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.