Gordon Brown moves on the constitution
I was thinking to write this blog every working day until Britain (or England) has a democratic written constitution. It would be a form of penance and protest.
Protest at the backwardness and low level of the election and even its most thoughtful commentators like Polly Toynbee and Peter Oborne who try to set a larger agenda. Penance because reformers like myself could have done more.
Nothing seems to have been learnt from the last twenty years, since Thatcherism disposed of the crumbling, post-war consensus and it was clear that the old regime of the United Kingdom had entered terminal decline.
I have been this optimistic before! But the Daily Telegraph leads with a story by two of its sharpest reporters, Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomas. Chancellor Gordon Brown, the smiling dark man who has saved Tony Blair and Labour’s campaign, and is now likely to become the next Prime Minister after Blair gains only a broken mandate on 5 May, says that henceforth only Parliament should have the power to declare war “except in the most exceptional circumstances”.
Foreigners might scratch their heads in puzzlement. Isn’t Britain a parliamentary democracy where war is anyway decided upon by the House of Commons? Well, no. The vote that preceded the Iraq war was without precedent. The power to commit British troops to battle is a ‘royal prerogative’ exercised by the Prime Minister.
Thomas and Sylvester report that Brown believes “changes to the constitution are needed to restore trust in politics”, and that he would consider abolishing the royal prerogative, a change which would “represent a dramatic shift in the balance of power between Parliament and the prime minister”.
It is an example of the despised politicians being well ahead of the commentators, in calling for a change in the system. And I don’t believe you can abolish the royal prerogative without a full-scale constitutional transformation.
There is a tactical aspect to Brown’s move as well as a strategic one. Last week the attorney general’s advice on whether the Iraq war was legal was leaked, first in parts to the Mail on Sunday, then more widely. Finally it had to be released in full by Downing Street. It showed, of course, that the war was probably not legal and that Blair winged it by not circulating the opinion. He’d long taken the decision to go with Bush. His aim was to cajole, bully, deceive and soft-talk his colleagues into supporting him when the self-delusion that he could do the same to the UN was finally punctured (see my earlier blog).
Immediately, the TV studios filled with another round of predictable debate about whether Blair ‘lied’ or not. It was as if the entire diagnosis of the manipulation of ‘truth’, of the Campbell Code, and the nature of political bullshit had never taken place.
Oh well, at least it was poetic justice for Blair, who was forced publicly to sweat with discomfort. It also meant that the question was put to Brown whose body-language had distanced himself on Iraq. Disciplined, he followed his chosen strategy of demonstrating the unity of the Labour leadership and said he ‘yes’ to the question as to whether he would have gone to war in the same way as the Prime Minister. Tactically, he had to distance himself from the consequences of this disgraceful judgement and the Telegraph interview immediately did so.
But that this angle, this shifting of the framework over Iraq to trust in the system and the need for Downing Street to ‘let go’ if it is to rebuild trust, was a considered not a sudden judgement.
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Dominic Hilton on FiveLive tonight
openDemocracy's great Dominic Hilton will be on BBC's FiveLive tonight talking about "how to get British yoof' engaged in politics, or something". You may remember his article on fashionable anti-americanism, and more recently "Is Britain a Banana Republic?".
On the radio, it's harder to get away with phrases like, "Attractively-packaged, nice tasting, creamy, chocolaty, cookie-dough anti-Americanism that clogs the arteries and numbs the brain". But if anyone can do it, Dominic can. Watch him live or later on the Net.
If you could teach the world one thing
Apparently, 2005 is Einstein Year and on that occasion Sandy Starr & co at Spiked! have surveyed 250 scientists and educators (including 11 Nobel winners) about what they believe is the most important thing to teach/learn about science.
The theory of evolution is way up there, as are methods of science and relations between humans and nature. Some point blank refused to answer like, Gerardus 't Hooft from Utrecht who, contends "spiked's question sounds exactly like the question often asked by students - 'what parts of the text in this book should I learn, to pass my test, and which parts may I skip?' I refuse to answer that."
The whole survey is attractively summarised by Sandy Starr, and it's quite fun to browse through what these opionion-movers and shakers feel is worthy braintertainment today.
Two Sinking Ships
One should never underestimate the capacity of British institutions to patch themselves up and keep going. But the British general election is like a race between two sinking ships. The Conservative Party and the Prime Minister are both holed below the water line.
When he became leader it was said that Blair had ‘borrowed the Labour Party’ to achieve his personal ambitions. But it was also true that the Labour Party borrowed Blair to make it electable. When, after Iraq, it became clear that if you live by Blair you will die by Blair, Labour should have dropped him. When they did not it was the Tories great chance.
They missed it. No one sees the Conservatives as a government in waiting, not even themselves.
It was noticeable that Bush and the Republicans in America last year were evangelical in their call to arms – however mean spirited the prejudices behind being ‘pro-life’. They were pro-migration, spoke Spanish, had prominent blacks in the so-called White House and went out and invaded other countries. To put it another way, the Republicans are in favour of the modern world, even if it is their very own incredible version of it.
By contrast Britain’s right-wing party is against migration (even if it does not quite say so). It is against Europe (though it denies this the body language is clear). It is against the Scots (and has a special English clause in its Manifesto which I will blog on soon). It is even against the bullying of President Bush (but dare not say so). In effect, the Conservative Party is against the forces reshaping the world of which we are part.
And it has no credible, alternative worldview of its own. It has built its campaign around relentless attacks on Blair, Labour’s weakest link. But instead of being inspiring in the way that the promise of sweeping out something old and rotten can inspire, the attacks seem hollow and opportunist rather than well founded, as the Tory broom itself has not changed and renewed itself. Matthew d’Ancona, deputy editor of the right-wing Sunday Telegraph, set out the case in a magisterial column. (Registration required including automated marital status)
I can’t resist quoting him. He observes that immigration and asylum are a proxy for the irresistible forces of globalisation, “People sense the forces and are made anxious by them. How could it be otherwise? But that does not mean politicians have a duty simply to parrot these anxieties, to take their script from the doorstep like stenographers… the Tories face a choice between presenting themselves as prospective governors in the modern world, or as refugees from it.”
God help England if by chance the refugees from the modern world should win.
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I promised to respond to Sophie Scruton’s comment on an earlier blog (7 April) about the Tory party and this seems the right moment. After the party rejected Laura Sandys as its candidate in Arundel and South Downs I said then that it had failed to renew itself: “How is it possible for the Conservatives to systematically refuse to choose Laura as a candidate? It is not just because local activists don't like intelligent, single women. It is also that the leadership is not modern and does not want the future to be different from the past it once knew.”
Sophie responded that at least the rejection of such potential candidates (and she too wishes to be one) is a truly democratic process open to all local constituency party members, unlike the top-down fixes of the Labour machine.
The raises two questions: What does it mean for political parties to be democratic? And what is happening to the Tories?
I think that parties need to be in open argument with voters, as d’Ancona describes. This might mean opening the choice of candidates to primaries in which voters choose who should be the candidate. Certainly a party leadership must seek to persuade its members to lift up their heads and engage with the larger world. An eloquent exploration of what this should mean for politics is given by George Papandreou in his recent openDemocracy interview.
If a party becomes captured by activists it can become sterile, closed and sectarian. This is the opposite of democratic for the public at large. In this case many who are not Tories want a positive contest. By failing to renew itself, the Conservatives are letting Labour off the hook. I stand by my blog.
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Marxism hits the small screen
One journalist who is genuinely grappling with the system from within is Peter Oborne, political editor of the right-wing Spectator.
His new book The Rise of Political Lying, published in time for the election campaign, is rather narrow and breathless in its approach, “The presence of a group of shameless, habitual liars at the centre of British power is an amazing state of affairs, without precedent in modern British history”, he writes (p. 244). But he was not talking about the British press. So it was with some trepidation that I watched his special one-hour Dispatches on Channel 4 this evening with its desperate title, Election Unspun: Why Politicians can’t tell the truth.
It was not the film of the book. TV executives hate concepts which are the gateway to thought. But Oborne’s programme deserved to be called ‘Democracy in Danger’.
The election looks, sounds and smells like democracy in action, Oborne argued, but it isn’t. There are no profound arguments and no ideas at stake. The parties are doing everything to narrow the differences. Their policies have been generated from focus group research into computer generated samples of opinion in the tiny numbers of swing voters in the marginals that will decide the outcome, thanks to the United Kingdom’s exceptionally unfair election system.
Professional machines sever political parties from their membership and belief systems. Policies are product lines, voters are sized up by the latest marketing methods, resulting in policies of “stupefying banality” in which even the most radical, the Liberal Democrats have declared that they are for “tough liberalism”!
The cost of the health service will have to rise as the population ages but no party will say so. All are against global warming but none will argue for abolishing the tax breaks that are making cheap air travel the greatest source of the UK’s global warming gasses. And so on.
What I liked about Oborne’s presentation was that all the parties were subjected to his scorn and contempt. This meant the onus was really on the Tories, who, as the main opposition party, should have been the ones exposing and opposing - rather than miming and imitating the government by importing the latest in American computerology.
Oborne brought to life in vivid vox pop the thesis developed by Colin Leys in his study Market Driven Politics, published by the good old Marxist imprint Verso Books back in 2001. Leys quotes Peter Mandelson, who was Labour’s campaign director in the 1997 election that brought it to power. He was speaking to the Institute of Directors a year later:
“It had been the job of New Labour’s architects to translate their understanding of the customer into offerings he or she was willing to pay for. And then, and only then, to convey to potential customers the attributes of that offering through all the different components that make up a successful brand – product positioning, packaging, advertising and communications” (p.68)
Leys comments dryly, “Absent from this model is the idea that a party represents ideals, or even interests, on the basis of which voters may be appealed to and against which policies will be judged.”
Now Oborne has put the consequences on film.
But in doing so, he too seemed to become a victim of the process he attacks. The heart of his criticism is that the politicians won’t even be honest about the obvious consequences of their own proclaimed values. ‘Where are the great ideas!’ Oborne cries. Where are his ideas? Why does not Peter Oborne follow the clear the logic of his own denunciation?
Politics in Britain is indeed the prisoner of swing voters (who, a fascinating section of his report discloses, are likely to be those voters who are heavily in debt and have recently moved house). Their philistine preoccupations and fears dictate the pledges of the country's leaders.
But this would not be the case if the electoral system was proportional, as in all modern democracies. Oborne should state this. He complained at the way British politics has become the prisoner of grey interests because the young don’t vote. Very well, make voting compulsory.
But could he speak the conclusions of his own concerns and keep his job at The Spectator?
When Oborne finally cornered the Prime Minister on the effects of aircraft pollution and the future of the planet, Blair shamelessly responded that the circle can be squared and ecological sustainability is not in contradiction with economic growth. Pressed, Blair added that it was not politically realitistic to make flying more expensive. Oborne despaired at this failure of honest leadership. So Tony knows that his vote depends on those who only find living in Britain bearable because they can fly out cheaply? At least he did not lie! Instead, he will not put his job at risk. Is Peter made of firmer metal?
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Media still hypnotised
Britain’s Prime Minister is still at it. Today he vigorously responded to all the attacks about lies and truth, rights and wrongs, legality and illegality. A decision had to be made and “I decided to remove Saddam”. Hypnotised, the media seems unable to utter the non-word of the campaign: America. Excuse me Prime Minister but the whole thing is a charade, you didn’t decide to remove Saddam you decided to back Bush whatever he decided.
Chinese blogs on anti-Japan protests
Official Chinese media were not allowed to report on recent anti-Japan protests in Shanghai, and the word 'march' has even been censored on popular Chinese instant messaging software. But the blogs have churned out account upon eye-witness account of the protests - some patriotic and proud, some more critical. Read the Global Voices summary of blog views from China. On openDemocracy, Isabel Hilton explains where the tension stems from.
7 great issues
“Interesting, but not satisfying, I want to know your view”. This was Solana Larsen on my blog before last. Quite right: blogs are about attitude not just reporting. But to answer her I need to spell out what matters.tom
The election feels like a charade. It is not that all politicians are liars or mainly lie. This is a cheap untruth. It is not that there is no difference between the parties. The point is that a general election is a rare, four-yearly moment when people can exercise power. We are sold elections as a moment when our views count. But the issues which really count about the directions we should or should not take are not on the table.
There are seven great issues facing Britain. One has been met by Labour – the economy. Thanks mainly to Gordon Brown and his team what was a crippled economy prone to ‘go-stop’ is growing and ensuring employment. There are plenty of remaining questions about structural inequalities, of course, whose resolution demands international action.
But what kind of country does Britain wish to be? Four more issues address this: the relationships with Europe and America, with democracy and between city and country.
The BBC's Nick Assinder says that Europe is the missing issue from this election. America is even more important (as I’ve blogged, it is the central, repressed source of shame these election days). Democracy (in the large sense of how we govern ourselves) is the most important of the great missing issues for me, but is only part of the whole. How city and countryside relate defines the character of a society as a whole.
The next great issue is global. Call it climate change (and see the new openDemocracy debate). Will the planet survive? Excuse me, could the politicians stop agreeing with each other about this and propose action?
That makes six great issues in all.
The seventh? The seventh is the charade itself, the way in which the issues that matter are not being addressed. The POWER Enquiry into the gap between people and politics is about this. It is taking unmistakable evidence that people, young and old, are intensely interested in political issues and increasing disparaging of politicians and official politics.
Talking with John Berger over tea in a sunny London street yesterday (he is here for the festival of his work) he was telling me how the vote in the forthcoming French referendum on the European constitution looks like being a ‘No’. He feels this is not about the constitution. Suddenly a chance has arisen for people to say no to the whole process they are being offered. If it is a “no”, it will be a vote against the charade.
This is where the two campaigns I started with come in.
Sorry if this blog is taking its time, like a puzzle I am trying to draw back the surface of things.
VoteOK is driven by a countryside against city protest. Vote4Peace is about not having a war-prone alliance with America. Both are also about the lack of democracy which links and galvanizes the great missing issues. Both are trying to rupture the charade that POWER is investigating.
In addition, the rapid growth of independent candidates challengingly described by Tom Burgis in openDemocracy.net shows how individuals are rolling up their sleeves to do it their way.
Perhaps all this action will be like the impact of the global warming that the politicians are ignoring. The heat and friction that is being generated may not (but it may) be felt this time. But sometime soon the great glaciers of party politics will break off and find themselves floating and melting and out at sea.
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openDemocracy launches what we hope will be the world’s first truly global debate on the politics of climate change. Why? To find out more, read the new openDemocracy blog Hot Politics.
I won't say the BS word anymore. But for those who wish they knew the 'facts' behind UK political rhetoric, Channel 4 has started a new FactCheck website, based on the American site of the same name. (via perfect.co.uk)
(You may remember the 2004 television debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards where Cheney referred viewers to FactCheck.com instead of .org and the domain name owners diverted people to George Soros' anti-Bush rant instead.)