Michael Ignatieff: Fire and Ashes

Don’t be naive about politics, Michael Ignatieff writes, but don’t be cynical either.

Thus the Canadian academic-turned-politician-turned academic closes Fire and Ashesa riveting account of the six years Ignatieff spent in the bull pit of Canada’s ruthless democracy.

Ignatieff, an acclaimed Harvard teacher and writer with political pedigree, was tempted back to Canada in 2005 by political operatives who, in an inspired but questionable judgement, believed Ignatieff could renew Canada’s tired Liberal Party.

Instead, after winning the party leadership four years later, he led the Liberals, who governed Canada for the best part of the twentieth century, into third-party status following their worst ever defeat in 2011. He lost his seat and returned to academia shortly afterwards.

The genius of Fire and Ashes lies in the profile of its author. As both a political actor and spectator, Ignatieff wrote the short book – barely 200 pages – which combines a insider’s frank re-telling of those years with the insights of a political theorist.

The best chapter is ‘Standing’ in which Ignatieff explains how he was ‘swift-boated’ by the ruthless and well-funded opposition. Having spent most of his adult life outside Canada, attack advertisements from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives characterised Ignatieff as an out-of-touch elitist who was ‘just visiting‘.

Ignatieff says that the ads denied him ‘standing’ in the eyes of Canadians. “Once you’ve denied people’s standing, you no longer have to rebut what they say,” he writes. “You only have to tarnish who they are.” The Conservatives were able to execute that feat months before the general election campaign, thus alienating voters from the party before they’d even considered its platform.

The ‘swift boat’ reference derives, of course, from the infamous advertisements, funded by the shady ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth‘ 527 group, that helped sink John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. Ignatieff appreciates why the attacks reduced Kerry to silence, he says, but it hurt him greatly as a result. “If you don’t defend yourself, people conclude either that you are guilty as charged or that you are too weak to stand and fight….This is how you lose standing with voters.”

In the spring of the 2008 campaign, by contrast, Barack Obama succeeded in turning his own campaign crisis, the Reverend Wright controversy, into a “teachable moment”. In his ‘A More Perfect Union‘ speech, Obama addressed the controversy and then pivoted, skilfully, into a discussion of race, that most anguished seam in the American story. “In doing so, he gave himself the standing to lead the American discussion on race and, in the process, gave himself the standing to become the president.”

Kerry failed to seize the Vietnam issue; but Ignatieff failed too, fighting in his speeches “for a generous, cosmopolitan ideas of citizenship against provincial small-mindedness”. A shortage of party funds and a media thrilled by the ‘just visiting’ narrative prevented the counter-attack cutting through. In that context the warning contained in the final chapter – “Don’t make the mistake of supposing you control your fate. That’s called hubris.” – makes sense. The book doesn’t shy away from the abstract or the cliched, but it roots them in an experience lived from the inside.

Another thought gleaned from that experience is a sort of revulsion or embarassment at the Canadian House of Commons functioned. In a critique that will be familiar to PMQ-watchers in the U.K., Ignatieff says that “Nothing lowers a citizen’s estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other.” It risks undermining “one of democracy’s crucial functions: to keep adversaries from becoming enemies.”

It seems to me that Ignatieff over-estimates the degree to which partisanship corrodes democratic values and institutions. In fact I’m rather of Jed Bartlet‘s view: partisan politics stops electorates from becoming flaccid and disengaged.

And a final passage that I’ll include without much comment. It recounts an interview Ignatieff gave in which he controversially answered his interlocutor in the affirmative when asked if Quebec was a nation.

Suffice to say that the parallels between the place of Quebec, which narrowly rejected separation in 1995, in Canada and that of Scotland in the United Kingdom shouldn’t be difficult to see.

We were not a country founded on e pluribus unum – out of many, one – but instead a complex quilt of overlapping identities. We had created a country in which you could be Quebecker and Canadian in whatever order you chose. What I rejected about separatism was not the pride in nationhood but the insistence on a state, the belief that Quebeckers must make an existential choice between Quebec and Canada….It was a kind of moral tyranny on the part of separatists to force them to choose between parts of their own selves. After much travail, I said, we had understood that countries must be built on freedom of belonging. From this followed our system of federalism. We could not centralize power in this country, I said, because we could not centralize identity.

Misunderstanding social mobility

More than half of top 100 media professionals attended private schools, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. (my contribution here is both late and following on from the intelligent commentary of others)

The comparable numbers for the civil service, Parliament and court system are little better (or even worse).

What can we do about that? Campaigners highlight some or all of the following: improve state education, strip private schools of their charitable status, abolish Oxbridge!

The most compelling critique of private schools and Oxbridge, I think, is that they endow alumni with an exclusive network of useful contacts. This elite uses the status and contacts from those elite institutions to take jobs that, in truth, others are more deserving of.

I think that’s half-right. Privately-educated Oxbridge types do benefit from an exclusive network, but in general it’s not one that they pick up at school or university. On the initial rungs of the career ladder family and neighbourhood connections count the most.

I have friends who’ve secured brilliant opportunities in leading newspapers, banks and political parties through a family member or family friend. Mostly, they did go to top private schools and universities, but had they not done so those connections would still have existed. The only difference, perhaps, is that the contact feels less embarrassed delivering the favour if the young person is clearly capable.

Conversely there are those who did attend expensive schools and elite universities but, for whatever reason, don’t have a team of well-connected professionals on stand-by to parachute them into a cushy job or internship.

The conflation arises, I think, because well-connected families in metropolitan neighbourhoods are more likely to send their children to private schools and Oxbridge. So there’s a big overlap between the well-connected and the exclusively-educated.

When David Cameron offered an internship to a neighbour’s child, in an important sense he was merely doing a good deed. Far better, for sure, than giving one to the child of a donor or an old school friend. But the material effect is much the same. And who knows whether that child was privately educated – his social connections mattered the most.

Why does this argument matter? The group we’re led to identify as unfairly privileged will be similar (though not the same) after all.

It matters because it suggests that public policy shouldn’t target institutions – schools and universities – but behaviour, specifically nepotism.

Private education and elite universities may contribute to inter-generational inequality in the long-run. But there are things we can do now to make a real difference. It could be as straightforward as simply outlawing any paid or volunteering position (exempting charities and small family companies, say) that wasn’t put out to competitive tender.

In some ways that would be messy and expensive, increasing the workload of HR departments obliged to consider many applicants for each position. But equality of opportunity isn’t just fairer – is that not reason enough to pursue it? – it should make organisations more effective as well.

There’s a good analogy I read once but can’t find the citation for now. It goes something like this: ‘we wouldn’t select today’s England football team from the children of those who played for England twenty years ago. So why would we accept precisely that for our political system, the media industry and the upper echelons of business?’  

Cherwell Interview with Michael Crick

Oxford is full of over-achievers. Everyone knows one, the person who will not rest until they’ve ascended the top societies; the suit who walks around town with the air of the Cabinet Minister they will one day become.

Michael Crick, previously Political Editor of Newsnight, and now Channel 4’s Chief Political Correspondent, was of this sort. He was an absolutely massive hack, editing Cherwell, chairing the Democratic Labour Club and becoming President of the Oxford Union – to which he returned last Thursday to participate in the Media and Politics debate. He’s a little embarrassed about it now – “It was awful. It was office accumulation for the sake of it” – but not at all remorseful. And why should he be? For it helped launch a glittering career in political journalism.

After Oxford Crick joined ITN, helping to launch Channel 4’s news team in 1982, and then working as its Washington correspondent, winning an RTS award in 1988 for his coverage of the Bush-Dukasis Presidential Election. From there he swapped to the BBC, first with its flagship investigative programme Panorama and then with Newsnight, becoming its political editor in 2007. But last year he hopped back to 4; he is now the Chief Political Correspondent of the network he joined as a lowly trainee three decades ago. He is famous for the political ambush, the prickly question and the chase. His greatest hits are when he does all three. When Iain Duncan Smith faced a leadership crisis, he delivered a speech at Party Conference famous for the line “The quiet man is here to stay”. Ironically he refused to take questions after the speech. Crick followed him to the next event, from which, as Duncan Smith left, he yelled: “Aren’t you taking this quiet man thing a bit far?” It is in no small part thanks to Crick that we have political satire like The Thick of It.

The job of political correspondents is to follow the day-to-day dramas that typify public life, and to analyse the characters of their subjects. Extraordinarily however, given the enormous pressure they exercise on the political class, what is often overlooked is the character of the journalists themselves.

Crick exudes the same characteristics in person that he gives out on screen. He is sharp, boisterous and funny. Opening his speech at the Union, he pivoted around the despatch box to address the President, John Lee, to deliver a phoney tribute that concluded with a description of the relationship between the Union President and Standing Committee as akin to that between a “villain and his sheep”. He is totally absent of any deference to the Establishment, for the simple reason that he had already outgrown it by the age of 22. But he’s very different from Jeremy Paxman, to whom this description could also be attributed, because he doesn’t take himself all that seriously. He is entirely prepared to accost politicians in the street, or chase them down corridors at party conferences, to demand an answer to the question of when exactly they stopped beating their wives.

The reason Crick totally lacks humility with politicians is because he knows the game so intimately from his Union days. Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister, was a contemporary – beating him to the Union Presidency on Crick’s first attempt. He learnt from that, and won next time around. “The best elections” he tells me, “were when you frightened off the opposition so there wasn’t any, and there were a few of those.” This sound very much to be the school of Robert Mugabe electioneering, but then again it is the Union. During his campaign Cherwell “gave me a two page spread [fully one third of the entire paper in those days] – it was basically a manifesto for my candidacy.” Given the opprobrium regularly poured by the student press on the Union nowadays, I find this hilarious. But just as the country at large treated politicians with greater reverence in those days, so the Union was seen then as more of a serious focal point of student life.

And Crick has had no small role in smashing that wholly undeserved reverence. He clearly loves the job, applying the same skills he acquired as a student hack to making politicians squeal in front of camera. What makes a good hack, I ask? “It’s about getting people to do things when you don’t actually have much power, just the power of ambition” is the straightforward reply. The same applies to journalism. After the Leveson Inquiry the media industry is currently on its knees, but the importance of holding power to account has never been more important.

Predictably perhaps, Crick’s familiarity with politicians has made him totally immune to their charms and suspicious of ideology. He left university firmly in the Labour camp, though “to the right of 1980s Labour”, a natural stance for a grammar school and Oxbridge lad of that generation to take. This soon changed. “You have an opinion-ectomy when you go into broadcast journalism” he says very matter-of-factly, though print journalism is of course an entirely different kettle of fish. At Oxford he had “always intended journalism to be the means into politics”, but when the opportunity to stand in a by-election in a safe Labour seat presented itself, he turned it down and has “felt liberated” ever since.

More than that though: thirty years of close association with Westminster life has hollowed out the politics in him. As a leading political observer he is constantly asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, but in doing so he has unlearnt and rejected the ‘ought’. It’s dispiriting to hear him say, both because of what it tells you about the cynicism of Parliament by those closest to it and the implications of that: that we’re going to continue to see dull humanoids occupy Parliament. So apathetic is Crick that he “[doesn’t] vote at all, partly because of the job I do but partly I don’t know what I think any more. The only view I have now is that I’d bring back capital punishment, but only for people who drop chewing gum on pavements.”

What words of wisdom does he have for those who want to follow him into media career? “Build alliances” is his answer, “stay in touch with people you meet at Oxford.” The implication I take from this is that journalism is nepotistic – if you look at how many journalists had parents or close family in the profession then you’ll understand how true this remains. Crick however claims never to have obtained a job through contacts, but as the industry contracts and graduate schemes become scarce, they will be increasingly important. “Being a journalist employs a narrow range of skills” is his last piece of advice, so it’s vital “to master those skills” and develop a specialism in the area you want to cover.

That powerful people go to great lengths to avoid Crick is a testament not only to how well he does the job, but to how much a spirited and informed democracy relies on quality, investigative journalism. As Newsnight, Crick’s old haunt, has been thrown into crisis in recent weeks, that point should be made with all the more force. Whilst I can imagine despising the nakedly ambitious Crick as a student, the grown-up version is almost impossible not to warm to. In that sense the message for today’s generation of hacks is far from bleak.