The Perils of Over-Reaction

David Cameron has had, by his own admission, a rough week. Under pressure from newspapers, fellow politicians and thousands of baying voices on social media, he has disclosed the extent of his investment in a hedge fund headed by his father, and the nature of his reasonably modest investment is now the stuff of frenzied and febrile speculation.

But it seems that, despite the fact that David Cameron’s financial admissions may be expected to impact his political fortunes negatively, in reality these revelations – if they are deserving of such a grand title – will almost certainly have little effect on the man and his career.

This is due, I think, to the fact that Cameron, the first Prime Minister in an age truly dominated by social media, has been loudly told to resign by thousands of his most die-hard ideological opponents every time he does anything – regardless of whether it was just or unjust, noble or ignoble, right or wrong.

Those who are already opposed to Cameron and everything he does, cocooned within the social media milieu of the like-minded, have been shouting themselves hoarse almost since he took office. They agree with each other in increasingly hyperbolic terms on many issues, including what they perceive to be his immense immorality, the apparent kleptocracy of his ‘Tory chums’, and so on; and all of this is unimportant. In general terms this stuff, in addition to being largely nonsensical, will make precisely no difference to how ordinary people – those less ideologically obsessed than the aforementioned – view political figures and political parties when actually casting their ballots.

Take the #Piggate stuff, something which caused quite the stir on Twitter and the like when claims of that nature were first published in the Mail on Sunday. It was hilarious, apparently, for everyone – on Twitter, on Facebook, and in Britain generally.

Celebrities and comedians – always ready, no doubt, to join in with such easy material – joyfully leapt onto the bandwagon. It was a right laugh, a subversive joke which brought the nation together. Cassetteboy, a tedious collaboration in mash-up video manufacturing, even made a topical song. Hilarity ensued.

Many an in-group giggle was had, but it cannot seriously be suggested that this rumour and its aftermath (ubiquitous though it was) has altered anyone’s view of the PM – not least because the sort of people who invoke pigs and Cameron in the same sentence, who wear pig masks on protest marches and talk about ‘Hameron’ and ‘the bae of pigs’, probably thought Cameron was up to something like this anyway; they almost didn’t need anyone else to say it. For them, no doubt, this served as confirmation of the sort of thing they probably expected of Cameron – and not just because he is viewed by many as an unaccountably nefarious, almost cartoonishly evil figure; for many, no doubt, this is just how people of his type and class are.

This sort of thing is no doubt fun and gives a sense of enjoyable camaraderie – as well as a splash of excitement to a fairly dull political landscape. Like going on protest marches in general, I suppose, the fun of the thing is not in its individual righteousness but in the sense of community it creates – a coming together of the like-minded. In this case, that coming together happened over the Internet, and it largely consisted of pointing and laughing, and making lame quips about how Black Mirror may as well have been a documentary and how mad that was.

But, I barely need to say, such things – and the transient pleasures they promote – are ultimately self-defeating. I suspect more people (and more voters) than just me were irritated and disenfranchised more by the uncouth over-reaction than by what Cameron is alleged to have done.

This largely irrelevant story about his father’s financial history (which has been written about before in several newspapers and was hardly secret) may well have the same effect on many of us. I don’t doubt that a fair few of the people now angry at Cameron about this subject are sincere; but I do doubt that many of them are in possession of the facts, and that any more than a few have any serious notion of proportion. This sort of story does not topple governments; it makes for a few sparsely attended protests, a few token calls to resign, and a lot of largely pointless hours of media coverage on the unjustly criticised television news channels.

Financial ‘scandals’ of his sort may have more to them than many of the tedious events which have elicited predictable calls for Cameron to resign in the past. Though I personally doubt it, this is certainly possible. Whatever your opinion of the man or this particular case, it is certainly true – as he has admitted – that Cameron has not handled this story terribly well. This is a shame, but perhaps it will have an unintended positive effect or two after all.

The end result of so many histrionic over-reactions in the career of a single politician of fairly centrist leanings means that this story will likely have less impact than many think it deserves. It will not cause the Prime Minister to resign; Cameron’s government will not fall – because of this or anything else. It’s not been anything other than a mild embarrassment for Cameron (not least because Jeremy Corbyn has failed spectacularly to make anything other than his customary hash of things, including appearing to manhandle a reporter asking him about the matter at hand). This is probably a good thing.

We live in an age of instant over-reaction. If anything, it pays to become outraged, incensed or offended first; the immediacy of modern communications necessitates rapid-fire responses, even to rather dull stories such as this one. Even if you are wrong, there is little chance of being punished for it or disbelieved in the future. But maybe this cycle of hysteria will wear itself out, eventually collapsing and ceasing. One can only hope.