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Politics is not a sport

This is pretty poor stuff from the normally astute James Forsyth. In fact, his remarks about Dan Hannan’s recent blunt comment about the UK’s Soviet-model healthcare system smacks of cowardice:

The last week has been one of the worst the Tories have had in a while. As Pete said on Friday, a bad week in August is unlikely to do lasting damage. But the Tories should learn from the events of then past few days: they have been thrown onto the defensive not by clever Labour attacks but by their own unforced errors. Alan Duncan was a fool to say things to a prankster who he had never met before that he did not want made public and Dan Hannan should have realised that a Tory politician criticising the NHS in the context of the US healthcare debate was going to be grist to the left’s mill.

Oh I see. So Dan Hannan, and indeed any other Tories, are to be urged to only talk about the problems of state command-and-control healthcare/whatever in the most muted, domestic terms, without any reference to how such issues are handled overseas. Marvellous. Such timidity, when the Tories are way ahead in the polls, means that they will lack much in the way of post-election credibility in making any changes to the vast moneypit of the NHS if the Tories get into power. Hannan, by reminding Americans of the great mistake their elected representatives might make in going down the socialist path, is also doing his party a favour. One wonders whether Hannan, who famously raced up the YouTube rankings for his wonderful denunciation of Gordon Brown, has made some of his UK colleagues – Hannan is a Tory member of the European Parliament – rather jealous.

Then James Forsyth goes onto say:

“You can say that in an ideal world both Duncan and Hannan should have been able to do what they did. But however disappointing it is that people abuse a politician’s hospitality by breaking confidences or that policy debates get reduced to 140 characters, Duncan and Hannan should have behaved more sensibly. Their actions suggest that some Tories have yet to acquire the discipline that is needed if the Tories are to fully capitalise on the opportunity that the next few months will present them with.”

That Alan Duncan is a bit of a buffoon is true, but the Hannan example that James Forsyth seizes on worries me. Does he think that the Tories are going to win an election by saying as little as possible about their intentions, or by coming out with a relentless, mind-numbing set of Blairite soundbites, and hope that nobody notices or cares? The danger of Forsyth’s analysis – and this is something I have noticed from some of the Coffee Houser’s commenters in recent months – is to reduce politics to nothing more than a form of sport, like football or cricket. It goes a bit like this: “Mr X dropped a bit of a ball by saying Y the other day. Such unforced errors means that both parties go into the election/match/tournament with a point to prove”. There is no real difference between this sort of analysis and my reading about why Manchester United is a bit short of defensive cover or why Tiger Woods’ knee injury is proving a problem.

And of course, as some of our commenters like to point out, the politics-as-sport schtick is all part of a broader, “Metacontext” where the same, broad, statist assumptions about what is thinkable are ringfenced, with a supine MSM aiding the process, even driving it. Certain issues are “difficult”; certain comments by MPs or officials show they are “not team players” or mad, or whatever. It is terribly corrosive of serious thought about the problems that the UK faces, such as frighteningly high levels of public debt. If the Tories feel they cannot talk with any honesty about the huge cost of socialised medicine, it does not say much about the rest of their agenda, or suggest there is much chance of progress on any but the most superficial of fronts.

And people occasionally ask why we have little hope for any improvement under a Conservative government.

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13 comments to Politics is not a sport

  • The ruling class do see it as a form of sport. The commentariat in the MSM are just sports reporters or, from another perspective, court gossips. So, for instance, the passing of some controversial act of parliament is not treated in terms of what effect it will have on the populace, but in terms of tactical skill by the proponents and opponents- a victory for the government or a victory for the opposition.

  • John_R

    Doesn’t Hannan have something of a history of criticizing the NHS? I agree, Cameron looks pretty spineless, unfortunately we have a problem with spineless politicians here in the U.S. as well.

    I doubt this story will get much coverage in the UK:

    SASKATOON — The incoming president of the Canadian Medical Association says this country’s health-care system is sick and doctors need to develop a plan to cure it.

    Dr. Anne Doig says patients are getting less than optimal care and she adds that physicians from across the country – who will gather in Saskatoon on Sunday for their annual meeting – recognize that changes must be made.

    “We all agree that the system is imploding, we all agree that things are more precarious than perhaps Canadians realize,” Doing said in an interview with The Canadian Press.


    If things like the debate over Obamacare and Daniel Hannan speaking out embolden others to do the same, it is a good thing.

  • H

    “Does he think that the Tories are going to win an election by saying as little as possible about their intentions, or by coming out with a relentless, mind-numbing set of Blairite soundbites, and hope that nobody notices or cares?”


  • I wholeheartedly agree with all your points Jonathan,

    In fact, in the runup to Obama’s election I wrote an article on my blog regarding this very subject.

    “Elections are not the Superbowl”


  • Sam Duncan

    I second H’s comment, and add that it worked for Labour. The most definite they got in ’97 was “People will be healither” and “There will be jobs”, or some such guff.

    It’s also worth mentioning that the Scottish devolution referendum was held that autumn, before the Scotland Bill was even written; the most powerful argument the “No” campaign had was that it was a blank cheque. Not that anyone listened.

    Vagueness wins votes.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    H, Sam, your argument does not always work. The Irish electorate shot down the EU Constitution in their referendum because they did not understand it; vagueness, far from winning votes, ensured the opposite result to the one the purveyors of conventional wisdom.

  • The Wobbly Guy


    Depends on the voter population, doesn’t it? A contented, sophomoric, or stupid people will often not bother with looking too closely at the details; anything goes, and did. As long as the rulers said it was so, then it was so.

    A hungry, desperate, or intelligent populace less inclined to trust their ‘betters’ would be more vigilant. Has the UK reached that state yet? Probably, but you’ll need to fight a rearguard action against the non-assimilated immigrants at the same time.

    Not an easy thing to do.

  • Paul Marks

    Alan Duncan is a tosspot.

    It was perfectly clear from his tone of voice that he was not “joking” – he really believes that M.P.s should be able to take as much money as they like as “expenses” (to pay for the gardening and so on) on top of the pay they get from the taxpayers.

    He should be deselected by his local Conservative Association – and would have been long ago if it were not for his clever tactic of crying out “homophobe” at anyone who tries to kick him out of Rutland, and calling in the national party (from Cameron on down) to defend him.

    “Paul, you just hate Alan Duncan because he is an Obama fan”.

    Well, I admit, there is that also – and that is perfectly valid reason to hate Mr Duncan.


    I see so thinking the N.H.S. might not be a good idea is terrible according to Mr Cameron.

    Does that mean that he would have acted against Winston Churchill and the other (mostly very moderate) Conservatives who thought setting up the N.H.S. was going too far?

  • I’d like it to be a blood sport.

  • Sam Duncan

    Good point, Johnathan. But it must be remembered that there are (at least) two sides to every political contest, and a lot depends on your opponent. The Scottish “No”es never really pushed the “blank cheque” argument as much as they should. Conversely, the Irish made a great deal of the “Yes” camp’s shiftiness and lack of understanding of what it was actually backing, and it paid off.

  • Alice

    Surely the Scottish referendum was a good example of practical politics. The people were asked if they wanted more control over their own affairs and they set out the strategic direction — yes, they wanted more control. (One might even argue that this was Libertarian — put the politicians back where the people could throw stones at them, as Sir Walter wrote in ‘Heart of Midlothian’).

    So the people gave strategic direction, and left the elected officials to work out the details. Sounds eminently reasonable.

    It worked so well that the Westminster crew decided to do the same thing on the European ‘Constitution’ — Not!!

  • Johnathan Pearce


    “Depends on the voter population, doesn’t it? A contented, sophomoric, or stupid people will often not bother with looking too closely at the details; anything goes, and did. As long as the rulers said it was so, then it was so.”

    Well possibly. If people are contented or a bit dim, then I guess there is not much that can be done. But in the Irish example I gave, the populace were engaged with the material; there was a lot of publicity and debate, and the attitude at large was “We don’t understand this horrendous mass of detail and don’t trust it, so we won’t vote for it”. That impressed me: it was like a mature adult refusing to buy an insurance policy because he did not trust the fine print clauses in a contract.

  • Paul Marks

    Adding a extra layer of government is not libertarian Alice.

    Rember the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were not really about reducing the size of the government in London (even what it spent in Scotland and Wales or the E.U. regulations it enforced in Scotland and Wales) just about adding another layer of government.

    One might as well say that elected “Regional Assemblies” in England would “return power to the people of…..” – but the vast majority of people understand that “regional government” is just another layer of government and that “elected” regional government just means a lot more politicians (and their staff) with their hand in the ordinary people’s wallets.

    “But the people would get to elect them and throw them out if they did bad things” may have impressed people when Thomas Paine argued it (although some people understood enough not to be impressed) but it convinces very few people now.

    For example, when the evil Tory Closed Corporation in Manchester was overthrown by the noble Act of 1835, Richard Cobden promised lower taxes from the newly elected council.

    Of course taxes went UP – but then he, and others, promised this would just be short term and elections would mean economical local government in Manchester. 174 years later it would seem Manchester is still in the “short term”.

    Still if Scotland actually voted for independence that MIGHT be a move towards greater liberty.

    Perhaps not for Scotland (it would be more likely to mean a move to a People’s Republic of Scotland) at least for taxpayers south of the border.