TV Review: Darling and His Great Democratic Deficit

There is little more unsettling than watching some oily defender of capitalism defend the indefensible and appear to believe every word of it. A bad curry comes close, as does malaria, but these only attack the senses in a physical way. For the inducement of sheer intellectual pandemonium in his victims, little could beat Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling. In BBC1’s On The Record (Sunday 19 September) he put in a bravura Orwellian performance in defence of the government’s drive to “eliminate poverty in Britain”.

Given his apparent level of supreme self-confidence in everything his government is doing, why then—the more observant viewer may ask—did Darling barely answer a single question that was put to him? He did, of course, give answers, but rarely if ever to the questions that were actually asked. Requested by John Humphrys to outline what the government would do to help those with poverty-level private pensions which were still sufficient to disqualify them from receiving state aid, Darling replied with an answer concerning how the government plans to continue its scheme to change the tax status of savings accounts. Humphrys furrowed his brow. Asked why more people were officially living in poverty now in the UK than for decades, Darling replied by saying that there were more people now in work than under Thatcher or Major. Humphrys` furrowed brow returned. No doubt when he was asked if he wanted a glass of water before the programme began he replied with “No thank you, I’ve just eaten, and incidentally I think the government can take great credit for that”.

Even with an interviewer as tenacious as John Humphrys can be, it is still quite amazing how much politicians can get away with. And Darling’s interview was hardly on a topic without relevance. Over a quarter of UK residents now officially live in poverty. Poverty is a major contributor to death, disease of various kinds, mental health problems, increased incidence of crime, alcohol and drug abuse, to name but a few. It is probably the biggest single cause of social problems in society and yet a government supposedly elected to eradicate poverty and bring about some sort of social cohesion in Britain cannot address itself to some of the most pertinent questions it is faced with. Why?

This is a government which is expert at seeming to do lots of things while in reality doing little or nothing. It is forever launching “initiatives”, programmes and pilot projects operating at the margins of major social problems. The most minuscule change in the law or the taxation system is presented as a bold new leap which will help to radically alter the state of British society. Even attempts at removing previous reforms—as with the attack on single parents` benefits—are presented as brand new positive reforms. It promises full employment and the eradication of poverty—but never within any remote timescale. In short, it talks big but delivers little.

That this state of affairs has come about is only, of course, a reflection of the (political and economic) impotence of politicians. If they were able to achieve much, then presumably they would—especially if they’d been elected on that basis. But the reality is that they are unable to deal with any of the major problems they supposedly spend their time addressing—in other words, they have even ceased, in the narrow sense, to be reformists. As the economic structure and dynamic of world capitalism does not allow them the leeway to be genuine reformists and try to change the system from within, they are left to chase shadows, playing at being reformists.

To that extent, Alistair Darling is the ideal New Labour politician. He is not even a proper reformist any more, though apparently he thinks he is; he takes great pride in responding to any pertinent question with a tangential answer which can demonstrate some sort of reformist activity, however irrelevant; and he is most passionate of all about the most trifling things of all. In fact he has a hollow fervour akin to some sort of mixed-up born-again Christian who doesn’t really believe in miracles any more. Just like his Dear Leader.

Now some time ago it was mooted by several of the TV interviewers that they should take strong action against ministers and other politicians who appeared to operate a policy of deliberately not answering the questions asked of them, and who instead appear to be reading with gusto off a pre-prepared script. As in the run-up to the next General Election this situation is only likely get worse it may be time for John Humphrys and co to consider what Labour would like to ban across the public services—strike action. After all, the tactic for dealing with vandals and football hooligans in recent years has been to “deny them the oxygen of publicity”. Couldn’t workers at the BBC do the same if the politicians refuse to answer questions and therefore be democratically accountable? Just a thought, maybe, but a nice one at that.


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