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.