There's a Massive Attack song on Protection, Better Things, sung by Tracey Thorn. It's a kind of lament for a lover who is trying to ease their way out, simultaneously bitter and resigned, scathing about the explanations meant to soften the blow and knowing that it can be scathing because the chances are that there's nothing to be salvaged. Reading odds and ends of the Observer's attempt at a summary of the Blair years from the weekend before last, I was reminded of it. Jamie had it about right the day beforehand, when the Grauniad ran teasers:
Ten years in office, 54 criminal justice bills, 3000 new offenses and one CCTV camera for every four people in the country and you’re left with a sensation of permanent crisis... Endless institutional tinkering doesn’t convince people that things are improving. It convinces them that institutions are irrevocably broken.
Tracey Thorn is obviously much more dignified than New Labour, but there's the same sense of desperation. What makes her more dignified is that she doesn't try and hide it. When she sings
You say the spark's gone
Well, get an electrician
everyone, including her, knows it's pointless: this is, after all, not the sort of spark that can be provided by an electrician. That gives it pathos. The general hyperactivity of New Labour's attempts at media management is a desperation that cannot admit it is desperate, a conviction that the public's impression of the government must constantly be massaged which must always deny that any massaging is going on. It therefore lacks the pathos, and so the dignity, not that pathos is top of the list of qualities that are generally looked for in governments anyway. Blair himself may, I concede, have some pathos - the sincerity is so pleading, so brittle-seeming, that it could hardly not be aware of itself - but it is hardly the basis of dignity. This is because, even if it did have pathos, the new Labour approach to its electorate would still be infantilising, since it refuses to believe that, left to witness the results for themselves, the British public can be trusted to credit the achievements of the government. Amongst other things, that's profoundly anti-democratic, since what kind of right to rule themselves could realistically be attributed to people who cannot be trusted to trouble themselves acquire even basic information about the governance of their country when presented with the truth by their government.
The feature that will surely in the end, if it doesn't already, more worry the current government's successors, whoever they are, though, is how counter-productive it is. Of course there are doubtless other causes at work, but one of the causes of the total disbelief with which most government claims seem to be met is surely the awareness that the government does not think that its citizens can always be trusted with the truth. Even more than that, because the government's distrust seems to be quite general, not tied to any particular interest, there doesn't need to be any specific evidence of witholding of the truth for it to be reasonable to think that dissembling is going on, and even more than that, by irritating people, the infantilising makes them much less likely to be reasonable in the first place.
The other way in which it is counter-productive, for a left-wing government at least, is the way in which it totally fails to shift the terms of the discourse. I suppose in New Labour's case that may attribute to it a desire to shift the terms of the discourse which it never really had, but at least for many of those who supported New Labour it must be a disappointment. By focusing on managing the media, on massaging public opinion, New Labour left itself at the mercy of a news agenda dominated by basically Tory newspapers. Because of that, it was never really able to make an attempt to really roll back the ideological damage of eighteen years of Tory rule. Alright, Cameron has pledged to fund public services at the same levels as the current government, but those services are not funded significantly more fairly than they were ten years ago. The social democratic case has not been made, and that's partly because New Labour's belief in the infantilism of the electorate meant it did not think it would stand for it, which, in 1997 at least, was probably unjustified.
The broader point here, obviously, is that how you communicate with other people, the respect with which you treat them, the assumptions you make about how they process information, about their prior beliefs. If you want an open, constructive debate, a discourse where things are genuinely learnt, minds genuinely changed, treat people with respect, read their contributions charitably, be open to the thought that you are wrong. That isn't always easy - misunderstandings occur, tempers flare, and things are said or written which might not be if tongues were bitten, all of which I have been guilty of - but just because a goal isn't always met, it doesn't mean it should not be one, though. Where we have done something wrong, been too quick or too uncharitable, we should make amends, or at least stop flailing about, hoping to hit something in the end. If you're not prepared to do that, then you're probably not looking for the things that doing it would help secure. When that happens, at least one person in the conversation is likely to be asking for an electrician when there's really not much point. At least Tracey Thorn did it with dignity.