Many of my friends are under the impression that I write these humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. My own experience is exactly the other way.
The writing of solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures is easy enough. There is no trouble in writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical enquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island. But to write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between.
Personally, I would sooner have written “Alice in Wonderland” than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Stephen Leacock. McGill University, June, 1912.
Stephen Leacock wrote this in his preface to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, his comic novel which became very popular a century ago. Although we still recognise the labour and intelligence required to write solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures Leacock’s quote encapsulates something we recognise less readily.
We recognise the value of creativity and its relative scarcity, but are less inclined to recognise the wider value of creativity beyond the arts. The creativity of scientific and technical discovery or analysis, the creativity of scholarly research which breaks new ground, the creativity of building new insights into old problems, creativity which applies in almost any field. Creativity may be nothing more than the creation of a new phrase which is apt that it immediately spins off into general circulation. Yes, creativity can be found anywhere –
anywhere but politics.
Political discourse is almost never creative because political narratives are essentially clichés strung together to make a narrative which above all things must be familiar. Turgid clichés are the lazy heart of political discourse. A major consequence is that political narratives are too easy.
Anyone can talk politics and whip up a political argument from stale ingredients because we have no use for political creativity. What would it look like without the clichés? Rational discourse, analysis and investigation? No, because that wouldn’t be politics although behind the political facade it just might even if the scheming usually seems banal when exposed.
We know all this because of the people foisted on us as political leaders. We look at them and we look at them again and we listen to them and try to find some faint hint of creative political discourse, something new, some fresh analysis of old problems, something creative, something to break the mould. But no - we get clichés and we get more clichés and if we question the clichés we get even more clichés and if we question those...
This seems to be a key driver constantly nudging political life in a totalitarian direction. The essential aspect of totalitarian ideas is that they are clichés. They offer the easy direction to steer a lazy mind. The woodentop direction where creativity is a disadvantage because it exposes the clichés as empty clichés and nothing more.
This is why the EU lumbers towards ultimate failure. Its driving ethos is too simple, too beholden to old clichés lacking even the slightest hint of political creativity. This is why Theresa May struggles politically, why a Corbyn-led Labour government would fail.
Yet easy often won’t do and we have to tackle difficult. Or rather we ought to tackle it but don’t. The political approach is to leave difficult to others and so we are embraced by bureaucracy because bureaucracies are prepared to tackle difficult issues by laboriously folding them into existing processes. Why? Because they grow fat on them and in growing fat they steadily throttle the life out of democracy, freedom and creativity.