Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Thursday, December 02, 2010
I guess it's disappointing that the World Cup isn't 'coming home' just yet, all the more so given that England's late run has been so impressive. But I can clearly see the advantages of the Russian bid, and the Qatar 2022 bid as well. Football hasn't been just a game for years, and Sepp Blatter is not just some simple football chairman. His political ambitions are to see international football extend its roots into places that might have hitherto been seen as unreal. England didn't offer the chance to break through in Eastern Europe for the first time, and despite the Football United scheme that was associated with the bid, the economic and social gains for Russia of their bid are considerable. As for Qatar, their scheme to send their new stadia to different parts of the undeveloped world after the tournament is audacious and ambitious. That said, neither country is exactly a shining light in terms of their human rights approaches. Journalists who have the temerity to challenge the authorities in Russia have an alarming tendency to get beaten up to within an inch of their resultingly crippled lives, whilst Qatar follows a less than enlightened equal opportunities policy, based on a traditional reading of the Koran. Perhaps the searchlight of western media will lead to some changes...perhaps people just won't bother going.
The BBC investigations into FIFA may or may not have affected the voting, but if they did then it merely exemplifies the problems that FIFA have; perhaps instead it is time for England to try and reignite the little legions of footballers across the country, rather than fencing with the corporate international organisation. And maybe that means a re-visit of the policy to cut the School Sports Partnership too - if the government do that, they will make a more direct impact on English football than any World Cup hosting success.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
I have an innate sympathy with the opposition to student fees, which is what makes the opposition enhancing protests all the more frustrating. I have a sympathy because I, in common with the rest of my generation, benefited not just from free university education but also, where needed, government assistance towards living costs too in the form of the student grant. Of course, given that there were significantly fewer students then it was more affordable as a government cost, but the irony is that the non-economic argument against funding university students now was, if anything, even stronger then. In a nutshell, the argument is that it is wrong and wholly elitist to expect the majority of the non-university educated public to fund the elitist educational ambitions of the minority who do go. Of course, one of the successes of the last Labour government was its increasing of the numbers who head to university overall, making it a far less elitist exercise today than it was in the 80s, and all credit to them for that. But the argument that those who benefit from degree education - in terms of their employment prospects and likely earnings - should also be prepared to contribute still remains, and the Coalition’s proposed system actually removes the upfront cost that makes it all look so burdensome to students contemplating applying to university in the U6th.
When Labour introduced tuition fees (breaking their own manifesto promise in the process) they were accepting the economic impossibility of funding university education for all. As cuts in the overall budget of state expenditure go ahead, the defence that students should have their privileged fees ring-fenced looks less and less tenable. It is made virtually ridiculous by the antics of the student protests, which all too often seem to showcase the under-employed nature of student life, and the underwhelming nature of their political acumen. The violence that accompanies such protests – nearly always a given in student ones – seems to be so firmly antithetical to all that higher education is meant to represent that you could not devise a better argument for removing student funding from the average taxpayer’s contribution. Once again, a majority of committed students are ill-served by their would-be representatives on the streets.
The protestors also called for protests in schools, one of their more useless ideas given that the schools are hardly responsible for university funding. But it did give pupils up and down the country the opportunity to engage in a bit of pointless protesting – at SGS, this involved the Year 10s sitting down in the playground during break! A much more amenable protest all round, inconveniencing no-one. Just a pity they didn’t really know what they were protesting about.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Simon Heffer - a perpetually grumpy columnist in person and on page - came into his own with his full throated support for grammar schools, in answer to a leading question from the Wallington Girls Head of Sixth Form. The majority of the audience in this selective school, and from this selective borough, gave him strong support, but then there isn't really a strong educational case against educating students according to their abilities, which is what the grammar school system does. Even Viv Grsokop, wanting from her independently educated standpoint to oppose selective state education, simply had to sit on the fence for that one (although Denham, to be fair, exalted the values of comprehensive schooling).
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Thus far, the debate had been interesting enough, but not noteworthy for any flights of rhetorical excellence. Then, the ebullient figure of Stephen Pound MP arose, and delivered a comic turn that must surely have been developed in an earlier career in stand-up. He electrified a moribund debate through the simple expedient of being moderately entertaining. I can't wait to go back and hear more.
Nick is going to 're-wire' the British political system, as he twice informed us. It is currently "closed, remote and elite", so perhaps a good thing that the lads from Eton and Westminster are here to open it up a bit. Mr. Clegg saw his proposed reforms in the light of earlier great liberal achievements, although whether changing the size of constituency boundaries really is as big a deal as giving people the vote is at least moderately debatable. Of course the Bill contains other measures - a referendum on AV as a new Westminster voting system; Lords reform; fixed-term parliaments; re-wiring; decentralising some local government funding; more re-wiring; dealing with party funding; individual electoral registration in schools; another bit of re-wiring - this is all heady stuff, and some of it is necessary, but it is also in danger of looking like a collection of nice ideas devoid of an overarching theme. Clegg, to be fair, tried his best to give us that, but is telling that his finest moment - in the impeccable judgement of Dan, JJ and Jamie, the three L6th students in attendance - was his defence of his tuition fee decision. This wasn't about constitutional reform, but about hard political reality, and Clegg's rationale that he didn't win the election, and had no mandate for all, or any, of his election pledges, coupled with a clear and convincing explanation of the new loan policy, suggested that he actually has a story to tell, but needs to tell it more clearly and distinctly.
Oh, and it was a loss to us all that Michael Crick, who switched between looking either disdainful, or peering disappointingly into his empty wine glass, was never called on by the Hansard Society chairman to ask his question. These academic types - no respect really.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
UPDATE: Paul Waugh's tweet is on the money - predicts that student protests will be a thing of the past once students are paying high fees and needing to get their money's worth out of their education!
Sunday, November 07, 2010
Thursday, November 04, 2010
Last weekend, David Cameron opened the way for a sharp increase in our budget contributions to Brussels, while giving the green light for a new treaty to save the eurozone. On Monday, he announced a new era of defence co-operation with France. The Prime Minister has developed an easy, relaxed and mature relationship with both President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel. Until very recently indeed, there would have been uproar had a Tory leader countenanced any of this. Last week, there was scarcely any reaction on Conservative benches. The spectre of Europe, which has engulfed the Tories since the assassination of Margaret Thatcher exactly 20 years ago, may have been laid to rest.
He may be right on his first punt, but given the grumblings of the Tory right about the European issue, I'm not sure he's read those runes correctly at all. Never mind the predictable over the top outrage of his Telegraph stablemate, Lord Tebbit (who called Cameron's negotiation to reduce a 6% spending increase to something like 2.5% a 'Vichy like betrayal'). His own former employers at the Spectator have been determined to remind us of the Eurosceptic make-up of the Conservative parliamentary party - see James Forsyth's blog post here. That war is going on I think.
The American electorate is as fickle as any other, and veers from liberalism to conservatism on a regular basis. The liberal Woodrow Wilson was succeeded by a forgettable trio of small government Republicans who were caught short by the Wall Street Crash and gave way in turn to the uber-liberal Franklin D Roosevelt. In the 60s, the liberal Johnson was succeeded by the rather less liberal Nixon, while the illiberal Reagan-Bush years were followed by the would-be liberal Clinton. Two years does admittedly seem a rather short outing for the most recent liberal incursion of Barack Obama, but it isn't over yet. American voters have simply shown that they like voting against their government, and they don't like unemployment. More than that, it's impossible to say.
Lessons, therefore? Not exactly new - a government presiding over unemployment, even when they are not responsible for the economic conditions which produced it, will be punished by the voters. Voters feel no loyalty to leaders if they have no jobs. And the Republicans, lacking a clear vision themselves other than the negative one of undoing Obamaism, should realise that they will have been a share-holder in the government in two years time.
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
It didn't help that the bail-outs of the banks and the car industry were disliked by left and right. To the left, they were helping the rich and powerful corporations which helped create the mess. To the right this was a Big Government takeover of the economy.
There was some terrible politics. Regardless of its merits or otherwise, health care reform looked like a muddle, badly sold, badly explained - and the eventual bill was the mangled result of the sort of horse trading people thought they were voting against.
Obama's had a set-back, and the very active 111th Congress will now give way to a 112th Congress controlled by people who want to undo most of the Obama-Pelosi legislation. The message for Obama is to be as good a politician in office as he was campaigner out of it, and to sell his remarkable agenda more effectively to the American people. As for the Republicans, who still lack a positive agenda and who have been in thrall to the radical, eccentric Tea Party movement, they could reflect on the fact that but for the Tea Party's more fringe candidates, they might now also be the majority party on the Senate as well.
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
If the Obamacons were genuine One Nation Tories they should still be standing at his side. The witches’ brew of Republicanism and Tea Partyism offers up such a lethal cocktail of xenophobia, state minimalism, fear, religious fundamentalism and rampant, crush the poor libertarianism that it should inspire nothing but horror amongst all decent, modernising One Nation Tories. The idea that anyone in the Tory Party should feel an allegiance with Sarah Palin or Christine O’Donnell should be anathema. They should recognise instead that Obama and the Democrats have forged ahead over the past two years with an extraordinary legislative programme that, but for its conservative timidity, would bear proud comparison with the aims of One Nation Tories.
The health care bill could put the number of insured Americans over 95% - impressive and praiseworthy, even if still short of the 100% achieved by an NHS which David Cameron rightly placed at the heart of his campaign. The regulation of out of control capital markets fits well with David Cameron’s own calls before the election in Britain for more effective regulation. Which of us, after all, would argue with the need for a systemic regulator, such as is envisaged by Obama’s financial regulation bill? As for the stimulus, it may seem to be radically different to the Coalition’s austerity budget, but in George Osborne’s ring-fencing of education costs, his rescuing of defence contracts, and his careful focusing of the cuts that were made, he achieved a measurable triumph on behalf of the Coalition in balancing the need for continued fiscal stimulus with the aim of reducing the worst excesses of the budget deficit. What it clearly wasn’t was the Friedmanite slashing beloved of the Republicans and the Tory right, a result that should have relieved us all.
The Republicans operate to the right of a political centre of gravity that is already considerably rightwards of our own. The addition of the Tea Party, for all the honeyed words of Dan Hannan in his eloquent calls for a ‘repatriation’ of the Tea Party revolution, sends elements of them even further into a stratosphere that is thoroughly alien to European centrists. If the Republicans win big tonight, One Nation Tories should be weeping with the Democrats, and then working flat out to defend their own remarkable coalition from the ravages of libertarian pillaging that have caught out their friends amongst the Obamaites.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
This may be bad for Livingstone, but there are serious downsides for Tower Hamlets as a whole from Rahman's election. The Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan reports on the affair here, as does Labour member Luke Akehurst on his blog here.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Several commentators called the exchange for Miliband - the BBC's Nick Robinson, the Evening Standard's Paul Waugh and the Spectator's James Forsyth for example. Certainly Miliband was considered, understated even, and rightly eschewed flashy statements or corny one liners. He came across as a man genuinely trying to get the truth out of the Prime Minister, and rightly focused on the child benefit policy, still one whose weakness doens't appear to have been properly explained or corrected by the government. Although there was a nervousness to his performance initially - or at any rate an apparent nervousness - he came across with sincerity. This is certainly not a leader to be under-estimated by the Tories. But whether or not he 'won' PMQs I'm not so sure. Cameron remained commanding and fluent, and appeared for the most part to be dominating the exchange. It's possible that expectations may have played a part in some observers' enthusiasm for Miliband, but you can always make up your ownm ind and go to the broadcast of the exchange here - it's near the beginning.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
At least Vince is not alone in his need to retract an unthinkingly generous promise. I seem to remember a buoyant Labour Party under Tony Blair declaring their opposition to tuition fees. The Tory governments of Thatcher and Major never dared to introduce them, fearing the opprobrium that would be heaped upon them if they did so. Blair, on the other hand, had no problem as a new Labour Prime Minister in finally breaking the protective barrier between university students and tuition fees. Vince Cable should thus at least disregard current Labour criticisms of his actions - he is only carrying on where they left off.
Monday, October 11, 2010
The quality of online debate is undoubtedly variable, and Marr's point that too much of it is simply angry and abusive can be verified from a look at any one of hundreds of political blogs and, even more, the comments attending most of their posts. Marr's successor as political editor of the BBC, Nick Robinson, has also gone on record to suggest that new media comment fails in the crucial area of reflectivity. It simply provides a new forum for uninformed, knee-jerk reactions, few of which genuinely widen the scope of our political knowledge.
I have some sympathy with the view of the two beeb people, despite my own incursion into this much abused field. But they miss the fact that online political engagement is crucial in enlarging the sphere of both political activists and interested observers in a way that remains important to the health of a liberal democracy. Sometimes, the 'blogosphere' can have an impact. The most prominent of the political blogs is probably that of the pseudonymous Guido Fawkes, and while I detest his witch-hunt against former Hague adviser Chris Myers, there is no doubting that he has a right to question how public money is being spent or to raise up issues of hypocrisy (as with his current campaign to reveal how many shadow cabinet members are millionaires) or pose awkward questions to newly elevated MPs like Ed Miliband's campaign manager, and now shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan. Other blogs, such as those run by politics lecturer Bill Jones (Skipper), or former lobby correspondent Paul Linford, clearly provide the informed comment of seasoned political observers, comment that is every bit as acute as that available from print or broadcast journalists.
The problem with the blogosphere is, however, not just that it can be seen as hysterical and vindictive (and in that respect hardly any different from the tabloid press), but that it can also take itself too seriously. The recent election for the chairmanship of the Conservative Party youth organisation Conservative Future drew a flurry of online activity that kept officials at Conservative Central Office engaged for many, many man hours. The online debate about the election was described to me as vehement, malicious, even slanderous at times. And the net result of all this online hot air? A mere 200 votes cast, out of a putative membership of 18,000. On a larger canvas, the Political Studies Association's magazine 'Political Insight' carried an article putting the online political sphere in its place, when it looked at the internet election that never was. The authors note that despite the huge sums devoted to digital engagement, very few votes were shifted as a result. The Tories' more traditional telephone canvassing effort proved far more significant, at a fraction of the cost, while Jack Straw's Blackburn campaign, devoid of digital engagement but very firmly focused on local activity, saw his vote increase by 5.7%.
Andrew Marr may be sounding a little too defensive, as a well known broadcast journalist whose own private life was exposed on the internet not long ago. He raises some legitimate points, but he is ironically in danger of over-stating the impact of the internet, whilst ignoring the areas where it is a healthy complement to the existing media.
Saturday, October 09, 2010
Since he covers American politics and the broader themes of relevant ideological trends, and always in a very cogent form, this interview is a must-read for A2 students, but it is illuminating for any observer of politics to read one of the more articulate assessments of right-wing Toryism around, and straight from the horse's mouth in a sense. I hate the fact, as a One Nation Tory, that I sometimes listen to Hannan and agree with him! Happily, this was less of a problem in reading the interview.
Friday, October 08, 2010
Her school is, of course, entitled to take whatever action it sees fit if it believes she has in some way harmed their reputation, and Ms. Birbalsingh might have been advised to at least inform her head teacher of what she was planning on saying. But it would be a pity if ultra sensitivity to criticisms of the education system from within lead to disciplinary action against this teacher, thus inihibiting other teachers around the country from voicing their own thoughts. Education should thrive on open debate, and if Ms. Birbalsingh is continuing to do a good job at her new school, her desire to contribute to the wider national debate should not be a matter for rebuke. Otherwise we will find that the contributions of 'real people' become as bland and uninformative as those we already get from the politicians.
You can see Ms. Birbalsingh's speech here (scroll in to 1hr. 5mins), and read the predictable outrage of the Daily Mail at her treatment here.
UPDATE: The blogger 'Dizzy' has uncovered an interesting point about the 'executive head teacher' who is responsible for telling Ms. Birbalsingh to 'work from home' prior to possible discipline measures. The head is one Dr. Irene Bishop, who in her previous headship allowed Labour to launch their general election campaign from her then school. Seems like this might not be such a clear cut case of educational principles after all.....
Wednesday, October 06, 2010
William Hague draws the prize for emptiest gesture receiving most applause yet. He announced a 'sovereignty clause' in any piece of EU legislation to pass through parliament henceforth. An utterly meaningless clause, since the the sovereignty of parliament stands as one of the few genuinely unquestioned aspects of our famously uncodified constitution. But it drew massive applause because (a) it involved an attack on Tory hate institution, the EU, and (b) he used the words "our ancient parliament" which always goes down well with this patriotic, history loving audience. Mind you, if they think parliament's current liberties and rights are ancient they may need a crash course from new History Tsar Simon Schama.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt employed the speech tactic beloved of David Cameron, by standing centre stage with no notes. Clearly his first bid for the leadership succession. He also drew applause by praising competitive sports. The ageing and rather somnolent audience clearly likes the idea of other, younger people competing hard. Hunt threw in a few button pushing phrases that seemed to suggest failure in competition really led to success, and then produced a tabloid-esque story about a primary school cancelling sports day because they were afraid children would fall down. Cue collective horror from outraged audience, whose most active role this morning was to squeeze into the seats.
We may have a new, fresh-faced coalition government, but tory delegates have merely emerged from a long state of suspended animation to carry on where they left off in the 90s.
Friday, October 01, 2010
If this really is the best that Friday night Newsnight can come up with, they could save a lot of money by replacing the well-paid Paxman with a cheaper low-budget variety show. Or they could leave characters like Brand in the celebrity bubble they inhabit and venture out into the real world for some hard news instead.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Read more here.
Friday, September 24, 2010
The night before one of them becomes the Labour Party leader, More 4’s tongue in cheek docu-drama, “Miliband of Brothers” didn’t do either of them any favours, but was an entertaining and illuminating watch. Yes, they were both portrayed as the nerdy middle-class sons of a comfortably off, radical professor who quailed when faced with real rebellion. Yes, it was entertaining to watch the clashes between their well-meaning, utterly divorced socialism and the real world of conflict (there’s not a lot of conflict going on in the left-wing parlours of North London and the glorious isolation of Oxford colleges after all). In terms of character, I suspect the programme makers rather favoured Ed Miliband over his even nerdier brother, giving him a more entertainingly subversive personality with a slightly stronger relationship to planet Earth than that enjoyed by his brother. David’s inability to party or act like “a normal teenager” was played up for a bit of cheap humour, but partying is over-rated and what is a “normal teenager” anyway? Heaven help us if such a boringly homogenous species ever does emerge.
We were reminded of the real political dramas of the polarised 80s, when Margaret Thatcher radicalised the nation and Scargill, Draper, Heffer, Benn and co split the Labour Party and made it ungovernable, waging a continuous war with leader Neil Kinnock. Then along came Blair, and the Milibands’ firm commitment to his final abandonment of anything even approaching socialism. I had forgotten the genuinely fantastic sight of Kinnock, Mandelson and Prescott lip-synching along to “Things Can Only Get Better”. I hadn’t forgotten, because Andrew Rawnsley, one of the programme’s contributors, has always been around to remind us, that the Labour leadership was an utterly poisonous concoction between Blair and Brown. But out of this has arisen the Miliband v Miliband fight for leadership, and tomorrow one of these two slightly bizarre characters will be entrusted with trying to return Labour to power after a rather shorter interval in opposition than the last one. “Miliband of Brothers” may have just served to remind us how strange most of our political leaders are, whether they went to Haverstock comp or Eton. Or, possibly, one day – Sutton Grammar?!
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Even as the election campaign began, the Lib Dems seemed to think that St. Vince, as he was commonly becoming known, should always be seen at Mr. Clegg's side in order to give the younger man more gravitas. Well the rest is, as everyone rather unoriginally says, history. Nick Clegg delivered a passable performance in his first television debate, in contrast to flawed performances from both of the other leaders, and became a political figure in his own right. Not only was there no more need for Vince, but the older man was quietly consigned to the sidelines while Cleggmania took effect. Vince only re-emerged as a rather reluctant member of Nick Clegg's readily agreed coalition with Mr. Cameron. His famous impression of a dying duck in a thunderstorm became a regular feature on political shows. But Vince Cable didn't become one of the Lib Dems' biggest figures by accident - although in that party, to be fair, such a thing is not improbable. No, Dr. Vince Cable is as capable of a political hatchet job as the next man, and that is what he has managed to deliver today.
Cable's hard nosed political acumen was clearly seen in the releasing of incendiary excerpts from his 'anti-business' speech as Business Secretary; then his careful placing of such rhetoric in a slightly less inflamed final speech whilst still enthusing the dying Lib Dem conference crowd, was a masterpiece of political spin (see Paul Waugh's take on it here). And the hatchet job he has delivered is certainly not aimed at British business, but at the man whose views he has been busy contradicting all week - Nick Clegg. Vince Cable is an uncommonly good politician, and when Nick Clegg finally moves on to become the next leader of the Tory Party, it will be Vince, and not the earnest Simon Hughes, whol will succeed him as the popular new leader of the opposition Lib Dems. Masterly.
Monday, September 20, 2010
If you want a clear idea of just what problems beat against the coalition from the Lib Dem left and the Tory right, have a read of the following two articles. Evan Harris in the Guardian explains why the Lib Dems need to distance themselves from policies which they feel have been imposed on them by the Tory part of the coalition. Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home bemoans the fact that the Lib Dem part of the coalition has become too powerful, and identifies three more policy changes which concern Tory right-wingers.
The leadership of the two parties may be pretty well in synch, and former Tory turned Lib Dem Baroness Nicholson might exult that we now have a properly One Nation government, but this is a Janus faced coalition, and it will keep wondering exactly which face to put before the British public throughout its career.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
However, the selection of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware (Joe Biden's home state) has caused waves. She was well supported by Sarah Palin, and is considered by many to be on the extreme fringe of the Republican Party, and even the Tea Party movement (Slate magazine exposes her as a 'masturbation socialist' here). Democrats have been breathing sighs of relief, claiming she is unelectable and that the Republicans, by selecting her, have at least saved the Delaware senate seat for the Democrats. Even mainstream Republicans seem to be running scared, although some commentators see her victory as a nemesis resulting from the party's own long-term tactics against Obama. But consider for a moment if she wins, or even comes close. O'Donnell might be seen as a dry run for a Palin presidential bid in 2012, and an Obama White House that currently views Palin as unelectable may not be so sanguine if the economy continues to dive, and especially not if O'Donnell, Palin's Delaware soul-mate, does well in her election.
That Palin is indeed running for president is now considered a fact by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic, as it has long been so considered by the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan. The alarm for anyone who thinks Palin is a certifiable nutter is that nothing can be taken for granted in democratic politics, and no-one, given the right circumstances, is unelectable.
While David Cameron's own position with Tory voters seems pretty solid - a 91% approval rating - it is hardly good news for his party that they are now level pegging with a Labour Party that is still essentially leaderless. Time for them to start praying for an Ed Balls victory.
Monday, September 13, 2010
The programme had an annoying habit of being utterly repetitive, perhaps believing that its entire audience was comprised of Attention Deficit Disorder sufferers who needed to be constantly reminded of the purpose of the project. Cue lots of shots of Gareth telling us that the problem is that boys are disengaged from school, with voice-over man regularly telling us that Gareth had to increase the boys' literacy standard in eight weeks. Yawn.
In Gareth Malone's school you don't have to stick to a curriculum, you can invite a whole team of previously invisible council workers to help clear a wood patch, and you can treat every day like a day off school so that you can do games instead. And since Gareth is only actually in school for three days a week, it is the regular teachers who pick up the pieces when the class returns to normal lessons in actual classrooms (Gareth doesn't use classrooms as they disengage the boys).
What we learnt from all this is that boys prefer activities to learning (and Gareth's risky stuff wasn't actually as risky as he made out, with his helmets while clearing wood and staid rules for British Bulldog). Sherlockian stuff, really. After watching this pap, I wasn't sure whether my problem is that I hate kids, hate schools, or just hate wise-guy TV presenters with crap ideas about education. What's worse is that Michael Gove thinks this is the way forward for education. In despair, I turned to the Inbetweeners for a more realistic look at education instead.
On first preferences (and with the other candidates still in the race) David beats Ed 36% to 32%. Whether or not Labour members really will decide to use their second preferences to give the leadership to the man they perceive as both less qualified and less electable remains to be seen, although it will be an interesting commentary not only on how a party membership often rejects electability in favour of ideological comfort, but also how AV might give voters a false sense of security when allocating their second preferences.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Robert Harris once began his regular Sunday Times column during the dying years of the Thatcher regime with the following words: “It is a sobering thought to realise that we are being governed by someone who is mad”. Hardly surprising that he embraced Tony Blair and New Labour with enthusiasm. However, the man who is now one of Britain’s most popular novelists (“Fatherland”, “Lustrum”) fell out of love with New Labour, and especially its egocentric leader. In his novel “The Ghost” he damned Tony Blair through fiction. Now, in his Sunday Times book review, he has damned Tony Blair via the former premier’s memoirs. If you haven’t read it in the paper (the ‘Culture’ section), it is worth the pound to read it online. Harris is withering about Blair in every possible way. While politics students and teachers will almost certainly want to read the book for themselves, they can get an (obviously partial) sense of it from Harris’s extraordinary critique.
Despite Blair’s merely passing reference to religion as a “passion” greater than politics, there is no doubting Blair’s belief in his divine destiny. “I felt a growing inner sense of belief, almost of destiny…I could see the opportunity to take hold of the Labour party…I could see it like…an artist suddenly appreciates his own creative genius.” Harris goes on to highlight Blair’s rather chilling and bizarrely frank premonitions of John Smith’s impending death from a heart attack, and his brazen opportunism when that event finally happened.
Discussing Blair’s attitude to the September 11th attacks and the wars which followed, Harris concludes that “One cannot rid oneself of the uneasy feeling that Blair enjoys war – its stark simplicity, its historic drama, its emotion.” He suggests that, for all his denials, Blair really was a neo-conservative in the way he saw the war as an opportunity for western imperialist nation-building. Then Harris is at his most damning when quoting Blair’s vision for war – “ ‘It requires above all a willingness to see the battle as existential and to see it through, to take the time, to spend the treasure, to spend the blood’. All this [says Harris] from a man who can’t bring himself to sign copies of his book in central London in case of protests.” Wow. Not much room for doubt there. Blair is a “crazed millennialist who, not content with one pre-emptive war against Iraq, now blithely advocates a second against Iran.”
Harris writes with the zeal of the de-converted. His disillusion with the Blair Project is deep and seering. He explains this in his review, but he also allows Blair’s own words, and the content of his memoirs, to work against him. It is a brilliant piece of writing, paints a wretched picture of the Labour Party’s most successful ever leader, and demands to be checked or assessed in the light of our own reading of Blair’s mawkish manuscript.
One such appeared in the Bagehot column of the Economist this week. Bagehot has been taking a keen interest in this story in his online blog, and his appreciation of the awful power of the red-tops in general, and the NoTW in particular, have made some of his analyses compulsive reading. He once again shows, in this week's column, an unerring awareness of just what the red-tops do. After a brilliant description of the NoTW as "combining the cynicism of a brothel madame with the self-righteousness of a lynch mob", he goes on to show how the tabloids use their power over individuals:
British tabloids enjoy political power in several ways. Thanks to weak taboos about privacy, they wield the threat of personal exposure. If the current mood in Parliament, especially in the wake of last year’s expenses scandal, is one of bitterness and fear (because all MPs feel they now live under suspicion that they are “on the take”), the tone of the tabloids is one of undisguised triumphalism. To pick a recent case study, the Sunday Mirror reported on September 5th that the estranged second wife of an obscure Conservative MP was working as a prostitute. The following day, the outwardly respectable Daily Mail carried abject quotes from the MP on his doorstep, saying he knew nothing of his wife’s actions, and could prove that he was separated from her. At this point, the Mail noted coolly, the MP “began sobbing”. The piece concluded by naming his three children.
Cruelly humiliating individuals, creating huge scares over populist issues - these are the methods of the red-top. But, alas, Bagehot then throws all his good analysis away with a scandalously weak conclusion. The raucous British tabloids, he suggests, may be unsightly, and may disgrace politics, but they act as a lightning rod that keeps the baying right-wing populists at bay. He cites the example of Europe's more reasonable press, suggesting that because they do not provide an outlet for such fury they contribute to the rise of the type of right-wing nationalist who gets short shrift in Britain. Sorry Bagehot, but absolutely wrong. Not only does he have the impact of the European media wrong (a much more detailed, thoughtful, if slightly dull book on the subject by academic Antonin Ellinas exists for those who are interested), but his attempt to explain the failure of the British far right falls disastrously short of the mark. Remove this tenuous defence, and the British tabloid is then revealed as a harsh, cruel, malicious and wholly malign influence on the British body politic.
A more hysterical defence appears in the online paper The First Post. Written by Brendan O'Neill, it is in the form of an attack on the Guardian newspaper for daring to devote its precious time to investigating and criticising the Murdoch press. O'Neill's extraordinary attack on the Guardian suggests that by shining a light on the less than savoury methods of the News International papers they threaten to condemn all media to greater censorship. Keeping a bad tabloid press is better than watching it crumble, suggests O'Neill, who manages to take a very laissez-faire view of the NoTW's criminal activities. In fact, the Guardian (and, indeed, the Independent) is carrying out precisely the sort of thorough investigation that should be the meat and drink of the journalistic trade, and is far more likely to maintain a healthy and effective press than the shameful antics of the NoTW. That O'Neill seems to see the future of a free media as being intertwined with the rapacious, reckless and illegal antics of a tawdry newspaper shows just how out of synch with reality he is.
The red-tops are a blight on British society, and the fact that they are such a popular blight is no defence in this instance. David Cameron continued the recent tradition of merging the tabloids into the network of British governance with his appointment of Andy Coulson and his deference to the court of King Rupert. It would be an irony indeed if such a merger ultimately proved so damaging to him that he lost both his press chief and his credibility. In the meantime, Britain still awaits a political class willing to do more than simply bend over in terror when the tabloids come calling.