Tom Watson and Szyslak’s Second Dictum

Great Philosphers of Our Time #1 – Morris Szyslak grapples with the conundrum of distinguishing ethical legislative representation from Watsonite opportunism.

It’s always worth observing phenomena which indicate the intersection of two disparate threads of human intellectual endeavour.  Politics and philosophy have a clear overlap, an area which has provided fertile ground for academics to pontificate upon and explore in order to access pots of grant money, err, I mean ‘for the advancement of knowledge’.  Barring a genuine revolution in British electoral politics of epic magnitude, characterising the post-Blair Labour party’s leadership choices as ‘a kamikaze joyride into electoral oblivion’ as I have done – repeatedly – seems all too predictable.  In view of the incredulous hostility evident in the recent meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party following John McDonnell’s abrupt U-turn on following Osborne’s proposals on legislating for mandatory future budget surpluses, even the shell-shocked, demoralised post-Miliband PLP appear to recognise this.  Given that the process of ‘kamakaze joyride into electoral oblivion’ has therefore reached the point of total inevitability under Jeremy Corbyn, that particular thesis has moved from philosophical speculation into the realm of predictable, repearable science.

To return to a question which remains within realm of philosophical inquiry, I would now like to move elsewhere, and demonstrate the clear intersection of politics and philosophy illustrated by the influence of Sizkakian philosophy on Tom Watson.

Most Labour politicians take well-known socialist thinkers as their reference points; Marx, Gramsci, Webb, etc.  However, all politicians tend towards a more morally-flexible realism encapsulated by philosophers outside that customary ideological orbit.  A lesser-known but nonetheless influential example of these would be Morris Szyslak.  Szyslak formulated many of his dicta after experience working in a public bar, allowing his subsequent observations of human behaviour to reveal a deep insight into the human condition.  An example of this would be Szyslak’s lesser-known but nonetheless instructive First Dictum:

Man, you go through life, you try to be nice to people, you struggle to resist the urge to punch ’em in the face, and for what?

Szyslak’s second dictum is of course far more well-known, and can be applied successfully to much political behaviour [see below – although often attributed to others, Szyslak originated the concept].  An obvious example would be Tom Watson’s refusal to apologise for advocating investigation of allegations into child abuse by British politicians and establishment figures.  These allegations culminated with a charge of rape against Leon Brittain, ex-Home Secretary in the Thatcher government – a charge Watson wrote to the prosecution authorities to investigate, and which was evenutally dropped.  But not before Brittain died ignorant that his name had effectively been cleared.  Demands for an apology mounted after Watson was forced to retract his assertion that Brittain had been ‘close to evil’.

In the period following shocking revelations about past abuse conducted by public figures such as the radio DJ Jimmy Saville there was a clear sense that victims of such abuse had been faced with too little assistance and a lack of willingness to investigate.  An investigation into historic allegations of abuse against various establishment figures, (later including Brittain) was one reaction.  Detective Superintendent McDonald, a police officer investigating earlier allegations, characterised them in December 2014 as ‘credible and true’, obviously to encourage other potentially vulnerable witnesses to come forward.

Questions soon arose about the credibility of those witnesses after Tory MP’s Harvey Proctor and Nigel Evans and radio DJ Paul Gamaccini complained about their treatment as suspects on insufficient evidence, an experience apparently parallel with that faced by Brittain.  Lord MacDonald, a former Director of Public Prosecution warned that it was the job of the police ‘… to conduct impartial, objective investigations and not to indulge narcissists and fantasists, and certainly not to hand over the right to determine the truth to people on the sole basis that they claim to be the victims of crime.’

As a result, the pendulum was perceived to have swung too far against the presumption of innocence on behalf of those accused of such crimes.  Consequently, Watson’s close association with the allegations brought his personal role into question.

The problem here is how to distinguish between differing interpretations of Watson’s behaviour – reasonable representation of an issue of genuine public concern, or opportunistic exploitation of an emotive issue for political advantage which prejudices the legal principle of innocence before conviction after due legal process.  This is where a close observation of where Watson’s approach intersects with moral and political philosophy can assist our judgement.

To quote Watson’s statement to the House of Commons in response to demands for his apology:

‘We presided over a state of affairs where children have been abused, and then ignored, dismissed and then disdained. If anyone deserves an apology, it’s them.’

This would be respectable enough but it ignores the balancing requirement of respecting innocence before conviction, and avoiding witch-hunts inevitably tarnishing the reputations of public figures even when they are innocent of the allegations involved.  The original concept of facilitating allegations represents an excellent tactical choice for a politician wanting to simultaneously capitalise on the easy public support to be gleaned by attacking paedophiles whilst posing as a champion of justice denied.  But the inability to judge the moment when the pendulum begins to swing back against the original public mood, the moment when the injustice of false accusations became apparent which was unmistakably signposted by Lord MacDonald’s intervention, fatally undermines that posture as a champion of justice.  A champion of justice is most vulnerable when perceived to be fostering injustice – even in the name of the children.

In political terms this is counter-productive as it brings Watson’s political and ethical judgement into question instead of vindicating it.  There is a balance here, and Watson is unable or unwilling to perceive the damage unfounded allegations can do to both the accused and to the credibility of future allegations of abuse from marginalised victims.  The parallel with McCarthyism should be obvious.

In conclusion it can be seen that Watson’s approach is dangerously vulnerable to charges that it adheres too closely to Szyslak’s Second Dictum:

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

It seems reduntant to ask if anybody is concerned that Watson, perceived as the moderating influence upon the irrational Corbynite frenzy dominating the Labour party, has adopted the reflexive populism satirised by a suicidal misanthrope in the word’s best-known animated cartoon.  Forward to Oblivion!

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