Monday, August 31, 2009


Daniel Hannan – A Reckoning?

I made a flippant aside on MEP Daniel Hannan last week, then spotted fellow Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson taking a diametrically opposite view. I did the Liberal thing and chipped in to argue; forced to think harder about what I was writing, I came up with something more thorough and rather better in his comments thread.

Mr Hannan can have his opinions (contradictorily, if he likes). So what? I can have mine, too. Free speech doesn’t mean he should be immune from criticism. And if a politician implies different things about immigration to different audiences, gosh, colour me stunned. It would hardly be the first time an ambitious Tory made libertarian noises to one crowd, and sent out a Powellite dog-whistle to others. Did he say, ‘Enoch Powell is my hero, but I would also like to point out that I have a substantially different view on immigration and race’? Of course not. Confronting both audiences with a single message spoils the whole effect for an ambitious politician, whatever their party and whatever the two messages they’re carefully keeping apart, and perhaps most of all in pandering to racism to make yourself look like a right-wing tough guy contrast to that anaemic Mr Cameron.

So imagine my surprise when I got back home a couple of days later to find that I’d grievously offended the Dan Hannan fan club, to the extent that they’ve plastered the thread with outrage at me! Tee hee :D

I’ve ploughed my way through it all, and it’s not terribly edifying. I reckon I’ve made my case, so there’s not a lot of point in replying forty places down to say the same thing again. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, though, you can read it yourself and make up your own mind. There’s a piece by Nick Barlow that links to us both, too.

Unfortunately, I think my problem with what’s there – not repeating my original points – is rather less with the criticism of me than with how Mark seems to react to criticism of him. He exploded onto the Lib Dem blogosphere and national media with an unusual blog piece that combined dogged hard analysis and inspiration. It’s a shame that to ‘prove’ his point about Mr Hannan, Mark’s commitment to linguistic accuracy is so much less rigorous than his statistical accuracy. When both Asquith and Duncan Stott take issue with Mark’s ‘quoting’ of Tony Blair, first putting it in context and then providing what Mr Blair actually said… Well, Mark’s been caught out being very misleading to make a point. But, bizarrely, Mark still sticks to it. I loathed Mr Blair, and argued many times that he was pure poison to British politics. But I didn’t have to change what he said to make my case – it was quite bad enough.

So, Mark, it’s cheap and stupid to state that a Conservative explicitly choosing to pick and praise Enoch Powell as his sole example of a British political hero is exactly equivalent to a Prime Minister expressing a politely mealy-mouthed tribute with caveats when faced with the death of a formerly important political figure. What’s cheaper and more stupid is that Mark pretends political statements never have a context… And that, to prove it (as Asquith and Duncan demonstrate) he has to ignore all context to Mr Hannan’s comments, then deliberately hack away the context to Mr Blair’s. Ignore the things Mr Hannan didn’t say, and hide the things Mr Blair did? That’s not an honest argument. And neither is Mark constantly protesting that free speech means that a politician can say whatever he likes – which he can – but that then somehow wrong for anyone to exercise their own free speech in criticising him (I would never say he doesn’t have the right to say what he did; but if people then disagree with something you’ve said, you don’t bleat ‘Not fair – they must shut up’!). I thought what I had to say about Mr Hannan was sharpened and improved by engaging with Mark in debate about it; it’s a shame his idea of engagement appears to be both one-sided and misleading.

I say the above because I’m disappointed by a Lib Dem blogger who I’ve read being logical, thought-provoking and – though I frequently disagree with him – fair by his own lights. This twisting words and arguments to fake up a point… He’s better than that. All Mr Hannan’s supporters flocking about to spit at anyone who has the temerity to argue with him are just funny, though.

I write a reasoned, evidence-based argument about political context; anonymous Hannan supporters first deny that any politics has any context at all, then make up a context for me (hypocrisy? What hypocrisy?) as a smear, that I’m “left” and Downing Street’s my favourite. Heh! Who knew? It’s almost as if they were utterly unable to answer a single one of my arguments, and had to sling abuse in exactly the same way I didn’t. I can’t remember the last time ‘criticism’ of me’s made me smile so much. I believe the word is ‘pwned’.

The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that this was originally the middle of my previous post, Wuthering, Wuthering, Wuthering… I’d intended to write a quick little compilation post, putting together a paragraph or two on each of three or so things I was thinking about this evening. Being me, they grew. I posted it, then Richard pointed out that ‘light-hearted but lengthy piece about a book / lashings of hard politics / light-hearted but lengthy piece about another book’ didn’t really go together. Ironically given the subject of this post, in woozily writing more and more, I’d lost sight of the context. So here it is, plucked out on its own and probably looking harsher than I’d intended as a result (Richard did suggest the alternative of leaving this where it was and pruning it down to just two key paragraphs, but being me…).

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[Looks like I have bust the limit so I will split my response into two posts]

Hmmm. There's a fair bit for me to respond to here.

I quoted the section of Mr Blair's quote about the death of Enoch Powell that I did to make a specific point. It was a rejoinder to Mandelson's criticism of "the real face of the Tory party" in the guise of Hannan where he said about "praising Enoch Powell". There was an example of Tony Blair doing just that. I admit that I did not stick all the caveats in around it as I wanted to highlight the precise bit that showed Hannan and the Tories are not the only ones who have praised him in some way. I didn't change what he said but you are right, I did omit some of it. I don't feel that it was "cheap" or "stupid" to do this in this context but I accept it was not the entire picture.

I also did not try to say that what Blair said was exactly equivalent to what Hannan said. I offered it as an example of a senior Labour figure praising him. However I think it is fair to make the point that the platform afforded a Prime Minister is much greater than an MEP and hence the fact that Blair chose to use the effusive words in the section I quoted (albeit caveated) was noteworthy. Indeed at the time I recall it causing a bit of consternation among some commentators who thought he had been too generous to Powell in that section given some of the other things he is infamous for.

As for your comments about context, well I have actually been thinking about that quite a lot recently. Allow me to digress briefly to see if I can illustrate something here.

I was witness to (and partial participant in) something a few years back with a friend of mine and their mother. It was an argument but as it went on I was fascinated to note that my friend would say something and their mother was arguing back about something that my friend had not actually even said. It happened in the other direction too. About three times during the argument I gently intervened to point out that the response each time was assuming things that had not been said.

That little snapshot is like British politics writ large to me. There seems often to be shadow boxing going on with arguments being made against things that have not been said and ad hominem attacks substituted for political debate.

[Continued from previous comment]


Whilst I do not deny that context of course exists I much prefer to try and argue against what has been said and take it on in that way. This was one of those cases. I did point out in the comments that nobody knows what Hannan's motivation for saying what he said was but

I was trying my best to take it at face value and imagining what he might have said if he had been being absolutely honest and I think it would be pretty close to what he said.

I probably shouldn't need to say this but I am for free speech! As you point out, anybody is free to criticise Hannan in any way they choose. I never said otherwise. What I did say was:

"Time and political debate would be better spent by his opponents arguing against what Dan Hannan believes and the reasons for it. Not trying to smear him by association when he is just being honest about the formation of his political views."

Which is what I think and what I tried to back up in the subsequent comments. I wasn't suggesting banning anything.

I also felt that my argument was sharpened and I was made to think about what I had said more deeply as the comments piled up and I engaged with them, especially yours which took a very different view and really did think about what you had said.

As I indicated I felt that you were approaching this in a different way to me and I tried to outline what I was doing and why I was doing it.

As for some of the comments directed at you by the commenters further down the thread, I did wonder why you did not come back in to respond but now I see you were away and the interest in the thread has largely died down now.

I am disappointed that you are disappointed frankly. I always do try to be fair and argue my point of view as clearly as I can. You obviously don't think that I have done so on this occasion.

I always enjoy debating with people who are robust about what they say and there have been times since I started blogging where the intensity of criticism I have received has given me pause for thought. You have certainly caused me to go back through what I said and justify it as well as make me think about how I approached it so thank you for that.
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