Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Crass Questioning of Jon Snow

Can there really be a more monumentally stupid or destructive news anchor than Channel 4's Jon Snow? On his news blog, and more vehemently in his presenting of this evening's news programme, Snow was extraordinarily aggressive about the decision of British news media (including his own Channel 4 News) not to report the deployment of Prince Harry to Afghanistan. He likened the voluntary agreement to the approach of media in totalitarian states, twice referencing China and Russia. It was an extraordinary performance, although fortunately for him and his viewers his three guests were more measured and sensible. Prince Harry's presence in Afghanistan could surely only have been tenable if the media agreed not to set up their usual rampant circus around it. And Prince Harry should clearly have been able to be sent to Afghanistan given the time and money spent training him to fight wars. Thus, the media agreement - in Britain - seems to have been a rare moment of self-realisation and responsibility amongst the Fourth Estate.

The story was eventually broken by foreign news websites - notably the Drudge Report today - and the consequence, as Snow acknowledged in his questioning, is that now the prince's continued presence on the front line is far more questionable.

Snow made much of the fact that this 'black-out' was not appropriate for a free media, but his freedom seems to be a freedom from responsibility as much as anything else. If he really believes that a voluntary, responsible decision amongst British news editors is the same as the severe, often violent repression suffered by editors in totalitarian states, then he really isn't fit to present the news in a free society. Prince Harry may or may not be able to continue fighting one of his country's wars; Jon Snow really shouldn't be able to continue warping his country's news.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Portillo on Thatcher

Have been watching the excellent Michael Portillo programme on Margaret Thatcher on BBC 4. It stirs quite a few memories of controversial and exciting years, and Portillo is presenting it with a disarming honesty about his own role in the dramas of the Thatcher years. He described his bottling out of challenging John Major as 'a dishonourable position', acknowledged the reasons for his own defeat at the hands of the electorate, and is now describing his time in the Hague shadow cabinet as one of the most unhappy periods of his political life. The semi-autobiographical nature of the programme is adding to its interest, and I must confess I am regretting the fact that Portillo never became leader.

UPDATE: It is noticeable that Iain Duncan Smith is the only former leader not to be interviewed in this programme, and Portillo has not mixed his words in describing IDS's 'consistent disloyalty' to Major.

Mr. Speaker's Troubles

The controversy with the House of Commons' current Speaker, Michael Martin, started with his election. He was not the obvious candidate, and was seen by many as being imposed by the Blair government as a tame Speaker who would do their bidding. This was entirely typical of a government which never understood or wanted parliamentary independence - they had also, after all, sought to remove two unco-operative committee chairmen, Labour MPs both - but it saddled the Commons with an unpopular, and possibly ill-qualified, choice of Speaker. His career hasn't been helped by some apparently poor rulings from the chair, a perceived bias towards loyalist Labour MPs in debates, a generally poor press and, over the last few days, questions concerning his own probity when it comes to the use of parliamentary perks and finances.

The charge against him has been led by right-wingers - as seen here on Conservative Home, and here in the Daily Mail (who also publish Melanie Phillips' column, and the Quentin Letts sketches which first dubbed Martin 'Gorbals Mick'). Unsurprisingly, his defence today has been led by government loyalists (try this interview with John Spellar on the Today programme - it's the 7.50 slot for today's edition if you have to navigate 'Listen Again'). The defence is centred round the idea that this is all a class war - which it might be from Martin's perspective, but is more to do with sheer competence from other peoples'. After all, Martin is not the first Speaker to rise from humble origins to his post - his three immediate predecessors share this achievement - and it is either arrogant or very thin-skinned for him to believe that this is somehow a unique feature of his own elevation.

Sadly, the furore surrounding Martin has succeeded in making him one of the most divisive of parliamentary figures at present - serious disadvantage number 1 - while the expenses scandal suggests that he lacks the probity to conduct a proper investigation into the sins of MPs generally - serious disadvantage number 2. He should probably go, but the only real mechanism for that is for him to resign - and Michael Martin loves the perks of the job too much to want to give it up.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fascism is Alive - in Russia

In a thoughtful article on the state of contemporary Russia (which is, inevitably, written to flag up a forthcoming book and tv series) Jonathan Dimbleby ponders the best way to sum up that society. He concludes, in the passage copied below, that it bears many similarities to fascist societies. Dimbleby's article, which is pessimistic in tone, reminds me that there was a party in Russia during the Yeltsin years which was viewed with alarm by western observers. It was aggressively nationalistic, led by an unstable, hysterical leader called Vladimir Zhirinovsky, wanted to wage war to return former provinces to the motherland, and was immensely hostile to the West. Called, ironically, the Liberal Party, there was a rush to liken it to the Nazis, and compare the chaotic Russian situation in which it emerged to that of Germany's Weimar period. Huge sighs all round, then, when Zhirinovsky went to electoral oblivion in the wake of a Yeltsin victory. Perhaps, though, the relief was premature, and Zhirinovsky's clowning was simply a red herring. Dimbleby certainly thinks so - his article can be read in full here. As for the Russian Liberals and their leader, they are still represented in the Duma, and are firmly in the pro-Putin camp.

Dimbleby wrote:

On my way through Russia I was increasingly tempted to use the word “fascist” to describe the essence of Putinism. I held back partly because the term is much overused as gratuitous abuse and partly because I knew how offensive it would sound to those whose parents and grandpar-ents had died in their millions to save the world from fascism in what Russians call “the great patriotic war”.

Many political scientists have wrestled with the concept of fascism, trying to clarify its distinguishing features. Authoritarianism is, of course, a defining characteristic; so, too, the elevation of nationalism to the status of a paramount virtue; the manipulation of the electoral system to preserve the outward forms of democracy while strangling its meaning; an intolerance of serious opposition and, crucially, the emergence of a strong leader supported by a powerful vanguard drawn from the business elite or the leaders of “corporate capitalism” or, in Eisen-hower’s phrase, “the military-indus-trial complex”. Putinism has all those characteristics and more.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Tories Auschwitz 'Gimmick' Backfires

Well, it just goes to show that even sixty years on you really can't be too careful when referencing Auschwitz. Conservative Central Office issued a list of gimmicks that they accused the government of engaging in, and included as one of them, the government's announcement that it would pay for students to go to Auschwitz. Turns out the government won't pay very much as it happens, and as a state school history teacher I can't say I've been inundated with helpful information from the government about how to access this fund. Even if I could, I could apparently only send two students - not an impressive number given that quite a few will study this topic in the Upper Sixth. So, in my book, it counts absolutely as a gimmick. But, because it's Auschwitz, the Tories have been the subject of quick, hysterical attacks for daring to mention it in the same sentence as the word 'gimmick'. Cue Ed Balls, ever willing to make party political advantage, who could barely wait to issue his press release condemning the Tories' 'disgraceful' accusations as, er, using Auschwitz for party political purposes. Which is not what he intended to do a all - he had a much higher minded view of the whole thing when devising his cock-eyed policy.

However, it was certainly clumsy, and the Tories need to buck their PR ideas up if they want to come across as a winning opposition. After all, any school child can tell you that Auschwitz remains one of the most emotive aspects of Europe's recent past, and should be mentioned only warily.

Keeping Good MPs

An entertaining meal with an old political friend today yielded much fascinating political gossip, most of which can't be repeated even on such a significantly unread blog as this one. But we did, in passing, refer to the Tory campaign in the Sussex constituency of Lewes, which my Conservative endorsing friend had given some passing help to. His efforts won't bear any fruit, and don't actually deserve to, as the sitting MP for Lewes is the Liberal Democrat Norman Baker. Tory though I be, I would vote for Baker if I lived in Lewes, as he is one of the few consistently independent minded MP's left. A doughty campaigner for integrity in politics, he is usually willing to break ranks with the closed parliamentary shop when it comes to shopping corrupt MPs. This has made him a somewhat isolated figure - one source says that the fruits of Baker's activities - other than a greater transparency in parliament for the public - is that Baker can often be seen eating and drinking alone in the Commons bars. Party allegiances are less strong than the need to draw a veil over our representatives' trough cleaning it seems, and Baker has paid the price, but this is why we need him to stay in the Commons. The Tories shouldn't be trying to get rid of one of the few decent MPs left - a genuine tribune of the people. They should fold up their campaign and support him instead!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Winners and Losers on Question Time

Question Time remains great political theatre, and although last night's edition - in Newcastle, so they could talk about Northern Rock (something you clearly couldn't do in Portsmouth, for example...!) - was not a classic, it had its winners and losers. Foremost amongst the winners was stable, sensible Vince Cable, the highly rated Liberal Treasury spokesman. Fellow panellist and Spectator political editor Fraser Nelson comments on why Cable is on a high in his blog comment here. Nelson himself, lauded as one of the Right's finest young minds of the moment, was visibly less impressive - he is not a good television performer - but his writing remains perceptive. Alan Duncan performed well, but gets so engaged with the issues that he doesn't always know when to apply a bit of superior silence! Ruth Kelly, an intelligent lady, was unable to provide much credible cover for the government - she also has a poor television manner - while the least said about union leader Derek Simpson the better. Most audience members made more articulate comments than he managed.

Goodbye, Darling?

Much talk of whether Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling is going to last much longer. Alan Duncan, on Question Time last night, surmised that he probably couldn't stay, and media comment follows a line being taken by Peter Oborne in the Mail that he really is damaged goods.

Darling doesn't really seem up to the job, but as is so ofetn the case in politics he suffers from bad luck, being handed the headship of the Treasury at a time when several chickens were busy coming home to roost. Northern rock merely exemplifies other problems, but it is true that Darling's hesitant - and costly - response over it has merely seen his reputation ditch further. Many of the problems he is dealing with could be attributed to his illustrious predecessor, and it is as an air-raid shelter that Gordon Brown probably finds him most useful. Nonetheless, in politics luck is nearly everything, and Darling doesn't have it. Speculation about his successor centres on Ed Balls, the current Schools Minister and member of the elite Brown inner circle. Balls is an appalling centraliser, and the world of schools would be well rid of him. It would in fact be a rather nice irony to see him in post at the Treasury, where he previosuly wielded huge influence as Brown's adviser, and watch him deal with the mess he left. It would, incidentally, also mean that his wife, Yvette Cooper, would have to be moved to a new job - she is currently the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.