…it behoveth him to have a vigilant eye to the proceedings of great princes, and to consider seriously of their designs ~ Sir Walter Raleigh (1554 –1618)
Before I started to publish this blog, I asked a friend for comments. She was very upset by what she read, believing it to be carping and critical. I took her comments to heart and have softened my tone and moderated my language. At the same time, she berated me for not voting because she believes that voting is the right way to take part in the democratic process. My opinion of political parties, however, is unchanged. Based on their behaviour and their attitude to the electorate, my feeling remains – a plague on all your houses.
Instinctive sympathy for the political process
My friend directed me to an article in The Author magazine by Polly Toynbee, "The art of the column", which I read with interest. Toynbee offers two golden rules for columnists:
- "If you are going to try to explain the world of politics to the world outside you need to have a strong instinctive sympathy for the political process and for the politicians who face the very difficult task of getting anything done"
- Spend … "a good long time as a reporter first … both a general reporter and a specialist in some particular subject … for politics is not about the miasma of Westminster … it is about policy and the real world."
Attack on the blogosphere
Toynbee's attack is on colleagues who are "overtly and strongly opinionated" and on the "alternative Rory Bremner voice (that) has become mainstream". She says there is a risk that the style of the blogosphere, its "unmediated sound and fury" coming from "unknown sources with unknown intentions", is "forcing conventional columnists to shout louder, to take up contrarian postures for the sake of it."
Towards the end of the article, she provides some good advice, referring to "the skill of crafting a column with a beginning, a middle and an end, a coherent argument, at least three facts that readers won't know, and information gleaned from talking to the leading players in the case."
Once you have gutted what Polly Toynbee is saying, it comes down to "clear off you amateurs and leave the job to us professionals, you contaminate us". And maybe she has a point. Tony Blair was an amateur when he leapt straight into the job of Prime Minister – and look how we, and more tragically the people of Iraq, have paid the price. This is despite the fact that Blair was ably assisted by Alistair Campbell, a professional journalist who had passed through Polly Toynbee's career development mill. Yet it was only at the end of Blair's career that one glimpsed how much he had done for Northern Ireland and how admired he was in Sierra Leone. With a professional journalist at his side, how did he fail focus public attention on these not inconsiderable successes?
I have two greater objections to Polly Toynbee's position:
- First, she turns inclusion in the cosy, inward-looking, elitist world that is professional politics into a virtue for the columnist. How would she cope if the BNP, UKIP or an extreme Islamic party became mainstream? (Not out of the question – let us never forget how quickly the Nazi Party took power in Germany in the 1930s).
- Second, she places emphasis on the moderating effect of working for a newspaper, its editor and its publisher . My thoughts may come from an "unknown source", but I can assure her that I have never worked for Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black or Rupert Murdoch.
On one point I must agree with her – "… if you fail to be entertaining no-one will read you. It takes bravado to go out there and tell the world what you think." Finding readers is many, many times harder in the blogosphere. The blogger does not have the benefit of passing traffic as Toynbee does from the comfort of her newspaper column.
But even without readers, I benefit from the process of writing. With its discipline, I clear my thinking and there is always the faint chance that some passer-by may read and be interested in what I say. I have no illusions.
My original motive for starting to blog was an incandescent fury at having to live in a country led by the shallow and inconsequential Tony Blair, whose mindless actions led to the deaths of tens of thousands in Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties and the right to free speech at home. Only fundamental constitutional reform will protect us from another leader of his ilk: simultaneously besotted by his own convictions and propelled into knee-jerk policy-making by a hysterical and hostile press. I am heartened that Gordon Brown sees a need for constitutional reform and I now watch and wait for a better future.
Smell of competence
Polly Toynbee's article, and my friend's original criticism, have made me focus on what I can bring to the party. I want to do better than Richard Littlejohn who sees his job as "sitting at the back and throwing bottles". I try to look at what people do and not at what they say. For example, my wife and I have often argued about the merits of Gordon Brown. Whatever criticism was made against him, I was unable to get away from the fact that he has run the economy much better than any Chancellor in the twentieth century. He just smells of competence. His first days as prime minister feel right too. I will not make a firm judgement until the honeymoon period is over – I am only too well aware that politicians are masters of the finesse. I could not care less about his performance in Prime Minister's question time. For the moment he is making the right noises. If he follows through with liberating policies, with opportunities for better, freer lives, and if he doesn't view the public as potential criminals who need to be watched or as children unable to look after themselves or to make their own choices, I shall breathe a sigh of relief.
I am however, cautious about his reputation for bullying, autocracy and bad temper. But again, his willingness to give up power, first to the Bank of England and now to the Commons, belies this reputation. And if his bad temper was the result of watching the moronic antics of the Blair/Campbell double act, I am inclined to sympathise.
Unnoticed in the stalls
I find I have digressed but hope the diversion has strengthened my defence of blogging. I have one big advantage over Ms Toynbee and other political columnists – I am sitting here and watching from MY vantage point. I might not have a front row seat, but from up here in the gods I occasionally spot things – juxtapositions of actors, things happening off stage – that may go unnoticed in the stalls.
One more point: in democracy, no-one is an amateur. We all pay our taxes or receive our benefits, we all have a right to vote (or in my case not to vote), and we can all have our say, despite Blair's efforts to stifle free speech. The internet has yet to settle but it has the potential to be massively democratising, to become a moderator of the power of the cosy elite to which Ms Toynbee is privileged and proud to belong.
And finally, to show that I have been paying attention, here are three facts that are not well known. In the 2005 general election:
- For every 96,482 votes, the Liberal Democrats won one seat
- For every 44,306 votes, the Conservatives won one seat
- For every 26,031 votes, Labour won one seat
So what is there to sympathise with? To my mind, these figures – alongside other weaknesses – seriously undermine the legitimacy of the political process.
I have slipped in a few harsh words here and there to satisfy Ms Toynbee's prejudice against bloggers.