Slate Uk

Quality Advice

Britain has become a nation of advisers. All we seem to be good at any more is offering advice. Tony Blair advises George Bush on world affairs, although the President may or may not take any notice of what the Prime Minister has to say. Alastair Campbell is a special adviser to Blair. He also advises the press on how the Prime Minister has advised the American president. Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith were media advisers in the Department of Transport. Until they left their posts, these two people advised the most hated department in Whitehall on how to make bad news seem like good news. Newspapers advise us that the good news about trains and roads is actually very bad news. And so it is. Meantime, the papers have lots of advice on our current national obsession, cosmetic surgery. Should we or shouldn’t we, can we or can’t we, look younger than we really are? In today’s Daily Mail, various individuals offer their advice on Botox, the chemical weapon used to combat ageing. The anthropologist Desmond Morris says Botox is a bad thing, and Geordie Greig, editor of The Tatler, expresses his anxieties about using such a poisonous substance if one was pregnant.

This morning, I found myself seeking some advice I didn’t really need. I wanted to send a friend a present, and, once I had decided on some champagne, rang a well-known London wine merchant. “Hello, I’d like to buy some champagne.” “Hold on,” said a lady at the other end of the line. “I’ll put you through to one of wine advisers.” “No, no,” I replied. “I don’t need any advice.” “You need to speak to one of our wine advisers,” the lady insisted, passing on my call to the wine advisers’ department. My wine adviser tuned out to be nice man called Nick who didn’t give me any advice because I told him exactly what I wanted to buy. But because he was nice, I asked him whether he thought my purchase was a good one or not, and could I, should I, do better. Nick said: “That’s a good present. Is there anything else I can help you with today?” He couldn’t, but he had already given me the best advice, which is to confirm one in one’s own decision.

Unlike my wine adviser, Whitehall’s special advisers—those infamous spin doctors—have a different view of what constitutes good advice. Like continuity editors in the movies, a spin doctor believes the important thing is to coerce ministers and civil servants into sticking to “the plot”—whatever they have decided the plot must be. The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman, Alastair Campbell, is Mr. Continuity since he has the task of ensuring that all of Whitehall’s special advisers stick to the really big plot—Labour’s grand plan for the rebuilding of Britain. As yesterday’s Sunday Times report on Martin Sixsmith’s departure from the Department of Transport suggested, the “story” matters as much to Campbell as whether the interests of a department are served or not. And Campbell goes about staging the plot and subplots of his story as ruthlessly as the best continuity editor in Hollywood.

On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, the political editor of the BBC, Andrew Marr, said that Campbell wanted to exert “brutal political control” over Whitehall, while Lord McNally, head of a parliamentary committee on Standards in Public Life, said that he had made thuggery and bullying “a creed”. One wonders how Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, can hope to outlaw bullying and thuggery from British schools, as she has proposed, when such practices are rampant at the summit of British political life.

In yesterday’s Observer, the historian Paul Kennedy offered his advice to Americans on how they can counter anti-U.S. sentiment in Europe and elsewhere. Be nice, be generous, was Kennedy’s general point. And don’t appear to be a bully. My London friends dislike the idea that the United States can tell the rest of the world what to do. These friends are, however, often less anti-American than some of my New York pals, many of whom are more hostile to American culture than anyone I know in Europe. On principle, they refuse to go to McDonald’s or to see an action film, and tend to believe that much of America west of the Hudson, east of the San Andreas Fault, and south of Chicago is entirely dumb.

Before September 11, such views were hardly uncommon. The so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 1980s and 1990s were all about how bad American life had become, whether the arguments came from the Right or the Left. Turn to some back issues of The National Review and The Nation, and you can follow the to-and-fro of Tweedledum and Tweedledee—the Right blaming the Left and the Left blaming the Right for all that was wrong with America. Now, since September 11, Americans have been advising the Europeans that they never meant it and that American culture is great after all. It is this new advice that Europeans are finding hard to swallow.