Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Case For Trident

The debate around whether the UK’s submarine based nuclear deterrent Trident should be renewed is sinking to the level of national embarrassment. The ‘no’ camp claim that nuclear weapons have no use in the post cold war era, while those in favour of renewing it pretend that it is just some kind of hi-tech make work scheme. In the interests of public service, I’m going to attempt to make a serious case for the renewal of Trident. Feel free to argue.

The key thing to understand is that nuclear weapons are tools of foreign policy, not weapons of war. It has long been accepted that a thermonuclear exchange would so damage the participants that no possible strategic objective could justify it. It follows that no state will risk facing that threat.

However with or without nuclear weapons, states do face existential threats, principally from more powerful states. This is the story of human history, the strong dominating the weak. It is here that the hydrogen bomb gains its diplomatic utility. In recent years, the states that have gone nuclear, or can reasonably be said to have attempted it all have one thing in common. They have been directly threatened by a state which they have no conventional means of resisting. Nuclear weapons are the only serious response to these threats that these weak states can ever have. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq serves as a reminder of the price of not possessing weapons of mass destruction.

How does this affect the UK? After all, we are a member of NATO and the EU. Diplomatically, are we not the ‘transatlantic bridge’, an integral part of the international community which guarantees a world free of great power conflict? Frankly, this is a myopically complacent view, which confuses a fluke historical circumstance whose time is coming to a close with a serious analysis of foreign affairs.

Firstly, and most obviously, the EU is splitting in two, with the core Euro-zone edging ever closer towards being a country, and everyone else left outside. For better or for worse, we are on the outside. This in turn undermines the UK’s ‘transatlantic bridge’ role. If the USA want someone to represent their views on the continent, it will be someone inside the core Europe group, not a spectator. Indeed, as the US pivots towards Asia, where global power is increasingly heading, its interest in maintaining NATO will wane. British foreign policy, such as it is, is based on the idea that the UK is a core part of an imagined ‘West’ which is made up of developed, democratic and dominant states. That world is passing. If current trends continue, the UK will find itself a small, isolated country in a world dominated by the new superpowers; Russia, China, India, the USA and who knows, even the core EU.

The Trident program is a long term commitment. It would mean that Britain will maintain nuclear weapons until the 2040’s. If current trends continue, by that time Trident could be one of the only cards Britain holds to prevent its domination by these stronger states. In essence, the UK would use its nuclear weapons to guarantee its diplomatic independence in the way that Pakistan does today. That is the value of Trident, and that is why it should be renewed.

The pessimistic (and highly speculative) tone of this piece is deliberately designed as a riposte to the “the cold war is over, we all live in peace and harmony” argument. History does not end, however agreeable we might find the status quo. The UK is a declining country, with little capacity to affect world events. It would be wise to start planning our foreign policy with this fact in mind.  

Monday, 29 October 2012

Racism in Football-The Ugly Game

Another weekend of sport has ended in an ugly mess, as professional football continues in its quest to prove that the twenty first century is something which only happened to other people. After having two players sent off in the game against Manchester United, Chelsea have lodged a complaint against the referee Mark Clattenburg, accusing him of using racist language against one of their players.

This is a very serious allegation and, as with all accusations of racism, it must be treated as such. Clattenburg, who was in constant radio contact with the other officials during the game, has indicated that he wishes a full investigation into the matter, and has the support of the referees union in doing so.

This can only end in one of two ways. If he is found guilty, then Clattenburg will rightly never work as a referee again. His position of impartial authority would have been irretrievably compromised. Alternatively, if the allegation is discovered to be malicious, then Chelsea FC will have wrought terrible damage on the professional game.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘Chelsea FC will have wrought even more terrible damage’. After all their captain, John Terry, was watching these events from the stand, where he was sitting out his ludicrously lenient four match ban for describing Anton Ferdinand as a “fucking black cunt”. Keenly aware of this injustice, Chelsea fans helpfully jeered Ferdinand’s brother Rio throughout yesterdays match, presumably expressing their displeasure that his relative could dare point out that their captain was a bigot.

The football authorities have impressed nobody with their peerless indifference to racism in the game. Their ‘Kick It Out’ campaign, which is supposed to address the issue, has been reduced to little more than a series of platitudes on T-shirts. They mean so much that John Terry is happy to support them. Tellingly, the Ferdinand brothers were less willing.

This stuff matters. Those who say that problems in football only reflect problems in society should get out more. Society has changed. We don’t go to minstrel shows anymore. Adult comedians who trade in offence and shock are willing to go to court to prove that they are not racists. We in society decided that racism damaged us all some time ago, and furthermore decided to act on our decision. It seems football didn’t get the memo.

Those who run football should have a think about how precarious their position actually is. The average age of a fan in their stadiums is 43, because clubs have priced the younger fans out. The future of professional football as a mass spectator sport, and all the lucrative opportunities those spectators represent, is dependent on young people falling in love with the game as they see it on TV. That’s not going to happen if it looks like a re-run of a 1970’s Bernard Manning comedy routine. Kids today, to their great credit, just aren’t into that stuff. Football needs to catch up, fast.    

Friday, 26 October 2012

Jobs for the Boys

For observers of politics, who spend our days gazing into the torrent of asinine waffle that swamps the nation into apathetic submission, there occasionally pops up a statement that shakes us out of the stupor, a dissonance which reveals a truth that we know should have been hidden. It occurs to me that our leader’s somewhat oxymoronic claim that he “wants to spread privilege” is one such statement.

Leaving aside the idiotic phrasing, he was attempting to say that through improving the quality of the school system, every child would have the same type of opportunities that he had. This is indeed a noble aim, but it is also rather disingenuous, as we shall see.

Cameron is trying to convince you that his privilege was to attend Eton, the fabulously expensive private school, and that the education he received there set him up for life. I would imagine it certainly helped, but if you really want to get on in this country, like he did, you need more than that.

The key to a great career is the ‘foot in the door’ job, the one you take after you finish your education, the one that gives you the experience to begin climbing the greasy pole. This is where meritocracy ends and where plutocracy begins, because unless you can afford to work for free, then you don’t get this first job. You might as well not have bothered with all that education. Indeed you might look at the fees you paid for it and wonder if you hadn’t been cheated.

Even money is not enough for the great internships. To get one of these, not only must you be able to work for free, you must also have powerful family connections. Here is where we see Cameron’s true privilege. His internship, at Conservative Central Office, was guaranteed by a phone call from his relatives at Buckingham Palace. That’s how he got on in life. Is this a privilege he wants to ‘spread’? Hell no. Not only does he “accept” that unpaid internships are part of the “modern world”, he is “intensely relaxed” about it. He even boasts about arranging them for his friend’s children. Perhaps that is what spreading privilege really means; spreading it around your own social circle.

If you want to see the effect of excluding the poor and the non-connected from positions of influence, look no further than to our very own House of Commons. To show that this is about the whole British establishment, and not just Cameron’s Conservatives, I’ll examine the Parliamentary Labour Party. At the time of the 2010 general election, the party had between 150,000 and 193,000 members, from which it could select its candidates. Out of the 258 MP’s it managed to get elected, there were two married couples (Ed Balls to Yvette Cooper, and Jack Dromey to Harriet Harman) and three sets of siblings (the Milibands, the Eagles and the Vazs). The party of working people also managed to maintain the hereditary principle with Anas Sarwar, MP for Glasgow Central succeeding his father. Do you think all this is coincidence? No. It is the result of connection and privilege at work. It’s basically corruption, and it stinks.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Classic Political Lies and Deceptions

You may have detected a certain cynicism regarding the politicians who thrive in the modern age creeping in to this blog. Cynicism about politics is as old as politics itself as, I would argue, are the lies, deceptions and empty sloganeering that generate it. In this post, I’m going to introduce you to three types of political deception, and give examples, both historical and modern, of the timeless nature of political bullshit.

The Meaningless Statement

The idea here is to sound like you mean something which people want, while in reality not committing yourself to anything which might require action. This type of deception is very easy to spot if you remember one simple rule; to discover if a political statement has meaning, see if anybody is arguing for its opposite. If not, the person who made the original statement is saying nothing. A classic modern example is the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to “hardwire fairness” in to British society. Reverse the statement and we find that nobody is promising to increase unfairness, thus the original Lib Dem statement is meaningless.

A meaningless statement can still be useful. Nelson’s “England expects that every man will do his duty” was apparently inspiring at Trafalgar. Yet no sailor was considering taking the afternoon off. The meaningless statement was still a useful rhetorical device.

A quick postscript to this. Today (22/10/2012) we learn that David Cameron is announcing his 'Tough but Intelligent' crime policy. This is presumably in opposition to all those who argue that criminal justice policy should be 'Soft but Stupid'.

The Double Meaning

Sometimes a politician has to satisfy two groups of people, who want different things, simultaneously. Here, the trick is to find a form of words which can be taken to mean whatever anybody chooses to read in to them, and deliver them with such conviction that both audiences assume that you are talking to them. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ theme to his conference was a classic of the kind. The left, including his trade union backers, assumed he meant that he was going to take on the elites that are governing the country and make the voice of ordinary people heard. The right, including many Blairites in his own party, assumed he meant that he would not try to fight some kind of class war, and avoid pitting different groups against each other.

Historically, no example of this comes close to that of Richard the 2nd. Faced with an army of peasants demanding a serious change in the social order, he rode out and told them “you shall have no captain but me”. The peasants thought the king meant that he was joining their cause. To put it mildly, they were wrong. 

The most interesting thing about this deception is that the person using it knows that it will be uncovered as soon as they actually do anything, because the act of doing something will disappoint one side. It will be interesting to see who Mr Miliband eventually decides to disappoint.

The Appeal to an Unarguable Force

During medieval times, huge armies of Christian crusaders wrought devastation and bloodshed in the holy land, slaughtering thousands of innocent men, women and children. They did so because the Pope had told them that God wanted them to do this. How could God be wrong?

An interesting modern take on this argument was provided by David Cameron, when he justified his use of the EU veto he exercised last year by saying he was acting in the “national interest”. In this case, just as the Pope gets to say what is the word of God, so the Prime Minister got to tell us what the “national interest” consisted of. The argument is strong because in both cases you cannot argue with the unarguable force; God and the national interest must always be respected and so, by convenient extension, must their messenger. It’s amazing how useful this 'logic' has proved to those in authority over the ages.    

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A Self Administered Parliamentary Blowjob

Guys, if you could blow yourselves, ladies, you'd be in this room alone right now. Watching an empty stage” (Bill Hicks). Thus the great comedian pithily summed up the tragedy of the male condition. This tragedy is almost universal. Almost, but not quite. For there is an exception to every rule, and the exception to this rule is to be found in what we, perhaps ironically, describe as our ruling class, in particular the collective body that is Parliament at Prime Ministers Questions. If ever an act resembled self-fellatio, then what happened here at twelve noon today was it.

The day was autumnal, and a cold wind blew through the UK.  The house gathered in its private chamber, warm and secure, and paid its customary lip service to the events of the outside world. Tributes to the fallen were echoed around the room, without thought to the reasons why they had gone. To consider that would be to distract from the task at hand, which was to be entirely self focused. Today was the time for the house to be alone with itself, to revel in its own bonhomie and tribal affections. The dark complexities of the twenty first century could be safely locked outside.

Setting the mood, as if dimming the lights, Mr Miliband rose to his feet and gently probed the Prime Minister about the latest unemployment statistics. The house emitted its customary low moan as he was equally gently rebuffed. This was not the reason they had come here. A muted statistical duel did not provide the satisfaction they so obviously collectively craved and desired. But they held on. They knew the main event was coming.

Sure enough, with his third question, straining his rhetoric as far as it would go, Mr Miliband found the spot. How many police officers have gone since the last election? The moan of the house grew to a crescendo. This was it. This was why they were here. Not, of course to talk about the number of police on the streets. Who cares about that? The word ‘police’ could only mean one thing. The house was to debate Andrew Mitchell’s words to her majesty’s constabulary. It was for this moment that the members had gathered themselves together from all corners of the kingdom. This was to be the release that they all so desperately needed.

Nervously rising to the despatch box, the Prime Minister composed himself with some statements about his willingness to ‘take difficult decisions’, causing his own side to cheer more loudly, in anticipation of what was to come. The tension was palpable, Miliband raising it further with some mindless ‘I’d hoped for a straight answer’ tease. Finally, he struck home; “it’s a night in the cells for the plebs, a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip” he roared. The noise was deafening, as the tension that had been building in the house for weeks was released, the cheers and the jeers combining in a cacophony of self congratulation. This was why they were elected. This was the very essence of the Mother of all Parliaments, alone with itself, away from the grim reality of the outside world. Prostrate before its own desire to feature on the ten o’clock news. Less than ten minutes in to the session, and all that they had wanted was done.

As always, after the high came the low, the petite mort. It was tolerated as it always is, as the price of the leaders duel. Backbench questions about murdered children and injured servicemen were answered with the usual calm courtesy. At times it looked like things could once again become memorable, the house raising its excitement levels at the thought of the Prime Minister’s salacious emails with a former journalist, but in the end they knew that the main event had been and gone for another week.

Outside the wind and the cold drew in ever closer.   

Monday, 15 October 2012

Forward to the Past!

Uncertain times, such as the one we live in now, have a curious tendency to produce nostalgic social movements, a yearning for a return to an often mythical better yesterday. In these straightened, post crash times, I want to have a brief look at the history of these movements, and see what it can tell us about things which are happening today.

Strangely, the 1920’s are remembered as a time of plenty, when flappers danced the Charleston as the good times rolled. They weren’t really like that at all. Churchill’s disastrous decision to peg Britain to the gold standard caused a manufacturing slump in a country that had never recovered from the economic upheaval of the First World War. For a great many people, it appeared that capitalism was failing as a system long before the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

In to this difficult era was born a movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. They aimed, in their own words, to encourage open air education for the children, craft training groups and craft guilds, local folk moots (sic) and cultural development, and a brotherhood of man through the disarmament of nations. In reality this meant that they went camping in homemade costumes that resembled the clothes worn by Anglo-Saxons, and danced around elaborately painted tents. In the words of the founder, John Hargrave, the movement was based on the idea that “our great disorganised civilisation has failed” and that recovery necessitated a return to a more simple way of living. The movement petered out in during the more absolute time of the Second World War.

In a similar sort of way, the movement towards self sufficiency in the 1970’s, epitomised by the saccharine sitcom ‘The Good Life’, should really be understood against the backdrop of economic crisis, strikes and the painfully obvious absence of effective political leadership that characterised that era. Once again, as things appeared to fall apart, people wistfully yearned to be transported back to an imagined happier, simpler time.

Well, let’s face it; we live in uncertain times today. Can we see modern equivalents of the Kibbo Kift emerging? I would contend that we do. Consider the campaign to save traditional high streets. The idea behind it seems to be that faceless multinational corporations are forcing small, independent retailers out of business and homogenising all of our town centres, an argument summed up, inevitably, in The Guardian here. This basic contention is accurate. Small shops are disappearing, and we do buy most of our food from the big four supermarkets. So what? Supermarkets are cheap, and money is tight. The idea that people shop in Tesco because they choose to, rather than because they are somehow forced to is not even considered. Even more bizarre is the campaign in Totnes to prevent a large coffee shop chain opening a store in the town. If people don’t like mass-produced coffee they won’t drink it. Why is it right to stop them? Why is it even important?

All these campaigners claim to be progressives, fighting the march of the evil corporations. In reality they represent nothing so much as the howl of the petit-bourgeois shopkeeper, unable to comprehend that people other than themselves can exercise free choice, and that that choice may not coincide with their desire for merry England to remain unsullied by the modern world. There are plenty of good causes worth donating time and effort to. I cannot for the life of me see why this is one of them.      

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Jimmy Savile and Us

As the trickle of revelations about Jimmy Savile becomes a flood, I want to pause and think about what they tell us about the society we live in, above all about the disgraceful way in which we treat the weak and vulnerable. For me, nothing epitomises this uncomfortable truth more than the fact that a pervert in a tracksuit, with no qualifications in the treatment of psychological disorders, was put in charge of our most secure psychiatric hospital.

In any society there are a small number of individuals who are considered too disturbed and too dangerous not to be incarcerated. We house these people in Broadmoor secure hospital. Its inmates have included Peter Sutcliffe, AKA the Yorkshire Ripper (pictured, on the left) and Ronnie Kray. In 1988, after a damming report identified severe failings in the management of this institution, the Department of Health took it upon itself to appoint Jimmy Savile to oversee the hospital, and even gave him the power to appoint its general manager.

What could possibly have been the justification for this decision? Even assuming that they hadn’t heard the rumours about Savile sexually abusing vulnerable people, the man was a children’s television presenter. What did he know about running a hospital, or for that matter a prison? Absolutely nothing. There is only one possible explanation for this disgraceful appointment. The government of the time did not take the responsibility of dealing with the criminally insane seriously, and we can assume that they thought appointing a popular celebrity would be a good bit of free publicity. More disturbing than this assumption is the fact that there was no public outcry. The Department of Health was right. We as a society did not take our responsibility seriously. One hopes that has changed, although there is little indication that this is true.

This unthinking respect for celebrity and disregard for the vulnerable goes a long way towards explaining how this disgusting man was able to prey on young girls for so many years. We have heard many stories about how people had ‘heard the rumours’ about Savile, but were never able to prove them. I suggest to you that this narrative is simply not credible. These rumours were not confined to a select group of media insiders. I remember receiving a Popbitch round robin email around 2004-2005 which explicitly stated that Jimmy Savile abused young girls, along with Paul Gadd AKA Gary Glitter (sadly I did not keep this email). I was not a media insider. At the time I was a window fitter. If I heard rumours, then I think that people who worked with Savile would have known a great deal more, and yet nobody stopped him. They just accepted that because he was a television personality he was allowed to behave in this way. Who cared about his victims? What could they do? This applies to me as well. When I received that email I treated it as a bit of risqué light entertainment. It doesn’t seem funny now. Ask yourself; would you have felt any different? What does that make us? It’s an uncomfortable train of thought.       

Friday, 12 October 2012

Alfred Nobel Dynamites Satire. Again.

In 1973 the comedian Tom Lehrer declared that satire was dead because the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger, after he sent in B52s to bomb Cambodia. Today, the esteemed Nobel committee have finally proved him wrong, by awarding the prize to the European Union in recognition of its work in keeping the peace in Europe since the Second World War. We can only hope that Jon Stewart finds the strength to carry on.

We are told that thanks to the EU, France and Germany haven’t been to war for seventy years. When you think about it that’s not a very surprising observation. For most of that time Germany did not exist as a single country. The East was a puppet state of the USSR. The west was supported by NATO because it was the front line of the Cold War. It was the Cold War that kept the peace in Europe, because quite frankly the continent was nothing more than a venue for the superpowers to vie for global domination. Peace was a result of what happened in Washington and Moscow, not Brussels.

After the Cold War, the EU’s contribution to peace is at best questionable. A continent scarred by genocide sat back and watched ethnic hatreds ignite again at Srebrenica. Mass murder returned to the continent, and only the intervention of the USA was able to bring an uneasy peace. Hard to see what the EU did that impressed the Nobel judges there.

Perhaps we should look at the continent today, as maybe it is a monument to wise statesmanship guiding people towards a better and more peaceful future? Er, no. That’s not right, is it? The grand folly of the single currency has condemned the people of southern Europe to near permanent recession. Violence is breaking out on the streets of Athens and Madrid. Europe of all places should know the dangers of this type of crisis. People without hope will turn to extreme leaders in the desperate hope of salvation. What is the EU doing about this? Nothing. History can repeat itself as tragedy many times over. Yet despite all this, the leaders who have wrought this chaos on the continent deserve a Nobel Prize? No. They really don’t.   

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

David Cameron, Cocaine and the Modern Conference Speech

I was once told by a man who knows about such things that the principle effect of cocaine is to cause the user to say absolutely nothing of interest at great length and with total conviction. This is basically the objective of most party conference speeches, and the one David Cameron delivered today was a masterpiece in this respect.

Mid way through a parliamentary term he was not going to set out a new vision for the country, because he has already done that, and has spent the last two and a half years trying to put it in to practice.  His job today was to explain to the country what he is doing and to rally his party behind him in preparation for the next election. He probably made a better fist of the second task than the first.

For a Conservative in the hall there was plenty to be excited about. He attacked Ed Miliband directly, painting him as a naive man who did not understand how taxation worked. He attacked the wider left, notably the teaching unions, as being a roadblock to the reforms that the public want to see. As with Ed Miliband praising the NHS, this was a particularly easy way to get a round of applause from his activists. They will leave Birmingham happy.

For the country at large, the picture is less clear. Cameron himself correctly identified the ground on which the next election will be fought, namely education, welfare and the economy. Of these, it is the last which is causing the most trouble for the Conservatives. Just this week the IMF cut the UK growth forecast, calling the government’s economic strategy in to question. Cameron directly addressed this concern, arguing that although austerity is painful, there is no alternative. He must know that for this to ring true there must be some sign that the government’s policies are working by the next election. He gave a big mention to Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, which was something of a gamble, because the biggest reform of all, the Universal Credit, is still in the development stage, and doubts have been raised about its viability (this will be the subject of a future blog). At the moment, only the government’s education policy looks like a clear winner for the Tories. That alone will not be enough for them to win an election.

Above all, this speech was the epitome of modern professional politics. It ticked all the necessary boxes, it rallied the troops without being offensive to the wider public, and the man delivering it seemed plausible and relaxed in his role. There were no lines which will be remembered by this time next month, nor indeed were there supposed to be. That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with modern party politics. The conference season essentially aims to give activists the illusion of political engagement, while in reality a self-selecting professional elite governs both their party and their country. Cameron’s speech merely confirmed his place at the top of this elite. On its own terms it can therefore be judged to be a resounding success.       

Monday, 8 October 2012

The EU-It's Too Soon To Tell.

During the conference season, it’s easy to forget that really important things are actually happening in the world. From the perspective of these hallowed islands, the most important is the slow motion socio-economic implosion of the Euro-zone. You will hear noisy fringe meetings of Conservatives demanding that we withdraw from the European Union, but on the ‘progressive’ side of the divide, there is hardly a peep on the subject.

This is a rather bizarre omission. About half of Britain’s trade occurs within the EU free trade area, with the result that the British manufacturing sector is heavily dependent on our membership. Our defence policy, such as it is, is based on strategic cooperation with European countries, notably France. EU structures provide many smaller advantages to us, for example if a British teenager is abducted by her teacher and taken to Europe they can be returned with the help of a European Arrest Warrant. Yet the only case being put forward with any enthusiasm today is that we should leave the EU.

If we are to take a proper strategic decision about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU, then we first need to seriously consider the situation on the continent as it stands. The Euro as it is currently constituted is a disaster. There is mass unemployment causing extreme social unrest in southern Europe. This is the result of those countries being unable to devalue their currencies to make their exports more competitive, and instead being locked in to a currency which basically favours Germany. This situation is politically unsustainable. In the end, one of two things will happen. Either the Euro-zone will become fiscally and politically a single entity, where money is transferred on a large scale from the core (Germany/Holland) to the periphery (most other places). Alternatively the currency will break up, because core countries are unwilling to take up this burden. In this case the move towards “ever closer union” is reversed, and Europe reverts back towards a looser federation, scarred by the memory of the economic pain that has been unleashed on it by the integrationists.

The time to make a decision is then, when we actually know what we are deciding to do. Choosing to leave the EU now would simply limit Britain’s available options later on, to little discernible benefit. A more closely integrated Europe would almost certainly require a blunt out, while a loose federation would probably mean a return to a sort of nineteenth century style of diplomacy, and being a member of the EU, with a place at the decision making table, would probably be much better than being locked outside. This will be an absolutely critical choice, and it must be done in the right way. It is hard to imagine a statesman like Castlereagh advocating a course of action which could so seriously limit Britain’s strategic options, and do so for narrow party political advantage, as some people do today. The decision must be taken at a time when the British national interest can be properly determined and proper arguments marshalled by both sides. Foreign policy is not some kind of party political game. It matters.   

Thursday, 4 October 2012

In Defence Of Spin

“[A Prince] must strive to make everyone recognise in his actions greatness, spirit, dignity and strength” Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince.

A much lamented aspect of politics is the seeming obsession with ‘spin’, the desire of politicians to receive good publicity, both for themselves personally and for their actions. In recent years we have seen such indignities as spin doctors trying to launch vicious and untrue smear campaigns against their opponents, and in one case hounding an honest man to his death. Would politics not be better if less attention was paid to public relations, and politicians simply got on with the job of governing?

No, not really.

To understand why, you must appreciate that politics is about much more than the management of various government agencies. When we go and vote, we are not simply selecting the people who we think will give us value for our tax money. We are choosing our leaders. This means we must think about what we mean by leadership if we want to understand what we mean by politics.

Leadership is not something which can be done to people. It is about having a clear idea of what you want a group of people to do, then persuading them to share this vision and work with you to achieve it. To take a modern example, the last Labour government wanted to reform the school system by introducing a new type of school which would drive up educational standards. To do this they needed to convince new managers to open the new schools, teachers to work in them and parents to send their children to them. This act of persuasion required constant communication with all the various interested parties to keep them on board, and to explain why opponents of the scheme were wrong. Without this communication, the reform would have been impossible.

All political systems are dependent in some way on the process of constant communication between leaders and those they govern. Totalitarian regimes spend an inordinate amount of energy convincing their victims of the rightness of their leaders. That is the purpose of huge fascistic rallies and imposing military parades. The point here is obviously not that the use of spin is totalitarian, but that all leadership, and by extension all politics, is dependent on communication. The totalitarian examples show how the process can be used to corrupt and oppress. Perhaps I should leave you with an example of spin being used for something good.   

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Miliboy Comes Good (Maybe)

I, and I suspect most of the fourth estate, woke up this morning ready to give Ed Miliband’s conference speech a cruel and scathing review. Having watched it I can report to you that it was...pretty good. More surprisingly than that it was good in all the ways that I thought it wouldn’t be. It was warm, well delivered, and his jokes were actually funny. Ed spoke human, and more importantly he spoke it to the country rather than the party.

Gone was the sanctimonious agitprop which has characterised so many of his public appearances. In was chatting about the Olympics in the morning with your workmates (not exactly my favourite hobby, but I understand everyone else loved it). We learned that his desire is to be a ‘One Nation’ Prime Minister, and that he is quite serious about re-inventing the way the British economy works.

He pledged to introduce Glass-Steagall style legislation to separate retail and investment banking, and made the dubious claim that this would mean small businesses would get better access to credit. He also claimed that the practice of forcing companies to publish their accounts every three months encouraged short-termism in British industry, although he stopped short of saying he’d change it. It's hard to imagine any other contemporary leader saying these things. 

The speech did include some of the standard conference guff. Saying that the NHS is the embodiment of all that is good in Britain to the Labour conference is the equivalent of Led Zeppelin closing a gig with Stairway to Heaven. Effective, but it hardly challenges the audience. His pledge to repeal the latest NHS Act could prove a hostage to fortune if he has to go through with it. It will mean yet another huge reorganisation, and it does not address the cost problems that I have mentioned before. Demanding to know how many Coalition ministers will benefit from the top rate of tax is an open invitation for his opponents to examine the personal wealth of senior Labour figures. Remember, there aren’t many coal miners in the shadow cabinet.

The real trick that Ed Miliband pulled off with this speech was that he set out a soft left position, and made it sound acceptable to southern middle class voters (like me). For this to count for anything, the positions he has set out must stand up to serious scrutiny. I have already mentioned my doubts about his NHS pledge, and I would add that his new banking legislation would have allowed Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock to behave exactly as they did before the 2008 crash. Glass-Steagall is no panacea.  If the rest falls apart this easily, Mr Miliband will be left looking like an idealistic lightweight, not a potential Prime Minister. That said, today was the first time that you could actually imagine him walking in to Number Ten. Politics just got a little bit more interesting.