Monday, May 17, 2010

Argument Clinic – some advice for Liberal Democrats

The luxury of being in political Opposition is that you don’t have to worry too much about reality, which is a series of compromises, fudges and lesser evils. Being able to attack without needing to defend is safe and fun, if rather hollow. This is the biggest and bravest sacrifice the Liberal Democrats have made by going the whole way with the Coalition.

I tuned in to Thursday’s Question Time – a programme I usually shun because the audience is comprised of such self-righteous, self-selected, clap-happy fools – to see how the panellists would cope with the unusual circs, and it was interesting to note how badly Simon Hughes, representing the Lib Dems, performed. Eventually I decided that this was because he found himself in entirely unfamiliar territory. If Opposition is a luxury, think how it has been for the Lib Dems, revelling in Double Opposition, free to attack both Labour and the Tories at will and to adopt the kind of crazy policy (Euro, Trident etc) which has to be instantly ditched if Office and reality approach. Simon Hughes’s entire debating career has been spent as a sniper; now he found himself a target. The discomfort of novelty is the only kind excuse for his lame performance because the arguments were all on his side. Essentially Hughes faced a four-pronged attack. He should have trounced all comers but he was only comfortable dealing with the Labour representative, Lord Falconer.

The easiest prong to deal with should have been the idealist Lib Dem voters in the audience who accused him of ‘betraying their principles’ by joining with the Tories. This is twaddle and could have been countered by pointing out that in practical terms the Lib Dems chose the route that would mean having some (a surprisingly large amount) of their manifesto implemented rather than none of it. Of course practice never trumps principle for idealists so he should then have gone on to observe that the key principle of the Lib Dems is that consensus governments can work and that the interests of the country should not be sacrificed to score party political points in our rotten, confrontational system. Refusing to join a coalition on the grounds of principle would therefore have resulted in a self-defeating paradox and only a damn fool would even make such an accusation. Unfortunately the damn fool making it was a 17-year old politics student still young enough to think that ‘hypocrisy’ is something that matters – in other words, exactly the kind of person from whom Hughes has spent a lifetime extracting applause. In his confusion he made a hash of it.

The other two prongs were loonies of the left and right commentariat. Hughes could easily have played them against each other, but he didn’t and furthermore made the critical mistake, which surely no experienced Government representative would have done, of treating them seriously. Melanie Phillips, representing the loony right, described the coalition as a squalid stitch-up of self-interested parties. The correct method of dealing with her would have been a patronising tone, a dismissive wave of the hand and a ‘your cynicism says much more about you than it does about us, you old dinosaur’.

Slightly more of a challenge was someone called Medhi Hasan, speaking for the loony left. This man is, apparently, the political editor of The New Statesman. Dear me, what a prize prune he is. A ghastly applause-chaser, all witless punchlines and self-important table-thumping. Both stupid and sarcastic (the most irritating combination), never listening but always using the time in which others talk to plan what he’s going to say next. No argument or reasoning would have worked on this muppet, the only solution was to ignore him. Hughes made the schoolboy error of attempting to engage, and lost. He should have just let Hasan rant on and on until he got his applause, paused for ten seconds while it died down, and then opened with: “Anyway, back on Planet Earth…”

That, I’m sure, is how Chris Hitchens would have done it. The Lib Dems find themselves having to debate at a disadvantage for the first time in their political lives; they could do a lot worse than call the Hitch for some coaching.


worm said...

very perceptive view of lib dems changed circumstances!

monix said...

Simon Hughes is one of only a handful of LibDems used to speaking in public so he has been trotted out for every interview. Poor chap was probably exhausted!

malty said...

Hughes ain't alone in losing the plot, a certain N.Cohen ranting in the ranters rag seems to have a thorn in his paw, the barons are apparently at large again, putting the peasantry to the sword, taking food from the mouths of innocent children etc etc etc.

Its not easy, the transition from poacher to gamekeeper and in any case Hughes isn't the sharpest pencil in the LibDems box.

Brit said...

Monix - yes it's interesting to see who they choose to put on the box. Michael Gove was rarely off our screens, no doubt much to the chagrin of Willard, though I like him.

Malty - agreed, not Nick's finest column, been a difficult few weeks for him...

Willard said...

Well, I have a confession to make. I've warmed to Gove since my last outburst. My dislike stemmed from the Tory conference earlier this year. After months of Cameron detoxifying the brand, Gove stood up and gave an old-school Tory speech. I honestly think that's where they went wrong. I've said it so many times: the class war is powerful magic for the Labour Party and the Tories should have done everything to take the voodoo out of it.

However, talking recently about the coalition, Gove made a fair amount of sense and I began to think I've been wrong about him.

Your point about opposition parties being in power is absolutely right. What I think is admirable is that the Lib Dems have not chosen the easy route. In fact, this is probably the hardest realistic route into power they could have chosen.

Peter said...

Look hard at a picture of our new government, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the 20th century never happened.

Actually, Mr. Cohen, if one looks very, very hard at a picture of your new government, one could be forgiven for realizing that it did.

Ali said...

Gove had a sparring contest with Paxman that was a thing of beauty.