Wednesday, August 26, 2009

77 Year Old American Politician From Famous Family Dies

It is difficult to be impartial about Ted Kennedy. The fact of his family membership would give him a celebrity far beyond his achievements, while the burden of being the youngest brother to two murdered political heroes would give his own political career a poignancy he would never shake off. Furthermore, the scion of a deeply flawed family, from his adulterous, appeasement loving, Brit hating father down, Ted Kennedy seemed perhaps to encapsulate more of the flaws than his famous siblings. So how do we judge such a man?

He was no friend of Britain, certainly, and while this hardly distinguishes him from a majority of other American politicians (the 'Special Relationship' exists largely in the imagination of British politicians), it was particularly virulent in his case, through his persistent support of Irish republican terrorism and refusal to acknowledge the difficulties and ambiguities of the British involvement in Northern Ireland. Kennedy revelled in his Irishness, and was a prominent spokesman in Washington for the Republican cause. Eventually, true, such a role allowed him finally to play a part in the peace agreement that was forged between the warring communities, but he was ever greeted with suspicion by the Unionist community - he could hardly be greeted any other way. The award of a knighthood to him by Gordon Brown was bizarre, explicable only by Brown's own deep affection for America and romantic notion of Kennedy.

At home, in America, Kennedy was a controversial figure. The Chappaquidick tragedy, which saw Kennedy drive a car into a river, escape and flee whilst leaving his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne, to die, always hung over him. He divided the Democratic Party with his ill considered decision to challenge the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, for the Democratic nomination in 1980. A damaged Carter would later lose to Republican Ronald Reagan. And yet Kennedy also became a legislator par excellence. He championed social liberal causes, none more so than universal heath care, and was a persistent champion of New Deal policies. He was the first prominent Democratic politician to endorse Barack Obama, remaining a firm supporter of the candidate through to his election victory. Obama himself, a relative novice in Washington affairs, might have been hoping for Kennedy's heavyweight support in the passing of a healthcare bill.

Kennedy was an impressive legislator who could hardly transcend his flaws. He was neither a great politician - although he could turn a fine rhetorical phrase as well as his brothers - nor a bad one. In the end, his fame and prominence always promised more than he could deliver.

For a much more positive view of Kenendy's life and achievements, David Blackburn's Spectator blog post is worth reading.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chris Grayling - Wired for Populism

Chris Grayling may come to regret trying to compare the problems faced by British crimefighters with the fictional television series "The Wire", but his slightly inept populism has at least catapulted the issue to the front of the news agenda for a short while. It has prompted a couple of interesting responses on the blogs - Paul Waugh shows why it probably wasn't a great cultural reference to make, while libertarian blogger Guido Fawkes uses the opportunity to explain why he thinks drugs should be decriminalised. As Waugh reports, it also allowed Alan Johnson to try out a bit of humour (“The connection between The Wire and Chris Grayling’s grasp on the problems of modern Britain is that they’re both fictional. ")

However, no-one can take much comfort from the complacent government response, which seems to assume that if you offer a few statistics it counts as a suitable counter-argument. However one may want to dismiss a crass use of populism (although the audience for "The Wire" is surely rather a small and rather cultist one at present?), the Two Nation nature of Britain is such that the comfortable middle class, from which the metropolitan chatterrati is exclusively drawn, can too consistently dismiss the appalling problems faced by the Other Nation. I loathe the sensationalising of the problems of urban poverty and criminality, and yes I noted that Grayling offered no solutions either, but the more the political focus can be on the increasingly alienated and ghettoised urban poor, the more likely that one day there might just be the chance of coming up with a few solutions. If the Tories are keen to see how they might have an impact on urban constituencies where hardly anyone voted, but lots of people trade in drugs and many are afraid to walk out alone, they might want to consider how to target state resources in the form of serious education reforms, or better funded and supported social service networks, more and smaller primary care institutions, the establishment of community leisure resources or youth clubs, the support for a well trained and civic law enforcement agency......but these all cost money, and require full support for state solutions, and the Tories are a long way from that. Looks like it's back to a "bang them up" solution after all - it's worked so well in the past!