9:57 pm - February 3rd 2008
Political blogging is young even in its mother country, the United States. In the United Kingdom it is barely out of the cradle and murmuring its first words. Political blogging here insofar as it has come to the attention of mainstream journalists has come to their attention because of a couple of sites- notably that of Guido Fawkes. Guido writes about political scandal all the time. If you want the latest word on Peter Hain or Wendy Alexander or Harriet Harmon, head over to his blog and he’ll be sure to enlighten you. He doesn’t write about policy because he says its boring- he’d prefer to concentrate on the juicy scandals.
But he is wrong. Because its my case that even if politicians are as venal and horrible as Fawkes says, that doesn’t matter so much compared to the harm that they do with their policies. And it is precisely the kind of politicians that Fawkes believes exist that are most likely to adopt faulty policy ideas and carry them out in stupid ways.
Guido has declared recently in a personal manifesto his own views on why he blogs. He does it he says because he has a ‘suspicious mind’ and because the louder you hear a politician bleat about how normal they are, the closer you should clutch your wallet. He suggests that ‘political self interest is their primary motivation’ and that ‘policy is a tool of partisan self advancement’- essentially most politicians deserve to be in jail and the ones that aren’t there are lucky. He admits that there may be some honest politicians- interestingly he names an honest campaign but doesn’t quite say that the MP running it is honest (I’d accept correction on that!) but basically Guido’s attitude is that he performs a public service. He is like a hose which flushes out the political refuse of our day.
There is a lot of course that is right about that. Politicians need to be kept to standerds, they are ultimately our servants and they must obey the public will. It isn’t for them to use the proceeds of our activity- taxation- to fund their own activities without telling us. Corruption is a sin- and those who are corrupt need to be pursued. There are problems to my mind with the way that Guido does this. I have never been that fond of a presumption of guilt and guilt by association attracts me even less. Furthermore many of the allegations that Guido throws around seem to me to be trivial and mean nothing: he is more fond of insulting people than parsing evidence fairly and he definitely seems to have a partisan attitude to who he dislikes and who he likes. He has been accused of a multitude of other sins. However there is a greater problem with what Guido says than what I’ve said above. You see the flaw in Guido is not just one of character, its one of analysis. He is just wrong about what is wrong in our current state.
Concentrating on corruption reduces all politics to the individual. The question becomes is the individual a good guy or not? Its about character. There are good reasons that I would like to explore in a later post that we judge politicians based on their character: I would not have voted for Rudi Giuliani as President of the United States had I the option because of his character (as well as many of his policies). But there is something even more fundemental to the way that politics is conducted which I think Guido misses. You see, politicians don’t act out of self interest- they act out of what they perceive to be their self interest. Alistair Darling is not about to deliberately destroy the UK economy: were he to do so, he would betray those who elected him, but more importantly would be foolish for him politically (in a recession the Chancellor seldom comes out with a great reputation). The economic policies the government carry out are the policies it thinks will work: at the margins it will seek to present them in the best way possible, but no government is going to deliberately destroy the country it runs, because to do so undermines its own authority. That goes for any set of politicians and Guido will note is based on the simple idea that he puts forward, that politicians are self interested. Furthermore all politicians seek when they criticise to have a sensible position from which to criticise: if I was to say that Tony Blair was an awful PM because he didn’t fund UFO research, my political career would last five seconds. Politicians are always going to try and sound intellectually respectable and do things which perpetuate their careers: the question is how to they get to the point at which they think they have a good policy.
Policy decisions come out of a discussion within think tanks, policy groups, seminars and political parties. Certain decisions ie giving Independence to the Bank of England are seen as good policy and others such as raising the top rate of income tax to 95% are seen as bad policy. Conventional Wisdom drives the behaviour of politicians: as we have seen above. That conventional wisdom drives the formation of policy: certain ideas are ruled out and others are ruled in. That discussion has far more impact on your daily life than do any of the corruption charges against British politicians current at the moment: compare Derek Conway’s nepotism and its affects (the wasting of tens of thousands of pounds) and errors about defence procurement which waste millions. Error proceeds not merely from politicians but from a wider discussion going on between academics, analysts, economists and other experts. For instance few British foreign policy experts would ever councel a Prime Minister to go against the United States, is it a surprise then that neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown have been able to extricate themselves from a relationship with George Bush? That relationship had disastrous results.
The point about Guido is that he is a distraction. He is such in the sense that he isn’t interested in the real errors which flow from mistakes in the conventional wisdom, he is about eliminating individuals from the political game. The real issues though are ideological: they are about bad decisions which have massive impacts on people’s lives. Ludicrous choices often follow from ingrained beliefs: PFI for instance is the product of a government that believes that if you fix the word private onto something it is neccessarily better, the Olympics are a huge vanity project justified by a belief that vanity projects produce public goods. If you can expose those arguments and change the conventional landscape to something better then you are actually doing something very worthwhile. Of course when there is corruption you ought to bring it down: but the problem with our media and with Guido and all the blogs I read isn’t that they focus too little on corruption but that they never provide an analytical account of policy or of political thinking. Lazy journalism offers us a world in which politics is a competition of personalities and tribes, not a competition of policies and ideas about government, sincerely held. Furthermore lazy journalists don’t ask the difficult intellectual questions which expose weaknesses in conventional wisdom: take Iraq, if the combination of oil, tyranny and Islam is disastrous in the Middle East (the neo-con argument) why do people like Blair want to get close to Uzbekistan where the same conjunction is visible? Such questions need to be asked and the problem with Guido is that he isn’t interested in them: he is just interested in how to get rid of a minister.
I don’t have a naive view of politicians, but I think Guido has a naive view of politics in which there is an obvious answer which the politicians are just too corrupt to get to. I think the stuff of politics is actually much more complicated than Guido allows and also that all our understandings are much worse than he thinks his is. I wish for a world in which political journalism could be as frivolous as that on Guido’s site, but I don’t think it exists yet. Political journalists seem to imagine in the vacuous way they report that it does exist. If only we could work out what the ‘best’ policies were, then I think politicians, being self interested, might carry them out, in their own interests, and we could concentrate on pursuing petty corruption charges. The challenge for journalists and others including people on this site is not to find out who is more corrupt but to provide us with accounts of why the conventional wisdom is wrong, what answers it fails to give and how it can be improved.
Nabbing a minister and putting him in jail is easy: working out a political philosophy is much harder and persuading others to agree with you is harder still.
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
· Other posts by Gracchi
Story Filed Under: Blog ,Our democracy ,Westminster
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