The importance of detail, government and opposition

A friend pointed out the other day that Tony Blair’s mandate comes from about 1/5 of the voting population in the UK. I can’t say how accurate it is, but it underlines the point that politics is not the popular game it once was. And it’s not a peculiarly British or Irish disease either. John Lloyd quotes a Swedish political expert: …membership in all Swedish political parties was about 1.4 million – some 15 per cent of the population of the country. “Everyone,” he said, “knew a party activist.” Now, he said, membership was not much over 200,000, and a large number of these were party professionals. A picture that should resonate amongst our our readership.He continues:

Political parties as mass organisations won’t be back. It’s not nostalgic to think that something has been lost; and it’s not utopian to think that something new can be found to make politics matter, and be vivid to a broad range of people again (or even for the first time). For this to happen, both government and the media need to undergo a dramatic change in direction.

But this is where it moves away from the relatively powerless local politics of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it’s even more pointed with a civil service that operates with little democratic oversight. When our politicians finally do get back the keys of ministerial keys of office they will need:

Holding power(s) to account is essential: but people have to know what the politicians are accounting for. In considerable part, the media are to blame for preferring heat to light: prefering rows and downgrading their policy, as against personal, content. But governments rule, and they bear responsibility for not ruling comprehensibly.

Governments work through small leadership groups of diverse politicians, through huge bureaucracies, and to legal standards. These facts mean the most important debate is closed off; that measures grind out in mysterious ways, and usually in impenetrable prose. Sir Christopher Foster, the economist and adviser to successive UK governments, told a recent seminar in London that “We’ve got better advice than we’ve ever had as input to government: the problem is that the output is often unintelligible – to the cabinet, to MPs and to the people.” [my italics]

He then goes on to cite an instance of a 1,738-page study on the Euro that was given to cabinet ministers were “given a weekend to read, and parliament six and a half hours to skim before a debate on the vital issue of joining the euro”. But, he insists, it’s not good enough that proper informed debate should only be carried on inside parliament:

The critical debates will remain those in the cabinet, and in parliament, but these must be supplemented by a third arena, an informed public. The political debates should be underpinned by the widest and most active distribution of the whys and hows of the measures proposed to become law: using every means of communication, from local papers to the internet; above all, television.

That’s where the media come in. To be the supporters of democracy we claim we are, we should become the carriers, and explainers, of what governments do. We also have to be the carriers, and explainers, of what oppositions say is wrong with that, and what they propose. That isn’t done with three lines and a sound bite; or with an op-ed article. It’s done with the kind of resources of skill, time and technology that politicians muster to be elected and the media disburse to get audiences. Both now have to co-operate to support democratic politics.

In the Republic at least, the wilful ignoring of oppositional critique is probably one of the most common of the media’s sins of ommission. Lloyd’s analysis differs from some of the mainstream Irish criticism in that it calls for a closer working relationship between media and politicians rather than advocating greater distance. If this smacks of collusion between media and politicians, he ends with this simple observation:

This isn’t the media becoming government, or losing independence. It’s recognising that politics and news media sink or swim together. If they’re swimming, they can have a contest, wave their hands in the air, and get some debate going. Otherwise, they – we – are not waving, but drowning.

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