Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why oh why?

According to Adrian Hamilton, Tony Blair has four 'rhetorical tricks' that he uses:

"The first is to say that the problems presented to the Government at any one time are entirely new and more terrible than any that have gone before. The call on the health service; the environmental challenge; the nature of terrorism; you name it and he will paint it in the most lurid colours as if our forefathers didn't face the same and far worse in time of war."
Adrian doesn't stop to ask why a politician may wish to engage in this kind of demagogic simplification. Tony probably does it because he lives and works in a kind of vacuum. Probably. There is no other possible explanation.

"The second is to define the choices in terms of entirely artificial opposites - those who object to privatisation of the health service want patients to die waiting for operations."
Yes. It's a shame that he does this, isn't it? Because journalists will never do anything to punish any politician that offers granularity of any kind or anything in terms other than of simple opposites.

"The third is to propose that the nation needs to have a full public debate on the challenge and the measures needed to tackle it and this particular report or speech is to open up that debate, not close it down."
Yes. Why does he keep doing this? The quality of public debate in this country is so spectacularly high, Tony's missing a real trick here! And there's no danger that it will be orchestrated by generalist fuckwits either, is there?

"The fourth assertion is the accusation that decisions are being made immeasurably more difficult by the media - the demands of instant response and the growth of global communications methods."
This really is the limit. How could anyone accuse our Fourth Estate of being anything other than constructive partners, working in the public interest to build a better deliberative democracy?

Adrian has upset me so much, I'm going to have to lie down.


dsquared said...

I think you need to answer, though, why it is that Gordon Brown doesn't do this, and gets a much better treatment from the press than Blair does. Nobody presented the pensions review, for example, in these terms - they explained that it was a complicated and difficult issue, but not a crisis, they didn't construct strawman opponents and they had a proper consultation period rather than a bogus "public debate".

Alan Johnson also appears to have had a lot more success than Charles Clarke did at Education, also by not presenting everything in the Blairite style, and not picking senseless fights with strawman opponents.

It seems to me that you are trying to fit everything the media does into a template of your own, and it's one that doesn't actually fit the data anything like as well as you think it does.

Ivan said...

I love this:
Politicians = trying hard
Press = deliberately bad
I've watched this for years and you can generally see politicians honing things that they see working for them. The fault of course is on both sides - but to assume the press is one big venal conspiracy against our Tone is a bit rich.
The constant calling for a 'national debate' is a good case. I mean, it doesn't really mean anything. It sounds good (and it always gets reported straight), but how and where is the debate to take place? Why, in the press of course. But then the very politicans calling for the debate seem to either ignore or close down the debate. Take the recent call for a debate on nuclear power (or Trident, come to that). We are offered a national debate (or someone calls for one). The next thing that happens is that it is made very clear that a decision has been made and more or less nothing will change the leadership's view. So, calling for a 'national debate' seems to be shorthand for 'I'll call for a national debate, that'll fool them into thinking we can discuss this issue. Then I'll use the press to make clear my view on the matter. And as I'm the boss, that will effectively end the debate.' So we have national debates that are controlled by the leadership. Huh, why does that make me (and maybe the press) cynical? And when the govt does set up a forum for a debate of their own, surprise, surprise, nothing critical or adverse to them ever appears on it (various Labour party 'big talk' efforts over the years). Cynical? Moi?

Paulie said...


I'd partly concede on some of this. I don't think that there is a common consensus that Brown DOES get better treatment from the press though, and we're not comparing like-with-like yet. Maybe we'll be able to do so once he's PM?

I'm not sure that Johnson and Clarke are like-with-like either.

Where we differ is that I think that governments should be able to do something without the media making it impossible. We probably agree more than you think on whether government should do as much.

But I don't accept the idea that some sort of guerilla war between the commentariat and politicians is a respectable way of arguing for a less activist government.

I'd just argue for a less activist government instead.


As I've mentioned, part of the reason I write this stuff is to get people like your good self to respond and help me shape what I think. And it's working.

If you are saying that we SHOULD have a more deliberative democracy and that the public should have some sort of quasi-constitutional role in informing public policy, then I'd agree enthusiastically.

But those that nominally hold power (elected politicians) would think anyone arguing for a more deliberative democracy in the current climate is absolutely bonkers - and they'd be right.

Politicians will never happily give away their nominal power. They could perhaps be persuaded to concede it if what passes for public debate wasn't so idiotic.

Remember, on the Trident decision, those making it have to take responsibility for it. Anti-nuke arguments are very elegant (and I'm inclined to agree with them). But I don't think that I'm qualified to make any decision on it.

When politicians ask for a national debate, this is what they are saying:

a. We can either make a decision ourselves without any consultation, or...
b. We'd prefer a sensible and respectable discussion in which the public will make a good case for what they really think should happen, and persuade us that the responsibility for the consequences of any decision would be shared.
c. Well, we asked, and all we got was the usual posturing from the usual fuckwits. Lets go back to plan a.

Chris said...

In my experience, generally speaking politicans and other opinion formers only call for a national debate when they're holding a minority opinion. Which makes sense, I guess, since it's probably pointless having a debate if everyone agrees with you, but it jars when they they pretend to be in favour of a disinterested impartial search for truth rather than partisan promotion of things they've made their minds up on already.

(Even worse is the demand that it's now time for a serious debate. Because the current debate isn't, y'know, serious enough. Obviously. Presumably because if it was more people would agree with you.)

However, it's not just the fact that these debates are held in the media that's the problem with making them worthwhile, it's that the media isn't any place to have a real debate anymore. It's like going to the Oxford Union to hear Dawkins vs The Pope and having them whisper their thoughtful speeches to some snotty PPE type who then condenses them, fixes them to say what he thinks they really mean and throws in a few jokes.

If you want a positive suggstion, I'd say fewer blogs, more phpBB. Comments don't really seem to me to be the best place for debate.

d^2 said...

I think Ivan really does have a point on Trident, though. There was going to be a consultation, then Blair did volte-face and suddenly said that it was time to make a decision. This can't be blamed on the media; there was a lot of comment on the pros and cons of Trident, but none of them were particularly irresponsible or partisan. There wasn't "posturing from fuckwits" at all. And this is hardly the only example of fake consultation from the last five years.

I don't think one can at all reject the hypothesis that widespread media mistrust of specific politicians is in fact a result of specific actions of theirs which have damaged public (and media) trust in them.

Cian said...

"Remember, on the Trident decision, those making it have to take responsibility for it."

Responsibility for it how? As a statement this sounds reasonable, until I stop and try and think of a concrete example of where a government might be called to account. Obviously after a nuclear holcaust, there would be no calling of account. Which just leaves a situation where we were blackmailed into something by another nuclear power. Which sounds find in theory, but in practice? It just doesn't work as an argument. And if we're going to have a national debate about anything, shouldn't it be on something as fundamental as whether we want to be the kind of nation who can kill 20 million people at a stroke? That really doesn't seem like one for the technocrats.

"b. We'd prefer a sensible and respectable discussion in which the public will make a good case for what they really think should happen, and persuade us that the responsibility for the consequences of any decision would be shared."

Can you offer any actual evidence that politicians really think this? Any attempt to have a real debate (ignoring charades like Blair's "Big Conversation")? (a) I totally agree with, (c) is the excuse often proferred (politely) for (a).

Of course a slightly more secure/mature government, which shared your paranoia of the media, might still have some form of national debate. At least discuss policy ideas with experts in the area being discussed. This happens with some of the cabinet (props to Brown and Milburn) - others seem to prefer to ignore, belittle or engage in infantile anti-intellectualism (step up Charles Clarke).

Incidentally, there was a reasonable edition of In Business the other night that looked at applying Toyota's model of management to the NHS. Which would be the exact opposite of what is being tried at the moment (internal markets).