22 October 2012

WARNING: unsupervised triangulation kills.

Over the summer, I borrowed the first volume of Chris Mullin's (2009) diaries from my father. As the title of the collection - A View from the Foothills - implies, Mullin was a creature of the lower slopes in Tony Blair's Labour government, and after the 2005 General Election, was booted even further down the incline, evicted from his comfortable bothy as African Minister in the Foreign Office, to no obvious purpose. The book is full of diverting incident and character-sketches from the period, cataloguing the effects of Blair's extroverted charm, but also the former Prime Minister's tendency towards shallowness and mercurial shifts in activity, sprayed with new management sloganising about modernisation and reform. 

Although not an unsympathetic authorial voice, the image of Mullin I carry in my head suffers from him reminding me of the League of Gentlemen's toad-collector, Harvey Denton.  He has something of the dowdy geography teacher about him. I'm sure he wears cagoules, enjoys a good cup of tea, and if he's feeling racy - perhaps pairs the cup with a modest crumb of fruit cake. Endowed with a very English sort of flaccidness, Mullin is unfashionable, understated, polite, and I imagine a decent cove - but remains somehow bloodless, and a bit ponderous with it.  

Having enjoyed the first book well enough, I recently cracked open the second volume of the diaries, which run from May 2005 to May 2010.  Its title, Decline and Fall (2010), maps the end both of Mullin's political career, and that of Gordon Brown, and his abortive premiership.  I'm only a short ways into the text, but was particularly struck by this entry, dated Monday 21st November 2005. 

The Strangers' Cafeteria, House of Commons

Joined at lunch by a Yorkshire MP, a mild-mannered fellow, incensed by The Man's [Blair's] latest foray into education.  "We're opening the door for selection.  Whatever safeguards we put in place, whatever assurances we give will be absolutely worthless once the Tories are in power". And then: "I think we will lose the next election.  The Tories will come to some sort of understanding with the Lib Dems and we'll find that we've opened the door to the market in health and education.  And when we protest, they will reply, "But this is your policy; you started it. We'll be vulnerable for years.  Our benches will be full of ex-ministers who won't have the stomach for the fight".  As he talked his anger mounted and most of it was directed at The Man.  A straw in the wind.

A cardinal lesson, I'd say, that when you adopt the discourse of your opponents, when you co-opt their vocabulary and their concepts, you might think you are working a neat political trick, triangulating your way to triumph.  For a time, it might seem as if you've wrong footed your enemies, as they struggle to compose salient responses to your unexpected theft of their political costumes. The proponents of this sort of thing will always have soothing, apparently practical, words to allay any intellectual pangs you might feel.  

This logic can take singularly grotesque forms.  I'd hazard a guess that something like it was implicated in Phil Woolas' Oldham West and Saddleburn campaign in the 2010 general election. What if adopting a soft anti-immigrant rhetoric could keep the real racist bastards out? Wouldn't you, shouldn't do it? Isn't that really the right thing for an anti-racist to do, to make sure the real racists don't get in? Whatever we actually say and do, we know we're all really working for the cause, don't we?  Sure, it's ugly, but the end justifies the means, can't you see that?

Becoming adept in a secular sort of mental reservation is critical for the tyro triangulator.  The tragedy of such strategies, however, is that most of the time, they're simply too clever by half.  Instead of burglarising your opponents' political house while keeping your own ideological soul intact, more often than not, that soul very quietly, often imperceptibly, transmogrifies into theirs. The dismal fact is that triangulation is a way of letting your opponent win, whether you retain office, or they boot you out.  It is a recipe for an asphyxiating political consensus, for conceding your opponents' "common sense", and not for victory on something like your own ideological terms.

How prescient that parliamentarian from Yorkshire proved.  Lessons here, both for the UK Labour Party which Miliband is trying to resurrect, and after last week's NATO vote at Conference, for the SNP too, I'd reckon. 


  1. Good stuff. Have seen Mullins three times now at the book festival and whilst he was very much as you describe him, at least when he was talking about crusading investigation (Birmingham 6 etc)he was mild mannered but apparently brave. This year talking about the soul of Labour he was a lot more convincing!
    As to triangulation I agree it is very dangerous for the reasons to which you allude but I am not sure it fits with NATO. Despite the fact that many did not believe Angus R's 75% line gut feel tells me it is probably true. Not many talk about it spontaneously on the doorstep but I believe as a policy exiting NATO is a big vote loser.Interestingly I am more amazed at the UK (especially the English)population's continued disinterest in talking about the cost of Trident never mind the moral issue. Although I think the SNP focusing on it will increasingly have resonance as the cuts bite.
    All in all I am more worried about 'Eck's support to that bastard Trump!!!!!!!

  2. As always an interesting and thoughtful post, but I wonder if you have taken this all a step too far? 2014 is about winning a referendum, not a GE.

    When the yes vote is won, the NATO issue may come back and bite the SNP hard, with members leaving to join other parties, such as the Greens, but lets not forget that the SNP is a pretty broad church (Alex Neil and Fergus Ewing Ministers in the same Government for goodness sake!) and driven by one principal goal. Independence.

    NATO membership simply pales into insignificance beside the need and desire to reach that goal.

    I mean which rational SNP supporter is going to say - hell mend them, they voted to stay in NATO so I will vote no so that we errr stay in NATO.....

  3. Sorry, end of first para I meant to say " a lot LESS convincing"!

  4. Fourfolksache,

    I've never seen Mullin in person myself, but I'm making better headway with this second volume of his. This is attributable, in part, to the fact that it overlaps with a period of political history which I can recall in some detail. I must have been eleven years of age when Blair got elected in 1997. While I remember that night, I was not, as you might expect, a careful viewer of Westminster politics during my early adolescence...


    Actually, I don't disagree with any of that.