As Tony Benn was so fond of pointing out years ago, the British media, and, indeed, many politicians themselves, prefer discussing personalities to what he pronounced as the "ishues" at stake. Things have now changed for the worse, in that the future of the coalition now joins the mix of who is up, who is down and who is out.
To take personalities first, after last month's Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he was forced to announce the many indications of the failure of his economic policy, true there was some discussion of alternatives to the policy, but also much speculation of how the statement affected George Osborne's chances of becoming Tory leader in, say ten years' time. At a time when the economic débâcle is seriously affecting the well-being of about a quarter of our population, and the future of probably the majority of our young people, it is astonishing that intelligent people, and expensive media, can waste time on such a frippery.
Like most Liberals and Euro-enthusiasts I regard David Cameron's use of the veto last week as a further and foolish step which will place Britain more firmly in the EU second division. As Paddy Ashdown put it in Sunday's Observer: "We have tipped 38 years of British foreign policy down the drain in one night." Again, true, there is discussion of the economic and real long-term political consequences of Britain's being "outside the room" where serious decisions are made, but, again much of the discussion centres around the personalities and future of the coalition.
Not only is this discussion superfluous at this stage: much of the reportage seems designed to maximise differences rather than report the facts calmly. The BBC's website over the weekend reported that Nick Clegg had issued a devastating attack (or words to that effect: I did copy them and print them out but the printer malfunctioned so I have to rely on an inadequate memory) when closer inspection of the story revealed that Clegg has not said anything publicly a all, but "sources close to him" revealed that he was "disappointed."
Now that Clegg has spoken publicly I admire his measured tones, and the fact that he and senior colleagues are making attempts to contact other European leaders and trying to ameliorate some of the damage. Yet even the formerly friendly Guardian has the front-page headline: "Clegg lashes out at Cameron..."
How on earth can we have responsible political discussion, concentrating on the real issues, with friends like these?