Saturday 29 December 2007

It makes me so mad...

Via Mr Eugenides, who seems to think it was clever, we find Matthew Paris ploughing an old furrow:
As the year nears its close with a new Prime Minister test-driven, run-in and, from the look of him, near done-in, your diarist wrestles with a professional problem. I think Gordon Brown is mad.
You can see why Parris has a problem. If the Prime Minister is suffering from mental illness then this is nothing less than a national crisis. Parris is probably wondering about the need to provide care and therapy, the difficult constitutional problems, the dangers of setting a precendent by stripping a serving PM of his powers. Right?
But the trouble is, I said Tony Blair was mad, too. I said it for nearly ten years. Readers will surely begin to worry that it is I who am mad — or, worse, that I'm just a former Tory MP who thinks all Labour leaders are insane.
Silly me. Of course, the problem is Parris's credibility. He's got as far as recognizing that his absurd fondness for unqualified, unfounded mental health diagnoses might begin to reflect more on him than his targets. For some of us, that might be a clue that we should rethink this one. But dammit, Parris just can't stop himself. I mean, the evidence is clear:
But with Mr Brown it shouts at you, doesn't it? The constant, mindless, repetition of comfort-blanket verbal formulae. The anger, the obstinacy — a man by turns bullying yet paralysed by indecision.
Sorry, Matthew, can we have that again?
...The constant, mindless, repetition of comfort-blanket verbal formulae.
And that bit from earlier?
But the trouble is, I said Tony Blair was mad, too. I said it for nearly ten years.
Oh, the irony. It burns.

Look, I don't have many hopes for 2008, but one thing that would be really, really, cool would be the disappearance, once and for all, of the pathetic and insulting trope that one's political opponents are mentally ill. In the first place, it's pathetic and lazy. It replaces the discussion of politics with playground insult. It denies that ideas, philosophies or even policies matter; why deal with those when you can reduce everything to personalities, and then dismiss your opponents as barmy?

In the second place, and more importantly, it's turning genuine illness into an insult. Mental health is a complex and difficult issue; it takes around 7 years in the UK to be qualified to have an opinion on it. So why do columnists like Parris think they're even remotely capable of forming one, based on no more than Westminster gossip and media chaff? The answer is that they don't, and they haven't even stopped to think about the genuine problems associated with mental illness. Certainly there's no suggestion that Brown or Blair, if "mad" would deserve our compassion: this "diagnosis" is intended to incite our contempt - an attitude to mental health that belongs in the days of Bedlam. Back when Parris was accusing Blair of losing his grasp of reality, the Guardian asked Dr Beveridge of Queen Margaret's Hospital, Dunfermline, to comment:
"If we accept the argument that Tony Blair is mad, his plight does not seem to have aroused much sympathy. Rather, the prime minister is condemned, and his condition said to be characterised by self-deception, personal inadequacy and possession. Such a view is, of course, deeply offensive to people who actually experience mental illness."
But who cares about that, as long as we can put the boot into Brown?

Cheap gag (No. 1 in a continuing series)

The setup: Decades after illegally bombing Cambodia, the US is funding a hip-hop funk group from New York to tour the country

The punchline: Dear God, haven't those poor people suffered enough?

I thangyoo

Saturday 22 December 2007

Back once again

It's been a while. I'd like to say that I've been unable write due to my life becoming a giddy social whirl, but that would be blurring the line between hyperbole and mendacity. I do want to follow on from our earlier glance at Conservative Party policy, if that's the word; first, by picking just one more insult to our collective intelligence from that rich, rich seam and secondly by comparing it briefly with Labour's offering, in the spirit of fair play. I should, to be thorough, also address the Lib Dems but a) their policies might be subject to change right now and b) it's Christmas and I haven't the heart.

So, like a dog to someone else's vomit, we return briefly to the "Our Policies" section of the Tories' (and I can't stress this enough) own website, for crying out loud.

I will be the first to admit that I lack a sophisticated understanding of economics, so I may just be embarrasing myself here. But I cannot fathom the connection between checks on government spending and Ocean Finance's loan book. Anyone who would care to enlighten me, just feel free. Otherwise, this the politics of the Chewbacca defence.

Why would a Wookiee, an eight-foot tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor, with a bunch of two-foot tall Ewoks? That does not make sense! But more important, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with this case? Nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense! Look at me. I'm a lawyer defending a major record company, and I'm talkin' about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you're in that jury room deliberatin' and conjugatin' the Emancipation Proclamation, [approaches and softens] does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.[1]

By contrast, take a look at Labour's policies. I'm not going to pretend this is perfect. There's a certain amount of handwaving, a tendency to rely on cliches, and it's more focused on where to go than how to get there. But 10 distinct (and recognisable) policy areas each get over 500 words: what Labour have done already, what they want to do and brilliantly, a list of the questions Labour are trying to answer - but without pat answers.

Now, you may have problems with the answers you suspect they have in mind. You may even think they're asking the wrong questions. But in terms of honest attempts to lay out a party's intentions and principles for the average member of the public, this is streets ahead of the Tories' incoherent sloganeering. So why (and we may return to this later) is "everybody" convinced that Labour lack vision while the Tories are a viable choice of government?

Friday 7 December 2007

Mere details

So, apparently Labour are down the polls. (He wrote, his ambitions for bleeding-edge topicality dying a quiet, unmourned death.) . As usual with every "worst week ever", the political morticians are out in force, measuring up for the coffin and digging an early grave. Brown is finished, senior figures in the party are plotting, statues of Ramsay McDonald have been observed weeping blood... the signs are there for those who know the reading of them.

So with this in mind, it might be time to break the habit of the last 15 years and take the Conservative party seriously. After all, they could form our next government. Ever wondered what that might be like? Come with me now, on a journey to a world beyond the ken of mortal man: the land of Conservative Party Policy.

Take a moment to appreciate the new slogan: "It's time for change." An unusual claim from an Opposition party, you might be thinking, and one somewhat at odds with this one's name, so let's dig a little deeper and see exactly what sort of change (other than the seating plan of the House of Commons) our future government has in mind. There are three (count them) types of change to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting public; in each one, the Old Politics is contrasted pithily with the Change Required. We start with those policies which will "Give people more opportunity and power over their lives".

Barriers like what - the price? They're going to engineer a housing crash? Make it easier to borrow large amounts of cash? That sounds like a winner right now. It may be that they mean to change the rate or threshold of stamp duty, but it doesn't say. And this is, let's not forget, the "Our Policies" section of the Conservative Party's own website. I can think of no better place for them to put the details of their policies; it's why I came to the site. But throughout, detail is a little hard to come by. Either it's too much work to put it on the site, they think I'm too stupid to understand it, or (whisper it) they don't have detailed policies, just codewords and platitudes.

As we've moved on to education, let's try a reading comprehension test:

1) Is it Conservative Party policy to save District General Hospitals?
2) Is it Conservative Party policy to halt or undo any cuts to maternity and A&E services?
3) How does making doctors accountable to patients give them professional freedom? What if patients have an accountably poor grasp of medical science, basic medical ethical issues, cost/benefit analysis or even the fact that they're not the only sick people in the district?
4) When the Conservative Party makes it policy to enforce good behaviour, how do they hope to achieve this?
5) What will happen to badly behaved pupils: expulsion, exclusion, or the birch?
6) How much money do the Conservative Party intend to spend building (and staffing?) new schools? How many new schools do they believe are needed? Do they just mean new buildings for existing schools?
7) What is the precise relationship between parental choice and Britain's standing in world league tables?
8) What in the nether hells will actually happen to schools and hospitals under the Tories?

And finally in this section, because I could go on all day:

This is brilliant: "We'll stop making sure you don't break the law, as long as you promise, and we mean really promise, that you won't just go ahead and do it as soon as our backs' are turned. OK? Now remember, you've got to really, truly promise." Personally, I can't see how that would fail.

If I can face it, I'll look at the other two policy areas at a later date. But the basic point is this: the polls always ask: "if there were an election tomorrow..." If there were an election tomorrow it would be the end of a four-week campaign: after laying out their plans for change, what would the Tories have done for the remaining 24 days?