Monday, April 30, 2007

Blair - ism or no ism?

Just days before he goes from No.10 altogether (probably late next week, according to Norman Smith on 'Today' today), the debate about whether Tony Blair offered us a significant new political ideology, or a brilliantly restructured version of an old one, is starting to get going. After all, Thatcher has Thatcherism, so what about Blairism?

What indeed. Read that new Clause 4 again and decide whether or not someone who could authorise such a woolly load of nonsense really deserves any credibility as a political thinker. Blair has been a remarkable Prime Minister, there is no doubt. His instinctive feel for the popular mood (especially after Diana's death crash), his brilliant and ruthless re-casting of the Labour Party, his unprecedented majorities in three successive elections - these mark him out. As, of course, on the debit side, does his notorious, self-destructive, vainglorious decision for war in Iraq. This is a man whose decade-long premiership will certainly be pored over, analysed, criticised and praised for many more decades to come. Good or bad, Blair matters. But the fact that he matters shouldn't lull us into believing he has some sort of ideological depth. The jury is still out on Thatcher, in fact, with some political scientists claiming that she, too, was no ideological innovator - and whatever the conclusion there, I would certainly argyue that she has a greater claim to her 'ism' than Blair does to one of his own.

Simon Jenkins, former 'Times' editor, and current political columnist, argues against awarding Blair such credit in this recent article here. Jenkins, of course, has recently authored 'Sons of Thatcher', counting Blair as one of them (alongside the more obvious Tory leaders). In reply, more briefly, political scientist and textbook author Bill Jones outlines the case for giving more credit to Blair on his blog here. Read, join the debate, make up your minds.

[Image courtesy of andy at]

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Brown and Cameron in Shock Announcements

Gordon Brown was making headlines today with his shock announcement that the May elections are a verdict on the whole Labour party, and that he has played a small role in the government to date and is therefore partly responsible for whatever verdict may occur.

David Cameron, meanwhile, has challenged everyone with his belief that he has changed the Conservative Party for the better and is now in a position to win elections. The BBC reports his stunning views here.

On Saturday, meanwhile, the big news was that Folkestone was not destroyed by a minor earth tremor (full story and eyewitness account, go to the my space blog, linked opposite).

Oh, and elsewhere in the world, over a million Turks have rallied against their nominated president and in defence of the secular state; global rallies are being held about Darfur; the Israelie prime minister is under pressure to resign; Sri Lankan rebels have bombed the capital, Colombo; and Iran will be joining the US at a conference to discuss stabilising Iraq.

You will find the new link to Al Jazeera News, a global concern, in the list opposite.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Story of a Bill

An update about the current state of David MacLean's Freedom of Information Bill is here. This is the private members' bill that is tacitly supported by the government and which its opponents, led by indefatigable Lib Dem Norman Baker, are trying to kill by 'talking out'.

Constitutional Vandalism?

The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, gave a significant interview with the 'Today' programme on Tuesday, concerning the radical proposal to split the Home Office in two and effectively create a new Ministry of Justice. The interview is worth listening to in full, and is available on the Today programme website (Listen Again section - look for Tuesday 23rd. April), and also here, on the BBC News site. He gives a measured but alarming view of the constitutional propriety of the way in which this 'reform' is being undertaken. His main issue is both the lack of deliberation - it has not been debated by parliament - and the impact of such a reform upon individual liberty. One of his key points was this:

"There has been no debate. Parliament has not considered this, but it is going to apparently happen on 9 May.
"I really think with our constitutional arrangements, we should be more careful about how these matters are dealt with.
"We have no written constitution which is entrenched and our constitution works through checks and balances and it is very important that if we are starting to alter the framework of checks and balances, that the matter is looked at carefully."

With these comments, he not only gets to the heart of the problem with this current reform but also, arguably, with the whole way in which this government chooses to do business. Listen and make up your own minds.

New Lessons from Old Places

The annual visit to Parliament - courtesy of our obliging MP - once again produced revelation and stimulation in equal measure! I found myself corrected on the vexed issue of whether justice is blind - as Malka so rightly pointed out, justice, in England, can see! And I discovered that the 'new' position of Lord Speaker has in fact been held by Lady Hayman all these long months past!

I always enjoy these visits, although the old hankering to be there as an elected representative of the people has waned somewhat over the years. Nevertheless, who wouldn't feel a little jolt of xenophobic pride as we walk past the huge, triumphant pictures of Trafalgar and Waterloo, designed to make any French visitor feel thoroughly welcome. Then there's the joy of walking through the division lobbies and realising there is something to be said for open voting and archaic systems. And there's the 'spot a famous face' game in the Central Lobby, although this year we just got the merest glimpse of an as ever startled looking Ed Milliband - startled because a group of rowdy students all gawped over and said 'That's Ed Milliband'! Which was superfluous, because I think he knew he was Ed Milliband already.

The Q and A with Paul Burstow, too, flowed smoothly and in varied fashion across a range of topics. I always appreciate the fact that he books a committee room for us, adding a little atmosphere to our annual get togethers, and for a man who also endured the SGS Careers Fair, this is constituency MP-ing at its finest. Bear in mind, too, that Mr. Burstow, not sated by student conversation in the morning, later went on to attend a public speaking function in the constituency to hear the likes of Year 10's Ed McDonagh speaking their hearts out. Ed's topic was about tomatoes - fruit or veg? - so possibly not the most demanding political issue to be heard by our MP that day.

I doubt many of the questions caught Mr. Burstow by surprise - with the possible exception of Matt's unashamed lobbying for the youth centre and his Critical Learning critique of the recent Lib Dem questionnaire - but there's no doubt we got some interesting responses. On Des Browne, that his admitting a mistake might be seen to breathe new life into the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, certainly challenged some preconceived notions; early comments on the need for modernising Commons procedures added to our consideration of this issue; and Joe's question about where he sits in the Commons provoked more interest than we might have expected! Actually, while the questioning on constitutional and parliamentary issues is certainly useful, it is a regret of mine that we don't ask a bit more about the 'life of an MP' - i.e. the nuts and bolts of parliamentary representation. Next time, perhaps.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Cameron's Conservatism - Another Hint

David Cameron has given us another glimpse of what his brand of conervatism is. The BBC report on his speech about civic responsibility is here, while the comment of one conservative blogger, claiming that Cameron's speech should help set the conservative doubters' minds at rest, is here.

The Right Resurgent.....In France

So its Sarko versus Sego. The French presidential election steps up a pace with the final two contenders being, as predicted, right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royale. Royale is a rhetorical Blairite who isn't too keen to expound her policies in full, needing to triumph on a kinder, pleasanter presentational platform. Sarkozy scares the crap out of many Frenchmen, but clearly as many or more believe he offers the right medicine to break with France's perceived decline of the past couple of decades. There is no Sarkozy equivalent in British politics today - it was probably Thatcher in the 70s, offering a stark medicine to end Britain's stuttering economy. Maybe that's why the French look askance at the Sarko remedy - they know they need it, but they are fearful of the consequences. Thatcher, after all, wrenched the British economy, and society, into a new age, but the birth pangs were considerable - soaring unemployment, riot-torn inner cities, and perhaps an alienated population that still chafes the edges of society today.

Another politician who believed in shock treatment for his nation was the late Boris Yeltsin, the first non-communist president of Russia, who died today. Yeltsin was an extraordinary figure. Standing atop that tank, ordering the army to fire on the parliament building, he may have saved Russia's post-communist revolution. He certainly upstaged the besieged Gorbachev, who didn't survive long after. But what did Yeltsin give Russia afterwards? Economic shock therapy that masively enriched a few, and cast many more into poverty. One of the dirtiest of modern wars in Chechnya, still ongoing. A dizzying succession of prime ministers and finally, an ex-spy as his successor. Putin, not very democratic but certainly a lot more stable than his mentor, may in fact be Yeltsin's most popular legacy for the Russian people, which speaks volumes for Yeltsin's achievements.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Not The 9 O'Clock News - Conservative Conference

Is this what David Cameron would like voters to forget? A close to the knuckle sketch from the satirical programme 'Not the 9 o'clock News' gives a popular view of the Tory grassroots, portrayed by Rowan Atkinson, in its 80's heyday. Problem was - many Tories agreed with the Atkinson character!

If the video isn't here, you can find it on you tube here.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Dumbing Down Question Time

The worst decision taken by 'Question Time's' producers was to have a celeb non-politician on the panel. Tonight it's an actress called Jan Ravens, who has just managed a supremely inarticulate answer on Gordon Brown and pensions. After saying she goes to sleep at the mention of pensions, she burbled something about inflation and then managed 'Gordon Brown's been really good'. And that's the limit of her profound political insight. There are politics set members who could do better....!!

The wretched Ravens continued to cover herself in ignominy with what fellow panellist Bruce Anderson rightly called 'cheap and nasty' comments about the Royal Family, whom one presumes she's never met. There was also, however, a good question about whether, following the Des Browne survival, the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility was dead. Sadly, the collective wisdom of the panel failed really to deal with this issue, although Ed Miliband did manage to suggest that he thought it wasn't dead, but that you couldn't expect ministers to resign over every mistake made. Which isn't really the issue, is it.

The Tory Mayoral Fiasco

David Cameron has today announced the Tory Party's timetable for selecting its London mayoral candidate. He is committed to an 'open primary' for selecting the candidate. In other circumstances, this would be an interesting and quite exciting move for the Tories - they've been using open primaries for some of their candidate selections and this should have given their mayoral race a boost. Alas, today's announcement comes after their latest attempt to bypass the local candidates altogether and find a decent high-profile candidate - as noted below, this was meant to be Greg Dyke, for a few seconds anyway. Such shenanigans hardly inspire confidence in Francis Maude's statement that "This timetable is the beginning of the end of Ken Livingstone's London reign." Livingstone is resting easy tonight I think!

Apocalyptic Fiction?

- Massive population displacement as a result of global warming;
- Urban wars fought in lawless mega-cities;
- High-tech conflicts fought on land, sea, in the air and in space;
- A selfish younger generation of Europeans supporting euthanasia to offset the costs of an aging population;
- Dictators increasing their life-spans with 'age-mitigation' drugs;
- And the middle-classes become the revolutionary class.

Subject matter from a particularly over-the-top futurist novel? Er, no actually. All of those scenarios appear in the nattily titled 'Global Strategic Trends Programme 2007-2037', as produced by that well known popular author, the MoD's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. So, if you want really apocalyptic forecasts, ditch the fiction, and just pick up your local MoD forecast! Read more in the First Post here!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

'I'm Not Running' - The Big New Story

We seem to be so desperate for serious competiton for democratic leadership, that when high profile individuals declare they are NOT running, it becomes a major news story! David Milliband must have denied interest in running for the Labour leadership against Gordon Brown on dozens of occasions, but such denials have failed to quash the desire of some Labourites and all of the media for him to offer himself for such a contest. Now, however, he has absolutely, definitely announced he has no interest in running, and has taken the serious step of telling this to Nick Robinson. So it must be true! Labour is on an inevitable course towards the coronation of Gordon Brown as leader and prime minister, and they (and we) had better jolly well live with it!

The Tories, meanwhile, are themselves getting ever more concerned about their inability to produce a decent candidate to challenge Ken Livingstone for the mayoralty of London. Livingstone is increasingly damaged goods, and it speaks volumes about the state of the Tory Party, even in its renaissance form under Cameron, that it cannot produce a single credible, high profile candidate against the man. Their appalling dilemma reared its head in a story that started and finished today, about Greg Dyke being mooted as a possible joint Conservative/Lib Dem candidate. I'm not sure which is dafter - the idea that the man behind Roland Rat could be a credible candidate for mayor, or the thought that the Tories and Liberals might unite behind a single candidate! It's a funny old world, as Mrs. Thatcher remarked upon being kicked out of No. 10 and before she started harping on about treachery!

Blogging a Massacre

There is little to add to the acres of coverage about the shootings at Virginia Tech. You could go back and watch Michael Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine' and then ask why nothing's changed; you could wonder why American politicians, from the president down, wring their hands over such events and proceed to do precisely nothing about the principal element of American society - gun ownership - which makes such repetitions inevitable. In news terms, however, the First Post carries an interesting article about how the event represents the coming of age of 'Citizen Journalism'. The first reports, and the first images and even movies, came from ordinary students who quickly recoursed to mobiles and internet blogs to record what was happening. Their alacrity left the mainstream media lagging considerably. There is a fascinating immediacy and primacy about such reports but, as is also noted in the article, such citizen journalism carries no form of perspective - no editing, not much judgement, just raw, chaotic, event driven narrative. On reflection, not so different from 24 hour news then.

Top image from 'First Post'

The Two Brown(e)s

Desmond Browne defended himself over the Iran hostages crisis on Monday, while Gordon Brown defended himself over the pensions decision he took ten years ago yesterday. Both Commons events had some interest, and showed that the old chamber still represents the key arena for political combat in Britain, both performances told us something of the men who gave them, and both ended with predictable results.

The Defence Secretary's performance was a stolid, uninspiring and rather mealy mouthed one. Nick Robinson, in his blog entry about it, suggested it showed that a minister could survive a mistake by apologising for it and moving on. The reality was that Browne made it clear he hated admitting any responsibility, only owned up to his mistake after nearly a week in which he used all sorts of verbal contortions to try and suggest it wasn't his fault really, and finally had a grudging 'sorry' forced from his lips only after using the dreadful formula that he had expressed "a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology" (see Simon Hoggart's excellent sketch here). Given the clarity of the Defence Department's own rule book about the Defence Secretary's responsibility for the decision regarding the sale of the hostages' stories, this is one case where ministerial responsibility should certainly have resulted in resignation. But nothing doing. That little convention is as dead as it gets.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, is busy trying to shore up shares in Brown-for-PM, and his latest effort has been to defend himself in a Commons debate called by the Tories to attack his handling of the pensions issue. Most professionals involved in the pensions industry have been scathing of Brown's 1997 decision to scrap tax relief on pensions for years, and are confident that the calamitous results of his decision are yet to be seen. It is perhaps a sign of how feeble the Tories have been over the last decade that they have so signally failed to launch any useful attack on him until now, and are only on the attack now because of the media's digging around on this issue. Brown is becoming fair game for several media outlets (excepting the 'Sun' of course, which remains committed to New Labour) in view of his likely unchallenged assumption of the premiership. Defending himself in the Commons yesterday, he gave a hectoring performance, using his trademark over-familiarity with statistics to bamboozle the Opposition. He won the vote of course - that's what a Labour majority is for after all. And he rather dominated his Tory opposite number, George Osborne, who still doesn't really convince as a prospective alternative chancellor. If we were looking for signs of a new, more self-doubting Brown, then the most recent debate certainly didn't provide it.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Back to Business

The political scene has certainly not been quiet over the past couple of weeks. Easter has been an excellent break for some - I've hit the ski slopes (literally, too often!) with more luck than judgement, then endured the Pennines in a rare but wonderful heatwave - but pity poor Mr. Des Browne. As Easter started, it looked as if the worst crisis he had faced in his short and undistinguished career as Defence Secretary had at least ended well, with the release of the British naval hostages by Iran. Alas, the beast of spin got in the way, Mr. Browne exercised a poor, if entirely typical, level of judgement, and now his position looks increasingly untenable. He is due to make a Commons statement tomorrow. This is classic 'when should ministers resign' territory, and well worth noting for the upcoming AS exam. It is unlikely that Mr. Browne will resign - that simply doens't happen in this government. But can he last?

Meanwhile, the other Mr. Brown, the one without an 'e', has been meeting a president. Apparently, Mr. Bush asked to see him, not the other way around! Not that many prescient people would relish being in Mr. Bush's company these days, but Gordon Brown's own reputation has been taking a battering recently, so he needs any friend he can get. As to Labour leadership battles, I doubt very much whether the much touted Mr. Miliband will stand, but former Tory would-be leader Michael Portillo offers some advice in his Sunday Times column today.

David Cameron gave an interview to Gordon Brown admirer Andrew Marr this morning and (although I'm biased here) acquitted himself well. Tony Blair has been talking up his legacy with the BBC, and all eyes are now focused on the upcoming devolved assembly elections, with the SNP likely to win in Scotland and present a serious headache for the future of the three hundred year old union, to say nothing of the Scottish premier in waiting!

Whether a minister should resign, leadership battles, devolution crises, watershed elections, a prime minister's legacy...great times in which to return to the study of politics and prepare for exams!