The Ministry of Truth: worse than I imagined

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I’ve just spent the morning watching the BBC’s Ministry of Truth programme. Surprisingly, it is even more loathesome, and unexpectedly sinister, than I imagined it would be.

First of all, let’s take the name. As well as being half-inched from Unity’s blog, it is taken from Orwell’s 1984. “Minitrue” of course is anything but and is the main purveyor of newspeak.

Oddly the documentary namechecks Derrida, banging on about the dreadfulness of postmodernism and its influence on modern politics but doesn’t discuss Orwell and indeed indulges is a bit of truth manufacturing of its own.

The programme manufactures a reality in which politicians are all vacillating, gutless clones who don’t, quote, “have the balls” to introduce Symons’ Bill and a public which is universally and uncritically behind the Bill. The programme has a chorus of Vox Populi, a group of talking heads which includes a builder, a bridge player, a transvestite, a musician (Captain Sensible, whose claim to be a musician is a bit of a fib itself), a taxi driver, and so on. All their quotes sound heavily scripted, suggesting that Symons couldn’t trust them to say the right thing unaided.

Meanwhile we have the ‘basics’ of democracy spelt out to us by a bunch of schoolkids (subtext: out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom; how could you disagree with the gorgeous telegenic kiddie-winks?). When Adam Price fails to secure a ten minute rule bill slot, it is suggested that this is a sinister plot by the main party whips. When he tables his Bill, it is greeted with cutaways of “ordinary” people clapping him in encouragement. The politicians disagreeing with the Bill are all shown corpsing, having the veracity of their claims instantly rebutted and walking out of the interviews. All the ‘experts’ and politicians agreeing with the Bill are allowed to make their points uninhindered and without any rebuttal from the other side. Orwell’s Minitrue would have struggled to produce a more one-sided piece of propaganda. This is more fundamentaqlly misleading than the BBC making programmes about climate change or including “nodding” cutaways, not to mention the fact that license fee payers’ money has been used to launch a full blown campaign; how come it was allowed to be put on air at all?

Regarding those aforementioned ‘basics’ they are based on a wholly false prospectus:

We, the people, are sovereign.

We grant this sovereignty to our elected representatives in Parliament.

Whilst representing our sovereignty, our elected representatives have fundamental obligations to be honest, transparent and accountable to us.

We are entitled to formal, legal, independent courses of action for a breach of these fundamental obligations.

As Unity and Dan Leighton point out, under our present constitution the people are NOT sovereign. Personally however, I’m prepared to give Symons a bit of leeway here as I certainly believe they should be. It is the second paragraph that is more problematic because we don’t grant our sovereignty to our elected representatives in Parliament, and nor should we. Parliament, including its unelected members, is sovereign. If we were to have popular sovereignty, we would invest it in a written constitution. This is confusing sovereignty for mandate.

What that means is that the subsequent two paragraph don’t follow. The only people that elected representatives, under this argument, should be accountable to are the people who elected them. I didn’t elect my MP in the last election, therefore I didn’t grant him any sovereignty. Therefore he has no obligation to be honest or transparent to me. What happens to my sovereignty under Symons’ model is a complete mystery. Given his black and white view of reality, perhaps I simply made the “wrong” decision? Bizarrely, he even highlights the fact that 40% of the public don’t vote while not recognising that under his own argument those people have no moral right to expect Parliament to be open and accountable to them: in fact he uses the fact that they don’t vote to justify the need for his law!

Even worse, his own Bill actually contradicts this set of principles, because having established that the people are sovereign and that sovereignty is invested in Parliament, in his law he asserts that a judge should be able to usurp that sovereignty. That’s utterly perverse.

Symons goes through the objections to the Bill one by one and explains how they are fallacious. In doing so he shines a light on what is really wrong with our democracy. His argument boils down to the fact that his law is needed because self-regulation doesn’t work, and that self-regulation doesn’t work because the executive has a stranglehold over Parliament and is thus in effect judge and jury in all complaints about itself.

Now I ask you: if the problem is that we have a weak Parliament and an over-weaning executive, how is the solution a law that further divests Parliament of power? Surely the solution is to give Parliament more power, particularly if you are asserting that it is the purveyor of popular sovereignty?

Interestingly, there is now cross-party agreement that Parliament should indeed be more powerful, even if we don’t all agree on the measures. I would assert for example that the only meaningful way to get a stronger Parliament is to have proportional representation. Yet Symons doesn’t explore this possible solution to his problem at all. The clear implication of the programme is that he merely assumes that is the obvious outcome of any political system and is not worth bothering with.

The bizarrest part of the film is when he notes approvingly of the police investigation on honours as an example of the system working, despite the fact that no charges have been brought forward and yet no-one seriously believes that there is no link between people making loans to political parties and receiving peerages. In short, this law hasn’t actually achieved anything except, perhaps, to make people even more cynical about politics.

Indeed, the two questions he does not ask at all in the programme are “How would this Bill work in practice?” and “What, if any, would the unintended consequences be?” – possibly the two most important questions any legislator must answer before passing a law. I explored both of these points in more detail earlier in the week so I won’t repeat them now. But I would ask any supporter of this idea to look at what’s happened to local government since similar legislation has been introduced and tell me that it has been a positive development.

If you want a more honest politics, fight for an electoral system that offers real choice between both parties AND candidates and one that will lead to a Parliament which reflects the votes cast. Honesty is about a whole lot more than people telling lies: don’t believe the liars who tell you otherwise.

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