Friday, June 20, 2008

A tale of two ministers

Two government ministers provoked unexpectedly hostile reactions recently with comments that they made. One did so by trying to have a proper discussion about an important issue, the other by repeating some political-class gossip.

Good Old Boy Number 55 Tom Harris MP wrote about how we are now richer than ever before, but not happier. This got picked up by the Daily Mail as 'extraordinary outburst as minister tells credit crunch Brits to cheer up'. But it's actually sparked quite a good discussion on his blog, here, here and here.

Inevitably, there's a certain amount of 'I am miserable because we live in a dictatorship, that is why we the people are going to vote you out' sort of dribble amongst the comments [tip to Tom: if you delete those comments it will make those people happy as it validates their sense of living in a neo-fascist police state, and it also improves the discussion for the rest of us]. There are also others who agree with Tom and think the Daily Mail is being ridiculous. Perhaps most importantly, there are some very good comments from people who are finding it tough to cope at the moment, making points which government ministers ought to listen to and act on.

This is exactly the sort of thing which politicians should be encouraged to do more of, starting off discussions about interesting and important subjects rather than just lowest common denominator statements aimed at not causing offence amongst the professionally outraged.

And then there is Labour minister Andy Burnham, who is quite rightly having to do a most entertaining grovel to the director of civil liberties pressure group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, after repeating bits of Westminster gossip about her influence on David Davis. Shami's response was an object lesson in how to respond politically to potentially damaging smears. Rather than ignore them and hope they go away, bring it out into the open on your own terms and turn the tables.

I get that, as Sadie points out, it would be more in line with Liberty's general principles if she just shrugged Burnham's comments off and made a joke of it rather than threatening legal action, but by doing it this way she got masses of press coverage and guaranteed at least another day's worth of discussion about civil liberties and the David Davis by-election. If it discourages this kind of 'banter' in the future, then all the better.

There is, of course, a good tradition of people who work for Liberty or its predecessor becoming Labour representatives, though recent policy developments have made that less likely for the moment. But the idea of a job swap where Shami Chakrabarti became a Cabinet Minister, and Andy Burnham go off to work for Liberty (no transfer fee paid or received) is incredibly appealing.

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