By Will Self
Hee-haw! Massed infantry being ordered to storm impregnable defences, their successive waves scythed down by the inexorable enfilade of machine gun fire. This surely is what we associate with the phrase "lions led by donkeys".
And yet there is a still more pathetic phenomenon in the field of human endeavour, and that is donkeys being led by donkeys. It occurs in warfare certainly, and it also happens in that introversion of the aggressive impulse we call democratic politics.
In the past few years we here in Britain have almost taken a perverse pride in the self-immolation of our political class. Fiddling their expenses, kowtowing to media moguls, bowing down before psychopathic dictators, grovelling to security-averse bankers - is there, we wonder, any further baseness to which our erstwhile governors will not descend? And so we urge them on in their corrupt limbo-dance, while gaily chanting "how low can you go?"
Of course, as with any binary moral judgement, implicit in our condemnation of "them" is our exaltation of "us". We aren't like them - vain, duplicitous and meretricious. We are sanctified by the fact of our apathy alone. After all, if we do nothing we cannot reasonably be blamed for anything.
Nevertheless, we are blamed. Blamed for our very refusal to play a bigger role in the civic realm apart from once every lustrum or so milling around the polling booth with the rest of the extras. Commitment, responsibility, engagement - these are just some of the buzzwords that have resounded around the conference centres of provincial cities in the past fortnight. Doubtless when the Tories assemble in Manchester next week that much-vaunted Big Society will loom large.
Yet looking at the neatly-bridled donkeys on the platforms, and listening to them bray, it struck me that really it was too easy to lay all the blame for the straw-like insubstantiality of contemporary British politics at their stable door. For when the television cameras tracked sideways, revealed were all the other donkeys that helped haul them up there. Yes, I am referring to the membership.
If those of us who do not belong to any of the main political parties ever have cause to doubt ourselves, we need only take the most cursory of looks at these endlessly biddable Dobbins in order to confirm us in our righteousness.
Tell me is there anything more supine on this fair earth than a party conference audience rising to deliver a standing ovation? Carefully orchestrated by party stewards, these so-called activists display a mental passivity that makes the average X Factor audience look like the participants in one of Plato's symposia.
And can we think of any benighted populace, ground beneath the jackboot of state tyranny, who would so speedily and rhapsodically declare that this hackneyed phraseology represented the very flower of rhetoric? I think not. But lest we imagine that party members only succumb to a herd mentality when they're corralled together and issued with regulation coloured saddle cloths, it's worth examining the breed in isolation.
I have - gulp - friends who belong to political parties, and the other evening over dinner I asked one of them, who was preparing to go a-conferencing, why it was that he persisted with the whole futile go-round of the dressage arena. "Well," he told me. "You have to understand that unless you participate you can have no influence whatsoever, and therefore no opportunity to see your ideas and your principals become enacted in the form of government policy."
"But," I cavilled, "you can't tell me that you supported the invasion of X?" "No," he conceded, "I most certainly didn't." "Nor," I continued, "did you approve of the light-touch regulation of Y." That's true, he admitted, it made me profoundly uncomfortable.
"And what," I persisted, "about the Z partnerships that have ended up wasting such a prodigious amount of taxpayers' money, and which your own leadership now concede were ill-conceived? You didn't think they were an effective way of renewing old schools and hospitals, did you?" "Well," for a donkey he looked decidedly sheepish, "no, no I didn't think Z partnerships were going to do much good."
I could've gone on but I like to give a donkey sanctuary quite as much as the next man, so I contented myself by observing: "Which then, precisely, of your ideas and principles did the government formed by the party to which you lend your unswerving allegiance actually transform into effective legislation?"
However, while my friend's ears may have been long, this was something he wasn't able to hear. Instead of answering me he began to talk about consensus and unity and collective responsibility and how that as it was to the cabinet, so it was to the party as a whole.
How like a politician, I thought, as he evaded answering the question. And indeed, that surely is the problem with the main political parties' grassroots-eating membership, almost to a jack and a jenny they are made in the image of their donkey leaders.
This kind of politicking is something we have come to take for granted. Indeed, to be a "consummate politician" is in our lexicon synonymous with being blandly evasive.
We have come, sadly, to take it for granted that our political leaders and their followers will also spend a disproportionate amount of time butting and biting members of their own herd. The only point at which a halt is called to this internecine idiocy is when an election is called - and then a disproportionate amount of time gets spent butting and biting the other herds.
So it goes on, the adversarial character of our politics paradoxically inducing a deadening conformism. Indeed, it is the inverse correlation between the fissiparous character of the major parties and the winnowing away of their convictions that, over and above everything else, has characterised British politics during the past quarter-century.
The last time one of the "Big Three" split over a matter of principle rather than personality, the Social Democrats whirled away from Labour into inner space, only in seven short years to be snagged in by the dark-yellow star of the Liberals. Twenty-three years on, some of those SDP members will have had the joyous experience of rising to their hooves to applaud the actions of a government they have helped to put in power, a government with the policies of which they probably disagree point-for-point.
It is the same for Labour, it is the same for the Conservatives - both parties contain substantial minorities that, in as much as they have any passion left at all, passionately dissent from the centre ground their leaders are determined to hold - and if at all possible extend - at any cost.
Is it any wonder that such a charade is a massive turn-off to a public that see real issues, pressing concerns and genuine anxieties at every turn? The main parties continue to haemorrhage members, while those left behind are those who prefer to be clots.
In the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution William Butler Yeats penned The Second Coming, a reactionary dithyramb the words of which still resonate almost a century later. Yet how strange it is that our own comparatively lacklustre era can also be evoked by the same ringing declamation: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."
Evoked, that is, with this caveat - that the passionate intensity of the Millibands, the Cleggs, the Camerons and all those who frenziedly applaud them masks a vanishingly small amount of real conviction.
For Yeats what troubled his sight was that mythical and frightening creature the manticore - "a shape with a lion body and the head of a man" that came slouching "towards Bethlehem to be born". But what should trouble our sight are the more homely silhouettes of the donkeys being led by donkeys trotting back to their paddocks from Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Hee-haw.
Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News Magazine.