A modest proposal

I spent much of this weekend on trains. It’s a mild irony that when you invest in infrastucture, like  renerwing railways tracks, putting in new gas pipes, or widening roads, the short term effect is to make life more miserable and unpleasant for everyone. There should be a term for this. I suggest “the planned works paradox”. I’m sure you can do better.

As a result of all the investment in public infrastructure, my train journey this weekend took twelve hours, rather than seven. This proved no burden at all, as I was able to devour David Simon’s “Homicide”, a book based on his year with the Baltimore police department and the inspiration for his stunning HBO show, The Wire. Buy both book and box set. You won’t regret either.

In the book’s epilogue, Simon talks about how spending so much time with Baltimore detectives made it impossible for him to assume the neutral, journalistic stance he’d felt was the right one for a reporter. He recounts a moment when the two detectives he is riding with stop a suspected criminal and he finds himself searching a possible murderer who needs to be restrained, just like a real po-lice.

It’s a reflection of his closeness to the police he’s working with that in a moment of tension he almost becomes one of them. Wondering whether this is good or bad, David Simon then references one of my favourite books. Richard Ben Cramer’s “What it takes“, a masterful account of the 1988 Presidential race by an author who, like Simon, spent a year up close and personal with his subjects. 

After his book was published, some criticised  Cramer for not being objective enough.  Cramer was asked if spending so much time with politicians of both parties had affected his views of them. Had he perhaps begun to <shudder> like them?

His response was telling “Like them?” he replied. “I loved those guys”.

David Simon, writing on a totaly different subject, said amen to that. If you spend time with people, listen to them, It’s almost impossible not to begin to feel some sympathy for them. In Cramer’s case, Bob Dole emerges as a heroic but tragic figure, while George Bush is seen as a decent, if weak man trapped by position and politics into a running a campaign he doesn’t really believe in.  That said, it is clear that Bush, rather than Dole does “what it takes“.

We in Britain have less sympathy for the process of politics in our literature. The best books we have about elections are accounts of leaders, or academic, uninvolved treatises. Or there’s Nick Jones’s accounts of the campaigns, fairly dripping with contempt for the incompetents, control freaks and unfortunates who run the campaigns.* At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the faintly nauseating approach of the fly on the wall who seeks only to shine a light on a leader, not to understand or enlighten about politics as a whole.

These are mostly good books. Some are brilliant.

But they don’t love those guys.

Whether it’s because they have to focus on a leader and mythologise or demonise them, or because they’re wrtten by journalists and academics who must keep their distance, you don’t get that sense of intimacy, of affection, of understanding and of a sense of equality from the British books.

I think that’s why I like blogging. If I read Iain Dale, I get, along with the posturing and the bravado, a real sense of his sympathy for and love of his party, its currents and tensions, strengths and hypocrisies.  The same goes for many of the commenters at political betting and for Tom Harris. It’s probably also why I dislike Guido so much, as the anti-politics front masks a man who deeply and tragically loves politics.

So here’s my idea, that sometime bloggers (or someone like them) will be able to put this right. To be part of an election campaign, to observe it, to sit alongside leaders and press officers, organisers and advisers, breakfast meetings and late night sessions in the bar, and then to explain to the rest of us why this matters, why these guys count, and why they deserve, if not always our admiration, then at least our attention.

*One exception proves the rule. Phil Cowley’s work on the Whips office has this insight into the motivations of rebels and whips. It’s why it’s the one book I whleheartedly ecommend to people interested in politics. The boring data stuff is pretty good too.

20 Responses to “A modest proposal”

  1. Unity

    You’re forgetting that many of the best books dealing with the political process tend to be the published diaries, in fact I’d like to put in a good word for the late Robin Cook’s ‘The Point of Departure’, which although sold on the strength of its final chapter, dealing with his resignation over Iraq, is primarily a fascinating account of his effort to steer reform of the Lord though parliament while serving as Leader of the House.

  2. newmania

    Thanks for the penny psychology Hopi but I think I know why you hate Guidot .The fact of him hurts Labour ( I would say it was the only blog that does any real world lifting ). Its especially infuriating ,because it comes from outside the establishment. You would like him if he agreed with you . Simple as that mon ami.
    Still not a a bad stab at the “I am more saddened than angry” genre a gambuit I always appreciate .

  3. Hopisen

    Guido doesn’t hurt Labour anywhere except in his own third person mind. C’mon Newmania, in a world where Richarld Littlejohn, Jon Gaunt, Jeremy Clarkson, are all major media figures with their own national newspaper columns, radio shows and book deals, Guido is the smallest of the small fry in the angry rich white guy market.

    Unity – you’re right about diaries being excellent, but there’s that problem of the utterly unreliable narrator. To take one example, Tony benn’s diaries are brilliant, but I defy you to read the 1979 on ones without a disturbing sense of total seperation from reality.

  4. newmania

    Guido is the smallest of the small fry in the angry rich white guy market.

    Which do you hate most “Angry” , “rich” or is it , (intriguingly ) “white ” ? While these are successful people ( still relaxed are we ?) they are because they speak for people who are not especially successful .People who are exasperated utterly unrepresented and no whiter than the country. Only Jeremy Clarkson approaches the social class required for New Labour Dinner Parties and he is only a belated Conservative ( was a Liberal and is a male Esther Ranthzen yuk) .

    Numbers are not the point t.Just as the left establishment were quick to pounce on the Libertarian energy of punk and divert it into the loathsome Red Wedge ( Weller since denounced phew) , they would like to tame blogs .The conspicuous energy of Guidot is a source of irritation . Numbers may be small, but the cultural ripple of a new way of feeling is of huge importance .

  5. Guido Fawkes

    Hopi, were you at that recent Labour bloggers meeting chaired by Draper where they debated endlessly about me?

    Where Benji Wegg-Prosser said that “Guido needs to be taken down”.

    Where they discussed ways of smearing me?

    Were you party to Tom Watson’s attempts a while back to place smear stories about me in the broadsheets?

    What is really tragic is the amount of energy you lot expend on me. Why is that?

    Hostis honori invidia.

  6. hopisen

    Newmania _ i don’t “hate” them. I just find their studied attempts to pose as repressed, oppressed and cast out by the world at large, while simultaenously taking home huge wodges of cash, and being incredibly influential rather… disconcerting.

  7. Letters From A Tory

    I’d hardly call Tom Harris ‘objective’ about the government. Since when does he talk about tensions within the Labour Party or criticise is for being hypocritical?

  8. Tom

    For the record: I haven’t been trying to smear this guy. He’s a convicted criminal, I don’t have to.

  9. Tim Ireland

    ‘Smears’, you say? Why didn’t you exercise your legal rights then, Paul*? You were quick enough to throw your lawyer at me over a statement of fact that you didn’t like.

    (*His name is Paul Staines. Calling him ‘Guido’ only encourages him to fall further into his fantasies. I know it’s difficult, but please try to avoid it.)

    PS – From where I stand, Draper looks to be a fool. He wrongfooted his start on this in a way that allowed sock-puppeting losers like Staines blame him for every scrap of anonymous criticism, and that’s just for starters.

  10. hopisen

    Tom, oh, is that what he was talking about? I thought Paul/Guido/the king of the third person must have been referring to something other than publicly available facts. Mind you It’s good to know you can call the truth a smear. I’ll remember that when I’m next called overweight and scruffy!

    Trying to get back to my point, there are bloggers out there who have a real affection for politics.

    For example, I disagree with Iain Dale on pretty much everything, and agree with Tim’s criticism of him on his manipulation of his stats and his site (Battles which Tim won – though the losers don’t acknowledge it) but alongside his self promotion and aggrandisement his real love of the Conservative party is transparent. He’s a hack, and I’m not using it as an insult. I too am a hack. It’s something I’m rather proud of.

    Guido/Paul is also a hack, but pretends not to be, and it’s that play-acting that I find strange.

    Tim – I think any Labour “response” to right wing bloggers was always likely to be mocked by the right. The one thing I’ve noticed so far about Derek Draper is that he’s willing to put himself above the parapet, to promote the Labour cause, just like Tom H and Tom W did/do as government insiders. It’s very hard to put yourself up to have shots taken at you from a position of current influence, and it deserves to be commended…

  11. cityunslicker

    Dale does this already, as do many of the MSM bloggers like Brogan.

    Blogging is a broad church and should remain that way. Guido is great at what he does, as is Devil’s Kitchen. As are yourself and Unity.

    Why the desire for conformity?

  12. Benjamin Gray

    The British commentariat have had the angry shouters for centuries, and politics would be less fun without them. Likewise the use of personae to advance arguments is a longstanding tradition. The use of the third person is neither here nor there really: Cranmer uses it to good effect.

    It’s also rather entertaining. Bloggers like Guido and DK are a source of immense fun to read, even if you don’t agree with everything they write.

    I’m all for a degree of deference and understanding for politicians. I also agree that not enough writers these days try to illuminate the workings of the British political process.

    But let’s not go too far down the line of deference. It would be rather un-British.

  13. hopisen

    A fiar comment, Ben, I suppose I’m not arguing for deference (The Dylan Jones book on Cameron seemed to show that up, AIUI), but for… understanding? Sympathy?


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