Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Anti-Brown Rebels Thin on the Ground


The two Blairite loyalists, Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke, had hoped to wave the banner of defiance at Gordon Brown with their much heralded meeting at the House of Commons today for the launch of their new website, '2020 vision'. They invited Labour backbenchers to attend, and the clear implication was that for 'policy debate', read 'how do we stop Brown becoming leader'. Well, Labour MP's may be rattled by the current wave of opinion polls which show Cameron besting Brown, but they are clearly not prepared to bet anything on Brown doing anything other than winning the Labour leadership. A bare dozen of them turned up to the Clarke-Milburn, meeting today. Looks like Labour is still headed for a coronation.


For a report on the lacklustre meeting in 'The First Post', the internet's best paper, go here.

Burstow holds the Key to Coalition!


Well...nearly holds the key. Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell has told the 'Times' today that he has asked his chief whip, Sutton's own Paul Burstow, to prepare a report on how coalition talks are held. Clearly, Sir Ming is ready for power! But only in coalition with one party. His 'Times' interview (here) makes it clear that he has no time for David Cameron, but likes both Blair and Brown. Happy to criticise both Cameron and the Tory Party in his interview, he notably refrained from any criticism of the likely next Prime Minister, currently residing at No.11. Mind you, Ming should look out. The other day ambitious Liberal front bencher Nick Clegg announced that we 'shouldn't write Ming off'. Unfortunately, until he mentioned it, no-one during the interview had done anything of the sort!

Education? A Lottery?


Ten years after taking office, can there be a more blatant acknowledgement of the bankruptcy of this government's education policies than the decision to encourage entry by lottery? This is the latest wheeze emanating from the Department for Education, and one Labour council has picked it up - Brighton and Hove. The idea is for local authorities to allocate children to schools through a lottery. That way, you don't get to choose where to go, and some people can get forced to go to the bad school down the road whether they want to or not. It might, of course, have been more honourable - and certainly more in the spirit of can-do politics - to see what can be done to improve the state of schooling in those areas where it is seen to be failing. The lottery idea is simply an admission that improving education is no longer a part of education policy. All that matters now is social flattening.

Of course, there is an education system that seeks to improve students' opportunities regardless of social background, and which in the past proved one of the best engines of social mobility around. It's called the grammar school system, but unfortunately it worked - so had to be abolished! All that remains are the 164 lonely institutions standing atop their educational hills, ready to repel all-comers, Tory or Labour.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Executive Power


Executive Power never sounds quite so dramatic when used of a British Prime Minister rather than an American President. And yet the British PM has potentially considerably more domestic power at his disposable than the US president. Once elected, the Prime Minister is pretty well master of all he surveys. He (or, once, she) has his majority in the House of Commons, and there are no other institutions able to offer resistance to him between elections. Compare that with a president whose legislature is separately elected, who faces fixed terms in office, including mid-term elections that afflict him every two years, and whose domestic writ is limited by the notion of states' rights. Not for nothing did Lord Hailsham (when in Opposition of course) refer to the power of the British Prime Minister as that of an 'elective dictatorship'. But then we Brits like strong government don't we?

As we start the study of the Executive for Unit 2, a few links to get you going. Tutor2u has a fine presentation on the Executive in its Politics Revision Presentations section. The History Learning Site also has a good set of notes on the executive in British politics here. For up to date stories of how the current race for the top post in the executive is going, the Guardian's Special Report here is an excellent collection of news articles. Then, of course, there's Number 10's own website here - a tremendous example of online premiership and how new media is shaping the executive's ability to communicate.

More links to follow as I try to make this blog a bit more friendly for further research, but at least start off with those. Suggested reading, as ever, can be found on the politics website, while the key text is Peter Hennessy's substantial book The Prime Minister (copy in the school library - but not on Wednesday, as that's where the prospective deputy heads are being interviewed!)


A War Too Far



I'm not sure that tonight's instalment of Michael Cockerell's documentary on Tony Blair, 'The Inside Story', will have gained a huge number of student viewers, competing as it was with 'Life on Mars'. Nevertheless, it carried on the fascinating unfolding of a tragic tale that was begun last week. This week, the focus was on Blair's propensity for war. Infamously, this man who began his premiership with a speech that resounded with the words "We could be the first generation not to have to send our troops into battle", has sent his troops into battle no less than five times. They're still there of course - dying and suffering in the killing fields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

War was like a drug for Blair. The more he experienced it, the more he wanted it, on ever grander scales. The exhilaration of war, the absolute sense of rightness, the applause of liberated peoples - these were toxic mixes for a man who had never seen war first hand. What is even more fascinating is that in the first, very limited engagements, there was strong justification for his actions. He could argue that he helped bring Milosevic to the negotiating table over Kosovo; there was no doubt about the triumph in securing the release of British soldiers held hostage by Sierra Leone's vile 'West Side Boys'. But limited engagements are one thing - a war to change the world is another, and that is what Iraq was.
The problem for Blair was twofold. First, the more success experienced by British forces the more Blair seemed keen to use them on an ever wider canvas. Second, he had an unshakeable belief in the justice of his various causes. Cockerell edited a number of Blair's speeches and interviews together, and al lthe time that trite little phrase kept coming at us - "I believe I am right". As if somehow that is justification enough. Never mind the need for reasoned judgement, for the weighing up of options, for the realisation that the decision you take affects millions, for the ability to understand pragmatism and compromise in a murky world. "I believe I am right" is no real justification for fundamentally flawed actions, but it is all Blair has ever sought to give us.

I called Cockerell's three part documentary a tragedy, and there is no doubt that it is. Tony Blair has fallen far, even if he doesn't recognise it himself yet. The shiny optimism that greeted his arrival in office has soured into the recognition of his own grubby dealings, his own self-delusion, and his responsibility for untold chaos and ongoing slaughter. These are indeed the ingredients of tragedy.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Another Tory Policy - this time it's a new police force!


David Cameron has once again been developing his ever evolving policies. Today, he has announced plans to look at the setting up of a ‘border police’ to control Britain’s borders. This is one of his alternatives to the ID card scheme, which the Tories, finally admitting the logic of their liberal antecedents, are committed to scrapping. As ever, he has a big name to look into the policy implications – this time it is Lord Stevens, the former Met Police chief. The idea clearly has merit, particularly as it is aimed at an obvious problem – the arrival of undesirable elements into Britain by bypassing existing controls – and proposes rationalising a veritable smorgasbord of different agencies currently trying to deal with it (Inland Revenue, Customs, Immigration Service to name just three!).

Just as he moved in with ‘family’ comments in the wake of the South London teenage murders, so now Cameron is showing a pretty effective touch in dealing with domestic topics of high concern. He is not policy lite because he has no ideas – they are coming out at an increasing rate. He is policy lite because he doesn’t want to inhibit his room for manoeuvre in a dynamic political climate. A very Tory stance!

Cameron versus Brown


Back after the half term break, and I notice that an opinion poll from last Tuesday has been causing a bit of a stir in several of the print media (notably the Sunday Telegraph and the Economist). ICM’s Guardian poll showed that, in a head to head, David Cameron would beat Gordon Brown by 13%. A lead the like of which the Tories haven’t dreamed of in over a decade!

Now polls are notoriously fickle. When they are not utterly misleading (as in the 1992 General Election) they are the political equivalent of a weather-vane, and just as capable of turning rapidly many more times. Nonetheless, they are also indicative, and this poll at least shows up the problem that is coming for New Labour. On the one hand, they seem ever keener to get rid of their once popular, now discredited election winning leader. On the other, the runaway favourite to succeed him still has serious problems with his profile and popularity amongst the British – and especially English – public. No surprise that while the Tories were relatively restrained in their response on the poll, the Blairites (there are still some left) were using it to once again cast around for a way to stop the Brown juggernaut.

Gordon Brown will not be stopped, and neither should he be underestimated. But he does carry the baggage of government over the past decade and, extraordinarily, his actual vision and policies are still little understood. On the defining point of the Blair administration, the Iraq war, we still have little idea of where Brown stands – he headed for cover every time the issue entered public prominence. Nevertheless, he has not secured the most significant control over domestic policy ever wielded by a non-Prime Minister without reason, and his ambiguity over Iraq may yet prove a saving grace. The Tories certainly shouldn’t be cheering, but Labour is in for an uncertain post-Blair future.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Blair- The Inside Story

And just a brief comment to flag up Michael Cockerell's series on Tony Blair, which started last night on BBC 2. The first part of this three parter looked at the promise with which Blair came to power, and the quick souring of those dreams. His popularity remained high in that first term, but anyone who could would have have been able to spot the signs. Perhaps the most telling point was the interview with John Humphreys about the Bernie Ecclestone affair. This was when Blair described himself as a 'pretty straight sort of guy'. Cockerell likened his performance to that of the late Princess Diana, and the overall impact was dreadfully hammy. It is difficult to watch that again and take Blair at his own judgement. Next two parts are on Tuesdays at 9pm.

CCF Camp

Apologies for the failure to place the promised links here - the reason was the imminence of what turned out to be a successful CCF camp at Crowborough. Gordon Brown wants more CCF's, so is this what he is thinking of? The video of the camp is on Youtube here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Failing our Children?


Despite the contretemps, I'm not sure the Unicef report publicised today about the well-being of the world's children really is much of a shock. We are well used, in the UK, to being told our society is more violent, less kind, and generally more deeply unpleasant than anyone else's. A quick read of the BBC report on the report (so to speak) reveals the usual array of outrage and shame, and calls for the government to do something. Quite what is left less well defined.

In fact, the answer is less to do with government action and more to do with the nature of families. That we are a two-nation society in terms of the existence of stable families is not in doubt (and no, this is not a crude 2-parent versus 1-parent analogy - 'stable' involves a range of factors not necessarily dependent on number of parents!). The report merely highlights how substantial is the 'non-family' nation. And if in doubt, just consider why Holland tops the league - fewer young mothers in work and better family life.

Direct Democracy? How No. 10 is using the Web.


At the time of writing, some 1 million signatures have been added to a petition opposing a government proposal on road pricing. This is giving a substantial headache to the bright young - and hugely ambitious - Transport Minister, Douglas Alexander, and a lot of fun to everyone else, because of the fact that this very successful petition was started on none other than the No. 10 website. As part of its bid to develop an e-democracy the website developed an online petition facility - and the result has been extraordinary.

Is this a case of an idea exploding in the face of its creator? Or is it an example of how this government, so masterly in the arts of spin and PR, has found another way of channelling opposition where it wants. After all, in response, Tony Blair will be directly emailing the petitioners with his response - bypassing the normal media filter. The BBC's Nick Robinson is certainly a proponent of this theory, which he outlines briefly on his blog. And, of course, there's another factor - could this be the beginning of the development of online referendums? Once they become easy to stage, direct democracy via the net may be just a few steps away! That might delight the devotees of the Athens system, and appall the adherents of De Tocqueville!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Which is More Newsworthy - Cameron's Cannabis or Government Lies?


Well of course the big news is that David Cameron has been caught smoking cannabis....when he was 15, and at school. Of course this has huge political implications and is worth every inch of the extensive news coverage offered it this morning. Honestly! I don't much care for the image that is emerging about Cameron in this story and the earlier ones about his cannabis smoking at Oxford - rich toff, happy to break the law over stupid drug that the wealthy indulgent middle classes seem to love too much. But the fact is that he has never denied the story - so is not guilty of lying - and he is not taking a hard public line against cannabis - so is not guilty of hypocrisy. It may or may not tell us something about his moral fibre that he succumbed several times during his cosseted upbringing to taking this ridiculous substance, but it is no shattering news story, and not particularly germaine to whether or not he is adopting the right policies for his party, or is a credible alternative prime minister.

Of much more serious, and thus inevitably under-reported, substance are the further instances this week of government lying.

Instance No. 1 - the case of Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull. For years, the Ministry of Defence maintained that no tapes existed of the conversations between air traffic controllers and the American pilots whose 'friendly' fire killed Hull in Iraq. Surprise surprise, the very tapes that the government said didn't exist were fully reported, and heard, last week.

Instance No. 2 - the case of Bernard Matthews' Hungarian Birds. The Environment Secretary David Milliband last Monday told MPs that there was no link between the Bernard Matthews farm in Suffolk and Hungary, where there had been a case of avian flu. Dear me. Now, today, Mr. Milliband acknowledges that the government knew perfectly well that Matthews was importing birds from Hungary but was unable to stop it.

Lying, sadly, has become the preferred modus operandi of this government. Peter Oborne, a trenchant right-wing critic, spent considerable time amassing the different lies told by the government since it came to power, in his book 'The Rise of Political Lying'. Of course, governments have long been accused of misleading the public, but the Blair operation has taken it to new and tragic levels. Tony Blair, after all, was prepared to lie to the Cabinet, the Commons and the public about the need for an invasion of Iraq, with palpably tragic long term consequences for that country, and the increased vulnerability of this country to terrorism.

The story of the boy who cried wolf once too often has a resonance for the government. Last week, amidst much media fanfare that can only have been the result of assiduous leaking by the government, the police arrested several muslim terrorist suspects in Birmingham, with the full details of what they were suspected of appearing in most newspapers. Three of those detained have since been released without charge. The Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, has asked the Home Secretary whether his special advisers gave off the record briefings about the case. (Michael Portillo writes revealingly about this in today's Sunday Times).

Even in instances of serious terror operations, it seems, we cannot trust the government. And that is a truly terrible state of affairs for a liberal nation.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Lords Reform

Work is currently being done on the presentations for Tuesday, so I will leave a detailed post on this key topic until we have heard those. Pre-empting the presentations, Mr. Daly has already posted his thoughts here.

Cameron and his party

An interesting observation from a Tory friend who has attended some party events recently. Two of them were held by candidates who have been selected to fight seats at the next election. Surprisingly, at both events, there was the singular omission of David Cameron's name in any of the speeches. The third event featured the Tory leader himself. Here, during a bland speech, he was regularly heckled by his invited Tory audience.

Now this is but a small sample, but if it is in any way typical it signifies an extraordinary gulf between Cameron and his party. His blandness might also suggest that he himself is uninterested in the party membership. Certainly, the admittedly self-selecting contributors to the Conservative Home site seem to endorse this image of a leader who has no emotional connection with his grassroots. What impact that has remains to be seen, but it is a useful observation.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Russian Revolution

Hardly contemporary politics, but to those who went to hear the lectures on the Russian Revolution I have now set up a separate history blog to dicuss them, and perhaps add other historically related material later. The blog is here, and linked at the side.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

America's Long Election


The next US Presidential election is not until November 2008, but the race to find George W. Bush's much anticipated successor has already seized several headlines. This is partly a function of the American electoral system anyway, but there is a sense of desperation as people already look towards the culmination of the dismal Bush years.

In the Democrat camp, the two current front runners represent belated social advances in the top political sphere. To have a woman candidate (Clinton) and a black candidate (Obama) fighting it out for one of the party's top spots is unprecedented. Meanwhile, the Republican nomination also remains open, with frontrunner John McCain handicapped by the age factor (he would be even older than Ronald Reagan on assuming office) and, more seriously, by his support for more forces in Iraq. He thus faces an increasingly strong challenge from former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but Giuliani has sufficient issues to make his ability to consistently take the Republican lead far from certain. And, of course, with just under 2 years still to go, we coud all still be waiting for that unknown candidate to emerge - a bit like Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter.

There is, of course, no better or more entertaining insight into American politics than the recently finished series 'West Wing', whose seventh and final season was devoted to following a fictional presidential campaign. You could tell it was fiction, of course, as both candidates were men of honour and integrity. That could never really happen, surely?

The Islamicist Threat


As well as the Tory Party's own recent pronouncements on militant Islamicism, where Cameron likened some groups to the BNP, two other conservative commentators have written articles about the issue. On Conservative Home, a website that increasingly reflects a more right-wing stance on policy issues, the MP Paul Goodman has written an article urging British Muslims to reject their extremist co-religionists, while Times columnist Minnette Marrin lists 16 action points to take against extreme Islam in today's Sunday Times. At the time of writing, the Times blog was down, but Conservative Home have reprinted the salient part of the Marrin article.

Cameron Keeps Right on Europe


There seem to have been definite moves by David Cameron to appease his right-wing base recently. Not only have the Tories taken a harder line on Islamicism and its threat, but there has been a noticeable keenness to gain back some of the UKIP vote. The UKIP vote deprived the Tories of the chance of winning a significant number of seats at the last election (including, locally, Carshalton and Wallington), and it may be a consideration on Cameron's part to allow his right-wing the sop of Euroscepticism in an otherwise modernising Tory Party.

In the Sunday Telegraph today David Cameron launches an attack on fellow right-winger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's attempt to revive the European Constitution. His Defence Spokesman Liam Fox, meanwhile, fresh from a week chumming up with the Americans to restore Toryism's Atlanticist credentials, has called for UKIP supporters to vote Tory. In a GMTV interview this morning, Fox said, "There's only one party that's going to take Britain in the direction that those who vote Ukip would like to see, that is standing up more for Britain's interests, making sure that the decision that effect the British people are made here in the UK. That's the Conservative Party."

Euroscepticism is one of the few Thatcherite shibboleths that Cameron has left in place. As the issue that tore the party apart under John Major he may have decided that he could not afford to open up a war on this front while he seeks to alter much of the rest of the party's mindset. It is also probably that he is an instinctive eurosceptic himself. Even so, it will be difficult to appease right-wing anger. Long-time sceptic and Telegraph columinst Christopher Booker has penned a piece for the Freedom Association's website. In it he attacks Cameron on every front for failing to adopt proper right-wing policies, not least on Europe, where he claims voters are looking for a party to "uphold Britain's national interest, as we suffocate under the malfunctioning system of government represented by the European Union."

Booker's piece is a fascinating bit of right-wing doublethink, as most of the flaws that he angrily cites about British politics arguably had their genesis in the Thatcher years - but more of that in time! Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether Cameron can hold modernisation in one hand and still cater to the eurosceptics with the other. The two are not easy partners.