Saturday, 9 October 2021

The Politics of Condolences

Politics can make anyone hard hearted, but unexpected feelings can manifest when something befalls an opponent or an enemy. I had no time for James Brokenshire, who died from lung cancer on Thursday, but when the news broke I did feel a twinge of something. Perhaps because it was another life, in this case a relatively young one, succumbing to a vile disease. There is his wife and children, who surely didn't deserve to lose a husband and a dad. And there is the loss in and of itself - the ending of a life, of something that never expects to be anything other than always becoming.

Naturally, politicians from all corners of politics paid their tributes. Boris Johnson called him kind and "extraordinarily effective." For Keir Starmer, Brokenshire was "a thoroughly decent man". And "James was unfailingly professional and kind and it was clear that he cared deeply about his work and public service", came from Angela Rayner. All comments were the same. He seemed to get on with a lot of his fellow parliamentarians and was well liked. Florid tributes have long been customary in politics. When Tony Benn and Michael Foot passed away, the Tories were effusive with praise (that didn't stop The Times from retrospectively smearing Foot eight years after his death). Even when Bob Crow died suddenly, the trade unionist's trade unionist and persistent adversary of Johnson's part-time mayoralty and privatisation schemes, nice things were said. The official eulogies flattered in death what they wouldn't countenance in life.

Talking about the Commons previously, for all the cut and thrust of party political rivalry getting business done requires cross-party working. MPs are cooped up in committee meetings and the estate's bars. They spend time in lifts, sound each other out for alliances of interest, and take jollies together via the all-party parliamentary groups. Because there's only 650 of them and they live a hothouse life in a pressure cooker (or, at least they think they do), they share more with each other than their staff and, of course, the constituency members back home. The only ones who come close to appreciating their position while giving them all due respect are the lobby hacks and political correspondents. Not just anyone is allowed to sing a boozy conference duet with Michael Gove, you know. This spirit of all-in-it-together is especially corrosive for Labour politicians, and helps explain why they're more prone to Westminster's pomp than the Tories. And so when news broke about Brokenshire's passing, I have no doubt for Labour MPs that paid tribute it was, in the overwhelming majority of cases, heartfelt and genuine. Just as there were plenty of Tory MPs who were upset by Jo Cox's murder. As she might have put it, they have more in common with each other than what divides them.

This is why no one has pointed out the obvious. In a world where decency is confined to manners and conduct, the fact Brokenshire spent the last 11 years in government making people's lives a misery goes unremarked. In 2010, Brokenshire stood on a manifesto whose programme of public sector cuts killed tens of thousands of people. For every piece of regressive legislation that came along - putting the screw on tenants, restricting legal aid, supporting mass surveillance, backing welfare cuts, giving migrants a tough time, and opposing climate change mitigation - Brokenshire was a loyal Tory foot soldier and voted the wrong way each and every time. And he did so, just like his colleagues, fully aware of that this meant for people on the sharp end. There was never any sympathy, contrition, or doubts about the damage he supported during his time. I imagine he slept soundly every night, untroubled by people driven to despair because of the rent increases, social security cuts, and bullying bosses made possible by the party and government he supported.

James Brokenshire might have been a lovely, personable man who was generous with his time and loved his family. But he was also a fully cognisant, self-aware participant in the worst, most vicious, and deadliest government in living memory. Respectability does not scrub the slate clean as if none of what he did mattered. He helped make life worse for millions of people, and ended some of them prematurely. If you still want to remember him, don't forget what he did either.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Presumably he was only obeying orders

David Walsh said...

Interestingly, a tweak of the curtains concealing the internal culture of the Tory party revealed itself in the Times’s obituary of Brokenshire (alas behind a paywall). There seemed to be a high degree of unconscious condescension towards a man who came from mundane Southend, the son of parents who were local government officers and who grew up in a TOWIE environment. Some samples; “In her diaries Sasha Swire revealed that her husband, Hugo, a former Northern Ireland secretary, described Brokenshire (then his junior minister) to Arlene Foster, then Northern Ireland first minister, as boring, adding that he was known as “the human hedgehog”. The closest Brokenshire got to true controversy was in 2014 when he condemned the “wealthy metropolitan elite” who fuelled immigration by hiring domestic staff from abroad. It became clear the “wealthy metropolitan elite” tag could be applied to many of his Conservative colleagues and he was teased by Boris Johnson, the future prime minister, who declared: “Of course it isn’t wrong to employ a foreign nanny or cleaner.”

Reading that, I struggled with who all this reminded me of, and then it came to me; the hapless Tory Minister from lowly origins, Leslie Titmuss, In John Mortimer’s overlooked novel “Paradise Postponed”. It's on my shelf somewhere and marked down now for Christmas reading. .

Blissex said...

My impression here is that out blogger is writing again from a moralizing (do-goodery, "liberal" in the USA sense) point of view more than a political one. Yet many of those "lower than vermin" are against poverty etc. too, they just want that to be funded by voluntary charity rather than compulsory taxes, because for them it is more morally correct, and that is a legitimate (if usually hypocritical) opinion.
«Thatcher’s main regret is also the most surprising one. “Frank Field [Labour MP] asked Thatcher what was her biggest regret in office,” recounts Filby, “and it wasn’t the Falklands victims or the miners’ strike – it was not taxing the rich highly enough, and thereby not instilling a sense of the responsibility that comes with wealth.” [...] “She actually believed that she was creating a nation of good Samaritans,” Filby asserts. “She believed if she lowered taxation she would give people more money in their pocket, they would give to charity and it would inspire a philanthropic ethos. She believed if people stopped relying on the state for jobs, benefit payments and even healthcare it would generate a sense of personal responsibility.”»

Russ said...

Well said as ever Phil. On the one hand, one my feel personal sympathy for the bereaved. On the other hand, various Conservative govs have waged vicious class warfare since 2010 which has wrecked and ended many thousands of lives. Sympathy is rightly extended with that in mind.

bill40 said...

My mother always said 'if you've nothing nice to say, say nothing'. So I'm saying nothing.

TowerBridge said...


Thank you for an insightful comment. I have been trying to understand who votes Tory and why for a while. I can understand how petty interests are motivated here, but this paints Thatcher as naiive:
"She believed if she lowered taxation she would give people more money in their pocket, they would give to charity and it would inspire a philanthropic ethos."

whereas this: "she believed if people stopped relying on the state for jobs, benefit payments and even healthcare it would generate a sense of personal responsibility."

What is meant here by "personal resposibility"? People act so as not to get ill? Not have their jobs taken away? It's not clear what she wanted to generate, but perhaps that's because her viewpoint is that people would simply not bother with doing anything if the big evil state stopped giving it to them. Where, in her and other Tories' view do the armed forces come into this? Is that also a state entity that just gives those people jobs and so is unworthy? It seems to me either hypocritical or simply that the whole ideology of "big evil state" hasn't been thought through.

Blissex said...

«understand who votes Tory and why for a while. I can understand how petty interests are motivated here»

There are several motivations for voting Conservative, but I think that they all revolve around some sort of incumbency, because that is what conservativism is about. Consider this famous quote by Tony Blair:

I can vividly recall the exact moment that I knew the last election was lost. I was canvassing in the Midlands on an ordinary suburban estate. I met a man polishing his Ford Sierra, self-employed electrician, Dad always voted Labour. He used to vote Labour, he said, but he bought his own home, he had set up his own business, he was doing quite nicely, so he said I’ve become a Tory. He was not rich but he was doing better than he did, and as far as he was concerned, being better off meant being Tory too.

Tony Blair astutely draws the wrong conclusions, but the meaning of the story is pretty obvious: "Sierra Man" had realized that he had become an incumbent, and his interests had changed, and that the party for his interests was the Conservatives. Some people vote for the left because they want a society in which there is less of a master-servant system, some instead just because they are servants, they would be quite happy with the master-servant system if they were masters. There is an old caricature of a famous song that illustrates this:

“The working class can kiss my arse
I’ve got the foreman’s job at last”

Blissex said...

«What is meant here by "personal responsibility"? People act so as not to get ill? Not have their jobs taken away?»

Please this is silly. What she meant *obviously* is the personal responsibility to save so if they get ill or unemployed they don't have to rely on private or state charity and can live off own savings, or those of their family. Even Margaret Thatcher allowed that there should be "workhouse" style social insurance for the corner cases though. Her vision was one of "yeoman England": everybody given the opportunity to get a well-paid job or start a profitable business, and having thus the means to set aside savings to care for themselves and their families without having to beg for the charity of strangers, and the "workhouse" for those who failed to be so provident.

The vision was of course sentimental more than realistic, and I suspect deeply hypocritical, as well as ridiculously inefficient, because self-insurance is inefficient, and self-selecting insurance with third parties also is inefficient.

«if the big evil state stopped giving it to them»

The "big state" vs. "small state" framing is a deliberately misleading one used by USA-style liberals. The real issue is redistribution:

* Right-wingers assume that since the lower classes have a majority of votes, the contemporary state is inevitably just a tool for the lower classes to exploit incumbents, so the smaller the state, the better.

* Where the state instead operates as a tool to redistribute in favour of incumbents (e.g. bailouts, security services), the bigger the state, the better.

One of the problems with right-wingers is that they consider insurance to be redistributive too: when your house burns down, they think that the insurer redistributes to you money from people whose house did not burn down. Therefore right-wingers eventually end up advocating personal savings as the means to confront every risk, consider a notable USA right-winger, Grover Norquist:

“What will the Republican Party do? Their answer to everything is lifetime savings accounts, personal savings accounts, retirement savings accounts, education savings accounts, health saving accounts because they view creating more shareholders creates more of us.”

Note that means tax-free savings accounts like ISAs or SIPPs. Compared with private insurance or state insurance those tax-free savings accounts are very inefficient, but they also involve no redistribution, and the benefit is larger for those who can afford to save more.