Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pre-Christmas Reflection (2nd. Take!)

It's the end of the so-called 'noughties' and I'm sure the space between Christmas and New Year will be sufficiently full of 'wise after the event' reflections on the first decade of the third millenium AD (or CE or you prefer a non-religious option). Seems to me that the first story of the decade - the non-story of the millenium computer bug that was due to destroy us all - stands as a suitable precursor to all that came after. There were few events that were not subject to media overload and often hysterical commentary. They came a bit stuck with 9/11 - the defining event of the decade - but just about managed to pillage the English language for expressions of ever greater outrage. 9/11 gave us George Bush as a war leader, and Tony Blair as a cheerleader-in-chief, and both roles ultimately proved - and are proving - disastrous.

At the end of the decade here in the UK, rarely before has paaliament managed to so comprehensively disgrace itself in the eyes of an often disinterested public. You'd have to go back to the rotten-ness of the pre-1832 Reform Act parliament to find a similar herculean effort. The expenses affair told us little we didn't already suspect about our elected representatives, but it sadly obscured the efforts of the minority to plough effective and sometimes independent furrows in the fields of legislative overload. It did, though, remind us that the majority of our legislators are mediocre men and women incapable of looking ahead even if it might be to their own advantage - does anyone doubt that had the Commons taken the expenses bull by the horns a year or two ago, they might have been able to ameliorate the affects of the revelations considerably? But there we are - that's the sort of legislature we get when we're not paying much attention between, and even at, elections.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing that benefits us little, and futurology remains one of those human activities that we quite enjoy but can't ever do. So, the best thing is to admire the pretty white stuff, ask ourselves whether the white Christmases of old are coming back into fashion thanks to climate change/global warming (delete where preferred), reinforce ourselves at regular intervals with the liquor of our choice over the next few days, and rejoin the rest of the human race and the body politic in the New Year. Bon Annee, and Bon Appetit on the 25th.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The World's Dumbest Cabin Crew

BA cabin crew are well paid compared to those of other airlines. Their working hours are not extensive, and long-haul crew always get a decent stay at their place of destination to recover from the rigours of pushing trollies up and down the plane every so often. The new pay schemes do not affect existing workers, only those newly entering the job. BA itself has serious financial problems - hardly a world exclusive at this time of recession - and many of its other staff, from its chief executive downwards, took pay holidays this year to help ease the pressure. Lots of people in the UK have been suffering the effects of the economic downturn, but might also have saved enough to be able to look forward to a few days abroad over Christmas or the new year. So, given all this, well done the BA cabin crew, who always seemed to be such nice people, for their brilliant decision to take on a 12 day strike from December 22nd to January 2nd.

It's certainly got our attention. But the real brilliance of this move will be when they all start facing redundancies because no-one wants to risk flying with BA any more. After all, knowing what you know now about the cabin crew's propensity to strike at the most inopportune moment - would you ever book a flight with them again?

Newsnight's News Desert

I'm a fan of the BBC, and I usually find its current affairs programmes to be thoughtful, often challenging and certainly constructed with a view to what is significant in terms of news, rather than simply for ratings (which the BBC should not specifically be chasing). Tonight's Newsnight is clearly a departure from these standards! I know that we retain a concern for the war effort in Afghanistan, and I have every sympathy for the plight of the families of soldiers who have gone there, but the first Newsnight feature - a look at the 'real people' fighting the war, and then some sob-stuff from the home front - has been done a thousand times before. It's a too easy bit of television, entirely emotively based, and adds little or nothing to our awareness and knowledge of the war. If they had been interviewing ordinary Afghanis and the effects of the war on them, that at least would have had the virtue of scarcity in British television terms. The Brave British Soldier bit, worthy as it may seem, is simply lazy television. And, of course, while I would not wish to take anything away from soldiers fighting a wretched, difficult, murderous war - they are not conscripts. They have signed up for this. I'm glad there are those willing to do that, but we should absolutely not be treating them - as these documentary paps too often do - as innocent victims caught up in all this nastiness. Matthew Parris' article, linked opposite, is a useful commentary on our tendency to over-sentimentalise our troops.
I have to say when I heard what the other two Newsnight items were, I gave up on the programme. The piece on Copenhagen may have at least been moderately news-worthy, but also sounded as if it was unlikely to produce any new insight or angle on a very well covered summit. But their last feature was an interview with man of the moment, Simon Cowell, which included him explaining how a political version of X-Factor might work. Now I'm as fascinated by X-Factor as the next person, and I think Cowell is a showbiz Svengali of genius, but please - he has no political depth whatsoever, and his politics vote show is crass - to use merely the politest term available. We have had a slew of commentary about the X-Factor, pointing to the significant paucity of imagination of most of our cultural and political commentariat, and for Newsnight to now be jumping on the bandwagon is a sorry sight indeed. Simon Cowell knows what he's about - it's time Newsnight was as sure about itself.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Class War

Gordon Brown's class war is the subject of the Economist's Bagehot column this week - worth a read, I think.

The Respect Party's Effective Leader

Question Time last night, from Wootton Basset, boasted a pretty heavyweight panel - General Dannatt, Paddy Ashdown, William Hague, Armed Services Minister Bill Rammell and Piers Morgan. So much so, that I wasn't sure at the start that I thought it was really necessary to include the underwhelming seeming Respect Party leader, Salma Yaqoob. Ever since George Galloway flounced away from it, we've all rather lost interest in the Respect agenda. And anyway, it seeemed to me that broad consensus now seemed to exist along the lines of "the war in Iraq was wrongly conceived and should never have been fought; the war in Afghanistan was necessary, and we need to stay". There was quite bit of this sort of chummy consensus going on amongst the panellists to begin with. William Hague even went so far as to say that he thought Paddy Ashdown should have been appointed as some sort of high representative to sort out the Afghan mess.

Then Salma broke cover. This under-stated mother from Birmingham won over a significant number of audience members by breaking from the consensus that somehow the Afghan war was justifiable. Mentioning that she would be 'proud' to have any of her sons serve in the British army to defend their country, she attacked the reasons for British military involvement in Afghanistan at all, arguing that we were less safe now than we had been before Tony and George declared a fatwa against the middle east (my words, not hers). This was a not unconvincing point, and it was noticeable that the several audience questions following all seemed to begin with "I agree with Salma...." - and this from a heavily forces-biased audience too.

Yaqoob was not a ranter, she waited her turn even when she was clearly bursting to say things, but she was passionate, and it was certainly refreshing to hear someone challenge the idea that the West should be in Afghanistan at all. Piers Morgan said we were there as a direct response to 9/11. True, of course, but it begs the question as to why we are not similarly in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two countries with arguably greater responsibility for nurturing the al-Quaeda cells who launched that notorious attack. All of the attackers on 9/11 were, of course, Saudi citizens.

Then there is the interesting question of George Bush's and Tony Blair's religious convictions. As Christians, one assumes they are keen devotees of the Bible. So did they miss that teaching of Jesus, recorded in the gospel of Matthew, that we should "turn the other cheek", and offer to carry our enemy's coat? Or maybe Christian teaching is only for those not in government? Or perhaps it's just too difficult full stop.

So well done Salma, and it may be that she starts to carve out a role for herself as a non-consensus spokesperson on the war not dissimilar to that of Shami Chakrabarti on civil liberties.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Climate Change Debate

A few faked email stats and suddenly the entire edifice of climate change is in the balance. There's no doubt that the revelation of less than pure scientific method being used by the prominent climate change boffins at the University of East Anglia has given a new lease of life to the climate change deniers, or climo-sceptics. But, as we get ready to see our leaders parading their concern at the Copenhagen Summit, the debate seems to be engendering some thoroughly bad tempered exchanges. The Daily Politics website has a lot of material, including the scientist of Newsnight who called his sceptic opponent an "arsehole" on air (although, having seen the video, he may have had a point) and the rather hostile debate between the Spectator's Fraser Nelson and climate change defender Bob Watson on Sky. Politically, the Australian Liberal Party* leader, Malcolm Turnbull, has been forced out by his party because he was minded to support the ruling Labour Party's commitment to cut carbon emissions. He has now been replaced by a more traditional, anti-gay marriage cheerleader. David Cameron, watch out.

* The Liberal Party in Australia is the equivalent of the British Conservative Party. It was a Liberal Party spin-doctor who came over to England to help Michael Howard's Conservatives in the last general election, coming up with a generally populist, right-wing campaign. Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and then Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser also had a close working relationship.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Sun is Bad for the Tories

Zac Goldsmith may be having a few difficulties with his non-dom status at the moment, but good on this maverick Tory candidate for saying what many Tories think - the deal with the Sun newspaper is a deal too far!

Murdoch's Tiny Victory Against Free News


Rupert Murdoch didn't get where he is today by being a shrinking violet. Neither did he succeed by allowing his focus to divert, even ever so slightly, away from how to screw everyone else to the best advantage of R. Murdoch. So it is hardly surprising that he has been so aggressive in his campaign against news aggregator sites, as well as the providers of free news - most notably the BBC. All of these sites damage his own revenue raising machine, and in truth he has yet to work out a way to make the internet work for him in the way that print and television media does.

However, he seems to have won a small victory today with Google's announcement that it is only allowing surfers up to 5 clicks to a free news article before directing people to the appropriate subscription page. This effectively limits the access that surfers used to have to specific pages on subscription sites. And this is where Murdoch wants to see the internet heading - nicely behind pay-walls, preferably erected by himself.

But it is, in the end, only a tiny victory. It may direct a bit of traffic to the subscription pages, but for the most part internet news browsers will simply move to the free news pages, which are considerable. That's if they make as many as five clicks to the same pay site (such as Murdoch's Wall Street Journal) which seems unlikely. So Murdoch's very voluble campaign to restrict free news access on the web will continue, just as his campaign against the BBC will continue. After all, how annoying is a state monopoly that gets in the way of your own plans for a private monopoly?

Rupert Murdoch has stirred up the media industry for many years, some times positively, all times for his own single-minded purpose of creating a Murdoch monopoly. He is a huge and influential player and what he does matters, but we should never take either his own or his subordinates' justifications at face value, and frankly, in the internet, Murdoch may have finally met his match. After all, who can guard against the clicks of a million internet browsers, all surfing and creating free news? As a counter-blast to the man's whinges, Arianna Huffington of the (free) net paper Huffington Post, puts the case against Murdoch here, arguing along the way that he himself owns a substantial number of aggregator sites anyway, thus diminishing his already fragile arguments. Google, in the meantime, might be able to congratulate themselves on having conceded very little, but may want to consider how many times they intend to compromise to the bigger bully in the playground, be it a media mogul or an authoritarian government (China).

Students....

....should head to the other blog for admin announcements and useful links for current homework assignments.

Obama's First Year

President Obama has just announced his new strategy for Afghanistan, complete with 30,000 more troops (less than the 40,000 requested by his general) and a timetable for withdrawal. It is inevitably drawing comparisons with his Democratic predecessor, Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam strategy of 1965. The Vietnam war went on to destroy one of the greatest liberal reformers the White House had seen, and the ghost that is haunting Obama must be Johnson (not, it has to be acknowledged, that the Ice Man of the White House looks very haunted at the moment). Even before the Afghan announcement, Obama spent a pretty difficult summer over healthcare, and a resurgent right have been attacking him from all quarters, while the left complain of his inactivity.

But does this amount to a failing presidency, or is it merely the petty detail of a genuinely transformational one. Jacob Weisberg in Slate.com makes the case for regarding Obama's first year as the most successful since Franklin D. Roosevelt. For the liberals who thought Obama was failing to measure up, read and have your heart warmed. For the right who were hoping much the same, could you possibly have been outflanked again?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The conservative soul

Andrew Sullivan's reasons for departing from the 'conservative' movement in America are set out in his blog comment. Since his reasons stem from his classical liberalism, they make interesting reading.

The Westminster Conference and a Parade of Politicos

With an election on the horizon, you might have expected something a bit challenging, or radical, or even thoughtful, from the leading politicians who gave up half an hour each or so to come and talk to a hall full of two and a half thousand A-level politics students. Alas, elections encourage a retreat into cliché-ridden tribalism, and most of the speakers at the Westminster Central Hall gathering on Monday didn’t disappoint on that score. The best one of the lot, from the point of view of sheer, unadulterated, tribal clap-trap, was almost certainly Frank Dobson. Frank’s tribalism dates from an earlier era of tribalism, when it was ok for aspiring Labourites to condemn the “stinking rich” (and yes, he really did use that phrase as if it had some sort of revolutionary meaning). He must have missed the speech by Peter Mandelson that “New Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” You see, it’s filthy rich these days, not stinking.

Not that the largely incoherent and inaudible Frank was necessarily the centre of his own speech. That honour went to the boy and girl sitting on the back seats that face the rest of the 2,000 or so delegates. Amazingly oblivious to the fact that their seating arrangement – on a level behind the speaker – put them in the eye-line of everyone else, these two politics gems spent their time fondly hitting and hugging each other in one of the most public making out sessions imaginable. Who needed Frank Dobson when this sort of unwitting entertainment was on offer.

The day was actually kicked off by an unashamedly aggressive Conservative Party Chairman, Eric Pickles. Occasionally monosyllabic with his answers, and a little over-keen to explain the glories of internet campaigning, Eric was particularly fragile when asked about hung parliaments and Tory deals with other parties – the conference chairman certainly got a bit of Yorkshire aggression when he tried to over-step the mark by asking a question. He made up for being cut off by Pickles admirably throughout the rest of the conference, though, by trying to cut everyone else’s question short with the phrase “Ask a question please”. I think that’s what all those students thought they were doing in the first place.

Simon Hughes was worthy but dull, and went through a panoply of liberal thought that stopped just short of hoping for world peace. He was admirably emulated by his leader, Nick Clegg, who was asked which policy he would hold onto most if engaged in the tawdry horse-trading of coalition politics. Clegg said it would be ‘fairness’. Hmmm. Difficult to argue with that one really. He also told us there was a shooting gallery in the House of Commons but not a crèche. A point that doubtless concerns numerous voters.

At least Clegg escaped the anger of the female student who decided to have a go at the quiet, humble, courteous Sir George Young. Sir George is the Tories’ shadow Leader of the House, and had been asked to speak on parliamentary reform. The angry female aggressively demanded why he was wasting his time talking about changes to Prime Minister’s Questions, and not the Iraq war, or unemployment. Perhaps she hadn’t been briefed on what the topics of the day were. Or perhaps, like Frank Dobson, she was stuck in the old time-warp of 1970s class warfare – had she known he went to Eton, she could have added ‘toff’ to her accusations against Sir George.

Oliver Letwin provided some sharp answers to what was a largely Q and A session in his case, while two of the big names came in the afternoon. Jack Straw has an unwarranted reputation as one of Labour’s best performers, and the chairman roused the conference audience into a frenzy of support when he introduced Straw as the “man who demolished Nick Griffin on Question Time”. Actually, Straw did nothing of the sort – Griffin managed to destroy himself quite nicely. Griffin’s best publicity comes when he is absent anyway – most of the politicians addressing us managed to work Griffin and the BNP into their speeches at some point, if only for the mass cheer that always comes from attacking him. Only once did a questioner raise the challenge that perhaps the BNP was doing so well because mainstream parties were failing so badly? Straw, meanwhile, should have been challenged on being one of the government’s longest serving and most illiberal faces – the man who as Foreign Secretary helped us into the Iraq War, as Home Secretary ensured the development of the ID cards scheme, and as Justice Secretary sought to over-turn one of his own Freedom of Information laws to prevent us reading the Cabinet minutes about the Iraq decision. If you’re Jack Straw, which bit of your reflection in the mirror each morning radiates integrity I wonder.

And finally there was Speaker John Bercow. Since he also addressed the Hansard Society later on, along very similar, if more considered, lines about the ‘outreach’ of parliament, I think we can leave his ruminations to a subsequent post. Just as we will leave the post-politics student pandemonium of the evening in the unwritten ether.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Westminster Conference

L6 students - go to the new admin blog for details about Monday.

New UKIP Leader

Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a former Tory peer, has been elected to lead UKIP, in succession to Nigel Farage, who is concentrating on his parliamentary election campaign in Buckingham to oust John Bercow. Pearson came to speak to the sixth form at SGS a couple of years back, and was a decent, committed gentleman with no real gifts of advocacy - at least not to this audience. Nonetheless, this means that we have now been addressed by both the present and past leaders of UKIP - what a very UK-minded school we are!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Obama and Reagan

Two articles considering the comparison of Barack Obama with his conservative predecessor Ronald Reagan. Alex Massie in the Spectator, and Andrew Sullivan in an earlier Daily Dish post.

Dishing the Christianists

Andrew Sullivan's prolifically kept blog has an interesting post on the issue of Christian contributions to the body politic. Sullivan writes from America, where the Christian right form a significant voting bloc, and often hold Republican politicians in particular in thrall. Their strong stance on abortion and gay rights significantly distorts the political dialogue of the US. Sullivan writes of a "Cafeteria Theocracy" in this post, asking for Christian morality to be more consistently exhorted across the political spectrum before it can claim any great authority.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Nightmare of Being Hung

The Observer's IPSOS poll today shows a narrowing lead for the Tories over Labour, giving rise to much speculation in that paper about a hung parliament after the next election. Two articles worth reading on this scenario are Andrew Rawnsley's commentary, which deserves a separate entry really, and a piece by Roy Hattersely, in which the former Labour deputy leader recalls the time that he was a minister in a minority government (James Callaghan's). He doesn't think much of the experience, and ends his article with a clarion call for conviction politics - "What our democracy needs, above all else, is the politics of conviction".

Hmmmm, really? I mean, Nick Griffin certainly doesn't lack conviction. Margaret Thatcher's conviction was one of the most wildly divisive elements of politics in the 1980s. Tony Blair certainly had plenty of conviction about the need to fight a war in Iraq. Adolf Hitler was, in many ways, the ultimate conviction politician, squeezing out all those woolly minded consensualists. Roy's own conviction is the need for ex-Labour ministers to have good square meals and fine wines, and who could argue with that, but I think he looks at conviction politics through rose-tinted spectacles. Most of us just want effective and honest government, rather than the dangerous, arrogant assertions of the eternally convicted.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Europe's Grey Move

The massed ranks of euro-sceptics could, if they had a mind to, breathe a small sigh of relief this evening. The announcement of which two politicians are going to take on the shiny new pan-European roles created by the Lisbon Treaty - that of President and the ludicrously named 'High Representative' - has sent most people racing to their political almanacks to find out who on earth they are. To be fair, Herman van Rompuy, the Belgian premier now destined for greater things as President of Europe, has apparently been a much liked, and very able, prime minister of a nearly disintegrating Belgium. Baroness Ashton, however, Labour's successfully nominated High Representative, has barely been heard of in her own country, and certainly never done anything as undignified as stand for election. She appears to have been appointed as a bit of a trade-off in the dinner meeting that made the appointments, but the fact is that neither she nor her new boss have the personal authority or standing to do much more than travel round the world trading niceties. Europe is not going to turn into a superstate on their watch, and that at least should comfort the doom-sayers who thought we were suddenly and irreparably going to fall under the iron sway of a charismatic Brussels government. Europe remains a conglomeration of independent minded sovereign states - as it was always going to.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Brown Rap

Wonder if the Labour Party are wondering whether they can somehow get Jon Culshaw to do all of Gordon Brown's appearances between now and the general election - Culshaw's Gordon Brown rap is certainly worth watching.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why Cameron Should Steer Clear of the Sun

We may be used to an amoral, cynical and manipulative press, but the Sun newspaper continues to push the boundaries ever further out. The story about grieving mother Mrs. Janes, and the Gordon Brown letter, represent yet another of its many low points. As has been blogged on other sites, there is a legitimate political story about the lack of equipment being given to soldiers, which was a contributing factor to the death of Mrs. Janes' son. If the government is not properly protecting its own soldiers, then it should clearly be answerable.

On the other hand, to lay in so heavily to Gordon Brown for his handwriting, and to connive at the publicising of a private phone conversation made by him, seems to reach the pits of reprehensible journalism. Mrs. Janes' desire to attack the man she clearly sees as being responsible for her son's death is understandable, given the trauma she must be going through, even if it seems unfair to the prime minister. For the Sun to play along, however, is an acknowledgement that it is motivated by the deepest form of callous cynicism, and should stand as a warning to any wise politician to steer well clear of its poisonous embrace. David Cameron should not be welcoming the support of this paper. As he watches its merciless campaign against a man and government it once lauded, and sees its tactics illuminated so clearly in the bright light of its current determination to milk the grief of a human being as much as possible, he should be determining that he at least will deal with it in the way one might reserve for an angry scorpion. Only then might he have a chance of remaining unscathed when, as it surely will, it flails around towards him in turn.

PS: David Cameron might do well to reflect on a story which former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie dined out on for years, but which his victim, then PM John Major, claims never actually happened. MacKenzie reckoned that he once rang Major to say "I have a bucket of shit on my desk, and tomorrow I'm gonna pour it all over your head." Charming man really, and his successors share his delicacy!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Ironies of Commemoration

Stood in the cold last night admiring the sparkly array of fireworks and the HUGE bonfire that had been lovingly created, and got to musing about the sheer irony of November 5th. There was the impressively reconstructed Guy Fawkes on top of the bonfire, and we were all to cheer when he finally caught fire and fell. Cheer? The one man who tried to put parliament out of our misery? In the year of the expenses scandal, I wonder how many have reflected on their celebration of the capture and execution of the man who failed to blow it up!

Then there was today's always moving Cenotaph service. Who is prominent in placing the wreaths? Why, the politicians whose often poorly drawn policies create the conditions for the sacrifices we are commemorating. War is, after all, merely the pursuit of politics by the use other people.

You can read one Euro-sceptic's attempt to right the wrongs of historiography on Guy Fawkes here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Rowing Back on a Referendum

Serious Tory rowing back on the issue of a referendum about Lisbon. Even Daniel Hannan, whose whole raison d'etre is to be a voluble euro-sceptic, is resisting any criticism of the new Cameron policy on Newsnight. William Hague announced the row back earlier - despite lots of huffing and puffing about the need for a referendum, now that comrade Klaus has ratified the Treaty for the Czechs, being the last to do so, Lisbon becomes law, and there is no going back. So no referendum. Which is of course the pragmatic policy, but is there more to it? Why is the situation over Lisbon not the same as the original decision to join the EEC, subjected to a retrospective referendum in 1975?

Some possible answers -

1. David Cameron is secretly relieved that he can drop the whole referendum idea. Lisbon is not actually a game-changing treaty (the Single European Act - signed by Margaret Thatcher for the UK - and Maastricht were more significant) and squabbling over its demands would have demeaned Cameron as a world leader. Now, he doesn't have to.

2. The Tory Party senses victory in Britain and even the euro-sceptic loons don't want to rock the boat at the moment. Cameron has an unprecedented hold over his party, desperate to return to power, and providing he continues making the right rhetorical noises on Europe, he can expect his nut-case tendency to basically keep quiet. Substantively, he won't deliver much for them, but we await his statement tomorrow with interest.

3. With the Lisbon Treaty written into European law, it is not possible to retrospectively to refuse to agree to its terms without actually pulling out of Europe - and no major party wants to commit to that, not even the Tories.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

X Factor's Twins Are the Only Stars

Well, it's not quite my view, although amongst a slew of distinctly average performers, at least they are an entertaining act, and no-one says we have to like the people we watch. For an alternative view of X Factor - and yes, I know it's not politics, but there's an 'Etc' in the title here - have a read of Bryan Appleyard's less than positive view; however, he's the one who seems to think the twins are the real deal in an unappetising show!

Why Brown Wants Miliband at the EU

It's not particularly difficult to work out why Gordon Brown might be promoting David Miliband for the extraordinarily named "High Representative for Foreign Affairs" job at the EU. For all that Miliband's stock has fallen in recent months, and he looks far less of a possible leadership candidate than he used to when we didn't know him so well, Brown is still anxious to get him out of the way by the time of the post-election fall-out. Miliband is a Blair protege, and Brown would prefer a clear run for his own people, who include the unlikeable Ed Balls, and the younger Miliband, Ed. So - give David to Europe, and there you go! Europe has always served the useful purpose of being a place of exile for politicians who have served out their domestic usefulness, although Roy Jenkins (who returned from being Commission President to form the SDP in the 1980s) and Peter Mandelson have proved that there can be life after death for anyone exiled there.

I'm not sure, though, that Brown needs to be quite so bothered about Miliband, as the more dangerous anti-Brown candidates are still lurking around - James Purnell, for example, would surely make a bid for the top job after the election, and as someone who freed himself from the shackles of a being a Brown minister, he would look like a fresh start.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Tories and Euro Referendums

The Czech government of Vaclav Klaus looks as if it is now ready to ratify the Lisbon Treaty that redefines the European constitution. It is the last government to do so, which means that the treaty is likely to be ratified by the time of the next British general election, and the widely expected change of government. David Cameron, whose otherwise modern new party* is racked by deep-seated euro-scepticism, has said that he wanted a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but that it is pointless to hold one once the Treaty has been ratified. Really? There is in fact a precedent for post-decision referendums. Edward Heath took Britain into the then EEC in 1973 without a referendum. His Labour successor, Harold Wilson, whose party was hugely divided on the issue, held a referendum in 1975 to decide whether to stay in the EEC. Surely, if he is committed to a direct democratic vote on this issue, David Cameron could promise a post-ratification referendum on the 1975 model. Or perhaps he's not quite as keen for the Tories to take this issue to the country as he might suggest?

* Actually, perhaps not that modern, at least in social attitudes - the party in South West Norfolk is reconsidering its selection of a candidate, Lyn Truss, because it turns out she had an affair with an MP a few years ago. Without wishing to condone an affair between separately married adults, I wonder if the Tories are really suggesting that only the chaste and the faithful will make decent political leaders? And they might want to consider the famous response of Jesus when asked to condone the stoning of a woman taken in adultery, as sanctioned by the Jewish law - let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

The Fading Hopes of President Blair

For all the initial trumpeting of Tony Blair's candidacy as the first 'President' of Europe, it looks highly unlikely that he will actually get anywhere near the post. One might argue that the final nail in his coffin has probably been Gordon Brown's enthusiastic support, but of course the reasons are more varied than that.

First, the idea of a British politician in the post would be anathema to many European countries. Britain is one of the most reluctant of European nations, whose political leaders still prefer cosying up to America than identifying a European future. A Brit in the top euro post would be almost be seen as akin to appointing a senior Opposition politician into government. Strange and unworkable. Secondly, most European governments are centre-right ones - they are unlikely to be sympathetic to a leftist candidate, even one as blurred as Tony Blair, for the new top job. But most significantly is the personality and history of Blair himself. He is a hugely divisive character. He took Britain, squealing, into a war most of her people didn't want, and which most of Europe took exception to. He remains a divisive character in Britain, where there is absolutely no political consensus behind his nomination (unlike the last senior British appointment of Roy Jenkins, the former Labour Home Secretary, as President of the European Commission in the late 1970s). His role as George W Bush's most faithful lackey makes him an extraordinarily poor choice for any international post, and his own character would hardly fit into the 'chairman of the board' role envisaged for the new European 'president'.

David Miliband, whose reputation surely slips a little each time he makes a speech, made the extraordinary statement that he wanted Tony Blair as European President, so that he could stop the traffic in Beijing. This is hardly how the position is described in the Lisbon Treaty. The new president of Europe, who carries no democratic mandate, is intended to be a chairman of the board at meetings of properly elected European heads of government, and then a spokesman for those collectvie views. Tony Blair, whose attitude to his own cabinet was to ignore it as much as possible and rule as an individual leader, is hardly suited to that sort of consensus role. But we needn't worry - with Gordon Brown behind him, he hasn't a hope.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stopping the MP Gravy Train

Sir Christopher Kelly's report on MPs' expenses isn't due to be published until next week, although its principal findings have, it appears, been leaked to the media. Perhaps full analysis and comment should wait until it is formally unveiled, but it is worth noting the cries of woe that MPs have been generating about the provision to prevent them employing spouses in future. Some 200 MPs do this, and the claim is that these are all properly contracted jobs done by able people who just happen to be MPs spouses. Maybe. But there is no other job or profession that sees such wholesale nepotism going on, and the protests of the MPs and their 'employees' today is indicative of the long road they still have to take before they really emerge from their ivory offices and see themselves as the world sees them. One MPs' wife, employed as her husband's secretary, commented on Radio 4's PM programme this evening that it would be a tragedy if she, as the best person for the job, was now discriminated against just because she was married to the MP. I do just wonder how many candidates for the job were interviewed besides her though!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fatal Policy Failures at Defence

There can have been few more damaging reports issued about the way in which defence matters are managed today than the investigation by Charles Haddon-Cave into the 2006 RAF Nimrod crash. Published on Wednesday, he uses direct language to condemn a "systemic failure" which brought about the tragic accident that lost 14 service lives. Revealingly, on the day that Gordon Brown announced a complete U-turn on TA training - originally cancelled to save money, now reinstated due to serious opposition at a saving that puts TA personnel in danger when serving - Haddon-Cave's most serious accusation is that the wholesale culture in the RAF has moved from safety to budgetary concerns. In effect, forget airworthiness and concentrate on costs. This is no way to run the military.

Two of the ten named individuals singled out for criticism were the first Chiefs of Defence Logistics, General Sir Sam Cowan and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sam Pledger. These were servicemen promoted to the highest level and charged with implementing government cost saving initiatives that were bound to result in safety failures somewhere along the line. Cowan instituted a cost saving regime that was ruthlessly pursued, while Pledger apparently even wondered whether he should continue with such a scheme in the light of the government's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That he did so, seemingly against his better judgement, is what has led to his shaming by Haddon-Cave.

Then there are the civilian contractors, each incompetent and careless on the issue of safety. Two of the named individuals worked for Qinetiq, the defence firm that was later privatised by the government, netting its executives windfall payments of up to £20million and £23million. There can surely be no greater indicator of the bankruptcy of defence logistics, and a shameful government policy that commits the armed services to a greater and more complex level of armed combat than has been seen since 1945, whilst at the same time cutting its budget and placing huge pressure to deliver financial savings above everything else.

The Haddon-Cave report has shed light on the appalling nature of the Nimrod tragedy, but it has cast its beam inadvertantly wider by illuminating the whole shoddy structure of current defence policy. The same shoddiness led to the Chinook crash of 1994 - a crash initially blamed on pilot error before a campaign by the dead pilots' families eventually revealed that software problems were to blame. Software problems for the chinooks further led to 8 new helicopters, ordered at a cost of £259million, being indefinitely grounded. And Gordon Brown wanted to save a comparatively paltry £20million by stopping all TA training.

There isn't much that is positive about this whole dismal saga. The government, its defence agencies, and senior servicemen, stand monumentally indicted. But Haddon-Cave's report has at least brought all this into the open, and its direct, critical style should be the template for every future independent report into the sometimes fatal failings of government. Openness has brought us this, as it has brought us the knowledge of our MPs' expenses shenanigans, and there can surely be no good argument against introducing stronger and more far-reaching Freedom of Information legislation as soon as possible.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Question Time - The Verdict

The panellists were all so anxious to have their go at Nick Griffin they often managed to let him off his own hook. There were some decent audience interventions along with the usual array of utterly incomprehensible ones - none was a killer point. Griffin was really starting to hang himself with his extraordinary discourse on indigenous people, and had he been allowed to keep going uninterrupted could probably have finished himself there and then. Alas, his fellow panellists were interrupting so madly that they broke his suicidal flow. Particularly impressive is Griffin's belief that the indigenous people of this island can trace their ancestry to common ice-age humans - and there was I thinking that regular invasions kept changing and mixing our common heritage, with even the Normans a couple of thousand years ago massacring most of their predecessor settlers, the Saxons.

Winners and Losers? Huhne a definite loser - poor points, couldn't shut up, much too long-winded, and always angry; Dimbleby seemed to think he was a member of the panel rather than the chairman; Warsi was actually a lot better than expected - made some good points pretty effectively, and has moved some way from her previous inarticulate self; Bonnie Greer was wonderfully academically disdainful of Griffin, who for some reason kept reacting to her as if she was his best buddy; and Jack Straw was solid, but after a decent opening comment never really found his dynamic point; and Griffin has got his pound of publicity, but is poor in front of an audience of unbelievers. Next time - just let him speak without interruption.

Anti-Climax?

OK, the BBC have screened some excerpts from the Question Time programme, and whilst they are too incomplete for a fully informed judgement, my immediate reaction is that, far from being a political bloodbath, this could prove a bit of an anti-climax. Griffin seemed to have been in self-pity mode, while one member of the audience became too angry during his question to be particularly effective. Warsi and Straw seemed to be relying on audience-friendly slogans rather than dealing very rationally with the points about Griffin, but that's possibly a measure of them as politicians. We'll see.....

Giving Griffin Publicity

Have just been watching the huge protests outside the BBC against Nick Griffin. His appearance has generated reams of publicity, yet the best thing that could have happened would have been......nothing. No protestors, no constant reporting of this tedious little man and his venomous opinions. He tugs at a chain and the whole media panoply, together with the large numbers of demonstrators seeking a row, respond - and Griffin must love it! We'll see just how effective a performer he is later on, although I'm not filled with confidence that the Tories have fielded Baroness Warsi, who is usually a pretty poor Question Time performer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Laziness of Ken Clarke

Ken Clarke, three times candidate for the Conservative leadership, may be back in the shadow cabinet, but is he basically too lazy for the job? When one of his multiple leadership bids was announced the campaign had to be delayed while Ken finished his holiday. On another occasion, when fighting Iain Duncan Smith, he reacted with surprise when he heard that IDS was actually, you know, going round the local parties and canvassing. Now, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, never a man to allow charity to get in the way of a few well aimed barbs, is suggesting Ken may not be very on top of his opposition brief, given that he was easily out-foxed by a simple question from a Labour backbencher yesterday. Opposition? Surely it doesn't require any actual work?

A Row Over the Children's Commissioner

Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for what used to be straightforwardly called the Education Department, and now glories in the more Orwellian name of the Department of Schools, Children and Families, has appointed a new Children's Commissioner. He's appointed Ms. Maggie Atkinson, but Ms. Atkinson's appointment was criticsed by the Select Committee that scrutinises Mr. Balls' department. The chairman of that committee, a Labour MP, Barry Sheerman, has been highly critical of Mr. Balls, describing him as a "bully". Oh dear. Perhaps it is the select committee system that needs a champion. These parliamentary bodies are meant to try and hold government to account, and are based on the much more formidable American Senate and Congress committees. The Atkinson affair shows how toothless they really are - they have no actual power. Mr. Sheerman was probably right to ask why these committees should even bother to vet appointments if they are simply going to be ignored.

Throughout this furore, however, no-one has asked the obvious question - what on earth is a Children's Commissioner for?

Tolerating Intolerance

It's one of the great dilemmas of the liberal society - how far do we tolerate intolerance? Two stories over the weekend raise this question - the continuing debate over the BBC's decision to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin onto 'Question Time', and Jan Moir's Daily Mail column on Stephen Gateley's death. Channel 4 News linked these together in a piece on freedom of expression, although there is a qualitative difference. Even as a panellist on Question Time, Griffin is subject to questioning and debate by fellow panellists, chairman Dimbleby and the studio audience. If his views are repellent, they can be attacked, challenged and dissected. Jan Moir, on the other hand, has a well positioned newspaper column to express her views, uncluttered by the need to constantly refine or explain them to challengers.

Moir's comments, implying that Stephen Gateley died an unnatural death because he was a homosexual, have been seen by many - if the twitter campaign and the complaints received by the Press Complaints Commission are anything to go by - as being just as repellent, and in the same bracket, as the views often expressed by Griffin. Both appear to want to attack and ghettoise groups of people for characteristics that such people are hardly in control of (skin colour, sexual orientation). The Moir column, in fact, exposes the frailty of such 'big-name' columnism. Writers such as Moir are given headline-heavy titles, prominently positioned in the newspaper, and then permitted to proselytise on any subject of their choosing, no matter what their own personal knowledge, as if they are somehow experts. Few such columns are particularly well researched, and effectively give someone who is little more than an articulate pub politico the credibility of a national thinker. In a visceral attack on Moir, the Guardian's Charlie Brooks, amongst other things, wonderfully mocks the forensic expertise she must clearly possess in order to challenge the coroner's report on Gateley's death.

Interestingly, the once lofty position of the columnist is being increasingly challenged and attacked, as the internet response to Moir adequately shows. Moir may not have to respond instantly to such criticism, and will doubtless have the luxury of her column to rebut her critics in a more leisurely way than will be afforded Nick Griffin on Question Time, but she will have to respond I think. And actually, that's why the liberal society can go some way to tolerating intolerance. Because as long as it's operating properly, with a range of alternate voices, such intolerance quickly runs into the sand of political debate. That it is the internet which increasingly provides the forum for such essential plurality is another reason for all liberals to praise the coming of the last great arena of free expression, good and bad.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wanted - Gay Marine Heroes

Andrew Sullivan has posted a reader's comments on the ongoing debate in America about gays in the military. The current policy is "Don't Ask Don't Tell", but there is growing pressure for a more open approach, as the above contribution explains.

The White House v. Fox News

Fox News may be the home of one of President Obama's most vigorous critics, Glen Beck, but it is, when all is said and done, just a broadcast organisation. They are, however, clearly getting under the skin of the White House as Obama's Communication Director, Anita Dunn, has come out firing against them Describing them as a "wing of the Republican Party", and saying "let's not pretend they're a news network like CNN", it's clear that White House has had enough. By directing such fire-power against Fox, however, it looks a little as if they have just handed Murdoch's US broadcaster a valuable propaganda coup. The better option, in this case, really would have been silence, if only to let people hear Beck's lunacy unfettered - now he sounds like a martyr.

Sarkozy's Son

While MPs here are paying back their over-claimed expenses, France has been in a bate for several days over the likely new appointment of someone to head the premier business district in Paris. Not only is the proposed candidate just 23 years old, and still doing his undergraduate law studies, but he also happens to be President Sarkozy's second son. The job is one of the most powerful in France, and the president is busy extolling the virtues of Napoleonic meritocracy while hoping to see Jean catapulted into a remarkably influential post. Perhaps Sarkozy the younger is genuinely the best man for the job, but as some observers are remarking, it might not be a bad idea if he finished his law studies first. Others are wondering what sort of job is coming the way of the president's third son, 13 year old Louis.....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Guardian Gagged from Reporting Parliament

If there's one place in the land that should never be the subject of a gagging order, it is the place where our representatives gather and debate, and where they hold government to account. Yet, extraordinarily, the Guardian newspaper has been served with an order gagging it from reporting a parliamentary question from Labour backbencher Paul Farrelly later this week. the question is already laid out on the Order Paper, but thanks to the injunction obtained by solicitors Carter-Ruck, the Guardian cannot even mention the MPs' name, let alone the subject of his question or likely reply.

It may be scandalous that such an order can be issued, but fortunately in this age of internet communication, other sources are not so restrained. Thus, the blogger Guido Fawkes has commented on this and published the question that the Guardian has been gagged from reporting; he also links to this story, linked to the issue that Carter-Ruck's clients are so keen to trample on free speech for; while Iain Dale also reports the matter extensively, and carries this link to the original Guardian story, by reporter David Leigh, that has caused all the fuss. Seems that companies like Trafigura can dump all the toxic waste they like along the West African coast, and stil manage to use the British legal system to keep their activities quiet.

UPDATE: Lovely piece here from a blogger called Mr. Eugenides about how Carter-Ruck's attempt to gag the Guardian has pretty well guaranteed that Trafigura have now received far greater coverage than they ever would if no such order had been placed. Suddenly, they're big news and their nefarious activities are in every spotlight!

UPDATE 2: Carter-Ruck have accepted defeat and withdrawn the gag order. Nick Higham on the BBC website has posted an analysis of the internet/twitter aspects of today's rather extraordinary developments. A commenter of good repute reports some tension within Trafigura about whether to employ the very aggressive Carter-Ruck - good that they know what they're doing, these poisoners of innocent Africans.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Little Bit of Inspiration

Was struck by this extraordinary story on the BBC website, of the "youngest headmaster in the world". Babar Ali, who lives in West Bengal in India, has set up his own school to teach the poor children who live in his village. He teaches what he has learned that morning in his own school, and so hungry for learning are the children of his poor village that he now has some 800 coming to his free school. A remarkable story of the triumph of the human spirit, and how the most unlikely person can embody it. Woe to you in the West, who complain of your schooling!

Expense Fall-Out

Gordon Brown is having to pay back some £12,000 that he wrongly claimed in expenses, according to the independent adjudicator Sir Thomas Legg; Jacqui Smith has had to apologise to the Commons for her claims, and large numbers of other MPs are dreading the sort of letter that Brown has just received. This scandal has been cataclysmic, directly causing the largest single exodus of MPs at the next election in probably half a century (over a hundred at the latest count, and excluding those who might lose their seats if they do stand). And I doubt the notices about 'retiring' MPs has finished yet, as they ponder what to do with this latest turn.

Paul Waugh, meanwhile, considers that the real story of Jacqui Smith's claims about her principal home is more sordid than the headline points allow.

New Leftie Blog

Actually it's been around for a while, but I've only just caught up with it, via the ever irascible Bob Piper. Anyway, if you're fed up of Tory triumphalism, try the Frank Owen's Paintbrush blog - lots of comradely snarling and plenty of innuendo, if their current tale of homo-eroticism at a right-wing youth fest is anything to go by!

By way of a contrast, this post from a rightist blogger is hilarious, as he calls for the protestors on the roof of parliament to be shot down next time (and I think he is serious, not caricaturing himself)! Mind you, he also blogs on the X-Factor!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Osborne's Question Time

Having been quite critical of George Osborne's performance in his Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, it seems only fair now to note that his Question Time performance seemed far more assured - he managed to combine convincing advocacy with a degree of electoral humility that worked well, I thought. There were also moments when the determinedly non-partisan Ian Hislop was holding more than a candle for the Tories, in a heated exchange with Yvette Cooper. And a final plus point for Osborne, who sneakily wondered aloud whether David Dimbleby would follow Bruce Forsyth's example and take a BBC pay cut.

Cameron's Speech

Early thoughts are that it did set out a coherent vision, even if - as he warned - it wasn't strong on policy detail. Significantly, his vision is much closer to a "One Nation" Tory vision than I ever once thought possible, and it rather confirms the interesting analysis of Team Cameron that is offered by Julian Glover in his Prospect article. He also acknowledged Labour 'achievements' - citing the minimum wage and civil partnerships amongst these; a good move it has to be said, although how many of his party agree is another matter. The personal side was sincere, but he needs to be careful when referring to his son, and his go at Labour for not doing enough for the poor who they have betrayed was canny political theatre. On the whole, he has done himself favours with this speech, and of the three leaders' speeches this year, Cameron's is likely to be recognised as the most effective.

Paxo's Tory victims

The much vaunted interview between Jeremy Paxman and Boris Johnson turned out to be just a bit of light entertainment between the two; not really a Paxo classic, although some Tories - if their comments on Conservative Home are any guide - clearly thought Boris came through the whole bumbling encounter as a sort of latter day anti-hero who should be leading the party as soon as he can! Much tougher was Paxaman's interview last night with George Osborne, who he had on the ropes two or three times. He prefaced one question by saying that everyone regards Osborne as 'the weakest link" in the Cameron team, challenged him on whether everyone really was "in this together" when the shadow Chancellor's plans appear to favour the wealthy, and almost stunned him into silence on the question of whether Tory Deputy Chairman Lord Ashcroft actually pays any tax in the UK, given Osborne's determination to clamp down on tax evasion! Not quite a car crash, but Osborne didn't emerge unscathed; very different from the chummy time Boris had with Jeremy.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

More Tory History Shenanigans

Fast on the heels of his grassroots, the normally thoughtful Michael Gove has also launched into the "British history isn't being taught in schools" debate. Paul Waugh asked Gove for his list of recommended history topics, and a quick glance reveals a list of what comprises much of the current Years 7 to 9 curriculum, as I've already pointed out. I don't necessarily disagree with Gove's priorities, although dictating what history should be taught was, not surprisingly, a popular totalitarian measure, but I do resent his wilful ignorance of the current state of history teaching in schools. Incidentally, one of the comments on the earlier post makes a good point about the impact of globalisation!

Independent Schools Keep Degrees Going

Tony Blair came to power proclaiming "Education, education, education" as his top three priorities. Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown continue to proclaim it as their own key policy areas. Well, they're going to have to do a lot more than simply produce impressive rhetoric, if a report commissioned by the Headmaster's Conference (an Independent School body) is anything to go by.

The report points to a continued over-representation of independent school pupils in key degree areas such as modern languages, engineering and economics. Not because the universities are hugely biased towards the independent sector - we know that it is quite the opposite - but because it is the only sector able to provide students with viable A-level qualifications in these subject areas. While the ideas of academic rigour, and academically focused reform, remain alien ones to both parties, they will continue to betray state school students in favour of the private sector, whatever their fine words suggest.

The Dannatt Effect

It's been quite interesting watching the news about Sir Richard Dannatt joining the Tories break during the day. On the one hand, it looks like a brilliant recruitment for the Tories - as I suggested in the post below. Dannatt is a combative general who didn't shy away from fighting battles in Whitehall to defend the needs and wants of ordinary soldiers. Unlike politicians, he carries weight and authority when he speaks on defence matters. The down side, of course, is that the announcement that he is joining the Tories - might even be one of their defence ministers in government - immediately politicises him, and allows the government, probably rather thankfully, to be able to dismiss his views from hereon in. Worse, they might be tempted to suggest that he always was a Tory mole at the top of the defence establishment. On balance, though, the appointment adds weight and lustre to a Tory top team that is worried about its collective lack of experience.

From a non-partisan point of view, the entry of men and women who have made significant achievements outside politics into the political arena is to be welcomed. Another former serviceman, Colonel Bob Stewart, is already on the Conservative candidates list, and his performance on Newsnight was measured and authoritative, especially when set against the rather inane babbling of the always irritating Phil Woolas.

As a side issue, however, the Conservative high command certainly need to work on their communication skills - the Chris Grayling gaffe, where he cautioned against the appointment of Dannatt as a political 'gimic', because he thought it was a Labour appointment, didn't inspire great confidence in joined up opposition, even if it has provided the media with some regularly regurgitated amusement.

Dannatt and the Tories

Nick Robinson has just posted a piece about General Sir Richard Dannatt, hinting that he might join a Conservative government if asked. No doubting that this would be a significant coup for the Tory Party - Dannatt's leadership and integrity are widely admired, and he has been seen as a victim of the Brown government's dirty tricks machine in recent months.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Tory Grassroots and School History

Apparently, British history doesn't get a look-in at British schools, and the desire to place the teaching of history as the central feature of every British classroom is the second most favoured policy of Tory grassroots members. Conservative Home say that the policy garnered 94% support in its survey of what the party members want in the next Conservative manifesto. Which is a pretty damning indictment of the Tory backwoodsman view of British schooling.

Am quickly reviewing my teaching schedule for the next few weeks, which includes the intricacies of the Norman invasion, followed by the Plantagenet successors for the Year 7s; a look through the Tudor and Stuart monarchs and their turbulent, game changing reigns for Year 8; and completing the Industrial Revolution (in Britain, "the first industrial nation", naturally) before moving on to British political reform in the 19th. century for Year 9. Not much of a look-in for any NON-British material there I'd say, except as a form of context, and that little lot follows the National Curriculum guidelines laid out for all schools. As if you needed further evidence of the focus of British schools on British history, a glance at any issue of the history teaching profession's trade journal, "Teaching History", would put it to rest. A wide variety of teachers and other practitioners seem to be wrestling almost exclusively with the problems and fascinations of British history teaching. That this is such a key Tory grassroots view would seem to confirm my view that an unreconstructed - and apparently rather ignorant - party membership could be David Cameron's biggest problem.

It goes without saying that the freezing of the BBC licence fee is number 3 in this list of policy lemmings, followed by the need to maintain our nuclear deterrent. The Tories - never knowingly progressive!

What are Cameron's Woes?

Clegg had a distinctly modest conference; Brown had a pretty dreadful one; so surely of the three main leaders David Cameron has predictably the biggest spring in his step? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that opinion polls are going his way and have been for some time; he looks and sounds like a prime minister in waiting; he didn't get tripped up by one or two rather infantile Marr questions in the same way that Brown did last week; the Sun is still in love with him; and he appears to have a complete control of his party.

But it is not all completely rosy for the first Tory leader in over a decade to look like he might win power. There are a couple of real problems on the horizon that could yet engulf him. The first is a policy issue. Whilst Cameron is, probably sensibly, policy lite, he starts to get into real difficulties when explaining the impact of his proposed cuts regime. It was on the question of "How many people will lose their jobs when you make your promised cuts?" that Andrew Marr really seemed to make Cameron uncomfortable. He knows cuts = job losses, but he absolutely cannot say so. His gamble is that the electorate are currently keener to see economic stringency (in the belief that this is good economic management) than confront the prospect of public sector job losses, but that is not necessarily a given over the next few months. Labour aren't yet so incompetent that they can't land some useful PR punches on Tory economic plans if they choose.

The second problem comes from within Mr. Cameron's own party. He may be the acceptable face of Tory change, but the deep suspicion that much of his party hasn't really changed still persists, and the unwelcome re-appearance of the Europe issue, in the form of Ireland's 'Yes' vote, brings this suspicion to the front of our consciousness, for it is in their fanatical opposition to Europe that many of the Tories' most unlovely characters force their way to the front of the publicity queue. Cameron's party is not as governable as people think, and if they think power is within their grasp they will see it as their right to keep Cameron to heel on the European issue. Hard-line Euro-sceptics have been the manifestation of the Tory's right-wing laager tendency for years, and for years their antics have denied Tory leaders the opportunity to win elections (they utterly screwed John Major's chances in 1997; it was the ludicrous Save the Pound campaign that ditched any faint prospect William Hague might have had in 2001). If he really is aware of his party's history and its pitfalls, David Cameron should be petrified of the Lisbon Treaty!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Brown's Look of Loathing

Paul Waugh of the Evening Standard has managed to get the clip of Gordon Brown at the end of his notorious interview with Sky's Adam Boulton, and the look of loathing that Brown exudes once Boulton has thanked him is indeed a wonder to behold. A little surprising, too, as the interview as a whole was not a particularly bad one, and Boulton's questions were perfectly reasonable - you can find the interview on the Sky News site.

Does "The Sun" Matter?

In politics, the short answer ought to be no. The Sun's much vaunted 3 million readers don't look to it for political guidance; most of them are thoroughly uninterested in politics, and many won't bother to vote. However, the Sun does have a huge influence as a weather-vane newspaper - it generally manages to support the winning party at every election, by carefully following popular opinion. Not that it will have taken a great deal of political insight to gamble on Labour losing the next general election.

What hurts is the timing of the announcement that they are no longer supporting Labour, and some observers are putting this down to the influence of former News International employee Andy Coulson, now David Cameron's Director of Communications. What is also likely to be the case is that Rupert Murdoch, the Sun's owner, is hoping to exact useful political capital for turning his paper's support to a man he once described as 'lightweight'. Whatever the Sun does, it isn't for political conviction, of that at least we can be sure!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Should Brown Say?

He's been given a bit of an act to follow with Peter Mandelson's speech yesterday. Mandelson combined humour, self-deprecation and passion to give us a fresh image of himself - one he's been working on ever since he came in from the cold to work with Brown a year ago. But what about the leader himself, what should he be saying?

It's difficult for a former Tory who has never been a Labour supporter to hazard particularly good guesses, but the key thing today is probably to appeal to his core audience, the Labour conference, and ignore the television one. If commentators and viewers see a Brown on form in front of his own people, and being warmly endorsed by them, that in itself will send a useful message from a party currently considered divided and demoralised. And what would enthuse the brothers and sisters in Brighton? Brown should certainly be playing up his crisis record, and he could couple it with some sharp attacks on the Tories.

Perhaps he should tell them he's happy to stand before them as the man who tried to protect jobs and keep the economy going in its darkest time. He could raise some Tory bogeymen at the same time - at least his government has never legislated against an entire section of the population on the grounds of their sexuality (Section 28); at least he's never sought economic recovery in the violent destruction of whole communities (miners; inner cities under Thatcher); he's tried to build schools ('Building Schools for the Future') not tear them down or hive them off to private enterprise (actually, this last is a bit of a white lie, but he can learn!). And he could engage in a bit of good old fashioned class war - use his personal back story. He knows about trying to survive on modest incomes in a small household. Do we really want to hand our country and our economy over to the wealthy public school elite now running the Tory party? And why not make a self-deprecating reference to the Andrew Marr question about prescription drugs, and maybe turn it on Cameron? Something along the lines of "If I were taking drugs, it would at least be the prescription type, not the illegal type!"

Then, of course, there's the vision thing. He does have to offer a positive reason to stay with Labour in the future. Forget about just tinkering with education - do something big and offer selective schools to all of the inner cities, to benefit the most deprived kids in the country, and lever whole areas out of the trap of poverty and aspirational immobility. What about political re-engagement - take the bull by the horns and offer a referendum on a new electoral system (see the Compass report from yesterday). He could do himself real favours by abandoning the wretched ID cards idea, and the National Safeguarding Council, and reinvest all that money in crime initiatives targeted at inner urban areas - more policemen out on the beat; more and better paid social workers out in the homes and flats; more leisure places for disaffected youngsters. He could even try and recover playing fields for schools, starting with the city schools.

The Tories have two Achilles Heels - the memories of their last time in government (and the sense that, Cameron aside, most of them would revert to cod-Thatcherism as soon as they could), and their lack of really interesting ideas. Brown could hammer them on both today if he chose.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Marr and The Art of Interviewing

Andrew Marr doesn't usually get hauled over the coals for his aggressive interviewing technique, mainly because he generally seems to prefer soft balls. but his weekend interview with the Prime Minister is causing real stirs at the Labour conference. Paul Waugh blogs about the original interview here, and updates with further outraged Labour reaction here. Perhaps the real issue is that he got a bit too close to the mark - rather like Jeremy Paxman asking Charles Kennedy whether he had a drink problem?

The Last Ever Labour Government?

As ever, I'm running behind with the news, but this report by the left-wing think tank Compass, which was publicised on Sunday, should be giving the Labour party pause for thought. They contend that should Labour lose the next election, they may well find themselves out of power for ever. They identify three key reasons:

1. David Cameron's promised cut of 10% in parliamentary seats will hit the Labour Party most of all, since they currently represent the lowest population density seats at present.
2. A new Conservative government might well prompt a sharp move towards full Scottish independence north of the border, forcing the removal of all of the Scottish Westminster seats, again to the detriment of Labour (they currently hold 45).
3. David Cameron's likely funding reforms could cut the union base off from the Labour party, destabilising a heavily indebted party even further.

This is a pretty dire prediction for Labour, and not without some credibility. Compass believe they can preserve something from the wreckage if they embrace PR electoral reform now, perhaps with a referendum on the subject on the day of the next General Election, designed to bind the hands of an incoming government. Whatever the likelihood of Compass' doomsday briefing, there can be little doubt that, whether on electoral reform or social issues, Gordon Brown might just preserve Labour's future, even if he doesn't save himself, with very radical policy proposals now. He still has power to use - will he overcome his innate caution??

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Brown in Brighton

The Labour strategists gathering in Brighton must be poring over the German election results this evening. A distinctly uncharismatic leader at the time of a deep economic recession has persuaded her countrymen to return her to power with an increased majority. How did Angela Merkel do it? And can Gordon Brown repeat the trick next May or June?

Admittedly, Merkel is a conservative whose main opposition happened to share government with her over the past four years. But if the recession is meant to make incumbents shaky the world over, she has magnificently bucked the trend. Germans feel reassured by her leadership and her solutions. Labour must be wishing they had a leader of even a quarter of that level of competence.

For as they gather for their pre-election conference, delegates are greeted by a desperate cry from a normally quiet Chancellor. Alistair Darling tells the Observer today that Labour has seemingly "lost the will to live". The damning thing about his assessment is that (a) it comes from a man not normally given to over-statement, and (b) it happens to be true.

The strange thing is that it really doesn't need to be like this. If Brown had any real leadership abilities at all, he should be able to devise not only a suitable defence of his own actions during the worst of the recession - after all, he was applauded by a Nobel prize-winning economist - but he should be able to handily expose the Tories' genuine policy vacuum. Fronted by the charming Mr. Cameron, there is still plenty of reason to be suspicious of the Tories' cut and slash tendencies, of their innate right-wing bunkerism, of the lasting presence in their party of so many activists who just, really, don't much like the human race. That Brown can't land his punches is a wider sign of his lamentable failure in the position he fought and plotted and schemed so hard for so long to get. He is politically tone deaf, he is a centraliser par excellence, and he is possessed of a caution so painful it's surprising he ever manages to cross the road on his own. Can he use the conference to stir things up and make a fight of the next few months? Somehow I doubt it, but stranger things can happen.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Harman Again

The BBC's Question Time this evening yielded a few gems, but reminded us once again of just what an asset Harriet Harman is to any of the opposition parties. Two of her classics tonight - first, she wouldn't comment on the Scottish decision to release Libyan 'bomber' al-Megrahi ("You're a politician, you're meant to have opinions" almost screamed Michael Heseltine at her desperately); and she rejected utterly the idea from Digby Jones that the Attorney General's recent little error was a result of the government over-legislating, but said it was a natural mistake to forget to do all the photocopying that government legislation demanded. Genius. And apparently the Attorney General didn't break the law anyway - she committed an administrative error that was in conflict with the precise wording of the legislation.

Bercow the Backbench Champion

John Bercow gradually became a very maverick Tory MP, and that might be what now allows him to sound like a backbench-championing Speaker, if the evidence of his Hansard Society speech is anything to go by. In a packed room where only Sir George Young seemed able to find an extra chair, Bercow outlined some of his ideas for restoring dignity or respect to the role of the backbencher. He seemed early on to be critical, at least in passing, of two recent developments in the life of MPs. One was the excessive whipping that now made them lobby fodder in the same way that the soldiers of the Somme were cannon fodder (an uneasy analogy for several reasons); the other was in the increasing localism that forced MPs to become essentially super-councillors, working on constituency casework rather than engaging in debates on national issues. I have to say that in neither of these criticisms would I differ from our new Speaker.

But his firm focus was to outline no less than TEN proposals to strengthen the role of MPs as inquisitors and legislators. What he called a "Backbench Bill of Rights". I have to confess my attention did begin to wander as he outlined all of his ten points, but the principal sounded good. Well done Bercow, we might have cried had we been a less well ordered meeting, for accepting that the House of Commons needed better legislators and inquisitors. Indeed, Bercow's service, as a Speaker loathed by his own party and no longer in hock to the governing party, has been to feel free enough to say what surely every MP is thinking (those, at any rate, who have been gifted with the ability). That if the Commons is to recover some respect in the public mind, it can no longer continue to be the limp plaything of governments, and must start to assert some level of independence and even aggression.

The questions afterwards brought a comment from Mr. Bercow that he would like to see the long summer holiday that MPs enjoy reduced, but that was hardly the meat of his talk. All the more of a pity that it happens to be the BBC's main story from the lecture, but perhaps that's because the holiday questions was asked by a BBC journalist?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Press's Amazing Turnaround on Robson

As if we needed any further evidence, the First Post carries a timely piece about the press and Bobby Robson. Lauded after his death, and on the occasion of his recent memorial service, as a great man of football, the online paper goes back over the headlines that he had to endure when he was actually the England manager. Nothing, it seems, can exceed the ability of the English press to hurl abuse at the national game's manager - except, perhaps, its venom towards politicians. Perhaps it's just that sports journalists are frustrated footballers, and political journalists frustrated MPs?

Is Sarah Palin Growing Up?

The former Republican vice-presidential candidate was famed for her many gaffes during the campaign, and her reputation has nose-dived - at any rate outside the true believers of the Republican Party - since then. But Palin might be making progress, if reports of her recent speech to Hong Kong financiers is anything to go by. The First Post reports that reactions to the speech were largely 'positive'. Maybe she will still be a force to be reckoned with in 2012.

Who'd Be Nick Clegg?

Actually, since apparently one third of the British people don't know who he is, I could have asked "who IS Nick Clegg" and still hit a topical note. But the point of this post is simply to note the difficulty of being a Liberal Party leader. Like his predecessors, Clegg has some vague notion that, as leader, he determines policy and so on. Unfortunately, there's a group of some 29 volunteers, working under a catchy little name like "The Policy Council" who think they determine policy, and 18 of them have gone public with a letter that says Clegg's decision to keep tuition fees as a new Liberal commitment (thus scrapping the scrapping of tuition fees, so to speak) is, er, rubbish. the Liberals are still committed to scrapping them.

Add to that the fact that his deputy and Treasury spokesman, the saintly Vince Cable, has announced a policy to tax mansions which was challenged the following morning by the party's MPs, and you don't seem to have a very coherent Liberal party at all. Which doesn't really matter, since they are very far from looking like a Third Force ready to seize government. Their electoral efforts at present seem aimed at the Tories, who look as if they might be grabbing quite a few Liberal seats back at the next election (amongst the targets - Carshalton and Wallington, and Sutton and Cheam). This is a pity, since we desperately need a viable, fresh alternative to the main parties, who increasingly argue on the basis of a technocratic "who can run government better" rather than on any real ideas. Wonder how UKIP are doing?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Attorney General's Position

So let's just get this right - the Attorney General, the government's senior law officer, has broken the law, been found guilty and fined. But it's ok, she's still an absolutely correct person to continue to act as the government's attorney and prosecutor. Is there still some question as to why we the people have a low opinion of politicians generally and government ministers specifically?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A British Open Primary

The idea of open primaries - where all voters can come along and join in the selection of party candidates for particular posts - is gaining ground, especially in the Conservative Party. Their excellent parliamentary candidate in Battersea, Jane Ellison, for example, was selected in just such a manner. This could clearly be a regular feature of the British political scene, and blogger Iain Dale went along to chair the Bedford Conservatives' Open Primary for mayor. His account is well worth reading - including his sly dig to get the parliamentary candidacy if it comes up!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Government Health Care Equals Fascism, Communism etc.

Republican congressman Joe Wilson caused a stir last week when he interrupted President Obama's address on health care with the heckle, "You liar". Not, it has to be said, the most creative of heckles, but the key point about Wilson is the ideological gap that his stand illustrates between those who support Obama's proposals for state provided health care, and those who are opposed. Wilson, and many others like him, liken the idea of a government health system to fascism or communism - whichever suits the moment. This critical article on Wilson from the liberal Huffington Post blog exemplifies the depths of the ideological division, with its strident view of what it sees as Wilson's hypocrisy.

Mandelson Avoiding the 'C' Word

In the Today programme's Lord Mandelson interview mentioned in this morning's AS lesson, it is indeed fascinating to hear the lengths to which he goes to avoid using the word 'cuts' in response to interviewer James Naughtie's repeated encouragements. Lord M is a master spinner, but does he really think that the public at large don't understand what is meant by his rather euphemistic reference to "wise spending"?

Meanwhile, Nick Robinson, challenged by Mandelson to come up with the evidence that Gordon Brown ever used the phrase "Tory cuts versus Labour investment", does so with interest on his blog.

Harman's Innocent Questionnaire

Harriet Harman has been circulating Labour members with some key questions about, well, who is best at 'selling' the Labour party. The Evening Standard's Paul Waugh has the details, together with several updates from Labour activists and the Harman team. Could this possibly be another bit of leadership positioning? Or is it simply an innocent bit of keeping in touch dialogue with the Labour members......?

"Calm Down Everyone" Says New Vetting Chief

Sir Roger Singleton is the elevated bureaucrat who will be heading the government's new Orwellian Independent Safeguards Agency. His response to the recent outcry over the Agency's ill-defined powers has been to suggest that everyone calms down. He may or may not be seeking to take over Michael Winner's advertising role, but he has certainly revealed how unsuited he is to heading up such a sensitive body. If he really cannot understand why there is such concern at the ludicrous and offensive new vetting proposals, and the accompanying powers of the ISA that will be in charge of them, then he absolutely shouldn't be the man running it. The concern is the extraordinary latitude that is apparently being given to the ISA, and the ill-defined nature of precisely who should be referred to it. This is, of course, coupled with an all too understandable suspicion of any government body that wants to control aspects of our lives, order up information about us, and make judgements about our suitabilities.

Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph the other day admirably summed up the real lunacy behind the ISA's modus operandi, as reported on the Spectator's Coffee House blog. However, such is the nature of this government's "joined-up thinking" that on the day Singleton issues his "calm down" injunction, his political boss, Education Secretary Ed Balls, has started to indicate that the government may be going to have a re-think. This is a start at any rate, but the really good news would be the abandonment of the whole ill-conceived scheme, and the recognition that poorly-prepared, centralising legislation in response to a specific - albeit tragic - high profile murder is no way to pursue either decent government, or the safety of the nation's children. Soham was an exceptional case, and it's time we stopped acting as if it was somehow typical of the dangers faced by children today.