Monday, June 16, 2008

Westminster v. the World

David Davis announced his little coup de grace on Thursday, and by Sunday the press were performing an almost complete U-turn. The media reaction on Friday - doubtless fuelled by some hefty insider briefing - as almost unremittingly hostile. Davis' main supporter was Simon Heffer in the Telegraph, and he long ago ceased to be a serious commentator. The main message was that this man is a loony, a maverick, completely unpredictable and that this by-election thing was a vanity stunt. Then, by Sunday, polls started to suggest that actually Davis' stand was garnering quite a lot of public support, and media reaction started to change. Most hilariously of all, Rupert Murdoch, the Australian born US citizen who likes to have a say in UK affairs, was backing away from the Kelvin MacKenzie candidacy as fast as his aged legs could carry him.

So what, if any, are our conclusions here? First, the Davis action has certainly divided people, and not along party lines. Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews, for instance, has said he will go and campaign for Davis (although Marshall-Andrews is well known as one of Labour's independent tendency). Second, and much more interestingly, the affair has shown up a genuine Westminster/public divide. It is the Westminster insiders who can't quite fathom what Davis is up to, and the public who admire his apparent spirit and principle. This sheds a revealing picture on the public view of poor, cocooned Westminster. Without wishing to suggest that Davis is in any way a modern hero (see previous post), there is no doubt that so appalling is the image of the modern MP, driven in part by their monumental mediocrity and absolute unwillingness to mark out anything like an independent line when representing their constituents, that a gimic like Davis' immediately appeals to the public mind as something refreshingly new. If nothing else, this should be a wake-up call to all those time-serving backbenchers to start doing the job for which they were elected - to represent the public interest and make life difficult for established power in both parties.

Third, the ludicrous Kelvin MacKenzie intervention has shown just how much the Westminster media is in bed with the political class (a point emphasised repeatedly by Peter Oborne in 'The Triumph of the Political Class'). MacKenzie may have once invented himself as a man of the people, but he is no better at perceiving the public view than anyone else - ridiculing Davis on Friday, he found himself being ridiculed, and significantly out of step with public opinion, by Sunday.

This entertaining little Whitehall farce could throw up more vignettes and surprises yet. Meanwhile, of the acres of print dedicated to analysing this over the weekend, Andrew Rawnsley's Observer piece here is the one that I think is most balanced and perceptive.


consultant said...

Very glad you found your way to Rawnsley's piece; I was planning to send you a note nudging you in that direction after I read it myself yesterday. Definitely him on top form.

The U-turn you describe is widespread, and I've been impressed by the extent to which a significant proportion of the public have expressed support for Davis' stand. I'm not sure if you have, quite yet - your post was difficult to read on the matter - but we'll wait and see how things progress!

At a time when so many of our politicians move from public school to Oxbridge, then to the Inns of Court, then on to Westminster - living quite literally a cloistered existence - it is unsurprising that Davis' act has been applauded. So really this post is just me reiterating my own support for him, bollocks though it may be.

GM said...

Opacity in political comment is not always a bad thing, but no, I don't support Davis' stand. Like you, I'm impressed by the level of public support, but more because of what it says about the isolation of politicians generally, which you alluded to in your comment. As for the wretchedness of Oxbridge......

consultant said...

I didn't say that Oxbridge was wretched, merely that it pays to get outside to the real world now and again. As I am currently doing. In management consultancy. Hrm...

Pier said...

I slightly disagree with your allusion to the "Westminster vs. the World", after all, the difference does not point to different sets of morals, it's surely to do with access to critical information?

After all, Davis has cleverly chosen a populist issue - he knows that despite the supposed support for 42-days, he knows there is plenty of political capital to be made out of the "nanny"/"big brother" state, which is why he has not focussed his rhetoric on detention, but on the wider issues of liberty infringement. It is clear to all, even within Westminster, that there has been for some time now, a growing amount of support for the "civil liberties have been unfairly taken away from me in the name of counter-terrorism" movement. Davis has not made a bold move into the unknown; this stream of opinion has existed for a while now. Only because it is 7 years after 9/11 and 3 years after 7/7 can a politician stand for it and not be (successfully) ridiculed for being 'soft' on terror.

However, the reason we, the Westminster Village's wannabes, are so sceptical, is that we have an acuter eye for his motivations. After all, for a man so keen on liberty, habeas corpus, magna carta etc. did he support 28 days detention? Why, as shadow home secretary, in 2005 did he not vote against ID cards? Why did he endorse the 1997 Conservative manifesto which laid claimed to many of the things he objects to today (to quote: "Closed circuit television has proved enormously successful in increasing public safety...we will fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge to support the installation of 10,000 CCTV cameras in town centres and public places in the 3 years to 1999.")? How does he intend to marry his support of the death penalty and abolishment of the HRA with his new-found libertarianism?

Westminster Village and its closest watchers are of course more likely to scrutinise his move more than the public, who have had the wool pulled over their eyes by his populist rhetoric.

This is not a difference in morality; it is a question of information. Westminster Village is still in touch with public opinion, it has just been unable to successfully make its case against the backdrop of Davis' resignation honeymoon.

Pier said...

Oh and Oxbridge is in contact with the 'real world'. Just yesterday, my friends and I were walking up to the boathouse to go punting when we took a wrong turn and saw a jobcentre.

GM said...

I like your analysis, Pier, but I still think that some of the 'support' attaching to Davis from the general public - and yes, it is not always a good idea to talk as if the 'public' were one homogenous body - is there implicitly because of a dislike of and suspicion for conventional politicians.

What is actually needed is not the showboating antics of an ambitious front-bencher, but a bit more backbench independence of the type shown by Frank Field; reading Andrew Marr's 'History of Modern Britain', I find that much of the liberalising and revolutionary social legislation of the 1960s was down to backbench MPs, prepared to articulate a difficult case and stick their neck out, albeit on those occasions with the support of the then home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, rather than in defiance of the government, but the principle is the same.

Oh, and thank-you for putting us right about Oxbridge types. Gritty realists all!

Pier said...

Point-taken RE: public, but I did so in the same vein as you did, or as you seemed to be implying, by the line "public view of poor, cocooned Westminster".

True, there is a dislike for conventional politicians amongst elements of the 'public', something which perhaps has fuelled Davis' popularity, but does that represent a huge gulf of morality/opinion between politicians and public that we can't rationalise without speaking of two different worlds?

I think not. In the eyes of the 'public', Davis appears to be an unconventional politician, making a stand against not only civil rights, but the system itself in the way he has resigned. Those in the WV and those who follow WV closely know full well he IS a conventional politician who is using a maverick streak to his advantage. He is not making a stand against the system, far from it, he is using his stunt to place himself better within that system and to climb that 'greasy pole'.

The difference can be rationalised by simple cases of misinformation. The 'public' think he's great because he appears to be making a stand against the hated conventional politicians. A closer analysis of his motivations and his previous career suggest he IS a conventional politician (2 leadership contests, 11 years with only a small interruption in the Shadow Cabinet etc.) and is very much part of the system whom his supporting 'public' are supposed to hate.

Pete Wright said...

I've recently been reading a certain well-known writer called Daniel Defoe, who wrote a petition to Parliament known as 'Legion's Memorial' in 1701:

"Here follows, Gentlemen, a short abridgment of the nation's grievances, and of your illegal and unwarrantable practices...II. To imprison men who are not your own Members, by no proceedings but a vote of your House, and to continue them in custody, sine die [indefinitely], is illegal; a notorious breach of the liberty of the People; setting up a dispensing power in the House of Commons, which your fathers never pretended to; bidding defiance to the Habeas Corpus Act, which is the bulwark of personal liberty, destructive of the laws, and betraying the trust reposed in you."

I feel that Davis, like Defoe, fancies himself a 'Tribune of the People' and has created his own Legion's Memorial for posterity. It's interesting that debates over liberty and imprisonment never have been resolved in Parliament's long history, and aren't a new issue three centuries later; whether political historians of the future will regard Davis as a man of principle or a man of the media moment may be answerable in our perceptions of a man like Defoe.