Monday, January 29, 2007

The CCF - the Best Educational Opportunity Around!

It's not always that I read the comments of a Labour MP and warmly support them, but the MP for Mitcham and Mordern, Siobhain McDonagh, is clearly a woman of high intellectual calibre and strong moral worth. The reason for such an endorsement? Her speech in an adjournment debate which was positive and enthusiastic about the role of Combined Cadet Force units. She started thus:
I am delighted to have been given this opportunity to promote the good work of the armed forces, and to raise the subject of the need to increase the number of schools involved with the cadets.

Later, we get this:

Traditionally, cadet forces have offered many attractions for young people, including the chance to try hill climbing, abseiling and other outdoor sports. Cadet forces have also given them opportunities to learn about subjects such as aviation and engineering, which cannot be offered by mainstream schools. They have given young people a strong sense of belonging to a community, and they have helped to instil them with a sense of self-discipline and respect.

And, as if to push the point home, this admirable MP goes on to say:

The cadets are exactly what many young people need to remain engaged at school and to prevent them from becoming disillusioned, bored and, ultimately, truanting from school. At present, as well as 100,000 cadets in youth groups outside school, there are more than 40,000 cadets based in schools as part of the combined cadet force.

She does go on to pursue an interesting class/race angle as well:

Today, Sir Keith Ajegbo, a former head teacher and a Home Office adviser, published a Government-commissioned report that says that more needs to be done to engage white pupils, particularly those who are working-class. His report says that white pupils can feel just as disfranchised as pupils from other ethnic backgrounds...Why should those of us who believe in a good state education sector allow public schools to monopolise a programme that could benefit children from less privileged backgrounds?...I am persuaded that cadet forces offer many young people, particularly white boys, something of real educational value, and I wish that the opportunity to join was more widely available.

Well, well. Some interesting truths from the honourable member for Mitcham and Mordern. Perhaps we should get her to visit.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Prime Ministerial Farewell

The knowledge that Tony Blair is leaving office - and the pretty certain knowledge that his immediate successor will be Gordon Brown - is a near unique occurrence in British political history. We are not normally in the position of both knowing when a prime minister will leave office, or who his successor will be. This is more akin to the American system which has transition arrangements in place. Andrew Rawnsley, in the 'Observer' today, has an excellent piece on this consitutional anomaly, and its impact, entitled 'Blair's Long Goodbye'. Have a read.

Church Thoughts

Looks as if I wasn't far off when I suggested John Reid might hear a few jibes about the government if he came to church this morning. In my own church, prayers about the government's legislative agenda beat ones about the homeless, and for our missionaries abroad, into first place this morning. Meanwhile, the preacher, in an excellent sermon on Luke 12, managed to use the recent troubles at No. 10 to illustrate a point made in verse 2 of that chapter. Luke quotes Jesus saying that, "Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known." Clear references to the problems of a cover-up, should that be the intention of the No. 10 spin doctors over cash for honours.

Oh, and I was delighted to discover that Julius Caesar is buried in my church. Honest. I rested my coffee cup on his not unimpressive tomb only this morning.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

John Reid and the Politics of Humility

Actually, John Reid knows nothing about the politics of humility which is why he is having such a chronic time now. Being Home Secretary has never been an easy job - Kenneth Clarke described it as the graveyard of political careers (not very accurately, since his own went on to flourish further until he fell at the hurdle of the party leadership) - but plenty of Home Secretaries have been given more forbearance than 'Dr.' Reid. One thinks of the Tory gents, William Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd, who repeatedly fell foul of their own party's hang 'em high tendency, but who managed to preserve their dignity - and that of their office - in the process. Even Jack Straw, more recently, is looking distinctly more impressive alongside his successors than he has any right to.

It is the arrogant, bullying Home Sec. who comes a cropper, and Reid is arguably the most arrogant and bullying of them all. After all, you can't come in to the office, describe it as 'not fit for purpose', claim that it was all your predecessors' faults that made it so, and announce that you will be working flat out to change it, without some fallout. There's more of course. Reid attacked judges for lenient sentencing not long ago. The BBC's Nick Robinson has blogged a fascinating theory that the recent judicial comments about sentences that have seen bail granted for people who might have expected prison sentences, are a sweet revenge for the judges. Don't criticise us for lenient sentences, then send us a smug little memorandum telling us not to put people in jails, goes the subliminal message.

The Home Office is a mess and seems inadequate, but whether it is more so now than ever should be considered with a hefty pinch of salt. That there is a media feeding frenzy about its failings is rooted as much in the Westminster Village's rivalries as it is in the actual performance of the Home Office. There is undoubtedly an in depth, and probably not riveting, story to be unearthed about the failings of government here, and about the ineptitude of big government that tries to give itself too much to do. There is still a great deal to learn about the role and ethos of the civil service - is it now chronically inefficient, or has it been overstretched by a government that loves to overstretch its public servants?

John Reid doesn't have many friends, but at least there was some comfort for him today when the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, endorsed his defence of the now notorious sentencing memorandum, saying that it was indeed intended as a reminder and not a new instruction. Nonetheless, if I were Reid, I wouldn't be racing to read the Sunday papers tomorrow. Perhaps a visit to his local church instead - to hear a sermon weighing in against the adoption policy!!

Thursday, January 25, 2007


The Catholic desire for an opt-out from the gay adoption legislation continues to provide headaches for Tony Blair, and raw fodder for those interested in the nature of liberty in this liberal nation. It was the first question on 'Question Time' this evening and drew an eclectic number of responses from both panel and audience. Comments about it are appearing on a variety of political blogs.

I am interested, though, in the pickle the Christian churches are finding themselves in, by allowing homosexuality to become such a defining issue for them. Jesus had nothing specific to say on the subject of homosexuality. He did make clear how impossible it is for anyone to consistently uphold God's law in their own strength (You only have to look at a woman lustfully to be effectively committing adultery, for example). He was clear in the absolute importance of upholding God's commandments, but doing so with no hint of arrogance. He showed friendship, love and compassion to those groups regarded as outcast by religious Jewish society (prostitutes, taxpayers, Samaritans...). He was clear on the distinction between looking forward to the coming Kingdom of God, but adhering to the current secular authorities as far as possible, a point which was followed by his apostle Paul - and the government whose dictates they felt they should not be challenging was a brutal, callous, severe one.

There is a common phrase used by Christians in determining what action they should take in any given situation - 'What Would Jesus Do?' (WWJD). In this instance, perhaps we should let secular government take its course, and concentrate on showing love and compassion to vulnerable groups and generally modelling Jesus' example.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Whips at Work

Despite our contention that MPs are growing more assertive, and more capable of bringing the government to book, most of the time the executive steamroller still manages to win through. As a result of a procedural manouevre by government whips, rebel Labour MPs who had wanted to force a vote on tonight's Iraq debate were unable to do so. Given the heat Blair had for not speaking in the debate at all it was a somewhat pyrrhic triumph, but a sign that his whips' office is not completely at sea!

Police Priorities

A couple of items spotted this evening are the sort of thing that make me start to feel like a Daily Mail reader - angry and frustrated at a society with its institutional functions seriously out of kilter. The oddness of police priorities has long seemed more than just an irritant to the law abiding citizen, so how about these fascinating posts. The first, from online paper 'First Post', is by the pseudonymous PC David Copperfield. The second is in the form of a letter from the managing director of a brewery company, and found its way onto Iain Dale's blog. Read them, and you'll find no comment necessary.

Freedom of Religion in a Liberal Society?

Not for the first time, the government is headed for a clash with organised Christianity, in the form of the Catholic Church primarily, but well supported by Anglicanism's most senior figures. The issue is over new legislation that would force catholic adoption agencies to accept same sex couples as adoptive parents. This is legislation intended to iron out discrimination against gay couples.

There will not be wanting people to condemn the churches once more as 'anti-gay', and asking why churches should be exempt from legislation aimed at stamping out discrimination. The problem, of course, is that such this legislation directly interferes with the church's rights to live according to its religious belief system, and to insist that its institutions and agencies do the same.

Tony Blair is apparently keen to accommodate the churches' objections, as is his Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly. But they have been hoist here by their own petard. Mr. Blair's government has been overly keen on legislating just about everything for years, and such a frantic desire to ensure elgislation on every issue is bound to have a comeuppance, quite apart from its negative impact on a liberal society.

The gay adoption legislation is a classic case of a law too far. In seeking to protect the rights of one minority - gay people - it infringes the right of another - Christians. In fact, of course, were the proposed laws to exempt churches they would not be infringing the rights of gay couples; state agencies would still be happy to place children with same-sex couples. The fact that catholic agencies would not do so is simply in keeping with the catholic stance on homosexuality, but does not, in a pluralistic society, impose that stance on other agencies or people. Thus, the catholic right not to place children brought to its agencies with same sex couples does not limit the freedoms of gay couple to seek to be adopted parents through other, non-catholic agencies.

The proposed law could be seen as another attempt to force the Christian church to accept the secular concerns of the country in which it lives, and is perhaps therefore little different from the position of the early Christians, who suffered persecution if they did not worship the Roman emperor as God. Or it might simply be a cackhanded piece of legislation. Either way, the issue it raises about freedom of religion in a liberal society is a significant one, particularly if we also think back to the Religious Hatred Bill and the attempt to impose quotas on faith schools.

A liberal society cannot pick and choose the groups it wishes to defend, and should keep in mind the key test of whose liberties might be infringed by its legislation.

For the churches, there is a problem of perception. If it is to avoid the perception of simply being beastly to gays, it must be clearer and broader about its teaching - that whilst it regards homosexuality, along with a host of other personal predilections and behaviour, as sinful, it seeks to love the sinners. The Christian gospel presents a way of living for Christians, and teaches it as an appropriate way to conduct everyone's lives, but it does not seek to impose this on everyone, and nor should it be seen to do so.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Why oh Why......?

Well, well. Just have a read of this tirade against the BBC.

"The BBC, which glories in being open-minded is, in fact, a closed thought-system, operating a kind of Orwellian newspeak.
"This, I would argue, is perverting political discourse, and disenfranchising countless millions, who don't subscribe to the BBC's world view,"

and there's this on the Tories and their leader:

"Today's Tories are obsessed by the BBC. They saw what its attack dogs did to Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard.
"Cameron's cuddly blend of eco-politics and work/life balance, his embrace of Polly Toynbee, a columnist who loathes everything Conservatism stands for, but is a totemic figure to the BBC, his sidelining of Thatcherism and his banishing of all talk of lower taxes, lower immigration and euroscepticism are all part of the Tories' blood sacrifice to the BBC god."

Who could it be, taking up this righteous crusade against the BBC and its miserable, eco-friendly Cameronian allies? Answers on a postcard please, to The Editor, Daily Mail........

Does Tony Blair Hate the Commons?

Tony Blair's hate-hate relationship with the House of Commons has surfaced again in this news story claiming that he has decided not to attend the debate being held in that chamber about the Iraq war on Wednesday, preferring instead the company of business leaders. Mr. Blair has an engagement to speak at the CBI Conference already in his diary.

Suggestions that Mr. Blair dislikes the Commons are legion, and his Commons attendance record as PM is one of the worst of any holder of that office. Since coming to power he has preferred to do business away from the troublesome chamber, becoming accused of adopting a presidential style that is unsuited to his actual constitutional role. When he moved the Chief Whip's office out of No. 12 Downing Street, replacing it with the office of his Director of Communications, it was seen as a sign by some commentators of his desire to push the management of the Commons as far off his radar as possible. The famous occasion of his government's Commons defeat by one vote - his own - seemed further evidence of his unwillingness to engage with the country's only elected chamber. Ironic, given that his premiership is entirely dependent on his party's Commons position.

Perhaps it is reciprocal to his own want of interest in the chamber, but the Commons under Blair seems to have become ever more troublesome. Prime Ministers were once assumed to be able to pass anything if they had an appropriate majority, thanks to the large element of payroll/wannabee/party loyalist lobby fodder at their disposal. Not Mr. Blair. Philip Cowley's highly recommended, and very entertaining, book "The Rebels" illuminates this process of lost deference in voting thoroughly - not for nothing is it subtitled 'How Tony Blair mislaid his majority'. [For students unable to cope with a whole book, no matter how accessibly written, I would at least refer you to Cowley's Politics Review article, and any notes you may have taken from his lecture speech.]

Tony Blair's attitude to the House of Commons is a key part of understanding his premiership, and as he heads to retirement it is unlikely to soften. One of his successor's priorities may well be to regain control of a difficult body - is that really a task for the dour Scot?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Marine Rescue

Extraordinary footage of the Marines' rescue bid in Afghanistan. They may not be well served by their government, but they certainly do their job!

Cameron and Cannabis

Last week David Cameron sought to resume the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, particularly in the area of social conservatism. It wasn’t a great move, designed to shore up the Tory grassroots who are getting nervous at the possibility of mainstream middle class voters who don’t share their prejudices actually voting for them. This week, however, he is back on form, saying that he is ‘relaxed’ about the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes if a benefit can be shown. The Lady would be turning! If she were in her grave. Which, happily, she isn’t.

Home Office Split, and an Aide’s Arrest

The doctrine of ministerial responsibility has been mentioned several times before on these pages, along with the caveat that it is more a theory than a practice in modern times. One of the suggested reasons why ministers have shown little inclination to resign has been the charitable one that the modern government department is simply too huge for them to realistically take the fall for everything that goes on within them. The modern minister, indeed, is becoming quite adept at expressing surprise and bemusement when confronted with a departmental error that clearly took place while the minister was engaged on much more important, and wholly different, business.

Nowhere is this problem clearer than in the problem-hit Home Office. John Reid may have entered his brief bullishly, conveying implicit criticism of his predecessors and suggesting that he was the man to sort things out. Even he, however, buffeted by recent storms of what the Home Office doesn’t know, has bowed to the inevitable and proposed that the Home Office be split in two, its functions spread between a Department of Justice and a Department of Security (or, in effect, the slimmed down Home Office itself).

It is a rational suggestion, and none too soon. And although it looks like a panic measure, the government has clearly been considering the merits of a Justice Department – headed by the avuncular Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer – for some time. This was indeed the motive behind Falconer’s initially saying that he wasn’t going to be Lord Chancellor any more when he was appointed to replace Lord Irvine. Alas, poor Charlie, since when he and Tony Blair looked beyond the matchbox they’d written their ideas on they ran into a number of legal and executive problems. Nonetheless, they obviously haven’t abandoned their reform ideas and in this instance should be encouraged to move ahead with them.

And what’s more, a slimmed down Home Office might be better able to ensure the smooth running of the Cash for Peerages scandal, which saw government aide Ruth turner arrested on Friday. Like the unfortunate headmaster Des Smith, she was hauled into the nick at 6.30 am. Tony Blair had the great good fortune to engage in a pleasant chat in Downing Street at his own convenience when Yates of the Yard came looking for him. Consistency is all.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Gordon in India; Cameron on England

If Gordon Brown looks a little put out in India, it may not entirely be down to the Big Brother furore. Tony Blair today let it be known that he fully intended to serve as PM until the end of June - thus ruining Gordon's chances of attending the G8 and EU summits as a new PM, and extending the Labour Party's agony!

David Cameron, meanwhile, has waded into the English nationalism debate by supporting the idea of banning Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on purely English matters, but stopping short of calling for an English parliament. Cameron's compromise idea is unworkable - imagine the legislative chaos of a Labour government that draws its majority from its Scottish MPs, but is in a minority in England, thus losing its votes on all of its English bills. What do we do then - have an alternating premiership depending on whether it is British or english matters being discussed?

Foul Celebrity

I have to acknowledge that the 'Guardian' is the only newspaper with any sort of perspective today (or tomorrow - Thursday). It is the only paper, apparently, not to put the Big Brother story on its front page, focusing instead on the possibility of a vast hike in university tuition fees. I have written briefly about the BB stuff on the myspace blog, but suffice it to observe here that it appears to have had an impact on Gordon Brown's visit to India, as well as being raised in an interview with David Cameron (he simply advised peope to switch off, which struck me as one of the more sensible comments). I loathe the programme and the majority of its banal, egoistic participants, but it has, I suppose, exposed the reality of casual working class white racism in a very public way today. I wonder if, as a society, we are mature enough to deal with that?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Trial of Tony Blair

It was a genius programme. ‘The Trial of Tony Blair’ came closer to illustrating the true nature of the Blair legacy than acres of newsprint. Starring Robert Lindsay as the increasingly tormented premier (perhaps a little artistic licence there, in the suggestion of Blair’s personal torment), the programme imagined a post-resignation Blair facing a possible war crimes tribunal. Lindsay brilliantly conveyed a man shorn of the trappings of power, but still subject to the delusion of importance. There was poignancy in the depiction of Blair striding around his huge new office, in the company of just two aides, his phone obstinately refusing to ring, and his only task the dictation of his self-justificatory memoirs.

There were some fine touches too. Who could not take grim satisfaction at the idea of Blair, arriving at a police station to be charged, and being confronted with the humiliating procedure of his own police laws as he submitted to a mouth swab for DNA samples? Or of a neglected Blair in casualty, his wife saying that “They’re not telling us anything”? (That scene, by the way, occasioned a great exchange between the fictional Tony and Cherie. As she has to remind him that there is no such thing as a private casualty ward, he replies “How did we let that get by?”)

The supporting performance of a dour Gordon Brown was well realised too – particularly a cringe inducing scene that showed him during the election meeting a group of primary schoolchildren, and clinging desperately to his one line of small talk, “And what’s your name?”. The Brown Blair relationship was also illustrated in all its painful glory, particularly when Blair cuttingly tells Brown that “You and charisma have always been strangers to each other haven’t you?”. A brilliant cameo of David Cameron added lustre. Accompanied by his sloaney advisers, Fiona and Zoe, we saw him ‘getting down with the kids’ and giving the full pseudy Cameron treatment.

But it is the plight of Blair that is central to this gem of a drama. Since he’s a British prime minister who supported an American action it is unlikely that he will face the war crimes tribunal imagined by the drama’s writers. But the question to what extent a prime minister should face the consequences of his actions remains an intriguing one, and this programme raised it sharply, and brilliantly.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Is Cameron Ready for Change?

We do have some trouble identifying precisely what David Cameron is for, it is true. Whether you're an AS student getting to grips with the bare essentials of party policies, or an A2 student struggling to work out just what Conservatism in the UK Today is all about, David Cameron doesn't seem to be helping you. He's kept his policies deliberately vague, and been strong on what sometimes seems like contradictory rhetoric. He has, however, been supremely successful in repositioning the Tory Party and persuading voters that it is no longer the incaring prehistoric beast it once was.

But could all this be about to change? Have the jibes about being policy lite, or acting like a crypto-Blair, got to Cameron? An article he has written for the Daily Telegraph suggests that, at the very least, he is trying to pitch for the Conservative grassroots support. He firmly rejects the idea of being 'Tory Blair', suggesting that he is the real heir to Margaret Thatcher. He also identifies those Thatcherite traits that he is keen to endorse: "Those ideas are profound and enduring: freedom under the law, personal responsibility, sound money, strong defence and national sovereignty."

He has also started playing up his eurosceptic credentials. Astonishing as it may seem to those of us who heard him speak, Cameron may actually be concerned at the defection of the peer Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who with a colleague defected to UKIP last week.

Whatever his motivation, he should be careful. His three imemdiate predecessors started out with a 'modernising' Tory agenda, but quickly ratcheted back to a more comfortable right-wing brand that sat well with their supporters - but not, alas, with the electorate who soundly rejected them at the polls. Cameron is, I think, too canny to go back to Tory Basics, but this is the year when we are promised more policy detail, and might finally get the chance to analyse New Toryism with a degree of confidence that we know what it is about!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Nationalism Article

For the U6th, here is the link to the article on nationalism on the BBC News website. A useful overview, although not, inevitably, hugely in depth given the limitations of space. That nationalism is one of the most significant political ideologies of the past century and a half seems in little doubt. Whether we see at as a broadly positive or negative development is, of course, more controversial.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Brown and Ford, and a libertarian warning.

Courtesy of Guido Fawkes comes a reference to this gem from the Times' Hugo Rifkind:

At the funeral of President Ford yesterday this country was represented by Sir David Manning, the British Ambassador to the US. Strange that Gordon Brown, for example, couldn’t be persuaded to attend the funeral of this former head of government who stepped in unelected to replace a disgraced predecessor, served a mere two years and was then booted from office at the ballot box. Whatever could have put him off?

On a separate note, Fawkes also quotes a press release today from the Libertarian Alliance which comments on the sometimes bizarre way that freedom is upheld in New Labour Britain. The Alliance's Director, Sean Gabb, says:

"We note with some amusement that in Tony Blair's New Britain, a man may sodomise a schoolboy in a public lavatory, and the police must look the other way; but if he gives the boy a cigarette afterwards, he will soon be committing a criminal act."

The press release then goes on to say that "The Libertarian Alliance actually welcomes the first of these situations."

For those studying classical liberalism, here is its modern counterpart, entirely consistent in its pursuit of the concept of personal freedom without limits, although they use perhaps infelicitous examples! The Fawkes blog contained some crude, but funny, comments in response.

More Liberal Misery

To be fair, I am trying to keep the gloating tone out of my voice, but there are a couple of stories today that are hardly great news for the much put upon plucky little Liberal Party. First off, Menzies ('Ming') Campbell has been forced once again to proclaim the strength of his leadership. He has said he is setting no time limits to his tenure as leader (a reference to his age, at 65 the oldest of the party leaders) and has added, in ringing tones,

"I will lead the party through this parliament, through the next general election and beyond, and no-one should be in any doubt about that."

The Tory blogger Iain Dale comments that such a statement reminded him of the dying days of Iain Duncan Smith's leadership:

Does it not remind you of the time in 2003 when Iain Duncan Smith bounded out of Central Office to tell the waiting media: "I'm in charge"?It was at that point that we all knew he was not. And so it goes for Ming.

Campbell was giving his interview in the knowledge that three Liberal parliamentary candidates had defected to the Conservative Party. Time was when everyone seemed to be defecting from the major parties to the Liberals, but Ming appears to have finally reversed that trend!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

MPs' Film Choice

Sky Movies have just published a poll of MPs' film choices, and the favourite film amongst our representatives is the blac and white war weepie, 'Casablanca'. I have to say it is one of the few things they seem to be getting right - Casablanca is an outstanding film, and still worth watching if you've never seen it - and, indeed, if you have. I'm not sure what it says about Tory MP's generally, though, that one of their favourite films is 'Carry On Up the Khyber'. Hmmm.

Grammars Are Best!

David Willetts, the Conservative Education spokesman, insists that the new, modernised Tories will not even look at the possibility of bringing back academic selection. The current 164 grammar schools are safe, but no more, he says. In this, he is on the same wavelength as the present government and the majority of received political wisdom.

For those of us who believe the grammar school is the best way of radically improving the English education system, then, the poll produced by the Centre for Policy Studies provides welcome support. It suggests that 73% of people think that a selective system is the best one available for academically able students, and would also help weaker children. The key thing about the grammar school system, of course, was that it provided the best opportunity for educational and social mobility, yet is now confined to a few middle class areas. It is odd that parties which claim to be looking for ways to improve opportunities for the most deprived youngsters in Britian should turn their backs on the one system that has a track record in thsi regard. Social engineering is ok it seems - and it lead to the comprehensive system - but not educational engineering.

The CPS Report can be found on their website here; the BBC report is here.