You’ve been bought and paid, you’re a whore and a slave

Well, where to start with my utter rage at the kiboshed Al-Yamamah investigation? It’s a total map of state direness, New Labour subtype: we have hypocrisy, we have a good day to bury bad news, we have cash, we have Lord Goldsmith, the professional get out of jail card himself. Obviously, this being a blog, we’ll start by abusing a leader-writer.

In today’s Guardian, we have Martin Kettle, who wants to say that we aren’t serious enough and we don’t understand how tough it is for politicians. In fact, our understanding is so minimal we will slide into fascism, and be raped by the dogs of a British Pinochet. No, this is not snark. Mr. Kettle actually threatens the nation at large with a British Pinochet, which put like that sounds pleasingly like some kind of baroquely obsolete firearm. Look at him! Look at Martin Kettle!, as Withnail would say.

I’ve said before that I’m not comfortable with the fisking tradition, but then, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Here goes.

It had been Tony Blair’s day of infamy, the veteran pundit Anthony Howard told Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. By yesterday morning, having drunk deep from Thursday’s heady cocktail of police interviews, discontinued fraud inquiries, and furtively announced airport expansions and post office closures, the amalgamated union of right thinking people all seemed to agree with him.

Well, count me out of this facile consensus. A difficult and politically damaging day, yes. A shaming day too, in some respects, particularly on the killing off of the BAE Systems probe. Further evidence of the Blair government’s terminally battered condition? Certainly. But a day of infamy? Get real. Kenneth Williams rather than Franklin Roosevelt spoke with more relevance about Blair’s real predicament. Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy.

Ipswich Killer: “By yesterday morning, having murdered five women, I found the amalgamated union of right-thinking people all seemed to agree that killing them was wrong. Count me out of this facile consensus!” Yes, I know it’s tasteless. I know it’s not serious. But if seriousness and good taste are what Kettle defines them to be – and we’ll get to that – you can, ah, count me out of this facile consensus. “Seriousness”, “responsibility”, “consensus” – these are all words that are very useful translations of “in the interests of power”. Kettle:

The government has accumulated many failings over the years. Yet it is not alone. Especially since the 2005 general election, much of the wider political culture, of which the media also forms part, has failed too. As a society, we seem to be living through a collective suspension of seriousness about how politics and government should be carried out in modern Britain. This is doing sustained damage to our ability to think clearly about what we expect from politicians and ministers. Of course, some of this deepening disengagement and cynicism is the government’s doing. But it is time there was more honesty and self-criticism about the role of the wider political culture too.

The issues of the week exemplify what’s wrong. Yes, it is embarrassing that a serving prime minister should be questioned in Downing Street as part of a criminal investigation into political donations. And yes, part of the issue lies in the way Blair leads his party and his government. 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 in a rapidly changing world. We wish for the end, but persistently ignore the means. Yet with a general election to fight in 2005, the parties had to act. The rest of us can afford to hold our noses. The parties needed big money in the bank. In that sense, Blair is a victim of our collective failure, not the perpetrator of his own individual one.

Note the tropes of establishment journalism, the false balancing (yes, the government has failed, but so has the media, and apparently the nation, every man jack of us, too, so no-one is responsible), the false generalisation that lumps the government in with the opposition, the politician and the bureaucrat with the journalist and the activist, the worker and the boss. Everyone is to blame, so nobody is responsible – it’s not new, but it’s effective, something bound to go over well at the Glasgow Empire.

So, what would have happened if all of us – tweed-makers on Harris, tarts in Ipswich, programmers in Reading, immigrant cleaners in the West End, unemployed ex-miners in Featherstone, BAE bagmen in Mayfair (they have rights too!) – had bent our minds to designing a state funding scheme for political parties? Precisely nothing, if the government had not wanted to find parliamentary time for a bill to make it so. Let’s be clear: Tony Blair did not find the parliamentary time for such, and he’s the man who decides. Of course, the opposition could have, but they didn’t – and do you think the Government would have voted with them?

The parties had to act, the poor dears. Well, they could have cut down on TV and billboard display ads, on tele-harassment, and sent the MPs to hammer the streets more. Perhaps they might have had to reconsider their policies, if they had discovered a lack of activists. Perhaps, with less money for neat debate-framing tricks and mass bullshit, we might have had some token of a real debate on institutions, aims and values. Who knows? Instead, they accepted bribes.

Or take the BAE Systems inquiry. Yes, it is humiliating that a multi-million pound corruption investigation should be pulled in the interests of keeping onside with the Saudis. Lord Goldsmith’s announcement that the rule of law at home has to be sacrificed to our failing foreign policy entanglements will haunt him – though he also says, and it can’t be merely ignored, that he thinks a prosecution would fail. The whole saga underlines that close relations with the House of Saud come at a price – which others remain happy to pay – that is neither politically perverse nor materially trivial. Oil supplies matter. Middle Eastern peace, stability and security matter, even though, Lord knows, we get these things badly wrong. 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.

So – it is wrong to kill the SFO inquiry, our foreign policy is failing, Goldsmith will be “haunted” (may I suggest a donation to Combat Stress? some people have had to do more haunting things than give the Prime Minister what he wants, when he wants it), but nobody should be responsible. Trebles all round. We don’t import very much oil, although we will more and more, and Saudi Arabia is not the obvious place to get it (Norway isn’t far). Obviously, if they were to stop exporting, the price would shoot through the roof – but why, pray, would they do that rather than just buying French?

The TYR research staff recently did a simulation of Saudi Arabia stopping oil exports, and we gave up at the point where the king was lynched by a screaming mob. It is not, by the way, beyond the bounds of possibility that they might export a lot less in the future simply because they run out – perhaps a more useful topic to direct a national newspaper column at. Anyway, “Middle Eastern peace, stability and security”? Have these ever been served by sending more guns? Is Tony Blair really the best man to ask what might lead to them? (After all, Lord knows, we get these things badly wrong.) And these jobs? Well, the aircraft being sold to Saudi Arabia are the ones the RAF was told it couldn’t have by the Treasury. They are not additional airframes. Had Lord Drayson not signed his historic piece of paper with Lockheed – on the same day! – they might have gone to the Navy. BAE would have got rid of them somehow.

Similar realities dog every decision across the political board. It’s what politics and government are about. Expand our airports or keep them as they are? Things to be said on both sides. Close down lots of barely used post offices or maintain them as a community resource? Pros and cons again. But in the end, decisions must be made. I think the way we raise political donations is wrong. I think the government should not have killed the BAE probe, especially, post-Iraq, for security reasons. But I can see what was at stake, and even respect its seriousness. The bigger the issue, the bigger the stakes and consequences, as John Major rightly said about withdrawal from Iraq yesterday.

This is not to maunder about how difficult everything is. It is to insist that we must not oversimplify. For the past five years, far too much of the British political conversation – disproportionately dominated, as ever, by the educated middle class of both right and left – has been reduced to an assumption of contempt and superiority, above all towards Blair himself, but also towards the Labour government and to politics in general. This is both wrong and dangerous. Our politics has never been as sleazy as we pretend, either in the Major years or now. Our politicians are not moral pygmies. Ultimately such talk paves the way for a Le Pen or a Pinochet – or worse. We may be drifting towards such a point.

Worse than Pinochet? Worse than thousands of dead, 40 per cent unemployment, electric shocks, death squads sent abroad? Apparently, we now have a duty as citizens to forget our citizenship, to ask no questions, to help the enlightened ones (and who the hell are they but the educated middle class?) in power in their aims – or face the slide to fascism.

The bigger the issue, the bigger the stakes and consequences. Very true. Doesn’t that mean that “the issue” affects all the citizens? Kettle seems to argue that the more important something is, the less scrutiny is required. This is roughly how the state functions, anyway – it is true that planning decisions in local councils go through tortuous examination and careful precautions against corruption, and civil servants’ mileage expenses are scrupulously audited. But the odd open-ended guerrilla war goes through on the nod. This is, at a deep level, the whole Kettle argument – that pomposity sanctifies. He argues that

The continuing and inevitable disappointments of the last decade have been legion. Thursday was a shabby day.

But:

It is whether the particular record of compromises and best efforts that they make over a generation means that they have passed on a better country than the one they inherited.

So if the disappointments were legion, surely things ain’t quite just so peachy as all that? Ah, no. We are the adults, and we know best. We are Serious. The rest of you refuse to realise our problems. You ought to be grateful. Peter Hennessy remarked, apparently, that all British males are products of empire. Kettle, here, is a very specific one. He is the Sirkar, the “ruler as the gift of God” in the Moghul honorific hijacked by the Indian Civil Service.


  1. Anonymous

    thank you.
    I’ve been in a state of incoherent rage since I read this inadequate wankers miserable excuse for an article this afternoon. I started an LTE, but had to give up as I was giving myself a headache and it was mostly swearing.

    glingle

  2. Anonymous

    What I particularly liked about Kettle’s elitist, faux-hand-wringing apologia for various violations of basic democratic values was the excuse for the loans for peerages scandal, which basically ran, you – the public for whom we bear this terrible white man’s burden of moral difficulty – didn’t love us enough, and didn’t give us enough money, so we had to sell ourselves on the street to the highest bidder. As if the question of why exactly people are not giving money or time to political parties, or why it costs so much more to run an election campaign which engages with the public than it used to, did not exist.

  1. 1 Money « Alternate Seat of TYR

    […] consider the BAE Systems case and, of course, Anthony Bailey, the lobbyist who integrated the Labour Party’s finances, the […]




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