The abuse of power

One of my favourite books is Power by Steven Lukes. In it, he says that power comes in only three varieties: the ability to make people do what they don’t want to do; the ability to stop people doing what they want to do; and the ability to shape the way they think. The last is the power that our decaying mass media have, and in Britain exercise to a frightening degree. Britain’s tabloid culture explains why it’s effectively impossible to have a grown-up public discussion about any complex policy issue.

Brooding on this this morning, I came on Martin Kettle’s column in this morning’s Guardian. “It is beyond argument”, he writes,

that the award of peerages has always been a cynical business. Ditto that Britain’s party-funding system is unsustainable. And also that John Prescott is a busted flush. All these things are true and, in context, serious. But there is much more to politics and government than this. Yet our po;itical culture doesn;t want to know. It seems incapable of getting out of second gear.

This has been a week, after all, in which politics has emphatically not been about games but about the real thing. The Middle east has taken a sharp turn for the worse. What appears to be Islamist terrorism has been unleashed on a country with impeccable anti-imperialist credentials. And the UK government has announced a major strategic rethink of the country’s long-term energy needs.

And yet what, for most British journalism this week, has been “the question that just won’t go away” — aka the question we prefer to go on asking anyway? Not the Middle east, Islamist terrorism or whether the lights will stay on. Instead we have a choice of: “Why didn’t John Prescott declare the gift of a stetson?”, “Who else has he slept with?” or “Are the police going to question Tony Blair about Labour loans?” In this political culture, the closest we get to putting it all into perspective is episode 952 of the “When will Blair go?” saga.