Why concentrating on scandal misses the point


9:57 pm - February 3rd 2008

by Gracchi    


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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.

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About the author
'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
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments


I dunno. This is an assertion without anything more than anecdotal evidence for the moment, but I would hazard the corrupt politicians (that should be in jail) are also apt to make bad policy decisions and that corruption (even of the comparatively minor sort that we have in British politics) probably plays a fairly big role in creating bad policy.

Take PFI, for example, and even seasoned free market supporters like myself can see how foul these public private partnerships are, the only difference is that the left tend to think that business corrupts government, while libertarians would argue that it is more that government corrupts business. How is it that ex-ministers of health all manage to end up with lucrative jobs and positions with companies that deal closely with government just after leaving their place in government? Might this be the reason why PFI barely ever resembles anything like value for money, that contracts are decided on the basis of access and preference rather than competition?

And check Alan Johnson today: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3295890.ece

I think this minor corruption/bad policy is very much a nexus of issues and Guido’s strategy may play a role at least in slowing down the development of more bad policy even as it concentrates on personality.

StandArds.

3. douglas clark

Guido Fawkes, whilst critical perhaps of our political masters, and orgasmic when they fall from grace, is apparently perfectly willing to use the laws that they created to attempt to silence other bloggers. Here:

http://www.bloggerheads.com/

This is, I would hazard, a selective view of our evil masters. When they pass laws you can use against others, use them. When they don’t pass laws that suit you, castigate them. Quite the little libertarian? Not really.

4. douglas clark

You hit the nail on the head I’d say… though you give far too much credit to one blogger only because he’ll publish stuff others aren’t willing to do so for reasons of libel, bad taste or just vested interests.

The problem is with political journalism itself too I’d say. Blogs just take that one level further.

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.

Well said.

I’ve always felt that it is to do with the nations perpetually growing perverse interest in “celebrity”, and perhaps even politicians trying to feed in to that sense of celebrity, that causes this kind of “scandal”. The trouble is, as you’ve said, the personal is not political and the politicians haven’t grown far enough away from parties and governments to not tarnish the whole system.

This stuff with Hain was a farce, and at worst showed what we already knew, that people do stuff that perhaps is a conflict of interests because there is a lack of transparancy. Conway’s shame is a little more because of the public money involved but it doesn’t change the fact he wouldn’t have been able to do it in the first place if it wasn’t one big old boys club with rules for themselves and others for the rest of us.

I agree totally with the sentiment of this post, I really, really hope I’ll see the day when the underlying issues are addressed rather than the (un)glitzy celebrityesque angle.

Hi – Please check out this site and cast your vote:

http://www.whatifweallvoted.com

Well said. It’s about time someone argued the positive case rather than the opposite. Guido and people who frequent his abode sound like 19 years olds with a chip on their shoulders.

Their arguments are specious and shallow and lacking REAL veracity. They are opinion. Just like many of our newspapers.

Having said that, since I started blogging (and I have a particular, some might say “peculiar” interest) I have come across some well-researched blogs, though usually from the USA.

And they write better English!

And here we can’t depend on intelligent people to rise above the gutter sniping. For example, I just came across a blog by someone who says he is a Lincoln’s Inn barrister. This is how he finished his “article” after piling abuse on Tony & Cherie Blair (“embarrasssingly a member of my Inn”) :

“Why oh why oh why oh why can’t the useless rag-head pillocks in Al Queda assassinate him? It would be great PR for them: many of us would revise our low opinion of them if they could do us this one small service. Their ineptness is proof that the terrorism ‘threat’ is laughable.”

Is there ANY hope for the British blogger, when this is thought acceptable?

All that anyone who recalls the euphoria which greeted “New Labour’s” first triumph with its promise of a cleaner, more transparent politics can do is to throw up. NuLab has done immense damage to the political system – far worse than the preceding Tory sleaze – with its witless conviction that spin is all, and the only thing that matters is presentation.

The new ‘counter-terrorism phrasebook’, with its inane examples of the ‘correct’ language to use when talking to [not ‘with’, of course] Muslim communities, is typical and would be laughable if the topic weren’t so deadly serious.

What we want, as this post says, is new policies – not yet more NuLab gobbledygook. This sad crowd long ago ran out of useful ideas, but they can’t stop churning out inane drivel.

10. dreamingspire

anticant is getting near the truth of why the media, etc have been very wary of promoting a better way of running the country: the media and others who would put forward clear views not just on policies but also on implementation methods, like MPs and civil servants, has been bullied into silence. The political climate is different now, but it will take a while for the patients to recover.

Well, anticant is lunching with a Tory front-bencher this week, and will do a bit of ear-bending!

Henry, yours is a good post. Thanks for sharing this.

I wish you had raised more explicitly the question of why it is we want to believe those we disagree with are corrupt. On the surface, it seems easy – if people are wrong, well, they must be morally wrong!

But that’s not how we conduct ourselves in private life – au contraire, we usually have friends whose values diverge sharply from ours.

There’s something about the public sphere, something about the way ideologies are mass marketed nowadays, that’s giving credibility to Guido’s sort of claim, where anything that goes wrong is criminality, so if you eliminate the criminality, then all is perfect.

If you’d comment more on that, I’d be much obliged.

An interesting post.

Like many people, I regard GF as a odious prat with a massively exaggerated sense of his own importance/influence and a rather tedious paranoia about the mainstream media.

But please don’t fall into the trap of decrying the scandal sheet. It’s been around since pretty much the dawn of the printing press and is an important part of a fully functioning polity (and, more latterly, democracy).

The analytical stuff is important too, hence the place of pamphleteers (think Paine and Burke) in our discourse. But twe should have both of these forms of scrutiny, rather than be obliged to choose.

The most sensible thing I have read in the blogosphere for some time. Thank you.

All well and good, and I guess I largely agree (with the post), but what I don’t get is *why on earth* we’re the slightest bit interested in what Guido’s up to. He’s a twat, an irritating one at that, but him and his mate Iain are largely preaching to their little set of the converted. Let them in peace. They don’t enter my radar by the clever device of just not pointing my browser their way.

The fact that, over at LabourHome, they’re even *debating* whether he should be on their sidebar or not is equally amusing: *of course he shouldn’t*. Just ignore him.

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.

No, Guido doesn’t say that at all. He said [emphasis mine]

… The louder they claim it is because they “want to make a difference”, the tighter you should grip your wallet.

He is quite correct, because the main way that politicians seem to think that they can make a difference is by spending more money. Since the state — and, by extension, politicians — has no money but what it takes from us in taxes, a politician promising to do good usually means to take more cash from our wallets.

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.

From my perspective — in other words, that of a free-market, minarchist libertarian — this is precisely what is wrong with politics: politicians should be able to do so little that they can do no harm with their policies. You, no doubt, would argue that then they could do no “good”. In return, of course, I would argue that they never have.

But, of course, I am far closer to Guido’s politics than you are (else you wouldn’t be writing here). Guido has, by the way, replied to you.

DK

From DK, above:

“From my perspective — in other words, that of a free-market, minarchist libertarian — this is precisely what is wrong with politics: politicians should be able to do so little that they can do no harm with their policies. You, no doubt, would argue that then they could do no “good”. In return, of course, I would argue that they never have.”

Just a question for DK: Under what conditions, do you think, anarcho-capitalism is feasible?

Democracy in its full diversity also includes scutineers in their full diversity with their full range of perspectives, so since GF has his built his niche he is welcome to keep it, so long as he stays in it.

GF is a player in the game, but when he starts to dig away at the rest of our democratic infrastructure he oversteps his mark and is imposing a world-view based on the self-fulfilling prophecies of his own political philosophy and is trying to assume a role bigger than that which he is competent or capable of completing, thereby contradicting any claim of gentlemanly adherence to fair play.

I take it that he’s just conflicted by his jealousy of the reach and influence of the journalistic commentators in the established and accredited MSM, while angst-ridden by his inability to work under an editor with the attendant strictures of professionalism that he’d be forced to comply with.

His fun is a practical outlet for his frustrations (which contributes to the overall mix), but it’d be a different blog with a very different audience if he actually advocated something positive.

GF: one of the best amateurs, but still an amateur.

19. R. Richard Schweitzer

Consider what “Policies” really are.

Consdier how “Policies” are determined.

Consider the effects of those who participate in determining “Policies.”

Consider those ingredients of the “Policies” cake.

Eat bread!

20. douglas clark

This would be the same little DK that tries to come across as sensible, would it? The same little DK that is in denial about Global Warming? The self same person that cannot reply to a question, viz:

Just a question for DK: Under what conditions, do you think, anarcho-capitalism is feasible?

You’ve got to love him.

Douglas,

I’m sorry, I do have better things to do than eagerly and constantly refresh this page to see if anyone has replied to something I’ve said. Re: global warming, I’m not going to rise to that bait except to say, at least I go and look for evidence, rather than supping up what anyone wants to feed to me.

Ashok, I don’t think that anarcho-capitalism would work (or not well), which is why I am a minarchist and not an anarchist. I think that one has to have a massive faith in the inherent sensible and decent nature of humans to be an anarchist, and I don’t have that.

DK

@ DK: What exactly is a minarchist?


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