Wednesday, September 29, 2010

David Miliband Finally Exits

David Miliband may well be looking at his last headlines tomorrow, as he shuffles off his political coil and finally exits the front-line political scene he has occupied for so relatively short a time. He has managed to upstage his leadership winning brother for much of this week, but now he's accepted the logic of his position - and implicitly acknowledged the bitterness of his defeat - and made the first steps away from politics. If he lasts as an MP to the next election I'll be surprised. If his reputation lasts any longer I'll be even more surprised.

The meteoric rise and rapid fall of David Miliband have been an instructive tale on the conduct of modern politics. He was one of that increasing group of advisers who were making their name before they even hit parliament. Ushered into a safe seat, David didn't have to waste much time on the backbenches before oozing smoothly into the cabinet, where he was almost instantaneously spoken of as the obvious Blairite successor. His three years as Foreign Secretary represent the high point of his political climb, and although he served competently, and even struck up an odd chemistry with Hillary Clinton, it isn't immediately obvious what lasting achievement he obtained while in that exalted position. To be fair, it isn't immediately obvious what lasting impression he has made at all in politics. Such has been the rapidity of his career it seems to have left little time for anything as solid as a concrete monument. He didn't even manage to decide whether to challenge for the leadership of his party in more trying times, when he might actually have managed to be its saviour - but then, so wet behind the ears was he as a politician that he was still a novice in the hard arts of political activity.

Enoch Powell argued - actually, I think he stated, brooking no argument - that all political careers end in failure. He was thinking of careers that had many years of hard work and graft behind them, making their ultimate failure all the more tragic. The failure of a career that has barely spanned a decade seems so much more ephemeral, and barely registers on the political richter scale. This, perhaps, is the true representation of the new career politics that Philip Cowley was talking about; indeterminate flashes across a darkening sky that seems bereft of the bright lights of more lasting stars. David Miliband departs as if he is some triumphant, weary general who has finally hung up his sword. Actually, he barely unsheathed it, and now disappears not so much into the dustbin of history, as to be consumed by its vacuum.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Press and Miliband

The line being taken by Critics of Miliband includes, of course, the fact that he was only elected by dint of union support, and was clearly not the first choice of members or MPs. One thing calculated to quickly bring the Labour membership into line behind him will be the front pages of today's newspapers. With two exceptions, they subject Ed M. to a critical firestorm - just the sort of thing to persuade ordinary Labourites to swing in behind their new leader.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Miliband Dilemma

They really don't know what to make of him. The pundits, that is. So much so that Blairite John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday basically seems to want to write Cameron's PMQ attack lines for him, while the conservative James Forsyth on the Spectator blog explains why Ed is a far more formidable figure than the Conservatives are allowing.

More on Miliband

Quite a bit is being made of the role that Derek Simpson's Unite union played in Ed Miliband's victory. Certainly the union did all it could to swing its members votes for Ed, but not all is what it seems! One very Conservative friend of mine happens to have joined Unite in the last year or so to protect his position, and used his opportunity as a union member and devoted Conservative to vote for the man he thinks will keep the Tories in power. Chalk up another one to Ed M.

Cameron, Clegg, Miliband - The Triumph of the Political Professionals

Ed Miliband’s victory as Labour leader tells us virtually nothing about the possible direction of the Labour Party, as witness the acres of disparate punditry occupying today’s press. Is he ‘Red Ed’, or is he the pragmatist leader of a new generation? Is he Iain Duncan Smith or Tony Blair made anew? Other than the fact that the unions appear to have voted for him in order to reject his more obviously Blairite brother – one in the eye for a historically failing Blair there – what, really, does Ed Miliband stand for? We don’t really know. We don’t really know because he has been in front line politics for such a short length of time, and it is this fact as much as anything else that may be the most telling aspect of Ed Miliband’s election, as the renowned political scientist Philip Cowley comments today.

Read more here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Miliband of Brothers"

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

Vince's Masterly Hatchet Job

When Nick Clegg was merely an inexperienced neophyte who had rather surprisingly been elected to the leadership of a third party few people really cared about, he was very often in the shadow of a far greater, altogether more majestic figure. Vince Cable had shown, during his temporary leadership of the Lib Dems, that age didn't have to be a bar to effective leadership. He had combined well aimed comedy - his jibe about Gordon Brown transforming from Stalin to Mr. Bean was one of the most wounding to be aimed at the former PM - with a reputation as the country's greatest political seer. Never mind Cardinal Newman, it was Vince that everyone thought should be sainted.

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.

Brown Damned Again

With one academic book about the 2010 election already out (the Hansard Society one, launched last week at Portcullis House), another one is due soon. Edited by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh, it contains more lurid descriptions of the inability of Gordon Brown's No. 10 office to function properly. We have heard much of this before from Andrew Rawnsley, but Iain Dale has a flavour of what else is to come to haunt Brown on his blog here. Little wonder David Cameron has been greeted with relief for being just more - well, normal.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Unites Lib Dem 'Progressives' and Tory rightists?

Utter dislike of the Coalition of course. The Lib Dems may have greeted Nick Clegg triumphantly enough today, but the tenor of many questions to him yesterday was far from triumphal. Even today's set piece speech seemed, to the BBC's Nick Robinson, just a little defensive.

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

The Tea Party, a masturbation socialist and Palin's Presidential Run in 2012

The Tea Party movement in America is admired and venerated by some of those right-wing Tories, like Dan Hannan MEP, who distrust David Cameron's leadership. As a movement dedicated to the classical liberal philosophies of less government and low tax, it is the most successful recent incarnation of the New Right. It has also managed to create waves with the selection of a range of Republican candidates for the forthcoming mid-terms who are sympathetic to its aims. For the most part, such candidates have not caused much comment outside of being Tea-Partiers, and one positive account of the current Republican situation can be found in the Weekly Standard here.

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.

Clegg - A Tory Favourite (But not a Liberal One!)

The Evening Standard reports a poll which shows Nick Clegg having a far higher popularity rating amongst Tories than amongst his own Lib Dems. The Lib Dems, indeed, have had a battering as a result of their coalition decision, currently languishing at 15% in the polls. This is in part to do with a problem of identity - are they an indistinguishable part of a Tory government, or are they a distinctive party of the liberal-left? One Labour insider put it to me, rather gleefully I thought, that Clegg's real problem was that he had embraced the coalition, and his partnership with Cameron, much too enthusiastically. From the moment he appeared like a love-struck courtesan in the garden of Number 10 he was doomed. Had he suggested that it was only with real difficulty that he entered into coalition, and kept on showing real regret, perhaps even occasionally emulating Vince Cable's all too frequent look of utter despair, then anti-Tory voters and Lib Dems might have been prepared to accept he was sacrificing himself for the good of the nation. Unfortunately, he is enjoying power much too much to make a convincing martyr. Perhaps Clegg will in time see his future with the Tories, lead his coalition Liberals into a formal electoral pact, and eventually succeed Cameron as the next Tory leader?

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.

A Coalition Electoral Pact?

There was some agreement at yesterday's Hansard Society meeting that the Conservatives were still drawing the poison of the Thatcher years in terms of their electoral appeal. No-one doubts that the Coalition has the happy effect of moderating some Conservative positions, and there is the persistent rumour that David Cameron prefers being in coalition to governing alone, when he would be even more subject to the raucous calls of his right-wing without the defensive buffer provided by the Lib Dems. Inevitably, there is going to be talk of whether it might help for the Conservatives to enter a formal electoral pact with the Liberals as well. This issue has received a little more attention as the result of an article by influential Tory MP Nick Boles in the Times. One moderate Tory reaction, very much favouring Boles' proposal, is here. However, as we were also reminded by yesterday's assembled academics, the round of party conferences is going to show us both Lib Dem and Conservative activists in tooth and claw, and they're unlikely to be welcoming the prospect of stronger ties with each other, whatever their leaders may want.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lessons for Education from TV

Michael Gove apparently wants schools to start emulating Gareth Malone, whose "Extraordinary School for Boys' series started last week on BBC1. Malone could become the Jamie Oliver of lessons, so I finally got round to watching the first episode of his programme. It's difficult to say what was most annoying about this tedious tv enterprise. It could be Malone himself, who combines his ridiculous keenness with an incredibly annoying adoption of a naive/'little boy lost in big world' persona that was wearing thin after the first five minutes. It could be that the programme is based upon the nonsensical premise that educating and playing are essentially the same thing. Or it could be the programme's desire to keep focusing in on the class 'characters' - who of course are the really annoying kids with loud, inarticulate opinions who would be better advised to go and re-read the school's Healthy Eating guidelines.

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.

Coalition's Narrow Lead Against Leaderless Opposition

The headline polling figures yesterday were about the Labour leadership (see below) the results of which are due in two weeks. Just as interesting were the YouGov daily polling figures which had the Conservatives on 42%, Labour on 38% and the Lib Dems on 14%. Plenty has already been written about the Lib Dems' current precarious state amongst potential voters, and you can see why they will be best advised to get five year fixed term parliaments in as soon as possible. But it isn't that much sunnier for the Tories - with spending cuts yet to bite, and an opposition that has effectively been leaderless since the election, a 4% lead is not exactly an Everest of electoral approval. Whichever Miliband wins, they will surely have the nouse and position to close that narrow gap very quickly. Cameron's honeymoon is already over.

The Miliband Race

With the YouGov polling data now out there is the fascinating conundrum that while Labour members apparently see David Miliband as more electable (55% to 25%) and a potentially better prime minister (45% to 28%), the poll of members, as reported in the Sunday Times over the weekend, gives Ed Miliband a narrow lead (51% to 49%). But, this lead makes an assumption over second preferences, dividing them equally between the two brothers from the other three eliminated candidates. That this is by no means certain is commented on by James Forsyth on the Spectator blog.

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 Damns Blair

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.

There is No Defence of the British Tabloid

The Case Against Andy Coulson continues to be analysed in the less Conservative friendly newspapers - notably the Guardian and Independent. Coulson, Cameron's now press chief and former News of the World editor, is the man currently at the heart of the story - always a bad position for someone whose job should keep them directing rather than starring in the drama - but both the Guardian and Independent (see this piece in today's Independent on Sunday for instance) have widened their investigations to implicate a much broader culture of illegal behaviour at the Murdoch tabloids that places the spotlight much more firmly on Murdoch's direct minions and even Murdoch himself. Since Murdoch controls the most ferocious tabloids in Britain, the story obviously stands as a pretty strong indictment of tabloid behaviour and attitudes, full stop. Now, however, there are starting to appear attempts to defend the appalling culture of the British tabloids.

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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Anniversary - And Have We Learnt Anything?

Of the rash of articles about this year's anniversary of the Day The World Changed, the most emotional and perceptive, not entirely surprisingly, comes from Robert Fisk of the Independent. Considering Pastor Terry Jones, he says:

Just look at all the other crackpots spawned in the aftermath of those international crimes against humanity: the half-crazed Ahmadinejad, the smarmy post-nuclear Gaddafi, Blair with his crazed right eye and George W Bush with his black prisons and torture and lunatic "war on terror". And that wretched man who lived – or lives still – in an Afghan cave and the hundreds of al-Qa'idas whom he created, and the one-eyed mullah – not to mention all the lunatic cops and intelligence agencies and CIA thugs who failed us all – utterly – on 9/11 because they were too idle or too stupid to identify 19 men who were going to attack the United States. And remember one thing: even if the Rev Terry Jones sticks with his decision to back down, another of our cranks will be ready to take his place.

Another that challenges the more conventional and saccharine approach is over at the online First Post, where Alexander Cockburn places the inevitable Jones in a different context as he rails against the hypocrisy of those who condemn him - who, he not unreasonably asks, is causing more damage to muslims in Afghanistan for example? The would-be book burning pastor, or the general who orders regular Predator onslaughts that decimate civilian groups in remote tribal areas?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Petraeus' Hand Was Forced

I've criticised the White House media operation over Pastor Jones below, but Justin Elliott of has this explanation of why General Petraeus, and thence the White House, needed to weigh in.

To grasp the real story here, one has to understand the context in which Petraeus decided to weigh in: At that time, the Quran burning had already been treated as a major story in the media in the Muslim world for several weeks. In other words, since at least late July, when it started to get attention in some Muslim-majority countries, the story has been doing untold damage to America's reputation.

MPs Afraid of Press

It's difficult to get too excited about Channel 4's exclusive report this evening about MPs on the Culture Select Committee who were investigating the News of the World phone-tapping scandal. Apparently, they backed off from forcing News International chief Rebekah Brooks to appear before them because they were afraid of repercussions. According to 4 MPs who spoke to C4 News, they were fearful of News International papers prying into their private lives. Being reminded that our elected representatives are terrified of the press - especially ones as feral and unchecked as those run by News International - is hardly revelatory. Hearing that they might have been prepared to act to bring Britain's tabloids into the realms of responsibility, however, genuinely would have been.

Reacting to Pastor Jones

The first thing to note about Pastor Terry Jones is that his small Florida church had a congregation of about 50 a year ago, which by all accounts has declined rather more since. The second thing to note is that this small time extremist has been condemned by pretty well anyone who can get in front of a microphone in America. So we are entitled to show bemusement, incredulity, disbelief and a whole range of other emotions besides when we watch the astonishing level of protests in the Islamic world, listen to portentous and inflammatory pronouncements from country leaders like the president of Indonesia, and hear of the shootings of four people outside the one Anglican church left in Iraq. If we can condemn Pastor Jones as an extremist, words surely start to fail us in describing the people who are reacting thus. If nothing else, the mendacious minister’s would-be book burning has illumined, once again, the enormous gulf that exists between East and West.

Pastor Jones’ proposed stunt was misguided, misconceived and thoroughly ill-considered. The gospels from which he presumably preaches contain the injunction from Jesus to love and pray for your enemies, something that the pastor seems not to have understood. He is also a minister of a religion, Christianity, which is itself a religion of the word. He must have therefore understood the incendiary nature of his proposal to burn the books of another religion. In normal circumstances, he is hardly a man who should have drawn anyone’s attention – and, it appears, in his own home town, he didn’t! So much for the pastor.

But next, what about the White House? They could hardly have done any more to publicise this small town figure and his preposterous stunt. Their leading general in Afghanistan, the defence secretary, the president himself – all have combined to make sure the world knows about Mr. Jones. Granted, they acted in good faith – their enormous concern not to allow any smidgen of doubt that they regard the Moslem world with anything other than respect may well have led them to go into over-drive. From the country which endured the 9/11 attacks, this isn’t bad going, but it was, in this instance, bad politics. Not for the first time, the Obama Administration has mis-stepped in its media handling of a difficult issue. This is especially a pity given the administration’s generally positive approach in foreign affairs, which has marked such a quantum change from its predecessor.

And what can we say, if we dare say anything, about the reaction of the Moslem world? Perhaps nothing is the most sensible option, but there is nothing in the statements of leading Islamic statesmen to encourage us to think that they are about to enter the land of moderation and reason any time soon.

One of the West’s problems, incidentally, is its lack of empathy with the sort of religious feeling that exists amongst the majority of citizens in the middle east. The western nations have left their religious fanaticism behind – for the most part – and long ago decided to abandon stonings, burnings, religious legalism and persecution as essentially Bad Things. We are still arrogant, and we still display an astonishing desire to run the rest of the world, but as a governing ideology, I think the liberalism of the west has much to commend it. It stands in rather stark contrast to the illiberalism of its own minority – thank-you pastor Jones – and too many nations beyond.

Mehdi Hasan in the Guardian reflects on how the West lost the sympathy of the Islamic world after 9/11 with its alienating 'war on terror'. A depressing, if illuminating, piece.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Trouble for Cameron - from the Conservatives

David Cameron returns from paternity leave on the day after his deputy, Nick Clegg, successfully steered the Alternative Vote Referendum Bill through the Commons. But Cameron's troubles when it comes to constitutional reform aren't going to go away, and despite some vocal Labour opposition to yesterday's Bill (despite Gordon Brown having promised a similar referendum in his dying days as PM), it is from the Conservative benches that Cameron is going to face his most serious opposition.

Tory whips had to do some pretty severe arm twisting to bring recalcitrant backbenchers into line last night, but the Conservative parliamentary party has no shortage of hard-liners who detest the coalition, and see the constitutional reform proposals as little short of a Lib Dem legislative coup. Not only is a head of steam building behind various wrecking amendments to the Bill, but it is clear from various Tory contributions to yesterday's debate (as reported by the AV sceptical Conservative Home site) that bringing his own party into line could be a more difficult task for David Cameron than he imagined. He may wish he'd extended his paternity leave a bit longer.

A Nudge and a Wink

The blogger Guido Fawkes was primarily responsible for pushing the Hague story into the limelight, with his relentless posts about Hague's sleeping arrangements. Is he now trying to suggest something untoward about Alan Johnson, the Shadow Home Secretary currently deciding to pursue Andy Coulson's scalp? Johnson, notes Guido, wasn't quite so keen to make a big deal of the alleged 'phone tapping' scandal when he was Home Secretary. Says the scandal spreading blogger:

Many wondered why Johnson didn’t run for leader and perhaps now, without such a great need to keep News International’s tabloids away, we might read why exactly Alan Johnson was so keen to avoid confrontation with Coulson’s former employers while in office.

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Tabloid Affair

Andy Coulson edited what remains one of the most vituperative and unsparing tabloid papers to ever be published. He is currently in the heart of the Cameron inner circle as the tribune of popular opinion in his guise as Head of Communications. The spat over his role in his former paper's phone tapping scandal, which has become the most partisan of recent Westminster quarrels, will doubtless soon fade away. Meanwhile, the Economist's Bagehot has both Coulson's former paper, and Coulson's current role, just about right. On the News of the World, which Coulson edited, he notes this:

FEW things frighten a British politician as much as a phone call from the News of the World, a ferocious, ruthless Sunday tabloid that is the country's best-selling newspaper. Many British daily newspapers are raucous, salacious and intrusive, while also being astonishingly professional. The NOTW takes all this to another level: no other publication devotes the same resources to getting scoops. The result is a weekly product that routinely crushes the competition, thanks a potent blend of hard work, money and prurience. At its worst, it combines the cynicism of a brothel madame with the self-righteousness of a lynch mob.

After examining the phone tapping scandal, he concludes, rather sadly:

Is it naive, though, to feel a certain melancholy that Mr Cameron should rely so heavily on a man who ran the News of the World, of all tabloids? It is more than just another newspaper. Even by the standards of the tabloids, it is capable of unusual cruelty and unfairness in the pursuit of a few column inches. Alongside the villains it boasts of exposing, its victims include numerous ordinary Britons whose only crime was to be considered newsworthy for a few moments on a given Sunday. Where all that fits into Mr Cameron's vision of a Big Society is something of a mystery.

Just observations, both.

It's Only Politics

As another term begins, and another round of trying to explain the political world to neophytes starts, it's good to see that the old idealistic adage that politics is really about issues, and not personalities is.....completely untrue. A quick look at the top-rated stories of the last few days gives us, in no particular order:

- Former Prime Minister blasts closest colleague and successor;
- Foreign Secretary shared hotel room with adviser and has to announce he's NOT GAY!
- Prime Minister's Press Secretary - and former Murdoch editor - embroiled in phone-tapping scandal.

A little further down the list is the Labour leadership election, not causing as many waves as it should, possibly because all of the candidates have been rather over-powered by the neatly timed Blair memoirs and a difficulty in distinguishing themselves from each other apart from a chorus of "We're not Blair".

These may of course be the fag end of the annual summer 'silly season' stories, and there's no shortage of policy issues to dominate more thoughtful news headlines, from 'free schools' to constitutional change, but with a tabloid press and gossip blogging sites in competition for the sleaziest stories, I wouldn't bet on actual policies taking up too much space any time soon!