This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What can we learn from the West Wing?



Writing in this week's Observer Andrew Rawnsley states that Josiah Bartlet has a lot to answer for.

Rawnsley uses his article to criticise David Cameron and Tony Blair before him of trying to turn Downing Street into a mini West Wing.

Is Rawnsley right?

On one level he probably is. In the West Wing decisions are made by Josh, CJ and Sam as they dash from meeting to meeting at a breakneck speed. "Impromptu, informal, haphazard gatherings", as Rawnsley calls them, are probably not the best way of reaching decisions. He argues it was this sort of approach which led to some of the most disastrous periods of the Blair Government - like the dodgy dossier.

On this I tend to think he is right. Meetings for meetings sake are a pointless waste of time. But there is value in stopping a moment, weighing up the facts, listening to dissenting voices, considering the options and then reaching a decision.

But Rawnsley is wrong on another level because he fails to understand the point of the West Wing. It was about recapturing the idealism of politics. And it would seem to me that British politics could do with more of this.

A tight knit group of young, idealistic, talented and intelligent people helped turn around the Labour Party in the mid 1990s. But we have lost that magic now. We have lost that ambition and hunger and idealism that helps propel parties into power.

Unlike Josiah Barlet, we have also become afraid of our own liberalism and social democracy. Bartlet was a liberal lion who wasn't afraid to champion difficult or unpopular causes. In fact it was what gave him his authenticity. I think we try to triangulate too much and we forget our values.

The West Wing showed that you could be true to your values and still be politically skillful and electorally successful. It would seem to me that we should try to emulate this as much as possible.

In British politics we need more Josiah Barlets and fewer Francis Urquharts.

10 comments:

Beth said...

Hear Hear!
British politics needs some idealism. I can't call myself a real fan of the New Labour ideal, but I respected the actions and ideas of the first few years of Tony Blair's premiership.
However, as the Tories have begun to regather themselves, firstly via Michael Howard and latterly David Cameron, we can see that much of New Labour's convictions have pretty much disappeared.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we 'Let Brown be Brown', because I'm not sure Gordon Brown believes much at all. It would just be nice to see a new generation of Labour members fight through as Blair and co. did 15 years ago and lead the party in a different, or at least principled, direction.

That being said, I'd vote for the Bartlet administration.

"What can we learn from the West Wing?"
If anything, it provides great blog names :)

Anonymous said...

Letting Brown be Brown is what's got us into this mess in the first place. Let Brown be a control freak, bully, motivated solely by personal ambition, obsessed with media headlines, fawned upon by bullying no-marks, have no principles and no discernible values, have a charisma by-pass, etc etc etc and you guarantee a Labour electoral catastrophe.
Where are you now Josiah Bartlett?

Professor Y. Chucklebutty said...

I thought West Wing was a fictional drama serial. Or are you telling me that so is Downibg Street? Phew that's a relief, I knew it couldn't be real. Now I know it's Peter Bowles (The Irish RM) who plays Cameron but who plays Brown? Peronally i think it's become too depressing like Eastenders, all forever sounding off in the laundry over their dirty washing. So will the viewers actually get to vote or are the ratings still falling? They need to be careful that Liverpool's very own Professor Redmond isn't sent in to kill off the main actors.

carl said...

I agree with the Professor. The West Wing is a television show and therefore we should be careful about the extent to which we use it for inspiration. However, teh appeal of the WW for me and where I find it inspirational is the scene in 'The crackpots and these women' in which Bartlet and Toby talk about fighting off the demons that shout down the Presidents 'better angels'

You can see it here
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8JZTRbfscs

Emily said...

oooohhh, we are in danger if having a proper debate here.
let me disagree with carl and the Professor.
sure. the west wing is a TV show. But such is the quality of its acting and scripts (Sorkin is magnificent), that it is much higher than that - it is Art (with or without a capital A).
And Art - whether literature, music, film, poetry or US TV series - has always been an inspiration to politics and informed both political debate and political campaigning.
You can't put the west wing in a box neatly marked 'TV' and therefore not to be taken seriously by us serious politicians.
it should be taken seriously by every student of politics.
And some Professors.
And anyway, Toby is my hero.

Beth said...

I agree with Emily.
"Do we really want to tempt the wrath from high atop the thing?"
:)

I think the real purpose the WW serves was alluded to in both the original post and in some of the comments.

The WW shows a goverment that, when prompted, is fuelled by a desire to achieve some kind of agenda rather than just win the next election. I point here to, obviously, 'Let Bartlet be Bartlet', as well as Leo's 365 days board that we see toward the end of the last seasons.

It itself served as a plea to American politicians to realise the sort of principled govermnent that D.C was lacking, as opposed to the government that only sought to fuel big business.

I just wish, for the life of me, that politicians in this country had some kind of proper ideological agenda. We don't see it anymore. The rise of New Labour-ites and Tories such as Cameron are so focused on careerism that I don't think they have any real ideological position at all. Where are the likes of Tony Benn or, dare I say it, Margaret Thatcher? I despise Thatcherism, but at least she had some (albeit deplorable) worldview.

Anyways, rant over.

Professor Y. Chucklebutty said...

This is all very well but remember that after Ian Duncan Doughnut or IBS as they called him, the Conservatives looked to the drama Howard's Way as their inspiration and and made him leader. Where did that get them? The is only one drama series to my mind that provides a lesson in the way forward for Labour and that is "Take The High Road" and if they'd continued with that from the beginning they wouldn't be in this mess.

Apologies to "West Wing" fans, I think I was confusing it with "Green Wing" and couldn't quite see what lessons Alex was drawing from it other than suddenly walk faster in the corridors of power.

Alex Finnegan said...

Thanks for all the posts.

Beth and Emily seem to get what I am saying. Sure, the West Wing is a TV show but the point was that it took a positive, optimistic view about politics and appealed to the idealists in us that still think politics is a serious business about good people doing good things.

Our politics can be like that if we are able to recover some of the idealism and hope that seems to permeate the West Wing. Granted, under the current leadership of the Labour Party that won't happen but the programme does act as a sort of model of what we can achieve.

It also captures perfectly the dilemmas of politics. People making moral, weighty decisions every day (remember the Women of Qumar?)and it shows the relationships at work between a tight knit group of people committed to the same cause - even if they don't always agree or like each other. That really is like real life politics.

I think a great leader needs a group of balanced, dedicated and passionate people around him or her.

I hear all those cynical people like the Professor saying I should stop being so naive and wise up - it's only a programme. But if the West Wing was one of the reasons why me and others first got interested in politics then it can't be all a bad thing.

And anyway it helped me get through my A-Levels. I learnt more about US politics from the West Wing than any book!

Professor Y. Chucklebutty said...

Oh Alex! I wasn't saying that at all. Naieve? Wise-up? If I thought of you in those terms, I wouldn't bother to read your blog. Yes I have posted some less frivolous comments on here about the current state of Labour and in particular the leadership debate and the culpability of certain individuals in disagreement with your views but never for a moment would I label your view as naieve. Indeed I am rapidly coming round to the view that Brown should go sooner rather than later but I couldn't stomache certain people joining in the chant to save their own necks.

You say in your response "I think a great leader needs a group of balanced, dedicated and passionate people around him or her." and that is what I see in your blog within each post. I can admire your passion, committment and informed comment without always agreeing entirely with your conclusion.

If West Wing got you interested in politics then that has done us a favour, its just a shame that there seem to be still too many around who were inspired by House of Cards. My mistake was being more drawn to Doctor Who, which just got me into an upside down dustbin holding a sink plunger trying to exterminate the cat.

Cynical indeed!

Sitting Bull said...

I think the Prof speaks heap good sense. Long may he and you continue.