Saturday, November 17, 2012

My riposte to the complacency and misplaced patriotism of Matthew Parris

Matthew Parris in The Times today has an article of such venal complacency and bombast that it demands a riposte.

Let me start with a disclaimer. I like Matthew Parris and admire his writing. I don’t share his politics but I usually find I share his values. He is self-evidently a good man, a bright one and a generous one. That said this piece is the biggest load of bunkum I have read in years!

I won’t attempt to question Parris’s motives for writing this piece because frankly I can’t imagine what they might be! So let’s skip that and just look forensically at the content and then the underlying premise.

“British politics is performing magnificently”. Well apart from the fact that we have a Coalition Government whose partners are at war, whose majority Party is malignantly split and whose elected members are rebellious.

“Our administration is on even keel”. Except that hardly a week goes by when there isn’t a U-turn and for whom a new word had to be coined “Omnishambles”

“There are no threats to public order”. Riots, protest matches, strikes and other disorders aside I assume he means.

“Finest and strongest parliamentary democracies in the world”. But one which disenfranchises millions has corrupt and expenses-fiddling members and which has an Upper House which nobody chose and is an abomination.

“We’ve run out of money”. Actually we haven’t. The core of the economy is sound - the issue is over how long we take to reign in the budget deficit. We have got the resources to do this.

“…we are electing Governments to make us poorer. The vast majority understands this.” I very much doubt that the “vast majority” has a clue about this. This is a nuanced, metropolitan, chattering classes view. And it’s debatable anyway.

“British politics keeps passing the test”. No it doesn’t! It is a cosy world, dominated by an Oxbridge-educated elite in the Civil Service and on the front benches. British politics is more out-of-touch with ordinary people than it has ever been. And to suggest that the “electorate [has an] understanding of what has happened” is risible.

Our free press is “vigorous, impertinent and unruly” boasts Parris. It is, or the tabloid end of it anyway, also venal, simplistic, biased, mendacious, intrusive and the purveyor of trite populist cant.

We voted in 2010 for “parties that promised austerity”. What choice did we have? There were no “tax and spend” manifestoes on offer.

“Mr Miliband and Mr Balls Are decent, realistic and intelligent democrats”. Well that may be true but the Jury is out. At the moment they are short-sighted players of political games voting with unpleasant allies in the House of Commons with the sole purpose of embarrassing the Prime Minister.

“Careful plans for a referendum in Scotland”. What nonsense! Parris tries to give a post imperial context to his article and if we do look back then surely the risk of the break-up of the United Kingdom (along with the risk that we might have to withdraw from the European Union” is greater than it has been in the last 40 years. Utterly incompetent central government had brought us to this.

“No election that fails to return John Prescott can be entirely without merit”. That is cheap, unfunny, unworthy and unnecessarily provocative and contentious.

The underlying premise of Parris is that all is well in the kingdom – especially when compared with the ghastly foreigners the other side of the channel. Well that’s just playing Patriot Games. They do things differently in foreign countries – as Parris should know from his deep knowledge of Catalonia. It is just balderdash to suggest that our muddling through is better than Greek or Catalan conflict. Sometimes you need to bring a problem to a head rather than just bumbling on. Time will tell who emerges from the current difficulties in better shape. That it is conceivable that the shape we will end in is a broken United Kingdom, cast adrift from Europe, with our antediluvian institutions utterly unable to cope is quite possible. But maybe the 'Old maids [will be] bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist' – as the rest of us die the death forced by our own inaction and complacency.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Stop knocking the BBC – it’s the Jewel in our Crown

Without the need to resort to hyperbole of the “Greatest Nation on Earth” type we can be proud of Britain. Our staging of London2012 showed we can put on a world class show and London is the undisputed unofficial capital of the world. And much of our Media is also of international class. “The Economist” is arguably the best weekly newspaper in the English language and on a good day our serious newspapers – the FT, The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent have writing and insights that make them must reads way beyond our shores. But head and shoulders above everything is the British Broadcasting Corporation – the absolute Jewel in our Crown and not just in the media category either.

The BBC defines us and what we are good at. It has a financing model that almost defies belief in its simplicity and value. For an astonishing 40p per day per family we get the full BBC output on all its multimedia platforms. We get world class programmes on Radio and Television. We get a brilliant online presence that is leading edge. We get top Sport, The Arts, The Proms, coverage of world and local events, investigative journalism etc. etc. It is so good that it defies belief and is utterly unmatched by any commercial organisation anywhere in the world, and by any state-funded operation anywhere as well. This is not hyperbole – we all know it to be true and only the ignorant or the churlish or the blinkered would think it to be otherwise.

Is the BBC perfect – of course not. Does it have a governance system that keeps it independent and provides adequate checks and balances – probably not as well. Does it do some things it shouldn’t do and eschew some things it should – probably yes again. But the model is mostly robust and has stood the test of time and to suggest that it should be broken up is just absurd. What would you replace it with anyway? Anyone who has lived overseas – as I have in locations as different as Mainland Europe, The Far East and the Middle East - knows how strong the BBC brand is. I was in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and Tehran in 1997 and in both places I was told that the BBC World Service was the lifeline to truth.

Here in Britain the BBC is not only loved (that is NOT too strong a word) but respected and trusted. So when that respect is momentarily lost or that trust broken (how rare that is by the way!) it is right that we assuage our shock with a careful examination of what went wrong. The BBC is a vibrant and successful organism which currently has a nasty but far from fatal disease. Cure that disease and you will make the organism stronger. So let’s get on with get things back in shape again. 99% of the BBC is alive and well and doing what it has always done brilliantly. Get the very visible 1% of dysfunction right and all will be well again.