Saturday, January 15, 2011

Stephen Harper vs William Pitt . . . The Smackdown. . . I Mean, The Love-in

William Pitt the Younger

Stephen Harper the Elder
As I have said on other occasions, the recent wave of Right-wing politicians who largely take their political strategy from the playbook of Karl Rove, bear a striking resemblance to the towing figure of English politics, William Pitt (the Younger). Pitt was the Prime Minister of Great Britain for 17 years and also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. There are, of course, many important differences between a man like this and men like George Bush or Stephen Harper.

Pitt began his political career as a Whig and only switched when he began to see a chance for himself in power. Pitt was a scholar, and was said to be an exceptional orator, a powerful wit, and was known as warm and personable. I would say that besides Bush's down-home folksy charm, none of these descriptions fit Bush or our rather un-illustrious leader. But there are some compelling similarities between the two men. For example, before Pitt rose to the office of Prime Minister he was a strong advocate of parliamentary reforms that sought to limit the potential power and corruption of the government and the Prime Minister. But just as Robert Oppenheimer's optimism fell at the first hurdle, so did Pitt's faith in reform; just as our own Prime Minister slid easily and seamlessly from the leader of a populist party advocating all kinds of reforms to a secretive and paranoid PM who will seemingly stop at nothing to defend his personal power.

 Pitt has the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister who lost a vote of no-confidence but still refused to dissolve his government. Pitt was able to take this unprecedented step because he had the support of King George who wasn't willing to let Charles James Fox become Prime Minister. Though Harper has not ignored a vote of no-confidence, his record in this regard is very suggestive. He was willing to close down parliament to avoid a vote of confidence and when the threat of a loss of confidence loomed, his primary spokesman, John Baird made cryptic remarks about not abiding by any such vote.  I don't think either Harper's supporters or his detractors would be surprised if he ignored a vote of no confidence if there were any way that he could perceivably achieve that step.

Another interesting similarity between men like Bush, Harper, and Pitt is the way that they use a politics of fear and division. Pitt was always looking for a petty political advantage to exploit in order to destabilize any potential opponents. He seemed to have loved the intrique of Westminister politics and painted his opponents with any brush if it would work to his advantage. Just as Harper has his lapdog John Baird to rally the troops behind a flag of fear, Pitt had Edmund Burke to do his ideological dirty work. Of course, comparing Baird to Burke is like comparing Sarah Palin to Einstein, but you get the picture. Through the talents of Burke, Pitt created a fierce anti-French, anti-Jacobin sentiment in England and managed to convince people that a foreign-inspired revolution was brewing in the streets of London. Through this ideology of fear Pitt managed to marginalize the opposition and set the stage for another thirty years of nearly unbroken Tory power. Though Harper can only dream of such an opportunity for fear-mongering, the modus operandi is the same - label the opposition as terrorist sympathizers, foreigners, or in a secret cabal with separatist types who seek to "illegally" take over the country against our perceived will.

And just as Prisons and harsh penalties are an important part of the Harper hype, Pitt was eager to prosecute any dissenters, put as many people in prison as possible, and was the Prime Minister under whom England began to send prisoners to Australia. This strategy grew out of the fact that England was suffering under the weight of increasing dissatisfaction among the working-class and terrible economic conditions. But like Harper, the last thing that Pitt wanted to do was to address the issues behind crime and dissent, instead he wanted to use crime and dissent as wedge issues to further sow the seeds of fear among his supporters. Pitt was not always successful, as we see in his failure to successfully prosecute the great dissenters of the London Corresponding Society. Had Pitt had his way, Thomas Hardy (no relation to the novelist), John Thelwall, and John Horne Tooke would have been prosecuted as spies and sent to Australia or even executed. But luckily the British system of justice still maintained some autonomy. And now recall Harper's treatment of Maher Arar, an entirely innocent Canadian who was sent to Syria with Canadian help and cooperation to be tortured. Recall that as leader of the opposition Harper could not be vociferous or vitriolic enough in his unconsidered condemnation of Arar in the initial phase of Arar's terrible ordeal. Instead of being concerned that a Canadian who had not been charged with any crime might be a victim of foreign torture, Harper waxed on about how Canada had an open door to 'terrorists' like Arar. Harper was forced kicking and screaming to admit Arar's innocence and only exonerated Arar because he knew he could effectively blame a previous government for the ordeal and he knew that people had forgotten that while the previous government had worked to free Arar, he had unceremoniously condemned him out of hand. Once again putting the instigation of fear for political gain in front of the law and justice. William Pitt would be proud.

I could go on but there is just too much material to deal with. In the early years of the 19th century the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a now famous essay concerning William Pitt. To simplify a little, the essay, which is often hailed as an important precursor to Freudianism, attempts to demonstrate that Pitt's lack of compassion and his ruthless political style were by-products of a twisted childhood that lacked love and affection. I look forward to such a work on Harper who appears nearly inhuman in his lack of compassion and warmth. And in the future watch for the actions of Harper's children who received hand-shakes instead of hugs from a ruthless father. Divide and conquer, marginalize genuine debate and any opponents through Mccarthy-style baiting, undermine and disrupt any institutions which might expose your intriques such as freedom of information or federal watchdogs. These are hallmarks of Harper's leadership and lessons that he learned well from William Pitt.


doconnor said...

Your posts documenting the historical presidents for today's repressive politics have been fascinating.

It also give one hope that if democracy survived it before, democracy could survive it again.

kirbycairo said...

Thank you doconnor, I am glad someone is enjoying it. Sometimes I feel like I am just ranting but it is good to know someone is getting something out of these comparisons.