Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Present

" A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

These words are from over two and a half thousand years ago, a Jewish prophet giving a stark warning to the doomed people of Judah. They are quoted by the gospeller Matthew in his account of the nativity. They could be the words used of any number of places in the world today. The lamentations of mothers weeping for their children in the Congo, in Zimbabwe, in the Gaza strip, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Or what about the mothers of teenagers killed by knives in London, the mother of Rhys Jones, the mother of Rachel Davies, killed by an airgun shot to the eye?
Matthew quoted those words after describing Herod's massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem aged two and under. The historical veracity of the story is awkward in fact, but the meaning is clear enough. The birth of the saviour - of God come to Earth - is placed firmly in a flawed world of murder, corruption, lies and power abuse. The only other writer to tell the nativity story is the gospeller Luke. He has a poor family at the mercy of greater political events, forced to take refuge in the most basic of shelters, and visited by such marginalised figures as shepherds from the hillside. There is much that I take from the nativity narratives (the flawed nature of man; the subversive reversal of roles as those whom the world calls great become marginal, and those whom the world marginalises come to the centre of the stage; the ultimate belief that be he ever so lost God still reaches out to mankind) but their firm rootedness in a world which is so recognisable today is what still gives them their immediacy. Forget the crappy music and tedious jollity, and go back to two short accounts that encapsulate the whole of the gospel story.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Clangers Explain Politics

This is an absolute gem. The legend who was Oliver Postgate died last week. He was the creator of brilliant children's programmes like Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine and the Clangers. Courtesy of the Political Betting blog, I came across this link to a Clangers episode in which the joys of democracy are explained to them. "Who's in charge of the Clangers planet?" asks Postgate, the narrator, and the Clangers shake their heads. "There you are then, that's the cause of all your troubles." Know just how they feel....

Flames and Facebook

And the big news from Surrey this rainy morning is that Waitrose in Banstead has been destroyed by a fire. Flames swept the building last night, and comments swept facebook almost as quickly, which happened to be where I first heard about it. This, of course, is because Waitrose is the hub of so much life in Banstead and the surrounding area, and SGS has its share of commitment to it, from sixth form workers arranging the now burnt out vegetable shelves, to members of staff doing their weekly shop. What will they all do with Christmas just around the corner? Facebook, meanwhile, proves its worth as a useful community news tool.

Leaking Like a Sieve

They may have been anxious to arrest Tory MP Damian Green, but the Met might find itself busy with more senior figures in Parliament and Westminster. Downing Street is already in trouble over the release of knife crime data that statisticians didn't want in the public domain as a result of its 'misleading' and 'selective' nature. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, meanwhile, found her comments to what she presumably thought was a secure meeting of the Cabinet doing the media rounds yesterday. She warned about possible cholera threats from incoming Zimbabwean refugees. The possible leaker? Step forward David Miliband, Foreign Secretary and one-time contender for the party leadership. The Foreign Office thinks the comments might help them in their campaign to tighten up on immigration.

Lembit's Column

OK, I missed this news earlier this week, but everyone's favourite funny man - and occasional Lib Dem MP - has strengthened his political credentials with a new political column - in the Daily Sport. Lembit is the paper's only political columnist, and for those who don't know the paper's usual ouevre, his Westminster wisdom will appear alongside such gems as "Sexy Photo Shoot and Porn Star Chris", "Sexy Santas Visit Daily Sport Office", and "Sport Babes Blag Free Sausages". He must be very proud.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Pressure Groups Strike Again

And, right on cue for a discussion of the impact of pressure groups in the UK, those lovely people from 'Plane Stupid' hit the headlines this morning with their tactic of annoying lots of Ryanair passengers and clearing the skies above Stansted of carbon monoxide for a few hours this morning. Read, mark and learn.

Brown and Sarkozy - the Lemmings

Gordon Brown, still acting out his role as the economic seer of the western world, is meeting French president Nikolas Sarkozy at Downing Street for a business summit to determine how to spend more taxpayer's money. Not invited is Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor, who has determined that Germany will not follow the lead of the "lemmings" and will instead seek to maintain a balanced budget. The BBC's Mark Mardell reports on this European difference of opinion on the 'Today' programme here (go to the 0723 piece). Amongst the points made are the reminder that Germany still harbours a fear of the impact of too much government fiscal irresponsibility leading to catastrophic inflation. A historical anomaly, or a good guide to government prudence? Merkel may not be as out of step with public opinion as her European fellows think.

Mardell's written piece is on his blog here.

Primary School Teaching

The report produced by Sir Jim Rose today has all the hallmarks of a real dog's dinner that could, if implemented, once again plunge primary teaching into a morass of modernist ideas that somehow fail to take account of the need for a systematic, knowledge based foundation to children's learning. The reason that we are failing to meet primary education targets may not be because the curriculum isn't wacky enough; it may be because the foundations of it require more rigorous teaching. That said, Sir Jim is anyway barking up the wrong tree. So all encompassing is the nanny state that even quite intelligent people apparently need step by step guidance on key issues of living. In my own school - a selective secondary for boys who have demonstrated some reasonable level of intellect - notices have been appearing in all the toilets with a 6-step guide to how to wash your hands properly. Thank goodness. I was wondering when this key issue would be properly addressed.

Soon to come - 7 steps to breathing unaided; putting one foot in front of the other and repeating - we call it walking; and an 8 page guidance note on sitting in plastic moulded chairs. All courtesy of the Health Protection Agency.

The Speaker's Fantasy World

Today sees a debate in the House of Commons on the Damian Green affair. Extraordinarily, the Speaker, Michael Martin, who has seen his already low stock fall through the floor over this affair, allowed his office to put out the suggestion at the weekend that he was ready to serve a third term as Speaker, through the next parliament. With even the Labour Leader of the House, Harriet Harman, refusing to give him her support, Martin must indeed be living in a pleasant fantasy world, far away from the need to understand his role as guaranteur of the Commons' liberties. The only Speaker to date to have allowed the police to search an MP's office, and then to try and pass the blame to another Commons official, to say nothing of his eccentric chairmanship of Commons debates, Martin has indeed been a prominent - if too often ridiculous - figure.

Desperate Labour figures are also trying to get him to stand down as an MP, suggesting that his son could take over the Glasgow seat he represents. Good to see Labour's strong commitment to inherited political power remains as strong as ever - their last foray into offspring elections was the disaster of Crewe and Nantwich, when they thought that the daughter of the late Labour MP was just the person to take it on. The People's Party strikes again!

"All Political Careers End in Failure"

So said Enoch Powell, and few have disagreed with him. I went at the weekend to see a Vaclav Havel play on this theme, "Leaving", at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Havel was, for those who don't know, a dissident playwright and poet under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. He was a key human rights activist, suffering prison terms for his pains, but when the 'Velvet Revolution' came along, Havel was one of the leading figures, and eventually became his country's first post-communist president. He stayed as president through the country's break-up into two republics, and was a much feted figure. He stood down in 2003, being succeeded by a man, Vaclav Klaus, who he did not have much regard for. His play was about the disappointment of life after office, and the emptiness of what passes for politics. Based around the departure from office of a European Chancellor (kept deliberately nationally vague), Havel managed to convey the impotence of would-be 'great men', whilst also being thoroughly subversive about the form of plays. Melancholic though the subject matter was, Havel injected considerable humour, even farce, into his work, as well as pastiching King Lear at one point. It was a gem of a production, and whatever historians say about Havel's political achievements, I suspect his written work will stand the test of time, informed as they are by his extraordinary career.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

No Cheer for the Speaker

Have just been enjoying some seasonal music at the school concert. It was certainly brave of the orchestra to try Mozart's Figaro overture, and for the most part they appeared to be using most of the notes that he originally put into the piece, even if they weren't always in exactly the same order (As Eric Morecambe might have said). Nevertheless, Christmas cheer may have been present in the hallowed halls of the school concert, but there remains precious little in evidence in the House of Commons. The Speaker's inglorious defence of his position yesterday, where he sought to pass the buck firmly to the Serjeant at Arms and the police, appears to have won him few friends, as Leader of the House Harriet Harman rather unhelpfully failed to give him her full backing. The First Posts's Westminster 'Mole' has uncovered a tale of such duplicity that it is becoming difficult to pin down who is misleading whom!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Feminine Touch in Parliament

Jill Pay is the first woman to hold the prestigious office of Serjeant at Arms in the House of Commons. The blame for the raid on MP Damian Green's office is also now being shifted over to her from the ever chivalrous office of the Speaker. Certainly it appears to have been Pay's office who allowed the police in, believing, apparently, that the raid had been authorised by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The office of Serjeant at Arms has hitherto been held by some high ranking former military man. The sort of person unlikely to allow himself to be intimidated by a mere police request. I wonder if the problem for Jill Pay is not that she has struck a blow for feminism in holding this office, but that she lacks the authority and sheer bloody mindedness that often comes with having held a high military position, and which would have served so well in this recent instance?

Police Politics

Paul Stephenson, acting Met. Commissioner, and Bob Quick, head of the anti-terrorist unit, have both put their names forward to be permanent heads of the Metropolitan Police in succession to the ill fated Ian Blair. Experienced, well qualified policemen, they have something else in common. Both played significant roles in authorising the arrest of Tory frontbench MP Damian Green, thus creating a storm around the Met yet again.

It is true that the head of the Met should be apolitical in terms of party or ideological adherence. But he cannot be apolitical in terms of appreciating the consequences of his actions, and those of the Met as a whole. The London police chief has to work with politicians of different stripes (just take the Home Secretary and Mayor of London as two of the most significant), to say nothing of a range of politically diverse community groups. He also has to be canny enough to appreciate the impact of media responses on public attitudes to police work. It seems that Stephenson and Quick both fall at these hurdles. It will, however, be fascinating to see if the Home Secretary summons up her courage to appoint one of them regardless - possibly Stephenson - thus bearing out the conspiratorial view that some have of the recent action which is to believe that the senior police officers cannot have been acting without tacit political approval, and may even have been hoping to curry favour. After all, it is not so long ago that John Scarlett was made head of MI6 as a reward for his supine subservience to the political requirements of Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair when they needed an excuse to invade Iraq. The fact that the intelligence services have still not recovered their credibility is an ominous sign of things to come for the Met unless they find a genuinely non-partisan chief.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Where were Jack and Harriet?

Jack Straw and Harriet Harman were originally advertised to speak at today's politics extravaganza, but sadly were unable to attend. Now it appears they may have spent the day much more profitably, setting up a meeting to discuss the Speaker's forthcoming statement to the House. Not that they wanted the Tories to know of course. Iain Dale produces the leaked email, and is presumably now waiting for the boys in blue to pop round.

Crowd Pleasing and Reminiscing - the Sixth Form Politics Conference.

The man who briefly held the title of Viscount Stansgate, before resorting to the much plainer and more socialist sounding Tony Benn, has been a fixture at these sixth form politics conferences in Westminster Central Hall for a few years now. In fact, though, he has been an occasional fixture at this magnificent building - established to praise a deity Benn respects in the abstract but doesn't believe in - for nearly half a century, as he was keen to remind us. He was there in 1945 when Clement Attlee won the General Election - Labour's first majority win. He remembers the first meeting of the UN General Assembly in those hallowed portals. And so began a day when some of the speakers seemed keener to repeat each other's significant historical memories than to pester us with new and original political thinking.

Rabble Rousing George Galloway wanted to remind us that it was 50 years to the day that Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus - the bit where black people had to be in far off America. Would-be rabble rouser Nick Clegg also had a bit of history to tell us - did we know it was 50 years to the day since Rosa Parks........ Clegg also wanted us to know that the UN General Assembly had met here for the first time. Well, I guess if you are speaking in the afternoon session, and you can't think of any original lines for your sixth form audience, there's a chance you may end up repeating the morning speakers' bon mots. But at least in endorsing a reduction in the voting age to 16 Clegg was putting forward a unique and cutting edge idea to this receptive audience of, er, 16 and 17 year olds. If you don't count Tony Benn. Or George Galloway. Or Lembit Opik. Actually, let's not count Lembit Opik, but more on him later.

Then there was the hovering presence of an MP who we'd never heard of before the weekend, who was never booked to speak, but whose name was invoked by every speaker as if they were intoning the arrival of a new political martyr. Nothing has become Damian Green's career as much as the 9 hours spent under arrest at the behest of an over-zealous police force. Perhaps nothing will again. But he can at least be proud that he has united such diverse figures as George Galloway, William Hague, Tony Benn and Nick Clegg around the hallowed cause of parliamentary self-importance.

So perhaps today wasn't much of a forum for new ideas, but it gave us all a chance to hear some big names and reflect on what it is that gets people to the top in politics - or at any rate, fairly near the top; or at least, nearer the top than the bottom, where some of us languished before abandoning the whole idea.

I'll post some more detailed thoughts on some of the participants in due course, but a quick summary can suffice here for now. Tony Benn - the People's Tony - remains a winning speaker whose passionate idealism has never, over a long and rumbustuous political career, translated itself into effective practical action of any sort. He got lots of cheers from the assembled youths, many of whom would have had trouble picking him out in an identity parade, but he reminded us that idealism is still a powerful force. His message? "Have confidence in yourselves". Not a brilliantly original message, but it met a positive response.

Rhodri Morgan, Wales' First Minister, gave a thoughtful speech about the impact of devolution - probably the only speech of the day that actually dealt specifically with a key component of the AS level course. As such, most students lost concentration, and I was a bit worried he wasn't going to get any questions at all until some weird, uber confident student with glasses made a bit of an anti-Wales rant. Brought the house down, that one.[CORRECTION: The consensus from attendees is that this was not a student but a teacher, which might also explain the strange first comment in the Comments section!]

Then William Hague. He's good. He earns thousands for his after dinner routine. This gig was a walk in the park. He gave a few non-partisan thoughts before launching into a vigorous attack on the government as "the most incompetent government of modern times". Given the rush of students to the microphones to ask him questions, you might have thought one or two googlies would be bowled but not a bit of it. There was nothing Billy the Kid couldn't handle with his arms tied behind his back and his eyes shut. The nearest we came to anything remotely challenging was a sad looking individual who told Will that "I would never waste my vote on you". So that's clear then. Excellent.

As William cleared off to another, presumably more lucrative, engagement, onto the stage, relishing the mixed reception, came the much anticipated George Galloway. He's a monstrous figure; a charlatan of the first order; a man whose principles can be summed up as the furtherance of the ego of George Galloway. But he is entertaining. He brings political theatre to new levels and enlivens lacklustre proceedings. We didn't really care what he thought - he's against most things in this country and for quite a lot of things in other countries so long as they're not called Israel. He can rant against the war in Iraq as well as anyone - better than most, in fact, as we could judge today, since several speakers were keen to do it, and not just because it goes down well with a young audience. No, what we wanted was to hear how George woud use his legendary offensiveness to put down any student who dared mention the two blasphemous words - Big Brother. He didn't disappoint. He was casual, callous and ruthless. Even more so to the cerebrally challenged idiot who raised it a second time, immediately after the first. Galloway didn't always condemn repetitious and stupid questions though - he positively fawned over the nice but dim girl who asked what he thought about Barack Obama, just after he'd told us what he thought about Barack Obama. But then, she did at least say he was great on Big Brother after which he was mere putty. He's just a big pussy cat after all.

Nick Clegg did better than I thought, but since I thought he would be about as impressive as a leaking gas pipe that wasn't difficult. Some of the SGS contingent thought his political ideas were simplistic and superficial but honestly, what do they want, the moon on a stick? He was aksed, eventually, about the notorious plane conversation. Apparently he didn't say it. Not all of it anyway. And the bits he did say were distorted. And no-one believes the media these days do they? So there we are. Nick Clegg - a bit better than you thought, but not much.

Finally there was Lembit Opik. I had been hoping the organisers would give him a rest for a year or two. It's not that I mind that a university contemporary is much better known than me, and far more successful politically. It's just that I sort of despise him. I really don't want to. There's a sense of Bristol loyalty that wants me to like him, but he makes it so difficult. Yet again, we had the Lembit Opik Show, a fatuous combination of false, pally comments coupled with some heinous political incoherence and a lamentable level of crappy populism. Are you a student? Attending a political day conference? Then come and hear Lembit agree with you. He'd love to take on the BNP. He hates the war with Iraq. He wants to lower the voting age to 16. He wants to legalise cannabis. He's a libertarian. He hates the nanny state because it locks people up. He wants you to be his speech writer because you're brilliant, you really are. Hell, wait around afterwards and he'll go clubbing with you. He's a serious guy who knows how to have fun, even if he can't win Liberal presidential elections, and as if to emphasise what a fun guy he is, he'll end his performance with a quick rendition on the harmonica. My, what a card.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Home Secretary's Inadequacy

Jacqui Smith has been underwhelming as Home Secretary ever since her appointment to the emasculated post (not that the inheritor of the other half of the former Home Office's remit, Jack Straw, has done much more to increase his visibility). Her inadequacy is once again to the fore in the Case of the Arrested MP. The arrest of Damian Green represents a serious misjudgment on the part of the police, and given its sensitivity it is difficult to believe the Home Secretary had no inkling of what was going to happen. Her embarrassing performance on the Marr show this morning has given plenty of ammunition to her opponents, as she failed to deflect the accusation of prior knowledge. If she did approve the arrest, it has in any case been a political own goal I nmore ways than one - before he hit the headlines from his temporary detention, Green was toiling away on the immigration issue to little, if any, public fanfare. He may have been irritated by his arrest, but he has certainly benefited from the oxygen of publicity.

Also facing questions, and also someone under regular attack for the way he performs his duties, is Commons Speaker Michael Martin. Even Harriet Harman, on Sky this morning, was defending the right of MPs to pursue their jobs unmolested and expressing concern about the violation of Commons privilege. For Michael Martin, whose predecessors stood up to the power of the (then) monarchical government in the face of prison and execution, this is a sorry episode indeed. Rarely has the office of the Speaker been brought so low as to supinely allow police to raid an MPs offices in pursuit of low level leaks. From the heroic statement to armed royal guards that "I have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear except as this House directs", to "Yes, absolutely, go ahead and raid the office. Here's the key," is a fall indeed.

As for leaks, David Hencke in the Guardian puts it into context when he writes that they are part of the warp and weft of keeping a government to account. Governments will always try and hide what they can in the furtherance of their desire not to face legitimate criticism. Oppositions, and a free media, will always try and unearth such hidden gems to shed light on things the public should probably know. There was no greater recipient of leaks - and far more damaging than the ones Damian Green is accused of using - than Winston Churchill in the 1930s. Even the current guardian of public morality in government, Gordon Brown, was a persistent user of leaks to pursue his campaign against the then Tory government.

Governments in power for too long come to believe in their own omniscience, and to exude the signs of arrogance and incompetence that comes from giving mediocrities power which they ill suited to wield. It happened under the Major government, and the worry for Brown should be that his government is showing the same signs of political fatigue. Ken Clarke, in a typically vigorous intervention today, likened the situation to "President Nixon's America". Brown has more personal similarities to the disgraced former president than he might care to reflect on; in his case, however, he will be able to wait for the public to eject him than have to resign beforehand.

NB An interesting alternative view of this incident is held by Richard North on his blog, EU Referendum here. He essentially argues the case that Damian Green was certainly guilty of an offence, as was the civil servant who did the leaking, and the contrary hysteria completely misses the point.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

ADMIN: London Conference - Monday

AS-level students attending the conference on Monday should click here for the details letter. However, please note that there is an error in the online version of this letter - one of the instructions refers to 'Tuesday' instead of Monday, so just to clarify - the conference is indeed on Monday!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Buy Now Pay Later

It remains to be seen whether Alistair Darling's VAT cut really will encourage spending over Christmas, and whether his proposed increase in the income tax personal allowance will persuade more of our fellow citizens to splash out on a few essential retail luxuries. Certainly one can't accuse the chancellor and his boss at No. 10 of doing nothing. They have been little whirlwinds of activity, often seeming to simply dizzy the Tories into bewilderment and inaction. But the Tories are starting to find their voice, and it is not an unreasonable or unconvincing one. I'm no economist, unlike the legions of bankers and financiers who presided over the, erm, banking crisis, but I am beginning to doubt the long-term wisdom of increasing the country's debt mountain when the origin of this very financial hurricane stems from bad debt arrangements. For years, conventional wisdom - including that of Gordon Brown - had it that fiscal prudence meant keeping borrowing down. Now, apparently, the government can't borrow enough. Ronald Reagan was once famously challenged about the size of the government deficit and replied that he thought it was big enough to take care of itself. Brown and Darling are far too sombre men to apply a joke to the burgeoning problem of government debt, but there are no sums that they have yet presented for public view which show how they intend to start reducing the mountain they've built.

Good stewardship of the economy of course means having the flexibility to know when a bail out is in order, and we all like to think that governments can take action to alleviate nearly any of our problems, but there might also be time for a reality check about how exactly the long-term position looks. Most people using credit are meant to have some idea about how they will pay it back. Perhaps modern governments don't have to be under the same pressure?

Change or Clinton?

I cannot quite fathom why Barack Obama has offered the post of Secretary of State to Hillary Clinton. After a campaign, and, until recently, a transition period that has been nearly pitch perfect, it seems an extraordinary aberration. That is, of course, if the rumours are true. The Obama machine is famously tightly controlled and doesn't leak - the leaks have all come from the media hungry Clinton machine.

Obama certainly doesn't need Clinton. Her supporters voted for him on election day, he has a first class team of intelligent foreign policy experts, and she brings little actual foreign policy experience to the job. What makes the appointment more inexplicable is that Hillary Clinton will clearly want considerable independence in the Sec. State job, at a time when the real change would come from Obama imposing his agenda and controlling foreign policy tightly from the White House. Clinton voted for the war, remember. She has not offered a single opinion, or ventured a single vote, which suggests she has anything other than a Bush-lite view of foreign affairs.

Obama's presidential hero is, of course, Abraham Lincoln, who famously included his party rival, William Seward - also a New York politician - in his cabinet as Secretary of State. One hopes, if Obama is to make Clinton his principal diplomat, that it is for better reasons than simply the desire to emulate his revered Illinois predecessor.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Tory Argument and an issue of Class

Actually, these are two separate items worth a brief note. The Evening Standard's Paul Waugh carries a short post about an argument that was apparently witnessed between George Osborne and Oliver Letwin. Letwin is, of course, the powerhouse behind the Tory Party's extensive policy review, currently in progress, and feels that Osborne - who is meant to be sharing the burden - may have been doing less than his fair share in recent weeks while he firefights his own problems.

Bill Jones, meanwhile, on his blog, carries a comment about the representativeness of parliament - specifically the House of Commons - which should be useful reading for AS students in particular, as they consider the representative nature of the Commons in all its aspects. Jones links to a longer article in the Guardian, also linked opposite.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Osborne's Bad Time

After a pretty torrid couple of weeks, the tide is once again turning George Osborne's way, as both the tory website Conservative Home and a raft of the quality press start to defend him. ConHome ran an article yesterday defending the shadow Chancellor, while amongst other papers, the Times today has an article explaining the attacks on Osborne as part of a broader right-wing offensive against the Cameron leadership. It may be part of the explanation, although I also think there has been a belief on the part of New Labour that Osborne represents a weak link in the Tory grand strategy. His cavorting with millionaires did the party few PR favours, and he still looks too much like a rabbit caught in headlights when dealing with Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, but it may be that the worst is over, and that his position is secure enough for him to concentrate on developing a coherent and winning opposition line on the economy.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Another presidential election result.

Unbeknown to most people, the Lib Dems have been holding their presidential election over the past few weeks, and the results have just been announced. The winner is......Ros Scott. Trumpets and excitement all round. As it happens, of more interest is the fate of the 2nd. placed candidate - one Lembit Opik, who despite his high media profile - or perhaps because of it - gained only 22% of the vote. Maybe the Lib Dems are fed up of being seen as the clownish party now that they've got nice, serious Mr. Clegg as their leader, and wanted a president (whose role I'm not entirely sure of by the way) who wouldn't overshadow him. They've certainly managed that. Lembit probably didn;t help himself with a rather self-pitying email that he sent to voters, which was reported on Iain Dale's blog recently. Ah well, back to those media appearances I guess....

Friday, November 07, 2008

Glenrothes Means.......

....that Gordon is back on track? Possibly. It does at least mean that a visit from the PM to a by-election no longer ensures defeat in said election. Glenrothes is hardly a typical constituency, so any lessons from the result should be treated with caution, but it should give Labour a bit more bounce, and certainly suggests that Brown is recovering his poise with the electorate. It might even mean that he starts considering an election before the due date in 2010!

More West Wing Trivia

Emanuel, the congressman and ex-Clinton staffer just appointed by Obama as his new Chief of Staff, was the inspiration for the Josh Lyman character in the series 'West Wing'. they certainly knew a thing or two, those writers.

And there has been much reaction about Emanuel's appointment, of the "he's too partisan and tough to be a nice chief of staff" variety, all of which rather misses the point. Obama, the great reconciler, will need a tough staffer to field the dirty work. Furthermore, the chief of staff wil spend much time liaising with Congress to get the presidential legislative agenda through, and it's the Democrats, not the Republicans, who he will need to get on side. Frankly, the Republicans are an irrelevance at the moment. So Emanuel, who knows the Democrat caucus better than anyone, is absolutely the right man for those disparate tasks. A great first appointment!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Obama Moment

As the impact of last night's historic US election victory settles in, it is worth considering the huge task facing the President-elect as he prepares for four years as the world's most powerful man. That in itself is an odd - if regularly given - sobriquet, given the number of issues that are beyond the control of the US president, but I digress.

First, Obama's acknowledgement of victory. His speech from Grant Park in Chicago was another rhetorical triumph. And such rhetoric should not be despised. The right-wing commentator Douglas Murray was scathing about the 'pretty words' used by politicians such as Obama and Cameron in an article for 'Standpoint' magazine; but is ire is misdirected. He dislikes their political stance, and thus loathes their ability to articulate it so effectively. The ability of political leaders and would-be leaders to inspire us, and articulate fine ideals, has always been a mark of some of the greatest figures in history, and should not be despised now. After eight years of a president who can barely articulate his own name, it was somehow refreshing to hear the soaring cadences and promises of Obama on his night of victory. For a while, the listening millions heard their own aspirations being vocalised, could empathise with the desire for new goals and could admire a leader who sought to achieve these whilst acknowledging the tough road ahead. Words do inspire - look at Churchill - and this is a time for a renewal of such inspiration. Obama has provided that. It is one reason why he has been rewarded with the high office he will soon hold. And if that's what he says on his victory night, I look forward to his inauguration speech in January.

But the hope that Obama inspires also carries within it the seeds of his failure. Many people, not just American electors, have invested considerable hope in the freshman senator from Illinois, in the belief that he can find a new way of doing business, can see them through an economic crisis, can identify a way to end a wretched war, can bring reconciliation to a divided society, can reach across the globe in a new American partnership. Such soaring ambitions too often fail, and Obama's road - as it would be for any president - will be a rocky one. We expect him to stumble, but should he fail on a greater scale it will not just be the failure of his politics that matters, it will be the dashing of hopes that may not again be resurrected. Obama carries a huge burden of expectation, a burden he has hoisted himself, and the consequent need to keep it in the air and diminish it properly is his to undertake; it is an enormous task. For now, though, it is worth relishing the excitement and fascination of history in the making - let us keep cynicism at bay, at least for a while.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Night and West Wing!

It's the most exciting night of the year, but predictions about the US elections at this late stage, as the citizens of the greatest democracy on earth head to the polls, is futile. While we await a result, here's a diversion from online magazine Slate, about why the superb television series 'West Wing' seemed to be predicting the rise of a popular, appealing, ethnic minority presidential winner!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Who Really Hounded the BBC?

It would seem, on the surface of it, that public opinion has triumphed in the BBC/Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand imbroglio. 30,000 plus complaints have finally been vindicated, with the resignation of two figures (Brand and the Radio 2 Controller) and the suspension without pay of another (Ross). But surface images are, inevitably, misleading, particularly in the opaque world of the media. 28,988 of the 30,000 complaints came some time after the show was broadcast, from people who didn't listen to it. They were encouraged by a tabloid campaign, initiated by the Daily Mail and joined with energy by the Sun, to protest. True to form, the daring elected politicians, led by Cameron and Brown, fell into line, and the rest, as they say, is history. But wait. What could have driven the tabloids, those custodians of public taste and morality, to launch their campaigns with such fury? Could it possibly be that their corporate media owners - Lord Rothermere (the Mail) and Rupert Murdoch (the Sun) have long harboured a commercial resentment at the BBC's public funded dominance of the media market, and were keen to inflict a serious blow against them as part of the campaign to denude them of public funds and leave the market open to such brave, free-market media oeprators as, er, Associated Newspapers and News Corp? Heaven forbid!

Watching Mandelson Squirm

Amidst all the fuss about George Osborne's oligarchical links, it is worth noting that his lordship, Peter Mandelson has yet to come clean about his own relationship with the sinister Deripaska. Mandelson may still be a master of the dark arts of gossip and intrigue, but he looks regularly uncomfortable in BBC interviews when they are conducted by tenacious journalists. Two stand out - Sophie Raworth, standing in for Andrew Marr a couple of weeks ago, managed to extract a very bad-tempered response from the new Business Secretary, while Richard Galpin, the BBC's Moscow correspondent (and the first BBC reporter, I recall, to file reports from South Ossetia when the Georgians invaded) kept pushing for an answer from Mandelson in this interview on News 24, but got nowhere. Nonetheless, the very fact that the questions were being asked allowed viewers to draw their own conclusions about Mandelson's evasiveness. It is worth noting that the Raworth/Galpin tenacity against a politician known for his absolute hatred at being challenged represents BBC journalism at its best - a nice contrast to that corporation's more high profile struggles at present!

Incidentally, the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh provides a first class, clinical analysis of the Galpin interview here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brand, Ross and a Pointless Political Kerfuffle

Huge amounts of media coverage has been expended on the exploits of two potty-mouthed 'entertainers' on a show which attracts a mere 400,000 listeners. One of them has now resigned, and the other must be living in desperate hope that his 6 million pound annual salary is safe after all the internal 'investigations' have happened. The media, of course, loves this - it covers itself more joyously than it covers anything else, and why should we be surprised or concerned? More wretchedly, though, has been the sight of the PM and his opposite number giving earnest comments to the press about the incident. There was me thinking that little things like a global economic crisis might be occupying all of their attention..................

The Unpleasant Truth About Oligarchs

The Observer's Nick Cohen typically got to the heart of the Deripaska Affair with his article in the Observer last Sunday. However, whilst concentrating on illuminating the dark arts and shady friendships that make Derispaska both hugely wealthy and, er, alive and not in jail in Putins Russia, Cohen also has this sharp comment about the British judicial system whose craven libel laws provide such lovely cover for such men:

London not only offers crony capitalists Michelin-starred restaurants, security guards and discreet bankers. Our authoritarian libel laws also attract the rich. Editors think once, twice, 100 times before crossing them. They know they must contend with libel judges and Law Lords unfit to hold office in an open society because they won't stand up for freedom of speech.

Bang on.

Bristol Apes Oxford Shock!

We all know that Oxford is the spiritual home of upper class toffs with nothing better to do than commit extravagant vandalism via such enlightened societies as the Bullingdon Club. And we also know that Bristol has long been the repository for Oxford rejects, so how appropriate that toff vandalism now inhabits the halls of that other mighty provincial university. Under it's inventive headline "The Italian Yob", today's Sun reports on a "Mini Disaster" at Bristol's Wills Hall, home to certain distinguished SGS alumni, and just down the road from Churchill, also home to distinguished SGS alumni. They must be so pleased to be be in such wonderful company.

Anyway, it's good to note that the old Harrovian driver of the car will only be charged for drunk driving, and not possession of the illegal substances which his mate managed to stash away before the police arrived!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tory Sleaze

Could there be more Tory sleaze stories still to come out in the wash? Certainly, Politics Home is reporting that the media have gained a renewed appetite for such items, and that Lord Ashcroft, amongst others, can expect a higher profile coverage. On the other hand, with Mandelson back in government, they could still turn the media spotlight back onto him.....

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Osborne Affair

Neither George Osborne or Peter Mandelson are popular politicians outside their close circle of friends and admirers. Given that Nathaniel Rothschild was apparently a 'best friend' of Osborne's since their days together wrecking restaurants as members of the obnoxious Bullingdon Club, and has now turned so firmly against him, perhaps Osborne's friends aren't that wild about him either.

The story of potential donations is not, whatever the Tories would like us to think, a non-story. It has murky depths and there were clearly discussions about getting donations from an extraordinarily inappropriate source. But this aspect remains vague at present, stuck in the realm of speculative conversations and rather dream-like 'what ifs'. What is much clearer is the remarkable lack of political judgement of a man who is sometimes seen as the Conservatives' co-leader, and the narrow, rarefied, world that our political elite sees fit to move in.

First, the judgement issue. George Osborne has made several mis-steps here. He took an ill-advised visit to the yacht of a dodgy Russian billionaire (and yes, ALL Russian billionaires are dodgy, given the creation of their wealth out of the rush for state assets following the fall of communism!). Also,at a time when the Conservatives should be trying to distance themselves from the perception of free-loading that was such a weakness of Tony Blair's, Osborne takes a free holiday from a multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager. Just reflect on last summer for a second - a summer when Gordon Brown was anxious to be seen as taking a modest British holiday in Suffolk, and David Cameron paraded the joys of west country beaches (before, less publically, jetting off to Turkey!). This need for modesty from political leaders clearly passed Osborne right by. Then there's Osborne's extraordinary action in leaking the comments made to him by Mandelson at a private dinner hosted by Rothschild. Here, Osborne was trying to enter Mandelson territory, and has been badly burned, just as the malicious Mandelson himself was burned as a consequence of using such tactics over many years. To call Osborne a fool and a charlatan in this respect hardly does him justice.

Second, the world of the political elite. Whatever the ins and outs of the donation question, the stench of unmerited wealth and privilege that emanates from this story almost overwhelms it. The whole thing is like one of the less savoury scenes from Brideshead Revisited. Osborne and Rothschild were fellow members of the Bullingdon Club - the ultimate haunt of spoilt, wealthy upper-class vandals with no respect for anyone who doesn't come into their rarefied circle. Andrew Feldman, the Tory fund raiser, and now chief exec., who was asked by Osborne to join him on the visit to the Russian billionaire, is another member of the narrowly based Oxford circle - a mate of David Cameron's, himself a member of the aforementioned Bullingdon Club. The unsavoury Russian billionaire, and the thoroughly tarnished EU Business Commissioner add to the sense of unreality, and this heads into overdrive when you realise that Rupert Murdoch, owner of the newspaper which has just published Rothschild's letters, parked his yacht near to the Rothschild estate and dropped in for a visit too. Was Osborne really wanting a nice holiday, or was he attracted by the presence of media and financial star power?

In Britain today, hundeds of thousands - potentially millions - of households face losing their jobs, or homes, or both; they face increasing hardship as the economy heads into slow mode; ordinary families wonder what they will have to leave out of the weekly food basket; people young and old seek shelter on our street; our cities house increasing levels of crime, much of it lethally violent; the downward social spiral occasioned by greater drug and alcohol abuse engulfs more and more people; and George Osborne and Peter Mandelson between them offer us a glimpse of a faraway political world that seems ever more spoilt, ever more insular, ever more incapable and ever more irrelevant. From such nonsense the seed of political revolution is often sown.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Too Little Comfort for Cameron

The two stories linked opposite, by Andrew Rawnsley on Politics Home, and Nick Robinson at the BBC, both illustrate the continuing problem for David Cameron as he tries to work out the best position for the Tories in the present crisis. Robinson starts his assessment pithily - "David Cameron can't say I told you so, because he didn't"! ConservativeHome, meanwhile reports an ICM poll that suggests little change in Brown's polling since his rescue plan was announced, although an earlier poll reported by them shows the Tories with an 8% lead - given that they enjoyed double digit leads before their Conference, this is hardly good news either! The First Post's 'Mole', incidentally, comments that the YouGov poll (reported by ConHome) would actually result not in a Tory majority but, given the way in which the electoral system currently works against the Tories, a hung parliament instead.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Still all to Play in US Election

The Drudge Report is carrying news of a gallup tracking poll that has Obama only 2 points ahead of McCain. Karl Rove, George W's Svengali, meanwhile, has a fascinating analysis in the Wall Street Journal where he suggests that the Obama campaign has definitely not closed the deal yet. Whatever else one thinks about Rove, he was a fearsomely effective election strategist for the Republicans, winning two terms for a monumentally weak candidate, and his assessment is a very credible one. Seems the Obama campaign shares it, too, as they ratchet up the spending and try to portray Obama as more presidential in his half hour broadcasts before the election. Rove mentions the Harry Truman precedent at the end of his piece - Everyone assumed that Truman would lose the 1948 election to Republican Thomas Dewey. The Chicago Daily Tribune was so confident it ran a front page on the day after election day proclaiming Dewey the winner. The rest, as they say, is history! Elections depend on the the will of the people, and they are utterly unpredictable.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign can take a little comfort from the unravelling of the the Joe the Plumber story. Having cited the 'ordinary Joe' - a figure who challenged the Democrat candidate on the stump a few days ago - no less than 20 times in the last presidential debate, McCain may wish his people had done a bit more fact checking (not one of their strong points - look at Sarah Palin). Turns out that Joe the plumber isn't licensed and is a bit of a charlatan all round.

George Osborne's Difficulty

Actually, there are quite a lot, so you could argue with the singular case in the above, but the particular difficulty I have in mind is his inability to make anything like a convincing case for the new, go-harder aggressive case against Gordon Brown's economic management that is apparently being made today by David Cameron. Osborne was on the 'Today' programme this morning, and gave a truly terrible interview. Having given his assessment of all the things that have gone wrong with the economy over the last ten years, he was confronted with a not entirely unpredictable question from Sarah Montague, to the effect that "why have you never made any of these criticisms before?" Now the honest answer is that the ideological divide between the Tories and Labour is miniscule, and the Tories on the whole bought in wholesale to the policies of the Financial Wizard of Downing Street. Now things are belly-up, they have no more idea than anyone else how to cope - less, actually. But a half decent politician, needing to regain some credibility, might be able to make a response to the "why didn't you say anything before?" conundrum with a light-hearted acknowledgement of past ignorance and quickly steer things back to current solutions. What, of course, you wouldn;t do is claim that you have been making these criticisms all along. Which, er, is what Osborne did.

To her credit, Montague pushed this point and Osborne, lamely referring to some very ambiguous stands he may have taken in the last general election, was left reeling on the ropes. A classic case study of how to stuff up when in opposition at a time of crisis.

I've always thought Osborne was over-rated and in over his head - he continues to sound a bit like a smug public schoolboy who has absorbed one or two bits of political ideology but never really fought for anything substantial in his life. Oh, wait a minute, George Osborne IS a........

UPDATE: Jeff Randall, not exactly a cringing leftie, has this negative view of Osborne's recent performance in the Telegraph today.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Question Time's Insight into BNP Success

Question Time is in Stoke on Trent tonight, where the BNP have 9 councillors on the local council. One audience member has vigorously defended his support for the BNP in a recent election by talking of the politics of frustration. I don't know the local situation, and he wasn't the most articulate of speakers, but he did express the general antagonism that he, as an ordinary voter (and given the BNP success, presumably a representative ordinary voter) felt for the established parties. In Stoke on Trent, struck with economic difficulties and high unemployment, the directly elected Labour mayor seems well supported by Labour, Liberal and Conservative councillors - so where, asked our frustrated BNP supporter, is the opposition to come from? He claimed to repudiate the BNP's racism, and he may well be telling the truth; the fact is, when established parties become so cosy in their collaboration that they fail, in times of hardship, to provide an adequate choice for voters, then in the flailing around for a party to protest with, fringe parties who are good at disguising their unpalatable side will start to benefit. If the main parties are identified with a political elite no longer responsive to the people's will, then eventually the democratic deficit may be paid back in alarming ways.

The main party spokesmen, incidentally, steered well clear of direct responses.

Catching Up

First off, Nick Robinson, in his blog today, comments on the bread and butter issues that are likely to be of more concern to most voters than a financial crisis they don't really see the direct effects of.

The Telegraph is reporting that David Dimbleby is thinking of quitting Question Time if the BBC inists on moving its production to Glasgow. Iain Dale's blog had a poll for his putative successor - Andrew Neill just beat Paxman in the result.

Conservative Home's Centre-Right blog finds that you can blame Bill Clinton for the credit crunch.

In the new Standpoint magazine, American sociologist Charles Murray suggests that not every child really needs an academic education, and we are wasting our resources providing it.

"Fifty per cent of children are below average in linguistic and logical-mathematical ability. Being below average means that they are limited in the things they can do in reading and maths. It is no more remarkable than being limited in the things one can do in sport or music."

And Bill Jones reflects on Gordon Brown's astonishing's the stuff that makes politics exciting!

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Banking Crisis - Who's To Blame?

For those getting increasingly confused by the events of the past few weeks, Bill Jones provides a coherent - if left-slanted - analysis of the causes on his web-site:

PoliticsConsidered: Explaining the Banking Crisis

He has a summary version on his blog here.

Who Says Osborne is a 'Bloody Fool'....?

Adair Turner, Chairman of the Financial Services Authority and former CBI bigwig, that's who, according to this post by Sky's Alistair Bunkall!

Comrade Cruddas on the March!

Jon Cruddas is the left-wing Labour MP (don't often hear that description of Westminster's governing party reps these days) who didn't quite manage to defeat Harriet Harman for the all important deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Bet he's gutted now! It turns out that he was offered a job in the recent reshuffle - Housing - which he turned down because Brown didn't agree with his plans for more council house building (it went subsequently to the ever ready Margaret Beckett). Well, Cruddas is using his continued leisure on the backbenches to start formulating a left-wing alternative to current nostrums, which must surely be of concern to the prime minister as he struggles to make capitalism work again. Not only has Cruddas started talking of establishing a new, leftish think tank, but he is increasingly the unions's favourite to succeed Brown, and he is keeping the ideological momentum going with an article in today's Guardian about the failure of free-market finance and the need to establish a 'People's Bank'. Go comrade!

Successful Cure or Sticking Plaster?

Several commentators have already mentioned how Gordon Brown seems to be relishing the present crisis, as it gives him - at last - a sense of destiny as prime minister (see Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer here). One prescient commenter on a previous post here has also suggested that the financial crisis could be Gordon's Falklands - the thing that elevates him above the apparently toxic unpopularity he has been enduring, to make him a runaway election victor when he next faces the polls.

I suspect that such optimism is mislaid. The real impact of the financial crisis has yet to hit the homes of most ordinary voters, and when it does, in the form of family budget crises and rising unemployment (The Observer carried a prediction of 2 million by next month when the crisis squeezes the real economy) there is unlikely to be much electoral sympathy for Gordon Brown. The policy of nationalising the banks may or may not work - and not every country has had to go through this extraordinary rescue plan, notably Australia and Sweden - and the long-term consequences of nationalised banking have yet to be properly weighed up, but for the crisis proper, Gordon's rescue plan is still obscure. In these circumstances, the Tories merely have to sound credible - I agree, something they are still struggling with - but they can take some comfort from the fact that no-one rewards governments that preside over a general economic stagnation. Once the banking crisis has disappeared from the front pages, what will be left will be a huge expenditure of government money, and a lot of people wondering why their jobs can't be saved in the same way as the banks. Whatever rational explanation there may be for that conundrum, it does not add up to any good electoral figures for the incumbent government.

Further Links (UPDATED):
Guido Fawkes on Brown's delusionary beliefs
John Rentoul on why it's game over for Brown.
Paul Krugman's view - the Nobel prize-winning economist praises Brown's actions - see the comments on this.
John Redwood.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Peston's Power

The BBC's Business editor has a slightly off-putting reporting style, involving the emphasis of random words and a slightly out of breath feel, but he is being touted as a key mover in the present crisis. The right-wing approach is exemplified in this earlier post by Guido Fawkes, which quotes a City source as claiming that Peston's reporting has a thoroughly destructive impact on prices; the Guardian, meanwhile, in reporting the loss of influence of the 'Today' programme, highlights one reporter whose sway is still sky-high - step forward, Robert Peston. Along with accountants and lawyers, Peston is benefitting considerably from this crisis!

Another example of economic silly season also seems to be hitting the web paper First Post, whose self-styled Westminster insider "The Mole" reported that Gordon Brown might consider inviting Vince Cable to be Chancellor if things don't improve!

A Failure of Ideology?

Commentators of both the left and right were speculating today about the implications of the economic crisis for the Tories, and many honed in on the fact that the current lame Tory response is due in no small part to their free-market commitment to the sort of unregulated system that is currently looking a little, shall we say, tarnished. The Spectator's James Forsyth reviews this problem on the Coffee House blog, finding hope only in the fact that voters can't blame the Tories because they're not in government. Not, perhaps, the most confident rallying call ever heard from a conservative commentator.
But, lest there be a complete failure of conservative nerve, Conservative Home has come to the rescue, identifying 5 Tory principles to hold onto in this crisis. Let's see if Cameron and Osborne respond - they have in the past proved remarkably resistant to the more earthy conservative blandishments of the Tories' unofficial, but hugely influential, website!
NB: The Guido Fawkes blog has also been bemoaning the failure of capitalist nerve. They are all in a tizz!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Barack Hussein Obama...

So, these are American voters. And despite the woman's insistence on voting for Hillary Clinton, does it worry you that the obsession with Obama's middle name ("Hussein") seems to suggest that here is Sarah Palin and John McCain's target audience?!

(courtesy of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog).

Opposition Difficulties at PMQ's

The economic crisis overshadowed David Cameron's conference, and it is blunting his edge as Opposition Leader in parliament as well. Since he has no clear alternative ideas to those being put forward by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, he is having to broadly offer support while taking issue in minor areas. Thus, at Prime Minister's Questions today - and repeating a tactic pursued by George Osborne on the 'Today' programme this morning - he chose to attack executive bonuses. Emotionally significant, the bonuses are economically insignificant, quite apart from the fact that the Tories are unconvincing scourges of city bonuses. It is a tactic that smacks of populist desperation, and the the Cameron-Osborne team might be best advised to examine their underlying economic answers more closely. Then, they might be able to come up with more convincing alternatives. Or perhaps, when both parties are so ideologically close, there are no convincing alternatives?

Incidentally, best line of the afternoon probably belonged to Nick Clegg - "When a ship is sinking you send out the lifeboats, you don't argue about who steered it into the iceberg."

US Election Updates

Andrew Sullivan on the'Daily Dish' explains just what the Palin choice tells us about the McCain candidacy - and Sullivan's a conservative commentator.

The Huffington Post reports another instance of Obama's middle name being used as a crowd inciter at a rally with both McCain and Palin.

Alexander Cockburn in the First Post finds the most recent debate a clear case of 'imbecilic tedium', but has harsher words for Obama - as the self-proclaimed candidate of change, he has offered no new ideas says Cockburn.

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart on Sarah Palin's 'terrorism' accusations against Barack Obama - a gem, again!

The Political Brain

"...the vision of mind that has captured the imagination of philosophers, cognitive scientists, economists, and political scientists since the eighteenth century - a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions - bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work."

This comment, from Professor Drew Westen, introduces his book, "The Political Brain", a book which America's most successful Democratic politician in the last 4 decades - Bill Clinton - described as the most informative book on politics he'd read in years.  Why?  Because the book's central thesis, that the political brain uses emotion over simple reasoning, is one Clinton's empathetic politics was admirably suited to exploit, but which his Democratic successors seem often reluctant to emulate.  Even Barack Obama, inspiring as a set-piece speaker, is being criticised for being almost too cool and dispassionate under fire.  Where's the emotion that connects him to us, ask the voters.  Anyone who might doubt Westen's thesis needs only to look back over the reviews that Sarah Palin received for her appalling debate performance.  She was a success.  She hauled the campaign back.  She provided a boost for McCain.  Why?  Not for any reasoning abilities on her part - there were none.  Not for her penetrating political insights - absent again.  But because she came across as friendly, as an ordinary girl, as the sort of person you wouldn't mind having a drink with.  

Westen's success is using what may seem to many of us to be an obvious conclusion about the nature of political discourse, and applying it to the American political landscape and then determining both why she remains a right-wing country in terms of her voting record, and how a Democratic party that is more often in tune with voters than it seems can regain the initiative.  Well worth a read, and you can bet that the next Democrat incumbent of the White House won't be long in ignorance of its contents either.  After all, he'll want a second term when he's challenged in four years by the folksy Alaskan outsider who garners so much passion. 

"That One"

Watch John McCain's body language in one of his encounters with Barack Obama, and you can see the discomfort, and the almost visible loathing. McCain isn't good at covering up his emotions - it used to be one of his strengths - and his determiend refusal to even look at Obama in the first debate pulled a lot of comment. Nothing like as much, however, as his contemptuous reference to Obama as "that one", when referring to his opponent's senate vote. John McCain may be trying not to dignify an opponent he dislikes with a name, but his avoidance device is adding more grist to the mill of those who want to paint his campaign as petty, nasty and mean-spirited. And his biggest problem at the moment - polls increasingly suggest that Americans want "that one" in the White House next.

Danny Finkelstein in the Times' Comment Central suggests that Obama will win, not least because he is massively outspending McCain on television spots.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Very Serious Meeting

Courtesy of Sky's Joey Jones, this is the Press Association's report of today's Cabinet meeting in full:

"In London the Cabinet meeting broke up after about an hour and a half. Foreign Secretary David Miliband, emerging from Number 10, said: "These are very serious times. We take them very seriously."

Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon echoed his comments, saying: "It was a serious meeting."

Monday, October 06, 2008

Betting on President Palin?!

Mike Smithson of the Political Betting blog likes to have an occasional flutter on the outrageous, but his latest suggestion on the US election had more than bets fluttering. He is now considering whether Sarah Palin, the knowledge-challenged running mate to John McCain might not 'flip the ticket' and seize the front spot for herself! Actually, nothing would surprise me in this election, and Smithson acknowledges this as being merely better than a 0.23% chance, but it is horrifying nonetheless. Palin's latest gem - outside of accusing Obama of cosying up to terrorists - is to say that she didn't perform well in the Katie Couric interviews because she wasn't asked the right questions. Er, no, she didn't perform well because the pleasant but persistent Couric kept asking such real blinders as what are your main news sources, and what is your foreign policy experience, and Palin's gibbering, incoherent ignorance was thus given full reign. That the Republican party thinks this woman is fit to occupy the second highest office in the land speaks volumes about their suitability to ever hold office again!

And, while we're on it, Palin's debate performance against Joe Biden was execrable. She gloried in her ignorance, tried to suggest her utter lack of national preparedness was basically about being a 'maverick', and performed the whole debacle as if she were a star-struck loser who had just been allowed on a local talent show through a sympathy vote. Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey has achieved considerable fame by sending up Palin's ludicrous persona, and got it right again with her take-off of the debate performance. And to think some Republicans seriously thought Palin had quashed the doubters.

The Tina Fey debate spoof on SNL is here, while her take-off of Palin's Couric interview is here, given added spice by being placed alongside the actual interview. Gems both; if only it was Fey who was running!

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Democracy Debate

Michael Heseltine's defence of Boris Johnson on yesterday's Question Time was a reminder of how good the old lion could be at the top of his form. Heseltine was always a supporter of directly elected mayors, on the grounds that it reinvigorated local democracy, and his endorsement of Johnson - his successor as MP in Henley - was on democratic grounds. Johnson has the mandate of the people of London, thus he is perfectly entitled to exercise that mandate over unelected officials who should still be accountable in some way. You could see Johnson's move as a narrowing of the democratic deficit by that argument. Heseltine also made a throwaway suggestion of directly elected police chiefs - a democratic step too far, or the right move to sharpen the instincts of our public servants?

"A stunning failure of judgement"

Courtesy of Conservative Home, Williams Hague nails the Mandelson appointment:

“Today’s reshuffle demonstrates a stunning failure of judgement by Gordon Brown. In bringing back Peter Mandelson – the man who created Labour spin – he has broken his promise to govern in an honest and open way. You can only conclude that his appointment was designed to distract from the changes he should have made. By leaving in place a Chancellor who has failed and a Foreign Secretary who has undermined him at every opportunity Gordon Brown has also been exposed as weak. With this bizarre reshuffle the Prime Minister has achieved the impossible and made the Government even more dysfunctional.”

Mandelson Again

I don't get the Mandelson appointment at all. I don't really think the idea of inviting ex-ministers back when they've been put out to grass is generally a great idea, unless they're brilliant, or clearly have exceptional skills. As a spin doctor, and co-creator of the New Labour brand there is no doubting that Mandelson was brilliant, but as a minister, he was distinctly middling, and had to twice fall on his sword for serious political misjudgements and misdemeanours. Hardly a glittering cv. In Brussels, too, it would be difficult to say he has cut a swathe through trade regulation and revamped that bureaucratic mess. So why get him back? The BBC's Nick Robinson is gobsmacked, others hail it as a masterstroke; to me it looks like a prime minister who's run out of options falling back on the safety net of a few old hands - as well as Mandelson, Campbell's back in favour, Margaret Beckett's back in the cabinet, Derek Draper's busy plotting and spinning on behalf of the government. Just like old times, but hardly a move forward!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another Blair Out!

There won't be many policemen on the beat mourning the passing of Sir Ian Blair. He was always a political copper - Tony Blair's best friend in the force, determined to ingratiate himself with New Labour, thoroughly apprised of the need for PR tactics etc. Given that political pedigree - the same sort that saw Alastair Campbell's 'best mate' John Scarlett eventually promoted to head up MI6 - it is a bit rich for the under-whelming Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to talk about the dangers of politicising police apointments. That was done when Blair took office.

That the Met Commissioner didn't have the confidence of the new Mayor speaks only favourably of the mayor. Blair has presided over some truly appalling errors - the killing of Jean Charles Menenez being merely the most tragic - and has, moreover, shown little sign that he really appreciates this. He may agonise about his public persona, but he has agonised precious little about where his wretched leadership has been taking the Met. To maintain the capital that this act has given him, Boris doesn't need to suggest a political appointment to succeed Blair - he merely needs to engage the services of a good copper who understands the job.

The Cameron Plan

David Cameron hit that nightmare scenario for party leaders - a party conference that coincides with far more significant domestic and international news elsewhere. Thus it was that, out of all three party conferences, the Tories probably achieved the lowest profile, and the Cameron speech was perhaps the least anticipated. He had, indeed, already given two speeches to his conference in any case. In the lead-up to this week, as polls showed them soaring ahead of Labour, David Cameron apparently told his shadow cabinet and MPs not to be too triumphalist at their conference. Seems he needn't have worried - economic woes and the 'no time for a novice' jibe have taken the chtutzpah out of the Tories at what must have once seemed their triumphant return to the major players' league.

As for the Cameron speech, it evinced in many ways the problems that still beset the man himself. Much commentary has centred around its style - that it was delivered from a lectern, and with notes this time, that it was soberly given - rather than the distinctly absent content. Cameron is selling himself, rather cornily, as 'the man with a plan', but the plan is no clearer now than it's ever been. Indeed, while Cameron seeks to deflate hopes of tax decreases in his speech, his shadow chancellor made the only eye-catching announcement of the week in his determination to freeze council taxes. While there is such schizophrenia over the party's tortuous central message, what hope is there for all of the other bits?

David Cameron still looks like a man who can win, but this week has shown, if he didn't know it already, just how fragile that look is, and just how quickly political tides turn. He is a long way from the dominance that Tony Blair was achieving in the run-up to the 1997 election, and that must surely be continuing to give him cause for concern. Man with a plan? The Tories must be hoping that plan includes a winning strategy somewhere along the line.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Can It Get Any Worse?

Congress may have rejected the bailout plan, the stock market may have crashed, but Newsnight reminded me that things can still get worse - one of the European Union's senior flunkeys responsible for economic direction is the Trade Commissioner - none other than Peter Mandelson! Preserve Us!

Vote Tory To Stop Council Tax Rises

Did I blink, or did George Osborne promise greater central control of local councils? That, at least, is what his eye-catching promise to freeze council tax bills for two years appears to suggest. It is a little difficult for Osborne, under pressure as he is to demonstrate a real difference between the Tories and Labour on the economy. A year ago, he managed to reverse Tory fortunes - and send Labour into a spin - with his promise to cut inheritance tax. Now, desperate for more headline grabbing initiatives, he has come up with the council tax freeze. The Tories are clear that they want to be seen as the party of the tax-cut. It is much less clear how they do that without cutting public services - after all, there are only so many consultants you can dismiss, or red-tape you can get rid of.

The Tory Conference in Birmingham should look like a breeze this week, with Cameron enjoying good opinion poll ratings, but as several punters are pointing out, his ratings are not nearly as positive as they should be, the Tory lead was halved to just 12 points at the weekend, and people still await some concrete Tory ideas. Osborne's was one of them - what else is coming out from the party that would be next in government we wonder?

I'll Try To find Some And I'll Bring It To Ya

When he was running for president in 1960, Richard Nixon was undone by an unintentional comment from President Eisenhower, whose Vice-President Nixon had been for the previous 8 years. Asked on television what specific ideas Nixon had contributed to the administration over the past two terms, Eisenhower had said "If you give me a week or two I might think of one". Eisenhower hadn't meant to sound quite so negative about his VP and would-be successor, and perhaps his comments were the reaction of an old man unready for the question.

No such excuse can apply to the much worse answer given by Sarah Palin in her CBS interview the other night. Asked for the specifics about her claim that John McCain "will reform the way Wall Street does business", Palin floundered helplessly before saying "I'll try to find something and I'll bring it to ya." This was possibly the lowest moment in a pretty dire interview which exposed her complete lack of any sort of political grasp outside the politics of Alaska. Little wonder that there is talk of having Palin replaced on the Republican ticket (no chance of that though), or that she is being kept firmly away from the mikes as often as possible. After last week's presidential debates, while Joe Biden was pretty well everywhere giving the spin about Obama, Palin was kept well hidden. That Palin is a complete disaster as a vice-presidential choice is clear, although I wouldn't completely write her off for the Vice-Presidential debates this Thursday. Nevertheless, although the Republican grassroots continue to adore her for what she stands for, some of the right-wing commentators on this side of the Atlantic might begin to review their own hasty hagiographies of the woman who thinks Russia is going to attack America via Alaska.

Extracts from her truly embarrassing interview can be seen below.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate Desert

I have only seen extracts of the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, and those few seem to paint Obama as a more direct, on the ball individual. McCain doesn't excel in these things, and was noticeably keen to avoid any eye contact with his sprightlier opponent. Mind you, Obama, for all his rhetorical skills, is not a great debater either, so I guess the fact that he appears to have emerged as the winner, according to various polls, can be chalked up as a success.

Frankly, McCain had a disastrous week with his dash back to Washington backfiring badly, and his attendance at the debate was an own goal given his earlier determination not to, unless the financial crisis was solved - and I'm sorry, did I miss something, or is global finance still in a mess?

Reviews of the debate are pretty unanimous in their assessment of its dullness - you'd get more fun out of an English Speaking Union debate between novices - and the reason for that, of course, is the extreme care that each candidate takes not to say anything that could remotely be held as a hostage to fortune for the remainder of the campaign. Pity. Debates are meant to inspire passion not passivity.

I did, however, experience some political passion last night when I went to see the play "Now or Later" at the Royal Court theatre. Great play, sparkling with tightly scripted dialogue, based around a developing family crisis for the victorious Democratic candidate on the night of his winning the presidency. Focused around compromising internet footage of the president-elect's gay son dressed as Mohammed at a party, the play took up ideological cudgels for freedom of expression, and provided its own response about the dangers of liberal intolerance and its assumption of superiority. Topical, thought-provoking, a reminder that politics can be stimulating, divisive and never less than fascinating, it was like a bit of 'West Wing' on stage. Much better than a presidential debate, it seems.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

That 'Heseltine Moment'

One thing that caused the unimpressive David Miliband such trouble this week was the BBC's report of the conversation between him and his adviser about not having a 'Heseltine moment'. Miliband has vigorously denied making such a comment, but the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh has uncovered the source of the report, and it seems pretty solid. Makes Miliband look even more demeaned on two counts - one, his denials are rubbish, and two, the man is stupid enough to drop an indiscreet comment in front of a complete stranger.

[And for those not sure of the significance of a 'Heseltine moment', here is the BBC's brief survey of the great man's political career.]

How Dysfunctional Is Gordon Brown?

It takes rare political skill to achieve something of a much needed success with your conference speech, briefly allaying all the doubts about your leadership, and then to ignite the events that, merely hours later, lead everyone to start questioning your leadership all over again.

Whether you liked the speech or not, Gordon Brown at least seemed to satisfy his party faithful and generate some positive news headlines the following day. Job done, you might think. Not in Brownland. Knowing that the Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, would be resigning at the time of the cabinet reshuffle, it seems that Brown's bunker-like team of advisers started to convince themselves that she would use said resignation as a starting gun for other, disillusioned cabinet ministers to join her at the exit. This bizarre line of reasoning led someone to leak news of her impending resignation to some favoured journalists, and ultimately gave rise to the extraordinary spectacle of a 3am press conference by the Downing Street mob to run a story about a minister's resignation that the minister herself had had no intention of releasing. All in the name of squashing a hypothetical plot.

There have been numerous stories of the paranoid, bunker mentality currently prevailing on Team Brown (see this post by Iain Dale, and the article linked opposite by Nick Cohen as examples), and the Kelly affair, so utterly self-destructive, seems merely to pile more evidence on the 'Gordon Brown is mad, delusional and out of control' theory.

The retreat of liberalism goes on

As communism seemingly disappeared from view at the end of the 1980s, in a sudden and unexpected blow-out, there was plenty of triumphal...