7 February 2010

Tom Paine and cooking Salmond's goose...

One of the most memorable and striking phrases in Tom Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) is the section where he accuses Burke of pitying the plumage but forgetting the dying bird.

“Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflexion that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.”

This passage always struck me as hitting on something important. Something crucially important in our own media context, apt to be purloined by ‘issues of the day’, laced with fear and often, the promise of an early and painful death. While these carking, ominous crowtales distract the eye, over our shoulder, a whole nest of chicks freezes in its thicket, unremarked upon and unobserved. These agenda-setting preferences are rarely innocent, telling in their silences as much as their sound and fury. So when a plucky bantam tale struts onto our political stage, only to have its feathers mercilessly drawn, I get a touch suspicious. At the fag end of the week, the chicken in question is the Maximum Eck. Self-basting, to be taken with a pinch of salt and improved by a lemon in the primary cavity, some might say. I thought the Politics Show Scotland windup (lemon) segment managed to ask the relevant questions. Should Eck auction off lunches for the SNP treasury? Should Eck auction off lunches for the SNP treasury at Holyrood? Should Eck be substantively corrupt?

We all know that grubbing about for money a bit crass. As anyone who has been involved, however peripherally, with fundraising drives for large institutions knows, touching up the monied public is an uncomfortable exercise. Even for virtuous causes with substantive benefits and clear righteous ends. Americans seem to do this particularly well, not suffering from the coin-anxiety which often obtains over here across the broad Atlantic. The cash for access argument, on one level, ought to be admitted flatly – there clearly is a tat for tit exchange going on. Frankly, I can think of innumerable wiser investments for £9,000 than a lunch which will presumably last an hour at most. Presumably you’d only hand it over if you were already minded to, chewing the fat and the blade of beef with the Megadux (majora or minora) simply an ancillary benefit. What strikes me as rather absurd – plumage admiringly absurd – is the idea that this is cash for influence in a way that political classes honestly find particularly shocking. Or, most importantly, that this is what the full fowl of wealth and capital mired in politics resembles.

Lorraine Davidson, ex-Labourite henchdame, pointed out this morning on the Politics Show Scotland that any venture in sincere, unmitigated corruption was unlikely to be undertaken in the ‘White Heather Club’, festooned as it is with nosy hacks, recording equipment strapped to their undersides. Further, Davidson continued, “…at the end of the day, in Scotland we don’t have a lobbying culture because if you are a medium size business and you want to get access to a minister or an MSP in the Scottish Parliament, you pick up the phone. Its not very difficult.”

The point is that you don’t need to hand over your cash for influence – so long as it is in your pocket, in your account, the influence readily follows. If he had had his little auction for Glasgow Central SNP and decided to go to Balbir’s instead, with the same level of access, you’d have to be queer to regard this as more objectionable than chewing on the parliament’s Scots fare. At the root of this are two separate takes on the tale – one a dull dog, but not unimportant question about how our publicly buildings should be employed; how the parliamentary campus should be used and if existing rules were broken or even taken into consideration. Two Doctors drafts the indictments and tersely repels the defences offered. I don't find the arguments very convincing either, I must say. In particular, nobody is interested in technical exculpations based on the fact that the scheme was merely concocted, not effected. That said, the other approach brushes against the wider question about who talks to ministers, which aspects of civil society push to the front and contribute to setting the frontiers of our political imaginations. Hands full of feathers, questions about the extent of elite fixing in contemporary Scotland, the stifling of alternatives, the construction of the public policy-making field – all of these are blithely ignored.

Given our overlapping structures of governance, separability is sometimes difficult. Hat metaphors and allegations about secret hats under hats easily follow from these complex identities. While it may be easy to insist that - “Alex Salmond has to explain how his £9000 lunch is connected in anyway to his duties as First Minister or an MSP” – we all know he is SNP high heid yin, and the mush of party political and ministerial politics is not readily reduced to its composite parts. By anyone, of whatever shade of political opinion. Pitying the dying bird does not mean that we forget about the feathers – but surely, the bird matters a damn sight more.

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