Thursday, 4 February 2010

Question times

We're going through one of the periodic phases of being down on our politics. Personally, I feel sure that overlong exposure to G..... B....* would make me physically ill; an unprecedented danger. And then there's all the other stuff: expenses, lies, irresponsibility and so on.

But despite our justifiable despondency, it's important to keep things in perspective. There are some things we do well. Or at least things that other people think we do well.

Firstly, Prime Minister's Question Time. No, it's probably not what it was. But nevertheless, others are seeking to emulate it.

Obama took questions for over an hour from Republican Congressmen last week and the process was so enlightening - he shredded his opponents' threadbare points - that there's a web campaign to introduce an official and regular 'President's Question Time'. This sort of face-to-face dialogue is seen as a way to get at the sometimes elusive truth. I would guess this is especially valuable in an environment where TV news is so politicised (mind you, Fox cut away from last weeks Q&A, presumably because what was happening didn't fit their remorseless anti-Obama narrative).

Secondly, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. I went to a birthday party last weekend and got talking to the French parents of my eldest son's new best friend. Unprompted, they expressed their surprise that Blair, a former Prime Minister, should have to give an account of himself in such public and thorough fashion. They said they couldn't imagine that happening in France and thought it very creditable. Some American commentators have also been complimentary about it too.

There's been a lot of knocking of the Chilcot process as being overly soft (personally I would have liked to have seen a more forthright approach at times, and from others rather than just from Sir Roderic Lyne - perhaps a different eponymous chair?). But at least it's happening. And we should resist being too judgmental until the report is out.

We might hold our leaders to account imprecisely, sporadically and sometimes noisily. But at least we do it and in direct, public fashion. To adapt Dr Johnson: a powerful British politician's ritual grilling is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but some are surprised to find it done at all.

One factor that helps us in this - certainly versus France and the US - is the leader of our executive branch not being the head of state. You don't have to be restrained by much ex-officio respect for G..... B.... as he doesn't embody the state or the country. As Robin Day said he's one of those 'transient, here-today...gone-tomorrow politicians'. And tomorrow can't come quickly enough.

* Nige appears to have adopted the habit of not spelling his name out. I think this is a good stress-reducing idea. If only I could get him pixilated whenever he appeared on TV too.


Recusant said...

Very good point about the PM being the mere leader of the Executive. France and the US in particular, but many others as well who share the role with being Head of State, frequently suffer from a paralysing schizophrenia in their attitude to the holder of the combined role.

Thank God for unelected, hereditary and totally random heads of State, eh?

worm said...

"A politician, a dog and a walnut tree, the more you beat them, the better they be"

Gaw said...

Recusant: The monarchy is an enormous political blessing that is rarely recognised as such.

Worm: Can we replace 'dog' with 'egg'?

Brit said...

Have you noticed that Republicanism hasn't been on the agenda for years. Also a written constitution. Both terrible ideas obviously.

For what it's worth, i think this inquiry is a total waste of time because we've already had a few hundred haven't we? But yes, it's good that we do these things in principle.

Gaw said...

I'm beginning to see the Inquiry as a good thing in itself. The whole tenor is that these people are answerable and not just to effing God. And if it humbles them just a little, it's worth doing.

Anonymous said...

Yes and no. Sure, accountability, especially for dishonesty, is something we rightly demand of politicians, but in the age of the Net, blogging, YouTube, etc., all of which can combine into a sanctimonious ideologial steamroller, it is becoming problematic whether any context can be injected into these inquiries, or whether more than a very few can see through the rhetorical gobbledegook swirling around them. None of us could survive the kind of microscopic and very public analysis of our lives well-funded American special prosecutors subject public officials to. I have noticed over here a sharp decline in the number of well-known, qualified people willing to stand for public office in recent years, and I suspect this is playing a role.

From what I have read about Blair & co. in your media, I gather the meme that the war was "illegal" is fast approaching received truth? How many people understand that this shibboleth represents, not any credible, authoritative legal decision that so pronounced after carefully weighing both sides, but largely the pontificatings of anti-Western UN committees, European academics and NGOs?

We have just had a brouhaha here about whether Canadian troops in Afghanistan have handed over Afghan prisoners to the Afghans knowing torture was likely. A parliamentary committee was looking into it, embarassing memos disclosed, etc. and the media was all over it. Fair enough, but the obvious excitement and glee with which the opposition and its backers were imagining Canadian troops--any Canadian troops--charged with "war crimes", even though none of them tortured anyone, was revolting. These would be the same people who just a few years ago were insisting our involvement should be as nation-builders in partnership with the hosts.

No easy answer, I suppose, except to pour a stiff one and once again ponder the end of civilization as we know it.

Gaw said...

Yes and no.

That's hardly getting into the right adversarial spirit, Peter!

I think all this additional analysis is helping keep politicians honest. Some of our present scandals and disappointments have arisen because of greater knowledge rather than worse behaviour (but certainly not all).

There seems to be no shortage of able people wanting to become politicians over here - in time-honoured fashion we're just about to witness the latest Oxford generation swoop down onto the mouldering body politic.

Legal, schmegal. If it is gaining the status of received truth, it's not making any difference. The general public rightly doesn't care. And I would have thought the one way to drum up some sympathy for Blair would be to try to prosecute him in some way. He may be a total shit, but he's our total shit so lay off! Sort of thing.

As with all these shouters about 'international law' I'm inclined to wonder how many divisions they have.

Brit said...

You're right, Peter, about the 'illegal' business becoming received wisdom. Makes me want to reach for the revolver. Totally meaningless, a legal or illegal war. It's either justified or it isn't. (Removing Saddam was justified, much of the pre-war spin and the post-war bodging wasn't, and that's that. Time to move on, surely)

Anonymous said...

Gaw, I can't tell you what a relief it is to hear all that. Let us pour a stiff one and celebrate the resiliency of civilization as we know it!

Anonymous said...


I would love to argue that case for Blair. I can think of at least three causi belli (?) well-established in international law. He tried to assassinate Bush Sr., he was paying bounty to the families of terrorists and he was committing genocide against the Kurds.

Plus, even if Bush and Blair were a little loose with the intelligence about WMDs, the guy who was telling the black whoppers was Saddam. The case for illegality is based on the principle that if a mad tyrant threatens to shower you with his chemicals and germs, you have an obligation to verify independantly whether he actually has any or is just playing silly buggar.

Finally, the most astounding thing about all of this is a piece of history that has been cropped from the record the way the Soviets altered photos in the 30's. Does anyone remember that two days before the invasion, Bush made a very public ultimatum stating there would be no invasion if Saddam and his sons resigned.

Brit said...

Also, Blair himself stated that Saddam could prevent the invasion if he resigned or opened up about the WMDs.

Recusant said...

If I hear Jon Snow et al talk about the illegality of the war I shall scream. What the **** is international law? Where is its legislature? Its police? Its courts?

Oh, I see. It's just a hodge-podge of treaties, with some UN abstractions thrown in; a police force provided by the US, because no one else will pay for the full costs of policing the world', and a sort-of court in the Hague which is distinguished by its ineptitude.

There ain't no such thing as international law.

Vern said...

I don't think he shredded their points on healthcare... Obama as usual was talking shite on that subject. Rather he read a precis of Rep suggestions and pretended it was their actual policies. And was called out on it.

Not that I'm saying their policies are necessarily good ones but they can at least be understood (tort reforms, competition across state lines etc). Obama himself, one year in and after making 40 odd speeches still can't articulate what his reform is supposed to do. Other than force people to buy policies they are currently not buying because they can't afford them. Which is a shit policy that is unsupported by the majority.

Rather amusingly, a Democrat polling operation recently discovered that 49% of the population trust Fox more than any other station. Meanwhile only 20% of the population is registered Republican and numerous of those polled who were pro-Fox were Democrats.

Morons like Hannity are obviously demagogues, but the channel functions as a necessary corrective to all the others which are shamelessly shilling for Obama. The US news is all scandalously biased, not just Fox, they are merely more entertaining. You really should try watching Olbermann, or Rachel Maddow or Chris Matthews some day.

And as for cutting away from the Big O... all the other channels declined to broadcast Scott Brown's victory speech in Massachusetts which was of course a crushing humiliation for Obama. The propaganda cuts both ways.

Hey Skipper said...

I think all this additional analysis is helping keep politicians honest.

So long as all this analysis actually considers the options on offer at the time.

And consider:

-- Does anyone wish Saddam was still running Iraq?

-- The Iranian nuclear weapons program if Saddam was still in power.

The the Bagehot column in the latest Economist pretty much excoriated Blair, while not spending a syllable on an alternative.

The very next article in the magazine was a longish one about Al Qaeda, and had a fairly lengthy list of things that had weakened it over the last five years.

Without once acknowledging that toppling Saddam was in indispensable precondition to all of them.

Gaw said...

Vern: From what O said at this Q&A he's willing to take on tort reform and also inter-state competition as long is it doesn't result in cherry-picking. Did you see it?

I think such a high proportion of Americans trusting Fox is another indication that a good proportion of them seem to have gone nuts. They're against the current imposition of Marxist-Leninism and for torture.

I don't know about Scott Brown but surely the President - in a unique interaction with the entire Republican caucus - is worth showing? Especially, one would have thought, if like Fox you might be expected to believe it would show Obama up.

Skip: I agree with all you say. My beef with the Iraq War - and one that I wish the committee would focus more on - is the lack of post-war planning and the naive expectations that prevailed. It's not as if people weren't warning about what might happen. Blair is hugely culpable in this area. And this lack of appreciation for execution and old-fashioned governance is the main reason I think he's full of it.

Vern said...

Yes I know he's saying that now, after spending a year studiously not doing it. Howard Dean admitted the Dems weren't touching tort reform because their biggest donors are trial lawyers. QED. It's bogus on the part of O to pretend it was the Republicans who brought down his healthcare plan- he couldn't muster the votes in his own party, and so cut several indefensible deals to try and get it through, and then lost everything when he lost Massachusetts and lost the super majority. It was bad planning, and a bad plan.

Fox showed most of the broadcast, maybe they should have shown it all. He has been on TV a lot, you know and rarely says anything new. And as for whether it was all that ground breaking- well yes it was interesting, but Massachusetts was JFK's seat, then Ted Kennedy's seat. It was like Texas turning blue, or Saudi Arabia turning Christian. On a political level it was much more important than a bit of play fighting with the Republicans, seismic even- it changed the game entirely.

And Americans watch Fox not because they're nuts, but because it's the only channel that adopts a critical tone towards the president. It's that simple. They don't believe what they're being told elsewhere and are rightly concerned about the massive deficits and spending plans that Obama is putting into practice. Beck and Hannity are hysterical but no more so than the loons on MSNBC, or the Daily kos, of the HuffPo etc. and it was erstwhile Obama voters that ejected the Democrats from Massachusetts. I'd imagine there are very few Glen Beck fans up there. Scott Brown is pro-gay marriage and pro-abortion, so he's hardly Limbaugh material.

The O is really not a very good leader, you know. It's even possible that he is crap at this, even if Glen Beck says so. I think there are many folk out there who wish Hillary was in charge. Even Republicans.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I disagree, I think the term "illegal war" has some worth, in the sense here that the Iraq war was not in conformity with the United Nations charter, and though the UN may not be perfect it may be the best international body we have for deciding such things, and the Iraq invasion diminished its standing. But I think Blair actually acted in good faith - so let him off with a warning?? Fox are simply evil c**ts. My word, Gareth Chilcott should be the director of every inquiry.

jonathan law said...

From the Independent, 29 Jan:

"Donald Rumsfeld weeded out from those going to help the reconstruction of Iraq anyone who could speak Arabic, on the grounds they would be pro-Arab. As a result, it took the Americans 18 months to realise that when marines held up the flat of their hand to oncoming cars to signal them to stop, they were actually using the Iraqi hand-signal for "come forward". That's why so many families in cars were shot."

Can this really be true?

Recusant said...

Jonathan Law.

"Can this really be true?"

I doubt it, given the Independent's form for disinterested accuracy on this matter. If it was in an article by either Fisk or Hari then you can be almost certain that the exact opposite is the truth.

That doesn't, however, absolve Rumsfield from being an arrogant and myopic fool with, to be fair, a good line in quotable aphorisms.

dearieme said...

Blair was banging on about the threat from Iran. Why did no one point out that it would have been quite handy if Saddam Hussein were still in charge of Iraq and therefore available for use against Iran?

Brit said...

Blair addressed that in the Chilcott jamboree - dearieme. His idea was that trying to use genocidal dicatators against each other is a failed policy. Here I agree with him.

But generally, the early noughties were a period of anti-realpolitik.

Gaw said...

Vern: We'll have to agree to differ on Obama. It just looks very different from over here. But then the fact that I'm over here probably makes me unqualified to die in a ditch on this point.

Gadj: I worry about the use of international law. It's so patchy in its applicability and enforceability I wonder whether it obfuscates the real issues which rather than being legal are political, moral and economic (in no particular order).

Jonathan: I've recommended it before either here or elsewhere but read ''Imperial Life in the Emerald City. You'll find more like that, just as bad. It's written by a Time journalist of Indian provenance who doesn't seem to have an axe to grind.

I haven't seen its allegations refuted anywhere. It's one of the most shocking books I've ever read. There was a combination of ideological driven ineptitude plus the transfer of the American spoils system to post-war Iraq.

Recusant: Sorry, I missed your point about international law earlier. As you can see from my answer to Gadjo, I agree with you. It's a bit of an invention to give a cause some external validation - rather like that other spurious system, Natural Law.

Fisk and Hari are in the business of make-believe but just read the 'Imperial Life' book. It will make your moustaches curl.

Dearieme: Perhaps that point is a bit too 'realist' for any politician to make other than Alan Clark?

Anonymous said...


Have you ever heard the old joke about modern education from the fifties about the schoolchild who, trying to avoid a smacking from his father, reassured him that, while it was true he had failed arithmetic, spelling and grammar, he got an A in postwar planning?

Gaw said...

I haven't. I trust the young dilettante was soundly thrashed.