James Delingpole

How the MPs' expenses scandal proved the wisdom of Alain de Botton

My old friend's problem is that he's just too easy to understand

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

Whenever I’m tempted to pretend to be nicer so that fewer people hate me, I remember my old friend Alain de Botton. Alain is a genuinely delightful fellow — charming, considerate, wise, modest — but this has made no difference to the degree with which, in some quarters, he remains intensely loathed.

This saddens me. There are certainly occasions when I find his utopianism naive, twee, mockable. And, yes, I suppose it’s easy to be jealous of a handsome man with a beautiful wife and a comfortable life which seems to involve nothing harder than pondering philosophically, writing bestsellers and being on TV a lot. But for all his faults, I genuinely believe that de Botton is the Montaigne of our age and that those who dismiss him as glib or patronising or sententious aren’t nearly as sophisticated as they think.

Take his new book The News: A User’s Manual which, as one savage review noticed, has been ‘beautifully produced by his publisher to look like a prayer book, misleadingly making you think it must be something to treasure’. But surely what is so annoying about de Botton is also what makes him so brilliant: yes, he is a well-heeled egghead with the leisure to ponder different aspects of life — love, work, travel, architecture, religion — and boil them down to trite-seeming verities. But a) no one else is doing this stuff because none of us has the time and b) the perspective de Botton offers is so utterly different from what you find elsewhere that to read him is to see the world delightfully anew.

Here is a passage I like: ‘The news routinely tantalises us with the promise of drastic change and improvement. It anoints certain politicians as visionaries and expresses confidence that they can fundamentally transform the nation with a few months of attaining office. It breathlessly awaits the arrival of the new head of a central bank, who might liberate the slumbering energies of capitalism. It takes us to conferences and encourages us to believe that the delegates might in three days of horsetrading solve some of the major issues of the globe, relating to economics, African poverty or the warming of the atmosphere. Then everything falls apart.’

Now you could argue that what de Botton is doing here is stating the bleeding obvious. Of course news organisations operate on the ‘build ’em up, knock ’em down’ principle. (Anyone remember the hilarious period when the media declared Gordon Brown a good prime minister?) Of course, every time there’s some new summit like Davos, editors have to lie to us and themselves that it’s not a complete waste of time, for how else can they justify the resources squandered covering it?

But there’s a big difference between having noticed this stuff all your life and actually articulating it in plain English. ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’: this, at bottom, is the secret both of de Botton’s success and his infamy. Some people love his elegant simplicity; others feel he’s taking them for fools — after all, if de Botton were really as clever as he’s supposed to be, then it surely ought to be much harder to understand him.

De Botton’s broader point about the news is that though it purports to tell us what is going on in the world, in truth it bombards us with an excess of partial information we are ill-equipped to process and offers us misleading impressions designed rather to provoke fear and rage than to inspire understanding.

For example, he notes: ‘There will be several paedophiliac murderers at work, but there will be tens of millions who don’t favour abusing children and bludgeoning them to death.’ This strays dangerously close to Martyn Lewis ‘Why can’t news be more positive?’ territory. But just because it’s naively utopian doesn’t mean that it’s altogether wrong.

There are lots of things news editors love to focus on that I too wish they wouldn’t. Among them, certainly, are freak incidents of rape and murder; so too are those dreary front-page splashes advertising the government’s latest eye-catching initiatives. I loathe the former because they’re prurient, unedifying and exploitative of private grief; I despise the latter for they are essentially press releases on behalf of administrations whose cynical machinations our media should be holding to account, not tacitly endorsing.

Indeed, as the perfect emblem of the way our supposedly free and frank media holds our politicians to account but not really, I give you the MPs’ expenses scandal. Yes, of course I see why the papers went big on it — the duck house! The bath plug! — but ultimately, I’d argue, it did far more harm than good.

A year before the scandal, let us not forget, all but seven MPs voted for the 2008 Climate Change Act, which committed Britain to legally binding carbon emissions targets at the cost of £18 billion a year till 2050. The damage this ill-considered legislation will inflict is almost incalculable — affecting everything from industrial competitiveness to the number of old people who freeze to death in fuel poverty. Yet where was the serious media scrutiny or criticism which might have prevented it?

Almost nowhere. Imagine if, instead of ridiculing our MPs’ pitiful, shabby attempts to bump up their feeble earnings, we had instead encouraged them to vote themselves a pay rise up to, say, £1 million a year — on condition that from henceforward they did their jobs properly. On this basis, the Climate Change Act would never have happened and at a stroke we would have saved ourselves at least £17 billion a year.

See what I mean about news priorities?

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Show comments
  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    “This saddens me.”
    “I loathe the former because…”
    ” I despise the latter for…”

    You almost sounded like Pippa there, and you know what they say when the author’s effluvia once again add up to little more than sweet Fawke all.
    What does Pippa think?

  • E Hart

    Good on you and De Botton. He’s right. Not only is the news partial, it is diaphanous in its lack of detail, insight, expertise, knowledge and wisdom. What is the point of sending journalists all over the world if you can surmise what they are going to say before they’ve said it? People shouldn’t be paid large sums for spouting pish and mince. Nor should they be lauded as sages for stating the bleedin’ obvious or trotting out well-worn pieces of sycophantic realpolitik.

    Shame you had to ruin this with your own particular mother lode of drivel. What’s needed is a decent debate free from vested interests, quackery and the endless queue of stooges anxious to do the bidding for their paymasters and career advisers. We have City lickspittles who pronounce on their own economic interests; think tankers who do the same; thoroughly tenderised politicos (aerated to Mr Whippy proportions); celebrity aficionados (Bono, Branson, Jolie…) and the lords of stasis (too numerable to enumerate but including too many partial journalists).

    No wonder De Botton says: “It anoints certain politicians as visionaries and expresses confidence that they can fundamentally transform the nation with a few months of attaining office.” The evidence is all there that they have no intention of changing anything however many months they have at their disposal. Of course, it doesn’t help that we’ve got a three-party political handicap system which only permits expression by electoral stitch-up rather than through a proportionate system which at least reflects the public vote. We can choose between 20 different varieties of toothpastes but electorally we can have either red or blue (purple or green, if there’s a coalition). For example, like ’em or loathe ’em, UKIP stands to get no seats whatsoever in the Mother of Parliaments come 2015, yet it can get representation in an institution it avowedly opposes and which it wishes us to leave. So far this irony of sovereign and popular representation seems to have eluded the Kippers. Without the EU they wouldn’t have platform at all.

    In a way De Botton is naive, because it is fanciful to believe that political sclerosis could beget anything else. TV merely reflects what is.

    Propagating propaganda has become the votive offering of news and current affairs programmes. They lay out a simple, vacuous choice, largely free from any supporting evidence, and this is supposed to pass for understanding and analysis. It’s about time they started to deal with what is true, reasonable, right and arguable (i.e. has some basis in evidence, reality and fact). Who wants or needs to listen to news and current affairs programmes where the assembled carrion pick over reason’s corpse?

  • drydamol1


    From 2004 to 2010 he was the Tory Shadow secretary for
    Health in his post he developed policies centred on using choice to improve the
    National Health Service.

    Until December
    2009 Lansley received £134 an hour from a firm of advertisers that represented
    clients such as Walkers Crisps, McDonald’s, Unilever, Mars and Pizza Hut as
    well as accepting a donation of £21,000 from a private healthcare provider Care
    UK .

    Lansley’s wife, Sally Low, is the managing director of
    Low Associates it helps people prepare before they give evidence to committees
    of MPs she denies Low Associates is involved in lobbying .

    He was the author of a chapter in The Future of the NHS
    Wikipedia refuses to list it as appears to be written like an advertisement.

    He claimed expenses
    for his second home a rural cottage, after renovating it for resale .

    He has recently claimed £6000 in Hotel Expenses whilst
    only being in walking distance of Parliament.

    61113 NHS posts will have gone by 2015 under Lansley’s
    Reforms .He has been at the forefront of two Controversial Bills the Health and
    Social Care Bill and the Gagging Law both have been passed helped along one
    might say by a conflicting interested party .Surely this is of Public interest
    why hasn’t the Media informed us they inform us about Public Scroungers &
    the Public in general why not MP’s .


  • neilcraig

    The “independent” broadcasters, heavily regulated by Ofgem, take their cue from the BBC & C4.
    The papers (heavily dependent on state advertising, or in the Guardians almost wholly, and all having a revolving door hiring policy with broadcasters) take their cue from the broadcasters.
    The BBC/C4 are state owned and funded. They do what the permanent controllers of the state – the civil service – want which is always more power for civil servants, more employees to empire build and more false scares to keep the common people scared & eager to be led.

  • ohforheavensake

    James- he’s a superficial thinker, who doesn’t let facts get in the way of an overblown sentence.

    Bit like you, really.

    • Daniel Maris

      Someone had to say it – and you got there first! – well done!!!!