Magazine article The Spectator

The Importance Nowadays of Being Matthew Parris

Magazine article The Spectator

The Importance Nowadays of Being Matthew Parris

Article excerpt

Of course dissent should never be silenced by the drums of war. Even when the nation was fighting for its very life in the second world war, there was quite frequent adverse criticism of its conduct in the House of Commons, and so pertinacious were the critical interventions of the Labour MP Aneurin Bevan that Churchill was provoked into describing him as a `squalid nuisance'. Britain's anti-patriotic record of allowing wartime criticism of government policies is quite as long and glorious as Britain's patriotic record of rallying around the flag.

But having admitted that about the past, must one in logic go on to condone the present barrage of criticism about this government's conduct of the war against Serbia? Up to a point, yes. But only up to a point, because today's barrage of criticism is taking place in such very different circumstances. Whereas in the old days the country's social and political set-up was such as to pretty well guarantee government policies the whip hand, now the set-up is such as to do precisely the opposite. This is because we live today in a far more adversarial, sceptical and even cynical culture, and one far more suspicious of authority; a culture far more disposed than any in the past to give nay-sayers rather than yea-sayers the benefit of the doubt.

Nothing illustrates this change more clearly than the different tone of voice adopted by the current BBC in its interviews with ministers. Whereas in the past the BBC felt duty bound to be respectful and deferential, now it feels equally duty bound to be disrespectful and undeferential. So far as the press is concerned, there has always been a cheeky, snook-cocking, mischievous, bloody-minded element. Nothing new about that. But for the BBC to throw in its lot with this element, as it is now doing, shows the extent to which the awkward squads have been transformed in recent years into the big battalions.

This may or may not be a healthy development. All I am suggesting is that it is quite certainly a new one. Instead of the war drums being able to drown out the dissident voices, as used to be the case, nowadays it is the dissident voices - the number of which, thanks to the growth of signed columns, have been vastly increased which are able to drown out the drums of war. It has never been a level playing field. But whereas in the past the lie of the land favoured those in charge of the action, today it favours their critics.

So much is surely incontrovertible. For a whole variety of reasons it is much easier in contemporary society for those dubbed by A.J.P. Taylor as `the troublemakers' to win the argument than ever it used to be. Sometimes, it is true - if an anti-war party happens to be in power - this can work to the advantage of a war party, as it undoubtedly would be doing today if the government had decided not to bomb the Serbs. Then, as the Foreign Secretary justifiably pointed out, John Humphrys would have been giving him hell on the Today programme for not doing so. For contrariness is what journalists thrive on, get their kicks out of. They have a professional bias, as do barrackroom lawyers, towards throwing spanners in works, towards asking awkward questions, towards overturning apple-carts. That is what they think they are for. It is disingenuous, not to say self-serving, of Mr Humphrys to argue that he is only asking the questions which the public wants to have asked. Certainly he is asking the questions which some sections of the public - the trouble-making sections - want to have asked. …

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