The Triumph of the Political Class by Peter Oborne. Fascinating polemical book documenting the rise of the caste of professional politicians in the UK. Written by a former Parliamentary correspondent, it has a lot of fascinating detail.
The most interesting part is where Oborne documents how the traditional model of British government has been abandoned. There used to be an independent civil service: elected ministers could not promote or demote within it. The Prime Minister had little direct power: he could hire and fire ministers, but exert no direct control other than that. Long, minuted Cabinet meetings decided overall policy. The Cabinet Secretary was an enormously powerful civil servant, since he coordinated policy. This system was created in the Nineteenth century in response to widespread corruption and patronage.
Beginning with Thatcher and culminating with Blair, the system has been changed. "Special advisors", under direct control of ministers, have been imported into the Civil Service and give orders to the now-sidelined civil servants. Blair ran a "sofa government" of a few trusted advisors, with unminuted and informal meetings, which passed out direct orders to the ministries. In addition he uses his close relationship with the media to brief against ministers. Parliament, the civil service, and often ministers themselves, are essentially sidelined.
Oborne makes a case that the inefficiencies and mistakes of the Blair era are often because bad decisions were made this way by a media/political clique with no administrative experience.
He also regards some of the apparent conflicts within the Political Class as illusory. He points out that Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats all combined to suppress expenses details, and to get rid of troublesome watchwoman Elizabeth Filkin. Even when the Tories could have gotten an advantage from exposing Labour misdeeds, they preferred to keep quiet.
More importantly, he also regards the clash between media and politicians as an illusion. He amasses a lot of information on how politicians court newspaper owners and editors, meeting editors vastly often when it used to be rare. Tame journalists are used to disseminate information, and to brief against rivals. Moreover the same people move smoothly between media and political office: Michael Portillo moving one way, Boris Johnson the other.
Oborne points out that the Political Class is largely cut off from normal society. They tend to be fast-tracked from college, moving between media, PR, "advisor" and government without ever doing real jobs. They tend to live in a bubble in London, cut off from most communities. The decline of mass membership of political parties is partly responsible here.
Oborne regards the Political Class as institutionally corrupt. Cut off from mainstream life, they tend to have an exceptionally cynical view of British standards. He describes contemptuous disbelief when it was explained how if a normal business man had had an adulterous, office-bound , sexual relationship with subordinates in the same way as John Prescott, he could expect to lose his job.
However, the Political Class seem to regard themselves as far more virtuous than mainstream society. Therefore they seek to expand government control at the expense of institutions like the judiciary, the police and the military.
In general, Oborne sees Britain as returning to an Eighteenth Century pattern of corruption, nepotism and influence. Cliques and cabals gain office to gain profit, with the Nineteenth century reforms abandoned.
The book is certainly worth reading. However I'm not sure to what extent the various trends coalesce into a single phenomenon.
Oborne seems to regard the collapse of political party memberships as a one-way problem. That is, in the old days the party memberships told their political representatives what to do.
However, it seems to me that this was also a two-way process: the politicians could talk directly to their members and influence public views through those opinion-formers.
Without that, public opinion seems to be informed only by soundbites and the media, making it harder for complicated ideas to be gotten across.
Overall, an interesting if depressing book: well written and thoroughly researched. Well worth reading if you're interested in British politics.
Fascism and the BNP
I wanted to stop going on about this since I know people are getting sick of it. But I seem to get sucked into making rambling and disorganized statements in the comments anyway, so I'm going to have another go here: just skip it if you've had enough.
Some people seem to be very willing to take the BNP at their word: that they're (now) a peaceful, non-violent organization aiming at democratic change.
Now to start with, take a look at the original Nazis. The SA or Brownshirts were separated to a degree from the Nazi political party. When under pressure from the authorities, the SA was renamed the Frontbann and kept nominally separate. With incidents like Kristalnacht, both legal sanctions and illegal violence were combined to make life in Germany unbearable for the Jews.
The combination of political pressure and thug violence seems to me one of the hallmarks of Fascism. (This is one of the reasons I disagreed with the characterization of the Bush administration as Fascist: at least domestically they didn't seem to be trying to create any equivalent of the Brownshirts.)
Now, the BNP claim to be a distinct organization from groups like the English Defence League (EDL). But EDL organizers like Chris Renton are also members of the BNP. EDL members are seen wearing BNP badges.
The BNP claim to be non-violent. After their campaigns, their opponents may get abducted at knifepoint and have their homes firebombed, but it's apparently nothing to do with them, or their previous threats of firebombing. As their leader in the council says "Firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure."
In 1993 BNP leader Nick Griffin said:"[BNP voters backed] what they perceived to be a strong, disciplined organisation with the ability to back up its slogan 'Defend Rights for Whites' with well-directed boots and fists. When the crunch comes, power is the product of force and will, not of rational debate."
These days, he claims to have changed his mind and that he's devoted to peaceful means. But I don't believe him. It seems to me that the BNP remains just like the Fascist movements it grew out of: willing to use electoral democracy and thuggish violence interchangeably.
If you prefer modern terms, think of it as leveraging synergy. Electoral success helps them recruit thugs. Thugs can be used to intimidate political opponents.
Unlike the original Nazis, I doubt they have the ability to actually form a government. But even with their small present numbers they have the ability to use violence and intimidation against their opponents. The more success they have, the more their ability to use violence grows. They will hopefully never be able to ethically cleanse the UK, but they will quite probably be able to drive minorities out of local areas.
Without wanting to get too personal, I have clear memories of the las time the far right were strong in the UK, and I don't want to see that abuse and intimidation repeated.
So in conclusion, I think the BNP are dishonest, genuinely dangerous, and not genuinely committed to democracy. I've donated to the UAF, I'm perfectly happy about having gone to the last demo, and aim to do more.
What I'm Watching
Saw Up at the cinema in 3D. First 3D movie I've seen where they didn't keep chucking stuff at the audience: wonder if it's actually becoming more than a novelty. Made the aerial animations very impressive.
Definitely a good film: manages to stay just the right side of sentimental in places. I'm still not that keen on Pixar's animations of humans, who always seem more robotic than their animals or robots, but the animal characters make up for it. Not hilariously funny throughout, but some good moments.
Well worth seeing, now it's finally made its way to the UK.
What I'm Watching 2
Saw the much-praised Thai martial arts movie Ong Bak on DVD.
Thought it might be overrated, but it isn't, though admittedly a lot of the comedy isn't actually funny. It's a lot like the early Jackie Chan movies like Drunken Master, though the editing and photography is a lot tighter, with lots of speeding-up and slowing-down.
But the fight and stunt scenes are astonishingly athletic, and the wirework isn't too obtrusive. It's practically worth it for the foot chase down the alley alone, where the hero inexplicably has to hurdle railings, roll over hotplates and leap through a bale of barbed wire.
Articles. Newspaper advertising buggered.
Video. Klingon propaganda.
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