Tuesday, June 03, 2014 

For real?

If, like me, you've found yourself wondering at some point if everyone else has suddenly gone completely and utterly batshit crazy, only to discover that in fact you're the one foaming at the mouth while singing Reach for the Stars by S Club 7 to yourself in the style of Marlene Dietrich, it ought to be reassuring to know politics is currently going through one of those moments.

You see, they've reached that sad, lonely place where they realise it's not them, it's us. Thank heavens for progress. Only they haven't figured out why it is they can't quite capture that UKIP/Farage sparkle, and the advice they're getting isn't up to much either. Is it policies? Is it general anger at the political class? Is it a protest? Is it because we ain't like the common people? Is it some of us are a bit weird? Is it we can't eat bacon sandwiches without being photographed getting in a mess? Is it lack of authenticity, whatever that is? Is it some of us are just a bit, well crap?

The answers to which are, yes, yes, yes, no, no, no, no and yes.  Without wanting to pick on John Harris again, as he is one of the few commentators who does go out into the real world, this sudden focus on why it is UKIP are seemingly being listened to while all the rest are derided and insulted is to miss the point by about the same distance England will miss winning the World Cup.  No one seriously looks at Nige and says, "Blimey guv, I'd really like it if that Nick Farage was prime minister, he'd sort this country out and no mistake," not least because no one talks like that outside of Private Eye parodies, but also down to how it's the message not the person that's key.  Farage says the only way to control immigration is to get out of the EU; the rest of the parties umm and arr and sort of defend and sort of don't or worst of all, set down ridiculous, completely unrealistic targets they knew could never be kept and then act surprised when voters show their displeasure at the ballot box.

Talking straight isn't a new thing, believe it or not.  It's also something impossible for a politician to always do for a whole myriad of reasons, not least because there are some things voters just don't want to hear and can only come to accept over time.  That's a normal human trait, for all you subscribers to the authenticity trope.  Farage and UKIP knew they couldn't manage it if they strayed beyond immigration and Europe in general, which is precisely why they talked of absolutely nothing else for the past couple of months.  What's more, the media let them get away with it, enjoying the novelty of this otherwise pompous man, pint invariably in hand, getting more support than the rest of the dessicated suit wearing piles of flesh.  Sure, they went after the bedroom ragers, and a fat lot of good that did.

Outside of this comfort zone Farage's "emotional, instinctive politics" quickly becomes exceedingly boring, as those who forever bang on about the same subject in exactly the same style invariably do (thanks to you know who you are, to whom this will no doubt sound familiar).  Yet for some bizarre reason, and on this John Harris is dead right, the supposedly smart people who often act as if they are unbelievably thick think the way to get some of the UKIP fairy dust is to suddenly hitch up in a pub and pull a few pints for the cameras.  It's David Cameron, jacket off in a room of factory workers, asked the same planted questions over and over again.  It's Ed Miliband, pilloried for not remembering the name of the local Labour leader in Swindon by the same media which has tried its darnedest to paint him as a geek.

If anything, rather than it being snobbery there's more than a smidge of the inverse variety in some of the criticism.  We can all rally against the inanity and stark emptiness of slogans like "hard-working Britain better off" or the Tories' egregiously similar "for people who want to work hard and get on", but this suggestion people are turned off because politicians don't talk in the exact way they do is ridiculous.  Of far more concern is that they're still not being listened to, despite everything. In his Buzzfeed (proof if any more was needed the internet does make you stupid) interview Ed Miliband relates an anecdote about a man who was so desperate at not being able to make ends meet he had thought about killing himself; as Hopi says, without it necessarily reflecting badly on either Miliband or the interviewer, that's all we're told.  We don't know what happened to the man, whether he managed to increase his hours, whether Miliband told him to seek help, or how Ed responded at all.  Telling someone you've thought of ending it all takes courage, and yet it's treated almost as a throwaway line rather than a real human interest story.

This more than anything gets to the heart of why Miliband has failed to connect, and also why politicians at times seem alien.  Without doubt Miliband responded with the utmost compassion to the man's plight, and yet we didn't learn anything more about it.  We hear diatribes against scroungers regularly, the attempt to draw dividing lines between "workers and the shirkers", while we hear next to nothing about those who have suffered and those who still are.  When the only cases made for immigration are cold, economic ones, or based around those who came here in the decades past, we ignore those settling here now who are fleeing oppression and are unbelievably thankful we remain an open, welcoming society.  It's not therefore surprising when someone who says what he believes and tackles apparently "unsayable" subjects gets support, as so few others are prepared to set out in personal terms why government policy or the current economic situation is intolerable.  No one wants politicians to be exactly like them, all they want is for them to do more than go through the motions.  Even if that's unfair, and it probably is, that's the perception.  The good thing is this means the problem is far easier to fix than is being suggested by those panicking.  Considering the crap we have to work with though, it's anyone's guess whether it happens.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013 

Russell is a Brand.

Part of me really doesn't want to engage with the sudden emergence of Russell Brand as the voice of the disenfranchised youth.  Everything about his Newsnight interview, New Statesman guest editorship and now Guardian column screams that this is just the latest in a very long line of stunts from a man who hides his sharp wit and intellect under the pretence of being a Jack the Lad, a "cheeky chappie", as he himself acknowledges.  It's clearly a winning act, it's just that it's very much a poor man's Bill Hicks, and Hicks, great as he was, probably doesn't fully deserve the laurels that have been bestowed on him in death.  He was a comedian who said think for yourself and question authority; he did to such an extent it led him to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK.

Brand's philosophy doesn't so much as amount to that.  To give him credit, he doesn't pretend it does.  All he wants is for everyone to love each other a little more and to work together; if we do, we can design a system that makes the current one obsolete.  It's an echo of the sentiment I've used in the past, that another world is possible.  That other world is only possible however if you take the people with you, and that requires far more than just working together.  It's damn hard work, and it involves exactly the sort of participation Brand dismisses as not working because we haven't got what we wanted in the past.  To quote a remark that's now close to being a cliché, democracy is the worst system of government apart from all the others that have been tried.  To be sure, Brand isn't proposing a violent uprising, although it's a very rare revolution that manages to be bloodless, but he does seem to be overlooking exactly what democracy has achieved, snatched as it was from those he says have fully captured it.  It's the equivalent of in Life of Brian where Stan asks what have the Romans ever done for them, only to be reminded of the sanitation and so on, even if it was achieved by a conquering power.  Our forefathers built the democracy we have now themselves, and the franchise for the ordinary man was obtained only through protest.

As others have suggested, perhaps a little too vituperatively, there's not all that far to go from Brand's position to outright demagoguery.  Calling the main three parties all the same has become the default position for those who want more radical change, whether they be on the left or right, and frankly it's becoming extremely boring.  I sympathise with those who feel that way, but it simply isn't accurate, and anyone who seriously claims that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have governed in almost exactly the same way as the Tory-Lib Dems have is just dead wrong.  I don't believe that under Labour we would have had 400,000 people denied their benefits in a single year, for instance, or the top rate of tax lowered to 45p at the first possible opportunity.  We wouldn't have had vans with racist slogans being driven around, while foreign executives are welcomed with the red carpet.  We wouldn't have had the prime minister travelling with the actual fucking arms companies trying to sell weapons to despotic regimes in the Middle East, or the same level of support given to the rebels in Syria.  You can argue these don't truly amount to significant differences, but try making that case to those who've been denied the most basic means to subsist on the whim of a jobcentre adviser.

Brand's major point is politicians serve big business, rather than the people who vote for them.  It's certainly the case that all three parties remain committed to neoliberalism, with only minor differences over how economic growth should be shared, yet Brand's critique doesn't extend to the masters of the universe themselves, only the politicians.  Yes, he brings up the increasingly tired example of Philip Green giving his wife based in Monaco a dividend of £1.2bn, therefore avoiding a bill of hundreds of millions in tax, but rather than direct the blame at Green beyond saying he's an asshole he again blames politicians.  This is nonsensical: Green was only able to do so thanks to his customers.  Without them, he would be nothing.  Considering the army of fans Brand has, his suggestion of a boycott might just amount to something, but he should make the point across the board.  If companies you use avoid tax, don't patronise them.  That's a practical suggestion, and if politicians see the public reacting, they will shift.  Brand you can't help but suspect doesn't truly want to bite the hand the feeds.

You can however understand why his message has resonated.  He hasn't said anything even slightly original, again as he acknowledges, it's that previously no one with a similar cachet amongst those roughly my age has done so, or at least has and been given such wide coverage.  Indeed, his message is far less radical (and much more self-defeating) than that advocated by the Occupy and UK Uncut movements, it's that neither felt the need to have a leader, imbued with the apparent belief that such things aren't needed in the Twitter age, and consequently have declined into insignificance.  It's not yet clear though if Brand wants to try and truly surf the current wave of interest and take this beyond a few articles and interviews, and one suspects he won'tt.

Notably, Brand mentions Boris Johnson, having seen him being made-up for Question Time, yet the two have more in common than they would likely admit to.  It's not clear with either just where the act ends and the actual person begins.  Brand has gone through distinct stages: the junkie who turned up to work the day after 9/11 dressed as bin Laden; the star of a stream of terrible films, having made it to Hollywood; the husband of the global pop star.  Now he claims to want a revolution.  We really could do with someone from outside politics to speak up for the dispossessed, the apathetic and the disillusioned.  They need however to be sincere, genuine and preferably, not completely in love with themselves.  Brand fails on each of those measures.

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Thursday, January 31, 2013 

Ever fallen in love..

Interesting to read Iain Dale's post on how he's falling out of love with politics, along with a couple of equally thought-provoking responses.  My own take on why apathy seems to have become the default response to politics is similar to Paul's, in that it leads back not to Thatcher, but rather to the surrender to the markets of the late 70s, exemplified by Denis Healey's going to the IMF and James Callaghan's statement that Keynesianism was no longer an option.  With that surrender has come the failure of politicians to offer anything approaching a vision of a better society: all they promise now is either shallow aspiration, a belief in the fallacy of meritocracy, or more simply, that they'll do a better job of managing the country than the other lot.

Let's face it: the main political battle since the sub-prime crisis has been over who will cut what and when.  The choice on offer has been either cuts now, or slightly less deep cuts over a longer term period.  In fact, such has been the coalition's success that their programme for deficit reduction is now practically indistinguishable from that of Labour's, albeit Miliband 'n' Balls would do things slightly differently, whether through their jobs guarantee or cut in VAT etc.  The only real resistance to this inexorable narrative has been from the Occupy movement, who in this country at least seemed determined to ensure their own irrelevance from the outset.  No leaders, no real suggestion as to what the alternative should be, just that corporations aren't people, bankers aren't very nice and that everyone should pay their fair share of tax.  Inspiring it wasn't.

When politicians won't even provide the merest outline of how they want to make things better, or won't in terms that aren't technocratic, you can't be surprised that so many switch off.  Which brings me to another explanation that is far more prosaic: there's never been so much to distract yourself with as there is today.  When in 1976 there were only 3 television channels, extremely primitive video games and VHS systems still a couple of years away, politics was something to involve yourself in even if you weren't particularly vehement in your views.  Today if you so wish you can avoid hearing almost anything of the news let alone politics, and you can't really blame those who choose to do so.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008 

Contempt is a two-way street.

"Why do they hate us so much?" is one of those wails that occasionally wafts from Westminster and into the press, politicians and commentators alike wondering why our representatives are either spat on, denounced as all the same or just completely ignored. There is a good case for making that the vast majority of politicians are not in it for themselves, that they genuinely do believe in some tangible concepts, and that they serve us with a diligence which many of us ourselves could neither achieve nor would want to attempt to. Then there's days like today, when the case for the defence seems so utterly overwhelming.

As Mr Eugenides writes, it's almost as if Gordon Brown at the moment has a reverse midas touch, where everything he goes near suddenly turns to shit the moment he opens his mouth about it. Here's the former clunking fist, the man accused of being Stalin, and he's being repeatedly made to look as if he's like another fictional ruler, the emperor without any clothes, debasing himself in public in front of the baying and mocking crowds. Half of this is because of his scattergun approach: one day declaring that plastic bags will be banished because the Daily Mail's just started a campaign up about them, the next deciding that malaria is the world's most pressing issue. Tony Blair wasn't immune to this either, as anyone who can recall his plea for Coronation Street's Deirdre's miscarriage of justice to be rectified can testify. The power behind the throne then though was Alastair Campbell, who compared to Brown's current advisers and chief spin doctor Stephen Carter was a genius and rottweiler rolled into one. Where Blair's spin was assured, either because it was done so well, or because the media was still involved in its temporary love affair with New Labour, Brown's is fast becoming his biggest weakness and in danger of turning him into a laughing stock.

Yesterday's announcement that Brown wouldn't after all be attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics was seemingly designed, in light of the protests in London and his own failure to so much as touch the flame when it arrived in Downing Street while the Chinese shell-suit mafia obscured him from vision, to be a good news story. Prime minister does decent thing despite potential pitfall over Britain hosting the next games! Easily offended Chinese get political equivalent of blowing a raspberry! Strong-man Brown says no to human rights abusers! Only, the slightest deeper look at the story exposed it for the fraud that it was. Brown had never explicitly stated that he personally was going to attend the opening ceremony; rather, span Downing Street, he was only always going to attend the closing ceremony, so that the spirit of the Olympics could be passed on. In any case, Tessa Jowell, the truly hapless Olympics minister is still going to attend the opening ceremony, so there's not going to be any boycott of any sort whatsoever. Within minutes of Brown/his lackeys making the announcement on Channel 4 News the entire thing had fell apart. The Conservatives, already fusillading Brown with accusations of dithering have yet another weapon to use against him, while the public themselves, not to mention those whom the gesture was meant to please, just feel cheated and almost lied to.

A very different sort of contempt but still one which reverberates around the country was thrillingly and damningly exposed by
Lord Justice Moses and Lord Justice Sullivan in the Royal Courts of Justice. Although ostensibly the case brought by Corner House and CAAT was against the Serious Fraud Office's Robert Wardle after he caved into pressure from Downing Street and the Attorney General to drop the investigation into BAE's slush fund to the Saudis, this was a judgement that exposed the sham and sheer mendacity of Blair's government in its dying days. Prince Bandar, the man since revealed as receiving up to £1bn through the Al-Yamamah deal, waltzes into Downing Street, feeling the heat on the back of his neck because the SFO is close to accessing Swiss bank accounts that would confirm the allegations against BAE, and says that unless the investigation is abandoned, not only will the Saudis take their next big order of armaments elsewhere, but they'll also cut off diplomatic and intelligence relations. Instead of telling Bandar to get lost and take his blatant blackmail with him, Blair writes directly to Lord Goldsmith, who gives in and orders Wardle to drop the investigation.

It's worth quoting directly from the judgement, so sneering as it is of the government's action:
# The defendant in name, although in reality the Government, contends that the Director was entitled to surrender to the threat. The law is powerless to resist the specific and, as it turns out, successful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the United Kingdom, by causing the investigation to be halted. The court must, so it is argued, accept that whilst the threats and their consequences are "a matter of regret", they are a "part of life". (§ 6)

# So bleak a picture of the impotence of the law invites at least dismay, if not outrage. The danger of so heated a reaction is that it generates steam; this obscures the search for legal principle. The challenge, triggered by this application, is to identify a legal principle which may be deployed in defence of so blatant a threat. However abject the surrender to that threat, if there is no identifiable legal principle by which the threat may be resisted, then the court must itself acquiesce in the capitulation. (§ 7)

Had such a threat been made by one who was subject to the criminal law of this country, he would risk being charged with an attempt to pervert the course of justice. (§ 59

The rule of law is nothing if it fails to constrain overweening power.(§ 65)

The government's response to this tearing apart of its decision, this exposition of how they broke the rule of law itself so that one of the most vicious dictatorships on the planet could continue to be sold arms it doesn't need and so that its demagogic royal family can continue to receive vast payments courtesy of the UK taxpayer to be used on prostitutes, private jets and all the other trappings of unearned wealth while their own citizens are not even afforded the most basic of human rights? None. It's refused to comment. As has BAE, and the Serious Fraud Office itself, not to mention Prince Bandar. Perhaps it should be said that all those mainly involved have either gone or are about to go: Blair took Lord Goldsmith along with him, and Wardle himself is shortly to be replaced at the SFO. Even so, it doesn't slightly begin to justify the silence not just from the government, but from the Labour party as a entirety.

Dave Osler has already said this, but it's a point well worth repeating. This week much attention has been paid to events in Dewsbury, and discussion of whether the alleged abduction of Shannon Matthews was a scam from the very beginning. Her mother has been charged with perverting the course of justice, for not informing the police of all she knew and when she knew it. The government back in December 2006 did almost exactly the same thing, except on a scale completely alien to anyone in that part of Yorkshire. The difference is that Matthews is just a member of the underclass; Goldsmith and Blair were the land's highest legal adviser and the prime minister himself, yet they conspired to pervert the course of justice and in doing so broke the rule of law irrevocably. Some of those in Dewsbury have been warned not to take the law into their own hands as a response; who could possibly blame anyone for having complete contempt for the politicians responsible in this much larger and much graver case?

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