Sunday, April 19, 2009

 

We Live in the Age of 'Manipulative Populism'

Despite writing for the Daily Mail, Peter Oborne is one of the subtlest and insightful commentators in Fleet St. His excellent Observer piece today dissects what has happened to our highest office. It has to be said that it's is not reassuring from the democratic viewpoint. He recalls that Stanley Baldwin and Clem Attlee were prime ministers who worked through their ministers- who are the people who actually wield the legal power of government- and parliament. It followed that the Chief Whip was the person on whom the PM relied most heavily for support in his political battles.

But no more: the arrival of the 'celebrity prime minister' by which Oborne seems to mean Tony Blair (he doesn't mention Thatcher), has seen the emphasis shift to the chief spin doctor; he expresses this by reference to the eclipse of the fictional Francis Urquart- the epicene villain of Dobbs' House of Cards by the fictional Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed hero-villain of Ianucci's The Thick of It and In the Loop(see picture).

All the same blacks arts are at work; however, the battlefield has changed. Urquhart applied himself to parliament, Tucker bypassed the traditional institutions of the state and was only concerned with the media and its other methods of control: access, favouritism, information and the creation of an elite corps of client journalists.

Oborne recalls Brown's promise to:

He pledged to bring back cabinet government, respect civil service impartiality, restore the primacy of parliament and to abandon the dark political arts at which the team of political assassins around Blair had so excelled.

However, Brown has done none of these things as the past week or so has plainly shown. Oborne's comments on Cameron suggest he does not forsee any real change once the new regime, as it almost certainly will, step up to Number 10 next year. Andy Coulson is his Malcom Tucker and his pedigree does not reassure: former editor of the News of the World, and guilty of authorizing hacking into royal phone conversations. He seems much closer to Cameron than Patrick McLaughlin, his Chief Whip, of whom most people have little knowledge(I admit I had to check if he still did the job).

Oborne also explains that the elevation of Tucker-Campbell-Coulson is due not necessarily to mere media strategies, but to the new nature of the media. It is now so all-encompassing, such a constant and demanding presence that it has become the instrument of a new kind of politics. Parliament is supposed to be the body which ultimately determines policy and decisions but the media is now so powerful it can apply a range of influences: certainly delays, sometimes vetos as well as urge courses of action. Oborne cites the vivid phrase coined by Anthony Barnett to describe this new way in which we are governed: 'manipulative populism'.

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