Good riddance to the freak show that shamed Britain (and no, it wasn’t Big Brother)

Back to the present today and another biting article from the sharpened pen of Richard Littlejohn. His target here is New Labour and that really isn’t the issue. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on political parties and he just so happens to have a very public platform from which to air his. I was going to just ignore this article as it really isn’t saying anything new and feels a bit like a slow news week filler (because the death of Ted Kennedy, continued election protests in Iran, the ‘end’ of the war in Darfur and continued ramifications of the ‘Libyan Inncident’ are seemingly not worthy of Richard’s comment right now). However, I couldn’t get past a few of the comments he makes which we shall look at now.

The entire article is written in what I imagine he hoped would be a witty and sly allegory between the end of Big Brother and of the New Labour party. So he uses contestants instead of MPs and audience instead of electorate… Anyway.

“New Labour has demeaned its contestants and audience alike, coarsened our culture, debased living standards, promoted a climate of bullying and exhibitionism and lowered Britain’s standing around the world. It has become a byword for corruption and incompetence, obsessed with sex, greed and racism.”

Well let’s just start with this shall we. Exactly how has our culture been coarsened by New Labour. What does that even mean? It seems now every time someone says something on television that is deemed immoral, insulting or just displeasing to the readers of Richard’s very paper, there are swift apologies, sackings, resignations and the sphere of freedom given to entertainment is contracted that little bit further. If anything, I’d say culture is being tamed and is much the worse off for it.

Britain’s standing around the world has been on a decline since people started pointing out that travelling about in boats, occupying and enslaving countries and calling them ‘ours’ was perhaps not the nicest thing and maybe we should give things back. Under Richard’s beloved Conservative party we saw the unnecessary and damaging war over the Falklands because we felt we had the right to some islands on the other side of the world. Britain supported the first gulf war, made no action to stop the atrocities occurring in many African nations throughout the eighties and nineties and put across such a euro-skeptic and isolationist from for most of those two decades it’s a wonder the Channel Tunnel ever opened.

Finally, how exactly are we anymore obsessed with sex and greed (we’ll get to racism in a moment). That Thatcher and Major governments were devoted to the accumulation of wealth and the building of a fully operational consumer society. As for sex, we saw just as many so-called scandals in the Tory party as we have in Labour. The truth is less that New Labour themselves have bred corruption and sleaze and more that any party in power for a long period of time will be to some extent overpowered by it’s own success. This isn’t a New Labour problem, it’s a power problem.

As for racism, I for one am glad we’re a country ‘obsessed’ with racism (if that is indeed the case) as perhaps we can use that obsession to lessen the amount of it that occurs. Richard is always so worried about his freedom of speech being limited he rarely stops to consider his responsibility of speech. The freedoms given to him to say whatever he likes about whomever he likes should be used with the respect they deserve, not to decry anyone of a different faith or with a different skin tone or (gods forbid) someone with less money or no job. If New Labour has instilled us with an obsession regarding prejudice then this is not something we should be critisising for. I don’t want to live in a country that’s regarded elsewhere as the place where ‘they don’t like anyone different’.

“Housemates included an effete public schoolboy, a former ship’s steward, a dour son of the manse, a blind man and his dog, a gay public relations man and his exotic Brazilian boyfriend, and a scary, former convent schoolgirl who quickly became known as the Wicked Witch.”

I have noticed a trend with Richard and other Daily Mail columnists to be much harsher on female politicians and public figures than male. They get the cruelest names, the most attacks on their looks and the constant disparagement of their ability to do their job. Of course this should not be a surprise to anyone as a fair number of the columns are solely about the non-existence of misogyny or how women have ‘never had it so good’. Whatever your views on Ruth Kelly, is it fair to label her as scary and call her the wicked witch whilst the men are pretty much given a label of what they are. Peter Mandleson is predictable defined by the fact he his gay and had a partner who was not British. Really Richard? Thirteen years and you’re still on that tired bandwagon?

“More than four million CCTV cameras were erected all over Britain so that every move of the audience could be captured, too, and used in evidence against people putting out their dustbins on the wrong day.”

Oh and this bandwagon too (ir should that be rubbishwagon). I will never understand why the rules of dustbins upset him so much. In a world where close to 2 billion people have no access to clean drinking water and a good 75% of them are also starving, I would think the fact out rubbish is taken away on a weekly or biweekly basis would not be something to fill pages and pages of newspaper every single month. We could of course go back to the Victorian era where everyone was white, no-one talked about sex, queers will killed and everyone knew their place. Oh and rubbish was generally left in the street or dumped in the rivers. Yes, I’m sure Richard would enjoy that life much better, especially if he had to work in a factory as he believes every unemployed person should be forced to.

“From the start, the show was mired in controversy, after one of the housemates, Cookie, was caught having sex with another contestant, a flame-haired civil servant called Gaynor.

Ally, the house bully, a recovering alcoholic and pornographic novelist, with a history of mental illness, forced Cookie to leave his wife or face eviction.”

Yes because being about to write erotica AND having overcome an addiction AS WELL as suffering from depression means you should definitely not be in power. Actually, you shouldn’t be allowed to have a job at all, better go on benefits wouldn’t you say Richard? I always felt sorry for Robin Cooke that he was made a total scapegoat for New Labour’s obsession with being the anti-sleaze party. I’m not condoning infidelity but as one in two marriages now ends in divorce it’s going to happen in parliament and sometimes, the details will leak. In the grand scheme, I’m not sure it should be punished or require public apologies but there’s a discussion for another day.

“[Blair’s] emotional reaction when the popular royal housemate, Diana, was killed in a car crash in only the third episode made TV history and proved to be the defining moment of series one.”

Yes, even Richard finds it hard to critique this one, especially as his favourite royal family did not come off so well from the whole affair. Better to just breeze over it I think.

“New Labour’s resident village idiot, Two Jags, was captured on film punching a member of the audience during the warm-up to the second series. He was the clown you loved to hate, always raiding the fridge while the other housemates were asleep.”

But surely Richard giving those protesting layabout sum the old one two is exactly what they need? Hasn’t the country wanted leadership that wasn’t afraid to apply the carrot as well as the stick? Or does that only apply when said leader is not a working class man from Hull? (Again, I’m not condoning John Prescott’s actions, violence is never, ever the answer and I do not want politicians in power who lash out because their suit get’s a bit eggy. All the same a surprising about face for Richard “bring back corporal punishment” Littlejohn).

“Then there was Blunkett, the first blind character, who formed a passionate attachment to the only American housemate, Kimberley, drafted in on the strength of her performance as Snow White at Disneyland.

Viewers were captivated by Blunkett unravelling as he launched a demented paternity suit to prove that he was the father of Kimberley’s baby.”

Of sex and infidelity, by my count, the Conservative 1979-1997 run is still in the lead.

“Today, the programme is a shadow of its former self. Only two of the original cast remain: dour, Scottish sociopath Gordon and gay PR man Mandy, the self- styled Prince of Darkness.”

NEVER FORGET THAT PETER MANDLESON IS GAY. HIS POLITICS DON’T MATTER, ANY GOOD HE DOES IS IRRELEVANT WHEN COMPARED TO THE FACT THAT HE IS A GAY MAN! HE HAS SEX WITH OTHER MEN!!! DIDN’T YOU KNOW? AND HE LOOKS A BIT LIKE A VAMPIRE. A GAY VAMPIRE. BECAUSE HE’S GAY. THE GAY.

“After Blair was evicted in 2007 and went on to become a global star, earning millions of pounds a year, Gordon attempted to become the main character, but ratings continued to slump and he soon realised there was nowhere to hide.”

Once again, if this is truly supposed to be a commentary on thirteen years of Labour government, Richard is somewhat ignoring some key events that have led to the current unpopularity of the party.

“Other housemates were drafted in, notably Jackboot Jacqui, a disciplinarian schoolteacher from the Midlands who marked her arrival with an ostentatious flash of cleavage. For a while, the tabloids were fixated upon her breasts and her enthusiasm for punishment.”

WOMAN HAS BREASTS! AND DOESN’T WANT TO COMPLETELY COVER THEM! Ok, I’m going to have to stop accidently hitting caps lock. Honestly for a man who writes so often about the Burqa and the Niqab, Richard get’s very upset when any woman decided to wear something any less than a nun’s garb. Unless they’re a ‘smoking twenty year old hottie’, then it’s “phwoar ma’am don’t mind if I do”. Am I being unfair? Possibly a bit and for that I apologise but this sort of comment after at least discussing some of the policy of the men in the party infuriates me. He takes Jacqui Smith and reduces her to nothing more than a dominatrix figure to be laughed at. How carefully Richard uses disciplinarian and then mentions her breasts and how she likes to punish. Not ten paragraphs ago he was talking about how New Labour had brought on an obsession with sex, I think we might be seeing where some of the impetus has come from..

“As New Labour has resorted to increasingly desperate and cynical stunts, viewers have stopped watching, the sponsors have dried up and the show has run £1.3trillion over budget.”

Well the budget is somewhat overrun yes, I don’t think anyone can argue that the current financial status of the country is relatively dire but I would love to know how any other government would have dealt with a global economic crisis of the scale we’ve seen across the past two years.

I also note in this whole article Richard doesn’t mention anything about what the government has achieved in it’s time in office. No comment on fox hunting bans, smoking age changes, improvement in education from the Major years (in terms of funding and teacher training), legalising civil partnerships, championing the Northern Ireland Peace process, devolution, regulating the House of Lords… some of these things are subjective but they have none the less been achieved. The government is far from ineffectual, they’ve done things I don’t agree with and things I do but to reduce the whole thirteen years to an allegory with a low quality reality TV show is simplifying things to the level of pointlessness.

On second thoughts perhaps this is nothing more than slow news week filler, even if it is filled with Richard’s usual stereotypes of women in power, gay men, liberal ideology and of course those ‘bloody bins’. Don’t worry Richard, under the next government, I’m sure that your favourite ‘dole scum’ will be hired to come and eat your rubbish on a daily basis. And you can whip them while they do.

“The final episode is due to be broadcast next May. We will all be glad to see the back of it.”

And how long will that last I wonder? And which party would you like to replace them Richard… oh, he’s gone home.

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Mrs T defeated the miners – and then replaced them with homophobia outreach workers

One of the striking things about the Mail‘s columnists in general is their lack of positive vision – take today’s column from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“Margaret Thatcher was a failure. It is time, 30 years after she entered Downing Street, that her admirers forced themselves to admit it.

For a start, if she had been the great success they claim, we would never have needed to suffer the current rule of Gordon Brown, or the disastrous years of Anthony Blair.

Almost every good thing Mrs Thatcher achieved has already been overturned, reversed and wiped out.

By contrast, the Labour Party devotes much of its time to making sure that the damage it does can never be undone.”

So far fair enough – the bit about Labour is entirely negative, but by saying Thatcher failed ‘Peter’ is suggesting at least some sort of positive plan against which her time in government can be measured.

“True, she reduced the number of direct employees of Whitehall.

But the jungle of quangos grew and grew, and so did the slithering, choking, parasitic bindweed of local government and the unwieldy, Soviet-scale monstrosity of the NHS.”

Here we have hints – ‘Peter’ is broadly for smaller government. This isn’t especially visionary, as it assumes that small government is good in itself – particularly in terms of quangos, local government and the NHS – without justifying this or saying where the benefits lie, but it’s a start. We can assume from the Soviet comparison, for example, that smaller government would be less bureaucratic and thus more responsive, so there may be some implicit positive vision. As it stands though, this is essentially an unjustified statement of negation of the current state of things.¹

“Challenged to come up with a lasting achievement of Thatcherism, her admirers often tell us how hard it was, in the days before British Telecom, to try to get a new phone installed.

So it was. But have any of these people had any recent dealings with that fearsome, greedy and arrogant monopoly, BT?

BT and the other former nationalised giants are now regulated by the State but responsible – in reality – to nobody. Is this an improvement?”

This would seem to be quite positive – ‘Peter’ wants renationalisation of State infrastructure – but this positivity is hedged by the sense that we’re returning from the negative present to the negative past. BT, it would appear, was horribly under-regulated both then and now. Taken with ‘Peter”s earlier desire for an end to quangos (which include regulators), it’s unlikely that this would a much better world than the one we live in now. Alternatively, ‘Peter’ wants to retain BT’s freedom, but with tighter regulation from a state employing less regulators, which seems somewhat over-hopeful. We’re left with the feeling that ‘Peter’ is pushing change despite the lack of obvious benefit, purely because he doesn’t like BT.²

“We also used to have a number of state industries – coal and steel – which, for all their faults, made or provided things the nation needed.

They’ve gone. Now we have regiments of condom outreach workers, facilitators and homophobia monitors, all costing much more than coal miners, and far less useful.”

Again, this seems to be a hint of positive vision – ‘Peter’ wants a break with market forces that reduced the costs of steel and coal by making them more cheaply overseas and a return to statist economics where a premium was paid for keeping people in employment. How he hopes to make this fly in the cut-throat capitalist world we’re living in, or how to do this without increasing people employed directly by Whitehall or building up a ‘Soviet-scale’ monstrosity at the Ministry of Industry, he doesn’t say. It’s a bit like those conversations you have in the pub where you suggest bringing Shearer and Cole back to sort out England’s problems up front – it’s positive to be sure, but not the most sensible of visions. It, too, suffers from being hedged slightly as it appears to only be there as a comparison for the list of people currently employed by the State. The idea is that we couldn’t afford either, but at least the coal miners were less unaffordable. Like the return to the unpleasant past when BT really was B, ‘Peter’ wants to go back to the days when the police beat gays with impunity but coal was plentiful. Alternatively, ‘Peter’ might be making the even less nuanced point that everything is rubbish, coal and community work both, and we should scrap the lot. Which isn’t so much a positive vision as an fully negative view of both past and present.

“But what about the unions? Didn’t she defeat them? Well, sort of. But who needs stroppy shop stewards now that we are chained up by the intrusive labour laws of the European Union, so that every employer, large or small, lives in constant fear of a ruinous employment tribunal claim?

The European Union is at least as much of a threat to jobs and profits as the Transport and General Workers’ Union ever was.”

Here, at least, we have some idea of what ‘Peter”s bright new future looks like – a free hand for those whose money is made from the surplus value created by their employees. It’s negatively defined in terms of the removal of the hard-won rights of employees to be treated as human beings and the European Union’s on-going project to stop companies passing things off as things they aren’t³ This, presumably, is where his smaller state is coming from – less rules means less oversight is required and thus less overseers. Essentially we institutionalise the arrogance of BT, even if we are now renationalising it, or at very least shift its arrogance onto its workforce and not its consumers.

“Above all, she failed to fight the cultural revolutionaries who wanted to undermine marriage, dissolve the family, sexualise children and use State schools as an egalitarian sausage machine, turning out brainwashed Leftists by the million.”

Again, we have equivocal positivity – a vision defined in opposition to the present. The case isn’t made for marriage, the circumstances which led to the dissolution of the family or sexualisation of the family (and so whether any government could have held them back) are not considered , the aspects of the school system which are problematic are not named. We’re left to assume that the ideal government would have done something. We’re back in the pub saying that what England need to do is score more and concede less. Which leaves us with the conclusion:

“The real counter-revolution, more badly needed than ever, will have to come from somewhere else.”

The revolution in favour of what? The present is bad, fine, but the past was as well. ‘Peter’ wants less of the bad things of the present – if only we got rid of the bad things, without re-instating the bad things of the past, we’ll be OK. We could regulate some things more, some things less, by employing less people doing different things more cheaply and, hey-presto, inevitable utopia. Things will be better purely because there will be less bad things. As an idea, that’s sound enough, but I can’t help but think it’s a little simplistic – how will things be better, and what effect will the removal of the bad things make (after all, if they’re fully bad, someone would have removed them already)? Running things down is easy, but without an alternative it is completely pointless and does nothing but add to the nihilism and depression that it claims to rail against.

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¹ Looking still at the NHS example, we would have some serious questions, starting with ‘what form does this smaller NHS take?’ – are we talking more private provision, the same provision on a smaller/cheaper staff, an increase in treatments offered, a decrease in treatments offered? Where do the benefits lie – lower taxes, better service for some, for all, a re-adjustment of treatment priorities to maximise utility, an end to ‘post code lotteries’?

² This isn’t to say that our situation wouldn’t be greatly improved by returning national assets to the nation – simple economics suggests that if a company isn’t paying a dividend to faceless investors in return for their purchasing of its shares from a third party in the hope of getting a dividend then that company has that much more money to invest. ‘Peter’, however, doesn’t say this.

³ For every piece of legislation demanding straight bananas, there are any number preventing companies pretending that their ground-meat sandwiches constitute burgers.

From that spiteful 50p tax to Harriet’s mad sex war, Labour is blasting Britain back to the dark ages

A particularly gloomy take on current events this morning from Melanie Phillips:

“For with the economy in far worse shape than even the most pessimistic among us had imagined, we appear to have entered a time machine which is blasting us back to the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis.”

There are instantly problems with this comparison – to take the obvious, it’s only really the banking sector the state has started moving into, and you’d be hard pushed to say that it ‘controlled’ banks when it can’t even get those it owns to lend money to small businesses. The idea of the machine ‘blasting us’ towards a point where it’s not just the banks the state controls is scare-mongering – the state has no money to take over anything particularly impressive, we still remember things not working so well the last time it tried, the government is currently trying to offload the state-owned postal service suggesting little appetite for further state expansion and the likely candidates to form the next government are opposed to any such expansion. It also misses the way we got into this mess in the first place – through historically lax state control leading to a necessary take-over of the banking sector. Although there is some comfort to be gained from seeing current events through the prism of history, we shouldn’t let superficial similarities scare us into believing the two are the same – this focuses our fears on the wrong things, meaning we miss the real issues while paranoidly waiting for unrealistic evils to befall us. For example,

“The 50p tax rate has left the out-manoeuvred Blairites aghast for the very reasons that the fossilised Left is triumphant. By singling out the wealthy as scapegoats for the failure of government policy, it implicitly classifies as the enemies of society people whose efforts are essential to its prosperity.”

There are a few things to note about this. Firstly, the Mail was, not so long ago, leading a witch-hunt against the well paid (eg.), which arguably does more to mark out the well-off as enemies of society. More crucial though, the duties on fuel, cigarettes and alcohol all went up in the budget – these all disproportionately affect those on low incomes, making them at least equal targets of the Chancellor’s disapprobation.¹

“It punishes them for the crime of achievement and acts as a powerful disincentive to others to seek success or advancement, thus ensuring the stagnation of the country. It is a throwback to a primitive era of class prejudice and economic illiteracy. It is the dogma of political and economic cavemen.”

This is debatable – one could easily argue that they are being rewarded for high achievement by being offered the opportunity to contribute mote to society, adding additional incentive to succeed. On this argument, the problem here is not the tax, but the ideology pushed by the mainstream media that defines success in terms of materialistic self-aggrandisement. Possibly more compellingly, a 50% rate of tax (rising to 60% with various alterations to personal benefits announced at the same time) on £150,000 leaves the earner with 50p in the pound for every pound over £150,000. Although this is 10p less than they used to get, they still have 40p’s worth of further reasons to strive.² Unlike a salary ceiling, tax brackets do continue to offer incentives to earn, they merely make it slightly more difficult to do so.

“It is also, as the rest of us can clearly see, a fruitless act of cynical spite. Far from increasing tax revenues, it may even mean less money comes into the Exchequer as people resort to various tactics to offset their losses.”

It’s worth considering, at this point, the raft of steps the Chancellor announced in the budget to make it harder to avoid paying tax. More than this, however, is the general point that the Chancellor has to do something to increase the money coming in as the economy tanks. He’s not going to be coining it from corporation tax on the banks any more, what revenues came in from the employment of low earners will be eroded by rising unemployment, a new source must be found. So up go cigarettes and alcohol, increasing incentives for people to source them on the black market to offset their losses. It’s not an option everyone will take, as the costs of such evasion will, for some at least, outweigh the financial benefits – for the increase to result in lower tax-take the number of people evading, and so dropping out, would need to out-weigh the increase secured from those not avoiding. It’s a calculated risk, but to suggest that it’s a risk not taking purely because it is a risk is to say that no tax increase should ever be made as any tax increase will carry the risk of prompting evasion.

“With this huge and increasing burden of higher taxes, red tape and ruinous regulation, yet more entrepreneurs are going to pack up and leave Britain altogether for more hospitable climes.”

There are a few things to consider about concerns of a brain drain. One relates to the Mail‘s equivocal relationship with high-earners – by their lights, it is not just the brains that will be drained, the increase in tax-rate will rebate a certain amount from the public sector and the much demonised banking sector and possibly drive some of the ‘fat-cats’ away, presumably opening the way for thinner cats or people who aren’t cats at all. This is to say nothing about the sense or justice of the measure, but only to note that, from the newspaper’s point of view, this will do much to resolve some of its recent concerns. More pressingly, the evidence of brain drain in countries with high tax rates is equivocal – looking at research into Canada, for example, while there is definite evidence of people moving to the lower-tax regime of the USA to earn more, the numbers are low and appear to be influenced by more than just taxes. This makes intuitive sense – brains need somewhere to drain to (at bare minimum, a job market where they can gain more after tax for the same amount of job which at the same time offers a comparable or better quality of life, difficult to find in the face of a worldwide recession), and to be sufficiently mercenary to be willing to drop their current home and lifestyle to do so. Undoubtedly, some will, but the extent of this is unlikely to be overwhelming.

So the 50p rate of tax is not the obviously bad idea Melanie presents. Indeed, she herself seems confused on the import of it all:

“Indeed, since it was Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget that reduced the top rate of tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent, last week’s travesty can be seen as not just burying Blairism, but reverting to the era before Mrs Thatcher came along to try to arrest Britain’s apparently irreversible decline.”

If we’re trying to conclude that Labour are reverting to type using Lawson’s budget, we must also bear in mind from the same that Thatcher was more than happy for the majority of her time in power with a taxation of the rich higher than that of the current Labour government, that this high rate coincided with the arresting of our ‘apparently irreversible decline‘ and that we’re now actually reverting to the dark days before the halcyon days of the Major government (which started in 1990). As such, we should be concluding that this is a bold return to Thatcherite tax policy, and not statism at all. In her attention to the superficial similarities, in this case that Thatcher got rid of a high tax rate, she misses the obvious differences in our situations, such as the fact that the rate of tax wasn’t Labour’s alone and it wasn’t the only thing Thatcher undid.

Nothing is ever as simple as Melanie makes this. After 12 years of Labour, we need a lot more than a 5% increase on the top-rate of income tax to herald a return to ‘the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis‘. The choice isn’t between the dark forces of socialism making us all poor and the bright Reaganomics of the future where the rich get rich and trickle it down. It’s not between a Thatcherite tax regime and a mass exodus of the long-suffering rich. At the moment, the choice is between definite lower tax revenues or possibly slightly less-lower tax revenues. It’s a gloomy choice to have to make, but not as gloomy as a time machine that only took us to the 70s would be.

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¹ The Guardian claims that “Early indications suggested the poor would still pay proportionately more than the rich because of a rise in fuel duty.” but don’t provide anything to back the statement up.

² This section is corrected as of 29th April, thanks to Ben (see comments below). The original, incorrect text, read: “with £75,000 after tax (£60,000) – this is still a fairly impressive reason to try and earn £150,000. Taking this further, the maths of the tax-bracket system also means that what disincentive there is only kicks in on a relatively small range of salaries around the £150,000 boundary – the previous 40% rate on a salary of £149,999 meant you took home £90,000; you would need to earn £30,000 more to take home the same amount at a 50% rate. This means that you have no incentive, at £149,999, to earn anything less than £30,001 more, but it would still pay you, increasingly handsomely, to aim at a job worth £180,001 or more.” As Ben kindly and correctly points out, this reading is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the tax system. Ben is too kind to call me an idiot, but he could very fairly have done so.

Oh, dear! That was a total dog’s breakfast

A column startlingly rank in its unpleasantness today from Jan Moir, ostensibly talking about the pre-Budget press breakfast hosted by the Chancellor and his wife:

“Never mind the Budget, what about that ghastly budget breakfast? Alistair and Margaret Darling’s stagey repast on Wednesday morning was more theatrical than an end-of-the-pier Christmas panto – and slightly less believable.”

Quite apart from this missing the point spectacularly¹, the meanness of spirit evident in the sentence is striking – Darling is a man derided as being almost inhumanly dull (to take an example, in his sketch on the budget yesterday, fellow columnist Quentin Letts described Mr Darling as ‘the voice of accountancy manuals made flesh‘), and yet when he does try and present himself in a more relaxed setting he’s set upon. Which way should we have him – personable or inaccessible? Inaccessible it seems:

“‘The regrettable message from this most bogus of brekkies is that the Treasury thinks we are all as stupid as a huckleberry muffin.

It is obvious Mr Darling starts the day with nothing more than a bracing glass of tap water and a frozen suppository.”

Now, there is an obvious debate to be had around the presentation of politics, how necessary it is to have photo ops of you and your wife prior to giving the Budget speech and the idea of the paradox of liberal democracy², but surely we can have it without resorting to personal attacks? Apparently not:

“I don’t mean to be rude, but I bet it’s the first time Mrs Darling has had a frock on at breakfast time since the day she got married.

In her previous life, as a journalist on a Scottish newspaper, her occasionally frowsy appearance meant she was sometimes mistaken for the office cleaner.”

It seems we can’t even avoid collateral damage.³ Somewhere in all of this mud was a point about the manufactured nature of political image, but what Jan determindly misses is her own role in it. She presents a series of caricatures, drumming home the idea of the robotic Darling, his slovenly wife and their snobbish life when they’re off-duty, people disconnected from the electorate they are trying to appeal to. Her objection is the gulf between this ‘truthful’ depiction and the depiction of the Darling’s at breakfast, without stopping to wonder whether the former has bred the latter.

“Look. Kissing babies and posing for unlikely pix may be a necessary, regrettable part of the political landscape, but please, Darlings, don’t insult us too much.”

It isn’t, it’s completely unnecessary. We could be discussing policies, but instead we’re reducing everything to a soap opera of character misjudgements and personal attacks. This column does nothing to improve matters, it just further constructs the public image which the Chancellor will need to oppose if he is to get his message across and be taken seriously. While objecting to the cheapening of politics through theatrics, the column itself cheapens it, defeating what little object it had. To do it so poisonously only compounds the fault. If there’s no place for Darling’s breakfast there should certainly be no place for this.

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¹ It’s similar to bemoaning the traditional photo op hosted on the steps of number 11 with the red box – the Chancellor would never wave it about like that if the cameras weren’t there, it’s all a sham.

² Which essentially runs that the more you tell people what you’re doing as a politician, the more likely they are to believe you’re a liar.

³ As a side point,  if you need to apologise or justify your comment before you make it, you probably shouldn’t be making it – it suggests a knowing guilt that what you’re about to say transgresses some sort of boundary.

Why CAN’T Gordon say sorry?

Interesting consideration of the nature of apology and of agency today from Stephen Glover:

“One questions whether this is the letter of a normally functioning human being. He [Gordon Brown] could, and should, have written that he was sorry that Ms Dorries had been hurt by the repulsive email sent by a man whom he had chosen to employ. That would have been the kind and honest thing to have said. But such sentiments are not even hinted at. And because the Prime Minister was at pains to disassociate himself from the activities of his feral sidekick, he was unable to bring himself to apologise.”

A number of claims to unpack here: that Gordon Brown could have written to say he was sorry; that he should have done so; that this normative claim is due to the fact that he had chosen to employ the person who caused the suffering; that this would have been the kind thing to do; that this would have been the honest thing to do; that Gordon Brown wanted to distance himself from Damien McBride; that this was the reason that could not bring himself to apologise. Now, one of these is uncontroversial – Brown could have apologised; one probable – that Brown was trying to distance himself from his employee; one is speculative – that he couldn’t apologise because of this desire for distance; the rest are dubious or incorrect.

Let’s distinguish here between two senses of being sorry – sorry for and sorry that.¹ Only one of these two senses is the apology which Stephen expects. I can honestly say I’m sorry that emails were sent, or that offence was caused – I think the whole affair is thoroughly lamentable. However, I can’t say that I’m sorry for sending the emails, or for causing offence, because I am in no way connected to their sending or the offence they engendered. Gordon Brown has said the second sort of sorry, the letter of his which so disappoints Stephen expressed ‘great regret’ not only for this particular bad thing, but for all bad things of the type that ‘affect the reputation of our politics’. Just so you don’t think this is mere vapidity on his part, he backs up his words with a letter tightening up rules on political advisers, doing, in his words, ‘all he can to avoid this happening again’.

This is an expression of sorrow rather than an apology and that this is insufficient for Stephen’s purposes suggests that he is gunning for the first sense of sorry, being sorry for having done something. Now, Gordon didn’t send the emails and Stephen doesn’t suggest he endorsed, condoned, solicited, commissioned, devised or so much as knew about the emails. As a result, he is seemingly expecting Gordon to apologise for something someone else did.² How meaningful would we find such an apology?

Stephen seems to suggest that Gordon is in some way culpable because he employed the person who sent the emails. It’s worth remembering at this point that Damien was breaking the rules which governed his job and doing something that Gordon regrets. It’s one thing to criticise a man for knowingly employing someone who does regrettable things, it’s another to blame him for actions his employee has done on the sly knowingly contravening the guidelines which are in place to prevent it. It’s like blaming him for funding an employee’s drink problem when that demon is exercised only after work hours – it’s true that the funding is enabling the fulfilment of the addiction, but this is neither known nor foreseeable.³

In light of this then, where do we stand on Stephen’s earlier claims? Would an apology from Gordon been the kindest, most honest thing to do, or would it have been false and inappropriate? Is the lack of apology due to Gordon trying to distance himself, or is there actually a genuine distance there? The reason this matters is Stephen’s climax:

“And now? Mr Brown may have a more developed sense of morality than Mr Blair, yet he employed as a trusted lieutenant a man who disseminated scurrilous emails that would have brought a flush of shame to the face of Richard Nixon.

Mr Brown’s character is writ large in that short, disgraceful letter to Nadine Dorries. It is a terrifying thought that he can employ a man like McBride, while continuing to reassure himself that he has a finely developed moral compass.”

This is a distraction. Stephen’s drawing conclusions on a man’s morality from the actions of an underling and a letter he sent not apologising for employing that underling. Meanwhile, the economy, schools, hospitals, transport, two wars, any amount of international development, communities, agriculture, the regions, the environment and any number of other things rage outside. While Stephen is constructing intricate orreries of political figures reputations, the world goes on. The moral character of the Prime Minister is not what should be concerning us – the spin and evasion that reduces accessibility of our elected officials, the struggle for power rather than the debate of ideas, the fact that a government employee considered this a worthwhile use of their time, these should be concerning us. The fact that this has become a morality play only further confirms in the minds of the average individual the fact that politics is completely disconnected from their lives. Even if he were responsible for the emails, the problem would not be Gordon’s character, but the fact that he wasn’t doing what he’s paid to do. The longer we waste our time on this, the more important decisions will pass by unnoticed and the more solvable social problems will be overlooked. Let’s judge people on their actions, but do so on the ones that actually matter.

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¹ I’m ignoring the sense of being sorry on behalf of, which would only really apply where the person who did the bad thing is unable to form an apology themselves (we apologise on behalf of children, for example), partly because I doubt Stephen wants Gordon to apologise on Damien’s behalf (I think he’d prefer it if they both apologised) and partly because there’s a fairly large debate to be had on the meaningfulness of an apology for something done by someone who isn’t actually sorry themselves.

² Imagine Gordon took this further, and tried to make amends and ask for forgiveness – would it make sense for Nadine Dorries to offer him forgiveness for Damien’s emails?

³ To Stephen’s claim that this was foreseeable  (“In other words, Mr Brown knew the kind of man he was employing. He was drawn to him. He picked him out.”), there are two obvious rejoinders: that you can legitimately hire someone for their desirable aspects even when these have undesirable flip-sides and that one would expect better from a PR guru than to be caught gossipping in writing.

Fred the Shred’s an easy target, but we should all beware of the nihilists of the Left… itching to reduce this country to anarchy

Here’s a cheery column from Stephen Glover:

“There is an emboldened nihilistic movement bubbling below the surface whose beliefs are profoundly anti-progress, as well as being injurious to the poor in the West and the Third World. In a way they are far worse than the old communist Left, which at least aspired to running an efficient state. This new lot abominates cars and aeroplanes and technology – in short, most of the achievements of the modern world.”

The attack on Sir Goodwin’s Edinburgh property was merely the first skirmish of a bigger war, one that threatens the very heart of our civilisation.

“Just remember that their prescription is not to introduce moderate reforms, but to pull the system apart so that, if they have their way, we will end up eating soya beans, riding about on donkeys and growing clumps of maize in our back gardens.”

The anarchists are coming. Be afraid.

There are a couple of things that we might want to consider before we start barricading our properties to protect ourselves against Swampy’s massed hordes. For one, how are we moving from a single attack on a media hate figure¹ to the overthrow of everything we hold dear?

“Listen to the statement made to Edinburgh’s evening newspaper by those who attacked Sir Fred’s house: ‘We are angry that rich people … are paying themselves a huge amount of money, and are living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute and homeless. This is a crime. Bank bosses should be jailed.’

Simple souls, no doubt. But also revolutionary ones. And they speak for a growing constituency of anti-capitalists whose analysis of the economic recession – if that is not too grand a word – is fatally encouraged by the Government’s and the media’s jihad against Sir Fred Goodwin and his ilk.”

So, Stephen makes two claims: that this view is revolutionary, and that it speaks for a wider constituency. Well, it’s not that revolutionary, it’s actually quite reactionary in as far as it is singling out a small group of people for special treatment as scapegoats, rather than addressing the causes of the imbalances in the system. It doesn’t overturn anything, it merely adjusts unfavourable outcomes after the fact. Revolutionary would be nationalising the whole banking sector and re-organising it as a collection of mutuals run for the benefit of their members and employees, for example. Retaining the same system with the same people at the top creaming off a little less is not a revolution. With that in mind, how broad a constituency do they speak for? Well, quite a large one – the Mail, among others, thinks it is high time we looked at remuneration.

Does this constituency necessarily overlap with those wanting to overthrow the capitalist system? No, not even Stephen can conclude that it does:

“A single attack on Sir Fred Goodwin’s Edinburgh house hardly signifies the beginning of mob rule”

So why the shoehorning? If you want to talk about the anarchist mob, why not just have a run at the Wombles preparing for the forthcoming G20? How can we justify the fear that the media is turning us anarchist?

“Is this really what the Government, even the BBC, wants? No one doubts that many bankers, Sir Fred among them, have made unforgivable errors. The sensible response is to introduce reforms so that the same thing cannot easily happen again. The anti-capitalist brigade wants to tear down the whole edifice. Alone, they were pretty harmless and peripheral. With ministers and the media acting as their helpmates, and declaring that capitalism has disastrously failed, they could become dangerous.”

Stephen is equivocating here on the idea of the failure of capitalism. Capitalism has failed: it has failed to pull the underclass up, it has failed to to prevent the gap between rich and poor from reaching such unpleasant levels, it has failed to provide stability or security to the middle classes. These aren’t things it was ever aiming to provide, or which, conceptually, it was ever likely to, but from a human point of view it is a system which fails to give us important things. This is not the same as the system failing in the sense that it doesn’t work – it still works better than controlled economy and people are still better off, in some senses at least, than they would be under anarchism or similar systems.² I have yet to find a media source or minister who is proposing an alternative to capitalism (I’m happy to be corrected on this, as ever). While they’re happy to talk about systemic failures, such as the inability to solve poverty, they do not talk about the system failing.

The media and government, rather, seem to be calling for exactly what Stephen is calling for – reforms to make the system a little less abhorrent. His conclusion, on this basis, is completely unjustified:

“Lay off the bankers. Stop exciting the mob. Let’s hear some robust arguments in favour of free trade, capitalism and open markets. They have produced enormous wealth before, and will do so again, while the policies (if they can be so dignified) of the protesters who will be on show in London next week would lead only to anarchy, poverty and chaos.”

This begs the question, because it automatically excludes reforms of banking pay as part of the solution. It excludes discussions of whether free trade does provide enormous wealth, or whether they lead for anarchy, poverty and chaos for some. These discussions are not ‘exciting the mob’, they are the necessary activities of democracy.

Stephen has conjured an image of rabid anarchists attacking the institution of private property³ to conclude that all arguments against the status quo are out of bounds and all critics are as bad as each other. The argument is poor even were the threat not so overstated. If Stephen wants to reduce the threat to bankers, there is no better place to start than looking at his own paper’s coverage of them. From there he can start thinking about how he can modify the capitalist system to be less piratical. Using the damaging of property of a media hate figure as a prop for the entire edifice of expropriation because you don’t want to discuss reform or your own approach to social problems is a much worse solution.

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¹ Interestingly, Stephen feels that the BBC is largely to blame for the demonisation of Sir Fred Goodwin (“I freely admit that all newspapers have played their part in turning Fred the Shred into Public Enemy Number One, but the organisation which undoubtedly went further than any other was the publicly funded BBC, which is charged with being neutral and even-handed.”). Now, the Mail provides examples like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9; and more throwaway lines as found here: 1, 2, 3, 4; throwing up your hands and saying ‘The big boy hit him harder’ in no way absolves you of the responsibility. This is a common enterprise across the media – the Mail has happily contributed to the construction of Sir Goodwin as a hate figure and the responsibility for people treating him as such lies squarely on their shoulders as much as anyone else.

² For very good libertarian and fraternal reasons, anarcho-syndicalism is still a ‘better’ system if you’re starting from scratch, but given our starting point in a capitalist system, there is no way you could achieve this without mass suffering. ‘Better off’ is relative to where you start, and from where we are, I’ve yet to see a better alternative to some form of capitalism.

³ Using Google Street View – “Incidentally, though there is no evidence that they played a role in this instance, Google’s new on-line street maps will be a marvellous aid for voyeurs, as well as for anyone who might want to burgle or damage your home. They show every house in 20 cities, including Edinburgh, and will be extended to many more. Where on earth is the public benefit?” – which Stephen wants to suppress, in spite, presumably, of robust arguments for free trade and capitalism.

Arrogant, ignorant and out of his depth, is Banana Boy Miliband our worst Foreign Secretary ever?

I’ve touched previously on the paranoid style in Daily Mail articles, but I thought this was quite impressive even by usual standards.

“Beyond hectoring this country’s allies in this way, Miliband also remains a global warming zealot. This is even though the world’s climate is actually cooling, the ice is expanding, the seas aren’t rising at a rate which should concern anyone and there is overwhelming evidence that the whole man-made global warming panic is an anti-west scam of unprecedented proportions.”

I’ve spoken before about climate change in the Mail and I’ll not do it again so soon. What I find more interesting is the idea that it’s a conspiracy  – who by, and for what purpose? Is the West ripping off itself, or is this some sort of evil developing world scheme to hobble our once proud industry further? How have they managed it? I mean, it is a hell of a scheme – it’s not just Miliband they’ve fooled/bought, this con is big. A lot of people who really should know better have gone and got the wrong answer to a simple either-or question. That’s a good scam.

“Much of this comes from a way of looking at the world through a highly ideological and distorting prism. Miliband is very much a child of the post-modern era in which the dominant  belief system of the progressive classes comprises ‘soft power’ – under which negotiation, legal processes and compromise take the place of war whose objective is actually to defeat an enemy with an unconscionable and non-negotiable agenda; ‘trans-nationalism’, under which the nation state is defined as the source of all the ills of the world; and ‘cultural relativism’, under which the west refuses to hold itself superior in its values to the third world, whose ‘narrative’ of its own oppression and powerlessness thus trumps all attempts by the west to defend itself against the attacks the third world mounts upon it.”

I admit that this juxtaposition reads a little strangely, there were some intervening paragraphs, but I’m assuming that the argument is consistent, and this is the first bit that would seem to reflect back on the dastardly scheme to scam the West. Turns out that all those Tuvaluans with their plans to live in New Zealand once their nation submerges are really only trying to undermine Western values with their narratives of oppression. First the petty cultural relativists¹ let them take our light bulbs, and next it’ll be our wives, castles and prejudices.

What this misses is the perfectly reasonable middle ground between mea culpa and right all along – that the nation state, while having its plus points, can also be guilty of some fairly dodgy things. For example, the system of propping up odious dictatorships as a protection of ones own people is a rum one, as are protectionist tariffs and the Olympics. We can safely question these without giving in to self-flagellation – think of it not as relativism but healthy jingoistic introspection. Thinking things through, we might find that we are, in fact, responsible for some of the ills of the world, and that some ways of improving things may be available through negotiation with those we’ve disadvantaged (or ‘wronged’, should you wish to be accurate).

The idea that we can just pretend that the damage we sometimes cause doesn’t happen is one we should have grown out of before hitting school. We can’t pull girls hair and claim that they’re making it up when they go crying to mummy – it didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Ad hominem attacks ( “a twerp of the first order”) won’t change that. And claiming that the crafty poor majority are coming to steal you incandescent light bulbs under false pretences before accusing  other people of disconnecting from reality won’t either.

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¹ As an aside, she’s right about cultural relativism – to suggest that ‘x is wrong’ is the same as ‘x is wrong for me, but other people may disagree and are entitled to their opinion’ seems to me to misunderstand the meaning of ‘wrong’. Presumably we’re none of us relativist about, for example, rape – when we say that is wrong, we’re saying exactly what we mean. I’m not sure how ‘chauvinism is wrong’ or ‘causing animals unnecessary suffering is wrong’ are different – that is to say, what makes them different has never been adequately explained to me.