12 June 2011

Chummy Condescension

Yesterday I attended the penultimate of this year's Hexham Debates, "In Defence of Politics" by Chris Mullin.

To a much busier than usual (extra seats were required for the 120 - 130 people present) hall, Mr Mullin gave a thirty minute presentation (partly read) followed by just under an hour of fielding questions. He began by explaining that after he'd thought of the title of his speech he found that someone else had already used it in 1962, In Defence of Politics (Continuum Impacts), Prof Bernard Crick.

Nevertheless he didn't ditch the title: instead, he explained to us that in the West 'we haven't had it so good'. He compared the success of democracy in this country to elsewhere in the world, where democracy enabled us to get access to the fruits of scientific progress such as electricity and running water. He argued that disillusion with politics was an excuse for laziness, both intellectual and physical; he went on to say that the sort of people who don't clear up after their dogs or put their bins out on the proper day were usually the same people who were disillusioned with politics. He explained that apathy (another excuse for disillusion) was a consequence of the short attention span of the TV/point-and-click generation. This speech was delivered with humour and was warmly received; he peppered his talk with the chummy condescension of Daily Mail readers (it used to be Sun readers once) and invited the audience to participate in the condescension.

He explained to us that what galvanised his interest in politics was the Vietnam War and thought that today's big issue that would galvanize many would be environmentalism, of which he spoke at great length. He told us of the rise of consumerism in ChIndia and bemoaned that they weren't avoiding the mistakes that we made. He gave a couple of factoids: China has 90,000 road deaths per year; they have had the largest traffic jam ever in the history of the world - sixty miles and ten days to clear.

He went on to discuss the rise of a new class of working poor: the outsourced. He discussed how two people can have the same job, working side by side with one another but have very different employment conditions. He said that this was reverting back to the 1950s and before when people would turn up at the dock gates hoping to get work, or at the mine gates for the same reason. He told us all to expect a retraction of our standard of living.

Then came an hour of questions of which there were many. 'Why hasn't there been an attack on the excesses of the City of London?' There had been.
'In his diary he was critical of Blair for bombing civilians, what was his stance on intervensionism?' He was pro intervensionism but it depended upon the particular case.
'What did he think of the education system' It had vastly improved for poorer people over the years of labour rule based on the exam grades.
'What about compulsory voting' Difficulty with the mechanics but would go along with an incentive system [what poll tax?]
'What did he think of Rowan Williams' article in the New Statesman'? He hadn't read it but from what he'd heard he thought it was a good thing.
'What do you think of single issue campaigns and campaigners'? Useful, particularly with regard to the Birmingham six but ultimately, it is the politicians who make decisions.
'Should we rely on referenda more'? No. They were a cop out for cowardly politicians and conferred more power on people who determine what we see, hear and read in order to make a decision. [Interesting answer]
'What does he think of the suggestion that there may be a summer of discontent amongst public sector workers'? Whoever had been returned to power would have needed to make drastic cuts. It is very irresponsible of people to suggest that if only Labour had been returned to power everything would be 'normal'. He also spoke about early retirement (50 - 55 years old) in the public sector (school teachers, civil servants, health professionals) being a massive drain on the economy.
'He was asked about the conflict between public opinion and personal conscience' but didn't come up with an answer worthy of either the question or reporting.
'How many marks out of ten should the country get for dealing with poverty and inequality'? He said the fortunes of the poor had improved immeasurably.

He went on to talk about failed states being a big problem which we faced which brought us to the end of the presentation. Whereupon he went to sign his book to those who wanted to buy it (the local bookshop had set up a stall at the back of the hall).

An interesting presentation - well done to the organisers of the Hexham debates - Mullin came across as one of the labour party's intellectuals (think Giles Radice etc), smug in some respects, self effacing in others (during his introduction the chairman described as a feat keeping his seat for 23 years; Mullin said during the talk that if he'd lost his seat it would have been a feat, explaining that having a safe seat gave him greater lattitude than over politicians). I've missed out some of the questions but I hope that this gives a fair reflection of what went on. It gave me some food for thought.
As an after thought, here's a link to Chris Mullin's bookssome of which were on sale after the event.

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