Thursday, November 03, 2005

Some Thursday Politics

We weirdos who have followed politics closely all our lives will have enjoyed yesterday's events in so far as they confirmed one of the iron laws of politics. When the Prime Minister declares his full support for a Minister, the Minister should start clearing his desk.
Yesterday's Guardian front page said: 'PM backs Blunkett despite new claims.'
By lunchtime Blunkett had gone.

Blunkett claimed that he didn't realise that consulting the Committee on Standards was mandatory under the Ministerial Code. Moreover, he made this mistake not once but three times.
When evaluating the explanations or excuses that politicians give for their actions, it's always a good idea to transfer their statements to a different context.
If you tell the police that you thought the motorway speed limit was advisory not compulsory it's unlikely they'll say 'Fair enough, Sir. Sorrry to have delayed your journey.' And offering that explanation three times within a few months might evoke the response 'Are you taking the piss, Sir?'
Similarly, it won't get you very far if you tell the Inland Revenue that you didn't realise it was compulsory to declare part-time earnings.
Blunkett and Blair both take the line that he made a mistake but didn't actually do anything wrong. It's a definition of wrong-doing that doesn't usually apply to ordinary citizens.


I don't wish to start a debate on the merits of the proposed smoking ban in pubs and restaurants. But what the BBC's Nick Robinson yesterday called 'processology' in relation to this policy has been largely ignored.

The current proposals, whatever their weaknesses, correspond to the policy that Labour put in its election manifesto. The Government then tried to go much further than the manifesto policy. A row then broke out betwen Ministers. Jack Straw, who was chairing the Cabinet Committee, said they should revert to the manifesto policy, a rather quaint and naive idea these days. The argument, it should be noted, was not about the ethics of tearing up a manifesto promise.

It would be foolish to argue that a Government should be bound hand and foot by what was in the manifesto. For one thing, they have to respond to unforeseen events. But if I had read the Labour manifesto in detail (which I didn't) and then voted Labour (which I didn't), one influence on my decision might have been that I felt their policy on smoking took a middle way that I found acceptable and that would allow me to continue to smoke in restricted circumstances in some pubs. I would not be pleased to find that, once elected, they pursued a completely different policy that banned smoking completely.

The smoking legislation is just one example of something that I think is a major factor in the increasing disillusion with the political system.
Policies appear in manifestos and then Governments do the exact opposite.
Policies are announced that never appeared in manifestos and were never mentioned in the election campaign.
Policies proposed by the party membership, and sometimes voted on at party conferences, are mostly ignored.
Many policies emanate from unelected policy units in Downing Street, with total disregard for the views of MPs, the party membership or the wider electorate.

None of these things are new. They were beginning way back in the days of Harold Wilson who appointed the first Downing Street Policy Advisor (= Policy Maker), when the adolescent Willie was writing weekly essays on the decline of Cabinet Government.
But Blair has taken these trends to a new level. A fundamentally weak Prime Minister in many respects, he seeks to convey an image of macho authority by constant confrontations with his own party, his own MPs and the views of the wider electorate. In doing so, he may have done more damage to our political system than any of his predecessors.
He once boasted of the scars on his back like some fight-picking yob in an inner city. But the real scars are on our democracy. They're apparent in the plummetting membership of his own party and the decline in turn-out at elections.

Finally, a kind of political 'Wordwatch':
At Prime Minister's Questions yesterday Blair boasted that his Government had lifted millions of children out of poverty and millions of pensioners out of "acute hardship".
What is the difference between 'poverty' and 'acute hardship'?
I had never heard the latter term before.
Is there an official definition or measure of 'acute hardship'?
And if these are distinct and measurable concepts, it raises the intriguing possibility that the Government could boast of lifting people out of 'poverty' and into 'acute hardship'.

Related Point 1:
Marcel Berlins in yesterday's Guardian said "The Blairs are not rich." This is perfectly true if you want to take the concept of 'relative wealth' to Alice in Wonderland levels. Compared to Bill Gates, the Blair family must agonise over where their next meal is coming from.
But for God's sake. Eight years on a Prime Ministerial salary. Cherie Blair one of the highest paid barristers in Britain. Whacking great pension and lucrative lecture tours and book deals in the pipeline. Just bought a £2M house.
Not rich?
That's pretty rich.

Related Point 2: this is also today's Fascinating Fact:
Using the Government's concept of 'relative poverty' (the definition they use, as opposed to 'absolute poverty') it is possible to reduce the income of a poor family whilst simultaneously lifting them out of 'poverty'.
This would happen if the incomes of the rich were reduced by a higher percentage than the incomes of the poor.
Remember that next time you hear Blair and Brown boasting of their achievements.
I'm indebted to Jamie Whyte's excellent book 'Bad Thoughts' for pointing this out. This should be a set book in every school in the country and included in the reading list for the new British Citizenship Test.
A citizenry that could think clearly and logically: now that would really scare the shit out of the politicians.


At 9:12 PM, Blogger Urban Chick said...

oh, i thought he meant he was lifting them out of 'a cute hard ship' - y'know, like the now defunct qeII which resides in leith docks in edinburgh and looks awf'lly 'cute' (to american tourists)

really must pay more attention to the parliament channel in future

At 11:57 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

A cute hard ship might be expected to have cute hard sailors on it.

I'm not familiar with the defunct ship in Leith although I think I've seen blogs that emanate from those parts. I trust those are still seaworthy if not characterised by cuteness.

I don't have the Parliament Channel myself, but can still bore people comatose with this stuff.


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