Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Liberal Democrats have driven The Guardian mad

There is a telling exchange in Stuart Jeffries' interview with Armando Iannucci in this morning's Guardian.

When Iannucci says:
"The cuts aren't about economics any longer – they're about ideology. And the ideology is that a big state is bad and state interference is bad."
Jefferies invites him to agree with the proposition: "So the US Tea Party agenda has been smuggled into British politics?"

And Iannucci readily does:
"Absolutely, and nobody so far is fighting against it. Take quangos. The ones they're keeping are the ones that benefit business, while cutting the arty-farty ones that cost very little and arguably earn money."
I wouldn't go to the wall to defend every decision the Coalition made in its bonfire of the quangos, but there are a number of points to be made here.

The first is that Jeffries has a rather clunking interviewing style - you suspect that, deep down, he believes his readers are more interested in the views of S. Jeffries than of anyone else.

Then there is Jeffries' and Iannucci's shared lack of economic sense. How can the cuts not be be about economics "any longer" when the Coalition has only been in power for six months? And what is his alternative? Higher taxation? Higher borrowing? Sticking his fingers in his ears and humming?

Most important, though, is that this another example of a common form of Guardian thinking - what I once termed "polytoynbeeism":
You divide the world into two groups: there are sensible people like you and your readers, and there are people who hold ludicrous views. There can be no middle position.

Mark Steel has based a whole stand up and journalistic career on this trick. His every column or routine runs in essence: "So the Tories say X do they? I expect they say Y and Z too!" And everyone laughs.

They laugh because this technique is a form of political group grooming. It reminds you how generous and sensible you and your allies are, and how cruel and stupid your opponents are.
Here the proposition Jefferies and Iannucci are advancing is that there are people who agree with every last penny of spending by the last Labour government and there are people who support the Tea Party agenda. There can be no middle position.

I am sure Iannucci does not really believe this. He could hardly write such subtle comedies if he did.

And this position allows no room for what I suspect is the majority position among the British people. That is that they were willing to support the higher public spending under Labour but became increasingly sceptical about the value for money it represented and impatient with the nannying side of the government's agenda.

Oh, and it also makes it impossible to account for Labour's defeat at the last general election.

Elsewhere, Jefferies gives the game away by writing:
He has another idea for the series. "We have to cast someone who is utterly thrilled to be in power, amazed to find themselves in government, but who has death in their eyes when it comes to enforcing the cuts." This sounds as though he's – please God, make it so – poised to make Nick Clegg the butt of his next satirical series.
Again we see that, interesting though Iannucci is, Jeffries thinks that it his own opinions that Guardian readers will most want to hear.

And why is Nick Clegg the enemy rather than the Tories? To answer that, we need to turn to another Guardian article.

On Monday Julian Glover wrote:
British politics is a lot like the class system. You're supposed to know your place, and if you are a Liberal Democrat that place isn't meant to be breakfasting with the prime minister at Chequers. He's the first liberal leader for generations to mistake democracy for an invitation to help run the country. He's broken the code. He's slept with the wrong sort. He's even married them. And now he's being hated for it.
He later added:
This mindset does not judge the coalition for its actions but condemns the fact that it exists. The fury – far beyond the scale of anything the Lib Dems expected – is rooted in a hostility to pluralism that regards Conservatism as something approaching an evil, and any Lib Dem association with it an unnatural compromise. Presumably, the only acceptable outcome would be ceaseless Labour rule.
Exactly so. And it is this hostility to pluralism that leads intelligent people like Jeffries to take refuge in such absurd simplicities. You are either with him and vote Labour or you are against him and support the Tea Party.

In much the same way, Labour spent years blaming the Alliance for "letting Thatcher in" in the 1980s. As though, had the Alliance parties agreed to magically disappear, the British people would have made the absurd figure of Michael Foot prime minister.

There are other factors at work here too. The Guardian's staff has always been a battleground between Labourites, Marxists and Liberals. Jeffries is a former jazz critic of Morning Star (seriously), so we can guess which wing he lines up on.

The Liberals were clearly in the ascendant when the newspaper backed the Liberal Democrats in the last election. Since then there has been a backlash - see the absurd piece on Danny Alexander by Marina Hyde that is also in today's paper.

Economically, the Guardian relies heavily upon the public sector for readers and for advertising. It's recent retreat into ideological simplicities represent a sort of core readership strategy.

But, just as when a political party adopts a core votes strategy, this risks putting off floating readers. Or even loyal readers like me who do not work in the public sector and would rather like an adult approach to the current political situation.

Rewritten slightly after someone kindly pointed out I had attributed some of Iannucci's words to Jeffries.


Cornishjim said...

I have been reading some of the comments by Guardian readers after the articles and have been genuinely shocked by some of the bile (as well as witlessness and incoherence) written. As you intimate there is a 'with us or against us' side to this, rather than any subtle analysis of options. It is not a budget I would have delivered if I had a free hand but it not the end of the world.
On the day that the disaster of Iraq was once again at the forefront Polly and her mates have completely forgotten the last 'with us or against us' time and the real suffering & death that came out of this.
The level of the debate has barely reached toddler level. Here's is my stab at a Polly column - more public money good; more government interference good - everything else bad/evil, people will die. Nanny Toynbee knows best.
Funny I must have been asleep since 2001 because I can't remember this golden age.

Foregone Conclusion said...

It's interesting you give Mark Steel as an example of the kind of simple-minded thinking you're talking about. I think one reason that I've always found him interesting and amusing is that although he obviously has very strong views, many of which I don't share, he's not a Labour loyalist and doesn't really demonise the Tories per se. Also, I appreciate he's a comedian, so I hold him to a different standard.

On the other hand, in the same paper, you've got someone like Johann Hari, who's obviously a devoted Labourite whose columns feature epic battles between the glorious, shining angels of light in the Labour Party and the foul, deformed host of public schoolboys determined to steal candy out of the hands of babies, seen in the Coalition. He always uses the same (very selective) examples of how Clegg and Cameron are completely out of touch. Hari's columns are essentially comfort food for Labourites, nothing more, which is a shame for someone who's produced some absolutely fantastic investigative journalism in the past.

Anonymous said...

But, just as when a political party adopts a core votes strategy, this risks putting off floating readers. Or even loyal readers like me who do not work in the public sector and would rather like an adult approach to the current political situation.

Quite. I'm losing count of the number of times I've walked past the newsagent on my way to work, thought about buying a copy of the Graun, and then seen another silly overwrought headline and thought "meh - maybe I won't bother". It's as though someone flicked a switch the day the coalition was formed, and a paper which had been capable of some more serious-minded analysis (not always, but sometimes) just breathed a sigh of relief and descended into the simplistic bollocks of uncomplicated opposition.

Andy said...

Except you've just gone and done the same thing, 'sensible' types who understand the need to wipe out the public sector vs Guardian readers.

The fact is that the cuts are ideological and the Tory Government are shamefully using the deficit to put through changes that they would put through regardless - it's just that if we were in a better economic position the money saved would have been spent on tax cuts for the better off.

Explain why, when on the one hand there are such brutal cuts to the welfare state we are restoring the link between State Retirement Pension and earnings? A measure that will cost billions and yet will only benefit better off pensioners as others will see the gain clawed back by loss of means tested benefits? Retirement Pension is by far the single biggest welfare expenditure at not far off half the total. Total working age benefits make up only 1/7.

And why shouldn't tax be increased? Especially on the financial sector as the lions share of the deficit was spent on bailing them out yet they are still paying such huge bonuses. The Robin Hood Tax would solve around 2/3 of the budget deficit. They owe the country big time and they should be made to pay.

Ever since their secondment to the Tory party LibDems seem to break with being blinded by the headlights of power only to search furiously for another long held policy to ditch and that's not what I voted for.

You could stop this carnage right now if you wanted to but you're far too distracted by self interest. As a result, as a party you'll cease to exist at the next election.

Anonymous said...

"Then there is Jeffries' and Iannucci's shared lack of economic sense. How can the cuts not be be about economics "any longer" when the Coalition has only been in power for six months?"
When the economic outlook has significantly tilted towards a second downturn?

You recall the idea of delaying the more painful cuts if there was a risk of exacerbating a crippling double-dip?

(I didn't vote LibDem to get this government nor it's policies.)

dreamingspire said...

Have been reading Lynne Feather's unmediated blog, and she has really had the bile thrown at her. Contributors seem to think that Clegg could say 'No' to something and it would not be done - known as a 'word event' in theological circles, I believe, but actually mythical. Overall, the LD effect seems to be to mitigate application of the Tory ideology, and I like it (even though financially the overall result is hitting my now part-time business hard).
As for taxing the bankers a lot more - I for one accept the argument that it would drive them away to another country.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and it's not just Iannucci.

Unknown said...

allnottinghambasearebelongtous - you are mixed up between deficit annd debt and also on the cause of the deficit. Alistair Darling announced in March that the total cost of bailing out the banks was £9B in total (all the larger numbers were worst case loan guarantees which were not needed in the end). The cause of the deficit is the collapse in tax revenues caused by the evaporation of profits and confidence - and i agree that was caused by the banks. But to claim the banks are directly contributing to the deficit is just wrong.

Iain Sharpe said...

proves the point being made in the article. Nowhere does Jonathan argued that we 'need to wipe out the public sector' and I would be surprised if any Lib Dems or even more than a handful of Tories would favour such a thing.

Likewise it is not a 'fact' that the cuts are ideological, it's an opinion. Again, I would be surprised if many Lib Dems in or out of the government saw the cuts as a matter of ideology rather than painful necessity. Some Tories may well see the cuts as ideological, others as pragmatic, so across the coalition there will be a range of views.

But I suppose there is little point in trying to reason with those who regard their own opinions as unquestionable fact and to caricature reductions in public spending as a wish to wipe out the public sector altogether.

Andy said...

When a small proportion of public expenditure ie working age benefits are repeatedly singled out for savage cuts in order to cut the deficit, whereas much larger items of expenditure ie state retirement pensions are increased at a higher rate than before, it's a fair conclusion to draw that such cuts are ideological.

And I'm not sure how the total cost of bailing out the banks could be £9bn when the government bought £76bn worth of bank shares. The money for that (and the other costs) had to come from somewhere, the answer is eventually the national debt, the interest payments of which contribute towards the budget deficit.

The idea that taxing the banks would make them leave UK is a traditional bogeyman; where would they go to get a better deal from a government? And the government owns quite large chunks of some of them, not sure they as shareholders would vote for such an exodus. Banks are a lot richer than disabled benefit claimants, they can reasonably be expected to pay for the mess they largely caused.

gregstone said...

Iannucci does acknowledge he voted Lib Dem though!

dreamingspire said...

Methinks this needs some elucidation by way of analysis of the money supply (which is what I'm hoping Wat Tyler will contribute on Burning our money).

jane said...

This really pinpoints my growing annoyance with the Guardian since the election. The comments sections have become full of idiotic shrieking and actually make the 'Spectator's commenters look intelligent.
Until the election I was a devoted Guardian reader and "Lab turned Lib when they got too policey" voter. Still vote the same way but I might buy the 'Independent', even though their non-news coverage is godawful and they have no interesting columnists.

There is a lot of this with-us-or-a-nazi attitude among my cousins in Wales. It's not worth my breath to defend a single atom of coalition policy to them (although I'm not getting behind the shoddy and small-minded faffing they've done with housing benefit but that's another rant)