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.