Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Defending Obama

'American exceptionalism' - the firm belief in America's unique position and positive virtues in world society - is a clearly dear to the heart of most Americans, even if they might sometimes struggle to articulate it. Barack Obama identified it clearly in a recent speech at the G20 summit, but his comments have been ripped out of their context and subjected to severe criticism by numerous conservative commentators in the US. They have attempted to deny that he believes in any sort of American exceptionalism. It is a lethal charge in a country whose political centre of gravity is still firmly to the right, and we in Europe perhaps find it difficult to understand just how much the vilification of Obama as an entrenched leftist is gaining ground in the US. Andrew Sullivan, the libertarian ex-Brit who now lives in America and has been a consistent supporter of Obama, provides an illuminating comment about the 'Big Lie' being levied against the president. His defence of Obama's political achievements since taking office is worth noting, but his post includes a fascinating unpicking of how a host of conservative commentators have happily colluded in using an out of context quote to perpetuate a mythical image of the president that serves their purposes only too well. The damning indictment is that they are happily perpetuating a lie - didn't journalists once try and do the opposite?

What Students Could Have Protested About But Didn't

I must confess I'm not always on the same page as the 'Spectator' these days, but editor Fraser Nelson's blog-post about what students haven't protested about over the past thirteen years is pointed, and perhaps makes today's protests seem just a little more self-serving.

Quote of the Day

"This is what happens when they oppress students for so long", from an over-excited and distinctly unoppressed looking sixth former on his day out to view the violence. Next lesson - what oppression really means, with reference to North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Russia...........

Palin and Our 'North Korean Allies'

Sarah Palin is the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2012. A few nay-sayers keep trying to suggest that she just doesn't have the political nous or intelligence to be a credible candidate, but honestly, anyone could mistake South Korea for North Korea couldn't they?

Revolting Students - Again

Having managed to retard their case with the ludicrously and violently mismanaged protest of two weeks ago, it is entirely typical of the student mentality that they should consider another expression of student nihilism to be appropriate today. This time, the protest is not London based but designed to be across a range of university campuses, and even schools. Students striking in protest would not, of course, have any impact at all given that the majority steer sedulously clear of lecture theatres for most of their university careers. So protests it has to be, and given the motley collection of organizers, the chances of these simply being peaceful protests is limited.

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

Did AV Deliver a Worthless Leader?

Churchill's jibe that the Alternative Vote delivered the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidate must be ringing a bit louder in the ears of Labour MPs. Their leader, Ed Miliband, is back on the job after his paternity leave, but a mere eight weeks in and there are already mutterings on the Labour benches about his lack of impact. MPs voted, of course, for his brother by a greater margin, and David won the first vote overall, but the the AV miracle stepped in and delivered Ed Miliband to the Labour Party. It can't be any great comfort, either, that the last party political leader to succeed to the job without gaining the majority support of his party's MPs was, er, Iain Duncan Smith.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Liberal Defence on Tuition Fees - It's all about the Mandate.

Or not, in this case, as the Lib Dem defence, which we first heard articulated by Nick Clegg last Tuesday at Portcullis House, is that they didn't win the election and thus didn't have a mandate to carry out their pledge to remove tuition fees. Clegg's articulation of this played well at the Hansard Society meeting, so much so that it has now, finally, become Lib Dem orthodoxy. Tom Brake used it at a local meeting on Thursday evening, and now Vince Cable has used it in a BBC television interview. Looks as if there is some co-ordination going on behind the Lib Dem message after all.

Palin and Putin - A Match Made In......

The two putative runners for the presidencies of America and Russia in 2012 are so similar it's uncanny - the First Post shows a collection of pics that underscore the spiritual partnership of these two cuddly candidates for supreme office.

Cameron Bows to Media Pressure Again

David Cameron has decided not to go on holiday to his old Eton pal's holiday home in Thailand (the Eton pal in question being the Prime Minister of Thailand of course). The media had already homed in on this, and he was worried about exacerbating a controversy by going. He engineered the resignation of Lord Young last week because Young's comments played badly in the media. And he has removed his personal photographer from the Downing Street pay roll in response to media criticism. There are certainly occasions to head off undue media criticism. But there is a danger that so many u-turns raise questions about his initial judgement, given his unwillingness to defend any of his decisions to a ravenous media, and that he simply becomes a push-over on any would-be critical media story. Neither of them great conclusions, alas.

Soundbite Interviews

Iain Dale increasingly uses his blog as a vehicle to promote his LBC show or publishing ventures, but there are some occasional nuggets and his piece attacking the soundbite nature of radio interviews is pretty on the button.

Radio Beats Television and Grammar Schools Win the Day

Was at Any Questions on Friday night - a rare night out and change from my usual Friday night routine of selecting a new book to read. It was at Wallington Girls and Jonathan Dimbleby chaired Simon Heffer, John Denham, Philip Hammond and Viv Groskop (she's a Guardian journalist). Any Questions is, of course, a far more venerable programme than the more recent Question Time, which nicked the format for television and now adds an extra panellist just to ensure a lack of proper discussion. Question Time has the advantage of offering televisual political theatre, but falls down in the area of interesting political debate, and this is surely where the radio version scores. Shorn of the nuisances of television broadcasting it was a much easier, more straightforward production, with audience participation thankfully limited to the asking of initial questions and providing applause or expressions of disapproval, leaving the main discussion to the usually well chosen panellists. Dimbleby minor interrupts rather less, the audience seems more civilised, and the discussion genuinely interesting to listen to. There were no blinding insights on Friday, but that wasn't really the point - the reasoned airing of differing viewpoints provided insight enough.

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).

Kim Il Gove

Michael Gove has just received the Dunford 'Sporting Glory' treatment (sorry, SGS in joke) as an exciteable Andrew Marr refers to him as Kim Il Gove. Gove busily denied being more centralising but he shouldn't defend himself too hard - all Education Secretaries want to decide what is taught and how, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, given that there are almost as many different ideas about what is right for schools as there are teachers and education bureaucrats working for them. A bit of centralised decision making brings order, and decisions to remove GCSE modules, tighten up grammar and spelling, and even teach history sequentially (which many schools do as a matter of practice anyway) are likely to receive much support. There will be less support for the extraordinary decision to apparently cut back school sports spending, but we should hold back before becoming too hysterical. What Gove has done is remove the ring-fencing from a particular approach to providing sports - the School Sports Partnership. He thinks this is too bureaucratic and says schools are better off being given the freedom to provide their own competitive sports. More difficult, of course, if you're one of those schools with limited PE staff provision and a lack of playing fields as a result of the great playing fields sell-off scandal of a few years ago. But we'll see. Perhaps schools might be able to use a sports budget more effectively themselves - there are still plenty (well done SGS) who operate a range of competitive sports from their own resources after all. It just needs a will and a hefty degree of time commitment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Commons in Action

Still flush from the excitement of the Nick Clegg meeting, the SGS team then headed over to see what was going on at the House of Commons. Unusually for an evening sitting, the hallowed green benches had a few elected posteriors sitting on them to debate the issue of fixed-term parliaments. When we joined the party - although admittedly in the second class seats behind a mammoth glass partition that serves to remind us of our inferior, unelected status - two rather lonely government bench figures were being forced to listen to a succession of Scottish MPs ask why they weren't taking more notice of the Scottish experience. Thomas Docherty MP gave us a helpful lecture about the intentions of the American founding fathers. Sheila Gilmore, of Edinburgh East, rambled through a series of Scottish based points that faced regular intervention from those Tory MPs still casting half an ear to the debate, and which usually required one or two members of her own side to counter-intervene and re-interpret the honourable lady's meaning. Given all this intervening, it ended up being quite a lengthy speech, which front bench spokesman Mark Harper whiled pleasantly away by having a catch up conversation with government whip Mark Francois, who seemed sublimely uninterested in Mrs. Gilmour's views. Ed Balls popped in to have a chat behind the Speaker's chair with his old ally Tom Watson, and Chris Grayling popped his head into the chamber, only to quickly withdraw again - perhaps when he realised what the debate was on. It always seems a shame that Scottish MPs at Westminster, deprived of any real authority by having another parliament in Scotland to deal with their constituents' interests, should still have to put themselves through the hollow activity of speaking at Westminster, and there were few enough people to hear them. There was the occasional call for the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister, but possibly they weren't aware that he'd already done his bit of constitutional explaining over the road at the Hansard Society meeting.

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.

Clegg at the Attlee

The Deputy Prime Minister himself, Nick Clegg, spoke at the joint Hansard Society, Political Studies Association meeting last night in the Attlee Suite at Portcullis House. But not until he - or, rather, the Political Studies Association - had been properly introduced by its chairman. Professor Vicky Randall proudly informed us that the Political Studies Association exists to promote.....political studies; a helpful clarification. Nick Clegg, by contrast, got the most cursory of introductions, and then spent some of his time laboriously commending former Times political editor Peter Riddell on his recently acquired Privy Council membership. The distinctly un-Privy Councilled Michael Crick, Newsnight's unruly political editor, sat with pursed lips at this evidence of a fellow journo entering the hallowed realms of the establishment. Anyway, commendation over, the Deputy PM got down to the brass tacks of giving us a fluent account of the Constitutional Reform Bill which we all know so well by now.

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

Students Are Revolting

You've got to admire the genius political acumen of the student movement leaders, honed as it has been by the best that a university education can give. There had been a creeping sympathy for the plight of students faced with soaring fees. After today's violent protests, however, the story can quickly move back to the hoary old one of hooliganistic students who don't deserve a penny of taxpayers' money. Lucky old government. Unlucky decent students.

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

Phil Woolas

He was an unimpressive minister, outgunned by Joanna Lumley on the Gurkha issue amongst other political failings, and he has ended ignominously, by being declared to have lied about his opponent in his election literature. Phil Woolas represents a sorry episode for Labour all round. but does the new hard line, enunciated by Harriet Harman this morning, really ring true? She says that Labour will not have him back even if he wins his appeal agains the election ruling. This is, she says, because Labour will not tolerate lying in order to get elected. Is she really saying that up to this point the Labour party, which had Woolas back as a shadow spokesman until last week, had no inkling until now about the tendentious nature of his election literature? It beggars belief.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Oborne's Punts

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne has stuck his neck out again this week. He dares to suggest that the Coalition is one of the most revolutionary governments Britain has seen, comparable to Asquith, Attlee and Thatcher - potentially. And he thinks the Tories' civil war on Europe has been laid to rest, citing the extraordinary events of this week -

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 Right Nation Again?

There remains a lot of excitement amongst British conservatives over the Tea Party victories in America, and the house journal of the right, the Spectator, has no less than three admiring articles on the subject in this week's edition. Most prominent amongst them is Andrew Neill's turning of an extra buck by translating his BBC programme into a second salary piece about the 'New Republicans'. He suggests that America has returned to the embrace of the right, but he may be as premature in that assertion as other commentators were two years ago when they spoke then of the dawn of a new liberalism heralded by Obama's historic victory.

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.

The People's Contradictory Voice

The people may have spoken in the US mid-terms, but hardly with one voice, and not terribly clearly. The Tea Party may be celebrating the arrival of some of its key people in Congress, but I doubt the vote on Tuesday was a particularly significant endorsement of them. The exit polls are interesting - as they left the polling stations, 37% of voters said they wanted a stimulus to create jobs, while 37% said they wanted the budget to be reined in. They weren't necessarily different people in each group either. The Tea Party and their imprisoned leader, John Boehner, may be talking of dismantling the Obama reforms, too, but health care was not the priority issue for those questioned in the exit polls, and when they did express a view they appear to have been evenly split in favour of further expansion and taking apart.

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

Tea Party Prisoner

Will new House Speaker John Boehner really be his own man? He's told the Tea Partiers that "I will never let you down", and has probably just closed the prison door on himself. Republican intransigence was the reason for the difficulties faced by Obama in passing his radical bills, but so too was the way in which the whole project was undertaken - the BBC's Mark Mardell has it on the button:

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.

The Republicans Are Back

The new House Speaker, John Boehner, announced that he hoped President Obama would now respect the wishes of the American people. Just a pity that the Republicans in Congress didn't do that for the past two years.

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

One Nation Tories Should Want Obama’s Democrats to Triumph Tonight

They won’t of course. Caught in the midst of a recession that isn’t of their making, they will still receive much of the blame from disillusioned voters, and the Republicans should cruise to a victory in at least the House of Representatives. A Gallup poll is estimating an unprecedented Republican gain tonight , enough to give them the Senate as well, and the Republicos at Conservative Home are already cooling the champagne. Tim Montgomerie has triumphantly recorded Conservative support for the Democrats at a limping 17%. Where, he smugly asks, have the former Tory Obamacons gone?

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.