...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, January 28, 2013

Day 4411: DOCTOR WHO: Oh Happy Day


Today is the Twenty-Seventh Anniversary of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster; it is Two Hundred years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice (no Zombies); and Daddy is One Hundred and Forty-Seven Billion, No Millions, Fifteen Thousand and Sixty years old. (Adding up on my flappy feet, I MAY have lost count.)

Better bung on "The Happiness Patrol"!

Given the set-up, the only way "The Happiness Patrol" could end is with Margaret Thatcher-analogue (certainly in the performance if not necessarily in the script) Helen A in tears.

But do we want to see the Doctor make the villain cry?

And only a few years later, the real world would see virtually the same woman in tears as she left Downing Street. Did we gloat? Did we "dance on her grave"? Or did we feel sympathy for the monster?

This isn't a question of whether Helen A deserves to be overthrown and punished for her acts. She is clearly depicted as responsible for murder, both indirectly as the one giving orders to the Happiness Patrol and directly when she pushes the button for the fondant surprise. Her government's policies kill people for being sad and twist the lives of everyone else by enforcing false happiness.

It's important that we recognise that, in spite of Sheila Hancock's gleeful caricature, this is a very standard Doctor Who Nazi allegory: the uniforms may be pink rather than black but the M.O. is identical, from the "othering" of a minority (with the "smile" badges to reward conformity, so reminiscent of yellow stars and pink triangles), through the keeping of lists and records, to the state control of economic assets. Even the expressionist sets are making us think of 1930's Germany, and all the face-paint is very "Cabaret".

The simple conflation of Mrs Thatcher's Conservative governments of the 1980s and Nazism was an easy cliché of the decade (much as the "more right wing than Thatcher" smear is the cry of the current generation against the Coalition, to which one is inclined to say: "you should have tried living in the '80s"). But were they really Nazis?

Is it legitimate, even in exaggerated satire, to equate the Thatcher governments of the 'Eighties with the Nazis? The evidence is mixed (and it's troubling that there's even the possibility of a "yes").

Of course we recognise that "Nazi" and "Commie" are debased terms, used as insults and as opposites by the sort of people who assume that Communism and organised Labour and "left wing" are virtual synonyms and therefore by extension "Nazi" must be the right wing equivalent, when in fact (read your Orwell) there is very little difference between the two apart from some emphasis on the cult of personality, and identification of who is to blame for the economic condition of the workers. Communism and Nationalism are both working-class based mass-movements prone to violent collective action against the perceived "other" and, like any human organisation, subject to subversion from within by a ruling elite with their own agenda.

(Note on Orwell: our set-top-box is set to record every Saturday play, because we're very Radio 4 and every now and again there are ones we actually want (James Bond). But of course this week it didn't record one we really wanted, a rather good adaptation of "Animal Farm"… Because, obviously, for this one week the EPG read "The Real George Orwell" rather than "Saturday Drama". Humbug. Time to try the iPlayer.)

In contrast, the Thatcher governments sought to disperse economic (although not social) power as widely as possible, through programmes of privatisation, council house sales, tax cuts and market liberalisation.

Certainly, it was a brutal and unforgiving period – far more so than the Coalition have been – with large tranches of British industry forced out of public ownership and allowed to go bankrupt with little or no safety net for the communities left scarred and blighted as a result. Economically, though, this de-nationalisation is the exact opposite of National Socialism. Thatcherism as a theory supposedly venerated the individual as opposed to the fascist ideal of stronger together. The Lady was both more complicated and more simple – I think she venerated both, but only “together” in terms of nationalism (remember, she made Britain the most centralised state in Europe). Ultimately she replaced her worship of "the market" with frothing Europhobia, the jingoistic last resort, as it were. The same tension between atomised markets and protective nationalism tears at the Tories today.

The Falklands War, while easily classified as Imperial – and the signature engagement, the sinking of the Belgrano, was a war crime under Britain's own rules – but was also unsought and in defence of self-determination against an invading dictatorship. Not that Lady T was ideologically opposed to all dictators, as testified by her closeness to General Pinochet (tying herself to "routine disappearances" as in the show; nor should we forget the "shoot-to-kill" allegations of "Death on the Rock" and other rumours.)

There was a definite use of "othering" by the Conservatives of the 'Eighties, but their principal target was the Trade Union movement, infamously described as "the enemy within" by Mrs Thatcher, and subject to brutal repression whether by proxy at Wapping (1986) or in the year-long miners' strike. (1984-5).

Her government's treatment of gay people – ostensibly the metaphor of "The Happiness Patrol"; happy = gay, geddit – was more mixed, ranging from the robust response to the emerging AIDS crisis to riding the anti-Sixties backlash and moral panic that culminated in Section 28. The '80s were when the gays suddenly became a major political issue (used to bash left and liberals, and simply bash gays). But at the same time Thatcher's rhetoric of individual freedom was being taken seriously by some people – even when her actions showed it as empty words. It was an era of transition, when gay rights had to be fought for, but when the groundwork was laid for the rights being won in the 'Nineties and 'Noughties and still today. When stereotypes were still seen all over the TV, but new and positive portrayals were just starting to emerge. Then (as now) the loudest anti-equality voices were religious and small-c conservative fringe, the James Andertons and Mary Whitehouses, and a vocal minority on the Conservative backbenches. That's not to excuse a government that went along with it.

I started off this section assuming that it would be easy to disprove, but I find more and more that the Conservatives were all too willing to use the techniques of the Nazis to protect their rule through "divide and conquer". It seems more that it was the British people who were becoming more liberal through the 'Eighties and that the government (of the minority) was reactionary against that.

And I wonder what I'll think looking back on the Coalition years from a similar perspective when Twenty-Forty comes around. That "othering", that scapegoating rears its ugly head once more, whether it is the culture of blame the bankers (all too reminiscent of the "Zionist conspiracy" accusation) or the Prime Minister's recent speech on Europe raising the old Tory xenophobia. Or the way both Labour's Liam Byrne and the Conservative's George Osborne have picked on benefits claimants (whether your language is "workers v shirkers" or "strivers v skivers", it's equally objectionable).

Most of the time, "Nazis = bad" goes as an unchallenged assertion in Doctor Who. The Daleks, for example, are virtually evil by definition because they are the Space Nazis. In fact, by deconstructing the Nazi iconography, "The Happiness Patrol" makes one of the better cases for why Nazis actually are bad.

Almost every Doctor Who story – almost every melodrama, in fact – contains a cathartic moment (cathartic for the audience anyway) where the villain gets dealt their – usually-fatal – just deserts. This can be horrific, or occasionally comic, and often with a sense of poetic justice.

"Monsters" tend to be exploded (Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans), melted (Ice Warriors, Giant Robot, Terileptils, Haemovores), buried (Silurians, Sea Devils, the other Silurians) or just plain deactivated (Yeti); while the human or humanoid "villains" are more likely to either have their allies turn on them (especially if played by Kevin Stoney or Roger Delgado!) or the Avengers stand-by "killed with their own weapon" (Harrison Chase and his fertiliser machine; Styggron and his virus; in this very story, the Kandy-Man is melted by his own boiling sucrose). Arguably Davros achieves both at once.

What we don't often get is the sense that it is traumatic for the losing villain, that they are hurt, upset. Death – ironically – makes it easier by never giving the baddies the chance to react to their own defeat; by never expecting us to have to empathise with them.

Empathy is terribly important in "The Happiness Patrol". It is empathy that enables us to feel sad when sad things happen to other people. We understand Susan Q's despair because we can share Ace's empathy for her. Even when it is clear Ace doesn't understand her friend's thoughts and feelings she can still share the pain they cause. In contrast, it is the lack of empathy that allows Helen A to do terrible things.

What, then, are we to make of the Doctor, who can reduce a woman to abject weeping and just look on?

And bear in mind, this comes in a story between one where the Doctor talks an intelligent alien into suicide and another where he pushes another woman over the edge into madness and self-immolation.

The Doctor in this story is not human, barely even a life-form, more a force like Nemesis (see also the subsequent story). That makes him powerful, but it makes him cold. He breezes through the story, quite casually taking everyone's world apart – whether it's playing mindgames with the Happiness Patrol or gluing the Kandy-Man to the floor of his own Kandy Kitchen (though imagine if the Doctor had kneecapped Priscilla P with her own fun-gun instead of similarly incapacitating the Kandy-Man with his own lemonade...)

Ironically, his most famous line from this story "Look me in the eye; end my life" is about as bald a statement of the power of human empathy as you can get.

Here, he's like a djinn, answering Ace's wishes. Ace, remember, started this story wanting to make the Happiness Patrol, and Helen A's regime "very unhappy". It's almost as though he's taking her to face these things and using her response to judge whether or not to topple this week's empire. Telling, if that's so, that he got rid of the more mature (!) Melanie and took the black-and-white opinions of the teenager instead.

At the end, Ace confronted by Helen A in grief actually asks the question on the audience's behalf: "isn't there something we should do?"

The Doctor's reply is up there with the end of "The Family of Blood" for his most wrath-of-god harshness: "'Tis done".

Ace has got what she – and we the audience – wished for, but, being very human, she's not happy about it.

Of course, that empathy with Helen A's grief is what makes Ace a better person. And we, the audience, are being asked to be like Ace, not the Doctor.

Next Time... going backwards... It's Melanie Bush. Played by Kate O'Mara. I'd say you have to see it to believe it, but frankly credibility doesn't really come into it. It's time to mount a defence of the indefensible and the strange matter that is "Time and the Rani". Shut your Tetrap! I only arsked!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Day 4394: The Turn of the Tide


Never give up hope.

Would I personally have celebrated the halfway point of our shackling to the Nasty Party by voting for a 1% cap on most working age benefits, another miserable compromise, watering down slavering Tory attacks on the less well off, because something is better than nothing?

Would I want to be in a place where anyone has even heard the phrase "triple dip"?

Would I call the first half of this Coalition a SUCCESS? After TUITION FEES, the NHS bill, the AV debacle, Lords Reform failing, and just Jeremy Hunt...

But Hard Labour want to ban FROSTIES.

The considered response of Her Majesty's Loyal Opportunists to the economic crisis and the health of the nation is... to outlaw a sugared breakfast cereal*.

Ladies and gentlebums, things could CLEARLY be a WHOLE LOT WORSE!

I wouldn't be QUITE so smug if I were the Labour Party on 40% in the polls given their historical propensity for dropping 10% between their mid-term and polling day, often just over the course of an election campaign.

At the moment, if you want to voice discontent, or even just grumble about the state of things, then as opposition goes they're the only game in town.

But if you look at what they're OFFERING it's just MORE OF THE SAME – more borrowing, more PFI schemes, more borrowing, a temporary VAT cut, did I mention more borrowing – another meal of reheated TURKEY, leftovers from the Mr Frown era, based on the assumption that NOTHING HAS CHANGED (except a few banks are not so popular anymore) in a World where EVERYTHING is different.

Their answer to the question raised by the 1% benefit threshold – "how would you tackle the alternative of a three billion pound overspend on the benefit bill?" – is the simply fatuous "we would have more people in employment". If Governments could DO that, do you think the Coalition wouldn't? (Actually, some people DO think that, but we'll take sane commentators only, please.) Governments of all colours have shown again and again that they are VERY BAD at creating jobs (except by directly employing people which, by simple maths, costs MORE than any possible "savings").

Labour's NEW policies have not yet been tested because, well, (banning Frosties aside) they haven't GOT any new policies. Mr Balloon tried the tactic of having no policies and springing "the Big Society" on us during his manifesto launch. History tells us this that is NOT the strategy of a WINNER.

HINDSIGHT makes it SO easy to score hits off the Coalition, and off Cap'n Clegg (now on Pirate Radio!) in particular. No one has EVER done this before, a Coalition in the era of Presidential Politics, and Parties considered to be monolithic rather than the fluid pre-War groupings. I don't remember ANYONE mapping out a way to do this, let alone a BETTER way to do this.

So if you think we should have gone for DIFFERENTIATION sooner (from Day One)... you're forgetting that we were OPTIMISTIC, we wanted this government to be SYNTHESIS, a great reforming government, the best of Liberal AND Conservative traditions, and that the Coalition Agreement looked like it could deliver that. AND we were OPTIMISTIC that the voters would see what we were doing and approve of it as "grown up politics" – kind of like the voters always SAID that that was what they wanted.

OPTIMISM isn't WRONG. OPTIMISM is what you need if you are to be creative; it's the power you need to drive great change and to carry people with you.

DIFFERENTIATION is a strategy for when SYNTHESIS isn't working. DIFFERENTIATION is for when voters are BLAMING you for compromise rather than AGREEING there must be give and take. To have adopted DIFFERENTIATION from Day One would have been to abandon any chance of greatness for this Government.

Of course it DIDN'T WORK. It's a classic PRISONER'S DILEMMA – the optimal strategy is for BOTH SIDES to work together. But GAME THEORISTS tell you your PERSONAL STRATEGY is always better to SHAFT your partner. There were a determined band of Tories (up to and including Master Gideon) who WERE practising differentiation from Day One. But that wasn't down to us.

Did they "outplay" us? That depends on whether you think being in Government is a GAME or a serious attempt to make things BETTER for people. And that's not to say that certain parliamentarians (up to and including Master Gideon) DO think of it as a GAME.

In those terms, in the short term, the answer is yes. Obviously yes. They set out to destroy Lib Dem policy after Lib Dem policy (or, still more accurately, COALITION POLICY after COALITION POLICY) and won quite a lot.

Mind you, the price is that they have made the Conservative Party unelectable FOREVER. At least as it is presently constituted. There will never, ever be another majority Conservative government. Too much of their Party now will not come in from the RIGHT. Up to and including Master Gideon and his lust for a tax cut which, by giving handouts to the rich, broke the Tories in the opinion polls. And EVERY Tory Prime Minister of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century from Balfour through to Lord Blairimort will tell you you can ONLY win from the Centre.

Which doesn't help build a Liberal Agenda for the SECOND HALF of this Coalition.

It is hard to remain OPTIMISTIC.

That's not to underplay the areas where we ARE making a big difference: in GREEN ENERGY and GREEN ECONOMY; or the work Mr Dr Vince is doing to create APPRENTICESHIPS and support and invest in British success industries; or the prospect of EQUAL MARRIAGE.

But we see ever more BARKING MAD policies being brought forward by our Conservatory uncivil partners – this week: "let's privatise the probation system!" – while constitutional and institutional reform founders.

(And the Prime Monster tosses us a bone of "fixing primogeniture" – our process for picking a Head of State may be undemocratic, promote privileged and the corruption that goes with a fixed establishment, and strangle innovation with nostalgia, but at least it will no longer be inherently sexist! The inclusion of persons married to a Catholic, who would formerly have been barred, does not WIDELY increase the pool of potential candidates. Prince Charles – more in sorrow than anger no doubt – declares his opposition to even this little reform lest, get this, some future second child should try to take the country to the European Court because HE thinks HE should have inherited ahead of his SISTER. As though a court case like that wouldn't end the whole monarchy problem for us right there and then. Charlie has always been a big one for his PRIVILEGES and, unlike his mother, never really grasped that it's actually about his DUTIES.)

As a Party we are not immune to the voices of complaint and the "I told you so" tendency. It's all too easy for us to fall back on scorn and mockery when the Party hierarchy try to suggest a "message".

We NEED a "message" if we're going to be heard at all when the LANGUAGE of the national debate has become increasingly STRIDENT and DIVISIVE, with the Parties on BOTH sides of us seeking to DIVIDE and CONQUER. If it's not outright CLASS WAR, setting poor against poorer, then it's taking INFLAMMATORY ANTI-IMMIGRATION rhetoric right up to the edge of borderline racist... and sometimes jumping right over. And if this is an age of UNREASONABLE debate, let us not ever forget Labour's contribution: screaming "TRAITOR" without rhyme or reason for two years solid. How exactly was THAT going to lead to nuanced comment?

To be halfway fair to Hard Labour, in the IMPOTENCE of OPPOSITION and the ABSENCE of POLICIES, all they've GOT is NAME CALLING. The Conservatories however are discovering the IMPOTENCE of being in OFFICE – taking the BLAME for EVERYTHING and able to change NOTHING. And last year's Budget put them fully in the frame, no longer having us as their lightning rod.

In part because we're "centrists" but more because we encourage DIVERSITY – including in opinion – Liberal Democrats are HILARIOUSLY BAD at this sort of SLANGING MATCH politics. ("Alarm Clock Britain" anyone?). We, far more than the one-idea-fits-all Parties, need to be able to EXPLAIN ourselves. Hopefully Cap'n Clegg's half-hour-a-week broadcasts – talking in SENTENCES – will do more good than any number of silly SOUNDBITES.

We need to EARN ourselves a hearing and – very gradually – we ARE winning back the right to be heard.

And then we need to have something WORTH hearing.

Far too much of what our MPs and especially our Ministers come out with is TECHNOCRATIC and MANAGERIAL. Let's have something to say that is a wee bit POSITIVE. It doesn't have to be EXPENSIVE; just LIBERAL will do.

For example:

Our parliamentarians need to be more OUTSPOKEN in OPPOSITION to the creeping SECURITY AGENDA – it's not just about the taking of liberties, it's EXPENSIVE too, and we can really make a case for NOT wasting millions and billions on security theatre.

We need to say that our aim of FAIRER TAX also means aiming for SIMPLER TAX – fewer loopholes, harder to dodge. Master Gideon has proved himself as much of a TINKERER as Mr Frown. We want to be saying we will cut through all the complex rules and make a tax system that people – not least the people at HMRC who have to run it – can actually understand.

And we need to speak more positively about FREEDOMS – freedom of speech, pushing the changes to libel laws much further; freedom to exchange and innovate on the web, reforming copyright laws to encourage creative talent, not monolithic rights holders, and supporting open-source programming though government and civil service choices; freedom from conformity, so let's talk more about ROLLING BACK the things that are illegal and less about making more crimes. The law should be there to PROTECT people, not INTRUDE on and PUNISH them for being different.

And while were' about it, we should be much more positive about how HUMAN RIGHTS are a GOOD THING. And that they are GOOD RIGHTS to HAVE: the right to NOT BE KILLED; the right to NOT BE LOCKED UP without a fair trial and a good reason; the right to HOLD OPINIONS; the right to MEET OTHER PEOPLE. They're all very simple. And people DO NOT lose their human rights – not even very bad people, in fact ESPECIALLY not very bad people – because YOU wouldn't want to be in IRAN or KOREA or RUSSIA or GUANTANAMO and suddenly told that you've lost YOUR human rights! ALL humans have human rights, and if you say otherwise, you're saying people are SUB-human and, well, there was a WAR about that.

Basically, we need to say why Liberal Democrats will make things BETTER!

So let's play FLUFFY NOSTRADAMUS for a second.

Mr Stephen Tall says we shouldn't count on TOTAL Liberal Democrat Wipe-out at the next election, so what MIGHT happen?

The election of 2015 becomes increasingly interesting. Or rather the electionS of 2015. Because I think there's every chance that we will see at least two if not THREE(!) elections next time.

We and the Tories WILL lose seats, no doubt about it. But Labour won't have done enough to achieve a majority on their own. And they'll play SILLY-BUGGERS about doing a deal with surviving Liberal Democrats. So they will try and run a minority Government (what they secretly – and not so secretly – wanted all along). And it will collapse, possibly as soon as they try to get a Budget through the House and it triggers a Sterling crisis.

Repeat THAT a couple of times over the Summer and people might just start to get the message that Coalitions are better than Hard Labour's monomania too.

*Cornflakes were, of course, invented as a cure for... well, never minds that; "They're Grrrr...ievously contributing to the obesity crisis!" says a Labour spokesperson.