The question today is whether political progressives and radicals should welcome there being a leader of the Conservative party who is intelligent and articulate, and a good speaker. I ask because Cameron was on the Today programme to discuss the demands for the Speaker to resign, and again showed himself to be someone who can speak convincingly and whose radio and TV voice, and whose attitude and manner, is at least easy on the ear and not particularly objectionable.
The question arises because it’s looking like we’re going to have him around for a long time to come, and very likely in the role of Prime Minister. The state of the Labour party is such that the Tories could have a pig as their leader and still end up the majority party after the next election. That’s pretty much what happened in ’97 with New Labour. Substitute "smooth talking public-school egomaniac psychopath" for pig. Yes I know Cameron also has some of those attributes, but I somehow don’t think he’s an out and out psychopath who thinks God talks to him, like You Know Who. He who shall bring peace to the Middle East, the Holy Land.
You must admit that Cameron is different. During my adult lifetime I’ve seen the Tories led by Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath, Thatch, Major, Hague, the Quiet Man aka Ian & Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard. I couldn’t stand listening to any of them during their time as PM or Leader of the Opposition. To be fair to Heath and Hague, they at least learnt from their experiences as leader of their party, and showed subsequently they were capable of thoughtful and intelligent opinions.
The problem for Cameron is that he’s still leading a bunch of Neanderthals, many of whom are likely to defect to UKIP if they can’t get that good old red in tooth and claw traditional Toryism from Dave and his chums. It’s not clear that he has the capacity to drive through his version of “progressive conservatism” and to bring his party back to some sort of so-called ‘centre ground’ in the political spectrum, which in the 30 years following WW2 meant liberal/social democratic - i.e. strongly supporting the welfare state, championing the provision of high quality public services, working for the reduction of poverty, and using a progressive tax system to reduce inequality.
I don’t know anyone who actually trusts him to do that. It’s all very well talking the talk of ‘progressive conservatism’ in the run-up to a general election in order to appeal to the floating voters and the basically decent people of this country, but things change when in government. As we soon discovered with New Labour.
The first priority of all governments is self-preservation. It’s very difficult to alter course and drag the rest of the Establishment with you. That takes a lot of commitment and determination, as well as integrity and the intelligence to see a better way of governing and a better way of creating a decent society.
Governments also find they’re dependent on a huge civil service that’s constructed around the maintenance of ‘stability’, ‘continuity’ and the preservation of the system itself. The advice they get from the top civil service is bound to be reactionary and regressive. Going with that grain is always going to be the best and easiest option for any Tory leader.
The problem for the Left is that an intelligent and personable Tory leader is more electable than the average Tory toff. What the left needs is a leader who is even more intelligent and personable than Cameron. And that ain’t Gordon Brown.
Start The Week on Radio 4 this week asked the question - Is God Back? Whereas in this country and in Europe generally there’s been a huge drift towards secularism and the emptying of churches, with massive reductions in their congregations, in the rest of the world there’s been no withering of religion. Quite the opposite. Depressingly, there’s been a huge growth in churches and in church attendance in places like China, Africa and South America.
Pentecostalism began in the back streets of Los Angeles around 1910. It’s essentially an anti-intellectual fundamentalism, and clearly a huge threat to human enlightenment.
In the USA interest in religion really only took off after the Revolution - when church was constitutionally separated from the state. Methodists were the first to actively compete for adherents.
Christianity in Nigeria, to take one example, is now aggressively pushing north into traditionally Muslim areas, using full-time evangelists who are very well funded by collection money sent from churches in the USA.
It’s not just the poor and ignorant who are being sucked in by these hucksters and cultists, either. In Sao Paolo, for example, middle class women can be seen dropping their children off at church crèches and going into exorcisms to take part in mad sessions of agony and ecstasy. It’s very much the upwardly mobile as well as the hopeless and the clueless.
People everywhere are apparently seeking some ‘higher’ meaning and purposes in their lives. Both the materially well-off and the shockingly impoverished.
Coincidentally, I recently spent an afternoon with a friend who makes films for a variety of people and organisations, including churches. He has some amazing stories to tell about these fundamentalist Pentecostalists, etc, and some very clear evidence of fakery in late night ‘services’ when people supposedly go into trances and become possessed by spirits.
It’s incredible the lengths these so-called Christians will go to in order to shamelessly trick people out of their money. There are now dozens of these so-called churches up and down the Old Kent Road alone, each one just a small business making big bucks out of people’s gullibility and fear. The fear of God, of course, is planted in their wretched heads by the so-called pastors and ministers. Give us your money, or else.
This particular business model has been very successfully piloted in places like Lagos and Los Angeles, and is now being used in every country on earth, it seems. It’s a form of voodoo, obviously, and amazingly people of every class and every colour are susceptible to being sucked into these cults and relieved of large amounts of money, should they be fortunate enough to possess any.
It’s incredible to me that not only do we allow them to advertise themselves on TV and radio, but we also fail to do anything significant to inform the public about their lies, their tricks, their intentions and their dangers. Surely it can’t be for lack of evidence? Surely no-one with any intelligence and with full command of their faculties doubts how dangerous, greedy and corrupt these people really are?
Start The Week also had a feature on “Animal Spirits”, which was an idea originally put forward by the economist John Maynard Keynes as a description and an explanation of what drives people into irrational behaviour.
The fallibility of human behaviour is fascinating. The sheer absence of common sense. People are driven so often by fear and greed. The Chicago-School model of free-market economics has been driven by the erroneous logic of economic mathematicians, who base their ideas on the notion of rational people making rational decisions about their lives and their money. Which isn’t what actually happens half of the time.
In finance and politics, vanity and greed have been the key drivers, not logic or rational economic policy. Destructive emotions are the key to so much that’s happened in the financial crisis and in the scandals of MPs claiming money from the State for so-called ‘expenses’. The rest of us have been guilty of complacency and tolerance. But the times are indeed a’changing.
Even non-economists can now clearly see that the model of capitalism developed by the Chicago Boys was based on erroneous assumptions and was wrong. The outcome has been tantamount to mass cruelty to millions of individuals.
But just as there was a contagion of those false ideas and assumptions, something like a mass enlightenment is now spreading, and people see the need to change our political and economic systems radically and permanently. It’s possible that even the likes of the Tory leadership can see this.
It seems that so much of our behaviour is conditioned by the stories we tell ourselves - - stories of optimism and pessimism. Why, for instance, do we engage in a competitive struggle rather than living our lives cooperatively and collaboratively?
The New York Times supplement in the Observer this week carried a front page piece called A Change In Values. Zeitgeisty indeed.
The strapline says, “Greed gives way to a re-evaluation of what is necessary in life, and, ultimately, what makes us unhappy.” Unfortunately the article was entirely about the fact that folks in the USA are spending less and saving more. Which makes business leaders very very unhappy.
And there’s a plug in the piece for a guy called David Blankenhorn who is the president of something called the Institute for American Values which advocates “the virtues of thrift”. Not exactly what you’d call a fundamental shift in consciousness.
Madeleine Bunting’s column in the Guardian yesterday says The Age of Entitlement Lies Rotting.
She talks about the collapsed credibility of two major British institutions - politics and banking - and the “outrageous and profoundly unethical” behaviour of their practitioners and leaders. She talks about how we’ve tolerated gross inequality and hyper-consumption, and then moves on to consider a new age of sustainable development and a “radical restructuring of society, economy and politics”.
She reckons there’s “a new and fast-growing appetite for radicalism and an abrupt break with the status quo. At such times political energy and attention move beyond the discredited centre ground in the hunt for fresh ideas.”
“It requires abandoning a half-century of political assumptions.”
“What will be difficult is the governance of these changes: what kind of state will be required to push these changes through and what powers will it need to do so?”
“Equally difficult will be the massive cultural revolution required to reorient a set of values rooted in an entitlement to an unfair proportion of the planet’s resources. The illusion of a good life conceived in terms of individual material advancement has to be exposed as an advertising con . . . ”
[A bit like the illusion of a good life conceived in terms of individual spiritual advancement.]
“Rising affluence has not produced rising levels of wellbeing but a dispiriting scrabble for advantage . . .”
“It is perfectly possible to imagine a way of life with less material wealth that could actually be far more sustaining of human wellbeing. The problem is that we need politicians brave and bold enough to start taking us down that long road - and we discover they are riddled with the very disease we need to cure.”
There’s a bunch of people who have started a website called The Jury Team with the intention of getting more independent, non-party people elected to Parliament and the European Parliament, who have been selected to stand though an internet-based “Primary” selection process.
The general idea is that the major parties are full of donkeys who meekly plod through the lobbies under the whips of their leaders, and what we now need are independently-minded people who vote according to what appears best for the country and its people, and not in the interests of their particular party.
It’s an interesting idea. Their website says, quite rightly, that if, for example, there had been more independent and unwhipped MPs in Parliament then it would never have voted to go to war in Iraq without UN approval.
Then again, neither would Britain have gone to war if the Labour party had been led by people who had the capacity to understand that a war in Iraq was unwarranted, illegal, counterproductive and immoral. So we also need progressive parties that have intelligent, enlightened and progressive leaderships.
There doesn’t seem much hope of any of them getting such leadership any time soon, so no wonder so few people are going to turn out to vote for them.
Cameron stands at a crossroads, and so does Clegg, who also has the potential to become a very good leader if only he chooses the progressive path and sticks to it. If they both refuse to pander to the right wings of their parties then we could even see a complete sea change in British politics. It’s all to play for, and we could soon find ourselves in a very unfamiliar landscape in this country.
Polly Toynbee this week says, “The parliament of ostriches still doesn’t get it”.
“The game’s up and heads must roll - not just the Speaker, but the prime minister and a fat clutch of MPs who protest they were ‘only obeying the rules’. Enough good MPs didn’t claim for food, flat-screens and furniture, making the others look piggish.
“Listen to the call of the wild as people say they want a parliament of independents, hoping that good plain folk, truth-speakers and honest citizens will be elected as a great assembly of the people.
“A host of honest citizens thinking for themselves may sound OK - but if you vote for them, you don’t know their deep true views until far too late.
“The problem is not the existence of parties, but the dead hand the two old monoliths hold on the windpipe of politics.
“Seize this moment to make real constitutional change, bring in proportional representation for the Commons, a fully elected Lords and clean party funding.
“Seats where parties can run a donkey in a red or blue rosette breed complacency and tempt corruption. Nefarious practices thrive in any dark corners of politics unchecked by scrutiny or competition. Time for a constitutional revolution.”
Jackie Ashley argues in her column for a radical cleansing of the Commons, and for bringing parliament into the 21st century. She even suggests turning the Palace of Westminster into a museum and moving to a modern fit-for-purpose legislature.
“The change that must now happen really has to feel like change. A blast of fresh air must smack open the windows and barrel through the chambers.
“And radical action has to come, first of all from the parties themselves - if it doesn’t it will come from the public.
“But what does radical action mean? It has to mean resignations, deselections and byelections for those who have set out to fiddle the system. They should all be told to stand down. The worst offenders, who may face fraud charges, should be told to go now.
“Whatever happened to reform of the House of Lords?
“Only by setting out a radical programme for reform, not just of allowances but of parliament, can Labour have any hope of salvaging some of its reputation by the next general election.
“Certainly, if the main parties don’t get the message, we will see independents and challengers victorious. If the politicians don’t clean up the Commons, the voters will clean it out. And in the end that’s the optimistic thing to cling on to.
“If it contains hundreds of fresh faces, who don’t mistake themselves for members of an elite club, then it will rejuvenate democracy.”
As of today we know there will soon be a fresh face in the Speaker’s chair.
Helena Kennedy had an excellent column in today’s Guardian: Disillusion, Made Rage.
“[People] think too many politicians are fired by self-interest and careerism rather than by a passion to make our society better. They feel utterly alienated from political institutions and formal democracy.
“This recent, shameful farrago over MPs’ expenses has undoubtedly turned that disillusion into rage . . . and contempt.
“Unfortunately, instead of New Labour introducing a new way of doing politics, it rubbed shoulders with the banking classes and bought into the culture of greed.
“The temptation for the parties will be to sack a few people and redesign the allowance system but if public trust is to be restored there has to be a much more radical rethink. There has to be root-and-branch reform of parliament, both the Lords and the Commons, a written constitution, proportional representation, proper funding of political parties, a real curb on commercial lobbying, extended powers for select committees and fewer powers for the whips, a proper pay structure for MPs, more participative democracy and a re-ignition of local government to create new avenues for people to enter the world of politics. Any and all reforms must be guided by the knowledge that what people most want is an ethical political system. It is a moment to be seized and if the government is courageous enough it could even change its fortunes.”
And finally . . .
Here’s another plug for Spotify, which has finally provided the Blues Radio that Britain’s been lacking all these years. Just click ‘radio’ and ‘blues’. (Or whichever genre of the eighteen listed that you want to listen to.) You can even specify the decades you want the music to come from. Fantastic.
I picked up this reminder from a track on Spotify this morning, just as I was thinking back over a lifetime working to promote an enlightened education system:
Takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile -
Be yourself, no matter what they say.
I know so many good people who on a daily basis now have to suffer ignorance and still try to smile. And still try to remain true to themselves.