Last night’s Newsnight addressed some vital questions about the giant rotten borough that the United Kingdom has now become, using as a springboard for the discussion the fact of George Galloway’s bombshell victory in Bradford, which caught Labour, the Coalition and the Westminster Village media pundits by surprise.
Jeremy Paxman had as his guests George Galloway, Will Self, Diane Abbott and Mark Field. The programme centred around Galloway and Will Self – Abbott and Young effortlessly demonstrated the utter irrelevance of Her Majesty’s Coalition Government and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to the reality of life in this Disunited Kingdom.
There was no LibDem, since they now don’t matter in any real sense, although Will Self oddly seemed to be representing a kind of LibDemmery – “I voted for them – I wouldn’t say I backed them!”.
Diane Abbott, probably a rich woman now from her long, cosy occupancy of a well-paid media sofa with Michael Portillo on the Andrew Neil show, still fancies that she somehow represents the ordinary people of England in these desperate economically and socially challenging times, living in that strange fantasy political dreamland inhabited by other rich Labour people. Mark Field effortlessly epitomised the other party of privilege, private education and wealth, oozing the easy charm that cloaks the brutal realpolitik of the Tory Party.
I have edited both of them out from my first clip selection: nothing they said mattered – they were the straight men, so to speak in the harsh social comedy duos of the stand-up comics, Galloway and Self, there as foils for the main action. (The full clip follows below.)
The discussion had a delightful opening sequence. Paxman, after a measured and calm introduction, then went for George Galloway in his normal, simplistic attack mode, which relies on politicians being polite and submissive in response, and relying on the advice their image consultants and spin doctors careful crafted for them, which of course results in them being eaten alive.
Interviewees who rely on their own experience, intellect and force of character therefore come as a rude shock to Paxman – one recalls our own First Minister, Alex Salmond reacting with tolerant amusement before demolishing Paxo, and I remember one Welsh academic who ate him alive some years ago by not playing his game.
Having floored Paxman and kicked him around the canvas a bit to demonstrate who was boss, George Galloway then made some vitally important observations, prompted by Will Self’s rather despairing but accurate analysis of the limits of Galloway’s real influence on the political process.
I would summarise the core of the discussion as follows -
Conventional three-party politics are breaking down in the UK, driven by distrust in UK political institutions caused by scandals on expenses, banking, cash for access, cronyism, corruption in the media and police and the manifest economic, foreign policy and social incompetence of two successive governments.
The growth of alternative forms of direct political action – “new ways of doing politics that don’t involve the political parties” - in the form of demonstrations, alternative media groups and campaigning organisations such as 38 Degrees.
The gross inequalities in UK society, and the actions of successive governments that have widened them, rather than narrowed or eliminated them, coupled with active discrimination against the most vulnerable in UK society, and discrimination in favour of wealth and privilege.
The limitations and relative powerlessness of such groups to influence really big issues and legislation, still dominated and controlled by the Parliamentary system and the three big parties plus the unelected House of Lords.
Both Jeremy Paxman and Will Self – albeit driven by very different motives – forced George Galloway to acknowledge what his limitations had been - and would be - in the Parliamentary system. He was compelled to defend his low voting record in his previous incarnation as an MP for Bethnal Green, in the opening acrimonious exchange with Paxo, by acknowledging that his vote wouldn’t have mattered, and to admit to Will Self that the same would essentially apply to his new position as Bradford MP.
Will Self referred to the phenomenon of political clan politics in Bradford – Bradree or Braduree, as good old Tammany-style politics, then telling said that there was a Braduree system operating at UK level – the political class offering sinecures in a closed loop. Galloway’s response referred to a parallel universe of privilege, wealth and private education, using the affable Mark Field as his example, saying he “might be from Mars to the streets of Manningham”. He defended himself against accusations of ethnic politics by citing the fact that the University ward of Bradford West - ethnically diverse and reacting to real issues rather than ethnic politics - had voted for him. But, asked by Self how he was going to reverse the policies, he said he could not reverse them but would “speak out” for his constituents. Will Self’s gentle rejoinder was that he would essentially be “sideswiping” Parliamentary politics as a lone MP.
Voices crying in the wilderness do matter, but only democratic politics changes things – that’s my firm view. One has only to look at CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, now just past the 54th anniversary of its founding. It pains me to say it – and others feel strongly that I shouldn’t say it – that despite the huge efforts and personal sacrifice of thousands of people, often at the price of their safety and liberty over half a century, CND has achieved essentially nothing, in terms of its core aim – nuclear disarmament.
Each of the three major UK parties remain committed to WMDs, to Trident and the so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent as a central plank of NATO.
The UK and the world has remained at risk of nuclear Armageddon since the start of the atomic age on 6th August 1945 – just after my tenth birthday – when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, followed three days later by the Nagasaki bomb, indiscriminately killing, burning and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children and leaving a lethal legacy for many more.
In contrast, the independence of Scotland will achieve unilateral nuclear disarmament for Scotland, and may well force the reluctant rump of the former United Kingdom into abandoning their nuclear folly. This can only result in a reduction of nuclear tensions globally, and may well serve as a beacon of sense to the rest of the world.
This, when it is achieved – as it must be achieved, and will be achieved – will have been achieved by the ballot box, by the will of the Scottish electorate engaged in democratic politics and by the Scottish National Party.
(It is worth noting that Scotland and the Scottish National Party’s massive victory were treated as a footnote in the analysis offered by this programme.)
Galloway, a flawed, brilliant populist politician, a formidable orator, albeit one who has dissipated his talents, perhaps a bit of a political carpetbagger, nonetheless has his heart in the right place, and has the right human, international values.
He summed up the political system of the UK in his own inimitable way as an arse with three cheeks – The Tories, the LibDems and the Labour Party.
But it should be remembered that Galloway very recently was prepared to stand for election to become a pimple on one of those cheeks – the Labour Party in Holyrood.