Friday, November 10, 2006

The Arrogance of Power is the Death of Reason

An Expert on Everything

On Thursday Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of Britain's domestic security service MI5, gave a speech in which she stated that her agency is tracking 30 distinct terrorist plots aimed at the United Kingdom. Today, Prime Minister Tony Blair said "I think [Dame Eliza is] absolutely right" in response.

Setting aside the gravity of the alleged plots for a moment, I think the Prime Minister got it backwards. Shouldn't it be Manningham-Buller confirming that Blair is correct in his assessment, or Blair saying that based on her reputation and level of expertise he has no reason to doubt Manningham-Buller's statements? By the very nature of his job he has to be somewhat of a generalist, reliant on the advice and expertise of others. While since the attacks of September 11, 2001 all world leaders have had to develop a deeper understanding of terrorism, one would hope that the real analytical and threat assessment prowess still resides with the experts in the security services rather than inside the rather singular heads of politicians, no matter how exalted. After all, political inference of cause and effect separate from the evidence presented by the professionals in the intelligence community is one of the main reasons we are still mired in Iraq.

Again, I do not have any reason or access to information to suggest that Manningham-Buller is indulging in hyperbole, or that Tony Blair is twisting her words to fit a political end*. Those are not the arguments I am trying to make.

Rather, I am suggesting that this sequence of statements and specifically the phrasing Blair's response is indicative of the Prime Minister's broader problems with credibility. Blair is not an intelligence gatherer, nor an intelligence analyst, but instead is an intelligence consumer. Given that he only sees the finished product, his statement "I think [Dame Eliza is] absolutely right" can only be an article of informed faith. And yet he tries to give what are essentially his opinions (if you read his other quotes from his statement) as solid facts that support the conclusions of MI5.

Given that voters do not hold with their politicians dealing in nuance or deferring to unelected civil servants (except striking nurses because, you know, they are angels) I could be charitable to Blair (and to Bush, with the knots he has tied himself in by trying to appear firm and certain in the face of troublesome facts) and explain this sort of thing away as the presentational price of modern political leadership.

I could be charitable, but I won't. Instead, this is another example of the awful Blair's unfathomably deep well of self-regard. Of course he is right to tell experts that they are correct! He's Tony Blair, the smartest man in the room, and he is never wrong.

I'm more infallible than you, Benedict.

(*Although I note he did not highlight Manningham-Buller's assertion that the Iraq and Afghan wars and Britain's acquiescence in Israel's summer assault on Lebanon are only heightening the domestic terrorism threat.)


Bill Norris said...

You know, I'm fascinated by Blair.

Back in '92, during my first stint in London, I had a class taught by Labor MP Kevin McNamarra (Liverpool, if I remember right). In any case, the right honourable gentleman got us tickets to Question Time a lot and into Parliment for other things frequently, and I remember watching Blair with the same feeling I'd gotten from Clinton before I left the US that fall.

I wasn't impressed with Clinton's politics--I was a Jerry Brown man in those primaries--but I did meet him at an event and was blown away by his charisma. It was something rare, and in the years I worked politics, I learned exactly how rare it was.

I felt Blair had some of that same energy when he was in opposition, but somehow he just didn't after taking power. Or he didn't after Clinton left office.

Clinton was never someone I liked a whole lot--I'm far too lefty--but he remains the single best political animal I've ever witnessed.

Blair seemed to have that quality for a while, but I just don't understand what happened to him after the 2000 American elections. Maybe he started to believe his own press clippings, but the whole of his government, and not just Iraq, baffles me. I don't understand how he grew so tone deaf.

Anonymous said...

Yawn, yawn, yawn - another verbose, opinionated and pointless rant from your incredibly high horse.

weasel said...

Well hello, Peter Mandelson. I'm glad I'm such an effective soporific for you. Not like you to hide behind "anonymous" though, how odd.

You don't like what I have to say nor think it to be well written, yet you appear to have read quite a bit of it. Interesting. Keep coming by and keep hating by all means.

Anonymous said...

Weasel's little bruva said...

I have certainly never been a fan of Tony's, and won’t disagree that he has a propensity to blow his own trumpet, but I heard this press conference live whilst stuck on the A47 coming back from Norwich, and the selected quotes give a different picture/emphasis of Tony’s response than the whole reply/conference did. The “I think…might be right” was not dissimilar to they one I used the other day when the garage told me that I needed my bearing rod ends changed.

To me there is a real change of stance in those sections of the press that were previously so supportive of New Labour. I am not convinced that there has been a major shift by Labour since 1997(especially in domestic politics). Labour have remained keen to centralise power (including the inspired attempt to use devolution to centralise power), whilst trying to tackle inequality in ways that will not upset the suburban middle classes.

The press cheerleaders for New Labour were also the organs that helped shape the thoughts of voters in key Southeastern seats. These papers read like New Labour manifestos in the late 1990s. Such was the concentration of both Labour and these papers on suburban Southeast England that Labour’s ignorance on rural affairs was only beaten by the criminal misreporting of the Foot and Mouth crisis by the Independent. To this day, the Independent is to farmers what the Sun is to Liverpool fans.

The core of Labour’s support will still come out and vote for them as they are generally better off and continue to get better off. It is unfortunate for Labour that the small minority of voters who really hold the balance of power in UK politics are reading papers that are now often highly critical of Labour following the war. The approach of the other papers has not changed much in that time. The Mirror have always hated him as he is not left enough, The Mail, Telegraph and Express have always hated him as he is too left, the Sun and Times support who is best for Rupert and the Star likes who ever has the shortest skirt.

I am not sure I can (or want to) argue with an assertion that like all politicians Tony loves to big himself up, but just urge caution on the sources used as evidence.

weasel said...

You are right bruv. I first heard the quote on National Public Radio over here in the States, who reported the story with almost the same tone as the BBC website I later visited. That's probably more a indicative of a strategic alliance between public service broadcasters than of a damning tide of reportage, and that's not to say the beeb doesn't have its biases) but they both used excerpted clips to report the story.

I'm kicking myself as when I first joted this down on a post-it while driving I said to myself "find a full transcript" but didn't do so when the time came to marshall my thoughts. Slack, slack slack.