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Wednesday, June 10, 2015 

The intoxication of power, via the Simpsons.

You know what we haven't done for a while?  Quoted from the Simpsons, so let's remedy that.  In the New Kid on the Block episode, Bart foolishly asks Homer for advice on the opposite sex.  "A woman is a lot like a beer.  They smell good, they look good, you'd step over your own mother just to get one.  But you can't stop at one, you want to drink another woman!"

Homer could just have easily been talking about the intoxicating effects of power.  Only it wouldn't have been funny or made anything approaching sense, so would have came from a more recent season of the show.  Yes, I just made a the Simpsons ain't what it used to be joke.  Another philosopher, arguably one not quite on the level of Homer but thereabouts, wrote the slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.

Very few once they have tasted power find it within themselves to either give it away or relinquish it, at least not without a fight (The War Nerd in his latest post wonders if the Soviet Union is the only empire to have collapsed without a shot being fired, although that's a questionable version of 1989-91).  Politicians for decades have promised to devolve power to cities and local communities, only to decide not to once they themselves have power, or find those they want to empower in fact don't really like the idea of mayors or regional assemblies much.  London and Scotland are the exceptions that prove the rule, and as we have seen, once given demands for further powers only increase. 

A case in point is the attempt to force a by-election in Orkney and Shetland, under the specious reasoning that Alistair Carmichael lying about not leaking the comments supposedly made by Nicola Sturgeon to the French ambassador means the contest should be rerun.  It's a campaign ran by SNP supporters, but obviously the SNP themselves have nothing to do with it.  56 seats out of 59 just isn't enough when they could they have 57 instead.  Not that it's fair to pick just on the SNP, or the Tories with their legislation on trade unions designed to damage Labour, or the likely at some point boundary review.  All parties are determined to make life as difficult as possible for their opponents, only realising too late that domination builds resentment and the seeds of eventual downfall. 

What is a new tactic is the use of legislation to bind a future government to the same path of righteousness as the current one.  It's an innovation of especial vanity, an attempt to retain control when the people who put them there in the first place might well have slung them out.  It's also, as with so much of our politics now, little more than a gesture when the law can so only easily be repealed by that new government, but it remains a gesture designed to trip up the opposing side in the most petty of fashions.

No surprise then that a man as clearly petty as George Osborne is so keen on the mechanism, having pinched it from that other petty man, Gordon Brown.  First he attempted to trap Labour by legislating for the next government to be required to cap spending on social security.  Then during the election campaign the brilliant idea of making it illegal to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance before 2020 was come up with.  Now Osborne has decided it's a wicked wheeze to go one step further with his deficit reduction fetishism and require all future governments to follow his plan to run a budget surplus, or at least so long as the economy's growing, as he's not a complete bastard.

Cynics might think it takes some chutzpah for the chancellor who failed to eliminate the deficit in a single parliamentary term as promised to propose to tie the hands of his successors.  Considering we're still to be informed also of precisely how the sunlit uplands of the surplus is to be arrived at, demanding all do as Osborne says could be thought of as breathtakingly arrogant.  Nothing though is off the table when it comes to continuing to pin the economically incontinent tail on the soiled old Labour donkey, which is of course the real point of Osborne's jape.  With some of the Labour leadership candidates now accepting the utterly risible idea that they overspent when in government, the obvious riposte to which is to ask exactly what they would have spent less on, and if they answer welfare you reply with a baseball bat with a nail through the top, all the better to demand they sign up to Osborne's completely sensible surplus plan.  And if they won't, as the less self-hating ones won't, you carry on lambasting them for not accepting all this austerity is their fault.

Everyone's a winner, except for oh, the people who will suffer as a result of the shrinking of the state necessary to reach such a perpetual surplus.  The otherwise excellent Flip Chart Rick argues that despite the caricature from some on the left, Osborne and Cameron are not ideological state-shrinkers.  When it comes to Cameron he could be right, mainly because there's never been the sense Cameron believes in anything.  With Osborne, it's becoming ever more difficult to think otherwise.  As Rick has pointed out, both the IMF and the OECD have changed their tune of late, advising governments that are not Greece they can dial down the deficit reduction, especially if the proposed cuts have the potential to affect growth.  Coupled with how everyone assumed that the £12bn in cuts to welfare were to be negotiated away in the coalition talks, Osborne if he wanted has had more than enough opportunities to step back from his surplus now and surplus forever mantra.  Instead, he's gone one step beyond that into the realm of the completely gibberingly stupid.  


That £12bn in cuts to welfare looks unachievable is besides the point: Osborne looks set to try and reach for the top regardless.  The difference between playing political games and acting out of ideological purity is a fine one at the best of times.  The chancellor has surely now shown his true, somehow even ghastlier face to the world.

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