Thursday, January 06, 2011

Britain is losing its social glue

One of the prime reasons that Iain Dale gave up blogging was, he stated,

"I hate the backbiting that goes along with it. I hate the character assassination that is permanently present"

I am afraid that the symptoms that Iain rails against are part of a larger and more serious disease that is poisoning the whole of British politics. The fact is that it is increasingly impossible to conduct any political discussion without violent accusations of bad faith, treachery or greed.

The "politics of envy" has morphed into some kind of twisted "envy of politics". It is shown in a violent hostility towards anyone who expresses an opinion. The latest example is a hate campaign against Billy Bragg, the singer and left wing political activist. I read Billy Bragg's book, The Progressive Patriot and although I did not agree with all of it, it struck me as a sincere attempt to express a personal view of the English radical tradition. It is a thoughtful and rather charming book. Billy Bragg has something important to say, and in his music and in his writing, he expresses a point of view that I can respect, even if I don't agree with it.

Yet Billy Bragg is an exceptional figure- too often we hear extreme arguments put forward shrilly and with little or no intellectual justification. The newspapers are now so full of mistakes of fact that it is hard to credit that they are still regarded as reliable judges of anything. The media has helped to create a culture of angry and bitter cynicism that is corroding the most fundamental parts of British freedom.

Of course the media are not entirely responsible for this: the deeply amoral spin doctors, lead by the odious Peter Mandelson reduced the cult of the half truth and the whole lie into a new low standard for British politics. The anger of the British people over the Iraq war generated a sense of burning anger at a political class that was deliberately ignoring the will of the people. Meanwhile the electoral system reduces political choice to simply endorsing the least bad option.

Now, even politicians of courage and good will- in fact especially politicians of courage and good will- are being personally and physically attacked. The personal abuse that Nick Clegg has received is a case in point. The casual and lazy dismissal by the media of Clegg's agreement to enter the coalition as the selling of principles for power is a travesty of the truth. In fact Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have followed through almost precisely on what they said they would do when they asked the British people to support them in 2010. The Liberal Democrats are paying a bitter political price for failing to give in to the culture of angry stupidity that is the common currency of the current British political debate. The irony is that the Liberal Democrats are paying this political price for failing to continue their opposition to a policy of higher tuition fees- while Labour and the Conservatives have paid no such price even though they have supported the policy all along. The messy compromises of coalition have been very damaging to the Liberal Democrats, even though we have always supported the need for such coalitions.

Meanwhile, by another brutal irony, the Conservatives, who have vehemently opposed a more pluralist political system- including coalitions and electoral reform- are finding that the coalition is delivering a far better government than the Conservatives alone could have given the British people, which is why so many of them want to continue the arrangement for more than one Parliament. Meanwhile, Labour- inevitably angry that they lost power- have been opportunistic and cynical. The ludicrous idea that the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition would have joined a riot was simply dangerous nonsense- yet as of now, Ed Miliband has not paid much of a political price for such an appalling howler.

So in the current corrosive and poisonous political atmosphere, the cynics are getting away with huge mistakes, while the honest are being pilloried for simply doing what they said they were going to do.

The British people can not afford to remain so undiscriminating. Viewing politics through the viscera instead of the brain is eroding social trust in the political system. The hatred and vituperation that is now falling on political heads across the political spectrum must be stopped. The failure to respect political argument and to engage in debate only through a megaphone of invective is undermining our democracy.

The Economist this week also makes a similar point.

We must start to change the tone of the debate- and that is the responsibility of the Opposition at least as much as the Government; it is the responsibility of the media at least as much as the politicians; it is the responsibility of the citizens at least as much as the political class.

Without more respect for other people's arguments, even when you disagree with them, then eventually the political environment will indeed be filled with villains and crooks- and the British will have got the government that they deserve.

I am not yet prepared to concede that this point has been reached. I disagree with Conservatives, Labourites, Greens and Nationalists, but I am prepared to believe that their motivations are sincere, even if some or even many of their conclusions are erroneous. If we can not re-establish debate based of mutual respect then the breakdown of British democracy and freedom is all but assured.

We must resist the ignorant, the angry and the cynical- there is too much at stake now for us to forget the saying attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Those who are putting dog shit in the Cleggs' letter box, or writing hate mail to Billy Bragg, or who post lies and hatred on the web are the enemies of democracy- and must be resisted firmly- or all indeed is lost.

8 comments:

Lord Blagger said...

The problem is that politicians carry on lying through their back teeth.

Witness expenses

Witness 6,800 bn of government debts (bank bailout 27 bn for comparison)

Until they become honest, they deserve vilification and more.

Tim Fenton said...

Your use of Iain Dale's comment is an unfortunate one: he was not averse to the back-biting and character assassination he described.

Neither was he averse to pejorative behaviour: look at my blog and you will see words such as "dishonesty" used to describe those who tell whoppers. Then look at Dale's blog and see the number of times he uses the word "liar".

Much of what you then discuss is worthwhile, but to suggest that Iain Dale is some kind of saint-cum-victim will not wash.

Cicero said...

Tim- I have no quarrel with your comment, although Dale's political games are far less offensive than many- I do not propose that politicians should be handled with kid gloves either.

But Lord Blagger- that comment needs very careful examination. It is not "politicians" we should tar- we need to to identify the individual actions and punish them individually. I do not believe that ALL politicians are crooks and I do not believe that ALL of them are liars. Some may be- but not all, and we owe it to ourselves to recognise that some politicians are honest and that these should not suffer the same vituperation and vilification that the others may indeed deserve.

The Druid said...

Signing a pledge and then going back on it is not doing exactly what you said you were going to do. Going back on something you said in a campaign is to be expected but the signing of the pledge was a gimmick that implied this particular issue was a red line. To then completely disregard it, with some spurious line about "not knowing the full extent of the mess we'd been left in" is just political pantomime of the most cynical order, making a mockery of that other gimmick we have heard so much about: "new politics". There is nothing new about any of this, which is what I personally find most disappointing.

Lord Blagger said...

Come on. We know the majority 52% of MPs committed fraud. They signed to say their expenses were wholly necessary for their job, but still paid back money (with no interest contrary to the MP's code of conduct).

Give some margin for error plenty more have got away with it.

Then we have to look at their behaviour. They are quite content to blame all bankers for the sins of a few.

Time to do the same to the lying scum that are MPs and Lords.

So lets get back to the point, their lying.

Government liabilities of 6,800 billion. Bank bail out losses of 27 billion. Just over 1 months over spend. (Last month is was 19.9 billion).

The real problem today in the UK is politicians. The UK can't afford to pay 300,000 plus interest (15,000 a year) per household for their mistakes. It's a bust.

If we look at a median wage earner who retired last year. (25K a year). If their NI had been put into the FTSE, they would have a joint life, RPI linked annuity of 20K a year.

Instead they don't get a full joint life, CPI not RPI linked annuity of 5K a year.

They have been ripped off for 75% of their retirement income to fund the scum in parliament, by the same scum.

That's the 'risky' ftse.

So one or two might not tell lies, but they are the idiots who don't know what they are doing, or sit like Gordon Brown doing nothing for their money, bar the odd appearance to publicise his book.

The solution is simple.

1. You can't be party to any contract that you haven't agreed too. I haven't agreed to any government debts, so me and others are off the hook.

2. The electorate get the final say. If you want to increase taxes, get the electorate to agree.

If you want to borrow and spend, get the electorate to agree.

Likewise for any other idea that MPs dream up.

It's call democracy. MPs dictating is not.

Cicero said...

Lord Blagger- I certainly agree that the solution to our emerging constitutional crisis is far greater openness and accountability.

However I think that the expenses issue is far more nuanced than you seem to say here. MPs were actually told by the Commons authorities that over claiming expenses was part of the deal- in order to compensate for salaries that were much lower than the rest of the public sector. In the circumstances it is astonishing that only just over half had anything to return. Of those that did, for many the amounts are trivial, and the number of MPs- however hard you measure it- who can be accused of fraud is a very small percentage- not much more than a handful.

In my opinion the Telegraph and the rest of the media have a dangerous and cynical agenda. I do not defend the Commons authorities who encouraged what would rightly be seen as abuse anywhere else, and I am am firmly in favour of punishing the truly fraudulent- but to put MPs who paid back a few hundred quid (for -let us not forget- several years of claims) and those who fraudulently claimed tens of thousands is simply not fair.

As for policy mistakes- here I am fully in agreement with you. However we have to make a constitutional decision to reduce the power of central government and to stop trying to undertake so much- and that is the crux of the current ideological debate.

Cicero said...

The Druid

I my view the Tuition fees pledge was a mistake- and the Lib Dems have reaped a bitter harvest. However despite the headline fees rise, the way of funding this now looks far more like the graduate tax that we have also discussed. Arguably, the creation of an income threshold before the loans become repayable is far fairer than the previous system, albeit that the sums of money involved are larger.

So while I understand your jaundiced view, I would also say that the policy is now far better and fairer with Lib Dem input that it would have been if the Conservatives were governing alone.

Angelina Doherty said...

I think the whole idea of a United Kingdom is coming to an end. The elections this year should show that. Nationalism is growing in N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I really don't know what's going to happen but there's quite a few who feel it's days are over...