The banning of the Daily Show

If you were expecting to see the Daily Show on More4 this week you would have been disappointed.

While the rest of the world could see Jon Stewart’s take on the News International hacking controversy, viewers in the UK were denied that pleasure.

Stewart’s usual method of editing footage of politicians for comedic effect fell foul of an arcane prohibition – because in the relevant segment he dared to use footage of MPs speaking in the Commons chamber. The offending segment can be found on this website (use the search facility!). Ironically Stewart’s point was that the British political system – which he describes as ‘awesome’ – holds our executive to better account than do the Americans: perhaps naively, he is praising the UK Parliament!

Television comedians have satirised politicians in this way for some time. This clip from Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet illustrates David Cameron’s desire to be the heir to Blair possibly better than any journalist could. But the film of Cameron and Blair was not shot in the precincts of the Mother of Parliaments.

The Today programme discussed the prohibition and any listener might have wondered why it remains in place – although MP Roger Gale still feels Parliament needs such protection.

On August 27th, as part of the Festival of Politics in Edinburgh I’ll be debating with some British comedians about the effect of satire on politics. Once a breath of fresh air in the 1960s the idea of the corrupt, lying, pompous politician has I think now become a lazy cliche – the equivalent of the mother-in-law or Irish joke of the 1970s. It also has political effects. It’s no accident that Guido Fawkes – who trades in a jokey denigration of all politicians – is committed to an extreme neo-liberal agenda which mistrusts any kind of authority not based on the market. Yes Minister was so liked by Margaret Thatcher because it showed civil servants to be self-interested and politicians too weak to do anything about it – the series made her case for reducing government better than she ever could.

As the political novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in his autobiography: ‘The writer of stories must please, or he will be nothing. And he must teach whether he wish to teach or no’. The same can be said of any kind of any artist, comedians included. For if nothing else, the reiteration of the same image – or joke – can reinforce what people think about any subject.

Those making comedy at the expense of politics do therefore have some responsibilities that go beyond making us laugh. But they should not be hedged in by the kind of censorship that kept the Daily Show off our screens. In trying to protect Parliament from falling into disrepute this particular measure has only made Parliament look more ridiculous than could have any comedian.

Steven Fielding

Anders Behring Breivik: the ongoing debate

The recent attacks in Oslo and Utøya by ‘lone wolf’ Anders Behring Breivik have prompted a tidal wave of reaction and analysis in the international press and blogosphere.

Here, Ballots and Bullets gathers together five pieces of essential reading which get to the heart of events:

Our own Matthew Goodwin argues that the attacks are symptomatic of a rise in politically-motivating violence in Europe, and asks what we can do about ‘lone wolves’?

Sam Leith, of the Evening Standard, wonders whether the attacks were about madness or politics?

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen examines the ideological environment from which Anders Behring Breivik emerged.

Tea Party favourite Glenn Beck claims he saw it all coming.

Rob Ford wonders what we actually know about Anders Behring Breivik and concludes: not a lot.

And finally, Matthew Goodwin summaries five things we know about the attacks.

The Norwegian attacks: five things we know

Based on my expertise on the far-right in Britain and continental Europe it is safe to conclude the following:

1. The distinction between actions and attitudes is an important one. Large majorities of citizens in Europe reject violence, but large numbers are also concerned about the same issues that feature in the ‘Breivik manifesto’: concern over Islam, anxiety over immigration and rising diversity, and dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties. This does not equal a mass of would-be bombers, but it does mean that there is a pool of potential around the European far right.

2. We need to ask ourselves whether we have focused too heavily on one form of religiously-motivated extremism, at the expense of other (in this case political) forms of extremism. For example, in Britain we have spent much of our time talking about how best to counter radicalisation within Muslim communities, and prevent violent extremism. But what about other communities and forms of political action that might not be openly violent, but certainly contain a culture of violence?

3. This is a game-changer in how we approach the far right. This movement was often dismissed as the dog which doesn’t bark. Sadly, over the weekend, it barked. We need to get past the conventional wisdom that says  that far right groups and their followers are only a marginal, disorganized and weaker cousin to their al-Qaeda (or AQ) counterparts.

4. We need far more evidence on the far right. It has become pan-European in scope, developing new networks, both online and offline. This is not a problem only for Norway, for Scandinavia or Britain. This is a challenge for Europe and the responses from security services and policy-makers should reflect that.

5. Breivik will almost certainly become a heroic figure among some sections of the ultra right-wing in Europe, much in the same way that Timothy McVeigh was held up by sections of the American militia movement, or David Copeland was praised by British neo-Nazis. These are figures who cross the line that separates ideas from action. In this case, they have also left a detailed blueprint for how to act to any would-be copycat attacker. It is not alarmist or sensationalist to worry about this threat. Both American and British security services have warned about it for some time.

Matthew Goodwin

The Kennedys: no more heroes?

Why are the lives of Jack and Bobby Kennedy still being dramatised nearly five decades after their deaths? And what is significant about the latest effort, The Kennedys, recently screened on BBC2?

In this Huffington Post piece I outline the controversial nature of The Kennedys and why it may point to a future of television political histories that focus exclusively on the private – as opposed to the public – lives of our past political figures.

Steven Fielding

Norway: what motivates ‘lone wolves’?

While initially thought to be the work of Islamic fundamentalists, it now appears that the tragic events in Norway are the work of a far-right extremist.

Matthew Goodwin – an expert in the European far-right – provides analysis of the motivations of individuals like Anders Behring Breivik, a man widely described as a fundamentalist Christian with political views that leaned to the right.

Posters and politics

Despite its central role in political communications, the election poster is a strangely neglected beast. Yet, since the nineteenth century right up to the 2010 general election and the recent AV referendum campaign they can tell us so much about how the parties think of themselves and those whose support they are trying to mobilise. The example above is a Conservative poster from 1929 – the first election after all adult women gained the vote  – and the party is appealing to them as respectable (if superstitious) tea-drinkers!

My PhD is exploring the role of the election poster from the 1906 landslide to the present day. To that end I have established a blog that will explore ongoing work on an exhibition I am curating on the history of the poster which is due to open in November 2011, at the People’s History Museum, Manchester.

The Twitter address is @PoliticalPoster and you can read the first post here .

Chris Burgess

Ownership for all: a Lib Dem fantasy?

Nick Clegg has recently attracted considerable attention for suggesting that each citizen on the electoral register should receive a free allocation of the shares held by the government in the part-nationalised banks Lloyds and RBS.

The proposal is merely the latest iteration of an idea that has received a good deal of attention in recent times. The most obvious source for Clegg’s proposal is a pamphlet written by Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams, but both George Osborne and the ‘Red Tory’ Phillip Blond have made similar suggestions the last eighteen months. In truth the proposal is merely the latest example of a long Liberal tradition of advocating wider ownership. My research into the politics of property-ownership indicates that Liberals and Liberal Democrats – like many Conservatives – have strong distributist instincts.

An early manifestation of these instincts can be found in the Liberal Party’s 1938 report, Ownership For All. Written largely by Elliott Dodds and Arthur Seldon (later to find fame as Editorial Director of the IEA) the report sought to reassert classical liberal principles and emphasised the central importance of widely diffused private property for a liberal society and an efficient economy. The report contended not only would the diffusion of property lead to a rapid improvement in productive efficiency, but the decentralisation of power and responsibility would also increase personal liberty and independence.

In his summary Dodds attacked both the Conservative and Labour parties for their belief that property should be concentrated (respectively, in the hands of the few and the hands of the state); by contrast, the Liberal view was that property is ‘like muck – only good when it is spread’.

A more direct comparison with today’s proposals can be seen in ideas that surfaced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Faced with the question of what to do with the revenues generated by North Sea oil, many Liberals seized on an idea floated by Samuel Brittan and Barry Riley in The Financial Times. Later expanded and reissued as a pamphlet in the party’s Unservile State series, A People’s Stake In North Sea Oil proposed to use the windfall from the extraction of the oil to give everyone on the electoral register a marketable capital account. Such a policy guaranteed genuine ownership for all and would, said Brittan, represent a ‘giant stride towards a genuine people’s capitalism’.

However, few if any of these proposals were ever brought to fruition. This interest in the wider diffusion of property has largely coincided with a prolonged period in the electoral wilderness. Being in coalition at a time when there is a considerable public asset to dispose of therefore gives the Liberal Democrats a unique opportunity to make their dreams of wider ownership a reality – it will be fascinating to see whether they can seize it.

Matthew Francis

The iron law of Miliband

By 196 votes to 41, Labour MPs recently endorsed Ed Miliband’s proposal to abolish bi-annual elections to the Shadow Cabinet and allow him to pick its members. If endorsed by Labour’s autumn conference (and it will) this will mean that the leader, and only the leader, can decide who will sit on the Front Bench.

In my first piece for the Huffington Post I relate this apparently modest measure to the work of Robert Michaels who in his classic text Political Parties (1911) predicted that all parties would one day be subject to the ‘iron law of oligarchy’.

Steven Fielding