This is a guest post from the nice people at Radlett Wire, a local blog that, having spent ten years providing, let’s face it, mostly quite boring information about the small Hertfordshire town in its name, is now doing something a bit more political and keeping an eye on the public life and shifting fortunes of local MP (and Sunak sidekick) Oliver Dowden. This post caught our eye because it’s about the decline of shame in politics.
Media training for Ministers of the Crown must now include excusing the indiscretions of people you probably think are beneath contempt
In the past, when ministers broke the rules, made egregious errors or just royally embarrassed themselves, the routine was fairly simple. You resigned sharpish and – depending on the severity of your offence – were cast into outer darkness (the House of Lords), left politics all together or, in the fullness of time were rehabilitated and reinserted to the cabinet as if nothing had happened (sometimes more than once).
More recently, in the period, roughly speaking, between the beginning of the coalition government in 2010 and the chaos of Brexit, the routine changed. Something about the rise of populism, the bracing free-for-all of the new politics, means the norms have been rewritten. Now, when disgraced, a politician can be expected to cling to power – sometimes for months on end, sometimes indefinitely – with the petulance of a haughty toddler. The honourable resignation, the dignified retreat from public life – these are now thought to be signs of political weakness, hopelessly outdated remnants of a prissier political era. Only wimps resign.
For the muscular populists of the post-political era, the polite traditions of 20th Century politics are not just an inconvenience, they’re part of the problem. Decorum, sobriety, propriety – all are no longer sources of legitimacy but evidence of establishment paralysis. Trashing political norms is not incidental to the project – it’s fundamental. And it’s a self-reproducing behaviour. Once a majority of pols are responding to crises in this way it becomes essentially impossible to do so in the old way. When politics shifts and everyone around you is shameless, resigning when found out becomes essentially unpolitical, unstrategic. You’d look like a mug so you hang on until the storm passes (or you’re literally forced onto a plane home to be publicly fired).
So a necessary part of the new routine is the ritual interrogation of the miscreant’s colleagues. It’s an accepted part of the job. Whoever shows up in the studio to answer questions about that day’s big story will, as a matter of routine, be asked to justify the errant minister’s continued presence in the cabinet. There’s a fairly static repertoire of responses – “it would be wrong to pre-judge the official inquiry”, “the minister has apologised and is now 100% focused on delivery of the government’s ambitious programme”, “the minister has the full support of the Prime Minister.”
Given the size of a modern cabinet – (31 ministers attend Rishi Sunak’s cabinet) – there’s always at least one minister in disgrace. In recent times it’s regularly been two or three and, in the remarkable period that came to a close in August, it was often the Prime Minister himself. So the likelihood you’ll be grilled about a colleague’s indiscretions is high. You need to be across the story. In the official car on the way to the studio the minister is reading papers about their own brief, about wider policy and about the antisocial behaviour of a fellow minister. It’s all in a day’s work.
Williamson’s texts to the Chief Whip, of course, are probably a blessed relief for the government, keeping the Home Secretary’s more consequential string of cock-ups off the front page for a day or two. The clock is ticking.
Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng)
So, in his book about the real hero of modern literature, historian Franco Moretti put me on to Italo Svevo’s 1922 novel Zeno’s Conscience. It’s a brilliant and prophetic book. With our hero, businessman Zeno Cosini, we walk the streets of Trieste, a port city at the edge of a collapsing empire and at the edge of the unfortunate 20th century, the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.
This narrator is a very up-to-date Austro-Hungarian. He’s an enthusiast for the latest Viennese fad psychoanalysis—we learn that he’s writing all this down for his analyst in Vienna (Doctor S, probably Sigmund Freud, who actually treated Svevo’s brother). He’s a hypochondriac who knows all the latest ailments and treatments, a chemist who knows the composition of all the new remedies, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac – but only in the sense that you would be too, if you were writing everything down for your analyst.
And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long 20th century; all that revolution, industrialisation, despoilation, globalisation—and war after war—just over the horizon.
He’s a modern man, a complicated subject like you or me, a secular bourgeois. He’s superstitious but not religious, a terrible businessman who prospers by accident. In the book he becomes a kind of comic avatar of the emerging scientific capitalism of the late 19th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: the awkwardness of foreign trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto, supplier of copper to the hypermodern boom industries of electricity and telegraphy – he’s at the bleeding edge), fiddling the books (and worrying about getting caught fiddling the books), surplus stationery purchased in error, shipping and warehousing, HR dilemmas…
There’s a huge stock market loss (and an unlikely recovery), a catastrophic purchase of 60 metric tons of Copper Sulphate from a company in England, a sequence of terrible deals made from Zeno and his brother-in-law’s comically badly-run office (apparently staffed by the cast of the Carry On films—Carmen is Joan Sims, Luciano Jim Dale and Guido Kenneth Williams—change my mind).
The story ends with an intriguing perspective on the catastrophe of the Great War, from the other end of Europe—from the complicated, multi-party territorial war over Svevo’s beloved Trieste. I won’t spoil the ending but it brings the story to a grand and moving conclusion.
Tooze starts with a fairly close-up view of events in Westminster and the City but his essay quickly spirals out through British and world markets and winds up in a very big (and quite bleak) picture indeed:
Does it really make sense to perpetuate a system in which disastrous financial risks are built into the profit-driven provision of basic financial products like pensions and mortgages? Yes the central bank can act as the fire brigade, but why do we such a dangerous situation as normality. Why do the smoke detectors fail again and again? And why is the house not more fire proof? It is time to ask who benefits and who pays the cost for continuing with this dangerously inflammable system.
‘The bond market massacre of September 2022’, Adam Tooze
I feel like every time Tooze sits down to document a new human catastrophe these days he can’t help observing that whatever the latest planet-scale fuck-up is, it’s actually also a symptom of something bigger and more final. His last two books documented the financial crisis (Crashed) and the pandemic (Shutdown). The next one will be about the global collapse triggered by Kwasi and Liz’s sixth-form science experiment in the UK economy. It’ll be called ‘Spavined’ or ‘Wrecked’ or ‘Knackered’ and it’ll have a big picture of the pair of them gurning in hard hats on the cover.
Svevo, who was a pal of James Joyce, documented Europe’s entry into modernity. Tooze is documenting the way out.
Is everyone on the British left anti-monarchist? Does anyone even care?
What does the left think about monarchy? Seems obvious, right? Off with their heads! But no, there’s some complexity here and it connects closely with the weird (almost unique on planet earth) constitutional arrangements that persist here in the archipelago.
On the left there are basically two positions on the monarchy. Not on monarchy in general — only one there really — but on Britain’s actually existing monarchy, the Crown-Constitutional Parliamentary state that’s been locked in here since the 17th Century.
In position one, the monarchy is an unequivocally, catastrophically bad thing—a major impediment to meaningful popular sovereignty and an aspect of Britain’s backward machinery of state. Britain’s monarchy, in this view, is a vital contributor to the country’s long-term decline, solidified in the retreat from empire and the disastrous deindustrialisation of the post-war period.
In this perspective, identified with the British ‘New Left’ since the 1950s and developed in great detail in the pages of New Left Review by brilliant writers like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the settlement that secured the monarchy in 1688 locked in the dominance of sclerotic aristocracy, land-owning elite and the compliant institutions that sustain them. The result is a country that, paradoxically, became a nation-state first and industrialised first but failed fully to make the transition from ancien régime to modernity, whose progress from feudalism to capitalism is still incomplete. In the New Left worldview ceremony, deference and acceptance of hierarchy have naturalised and hardened aristocratic dominance and neutralised the popular radicalism that has expanded democracy elsewhere in the capitalist world.
The other left anti-monarchist perspective, embodied these days by lefties belonging to populist or ‘realist’ strands of the tradition, is much less bothered. These anti-monarchists oppose the unelected power of the monarchy (obvs) but would probably be quite happy to leave the Windsors where they are and get on with the class war. In fact, for left-populists, the fervent opposition to the crown and its institutions embodied by that earlier generation of left-wingers is actually damaging to the cause. For them, the critics and theorists who developed the declinist narrative of the New Left—whose animating idea was that Britain is stuck in a deferential mire and can aspire only to a steady loss of status, relevance and prosperity—are a bit FBPE, a bit ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and not least because opposing the monarchy puts them at odds these days with a clear majority of the British working class.
It’s not just the left who oppose the monarchy, of course. There’s an indignant centrist/liberal republican movement too – in fact they’ve been at it for longer and they’re more organised than the left. In the Crown’s 19th century slump it was largely Whig/Liberal radicals like Charles Dilkes who opposed the monarchy and, in the present day, the Liberal party itself still has a robust republican strand. The young Liz Truss was not alone in her vituperative opposition to the royals.
The rehabilitation of the monarchy that’s taken place since the end of the 19th Century, described by Tom Nairn in his brilliant and thoroughly New Left book The Enchanted Glass, has, to put it bluntly, worked. The Crown-Parliamentary state won. In the middle ages, monarchs cowered in their palaces, derided publicly. When they ventured into the streets kings and queens were often booed, some were so often away crusading (or hunting, or carousing) they might not be known to their subjects at all.
Working people who, until the early 19th Century, were suspicious of or even hostile towards royalty are, especially in the most recent decades of the Queen’s reign, mostly in favour (the numbers might be a bit different among fans of The Crown and the young, of course). Principled opposition to monarchy will just put the left in conflict with the working class and leave lefties in a very familiar position—thrashing about trying to explain why ordinary people don’t agree with them. It all begins to look a bit Remoaner/People’s Vote/Russian money.
So now, a left wing party or movement that put much energy into opposing the monarchy, that set out policies aiming at an elected head of state or even a slightly less anti-democratic settlement—one that, for instance, removed the monarch’s powers of consent to new laws—could only damage its prospects with working people. Leave the monarchs alone, lefties, they’re not worth it.
I’d go so far as to say that this is a beautiful book. Funny, angry, imaginative – an unforgiving demolition of the fantasies and self-deceptions of Britain’s backward, complacent, destructive tolerance of the invented rituals of modern royalty – the damage done to our democracy, the permanent strangulation of popular sovereignty, the narrowing of our national potential, the bleak prospect of unstoppable decline made inevitable by our unthinking acceptance of the Crown-constitutional status quo.
Published in 1988, there is absolutely nothing dated or irrelevant about this book – in fact one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the constant, startling correspondences we find between Britain towards the end of the Thatcher revolution and Britain after the Brexit revolt.
The scope of the book is not limited in any way to a critique 0f monarchy or monarchism. My understanding of Britain’s constitutional weirdness (Nairn’s wonderful name for Crown-constitutional Britain is ‘Ukania’) and the powerful parasitic grip of Britain’s social and economic elites has been so enhanced by his excoriating, wide-ranging critique of City, Crown, complacent Parliament, self-interested administrative class, complicit media elite (and so on). I feel I have a new super-power.
Nairn is a brilliant writer, his language sparkles and surprises – you’ll find yourself stopping to look up words you’ve never heard that always turn out to be perfect for the job. It’s an absolute joy – and it took me a long time to read, mainly because I couldn’t help myself from highlighting brilliant passage after brilliant passage on the Kindle (it’s a cause of immense Bezos-directed resentment that I can’t share my highlights with you because I read the book in a non-Amazon format! Sort it out Jeff!).
Nairn, who as of this review, is still with us, developed his powerful argument for the backwardness of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and for the inevitable decline of the state and the polity across his many decades as writer (and editor) at New Left Review. If you have a subscription you can read the entire archive of his writing (and of his pal Perry Anderson – also still with us – another brilliant writer with whom he worked closely) online.
I’ve been bingeing on texts about monarchy lately, for obvious reasons. I also recently reviewed David Cannadine’s influential paper ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual : The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ c. 1820–1977’ which is in a terrific book of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The essay, published in 1977, explains how the rituals and customs invented or updated in the 19th Century rescued Britain’s Crown from irrelevence or even obliteration in a revolution like those that wiped out the monarchies of Europe one after the other (Hobsbawm’s essay in the same book, a wider-ranging survey of the twilight of monarchy across Europe, is also worth a read).
Another good read in this context is a David Edgerton’s 20th Century history The rise and fall of the British nation, which aims to dismantle the whole declinist New Left narrative. Perry Anderson, owner but not quite sole proprietor of the declinist story, predictably enough dismantled Edgerton’s dismantling in the pages of New Left Review (you might need a subscription to read that one).
The story is that Labour is the only major socialist party in the world that emerged directly from organised labour—every other important party—from the DSA to the SPD to the PS and the JSP—was the product of an actual revolution or of a popular socialist movement. Labour founders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had both been union leaders and many early Labour parliamentarians were well-known workplace leaders or campaigners for workers’ rights.
(note labour and Labour are used throughout, for obvious reasons).
It turns out, though, that the will of those early Labour leaders – and of their comrades at the top of the union movement for that matter – was not to win a victory for workers, to challenge or overthrow the parties of power at the time, to replace or diminish the landowner and business elites, or even to offer a pro-worker counterweight in the Commons. The will of those leaders—as of the current generation—was always to gain access, to join the club, to get their bums on the green benches and to form a polite left-hand hump to the Crown-Parliamentary camel, supplanting the previous occupants of the less-favoured benches and becoming ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’.
This sounds cynical. I don’t mean for a moment to discount the contribution of those pioneer socialists to the pushing back of the multi-century stasis of Tory (and Whig) domination, the epochal introduction into an ancient elite legislature of working people. And, of course, individual Labour members have provided the backbone to countless labour disputes over the years—but it is vital to be clear-eyed about this. Labour in Parliament, from its very beginnings, was not a workers’ party. In the present day it’s a progressive party, a party of the Parliamentary centre-left, but it is not a workers’ party.
So there’s nothing new or surprising in the Labour party distancing itself from the interests of working people—do you remember the grim spectacle of Neil Kinnock making a flying visit to a miners’ strike picket, right at the end of the strike and at 5 a.m. so as to miss the reporters? (See if you can find a photo. There are none). During the long strike Kinnock the miner’s son repeatedly called for a national ballot and didn’t once ask workers to respect NUM picket lines. In retrospect, the strike was perhaps the greatest challenge that a modernising Labour leader could possibly face—and we know that Kinnock was conflicted and unhappy about the position he had to take. It became the most iconic—and relevant—statement of Labour’s labour ambivalence of the post-Thatcher era.
Going back further, almost to the origins of the party, during the First World War, Labour and the unions agreed an ‘industrial truce‘ in the national interest (Labour ministers joined the coalition government). After the war, Labour continued to oppose all instances of labour militancy and, in the build-up to the 1926 general strike, as the climate worsened and employers tried to force through wage cuts, the Labour leadership mediated ineffectively. When the strike came, though, they opposed it.
Leave it to the Rotary Club
When the Jarrow crusaders marched to London ten years later they had to depend on a strange alliance of Quakers, rogue trade unionists and the Rotary Club for food and support along the way—the Labour party didn’t turn up (local MP Ellen Wilkinson was a charismatic exception). 20th Century history is studded with examples like this. Even earlier, when Churchill moored a battleship in the Mersey to bring a little jeopardy to the 1911 Liverpool dockers’ strike, the Labour party, already a force in Parliament, was nowhere to be seen.
In the rough years between the wars there was an explosion of labour activism and confidence—in the face of the great depression, active government repression, blacklisting and a hostile judiciary. Wal Hannington’s National Unemployed Workers Movement moved mountains—organising big marches and actions all over the country. Its leadership was convicted under ancient mutiny laws and imprisoned—right at the sharp end of the workers’ struggle—but for Labour it was a bit too Communist. The party stood back. Likewise, the local councils who defied ancient, repressive laws to hold down the rates and to protect the poor did so without Labour support. In 1921 dozens of Poplar councillors—mostly Labour of course, including future leader George Lansbury—were imprisoned for their defiance. The Parliamentary Party leadership opposed their action (in the nineties, you won’t be surprised to learn, Neil Kinnock scolded Labour councillors prosecuted and surcharged for not paying the poll tax).
You’re on your own, ladies
Even when in government the party failed to support strikers. The Grunwick workers were defeated and humiliated while the party withheld support, although in scenes familiar to us now, individual MPs, including cabinet ministers, showed up at the picket line (the record shows that Shirley Williams et al waited until the strike was 40 weeks old and essentially already crushed to offer their calculated solidarity, though). The underpaid women at Ford’s Dagenham plant were left high and dry by a serving Labour government, winning only partial parity, with the half-hearted support of then Secretary of State Barbara Castle.
One of the biggest strikes of the entire period, taking place right at the heart of the state—in its very guts you might say—the now mostly-forgotten 1971 postal workers’ strike, lasted for seven weeks, had overwhelming support from Post Office workers who had been almost uniquely badly-treated in the post-war period. The strike became a template for Tory government opposition to industrial action—Royal Mail’s monopoly on delivering letters was suspended in an effort to circumvent the strike’s enormous impact. The strike ended without agreement—a dispiriting defeat. The workers were awarded a backdated 9% pay increase and some changes to working patterns after an inquiry but this didn’t even match what they’d been offered before the strike. No one was happy. Individual Labour MPs, including Tony Benn, who’d been Postmaster General under Harold Wilson in the sixties but by this point was on the back benches, supported the strike. Wilson himself, from the opposition front bench, walked a familiar line, saying that the union’s demands were not unreasonable but advocating independent arbitration by a court of inquiry. He opposed the strike.
The one big win
The extraordinary sequence of slow-downs and strikes that brought about the three-day week and the infamous powercuts in the early seventies is still the only industrial action that has ever brought down a UK government. Heath’s battle with miners and power workers was surely the high-water mark for labour activism in Britain—bringing together workers, party members and movement in a way not seen before or since. It was a highly-effective action, using modern communications to coordinate the strikes and winning significant public support for the cause. The workers won and so did Labour. The Parliamentary Labour Party, while in opposition under Harold Wilson, actually supported the pay claims of the miners (often in House of Commons debates) and, once in office, agreed two 35% pay rises for the miners in the space of two years. In the 1974 election Labour ran on a manifesto that promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” but did the party support the strikes that brought about their victory? What do you think?
The series of strikes we now know as the Winter of Discontent was triggered by a Labour government’s imposition of wage control—a 5% cap on pay increases. The subsequent industrial action took the form of a battle between state and workers. Fascinating, of course, that the present round of disputes is, at least in principle, more diffuse, pitting workers against dozens of individual employers—many in categories that did not even exist in the last era of union militancy—but that, even in the absence of a government-imposed wage cap, the state is still profoundly present.
The next generation
In the era of apps and zero-hour contracts, the strikes, walkouts and protests by gig workers, outsourced workforces and workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’ policies might seem to offer a useful opportunity for Labour to reconnect with labour, by making an association with a new generation of workers and with an updated labour activism for the social media era—with vivid new causes that have revived support for workers in Britain, especially amongst the young. No chance.
I’m not a historian (no shit, Steve) but it’s been an instructive exercise this, searching for Labour support for striking workers over the years of its existence. For me a fascinating and quite urgent reminder that Labour’s role across the modern period has been much more about achieving and sustaining a position in the Westminster constitutional fabric—holding on to what still feels like a wobbly foothold in the institutions at all cost—than about actually transferring power to working people, or even improving their conditions of work or their pay. The choice was pretty simple: take a polite role in the ancient theatre of the Parliamentary system or work for emancipation, popular sovereignty and worker control. You know the rest.
(Can you think of a time that Labour officially supported an industrial action, in or out of office, in the party’s entire history? Leave acomment).
And my scan of the party’s history suggests that it would really be wrong to expect more from the current leadership while in opposition or in government. For Starmer to even acknowledge what looks to many like an important shift in the terms of the national argument in favour of working people and organised labour would be not only to risk a monstering from the Tory press but would also defy literally the entire institutional history of his party. He leads an establishment party that must, almost as a condition of its existence, retain an even and unsupportive distance from its own organised labour wing.
So it seems obvious that Starmer, Reeves et al will not have any difficulty finding good, sensible, tactically-savvy reasons for withholding support from organised labour once they’re in power too. The difficult truth for the leadership of a progressive party in Britain is that there is literally no circumstance in which it is tactically correct to support a strike.
Let’s face it, if the Tolpuddle Martyrs were to come back to life and join the party tomorrow morning, Starmer would have issued a statement, suspended their memberships, conducted a disciplinary and kicked them out by lunchtime.
Surveys suggest that a majority of ordinary Britons want a return to the death penalty for the most heinous crimes (this online poll on The Sun’s web site has 80% in favour). And, thanks to the government’s rules for e-petitions, our legislators may soon be obliged to debate the topic again. Some of them may even vote for it. I’m opposed to the return of the death penalty and I find the pop media’s pro-execution rhetoric to be chilling and inhuman but I’m certain that it will never happen. Britain just doesn’t have the stomach for the cascade of secondary decisions that we’d have to make in order for it to become law:
Who will do it? A court-appointed executioner? How about a group of ordinary citizens pressing buttons at home, none of them knowing whose button actually does the deed? Or the victim’s family? I’ll suggest that executioners are drawn by lottery from the list of people who’ve expressed support for the new law. That sounds logical: it surely can’t be OK to vote for the death penalty and expect someone else to despatch the condemned, can it? If there’s a chance that you’ll have to squeeze the syringe, will you still vote for it? And, once appointed, how will the executioner cope with the attention of the media? Will he or she be allowed to sell the story of the condemned’s last moments? Or will the law mandate anonymity? And what will happen the first time the family of an executed criminal brings a civil case against the executioner or the prison or everyone involved in the deed?
How will we do it? A lethal injection? Electrocution? Hanging? None has a great track record. None is humane. How will we decide? It’ll take a decade. High-tech solutions will be proposed (shot into the vacuum of space? Instantaneous robotic dismemberment? Nanoexecutioners?). The debate will rage. Campaigners on both sides will mount judicial challenges. It’ll be chaos and, as soon as the first horrendous screw-up happens, it’ll all start again.
Will we do it publicly and who will observe? I’ll argue that judicial killings should be streamed online from multiple angles (in 3D) and that a panel of ordinary citizens should be obliged to observe from close quarters – selected by the jury service process, perhaps.
And will a doctor be present? Someone will need to ensure good practice and certify death. Does the Hippocratic oath permit that? Will the BMA? And if they don’t, will rogue doctors show up to do the honours or will we have to create a new class of state-appointed ‘execution doctors’?
What will we do with the body? Will we consign the dead to a secure prison graveyard or permit shrines to arise in public cemeteries? How about mandatory cremation and scattering? Will we forbid elaborate funerals and celebrations of the lives of the wicked deceased?
What will we do the first time an innocent person is executed? Will the new law have provision for automatic compensation? Will executions cease while standards of evidence are examined and investigations reviewed? Could the death penalty actually survive a mistake? Or would we be back at square one?
And what about death row? Will there be a single, national facility (designed by a rockstar architect, perhaps, with an atrium) where the condemned work through their decades of appeals? Or will each prison keep a mini-death row of its own? Will the inhabitants be allowed access to the media, web sites, Twitter accounts? Will there be a reality TV show?
There are other questions: will we execute young people or people with learning disabilities? Will we execute mothers of young children? Will we execute foreigners? Will the new law require derogation from international human rights law? Will Britain become a pariah once it rejoins the club that includes all the most hideous regimes on earth (and the United States)? Will the first executions for nearly fifty years bring about civil unrest? Can a civilised state tolerate the introduction of state-sanctioned killing? Will it dehumanise us and our children? Will MPs even contemplate the prospect of another nasty and divisive debate about the grimmest of all subjects? Who will draft the bill, draw up the regulations, implement the policy? Will civil servants and prison officers who object be forced to implement the law? Will employment tribunals consider the dismissals of conscientious objectors? And so on. And so on. Like I said, we don’t have the stomach for it.
I expected little of the debates. I thought they’d slot into the campaign like all the other more-or-less artificial election media gewgaws and gimmicks: like party leaders going on kids TV or trying to skateboard or shear a sheep or whatever. I expected a slightly embarrassing, highly stage-managed performance. Something a bit cheesy and certainly not a source of information.
So, like everyone, I was surprised when the debates turned out to be:
A source of comparative information about the candidates and their positions. Honestly, we’re so accustomed to the idea that you can’t derive useful information from a politician’s raw discourse – that it’s all spin and that you have to pass it all through some kind of media-provided filter to get to the truth – that we all assumed the debates would be like that, only more so. And they weren’t. Something about the format, something about putting the three of them up against each other, something about hearing their statements together, seems to provide more genuine understanding. As a viewer, at the end of the first debate, I felt I’d been able to hold up and compare both the substance and the presentation of the three leaders’ positions in a way I’d never done before. Blimey.
A genuine alternative to a monstering from Paxman. The debates, in fact, seem to make the grillings dished out by Humphrys, Paxman, Boulton et al seem clumsy, unproductive, old-fashioned – just as Robin Day and his 1960s school of combative interrogation made the old, “anything to add, Minister?” deference seem old-fashioned in its day. If the three-way debate with its strict rules actually catches on, I think the broadcast bruisers are going to have to update their technique: being more systematic, less arbitrary, less keen on the sound of their own voices. This might yield an improvement in the heat:light ratio, if nothing else.
Real democratic events. Appointments with the democratic process, made voluntarily by unfeasibly large numbers of willing electors. In the three debates British electoral politics got its Dr Who moment – millions gathered round the TV, popcorn and beer at the ready. And if these media milestones are going to become regular occurances (a bit like Harry Hill’s fights). And if the whole electoral process is going to pivot on these shiny floor democratic events and the frenzy of concurrent chatter on the soc nets, then the shabby, stage-managed electoral communications of old (the pressers, the back-of-the-bus briefings, the clunky daily ‘narratives’) will have to be modernised sharply.
Genuinely Influential. Can you think of an election media event from your lifetime that has moved the polls and changed perceptions so sharply? Jennifer’s ear? The Sheffield Rally? Chicken feed: irrelevant by comparison (although I guess I ought to wait for the result…). The liberals are in the race in a way that no one could possibly have predicted. All bets are off.
Panic inducing for the media. Even from the outside, the last-days-of-Saigon hysteria in the newsrooms and boardrooms of some of Britain’s national papers after that first debate was obvious. For the election to run out of control, to jump the rails in the way it did would have been hard to bear in a good year but with the print media’s relevance already tumbling faster than ever it must have been a cruel few days for editors. The lucky few journalists who could boast a handful of top liberals in their speed-dials jumped in prestige over night and decades of deliberately ignoring the party began to look less wise for the others.
I don’t want to overstate this. An election result and a week or two of elapsed time will put the debates in their proper context. They might turn out to have been a gimmick after all. I honestly can’t wait to find out.
UPDATE April 2022: I wrote this in January 2009, right at the beginning of the expenses scandal and several months before the Telegraph began the week-by-week disclosure of hideous abuse of the system after hideous abuse of the system – duck houses and moats and multiple flipped second homes and families on the payroll etc. But still, the naivety!
I don’t agree with my MP about much, but I want to treat him as an adult. I’d like to extend to him approximately the level of trust I extend to my work colleagues and friends. I don’t want to probe and inspect him. I don’t want him to live in a climate of small-minded, invasive overscrutiny.
I expect there’s a reasonable chance he’ll turn out to be a bit cheeky with his lunch bills or even that he’s a giant scumbag and charges various indolent family members to the public purse, so I’d like there to be better rules about what it’s OK to charge back and what he has to pay for himself (the current rules are shoddy and inconsistent) and tougher automatic sanctions for rule-breaking.
But exposing MPs (and other public servants) to this kind of increasingly corrosive scrutiny is almost certainly a bad thing. Everyone knows that trust breeds trust – and that the inverse is true too. There’s no evidence that MPs are more or less bent than the population.
This doesn’t mean we should stick to the shady old secret model, though. We should be inventive and not just grumpy. MPs could be provided with simple tools to voluntarily publish itemised expenses, in a standardised, comparable format. Parliament.uk could host expenses pages and the media, I’m sure, would enjoy highlighting the most honest or interesting or apparently cooked up.
That’s the kind of initiative that could produce a snowball effect. We might find that publishing your expenses becomes the kind of public mark of honesty and transparency that MPs will embrace. Some will definitely go for it. Trusting our legislators might actually make things better.
I sat in the front row at Demos this morning for shadow chancellor George Osborne’s speech to the think tank (I’m an associate of Demos). Osborne was personable and relaxed. His speech was intelligent and fluently delivered. The man’s a natural. Much that he said was also rather persuasive (but this isn’t the blog post where I announce my conversion to the Tories). He highlighted three types of fairness: fair reward for hard work, fair access to opportunity and (interesting, this one) ‘intergenerational’ fairness.
The whole thing was couched in some proper, old-fashioned ideology: the state cannot guarantee fairness, only a free market operating within a social and legal framework can do that. Osborne made the first explicit reference I’ve heard in many years to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and for balance he provided a reference to John Rawls (and Osborne’s phrase ‘fair equality of opportunity’ is obviously borrowed from Rawls).
I asked if these traces of ideology might mean we’re in for a bit of argy-bargy—a contest of ideas between the major parties—between now and the election. Osborne’s reply was hardly encouraging: he acknowledged that in some areas it might be difficult to tell the difference between his position and David Milliband’s, for instance. I’m hopeful, though: I’d like to see the parties taking up real positions for the next election—as an antidote to the enervating political paralysis of the Brown era.
Steve Richards has a better account of the speech in The Independent: he’s sceptical about Osborne’s approach to achieving fairness in the context of an out-of-control market.