Saturday, October 25, 2008

What Daniel Finkelstein actually said

It would be a shame if the spat between Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home and Danny Finkelstein, principal leader writer of The Times, about whether Danny had criticised his own paper's coverage of Yacht-gate, obscured the rather important point that he actually made.

We have seen far too much of the politics of personal destruction. There has always been an element in politics of trying to wreck the reputation of your rivals and opponents, sometimes on wholly unfair grounds. New Labour enormously increased their use of this deplorable tactic in the 1990s but I'm afraid all the political parties have joined in, and the media have enjoyed the game so much that they not only run with stories which are weak to say the least, but sometimes kick them off.

The real point Danny Finkelstein was making is that there is far too much from all sides of fake outrage over trivial things and trying to smear people on the basis of appearances or innocent activity. And he's right.

The definitive account of what it is like to be the target of a smear campaign is Lord Ashcroft's terrifying autobiography, "Dirty Politics, Dirty Times" which describes what a sustained political and media assault can feel like from the viewpoint of the person on the receiving end. It ended with the government admitting in court that it had encouraged people to make damaging and untrue allegations against him and paying him compensation.

I refer to the book as terrifying because, describing the effort which a man of his immense personal and financial resources had to make to clear his name, it makes it obvious that people without those resources would have found it even more difficult to vindicate themselves.

Politics in Britain would be much healthier if all parties took a step back from the tactics of personal destruction and personal abuse. A greater degree of scepticism from the media, e.g. making more effort to establish that there is actually a real basis to such stories before they publish them, might also be good think for British political culture.

It may be an uphill struggle trying to persuade most of the people likely to read this site that they can learn anything from a book written by a tory billionaire who mostly operates in the background, especially one whose very name causes a pavlovian reaction in members of other parties.

The mere mention of some subjects causes an automatic mental spasm which temporarily disrupts or deactivates the cognitive process in the minds of certain people involved in politics.

* For example, just mention "Europe" and some normally sane Tories have a temporary attack of madness. (Less of a problem now than it used to be but still a subject on which any Conservative should exercise extreme care!)

* Similarly many Labour councillors in authorities which still run council houses go completely barking if you remind them that the policy of the present Labour government has been to force through a gradual but very large absolute and relative increase in council house rents. One of the most intelligent and normally most friendly and reasonable Labour councillors I ever met had to be rebuked by the Mayor for swearing at me in a council meeting when reminded of this.

I mention the issue of these pavlovian "spasm subjects" because the very name of Michael Ashcroft is a "spasm subject" for a large number of Labour MPs who are

* rightly terrified that he may be responsible for costing some of them their seats and

* wrongly convinced that this is in some way unfair, and is or should be illegal.

If you want some solid evidence that fear of Lord Ashcroft drives Labour MPs temporarily insane, look at the way Labour are currently trying to gerrymander the electoral spending rules to try to stop him helping the Conservative party. A bill currently before parliament seeks to reverse a reform law which Labour themselves passed a few years back when a Labour MP was convicted of overspending and everyone agreed at the time that the rules then in force for triggering spending limits, and to which they are now trying to return, were an unworkable mess.

I should declare an interest at this point in that my campaign has had some support from the target seats fund which Lord Ashcroft runs, all of which is legal and properly declared and not all of which comes from him personally. Since the sums involved are considerably less than the taxpayer's money which my opponent is entitled to spend from his "Communications allowance" I consider that this does no more than move a financial playing field which would otherwise be heavily tilted in Labour's favour part of the way back towards being level.

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