Monday 30 May 2016

Deconstructing Boris

By Martin Cohen 
'Deconstruction,' wrote Jacques Derrida, 'is justice.' Yet deconstruction's effectiveness has been questioned as a political tool. Often it has been accused of political quietism. No clear political consequences may be drawn, it is said, from an interpretive theory that claims that all meanings are unstable. Chomsky condemned Derrida as 'plain gibberish'.
But watch, as we apply some deconstruction to a topical issue in the context of British politics. There's plenty of gibberish emerging, and that fact reflects not a fault in the deconstructionist technique but rather that a great deal of political language is, as deconstructionists might say, 'at variance with itself '. Put another way, there are contradicitons and exposing contradictions is the proper task of both politics and philosophy.

Now to the case in point. 

Earlier this month (May 2016) Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson stepped down as Mayor of London – his eyes apparently firmly set on becoming the next Prime Minster of England. As leading light of the British campaign to 'free itself' from the European Superstate, his fate depends now on public pereceptions of his good character and honesty. And a central element of his political platform – his explicit policy – is to speak out determinedly against political leeches – famously referring to those who have 'their little jaws wrapped blissfully around the giant polymammous udder of the state'. It is a comment which may come to follow him around for some time to come.

Now, in terms of deconstruction, what one does is to examine Johnson's stated policy for any signs of oppositions which may be at variance with it or work against it. Happily – though not for Johnson – we do not need to look far. Johnson himself has not been above appointing cronies to publicly funded positions as special advisors.

There are, on the one hand, the unpaid advisors who come from the ranks of the great and the good. Then there are the paid ones, the media moles, the political cronies … and the City financiers lining their own nests. They are paid, despite seeming often to have few special duties or responsibilities other than to make up a kind of political court for Boris Johnson.

Some examples already in the public eye:

• Political

Ian Clement, conservative apparatchik (government and external relations, £124,364) who was forced to quit over the misuse of a corporate credit card, and for claiming back expenses for a business dinner with the Tory leader of Barnet council Mike Freer, which appears not to have taken place. Just days after his boss, Boris Johnson, publicly stood by him.

Richard Barnes, (Deputy mayor for communities, salary £92,594)
Conservative London assembly member for Ealing and Hillingdon and previously leader of Hillingdon borough council.

• Media

Guto Harri, The former BBC political correspondent (£124,364).

Anthony Browne, Policy director (£124,364), former Observer and Times journalist, director of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange,

Andrew Gilligan, senior reporter for the Daily Telegraph, and his cycling advisor whose meagre workload in 2015 included 'Lunch with Chief Reporter Telegraph re Mayor's cycle vision' … for which he claimed back £80. His modest special advisor salary of £50k (pro rata, but in addition to his Telegraph one) notwithstanding.

But above all it is the City connections that are most alarming. And here the sums of public money flowing towards private wallets run into the millions and multimillions.

• City Chums

After his victory, partly based on protecting the City of London from EU regulation, he appointed one of the City donors to his election campaign, Edmund Lazarus, to a £14,000-a-year spot on the board of the London Development Agency.

With so many dodgy appointments, attention has hardly been focused on one unpaid advisor: Edi Truell, a multimillionaire city financier who the Mayor appointed as his unpaid special advisor for pensions. However, Edi Truell is perhaps the most dangerous appointment of them all.

At his confirmation hearing in London, it emerged that he was being confirmed without providing a CV. 'We asked about a CV and we were advised by the Mayor’s office that his letter recommending appointment gave a summary of what he felt were the qualities of the candidate.'

Nor, worryingly, did he provide the committee with a list of possible conflicts of interests. Apart from the one about selling insurance to pension funds, and the strange project to sell 'sustainable renewable' energy to the UK via a fantastically long cable from hot springs in Iceland.

It all gets rather too complicated. The details are in the public domain for those who should wish to unravel them and I've written a bit more here. But the long and the short of it is that Truell would seem to have his  little jaws wrapped blissfully around the giant polymammous udder of the state. At the city financier's confirmation hearing to become Boris's pensions guru, it emerged that in at least one case – pensions management – he stood to make millions of pounds from his new role. This money however, Truell reassured the committee, was pledged already to charity.

To return to the beginning. Has some simple deconstruction proved its political punch? Surely yes. Whatever we thought of Johnson, we cannot think the same after the application of the technique. In fact we would do well to apply it in every political arena. One may easily take politics at face value – just as one may take Boris at face value – digging no deeper than his vivid objections to political leeches, and in the next few weeks his loud and apparently passionate denunciations of the European Superstate as the home of elitism and the enemy of democracy.

Whatever Derrida may have meant by the term,  deconstruction, in such cases, is an essential political tool.


Keith said...

Across the pond from Boris, in the United States, towers Trump (sorry for the pun), the soon-to-be-official Republican nominee for president. Perhaps a fitting subject for an essay titled “Deconstructing Donald.” From Trump’s trademark campaign slogan promising to remake and rebrand America “great again,” to how Trump has used language, in his inimitable, deft way, as a tool to box in, label, delegitimize, and defeat (conventional) political opponents and to couch anti-politically correct commentary about hot-button social subjects that have brought in matters of ethnicity, religion, and others. Including America’s partners and enemies, real and purported. And many other domestic and foreign policy matters, from immigration (and a border wall) to trade and tariffs to economic growth to fuller employment to health-care policies to the working class to military muscle-flexing to education reform to deregulation (freer markets)—and all the rest. All the while connecting with a (rapidly growing) cohort of exuberant followers, disenfranchised or otherwise, for whom Trump’s rhetoric, non-enigmatic messaging, and populism resonate. An appeal to a cohort that think-tank pundits, journalists, and TV’s talking heads missed, and even mistakenly dismissed (humbly so), over the last year. Thus far, a roiling campaign—and one that Trump has largely framed and dominated, with polls increasingly reflecting his growing support. Whichever camp one is in—like or dislike Trump’s candidacy—much grist for an exercise in (Derrida-like) “deconstruction,” I would suggest. A rich case study, arguably, for examining the tensions among language, context, meaning, ambiguity, opposition, contradiction, audience.

docmartincohen said...

You know, Keith, I think 'The Donald' and Boris have a lot in common - despite being sort of opposites too. There's the same calculated attempt to appear 'not part of the political set', while being part of it (Trump is a great friend of Hillary and Bill). There's the privileged backgrounds. And above all there's this lazy contempt for facts and procedures - used to advance 'radical' schemes.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Boris will pass, but the method which is used to assess his policy statements -- and those of any other public figure -- is a valuable one. We dare not take things at face value. (The word 'polymammous' would seem to rival only 'bloviation' on this website).

docmartincohen said...

I thought you were going to go on to say, "but the methods used to deceive and cheat the people will remain the same". No matter, I will say it myself, here, now!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

And the people, regrettably, remain as dull as ever to the "methods used to deceive and cheat".

Keith said...

As for people being vulnerable to politicians’ deceits: I suppose George Santayana’s admonition about being doomed to repeat history if one doesn’t learn from it has to be right, at least statistically, some of the time. Case in point: “Those [immigrants] who come hither are generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation. . . . Few of their children in the country learn English. . . . [T]he signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages. . . . [U]nless the stream of their importation could be turned . . . they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” A xenophobic politician's invective, wringing his hands over Hispanics (the 11 million undocumented immigrants) in 2016 America? No, Benjamin Franklin in 1753 remarking on German immigrants to Pennsylvania, concerned about preserving the republic’s values. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

docmartincohen said...

Great example, Keith (kept me guessing) - thanks!

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