Tuesday 29 November
Politicians are subject to a fair amount of abuse, some of it certainly justified. When they fail to keep promises, or pursue courses of action that involve conflicts of interest, or claim expenses to which they are not entitled, they are rightly condemned. They may find themselves featuring in unflattering cartoons or exposed to savage treatment on satirical programmes on radio or television. Add to that all the anonymous bile that is poured out on social networking sites and the need for a very thick skin is evident.
But at what point, if any, should a line be drawn in the critical portrayal of our elected representatives? Are they fair game for any kind of depiction, however cruel? I ask this question after reading an article by the journalist and former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris, whose latest book is called 'Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History’. When he was a parliamentary sketch writer, he once described a backbencher, who had a mottled and florid face, 'as reminiscent of one of those takeaway pizzas where the customer had lurched out of control with the optional extra toppings – ticking the boxes for baby tomatoes, anchovies, jalapenos, sweetcorn, olives...until the complexion lost all coherence’. The backbencher (who is now dead) never spoke to Parris again.
In the journalist’s defence, it can be argued that it is the job of a parliamentary sketch writer to find humour in the often dull proceedings of the House of Commons. For Parris, this may extend to what he calls 'crude mockery of MPs' appearance, speech or dress’. But what if an MP has a disability or is known to be suffering from a serious illness? 'Edgy’ comedians sometimes suggest that there is no subject which should be off limits, even death. There is, however, a difference between entertainment and the serious business of public affairs. Politicians may not always merit respect and where they show lack of judgement or are motivated by self-interest, they deserve to be exposed. Ridiculing their appearance, however, merely serves to detract from the issues that really matter.
Wednesday 30 November
Even small victories over the bureaucratic machine are very cheering. I can report that after three years of initially assessing my winter fuel payment incorrectly, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally got it right first time. I am tempted to conclude that the departure of Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) as secretary of state has helped: during by battles with the DWP I developed uncharitable thoughts towards him. It is unlikely, however, that my minor complaint ever reached his desk. A more probable explanation is that the intervention of my MP, Kirsten Oswald, who last year took up my case with a senior official, has been an important factor and I am grateful to her for her support. Meanwhile IDS, freed from the burden of office, now pops up regularly on television offering his unremarkable thoughts about the benefits of Brexit.
My sources at the heart of government (that is, someone I spoke to in a pub) tell me that each year hundreds of civil servants are drafted in from other areas of work to administer winter fuel payments. This means that they are ill-equipped to deal with anything other than routine inquiries and certainly don’t have the power to sort out systemic problems. In order to overturn a wrong assessment, you need to have determination and persistence, and know the right buttons to press. Inevitably – and unfairly – the process is stacked against the vulnerable and those who simply lack knowledge and confidence in dealing with officialdom.
Friday 2 December
In one of his songs, the American satirist Tom Lehrer refers to 'sliding down the razor blade of life’. It’s an image that provokes a spasm in one’s vitals and brings a tear to the eye. Metaphors and similes of life and living can take many forms: positive or negative, sentimental or hard-headed. Do you think of life as a 'rich tapestry’ or a 'threadbare carpet’? Is it 'a box of chocolates’ where the aim is to avoid (or select) the orange creams?
Life as a journey has become a tired metaphor but it can be given interesting local variations. Glaswegians could compare it to the clockwork orange subway system – going round in circles on a shoogly conveyance with the constant risk of encountering a deranged person. The prosperous citizens of Edinburgh might prefer to think of life as a smooth tram journey, involving little eye contact with fellow passengers, albeit a journey that never quite reaches the promised destination. In Aberdeen, I once heard a speech which, with skilful elaboration, compared life to travelling along the Spital, a street in the old part of the city, with narrow, cobbled passages and numerous twists and turns.
These ramblings are the prelude to a challenge for SR readers – to come up with a suitable metaphor or simile for life in post-Brexit Britain, with Putin in the Kremlin and Trump in the White House. All the ingredients are there for a very unsavoury – perhaps even poisonous – dish: economic uncertainty, the growing gap between rich and poor, psychologically unstable leaders, widespread use of misinformation, multinational companies undermining nation states, the threat of social unrest. Life as a slow-release dose of polonium perhaps?
Saturday 3 December
One of the reasons for the ascendancy of the SNP in Scottish politics has been its successful portrayal of itself as a left-of-centre movement, in tune with the instinctive sympathies of the majority of Scots. In this it has been aided by decades of failure by the Labour party, whose leaders offered shallow rhetoric instead of practical achievements. Too many Labour councillors and MPs saw no discrepancy between their words and their deeds, a form of ethical blindness that eventually alienated large sections of the electorate.
There are now grounds for thinking that the SNP may be heading in the same direction. Power does things to people, often of an unattractive nature. They may start out with the best of intentions but, after a while, the retention – and extension – of power becomes a stronger motivation than the policy agenda which first motivated them. The SNP government has become progressively more authoritarian, evident in its emasculation of local government, its creation of Police Scotland, its plans for the setting up of a 'super quango’ (as described by Brian Wilson on 30 November), and its deployment of the techniques of propaganda, boasting of ‘achievements’ and playing down failures. In the process, it has neglected bread and butter issues in health, education and transport, all of which have required crisis management.
The result is that its credentials as a left-of-centre movement, committed to genuine progressive reform, have been undermined. It has emerged as a party more concerned with enforcing compliance than with improving public services and encouraging democratic debate. This direction of travel may prove fatal when a second referendum on independence is triggered.