Political debate in the 21st century is a series of shouting soundbites by a series of arseholes on all sides of whatever debate you’d care to discuss from Brexit to Scottish independence and so on and on. The BBC’s Question Time is a cauldron of bullshit with the occasional odd gem of informed opinion standing shining in a sea of shite. Everyone seems polarised. Identity politics rule. Nobody wants to see what they can do to make things better because they’re shouting at each other on television or online.
This wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1970’s political debate on television was vastly different and this episode of Parkinson from 1973 featuring Carry On actor Kenneth Williams and Glaswegian socialist (and a family idol when I was growing up) Jimmy Reid is amazing viewing. Moderated brilliantly by Michael Parkinson this is 80 minutes or so of fascinating debate between Williams and Reid that thanks to hindsight has more going on for the viewer in 2017 (Williams hidden homosexuality, Reid’s latter support for independence) than it would have in 1973.
I will warn you to make sure there’s a cup of tea next to you before watching this as you won’t want to pause it.
I’ve said before that when I was growing up in Glasgow, Jimmy Reid was a massive influence on my politics, and with the UK general election only weeks away and still in it’s phoney war stage, it’s worth going back and reading what the man himself said.
Reid was best known for his role in Clydeside ship building and the industrial dispute that stopped a then Tory government from shutting it down by having a work-in rather than going on strike. This excellent little video is a great summary of that.
In 1972 he gave an inaugural speech as he was made rector of Glasgow University. As we enter the election proper and slurs about socialism, the working class, and various parties pretend to still represent all of us, it’s worth reading these words again and realising they’re still relevant. Perhaps now more than ever.
I’ve just woken up and turned breakfast TV on and seen the news that Tony Benn has died. This is hardly unexpected as he’s been ill lately but it’s still a shock, not to mention the passing of an age as there’s not many left like Benn and with Bob Crow passing a few days ago the left in this country has taken a couple of pretty heavy punches.
It’s worth remembering Benn as the man who as part of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960’s helped drag the UK into the 20th century as well as being a light of socialist politics. He proved left wing politics could work and work for the people across the country rather for a elite living in London and the South East.
His five questions for democracy stands as a benchmark to measure where we stand in 2014.
“The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person–Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler–one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”
There’s now an example of where politics is in the UK being played out on BBC News. A vaguely liberal journalist is talking with some empty soulless shell in a smart suit from Reform, a right wing thinktank (unelected with undeclared interests) about the NHS. No leftish opinions because there are no leading left wing figures left in mainstream politics. There’s no questioning of the likes of Reform’s backers or what they actually stand for. It’s an example of the lack of democratic debate in this country.
With Benn’s passing , there’s one less person with integrity left in politics. I was lucky enough to hear him speak several times, including in a very sweaty tent one year at Glastonbury. Along with the great Jimmy Reid he was one of the inspirations to myself growing up and I only wish people follow his example and more importantly learn from what people like Benn said in his life because it’s important and valid for today more than it ever was.