Sunday, January 28, 2007

The politics of permanent crisis

John Reid, we hardly knew you.. It's not looking good for him, is it? His strategy, on taking over the Home Office, appears to have been one of pre-emptive disclosure, trying to get the toxic waste out in the open as quickly as possible and get it over with. You poor fool! Wait until you see those bats.. He didn't realise quite how much shit there was, stuffed in boxes under desks and packed up in database server swapfiles, slowly fermenting in records warehouses off the A1. It reminds me of an Enron memoir in which a former top executive (possibly John Wing, although nowhere stated) describes the company shortly before collapse as having not just cans of worms, but warehouses full of shipping containers of crates of cans of worms. Ya Bass just thought he could do the job with a can opener and a wormkiller spray, when he needed a tactical nuke.

Now, having ridden into Marsham Street on a wave of draconian rhetoric and tabloid mob hurrahing, he's on the front of the Sun next to the headline John Reid's Brain is Missing, and the next day next to the word PAEDO in 72 point face. Yup, they done and dropped the P-bomb. It's hard to see how he gets back from this - Brown certainly won't want to inherit a Home Secretary with the P-word round his neck and a big yellow-press target on his bald spot. The shit keeps coming, too - one day it's drug dealers he's lost, then more nonces. It's like that mud volcano the gas drillers in Indonesia kicked off. They say he who rides the tiger can never dismount, but that gives the rider far too much agency. You may be riding the tiger now, but the tiger is at liberty to change this at a time of its choosing.

Perhaps the whole direction of British politics post-cold war is reaching a limiting constraint. Reid may prove to be the logical conclusion. Despite being the most authoritarian Home Sec yet, he's ended up facing basic administrative and economic facts, and has bowed to the facts - they're like that, yer facts. To some extent, his plan to split the Home Office shows that he himself realises this. Not that it goes anywhere near far enough - the proposed Department of National Security is essentially a way of saving the top control bureaucracy from the shipwreck, and it's precisely that power-centre that got us into this mess - but it's probably all he could achieve given the cognitive fixes and institutional constraints.

Let's think of the history a moment. Early in the 1990s, there was a dramatic shift of public opinion as measured by the British Social Attitudes survey, which suddenly saw an upsurge in measures of the fear of crime and willingness to accept greater state control. Simultaneously, or nearly, we saw the Major recession, the Heineken recession as I like to think of it. It depressed the parts other economic crises didn't reach - specifically the south-eastern and West Midlands middle class. There was also the end of the division of Europe, and the Völkerwanderung that ensued. At the same historical moment, we see the Woolf report, and the consequences that even the post-Thatcher Conservative Party accepted the failure of the prison system.

Strange times. Although crime rates were falling, and by mid-decade it was becoming clear that the IRA's war was about to be over, and the nuclear shadow had been lifted, measures of fear were rising. The Conservatives were desperately split and looking sick, needing a new platform. This they found in a Home Office agenda, eagerly pursued by Michael Howard and promoted by the yellow press, that postulated the existence of a permanent crisis. The logic of permanent crisis required immediate action, and progressively greater administrative load on the executive, which had the happy consequence of increasing the crisis atmosphere. Administering radically more complicated immigration controls on radically greater numbers of people with resources that weren't radically greater meant that the IND was genuinely in crisis.

Howard started off with the Enemy Within - remember "repetitive beats"? Some of us do - but this was too readily soluble, and also self-limiting. The parallel phenomenon of growing environmental concern meant that demonising road protestors was far too close to home for the southern middle class he was trying to scare onside - they were, after all, the protestors. He found a near-ideal bogey in the invention of the Bogus Asylum Seeker, an enemy with the great advantage that it logically didn't exist, came from Outside, and couldn't be accurately counted, thus confounding factual refutation. The Outsider would last well enough, at least until supplanted by Trrr post-2001.

He was only partly in charge. New technological developments meant the opportunities for the control bureaucracy were dazzlingly greater than anything since the days of Joynson-Hicks, and so were the costs-a good thing, in terms of institutional politics, as their security status meant they could be defended in a period of budgetary stringency. Hence the paradoxical combination of ever-growing powers and radii of action, and ever-more blatant administrative incompetence, which of course fed into the politics of permanent crisis.

This operating code was seamlessly taken over by successive Labour Home Secs, not to mention the No.10 policy/press machinery. It is as well to remember that despite all the hagiography about Ali-C and Jonathan Powell, most work in the No.10 press office has always been done by civil servants, the same men who handled the yellow press for John Major, and since the dramatic escalation of the permanent crisis agenda post-Hutton, the civil servants have become much more powerful in Government presentation.

So what do the Murdoch/Rothermere press actually want, other than just the commercial and journalistic imperative to break Teh Story? What is the actual content of their messages? What is the latent content of the Sun?

It's worth looking into the intellectual archaeology of the 'bloids to answer this. History, said Ken MacLeod, is the trade secret of science fiction. I prefer to think of it as a means to show up the invisible, like Natasha the beautiful spy revealing the alarm's detector beam with a spray of perfume. The British tabloid press is, like so much else in modern life, an Edwardian or very late-Victorian product. Harmsworth and Horatio Bottomley invented it in co-evolution with the southern middle class, delivering their product over the suburban railways, profiting from the new consumer industries' ad budgets, having their reporters phone in their copy to beat the competition, offering a political prescription of tub-thumping crisis propaganda that catered to their economic status anxiety.

It was exactly the same target market that movements like the Christian-Social party tackled in contemporary Austria, and I wonder if you can't make a case that the Daily Mail was the British version of this. Very similar ideas (the Germans have the wonderful word Gedankengut, "thought goods", for the ideas and assumptions that form the culture of a movement) were knocking around - for the combination of municipal socialism, anti-Semitism, and military pomposity Karl Lueger promoted, read Social Imperialism. The Operation Margarine shift of anxiety from economics to politics - the enemy image of the Socialists read-across onto foreigners, Jews, criminals etc - is the same. Fortunately, the Tories were quick to spot the opportunities here, and the poison was diluted down to a tolerable level.

What has this to do with the Home Office in the 1990s? Well, first of all, the institutional impact was similar. The yellow press ranted-in the Aliens Act to limit immigration to the UK, Vernon Kell formed MI5 in 1909, Maurice Hankey's long career as chief architect of the national-security state began, the Committee of Imperial Defence began the War Book mobilisation process that is still under regular redrafting at the Cabinet Office today. It is pleasantly symmetrical that 5 was finally put on a legal footing in 1994, the same year Howard's pustular Criminal Justice Act passed.

More broadly, though, there is a coherent ideology here. What kind of government is called for in crisis? Strong executive leadership would be the intuitive answer, if necessary with the grant of extraordinary powers. A crisis is often the scene of calls for the suspension of legal and constitutional limitations on executive power. Yes, you're all ahead of me. We're talking Carl Schmitt and Ausnahmezustand here. The Sun is always keen to attack "judges", "the Human Rights Act", and other institutions of constitutional limitation. Note the gap between its bootlicking towards the Prime Minister and its venomous aggression towards individual Cabinet Ministers.

What else does it want? It is always very keen on the military and intelligence special relationship, which in practice means real-time interworking between the Executive Offices of the President and Vice President, and the British "core executive", as Peter Hennessy calls it, made up of the Cabinet Office Secretariat, No.10, Treasury, and the Foreign Office. Further, although it occasionally turns on individual "fatcats", it's quite happy with economic inequality - one doesn't, after all, shit on one's own doorstep. We could sum it up as an ideology promoting the core executive, and the final confirmation of this is that the top officials and institutions involved are never mentioned. (A broader weakness of British political discourse is that the last thing ever mentioned is power.)

How can we name this complex of ideas? I propose we call it the Redwood Consensus, after John Redwood, one of the few of its beneficiaries ever to be foolish enough to talk about it. Redwood said at some point during the 1990s that (I paraphrase, and I suspect it's before the great informational caesura about 1996 when British political discourse hit the Web) globalisation has rendered the state powerless to limit economic insecurity, and the government must therefore offer the public the flag as a substitute - for example, Euroscepticism, the beef campaign, and such.

Permanent crisis, though, has costs. These are now coming home to roost. John Reid may be the last Home Secretary. Andy Coulson may also be the last Screws editor to wield the old wallop.


RickB said...

May I add Adam Curtis\'s \'Power of Nightmares\' to the mix, permanent crisis and the politics of fearing the other. But I would also add that this retarded approach to government also comes from our US client state mandated estrangement from a more progressive Europe. Habeas Corpus has gone in America, will that be tried here? Rendition aside that is.

Chris Williams said...

Required reading:
The English Historical Review 2005 120(487):577-592; doi:10.1093/ehr/cei121

The Hutton Inquiry, the President of Nigeria and What the Butler Hoped to See
Michael Moss
University of Glasgow

The Hutton Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly in 2003 shed a unique light on the inner workings of the government of Tony Blair, particularly its approach to record keeping. This paper explores both the written and oral evidence presented to the inquiry, and draws attention to the shortcomings that are likely to be a feature of the ‘historical’ record of the events leading up to the war in Iraq. It reflects on the development of record keeping in the government of the United Kingdom, and asks, in the light of the high standards in the physical world, how there could be such evident shortcomings in the new electronic media. It draws some tentative conclusion, focussing particularly on the collapse of the distinction between back and front office functions.

The paper concludes by proposing that record keeping by government and the transfer of records into the public domain requires the protection of the law so that the executive can be held to account. The paper questions whether this function in the United Kingdom can be entrusted to a minister of constitutional affairs, a member of the executive, and suggests it should become the responsibility of the president of the supreme court who can take decisions in defiance of the executive.

Parlicoot said...

"offer the public the flag as a substitute"

Shame that the whole sense of identity of what it means to be *English* has eroded away.

The Scots, Irish, Welsh and English *regions* (including Yorkshire!) still hold together as a stronger cultural focus than the more general version. Perhaps this has been the reason for the recent panic under the rallying cry - what does it mean to be British?

With the failure of this prop, the next batch of headlines in this vein will raise again the spectre of illegal immigrants / the Euro / foreign paedophiles / Europeans taking our jobs etc.

Take your pick...

good post said...

nice post

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