Monday, 27 April 2009

Another day, another slap in the face for Gordon

There was always something slightly surreal about Gordon Brown's intervention last week into the debate on MPs' expenses. With the Committee on Standards in Public Life only part-way through its research and deliberations he tried to short circuit the whole process with a clumsy announcement projected through YouTube and the proud assertion that the House of Commons would be voting on his big idea on Thursday of this week.

Today his plan has been abandoned, so certain is he that putting the matter to the vote will result in yet further humiliation for this most incompetent of Prime Ministers. It is not the substance of his argument that I want to address today but the way he chose to put it forward. If there is one thing that runs through the blood of people who have had to argue points for a living it is the knowledge that there is no such thing as a guaranteed winner. So often we think of a proposition and cannot see how it can fail to be accepted, only to find that our opponent in the debate or the arbiter of the proceedings throws out a question or counter-argument that cuts the ground from under our feet. It's not that we have been careless or sloppy in our preparation or presentation, it is just that no one can think of everything from every angle. That is one reason we choose to decide legal proceedings and settle laws through a process of debate in which propositions are put forward and examined. All sorts of good ideas turn to dust when their practical implications are exposed or the theory underlying them is seen to contain a previously undetected flaw.

And you know what? It takes guts and skill to stand up and argue a point. You have to be able to respond substantively (if you can) to all sorts of assaults on the proposition you are putting forward. It is not an exercise for the faint hearted or for those lacking mental and linguistic dexterity. The reason we use that system is that no better way has yet been devised. An essential aspect of it is that someone has to lose. It can be disappointing to lose a debate, it can even be embarrassing if your argument is shown to be wholly without merit, but that soon passes, you have to be able to cope with it or you shouldn't be playing the game in the first place.

Poor Gordon's attempt to by-pass debate by announcing his ill-thought out plan and demanding that the House vote on it a week later is troubling in several respects. First, the issue is not for government but for Parliament so it was not for him to seek to preempt the process. Secondly, the sensible way to deal with it was to make his idea known and allow it to be considered along with all others rather than to force it through. Thirdly, trying to use this issue for party political advantage through YouTube was absurdly clumsy. When full details of MPs' expenses claims are published in the summer his party will be hammered left right and centre, trying to appear virtuous on the subject now could only make the fall even steeper. Fourthly, and most importantly, arguing his case on YouTube is a cowardly way to avoid challenge.

It is quite obvious what he was seeking to achieve, he wished to show himself as a decisive and incisive leader on an issue that has caused public uproar. If you are going to follow that path you have to do so bravely and with a well formulated solution to an urgent problem. Yet even then, sneaking your idea through the back door rather than having the courage to state it to the House of Commons and have it debated means that you prevent the very acclaim you seek.

On a wider point, it is also troubling to find two important announcements being made by senior ministers through YouTube in one week. Mr Darling spoke about the economy and now poor Gordon has spoken about MPs' expenses. No doubt some bright spark in the government spin machine thought it would be a good idea to connect with the little people directly through a popular medium and without the restrictions applicable to party political broadcasts on television and radio. If so they must disabuse themselves of the idea forthwith. No doubt it is very convenient to have a free platform to say what they want without questioning or contradiction, it certainly works to the advantage of the leaders of North Korea. But at a time when politicians are held in probably as low public esteem as ever in modern history the very last thing they should be doing is avoiding open debate.

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