The new political week picks up exactly where last week left off, with much of the right-wing press waging a furious rearguard effort to distract attention from David Cameron’s cowardly attempt to scupper the televised leaders’ debates.
The Telegraph in particular is hitting back at the near-universal condemnation of the Prime Minister with nearly the same intensity with which they defended themselves against ex-columnist Peter Oborne’s devastating accusations of compromised editorial standards relating to the newspaper’s coverage of HSBC, an important advertiser.
But now some in the Tory-friendly media have outdone themselves, accusing those who criticise David Cameron’s weaselling out of the television debates and who want to see such debates permanently enshrined in the British political calendar of harbouring “totalitarian” instincts.
Graeme Archer writes in his latest Telegraph column:
What sort of person says, “your free choices do not align with my own desires, and so I will make you a criminal”? What kind of politician restricts the degrees of human freedom so casually, merely in order to curry favour with powerful sectional (but not democratic) interests such as trade unions or broadcasters?
Would it be the sort of politician who cares so little for the truth that he creates language which moulds the world as he’d like, rather than the one we actually inhabit? (There is no “bedroom tax.” This seems like a small thing to those who campaign against welfare reform, but it is not a small thing. It’s as huge as Mr Miliband’s desire to criminalise his opponents). What do you call a politician who abuses language in order to deceive?
Well, a “liar”, yes. Just as you’d call the pusher of a TV debate law a “buffoon”. But “liar” and “buffoon”, while necessary to describe the Miliband approach to politics, still aren’t sufficient.
The word we’re missing is “dangerous”. Totalitarianism comes in many forms. It’s not all faceless foreign dictators moving tanks against borders while starving and shooting their internal dissidents. Sometimes it can appear domestic, part of the British furniture. It can look like a gormless little millionaire from Hampstead, someone who uses that gormlessness to disarm his critics: if he can’t even consume a sandwich without looking like a fool, what damage could he do to our open, free society?
These histrionics come in reaction to Ed Miliband’s announcement that he would enshrine future pre-election leaders’ debates into law. Of course the Labour leader’s motives are cynical and self serving, but this does not make them wrong, as Andrew Rawnsley argues in the Guardian:
There is a way of avoiding this morass in the future. That would be to emulate the way that the Americans manage their presidential debates and legislate to create an independent body to set the rules. As we report today, Labour is now proposing a variant of that. Ed Miliband is doing this for self-serving reasons. It is a way of keeping the heat on Mr Cameron. But just because it suits Labour’s partisan purposes to promote the idea doesn’t make it a bad one.
An independent commission to govern debates would get us out of the indefensible situation where one person can attempt to sabotage the whole thing because they don’t want to defend their record and debate their competitors before the country.
Might such debates prove awkward for David Cameron, and for future incumbent prime ministers who would rather not submit themselves to cross-examination from serious challengers and populist insurgents alike? Absolutely. But does the attempt to establish a legal basis for future democratic debates represent a “totalitarian” instinct on the part of Ed Miliband or the general public? Absolutely not.
Besides, whose side is the Telegraph on? In any debate about totalitarianism, the natural instinct is to side with the people and those without power, yet Graeme Archer and the Telegraph seem more concerned with protecting the cosseted interests of the powerful from the “tyranny” of public accountability. How terribly brave of them.
In their indignant desperation to save the Prime Minister’s blushes, the Telegraph ignores the fact that many other such bills, creating a legal obligation for the government to do this or that, are passed every year, many of them cheered on by newspapers and activists. Only today, for example, the House of Lords voted to approve a bill which commits Britain to spend 0.7 of GDP on international aid:
Britain will be forced to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on foreign aid after peers approved a new law committing the Government to spending billions on international development every year.
Despite an ongoing row over Britain’s failure to commit to spending two per cent of GDP on defence, the House of Lords, backed by the Lib Dems and Labour, has approved plans to enshrine foreign aid spending in law.
Tory MPs condemned the move. Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, said: “It is idiotic and unjustifiable to be spending more and more money on overseas aid when we are still borrowing so much money and have to make savings at home.
“Putting it into law is gesture politics of the worst kind and no self-respecting Conservative could ever believe in being judged simply on the amount of money you spend on something.”
And while the Conservative-friendly press rightly grumbles about this unaffordable act of profligacy at a time of crippling cuts to the Defence budget, there is no alarmist talk of government ministers being threatened with imprisonment should the international development spending target not be met.
Further back in the early days of the coalition, the government’s 2010 emergency budget was challenged under the ludicrous grounds that the government had not sufficiently considered the impact that their spending decisions would have on equality between men and women.
This poison pill of a requirement was inserted by the outgoing Labour government as a pure act of spite to salt the earth for an incoming Tory administration. It is as stupid as it is unworkable, but it is not “totalitarian” – the fact that George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith can walk the streets without fear of arrest for failing to ruminate sufficiently on enforced equality is proof that we are not yet on the way to becoming Nazi Germany.
If Cameron’s apologists in the media really want to do something with their new-found distaste for criminalising things in search of positive headlines and the relentless march of unnecessary new laws onto the statute books, they could oppose any number of reactionary laws and policies created by this government and its predecessors. Lord knows there are enough petty and superfluous laws ripe for tearing up.
Of course, this assumes that they want to do something genuinely useful in the service of liberty and small government, rather than simply lending their credibility and rhetorical cover to a cowardly Prime Minister in full retreat from public scrutiny.