Sunday, November 28, 2010

David Mitchell: Trying too hard

Nick Thornsby rightly takes aim at David Mitchell's column in the Observer today, saying that he uses it:
to join the long list of lefties who have set their sights on enemy number one: Nick Clegg. And there was I thinking comedians valued originality.

On top of its tedious lack of creativity, the column is also hopelessly misinformed.
You can read the whole Mitchell piece here.

It is feature of modern Britain that we take the political pronouncements of comedians terribly seriously. Biting the hand that briefly fed me, I commented on this on the New Statesman in my first New Statesman column:
if you open it today you find that every comedian in the country has a column. And Julian Clary has a big one.
It wasn’t like that in the seventies. The contents page didn‘t read:
Freddie "Parrot-Face" Davies on the future of the Common Market;
Dickie Henderson on the Palestine Question
And coming next week:
Mike and Bernie Winters debate the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy.
Though it has to be admitted that one reason for the reverence towards comedians was the weakness of the opposition parties during the Blair years. For a time Rory Bremner and then Armando Iannucci really were among the government's more telling critics.

As to David Mitchell, I have never taken his political views seriously since I caught one of his appearances as compere of Have I Got News for You. It was the week that Damian Green was arrested over Whitehall leaks and Mitchell implied that he found this funny and pleasing.

When challenged over his attitude by Ian Hislop, Mitchell justified himself by pointing out that Green was a Conservative MP.

I don't believe for a moment that Mitchell really think Conservative MPs should be arrested. What he was doing was affecting the left-wing views that are obligatory in the arts world and doing it unconvincingly because those views do not come naturally to him.

And why should they? Mitchell's education was prep school, public school and Cambridge. His parents were both university lecturers. Why should we expect him to have left-wing views?

I suggest that the real David Mitchell is a far more subtle and interesting person than he allows himself to appear in today's Observer. He can be found in a piece about the Wimbledon tennis tournament he wrote for the Guardian at about the same time that Green's arrest was in the headlines:
And "unthinking adherence" is fundamentally what is both old-fashioned and inspiring about it. Their mission statement, if they were unpleasant enough to have one, would just be: "This is quite simply what we do." It's an example of the English common law approach, Burkean conservatism as opposed to a French revolutionary "start from scratch" strategy: valuing things that have evolved and are fit for purpose in the knowledge that we probably wouldn't be able to make them again.

I'm glad to live in a fairly questioning culture and age, but it can be tiring - and it's so relaxing to spend a day in a place where the only question they ask themselves is whether they've maintained their standards, not where those standards came from.
A good rule for all writers - including bloggers - is to say what you really believe, not what you think you ought to believe.


Anonymous said...

Spot on, Jonathan. As I say, it's the lack of originality which is most disappointing. Mitchell is intelligent, witty and a very accomplished writer, so why use such a talent to write what he has today? It's understandable when party politicians do so, but it puzzles me that he should do it!

Anonymous said...

"This is quite simply what we do."

I imagine this image was in David Mitchell's mind when he wrote his critical piece, about student tuition fees.

Can I suggest that if you want to help the LibDems you'll accept that Clegg can justifiably be criticized for renaging on this clear commitment. Or else, just let it lie - by harping on about the criticism, you are surely drawing new attention to this hypocrisy?

Or do you really believe in the tuition fee hike?

Contented Lib Dem said...

Thank God it wasn't just me. An absolutely dreadful article. I suppose, given it's a comedian, you can excuse the incoherence, illogicality and complete lack of research, but given that the best 'joke' was 'I don't mind seeing them [students]piss through the letterbox of Nick Clegg's constituency office' the only conclusion is that it's a complete and utter waste of space.

Andrew Hickey said...

Anonymous - it's quite right that people criticise the Lib Dem members of government for promoting policies that they opposed in opposition and during the election. Even if you believe there's a good reason for the change, they are breaking a promise and that is wrong.

Mitchell himself admits that the proposals 'aren't quite as awful as they initially seem' - he's arguing for violent uprising on the basis that even though the proposals are actually not bad, they *look* bad.

What is also wrong is calling for violence and asking people to 'piss through' Nick Clegg's letterbox.

I would argue that Mitchell also misrepresents, substantially, the concessions that the Lib Dems got out of the coalition agreement. It wasn't just "A referendum on a type of electoral reform that it never advocated" - by the Grauniad's own estimates, 65% of the Lib Dem manifesto made it into the coalition agreement.

I think it a crying shame that tuition fees were part of the 35% that *didn't* make it in, but unless you acknowledge that Lib Dem conference - the same body that voted for that policy in the first place - also voted for the coalition agreement, and that they clearly *didn't* think that they were abandoning their principles by doing so, you're not going to get very far in trying to change the minds of Lib Dem MPs...

Jonathan Calder said...


I think the expansion of the university sector has made tuition fees inevitable whoever is in power.

I would be happy to see fewer universities and no fees, but that isn't going to happen.

Chris Matthews said...

I’m a student!

It's true that not everyone appreciates the subtly of realpolitik. With history and hindsight it's a wonderful thing to consider - in the libraries, the pubs and on twitter. But right this minute as a returning mature student with very poor job prospects I watch every university I work with deteriorate under an aggressive free market management. Nottingham, Leicester, London, Hull, Lincoln - you name it. Don't speak to the chancellors but the lecturers you trust: those who care not for deference. These tuition fee proposals will only accelerate this process of education becoming a privilege and not a right and the very idea that this will miraculously promote social mobility is a joke – I’m sure multilingual Nick has been to Germany, Norway and Denmark?

And I'm sorry this is cliché but right now 'No more broken promises' just seems like an absolute piss take for someone from a lower working/upper middle background whose family has never known university life or managing massive debt. And what if you want to change career and go to university again? What if your whole life wasn't set in stone at 18? Where's the mobility then? No end of us have had to go back to university because there are not enough jobs out there. And then when you do go back it's harder to get any financial support! I'm sorry I'm ranting colloquially but I really don't know where to begin. The Lib Dems were the students’ friend in the summer but not anymore it seems, unless perhaps you break up the government? I really couldn’t care less about Nick Thornsby reassuring international markets when they caused the crisis in the first place.

Chris Matthews said...

Sorry heat of the moment typo: upper working/lower middle

dreamingspire said...

This isn't the first time I have heard of a Uni "deteriorate under an aggressive free market management". UC Cardiff did that in the late 1970s, with over-dependence on full fat fees from overseas students (not enough of them signed up). Then there was an indiscretion in making a senior academic appointment, and heads of dept having to park contract income away from the outstretched hand of the central finance people. It all signalled the end of its independence. But the restructured institution is doing well now, and a very bright sprog of friends is doing architecture there and enjoying it.

Blognor Regis said...

"And what if you want to change career and go to university again? "

I fancy a change too. I thinking about packing it all in a sailing around the the world. I can't afford it though. What should I do?

Cough up or take out a loan perhaps? Either way don't I presume to sponge off others if you please.

Chris Matthews said...

I'll just qualify my reasoning as regards universities which have suffered recently under a hierarchical free market management. Here's three online examples:

Middlesex 2010

Hull 1999

London College of Communication 2009 -Cuts

Mark said...

"And why should they? Mitchell's education was prep school, public school and Cambridge. His parents were both university lecturers. Why should we expect him to have left-wing views?"

Are you kidding? The assumption that 'prep school, public school and Cambridge' means someone can't be left wing is frankly ludicrous.

Contented Lib Dem said...

"someone from a lower working/upper middle background whose family has never known university life"

Many of those students tend to be part time. 35% of UK undergrads are part-timers. These proposals give them access to grants and loans for the first time. That wouldn't have been in the proposals without the Lib Dems. What's not to like about that?

The fact is these policies help the poorest students and penalise the middle classes, which is probably why David Mitchell is against them and why all the protestors I've heard have had such plummy accents.

dreamingspire said...

So its the middle classes trying to trigger a revolution, is it?
(I know a part time, slightly mature student - luckily, part funded by parents to change from first idea of a career that wasn't going to work out, and very conscious of how much parents are helping. And definitely not supporting the protesters.)