Leo Baeck 2


Mar 2001 Journal

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Unquiet on the Westminster front.

Reflections on the interaction of politicians, press and public.

Last November Americans cast their ballots. In February Israelis went to the polls. Within weeks we are likely to be doing the same in this country. The US election result looked seriously flawed. The Israeli election was called precipitately to overcome a security crisis compounded by parliamentary gridlock. By contrast, the UK general election looks set to be a routine affair, with nobody challenging the outcome.

But before we crow too loudly about Britain’s greater stability and maturity, let us remember that a bare six months ago a Poujadist fuel protest half-paralysed the country, threatened the elected government, and reduced the police to passive bystanders in the face of intimidation. This was a spasm of the British body politic – a lurch into lawlessness triggered by a group of aggrieved individuals set on reversing decisions of the democratically chosen executive. Something similar had happened in the miners’ strike of the early 1980s – with the vital difference that in those days the Prime Minister enjoyed media support.

Which brings us to the role in politics of media moguls, like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. It is axiomatic that such men are happier with right-of-centre than left-of-centre governments – but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they can actually ‘deliver’ the electorate’s votes. (After all, till January 2001 all leading Western countries had left-of-centre administrations). What the media is capable of, however, is blurring the outlines of the political process by emitting a smoke screen of cynicism. The resulting miasma allows certain swamp flowers to flourish – such as the Judeophobic Taki, the Ezra Pound fan AN Wilson, and the late Auberon Waugh, who once penned a humorous piece about Auschwitz as a tourist attraction. Waugh’s worst defects – defects which vitiated everything he wrote – however, were his snobbery and an ingrained view of all politics as corrupt, and of all politicians as self-seeking megalomaniacs. This entertainingly gloomy view of public affairs may have chimed in well with the image he cultivated of himself as a world-weary Catholic country squire – but it is of no possible use to society, which needs politicians as much as it needs teachers and doctors if it is to function properly.

Waugh’s cynicism also infected journalists who didn’t necessarily share his dyspeptic disposition – pace the endless column inches of unwarranted obloquy heaped upon the Dome, which, as far as it was a disaster, was a media-manufactured one. And, as if cynical journos weren’t enough, the ‘licensed’ Jewish jester Jackie Mason has recently been invited by BBC2 to make inane comments about the US elections. (Not to be outdone, the Jewish Chronicle gave him an opportunity to further envenom the Arab-Israeli conflict). If some sections of the media generate cynicism – and therefore apathy - others do the opposite, but with equally malign intent. They run populist scare campaigns designed to stir local grassroots action against easily identifiable targets such as paedophiles and asylum seekers. However, notwithstanding all these defects, British democracy continues to evolve. It is no exaggeration to say that in certain important respects it has evolved further than similar systems elsewhere. Hugely contentious issues, like capital punishment or the right to abortion, which still disturb the internal peace of the USA, were laid to rest over here decades ago. Nor are

immigrants into this country (as we know from personal experience) subjected to the same discrimination as they are in present-day democratic Germany. So let us be thankful for Westminster – and come polling day, go out and vote!

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