Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A surfeit of spin

On a recommendation from Samizdata, I purchased A Load of Blair. It's a book about the vacuousness of political rhetoric, specifically Blair's vacuous verbage in the run-up to the last general election. Although the vacuity of political speechmaking is uncontroversial, which is why I remain unmoved by party conference speeches, this book explained the specific reasons *why* political speeches are a content-free area. Each chapter covers a specific trick Blair has used to elevate complete piffle into something epic and history-making. These are:

  1. Suggesting that increased activity is a good in of itself, without reference to how much has been delivered as a result
  2. Suggesting that employment of nurses, etc. is a good in of itself without asking whether this is value for money (what Jamie Whyte calls a benefit-benefit analysis)
  3. Taking credit for things that would have happened anyway, e.g. aspects of economic prosperity or were implemented by the opposition
  4. Suggesting that certain things can happen together without any trade-offs, e.g. that people can be given unrestricted choice and unrestricted access
  5. Pretending that changes in circumstances can lead to changes in principles, rather than just the application of those principles
  6. Pretending that there are only two available options, yours and those of the opposition and then painting the opposition's proposal as being utterly evil. This is a fallacy because if the opposition's proposal is really so bad then your proposal need not be particularly good to be better. This does not mean your proposal is good.
  7. Pretending that the suggested proposal is inevitable and there are no feasible alternatives
  8. Suggesting something is a good idea because lots of other people think it is
  9. Using 'hooray' words like social justice, freedom, equality, democracy, etc. which excite your audience, are impossible to disagree with... and mean nothing
  10. Using slogans that are meaningless but appeal to the emotions of the audience, e.g. 'no rights without responsibilities'
  11. Using terms or words that sound better than others but are actually incorrect. One of the examples given is 'investment' which Blair often applies to spending generally, whether or not this is actually an investment. This is because spending sounds prolifigate, investment does not
  12. Name dropping to historical figures, etc. to give some kind of historical or moral credence to your policy
  13. Placing the idea of trust or morality above ideas. If you disagree with someone's ideas then you will not want to vote for them even if you do trust them
  14. Making obvious statements, e.g. 'rising living standards for all' (does anyone believe in decreasing living standards)

I've missed out a chapter. This was on applying principles inconsistently for political gain because I think Jamie Whyte's view is too absolutist. You can make an reasonably consistent argument that fox hunting should be banned but fishing and shooting should not based on research into animal welfare. You can also make an argument for why smoking should be legal but taking cocaine shouldn't. Jamie Whyte's view on the 'investment' confusion also seems to me too simple. Although you have to keep paying nurses (spending), paying them at an appropriate level keeps them in the nursing profession and maintains the status of that profession. If building a school is investment then perhaps building up the nursing profession is also investment.

Jamie Whyte's response would probably be that although there may be some consistent and well-reasoned arguments linking apparently disparate ideas or for Blair using the words he does, Blair doesn't tell him what they are. So he must assume they do not exist. But this misunderstands the purpose of political speechmaking. Although being logical, truthful and content-rich is important, there is insufficient time to explain all your premises and fully flesh out your argument. It's more like an advert - catch the attention of your audience and convince them of the merit of your position. It is good to have a tangible policy or idea to convince them of (and here I agree with Jamie Whyte), but you are unlikely to achieve your objective if you preceed your policy statement with a lengthy but watertight discourse about your philosophical position and motivations. A speech is more like an lecture than an essay - you want to flag up the main issues so the audience can check flesh them out later in their own time.

But an interesting book, and thoroughly recommended...


  • At 8:26 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    "Taking credit for things that would have happened anyway, e.g. aspects of economic prosperity or were implemented by the opposition"

    Crickey, the modus operandi of Lib Dems everywhere and the theme of all Focus 'news'letters.

  • At 9:52 am , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    [quote]Irrelevant, partisan remark... [/quote] YAWN...

    You will note the intro to that post was about 'political speechmaking with specific reference to Blair' not 'political speechmaking entirely confined to Blair'.

  • At 12:45 am , Blogger Chris Palmer said...

    The problem with Tony Blair (ok, there are many, many problems - but with reference to the article) is that he has gone back to being a socialist, where Labour used to be - it's just that the electorate haven't realised it yet.

    In 1994 Tony Blair said something along the lines of, "The Thatcher Government proved to everyone beyond a doubt, that increased spending does not answer every problem." However, what do we hear from Blair (and most, if not all Labour ministers) in every interview or House Of Commons speech? Answer, "we have spent more on this and more on that than the previous Tory adminstration."

    Tony Blair and the Labour party, like all socialists believe that public money is Government money, not taxpayer's money. Conservatives and real Liberals believe that the people know how to best spend their money and not the Government. Just after the Asian Tsunami, Tony Blair on the TV said that he would pledge to meet all the money donated in appeals with "Government money." It is not government money, but our money.

    Labour have in the past attempted to portray Conservatives who wish for lower taxes as unkind and ungiving, because we want to spend the money our way, not some Government target driven way. However, as taxes have risen dramatically, fewer and fewer people are falling for this trick (though, quite amazingly Miss Toynbee belives we need even higher taxes in this country, though she has always been extremely odd) and more and more are turning to the Conservatives.


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