Thursday, December 27, 2007

Political Perils

Political dynasties don't always have it very good, and global politics can be a dangerous world. Just minutes after I penned what now looks like a rather bland list of British political concerns, what may be the last, violent political act of 2007 took place in Rawalpindi, as former Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto was shot and bombed to death. She follows her ex-PM father to the grave (executed by former military dictator General Zia), and her two brothers, both of whom met violent deaths.

Her death shatters the Pakistan political landscape yet again, but was not wholly unexpected - her return to her country in October was, after all, accompanied by a would-be assassination. Neither was she the most glorious or heroic of leaders - her two terms of office were mired in corruption scandals, although some, at least, of the eventual charges were probably politically motivated, as conversations between the unsavoury associates of Nawaz Sharif (another former PM) and a judge later revealed. But Bhutto did at least stick her head above the parapet; she did seek to engage in democratic politics in her turbulent country; and her death robs that nation of one of its political stars. A state of emergency - again - can't be far off.

Another Year....

After the familial joys of Christmas, with its excess food and traditional Dr. Who Christmas Special, we can expect a rash of 'Reviews of 2007' to fill those annoying blanks on the television schedules and on newspaper pages. A few commentators (Anatole Kaletsky in the Times for example) judge themselves to be so suitably mage-like that they are prepared to offer unwanted advice to Gordon Brown about how he should tackle 2008.

Well, we do at least wait to see if Gordon Brown can enter the recovery position next year. The two recent articles listed in the column opposite think not, Blairite commentator John Rentoul in particular suggesting that anyone who thinks Brown will recover is living in a parallel universe. But, of course, the pressure isn't just on Brown. David Cameron needs to show whether or not he can project the substance needed to be seen as a genuine alternative in government, while the Liberals' Nick Clegg, having won his leadership election without having made much public impact, needs to show us that he is not just another politician in the Blair, Cameron mould, but a man who can define the difficult way forward for a Lib Dem party that could well sink beneath the weight of the Tory revival.

And what of the policies for 2008? ID Cards remain a discredited part of the government's agenda; Northern Rock asked questions of the economy that have yet to be answered; the Tories today claim that too many teachers are fleeing the profession (no, sorry, but I refuse - I'm staying, so bad luck) while Ed Balls needs to make good on his stalinist central plan for schools; Gordon Brown needs to resolve his uneasy relationship with Europe; the Defence department, fighting wars on several fronts, needs to work out whether it can continue to be led by a part-time minister; and politicians of all parties, of course, have to deal with the quandry of where they get their next dollar.

2007 was, as ever, fascinating; a change of prime minister, the extraordinary transformation of Gordon Brown's fortunes, a change in the Liberal leadership, the continuing fall-out from Iraq. 2008 is shaping up to be no less so, but then, that's politics!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Does Piers Morgan want to be Brown's Alastair Campbell?

A brief musing, but one brought on by Piers Morgan going well beyond the call of duty in his valiant defence of Gordon Brown on this evening's Question Time. Morgan was at times more effective than the hapless government representative, the ever cheerful Hazel Blears. While everyone else is painting Gordon Brown's week in - once again - rather pessimistic terms, there was Piers telling us we'd got it all wrong, Gordon Brown was bestriding the world stage and doing everything right. And at times, if you suspended belief, you could almost find him convincing.

If Morgan is going after the job of Brown's spinner-in-chief, then the precedent is good - after all, Campbell, too, was a former Mirror journalist with a keen understanding of tabloid ways. So, Piers Morgan for Director of Communications? Watch this space.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jacqui Smith's Woes

This government is in a rather extraordinary position at the moment. By any measure, a nation's external and internal defence forces (the armed forces and the police) are a crucial part of the state system. Most governments expend considerable effort to keep them onside. Unusually, Gordon Brown's government seems to be going in the opposite direction.

Defence Secretary Des Browne has long been mocked as a part-timer (he is also Secretary of State for Scotland) who is unable to defend the armed forces against cuts that lead to the issuing of inadequate supplies and materiel. Gordon Brown himself was the target of a no holds barred attack by some five former Defence Chiefs for his apparent antagonism towards the forces during his time as Chancellor (although he's happy enough tp use them for a photo-shoot in Afghanistan and Iraq every so often).

Now, on the home front, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has unprecedentedly been the subject of an overwhelming vote of no confidence by the Police Federation. They want her to go, and while she's in this tenuous position she is also having to defend the increasingly indefensible government demand for an increase on the already draconian 28 days detention policy. While she is focused on these key macro areas, the police continue to be buried under bureaucracy, and the murders of teenagers in London continues apace.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Slightly Dull.....

...and that was just the morning sessions. The annual L6th. Politics Conference provided students with a chance, as ever, to hear some political 'big names' enlighten us with their thoughts, or at any rate engage in some slightly less illuminating Q and A sessions. The Big Three were the first speakers - worthy but rather empty Oliver Letwin, passionate but flawed Tony Benn, and the simply obnoxious George Galloway, a man who would make Narcissus seem a model of self-deprecating modesty. The afternoon brought Theresa May (not heard by this author) and the all-round entertainment guru Lembit Opik. He played the harmonica. Sort of a substitute for real political thought.

More on the speeches later....

Friday, November 30, 2007

Liberal Democracy - At least we don't mind what you call your bear

It has many flaws, and has often been accused of a lax moral climate, the undermining of standards, a failure to provide strong governments, but liberal democracy still stands head and shoulders above the alternatives. Any doubts about that will have been firmly dismissed by the events in Sudan. The Sudanese government presides over one of the worst, most disgraceful, huminatarian disasters of recent years in Darfur. Culpable in so many ways in both the creation and exacerbation of this terrible state of affairs, and resentful of international efforts to alleviate truly awful human suffering, the Sudanese government in Khartoum has nonetheless been able to act with firmness, and much moral-religious bleating, against a middle-aged primary school teacher who named the class teddy bear Mohammed, after one of the class's pupils. 15 days in jail is probably the most lenient sentence Gillian Gibbons could have expected, but what a terrible, damning indictment of both the country and the religion it seeks to uphold that she received it at all.

There was, incidentally, a dreadful irony in the calls to a 'compassionate, merciful Allah' by students who were then on the rampage to demand the lash, or death penalty, for the unfortunate Ms. Gibbons.

The Dreadful Harmans

As a deputy leadership candidate, Harriet Harman made much of her alleged closeness to Gordon Brown. It was, indeed, her only selling point, so useless is she otherwise as a politician. A poor debater, a lamentable minister in the past, a humourless, shrill, self-serving daughter of the upper classes who brings nothing of value to the political world, this awful woman's loyalty to her leader has now been quickly ditched as she seeks to escape the consequences of a dodgy campaign donation. (And if you think that's harsh, read Quentin Letts' assessment of Harman here.) The Guardian this morning is just one of the papers to carry the story of a 'Harman-Brown' split. Brown himself must regard the possibility of being untied from the woman as maybe the only bonus to this whole affair.

Then there's wretched Harman's equally unpalatable husband, Jack Dromey. A senior union leader, Dromey has also been Treasurer of the Labour Party since 2004. But does he know anything about Labour finances? Dromey is normally first out of the starting gate when it becomes necessary to deny knowledge of the latest sinister source of Labour funding. Thus, Dromey was quick to tell us that he was wholly in the dark about the donations for peerages scandal. And, of course, he is equally ignorant of the donations of the mysterious Mr. Abrahams. Just who does handle Labour finances if not the Treasurer?

Harman is a lodestar for those who think women shouldn't be involved in politics, but watching Caroline Flint - a whiny, uninteresting and desperately one-paced Labour minister - or the ineffably smug Sarah Teather on Question time last night I was left wondering if there are any women of quality active in British politics. Switching to Newsnight didn't help, for there was the Tories' Theresa May, another painfully unlistenable to politician who lacks the initiative to move from her prepared script. Please, please - where are the genuinely able, charismatic women politicians?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Voltaire, or not Voltaire?

At least Luke Tryl's little stunt put the issue of free speech on the news agenda once again. Tryl, of course, is the President of the Oxford Union, who believed that inviting Holocaust deniers David Irving and Nick Griffin was a useful way of furthering the debate on free speech. It was a controversial way of doing so, at least, and that's probably what Tryl and his Union acolytes really wanted. A bit of publicity goes a long way for a university hack in need of attention.

The debate was accompanied by the usual scenes of mayhem when a controversial speaker is invited to a student venue. Some of the protesters may have been interested in opposing abhorrent views; others were clearly keen on 'chasing fascists' as one student informed me, likening the atmosphere to that of inter-war Germany. The exercise did at least provoke much debate, both on the streets around the Union, according to the BBC, and even in politics classes in Sutton.

Blogger Bill Jones view of the affair is here.
The BBC reports are here.

Yet Another Bad Day for Gordon

The Major administration had the whiff of decay hanging around it for years as it lurched from crisis to crisis throughout almost the entirety of its final five year term. But at least Major had a couple of years to enjoy the premiership as a breath of fresh air from his predecessor, and went on to win his own, albeit reduced, mandate in the 1992 general election. Brown's honeymoon as the new man has lasted barely a summer, and the smell of decline is already here.

As if Northern Rock and 25 million lost names weren't enough, the Labour Party's old problem of how it raises its money is back again. The premier himself is not, of course, responsible for the minutiae of fund-raising by his party - although his predecessor was of course questioned by the Met over some allegedly dubious practices regarding money and honours - but it is hardly helping his very conscious image to be repelling yet more stories of either incompetence or dastardly dealing on the part of an organisation of which he is the head. Whether it's HM Govt. or the Labour Party, Gordo isn't making the impact he wanted.

The BBC story and a long list of associated articles is here.
Guido Fawkes, on his blog, is much more damning of Labour General Secretary Peter Watt's role than some others, in his post here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Data Day Plus One

Prime Minister's Questions was bound to be a tense affair today. Labour MPs will have been concerned to see how Gordon Brown defended what must seem like the indefensible, while the Tories will have been anticipating more blood on the floor. Over the past few weeks, Cameron has been forcing the big clunking fist all round the ring. He was on form again this afternoon, particularly when Brown rather lamely took refuge in an old statement of Cameron's from the last election, but actually the Tory leader didn't really land a killer punch. Perhaps he didn't need to today. This story has a momentum of its own after all.
Brown, meanwhile, sought refuge in a plethora of reviews that reminded one of nothing so much as Neville Chamberlain offering defence pacts to all and sundry after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain's defence pacts didn't help Europe then; Brown's reviews may be too late to stem the 'systemic failure' that many are identifying in the government's whole approach to data collection.

George Osborne has lost no time in claiming the death of the ID card scheme, which he was doing loud and clear on the morning news programmes. Meanwhile, although attention on the actual details of the incident has been muted, the question is now being asked (for example by blogger Iain Dale) whether an official with access to all the child benefit details can really have been so junior?

Saudi Justice

Good to know that Saudi Arabia's king, who was welcomed with such pomp to these shores a short while ago, presides over such an impeccably even-handed justice system. Not only have the members of a seven-strong gang of rapists been sentenced to between one and five years in prison, but their victim, too, has been sentenced to six months and 200 lashes for being in a car with a man who was unrelated to her. Makes you proud to count Saudi Arabia amongst your allies, doesn't it?

The Al Jazeera story is here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Basic Level of Competence?

It is almost too extraordinary to be a genuine news story. The revelation that HM Revenue and Customs has managed to 'lose' 2 computer discs containing the personal and financial details of all 25 million people in the UK in receipt of child benefit sounds as if it might have been dreamt up by those who, for their day job, write the 'Spooks' scripts. Alas, no. This monumental cock-up has actually happened. And the man ultimately in charge of HM Revenue, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling, was forced to make a full confession before an incredulous House of Commons today.

Not that it's Mr. Darling's fault. He has inherited a Treasury department whose systems appear to be woefully inadequate, so perhaps it is his predecessor - Mr. G. Brown, now working elsewhere - who is to blame? Vince Cable made the telling point in the Commons today when he suggested that it was now the Treasury which was the government department that is 'not fit for purpose'.

Even without the disastrous news about the missing 25 million people's details, Mr. Darling was not due to have a quiet day, since he is still trying to firefight the Northern Rock fiasco. I don't know about shares in Northern Rock, but I'll wager no-one will be buying shares in Alastair Darling for a long time.

And what are the ramifications of this extraordinary piece of incompetence? Well, the government's patent inability to secure delicate personal details on millions of its citizens must surely be posing the bigger question of why on earth we should trust it with the far more monumental project of ID cards? This, after all, is a government initiative that has already spun out of financial control, and today's news hardly encourages us to believe in basic government competence. But there is also the intriguing question of whether this latest knock to the image of the Brown government might not be seen as Gordon Brown's very own Black Wednesday. It was the irreparable damage caused to the Conservatives' once sound reputation for economic competence caused by the ERM fiasco that lead ultimately to John Major's drubbing at the polls in 1997. Could Brown now be facing a similar path?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What's the Difference?

Huhne and Clegg have agreed with each other a lot, and heaped praise upon the previous, ousted leaders of the Liberal Democrats on Question Time. The question has been raised as to what the difference is between them, and David Dimbleby has become increasingly frustrated at the level of agreement between the two of them. So due credit to Huhne for remarking that 'We are trying to be leader of the same party'! Nice touch, but is the LD party really as homogenous as its leadership contenders?

That Stalin Jibe Again

A former head of the civil service, Lord Turnbull, described Gordon Brown's governing mentality as 'Stalinist'. Not the politest of references, and one that Team Brown were keen to assure everyone was wide of the mark. Seems that the accusation just won't go away though, as another, anonymous senior civil servant has been spilling more recent beans to the FT's Sue Cameron about the current bunker mentality at No. 10. The criticisms are wide ranging. Brown doesn't consult anyone outside his tight inner circle. The young advisers ('the teenagers') have all the social skills of an ill-behaved nursery class (and, in the case of Douglas Alexander, many of the political skills too), and even top mandarin Sir Gus O'Donnell, the current Cabinet Secretary, has been drawn into the net.

It may be an embittered permanent secretary getting his revenge, but to have the accusation from one civil servant seems like carelessness, two is beginning to look like a habit. The Evening Standard, incidentally, was reporting this evening that Sue Cameron's report gave away too many clues about the identity of the leaking civil servant, and that he is now due for the chop - just to show that No. 10 is not adopting a Stalinist style at all. And there was I thinking the new Private Eye column was just a bit of satire!

The 28 Day Dilemma

UCAS work has squeezed out posting over the past week, but I thought I'd put up a brief post here about the recent security malarkey, especially since the Question Time special - featuring both Lib Dem leadership candidates - is about to start, and the excitement might make me incapable of blogging later on.

The bare bones yesterday's bit of mis-speak by Lord West, one of Gordon Brown's security 'advisers', can be read here on the BBC site. This was in itself a farcical event, but what is fascinating about the whole debate about the detention time for security suspects is that it shows us just how little seems to have changed, despite a new prime minister. Gordon Brown is as prepared as his predecessor to risk his parliamentary majority in a vote on an issue that has been roundly criticised from all sides, for which he cannot produce compelling evidence, and which merely strengthens the view that we have a government determined to increase its central control. Alternatively, and just as worryingly, it is a government that seems consistently willing to do the bidding of its secretive security advisers, whoever holds the public posts. Further commentary, from Nick Robinson, is here.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Politics References

Following the comment on the last post from one desperate AS-level student, I thought it might be worth providing a couple of useful links on matters of political interest.

First up, this post on the Guido Fawkes website is not only a good rant about the state of politics today, but it references my favourite political book of the moment, Peter Oborne's admirable 'Triumph of the Political Class', and Fawkes thinks he's found a genuinely honourable and exciting US presidential candidate.

Next, 'Skipper' Bill Jones' post here about political parties is a brilliant piece for AS students to use for the AS topic on the same subject. Well worth noting - Jones considers whether commentator Simon Jenkins is right to announce the death of the party system. Sorry it's just too late for the mock!

Finally, for now, two views on David Cameron's performance at the dispatch box after the Queen's Speech. Norfolk Blogger loathed it and gave the victory to Cameron; the 'Spectator's' Fraser Nelson, not unnaturally, awarded the victory to Cameron in his Coffee Shop post here. Happy reading.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Patrick Stewart's Courtesy

He's a big name actor with solid Shakespearean roots who has returned to the West End in a role that many critics have hailed as his finest, so you can imagine everyone's disappointment on Saturday afternoon when it was announced that Patrick Stewart, alas, would not be playing Macbeth that day as he was 'indisposed'. This happens quite frequently. Big name actor who everyone has paid to come and see, pulls out without notice leaving the production distinctly wanting, and the punters furious. One of my friends had been to see 'Equus' not long ago, only to find that Richard Griffiths was 'indisposed' on that occasion, and his part taken by an understudy who had to hold the script throughout the production. We weren't expecting that level of amateurism at Macbeth, but some of the punters were clearly very angry at Stewart's non-appearance. I wasn't that happy about it myself - his performance in this role is meant to be outstanding. But the production as awhole is meant to be good, and we had after all paid good money for the tickets, so we settled down in our seats ready to make the best of it.
Then, without fanfare, a man who looked distinctly like Patrick Stewart appeared on the stage. His likeness to the famous Star Trek actor owed much to the fact that it was, in fact, him. A silence descended and Stewart's unmistakeable tones could be heard. He was not, he said, able to play the role this evening. He had been struggling all week with his voice - that much was clear listening to him - and his doctors had finally stepped in. He was deeply apologetic. It is, he said, an unbearable thing for an actor to do. But, he added, this was an excellent production with fine actors and we were in for a very good afternoon. And as he finished, he was greeted with a sustained and genuine applause. His simple act of graciousness and courtesy had won us all over. He hadn't, after all, taken us for granted. He had taken the trouble to turn up and apologise in person. Such a respect for their public is, alas, increasingly rare amongst celebrities of many different hues - Stewart reminded us that there was still another side.

The production was, indeed, excellent. A genuinely thrilling, dynamic and thought-provoking performance - the best 'Macbeth' I've seen. Yes, Stewart's presence would certainly have been the icing on the cake, but his replacement filled the role admirably, and the strength of a genuinely ensemble production with high values and much dramatic flair was apparent throughout. There was much to chew over from this most political of plays, but as we walked away we also retained a feeling of affection and admiration for the man who wasn't Macbeth that day. A little courtesy went a long way.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A Necessary Resignation?

As a former journalist, and editor, indeed, of a prominent regional paper, the Birmingham Post, Nigel Hastilow should be more aware than most of the way in which the media selects, zooms and distorts any dialogue or action. This is bad enough in relatively uncontentious areas, but when it comes to an issue as explosive and open to misinterpretation as immigration, only the very astute, or the very foolish, should tread there.

David Cameron has been amongst the former. He has been outlining a Tory policy that has trodden with impeccable care around the minefield of race. Nigel Hastilow, until today the Tory candidate for Halesowen, seems to be amongst the latter.

Hastilow's comments are unremarkable in themselves. He seems to be suggesting that many of his hitherto potential constituents think that immigration is a big issue of great concern. He says that many of them think that 'Enoch was right'. He further adds that, in suggesting immigration would get out of control, Enoch probably was right. And he talks about 'rolling out the red-carpet' for foreigners, while deserving British citizens remain without appropriate housing. All of these comments are capable of debate. Some will applaud them, others will be enraged by them. The conclusion that immigration should be controlled is one that the Conservatives and Labour reached some time ago, although they differ on precisely how this 'control' might in fact be imposed, or when.

Mr. Hastilow has tried a little ill-considered populism on this issue, and has run head first into the brick wall of metropolitan, liberal media conviction. Andrew Marr could barely wait to ask Labour minister Peter Hain what he thought of the remarks, in a ludicrous piece of interviewing soft-ball this morning. Hain, who serves a British prime minister who talks about 'British jobs for British people', was unilluminating, and did not of course allow ignorance of Hastilow's words to get in the way of a sound-bite reply. Worse was the comment of Hazel Blears, that 'it is unacceptable to say that Enoch Powell was right'. Nonsense. You may dispute his inflammatory rhetoric, but Powell's argument was well within the boundaries of legitimate debate. The problem with debate on this issue then and now, as with related issues such as the dilemmas posed by Islamic fundamentalism in the UK, is that it is not just the far right who resort to hysterical reactions. Entrenched liberals do as well, none more lethally than those within a media that depends daily upon the need to create sensationalism, division and fear wherever it casts its gaze. And Nigel Hastilow should have known that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Schools and Corruption in Africa

We may be concerned about the standard of schools in England, but journalist Sorious Samura showed a much more alarming side to schooling in his extraordinary report on Africa for Channel 4's 'Dispatches'. His report focused on what he believes to be the root cause of Africa's headlong rush to oblivion - not its poverty, its persistent wars or its virulent diseases, but corruption. Corruption strangles any attempt to change and reform Africa; it is persistent and endemic; and it begins with power structures among pupils in schools. The revelation of a pupil who needed to bribe his teachers to be taught, and of bribery and the misuse of power structures as innocent seeming as prefect positions amongst pupils were the start of a downward spiral which leaves millions of Africans in their current dire state.

Samura's report was honest, eye-opening and straightforward, eschewing easy emotionalism or crass finger pointing. There was little comfort for the West either, whose aid programmes do so much to entrench corruption and line the pockets of gangster leaders rather than head to where it should be. It does, of course, also encourage a dependency on aid, rather than being directed towards the development of domestic agriculture, industry and commerce. But then, Africa is a classic case of where western interventionism has aided and abetted the shallow, selfish, fatally corrupt ruling elites, because in the last resort politicians feel happiest and safest dealing with fellow politicians.

Gordon Brown's Education Hole

Gordon Brown doesn't want any more failing schools in Britain. Well, that's nice. It's always cheering to hear that a prime minister wants a successful education system and good schools. Makes such a change from that litany of dreary premiers who keep on insisting that mediocre schools are fine, and failure is the price of...well, failure I suppose.

Brown's education speech has received much fanfare, but the strong words and high-blown rhetoric hide - or try to - a gaping hole where there should be practical suggestions. As ever, Brown's most concrete proposal is another target. School not achieving 30% high-grade GCSE's? Close it. If it doesn't meet the target, it shouldn't exist. Well, quite. But the great Gordo offers no practical support. Even in his fine passages about wanting the best teaching force in the world he offers nothing more than aspirational rhetoric, and boy is the education world rich with the aspirational rhetoric of image conscious politicians. It is, after all, so much easier to prat on about the importance of high standards, treating teachers well, world class education system, blah blah blah, but heaven forbid that you should put your money where your mouth is. The only definitive proposal to come from Gordon Brown's government in the last few weeks, has been the ludicrously titled Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls', commitment to eventually abolishing A-levels in favour of some untried, and rather vague, diplomas. Some quality there!

There is no great secret to educational progress. Decent funding to enable small classes and appropriate resources. A motivated and well rewarded teaching profession. A focus on teaching rather than presiding or facilitating. A proper autonomy for schools and support for their ability to exact disciplinary measures without constant reference to external appeals panels and highly paid lawyers. And if you really wanted to take the educational bull by the horns you'd reintroduce selective education double quick. But these ideas all require action and money, and in the end words are just so much cheaper and easier. We shouldn't be hard on Brown. He is merely following a fine prime ministerial tradition of posing strongly about education, and then fleeing before he is seen to be naked in substance. Because most children do at least know the famous story of the Emperor and his new clothes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tories' Trick or Treat

And with David Cameron basking in strong approval ratings within his own party, how best to keep the Tory fires going, than with this seasonal poster - free copies for all the kids! (spotted courtesy of the Boulton Blog!)

Difficulties with Allies

Britain of course tries very hard to ensure that her foreign friendships are genuine, smooth running and long lasting. But, alas, things don't always go to plan.

Friendship No. 1 - Saudi Arabia. Lovely to have King Abdullah here on a state visit of course. Slightly less lovely that he should presage his visit with public comments about how poor Britain is in waging the war on terror (in a BBC interview with John Simpson, just to make sure we all heard him right!). If only we were as good as Saudi Arabia in combatting Islamic extremism...

Friendship No. 2 - America (The US of). Won't hear a word against them of course, but having just watched the latest Spooks episode in which the USA seems to have become one of our major enemies, I'm not sure if this story, about Britain's only Muslim government minister being searched at US airports, doesn't suggest that fact occasionally catches up with fiction?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Blair Unbound Part 2

Had he stayed focused on the domestic agenda, Tony Blair's premiership could have been seen as a truly radical one. It passed more constitutional reform than any other in the 20th. century, maintained momentum on reform of public services (for better or worse), introduced the minimum wage, freed the Bank of England.....none of these are developments to be sniffed at. But Blair was undone by foreign affairs, and specifically Iraq. The new extracts from Anthony Seldon's book in the Mail on Sunday today (ok, if you really do blanch at buying a copy you can access it here online) seek to illuminate some of the complexities surrounding Blair's Iraq role.

Reading Seldon, one is struck by the fact that very often Blair's own instinct seemed to be the correct one, endorsed by some of his 'inner cabinet' team (largely comprised of unelected advisers such as foreign affairs guru David Manning). He was concerned to ensure that the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan was properly followed up. He was bothered by the fast momentum towards war with Iraq that was gathering pace in Washington. He wanted to kick-start a Middle East peace process. And the majority of his advisers, as well as the sidelined Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, were genuinely disturbed by the idea fo another front in Iraq.

What seems to have happened is that Blair himself felt utterly committed to being at the side of George Bush and endorsing whatever action the American president wanted to take. Blair certainly felt that Iraq needed 'dealing with', but when push came to shove he never sought to hold the American president back. It was, in the end, this failure that was to irreparably damage him for the rest of his time in office, and perhaps tarnish his reputation for good. And, of course, far more significant, it was to damage, ruin or end the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and fatally endanger British soldiers in a war whose origins seemed so clouded.

Third Rate Leader

It will take a lot to convince me that Harriet Harman, Labour's Deputy Leader and Leader of the Commons, is anything other than a third rate politician possessed of all the political intellect of a jellyfish with special needs. And that's kind, compared to the withering assessment of Quentin Letts (who, admittedly, writes for the Mail, but even so echoes the views of many more liberal observers). Harman was on Andrew Marr's show this morning. One of the questions he put to her was about Malcolm Rifkind's suggestion today of a Grand Committee in Parliament, to debate exclusively English questions, as a way of resolving the West Lothian dilemma of Scottish devolution. Harman is, of course, opposed to any attempt to correct the balance in favour of English legislation, which famously can at the moment be decisively passed or vetoed on the votes of Scottish MP's whose constituents are unaffected by any such Westminster measures. In her blathering answer, she explained how much she supported devolution, and how it was a very good thing, but then promptly undid herself when it was cleat that she was no supporter of devolution for the English. Devolution for Scotland stregthens the Union, but devolution (even in the very mild form of a Grand Committee) for England will break it up, went the bizarre argument. If this smug woman really is the best that Labour can throw up they are in serious trouble.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Balls to Expenses

Ed Balls, he of the staring eyes and bad temper, and his wife, fellow Cabinet member Yvette Cooper, were the biggest parliamentary expenses claimants last year, according to official figures reported by the 'Telegraph'. These expenses are a sensitive issue because they are, of course, taxpayer-funded, and they rely on a degree of 'sleight of hand' on the part of the claimants in order to maximise them. So, for example, to get the most out of their expenses, Mr. and Mrs. Balls need to claim that their main house is in his Yorkshire constituency, although they in fact live most of the time in their London home, where they bring up their family.

The 'Telegraph' has come in for criticism amongst right-wingers on the Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes sites for losing its Tory sensibilities and developing undue sympathies to the Brown camp. It has, admittedly, jettisoned some long-serving Conservative reporters on its political staff, replacing them with more left-wing writers, but its pages today carry a less than sympathetic profile of Ed Balls, and report the expenses claims at some length. Perhaps it is still conscious of its Conservative heritage. Or perhaps there is a more sinister explanation to the stories.....?

"Blair Unbound" - Hatred and Loathing at the heart of Westminster

Anthony Seldon is headmaster of the prestigious Wellington College in his day job, but when he's not admonishing the prosperous scions of Britain's upper classes, he is the assiduous recorder of contemporary British politics, authoring or editing comprehensive volumes on the Major and Blair years. His most recent work, doubtless scribbled between assemblies, is 'Blair Unbound', currently being serialised in the Mail on Sunday. Not, I know, everyone's paper of choice, but well worth getting on Sunday for the next instalment of Seldon's extraordinary revelations.

For the core of his new Blair biography is the narrating of the genuine loathing that existed between the Blair and Brown camps during the former's premiership. In particular, Seldon reveals the extent of the hatred that Brown's upstart young aides - Eds Balls and Miliband - had for the man who made Labour electable again. So obnoxious were they to Blair himself, that the former premier likened himself to an 'abused housewife'. Balls, meanwhile, was not above screaming at Brown himself either, as when the Chancellor failed to stick the knife in to Blair on a 'Today' interview after the 2006 local elections, causing an out of control Balls to yell at him, "You bottled it!" This charming man is now in charge of England's school system, and is referred to as the Secretary of State for Children! Hmmm. That's beginning to have the same level of appropriateness as putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

The fascinating extract in last week's paper can be read on the MoS pages here, while Bill Jones sets out the key points and adds a brief commentary on his blog here. For those interested in delving further into the mire of Blairism, this blog is a strongly pro-Blair one, commenting at length upon the Seldon extracts.

The Blackberry Generation arrives at the Commons

As if they needed any more excuses not to listen to debates and engage fully with the issues, MP's have now voted themselves the right to take blackberries into the Commons chamber, so that they can sit emailing and net surfing during debates which they're only attending to make a prepared speech that might just make it into the lcoal paper and impress consituents. Harreit Harman, Leader of the Commons, justified the move saying that it enabled MP's to 'multi-task', not that I'm sure she could multi-task her way out of a wet paper bag, but there we go.

Tony Wright, the current Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, once described the attitude of MP's in committee as an absolute disgrace, given their propensity to write Christmas cards and otherwise distract themsevles during lengthy scrutinies of legislation. That was back when he was a new MP, and perhaps a little shocked at the low standards of MP's work ethics. Maybe now he is more innured to the culture of the commons, but I would be fascinated to hear his reaction to the blackberry move. Sky News's Jon Craig has written up his views on the Boulton blog, commenting

"Since many MPs sit in committees reading and answering their correspondence and paying no attention whatsoever to the debate they are supposed to be participating in, I don't think using a Blackberry in the chamber will do much damage to the democratic process."

It is little wonder that the House of Commons has been receding in national importance if the MP's themselves are so cavalier about its uses.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Galloway's Wit

I'm not one of his greatest fans, but you have to hand it George Galloway - he's one of the most robust political street fighters around, and you enter an argument with him at your peril, as the US Senate once found. This evening on Question Time he came up with the 'bon mot' of the evening, when he said that Tony Blair's current appointment as a Middle East peace envoy was a bit like 'posthumously appointing Harold Shipman as chairman of Help the Aged'.

Galloway - never knowingly guilty of good taste!

Election Misgivings

It's not a great sign, when you're already feeling beleaguered four months into office for not calling an election, to have to have the last election that was held in these islands brought under very negative scrutiny. Even worse if one of the principal culprits happens to be one of your much valued right-hand men, but this is what is now happening to Gordon Brown over the report into the May elections in Scotland.

The May elections, you may recall, returned a hung Scottish parliament in which the SNP were - just - the largest party. Alex Salmond duly became First Minister in a minority Scottish government. The election process, however, was administered by the central government in Westminster, and specifically by Gordon Brown's elections supremo - and then Scottish Secretary - Douglas Alexander. The just published Gould Report into these elections produces some damning conclusions. Some 140,000 ballots were lost or spoilt because of the complexities and ambiguities of the ballot papers, and Gould accuses the Labour administration, and Douglas Alexander, of placing party interest before the interests of the voters.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this. Think of all the coverage of the Florida election scandal when George W. was first elected president and the accusations of gerrymandering placed against the Florida administration, headed by Bush's brother Jeb, and then apply all of that to the Scottish situation, and you have a flavour of the depth of this scandal. Alexander is one of New Labour's rising stars, and a member of another Labour dynasty whose sister is currently Scottish Labour leader. He has apologised today, in the somewhat qualified fashion in which ministers apologise these days, but his reputation has surely been holed below the waterline, and it is another blow to Gordon Brown. It gave David Cameron yet another chance to score points in yesterday's heated Commons exchanges at PMQ's.

BBC coverage of this story with links to PMQ's is here. Nick Robinson's online commentary is here.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Blair, Cameron, Clegg.....

So, Nick Clegg is standing for Lib Dem leader. Still unknown to most voters, his launch today has drawn comment mainly because he seems to be in the same mould as David Cameron, who was seen to be in the same mould as Tony Blair. Clegg even pulled off the same trick as Cameron - he spoke without notes! Thing is, do we really want another 40-something with little political experience but a telegenic appeal? Hmmm...unfortunately, the polls may suggest we do!

Newsnight's Michael Crick, meanwhile, was busy door-stepping both Clegg and Chris Huhne today, showing marked similarities to the interviewing style of Michael Moore and coming across as being just as annoying.

More on this contest as it progresses. For the next few days, though, I'm away with the glorious CCF, as we head to the land of Norfolk Blogger, but without the opportunity to blog!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Obese Objects

Can it ever have been so bad? Just as we're getting used to the fact that we all apparently drink too much, and are well on the way to destroying significant vital organs - and our sanity - by so doing, along comes the next great human disaster. We eat too much. We're all obese. WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! Well, that last statement, I suppose, does rank in the category of the blindingly obvious, but really, in a world of a billion human stories, is our capacity to eat so very important?

History offers us a perspective of sorts. It is true that our 16th. century forebears tended not to be as fat as we are, but that's largely because the majority of them lived on the copious amount of calories found in the average hunk of dark bread and occasional bit of cheese. Since they were generally beset by a variety of intriguing plagues, or if they managed to avoid those they were just as likely to be carried off before the age of 35 by human means of dispatch, I guess they didn't really have time to enjoy the gradual enlargement of their bodies. As for drink, well, Bill Bryson, in his admirable, and admirably slender, tome on the late Will Shakespeare, had this to report about the drinking habits of Will's England:

"Beer was drunk copiously, even at breakast and even by the pleasure-wary Puritans...A gallon a day was the traditional ration for monks, and we may assume that most others drank no less. For foreigners English ale was an acquired taste even then. As one Continental visitor noted uneasily, it was 'cloudy like horse's urine'. The better-off drank wine, generally by the pint."

Crisis? What crisis?

Comments on Ming

There hasn't exactly been acres of print about the resignation of the leader of Britain's third party, but of those columnists who have bothered to employ their pen in musings about his demise, none are likely to be sharper than the Times' Alice Miles. She, I think ,'gets it'. Her sharp and humorous analysis is here, and she concludes that the issue is one of communication, and how to get ahead in a nasty world. Ming, she says, was too much the gentleman. Her tip for the top? If the Liberals want to surge forward, they need a 'nasty' leader, and she believes Chris Huhne fits that bill nicely - or robotically. Read the article and see for yourself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Where Now?

There is a remarkable paucity of information about the sudden political death of Ming Campbell. I mentioned Nick Robinson's brief entry on his BBC blog yesterday, but his entry could win prizes for literary development compared with Sky's Adam Boulton, who has had to satisfy himself with basically reprinting Ming's letter of resignation. Longer articles in the dead tree press today have not yielded much insight either. The Independent's main news article moves sharply away from objectivity in its description of Ming as 'a respected elder statesman', and his resigning being 'dignified'. There's not much dignified about leaving a letter with your deputy and tailing it up to your home in Edinburgh to hide from any questions.

The Independent, however, also has a more illuminating piece by its Commons sketch writer, Simon Carr, about why Ming failed in the Commons, and why he never gained the stature he had as a foreign affairs spokesman.

The truth is, he didn't know what to do with his leadership. He was happy to take advantage of Charles Kennedy's misfortunes, and then had no idea how to lead. For the leader of a third party at a time when the two major parties are viewed as being clones of each other, that really is failure on a grand scale. We should not weep for Sir Ming.

Can Democracy really exist in Britain's Ideological Vacuum?

The First Post carries an article bemoaning the technocratic boredom of British politics, saying that the merging of the parties has deprived voters of real choices. Worse, it is leading to the denigration of civic society. The author argues that:

this destruction of British society has its origins in our hugely undemocratic electoral system, where both main parties have abandoned their ideologies to chase only one demographic - the liberal middle-class voter in marginal constituencies.

This is not dissimilar to the thesis put forward by the always interesting Peter Oborne in his book 'The Triumph of the Political Class'. Oborne tracks the emergence, in both the main parties and throughout the media establishment, of a 'political class' which has lost all moorings in wider British society, and now exists merely to service itself and perpetuate itself in power. His ideas deserve wider debate - especially his coruscating views on the state of British media - and in an age where the Labour cabinet boasts the presence of a married couple and two brothers, it isn't hard to see how one can argue that politics is becoming the separated preserve of the few.

Out With the Ming

Well he's managed to take us all by surprise. Only this morning, Deputy Leader (and now Acting Leader) Vince Cable was busy assuring everyone that the leader's position was secure - just the sort of accurate foresight we are used to from an economics spokesman. Now Vince, and Lib Dem president Simon Hughes, stands accused of wielding the knife against Sir Ming. But why stop at those two? Recent coverage from most media outlets has hardly been enthusiastic. Huhne and Clegg, the likely competitors for the succession, were busy running their leadership campaigns at the conference. And a range of Lib Dem voices have been raised against their - well, elderly - leader. Take this example from Norfolk Blogger, who adds further post-resignation thoughts here.

I heard the news whilst listening to ideas on defence and foreign affairs being debated at a political dinner this evening - a Tory one. The chairman announced that Ming had resigned, and told us that the information had come from Cable and Hughes, before pausing to wonder aloud whether the dynamic duo had actually bothered to inform Ming himself of his resignation. Ming's absence is certainly telling - while this news unfolds in London, he's back in Edinburgh, perhaps licking his wounds?

As to why Ming had to go, well, there aren't exactly a hundred theories - he was, as his own statement admits, seemingly incapable of raising the showing and profile of the Lib Dems. I'm not sure, though, that I think it's an age thing. More a dynamism thing. Ming Campbell was used, as foreign affairs spokesman for his party, to very deferential treatment from the press as the only senior politician to be able to consistently speak out against a war that the media, who predominantly supported it, quickly turned against. As leader, he was unable to translate this into the necessary charismatic vision to promote his third party. How he fitted in to a media age mastered by Blair, Brown and Cameron, and the implications of this, are fit questions for a whole thesis; in the absence of such a thing, they will be worth returning to in the coming weeks of the Lib Dem leadership battle between two much more image-friendly politicians.
BBC Online's Nick Assinder comments on the resignation here; Political Editor Nick Robinson has blogged only very lightly about this so far, perhaps reflecting the lack of information.
Oh, and it would be nice to see the comments thread take on some serious points from the various fiction characters who seem to have sprung into action. The thread on inheritance tax at least discusses ideas in detail!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Out of Date Cider - Big News in Norwich

It's all go at the University of East Anglia it would seem. Not only has prominent Tory blogger Iain Dale gone up there this past week to address a reunion dinner of the Tory Student Group, but I happened this morning to be talking to the biggest name in Norwich journalism - the editor of 'Concrete', UEA's interestingly named student paper. Whether the title refers to where they bury most of their stories or not remains to be seen, but for aspirant SGS journos it is worth knowing that said editor is none other than the founding editor of the school's own weekly rag, "What's the Story Sporting Glory". Where the sgs red-top these days headlines such feeble scoops as 'Teacher Drinks Cocoa in Office', its dynamic founder is where the real stories are. I asked him what his biggest news last week was, and he was able to tell me that his paper had uncovered some disgraceful alcoholic gerrymandering - yes, the UEA Union has been selling out of date cider!

I've asked for regular copies of 'Concrete' so we can keep an eye on developing news on one of our students' top uni destinations; and, ironically, Norfolk will also host the half term CCF manouevres - exact destination undisclosed for obvious reasons of national security.

NB: Comment heard on this morning's touchline - there haven't been so many English people in France since we last invaded it! Good to see the PC count is as high as ever amongst ex-parents and football watchers!

UPDATE: Knowing that another sgs luminary is currently co-editor of Oxford's Cherwell, I did a quick hop over to their site to see if their news can possibly compete with Concrete's - and the answer is absolutely not; all they've got is some stuff about controversial right-wing historian David Irving and the BNP's Nick Griffin visiting the Union, and the usual 'fit college' competition - plus a few other things. Can't compete, sorry!

Crime Rate Soaring Under Labour

Theft is at an all time high under the Labour Party, according to distressed citizen, D. Cameron. Apparently, Mr. Cameron was wandering innocently through the streets of a normally crime-free Blackpool, when he was mugged by several member of the notorious crime gang, the Treasury. One of Cameron's lost policies turned up in a speech by shadowy gang leader Alastair Darling last week; now a junior gang member, Andy Burnham, has flaunted yet another stolen item to the world - this time a policy on tax breaks for married couples.

Mr. Cameron is considering introducing ID Cards as a security measure against such continued theft. These helpful photo ID's, worn by all law abiding people, have a brilliant success rate of, er, 0% in preventing all forms of criminal activity.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Online Politics

Worried that an e-petition or facebook site hasn't had enough traffic? Easy. Just get a party leader to mention it in a speech and you'll never look back! Last week Norfolk Blogger was reporting that, since David Cameron referred to a facebook group that hated him in his conference speech, the numbers joining it soared. Then, today, Gordon Brown rather foolishly drew attention to the fact that only 26 people had signed a Downing Street website petition for an election. Sure enough, that number is now nearing 2,000, not least because of posts by bloggers such as Guido Fawkes urging people to sign up! Not that the Downing Street e-petitions are likely to be actioned by its current occupant. One petition, signed by over 19,700 people, calls on Jeremy Clarkson to be made Prime Minister!

PS: Such is the speed of online democracy, or perhaps I'm just a slow typist, that another 200 people have signed the election petition since I started!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Winning the Battle of Ideas

The Labour Party seemed remarkably pleased with themselves over the theft of George Osborne's economic policies - Gordon Brown, usually unaccustomed to such a clearly difficult facial contortion, could hardly stop smiling in the Commons today, as the Conservative Home graphic shows all too clearly. But it might be a little early for such celebration. Several commentators, including Newsnight's Michael Crick and the Spectator's Matthew D'Ancona (here on the Coffee House blog) are clear that today's announcement actually represents a shift in the batle of ideas, firmly in a Tory direction. For ten years the Tories seem to have been wallowing in a serious ideas vacuum; now, they find themselves setting the agenda. If such political dynamics really are with the Tories, then the future does indeed look bright; the future looks blue.

Conservative Home, by the way, has a wealth of good material on today's developments, as well as a comment about Rachel Sylvester's Telegraph article outlining the new civil war breaking out between the young Brown advisers.

George Osborne, by the way, gave a strong performance in the Commons, including a good line about the Prime Minister wanting the country to know his vision, but needing to ask the Tories what that vision is.

The Kwik Guide To........Labour policy making

1. Spend ten years in government ignoring a much hated tax;
2. Listen carefully to Tory policy proposals;
3. Wait for opinion polls to support those proposals;
4. Present a watered down version in your next economic statement, ensuring that it sounds better than it really is;
5. Sit back and wait for the voters to kick you out.

Govt. Fails Troops

The government has already been caught wanting in terms of the equipment it provides for the armed forces that it sends so blithely to fight its wars around the world. To fail to provide the best kit for your soldiers must surely rank as betrayal of the first order. This government, it seems, continues to under-fund its forces in disgraceful fashion. David Cameron berated Gordon Brown for playing numbers games with people's lives, but how about this story (on the Defence of the Realm site) for an alternative version of the 'playing games with soldiers' lives' scenario. The story concerns the provision of inferior armoured vehicles which, it is claimed, is unnecessarily endangering te soldiers who use them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Time for a video?

Am wondering whether to post the video of the Head Boy's serious under-acting on a recent recce to Norfolk, accompanied by the drily pejorative comment of his CCF superior, but school subordinate, the DHB. Perhaps discretion will prevail.

How safe are grammar schools?

Grammar Schools remain an embarrassment to all three political parties as they show up the utter inadequacy of too much of the rest of the state education system. Clearly, they shouldn't be allowed to survive, and it looks as if Labour are once again looking for ways to destabilise them, or even see them gone altogether, by easing the regulations on getting a public ballot in grammar school regions. Now let's see how Team Cameron reacts to that? I hear the sound of silence.

Brown Faces the Music, British Politics Faces the Future

Gordon Brown's press conference was not a happy sight, but it wasn't a disaster either. Brown himself may not have gone quite as far as many would have liked him do, in admitting the effects of the polls in his 'no election' decision, but he did take responsibility for the issue as a whole, and he did have to go through the somewhat humiliating experience of listening again and again to journalists taking him to task for deception. Several of the BBC journalists, led by Nick Robinson, were particularly brutal in the way they phrased their 'questions'. Hell, perhaps, hath no fury like a press pack scorned, and scorn them he did when the prime minister decided to make his decision known to just one, rather tame, inquisitor. But we need to wait and see whether or not today's press conference represents a general turning away from Brown by formally submissive followers of the New Labour creed, or whether it was simply the journalistic lancing of the boil of resentment.

David Cameron, meanwhile, followed up his recent comeback with an effective, and suitably outraged, Commons performance, when he challenged Brown on the ambiguous numbers that have been given about troops returning from Iraq. "This is about dealing with people's lives" was a strong line to take, and Cameron used his opportunity well. This could make for a very interesting Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

And what is the outlook for British politics today? Certainly the balance between the two leaders and their parties has substantially changed, although the longevity of the change is still in doubt, for all Cameron's current strong showing. Richard Ehrman in the 'First Post' goes further in believing that the lower tax issue may be heralding a sea-change in the British political weather towards new ideas which the Tory leader would be well advised to grab. BBC Online's Nick Assinder, in his comprehensive analysis, also concludes that we have seen a change in the political landscape. Ironic, he says, in that elections normally bring such a change about, but this time it is the non-calling of an election which has done it!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sky v. BBC

Gordon Brown's decision to reveal his election thinking to just one BBC journalist - Andrew Marr - has created something of a media spat. Sky News, in particular, is clearly unhappy, a point made implicitly on political editor Adam Boulton's blog. Boulton was also aggressive towards Home Secretary Jacqui Smith when she tried to maintain the pretence that Labour thought they could win an election now if necessary, while the whole tenor of the Sky report this evening, with the election decision still getting top billing, was thoroughly antagonistic.

It is interesting to see if the Murdoch machine as a whole is turning against Brown. The Sun's headline is "He's in the Brown Stuff". Not the most brilliant of headlines, but it makes the point.

The BBC, meanwhile, is of course broadcasting the Marr interview, which is remarkably soft towards Brown, and noticeably sharper with Cameron. Their evening bulletins have also pushed the story into second place. The right-wing blogosphere is, inevitably, awash with anti-BBC comments, and however exaggerated some of these are, the broadcaster does seem to have veered too close to being seen as the Prime Minister's official news agency.

Labour's Deceit Made Clear

Most of us will instinctively mistrust the weasel words of Gordon Brown and his acolytes as they seek to explain how they never intended to go for an election, it was hyped up beyond expectations, etc. etc. Really? Difficult to explain, then, why Labour headquarters had already printed out election leaflets with a named date for November before the Tories ever assembled for their conference! The leaflets in question, poorly 'hidden' under a pile of innocuous paper, were spotted by eagle-eyed students on a recent visit to the home of Labour spin!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Gordon the Ridiculous

Have just been watching Ed Milliband spinning furiously and unconvincingly on the BBC, pretending poor old Gordon is merely a victim of rumour and never really had a thought of calling an election. Adam Boulton on Sky, apparently, has been scathing about the quality of Brown's coterie of youthful advisers, reminding us that said 'advisers', such as Milliband, Alexander, and Balls, are all actually senior Cabinet ministers. Whoever in the New Labour high command is responsible for this mess, they have at least produced a first class, gold plated mess. Brown must be watching Musharaff acknowledging victory in a distinctly dodgy election, with some envy.

Last word to Brown's auld enemy, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond:
Those whom the gods seek to destroy they first render ridiculous, and this shambles leaves Gordon Brown looking totally ridiculous.

Adam Boulton has been sticking the knife in again, commenting that Brown has made his announcement in a pre-recorded interview (with the sympathetic and relatively easy Marr) whereas Campbell and Cameron, of course, have been fielding live interviews! The BBC may have broken this news, but Sky seem to have a sharper response. (Boulton's irritable blog comment is here - clearly miffed about the exclusive nature of the Brown announcement.)

Robinson Gets the Scoop

The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, is reporting that Gordon Brown will announce that there is to be no autumn election. Brown will apparently be on Andrew Marr's AM programme tomorrow morning and will, in typical New Labour fashion, use the interview to explain that there will be no election. The ramifications of this are huge. Brown has spent the last few months, and especially weeks, hinting about an early election. This was initially to annoy the Conservatives, and engage in what must have seemed a bit of politically advantageous mischief making. But boy, has it misfired. The likely decision is based on some ICM polls from marginal seats which show the Tories 6% ahead; it is the marginal seats which could well decide the results of an election, hence Brown's cold-footed retreat. Whether his reputation can recover, and whether this is the start of a long slide towards eventual electoral defeat at the hands of the tories, can only be speculated at, but it certainly looks as if Gordon Brown's carefully cultivated summer reputation as the 'man of substance' has been blown out of the water.

Etc - A Brief Career in Management

Always be ready for the unexpected, a decent enough motto for anyone, and certainly for teachers. I reluctantly agreed to 'manage' (i.e. go and watch) a Year 7 football team this morning. One of the school's two Deputy Head Boys (the nice one, not the red-top editor) told me that this combined two things I know nothing about - football and Year 7's. Charming. Anyway, I ambled over to the astro-turf at our away venue to motivate my team. Fortunately, I spied a parent who looked as if he might know what to do, and quickly installed him as the executive manager - I saw myself taking on a more non-executive role. He readily agreed, we motivated the Year 7 'C' team, and off we went. Largely without incident, although several goals in (to the Opposition), the ref called our attention to the fact that we seemed to be fielding an 8-man team, and did we know this was a 7-a-side match? I can see the problem. We removed a player, and almost immediately SGS began their goal-scoring. So we'd overcrowded the field. I see.

We didn't quite win, as such, in strict who-got-most-goals terms, but I think we won on spirit. And it was the highest scoring game, at 10-6. Don't think I'll be repeating my stint as non-executive manager though, despite the presence of an MP's son in the team. I went over to see the Firsts dish the opposition for the rest of the morning - they were wearing their bright new strips in readiness for the China tour. So let me see, the kit was made in China, came to England via Tennessee, and will be heading back out to China shortly. We could have cut out some middlemen there, surely?!

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Election Speculation Game

Guaranteed this is going to go on until Brown gives us - and himself - an answer. The BBC's Nick Robinson, having been a keen to proclaim the likelihood of an election in the recent past, gives a more cautious assessment on his blog today, using some interesting criteria beyond the headline polls.

And in other media news - Natasha leaves to join Five, and become that chanel's face for its four viewers; and BBC1 Controller Peter Fincham resigns for his mistake over the misleading trailers for the documentary about the Queen. Nothing to lose your head about though, really.

History Notes

A bit of in-school admin here. Students wanting to access the A-level History power points should go to the history blog, and follow the links. The Eastern Europe in the 20th. Century presentation is there, as are several Russian Revolution ones. The History blog is also now linked at the bottom of the right-hand panel.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Diana Balls

Wasn't going to add another post tonight, but Question Time have just been debating the Diana Inquest, and Ian Hislop has sounded off brilliantly about what a complete waste of money the inquest is, and all because the very rich Mohammed Al-Fayed keeps pursuing bizarre and unbelievable theories that don't hold up. It really is shameful that a huge sum of taxpayers' money is being spent on this ludicrous charade. She died in a car crash because the driver was drunk and she wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Tragic. But not a conspiracy.

Fixed Terms?

Ken may not like voting in the dark - although seems happy to govern there - but Lib Dem president Simon Hughes has raised the inevitable question of whether or not we should have fixed term parliaments. Much of the current speculation is because of the prime minister's constitutional power to request an election whenever he or she wants - a power usually abused by PM's to ensure they hold elections when the polls are most favourable. Fixed terms sound a good idea, but do they really fit with our notion of parliamentary government? And, as George Osborne pointed out on Newsnight tonight, what happens when you have an inconclusive result? A fixed term then would mean five years of minority government.

Rattled Labour as Polls Turn

Am just watching a Labour minister (Ivan Lewis) give a truly awful, evasive reply to the question about when Brown will hold an election. Last week, men like this would have been agitating for an election. A week later, a better than expected Tory Conference, and now some new polls showing a sharp decrease in Labour's lead, seem to be combining to give Gordon election collywobbles. I genuinely think he has absolutely no idea whether he wants to go to the country in November or not. We do know he has to make the decision soon, but it looks a lot less predictable than it might have done.

Bill Jones, on his blog, has given a useful analysis of Brown's current chances, concluding, after going through some telling details, that 'Gordon may have blown it'. Perhaps not blown it, but certainly left the political scene as wide open as its ever been, and that's no bad thing for democracy wherever you stand!

On Newsnight, Andrew Lansley (Shadow Health), by the way, is projecting considerable confidence!

Elections? Not in November says Livingstone

Emboldened, perhaps, by his successful conference, David Cameron has now been asking Gordon Brown to let his shadow cabinet team meet up with civil servants so that they can be prepared to implement the policies of a new Conservative Government. Nice touch. After an uncertain summer, Cameron's rediscovered how to play the political game.

There have been voices raised, meanwhile, against the prospect of a November election. None is more vocal than the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Call an election in November, he asks? What a terrible idea. "To try to persuade people to come out at half past nine on a wet and windy, dark November - I think it's dreadful," moans the mayor, who is something of a fair weather democrat. While the Burmese suffer torture and die for their dream of democracy, in a replay of some of the most inspiring actions of the past few decades (think Mandela, think the Chinese protestros in Tiananmen Square, think the people who brought democracy to the Eastern European nations, one by one), Ken is worried that dark nights will deter people from voting. What a truly miserable outlook. A people who don't want to vote because it's dark have no right to such a luxury; and a leader who endorses such an attitude has betrayed the highest ideals of his calling.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Stupid Stunt?

While Cameron basks in brief admiration, Brown must be wondering whether his latest wheeze was quite so wise. His decision to visit the troops in Basra not only made him look like a particularly cynical opportunist and Machiavellian spinner - bad news for someone who claims he is neither - but it might also remind people that this man was the second most senior member of the government that started the war. Not only is Gordon Brown every bit as responsible for the Iraq war as his predecessor, his shamefully tight funding has resulted in poor equipment being sent out to British troops, including the lack of bullet-proof jackets that has been shown to be the reason for at least one preventable army death. Perhaps when he sees the troops he underfunds at close quarters, Brown should make sure he at least has one of the three available bullet-proof vests to wear.

What a Difference a Speech Makes

Whether or not Cameron's speech will have a significant impact on the Tories' electoral chances remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have raised the morale of his Tory audiences. Everyone, of course, is impressed by his speaking without notes. I have yet to see much of the speech, although the extract published on the Fawkes blog earlier today was as empty and banal as can be. But he spoke without notes! It is encouraging to think that actual public speaking skills still seem to count for something, but what a tragic state public rhetoric is in when a man speaking without notes becomes a point of admiring comment!

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Vladimir Putin Guide to Democracy

1. Leave Secret Service to become President.
2. Gain popularity by war policy with small provincial state that is despised by your fellow countrymen.
3. Drive political opponents into exile or prison.
4. Get rid of opposition media.
5. Choose your own successor as president.
6. Stay on as prime minister with your hand-picked president.
7. Get elected as president again having spent the required time out of the office.
8. Repeat steps 5 to 7 until dead.

Back to Basics

The history of the last ten years of Conservative leadership has tended to generate regular doses of deja-vu. The fresh new leader usually starts with an attempt to cleanse the party of its right-wing past and return it to the centre ground of politics. Some gimics, or eye-catching policies, have usually been produced in order to persuade the media of the party's change. Then, after a couple of years, but it can be quicker, a combination of Labour's immutable possession of the centre-right political ground, and the ever louder wails of right-wing Tory grassroots and media commentators, force a gradual U-turn upon the new leader. Eventually, he (no she has dared to apply for the role since the departure of the only She who ever mattered to the Tories) heads into an election on that favourite duality of old-style Tory politics - lower taxes; lower immigration.

Alongside the above events, there is also normally a bit of matricidal fantasy, as the leader seeks to first ignore, and perhaps even exorcise, the elongated shadow of She Who Must Not Be Forgotten, and then, inevitably, ends up being swallowed by it. The latter process is quite often accompanied by the Labour leader of the day telling everyone how much he admires the Iron.....well, you know who.

So here we are again. By Day 2 of Cameron's possible pre-election conference, two years into his leadership, we have a re-affirmation of the virtues of the Maggie (courtesy of Hague), and the commitment to lower taxes (Osborne) that may or may not add up. And, of course, we started with a burst of 'we can cut immigration better than you'. Welcome to the New Tories. Again.

Safe? Or Stupid?

Well of course it makes eminent sense to introduce photo ID's for the 50 or so staff at SGS. After all, there's no chance we'll recognise each other if we don't have that picture hanging round our necks. And, of course, the tragic events at the playing fields on Friday evening, when valuables in an unlocked room were stolen, would simply not have happened if we'd only introduced ID cards earlier.

I personally feel a whole lot safer now that colleagues I've known for years are properly identified, and of course it would be wholly inappropriate for students to even think of entering classrooms if the teacher's photo ID isn't clearly displayed. If it's not, they should immediately go and find a stranger to play with. We don't need books, or more computers in the sixth form centre. I don't want our IT director to waste his time trying to get the UCAS site up and running when he's got to take photos for IDs instead. Indeed, after just one day of the liberating use of the little plastic tags, I can't believe we survived without them. I'm amazed that students dared to come to school for all those years, knowing that their very survival was at stake in the school with no photo ID.

Mocking aside, the saddest thing is the observation that this dumb, wasteful, laughable policy was introduced by a governing body who thought they were doing a good thing. In the age of George Bush and Tony Blair's War on Terror, have intelligent people really surrendered their common sense to such an extent that they simply accept and mouth the mantra that "ID Cards = Safety"?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Tory Defection Rumours

The blogosphere has been alive with rumours that Tory MP John Bercow might defect to Labour, nowehere more so than on the new Sky News blog by Adam Boulton (or, at any rate, by lots of other people writing on Boulton's blog). Conservative Home reports this morning, however, that Bercow has just been readopted by his local Conservative Association. Seems unlikely that that would happen if Mr. Bercow ere thinking of defecting. In fact, Bercow is a committed and free-thinking Tory, and I guess the result of his independent approach is sometimes to tar him as a possible defector.

Election Summit's Pause for Thought?

As Gordon Brown decamps to Chequers this weekend with his inner cabinet, to consider the pros and cons of holding a snap election, he may be reviewing the local by-election results from yesterday (and yes, this time I'm indebted to U6th politics student and fellow blogger C.H.Daly!). The Conservatives made some useful inroads in the vote in places as diverse as Sunderland and Kent (see the BBC story here). So perhaps the notoriously cautious Brown will indeed wait for a new spring before contemplating his election prospects?

Nick Robinson recorded a short piece for the 'Today' programme (7.15 spot on Listen Again) repeating the view he has been expressing in his blog, that Brown is currently much nearer to calling an election than he has been since taking office. For robinson, the turning point was the Northern Rock crisis, and its failure to impede the government's poll advantage. But, of course, actual polls - like yesterday's by-elections - can tell a different story.

Clearly, much now depends on the performance Cameron gives this week at his party conference. Until we see that, election fever will remain in the air.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Too Young for Parliament?

In deference to eagle-eyed AS level student, Ollie Holland, who spotted this story, I should comment on the news that Tony Benn's grand-daughter is standing for Parliament. It's obviously good news to see people committed enough to offer their experience for public service, but Ms. Benn is merely 18! It seems unlikely that she was chosen for the depth of her political experience, or the breadth of her world knowledge, so it's great to see that the egalitarian Labour Party still loves dynasties. Emily's uncle, of course, is former deputy leadership contender Hilary Benn.

If you want to see what some people Emily's age, or slightly older, can experience, thanks to the government she wants to join, try this report on the Newsnight site. As I watched the television report of these events, I was reminded of some of the hairy experiences recounted by a not long left SGS history student, out there with the marines. That's experience.

At Least We're Free

We may bemoan the state of British politics, and politicians; we may wonder at our leaders' feet of clay, and concern ourselves with the wretched state of parts of our land; but at least we are free. The protestors of Burma, of course, have no such luxury. They may have a leader of genuine heroism and stature, on the scale of the once long-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, but that leader's thoughts, hopes and inspiration are locked behind, so it seems, prison walls.

We who treat democracy in such a cavalier fashion should look humbly and admiringly at the Burmese protestors. Every day they make their stand brings the likelihood of violent oppression ever closer, yet they carry on. The first protestors have been killed, but that tragedy hasn't intimidated others off the streets. In Britain, Gordon Brown worries that a November election is bad news because bad weather and dark nights will keep voters away from polling booths. Bad weather! Dark nights! We are a spoilt country indeed.

Burma is a famously closed country, but the 21st. century seems truly a people's century, a world without communications borders. The BBC has published several emailed and blogged accounts of events inside Burma on their news pages, while the excellent Reporters without Borders site gives a comprehensive account of the repression experienced by those who would report Burma's fate from within.

Gordon Brown and David Miliband's 'New Wave' foreign policy, meanwhile, struggles to cope with much more than verbal condemnations; yet British firms still invest in Burma, and France hinders the EU's approach because of its oil interests there. The UN, of course, exhibits its own particular uselessness in such a situation. Confronted with the heroism of ordinary and oppressed people in an oft ignored country, western leaders seem both irrelevant and banal.

10.45pm: On Newsnight, the ever watchable Paxman has just challenged French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner with this very point - your position would be more tenable if you weren't the biggest western investor in Burma! He seems to have got Kouchner to promise an embargo on investment.