Sunday, March 15, 2009

A rant at Andreas Whittam-Smith

I have greedily grasped sufficient solar ray minutes today to now go through Andreas Whittam-Smith's article in the Independent. James Graham has written an excellent deconstruction of the myth of the independent here. I'll save the blushes of several councils I know which have been dominated by so called "independents" for many years. One at least has been a total nightmare for years with the police having to be called at regular intervals to stop fighting amongst councillors, for example. And I would point you in the direction of an excellent 1991 Channel Four documentary called "Cream teas and concrete" about North Cornwall District Council which led to the Lees report and a series of reforms. I am somewhat going down a rathole here but it is interesting to read what the then Secretary of State said about the report in Parliament:

North Cornwall has granted planning permission for sporadic developments in the open countryside, on an inconsistent basis, contrary to national planning guidance and the structure plan. Some councillors seem to have favoured certain applicants, often local people, because of their personal circumstances.

Not talking about North Cornwall in particular, but about independents running councils in general, you can get a "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours" unstated code in operation amongst councillors. You can also get people who are actually stalwart members of one party saying they are "independent". You can also get people, without any feeling of a need to keep to any corporate disciplinary code, going off the rails. You can also get fights amongst councillors.

In other words, "independents" on councils are actually just the same as party identified councillors. They are all human after all. So let's stop this utter and complete claptrap of pretending that if someone is "independent" they are suddenly Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela rolled into one. Robert Kilroy-Silk. He's an independent. George Galloway is effectively an independent in the House of Commons because (if it's like councils) you need two or more members to form a group. Ross Perot in the States. Clare Short. These are independents we know and don't necessarily love. They're not saints, but in most cases they think they are.

Anyway, back to dear old Andreas. The headline is cobblers to start with. "Andreas Whittam Smith: The revolution starts here – by text". Utter cobblers. If people wanted a revolution in the UK they would have had one years ago and they wouldn't need Andreas Whittam-Smith to tell them to use text messages. For goodness sake, they used text messages to bring down Estrada in the Phillipines in 2001. It's nothing new!

Then the strapline:

National politics is discredited.


The wrong people are in power.

Oh what, you mean people with a head and a body? Get some people in with four legs you mean? Actually if there were the right rules and a decent constitution in place, much of the things which have discredited the system would be cleared out. There are some bad apples in Parliament, I know, and in the ranks of people who might be lining up to enter it as "independents". But basically the rules stink. Just look at the House of Commons second homes allowance.

The whole system is broken.

Well actually bollocks. If the whole system was broken we'd have anarchy with bins and dead bodies in the street. We don't. But the system has some major flaws which need sorting out.

But through technology we can all fight back.

Cobblers. Utter, simplistic cobblers. Did they use text messaging to launch the French Revolution? You need the will to fight first. The tools come later. It almost seems that Andreas is accepting that there isn't much of a will amongst the people to fight, so he's going to make it easier for them by allowing them to send a few text messages from their armchairs to overthrow the ancien regime. He's mixing up the cart and the horse.

How can we clean up our discredited national politics and make the system fit for purpose? The only method that I can see would be to harness the power of the internet to elect a substantial bloc of independent members to Parliament at the next general election.

This really is the most over-simplistic cobblers I have ever read and it is stunning that a respected journalist should write such utter drivel. Andreas (sorry that's easier than quoting his surname all the time) is basically saying that a bunch of Galloways, Shorts and Kilroy-Silks cloned to the nth degree are going to come in and sort everything out. It's rubbish because it assumes that the current membership of Parliament, which is ever changing as the years pass, is made up of some funny visitors from another planet called "politicians". It isn't. It's made up of us. People. You don't change everything by just bringing in another load of us. But there will be a great shift of personnel in parliament next time. Of course. There'll be a lot more expensive suits knocking around. Great. But the important thing is to elect people who actually have some platform to reform parliament. Whether they are "independent" or not is neither here nor there. Oh and by the way, "the only method that I can see"... well open your eyes Andreas. I cannot believe that someone with such a knowledge of history as Whittam-Smith can say that the internet is the only way to start a "revolution". You just need two million people queuing up outside parliament! If they feel strongly enough, they don't need the blinking internet - which, incidentally, I doubt Whittam-Smith understands (but I am happy to assume that I am wrong there).

It is better to concentrate on improving the quality of the people who go into Parliament rather than on reforming the constitution.

Cobblers. Double cobblers and triple cobblers. Just mind blowingly, retch-makingly wrong, wrong, wrong. "The quality of people". Crikey. So then one lists a completely subjective load of things one thinks are wrong with the "current lot" and what one would like to see in the saints which are going to replace them. They are still human. What you actually need is a mandate to reform the constitution. Then the right behaviours follow. When the heck are we going to learn that in this country? We struggle around year after year without realizing that if we'd just adopted most of the ideas (but not all) of the US Founding Fathers 200 years ago we wouldn't be in this constant state of anguish over basics. For example, Second chamber? Why the self-torture over the years? The answer is fairly blinking obvious. All right, we don't want 100 millionaires in it, but the US Senate gives a relatively sound template.

Voters want their elected representatives to be honest (no more fiddling of expenses), effective (so that they debate the things that really matter such as the huge cost of rescuing the banks) and focused on the national interest (rather than, say, being obsessed with wrong-footing each other).

Yes, it's so easy isn't it? "No more fiddling expenses" Well then for goodness sake put in some rules that would do justice to a third rate business, instead of the current travesty!

The way to secure the election of independent members is to use digital technology flat out: websites, emails, mobile phones, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogs, e-newsletters, online advertising. Barack Obama made masterly use of the internet during his march to the White House.

Yes and he had $1 billion to do it, you utter and complete numpty! And he wasn't an "independent"!

Andreas lists a series of scandalous failures of government. I agree with him. He then goes on to say:

We can assume, therefore, that Parliament is incapable of reforming itself. We shall have get in there and do it ourselves. The means are to hand. A new Parliament must be elected before the end of 2010. I believe there are countless talented people outside the political parties who would put themselves up for election if they thought they stood a chance of winning. What should encourage them to make the attempt is that the coming of digital technology breaks the parties' stranglehold.

He beat me to it. "Have to get in and do it ourselves". Who actually elected the people who are there now? And, more importantly, who sat on their bums and didn't bother to vote? And why was that?

I believe there are countless talented people outside the political parties who would put themselves up for election if they thought they stood a chance of winning.

Oh yes. Me! Me! Me! I'm very talented. And if I don't have to bother to do anything silly like getting my thoughts into some sort of order and working my posterior off going round delivering leaflets and canvassing because I am going to be airlifted into power by some sort of Fairy God Mother with mobile phones and twitters coming out of her nether regions, then yes! Me! Me! Me! Pleasey please!

Not the least of the effects of the arrival of a substantial body of independent members into the House of Commons, if such could be achieved, would be a change in the nature of a political careers.... Nor should they think that they are making a permanent career switch. To do one or two terms in Parliament and then go back to one's former way of earning a living should become quite usual.

I think you'll find that the next election will do that job without any need for any engineering. I would have thought at least 200 Labour MPs will be going back to their "former way of earning a living".

The novelty of independent candidates and the full use of digital technology could persuade a lot of habitual non-voters to participate.

The thing is, independent candidates are not novel. We've had them for centuries to lesser or greater degrees.

Other than that it is quite a good article. (I enjoyed writing that last bit).

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