Before I put on the gloves, a word in defence of Dan Hannan

As some of you may know, I am very scathing about Dan Hannan in general. He was vaunted for what was, in my opinion, quite a humble pot-shot across the bow of Gordon Brown’s ever-sinking ship, and ever since then people have been more inclined to listen to his tastelessly neo-liberal views, judging them not on their merit but on the skill of Hannan’s rhetoric, which is undeniably good.

Furthermore, Hannan has felt the need to interject in the American Healthcare debate, urging them to defend their system against an alternative no-one there in a position of influence has actually proposed. Given that Hannan has given the Americans no credible reason to stick with a system that charges them more in tax for healthcare than our supposedly costly NHS does, for far less healthcare coverage and, for the most part, lower quality government care, this seems stupid to say the least. For this reason, I find myself frustrated that not only did Daniel Finkelstein find it necessary to defend Dan Hannan on the grounds that what he said was “unconventional”, but he subsequently thought it necessary to criticise him on even thinner grounds than he defended him, for citing Enoch Powell in a way the rises above the historical stereotype.

I am not particularly sympathetic to Hannan’s citing of Powell as a “hero”, but the furore over this has been nonsensical. If you were to compile a list of what Powell had done in his life other than give the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech (and its aftermath), it would probably account for 99% of the total, and be completely unknown to all but a minority. Likewise, were you to assess Winston Churchill’s contributions to history, one might conclude that there was a significant amount that failed to live up to the reputation created by his place in the second world war.

This is, in fact, the argument being used by all reasonable-thinking people in the fallout from Hannan’s perhaps inadvisable comments (I think even the most ardent of Hannan’s admirers would reluctantly conclude that Hannan should probably have mentioned that he did not approve of Powell’s views on immigration, for example) in the pages of power today, but it does not appear to satisfy Daniel Finkelstein. This is, it appears, because he has chosen to inflict upon us another of his pet theories following the success (yeah, right) of his citing the “Endowment effect” in an article about healthcare in a way in which it need not factor at all.

This time, after putting the “Endowment effect” to such good use in patronising Healthcare reformers, Daniel Finkelstein appears to have picked on “central intervention”. Those eagle-eyed (or eagle-eared) among you may have noticed that when politicians coin grandiose phrases it invariably follows that the ideas lying behind them tend to be proportionally less impressive. And yes, the same would appear to be true of media commentators.

Daniel says:

Churchill was flawed. He said many things that were wrong. But the central intervention of his life was heroic.

In Powell’s case the position is the opposite. he was right on many things, but the central intervention of his life fell far below the level of heroic. You cannot possibly assess his contribution to public life without including his Tiber speech.

Daniel’s point seems to centre around some kind of quasi-mythical “defining moment” that a good chunk of character writing in fiction seems to be dedicated to. You know the drill, after a lifetime spent on the streets as a hopeless boozer, smoker, journalist, you pick your pejorative term, character A decides to do something fundamentally worthwhile, and is subsequently redeemed.

On the other side of the coin, character B, after appearing to live a life of continual (snobbish) good behaviour, good deeds to the poor, table manners, etc., suddenly proves himself to be a right and utter bastard by reacting the wrong way when the love of his life suddenly decides he is not Mr. Right.

Daniel Finkelstein appears to be trying to apply this method of analysis to political history. Perhaps we could call it the “Climax method”. Historians analysing the life of a person should look to see where the climax should come in a (semi) biographical thriller, what would make the most sellable “defining moment”. In writing the concluding summation of said person’s contributions to history, the bottom line must hinge on the character of their defining moment. Was it sad, tragical, comedic, farcical, villainous, heroic, or ill-definable? It would certainly spice up the work of our nation’s historians, and possibly generate a boost to our film industry in the process by providing them with many more scriptwriters.

But to cease the sarcasm-laden analysis for a moment, who really decides what the “defining moment” of a person in history is? There are many different factors, but what it rarely is is the person themselves. Why should we regard the book as closed on the lives of historical characters when in fact, as any historian will know, there is so much we do not know, and so many ways in which new material could completely change the way in which they view them? Why should we make assumption the watchword of the day, and stifle much-needed debate on the quality of a person’s life?

Daniel Finkelstein is a media commentator, and clearly likes things to be cut and drawn, so he can tell us in an instant how we will react. The media has a lot of power already over how people react to everyday life, but his interjection smacks of wanting more, to have his cake and eat it. He should not complain when someone decides to stand up and challenge a stereotype, just because it goes against the media’s chosen line, rather than complements it.

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