After years of ho-humming and “I don’t know if I shoulds” I finally treated myself to a giant (and strangely very expensive) compete box set of the old 1961-1969 spy/fantasy show, The Avengers. The show stars Patrick Macnee as the super suave, charming yet by today’s standards creepily lechy superspy John Steed and a collection of partners, the most famous being Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg, solving a load of tongue-in-cheek mysteries and threats to British national security.
The early stories were videotaped in black and white, and are quite difficult for a modern TV watcher to view, but from the fourth season on were filmed in B&W and then colour. What makes the series great fun to watch is the genuine chemistry between Macnee and his co- stars, with Steed’s charm and sexual innuendo easily being parried by his female partners who are for the most part more than a match for him.
The show itself has now entered TV history, with Blackman accidentally becoming a feminist icon after she came late to the series and so had to literally play a character written for a man, fights and all. It was also one of the few UK TV shows actually shown on US network television.
The clip above, where Steed arrives (1:05) is typical of the banter. Keep an eye out for Steed’s checking out of Mrs Peel’s cleavage, and her response.
Incidentally, though expensive, the complete box set does come in a beautiful hardback book form which would make a lovely gift for the Avengers aficionado, especially as it is full of extras.
Whilst you’re working your way through that selection box, cast your mind back to December 1982. Now picture the Ireland of the day, where condoms were almost banned, homosexuality was illegal, we had one television channel, commercial radio was banned, there was no internet, no iphones, divorce was illegal, and our infrastructure was awful. Air travel and international phonecalls pretty much required a mortgage to use, and many of the products we saw on UK channels (those of us who had “piped” TV) were simply not available in the shops.
Now look at Ireland today, and see how much has changed, and changed for the better. We live in a different country, with one exception. Whereas our country has modernised, we still have the same political system we had 30 years ago.
Ah, the status-quoers will argue, but much of that change happened because of our political system. Some did, but a lot of the change was forced on us by outside forces, certainly in terms of competition. In short, our political system is actually the last remnant of the old ways, occupied in many instances by the same people from 1982. Think about it: why is our political system so impervious to change when the rest of society moves on? And it’s not just political systems: In the same period of time, Canada got a new constitution, Britain devolved parliaments, elected mayors, voted on a new voting system, and upper house reforms, France and Spain devolved government, Italy and New Zealand new electoral systems.
We stopped TDs being county councillors.
Whilst other countries recognised that systems have to change to work better in a changing society, our guys battle to keep things the way they are. Even now, they work feverishly to ensure that the Constitutional Convention does not do anything that will actually transfer decision making power away from behind the closed cabinet doors, instead saying we should worry about the president’s term of office. Seriously?
Consider any number of social issues. Drugs. prostitution. Homelessness. Can anyone think of a single current minister who arrived in office 18 months ago thinking “I am going to try to fix this once and for all”. I can’t, because they don’t. They arrive, see what the last guy did, fiddle about, and move on collecting a pension on the way. Ah here, you say, you’re being a bit hard. Solve drugs? Sure no one has done that. Perhaps: but where is the minister who actually worked on a solution, even an ultra-radical controversial solution to drugs or homelessness and then said “right, let’s at least get the country talking about what we would need to do to fix this”. Where is he or she? Almost certainly not in the political system we have, because it does not really elect people like that. It elects placeholders to sit in office but not in power, and that’s our problem right there.
Our system is about being, not doing, and it prevents this being the greatest small nation on Earth, and that’s not hyperbole. We are a small moderate well-educated country in a good location, with the rule of law and freedom. We are just the right size to be able to tackle almost any problem our society faces. The greatest obstacle to that is that we elect leaders who don’t want to lead but just occupy the leadership space, preventing someone else from doing it.
It won’t kill us, after all Enda and Brian and Bertie are not bad people. But it denies us greatness, a greatness that is within our ability to reach. We produce businesspeople and musicians and writers and actors that are world class, but elect leaders that are local fixers at best. Would Microsoft or Airbus or Mercedes Benz or Apple look at any of our front benches and say “Yes: he/she is the one for us!” Yet we let them run a €150 billion economy?
As long as we march against paying to keep excrement out of our drinking water but not to make our political system work better we will not be a great people.
The Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Cold Award: The Worker’s Party’s operatives in the Labour Party, on the verge of completing a 20 year old plan to destroy the old enemy.
The Sure It Worked In 1977 With The Rates Didn’t It Award: Fianna Fail for its opposition to the property tax negotiated by Fianna Fail in government.
The Here, Stop Talking About Stuff In The North, That’s Our Gig Award: Sinn Fein, for its flexible approach to public spending cuts depending on what side of the border one is on.
The Jaysus, Dem USI Presidents Are Like Cockroaches, They Get Everywhere Award: To former USI presidents Eamonn Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and Colm Keaveney.
The Political Reform? Sure That’s Something You Talk About In Opposition Award: Fine Gael and Labour for their defence of the whip system over, well, everything.
The I Wish The IMF Would Order Us To Do Something About This. Then We Could Blame Them Award: The Oireachtas for 20 years of hiding behind the couch everytime abortion called around.
The My Friends Pretend Not to See Me On The Street Award: The new, young first term FG and Labour TDs voting through crap they campaigned against.
The Not Even Knowing They’re Getting Taken Roughly From Behind Award: Young teachers and nurses who let their unions agree to cutting their entry level benefits in order to protect the benefits of older, better paid and mortgage free union members.
The Paul Daniels Classic Misdirection Award: Jack O’Connor, for pushing the line that private and public sector workers are all in the same boat.
The Neck Like Lester Piggott’s Bollocks Award: Brendan Howlin, for telling private pension contributers that it is wrong to expect the taxpayer to provide relief to a pension over €60,000. Except if they are ministers, obviously.
Depending on where you stand, the word “politics” means two things in Ireland. To people not holding public office, it mostly means the business of how the country is run. But to those within the political system, it seems, more and more, to mean a system of accessing very generous pay, pensions and benefits and the means of keeping them by remaining in office. Nearly every person I know who has worked in Irish government has remarked how life in government, at least at political level, is a series of panicked “Today’s Crisis Today” episodes where no one actually has any incentive as to actually doing anything for medium or long term reasons.
This government in particular is turning out to be quite shocking as it reveals that most of its ministers seem to have given almost no thought to what would happen the day after the election. Just think about all the major issues the government is dealing with. Most are driven by other people (The IMF, EU, the bond markets) or crisis (abortion). It’s hard to point to many major government areas of action that are being driven by a desire within Fine Gael and Labour to actually change something for the better. In fact, if you look at the Constitutional Convention, which is THEIR big political reform idea, they have gone out of their way to make sure that it doesn’t do anything of significance. And it was their idea!
What’s very apparent is that this government, like the one before it, regards spending other people’s money as pretty much the main purpose of government, and now that they have no money, they are too lacking in imagination to push the things they could do which would not cost much money. Take the issue of former ministers exorbitant pensions, or reducing the Dail by 20 seats, or scrapping upward only rent reviews. The govt parties talked about all three of these things in opposition. All could be changed by referendum. So why aren’t they?
Devout members of the National Rifle Association have expressed horror at the finding of theologists that firearms are probably not permitted nor available in heaven, as they are not mentioned in the Bible.
The Christian gun rights organisation Rapture Recoil has condemned the findings, and called on the United States Government to invade Heaven to ensure that those RR members who have already passed on have their rights to bear arms vindicated.
“We have a right to keep our guns upon entering paradise for self defense purposes. Or supposing we enter the Kingdom of God, and decide that we need to liberate Muslim heaven or what ever they call it. That socialist in the White House should do the decent thing and tell Jesus, may The Lord praise his name, that the United States will not tolerate no liberal gun-free zone in Our Lord’s House, and Our Lord better pay attention to the US of A and change his mind about guns if he knows what’s good for him. Those angels don’t look like much of a match for an Apache gunship, and no guy in a nightshirt with wings is going to take my M16 from me. Unless he’s got one too, obviously. Then I’ll surrender immediately. I’ve no problem shooting at unarmed animals, but I’m sure as hell not taking the risk of shooting at something that might shoot back!”
The comedian Dave McSavage made a very telling point in a sketch recently about The Frontline, when he suggested that the Irish brain can’t really handle figures, only stories. This is a very astute observation, and something which was confirmed recently by Dan O’Brien when he pointed out that Irish people pay far more extra tax as a result of the VAT increase than they do with the Household Charge, yet the HC caused far more aggro.
The Irish unwillingness to look at the details of these issues was fine when we had loads of money, and indeed it was used by politicians to avoid awkward questions. But now we have no money, and it is vital from the government’s point of view that the public be made understand that. Yet the inertia that grasps Irish political parties in government, that fear of doing anything different, is preventing them from doing so. We get the usual spin from the government (there’s no shortage of those people in government), but we as voters recognise that for what it is, and discount it. But who in this government is responsible for actually educating the public about the reality we are in (as the BBC do here). Even now, there are still large numbers of people who believe that if we had not bailed out the banks, we would have no cutbacks.
Or take the whole issue of taxation. The rich are the only section of Irish society who pay more in taxes than they get back in services, yet the majority of voters don’t know that. The majority of public spending goes on public sector pay, not the government jet, yet the public gets obsessed about TDs Christmas cards. Most Irish people have no idea what proportion of their total gross income is paid in taxes, but I suspect they think it is higher than it actually is. In fact, I have met people who have a very odd definition of taxation, including the ESB, Bord Gais, and car insurance. I’ve even met one person who made a half-serious argument that paying his mortgage was a form of taxation, on the basis that A) the banks are state-owned, and B) if he did not house himself, the taxpayer would have to!
The lack of knowledge about these issues is impeding the government’s ability to do its job, and needs to be addressed by someone in government whose job is to assemble straight non-spun facts of economic reality, and put together a non-political campaign to get those facts out there.
If I were fact doctor for a day, I’d assemble a single chart showing the following simple facts:
1. Which income groups pay the most tax.
2. Which income groups get the most in state payments.
3. The total budget broken down into end-recipients of money.
4. How much tax we collect versus how much we spend.
5. A projection showing how a tax the rich policy would work in terms of what rates would raise how much, and what cutbacks it would reverse.
6. A breakdown of the costs of “populist” cuts (TDs pensions, government jet) as a percentage of the budget.
These are just a few ideas for starters, but you get the point. There are some people who will say that you can find this stuff on the web, and you can, but no one (except maybe for Ronan Lyons here) is actively seeking to put these facts in front of the general public in an easily digestible and sustained way, and that is hurting the climate of debate in the country.
I was watching Michael McDowell recently on The Saturday Night Show and almost saw him roll his eyes when asked about the Progressive Democrat legacy in government. I don’t blame him, because the party’s time in government, now seen as an historical event as opposed to being part of a current party’s baggage, allows certain myths to gather about the party, which I thought I’d write about.
1. The PDs espoused the “glorification of greed”. Joe Higgins made this point when the party was wound up, and sneered that the party was reduced to a mere two seats. Aside from noting that the Socialist Party has never ever won more than two seats in its history, the greed argument is very intellectually lazy. The PDs cut taxes for the rich. They also took huge tranches of low paid workers (wrongly, as it now turns out) entirely out of the tax net. They cut Capital Gains Tax, which boosted economic activity and yes, did make some people a lot of money, But also provided social service revenue. But given that Joe has never advocated the reversal the majority of PD tax cuts, does that mean he too supported the glorification of greed?
2. The PDs espoused a rightwing Thatcherite agenda. When I was in the PDs, we used to fall around in stitches when someone on the left accused us of that. The stormiest meeting I ever attended in the party was a General Council meeting (the party’s “Dail”) where proposed cuts to the Community Employment Schemes were discussed, and Mary Harney was left in no uncertain terms that CES had to be protected. Certainly, the party did introduce some free-market things into the healthcare sector, like the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which uses taxpayer funds to buy private or public care for public patients, and has treated over 217,000 patients since 2002. Funnily enough, Labour didn’t abolish it when they came to power. But Harney also kept (rightly) the Community Rating system in private health insurance, or as an American would call it: socialism. The party did propose letting the public sector shrink by 25,000 (an extra 0 in a typo boosted the proposal to 250,000 and became THE story of election 1997) but that was by natural shrinkage. As it happens, Labour in government has let more go.
3. The PDs were against public spending. Look at the size of the budget in 1997, and again in 2007 and tell me that was true. I wish it was, but the PDs were just as addicted to spending as any other party. Both benchmarking and decentralisation happened (shamefully) under the PDs. Embarrassing yes, right wing, definitely not.
4.The PDs were against social welfare. Again, the facts don’t speak for themselves. Welfare rates rose under FF and the PDs, and I don’t recall anyone in the party having a problem with it. In fact, the party was particularly proud of the increase in pensions and help for carers. You know, the stuff the Labour Party is currently cutting.
5. The PDs were the party of Big Business. Certainly, the party was openly pro-business, whereas FF and FG tended to hide their business contacts. But who brought in the Minimum Wage, and the Office of Corporate Enforcement? Labour, right? No wait, it was Eamon Gilmore and Democratic Left? No, actually, it was the PDs and Fianna Fail. The difference with the PDs was that they did not regard “business” as a dirty word.
6. The PDs were socially liberal. Again, this is a myth which people bought into despite the actual facts. The party abolished the death penalty in 1990, despite the fact that there were FF cabinet ministers (Michael Woods) opposed as recently as 1989. But aside from that, on liberal issues like divorce and contraception, the party did nothing. It attempted to reverse the X case ruling in a referendum, and despite making friendly noises about gay marriage, never actually did anything, leaving the Greens to do the heavy lifting and getting civil partnership through (something for which they deserve far more credit than they ever got). The PDs were not as much liberal as not anti-liberal.
Colm Keaveney’s resignation is interesting because it raised for me a question: why should any FG or Labour backbencher feel any loyalty towards a budget that they had no input into? When we consider that both parties ran in 2011 on a platform of transforming the way politics works in the country, yet still maintain a ridiculously secretive and closed budget preparation process? Supposing the draft budget had been revealed a month ago, to allow for govt backbenchers to identify problem issues and suggest alternatives? Would that really have been so awful?
The problem is the institutional inertia that exists in Irish government, whereas ministers accept that because something has always been done one way, it can never change. This cabinet, judging by its feeble enthusiasm for serious political reform, seems particularly prone to the “this is the way it has always been done” argument.
I wonder, is that a byproduct of the fact that so many of the cabinet seem to have been in politics since Moses was a boy? There’s a rumour going around, for example, that the thermostat in the Parliamentary Labour Party room has to be kept higher than most other rooms in Leinster House because Labour ministers feel the cold easier at their time of life. Not that their age should be an issue. We will all live longer and what we regarded as old in our youth is not the same today. I’m not sure, for example, that we would describe people in their 60s as being elderly any more.
But their long periods in public life do tend to make them resistant to change, and to accept that there is nothing wrong with a political system that has brought them to where they are today. Now, they seem put out at the idea that young whippersnappers on the backbenches are not willing to wait 30 years to have a say in decisions, as they had to, and I’m not sure that is a good thing for Irish politics. After all, if there is one thing that has poisoned effective politics in this country, it’s the “wait your turn young fella” mentality.