Watch the above video. More than anything I write, this interview tells you all you need to know about why there is so little trust in politicians. May is asked what she did to help facilitate the release of Nelson Mandela in the 70s and 80s. She has a slight smirk, not, I think, because she finds the question funny, but because she believes the interviewer has asked her a “gotcha” question, a question asked to intentionally cause embarrassment. The truth of the matter is that the Conservative’s record on apartheid South Africa is poor. Thatcher labelled Mandela a “terrorist”, opposed sanctions and her family refused to divest from businesses in the country. The party is very much on the wrong side of history when it comes to South Africa, unlike other members of parliament…
Lets go back to May’s response, because that smirk is actually the highpoint of the interview for her. Her initial response is to try and deflect. She says “Well, I think what is important is what the United Kingdom did…” This response really annoys me. Can you imagine having a friend that answered your questions in this way?
“Anne, who do you think should win Britain’s Got Talent?”
“Well I think what is important is that we recognise the various talents that all the performers have and congratulate them on making it this far, as it demonstrates their commitment.”
I give credit here to Michael Crick, the interviewer, for recognising her attempt to filibuster and interrupting her. “No, no, what did you do?…Did you go on protests? Did you get arrested outside the embassy? Did you boycott South African goods? Did you do anything?”
Crick here has the slightly exasperated tone that I associate with many in British life when the topic of politics comes up. He fires a number of direct yes/no questions at her, in hope that she might answer any in a clear and honest way. His questions also highlight the difference between her inaction and Corbyn’s actions, who has been an active campaigner against racism for 4 decades.
And here, for just a moment, May’s mask slips. There is something like contempt in her response: “I think you know full well that I didn’t go on protests, Michael…”. It’s almost like she is admonishing him for having the temerity to ask such impertinent questions. Or maybe it is because she finds the idea of protesting distasteful, because it necessitates going up against the same establishments that she feels loyalty towards. Whatever the reason her first part of the response is the only point where it feels like we see her being truthful, and it isn’t a good look.
Not answering difficult questions is a cross party problem.
In this interview, Jeremy Corbyn is asked if he “honestly believes that Britain is better off outside of the EU?” It is a question that requires a yes/no response with some context as to why. Corbyn, perhaps chastened by the response to his honesty earlier in his tenure or wary of giving a response that would be taken out of context, doesn’t directly answer the question. He says “I want us to have a good relationship with the European Union. That’s what we have to have in order to maintain jobs…”. It’s a nonresponse and it’s just as annoying when it comes from Labour as the Conservatives. It gives the impression that politicians will say anything to be cast in a positive light and are willing to toady to the electorate in order to win. Politicians might counter that they don’t wish to say something definitive that might then be used against them down the line, but if you say nothing and stand for nothing, why should people vote and be engaged?
If every party is aiming for the same mythical “centre ground”, if there’s no discernible difference between the presentation of the two parties, what is the point of all the political posturing that we see? If politicians wish to restore public trust, they can start by answering the questions that they’re asked, not the ones they wish they were asked.