Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Paxman: How the Political Animal Has Changed

I'm reading Jeremy Paxman's POLITICAL ANIMAL at the moment, albeit three years late. I'll do a full review when I have finished it, but I was very struck by this passage...
Being loved is what so much of contemporary politics is about. In a post-ideological age, the Labour Party has built its success upon seeming safe and appealing to people who might never otherwise have voted for it. Yet you cannot achieve radical change without being willing to confront those who might be disadvantaged by it. The difficulty is that the great battles which divided the parties after the Second World War - on nationalisation or nuclear weapons, for example - are finished. The Welfare State brought the state into everyone's lives, but the consequence has been that it turned ministers from lawmakers to managers. And managers of a system which is bound to fail, at least part of the time. Where, once upon a time, governments impinged very little upon people's lives, there is now scarcely an area of human behaviour which is not touched by the law. Yet, while government is all pervasive, it is not, by its nature, particularly effective: the public knows from its own experience that ministerial boasts about the superiority of British health services, education or transport systems, are empty. So the opportunity which the politician thought he had to make an impact on the lives of the entire population is just as easily an opportunity for the citizenry to blame him for the failures they see all around.

In an age when politics was driven by profoundly differing convictions about how the world ought to be organised, enemies were the price of progress. But when all that is being argued about is the mechanisms by which services are delivered to the general public, there is nothing to stiffen the backbone. Politicians have to become evangelists for a system which is intrinsically incapable of delivering what is asked of it: the greatest credibility problem of modern politics is that the political process cannot answer adequately for the performance of the public sector. It follows that the wisest ministers are those who realise soonest how very little power they really have. The number of politicians who can look back on their ministerial careers and feel that they really made a significant difference to their country is small. Roy Jenkins could honestly recall his time as Home Secretary and say that he had achieved something, in endorsing the reforms to the laws on abortion and homosexuality. Margaret Thatcher emasculated the trades unions. Tony Blair gave Wales an assembly and Scotland a Parliament. But quite what the Secretary for Culture, the three junior ministers and their aides write in their diaries each night is
something of a mystery.
And that just about sums up the dilemma of a modern politician or someone who is thinking about going to politics. Paxman has picked up on the Nixonian idea of 'making a difference'. The problems of modern Britain are very different to those of thirty years ago, and as Paxman says, they are more managerial. Not a very exciting reason to enter the political arena is it? Most politicians have great ideas of changing things, whereas in actual fact they are managing things - usually very badly. Food for thought. Discuss.
By the POLITICAL ANIMAL HERE.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Politics is either about one of two things:

(a) you try to persuade enough people that you have thought things through and have the best ideas (and/or the best principles) - so they vote for you

or..

(b) you try to persuade all sorts of people who have all sorts of different ideas that you are the person who is closest to them in either ideas or principles (or a bit of both) - so they vote for you

A sub-set of (b) is you try to persuade all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas that you are such a nice person that they shouldn't bother their tiny little heads about whether your views on important matters co-incide with theirs. You don't just 'con' them - you 'con' yourself too.

Blair, Cameron, Kennedy can all be accused of this 'type C' politics, a product of the collective narcissism which has spread from thew USA where celebrity is all (Kennedy, Clinton, Reagan) whether you're Martin Luther King or OJ Simpson.

Newmania said...

I read this book a while ago and found that the insufferable arrogance of the well fed establishment pet yappy Chiwawa Paxman almost … errrm insuffrebale. There was some good gossipy material about the familial connections between politicians and a few good insights about the new dullard MP. Taken as a whole however it maintains the view that BBC clones like the twit Paxman are in fact the people who should be running the country . Typically there is a nasty aftertaste of elitist presumption, in that to him , some are simply the natural members of a ruling class as shown by a University education and academic achievement . For this and other dubious reasons ,he finds his own talents worthy if infinite admiration and is immune to any ironic reading of his passionate self love He memorably remarked that, that Boris Johnson was becoming a typical politician despite .. “Having a good background in journalism “. Aha that is what politicians lack . Politicians are supposedly pontificating frauds floating with no direction on the steam produced by a societal contraption that operates without them ,either well or badly . Far less so than he is methinks

His premise which is that ideological struggle is over , is simply stupid . Ideological disagreement is quite obviously not over . The power of the state , notably via taxation increases every years as does the number of new prescriptions on our behaviour. Pretending that politicians are only laughable pantomime figures hides the real battle that on his magnificent State sinecure he is unlikely to want disturbed. They are not just service providers they are articulators and sacramental of moral and political debate , of class and tribal conflict. They matter and the acceptance that do not is in itself a political view with which I disagree. They should .
Can I recommend to anyone that if they read one book they read . “Can we trust the BBC” by Robin Aitkin”,. This one is alright for the loo.

neil craig said...

He is quite right. The real change would obviously be to allow a bottom up negative feedback system to operate & politicians to stand back (currently the only such system on offer is free enterprise but I can envision the existence a a socialist system that would do the same).

Paxman is clearly very very far to the right of what the BBC allow him to be (witness his recent irony about how somebody must have proof of global warming otherwise his bosses wouldn't be so one sided).

On being asked what his greatest achievement was Jim Callaghan said getting cats eyes put in the roads back when he was transport minister. I think many who have passed through the political mill will recognise both what a minor & in its way what a great acjievement that was.

Benedict White said...

Iain, I have often thought that ministers were in themselves fairly powerless to affect the public services, at least in a positve way.

That is one of the reasons why local accountability is a good idea, and the best way of achieving that is with vouchers and the like, or broadly speaking John Major's last government and its policies of fund holding GP's and grant maintained schools.

That said I had not thought of Paxman as a Conservative on the Major wing of the party before, and I suspect neither has he. Perhaps someone should tell him?

Observer said...

Roy Jenkins could honestly recall his time as Home Secretary and say that he had achieved something, in endorsing the reforms to the laws on abortion and homosexuality

You forgot about abolition of beat-policing, abolition of the death penalty, and making sentencing policy therapeutic.

In fact we can all imagine a different Britain had Woy Jenkins never held public office

Cicero said...

I think that this basic point (although not others in the book) is well taken. As you know one of themes that I blog regularly about is the relationship of the individual to government and society. Although I can concur with Benedict that more local control is probably a good thing, I think that the major problem is that the state tries to do too much. For me, Liberalism is about setting the limits to state power in the personal, social and political arenas. In that sense, the debates inside the Liberal Democrats are increasingly ideological and not managerial at all- it is not simply a question of how the state runs things, but whether it should be involved in certain areas at all.

Newmania said...

Paxman is clearly very very far to the right of what the BBC allow him to be

No he is not ,he has slightly repositioned himself like Andrew Marr recently but he sucks up all the Liberal assumptions and digests them easily . He is defined by opposition to the establishment as it appeared in the sixties to the baby boom generation as are they all( The country the monarchy and the countries traditional institutions...eg parliament). He is always trotted out as prominent BBC journo not actually connected to the Guardian but he is the same kind of animal.
OBSERVER
Good point , and if we had a polity that discussed moral issues then the overwhelming case for the death penalty and implications of not having it might be a little clearer. Paxman accepts this state of affairs and sneers in effect at those who do not like it

Anonymous said...

It follows that the wisest ministers are those who realise soonest how very little power they really have. (Paxman)


Very true, and a very good argument for substantially reducing the size of the state, cutting politicians' eitist power and fat cat salaries, pensions and perks and adopting the Swiss system of direct democracy.

Let's have a system where anyone can submit a constitutional initiative and a referendum, both of which may overturn the politicians lunatic parliamentary decisions.

Anonymous said...

Iain says: "And that just about sums up the dilemma of a modern politician or someone who is thinking about going to politics. Paxman has picked up on the Nixonian idea of 'making a difference'. The problems of modern Britain are very different to those of thirty years ago, and as Paxman says, they are more managerial. Not a very exciting reason to enter the political arena is it? Most politicians have great ideas of changing things, whereas in actual fact they are managing things - usually very badly. Food for thought. Discuss."

So the problems of modern Britain are 'managerial'. That's not how I would describe the situation we are now of having GIVEN AWAY to the EU the ability to govern. ourselves! This is so obvious that only 'clever' people could overlook it.

Anonymous said...

I think you are spot on, Iain. Politicians - like the rest of us - want to be loved, but I have hardly met one who does not acknowledge that they would be better off setting policy frameworks, agreeing resources, and then leaving detailed decision making and management - and public accountability for it - to real experts whom the public perceives as being untainted by the insidious influence of party interests. So why don't they? The problem could be two-fold:

we allow ourselves to be handcuffed by constitutional conventions that are little more than fictions (a shouting match at the Despatch Box and a five-yearly vote is deemed true accountability; Ministers know everything that happens in their Departments all the time, etc, etc)

and when a cookie jar is placed in front of them, they can't resist dipping in to it. Their power is still insufficiently constrained and they are only patchily bound by rules of procedure.

It is easy to see why some decisions are made - or perceived to be made (eg gerrymandered hospital funding and major infrastructure announcements)- in the interest of staying in power; and why, with the burden of handling, or at least owning up to specialist problems beyond their abilities, they end up dissembling in the face of Paxman's questions.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Paxman considers how many of our politicians are psychologically unfit to manage themselves, let alone our country?

So many of the pathetic wretches are so clearly right off their trolleys and so puffed up with compensatory mechanisms they've evolved to mask their dire inadequacies that they've no business governing anyone.

How do we take our power and freedom back from these crazy hijackers?

Kafka said...

The system may need managers in this modern world, but being a good politician is no qualification. There's no lack of good and even great managers in this country - the size of our economy is depite government, not because of it. If you need an enlightened debate, there's more to be found in any one issue of the Harvard Business Review than any aamount of government.

AnyoneButBlair said...

Ideological struggle is not over. NuLab/The Tories/LibDums all cling to a small hill marked "centre ground" and squabble over the detail about exactly where one sits, but the differences are splitting hairs.
The left is now dead, look how they could not get 45 Labour MPs to back a left wing candidate against Brown.
The opposition is now from the right, with people like myself that increasingly believe that the bureacratic/welfare/nhs state is destroying our nation, is inefficient and not fit for purpose, is highly wasteful and merely entreches poverty (keeps 'em voting Labour tho) and cannot possibly achieve what it is designed to do. We desparetely need to do something different.
How about starting with entitlement based welfare rather than needs?

Kerron said...

It's a good book. I am going to go back and re-read it now (when I get the chance).

For some reason there are 2 copies lying around and about my house at the moment!

Trumpeter Lanfried said...

Cicero [1.51PM] You say: "I think that the major problem is that the state tries to do too much."

I agree. But following a close second must surely be government's addiction to legislation, as a substitute for sound management.

Whenever a new problem presents itself, ministers snatch up the statute book and propose a new law. Then the great object is to get the legislation through Parliament, preferably in the teeth of opposition. This counts as a victory (or sometimes, "a victory for common sense.")

Half the time it's only window dressing, designed to get the government through a difficult week. They know this really, but behind the scenes they argue, "Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it."

Trumpeter Lanfried said...

Another big problem, of course, is the client state: the growing number of government and local government employees who, from self interest, will always be tempted to vote for a high-spending party.

Newmania said...

I was struck by Cicero`s remarks about Liberal Democrats establishing the limits of the state through ideological debate. I should imagine the planet he lives on where Lib Dems are not determined to stop you driving smoking and retaining your money must be a pleasant one . I would like to visit.

In practice they are tax raising statists whose absence from the 20th century divides has left them with no language to even enter a debate on the state and its role.

neil craig said...

I may have expressed myself badly but my view is that Paxman is indeed in his heart pretty right wing but to continue receiving his wage packet he has to stick to the views of the BBC as loyally as any Sun journalist has to eschew Marxism. I read once of somebody who, in conversation, had indeed found him not averse to hanging, but have never heard Newsnight support this.

Anonymous said...

newmania said:

I should imagine the planet he lives on where Lib Dems are not determined to stop you driving smoking and retaining your money must be a pleasant one . I would like to visit.

Go, newmania! Good post

sir bentley pauncefoot said...

"Most politicians have great ideas of changing things"

Changing things is frightfully easy. Changing things for the better, however...

Little Black Sambo said...

Who said, The more you know about a subject, the more conservative your views on that subject become? I think it was Kingsley Amis.

forthurst said...

I cant agree with Paxman that the issue for the modern politician is managerial.

In the disastrous 1945-51 Labour admin, health, education and transport were nationalised; they also passed the British Nationality Act for good measure.

Governments are still wrestling with the consequences of this socialist utopianism, but none will be successful until they recognise that parliament is a legislative body for this country only, which therefore should not try to run large enterprises or concern itself with the 'rights' of people who don't belong here.

The proplem is that the overwhelming majority of politicians are too cowardly and stupid to tackle these issues without which regression is as much a likely outcome as progress.

Cicero said...

"I should imagine the planet he lives on where Lib Dems are not determined to stop you driving smoking and retaining your money must be a pleasant one . I would like to visit."

Actually Newmania you smoke as you like but do not harm anyone else- and unfortuately just smoking in the same room as a non smoker causes them harm. Liberals beleive with Mill that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, whether physical or moral is not a sufficient warrent. . . .Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign"

As for tax, well at the moment the only party that proposes limits on tax is actually the Lib Dems: the "New heirs to Blair" are firmly in the high tax camp- and should be ashamed of themselves on every front.

Newmania said...

CICERO
The risks associated with passive smoking are negligible and for those working behind the bar whose risk is most they still work in an environment, hugely less dangerous than almost any industrial and certainly any construction process . You misunderstand the multi dimensional nature if risk . About the most dangerous thing you can do is work on a one drop explosives demo site and this activity is rated at something t like 20% of wages by actuaries ( Deep sea Oil well diving / maintenance the only one I can think of that's worse) . Bar staff for all its ( debatable ) disease risk is about 0.75% . Clearly we should be banning demolition and therefore we will have to bann building things as it is almost always involved. Absurd. It is more than obvious that we should bann driving and absolutely certain that drinking should banned from pubs forthwith. Running down the pavement of quickly ascending your stairs are better candidates and coughing in a public place should be punishable with an on the spot fine. In wartime many of these measures have been thought necessary along with the suspension of democracy. The Liberals would probably like that if it 'protected somebody'. Liberals believe in JS MIll do they well perhaps a little deeper though on whaty happiness consists of might puncture that silly equation. Not that Liberals generally belive anything of the sort

The Conservative Party`s position on tax is complicated by the fact they may have to form a Government. The Liberals are posturing in a Weimarish way and the idea that they would ever say no to that new hospital that new Government initiative will not survive meeting them . Bossy by nature they are the allies of Brown. Heirs to Blair refers to the Blair we imagined him to be in 1997 not the man he became

neil craig said...

eitwrcqkCicero the "evidence" that passive smoking kills is well within the limits of statistical error of the relatively few & more importantly small scale studies that have been done.

Moreover the alleged deaths (500 annually inn the UK from ALL passive smoking of which that in pubs is only a small part is nothing compared to things like MSRA death in hospitals to which our masters & certainly the Lib Dems devote less time.

Moreover if health was the real reason for banning smoking the authorities would have settled for making good air extraction, which can remove 97% of smoke, mandatory.

The smoking ban is a vindictive & illiberal law introduced purely because the PC nannies find they can. If the Lib Dems (or indeed Tories or Labour) were remotely liberal parties they would have to oppose it.

Newmania said...

What Neil Craig said


Take that , stick it in your pipe and smoke it CICERO......

Cicero said...

Newmania & Neil Craig.

I guess you were out of the class they day that they did statistics.

The risks are actually not negligible at all- as even a cursory look at the peer reviewed medical literature in the subject will tell you. Whilst the relative health risks from passive smoking are small in comparison with those from active smoking, because the diseases are common, the overall health impact is large. Professor Konrad Jamrozik, formerly of Imperial College London, has estimated that domestic exposure to secondhand smoke in the UK causes around 2,700 deaths in people aged 20-64 and a further 8,000 deaths a year among people aged 65 years or older. Exposure to secondhand smoke at work is estimated to cause the death of more than two employed persons per working day across the UK as a whole (617 deaths a year), including 54 deaths a year in the hospitality industry.

So, given that there is incontrovertable evidence that passive smoking kills people,as well as making many others seriously ill; and given that despite this, smokers have continued to smoke in a way that subjected non smokers to passive smoking, then legislation is an appropriate course. If you want to keep smoking in your own space- fine, as far as I am concerned you can do what you like- but you can not harm others.

As for the argument that "we can't cut taxes because we want to be in government". What a load of drivel! If all you want to be is Blair II then there really is no point to you. Of course the burden of the state on the citizen must be reduced, both personally and financially. If you have not got the will to do that, then the Lib Dems will be putting it forward next time...

Fidothedog said...

Paxman should do the weather he is good at that.