Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Public Confidence

It is often claimed that turnout at British general elections has been in continuous decline for many years. That isn't actually a very good description of the facts . In 1959, turnout was 78.73%; in 1992 it was 77.72%. If that's a continuous decline, it's a very slow one. It was only in 2001 that turnout really plummeted (to 59.38%). A small rally back to 61.36% occurred in 2005 but the last two elections were notable for the unprecedented number of people who did not participate. The fall in turnout was a step change, not part of a smooth historic trend. It'd be easy to blame this exclusively on our great leader but other factors have obviously contributed to this decline in participation in our democracy.

This week and last, there's been a lot of talk about public cynicism of politics and politicians, mostly due to the continuing "cash for peerages" saga. There are those who are not shills for Blair who argue that the media are partly responsible for this increasing cynicism. Steve Richards in yesterday's Independent is one such person (via). He writes:
Do we want a healthy party-based democracy any longer in Britain? The bigger parties struggle for cash while smaller extreme parties flourish in local elections. Meanwhile, senior politicians are accused with casual complacency of being corrupt. No wonder the fanatics in the BNP and elsewhere rub their hands with glee. They must sense that their time has come.

Political leaders are partly culpable for the wildly uninformed cynicism that undermines democratic politics. As I have written many times, Tony Blair has made some colossal misjudgements as he sought to escape from the politics of the 1980s and lead a centreleft party with a doomed managerial pragmatism. But, boy, do we know about the errors. We hear about his culpability most hours of every day. The dangerously simplistic background assumption is that Blair and other wretched politicians alone undermine democracy. It is much more complicated than that.
In that, he's got a point.

There is a sense in which the way the media has covered politics in recent years has contributed to public cynicism. The increasing competition in the media and the need to find stories for 24 hour news channels have had an effect. Editors and journalists are constantly on the lookout for sensational scandals to the extent that they appear to be willing to create them out of almost nothing.

They do this, of course, because scandals sell. In a way, it's a reflection of the adage that people get the politicians they deserve. There is an issue here and it does need to be addressed.

But (of course there's a but), the main blame for the widespread cynicism of politicians in today's Britain must still be laid at the door of the current government.

Here's an example. Margaret Beckett was on the Today programme yesterday (Tuesday). John Humphries asked her about Carne Ross's evidence to the Butler inquiry. Ross told the Butler inquiry that:
At no time did HMG assess that Iraq's WMD (or any other capability) posed a threat to the UK or its interests.
Humphries asked Beckett if she agreed that "the effect of this is that what he is saying is that Mr Blair was lying". Beckett starts out by trying to belittle Carne Ross as is now standard practice. "I don't know how important he was.."

Well, he was important enough to have "read the available UK and US intelligence on Iraq every working day for the four and a half years of [his] posting".

The interview then descended into farce.
Beckett: Mr Ross' basic thesis is that in some way, there was an assertion that Saddam Hussain was a threat directly to the U.K. You and I are both speaking from memory now but I don't recall that argument being one that was used. It...

Humphries: Sorry, Tony Blair didn't tell us Saddam Hussain was a threat to the United Kingdom?

Beckett: Wait a minute, wait a minute. What was said throughout was that Saddam Hussain was a threat to his region and that he had the intention and the desire to be a threat much more widely...

Humphries: 45 minutes?

Beckett: John, you and I both know that was a statement that was made once and it was thought to be of such little relevance and perhaps people began to quickly think 'I'm not sure about that'. It was never used once in all the debates or questions in the House...

Humphries: It didn't need to be. It was on the public record.

Beckett: Oh come on. No-one thought it was relevant. Nobody thought it was actually a big sweeping statement.
Just to remind you, The Sun headline was "BRITS 45 mins FROM DOOM - Cyprus within missile range". That link is well worth reading for a reminder of the way the government allowed friendly journalists to do their dirty work for them. Buff has admitted on the record that he always knew that those stories were exaggerated and Beckett now admits that the government were quickly unsure that the claim even had any basis in fact. And the government's defence for allowing the public (the less cynical ones anyway) to continue to believe that Brits were 45 minutes from doom is that "no-one thought it was relevant".

What can you possibly say to that? How could you possibly fail to be disgusted? The media can be blamed only in so far as they allowed themselves to be manipulated by a government which knew exactly what it was doing. The primary responsibility lies with the government and most people in the country know it. Many of those previously trusting people who believed that the government would not mislead them over something so serious feel badly let down and are far more cynical today as a result.

And yet the government refuses to accept that what they did was wrong. Blair refuses to do the decent thing as demanded by the long tradition of British democracy. When accountability is so visibly absent, is it any wonder that people are increasingly cynical of politicians? Yes, the media have played a part but this government stands head and shoulders above anyone else when it comes to damaging public confidence in the democratic process. As long as they continue to evade being held to account for misleading the British people on such a serious matter, any attempts at restoring confidence in British politics is doomed to failure.

And finally

Here are a couple or three points of order from Becket's dross.
Beckett: "I don't recall that argument being one that was used."

Blair makes the case for war in March '03
: "3 kilograms of VX from a rocket launcher would contaminate a quarter of a square kilometre of a city. Millions of lethal doses are contained in one litre of Anthrax. 10,000 litres are unaccounted for.

11 September has changed the psychology of America. It should have changed the psychology of the world. Of course Iraq is not the only part of this threat. But it is the test of whether we treat the threat seriously.
If this House now demands that at this moment, faced with this threat from this regime, that British troops are pulled back, that we turn away at the point of reckoning, and that is what it means - what then?"
Ross said the assessment was that Iraq posed no threat to the U.K. or its interests. Sophistry aside, Blair deliberately presented Saddam as a threat to British interests.
Beckett: What was said throughout was that Saddam Hussain was a threat to his region.

Evidence given by Carne Ross: There was moreover no intelligence or assessment during my time in the job that Iraq had any intention to launch an attack against its neighbours.
Even her new improved defence doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
Beckett: "It was never used once in all the debates or questions in the House."

Blair (in the House): The intelligence picture that they paint is one accumulated over the last four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative. It concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes...
No doubt Beckett thinks she was being entirely honest because this was statement by the Prime Minister, not a debate or question. In reality, she's a mendacious, deceitful sophist who'll say anything at all to try to cloud the issue of her patron's dishonesty. No wonder Blair promoted her.

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Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis. Becket sucks.... as does the whole bunch.

sam_m said...

There's a very poor standard of interviewing on the BBC.

Humphries: 45 minutes?

Beckett: John, you and I both know that was a statement that was made once...

(Humphries didn't point out that Gilligan only used the phrase "sexed up" once about the dossier but the Govt. went nuts over it.)

Beckett: ....and it was thought to be of such little relevance...

It was of such little relevance that Bush used it in a radio address to the Nation.

"... according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given."