The Courting of Public Opinion

“The prime minister has said it’s not acceptable and, therefore, it will not be accepted. And it might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract, but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion”

        — Harriet Harman

Sometimes, I read things in the Metro which make me very angry. This was one of them, though it took a little while to build up steam. Good lord, what on earth is she talking about?

The Court of public opinion? Meaning the one with no oversight, no accountability, no checks and balances: the one dominated by the Daily Star and by Richard and Judy? The court of public opinion, though I might not like it, does exist. It’s the court which decides who wins the X-Factor. It’s the court which watches Big Brother. It’s the court which can’t tell paedophile from paediatrician.

This is most certainly not a court I want to see expanding its remit. It does already have one, with clearly laid out rules and a well-understood process: they’re called elections. The court of public opinion has precisely one role in our constitutional monarchy, and it is to determine the makeup of the House of Commons.

If the government believe the court of public opinion should be given judicial and executive functions, it’s a brand new idea for them. If they’d cared about public opinion in 2003 we’d never have followed hysterical Yanks into a war in Iraq. If they’d cared about the court of public opinion, then 179 British servicemen and women would still be alive.

*deep breath* Ok. Rant over. Now lets look at what this actually is, underneath the spectacularly bad choice of phrase. Taking the clauses one by one: “The prime minister has said it’s not acceptable and, therefore, it will not be accepted.” Eh? Hang on a minute. Since when did that follow? We don’t play Prime Minister Says here: we play Prime Minister’s Question Time instead.

Last I looked, we do not live in a dictatorship. Being Prime Minister does not get you rule by fiat, Mr. UrquhartBrown. I know that Bush got to do what he liked for eight years, but you’re not him, you’re not a President, and you don’t have a mortal lock on both houses of Parliament plus three out of five international news conglomerates. Sorry, but it doesn’t work like that for you.

“And it might be enforceable in a court of law, this contract […]” — this appears to be what most legal opinions are saying. Now, there’s clearly a problem with this. There is no way a government oversight body (like the FSA) should be letting anyone get away with writing contracts which guarantee them the better part of a million a year, for life, even if they fuck up their job beyond repair. Shouldn’t happen, but it did: this government wrote laws and allowed business practices which make what Fred the Shred did legal. Unethical, steamingly selfish, militantly stupid, but legal. And it’s all your fault, HH: you and your New Labour cronies. I begin to get a feel for where this might be going.

” … but it’s not enforceable in the court of public opinion” Well of course it bloody well isn’t. Public opinion carries zero legal or constitutional weight except when it is expressed through certain specifically circumscribed and controlled processes: ie. elections. You want this issue in the court of public opinion? Schedule a referendum, it’s the only legal way of consulting said court. But you’ve got one of those coming up anyway, don’t you? You all know perfectly well that the upcoming general election is going to be seen by many of the (woefully underprepared) electorate as a referendum on your handling of the nation’s piggy-bank these last, ooo, I make it 12 years. Bit hard to argue that it was John Major’s fault now…

This is electioneering. Like the change in the classification of cannabis, like the change in the benefits laws, like the whole rest of Labour’s swing to the right, this is electioneering. Deny the Conservatives a platform issue, just in case you might win the election. Even though what that actually means is ‘Legislate as if you were the Conservatives, then lose power and let them build on your failures’. When public opinion agrees with the government’s current message calendar, it’s a court: when it’s trying to keep the country out of a war it’s ‘liberal and pacifist elements’. We only care about the people if they already agree with us.

This entire episode, from the government deciding to beat a man with the stable door to distract people from noticing that the horse is in Spain these days, up to this particular soundbite, is not about the court of public opinion, it’s about courting public opinion. They think they’ve found an issue that a percentage of people currently inclined to vote conservative care about enough to swing their vote: punishing rich, short-sighted people.

Don’t let them play the mis-direction game. Call the government to account for the things it could have done: e.g. not permitting laws which made this legal. Don’t let them call on the “court of public opinion” to justify economically pointless, personal vindictiveness.

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