Sunday, October 17, 2010

All The Perfumes Of Arabia

Earlier this week I was involved in a conversation with a colleague about Ed Milliband's election as Labour leader. They were a MilliD partisan, whilst primarily on the principle you can learn a lot about people on the basis of their supporters, I wasn't - not that I'm a Labour Party member anyway. One argument they invoked in favour of David over Ed was that David had integrity, whereas Ed didn't, apparently because David wasn't prepared to say that the Iraq war was a mistake and Ed was, even though he'd have supported it if he'd been an MP at the time. Now, I think that's a pretty terrible argument for the conclusion that David has integrity and Ed doesn't anyway, and that it's pretty rich for a self-confessed Blairite to be appealing to the value of integrity; integrity after all is about the way in which you relate to your past commitments as your commitments rather than on their intrinsic virtues, and it seems unlikely that the Blair of 1997 retained any of the commitments of the Blair of 1984, for example.

More important than that, though, is the wrongheadedness of thinking that integrity is an important political virtue. It is a virtue of Ed Milliband that he saw the chance he had when his brother refuse to shaft his former bosses the way he should have done, and shafted his brother. Politics is about holding and wielding power, and having integrity gets in the way of seizing it, keeping it, and using it appropriately. It may be politically useful to be thought to have integrity, but that's quite different from having it. In other pieces of foolishness, I had a conversation with someone who thought that facts about the proportion of GDP of a country spent in the public sector were politically explanatory: as if we could learn about a container and its contents by specifying how full it was; "should I drink this?" - "well, it's a quarter full" and not "no, it's a nuclear reactor".