Is Cardinal O'Brien being used as bait?

Nuance, compromise, and ambivalence don't make 'good TV'. We've chosen this binary world.

It's hard to write about Cardinal O'Brien without writing about Cardinal O'Brien, but I feel I have to try.

I can't help reaching the conclusion that this kind of confected argument, this kind of outcry, this kind of reaction, serves no-one very well. Does it serve O'Brien well? Not really. Does it serve those who attack him well? Not entirely either, and some reactions have skirted close to being as intolerant as the person they're attacking for seeing a "tyranny of tolerance". Who, then, does it serve? Those who host the discussions, I suppose. People like me, who write articles about it. But not many others.

It's difficult to avoid thinking that there is plenty of delight to be had in some quarters about comments like O'Brien's, which are akin to Sheriff Bart saying "Hey, where the white women at?" to the KKK dudes in Blazing Saddles. I can't help thinking that this might just be a tedious bit of provocation, signifying nothing at all, designed to create heat and light (mainly heat), a few clicks on a few websites and a few circular custard pie fights in comments sections underneath blogposts.

Oh, but it keeps happening. "Gay marriage, wurgh!" yells the newspaper website. "Ooh, bad views, wurgh!" yell the liberals, and all pile on. And so it perpetuates a self-serving tedious circular debate of nothingness in which no-one wins, no-one says anything remotely insightful and no-one learns anything, other than that other people can be quite annoying when they disagree with you -- and I think we all kind of knew that anyway.

I'm not saying Cardinal O'Brien, god bless him, is a troll. As far as I'm aware, he isn't. I assume he believes everything he says, and really believes that it's right. Which he's entirely entitled to do -- and his views probably represent the views of a lot of morons, bigots, idiots and fools up and down the country. I don't imagine he speaks for all Roman Catholics, believers or otherwise. I'm sure there is nothing to doubt his integrity; I wonder if he's just being used as bait.

To me, though, this seems to be the way we often tend to conduct our intellectual debate in this country. We find a bit of an outlier who has some kind of authority, flatter them that they're more significant than they really are, and tease them into saying exactly the thing that will create the most shouty polarised arguments possible. This seems to happen more often than is healthy for a genuinely fruitful debate to take place.

Have you seen that programme that stains Sunday morning television like a suspicious map-like mark on a previously pristine bedsheet? The Big Questions, it's called. I can't work out if it's a mickey take of Mitchell and Webb's Big Talk or just someone's idea of how adults really should discuss things. If it's the former, it's quite good, although rather unsubtle; if it's the latter, it's a crime against brains. I rather fear that might be what it is, though.

I THINK THIS, says person A. WELL YOU'RE WRONG, booms person B. And then they annoy each other for five minutes while Nicky Campbell referees. It's deeply unsatisfying if you've tuned in expecting anything other than a fight, and I end up turning over. There's no room for people to find common ground or work towards any compromise. It's Team A v Team B. I wonder if our deliberately adversarial parliamentary system, exemplified by the boorish lowing of backbenchers at Prime Minister's Questions, has something to do with this; if this is the example you get from the people at the very top, the cream of the country's intelligentsia, why shouldn't everyone else do the same?

But this is the way these things seem to go. If you can't talk in sufficiently argumentative, snappy soundbites, you don't get invited onto television and radio to talk about things; dare to try and speak in nuance, or admit you don't know the answer to questions, and you'll be quietly dropped. Ever wondered why people come out with daft answers on gameshows? They're chosen to be the ones who'll wildly guess at anything, rather than say they don't know. And it's relatively similar with current affairs, I'm afraid.

Back to O'Brien for a moment. I probably disagree with what he has to say. So what? I'm bound to. That's what it's all about. Who wants to listen to some relatively enlightened religious figure (of which there are many) taking the modern world on board, when you can demonise some dozy old dinosaur instead, and imagine all godsquad types are the same? I think it's the selection of these people in the first place that's the key. We get the voices we deserve. If we wanted nuance, compromise or ambivalence, we'd probably get it. But that wouldn't make what's considered 'good TV' or 'good radio', or, in this world, 'good copy'.

So, on with the binary world. It's the one we've chosen, and it's the one we're stuck with.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.