In Praise of Political Soap Opera

A number of bloggers have recently expressed distaste for the way politics is being covered in this country. Chris Dillow pre-empted the others last week (and is thereby pretty much exempt from the criticism that follows), and he was joined yesterday by Tom Hamilton, Antonia Bance, some chap called Paulie and Bloggers4Labour. Generalising, but, I hope, not too unfairly, they seem to want less media froth and speculation over Tony Blair’s exit plans, and more earnest in-depth coverage of the issues underpinning contemporary public policy.

In my earnest way, I often agree with something like this point of view, and I’ve generally been able to motor through a copy of the Observer pretty fast, as once you ignore the Andrew-Rawnsley-style articles based on what unnamed friends of the Prime Minister are saying off the record, and so on, then there usually isn’t a great deal left to detain me, unless there’s a row involving umpire Hair or Floyd Landis’s urine or something compelling like that to fill up a couple of pages in the Sports pages.

But it seems (to me at least) odd to complain about the coverage of the political soap opera precisely on the day that it stopped being about unattributable briefings, et cetera, ad nauseam, and became something quite different, with names on letters being sent to Number Ten, and even members of the government breaking ranks to tell Blair his time is up. People are still using the euphemisms of the day, of course, with discussion of “timetables” and “orderly transitions”, but it seems to me something important changed yesterday, and the media is quite right to take it very seriously indeed. (And the leaked Downing Street memo about Blair’s farewell tour taking in Songs of Praise and so on was very, very funny, whether it turns out to be a spoof or not.)

The narrative of high politics — call it soap opera if you want, but acknowledge that soap opera at its best can be gripping — has a few highlight episodes, and they often involve changes at the top of the governing party between elections: Eden in 1956/7, Macmillan’s resignation in 1963, Wilson’s in 1976, the wonderful political year that was kicked off by Nigel Lawson’s resignation in 1989 and which culminated in November 1990 with the fall of Thatch. These episodes are just as important to shaping the kind of government we get in this country as anything — well, almost anything — that happens in general elections. And given that one of them is now well underway and in full swing, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the show.

(Of course, if John Reid emerges as Prime Minister, then it’ll be time to leave the country. But I still think that’s quite unlikely.)

(I should add that I don’t really watch telly at all, except for cricket and cycling and the occasional DVD, and I can’t even get the cricket any more as I haven’t forked out for Sky Sports Two, so I’m perfectly happy to believe that Nick Robinson is out of order. But if these complaints are really about what’s on telly, then switch off the telly. It’s easily done. On the other hand, I’ve quite enjoyed watching Robinson’s reporting in the past as the vultures circled around Mr Kennedy: he seems to me to have a good sense of political drama and political process, and a certain relish for skulduggery that I quite like. The flip side of that, though, may be that he comes over as not at all interested in things like government or policy, let alone political ideas, and so that may be – to return to the theme of the post – why I’ve got a lot more time for him than perhaps some of the people mentioned above.)

For the theory of the Divine right of parents is as strongly and untruly held as that of the Divine right of kings

We don’t have enough Victorian sermonizing here at the Virtual Stoa, so I’ve just re-published two of my great-great-grandfather Stopford Brooke’s sermons on this site, Liberty, preached on 25 January 1874, and Liberty at Home, given the following Sunday, 1 February 1874.

I’m sure we don’t get the full effect just by reading them off the computer screen, though. Brooke was apparently quite the performer: Gladstone once found him “a bit wild” when he when he heard him preach “against respectability”, and Bernard Shaw thought that what the socialists really needed in England in order to make headway was “some man who would have something of the religious fervor of Hyndman with something akin to the cultured suasiveness of Stopford Brooke.” Still, what we do have is interesting enough, and I’m very pleased to see his stress on the importance of arguing with one’s daughters in the second piece.


You could tell that Melanie Phillips needed a holiday: the Naziometer, which records the number of times the word appears on the front page of her blog had fallen to zero a couple of weeks ago. Batteries recharged, she’s returned to the fray, and the N-o-M is registering a reasonably healthy seven. (See the big number that appears on the sidebar for the most up-to-date readings.) I don’t think we should worry too much that all seven appearances are in quoted text from somebody else: it’s a good thing to take it easy for a bit when you get back from a trip, and I’m sure we’re heading for regular double-digit readings quite soon.

(There’s also four “Hitlers”, one “fascist”, one “fascism”, and, I’m very pleased to see, one “morally degenerate”.)