Friday, June 26, 2009

After Jackson....

Michael Jackson's ultimate celebrity was marked by saturation coverage today, and a developing story. The news channels showed us a decent amount of Jackson music video material in between their reflections on his strangeness. Meanwhile, the site that was first with the news of his death - TMZ - was also first with a number of developing collateral stories. The doctor went MIA, and is wanted in connection with the possibility that he administered too high a dose of pain killing drugs; they got hold of the 911 call; Debbie Rowe, mother of Jackson's two oldest kids, might sue for custody. The soap goes on, but amidst the rivers of online comment, this one by Andrew Sullivan finds some sort of context.

And since it's nearly July, whatever happens in the world this week, I'm on CCF camp, so no blogging. Disappointing, yes?

Death of a Flawed Icon

Michael Jackson's half century was lived almost wholly in the glare of the media searchlight, so hardly surprising that his death tonight is causing a real stir. It's odd, really. I'm not a fan, although I like his music. Obviously I've never met him, never even seen him in concert. But the news of his death has definitely made an impact. The means of news spreading in the early 21st. century has ensured that his death was first tentatively announced on a showbiz website, spread quickly across the blogs, was given coverage before it was confirmed on 24 hour news sites like Sky and the more cautious BBC, and has resulted in loads of status comments on facebook. The status comments are both ones of shock (usually a brief RIP), some regret, and quite a deal of humour and referenes to the controversies of his legal battles over his actions with under-age boys.

Watching some of the old pop videos, there's certainly no doubting the talent that was Michael Jackson in his youthful prime. But what a wretched, freakish waste of a man he became. His three kids all artificially brought into being, the youngest of an unknown female donor. Strange, white, tortured skin and odd face staring out under his lanky fringe. A compulsive addiction to spending. The old Jackson of musical genius seems to have long gone.

Now, of course, we get the celebrity memories. The most ridiculous so far has been Uri Geller being interviewed by the BBC, making a big deal about being too upset to carry on and hanging up, then coming back after the death was confirmed, then going through the routine of being too upset again, having to go.

And, finally, he wasn't old. He tried to arrest his ageing, but he was even so only 50. I think we are shocked by his death. It is unexpected. And it is the stuff of modern, internet news. Even Iran's bid for freedom has to take a back seat now - now that really is an ironic respite for the mullahs.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Another Question Time Lynching

First question tonight was whether a new Speaker would change our attitude to parliament. If there's one thing worse than a bunch of cheating MPs, it's the hysterical outrage of the equally flawed members of the voting public who would never dream of putting themselves forward for anything. We've had two classic audience interventions of angry old blokes slagging off MPs. Now I think a large number of MPs are pretty mediocre, and many of them have been grasping and seriously lacking in judgement. But instead of just carping from the cheap seats, the tabloid reading angry old blokes should get off their backsides and try standing for something themselves. At least MPs have had some concept of public service, and have sought to devote themselves to a vocation that is intended to serve others, even if those original ideals have become somewhat besmirched.

Defending the Grammar Schools

David Davis launched a robust defence of the grammar school system, as befits a Bec Old Boy (former sharers of Northey Avenue!). Amongst other things, he asserts that its virtual disappearance only benefited the public school elites, destroying the chances of many like himself -

"Today we are witnessing the results of a failed revolution, where egalitarians abolished grammar schools to level opportunity in our society, and accidentally destroyed the chances of the very people they were trying to help... They punished the bright poor kids who were held back. They handicapped the intellectual capacity of the country. And out of this catastrophe there was only one winning group. Do you know who they were? Yes, the public schools. Who teach just 7 per cent of the population."

Go David! Defender of liberty, proponent of grammar schools - he's rapidly becoming my favourite politician!

Cameron's Brave New World

David Cameron is keeping the pressure up on his parliamentary party, announcing today that as a result of the internal scrutiny exercise, Tory MPs will be paying back £125,000 into the public purse to go some way to 'atoning' for the mistakes of the past. Cameron has, I think, hit the right note with the public, but his parliamentary party loathe him for it, and many of them are furious at his betrayal of their interests. They are also running scared - who will be the next person persuaded to announce thatt hey are standing down for the next election? So extraordinary has been the impact of the expenses scandal on the Tories, that Cameron's high command are looking at losing up to 100 of their existing 193 MPs. Talk about starting again in government - most of their ministers will have barely had time to try out the green benches before they're whisked off to government offices.

The Telegraph's Benedict Brogan considers the Cameron purge - at least in part the result of the efforts of Brogan's own paper - here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Commons Gets It Right At Last!

With their blacked out expenses, there was a growing suspicion that if the Commons could something wrong they would. On the eve of the Speaker's election, I was seriously concerned that they might just vote for the least able and qualified candidate - Margaret Beckett. It turns out I needn't have worried. After three rounds of voting, the MPs elected John Bercow as the new Speaker. Bercow is a relatively young man, a fine speaker and a parliamentarian to his fingertips. His political journey from the hard rightist I remember from FCS days, to the left-wing Tory of today, bespeaks an intelligent willingness to question and challenge his own beliefs, and a refreshing break from the tribalism of parliamentary parties.

John Bercow has re-introduced the country to the idea of an articulate Speaker, and I have little doubt that he will seek to exercise the Speaker's role as an independent upholder of the House of Commons against the overweening power of the executive. There has been much mealy-mouthed comment from too many Tories today. Stupidest comment of the day must go to the whining Nadine Dorries, who described the Speaker's election as "an act of vindictiveness". More encouragingly, the Tory MP Douglas Carswell, who has already proved himself to be a doughty defender of Commons freedom against the executive, said that he had voted for John Bercow as his second preference, after his first choice, Richard Shepard, was knocked out.

Although much of this morning's commentary centres around Bercow's unpopularity with the Conservative benches, the fact is we now have a young, intelligent, reform-minded Speaker. The Commons got it right after all.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A New Speaker - But Please, Not Becket!

The candidates for the vacant Speaker's chair, and grace and favour house in Westminster, held their hustings today. Outsiders like ourselves will never be the best judges of who can best manage the House of Commons, something we apparently have in common with the MPs who are doing the voting. Nevertheless, with a secret ballot in place, helping to avoid undue whipping influences, and the experience of the awful Michael Martin era, to say nothing of recent chastening events, here's hoping they might have a stab at getting it right.

The candidates are not, to the outside eye, greatly inspiring, but perhaps that's not the point. I just hope they don't go for the dreadful Margaret Becket. Look carefully through the record of her speeches over the past decade or so and you will see not a mention of commitment to Commons reform. She's been a minister, not a backbencher, for much of that time, and even had a brief period as Labour leader. Her recent performance on the BBC's Question Time saw her heckled for attempting to defend her use of a grace and favour house while claiming for a second home, and there is the distinct whiff of her going for this job because she didn't get the government promotion she wanted in the reshuffle. There is unlikely to be a worse candidate.

Good possibilities would be Ann Widdecombe, committed to being a interim Speaker until the next election, when a new Commons can focus on a more long-term choice. Widdecombe could be more effective in ten months than mot of the other candidates would be in ten years. Alternatively, the thoughtful, and hugely knowledgeable on parliamentary matters, John Bercow. Bercow has one further thing in his favour - most of the existing Tory MPs apparently can't stand him.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iran's Disputed Election

Extraordinary scenes in Iran over the past couple of days.  There seems to be genuine anger from the reformists and supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mirhossain Mousavi.  And the government is stamping  down, with stories of over 100 opponents imprisoned and violent action from the riot police.  

What happens in Iran matters hugely.  It is the superpower of the region, with a considerable reach - as the only theocratic Islamic state - beyond its borders.  There is no doubt that the West would have preferred the more emollient Mousavi to existing president Ahmadinejad, and western countries have been muted in their reaction to Ahmadinejad's re-election victory.  But we should also be careful of reaching simplistic conclusions. Whoever is president, the real power lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and the clique of conservative clerics who dominate the Guardian Council.  For all his bluster, Ahmadinejad's powers, particularly in foreign policy, are limited, as would Mousavi's have been.  The Islamic Republic is governed by the revolutionary victors of 1979, and they retain a curious mixture of pragmatism dosed with heavy anti-western rhetoric.

John Simpson reports that the supporters of either side remain remarkably good-humoured towards each other, despite the violence which is mainly based around confrontation with the forces of the establishment.  He also says we may never know the exact result of the Iranian election.  But Mousavi is not being very explicit - so far - in his allegations of fraud (and he is an old political warrior unlikely to take defeat lying down); previous elections have been regarded as fair; Ahmadinejad has genuinely high levels of support and we should be cautious before accepting that over 10 million votes could have been fraudulently cast.

This is not another revolution, and many of those imprisoned have now also been released pretty swiftly.   This is, possibly, another step in the Islamic Republic's march towards political maturity.  It may be that the state has acted out of panic rather than out of a concerted bid to crush the reformers, and that what is in fact a quite diverse political establishment may well continue to generate debate in this fascinatingly evolving nation.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"PM to Unveil Voting Reform Plan"

Two days after the BNP win two seats under PR, Gordon Brown wants to change the non-PR Westminster voting system. He certainly knows how to get to the heart of the problem. And for good measure, he wants to reform the House of Lords - the chamber that consistently challenges and scrutinises government legislation far more effectively than the House of Commons. Excellent. Because what we really want is another chamber of elected whip fodder. After all, the Commons has been brilliant recently....

Monday, June 08, 2009

How Seriously Should We Take the BNP?

There is a great deal of angst being expressed over the airways at the moment about the BNP's two seat success in the European elections. I have heard several politicians - including the ever obfuscating Harriet Harman - explain that this is a terrible sadness, that it is a protest vote, that the BNP have managed to disguise their racism. Well, whatever else can be said about the BNP's success, it is not because they've disguised their racism. Their deliberate pitch has been to those Britons who are fearful of immigration and are open to a racist solution to that issue. There has been no disguising the BNP's standpoint.

But the BNP have gained their seats on a 6.5% share of one of the lowest votes - around a third of the population - ever cast. It is no surprise to realise that, in a couple of areas of the UK, a small minority of people believe in, and will vote for, racist solutions to a perceived failure on the part of the mainstream parties to deal with some of the UK's manifest problems. This is not a breakthrough. It is not a radical change of heart on the part of British voters. It does not portend a nasty, right-wing shift in the body politic (just look at the vigour with which the Tories and UKIP have both been attacking the BNP). What it does do is expose the frailty of a voting system which magnifies marginal discontent to a ridiculous degree, and it illuminates the general divorce of the public from the political classes, as evinced in their mass failure to turn out and vote. It might also offer an insight into just how seriously most Britons take the European Parliament.

We should never not take the ravings of a party based on hate seriously. We should not be complacent about the way in which such a party can seriously affect the society in which it operates. But the European elections have told us nothing new about the BNP. They have, on the other hand, told us a great deal about the health of both the national body politic, and its European counterpart.

Incidentally, two articles worth reading are on Conservative Home. Its editor, Tim Montgomerie, publishes this short attack on the Labour Party's role in the rise of the BNP, whilst former Tory Reform Group chairman Phil Pedley announces his conversion to the euro-sceptic cause. Pedley used to be a veritable missionary for greater European integration, so his change of heart makes for interesting reading. Also of great interest, the odds on upcoming UK elections are posted here.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Art of Interviewing

It is sometimes easy to take for granted the skill of the most effective television interviewers, but it is not an easy task, and a poor interviewer can be reduced to simply reacting to his or her guest rather than controlling the process. Nowhere was this clearer than in the terrible interview Andrew Marr subjected himself to with Peter Mandelson this morning (the link takes you to a 2 minute extract - try and watch the whole thing on iplayer when it's up). Marr may be a fine commentator, but he is streets behind a Paxman or a Humphreys when it comes to political interviews. Mandelson - at his unlovely creepiest - ran rings round the man, virtually taking charge of the interview, telling Marr what he could ask and when. It was an embarrassing spectacle, with Marr blustering away petulantly and utterly unable to regain control from Mandelson throughout the entire piece. It was almost a relief when it had finished.

Compare this with Jeremy Paxman last week, in his masterly disection of William Hague's Euro policies. Hague is an undoubted professional, and a highly intelligent man, but he was unable to effectively counter Paxman's clear, relentless line of attack about what the Tories would do about the Lisbon Treaty. Two interviewers, two completely different classes. Not long ago the BBC were given the chance to interview Dimitri Medvedev, Russia's puppet president. Unsurprisingly, one of the Kremlin's conditions for allowing the interview to go ahead was that they should choose the interviewer. They chose Marr.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Personal Choices

There are many political reasons why Gordon Brown is able to hold on to his office despite the undoubted ferment over the past few weeks. The power of incumbency, his dominance of the upper echelons of the party, the lack of a clear successor, the openness required by Labour rules to unseat a leader, the desire of Labour MPs to avoid a general election, the need for Labour not to have a second 'unelected' prime minister in one term - all these have played their part. But that most significant, and unpredictable, element of politics, the role of individual personalities, has also been crucial. Nick Robinson outlines "the three extraordinary personal decisions" of Alan Johnson, David Miliband and John Hutton, which have each contributed to Gordon Brown's security in his job.

It is one of the things that makes both politics and history so fascinating - the unpredictable role of the individual.

The Cabinet Rallies Round, and Another Tory Leaves the Commons

At this stage of the morning, Downing Street is working feverishly to shore up Gordon Brown, and it does look as if they will succeed. Not least because, more than ever at the moment, James Purnell's leadership starting gun is looking like a real misfire. If the BBC rumours are to be believed, then Brown is going to let Darling stay as Chancellor, will keep Straw as Justice Secretary, and David Miliband as Foreign Secretary. They'll all go down together it seems!

But the reshuffle is still in the making. What isn't is the continued sickness of the House of Commons. Although it is becoming common to read of MPs standing down at the next election, one whose farewell statement is worth reading is Tory MP Paul Goodman. He has not been fingered as an expenses abuser. He has a safe Tory seat (Wycombe) and every prospect of government office should his party win the next election. So why stand down? He explains his reasons in forceful post on Conservative Home. Specifically, he says:

" For Parliamentary democracy to work, a robust executive – strong government - must be balanced by a healthy legislature – by a flourishing House of Commons. That the Commons has been sick for many years is incontestable. The tragedy of the expenses scandal is that the patient, in consequence, is likely to receive a bigger dose of the medicine that’s causing the illness – namely, professional politics."

Do read the whole thing - anyone interested in the health of parliament and the prospects for Commons reform will find his piece both depressing and eloquent.

Is Purnell's Resignation the End for Brown?

On Wednesday night, the Hazel Blears resignation looked bad enough. The BBC's Nick Robinson called it "deliberate, calculated and with intent". It was a resignation designed to wound, and although Peter Mandelson was apparently heard commenting that "Hazel Blears is not exactly Michael Heseltine resigning over Westland", there is no doubt that her pre-emptive strike caused discomfort at Downing Street, and allowed the rumour mill to flourish. But last night at Westminster, there was little talk of another Cabinet resignation before the reshuffle, and it was possible to explain the Blears and Smith actions away as very individual decisions. James Purnell's surprise resignation on Thursday evening has certainly changed that. A Blairite, he has long been talked up as one of Labour's bright hopes for the future. Certainly ambitious, his extraordinary move shows the depth of the desperation of some of Labour's top figures. He clearly believes that Gordon Brown's continued leadership cannot be tolerated, and has now done his level best to bring it to an end.

But for all the shock value, Purnell is acting alone. That was made palpably clear by the fast reaction of Purnell's probable favourite for the Labour leadership, David Miliband. Miliband has moved fast to put clear distance between himself and Purnell - it was wrong to resign, and it is Purnell's misfortune to place his faith in such a weak reed. It is also Brown's possible good fortune - if a man in his current position can be said to have any good fortune at present. I am hesitant - particularly after having so badly mis-called the Speaker issue a coupe of weeks ago - to predict that Brown will stay, but the odds are still on that he will. It takes 70 Labour MPs to break cover and sign a nomination paper for there to be even the hope of a leadership election should Brown - as all good judges confirm he will- resist standing down. And they also need a candidate to back, and there is absolutely no clear indication as to who that might be. With Miliband confirming he will stay in the Cabinet, and Alan Johnson pouring cold water on his own leadership abilities, Brown does not look as if he is facing any heavyweight leadership challengers. And Purnell has also said he is no leadership challenger. But, whatever the subtleties of Gordon Brown's position tonight, he knows, none better, that 24 hours is a long time in politics.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Howard Turns on the Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph may have done a service in publicising the depth of MPs expense abuses, but their callow political editor, Andrew Porter, gave a deeply unimpressive performance on the Daily Politics show today, when confronted by Michael Howard. Porter was unable, or unwilling, to answer Howard's specific question, and seemed to wilfully misinterpret Howard's basic point about how he funded his MP surgeries. One gets the impression that, whoever is behind the Telegraph coup, it can't surely be the barely articulate former McBride groupie Porter. Can it?

The Quiet Revolution

It’s stepping up only gradually, but there is a quiet revolution going on in politics, that could see a substantial change in our body politic after the next election. It is reported this morning that another three Labour MPs are standing down at the next election, and they will clearly not be the last. Blogger Iain Dale reckons that we could have up to 50% of the MPs elected next year as newcomers to parliament, representing a real sea-change.

The right-wing American author Tom Clancy once envisioned, in one of his bestselling thrillers, the need for a wholly new Congress to be elected after a plane had deliberately crashed into the old one, wiping out virtually all of the elected politicians (and yes, he wrote this before 9/11!). His hero, Jack Ryan, was the unprofessional politician thrust into the limelight as a novice president, and he called for a 'citizen army' of new representatives to come forward and stand for election. In Clancy's fictional world, Congressmen and Senators who had never been politicians was almost a utopia, and it had a tempting sound to it. No more so than now, when the reputation of our elected representatives is so low.

I do keep wondering whether we aren't being too harsh. After all, we need committed MPs to carefully consider the legislation which governs us, to be the eyes and ears of a public that doesn't wish to spend its time on politics. As a democracy, we arguably get the politicians we deserve. After all, we send them there, to do the job we don't want to do. And yet, every time I start to develop sympathy for the plight of the hunted MP, another one pops up on television to remind me why a god old clear-out is probably just the thing our body politic needs to rejuvenate itself. There was Bill Cash a the weekend, in his lovely country house, still ignorant of why seemingly false claims for second homes strikes such a bad chord. Then there was Harriet Harman on Newsnight last night - shrilly and persistently not answering any of Jeremy Paxman's questions (leading to a classic Paxmanism at the end of the programme, where he was about to summarise what Harman had said, and lamely concluded "I don't really know what we think she said but it was jolly interesting".) There's the property speculator Geoff Hoon, paying back a paltry £300. They just keep coming out of the woodwork, this dismal collection of elected representatives with their silk cushions and gilded toilet seats, utterly unable to grasp what's gone wrong.

So perhaps it is time for a clear-out, and perhaps we are heading for one. Conservative Home reports that none of the dozen or so tory seats that have suddenly found themselves in need of a candidate will be selecting until September, to allow Central Office the chance to sift through the apparently thousands of applications they have received. Hopefully, applications from ordinary citizens who have decided that it is time they did their bit of public service after all. There is, clearly, little point in swapping one set of political apparatchiks for another.

Peter Oborne published a timely book last year, bemoaning the existence of a permanent political class, united by ties of work, friendship and family, and insulated from the world they were meant to represent outside of Westminster. He could cite the married Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, both cabinet ministers, or the sibling cabinet members David and Ed Miliband. He could have cited one of the worst expense abusers, Ann Keen, sister of a deputy speaker, Sylvia Heal. He likened the situation to that described by Lewis Namier in his seminal "Structure of Politics in the Reign of George III". It was a damning indictment, the suggestion that our political class was no more rooted than that of the early 18th. century, but Oborne was more right than not, and the political fall-out of that insulation has been thrown up far more rapidly than perhaps he could have imagined.

It's not certain, but I think that quiet revolution is starting to occur, and as with all revolutions, we have no idea of the outcome. It's utterly fascinating though!

Monday, June 01, 2009

New Revision Material for AS

The tutor 2 u blog has a couple of articles that provide a very helpful current view of constitutional reform, and prime ministerial power. Strongly recommended for AS-level students as a good bit of updating material.

UPDATE: To consider these issues we can hold a session tomorrow. I am happy to do a couple of sessions if that suits - one for the historians in the morning, following their exam (with a suitable break in between, obviously) and a further one at around 4pm for those preferring a later time! The main aim will be to see how recent events can fit in to your Politics 2 answers. Clearly, your answers will not major on MPs' expenses and the constitutional reform suggestions that are following, but they can - and should - at least reference these things. After all, nothing has driven the plight of parliament more firmly into the centre-ground of public attention than the mis-use of the expense accounts by MPs, and the tally of them who are now deciding not to stand just goes on getting longer. David Cameron has re-opened the Conservative Candidates List, and reportedly already received 1,000 applications (no, mine is not amongst them!). The 'fringe' parties are likely to benefit as never before in the European Elections on Thursday, a Speaker has been forced to stand down for the first time in 300 years, and the sitting Prime Minister, after a bare two years in office, is facing calls to stand down from within his own party. Making sense of all this is clearly a fundamental task for any politics student.