Rotten from the bottom up

This is part two and a counterpart to yesterday’s blog post, “Rotten from the top down

Yesterday I had a good long rant about the political system and “those at the top”. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of examples of this poverty of progressive ideas at the bottom.

Here’s one. Last week the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI announced a visit to the United Kingdom later this year. Almost immediately the National Secular Society came up with a petition that the Vatican should pay for the cost of the security for the trip. I voiced my unease at the whole thing on Twitter and promptly provoked a strong reaction from others.

For the record, I’m a sky fairy-averse atheist with strong views on a secular society; I think the Lords Spiritual should be scrapped, the state should stop funding religious schools and the ‘religious hatred’ laws repealed. But even I think that throwing a hissy fit and demanding that the Pope pay his own way is reactionary idiocy of the most backwards kind.

Let’s get out of the way first the obvious – the Pope is both a head of state and head of a religion and convention is that host states provide security for visiting dignitaries, regardless of whether it’s an official visit or not; indeed states are obliged to ensure the safety of any foreign visitor – tourists are protected by our laws and justice system, and don’t get billed by the police if they are in need of assistance. To demand that someone be barred from this country unless they pay extra, purely because you don’t like their beliefs, is as backwards and discriminatory as the Pope’s own views on homosexuality.

Quite apart from the double standard, the real idiocy is that the basis for this objection is not the principle, but the attitude: “Well, I’m a taxpayer, I don’t like it, so why should I pay for it?” Because once you start to think about it, there are lots of things your tax money goes on that you’d rather not be spent. Personally speaking, I’d rather we didn’t spend money on subsidising the arms trade, illegal invasions of Middle Eastern countries, or on an ID card system that won’t work.

But in each of these cases, the fact that money spent on them isn’t the basis of my objection to them. Why I object to is the affront to my principles and the consequences of those policies, whether it’s the the needless deaths of foreign civilians or the continued intrusion into our lives or the adoption of useless technologies. The money “I” have spent on it is secondary. Of course, tax money should be spent as efficiently as possible and those in charge of it must be held to account, especially when the sums are in the billions or more. But the debate on how to allocate resources should be based on the costs and the benefits, not merely on the snark “well this is going to cost me money, isn’t it?”

(Aside: it goes without saying we can never perfectly foresee all the costs, benefits and consequences of every government policy; but we should at least try our best to properly plan and account, else there’s no point to doing anything at all, ever).

This money-obsessed reactionary griping has its roots in Daily Mail-land, with endless stories of what you will have to pay, even if it’s being spent on people you don’t like. This is often cheerfully fuelled by mendacious right-wing think-tank, the Taxpayers Alliance. Of course they don’t represent all taxpayers (I don’t ever remember signing up to join them), and some of them don’t even pay tax themselves. The TPA’s aim isn’t to debate about what tax should be spent on, but to avoid paying tax as much as possible, and these “what a disgraceful waste of your money” stories are the easiest ways to get the misanthropic, aggrieved and generally selfish on their side.

This obsession with “why should I pay rather than them?”, rather than the reasons for how the money should (or should not) be spent for the national good, ends up poisoning the entire discourse. No government is ever going to spend every penny in a way that is agreeable to any specific person. And once you start picking at something you dislike, focusing on the cost rather than any of the reasons for actually having it, then anything is fair game. You end up not only obsessing about every aspect of government spending that displeases you but anyone’s spending whatsoever, whether its lottery funds or a public figure. You even start joylessly complaining about how much a spell of snow or a Friday off work will cost the economy.

Why do people do this? Well, paying tax is not like going to the supermarket. You can’t pick or choose which bits of the budget you’d like to support; the system is designed to cater for the things the market alone cannot fairly or sufficiently provide. The means of control and influence on this process is not as simple as switching brand of washing powder or baked beans, and for ordinary people it’s often a lot less direct and timely – whether it’s the ballot box, petition, the media, a pressure group or writing to your MP or another way.

And this is where the web comes along. The web’s instantness and wide audience create a natural home for venting impotent rage at the powers-that-be. An indignant “why should I pay?” on BBC Have Your Say or the Number 10 Petitions site is an easy and quick way of connecting yourself with a policy and its consequences. Garnering a rapid response of agreement from like-minded knee-jerk reactionaries acts as a soothing substitute for the lack of timely action through the more traditional channels.

To be fair, the political system is partly to blame for this lack of proper response. But by playing along with it, the antagonists are playing their part in debasing the debate. Crying about how it will cost you money is not only self-indulgent, but solipsistic; putting the cost to you at the centre of the debate precludes any sort of intelligent discussion about what the actual policy is, what the costs are to the country as a whole, what the benefits and savings are, who the beneficiaries are, what the cost of inaction is, or what better alternatives there could be.

This is probably a deliberate tactic by those who choose to do it. With many of the examples of it in action, whether it’s paying for the Pope’s security, fighting global warming, housing asylum seekers or having a day off work, the objectors are conveniently avoiding examining the issue or any sort of structured argument for their stance; resorting to the objection that this is costing them and they are outraged acts as a convenient smokescreen for their own prejudices.

And most ironically of all, by whinging about the costs and not the reasoning behind the policy, it’s also the surest way of making sure ideas and policies never get challenged or changed. Which might suit you fine, if you’re the kind of person who thinks moaning about your tax bill alone counts as a reasoned opinion, and if it weren’t for that would probably struggle to validate your political stance, or even your very existence. But I’d expect more from progressives and secularists than I do Daily Mail readers – sadly it seems in this case they’re slipping the same way.

Rotten from the top down

This is one of a pair of related posts, the other is called “Rotten from the bottom up

I got into a political argument the other day. I don’t often do it these days, and looking back on it, I now know why – there is a poverty of ideas at the top when it comes to political debate.

I was talking to an assistant to a backbench Conservative MP who demanded to know that, as I held leftist and socialist principles, why I didn’t I always vote Labour. My answer, that I will stop voting for a party that abandons the principles I believe in, was met with accusations I was a floating voter. On hearing I used to live in Scotland, the demand changed to why I didn’t vote the ‘Scottish socialist alternative’ in the SNP; the fact I never would because I don’t believe in an independent Scotland, was met with further mocking of my flaky political worldview that was incapable of identifying with a political party and that I was incapable of influencing the process of political power.

Naïve though they were, it did betray an interesting example of how still the party political world works from an insider’s point of view. You’re poor or leftie, you must vote Labour. You’re rich or rectionary, you must vote Tory. You’re moderate on everything, vote Lib Dem. You live in Scotland, vote SNP. The prevalence of all of these stereotypes who how irredeemably tribal political parties are, and the discourse of modern politics bears this out – inevitably, come any political talking point on the television and radio, the discussion will soon become tainted with one side labelling it as “typical Labour” or “typical Tories”.

Take the recent bit of puerile and light-hearted fun, the mashups & spoofs of the new David Cameron poster on MyDavidCameron. Of course, it wasn’t long before it was picked up by left-wing bloggers and some of the spoofs were by Labour supporters, but for once the Labour party never attempted to own or control it officially. Inevitably, however, was the reframing by Conservative supporters as a Labour-backed smear, even though the site’s designer, Clifford Singer, has no political party affiliation; headlines such as “Who’s the nasty party now?” started appearing, and it provoke this hilarious, if it wasn’t be so tragic, riposte from an unnamed (as always) ‘senior Tory source‘:

“It’s typical that Labour felt they needed to airbrush our poster with this trickery. Clearly Labour spin is alive and well.”

It’s argument by numbers. It’s lazy, cynical and so typical of the day-to-day political discourse of British politics. Of course, this kind of tribalism in British politics isn’t a modern phenomenon; the adversarial nature of the House of Commons and a winner-takes-all approach to elections means it’s a practically inevitable feature, not a bug. But what has been a contemporary phenomenon is that increasingly, there is so little to split the parties, in terms of both their policies and the way they conduct themselves.

Take, for example, this gem from Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling at the last Conservative party conference (sorry for the anti-Tory bias in this post, by the way, but fuck it, there’s no better time to kick someone than when they’re on the up). News has just broken that former defence chief General Richard Dannatt has been signed up by team Cameron and promised a future ministerial role; Grayling mishears the interviewer and thinks that he has been signed up to join Gordon Brown’s cabinet and, well see for yourself:

There are three things that make this execrably awful for any intelligent observer. The first is the monotonously-delivered mix & match soundbite at the start – several easily-identifiable components assembled without thought. It starts with a fawning tribute to the military, something which is compulsory whenever discussing Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s followed by the mealy-mouthed “I hope this isn’t a gimmick”, when the truth is he’d love it more than anything else in the world to be a gimmick. Then there’s putting the boot in properly at the opposition’s tactics – Gordon Brown and his PR and the government’s suspicious motives.

The second, and arguably worse, thing is his retracting in the second half of the clip. He knew he’d been made to look like an utter tit. He knew he’d been found out. And yet he still had the barefaced cheek to say he was ‘delighted’ rather than sceptical by the appointment and he regretted that he couldn’t have given a ‘more enthusiastic’ welcome – when he had been nothing but enthusiastic to put the boot in on first mishearing the news.

Thirdly, and finally, and this is worse in a different way, is that the context behind the gaffe. It doesn’t matter which party is which. Both Brown and Cameron have made it clear they like appointing of unelected experts to their cabinets; both party machines know the value of a publicity stunt, and both parties have stock phrases for attacking each other for doing so. So no wonder Grayling thought it might have been a Labour stunt rather than a Tory one; and the same could equally happen in reverse – substitute ‘David Cameron’ in for ‘Gordon Brown’ and ‘opposition’ for ‘government’ and you have a Labour frontbencher attacking the Tories. It’s almost too easy to picture.

This comes at an odd time in politics, as the economy begins to recover from the most destructive bubble and bust of modern times. Often, one of the the legacies of economic and political crises is that new political lines and ideologies form; yet in the uneasy atmosphere after the crash, there has been no hardening of political divisions or clear water put between parties. If anything they have become closer; the coming election will be fought largely by politicians all promising the same thing – Cameron’s original pre-mockery poster promise has little difference to what the other parties are offering – public services good, public debt bad. During the MP’s expenses scandal, politicians of all colours were the subject of public scorn and rage – “they are all the same” was the common refrain.

The post-Thatcher economic model that has dominated the 1990s and 2000s relied on creating growth from ever-increasing levels of debt – either borrowings to be spent on consumer goods, or heavily leveraging that debt to buy businesses and homes – often to be paid for not by the future income from those investments, but on the capital gains from their putative rise in value. It didn’t just keep the banks in gravy and swell the Treasury’s coffers with tax receipts in the 1990s and 2000s, it was also what millions of Britons did to get rich as well; often the same middle-income swing voter Britons that political parties need to appeal to, and it is exactly this tame and materialistic worldview was what David Cameron was aiming for when he gave this speech a fortnight ago:

A fair society is one where everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a chance to fulfil their dreams whether that’s owning a bigger house, taking a holiday abroad, buying a new car or starting a small business.

Actually, I lied. He didn’t say that. Gordon Brown said it. But it doesn’t really matter who did – that’s the point. With no ideological or visionary differences within mainstream British politics, and with traditional political grassroots seemingly abandoned for millionaire’s favours, what we’re left with is politicians competing for the right to manage the country and at best tinker with an economic model that almost destroyed itself. The differences are tokenistic at best (viz. the Lib Dems’ laughably populist and unworkable mansion tax) and leave a vacuum where other questions are unanswered. Is this really the best we can do? Are the ideals of the politicians’ middle-class managerialist culture all that we have left to aspire to?

Of course the politicians we elect should be reasonably competent at running things (although the onus should really be much more on the civil servants that execute their policy on a day-to-day basis, and the politicians’ skills in delegating). The problem is when management becomes not just one quality in a government, but championed as the sole quality for our politicians. We end up confusing good management with good governance, which in turns lead to a political class over-managing, convinced that their desired outcome is possible; if you could just get the system right, everybody will fall in line just right (vis. George Osborne’s love affair with behavioural economics). Those that get forgotten in all this are the actual people who you’re elected to serve – they will end being nothing more than datapoints, catalogued, indexed, surveilled and treated as statistics and targets to be logged in league tables, often at great cost and with little success (take the ongoing ID card and NHS IT system debacles).

The systems that the post-Thatcher consensus created have broken badly. So far in Britain there is little political will to reform them, or many of the other aspects of our society that need fixing or preparation for change ahead – I’ve talked about the economy but it could equally be global warming, energy security, an ageing population, the digital revolution, the rise of rival developing economies. Qualities such as creativity, bluntness, open-mindedness, humility and independence have largely become absent from politicians (of course, there are of course honourable exceptions, but none of them sit on the front benches) and they are essential for the challenges that lie ahead.

But let’s not blame it on them. We get the politicians we deserve, we elected the ones who conformed to the post-Thatcher consensus that was good while it lasted and we ignored the hidden pitfalls. Now those pitfalls are apparent, it’s time to start reconsidering the whole deal.