Monday, September 24, 2007

The Blind leading the Blind

The media frenzy on the (fairly remote) possibility of a snap election in the UK has continued, despite some pretty clear non-denial denials. After a while this begins to make the media look somewhat over-excitable and also pretty dumb.

It is hard to respect journalists who keep coming out with unsubstantiated rumour and treating it as fact. I saw a good deal of it last week at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton.

The conference was cheerful and good natured, with well mannered and informed debates. There supposed splits between Economic and Social Liberals were not evident to me- indeed I have rarely seen the party so united.

Nevertheless, the only story that the media wanted to talk about was Ming Campbell's age- "Isn't he past it, not up to the job" were a couple of the most polite comments I heard from journalists. Frankly this outrageous ageism simply reflects ignorance of a terrifying degree.

Firstly Ming gave a damn good speech- thoughtful and passionate in equal measure. There is no desire for a new leader at this point- and the Liberal Democrats do not need a new leader. Ming Campbell has what the other party leaders, David Cameron in particular, lack: a broad life away from politics. He has been an over achiever in most things he has ever done: As an athlete, he was an Olympian, and the captain of the British athletics team. As a Lawyer he is a QC, and were he not in politics he could have risen to the highest legal positions in the land. He has received many academic honours, including three honorary degrees, and the Chancellorship of St Andrews University. The other honours: a knighthood and a CBE reflect his years of service to his country.

By contrast the Conservatives chose an untested leader, whose life outside politics has essentially consisted of the pleasures of the wealthy undergraduate, leading to membership of exclusive London clubs together with an obvious enjoyment of country sports. His lack of years is now being called immaturity by the same commentators who lauded him in the spring. His comments on the economy are branded as self serving, and on tax, it is hard to avoid the idea that the commentators may be right. So, Ming has actually overtaken Cameron in the popularity stakes whatever the media might have people believe.

Meanwhile, as the windows of the global financial system continue to be rattled by the emerging dollar crisis in the USA, the case for informed and experienced leadership grows yet stronger. And Ming has achieved much. Indeed, he has pulled together a hugely impressive front bench. Nick Clegg, Edward Davey, Vince Cable and David Laws all have Oxbridge 1st class degrees- and Vince Cable has a PhD in economics (unlike "Dr." John Reid who has a PhD on the Communist writer, Gramsci, Vince does not use his title), David Laws indeed has a double first in economics from Kings College, Cambridge. It is well known that Vince has been chief economist at Shell, but has also been a senior diplomat. David Laws was head of currency trading at BZW, making his first million before he was 30. Chris Huhne (another Oxford first) was the founder of Fitch, now one of the leading credit rating agencies worldwide. It seems almost cruel to make comparisons with the Labour front bench, and still less the pale ciphers amongst the Conservatives.

Ming's experience and achievements are a giant asset- and the simple minded denigration of his age by 20-something graduates in media studies is irritating not just Liberal Democrats. A red blooded Conservative said to me that he felt that at a time when average lifespans are rising well into the eighties, that it is absurd to consider that 50 is a sensible retirement age. As a man in his seventies he was growing increasingly angry that "young know-nothings" were attacking Ming for being in his sixties. Ageism is becoming illegal not just for fairness but for economic necessity- but some cynical journalists simply look for the lazy story.

So: this week it is the unlikely general election that will drown out whatever else happens in Bournemouth, last week it was the non-story of Ming Campbell's age, doubtless next week it will be some other spurious story from the Conservatives.

Brighton was an important conference for the Liberal Democrats. The wounds of Blackpool in 2005 were healed, as Liberal values were being used to formulate policy across the spectrum. The Liberal policy on immigration reflects precisely the same intellectual roots as the Orange Book Economic policies. Even The Economist, not often a fan, felt compelled to recognise that the Liberal Democrats had set out a Liberal and well thought out set of ideas, that indeed the party is a trailblazer for a new kind of politics of the kind that this blog has talked about in the past.

And there is the rub: even one of the most informed and influential magazines in the world, is just playing catch-up with the debate that is happening outside the traditional media. More people are turning to blogs for the cutting edge of debate. "Media studies" may teach something about communication, but it is no substitute for informed intellectual debate. As the inky scribes seek to simplify, the world grows more complicated- and they themselves are moving farther and farther away from the centre of the argument. The power of the press and broadcast media declines as it continues to dumb down. Those that follow the mass media agenda will end up in a simplistic world that is a long way from the crux of politics: a message that Conservative and Labour strategists now must take to heart. The legacy of Blair has made both the other parties into media creatures- and the electorate are learning to spot the phonies.

The Liberal Democrats are already learning the power of their principles and their honesty, and as the months pass, with more local success under our belt, and the prospect of improving polls, we can face the future with more optimism than for some time.

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