Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Come on Lib Dems: what would Birgitte Nyborg do?

I'm often amazed at reviews of episodes of political dramas such as The West Wing, Borgen, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. Reviewing such episodes without discussing the choices faced by the protagonists is like reviewing Rocky without mentioning boxing. There may be more going on than just the obvious subject matter, but you really ought to pay some attention to what's in front of your nose.

Being fiction, all the available choices would typically have dreadful consequences. But the dramatic resolution would hinge on some wily fellow coming up with a brilliant choice that no-one had thought of. A lot of the fun is in trying (usually failing) to work out what that choice might be.

Sometimes, of course, there is no brilliant choice, and we watch sadly as pragmatic protagonists cope badly with trying to minimise the damage of the least worst compromise, when it might have been more satisfying to go down in a blaze of fiery defiance.

I occasionally wonder whether we are all getting better at political analysis because of the skills we are honing in fictional scenarios.

And then I read the newspapers.

But what I find interesting about problems like the Jeremy Hunt vote, is that we often seem to prefer to present our real life political choices as a little bit more black-and-white than the fiction. It's as if we'd like politics to be a series of Doctor Who-style moral choices in which if we'd only stick to our principles, be nice to odd-looking creatures, trust the Doctor's got some trick with a sonic screwdriver up his sleeve, and be jolly brave, it'll all be alright in the end.

I don't know.

I couldn't live by the morality of the dastardly folk in The West Wing, Borgen, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. Nor, for that matter, those in Doctor Who. But, at the same time, it doesn't end very well either for
these honourable folk.

On the Hunt issue in particular, I've no idea what Lib Dems should do. (I told you I was bad at guessing the dénouements to political dramas!)
[I'd probably propose an amendment deleting Labour's wording and replace it with something essentially identical that sounds emollient ("... recommend the Secretary of State is given a chance to clear his name by enabling an independent review of the facts by Sir Alex Allan..." or some such) but still achieves the right result, while saving face for the Conservatives ("Following sensible advice from the Deputy Prime Minister, I have decided to support this amendment, in the interests of ensuring that the Secretary of State is treated fairly.") But I doubt such a move would work because I think Cameron is implicated more than we know.]
However I note that it costs Lib Dem bloggers little to take the moral high ground (1, 2, 3), whereas Nick Clegg and the other ministers have the responsibility of living with the realistic consequences of such a stance.

Now Clegg's political nous is far from reliable, in my view; but I hear no-one putting a case for "We must back Cameron on this one, to ensure our more important policies get through".

And that worries me a bit. It shouldn't be beyond the pale to consider such positions.

It's a pragmatic approach, sure. And that can fail badly, as we saw in the case of tuition fees. But sometimes flexibility can help advance the greater good, as I think is illustrated by
these wily folk.

This continuing disconnect - between a smart but idealistic rank-and-file on the one hand, and a pragmatic but fitful leadership on the other - cannot end well.

Update 13 June 3:30pm

I still haven't seen anyone in the Lib Dem blogosphere arguing to vote with the Tories on this one. However, Stephen Tall has put forward the argument that an abstention makes sense because "We should conserve our energies and furrowed brows for issues that matter to folk beyond SW1".

And Stephen also noted sweetly on Twitter:

Meanwhile, backbench MP Adrian Sanders - not a rank-and-file member of course, but far from a slavish follower of edicts from the leadership - has made a similar argument to Stephen's.

It's true that the balance of Lib Dem comments on LDV and Twitter seem to be strongly in favour of voting for Labour's motion, but I think these reasoned articles by Stephen and Adrian may well cause some to allow the value of this point of view on future issues.

The last word though is from Peter Doyle: "Good question! What would Birgitte Nyborg do? I imagine she'd 'invite' Jeremy Hunt to become Interior Minister for Greenland...."

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