Saturday, October 24, 2009

The UK in seventh - not heaven

It used to be one of the most ubiquitous anti-independence arguments - that we'd be turning our backs on being part of the world's fourth-largest economy. (Although as slogans go, anything that relies on being the fourth-biggest anything is surely a touch uninspiring.) Amusingly, the argument continued to be deployed long after the UK had in fact slipped to sixth place in the rankings. I recall pointing this out to someone a year or two back, who eventually conceded that I was "technically" right but noted that France had only overtaken the UK on "exchange rate fluctuations" - neatly missing the point that exchange rates are absolutely fundamental to how the rankings are calculated.

So now that the UK has slipped again to seventh place behind Italy, what remnants of British Greatness will the opponents of independence fall back on instead? I do hope for their own sake they can come up with something better than Two World Wars and One World Cup.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Authenticity of the 'bogus' sentiment?

Melanie Phillips (a journalist who I suspect would be capable at causing offence at a meeting of the Jan Moir Appreciation Society) suggested a few days ago that the Conservatives were guilty of 'tokenism' for fielding Sayeeda Warsi against Nick Griffin on last night's Question Time. The Tory assault on BNP ideology would, she argued, have resonated far more if it had been delivered by a white, right-wing, middle-aged, establishment - but most definitely white - spokesman. In reality, of course, the Tory selection wasn't made with pious considerations of how best to 'combat the BNP menace' in mind, but can instead be seen in the context of the wider political game. It was all about bolstering the narrative of a party that has transformed itself, and what better way to do that than through the powerful symbolism of an articulate young Muslim woman from a working-class, north of England background being entrusted to speak for the entire party against fascism? In particular, the spectacle of a Tory politician spontaneously reacting against the mention of the phrase "bogus asylum seekers" by saying - with apparent conviction - "there is no such thing as a bogus asylum seeker" will have left an impression on many. It certainly left an impression on me, although in my case that impression was "this woman is not the authentic face of the modern Conservative party". Perhaps others will take a more generous view.

Vocal minority - you've got new mail

I can't pretend to have fully grasped the underlying issues in the postal dispute, but it was certainly startling to see the results of the ComRes opinion poll tonight showing 50% of the public sympathised more with the CWU and the workers, and only 25% with Royal Mail management. The commentariat/blogosphere consensus that the public always have zero sympathy for a striking workforce regardless of circumstance was so overwhelming that I as much as anyone fell into the trap of taking it as read that it was true.

I'm not naive enough to think that the public's patience won't start to wear thin if the strike is protracted, but this is still a valuable object lesson in how the 'silent majority' can sometimes surprise the very people who claim to speak for them.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

So you'd like me to raise fuel poverty at Westminster? Well, of course I'd be delighted to, but...I did mention I was retiring, didn't I?

I've just received a 'questionnaire' from my local Labour MP, seeking to ascertain the political priorities of local residents. All very laudable I'm sure, but there are just two slight snags - a) the general election is only six months away and a large chunk of that time will be eaten up by the Christmas and Easter recesses and the pre-Queen Speech prorogation, and b) the said local Labour MP will not actually be a candidate at that election. Given that, wouldn't it have been slightly more productive to pose questions like "what issues would you like me to raise at Westminster?" and "how satisfied are you with my work as local MP?" two or three years ago, rather than now? The cynical side of me thinks this might just have more to do with the election chances of her successor as Labour parliamentary candidate.

Although it would probably be far too cynical of me to suggest that the whole exercise was deliberately timed to precede a national postal strike. I'd really better get my skates on if I want her to sneak in a parliamentary question for me on foreign affairs before she retires!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Politics is driven either by emotion or a thirst for power – which do you prefer?

A few days ago I started to write a blog post in response to Tom Harris' "nationalism is an emotion" piece, but I gave up after twenty minutes, realising that there was just so much I could say on the matter that I could be sitting there for hours. So instead I restricted myself to a (relatively) pithy tweet. But the gist of what I was going to say is that all 'good' politics is driven by an emotion of some sort or another, usually one that is just as basic, primal, childish as the one Harris imagines to be the essence of nationalism. It can be summed up in three short words - 'it's not fair'. Idealistic young recruits to the Labour party through the decades (perhaps not so much recently, but let's not quibble) have been motivated by their indignation over poverty and social injustice - the unfairness that some people have so little while others have so much. The equivalent young idealists joining the Tories will often have been motivated by the perceived unfairness of the state deciding how to 'spend people's money for them'. These are visceral emotions, powerful enough to trigger a lifetime political vocation because they engender a burning desire to put these injustices right for people. It's precisely the same for Scottish Nationalists - a whim to redraw a line on the map, or occasional irritation at being called "English" while on holiday in Malaga, is not enough to hook someone into a lifetime of political drudgery. Rather, the unfairness which political nationalism might be seen as an emotional reflex to is our untapped potential as a nation, that holds people back and suppresses general quality of life. What does the emotion of nationalism look like stripped of that vital quality? Look no further than Jim Sillars' "ninety-minute nationalist" phenomenon. After all, polls show that the vast majority of Scots regard themselves as Scottish more than British. So it seems that most of us are 'afflicted' by the emotion that Harris identifies, but only a minority channel it into constructive political action. Surely the latter group ought to be lauded, not denounced?

Perhaps the reason that Harris cannot see it that way is that he has long since moved on from the time when idealism was ever the driving force of his own politics. Try to convince Harris that something is simply the right thing to do, and more often than not he won't tell you why you're wrong on the merits of the argument - he'll simply say "we tried that in the 1980s, middle England rejected it, some of us have grown up and moved on". In other words, the 'mature' politics Harris believes in is triangulation, policy determined by calculation not principle, power at all costs the sole objective.

But, you might object, don't all politicians have to get real sometimes, make messy compromises that they wish they didn't have to make? Of course. But the ones who remain in touch with their ideals - or 'emotions' as Harris would have it - never lose sight of the bottom line, the longer-term goal that all the pragmatic compromises will ultimately be a means to realising. I believe that the SNP, for all their imperfections, still fit into that category - New Labour most certainly do not. Perhaps the most telling moment came when the Labour manifesto made the astonishing claim that "New Labour is the political wing of the British people". Strip that down and what does it actually mean? Whatever you want, we'll give it to you. That is the philosophy of a business trying to attain profit and prestige, not of a political movement with roots, principles and a purpose.

So what led me to write a post on this topic when I'd abandoned the idea a few days ago? Ah yes, it was Jeff's post, taking exception to Harris' characterisation of the SNP conference as a "hate-fest". Actually Harris had at the same time also suggested that one of the favourite pastimes of Nationalists is "alphabeticisng their grievances". What on earth is this guy's problem? It would be one thing if his jibes were actually likely to resonate with the public, but for there be the remotest chance of that his own party's public face would have to be a model of positivity and constructiveness. Instead, they're led by Iain "the Snarl" Gray. No, I can only think of one credible explanation for Harris' bitterness, it's an outlandish one but it's the only thing that fits - he must have been bullied at school by a Nat. If I'm right, perhaps I can suggest a remedy in language he ought to recognise and appreciate - "grow up, Tom, it's time to move on from the grievance".