Bill Carmichael: Politicians in denial over a changed world

THE hysterical reaction of the political elite to Ukip’s stunning success in the local and European elections has been very illuminating – as well as frequently hilarious.

But so positively unhinged has been the response in many quarters that political science is little help in trying to analyse the current situation – instead we need to turn to the field of psychiatry.

In 1969 a Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, wrote a book on dying and bereavement in which she identified the five stages that people go through when they are trying to deal with grief – and strange as it might seem it is very useful in understanding the establishment’s remarkable public meltdown this week.

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According to Dr Kubler-Ross, the first stage of grief is denial – where the shock of loss is so great that people try to shut out the reality of their situation and construct a preferable reality instead.

And that is exactly what we witnessed as the results began to roll in. The Conservatives said their vote was holding up pretty well, ignoring the fact that they are staring at a general election defeat.

Labour said second place was a good result – despite the Ukip surge making huge inroads into even previously rock-solid red areas such as Rotherham. The Lib Dems meanwhile tried to argue that things were no worse then they expected and reflected the voters’ mid-term discontent.

All three insisted the expected Ukip fireworks had turned out to be a damp squib. It was all a media fiction. Nothing had really changed.

By Monday, they could deny reality no longer. Ukip had topped the poll in the Euros. For the first time since 1906 a third party – one with no representation at Westminster – had won a national election. It was a 6.5 on the Richter Scale of political earthquakes.

So we moved on to the second stage of dealing with grief – anger. You would think the main parties would have learned by now that shrieking “racist” and “fascist” at the top of their voices whenever Ukip was mentioned had proved counterproductive.

Insulting voters is never a clever tactic. In the run-up to the elections every time some smug politician used the lazy charge of “bigot” it added another point to Ukip’s poll ratings.

But it didn’t stop them trying it again this week and the familiar insults and smears were heaped on the head of Nigel Farage and his colleagues.

This is just silly. There are some very nasty parties of both right and left in Europe, but Ukip isn’t one of them. The simple fact is that on Europe and immigration Ukip is more representative of public opinion than any of the mainstream parties – that’s why it won more than 27 per cent of the vote.

So we moved onto the third stage of grieving – bargaining. Some in Labour think that promising a referendum on Europe will have disaffected voters flooding back. Conservatives think being a bit harder on benefit tourism will have the same impact.

Perhaps most delusional of all are the Liberal Democrats who think replacing Nick Clegg with Vince Cable is the answer. They know they’ll still lose, but not quite as badly.

I think we are already into the fourth stage – depression. I don’t often feel sorry for politicians, but watching Nick Clegg, red-eyed, exhausted and seemingly on the verge of tears this week, I almost phoned the Samaritans on his behalf.

And the fifth and final stage? That would be acceptance – when mainstream politicians finally stop mouthing platitudes about “learning the lessons” and instead actually start fashioning policies that can command popular support. Unfortunately, we are a long way off that yet.

A necessary wall

The Pope caused a bit of a stir this week when he paused for a controversial photo op during a visit to Israel.

It made for great TV as Francis, head bowed, prayed at the graffiti covered “separation wall” that divides Palestinian and Jewish areas.

The wall is indeed an ugly structure. But let us not forget the single reason it was built – to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from attacking Israeli civilians.

I hope that during his moment of quiet reflection, Francis had a moment to offer a prayer of thanks for all the innocent lives that have been saved by this sadly necessary security measure.