Thursday, December 28, 2006


The other day, David Aaronovitch saw this article by Martin Kettle and said this.

Kettle's article is particularly interesting because the comments thread under his article makes the point far more effectively than any article ever could.

(ta Will & Ivan)


AlabasterCodify said...

Oy veh, I cannot believe you liked Kettle's article.

"Yes, it is embarrassing that a serving prime minister should be questioned in Downing Street as part of a criminal investigation... But the fundamental failing is not his. As a country and culture we have not worked out an open and fair system of financing necessary political life"
This conflation is two issues is mere sophistry, don't you think? Yes, there may or may not be a problem with party funding, and this should be resolved. The investigation however concerns whether or not Labour broke IT'S OWN LAWS on funding. If those laws were wrong, fine, change them. But for a government to be accused of breaking the law is a very very serious thing. You can talk about neo-pessimism and "fundamentals", if you want - underlying issues should always be dealt with, not shied away from. But when you use these phrases as a cloak, to draw attention from very serious accusations of personal dishonesty, they simply become weasel words. Which lead, of course, to cynicism...

Then Kettle talks about BAE: "Defence contracts and jobs matter too. It is too easy to brush aside the complex web of practical issues as if they are of no account. Ministers do not have that luxury."
On the contrary, they had the luxury of thinking about all these issues BEFORE they passed the law which criminalised BAE. BAE is a very important company, employing tens of thousands. It's interests must be taken into account, as Kettle rightly points out. And our relationship with Saudi is vital too, and must be protected. So, given this, any government would think very hard about passing any laws which might affect these things, no?
And was this law likely to do that? Well, Saudi and it's Royal family are notoriously corrupt. The government should know that. Defence contracts are particularly prone to the kind of corruption alleged - the government must have been aware of this when debating the merits of a law banning bribery, surely. BAE, a defence contracter, has a massive contract with Saudi Arabia. The pieces start to fall into place, don't they? And on top of all this, anyone who simply read Private Eye (admittedly, a highly negative rag) had been aware of the rumours for a while. So, after all this, would one not expect a government, thinking about passing a law about bribery abroad, to have noted these obvious points, and to have decided against it? Or to have drafted it so as to subtley exempt BAE? That would have been clever. But instead Labour somehow missed all this, passed the law, and then, when they realised how badly they had screwed up, pissed all over the rule of law in order to get themselves out of a mess. One could still argue that given their horrendous and totally avoidable ballsup, this was the least bad option. But to try as Kettle does to paint it as some triumph of hard headed pragmatism on the part of a government facing a tough but inevitable dilemma is just ludicrous. It was a mess, and an embarrassment, caused by an incompetent and ill-informed approach to law making.

I won't be so rude as to use your blog to fisk his piece, but just look at it. "Expand our airports or keep them as they are? Things to be said on both sides" Quite, but that doesn't mean a government should spout both sides endlessly, and claim credit for doing so. Either face up to economic and political reality and say "more airports", or give your environmental agenda some teeth and say no. When a government does both, it leads to a totally reasonable disgust with that government.

There are political pressures, and we don't live in a perfect world. But to use this as an excuse for personal dishonesty and incompotence does no one any favours.

Paulie said...

"This conflation is two issues is mere sophistry, don't you think?"


I've argued before that state funding of political parties - in a particular form - would be a good thing. Here:

I've argued that the near-universal obsession with corruption is misplaced - here:

And here:

I suppose you can read these - and Kettle's piece (not his first on the subject, by the way - see this one as well)

... and then do the usual "yeh but yeh but what about BAE / cash for honours / pragmatism."

But if you do, then I don't think I can be bothered to argue this one any more. If I did, you'd probably just come up with more examples of perceived mendacity until we all lose the will do live.

Kettle's argument is not that selling honours is a good thing. It is one of proportion. Go back and read it again if this didn't come across properly.

You are simply not responding to his argument anyway so I don't think you deserve the courtesy of a response in return. There's plenty more where you came from anyway, and it's all getting really boring.

AlabasterCodify said...

Life must become terribly easy when you're always right.

What I don't understand about your reply is that you seem so defensive. You assume I disagree with everything you say. On the contrary, I find your blog very interesting, and I agree with much that you say. I don't like Guido any more than you do, and I agree that the media, when discussing politics, can't see the wood for the trees. Indeed, if I hadn't read this blog I won't have such a neat phrase to apply to what to what Kettle is doing - demagogic simplification.

I made the point that, while it is probably true that a different way of funding parties is needed, and it is undeniable that a debate on that is vital, this should not be used to obscure the issue here, which is that Labour (and the tories) actually broke the law. Even worse, they broke a law which they themselves had made, and which they thus presumabably felt was ok when they made it.
I'm not nearly so interested in cash for peerages as in the fact that both parties took loans on terms which were manifestly not commercial without declaring them. This is against the law. You point me to your piece arguing for state funding. It's a good piece. But in it you dismiss these accusations as a soap-opera. Nowhere do you explain why a government breaking the law is not a serious matter.

This is the point I was making about the Kettle piece. It uses the issue of the need for a debate on funding to obscure the issue of alleged serious dishonesty on the part of senior politicians and party figures. Although you've made it clear that I don't "deserve" a reply, all I ask for is an explanation of why you think a politician breaking a law they had introduced is not serious. Note, not a lecture on the options for party funding: to simply say "there are structural problems which force politicans to raise money in these ways" is no answer at all; what is being discussed is personal dishonesty. Give me a reason why outrage at law-breaking by politiicans is misguided. I agree that Britian is not particularly corrupt by global or even Euro standards - only a fool would argue otherwise. But can you see why this is not an argument for ignoring or donwplaying a peronal decision by politicans to break their own law? And why to attempt to do so is to simplify and obscure?

You also fail to answer my point about BAE, which I find particularly puzzling as it is making the same point as the second post of yours you point me to. That the decision to end the enquiry, tho undoubtedly a serious violation of the rule of law, is more importantly an indicator of how poor this government's approach to lawmaking is. I was saying that Kettle's attempt to portray this as a tough decision that the government made on pragmatic grounds is to ignore the obvious fact that the whole situation would never have arisen, had the FO, the DTI and the government had anything like a proper understanding of the situation.

In other words, Kettle argued that media outrage at this government is misplaced, because the real problems are not with the government but with the artifical standard we hold them to as they seek to negoiate political reality. I pointed out his two main examples are both based on ignoring the true issues - personal dishonesty in a particular case and intrinsic incompetence.

I'm sorry to have gone on so long, but I wanted to clarify because I somehow got the feeling you hadn't really read what I had written. Where, for example did I suggest that "Kettle's argument is...that selling honours is a good thing"? Having been accused of not responding to Kettle's arguments, I was amazed see this as your interpretation of mine. Do I deserve a reply?

AlabasterCodify said...

Having read your responses on the manifesto thread, perhaps I can clarify what I'm trying to point out to you.

You said there, in response to Cian, that "I just think it's a bit pointless getting obsessively critical of the Aunt Sallys that represent the surface of government". Ie look at the wood and not the trees.

But Kettle's article was no better for doing the opposite, in a fine example of demagogic simplifacation. By focusing on the wood and not the trees, he was trying to argue that there was not actually much of a problem with the trees. I pointed out that the two major examples he used were based on a misrepresentation of why they were important. In your response to my post, you seemed to be saying it wasn't even worth talking about the trees. In fact, the trees in this case are rotten, and should be rooted out.

Later, you say to Cian "You say that every story has a number of factors - and that politicians are a major one - and I agree...I just think that you will achieve more by arguing for a structural change than in arguing for a change in personnel."

I don't think it has to be either/or. And when personal dishonesty is at stake, it definitely becomes necessary to change the personnel. Given that you acknowledge that politicians are important, then I presume you agree. When a major emabarrasement like the BAE inquiry highlights how bad a governments lawmaking is, this should not be swept under the carpet by disguising the causes of it.

I would also point out your saying "my point is that simply saying "nothing can be done, so why bother" is exactly what I'm arguing against." I agree. To simply say "this is superficial, don't bother discussing it" is highly negative. Perhaps the impetus to accept loans in contravention of the law is a factor of the way we fund parties; but to excuse the illegality on those grounds is to be negative about the possibility of probity.

As an aside, could you point to a post where you discuss HOW the media has gained the power it has?

Paulie said...


I actually don't dislike Guido. I think he's quite a clever bloke. Negativism is a political tool for him, and I'm just pointing to his useful idiots, that's all.

I don't think you've grasped what Bourdieu meant by Demagogic Simplification either. He asked for reporters to understand the totality of power-relations and not to focus on symbolic simplifications, using words like 'infamy' for political weakness, venality or pragmatism. Largely, this is Kettle's point as well.

You say "all I ask for is an explanation of why you think a politician breaking a law they had introduced is not serious."

My reply is that it's not THAT serious. And Kettle doesn't say that it's not an issue. He is just asking the political class to get a bit of persepctive. In fact, here's how I see the dialogue in this thread going:

a: This government may be venal, weak, pragmatic, hypocritical and slightly corrupt, but they are not solely to blame for the position that they find themselves in. Until a consensus can be reached about some quasi-constitutional matters, these problems will re-occur.


a: I will keep referring you to my previous answer.

Finally, I've not written a history of the way that the media has gained the power that it has. Sorry.

AlabasterCodify said...

Late in seeing your reply - don't wish to flog a dead'un; but obviously i will.

a: This government may be venal, weak, pragmatic, hypocritical and slightly corrupt, but they are not solely to blame for the position that they find themselves in. Until a consensus can be reached about some quasi-constitutional matters, these problems will re-occur.

b: Firstly, glad to see the loans have been upgraded from "perceived mendacity" to "not THAT serious" (but that's the last snide remark, I promise - seeing as I merited a reply and all).

We obviously have fundamental, and thus perhaps boring to discuss, disagreements on the nature of agency. I was very interested to read your discussion with Cian, in which he made a similar point.

You say "they are not solely to blame for the position that they find themselves in". You are right.

But they are solely to blame for the way they then acted as a response to that situation. IMO structures explain but cannot excuse behaviour. This really is the point I was making. Whatever the structure of the system, whether it works well or badly, having those who are dishonest or incompetent at its heart is a bad idea.

The reason why is obvious; there is a need for consensus to be reached on the issues you point out on your blog. Do you think having politicians who are dishonest (the loans affair) and incompetence (BAE) will make that consensus easier or harder to reach?

Without wanting to put words into your mouth, tho you managed to put plenty into mine, I suppose you feel ultimately that it would make no difference. I base this on the fact that you seem to have such a low notion of the scope of their agency that you think that a politician breaking their own law is not that serious, presumabably because they are so circumscribed by structures. The difference between having a PM who is not willing to break his own laws and one who is becomes a matter of "perspective".

The charmingly condescending exchannge you imagine could equally well be turned on its head:

a: We have a government whose leader is dishonest: he breaks his own laws and he and his circle are being investigated for corruption. At the same time that government seems to pass serious laws without any worthwhile discussion of the likely effects. This is not a good thing.


a: Hmmm. There are undoubtedly many problems with the system, but I would say one of the biggest ones is having dishonest and incompetent politicians as a major part of it. And the chances of changing the system are much lessened by having them there. So let's discuss their failings.


The reason I originally posted was I couldn't believe that you liked Kettle's article, when it's 2 main examples were based on a) refusing to see the grave problems with process (note, process) that the BAE affair threw up, and b) minimising the relevancy of the peerages/loans affairs. (I am assuming here that you agree with my interpretations of these, as you haven't dsiputed them, only their relevance). I thought this gave the lie to his main point, and yours.

In other words, the personal nature and inclinations of those in power are a key part of power-structures. In this I think I feel the same thing as Cian - disbelief that you can ascribe so little importance to the agency of individuals.

I have never read Bourdieu, tho I definitely will. But without having read any of it, I would say that the use I made of his phrase reflects my view, which is perhaps simply incompatible with his. If he is asking us to look at the wood and not the trees, I would still maintain that what Kettle is doing is willfully ignoring the trees. I think this comes across in your explanation:

"He asked for reporters to understand the totality of power-relations and not to focus on symbolic simplifications, using words like 'infamy' for political weakness, venality or pragmatism."

Is venality not infamy in an elected politician? Can a politician who is venial not cause a lot of damage? Would causing that damage not be infamous? Does focusing on one mean one must ignore the other? To elide "political weakness", essentially a result of external issues, with "veniality", a personal failing, is a function of the lack of possibility of, or at best the low value you ascribe to, human agency.

Most importantly, I believe it is possible to meet with veniality and honesty and to recognise them for what they are, to label them, broadcast them, and choose between them. And I think one is good, and one is very very bad (obviously it's a matter of "proportion". And in this case, it's an extremely big proportion). At this point I would note that what I found most astonsishing in your reply was how you left "My reply is that it's not THAT serious" as mere assertion.

I very much hope you reply, because I don't think I'm simply right on this. And if I've misunderstood something, which is def possible, then I hope you won't think I'm just being tiresome, but will explain it. Equally, maybe it would be boring if it just comes down to us thinking entirely differently.

As one last thought, I'd mention the way in which Thatcher refused to work with Arthur Anderson. One small example of how infamy - which was caused by various pressures in the financial world, but which flourished because of personal veniality - can be recognised and rejected. Whereas NuLab in opposition fell head over heels with AA, and became very deeply entwined with them. If they hadn't things might have been very different.

AlabasterCodify said...

Ha! read 'venality' for 'veniality' thruout...

Paulie said...

This explains a lot. I just looked both up and I wasn't aware of the more damnable definition.

Venal = corruptible: capable of being corrupted; "corruptible judges"; "dishonest politicians"; "a purchasable senator"; "a venal police officer"

Venial = minor: warranting only temporal punishment; "venial sin"
excusable: easily excused or forgiven; "a venial error". A pardonable offence, or an unpremeditated one.

Throughout, I meant to use 'venial' / 'veniality'.