Repost: I’m delighted to see that Des O’Malley, one of my great political heroes, launched his autobiography “Conduct Unbecoming” yesterday. In honour, I thought I’d repost this from 2012:
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 (note: now 3) 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 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, or the Environmental Protection Agency or got rid of Dublin’s smog? 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.
The prime minister, Mr. Cameron, has launched an initiative aimed at reducing the number of witches operating in Ye Olde England. Speaking in Parliament before Lords and Commons, he didst promise that “Ye days of ye foreign witches coming t’fair land and spreading dropsy and Baker’s Knee ’bout place willst come to an end, and I have a three point plan to makes it be!”
Mr. Farage didst question him, declaiming that the prime minister is under the thrall of foreign witches and three, and that he does lie with them and engage in despicable practices involving pesto and fresh fennel and a selection of artisan breads, all alien to these shores. “Not liketh me, who enjoys a tankard of ale as much as the next yeoman, and wenching until the long hours whilst the prime minister doest speak like a Frenchman!”
The prime minister pledged solemnly to increase treasury coin towards the Office of The WitchFinder General.
In other news, the leader of his majesty’s (Gentlemen be upstanding!) loyal opposition is to be attended upon by physicians after become gravely ill whilst attempting to eat a jellied eel sandwich and trying to prove that he too didst enjoy roistering and hullabaloo.
“We have prescribed a course of leeches,” a physician said. “He should recover. Assuming he does not attempt to eat them too.”
This democracy thing is far more fragile than we realise.
I thought I’d repost this rather than write another blog on the same theme. Don’t forget to check out this article about public spending by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, as I think they dovetail nicely. By the way, make sure to watch the short film, it’s fascinating.
1. A sense of entitlement, spread across nearly every social class, that informs people that they somehow have a right to far more government expenditure being spent on them than they ever contribute in taxes, whilst at the same time believing that they are overtaxed and that others are either paying less or getting more from the state.
2. A professional political class that sees winning elections and remaining in office as a career in itself, that sees defined political values as a means to an end rather than an end goal, and that has developed its own sense of Washington Beltway/Westminster Village/Leinster House Doheny and Nesbitt set of priorities and scorecards that are getting further and further removed from the concerns of their respective publics.
3. An electorate, shaped by a post-1950s consumer culture, that expects its political leaders to deliver an unachievable level of political and indeed emotional gratification, constantly leading to disappointment in the political process. For example, this writer encountered people expressing disappointment in a new Irish government for not implementing election promises before they had actually taken office. In addition, that same electorate subscribes to a right to cheap credit but does not accept the balancing obligation of accepting a lower standard of living in order to meet those debts.
4. A media that, due to commercial realities, does not see informing the public or indeed educating them as being a high priority, but instead sees the destruction of political figures, parties and institutions as a legitimate goal in itself, as is the injecting of extreme emotion into any story where possible.
5. The corrupting effect of fundraising on the political system coupled with (see point four) a media that both decries corruption caused by fundraising but also the use of public funds to eliminate the need for private funding. Likewise, a public that demands high standards of political ethics but is unwilling to resource them, leading to candidates who are either funded by other individuals or else are privately wealthy, both cases to which the public also objects.
6. The pervasive influence of modern marketing techniques within politics, in particular the adjusting of parties to become entities espousing the least offensive lowest common denominator coupled with focusing on emotional but essentially distracting “hot button” issues. These are a direct challenge to the concept of politics being a menu of policy options that a well informed electorate can choose from. In Ireland, for example, there are supermarket chains offering more distinctive options than most of our main political parties.
Even when I was an active Young Progressive Democrat, I never believed in the idea that just because someone was young, they were automatically “a breath of fresh air.” Indeed, some of the most reactionary party bootlickers tend to be members of youth parties, eagerly allying themselves to the party bosses and being their useful little minions in the hope of future reward. That’s not to say I didn’t play ball with headquarters. Of course I did, because you have to if you want to get something done. But you have to be in politics for more than just the greasy pole.
I’m writing on the subject because a number of members of Fianna Fail have all raised, in different ways, a similar point with me about their party. Each one of them regarded the younger members of the party, from Senator Averil Power to Councillors like Malcolm Byrne, James Lawless, Kate Feeney and Paul McAuliffe, as being vital to the party’s recovery, not just because they could win seats but because each was actually interested in ideas. I’ve met them all, and know some better than others, but I’d agree with the assessment. That’s not to say I agree with them all, by the way. But each one had a rational and thoughtful approach to ideas which went far beyond the super county councillors that seem to populate their parliamentary party.
And, by the way, it’s not something limited to Fianna Fail either. If you take Rebecca Moynihan in Labour, or Barry Saul in Fine Gael, or Sinn Fein’s Donnchadh O’Laoghaire, you also get a generation of young elected representatives who have an interest in the big picture. As an aside, and I don’t want to overhype it, but exposure through their respective European party memberships to sister parties in the EPP, SD, ALDE and GUE does have an effect.
Of course, that’s not to say that guarantees change. The Fine Gael and Labour parliamentary parties are full of young deputies who talked radical when running and then knuckled under, supporting a government that was so conservative on political reform that it actively sabotaged its own stated policies.
The hope is that as the old guard step down, the young turks might hold to their promise. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time people reached the top and suddenly decide that the system is grand. But there’s a chance.
If you get a chance, check out www.publicpolicy.ie, the website of the Irish Fiscal Policy Research Centre, which is funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, and is a thinktank dedicated to putting out thoughtful options on various public policy issues.
Interesting stuff for the policy wonks amongst us. You know who you are. Yes, you with a copy of Prospect magazine secretly stuffed in the middle of GQ. I’m looking at you.
Currently reading Pat Leahy’s “Showtime”. Taking ages due to my very limited reading time, but very readable, especially as a snapshot of recent history. It actually jars sharply with Fianna Fail today, in that you get the distinct impression that there were people in Fianna Fail actually thinking about its future in the run up to the 1997 general election. Not sure the same can be said about now.
Also started watching, on Netflix, the science fiction cult classic “Firefly”, which I’ve never seen before. Basically a western set in space, or Star Wars with Han Solo as the main star. I can see the appeal.
I see there’s talk (again) of Lucinda setting up a new party. I have to admit to great scepticism about the prospect. When the PDs were set up, there was both a demand for PD style policies and no party offering them. I’m not sure the same can be said about today. What is it that a Lucinda led party would be offering that there is genuine popular support for and isn’t already offered by an existing party?
The Taoiseach has ordered immediate action by the relevant state officials to prepare the state for a possible case of the Ebola virus. Speaking through a keyhole in his office, Mr Kenny told reporters that he was not overly concerned but had ordered ministers to watch the 1995 film about an Ebola variant, or indeed “any film with Kevin Spacey in it. He’s so watchable.”
The government has also moved to appoint a semi-state body to be ready to deal with the situation. “An Bord Aggggh! is being assembled as we speak. I’m told the Attorney General’s office is fast-tracking the necessary legislation to clearly define the salaries, expenses, bonuses and pension entitlements of its new employees, and any other stuff it’s required to do.”
The government has begun to draw up a list of appropriate appointees, including a former Fine Gael Councillor who had “a terrible dose last Christmas, couldn’t shake it at all, got into me chest and I had to go on the antibiotics. Over the Christmas!” and a nephew of the Taoiseach’s who has “seen every season of The Walking Dead and that Jude Law film which someone said was quite good.”
Fine Gael: continue to consolidate themselves as the dominant party of the centre-right, business, stability and the political status quo. That’s not to be disparaging, as that’s a considerable constituency in any western country, and set’s them up to be the largest party in the next Dail. Many of its younger deputies, though talented, have basically surrendered their reformist instincts to Enda’s no-change-if-possible conservatism. Having said all that, The Party of The Recovery is a powerful platform to stand on.
Sinn Fein: are rapidly becoming the anti-Fine Gael. Not as left wing as they pretend (their wealth tax has more loopholes than Irish corporate taxation law) but setting themselves up not so much as the party of the have-nots as the want-someone-elses. Again, a considerable constituency that could leave them in largest party status if they can get over the we’ll-shoot-you-if-you-disagree baggage.
Fianna Fail: I never believed that FF was finished in 2011, and I still don’t. One aspect of FF that the media is missing is the sheer talent outside the Dail party, especially amongst their younger councillors. FF is in the odd position of having a Dail party that sounds like a crowd of county councillors, whilst many of its young reps (Averil Power, Paul McAuliffe, Kate Feeney, James Lawless, Malcolm Byrne) sound like thoughtful legislators, and tend to be better informed too. The party still suffers from an inability to restrain its knee-jerk populist pandering, and a leader with the right vision but an unwillingness to enforce it on the party.
Labour: Joan Burton seems to be settling on a strategy of humility for the overblown promises of the Gilmore for Taoiseach era and quiet delivery for Labour’s public sector constituency. Given the circumstances, it’s not the worst plan.
The Alphabet Left: The SWP, PBP, SP, AAA and UL continue to take up space in parliament for what reason I can’t fathom. After all, is there anyone who believes that Richard Boyd Barrett or Joe will actually negotiate with anyone on forming a government? As the Dublin South West, Dublin European Parliament and Dublin West elections showed, the hard left save a particular level of ice-pickery for others on the hard left. Effectively a form of political graffiti.
The Independents: arguably the biggest threat to good government, primarily because we have no real idea what’ll happen if 25 odd (and some very odd) Ind TDs were to have a serious say in a hung Dail. Still, might be a few bob to be made on the telly rights.
The Greens: Ah Jaysus, look at their little faces. A good performance in the Euros and some good candidates elected in the locals throughout the country might give them a modest re-entry back into the Dail. Hard to see where Ryan will make his comeback though, given that Dublin South (Rathdown, whatever that is?) is now a three seater. Dun Laoghaire tricky too with the Ceann Comhairle and the People’s Front of Killiney performing strongly in the locals.
Repost: This post I wrote 18 months ago has suddenly started gaining hits. Recent poll, maybe? Thought I’d post it again. And yes, I know it upsets some in FF. Your objections are noted. As ever, the offer to write a reply stands. And no, you can’t reply anonymously so stop asking! I’ll happily post your criticisms but you have to make them in public.
There is probably no activity as entertaining in Irish politics as watching a member of Fianna Fail and one of Fine Gael debating the differences between their parties in front of a non-partisan audience. Curiously, it is a rare enough event.
Stage 1. Both sides nod solemnly in agreement that there is a huge difference between their parties.
Stage 2. When asked about what values separate the parties, the Fianna Failer is first in with “republicanism”. A request for definition is met with a vague candyfloss enunciation, normally with the phrase “social justice” thrown into the mix. The Fine Gaeler claims the declaration as an accurate description of FG values. FF immediately launches an attack along the lines of “well then why did you cut X?” followed by FG saying “sure, what about when you cut Y in government?”
Both sides are broken up and returned to corners.
Stage 3. A second attempt is made at values. A commitment to a United Ireland is mentioned by FF as being “deeper” in FF. FG lists out everything from the declaration of the Republic to the Anglo Irish Agreement. Another fracas ensues with pointed references to personalities in other parties.
Stage 4. A foriegn member of the audience asks for a comparison to conventional parties in continental Europe and elsewhere. Both sides unite to point out that Irish politics has no comparison to any other political system in Human history. “That’s for fucking sure” a voice from the audience remarks loudly.
Stage 5. Economic values are questioned. Both parties immediately descend into a nit-picking “you did this in government” row. FF claims to be a party of the working class and small farmer. FG claims it has support amongst both classes. Both parties dispute being pro-business compared to other parties. An audience member points out that both parties received most of their funding from business. The audience member is personally attacked for having “an agenda”. The actual question about who funds the two parties is deliberately ignored.
Stage 6. Both parties are asked to cease referencing past events and address the future, with a simple declaration of the values that will shape the parties in the future. Both make statements about the future which mention dignity, employment, social justice and prosperity. They are pretty much the same statement. When challenged on this, each points out that the character of the other party means that the other party does not mean what he says. Both then launch into a point-by-point historic nit-picking contest.
Stage 7. Both particpiants take to Twitter and Facebook to attack the event as biased against one party and obviously run for the benefit of the other, accusing the moderator of “bashing” their party. Both are quick to stress that no one cares about this stuff except people “obsessed” with historical events and this has nothing to do with “real” politics.