Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Shutting the Stable Door: A Primer in British Politics

Inexperienced observers of the British political scene could be forgiven for feeling confused about the nature of political debate here after the last few days of bickering between the Labour government and the Conservative opposition.

First, David Cameron used Prime Minister's question time to express his outrage at the performance of Haringey Council's child protection service, after a baby was brutally killed by its carers after months of abuse. Gordon Brown responded that it was out of order to turn such a tragedy into a party political issue; Cameron responded that Brown's response was 'cheap'.

Second, George Osborne the Shadow Chancellor suggested the possibility of a run on the pound (already about 25% weaker against the dollar than just a few months back). Labour outcry: he could provoke a run with his remarks, how outrageous to put partisan advantage before the national interest in a crisis!

So, do we have a majoritarian democracy or don't we? In the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, Brown has every interest to call for a suspension of normal rules so that the Conservatives cannot make political capital out of the mess; the Tories in turn need to make hay while the sun shines (in partisan terms of course; it's hailstones for the economy). Here, what we could do with is a real debate about the reasons for the crisis and where the policies responsible came from, and neither of the two main parties can avoid blame: who can remember George Osborne advocating restrictions on bank lending in the middle of the boom? Instead what we get is a demagogic fist-fight which leaves most people puzzled. That's the downside of majoritarianism: political competition does not logically lead to enlightenment.

In the Baby P case, the Tories are in a weaker position. The brutal murder of a child by its own family members cannot realistically be blamed on Gordon Brown, just because Haringey has a Labour council. Worse, Cameron claims that many warnings were ignored in the Baby P case, and suggests that social workers are to blame for the tragic outcome. But isn't this the same Cameron who rails against the 'nanny state', and complains incessantly about government inteference in people's private lives? Or does this just apply to the private lives of poor people in desolate inner city estates?

My mind drifts to another desperately upsetting case of infanticide that took place last year, but which did not provoke questions in the House. Alberto Izaga, head of Swiss Re insurance conglomerate's London office, brutally murdered his two-year old daughter, in the middle of what appeared to be a major psychotic episode. He was quickly interned in a secure psychiatric unit, and the tragedy - so difficult to fit into our standard narratives of dangers to children - immediately disappeared from public consciousness. No questions, no demands for accountability. Just a human tragedy we could do nothing about.