“Happily, we were indestructible. We didn’t need seat belts, airbags, smoke detectors, bottled water or the Heimlich manoeuvre. We didn’t require child safety caps on our medicines. We didn’t need helmets when we rode our bikes or pads for our knees and elbows when we went skating. We knew without being reminding that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency to combust. We didn’t have to worry about what we ate because nearly all foods were good for us: sugar gave us energy, red meat made us strong, ice cream gave us healthy bones, coffee kept us alert and purring productively.”
- Bill Bryson, The Live and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, page 106.
I adore this book.
I recently got round to reading Peter Oborne’s “The Triumph of The Political Class”, which I would tentatively rate as the most important book written about the state of British politics in recent years. His basic argument is that today’s political class has little experience of the real world outside the corridors of power, is drawn from an insular group of metropolitan folk who consider themselves superior to, and cut off from, the ordinary mass; it craves power for its own sake and for its monetary rewards, is corrupt, venal, obsessed by controlling the media, and has damaged and is damaging any institutions and practices – such as the old House of Lords or judiciary – that get in its way. Oborne argues his case with a tremendous passion and penetrating use of argument. At the end of the 334 pages of text one is left – which I think is the idea – feeling rather depressed. With good reason.
So why do I say that the book is incomplete? Well, for a start, Mr Oborne does not spend much time figuring out how the European Union and the growing centralisation of power in Brussels plays into all this. This strikes me as a bit of an oddity. Consider this: if we accept Mr Oborne’s idea that this class of people are determined to acquire power and wealth, why have they been so keen to transfer so much power to the EU? Sure, some of these politicians may have made the base calculation that they can feather their own nests very nicely in Brussels or Strasbourg, but for a lot of them, turning parliament into little more than a branch office of Brussels with a few perks is not much of an ambition. It is odd that he does not spend more time on this aspect of the question.
I also think that Mr Oborne’s attack on the mainstream media for getting too close to the established parties – especially Labour – is seriously undermined by his completely ignoring the role of modern electronic media, particularly the internet. He makes no mention of things like blogging whatever. Now, I do not think that the role of the web should be exaggerated, but surely, the role of blogs in digging into subjects left alone by the MSM has, at the margins, made a positive difference. Take the scandals that have been exposed by Guido Fawkes, for instance.
But perhaps the biggest mistake in the book is quite simply this: it is no good Mr Oborne or anyone else attacking such a political class unless they attack the fundamental problem at its root: Big Government. Remember, that this class is powerful because it has a large structure off which to live. Re-establishing some traditional checks and balances into public life may reduce some corruption and public venality, as Mr Oborne no doubt hopes, but it is only by cutting the state down to size that we will realistically starve the beast that feeds this class. As I have pointed out several times on this site, one of the most damaging things done by the current government was to have enabled a massive rise in the number of people employed directly and indirectly, by the state. The reversal of this process is, in my view, rather more important than wondering whether an MP is fiddling his expenses or having sex with his secretary.
Even so, I urge people to read this book if they want to get a good handle on the state of public life in the UK in the early 21st century.
What it [the UK Libertarian Party] will do, like the Libertarian Party has done in the United States, is to tarnish the libertarian brand, allowing the crazier aspects of libertarian thinking to come to the fore, and achieving nothing of any merit.
- Alex Singleton, ‘How Libertarians undermine liberty‘
Even for critics of George Bush’s Big Government brand of conservatism like yours truly, it is fair to accept that this Wall Street Journal author makes a good point:
“But when a professed enemy succeeds as wildly as al Qaeda did on 9/11, and seven years pass without an incident, there are two reasonable conclusions: Either, despite all the trash-talking videos, they have been taking a long, leisurely breather; or, something serious has been done to thwart and disable their operations. Whatever combination of psychology and insanity motivates a terrorist to blow himself up is not within my range of experience, but I’m betting the aggressive measures the president took, and the unequivocal message he sent, might have had something to do with it.”
“Terrorism is now largely off the table in the minds of most Americans. But in gearing up to elect a new president, we are left to wonder how, in spite of numerous failed policies and poor judgement, President Bush’s greatest achievement was denied to him by people who ungratefully availed themselves of the protection that his administration provided.”
Of course, it may be that America has avoided a major attack after 9/11 due to good fortune, or that Islamic terrorists hit their peak on that horrific day and have not been able to muster the co-ordination or resources to do anything so spectacular since. I hope that is right. I think some of the security measures, such as the Patriot Act, have added a further layer of red tape and intrusion without boosting security. But on the face of it, Bush has done something right in helping prevent a further attack on US soil. It is unlikely, however, to be a fact that gets much attention these days. It does not fit with the narrative of Dubya The Texan Idiot that so many supposedly intelligent people like to play at dinner parties.
A report by the right-leaning think tank Civitas states that police are now targeting small offences, and hence going after what the Telegraph dubs “middle class” folk, in a bid to meet UK government targets. As a result, more serious crimes, such as the recent spate of knife crimes, are not getting so much attention.
This is perhaps unsurprising. It is not just the obsession with targets that is causing this development. More profoundly, the police, as “public servants”, have few incentives to deliver what their paymasters – us – want. One of the arguments I hear for privatising the police is that it would force coppers to become rather more focused on dealing with serious crimes that have so alarmed the public in recent years. I read somewhere that there are now many more private sector security guards employed in the UK than there are police officers, although I cannot find the source. This is perhaps an example of the private sector reacting to meet a need. If this sort of trend continues, we can expect the growth of private security to continue.
My recent experience of being randomly searched under terrorism laws while driving out of London has certainly convinced me that the priorities of our police are seriously out of kilter with actual crime.
Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we formed angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer that question.
- Thomas Jefferson, quoted in a recent book by Christopher Hitchens.
Boris Johnson, the new London mayor, has already decided it is time for some R&R and has gone on a yachting holiday in Turkey. Good for him. Even better still if he can properly sail the thing. I like to think that politicians have some abilities beyond pulling the levers of power, fiddling expenses and writing terrible memoirs. For all that I loathed the late Tory leader Edward Heath, the fact the he sailed in a number of major competitions, including the Fastnet, put him up a peg in my estimation.
What is it with people who want to complain that politicians take holidays? Take a look at this rather sulphorous leftwing site, full of bile at the very idea, unless it is two-week camping holiday in some crappy part of the UK. As a fan of small, restrained government, I think there is a lot to be said for encouraging the political classes to get as much down-time as possible. That way, they can do less damage. Ideally, of course, such holidays should be paid for out of their own resources and not from the taxpayer.
Political leaders of great talent have taken plenty of time off in the past, arguably to the benefit of their job and country. Sir Robert Peel enjoyed his trips to the Highlands of Scotland; Stanley Baldwin liked to relax in France. For a contrast, Gordon Brown has had hardly a day off since he was given the job, and look at what has happened to him.
In an ideal world, politicians would be on holiday 12 months a year.
Update: lest anyone suffer from the illusion that I think that Boris is going to be a good mayor, I agree with much of what the columnist Brendan O’Neill has to say over at Reason about Johnson. However, O’Neill’s argument would be a bit more persuasive if he was not, himself, a self-declared fan of Karl Marx, who is not exactly a poster child for individual liberty.
Okay – it’s like this. There’s a tribe living by a river, and in the river there are crocodiles. The tribe has one particular piece of wisdom passed down through the generations. It goes like this: if you happen to meet a crocodile, don’t stick your head in its mouth. Every now and then – and who knows the reason – people ignore this advice. Which is sad. Because they die. But very stupid because they were warned. They had a choice. The moral of this story is – you can’t afford to be stupid. There are crocodiles.
- The words of Steven Moffat, as spoken by Julia Sawalha, in the final episode of Press Gang. Few things recently have pleased me as much as the announcement that Moffatt will be the new showrunner of Dr Who. The rumour today is that Neil Gaiman will be writing for the show, too, so there is lots to look forward to.
Is the Guardian becoming increasingly illiberal? It may have a section of its website called “Comment is Free”, yet it is now attacking free speech when it disagrees with the opinions expressed.
Once a supporter of liberal values, the Guardian was the sort of paper that would have quoted Voltaire’s “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.” But just as it has dropped support for liberal ideas on economics (it was once a free trade paper), it now appears to be dropping liberal ideas about freedom of expression.
In that vein, it is getting itself worked up because one of its rivals, the Telegraph, runs a blogging platform, like Blogger or Typepad, where members of the public can start their own blogs. That blogging platform has been one of the reasons why the Telegraph, according to moaning articles in the Guardian, has recently overtaken the Guardian in online readers.
Among the 20,000 people who have signed up for a ‘MyTelegraph’ blog, one is a member of the anti-immigration British National Party. The Guardian thinks the Telegraph should ban him, but the Telegraph says that it believes in free speech – even when the views are wrong – and rightly so.
The Guardian’s lack of faith in free speech is not just restricted to BNP-type comments. It whines that: “My Telegraph is also inhabited by some very unsavoury characters, including a minority of active members of the far right, anti-abortionists, europhobes and members of an anti-feminist ‘men’s movement’.”
Anti-abortionists! Europhobes! Opponents of excessive feminism! I wonder if the Guardian would prefer a return to the old days before the decentralisation of publishing in which only the elite, who knew best, were allowed a voice.
“At 7.30 on the morning of Thursday, August 12, Bond awoke in his comfortable flat in the plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road and was disgusted to find that he was thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead. Just as, in at least one religion, accidie is the first of the cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.”
From Russia With Love.
It is a measure of the achievement of what Ian Fleming produced that, for all the criticisms hurled at his 007 adventures for their supposed snobbery, sexism and violence, that no-one ever accused his output of being boring and that he ended up producing the most famous fictional British character of all time, apart possibly from Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. Born on this day in 1908, Fleming died at the relatively young age of 56 in 1964, just when the movies made out of his books were going into overdrive. Goodness knows what he’d make of the hoo-ha marking his centenary.
Sebastian Faulk’s new book, which he has tried to write in the Fleming style, is in the mail. I’ll put up a short review when I get it. With any luck, the book will be fodder for another great film with Daniel Craig.
Update: here is an article in the New York Times about Fleming and the new book. It is pretty harsh about Fleming, calling him a nasty piece work, including the sin of anti-semitism. Really? I cannot remember anything in the books that refers to Jews in a clearly disparaging way. Considering his depiction of the Nazis in Moonraker, I’d say that Fleming was pretty sound, in fact. As far as I know from reading his books or the excellent biography of him by Andrew Lycett, this was not an issue that came up. Was he a racist? Well, his portrayal of blacks in Live and Let Die is a bit condescending. He writes about people of different races, such as Koreans and Turks, in ways that sometimes paint too broad a brush, but I do not get the sense that he damned whole swathes of humanity because they had different skin colour. The NYT reviewer also refers to Fleming as a “failed” journalist. That is flat wrong. He worked for several years at Reuters and covered the Moscow show trials of the early 1930s with considerable aplomb; after the war, he worked as a senior executive at Kemsley Newspapers, responsible for running foreign news and training up staff as well as checking copy; he also had a column at the Sunday Times. Yes, he was not, by his own frank admission, one of the “greats”, but to say he was a failure is grossly unfair. At least – unlike the NYT – he did not make up news stories and kept his fictional skills for his novels.
I never thought I would find myself agreeing with anything written by Johann Hari, but in today’s Evening Standard he has a piece deploring the rehabilitation of Mary Whitehouse. I agree that she was a dangerous evil old woman, not remotely funny, not a gentle eccentric.
However, there is in the piece something that does not ring at all true, viz -
In an old episode of her favourite show, Dixon of Dock Green, you can see the dark side of the world she fought to preserve. When Constable Dixon stumbles across a woman being beaten black and blue, he reassuringly tells the camera it’s nothing to do with the police.
If that is true, it is appalling. Not actually a mark against Whitehouse (which illustrates why Hari is untrustworthy – Whitehouse cannot be held responsible for every item of content in a programme she allegedly liked), but appalling nonetheless. Dixon of Dock Green was a top-rated show, and one criticised in the 60s and 70s for its rosy-tinted view of East End police-work. So if a sentimental prime-time show really did show domestic violence as accepted by the police (whether it was in reality or not at the time), then the social attitudes endorsed by the BBC in the early 60s were even more alien than I thought… Except, as someone who takes and interest in cultural change, I would have heard about it before now. And the clip would be familiar from dozens of documentaries, would it not?
Is my education very lacking, or is Hari just making this up? If not, where has he got it from? Who else makes the claim? Is there an incident in Dixon of Dock Green or some other contemporary drama that has been so interpreted as to have directly or indirectly given rise to the tale?
Greedy, greedy, lying, incompetent, untrustworthy, crooked bastards.
- From the first comment in response to Guido Fawkes‘s latest revelations about how much MPs are now deciding to pay themselves