(Originally published on The Sharpener)
Simon Heffer is not a columnist for whom I usually have much time – although his biography of Enoch Powell was relatively interesting, that was more down to the subject than the author. If anything, the writing style put me off reading the thing more so than did old Enoch’s politics.
Still, Heffer has a piece in the Telegraph today about the French socialists’ presidential candidate SÃ©golÃ¨ne Royal, for whom I am holding out much hope (based largely on desperation for some kind of major, top-level reformist drive in the French political system that could finally give the EU a chance for significant improvement), so I thought I’d give him another go.
Heffer’s principle contention is that a President Royal would change France not a jot – although thankfully not for the same reasons as his fellow right-winger, Richard North of EU Referendum, who contests that
“Be they socialist or ‘right’ wing, there is one thing all French politicians have in common â€“ they are French. And being French, they all think the same way”.
Although not as bad as that, Heffer doesn’t start well, it must be said, following the suggestion from one of Royal’s staff that Britain must finally choose between the US and EU with the typically unoriginal and tedious “look at me, aren’t I clever?” retort of innumerable not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are anti-EU bloggers:
“Oh really? And just how, I wonder, would that choice be forced upon us? Will the French navy blockade Dover, Portsmouth and Felixstowe until either we divorce Uncle Sam or agree to complete immersion into the institutions of the Euopean Union â€“ constitution, single currency and all?”
But, to be fair, European politics is rarely interesting, so spicing it up with a bit of humour is pretty vital – even if said humour consists largely of mild xenophobia tinged with a belligerent, quasi-militaristic nostalgia for the “finest hour”. We ought to forgive our anti-EU friends for a) having to recycle the same jokes over and over again, and b) being so stereotypical in their attitudes towards France (Heffer even does a grandiose version of “love the country, hate the people” in his column).
Still, Heffer’s basic contention is not the same as Richard North’s, that these frogs are all alike, but instead a broader variation – Royal is a politician, and all politicians are alike:
“Rather like our own leader of the opposition, Mme Royal has come far on image, the manipulativeness of the public relations game, and an almost complete absence of policy. These things will not necessarily prevent her from becoming president of a troubled, confused and increasingly angry country that knows it is underachieving and wants ‘change’. Regrettably, she doesn’t offer it.”
Now, of course, you may think that’s fair – a politician without any policies sounds a tad off, after all. Only Heffer then goes on to list some of the – decidedly, deliberately populist – policies Royal announced during her campaign (largely to undermine the far right populism of Jean Marie Le Pen): “national service for young delinquents, longer working hours for teachers, a new policy towards Iran and nuclear weapons, and various other absurdities” (emphasis mine). He follows that up by revealing the announcement last week that Royal will stick to “orthodox socialist policies” (which he then – naturally – interprets as “high taxation, vast public sector, dirigisme, total absence of meaningful economic reform, and the concomitants of high unemployment, minimal growth and sporadic social unrest”). In other words, erm… she has quite a few policies, then?
So far, so predictable. Accuse a politician of being a politician, then attack them for having no policies, then fail to present any evidence for your claims – just like any number of lazy bloggers (myself frequently included) who’ve failed to do sufficient research and so decide to transpose generalised political arguments and prejudices to a fresh subject for a merely cosmetic change.
But wait, this is one of the country’s best-known columnists – there must be more to it than that. Where’s his deeper analysis of Royal?
Oh no, hang on a tick – he then shifts to her likely opponent, the semi-centrist right-winger Nicholas Sarkozy, for whom Heffer (naturally, I suppose) seems to have more time. Perhaps his dismissal of Royal is thanks to Sarkozy’s infinitely better policy programme?
“[Sarkozy] published his personal manifesto last summer, and there was much in it to commend him.”
“He wants economic reform of a radical nature, he wants France to end its stand-off with the Anglo-Saxon world, he wants what he calls a ‘rupture’ with the recent past and all its failures… if M Sarkozy is elected and tries to implement even half of what he has promised, expect barricades, fighting in the banlieues, strikes and other challenges to his authority”
So, in other words, Sarkozy also only has a very general set of vague policy ideas at this stage (which sound very similar to Royal’s), and he too is likely to plunge France into chaos and crisis if elected?
So where’s the killer fact which Heffer is going to pull out of the bag to show that his “Royal is crap” thesis holds any water?
But by now we see the heart of the matter. Heffer knows about as much about French domestic politics as anyone else who skimmed the halfway decent article on the situation in this week’s Sunday Times.
Seeing that he’s nearing the word count, we are then treated to a brief – and largely irrelevant – overview about how it’s impossible to predict the mind of the French voter because (some of them) voted for Le Pen in the last presidential elections, and the “Non” vote won the EU constitution referendum last year. Both of which were predicted by commentators with, erm, actual knowledge of the French system – much like Royal’s victory in the socialist primaries was last week.
And then it’s back to why Sarkozy will win (even though the latest polls put him and Royal neck and neck for the presidency). Now – despite earlier having dismissed Royal for her manipulation of “the public relations game” – Heffer contends that “M Sarkozy is the less vulnerable, because of his command of the media”.
In other words, Heffer’s entire analysis is based on minimal knowledge capped off with self-contradiction. Simon Heffer, ladies and gentlemen, is a blogger.
“Blogger” – according to large chunks of the press – means unprofessional, unconscientious, and not held up to the same standards as proper journalists. It is, in other words, pretty much always interchangable with “columnist”. As such, “Blogger” is a term of abuse I think we should all start applying to shoddy journalists, re-appropriating the the term after all the negative connotations which some in the media have tried to apply to it. After his column today, I nominate Heffer as our first big-name “Blogger” – any more for any more?
(By the by, if you want some decent, knowledgable analysis about Royal and the French presidential campaign, the Telegraph’s rather good Europe Correspondent David Rennie is doing a fine job – entertainingly enough, on his blog.)