Not Saussure

September 15, 2006

Clare Short: Warnings from Neitzsche and Oakeshott

Filed under: Blair, Blogroll, Clare Short, Philosopy, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 12:29 pm

The good folks over at Blairwatch are understandably excited — possibly over-excited, to my mind, since I don’t see it makes any fundamental different to Labour’s fortunes or lack of them — by Clare Short’s announcement of her disenchantment with the government. But I fear that they’re treading on dangerous ground with the following:

We do agree with Clare, we urgently need electoral reform. Parliament doesn’t even begin to represent the people or how they actually voted. It needs to change from a system designed in the Victorian era to one appropriate for today and tomorrow.

The last sentence fills me with dread, since we’ve heard it so often from Mr Blair and his colleagues; indeed, they sound strangely familiar.

Mr Blair said the court system needed an overhaul to become fit for 21st century purpose. “… What is necessary is, piece by piece, to analyse where the shortcoming are and put in place the systems to remove them.”

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Blair pledges to ‘reclaim’ criminal justice system

It has become inceasingly clear what the problem with the system is: · A nineteenth-century criminal justice system trying to solve twenty-first-century crimes;

The Observer | Special reports | My vision for Britain: by Tony Blair

Where leaders stand on these issues has little to do with being on the left or the right but everything to do with modern or traditional attitudes to a changing world. I am sometimes taken to task for being too ambitious in the radical nature of the policy changes I am seeking. I always have the opposite worry: not being radical enough. The truth is that if it is correct that the challenge of rapid change is enormous; the response has to be fundamental also. But the implications of this are very hard to follow through.

News and speeches:: The Labour Party: securing Britain’s future

You see what’s bothering me? I’m afraid I cannot help but be reminded, considering that the proposal for a ‘change from a system designed in the Victorian era to one appropriate for today and tomorrow’ comes from Blairwatch, of Neitzsche’s warning,

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146

It’s unfair, I know, but we’ve had so much modernisation these last nine years that I, for one, am thoroughly suspicious of it; Blair’s certainly done his best to give ‘modernisation’ and ‘radicalism’ a bad name, but I think there’s a broader point here; I’m very much what Michael Oakeshott called ‘a man of conservative temperament’ — by which he didn’t, and certainly I don’t, mean either a supporter of a particular political party or someone who’s necessarily conservative in his social attitudes. Rather, he means, as do I, someone who thinks

it is the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief (which from our point of view need be regarded as no more than an hypothesis) that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration, and therefore something which it is appropriate to be conservative about.

On Being Conservative

To this ‘man of conservative temperament’, Oakeshott writes,

innovating is an activity which generates not only the “improvement” sought, but a new and comples situation of which this is only one of the components. The total change is always more extensive than the change designed; and the whole of what is entailed can neither be foreseen nor circumscribed. Thus, whenever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended, that there will be loss as well as gain and that the loss and the gain will not be equally distributed among the people affected; there is the chance that the benefits derived will be greater than those which were designed; and there is the risk that they will be off-set by changes for the worse.

Any attempt to ‘change from a [political] system designed in the Victorian era to one appropriate for today and tomorrow’ is, I suggest, likely to lead to all manner of unlooked-for and unwanted developments; politicians usually go into politics because they want to do things and you can bet your bottom dollar that any radical, modernising overhaul of the parliamentary system that commends itself to politicians is going to do its best to minimise all these inconvenient, unfit for purpose relics of the Nineteenth centry that makes so doing more difficult and which usually provide the best protection we have from well-intentioned but

Most of the time, I don’t want politicians to doing things; I don’t want them to be ‘more representative’ — it’ll only give them the idea that they can, because they represent the people’s will, meddle in areas government can’t do anything about. I want them to recognise the inevitable limits on what they can sensibly hope to acheive and to stay out of areas where their attempts to improve things will only make matters worse.

The only way I’d be happy to see them better represent how people actually voted would be for them to adopt a reform first suggested, I think, by the late Auberon Waugh. His plan, which has much to commend it, was that MPs should continue to be returned in the normal way, but that members should only be allowed to vote on legislation if they’d managed to obtain more than 50% of the votes cast.

The votes of the members for all other constituencies should be counted as a vote against whatever measure the government sought to introduce, on the argument that the majority of the voters in those constituencies clearly didn’t particularly want the policies the winning candidate had to offer. Combine that with a requirement that each new law had to be accompanied by the repeal of an old one, and we might be on to a winner.

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