Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are we are losing the skills of reasoned debate?

Politics has always been powered by invective and the trading of abuse that is Prime Minister’s Questions and the taunting and insulting that is the daily fare of politicking today is nothing new. As Harry Truman famously put it “If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen." But what is new is the fact that the online world and particularly social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter offer instantaneous and ubiquitous communications and, to some extent, debate.

In this new world it seems to me that there is a real danger that reasoned debate is reduced to soundbites and things are said , and said in a way, that would be unthinkable in a more personal forum. To illustrate that let me take a recent article available online  by a columnist in The Spectator Hugo Rifkind (pictured) . The article has a headline “Ed Miliband was always destined to be rubbish – and he is”.   Its a long time since I was in a Primary School playground but this headline comes close to being in the same category of insult that I recall 8-year-olds using. To support the “rubbish” charge Rifkind, who is not a comedian, chooses to quote a “joke” from someone who is - the Scottish comic Fred Macaulay. According to Macaulay the Leader of the Opposition “talks like he's got another mouth inside his mouth. which is trying to say something else”.

Whether you like Fred Macaulay’s joke or not it was just that – an attempt at humour. It is not about politics or policy or performance but, at a trivial level, about presentation.  Rifkind jumps at the chance to make mischief. Miliband is “like the alien in Alien”. He “sounds a mess and is a mess”. And so on. And Mr Miliband’s colleagues on the opposition front bench get it in the neck as well. They, says our Sage, have the “air of the human dregs at the very end of a drunken wedding”  they are “shouting old wrecks who don't remember where they live”

Mr Rifkind then  refers to the “Miliband family drama” and suggests that other leading couples in the Labour Party (such as Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper) will have “conflicts in the future”. This charge is without any justification and is just gratuitous name calling.

Much of the rest of the article is anti Labour bile, with a bit of anti Tory bile as well - perhaps for “balance”. Maybe the author was having a bad day – it is certainly a very bad article. Because to use a phrase like “Labour isn't just in trouble because Ed Miliband is rubbish” is unilluminating. And I haven't quoted selectively – in quite a long piece there is nothing at all of substance. Labour has the “wrong people” because the “right people were scared off”. Who these wrong and right people are Mr Rifkind doesn't enlighten us.

It is naive to think that presentation isn't important in politics. The most successful politicians of modern times – Blair, Clinton, Obama, Salmond for example are masters of effective communication. And David Cameron is very good as well. Ed Miliband, a fundamentally decent, intelligent and talented man has work to do in this regard. But he isn’t “rubbish”, or an “alien”, or a “mess”. And his colleagues are not “human dregs” or “old wrecks”. You may not agree with their polices and you may not like them personally. But politics is, or should be, an honourable profession and I do not for one minute doubt that both front benches are comprised of honourable men and women. Let them disagree and let the commentariat hold them to account. But trivial, pointed over-personalised abuse takes us to a very dark place - and attempts at humour (if that is what this article was in part) are best left to the real comedians.


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