Tag Archives: Politics

When is the right time to criticise?

There was a subtle but distinct shift in the discourse around the coronavirus in the UK over this past weekend. Until now, the overall mood has been one of solidarity – we’re all in this together – as the country has gradually come to terms with lock-down, social distancing, and staying at home to the fullest extent possible. I suspect that for many of us, the initial three weeks of restrictions was approached with a kind of sense of adventure. There was a novelty to not taking the car out, to walking to do the weekly shop, to arranging food deliveries. The extension of the lock-down for a further three weeks has brought home the seriousness of the situation and has acted to some extent as a wake-up call. That this has coincided with moves to lift restrictions in countries like New Zealand, Germany, and Norway who were much quicker to impose restrictions at the outset of the crisis, has contributed to some forensic questioning of the way that the UK government acted in the critical period from January to March. I don’t intend to rehearse those criticisms here (although I have previously posted on the structural failings that have contributed to the shortages of personal protective equipment that are implicated in 70 deaths of medical and care home staff in the UK).

The Sunday Times carried an extensive report on UK government failings in the early stages of the crisis

Rather, I have found it interesting to read some of the responses to the criticism. Whilst the government itself published a detailed response to all of the issues raised by the Sunday Times report, others across social media platforms were strongly of the view that now was completely the wrong time to be criticising the government. Some went so far as to suggest that such criticism was itself likely to undermine efforts to contain the virus in the UK.

It does raise an interesting question about whether suppression of valid criticism of the actions of a government can ever be justified in a democratic society. The UK Prime Minister likes to invoke the bulldog spirit of his political hero Winston Churchill when rousing the UK to put on a brave face and embrace challenges with optimism and faith in our island nation spirit. We saw it in spades in the run up to the December general election when batting away on-going concerns about the prospects of success for a UK economy outwith the European Union. And some that same rhetoric was being employed before Johnson himself was struck down with covid-19. It is sometimes forgotten that it was not Churchill who led the UK into the second world war. Neville Chamberlain was the premier who declared war on the axis powers in September 1939. He was deposed only because criticism over his leadership reached a crescendo that could no longer be ignored. At that time, it was Parliament that was holding the government to account. There were some notable parliamentary speeches outlining the grave responsibility of MPs as critics of the executive. This from Leo Amery MP particularly caught my attention : “If we lose this war, it is not this or that ephemeral government but parliament as an institution that will be condemned, for good and all … This afternoon, as a few days ago, the prime minister gave us a reasoned, argumentative case for our failure. It is always possible to do that after every failure. Making a case and winning a war are not the same thing. Wars are won, not by explanations after the event but by foresight, by clear decision and by swift action. I confess that I did not feel there was one sentence in the prime minister’s speech this afternoon which suggested that the government either foresaw what Germany meant to do, or came to a clear decision when it knew what Germany had done, or acted swiftly or consistently throughout the whole of this lamentable affair.” Substitute the war references with coronavirus, and the parallels in the argument are striking. The fact that parliament is not sitting at all at the moment might explain why there is such a paucity of scrutiny of the government response to coronavirus.

At the same time, forensic analysis of government (in)action in the press and broadcast media has been extremely difficult to come by. This is why the Sunday Times report on 19th April was so jarring. It’s difficult to know why our press and media are generally so toothless when it comes to holding our government to account. One hypothesis, though, is that the media outlets have simply become too close to (and maybe even dependent on) a supply of ‘news’ from government sources. They cannot take on too hostile a stance for fear of losing access to the stories that they now depend on to fill the clamour for 24 hour, 7 day a week rolling content. Journalism is now much less about the story and much more about simply filling the web pages or the rolling news channels. This is the case for all outlets. Have a look at the BBC’s coronavirus updates page as an example. New stories added at the rate of one every two to three minutes from before 9am this morning until the time of writing this post (about 8pm). And yet hardly any of these stories contain any genuine investigative journalism – they are by enlarge rehashed press releases or reports of statements from government spokespeople.

So what are my conclusions? I am convinced that appropriately targeted and properly researched criticism of any government is essential to the proper functioning of any government at any time. I’d go further and suggest that those who suggest that ‘now is not the right time’ do the public a grave disservice, both in terms of closing down legitimate lines of debate and in patronising the wider public who apparently need to be ‘protected’ from the idea that our government may not always get everything right. More than that, though, the mere fact that really good quality critiquing of our government is so rare is itself a shocking indictment of the current state of our parliament and our press – and that is something that we should all be worried about.

Reflection on the UK/US politics in 2019

I’ve tried to steer clear of blogging about politics so far this year. The general election campaign in the UK and the impeachment hearings in the US are dominating the news programmes, and both stories are incredibly depressing. Last Saturday’s Haiku verses seemed to go down well with the reader of this blog, so I’ve used the format to give some form to my thoughts on politics in the UK and US at the moment. I’ve left them as a series, although each is also capable of standing on their own. They’re a bit downbeat and defeatist, I’m afraid, but that’s kind of where my head is with all this at the moment.

Politics '19
On the altar of ego
Truth is sacrificed

Liars parading
Feeding prejudice and fear
Stirring base motives

Immigrants are tarred
Remainers labelled traitors
Others all to blame

Votes can't fix this mess
However you cast your vote
Politicians win

On symptoms, causes and earthquakes

It is former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who is credited with the claim that “a week is a long time in politics”; and if any week justifies the statement, then the past seven days in the United Kingdom surely does. For the first time in living memory, the popular vote in a national election was won by a party other than Labour or the Conservatives. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has claimed that his party’s success in the European election is the equivalent to an earthquake under the feet of the ‘political establishment’, and (in typically flamboyant and colourful style) that he has “put the UKIP fox in the Westminster hen-house”. Much has been written about the reasons for UKIP’s success; and much ink has been spilled in seeking to analyse how a party that has done very little to spell out what its policies are, or what it stands for beyond taking the UK out of the European Union, was able to increase its share of the popular vote by 11%. And this despite a catalogue of blunders and embarrassing revelations concerning candidates and party supporters, who were by turn revealed to be racist, homophobic, and misogynist. In fact, by the end of the campaign, it seemed that whatever fresh mishap or error of judgement was committed, the impact was simply to reinforce the image of UKIP as the party of the ordinary person in the street, telling it like it is, without feeling the need to self-edit or pander to the perceived sensitivities of minorities of whatever variety. The party’s popularity strengthened rather than weakened; and Farage proved himself to be remarkably politically adept at deflecting attention away from himself and his party and onto the ‘political elite’ that was enveloped in the ‘Westminster bubble’ and was totally out of touch with the British people.

The immediate response of the Labour and Conservative parties to UKIP’s success was to seek to portray it as a ‘flash in the pan’ – a protest vote that was a reflection of people’s disillusionment with the established political parties, and something that was entirely predictable given the austerity of recent years, and the fragility of the recovery. Ken Clarke and Tony Blair were quick to take this approach in radio and newspaper interviews in the days immediately following the election results announcement (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2640377/We-not-bothered-migration-Blair-criticised-complaining-voters-elected-Ukip-MEPs.html). Interestingly, and in contrast, Ed Miliband and David Cameron have each sought to align themselves with those who have expressed concerns over immigration and benefits tourism (despite the lack of any real evidence that either ‘problem’ is real or serious), whilst stopping short of endorsing the sorts of restrictions on entry to the UK and any commitment to an ‘in-out’ referendum on EU membership that were central to the UKIP campaign. Ironically, this has left them looking exactly like the half-baked apologists for multi-culturalism and political correctness that is claimed by Farage and co. as the central problem with mainstream politics in the UK today.

Other commentators have looked more widely at the impact of the election results and the lessons that all politicians need to take on board if they are to re-engage with the electorate in the future. Among these analyses, Suzanne Moore’s stands out as coming closest to defining the root causes of the problems currently facing the mainstream political parties (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/28/twelve-ways-to-fix-politics-suzanne-moore). In essence, politics and politicians have become so professionalised, so rehearsed, so controlled, that they have ceased to be “of, for, or relating to citizens” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics). Conviction politicians are now seen as characters, and for a news media desperate for an angle to report that breaks away from the carefully controlled spin of central offices, they are a godsend. This, at least in part, explains the relatively benign treatment of Farage and co. from all sections of the print and broadcast press in the run up to the European elections. Moore makes the point brilliantly when she writes that : “[Politicians] are sucked into a system in which [their] beliefs are so compromised, they become unintelligible to much of the electorate, who would be hard-pressed to say what their MP actually stands for. Anyone who appears to believe something or “be real” stands out. This is now called “character”, as if having a set of… views is actually a sign of amazing individualism”.

It would be easy therefore, to dismiss the UKIP victory as a temporary aberration – the sort of result that is to be expected from a relatively unimportant election (MEPs have little significant impact on European Union policy or practice) at a time when dissatisfaction with the economy generally, and politicians in particular, is at high levels, and when turnout is in any event relatively low (c.35%). However, another news stories this week suggest that writing off the UKIP result too early might be a major mistake.

The results of the British Social Attitudes Survey published on Wednesday were reported as highlighting an increase in the percentage of people who describe themselves as racially prejudiced (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/racism-on-the-rise-in-uk-with-1-in-3-people-admitting-prejudice-9443555.html). The figure in 2013 increased to c.30% in comparison to 25% in 2001. Whilst commentators have been quick to point out that the reporting of the survey has erred on the side of senationalism (http://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2014/may/29/racist-racism-study-uk), there must still be some cause for concern that the widespread coverage of immigration (and the ill-informed and misleading reporting of hordes of benefits scroungers, thieves, and worse, flooding into the country through porous borders – see all news media almost daily for the past six months) has made it almost socially acceptable to hold prejudicial attitudes in the UK today. By appearing to empathise with those who find it easiest to blame immigrants for everything that is wrong in our society, Miliband and Cameron simply condone that behaviour.

As the parties begin to gear up for the General Election campaign in 2015, they might do well to reflect on Suzanne Moore’s advice to focus on what they really believe in and to stop being so mealy-mouthed in their condemnation of the xenophobia and blaming of ‘the other’, that is the central plank of UKIP’s appeal. There is plenty of evidence to support the fact that immigration is not the root cause of the social and economic problems that continue to challenge the UK (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/14/immigration-beneficial-uk-economy-treasury-independent-advisers); and (even allowing for increases in the last decade), the proportion of foreign-born nationals in areas outside London and and South East of England is still typically very low (

Click to access Migrants%20in%20the%20UK-Overview_1.pdf

). It is not even true (despite widely reported claims to the contrary) that you are more likely to be a victim of a crime committed by a Rumanian than by someone from any other nationality (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/04/09/immigration-crime-figures_n_5117041.html).

Now is the time to start making these arguments clearly and unequivocally.