Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Rum thing, politics

Speaking as someone who was born into a political family and imbibed politics if not with her mother’s milk, at least with that nasty milky ersatz coffee I was given as a wee child, I still find it difficult to accept how little politicians understand of the process and, especially, of the ideas.

I thought of that again yesterday for two reasons. One was reading Lord Gilmour’s obituary, of which more later, and the other an almost routine call from the BBC Russian Service, asking if I would take part in a discussion about Gordon Brown.

Having agreed, I asked rather cautiously what aspect of Gordon Brown they wanted to discuss, there being next to nothing one could say about him. (Except that he clearly knows nothing about economics.)

It was, of course, Brown’s speech to the Labour Party Conference, his first as Prime Minister and, therefore, of great importance [sic]. My first contribution to the discussion was to point out that one cannot possibly pretend that there is anything new or earth-shattering about the Brown government. Not only is it the continuation of the Blair government but Brown was the Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years and, therefore, any decision taken would have had his participation and approval. He was not some junior bug.

Thus, his rather bathetic pronouncement about this country being Britain and not Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland (even the Russian commentators knew why he was saying that) would have sounded a tad better if he had not been a willing participant in the devolution process. It misfired as far as the Labour Party is concerned and that is tough luck but I am not impressed by the whining.

The discussion from various parts of the world went on for a little while with all of us trying to say something useful about Gordon Brown and failing. The BBC Russian Service’s Economic Editor maintained that the economic outlook is very rosy except for the people who have got into debt. I was not sure whether she was being ironic.

Then I found out to my horror and, indeed, astonishment that Professor Geoffrey Hosking, at present the best historian of Russia in this country, is actually a member of the Lib-Dims. I shall never be able to take his account of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great seriously again. I shall simply remember him blathering about Gordon Brown ignoring the most important issues like global warming and how terrible it is that the government wants to expand airports, as that will increase the warming.

So much for Professor Hosking. None of this can alter the fact that this was one of the most content-free vacuous political speeches of modern times and that is saying something.

What did we have? No clear indication about foreign policy. We still do not know what the long-term plan is for the British participation in the war on terror or, for that matter, continuing involvement in the Balkans.

No indication as to how he views relationship with other countries such as the United States or any other Anglospheric country although ISN Security Watch continues to perceive a British move away from close American partnership. This is not based on the speech but on other indicators, none of which are completely clear-cut and none of which have been either confirmed or denied in that first speech as Prime Minister.

What else? Reversal of the 24-hour licensing. Gosh, that is so exciting. It made no difference and its reversal will make none. Who on earth cares? Then bleating about the NHS and how it deserves all our support plus, presumably, yet more billions of our money thrown after all the money he had already pushed in that direction. This time it was because the NHS had saved Gordon Brown’s sight; last time it was because they had cared so devotedly for his unfortunate daughter, who died within a few days of being born. (So far as one can tell, it was not the fault of the health service but, nevertheless, that sort of emotionalism is no basis for policy-making.)

Oh yes, and he pledged that cleaners who do not do their work properly will have their contracts ended. Fantastic. I wonder why nobody thought of that before. Come to think of it, I wonder why nobody thought of what Joseph Lister knew about 150 years ago (and he was not the first) that cleanliness in hospital wards prevents growth of infection. In other words, ladies and gentlemen of the medical and nursing professions, wash your hands.

A war will be waged on gun crime. Right. And how is that going to happen? Yes, we can go back to the SUS laws until there is another outcry but how are we going to cope with the problems with our youngsters? Any ideas of reform in the educational structure? I fear not.

So it goes on. Many references to Britain and Britishness and the need for aspirations to be fulfilled and blah-blah-blah. What we had nothing on is how any of it can be achieved. At the end of that speech we still know nothing about our new Prime Minister except for the fact that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer he clearly knew nothing about economics.

There are rumours going round that other speakers at the Conference were told to keep their speeches short and as boring as possible, not to compete with the Leader. If David Miliband’s speech is anything to go by, the instructions have been well internalized, though Neil Kinnock appears to be unable to control his Welsh hysterics.

So there we are, a completely vacuous speech by the new Prime Minister who just happens to have been the Chancellor of the Exchequer under his predecessor, promising all the things that predecessor promised but did not achieve, laced with lots of references to Britishness and supposed middle-England values. That’s politics?

Apparently yes, if one is to believe the media, with all but the Sun maundering on about Gordon Brown appealing to middle England. That would be the middle England that has seen more of its income being taken away in taxes to be spent on the unproductive public sector; its pension funds raided; its financial arrangements undermined and destroyed; its children’s education becoming so expensive as to be unaffordable; and so on, and so on.

Why, precisely, do we accept this sort of drivel as the pronouncements of a politician? Why not simply have articles such as this: “Today (or yesterday) the Prime Minister made a speech in which he managed to say nothing of any significance, repeated everything that has been said for the last ten years and produced no policies that could actually be analyzed. Nobody in their right mind would consider voting for this drivel.” Then they could fill the rest of the space, allocated to the PM’s drivel speech to something more important or interesting.

By the time of Gordon Brown’s speech I had already read the obituaries of Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar. Here is one and a very fine example of mealy-mouthed nonsense it is, too. Actually, the Telegraph was relatively sane. The others really went overboard, praising a man who was wrong on just about every issue, the one exception, for some reason, being his stance in the Cold War. He did, it seems, oppose the Warsaw Pact and was a staunch supporter of the Western alliance, though one suspects, that did not extend to being a staunch or any other kind of supporter of NATO or the USA.

For the rest, he was the epitome of “wetness” in the Thatcher years. It might be worth asking oneself what that “wetness” or one nation Toryism actually consisted of. David Cameron and his cohorts are a fine example of that world-view.

It sounds good in that people can say that they mean terribly well by everyone else but, in fact, it is a denial of freedom and real equality – of opportunity. Ian Gilmour was a rich toff and thought that he had a duty to look after people less fortunate than himself, as long as they stayed in their allotted social position. The vulgarity of a grocer’s daughter becoming Prime Minister gave him the vapours.

People like Norman Tebbit, his superior in every political sense, nearly made him faint. One can almost see Sir Ian waving a handkerchief in front of his nose when the brilliant working class lads of the Institute of Economic Affairs came anywhere near him. “Free market policies? Oh my dear, the people!”

It is very reassuring to know that this close associate of Lord Carrington’s was wrong on various other issues as well:
At the Foreign Office Gilmour worked on a number of projects for which he was personally enthusiastic and the outcomes of which he regarded as successes. Despite fierce attacks from the Right of his own party he played a leading role in the Lancaster House talks, complaining of Rhodesia's Prime Minister Ian Smith that "his trouble is that he doesn't understand Africans". Gilmour rejected arguments that Mugabe's victory was a defeat for the West. He also worked hard to bring the PLO back into negotiations about the Middle East, being a convinced anti-Zionist.
Incidentally, one wonders just how well Gilmour understood “Africans” and what he thought of those that were tortured, starved and murdered by Mugabe? Presumably, he saw them as delightful children to be humoured or told off as he saw fit. And, without getting into any debates about Ian Smith here, one must point out that he, too, was a vulgarian.

Extraordinarily enough, this prime example of everything that is wrong with the Establishment of this country (many of whom are very different, to be fair) was actually considered by some to be a possible leader in place of Margaret Thatcher. Pathetic.

Ah but, but, but … he was such a gentleman. He never sulked (unlike his leader Edward Heath) or said really nasty things about the woman he disliked so much.
But he always made sure to conduct rebellion with good grace and charm, and, unlike many of his colleagues who had suffered the same fate, never showed any public signs of being the "bad loser". Perhaps because he never allowed himself to become embittered by his failure to influence the policies of the Thatcher government, he remained active in the Commons long after all his contemporary "wets" had either left or gone to the House of Lords.
He was quite nasty enough in his own superior fashion but, in any case, is that really a reason for journalists and obituary writers to get all soppy about him? Is this really what politics is about?