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!