Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Romney's Dig At Newt..."I've Been Married To The Same Woman..."

Really not sure whether front-running Republican hopeful and eternal flip-flopper Mitt Romney has really done his campaign a lot of good with his not so subtle dig at the thrice-married Newt Gingrich in his current campaign ad. One political pundit analyses the vid and concludes that it might help Romney by focusing unforgiving conservative attention on the issue of 'character', but could backfire when the issue of 'stability' quickly translates from personal stability to political stability. There, says 'Allahpundit", Romney quickly sinks and Gingrich becomes most favoured candidate.

But as Gingrich becomes the most likely conservative alternative to Romney, there is some talk that a Gingrich-Obama contest could be a great ideological stand-off, focusing on genuine policy differences and with detailed back-up, rather than just rhetorical generalisations. The 'New Republic' pundit Michael Kazin posits just this situation, noting that Gingrich is determined to challenge Obama to lengthy debates. Policy might just hold the field in this putative contest.

That all assumes Gingrich's oft described 'colourful' private life can be kept off the burner. He might have less trouble from an Obama campaign on that score than from his own conservative supporters - the Washington Post reports continuing questions from Republican leaders about Gingrich's ability to steer a campaign that could focus on his 'personal life'. They're also concerned that Gingrich is not easily docketed as a straightforward Tea Party supporter.

I like the idea of a Gingrich candidacy. He's different, trenchant, original, intelligent and turns the identikit candidate notion on its head. And it really would be good to see someone whose flaws have been so publicised overcome the negative effects of such publicity; it could mark a real turning point in media reportage.

Hat-Tip to Andrew Sullivan's always excellent Daily Dish for the Allahpundit and Kazin links. Now, here's Mitt's smug little video ad -

Cameron Hit by Europe....Again, and Again, and Again

The website politics.co.uk has got it right with their headline today, "The Conservative Curse: Cameron faces the Europe test." The issue that long ago became a latter day tariff reform menace has been warming up for some time to give Mr. Cameron the same unalloyed misery it passed on to predecessors John Major and Margaret Thatcher. Both were undone by Europe in the end - the converted eurosceptic and the europhile alike. Now it's back to haunt the eurosceptic but pragmatic David Cameron. His Prime Minister's Questions performance today was definitely not his finest hour, and while you might dismiss Boris Johnson's call for a referendum as just another piece of typical one-upmanship, it's a little different if your own Northern Ireland Secretary starts publically ruminating about the same issue.

When he became leader David Cameron, understanding the Curse of Europe as well as anyone, tried hard to hit it into the long grass once and for all. Part of that project was to appease the numerically far larger number of Tory eurosceptics by withdrawing from the federal right-wing party, the European People's Party. It caused a bit of a rumpus from amongst the two or three Tories who still professed some sort of attachment to Europe, but otherwise it looked like a domestically shrewd manouevre. A little bit of virtually cost-free eurosceptic action to buy a period of invaluable peace.

It worked, for a while. Europe really didn't raise its accursed head for most of Cameron's time in opposition and even in government, with a healthily eurosceptic Foreign Secretary in William Hague, it did appear as if Cameron had assuaged the beast. Fat chance. Even if the eurozone hadn't threatened an economic implosion that makes the finances of the Weimar Republic look positively sane, he should have realised the nature of the Conservative eurosceptic beast. It was never going to be satisfied with a sop, and the eurozone has given it enough red meat to keep it awake for months, probably years to come.

The heart of David Cameron's problem is that he recognises what most eurosceptics can't be bothered to acknowledge. No matter how populist and democratic the calls for people power to decide our future in Europe, there is no clear question to ask. A referendum about a treaty between 17 other European nations who have no interest in listening to Britain is no use at all. And as for the 'nuclear' option - "Do you want to stay in the European Union?" - the real problem is that no-one, on either side of the debate, has any very clear idea as to what full-scale withdrawal from all of Europe's embrace would really mean for Britain. It is a classic political timebomb. Festooned with a variety of legislative cables, some of which may well be redundant or low-level in their blast capacities, there will be one which could well explode the domestic economy sky-high. We just don't know which one. Cut them all, say the true eurosceptics, gung-ho and newly confident on the back of the eurozone difficulty, they're all bluffs. Ah, says the wise old bomb disposal expert, can we really be sure of that?

There is also the question of how much heft GB Inc will carry in the world outside the European Union, as a valiant little dependent island. One of Cameron's early decisions - his EPP withdrawal - is already coming back to haunt him, as Nick Robinson explains on his blog today. The leaders of eleven European nations are meeting in a private summit today. Not just France and Germany, even Romania and Poland will be there. Finland's going to be represented for crying out loud. But not Britain. Not David Cameron. Because he's not in the EPP club any more. And that was just a small decision. What happens when no-one wants the British prime minister at any summit because - well, because out of Europe and out on a limb he or she just doesn't matter any more.

David Cameron tried to sound decisive and eurosceptic and suitably Thatcherite in his Times article today, but the mischievous calling of 8 euro-unfriendly Tory MPs by the Speaker at PMQs this afternoon soon punctured that bubble. Of course the prime minister can't offer a referendum, much less the beginning of a process of withdrawal. Whatever the travails of the eurozone today, they remain unlikely to knock the political agenda of the European Union far off course. David Cameron, as a savvy leader, knows this perfectly well and has no intention of trying to hidebound any future international role he might want to pursue. His problem, as ever, is that in a wrathfully eurosceptic party, the only European policy the majority of his MPs, and certainly the majority of his grassroots members, want to see is one that would make UKIP utterly redundant. And hang what comes next.

Obama's Bad Luck

With attention focused on the extraordinary - and to European eyes ludicrous - line-up of would-be Republican presidential candidates, we forget just how precarious the position of one-time saviour of the world, Barack Obama, is. In an on the money piece for online magazine 'Canvas', SGS alumni Joe Austin reminds us of Obama's undoubted successes - both domestically and in foreign affairs - and then examines why his second term should be so uncertainly viewed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Case Against Striking - But For Supporting Public Reform

I am at work today. Some might challenge the concept that my attendance at school constitutes 'work' of any sort, but the broad point is that I am in school, when many others are not. They are striking. I have set out what I think are the pros and cons of the public services strike today on the TRG's Egremont blog.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Out of the Ashes

My review of David Lammy's interesting book, "Out of the Ashes", has appeared on the TRG's Egremont blog, and is reprinted below:

The last time there were riots in Tottenham, the local MP’s response was to crow that the “police got a bloody good hiding”. He may have been chiming in with the views of many of his constituents, but in the aftermath of riots that encompassed the brutal murder of a police constable it was never going to be a response that scored highly on the constructive engagement scale.

This time, the local MP, who was a boy growing up near the Broadwater Farm estate in 1985, raced back from his holiday as soon as he heard of tension in Tottenham following the shooting of Mark Duggan, spent hours and days in constructive engagement with the local community and the police, and has now published a book of his reflections on the state of urban Britain. But then, David Lammy has always been a very different character from his predecessor.

The former Higher Education minister hasn’t necessarily been one of New Labour’s more impressive spokesmen, but in his post-riots book “Out of the Ashes” he seems to have discovered a political voice that might just be the making of him. No-one can doubt Lammy’s credentials in reflecting on the lessons of Tottenham in 2011. Brought up in the area he now represents, a boy in a single parent (his mother) family from the age of 12, and a black student in a private white-dominated school for much of his secondary schooling, Lammy has personal credentials aplenty in casting his eye over the inner urban landscape that exploded so suddenly last summer. He also understands how government works, and has a close knowledge of the mechanics of the New Labour project under both Blair and Brown.

Yet his is no ‘angry voice’ and it is certainly not an apologia for New Labour. It is a very personal, dignified and thought provoking reflection that offers plenty of food for thought when it comes to devising policies to regenerate a Britain whose broken state Lammy firmly recognises. It is a virtue of his book that it does not represent some dully partisan approach but instead seeks to find practical ideas in community projects which have already been tried and tested. Lammy may write as a Labour MP, but there is much here that One Nation Tories could readily identify with.

Not that there isn’t anger in “Out of the Ashes”. Go to the book’s last chapter, “Banks and Bureaucrats”, and you’ll find an eloquent and condemning account of the powerlessness of the modest citizens left homeless by the riots, and treated mercilessly by the banks. As Lammy recounts the wretched behaviour of banks whose own irresponsibility caused them to be bailed out to the tune of billions of taxpayers’ pounds, you can almost hear the levels of indignation rising and you start to ask why every representative doesn’t regard the contemptuous treatment of his constituents with similar outrage.

Even here, Lammy soon morphs into the would-be fixer, examining how bureaucracy might just work in his constituents’ defence. This is his virtue. Unlike socialists of yore, the current MP for Tottenham sees people in small community terms, to be helped and engaged with by similarly community-based ideas but backed by the power of the state. The key is that the state comes second, not first.

Some of Lammy’s themes will chime with even the most vigorous social conservative. He has no truck with the liberal notion that fathers in families don’t matter. After all, he grew up without one for a significant period of his childhood, and hasn’t put on rose-tinted spectacles to view the experience subsequently. He wants strong male role models in deprived urban areas who are not vacuous celebrities or weapon toting gangsters. He believes every sinew should be strained to keep fathers, especially separated ones, involved in the child rearing process.

On criminality, he believes in punishment, but once punishment has been made he wants effective rehabilitation and offers an interesting – if rather uncosted – form of ‘social impact credits’ to pay for it. This is where the Lammy medicine veers away from the world view of many Tories – he knows his proposals will cost money, and is happy to advocate this. After all, he is not planning to cut the state. Not when it has so much to do.

Lammy’s Britain is broken because too few jobs are around to give people the necessary self-worth, and because poverty is surrounded by plenty, and because the voiceless see the influence wielded by the small community of the well connected. He takes examples that look like the Big Society in action on a small scale, but believes that they need proper state support to become full blown solutions.

He writes with authority and integrity because, whatever else you think of him, he knows his constituency intimately and has been there when a promising young man has been gunned down by a gang emptied of the last signs of human morality, or when a young offender has been failed by the would-be system of rehabilitation. When a politician writes with this level of sincerity, knowledge and commitment, he deserves a hearing. From all parties.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Republicans' Lunacy

David Frum was one of George W Bush's speechwriters, who memorably recounts hearing, on his first visit to the Bush White House, one senior staffer ask another why they hadn't been at that morning's prayer breakfast. Since leaving the employ of the former president, Frum has maintained a profile as a stimulating Republican political commentator and thinker, but his latest article, for 'New York' magazine, reveals the depths of his despair about the direction the GOP is now heading in. He is particularly scathing about the Tea Party movement:

The list of tea-party candidates reads like the early history of the U.S. space program, a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff. A political movement that never took governing seriously was exploited by a succession of political entrepreneurs uninterested in governing—but all too interested in merchandising. Much as viewers tune in to American Idol to laugh at the inept, borderline dysfunctional early auditions, these tea-party champions provide a ghoulish type of news entertainment each time they reveal that they know nothing about public affairs and have never attempted to learn. But Cain’s gaffe on Libya or Perry’s brain freeze on the Department of Energy are not only indicators of bad leadership. They are indicators of a crisis of followership. The tea party never demanded knowledge or concern for governance, and so of course it never got them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Oh No - Now It's Putin The Dentist


As if Russia wasn't in a bad enough state, it's next president (the election's just a formality) is now trying out in that most pain-inducing of professions - dentistry.

Having done his underwater archaeology stunt and found - surprise surprise - an immensely valuable vase that had lain undisturbed for thousands of years, the great master of all things is now clearly determined to intimidate those who may be thinking of voting for someone else by his wielding of the dentist's screwdriver. Journalists in Russia get shot or beaten into a crippled state if they question the Benevolent Leader, but could anything really be worse than settling into your dentist's chair for a standard check-up (just like travelling in a plane, as my niece once observed of the reclining chairs), only to have Putin leering back at you. Clearly, he's taken on board the lyrics from 'Little Shop of Horrors', which had Steve Martin's dentist sing that:

You have a talent for causing things pain
Son, be a dentist!
People will pay you to be inhumane
Your temperamant's wrong for the priesthood
And teaching would suit you still less!
Son, be a dentist!
You'll be a success!

Steve Martin's manic performance for that song could be used as a template for Putin's future campaigning perhaps - for those who've never seen it, go and have a look. The resemblance is uncanny.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Is Perry Out?

The Republican presidential race has entered another of its rollercoaster loops, as one-time pack leader Rick Perry - who, let's face it, has had a torrid time virtually since he entered the race as a bright new hopeful in August - appears to have finally damned his chances. At least, according to nearly every pundit on the other side of the Atlantic. Which could mean he has every chance of surviving. He failed to name one of the government agencies he's intending to cut during the most recent presidential debate, and then kept on failing - so that means he's toast, right? Well, possibly, but a previous Governor of Texas went on national television during his presidential contest and drew ridicule for not being able to name the then very prominent leader of Pakistan (it was General Musharraf, for the record) - or, indeed, any other major world leader. The Governor's name? George W Bush.

Anyway - here's that apparently fatal Perry performance (and yes, it is pretty bad).

Sunday, November 06, 2011

History Can Change Minds

I remember dipping into historian Kevin Sharpe's remarkable book "The Personal Rule of Charles I" when I was teaching the period as an A-level teacher. Sharpe has recently died, and I was interested to read this blog appreciation of his work. The author, himself a lawyer, concluded with this excellent comment:

In the hands of a great historian, the subject has the power to change minds...

What better?

Home Cinema Doesn't Exist

Anthony Lane is one of the finest film critics at work today, and his reviews for the New Yorker are always worth reading, not just for their fine, literary, perceptive commentary, suffused with the empathy of the genuine film-goer and a pervasive wit, but also for the light he manages to shed on one of the central elements of our contemporary culture. In this week's edition, he uses his review of the crime caper 'Tower Heist', and the pessimistic fable 'Melancholia', to pass judgement on the concept of home cinema. Whatever their merits as films (Lane is hilariously cool about 'Tower Heist', definitely taken with 'Melancholia'), they share a history as films that were planned to go straight to Video On Demand, alongside their cinematic release - or as near as. The distributors of 'Tower Heist' eventually relented, but 'Melancholia' was available 'on demand' long before it was released in the cinema.

It is this which provokes Lane's reflection that, call it what you will, video at home is NOT cinema! Yes, he understands why you might feel tempted to avoid the cinema, suggesting the average reaction of the film buff to the chance to watch at home might be thus:

“Can you blame us?” they will cry. “Who wants to pay for a sitter, drive twenty miles in the rain, and sit in a fug of vaporized popcorn butter next to people who are either auditioning for ‘Contagion 2’ or texting the Mahabharata to their second-best friends?”
But there is much more to consider, and Lane comes up with an almost elegiac defence of the collective cinema experience:

There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice—preferably an exhaustive menu of it—pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.

I love that. I love the idea of "strangers in communion", lifting the film-going experience to something almost spiritual, whatever the nature of the film we watch. It is part of our collective cultural lives, and at a time of increasing atomisation, it is definitely worth preserving.

BoJo and Barack Look Safe in 2012

There are two very different electoral personality contests taking place in 2012. On one hinges the fate of the world's most powerful military nation, and still its crucial economic engine. On the other hinges....the continued phasing out of bendy buses perhaps? They may be wholly different in scale but they are both going to offer fascinating and entertaining political drama, as is the nature of direct personal elections. And, intriguingly, though one is a philandering, gaffe-dropping right-winger, and the other a tightly controlled, committed liberal reformer, both the incumbents look - at present - as if they might be safe. That this is so, in a time of economic crisis which should absolutely not be favouring incumbents, is down in large part to the inadequacy of their challengers.

Let's take the smaller contest first. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has the second largest personal mandate in western Europe (only the president of France, elected by a whole nation, has a larger). His role, though, has few obvious powers and is defined more by his ability to influence a range of other bodies and their appointments, such as Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police Authority. Even so, the Mayor is in a position to provide leadership to one of the world's greatest cities, and there have been plenty of opportunities for Boris to do so, ranging from the need to bridge London's powerful and wealthy economic elite with its teeming citizens on average to poor incomes; through offering hope and direction during and after some of the worst riots to affect the city in years; to waving the flag for the city that will host next year's Olympics and ensuring its legacy. Boris has been, at best, erratic over all these challenges. He took his time to return when the riots broke out. The Olympic legacy is still befuddled and mixed. His has been an ambiguous voice on the issue of the City versus the People. Even when it snows, Boris' roadshow slips and slides along with the weather.

Against this, he should be an easy target. But his main opponent is a tired re-tread (Ken Livingstone), whilst the third party has - amazingly - also offered up the same candidate as last time (Brian Paddick). Dan Hodges outlines the reasons why Livingstone is such a poor candidate for a piece on Progress. He also notes the 'showbiz' nature of the mayoral contest, which is where Boris exhibits the necessary all important charisma against an opponent whose every pronouncement has been death-defyingly dull so far. As for Boris' ability to distance himself from the Tory Party high command, it is without peer. If he does win - the safe money option at the moment - it will give no comfort to the Tory Party.

The more significant contest is, of course, the US presidential election, and here attention has been focusing to date on the fractious Republican field. As I've noted before, barely a week goes by without one of the right-wing front-runners imploding, and it has most recently been the turn of outsider Herman Cain. Cain has been the subject of some vague sexual innuendos which have stalled his appeals, but every scandal and hitch afflicting the Republicans' right-wing leaders benefits the man who desperately wants the nomination, Mitt Romney. Many observers believe that, in turn, a Romney candidacy pretty well hands the election back to Barack Obama.

Incumbent Obama, too, presides over a recession with no obvious upturn in sight, and has imposed a hugely controversial - from both left and right - health care plan on a country that hates state action. The optimism that greeted his election in 2008 has dissipated and many of his liberal allies feel he has made too little progress to merit a second term. All of this should be manna to the Republicans, yet as Tim Stanley points out in the Telegraph, the Republicans have leaked scandal about each other and appear as a thoroughly disunified, macabre bunch of political misfits (ok, Stanley doesn't use those terms to be fair; he's a lot more polite). Stanley's article, from an academic who wants to see Obama out of the White House, is also interesting in its focus on the power of a relentless media in raking over candidate private lives, which should provoke a serious debate about how we really want our politics reported and pursued. For the moment, however, such shenanigans offer hope to a beleaguered White House incumbent. It's one thing that offers a link between two otherwise very different personal electoral contests.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Two Clerics, No Bankers - Well Done the Protestors!

Whether or not two clerics from St. Paul's Cathedral really needed to resign is an open question, but few can doubt that they have done so with the most honourable of motives. One of them - Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser - was committed on principle to opposing any use of violence, and had aligned himself with the protestors. A perfectly consistent Christian attitude. Today's resignee, Dean Graham Knowles, is less clear on his reasoning but there is no doubt that he has felt overwhelmed at having to hold the balance between maintaining St. Paul's as an open place of worship, and wanting to support the aims of the protestors. These well meaning Anglican gentlemen have shown that the snake-pit of political action is probably not the best arena for the modern clergyman.

But what about the protestors? They cut a wretchedly useless, disparate, ill-begotten group of would-be radicals. Whatever the merits of their case - and who wouldn't argue that the arch satans of the banking world should be brought to book - they have projected such an inarticulate stance that they deserve the opprobrium increasingly being heaped upon them. Most damning of all for these part time protestors must be the fact that a group aiming its ire at the financial world have settled all to happily for the soft target of St Paul's Cathedral. While the London Stock Exchange remains blissfully free of any interference from the brave souls of, er, "Occupy the London Stock Exchange", so too do the upper echelons of all the UK's banks. The protestors have secured the scalps of two well-meaning, broadly supportive clergymen. They have failed in their main objective, and seem perfectly happy in their status as radical eunuchs. Such personifications of palpable uselessness should pack up and leave in sheer shame, regardless of the aesthetic and hygienic reasons for getting rid of them.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

2012

We have a year of this - great for genuine aficionados of the drama of American politics, potentially wearing for the less committed. Nevertheless, the US Presidential election is well under way, as the Republican candidates seek to position themselves for the right to challenge Barack Obama. The Republican field has been subject to more shifts than the San Andreas fault as each would-be saviour of the right flies high then falls to earth, to be replaced by the next political meteorite.

Michelle Bachman was once the Tea Party darling who would carry all before her. A couple of poor debate showings later, she was supplanted by the glamorous Democrat convert who governs Texas, Rick Perry. Now he too is struggling to re-gain momentum as pizza millionaire Herman Cain seizes the day, and the light. Through all of this the plodding, well funded campaign of Mitt Romney continues to keep its head above water, and while Sarah Palin may have decided not to enter the race, there remains a host of other Republican candidates still waiting their moment. Even Newt Gingrich is keeping up his poll numbers in Iowa, the first state to hold a caucus at the end of the year.

Cain is an extraordinary candidate. A rare black Republican (no mixed race parentage here either) and an anti-politician, he has sent his campaign adsa viral on the internet. the most controversial is the one below, where campaign manager Mark Block takes a lazy draft of his cigarette just as the picture morphs into a gradually grinning Cain, top the upbeat strains of Krista Branch's evangelical, Tea Party supporting song "I Am America".

With over a year to go, we can rest assured that the drama of American presidential politics will be far more extraordinary, gripping, and even weird, than anything thrown up by X-Factor.

I remain an enthusiastic Obama-ite. Nonetheless, it is the Republicans who are currently trying to define the message, as TRG's Nik Darlington acknowledges in this post on the Egremont blog.

Now - here's that Cain ad:



Monday, October 17, 2011

The Mis-Appointment of Philip Hammond

Two interesting views on the appointment of Philip Hammond to succeed resigned Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

The Guardian blog notes that Chancellor George Osborne has used the reshuffle surrounding Hammond's move very effectively to his own advantage, and suggests it's a further play in an undecalred leadership campaign against Boris Johnson.

The Tory Reform Group's Egremont blog, meanwhile, slams the appointment of a man professedly uninterested in defence matters as a grave error.

China's Opaque Views

I'm not sure how successful the Occupy Wall Street protests have really been. They've raised the profile - again - of the many opponents of corporate greed (well - we all oppose that don't we? It's our attitude to corporate existence that's more ambiguous) without achieving anything like the world-shattering results of their protestor mentors of the Arab Spring movement. But for all their relative modesty, the protests have managed to draw the attention of the world's second most significant economic power, China. All eyes increasingly focus on China, waiting for the merest hint or nuance of where they stand on - well, anything. But the Chinese are nothing if not opaque, and the comments of one of their foreign ministry spokesmen are a classic of the genre.

"We feel that there are issues here that are worth pondering", said Liu Weimin in one of his more illuminating comments, going on to add that "We have also noticed that in the media there has been a lot of commentary, discussion and reflection. But we think that all of these reflections should be conducive to maintaining the sound and steady development of the world economy."

Little wonder that sino-spotting remains a seriously demanding interpretive occupation.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Daily Mail's Thoughtful Analysis

The Daily Mail have put their finest hack onto the Liam Fox case. Peter McKay, the journalist regularly lampooned by Private Eye, has given us his the benefit of his profound insight, and it's good to see that he's maintained the Mail's reputation for rigorous, thorough, innuendo-free analysis as he writes:

There is a final, delicate reason why Cameron and Co might have shied away from dealing with Fox’s private and public association with Werritty.
Although Fox has denied rumours that he is gay, his friendship with Werritty seems to go beyond what many might consider is normal in male friendships. But the more-inclusive-than-thou Cameron would instinctively steer clear of querying it.


Even better, McKay then has a go at Labour's Jim Murphy for 'smear and slander':

Labour’s shadow defence spokesman, Jim Murphy, justifying his own probe, says: ‘No one has any interest in smear or slander, only in ensuring the office of the Defence Secretary is respected and that Government business is conducted honestly and openly.’
Permit yourself a hollow laugh over Fr Jim’s self-serving sermon.

The Daily Mail - you couldn't make it up (er...).

Unconnected in a Connected World

One thing this great inter-connected world of ours does is lend itself to vast doses of paranoia. It is more than conceivable that an absence of texts, emails and BBM's simply means no-one actually wants to contact me. Not even the direct mail companies, or the relentless communications from people and places I thought I'd successfully 'unsubscribed' from ages ago. But we now judge our self-worth by the number of times we're wanted in the connected world. Our facebook friends, and the number of followers on twitter - is it really possible to over-rate the monumental importance of these frivolous things?

Well, after a day of communications silence, I did sneak a look onto twitter (via an alternative, working source naturally - an old fashioned computer) and discovered that thousands of users around the world have been suffering the same high levels of inconvenience, unable to access the latest junk mail, or read the most recent banal meanderings of their BBM friends. Yes, the Blackberry server in Slough (?!!) has been down for much of the day. And don't mock now, but the Slough server is responsible for not just the UK, but the Middle East and Africa as well. I hadn't realised how much the freedom fighters of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya really owe to Slough. But at least I could breathe an artificial sigh of relief as I realised that no communications hadn't quite spelt social death. Writing about it on the other hand......

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Lilliputian Politicians Dwarfed by Techno Geeks

Andrew Rawnlsey bemoans the conference season as a gathering of lilliputians, in his Observer column today. While he reserved his greatest ire for a George Osborne speech so low-key it would drive insomniacs to sleep, he was little kinder about the leaders, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. To say nothing of the gathering of other, distinctly minor, ministers.

He may have a point. The three weeks of conference gatherings, which should be showcasing all that is most exciting, radical and controversial about the parties and their policies - which should indeed be shaking up the British polity after its summer, ready for a reinvigorated political term - has been so underwhelming that most of us have been able to sleepwalk through it, unsullied by the thoughts of our elected representatives and their adoring supporters. The barely memorable bits are memorable for the wrong reasons - Sarah Teather's truly lamentable attempt at stage humour, for example, or Ed Miliband's arguably self-evident declaration that he was not Tony Blair. Whatever came out of the conferences has, in any case, been quickly over-shadowed by a good old fashioned political corruption saga.

It is notable that the individual who has reminded us of how genuinely great people can change our lives, has been not a politician but a techno-geek. The obituaries of the giant of Apple, Steve Jobs, have dominated news and magazine covers, and generated lengthy articles about the changes he has wrought. Most politicians can only dream of having even a tenth of the impact that Steve Jobs has had on most of our lives. Alongside the late creator of all things 'i', Amazon's Jeff Bezo has also been making headlines as he presages the launch of the Kindle Fire. The Sunday times today (in a pay to view article) heralds him as the inheritor of Jobs' crown, but in reality he has been making changes to our lives for years already.

The techno-geeks clearly dwarf the politicians. But in a world of globalised relationships and unpredictable enmities, to say nothing of economic volatility, it would be nice to think that one or two politicos could try and hit the mark just slightly above the merely mediocre.

Clegg-Clarke Axis?

A fascinating line in the Independent on Sunday's taking apart of David Cameron. Commenting on the "cat-flap" nonsense, which saw Clarke robustly attack Home Secretary Theresa May, to the fury of many on the right of his party, the IoS journos comment -

Nick Clegg, say cabinet sources, would not let Mr Clarke, a hero of the Tory left, be sacked.

It adds a new dimension to coalition politics to see a big Tory beast of the left surviving as a result of Lib Dem pressure. But then, Clegg did describe Clarke as the fifth Lib Dem member of the Cabinet in his conference speech.

Defending the Defence Secretary

Liam Fox's friends are beginning to rally round, none more so than the determinedly right-wing Conservative Home website part owned by Lord Ashcroft. Conservative Home remains broadly suspicious of the modernising agenda of the Cameroons, and have pre-empted his possible desire to remove Dr. Fox - a perennial political opponent - with a detailed defence of the accusations swirling around the beleaguered Defence Secretary. The piece is un-named, the author being merely identified by the handle "The Lurcher", but it contains the key points of any useful Case for the Defence.

Meanwhile, Conservative Home also links us to an article from the Independent on Sunday pointing out "the flaws of David Cameron" (it is, actually, a very interesting piece). You can almost hear hands rubbing with glee over at CH headquarters.

The Independent on Sunday's Odd Reference

The Independent on Sunday carries an account of the friendship between Liam Fox and Adam Werrity, as part of its coverage of the corruption allegations being levelled against them. Tucked away towards the end of the story, 5 paragraphs from the bottom, comes this intriguing paragraph:

During the general election campaign last year, Fox's home was burgled. His laptop, mobile phone and car were taken, although no sensitive documents were stolen and there was no sign of forced entry.

Intriguing not because it is new information - the incident was well reported at the time - but because it bears no possible relation to the rest of the article. Between two paragraphs continuing the story of the Fox-Werrity relationship comes this wholly disconnected paragraph. It doesn't fit, doesn't continue the story, and sits very oddly indeed. Now why, I wonder, would the IoS see it as important to remind us all of this incident?

The Case For the Low Profile MP

So in Liam Fox, another high flying minister seems to be scorched by the sun as tales of abuse of power abound. Makes you yearn for the more forgettable, conscientious, hard working MP/minister who just gets on with his job in an attitude of probity. Take heart then from this article by former SGS big shot and current Sheffield luminary Joe Austin, who profiles Liberal Democrat MP and health minister Paul Burstow, citing him as just such an example.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Fox's Failings

The other week Liam Fox celebrated his 50th. birthday, and entertained the icon of the right, Margaret Thatcher, as his star guest. As if it needed further endorsement, Lady Thatcher's presence - when she has been largely hidden from public view as a result of illness - will have unerlined Fox's position as the pre-eminent spokesman of the right. It all looks so much more fragile now.

Dr. Fox is under investigation for his relationship with Adam Werrity. That they are close friends is not in doubt. That Mr. Werrity has been using business cards calling himself an "official adviser" to the Defence Secretary when he is nothing of the sort is also not in doubt. Mr. Werrity was the sole employee of Atlantic Bridge, a neo-con organisation set up by Dr. Fox to promote the Atlantic alliance with American Republicans of similar outlook. Atlantic Bridge has just been wound up, following a Charity Commission report that stated it had not achieved any of its 'charitable' aims.

The FT today also reports on Mr. Werrity's presence at sensitive meetings regarding Libya. David Cameron has requested that the report being conducted into the propriety of Dr. Fox's relations with Mr. Werrity be on his desk by Monday morning. Clearly Mr. Cameron is in firefighting mode.

The current outlook looks grim for Dr. Fox. If the report clears him of any wrongdoing he will, of course, survive, albeit maimed by the Werrity affair. He and Mr. Cameron have no history of good relations. Both challengers for the Tory leadership in 2005 Mr. Cameron has been suspicious of some of the leaks and reports that have come out of the Ministry of Defence on Dr. Fox's watch.

As he awaits Mr. Cameron's reaction to the civil service report, Dr. Fox may just be wishing he had invested a little more time in cultivating a friendship with the Prime Minister, rather than setting himself up as a standard bearer for his opponents.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Luckless Liberals

It might have been better when no-one paid attention to their conferences after all. Apart from David Steel's memorable peroration in 1981 to "Go back to your constituencies....and prepare for government", followed by many years still out of government, few people commented on the deathless stage speeches of Lib Dem politicians. Now, in the full glare of publicity, they're coming under merciless scrutiny. Sarah Teather's humour-defying jokes have already been mentioned, and remain the stuff of Philip Cowley's re-tweeting. The largely anonymous Andrew Stunnell apparently tried a joke at the Guardian's expense which, er, failed. But the big-name fall guy today was Chris Huhne.

Having weathered the tawdry revelations of his driving and related offences, he is now climbing back into the mainstream. His speech today was meant to be clarion call against the evil Tories (a repetitively wearying theme at this conference) but came across somewhat passionlessly. What it did do, however, was provide Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman, in one of his less well-meaning moods, with the ammunition to provide a masterclass in interview harassment. Huhne had carelessly announced, in the anonymous, generalised way of rhetorical flourishes, that "we need no Tea Party tendency in Britain". Well, quite. But cue a series of Paxman questions along the lines of "Who are the Tea Party-ers?", "Name them", "Are they just Bill Cash and some friends?" I was half expecting the indefatigable Paxman to demand the names and addresses of everyone Huhne thought might be a secret Tea Party activist.

Huhne wasn't the only one whose image fared none too well. Party president Tim Farron has been on a bid for the leadership for some time. You can tell this by the way he keeps denying it. But is it just possible that his ever more vigorous denials are also the result of genuine pressure from Lib Dem colleagues to stop putting himself about? The Guardian blog today charted Farron's rapid move from saying that he wouldn't rule out replacing Clegg as leader this morning, to saying he would nail Clegg's feet to the floor to keep him as leader this afternoon. With that level of consistency Farron clearly has a bright future ahead of him (the future is still orange, right?).






Monday, September 19, 2011

The Sarah Teather Jokes Routine

I personally think it was a mistake to allow politicians to wander around the stage during their conference speeches. Keep them behind the lectern and remind them that they are indeed just politicians delivering little listened to speeches of occasional political consequence. Then at least we might avoid the crushing embarrassment of Sarah Teather's jokes routine. To be fair, having seen one joke fail utterly - even the notorious tumbleweed failed to put in an appearance - she carried womanfully on through another two cataclysmically dire two-liners. You really do have to admire the hide of someone who can stand on stage and look as if everything's alright after that.

Just so you can make your own judgement on the latest comedy sensation to hit Birmingham, it's here:


NB - Politics professor Philip Cowley has been so taken with the Teather style of comedy that he's taken to putting a few similar jokes out on twitter himself - such as this one, oh and this one, to say nothing of re-tweeting this one. Fun for all the family.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Lib Dem Dilemma - Opposition or Government?

There was a time when we could safely ignore the Lib Dem conference and not really return to the world of active politics until Labour gathered the brothers and sisters by the sea. There can be no greater sign of the radical change wrought by the 2010 election than the fact that, actually, we have to listen to the Lib Dems. And that they have armed police at their conference too.

They've had a torrid year electorally and reputationally, which makes their Birmingham gathering all the more impressive for being actually quite buoyant by all accounts. Nick Clegg's made one speech, which also had a moderately good joke (the one about Ken Clarke being the sixth Lib Dem cabinet member - probably sounds better when you're at a Lib Dem conference than on the page). He wasn't mauled, and he was able to claim that Lib Dems were 'punching above their weight'. He gets to make another would-be show-stopper on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Lib Dem conference go-ers, for the second time, get to hear speakers who have titles like "Minister for....". Since at least part of the role of political activism is about seeking power, it must all be pretty intoxicating still.

I like the Coalition. I like the fact that it gives a bit more heft to the probably centrist, One Nation instincts of the prime minister and some of his inner circle. I also understand the Lib Dem need to mark out a rather different stall to that of their coalition partners. They were hardly going to go into this conference espousing the need to remain loyal allies of a party that many of their members cordially loathe. They need distance. A bit of orange coloured water. There will, after all, be no shortage of Tories in a couple of weeks time wanting to slam the lily-livered Liberals for slowing down the necessary train of radical right reform.

It shouldn't, therefore, bother the Tories that the Lib Dems are seeking to move antagonistically out of their shadow (and to be fair, more right-wing Tories will be delighted that their enemy shows itself more clearly). The coalition will still prevail, if not in the soupy, friendly spirit that begat it. But the issue for the Lib Dems to consider over the next fifth of their great experiment in government is how far they speak like members of government, and how far they use they use the rhetoric of opposition. Are they, in effect, in Danny Alexander's, or Tim Farron's image? Their eventual answer will clearly determine their election success in 2015.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lilliputians Question Murdoch

My initial thoughts on the much anticipated appearance of the Murdochs before the Commons Culture Committee are on the TRG's Egremont blog.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sun Hacking Continues

In amongst the escalating scalps and the tragedy of a dead reporter, the hacking of News International has taken a new turn with the Sun's own website being hacked this evening, thanks to the mysterious twitterfeed of The Lulz Boat. Their original replacement site was this story (courtesy of our old friends at Media Watch) about Murdoch's death, which proved so popular that it crashed! Now they've just redirected to their twitter feed, with such ditties as: We have joy, we have fun, we have messed up Murdoch's Sun.

Sometimes hacking can be really worthwhile!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Last News of the World

I did wonder whether to buy a copy of the last News of the World. It would also have been the first copy I ever bought too, and in readiness I glanced across its online pages this morning, to see what I would be getting in my last, closing down souvenir issue. The headline, "Thankyou and Goodbye" is a fair enough one, running across a montage of previous front pages. I could then have read about ""Harry's Flo looking good in drag", seen a celebration of "page three cheers - the very breast pics", read about "Michelle's Huge Parts", read an article about Coronation Street's sliding ratings or examined "Kelly's slinky legs" at my pleasure. It wasn't difficult to keep my cash in my pocket and forego the dubious pleasure of a last News of the World.

I did check out one further part of the website - the 47 page collection of their best front pages, and as I was reading these, I realised how much better our Sundays will be without this tawdry, gossip mongering, sleazy newspaper. It is sad, certainly, that 200 people have suddenly lost their jobs. But Sunday after Sunday the News of the World has served us up a diet that appeals to the very lowest common denominator of taste, purveying a content that matches in tawdriness the methods it has - apparently - often used to obtain it.

There may well be a new, equally bad newspaper to take the News of the World's place and titillate its 7.5 million readers, but for the next few weeks at least Sunday mornings in Britain are very slightly more uplifting without it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Farewell to the Screws

Great piece by Steven Baxter - ex of SGS - on the New Statesman blog about the News of the World's demise. Baxter points out that the 'Screws' owes its destruction to a culture that it has itself helped to create and maintain - the "do something now even if we don't know all the facts" culture. It's a pretty devastating indictment of the levels to which the tabloid journalism espoused by the 'Screws' has fallen:

We don't know what the outcome will be of various investigations, inquiries and hearings, including the one overseen by Brooks herself at News International. But people couldn't wait for all that to unfold: they demanded something be done now. If they jumped the gun and jumped to conclusions based on limited evidence, they were only acting the way they had been taught to by the News of the World itself.

He goes on to elaborate:

"We will be passing our dossier to the police." Those words appeared at the end of News of the World investigations down the years, implying that readers should infer guilt on the part of whichever ne'er-do-well was being investigated that week, their wrongdoings exposed thanks to secret recording or other "dark arts". It created a culture in which an allegation became proof, a culture in which readers were invited to leap to conclusions. If people have done so this week, the News of the World can hardly condemn such behaviour.

It may be the methods rather than the substance of the News of the World's type of journalism that has caused its downfall, but as Baxter's article shows only too clearly, it is not always possible to separate the two. The News of the World may not have quite destroyed itself, but its parent, News International, is beginning like Saturn to consume its own children, and who knows where that might end.

News of the World Closure

The stunning announcement that the News of the World will close after this Sunday's edition is a far more nuclear announcement than was being anticipated from News International. It is extraordinary, and many will assume that it is only right that a paper now so sullied should fold. Perhaps it even sends a salutary message. The News of the World was Britain's best selling daily, and it has not proved immune from the ramifications of its wrong-doing. It is, it seems, a stunning victory for the forces of good.

And yet. The extraordinary announcement manages to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. After all, no-one is claiming that it is the paper's current leadership and reporters who have been responsible for the scandals currently engulfing it. The current investigations relate to an ethos and practice that dates back to at least 2002, and the person who was responsible for setting that paper's standards, as the editor, was Rebekah Brooks, now the person presiding over News International itself. There will not be wanting people to ask why the 'clean' current editor of the News of the World should be sacrificed when the person who was actually editor at the time remains in post.

Some of us may welcome the closure of a tabloid which has long been an embarrassment to British journalism. But the dramatic closure of the newspaper still doesn't cleanse the owning organisation of all the problems surrounding it, and Ms. Brooks' continuing leadership position will hardly reassure those who want to see proper rectification take place. It beggars belief that News International can now appear unsullied when the woman who has presided over its worst excesses - whether knowledgeably or not - remains in position. Closure of a newspaper has not provided closure of the issue.

A Tale of Our Times

Hubris, it seems, comes to everyone in time, even apparently invulnerable and all conquering media magnates. Or so it must seem to anyone observing the News International saga at the moment. For years Rupert Murdoch has bestrode the British political scene. Unencumbered by the menial requirements of mere voters such as British citizenship or the need to pay taxes he has wielded more power and influence over prime ministers and putative prime ministers than any British citizen. His editors have been the satraps of his power, the unelected viziers demanding their preferred politics from timid, beleaguered politicians.

How things have changed. Like many revolutions, this one has been boiling under the surface for years but has suddenly, and largely without warning, burst onto the scene. In so doing, it is not only changing the way in which things are being done, but shedding an illuminating light on the darker corners of the British polity.

On changes, Steve Richards in a trenchant piece for the Independent today, remarks upon the extraordinary scenes of once fearful MPs lining up to attack the Murdoch empire, and his key henchmen and women, in the Commons. Richards' piece is a fine and glorious read, suitably over the top and biting towards the malign influence of News International over the years. And, of course, not one that would have been written any time before, say, the day before yesterday!

Few institutions emerge with much credit from this sorry affair. The bulk of the newspaper establishment failed to produce any sort of investigation of its own - only the Guardian stands as a beacon of virtue in this regard, and we can only guess at the pressure it had to withstand both within and without the incestuous media establishment. The Press Complaints Commission remains a vapid eunuch incapable of action against its own. The political classes, repeatedly confronted with the excesses of tabloid reporting, cravenly failed to take any stand against them. Only now, as the giant falls, are they starting to run towards it kicking and punching. The role of the Metropolitan Police is particularly murky, itself the subject of a potential investigation. Quick to leap into action against politicians, they have proved remarkably more sluggish in pursuing News International. And our leading politicians, the men who would be premier, have been most shabby of all. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, the pursuit of the Australian magnate's favour has been a ludicrous sideshow of lilliputian proportions. Richards describes Blair's flight to join Murdoch's executives at short notice; Cameron employed Andy Coulson and wines and dines Rebekah Brooks; even Ed Miliband saw fit to attend Murdoch's summer bash this year, and employs former Murdoch man Tom Baldwin as his press secretary.

The press wields huge power even now on the political discourse of this nation, and consequently on the decisions taken by our political leaders. It also, more nefariously, has the ability - which it exercises - to destroy the reputations of individuals big and small. Such are the libel laws of the land that it rarely needs to apologise for its often grievous errors. It can ruin people at the stroke of a pen and never need to pick it up again for a further apologetic motion. And apparently, up to now, it has employed illegal means to intrude on private individuals' space and emotions with impunity. It has demanded the hide of erring politicians, but the erring leaders of News International now simply slink into the dark corners of their unfathomable citadels.

Will there actually be justice? Will Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson and the rest of the merry band finally face the come-uppance they so readily demand of others? The limp and belated response of David Cameron and others hardly suggests so, although the sound and fury of other MPs in the Commons yesterday may indicate the backlash to come. But justice, in this instance, will be more than an inquiry or two into News International. It demands a wholesale review of the way in which our press conducts itself, and no more tip-toeing around the need for proper oversight here as elsewhere.

One of David Cameron's predecessors, Stanley Baldwin, under pressure from Lord Beaverbrook - the Murdoch of his day - commented that the press "had power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages". He highlighted journalism at its lowest point. What it could, and should be, is summed up in a fine sentiment by Peter Oborne in today's "Spectator":

Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for truth and decency.

If this spat means journalism returns to fighting for truth and decency, rather than the tawdry intrusion into private lives, then we may have recovered something good from this after all.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Ministers Who Don't Resign

Prompted by a desperate tweet for examples of ministers who should have resigned on the basis of Individual Ministerial Responsibility but didn't, here are a few thoughts.

It really is increasingly rare for ministers to be brought to book over specific issues connected with their job. Plenty of ministers might resign due to non-job related problems: sex scandals, for example, which took David Mellor in John Major's government; or abuse of office - see David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson, who both resigned twice for different reasons - well worth googling them; or health reasons (Mo Mowlam in 2000). Ministers do also resign over differences with policy (i.e. they cannot maintain Collective Responsibility) - Robin Cook resigning as Leader of the Commons over Iraq is a good case, or James Purnell resigning as Work and Pensions Secretary because he believed Gordon Brown should stand down as Prime Minister. However, the responsibility of modern ministers is so wide that it is becoming unrealistic to bring them to book for single errors. Examples of where this has been tried are:

- Michael Howard in 1997. As Home Secretary, he was responsible for prisons policy, and faced criticism over a spate of prison escapes. Howard blamed the Prisons Service, and sacked its head Derek Lewis. Howard sought to distinguish between his 'policy' responsibility (which he claimed was intact) and the 'administrative' responsibility (which had failed and was the Prison Service Director's purview). This issue was famously the cause of an infamous television interview with Jeremy Paxman, in which Paxman asked Howard the same question 14 times.

- Stephen Byers came under pressure to resign as Transport Secretary following his decision to force Railtrack into administration, and over increasingly bad publicity about the way he was running transport policy, including allegations that he lied to parliament about such issues as rail safety. Eventually, Mr. Byers did in fact resign in May 2002, but it had looked as if he was trying to hang onto his job despite the problems over his leadership of the transport department.

- Defence Minister Quentin Davies faced calls to resign after his claims that the SAS were happy with their equipment were brought under scrutiny as the result of contrary evidence given to a parliamentary committee (2008).

- Education Secretary Ruth Kelly refused to resign after her department was said to have endorsed the application of a sex offender to stay teaching in schools (2005).

Two recent examples of ministers under pressure over policy issues don't quite fit the bill.

Caroline Spelman's handling of the Forestry Commission privatisation was strongly criticised, but she changed her policy, under pressure from No. 10. Andrew Lansley remains under pressure over his NHS reform proposals, but these are 'consultations' which again may be changed. Both of these examples are related in any case to policies which are widely disliked, rather than administrative incompetence, which is what the doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility is meant to cover.

The best recent example - and it's not that recent - of the doctrine in practise remains Lord Carrington, resigning as Foreign Secretary in 1982 (along with his whole ministerial team) because of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, for which he took responsibility.

Estelle Morris resigned as Education Secretary in 2002 after a series of criticisms over the way she was handling the brief, admitting that she felt she was not up to the job. A rare burst of honesty that was greeted with warm applause by civil servants in her department.

All of the above examples can be googled for details.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Prime Minister's Prerogative Powers - AS Students

There is an old article by Nick Cohen in the New Statesman which sought to explain why Tony Blair, as Prime minister, was able to behave virtually like a monarch unchecked. Cohen examined Blair's governing style, including his notoriously offhand attitude to the Cabinet, and looked at how the prerogative powers of the monarch contributed to the Prime Minister's dictatorial authority. Although the article, from 2002, clearly relates to the Blairite premiership, it is still a useful reference for AS students. The Blair precedent remains relevant in exams, and the issue of monarchical prerogative powers wielded by the PM has hardly gone away.

Cohen's article is here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

AS Unit 2 Help

Essay Tips, with specific reference to the topic of prime ministerial power (includes sample essay) can be found on the tutor2u website here. This piece is by Mike McCartney, author of the tutor2u revision guide.

Also, recent mark schemes and examiners' reports are collectively here, or click on the individual links below - they are well worth reading thoroughly:




AS Unit 2 Links

With a half term looming before the second of the AS level politics exams, there is some space to read a few extra articles in order to gain that all important specific information which enhances exam answers so much. I have listed some suggestions below:

1. The Institute for Government blog is worth keeping an eye on anyway, but specifically have a look at this article by former Times commentator Peter Riddell about the effectiveness of ministers, and how long they should really be in place. Particularly cogent given that David Cameron has signalled his intention to try and keep ministers in their positions for a longer than normal period of time. Hence his reluctance to sack erring ministers like Caroline Spelman or even Ken Clarke. The downside of any plan to retain stability in ministerial office, of course, is that it generates frustration in the MP ranks below, all of whom want to experience office for themselves.

2. If you have a bit of time, you could read through the Institute for Government's "One Year On" report, a review of the Coalition Government after one year, with the emphasis on how well it has governed. There will be lots of useful examples to use in any exam, although I should also emphasise that it should not negate the need to use a wider range of examples from previous governments too, such as are found in the tutor2u revision guide. Nevertheless, the report is an illuminating one, to be read for profit. There is a brief summary on the linked page as well.

3. For those intending to cover the judiciary, there is an excellent recent article on the work of the Supreme Court in Prospect Magazine.

4. An assessment of David Cameron's premiership from a right-wing point of view by former Tory MP Paul Goodman is here, while an analysis of the Prime Minister's tendency to U-turn is here. Both very good in preparing for PM questions in the Executive topic (but do remember that such questions can equally focus on the role of the Cabinet).

These articles are all about extending your ability to understand and make arguments about how government works in this country, and provide you with some excellent contemporary material to put alongside other recent developments.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

When Is An Apology Not An Apology

When it's in the Daily Mail apparently. I'm very late to this story about the Daily Mail from the indispensable Tabloid Watch blog, but it's an instructive case nonetheless. Having accused a senior medical consultant of saying that babies born at 23 weeks should be left to die, the Daily Mail then did some research and found out they'd got it wrong (always a danger when the research bit follows the writing bit). So they apologised. Somewhere deep in the US section of the paper, just where you'd an expect an apology on a health related story to be!

Tabloid Watch reports that the apology was eventually moved, and thank loads of people for tweeting the error, which may have had an impact on the Mail decision.

But if you think the Mail's bad, have a look down the TW stories for some great Express misnomers. I'm not sure anyone who reads the Express for serious news reasons actually has much of a brain to speak of, and they certainly shouldn't qualify for the vote, but they will definitely have been taken in by the front page headline that the EU are to ban shopping bags. Turns out that by 'ban' what they meant to say was 'hold a consultative exercise with no determined conclusion yet'. I guess that simply doesn't read as well in the headline.

Tabloid Watch, and the equally excellent Media Blog, should be must-reads every morning, before we dare embark on the evidence-less rumour-mongering that masqurades as news in our daily papers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sharing the Heartbreak

Good to see that the former SGS luminary who runs the Media Blog is as sympathetic as ever -

yfrog Photo : http://yfrog.com/h0oftbkj Shared by The_MediaBlog

The Not So Special Relationship

Cameron and Obama serving burgers: on Twitpic
[photo tweeted by the Spectator's Pete Hoskin]

It’s all very friendly. David and Barack have been partnering each other in a table tennis game at a south London school; they’ve been serving up burgers in the No.10 garden; they’ve both been reveling in the pomp of a Buckingham Palace banquet; and they penned a joint article for the ‘Times’ suggesting that their two countries don’t just enjoy a ‘Special’ relationship but an ‘Essential’ one.

Oh dear. Another prime minister bites the dust as he succumbs to the seductive charms of the power and glory of the American presidency. It doesn’t really matter who the president is – although it can’t hinder matters that it is currently the coolest man on the planet, and a man more determined to get his guy than the Terminator. At some point in their premiership career the men, and one woman, at No. 10 quickly fall victim to the belief that Britain enjoys a Special Relationship with the United States. That there is precious little evidence to suggest that the Americans believe the same is clearly neither here nor there. A quick canter through the history of the Special Relationship That Never Was might help a little.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Well, Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.

Eisenhower
One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. The Russians weren’t a threat you see.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.

And now it’s the turn of David Cameron. He admittedly started out with a semblance of independence. He is withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan far more quickly than the Americans would like, and he was clearly speaking with a different voice when he led the calls for action over Libya. If the American President’s state visit is merely an occasion for a good bit of mutual publicity, and some shared thoughts in a common language, then David Cameron may have escaped lightly. If he really starts to believe in a Special Relationship, though, he is as doomed as all of his predecessors. Because, not unsurprisingly, the only Special Relationship America has is with herself.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Republican Field Narrows Again

The race amongst putative Republican candidates for the US presidency seems to be one to announce that you're not running, rather than entering what is at the moment a pretty narrow field. And it just got narrower, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels cited family concerns for not joining the race in 2012.

An American friend of mine, a strong Obama supporter now residing in the UK, was almost in despair as she considered the one Republican who might be able to unseat the current occupant of the White House. It was, she said, Mitch Daniels, a man who combined rare qualities of empathy and commonsense with a core Republican appeal given his past history as speechwriter to Reagan and Budget Director to Bush I. I seem to remember a speaker - a former Congressman - at a conference at the British Museum last September making a similar point - if the Republicans wanted a winner, they should look to the Governor of Indiana.

Well, Daniels has pulled that rug from under the Republicans - perhaps reluctantly - and the current Republican field remains a distinctly uninspiring one, comprising Gingrich, Pawlenty and Romney. Now I guess we're just waiting to hear from Michelle Bachmann to really liven things up. I think we can guess what the team in the White House are hoping for.

There is, incidentally, another angle to the Daniels decision that is worth examination. He has said he cannot run because of his family. We may guess that they are firmly against. And who could blame them, for in the intensely observed goldfish bowl of American politics, why would any sane individual, concerned for their stability and, yes, their privacy, want to subject themselves and their families to the relentless, hysterical and often hypocritical scrutiny of the presidential process. If they're not careful, the Americans may one day find that the only people willing to run for the presidency are the same sort of people who apply to be contestants on reality television. So perhaps Sarah Palin may be in with a chance one day after all.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

New AS Links

The Revision Presentation for Unit 1 and a copy of the Examiners' Report for the January 2011 paper which relates to the questions in the presentation, are here - check the left-hand column of AS material, and you should see they are the first two links.

From Today's AS Revision - Pressure Groups, Cameron U-Turns and Direct Democracy

Pressure Groups:

This article from the Guardian details a rally organised by the pressure group Save Lakeland Forests as part of the ultimately successful campaign to get the government to overturn its decision to sell off Forestry Commission land.

Cameron U-Turns:

I thought there had been 9 U-turns already from the former PR man turned Prime Minister, but this New Statesman list suggests ten in fact! Meanwhile a thoughtful assessment of why Mr. Cameron U-turns so much, and why it could be seen as part of a good old fashioned pragmatic and responsive Toryism, is here in the Guardian.

Direct Democracy:

And here is Douglas Carswell's latest brief comment on his Direct Democracy campaign, although for more detailed material on what he is aiming for go here to his and Dan Hannan's Direct Democracy blog.

No Such Thing As Society!

What did Mrs. Thatcher mean with her most famous quote that "there is no such thing as society"? Robert Low unfolds the ideas behind the misleading quote in a short article for Standpoint magazine.

Blue Labour?!

We'll be hearing more of this, but Ed Miliband's search for a distinctive Labour identity is finding some illumination in this new defining of a Labour identity. So-called as a response to Philip Blond's 'Red Toryism', Blue Labour seeks to re-engage Labour's heartlands with the party.

The Conservative Home website carried a lengthy article analysing the new ideas here.

Amongst other things they comment that "Blue Labour is fundamentally against the economic neo-liberal and socially liberal approach of Blairism. "

Labour MP and former education minister David Lammy, who is sympathetic, explains the idea here.

How does this fit in to likely AS questions? Really as an indication of where Ed Miliband is trying to take the Labour Party at the moment. Like David Cameron in 2005, he is confronted with the need to develop a fresh identity for an old party (Mao's delight in blank sheets of paper, which you could write completely new things on, comes to mind!) and 'Blue Labour' represents some of the current thinking in the party leadership. Of course it is untested on a wider public canvas as yet, and some Labourites are clearly hostile. But Miliband, the Brownite New Labour man elected leader with the votes of the trade unions, needs to do something to show where the post-Blairite party might be heading.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Chinese Internet Censor Gets Pelted With Eggs

Great story from the Telegraph today - they report the pelting of the Chinese academic who created the so-called Great Firewall of China, the internet wall designed to keep out western social networking and search sites.

For a Chinese youth not easily able to blog or tweet their unhappiness with the authoritarian political set-up of their country, it seems the resort to a more old-fashioned, tried and tested method of political protest has now been enacted. It may not be the Cultural Revolution, but I guess the eggs that hit might have made a modest impact on Fan Binzing. Apparently the Chinese government was scrambling to remove any internet traces of the incident...something of a Canutian policy I'd have thought!

The Sun and David Cameron

Did the Sun really precipitate a shadow cabinet reshuffle when David Cameron was in opposition? This is the truly alarming scenario posited by the Spectator's James Forsyth on the Spectator blog. He writes that after Dominic Grieve went to News International and ripped apart their lamentably bigoted and one-sided reporting of crime issues, the word came back (via Andy Coulson) that they wanted Cameron to replace him as shadow Home Secretary. Cameron did, bringing in Chris Grayling.

Forsyth uses the story to point out the danger to Ken Clarke in the wake of yesterday's typically evidence-based and elegantly argued Sun editorial that Ken Must Go. But the real alarm bells ring not for Clarke, but for the government as a whole if it really is in hoc to such ridiculous decision making parameters. Many of the commenters on the Spectator site seemed to take a similarly dim view of proceedings, such as this eloquently expressed point:

Let's hope for all our sakes that it [ the govt] feels it necessary to stand up to the mediaevalism of thought-process that permeates the Sun and its red-top rivals. Let's hope that it is untiring in promoting the message that humanity must do better than allow itself to be dictated to by lamebrains - for otherwise there's little hope for us.

Perhaps, though, with Coulson gone and Cameron now in government, there might be a change of heart about how closely he should follow the dictates of the Sun. He might do well to remember the immortal words of one of his Conservative predecessors. Stanley Baldwin, referring to the Beaverbrook press, said of the press that:

"It carries power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages"

Mind you, one of Baldwin's more cynical supporters muttered that it was unfortunate they had now lost the harlot vote. Can't have everything I suppose!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ken Clarke Rehabilitates Himself In Wormwood Scrubs

There was much discussion on the BBC Question Time programme tonight about the purpose of prisons in rehabilitating prisoners, but there can be little doubt that one man certainly used his prison opportunity to good effect, and that was the Justice Secretary himself, Ken Clarke.

After a torrid day yesterday, when his perhaps too casual words in a radio interview caused a mini media flurry, and even the demand from Ed Miliband that he should be sacked, Clarke showed this evening why he is still one of the government's great performers.

First off, his response to a harshly worded question about whether he was "clumsy, wrong or misconstrued" in his remarks was "probably a bit of each", followed by what appeared to be a heartfelt bit of contrition that was heard in silence by the audience, and then applauded. He was helped by an articulate and supportive Shami Shakrabati, and even Jack Straw was reluctant to endorse his own leader's call for Clarke's sacking. But the fact remained, a day after traipsing from studio to studio in a ridiculous media fest that would have worn lesser men out, Clarke re-appeared today on the jungle of Question Time, a programme that frequently spits politicians out, and quickly won his audience round. Not because they necessarily agreed with him on prison sentencing - many clearly didn't - but because he argued his case effectively, non-patronisingly and with, for Clarke, a surprising degree of humility!

With the rape question over - having been fully and intelligently discussed by one of the best recent Question Time audiences - Clarke and Shakrabarti then appeared to be in an unusual alliance of the humane and liberal-minded against the authoritarians Jack Straw and Melanie Phillips. Clarke remained effective throughout the programme, but at no point more so than when he responded to Melanie Phillips' crude call to shut down the Department for International Development, that much maligned purveyor of aid to the world's poor. His defence of overseas aid was one which should be heard more widely, and gave eloquent voice to the natural international corollary of One Nation politics.

Clarke maintained a strong position throughout the programme, and the audience - not in fact made up of prisoners and prison warders, but largely the usual cross-section of society as noted by Nick Robinson - was generally sympathetic and responsive to him.

There aren't many members of David Cameron's cabinet with wide public appeal; an appeal that can usefully cross party boundaries and suspend the toxic waft that often accompanies Tory spokesmen. Clarke, however, remains one of them, and the suggestion that he's 'lost it', should have been firmly laid to rest by tonight's performance. As for the absent Ed Miliband, if he isn't now regretting his ill-judged call for Clarke's sacking, he lacks even the limited political nous his detractors credit him with.