In the early 1970s, the BBC Radio’s Robin Day presented a series of discussions featuring leading parliamentarians of various ideological persuasions. The conservations were cordial enough, but the surviving tapes are interesting mostly because of the profound political and philosophical differences they elucidate. Whatever superficial terrain of agreement they might have found, the likes of future Labour Party leader Michael Foot and arch-reactionary Enoch Powell certainly did not spend their appearances on the program engaged in jocular backslapping.
Today, a burgeoning and popular genre of political frenemy content replicates the format of such discussions while straining it of all ideological weight and gravity. In 2017, after left-wing MP Laura Pidcock was raked over the coals for saying she would never share a beer with a Conservative, the Guardian ran a fluffy feature in celebration of friendship across Westminster’s partisan divide. Pidcock, it declared, was actually “an exception rather than the rule . . . in a place where even fierce ideological opponents rarely hate each other half as much as outsiders think.”
Whenever it’s invoked, this framing is intended as a warm and fuzzy one. Beneath the poisonous rancor and division that so often characterizes politics today, the story goes, many elected officials actually spend their time cooperating and are just as able to share a friendly libation as they are to trade barbs in the halls of power.
Paying customers, for example, can now experience a “MasterClass” courtesy of “unlikely friends” Karl Rove and David Axelrod, who respectively helped make George W. Bush and Barack Obama president. Former Tory cabinet minister Rory Stewart and former Tony Blair consigliere Alastair Campbell host the podcast The Rest Is Politics, where the two trade war stories (literally and figuratively — Campbell helped sell the illegal invasion of Iraq while Stewart served as a kind of neocolonial governor in its aftermath).
Most recently, former Conservative chancellor George Osborne and former Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls have announced a forthcoming economics show in the same vein. “Ed and I are frenemies — once bitter foes, and now firm friends,” Osborne told the Guardian. “When we talk politics and economics, I find myself talking to someone who brings a different perspective but with an insight and intelligence I rate.”
The political frenemies genre is invariably celebrated as a triumph of basic humanity over acidic brinkmanship. But any real interrogation of its premise elicits some less rosy conclusions. If two erstwhile political opponents are able to form such a close friendship, after all, one possible explanation is that their disagreements were never all that profound to begin with.
As chancellor, Osborne presided over a destructive austerity program predicated on a bogus understanding of the relationship between economic growth and public spending. While seated across from him, in what was nominally an adversarial role, Balls openly embraced the core logic of austerity, promised to make similar cuts, and was instrumental in steering Labour’s leadership away from the initial promise of a more progressive fiscal policy.
Even granting that the two may disagree on certain things, it’s difficult to assign those disagreements any real weight when you stop and consider what was actually at stake. According to one notable study published by the University of Glasgow, Osborne’s austerity program ultimately caused nearly three hundred thousand deaths, its most likely victims being the disabled — who were nineteen times more likely to be affected by the combined cuts to welfare, housing, and social care benefits.
This, rather than any enlightened exchange of ideas or celebration of post-partisanship, gets at the real essence of the frenemies microgenre, which is ultimately no more or less than a kind of vapid centrist infotainment masquerading as a balm for social division.
Over the past several decades, the ideological space separating the center-right and center-left throughout both Europe and America has narrowed so much that there is often little difference beyond the margins among the elites who dress for each team — and greater solidarity between them than for those outside of the political class for whom the consequences of public policy are considerably less abstract.
Far from demonstrating the warm possibilities of convivial discourse across the partisan divide, the political frenemies genre is actually symptomatic of a political culture in an advanced stage of moral and ethical rot: one in which disagreement is reducible to a low-stakes parlor game and empty performances of intra-elite affinity are more highly prized by those with power than the constituents they represent.