's own "It's not rocket science" seems almost mild. The problem comes when you look beyond the public disgruntlement to doing something about it.

Pritchard rails against the increasing remoteness of Westminster. That's just Grade-A hooey. MPs today are better connected with the real world than ever before. In the 1950s, a reputation as a good constituency MP could be built on a visit every couple of months. These days, many MPs spend half the week in their constituencies, and even at Westminster inordinate effort is dedicated to constituents' letters and telephone calls. Indeed, some observers are concerned that MPs focus too much on the parish pump and not enough on scrutinising the Government.

Episode two (which will be broadcast next Tuesday) at least begins to engage with some of the difficulties of governing. Pritchard admits: "I don't know how I dared criticise Tony Blair now I know what he was having to do." If the idea that governing might be more like rocket science than most think had been developed, then maybe, just maybe, The Amazing Mrs Pritchard could save itself from being politics for morons.

But the omens are bad. Pritchard decides to have a "national debate" in which people send in their ideas; and in just two weeks her Government has a set of policies that a BBC reporter describes as "balanced and sensible" (yeah, right).

The idea of "the people" being frustrated by the politicians is fundamental to the programme's reading of politics. "They" are letting "us" down. This rhetorical device is very old wine, common to all populist parties - it's forever popping up in literature from the UK Independence Party and the British National Party - and based on the assumption that there is no conflict between citizens about what they want.

Even more amazing than the speed of producing a government programme is that no one seems to have lost out in this process: everyone appears to get what they want. But real politics involves winners and losers. It involves people not getting their way - and then complaining like hell. What's missing from The Amazing Mrs Pritchard is the very differences of opinion that are the stuff of politics. And that's what makes politics necessary in the first place.

Philip Cowley is reader in parliamentary government at Nottingham University and author of The Rebels: How Blair Mislaid His Majority , published by Politico's, £9.99.

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