Monday, 20 April 2009

British State Degeneration...and English National Regeneration?

This weekend I saw two articles by two of my favourite political writers: Peter Oborne and Paul Kingsnorth.

Peter Oborne's The Triumph of the Political Class
is a rollocking good polemic about the degeneration of British political life in recent decades. He is possibly the only Daily Mail columnist ever to favourably cite the Noam Chomsky/Edward Herman 'propaganda model' of the media as a good explanation of how British political life works!(p.265) My main problem with Oborne is that he persists in hoping that a David Cameron Government would improve the quality of public life. My own opinion is that, like the annual Soviet grain harvest figures, British Governments tend to be worse than the last one, better than the next one...

The Tories must avoid the cult of the celebrity prime minister: Parliamentary democracy has been supplanted at Westminster by a regime of media hype, spin doctors and skulduggery
Peter Oborne, The Observer, Sunday 19 April 2009

Even when he was prime minister, Stanley Baldwin was in the habit of taking long journeys by train. He seems never to have been molested on these trips. However, on one occasion, he became conscious that a fellow passenger was staring at him rather intently. At length the man introduced himself. "Remember me?" he declared. "We were together at Harrow in the 1890s. What are you up to now?"

The agreeable notion that a sitting prime minister could travel on his own by rail, unrecognised except by a former schoolfriend, seems implausible today. The Baldwin anecdote does, though, reflect a fundamental truth about the constitutional role of a British prime minister. He or she is not the head of state and therefore has no symbolic public role. Constitutionally, the prime minister is all but impotent. Power is legally vested in the hands of cabinet ministers. That is why it is Nye Bevan, health secretary in the great postwar Labour government, and not prime minister Clem Attlee who is remembered as the founder of the National Health Service.

The modern notion of a celebrity prime minister, permanently surrounded by an army of flunkeys and operating out of a great command centre inside Downing Street, is novel. Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and John Major were all closer to Stanley Baldwin's idea of government than the structure that prevails inside Downing Street today. It is not fully understood how quickly this idea of a celebrity prime minister has arisen - and to what extent it represents a revolution in British government.

National leaders from Baldwin to Major did their best to respect the rule of law. Celebrity prime ministers are actively hostile to historic freedoms and civil liberties. Traditional prime ministers understood and appreciated due process. Celebrity prime ministers see it merely as an encumbrance and resent the civil service disciplines of impartiality, scruple and properly noted cabinet meetings. Traditional prime ministers always sought to govern through parliament - Baldwin would spend hours in the chamber of the House of Commons. Celebrity prime ministers have tried to cut out the Commons. Instead, they have enfranchised the media and turned it into an ancillary arm of government.

A good way to illustrate this is to examine Michael Dobbs's powerful study of high politics in the 1980s, House of Cards. The most menacing and potent figure is the fictional chief whip, Francis Urquhart. It is he who bullies, bribes, manipulates, blackmails and schemes. In Armando Iannucci's superlative film about British high politics in the first decade of the 21st century, In the Loop, the chief whip has been written out of the script. Urquhart has been replaced by the sinister spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker. All the same blacks arts are at work; however, the battlefield has changed. Urquhart applied himself to parliament, Tucker bypassed the traditional institutions of the state and was only concerned with the media and its other methods of control: access, favouritism, information and the creation of an elite corps of client journalists.

For a British prime minister in the age of parliamentary democracy, the key figure was his chief whip. Today, we have moved on to a new constitutional arrangement, beautifully labelled "manipulative populism" by the civil rights campaigner Anthony Barnett. In this new environment, the crucial aide is the press officer, whose job is to burnish the image of his leader, while using smears and other secret tactics to punish and marginalise political opponents. Tony Blair and his gifted assistant, Alastair Campbell, brought this methodology to something close to perfection in the 1990s. "Go around smiling at everyone and get other people to shoot them," as Tony Blair advised the future foreign secretary David Miliband when he started to contemplate a career in politics.

Gordon Brown insisted when he became prime minister that he was going to turn his back on this debased political methodology. He pledged to bring back cabinet government, respect civil service impartiality, restore the primacy of parliament and to abandon the dark political arts at which the team of political assassins around Blair had so excelled.

Perhaps Brown genuinely meant what he said. It is impossible to say. Whatever the reasons, and some of them may have been understandable, he ended up remaining loyal to the Blair system of manipulative populism. Brown retained the alliance with the Murdoch press which lay at the heart of the Blair system of government, as well as an inner circle of cronies and spin doctors, of whom Damian McBride was the most noteworthy.

McBride's methodology contradicted everything that Brown publicly claimed to stand for. Before entering Downing Street, Brown told an interviewer: "I studied history. It is fascinating. There is a Namier school of history, which is less to do with ideas of popular concerns and all to do with manoeuvring of the elites. I do not accept that. I think that the real story of decision-making in politics is about ideas and ideals."

McBride, said by tutors to have been a brilliant student who could have embarked upon an academic career, is an indirect product of the Namierite school. He studied history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, under the guidance of Maurice Cowling. Cowling was an inspirational teacher. However, his particular scholarly contribution was to take Namier's pessimism about human nature, scepticism about political ideas, and dogmatic insistence that public events could only be explained by reference to narrow personal interest, to their ultimate conclusion. His most important book, The Impact of Hitler, argued in spellbinding detail that the British reaction to the rise of fascism in the 1930s could only be understood in terms of squalid calculations of partisan advantage. Cowling, who enjoyed disturbingly close connections to Tory central office, has been the mentor of a variety of other political figures. Among them are John Major's defence secretary Michael Portillo, the rising Tory star Michael Gove, and Mike Ellam, the current Downing Street press spokesman. It is Brown's tragedy that he has become a prime minister on the Namierite model.

This is also a national tragedy. This weekend, British politics has reached a dead end. Parliament is disgraced, thanks to the complicity of all three main parties in the abuse of the system of expenses, and the willingness of Labour peers to make a market in parliamentary legislation; the report is expected this week. Meanwhile, Downing Street has been caught out fabricating lies and calumnies about opponents. As a direct result, trust in politics has sunk and far-right parties such as BNP are on the rise.

The great question is whether David Cameron's Conservative party is capable of offering a different methodology. The signs are mixed. At Westminster, the Tory party has been complicit in the theft of taxpayers' money by ministers and MPs through exploitation of the expenses system. There is every reason to suppose that when Commons expenses are published in a few weeks' time, just as many shadow cabinet ministers will be exposed as ripping off the taxpayer as members of the government. Cameron would doubtless like to sack the offenders. Were he to do so, he would soon find that he has no frontbench left.

The opposition chief whip, Patrick McLaughlin, a former miner, may be a decent man, but inside the Tory party, the director of communications, Andy Coulson, is the more powerful figure. Like Blair and Brown, Cameron has chosen to govern through Iannucci's tight inner clique rather than Dobbs's traditional system of parliamentary democracy. I have no evidence of any kind, and nor do I have reason to believe, that Coulson operates through smears, let alone the filthy and shameful lies that Damian McBride and Derek Draper hoped to put in the public domain.

Yet Coulson is the former editor of the News of the World. During his time as editor, it was discovered that his royal correspondent was spending very significant sums of money to hack into the private conversations of members of the royal family. The royal correspondent went to jail, while a very perfunctory Press Complaints Commission investigation cleared Coulson of any knowledge of what was going on.

Coulson was much in evidence alongside Cameron and George Osborne at a party thrown at the West End nightclub Tramp by Rupert Murdoch's media fixer Matthew Freud two weeks ago. You can understand why Cameron likes Coulson. He is a highly intelligent man who is thoroughly familiar with the debased architecture of 21st-century public discourse. Cameron, who once boasted that he was the "heir to Blair", may have concluded that this is the only route to power.

But at this grim moment in our national life, Britain doesn't just need a change of personnel at the very top. We urgently need a new decency and morality in government and to get rid of the stinking and corrupt regime that has brought the idea of British democracy into such deep disrepute over the last few years.

So while 'There is Something Rotten in the State of Denmark', can meaningful change come from below? Can England and the English be mobilised to provide an alternative to Westminster's games with the City of London and Whitehall? This is a subject Paul Kingsnorth wrote about in Real England, which is another great read (though he slags off JD Wetherspoons at length for being bland- surely any firm that sells real ale cheap and converts banks into pubs cannot be all that bad?!).

Forget St George. It's time to celebrate Wat Tyler's Day: Levellers and Diggers have been replaced by binge drinkers. Has the glorious flame of English radicalism gone out?
Paul Kingsnorth, The Guardian, Saturday 18 April 2009

In case you didn't know - and that would put you in the majority - this Thursday is St George's Day. If recent years are a guide, traditional English cultural activities on display will include tabloid articles about councils refusing to fly the George Cross in case they offend Muslims, liberal handwringing about whether the whole thing is racist or not, and a proud display of massive indifference from everyone else.

The English, these days, do indifference well. To some, this is a good thing: it saves England from the kind of bombastic and sometimes sinister flag-worshipping patriotism that the Americans, for instance, go in for. Whether good or bad, it is certainly nothing new. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1915, GK Chesterton published probably the most famous poem ever written about the English, The Secret People, which comes back again and again to the same line: "But we are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet."

The English, some would have you believe, have never really spoken much. Those who view St George's Day with suspicion often claim that this is an essentially reactionary nation, whose people remain in thrall to a dying monarchy, a rose-tinted vision of the past and the collected works of Jeremy Clarkson.

But England, like any nation, has many faces. And if there is an English tradition worth celebrating on this St George's Day it is not our past triumphs in commerce or empire, but our tendency towards rebellion, dissent and resistance - a glorious tradition that, if we are not very careful, could soon be defunct, just as we need it most.

The English radical tradition can compete with that of any other nation. We, after all, killed our king before the French; we had our revolution before the Americans; and we fought against the invasion of the nation by a foreign king and his posse of robber barons before the Scottish.

From the resistance to the Norman conquest through to the great rebellion of 1381 that almost destroyed feudalism, the radical flowering of the civil war, the movements against enclosure, the machine-breakers and rick-burners of the early industrial age, the Chartists and the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Suffragettes and the early Labour movement - every ratcheting up of power and exploitation in England has been met with an angry and often successful reaction from its people. There is nothing indifferent or quietist about this version of the English story. This is a nation that it feels good to be a part of.

So where has it gone? When we need it most, why do most of us seem to have abandoned this spirit of resistance and liberty? Why do we live in a nation of CCTV cameras, email surveillance, DNA databases and masked riot police, watching in silence as more and more of our fundamental liberties are stolen by our own government?

Culturally, we are seeing the strip-mining of much of what makes England unique. Our independent shops and our local pubs disappear in their thousands every year. Our rural communities are ravaged by second homes, our high streets are carpet-bombed by superstores, our orchards and our small farms are rooted out at rates unprecedented in our history. We are selling off our health service and our schools. We are told that an ever-rising GDP justifies all of it.

Meanwhile, the English are the victims of a constitutional con trick that allows English legislation to be decided by Scottish and Welsh MPs, but not the other way round. Thus the English are lumbered with, for example, university fees and a market-based health service, despite the majority of England's MPs having voted against both these things; Scottish and Welsh MPs voted in Westminster to impose them on an unwilling England, despite their own people having rejected the same measures at home.

And what are the English doing about all this? At local level, some are bravely resisting these trends; but most of us seem too busy shopping. There is no rebellion in the offing, no revolution; not even a spate of rick-burning. Has the flame of English rebellion guttered out?

"In all societies," wrote George Orwell in 1940, "the common people must live to some extent against the existing order." Orwell reckoned that the spirit of English dissent had been reduced to "something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities." In the 21st century, this probably means binge-drinking and vandalising speed cameras.

But the times demand more. England is still under the cosh of what William Cobbett, one of our greatest radical writers, called "the Thing" - a voracious capitalist system with an ever-greater appetite. It is not too late to rediscover the righteous anger that coursed through the veins of the Levellers and the Diggers, of Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. But one thing is clear: if the people of England don't speak soon, there may be little left worth saying.

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