Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Revolt That Never Was

In the end, it was a bit of a damp squib. For all the talk of nervous whips applying thumbscrews to Labour MPs and ministers being called back from foreign parts, a mere 12 Labour MPs in the end rebelled against the government in today's debate on the Iraq War - nothing in comparison to previous rebellions which have seen the government defeated a couple of times. Called by the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and reluctantly supported by the Tories, the Commons motion was proposing an inquiry into how we went to war in Iraq. The Conservatives actually favour waiting for such an inquiry until after the war, whilst Labour naturally favour not having one at all.

Or at least they did.

Although the government won the debate today, Defence Secretary Des Browne appears to have promised an inquiry after all, in comments made to television broadcasters. As ever, the government's message is confused and subject to late changes, and heaven forbid they should provide either consistency or clarity.

As far as lessons about Commons behaviour go, it was always a no-brainer for Labour MPs not to walk into the same lobbies as the opposition parties on an opposition debate. However, it is a sign of how fractious this parliament is - and in particular its all important Labour MPs - that the expectation of government defeats is so regular.
And we do at least know that an inquiry is in the offing - even after leaving office, Blair is likely to be haunted by its findings.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Holiday Time and No Blogging!

It's half term. I'm still recovering from CCF camp - and reading the wrong lesson at the wedding of two very good friends! - and then I'm away again. So, no blogging until my return. There may be a brief CCF update on the myspace site though. Don't hold your breath, and see you after half term!

Monday, October 16, 2006

My Space

I have added some new entries to the Myspace blog. Just if you're interested...

A Crime A Day...So much for freedom!

Well we've been covering liberalism and its implications in the U6 ideology lessons, and there have been no less vigorous debates about the nature of a free society in allegedly liberal Britain than in the L6 set as well. In its classical form, liberalism is about the freedom of the individual and assumes that freedom to be an absence from any external constraints (a view later characterised by Isaiah Berlin as negative freedom). The modern liberal, of course, has trouble with this, for he wants to promote freedom by promoting the 'potential' of the individual, and on the assumption that such potential usually requires a lift, he comes up with the notion of government intervention via such forms as the welfare state (positive freedom). Now no-one would dispute that these are noble notions, but the modern liberal problem remains that the more you increase the power of the state the more you compromise the freedom of the individual. The two exist as opposite forces to each other. The debate that has been exercising us recently has been the extent to which modern government is so keen to legislate our every activity that it has ceased to have any regard whatsoever for the concept of negative freedom.

This is not a debate confined to the walls of the politics classroom. It came up as I was dining last night with one of my politics mentors (and former student!!) and his wife. He mentioned, in between frequent growls about the amount of money the government takes off him in tax, a recent Independent story which suggested that such was the present government's taste for legislation, that it has effectively created a new offence for virtually every day it has been in power. A crime a day thanks to New Labour. So, cheers Tony, we are all 3,000 times more likely to be criminals than when you first came to office!

It is refreshing to note that the founder of this alarming statistic about the impingement on our individual freedoms is a Liberal MP, Mr. Nick Clegg (and frequently touted possible future leader). For a brief summary of the article, which ends with the fascinating news that the government have created, amongst their 3,000 new offences, one that makes it illegal to 'create a nuclear explosion' (and thanks for that - we all feel a whole lot safer now), click here. Unfortunately, one freedom you do not have is the freedom to read the whole article for free - such is the Indie's cash strapped status that you need to buy the full article for a quid. But you can get the broad picture, and that's bad enough.

So, a liberal society? Depends on how free one needs to be I guess.
CWF 30th Anniversary Thatcher Dinner

Enjoy this. The Thatcherite pressure group Conservative Way Forward's tribute video to The Maggie! Great memories, distinctly cheesy patriotic music, and a fabulous cameo from the failed socialist revolutionary Arthur Scargill, who can be heard calling for the take-over of the media! Watch and (a) enjoy, or (b) get infuriated [Conor!].

Friday, October 13, 2006

Politics Conference with Boris, George Galloway et al

Just to let everyone know that the conference I mentioned at the end of the lesson is definitely on - we have permission to go!!

Co-sponsored by the Spectator and Philip Allan Updates, the conference is on December 7th. and features Boris Johnson and George Galloway, Matthew D'Ancona (editor of the Spectator), Andrew Neill, George Osborne (Cameron's mate and shadow Chancellor if you didn't know!) and Liberal MP Lembit Opik.

We need to book fast, so as many as possible please bring cheques in on Monday. Make them out to 'Sutton Grammar School', £15.

Self Censored

A great pity in many ways, but half-assed MP Sion Simon has now deleted the video of his cringe-inducing piece of 'satire' aping Webcameron. So no more can we upload that well thought out comment "Want to sleep with my wife? Come on down, then. Want my kids? No problem". We'll just have to laugh at the memory. Apparently, though, Simon gave a self-destroying interview on Sky News which has been posted here.

NB The MP who actually posted the video on YouTube, Tom Watson, has apologised 'unreservedly'!

Another NB Watson and Simon were the ring-leaders in the Brownite attempt to get Blair to resign before party conference. And we wonder why it failed? With friends like these, Brown needs to be very worried!

Sporting Glory

I see 'Sporting Glory' managed to sow a bit more dissension yesterday, although to be fair, the more controversial it is the more readable it is. Nonetheless, is it fair to blame Mr. Blunt for the late night socialising habits of his First XI players? And was Mr. Waller unfairly being made a scapegoat? And I noticed at least one match report being sold completely separately to the main paper! Oh, and as for Mr. Daly's protestations that the editors are a united team, I couldn't help hearing one of his co-editors claim that he did all of the work. Hmmmm. Just like a normal media operation really!!!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Video To Regret

I doubt many people had heard of Sion Simon until today, for all that he's a former journalist (he was the tame New Labourite who used to write for the Spectator and the Telegraph) and now a Labour MP. Perhaps his main claim to fame until recently was his blind obedience to the cult of Blair, until he realised it was coming to an end and almost indecently switched his allegiance to Gordon Brown. Secretly, however, Sion Simon is a comedian. A satirist of the highest calibre. A guy with a humorous cutting edge that'll have you dripping with laughter.

Or maybe not.

Maybe he's just the most embarrassing person to inhabit Labour's parliamentary party at the moment, for Sion has hit the news with his truly appalling attempt to take off David Cameron's 'webcameron'. Simon's toe-curling bit of 'comedy' has been posted on youtube for all to, erm, enjoy. And since everyone found out, he's been spending lots of time explaining why this is a genuinely funny satire. David Brent could hardly have dreamt this one up!

Webcameron down with the kids

Sion Simon 'making a twat of himself'.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Media Wars

A new media venture began tonight - ironically on the day that Google announced its takeover of another unexpected but huge internet success, the Youtube site. The new venture is a web-based tv channel - 18 Doughty Street - which broadcasts politics shows each evening only on the web. The avowed aim of the Doughty Street founders is to challenge old media. Two of the leading spirits behind the venture - Tim Montgomerie and Iain Dale - are both prominent Conservative bloggers (their sites are linked at the side) who believe that the blogosphere is increasingly able to challenge the 'established' media agenda.

It is too early to see whether the Doughty Street channel will succeed on the founders' own terms - i.e. effectively challenge the dominance of mainstream media as our principal source of news and analysis. Their programmes, on tonight's evidence, are chatty (well, it's talk tv after all), and are very much an audio-visual version of the presenters' blogs, but with more time to fill by the chatting! It is certainly too early to be predicting the demise of mainstream media. Where millions watch terrestrial news channels or read the main print media, mere thousands log into the most popular blogs, whilst fewer than hundreds will frequent the vast majority of others. The current influence of the socalled blogosphere has been in the way it has persuaded mainstream media to latch onto some of its stories (for example, the John Prescott scandals originated on the blogs). On the whole, stories don't have credibility until they have been broadcast or written up in the mainstream media. Even the founders of 18 Doughty Street have been keen enough, in their various blogs, to trumpet their appearances on programmes such as 'Newsnight', 'Today' and'Channel 4 News', suggesting they know only too well where the news agenda is set.

Nevertheless, the web does represent an unregulated source of free speech and opinion. I am increasingly fond of online magazine The First Post, whose edition today carries the provocative story of a terror plot in Blackburn that was unreported because it didn't involve Muslim terrorists. Their contention, that the main media conspires to promote attitudes that fit a particular world-view which is not necessarily accurate, carries some force. (Their report is here).

Even very localised media can have its problems. SGS has its own monopolistic publication - Sporting Glory - whose editors, it seems, are not always as one; this writer witnessed an alarming display of disunity between prima donna editors only this evening. Can the school's much loved paper survive??!! And is it loved because it is alone??

The BBC catches up...

After the news had been heavily trailed on the internet yesterday, it was good to see the BBC finally catch up with the story that John Reid may well have thrown in the towel when it comes to challenging an apparently unbeatable Gordon Brown. Even Nick Assinder's conclusion (his story on BBC News is here) follows one of the Westminster blogs by suggesting it is now John Hutton's turn to raise the Blairite flag against Brown. In fact, it looks less and less likely that such a thing will happen. And especially once parliament resumes, and Brown starts to exert his undoubted dominance over a cowed parlaimentary party, it does look as if we may be headed for a coronation. There is little in policy terms to divide potential Blairite candidates from Brown, so it boils down to personality, and one of the givens about Brown's personality is that he (a) bears grudges and (b) is ferocious in hounding opponents. Want to stay in government, with a nice salary and ministerial car? Then don't challenge Gordon. And sadly, that's what many seem to be believing.

There is the interesting question of who, in fact, would have the political weight to challenge the Chancellor. Too often, the cabinets of powerful premiers contain ministers who are pygmies - aside from Alan Johnson (possibly over-rated), John Hutton (little known outside Westminster) and John Reid (given up already), who actually is there? An entertaining parlour game for political anoraks.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Reid - No Challenge to Brown

According to online magazine the First Post, John Reid has privately assured Gordon Brown that he will not challenge him for the Labour leadership. Reid seems to have worked out that he simply would not have the support - which is probably true as most of those who want him to run seem to be Tory commentators trying to stir up dissension - and that the best way of staying in his post for more than one more year is to make peace with the next almost-certain leader.

In the same article, the First Post notes that Brown used the weekend's Cheltenham book Festival to talk ideas and humanity. He also apparently ruled out bringing in a written constitution. Both Brown and Cameron, interestingly, have both been flying flags about constitutional change, to the effect that they want to strengthen parliament and limit the powers of the executive. But then, politicians who aren't Prime Minister are often interested in that sort of change - until they reach the highest office themselves and somehow leave their reforming instincts at the door. It was Lord Hailsham who, in opposition, made disparaging comments about living under an 'elective dictatorship'. Safely back in office, as Margaret Thatcher's Lord Chancellor, we didn't hear much more from his reforming lordship on that issue!

Cameron at 40

Hmmmm...so Cameron's hit the big 40 then. It is extraordinarily irritating to see these slightly younger people - Cameron, Abramovich - achieving rather more than you!! Cameron would have been in the year below me at school and I would duly have looked down on him and sneered in a patronising way (a habit I have of course long grown out of!). Now he's leader of the Tories and the possible next but one Prime Minister. It is, however, worth reading this article from the BBC news site which suggests that we can interpret Cameron's political vision - if that's not too grand a word - by looking at the concerns of your average 40 year old. Quite amusing. If you like that sort of thing. And are 40. And have kids.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Murder, Mayhem and the Mob - Rome's political lessons.

When we discuss the exercise of democracy, we tend to look back to the example of Athens, but to look at the exercise of politics by the demos in a more rumbustuous fashion, and in due tension with ideas of government by an elite on behalf of the people, we could do worse than look at the example of the Roman Republic. I was struck again by the nature of the extraordinary political system that was the Republic when I saw tonight's episode of the BBC's 'Ancient Rome'. It was following the career of rabble rouser and Tribune of the People Tiberius Gracchus, who campaigned for land reform on behalf of the plebs, but whose campaign exposed the huge divisions in Roman society and threatened the republic itself with civil war. Gracchus drew his power from the mob - and his position, Tribune of the People, had been specifically designed to placate the plebs by offering them a magistracy that would look after them. But no matter how noble the aims, the mob can easily be turned, and in the case of Gracchus, who fought hard on their behalf, they were readily convinced of his kingly ambitions. The senate - an elected body of the wealthy - themselves sought to spread rumours about their enemy, and ultimately led the charge that resulted in his murder.

The Republic was a vibrant political system, with all sorts of checks and balances, as well as a deep seated fear of both mob rule, and individual power. The most senior magistrates elected were the Consuls, of whom there were two, and who were elected for a year only. It was said that the worst charge you could lay against a politician in the Roman Republic was that he wanted to be king! There has been a resurgence of interest in ancient Rome, but if you want a superb and frankly gripping read that both educates and entertains, you could do no better than Tom Holland's 'Republic'; Robert Harris, meanwhile, has novelised the career of one of the Republic's last great figures, the orator, and sometime consul, Cicero, in 'Imperium'.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Conference Thoughts Part 2 - Labour and Conservative

Much ink has, of course, already been spilt about the Labour Conference. In the event, given all of the tension and the intense speculation surrounding Blair’s likely departure date, it was, for those of hoping for a real political splat, a bit of a damp squib! Gordon Brown confirmed that he will never be a particularly inspiring leader, for all his undoubted worthiness and political weight; John Prescott mangled the English language one more time and produced the startling revelation that, no, he would not be deputy leader in a year’s time – so thanks for clearing that up John; and Tony Blair did indeed put on a bravura performance in his last conference speech as leader, hamming up the emotion, choking on his own studied sincerity, and getting them all leaping in the aisles. Can’t really see Gordon ever doing that, but every time we feel a little disillusioned with the Iron Chancellor’s lack of emotion let’s just pause for a moment, and remember that if he had been Prime Minister over Blair, then we would have at least been spared all that “People’s Princess” crap.

And, just finished, of course, we had the new look Tories. Nice new logo – green oak tree to remind us of environmentalism and England – and a fresh, bright web log for the leader – the Webcameron – with its reminder of Dave’s informal, regular, Eton guy’s style in his no-mortgage Notting Hill pad! Apart from Boris Johnson, the Tories’ licensed jester, and a bit of transatlantic glamour from John McCain, it is true that no-one was allowed to say anything of interest at the Tory conference, and they all duly complied. One policy issue capable of generating division emerged – the tax issue – but was confined to the sidelines. Cameron did, however, make a considered speech which, while lacking some of Blair’s genuinely brilliant audience connection, sought to set out a clear direction for the Tories and show that hey are back in the serious business of winning over public support. He also gave us a further glimpse into his ideology with a short passage on foreign affairs. Whilst affirming that he is not anti-American (like that one’s a surprise!), he said this:

“I'm not a neo-conservative. I'm a liberal Conservative. Liberal - because I believe in spreading freedom and democracy, and supporting humanitarian intervention. That is why we cannot stand by and watch further genocide in Darfur. But Conservative - because I also recognise the complexities of human nature, and will always be sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world. We need more patience, more humility in the way we engage with the world”

Cameron’s definitely getting there. He’s already taken the Tories to a feelgood point which has seemed beyond them for well over a decade, and his gradualist approach to developing policy seems to be the right one. After all, why give hostages to fortune now, with two or three years still to go before a likely election – the tax furore was a small indication of how damaging that could be. Set out a direction, establish some values, reconnect with the voting public – those are the wise aims of an Opposition Leader, and for all his gimics, Cameron has got his eye focused on that.

So there it is. A potentially historic, but actually rather tame, conference season. Gone, for now at any rate, are the days when Labour conferences would see the comrades tear each other apart over issues of extreme policy, the Liberals would pass motions that made the Greens look mainstream, and the Tories would be vigorously stabbing each other in the back at various fringe meetings. Dull, isn’t it?

Conference Thoughts Part 1

The Conference season normally provides the first real taste of politics in action each school year. As the parties gather at their respective venues for their annual bout of soul-searching and exhibitionism, we get the chance to analyse their policies and their leaders, not to mention take the temperature of the parties themselves and try to find out once more just what makes them tick. And this year they were, in a way, historic conferences. Two of the parties had their new leaders addressing them for the first time, and one had their old leader addressing them for the last time, so what conclusions might we draw this year?

Well, the Liberals started us off with Ming’s big chance to shine and, er, he didn’t. Having been under fire virtually since his election as leader for being hesitant, unexciting and unsure of himself, this was his chance to regain some mastery. After all, he may not be very good at dominating the House of Commons, but at least he should be able to dominate his own Liberal supporters at their own conference. Alas, no. In his first appearance, an awkward looking simulation of a rather cut price chat show, Sir Ming sat with Guardian journalist Michael White to answer questions that White would have been ashamed to put forward in any other context. This is when he came up with his classic line that the Liberals, under his leadership, were on the way up, not least because of their fantastic by-election victory in Bromley and Chislehurst. Which, woe, was of course a not very fantastic Tory victory! But worse was to follow when ex-leader, and on the road to being reformed alcoholic, Charlie Kennedy appeared to the party faithful. He really did inspire them. For all his faults, Chat Show Charlie showed how it should be done, with genuine enthusiasm greeting his appearance on stage. He even managed to snub Sir Ming by not shaking hands with him – obviously still harbouring a few grievances about the Merciless One’s role in his own removal as leader.

At least Ming did achieve some success in turning Liberal policy around – he removed the commitment to higher direct taxes that has been a mainstay of Liberal campaigns for years – and made it more like that of the other two parties. A real achievement, that!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Battersea Tories - A political footnote

Last week the Battersea Conservatives held an 'open primary' to select their next parliamentary candidate. This is a novel idea - for British politics at any rate - in which anyone who is a registered voter can come along to the hustings and vote for their preferred candidate. The idea being, of course, to ensure a candidate with wider appeal than just to the local Tory activists. It is open to manipulation by those who hate you, I suppose, but the Battersea Tories largely prevented this by offering a slate of four candidates, any of whom would be a decent choice. The eventual candidate chosen, Jane Ellison, had plenty of experience as a campaigner, and a political position on the centre left of the party (yes, she's a former TRG activist!). This may well have explained her victory in the open primary, and ensure a decent chance of ousting the sitting Labour MP, Martin Linton, sitting on a majority of just 153!

The right-wing tendency hated the whole process, and particularly hated Ellison - just read some of the comments on the neo-liberal Fawkes blog to see that - but in the end the voice of the Battersea people - or at any rate those who could be bothered to turn out - won out! The point about Ellison is that she is a good campaigner and hard working candidate, who doesn't give any quarter to those she disagrees with, especially in her own party. And she is a graduate of the old, factional Tory student and youth politics of the late 80's and 90's, so made many enemies by simply not worshipping at the altar of Thatcherism.

The primary idea is a far more interesting concept than some of the those being hawked around the Tory Party at the moment, and could, I suspect, encourage a much better participation than the 'webcameron', as well as producing a more rounded selection of candidates. This can only benefit Cameron's modernisation process, and give him the parliamentary support next session that he will so clearly need if he is to remain secure. Tony Blair's situation shows - as did Margaret Thatcher's, and Iain Duncan Smith's - that whatever the nods in the direction of greater party democracy, it is still the voice of the MPs that matters most. Lose your parliamentary party, and you lose your position. And in the media driven political world today, that is something that is too often forgotten.