Sunday, 7 June 2009

Taking a little irony may be good for your health

Irony is the weapon of choice of the powerless against the over-powerful. This is because irony delivers its blows in disguise and the powerful are often too self-obsessed to be aware of them, while others see the joke immediately. So a laugh spreads among the powerless, at the expense of the overbearing, the arrogant, the oppressive and, who knows, perhaps builds up a pressure of ridicule that might eventually bring them down.

We can at least live in hope.

I once met a former airman who’d been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp with the writer Laurens van der Post. The prisoners produced a camp newsletter, which van der Post edited. He would come up with headlines along the lines of ‘Japanese Imperial Navy sinks British battleship for fifth time’. Japan is a nation of extraordinary subtlety and cultural sophistication, but those weren’t the hallmarks of their army in the thirties and forties; and few armies set their brightest and best to guard prisoners. So I can imagine that the censors simply felt that sinking a ship five times brought five times the glory of sinking it once.

It’s because irony is a refined weapon – a rapier, not a battering ram – that I enjoy it so much. And with all the irony around today, I’m having a great time.

Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, almost certainly only had a year in office ahead of him, even before the events of the last few days: he would have gone down with the Labour Party, now more or less certain to be heavily defeated at next year’s election.

However, he seems likely to go a lot sooner than that. A series of government resignations, senior figures calling for him to go, and a growing number of members of parliament working to oust him, seem to be creating irresistible pressure for him to leave office.

What’s happened?

MPs depend on their party leader to advance in their careers: the leader decides who gets the good jobs, which in government means ministerial office. That keeps them loyal – most of the time. However, when it looks as though a leader may be jeopardising rather than furthering their careers, MPs begin to question that first commandment of politics, of loyalty to the man (or in one famous instance, woman) at the top. Recent reports suggest that as many as 52 Labour MPs have asked Brown for seats in the House of Lords: with the prospect of Brown leading them to a massive defeat, they fear for their seats in the House of Commons, and see the Lords as their only option for staying in politics.

How have things come to this pass? There is a general anger in Britain at the way Labour has gone to great lengths to present news in the most favourable possible way, to indulge in spin as the practice is called. To be honest, to complain about a politician spinning feels to me like complaining that a stripper is under-dressed. You don’t like it? Look away. They’re not going to change.

Recently, though, there have been other criticisms: many people accuse Brown of poor handling of the current crisis over MPs fiddling their expenses. He should have spoken out sooner, he should have sacked people more quickly, he should have declared his disgust more openly.

Note that none of this relates to anything he’s actually done. Arguably, he’s been at least as effective as any of the other party leaders in dealing with the problem. He just hasn’t come across as being as effective.

The same is true of the other, far more important things that he’s doing not in his role as a party leader, but as Prime Minister: his handling of the financial crisis has been pretty generally praised, and he’s doing good work on climate change, on the continued reform of the National Health Service, and so on. But he’s not perceived as effective.

In other words, he’s doing his spinning badly. He may be doing the right things, he’s just not making it clear to enough people that he is, and that may cost him his job. So the very people who attack him for spinning are driving him out for not spinning well enough.

Ironic, isn’t it?

People are, of course, deeply upset over the expenses scandal. Some MPs have got away with hundreds of pounds of expenses they should not have received, some with thousands, a small number with tens of thousands.

Ten thousand is a number that ends with four zeroes.

The banking crisis is going to cost over a trillion to solve. That’s a number that ends with nine zeroes.

Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi, Brown’s opposite number in Italy, has been photographed being entertained by scantily clad young women and stars of the music world at his villa in Sardinia. The photographer also got shots of some of these people being flown into the island on official jets, at the Italian taxpayer’s expense.

A select committee of the Italian Parliament is looking into the matter. Because there are serious questions to answer. After all, if we had been dealing with a terrorist with a rifle instead of a photographer with a camera, the Prime Minister might have been shot.

So the scandal of the photographs is that they expose the poor protection the Italian state is offering to the ‘honourable’ Silvio Berlusconi.

His party is riding high in the polls. He seems practically assured of re-election next time.

Maybe that’s enough irony to enjoy for one day.


Anonymous said...

You are right about the irony in today's situation.
I suppose I like irony as much as anybody, but I am not enjoying the irony(ies) you mention in your piece. ANd to my shame, I forgot to send in my postal ballot!!!

David Beeson said...

Perhaps when I spoke about enjoyment I was being unintentionally ironic.

And Danielle and I managed to do even less well than you about voting: we could have voted in either Britain or Germany - even both - but contrived to be in Germany when the voting was on in Britain, and in Britain when the voting was on in Germany.

Pretty dismal results, weren't they? Interesting though that the only right wing leader who didn't progress in Europe was Berlusconi - his vote fell very little, but it certainly didn't increase. Perhaps the scandals are finally beginning to dent him a little.