Lifting the tent flaps to reveal the warm air and half truths of Irish politics

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: Spin and Win: How Politicians Get ElectedBy Anton Savage Currach Press 192pp, €14.99

OVER THE past 10 years I was a keen visitor to the Galway races. Invariably, someone who knew or recognised you as a Fianna Fáil politician would beseech you for a complimentary pass to go in and see the famous tent which had launched so many newspaper articles about speculators, property wealth, conspicuous consumption and our party's relationship with the construction sector. Despite its reputation the Galway tent had a long line of people who were dying to get inside and have a good gawk.

Anton Savage has produced a book that will give the reader a peep inside the bigger tent that is Irish political life, with its warm air, jibes, and all too easily peddled half truths. It is a tribute to Savage that he captures that demi-monde of producers, party researchers, journalists, politicos and party hacks. He avoids the usual pomposity, blatant sneering or overblown self-importance that seems to be the stock in trade of those who write about politics. The book even drew the occasional, knowing smile, from this participant in the political life.

This is the kind of book that might actually encourage people to have a closer look at what passes for politics in this country.

Savage also points out tellingly that politics is a source of boredom for most people when the economy is rising or in boom. But recession has a curious way of reigniting interest in public debate - something we may already be seeing here with the recent protest marches by teachers, pensioners and farmers.

The book, thankfully to my mind at least, acknowledges the difficulties of staying with and remaining elected in our democratic system which is arguably the most electorally competitive system devised anywhere in the world. For a spin doctor of sorts Savage will surprise some by his open debunking of the value of focus group research, opinion polling and other myths that attach themselves to the body politic such as superficial views about body language and lying.

I have only one particular bone to pick with the author and that is his obsession that our political system, and voters, would be better off if there were not a ban on political advertising on the radio and television. He rightly, in free market terms at least, points out that it is somewhat irrational but ignores the fact that this would undoubtedly lead to hugely expensive spending at election time with the consequent further dumbing down of the issues in dispute in a campaign. There is no doubt but that the professional standing of political consultants would be elevated by the relaxation - but precious little else. This book is a tacit acknowledgment that our political system, far more up close and personal than that of the United States, is in good health and has withstood the assault of the politics of spin which reached its high point at the hands of Bill Clinton, George Bush and Tony Blair. The culture of the spin doctor was to apply the techniques of advanced customer care to politics with the result that the truth was shaded but never an outright lie was told. The result, however, was much the same as if a lie had actually been told. The spin doctors themselves, as Savage is candid enough to admit, had a terrible tendency to boast.

Mostly in politics it is better to keep your mouth shut. As our favourite barman in Leinster House likes to point out, there are an awful lot more people who have talked themselves out of the profession than into it.

• Conor Lenihan is Minister for Integration and a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin South West