Opinion

John Lloyd

Fordism forever

John Lloyd
Nov 25, 2013 21:11 UTC

Canadians are frequently stereotyped as reasonable, free of drama, pleasant, courteous — a mild people. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a group of animals labeled as “Canadian lemmings,” halted at the edge of a cliff, saying: “No, after you!” The Toronto Star ran a column by Vinay Menon last weekend quoting the MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews saying that Canada always struck him to be “like you’re visiting a really nice mall.”

The Star column is an acute reflection of the embarrassment, and even irritation, that I’ve found many Canadians express when you poke them in the ribs and say — “Well, what about your mayor of Toronto?”

Rob Ford, the top elected official in Canada’s largest city, has from relative obscurity hauled himself to the top of the league of extraordinary political volcanoes with eruptions of obscenity, sexual innuendo, crack cocaine use, heavy drinking, violent temper tantrums and calling the news media “a bunch of maggots” for reporting on his activities. In record time, Ford has streaked past the previous world champion of anti-statesmanship, Silvio Berlusconi.

TV news and talk shows are uniting in an orgy of scandalized delight. The comedy shows are mocking news, the news shows are presenting the facts as mockery and the talk shows are bouncing joyfully off both. In the foyer of my hotel people stopped to watch Ford’s circus while not slowing down for the historic signing of the Iranian nuclear accords. In the U.S., Comedy Central’s The Daily Show has made Ford a constant feature, Saturday Night Live parodied him more than once in a single episode, and in China Next Media has been producing animated videos that feature him.

Over the weekend, taking the political temperature of Toronto, I went around with volunteers canvassing one of the four Canadian federal by-elections that were scheduled for Monday. Several citizens in a poor district shouted at the volunteers, “I don’t want no crack cocaine today. Thanks!” A supervisor at a homeless shelter was shouting at an emaciated woman smoking crack who was huddled in a doorway as snow whirled on the freezing street, and threatened to call the police. His colleague told me, “They say, what am I doing that the mayor ain’t?” I suggested that maybe the mayor would be around looking for a room one day. “Well,” she said, “a lot of people have said that to me. And I say we’d need to put two or three beds together to hold him!”

Politicians, mistrusted just when we need them most

John Lloyd
Aug 6, 2013 18:23 UTC

A talented friend of mine recently asked me what I thought about an offer he received to take up a political career. The friend has brains and ambition, and achieved and enjoyed a stellar career. I advised he accept the invitation. I made sure to underscore the downside; from most points of view, it’s all downside. It would be a life much less well-rewarded, more strenuous, with the certainty of bitter opposition and the strong possibility of final disillusionment. But I still said it was the better choice.

I said that if politics, the most necessary of professions, doesn’t get such people in its ranks, its current raggedness will get worse, and the fabric will begin to rip and disintegrate. I was advising selfishly. I want to live in a world where the essential work of managing its conflicts and emergencies is overseen by elected men and women who are highly intelligent with a social morality at once liberal and firmly held. I believe they exist, and shouldn’t be discouraged by the low status of politics we’re all suffering through now.

The general consensus is that political parties are losing their talent pools because there are so many lucrative, attractive and even useful careers around for clever and energetic people. It’s worse than that: their internal struggles are at least as internecine as ever, but the tasks and dilemmas facing them are more complex and strenuous than ever before. Moreover, the press and public regard them with anything between indifference and contempt. There are only occasional flashes of admiration.

The politician’s hagio-biography

John Lloyd
Oct 8, 2012 22:03 UTC

Last week, Ed Miliband, who wants to be Britain’s prime minister, had the kind of public event that changed people’s, or at least the media’s, perception of him: He was punchy, sharp, raspingly dismissive of the government’s strategy. The Labour Party leader, in his speech to the party’s annual conference, spoke for over an hour without notes, moved about the stage with apparent ease, and seemed in a fine, combative humor. He got good press, which he generally hasn’t for the first year of his leadership. It didn’t have quite the earth-moving quality of Mitt Romney’s steamrollering of President Obama a day later – another, and much greater, turnaround event for the man who wants the somewhat larger job of U.S. president. But Miliband did good.

Unfortunately, he also spoke about himself.

This was unfortunate, because what he told his audience – the nation, rather than just the Labour Party conference – was the now-standard democratic politician’s confected biography. He had a loving family, and he was just like most people – in his case, because he went to state schools. Trust me, says this biography: I am psychologically secure, and I know ordinary life. As he said in his speech: “that’s who I am”.

But who is this “I”, really? The “I” who went on to Oxford University and to the London School of Economics (elite)? Then to Harvard (elite and American)? Then almost immediately to a career in politics, as a senior politician’s aide (far from ordinary life)? The “I” who had a father, Ralph, who was the UK’s most prominent Marxist sociologist? This “I” has apparently been banished from Miliband’s story – he is just the “I” that he thinks his electorate wants him to be.

Do we need a referendum on referendums?

John Lloyd
Mar 8, 2012 19:09 UTC

Do we want those whom we elect to represent us, or channel us? To exercise their own judgment, or to be a simple conduit for the views of the majority of their electors?

It’s an old question, and the most famous answer to it, still much treasured by parliamentarians, is the one given by the Anglo-Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke to his electors in Bristol, England in 1774. An opponent vying for Burke’s seat had seemed to promise the Bristol voters (not numerous, in those days) that he would vote as they told him to.

That, said Burke, was wrong. “You choose a member indeed; but when you choose him, he is not a member of Bristol, but a member of parliament.” As that member, he has to determine not just the will of the little electorate of Bristol but that of the nation. “Your representative owes you … his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving, you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

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