Political Tectonics and Consensus

My mental model of earthquakes involves the buildup of forces between tectonic plates. One plate moves in direction A. Another plate moves in direction B. Along the contact area between them, friction means that no movement is possible. Forces build until friction is overcome, at which point dramatic and violent movement occurs.

This is what I think of when I read a fine post at Autonomous Mind.

Where security experts are stating this week that there is a rise of the ‘far right’ in Europe, perhaps they do not realise we might be looking at nothing more than the an increasingly extreme form of rejection of socialist political control and the creeping internationalism that sees the political class seeking to transform European nations while doing everything possible to avoid asking the electorates for their permission to do so.

(It's long, but read the whole thing...)

To sum up, Breivik may be a symptom of electoral systems which don't represent certain points of view.

Here's a little test on political diversity. How do you vote to express:

  • Dissent on the failure of the EU to pass its accounts?
  • Dissent on the Barnett formula in the UK?
  • Dissent on the issue of Carbon taxing in the UK?
  • Dissent on the energy bill levies to support uncompetitive renewable generation?
  • Dissent on the fiction of "cuts" in the UK budget?
  • Dissent on the ring-fencing of the International Development budget in the UK?
  • Dissent on the additional contribution to the IMF (which exceeded the total of the "cuts")?
  • Dissent on the issue of super-injunctions?
  • Dissent on the failure of the political class to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon treaty despite manifesto commitments?
  • Dissent on the wisdom of bailing out insolvent banks?
  • Dissent on the wisdom of current immigration policies?
I choose the word "dissent" following Richard North's perceptive post which points out that the more informed people are, the more they disagree with the political consensus.

It seems to me that Sir Humphrey's definitions of political "bravery" and "courage", suggested first as farce, today have implication of tragedy. On almost all significant issues today, a consensus seems to reign. A consensus is not a good thing in politics, except on non-political issues. The tragic element comes from the fact that often, the political class either do not have the ability to fix a problem (see: immigration), or the courage to grasp a nettle (see Barnett or EU treaties). Where consensus reigns, the political system cannot tap the buildup of forces between the political "tectonic plates" of opposing ideas. I find it significant that Breivik was a lapsed party member of a mainstream political party. He gave the system a chance.

Anywhere there is a political "consensus" where opinion polls show a significant minority opinion, the political system is failing. Forces are potentially building. Mr. Breivik (if interpreted as other than a lunatic) shows the potential consequences. The term "political earthquake" is used more than it should, but the Oslo tragedy is truly a political earthquake.


Drawing Parallels to Breivik

According to Wikipedia, the perpetrator of the Oslo atrocities was involved in mainstream politics within the Norwegian Progress Party, letting his membership lapse in 2007 (presumably at the age of 28.) So this was a man who started out within the political mainstream, and rejected that approach.

Undoubtedly, there will be calls for "lessons to be learned", and stupid new laws to be passed, or new databases to be compiled. If these calls are genuine, what is the appropriate action they should recommend? Two approaches make a little sense: to profile blog commenters, or to profile ex-party members. The second approach makes more sense. The population is far easier to identify, they are clearly a more motivated group, and have made a clear statement by leaving a circle of friends.

So honest authoritarians will be calling for "someone" to profile ex-members of political parties. Ex-councillors who let their memberships lapse are especially suspect.


Beware the Cover-Up

It's a truism that in political scandals, the damage comes from the cover-up rather than the initial incident.

  • See Watergate. E. Howard Hunt and friends break into a hotel suite. How did that lead to the resignation of a president? It was the cover-up.
  • See l'Affaire du NotW. While the fact that Millie Dowler's voicemail was screwed around with, and that a cast of thousands had their voicemail intercepted is to be regretted, to be condemned, and extremely damaging, it is the first shoddy inquiry that actually has brought the paper down.
Now, an interesting and potentially trivial incident has brought blogger attention to Conservative Home. National treasure, Richard North was alerted by the foolish Henry Smith MP to the fact that Smith had voted in both lobbies (both for and against) on the IMF bailout vote. Smith "carefully" tried to correct North for listing him as voting for the measure.

Dr. North, in turn, pointed out that Conservative Home were listing Smith as a rebel in an article posted Tuesday July 12th. Conservative Home don't appear to have noticed, and funnily enough, any comments correcting the original impression haven't managed to get through moderation in the course of a day. Dr. North points out that Autonomous Mind and Witterings from Witney are also "monitoring the situation.

For both Mr. Smith and Conhome, it is axiomatic that playing with a straight bat would be better. There is far too much pressure on an MP to bow down before the whips. Had Smith done so, the matter would now be essentially over. Attempting to mislead, however, will be noted. I should imagine that UKIP will certainly be running a high-profile candidate against him in the next election.

For Conhome, the matter is even more serious. They could have acted as a lightning rod here for the tamer eu-sceptics, and emerged with an enhanced reputation. Instead, they have provided clear evidence that they are not an open forum, and censor rather dramatic information from their comments.



That Crystal Ball

The NotW scandal, as discussed below, has "reached out and touched" (usage: as a sniper "reaches out and touches" an enemy officer) pretty much the full spectrum of British institutions. And whenever a series of institutions are damaged, politicians get the urge to "do something". That "do something" is rarely to jail all those associated with the problem.

No, they prefer to impose a new law on the innocent rather than enforce the old law on the guilty.

Back in 2003, in a discussion in Westminster Hall, I suggested that power relations between the press, politicians and the blogosphere could either evolve into acceptance, or would change dramatically following a crisis (similar to the explosion of discontent during the fuel protests of 2000). I remember it because it was one of the few worthwhile contributions I've made in public :(.

I suspect that we may be approaching such a moment of crisis. Where the police, politicians, and journalists face a crisis, the blogosphere stands relatively untainted. Under the "impose law on the innocent" principle above, they may well be the only party with clean hands. And truly, people like Richard North, Andrew Montford, and Guido Fawkes (or to a lesser extent Phil Hendron and David Allen Green) form a more effective political opposition than any but a handful of MPs, and/or a more effective fourth estate than any group of journalists.

So I fully expect that whatever changes in the press laws emerge when the NotW dust settles, there will be a hook aimed at taming and de-clawing the blogosphere.

Who ISN'T affected?

I return briefly to muse about the NotW scandal in the UK.

I would first suggest that this scandal is slightly ironic: most informed commentary thought that financial bankruptcy rather than moral bankruptcy was the greater threat to the newspaper industry. And it is moral bankruptcy of an industry rather than a paper. Let's list them:

  • The Independent. Major commentator Johann Hari caught plagiarising. Suspicions of using sockpuppets, vandalisim of Wikipedia, possible paedophile fiction link.
  • The Guardian. Orchestrating a witch-hunt on tax avoidance while owned by a tax-avoidance offshore trust.
  • Times. Caught using social engineering techniques to get access to bank details of Gordon Brown and Michael Ashcroft.
  • NotW. How long have you got?
  1. Tampering with evidence in a murder enquiry.
  2. Harassing the bereaved from 9/11 and 7/7.
  3. Bribing the police
  4. Extremely close association with politicians multiple prime ministers.
Particularly the NotW scandal is eye-opening. Brooks was a member of the inner circle of both Blair and Cameron. The police are implicated, with payments known to made. While no names from the police have emerged, men with "commisioner" in their title have wound up on the News International payroll. As time goes on, the police element may assume greater prominence.

In particular, a certain John Yates was responsible for both the earlier investigation into the NotW, and into allegations of corruption (specifically, selling of lordships) under Tony Blair. He may well be the canary in the coalmine. If Yates survives, one might well give up on the institutions of civil society in the UK.