As for the BBC, what is there left to say about it? Can it show The Wizard of Oz again? Can it only run the film after the 9pm watershed? Must the announcer warn: “This children’s story contains Munchkin choruses that some viewers may find offensive”? Its decision to ban every part of the song except for a five-second clip in a news report shows clearly something that many people outside the media rarely understand: the BBC folds under pressure.
Here is something those who rely on political commentators will not have expected to see. The latest poll from TNS BMRB has the Tories down to just a quarter of the vote: CON 25% (-2), LAB 40% (+3), LD 10% (nc), UKIP 14% (-3). The Opinium/Observer online poll had LAB 38, CON 28, UKIP 17, LD 8% at the weekend. YouGov for the Sunday Times on the same day had CON 30, LAB 40, LD 11, UKIP 13. (The Tories were just 1% above their low point with firm.)
How can this be? All these polls were taken during the raging welfare debate. Commentator after commentator wrote articles assuring us that Labour was on the wrong side of public opinion, and the Tories had at last found an issue that would move the voters their way.
For the record, I did not accuse Rahman of being a ‘bully,’ as he tells Spectator readers. I accused the Mayor of Tower Hamlets of being ‘sly’ and ‘unappetising’. His letter to the Spectator bears me out, I think. As does his ludicrous allegation that Rob Marchant and other Labour Party activists were threatening to murder him.
In an insinuating passage, he links Marchant – a principled man, and anti-racist – to the English Defence League. Look at how he does it:
‘Unsurprisingly, as a prominent Muslim figure, I frequently receive abuse and threats – mainly from racist extremists of the EDL-ilk. That and the sheer violence of Marchant’s language in discussing me (‘I will load the revolver and we can all take turns … [makes mental note to keep revolver well cleaned and oiled]’) should explain why I acted when the tweets were drawn to my attention.’
There was no remote hint of any racism in Marchant’s tweets or any other comments he made about him. But then this is a tactic many of us are becoming familiar with. Rahman and his kind are desperate to stop the notion gaining currency that you should oppose the Islamist religious right and the white far-right with equal force and for the same reasons.
The right’s folly lies in its inability to understand that bankers have not been bashed. Indeed, they have barely been slapped. The courts have jailed no one responsible for the crash. Instead of “a never-ending trial for financial war crimes”, there have been no trials whatsoever. No one has sought to compensate the taxpayer by confiscating the bonuses taken in the bubble. The Financial Services Authority has barred only a handful of bankers from working in the UK financial sector. This palpable injustice allows me to summarise the coalition’s failure to convince the public that “we are all in this together” in a paragraph.
The taxpayer injected about £65bn into RBS and HBOS in share capital. Those shares are currently showing a loss of £20bn. The overall cost to taxpayers is incalculably higher because we must now manage in a zombie economy with a crippled banking system that can’t send credit to where it’s needed. Yet rather than punish those responsible, the coalition has cut their taxes.
Another day, another story of the forces of order hounding an innocent citizen for making innocuous remarks on Twitter. This week’s target was Rob Marchant, a centrist Labour supporter, who was chatting online with a few comrades. They all opposed Lutfur Rahman, the sly and to my mind thoroughly unappetising mayor of Tower Hamlets.
Labour had expelled Rahman, a frontman for Islamic Forum Europe, after he ran against the official Labour candidate to become mayor. Unlike many of the conformists and appeasers on the London left, Marchant and his friends believed that it is the job of leftists to oppose the religious right. Not everyone agrees with that admirable sentiment. The supporters of Ken Livingstone are constantly agitating for Labour to readmit Rahman: in part because they like anyone, even religious reactionaries, who are against “the West”; in part because they have the Tammany Hall politician’s respect for the ethnic bloc vote Islamic Foreign Europe can mobilise.
Musing on this theme, Marchant joked to his friends that if Labour were to readmit Rahman they would just have to kill themselves. ‘I will load the revolver and we can all take turns,’ were his precise words.
You can probably guess what happened next.
Cyberspace is turning into a political programme. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is pumping tens of millions of dollars into “a social welfare group” – a lobby company in all but name – to tell politicians how they should reorder society. He assumes that what is good for Silicon Valley is good for everyone else. And if you don’t ask too many questions, it is easy to agree, and find his programme surprisingly liberal.
Read the whole thing
When you call a thinker a “conservative communist”, you sound as if you are making a weak joke. To understand the late Eric Hobsbawm’s peculiar genius, however, you must see him as just that, and accept there is no contradiction. Hobsbawm stayed loyal to the Soviet disaster to the very end. But long before the Berlin Wall fell, he told the British left that socialism was dead and put his formidable authority behind the movement that led eventually to Tony Blair. In theory, he believed in the overthrow of the British state. In practice, he accepted that most refined of honours, the Order of the Companions of Honour, from no lesser personage than Her Majesty the Queen.
Look at the Edinburgh Television Festival. It never debates why Britain once exported quality dramas and imported game shows, and now gets its best dramas from abroad while pumping out lightweight and formulaic programmes. The executives who take the stage are as complacent and as self-congratulatory as bankers before the crash. The otherwise excellent Mark Lawson will never devote an edition of a Radio 4 arts programme to asking why Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, can produce shows the world wants to see when Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Commissioner of Drama, cannot.
You find an admission that America and Scandinavia are now producing better television only in the willingness of our companies to, well, “borrow” their ideas. I am not going to mock. I don’t mind British commissioning editors ripping off foreigners. There is no copyright on ideas, and originality is overrated. The real question is not whether a British company has stolen but whether they have stolen with style; whether they are cat burglars or muggers; whether they can make something new out of someone else’s idea or just smash and grab it.
What is the problem? Why can’t you oppose, say, the war in Afghanistan, if you wish, while also opposing the subjugation of women? Why can’t you say that Western societies give women greater rights, while also opposing this or that Western policy decision or politician? Why, in short, can you not walk and chew gum at the same time? I don’t mean to single out academics for special condemnation. The postmodern university may not be able to guide society, but it reflects its deformities and double standards. I know civil servants, liberal journalists, broadcasters, politicians, diplomats and police officers who never read an academic paper from one year until the next. They will condemn the gender pay gap or the sexual abuse of white-skinned women, but stay silent about the religious oppression of brown-skinned women. Fear of violent reprisals, fear of causing offence, fear that their enemies will denounce them for possessing a racial or sectarian hatred play their part. On the Left, there is the strong fear of accusations of complicity with the status quo, which never go down well in arts and humanities departments. Tax quotes one left-wing academic booming at a colleague: “Secular feminists’ concern that Muslim fundamentalist religious codes impose and sanction violence on women and queers relies on a myopia that understands Muslim women only as victims of Muslim men and Islam, ignoring the role of imperial violence in defining Muslim realities around the world.” No one looking for tenure wants to hear words like that directed against them
Democracies have many faults. Their leaders can blunder as badly as dictators. Their citizens can be just as foolish as anyone else. A cursory knowledge of history will teach you that there is nothing inherent in the natures of the Americans, British and Danes, say, that makes them superior to the Iranians, Chinese and Zimbabweans. They are just as likely to follow disastrous policies; just as susceptible to manias.
After they have blundered however, the benefits of living in an open society should assert themselves. Democracies face the truth of what they have done, and see their faults clearly. They hold the guilty to account. They find new ways to ensure that they do not repeat old mistakes.
In short, they reform, and show that not only are democracies freer countries than dictatorships, but that they carry within them a self-correcting mechanism.
That is the theory in any event. The practice is another matter
Anyone looking for the reforms the great crash of 2007/8 produced will squint until their sight goes. True, the regulators tightened the Basel rules on what capital banks must hold to help them through panics, and President Obama enforced the “Volcker Rule” to limit big banks’ speculative proprietary-trading activities. That’s about it, however. Even if you do not wish to diminish these modest changes, and I accept they are important in limited ways, you have to admit that the roaring financial crisis has produced a legislative mouse.
The banks that were too big to fail, have not been broken up into separate retail and casino businesses. They can still leverage deposits and call on the taxpayers to bail them out when the gambles fail. Bankers are still carrying on collecting bonuses whenever they can, even when the taxpayers have bailed them out. No one can say with confidence that the system has reformed itself.
The greatest failure to my mind does not lie in the loss of nerve that has produced such timid banking reforms, but in the refusal to challenge the secretive, hierarchical culture that imposed such calamitous costs on society. (And will do so again) The omission should surprise no one. Managerial censorship is so pervasive and so accepted that most people do not think of it as censorship at all. It seems as natural and as impossible to challenge as the weather. For all that, it is the only form of censorship you are likely to experience.