Ad hominem ad infinitum

Posted: 1 December 2011 in life, don't talk to me about life, media
Tags: , , ,

No-one in the UK could have been unaware yesterday that there was a public sector strike. Or to be precise, there was a day of action called by several trade unions, and about two million people (give or take, according to which source you favour) took action, refused to work, marched, protested and otherwise signified their displeasure with the policies of the current coalition government, specifically about pensions.

Most of my friends supported the strikes, a couple of them didn’t. I have been far more fascinated with the actions and reactions of those striking, and those who haven’t, than I have in the arguments themselves.

For a start, while it is undoubtedly the duty and responsibility of the official opposition to, well, to oppose the policies of the government, and to hold them to account, I’m not entirely sure they’re actually doing it, or achieving much when they do.

Prime Minister”s Questions yesterday was the usual mixture of fun and fiasco, of timidity and stupidity. But for the first time, I saw David Cameron completely on the back foot when answering questions from Ed Miliband, the Leader of The Opposition. I’m not sure why – Miliband was no more aggressive than usual – people who voted for him must be terribly disappointed in his attacks which usually amount to no more annoying than an eager puppy yelping around your feet.

However, it seemed to me that Cameron was simply unsure of his brief, unconvinced of his arguments, a feeling which intensified once he moved on to dealing with other matters, when he was sure of his footing, confident and assured.

What was very noticeable about yesterday’s main bout was the personal aspect that’s been lacking for some years – you started to get the feeling that these two men do not like each other.

And while it certainly added to the entertainment value, it was indicative of how so often in political debate/discussion/argument, one or more parties will conflate the person with the policy.

One can make a racist statement without being racist. One can say something staggeringly stupid without being inherently stupid. And one can suggest policies without having the motive of deliberately wishing ill on those harmed as a consequence of that policy.

Attacking the argument not the person is a good thing, I think.

My experience with trade unions is, for the most part, an indirect one. Only on rare occasions have I dealt with a trade union directly, and the most memorable (from 25+ years ago) still rankles. That said, I would be foolish to deny the benefits that unions have brought to their members and every person working today, whether it’s health and safety, the rules against unfair dismissal, or any one of a hundred other things that have improved the working person’s life.

So when they do something stupid, I don’t call them stupid. I call their actions stupid.

One stupid thing they’ve done – in my opinion, at least – is to mistake noise for support, to mistake protest for policy.

I understand that there are multiple pension deals around the public sector and that the policies suggested by the government will harm all of them. However, I’ve searched in vain for where the unions set out what they want. Plenty of complaints about what the government is doing and why it’s unfair, but no suggestions as to what would be fair.

Well, no suggestions other than that made on last night’s Moral Maze, by Sarah Veale of the TUC who said the should be no change at all, that if the country couldn’t afford public sector pensions, tax everyone until it could…

So, the strike – supported by some, attacked by others. Both sides putting forward arguments that the other side simply doesn’t get it.

One other argument put forward by some on the right is that since the union strike votes received low turnouts in some cases, they were somehow less valid. Utter nonsense.

Utter, total, complete, nonsense.

But not for the reasons many suppose.

The main case against the “low vote” argument seems to be “well, how many people voted for the coalition?”

This, in my view, fundamentally misunderstands two, completely different, votes. An election and a resolution couldn’t be more different, either in process, organisation, or result.

How someone is elected and how resolutions are voted for are never the same.

You don’t tend to get alternative voting in resolutions, simply because it’s usually a choice between yes and no, between aye and nay.

So if Tory MPs want to say that unions should have a minimum turnout for votes for resolutions, then they would presumably accept the same in Parliament.

And, to my astonishment, they do.

There is a quorum for votes in the chamber of the House of Commons. There is – I checked.

You want to know what this quorum is, how many MPs are required in the Chamber for national legislation to be passed? Given the Tory MPs anger and passion about this, you’d expect it to be a sizeable number or percentage, yes?

It’s 40.

40 MPs in the chamber, and a vote can take place.

40.

Out of 650.

I’ll save you the maths. It’s a little over 6%.

So, with 6% of MPs in favour of a motion, it can pass, yes?

Well, no, that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? That would mean that all 40 voted in favour.

No, the number in favour only needs to be 50% plus 1 of those attending, I.e. 21

Or a little over 3%. To pass national legislation.

Tory MPs? Shut the fuck up about trade unions requiring minimum votes for strike votes, eh?

And, while we’re on the subject of shutting the fuck up… Jeremy Clarkson.

No, not that he should shut up (although, I think we could all do with a period of silence from that quarter) but even ignoring the person who accurately tweeted “Complaining that Clarkson has made an outrageous comment is like complaining the wheel has fallen off your clown’s car”, the rank hypocrisy of those criticising Clarkson has astonished me.

Ok, for those who don’t know, Clarkson – in a tv interview promoting his latest DVD – said, in mock frustration, that striking workers should be shot.

Cue an apology from the BBC (though I’m not sure why) and Twitter and Facebook erupt, and a trade union threatens legal action.

This is the same trade union whose sponsored MP joked about the assassination of Maggie Thatcher, and didn’t have a problem with the joke. It would be interesting to have the time and resources to see how many others are only prepared to support freedom of speech only when it suits them.

And it’s not just the ‘left’ I criticise here. Louise Mensch MP called for the BBC to not recommission a Scottish comedian after he said he’d be celebrating when Thatcher dies. Let her similarly excoriate Clarkson, or admit that she’s a hypocrite.

And, finally, on the subject of hypocrisy, let me have a pop at my generation, the forty-somethings who are mostly settled down, with families and who are more concerned with mortgages than marches, payslips than protest.

The early and mid-1980s were a time of protest for students – biggest marches and protests in a generation, attacks by the then Tory government on education and student housing, attacks on the then-existing student grant.

Those students, including me, are now in their late-40s, and I’ve seen so many of them criticising the students. Not for how they protest (fair enough, I’ve been uncomfortable at some of the violence), not for what they’re protesting about (again, different generations always think they invented protest), but merely for protesting.

How dare they? How dare we?

This post was going to say something profound at some point. But now, having written it, I think it comes down to something very simple. Not profound, but simple.

Don’t indulge yourself in lazy thinking, hypocrisy or intolerance.

We need sensible debate in this country, where ad hominem isn’t the first resort, nor the last, but is replaced by structured, evidence based, argument.

Well, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

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Comments
  1. Regie Rigby says:

    Very, very well said Budgie. Possibly the sanest commentary I’ve read on the subject – and certainly the sanest commentary on dear old Jezza. Once again I find myself nodding and thinking “I wish I’d said that…”

  2. bloody good post, feller. :) I don’t think we always have the same politics by a long chalk, but I’m with you on all of the above.

    • Cheers, Scott – no, I don’t think we share the same politics at all… but then I’ve agreed on various things with lots of people whose politics are miles away from mine.

      Economically, I’m fairly right wing, but socially, fairly liberal. At least I think so, anyways.

  3. That kind of minimum required turnout for MPs to be able to hold a binding vote frightens the Hell out of me, and it’s got me wondering what the quorum “floor” for Canada’s House and Senate is right now. It’s probably about as low as I fear it to be. And with both chambers of our Parliament in Conservative majority hands nowadays…

    • From Wikipedia:

      “In Canada, the Constitution Act, 1867 sets quorum for sittings of the House of Commons of Canada at 20 MPs. If a member calls for quorum to be counted and a first count shows there are fewer than 20 members, bells are rung to call in the members; if after 15 minutes there are still fewer than 20 members, the session is adjourned to the next sitting day; the members present sign a roll on the table of the house, and this list is included in the Journal of the House. There is no need for quorum when the attendance of the House is requested in the Senate of Canada, for example when Royal Assent is being given to bills.”

  4. emma_emily says:

    Bah. I hate it when you talk sense!!

    As everyone else has said, i totally agree with you – and the fact about the quorom? Shocking. And after hearing certain tory MPS state this arguement on The Today Programme maybe they should check their facts and practices before commenting in future.

    And (oh, you have me on a roll now) as for david milliband? Your description literally made me laugh out loud because that EXACTLY what he is like. For all that many people hated Blair at least he had gravitas – Milliband has none. Zilch. He is an embarrassment to the Labour Party. That said, there arent many Labour MPs that seem to have much gravitas these days, they are all too busy trying to be the New Blair. The Labour Party need a strong leader, with gravitas (yes, i love that word – it sums up perfectly what i want out of a leader of this country) or else they arent likely to get voted in for some years. Personally im a Kinnock girl – if only he hadnt been lambasted by the right wing press…but i appreciate that my tastes are not the same as everyone elses :)

    • Be fair – I talk sense so rarely, it’s worth making a fuss about…

      I never liked Kinnock, but less for his politics (which I obviously disagreed with) but for how he came over as “if you don’t agree with me, it’s your fault for being an idiot, not my fault for not explaining it correctly.”

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