Monday, January 31, 2011

The Future of the House of Lords

The BBC's James Landale has written an illuminating analysis of what the recent constitutional filibustering means for the House of Lords. He also comments on how the nature of the coalition government itself led to the recent impasse with the second chamber.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Posh and Posher

I enjoyed Andrew Neils 'Posh and Posher' finally catching up with it on iplayer. It's always entertaining to watch posh Etonians try to pretend they're not posh, and to see Old Etonian Tory MP, and son of a former Times editor, Jacob Rees-Mogg announce that he was a man of the people, and then follow it up with a Latin phrase most of the people wouldn't have the slightest clue about, was a rare joy. Neil concluded that the privileged ruling elite from both right and left were dead set against the one reform of education that might open politics and the upper echelons of the state to ordinary people again - the reintroduction of the grammar schools. Of course they're opposed, but thank-you Andrew Neil for your putting the idea briefly in front of us once again.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Gay Mafia Myth

I mentioned in a previous post the outrage caused by a Melanie Phillips article in the Daily Mail claiming that - yes - the country is being run by gay mafia! Well, the Independent's Johann Hari has come up with a brilliant, and emotional, response here. Worth a couple of minutes of anyone's time to read.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Russia's Dirty Secret

Nothing justifies the appalling bomb attack at Moscow Airport, killing 35 innocent people awaiting friends coming in from their flights, and injuring many more. It feeds a cycle of violence from which it is increasingly difficult to escape. But the attack - by a suicide bomber identified this morning as from the North Caucasus region - is a tragic consequence of the war Russia would rather we didn't talk about. The war against the Chechen people. To date, untold deaths have resulted (in 1999-2000 the estimated toll was 50,000 in that year alone) and the Chechens have had foisted on them a mafia regime under the Islamo-fascist leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov.

The Russian people have suffered at the hands of 'Putin's War', as this record of terrorist attacks shows, but it is nothing compared to the suffering of the Chechens. Russia's people hardly live in a free and open democracy, but they may want to reflect this morning on the pass to which their mercilessly ambitious prime minister's North Caucasian policy has brought them. Many Chechens don't have even that luxury.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The King's Speech and History

A great film but some slightly dodgy history. See here for a quick analysis.

Pop Culture

First off, a furore surrounding the enlightened conversation of Sky Sports couple Richard Keys and Andy Gray about female assistant ref Sian Massey. I'm no great follower of football, so I'm grateful to SGS's in-house tabloid editor for introducing me to Yahoo football blogger Early Doors, who had an interesting take on the issue of a female linesman:

As it happened there was a big offside decision, for Liverpool's opening goal, which Massey got right - a call described as "wonderful" by Jamie Redknapp (the tone quickly switched from insulting to patronising once Sky went on air). That moment led Early Doors to conclude that every match official at every Premier League game should be female. Not because of the decision, which was good but unremarkable, but because of the aftermath. The Wolves reaction was typical. Even though Ronald Zubar had played Raul Meireles the best part of a yard onside, the defenders angrily turned as one to berate the linesman. Then something odd happened - they saw the lino in question was a young woman, and instantly their protests fizzled out.

Fantastic. Just to show that sexism works both ways I guess. Early Doors' not unreasonable conclusion:

ED realises that employing female officials simply to ensure players do not shout that them hardly represents the pinnacle of enlightenment, but can you honestly say it wouldn't work?

Second off, the Twittersphere's vigorous assertion of its liberalness, as it rounds on one Daily Mail columnist after another. To be honest, rounding on Daily Mail columnists is probably a fundamentally healthy thing to do, just as the recent activities of a former SGS student and tabloid editor in rounding personally on a News of the World reporter was also uplifting.

In the Twitter instance, Melanie Phillips and Liz Jones have both become trending topics on the web's most concise social network for different topics, but a common style of uniquely offensive writing. Phillips for her 'gay people are now setting the agenda in Britain, soon we'll all be expected to become one' type comments in a recent column; Jones for re-treading the last few hours of murdered architect Jo Yeats' life as if it were some sort of quaint travelogue. Quite why anyone thinks the Mail is going to waste perfectly good newspaper space on rational views when it can get so much more publicity for bonkers ones beats me anyway.

Oh, and that NoTW exchange was something along the lines of:

Desperate Reporter: Do you know anything about people who met Jo Yeats and thus might be her murderer? Preferably men living alone?
Ex-SGS Student, MM: That's right, go around destroying everyone before they're even brought to trial; and yours isn't even a proper newspaper.
Reporter: What's your name and do you live alone?
Student [suddenly seeing his name in headline type]: Er........gotta go.

UPDATE: This tweet, re. the Sian Massey story, is a treat!

UPDATE II: For a forensic examination of how a very tentative Education Dept. statement about 'non-compulsory' lessons becomes an outrageous certainty, go to this piece on the Tabloid Watch blog. Then do the Media Blog's Melanie Phillips Quiz!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fallout from the Johnson Affair

The first stark and rather tragic message from the Alan Johnson resignation is why on earth would anyone subject themselves to such a relentless goldfish bowl existence. Whatever the ins and outs of Alan Johnson's personal problems, the chances are they have been exacerbated by his political existence and now he and his family have to bear with the merciless, hysterical tabloid press coverage of it. Little wonder that so many decent people, who share the human characteristic of all of us of being flawed, would think twice - or often not at all - before entering the world of political public service.

Away of the personal side of the story, the Tories are claiming to be pleased [although see Paul Goodman's take on Conservative Home] that Ed Balls is now shadow Chancellor. Their line is that this is the man who is the co-architect of Gordon Brown's economic recession, but frankly that won't wash for long, and the real problem for them is that Balls represents a much more distinctive voice on economic affairs, and is a far more competent spokesman than the lamented Mr. Johnson. My prediction is that Balls will be making life significantly more difficult for George Osborne, as well as depriving David Cameron of some of punchlines in PMQs - after all, he won't be able to claim any more that the shadow chancellor can't do his sums.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Importance of the Speaker

John Bercow is a controversial and important Speaker, whose own reforms in the Commons are aimed at improving government scrutiny. His speech to the Institute for Government also covered his opposition to the reduction in the number of MPs. I have blogged further about him here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Visits and Filibusters in Parliament

We visited, the Lords filibustered. We being the current L6th Politics set, the Lords being the Labour peers who don't much like the idea of the government's Constitutional Reform Bill. This is on the grounds that they think the proposed reduction in Commons seats to 600 will mainly hit the Labour party. Which it will, of course, no arguing with that. So the Lords are filibustering, and were up all night making largely hopeless comments, and still at it this morning. Which meant that when the eager beaver politics set was doing it's tour of Parliament, courtesy of Paul Burstow, and guided by 'Jumper', while we could straggle our way through the Commons, we couldn't parade through the Lords chamber, because the Lords were rather inconveniently using it. But we did get to go and see some of the debate. It wasn't noted for its high quality, it has to be said. The half hour we were there saw Lord Prescott drape himself over one of the benches before eventually sitting down; Lord Kinnock make an intervention, the point of which was rather lost on me; Lord Tebbit amble briefly in to reduce the temperature of the place before heading back out to eat some babies; and Labour peer Lord Davies of Oldham make a number of incomprehensible points about what could have been anything. All very illuminating, and I would have pointed out to the students, eagerly hanging on to pretty well no words whatsoever, that we were privileged to be watching democracy in action. Except that we weren't. None of them have been elected. Not for a long time anyway. We left as Lord Triesman, late of the FA, was making his speech. I hope it was more considered than those secret ones he used to make when he didn't realise he was being recorded.

Other than the above glimpse of parliament in action, there isn't much to say. Westminster Hall is still the oldest and coldest part of Westminster. Winston Churchill's statue in the Members' Lobby still has a shiny toe. Margaret Thatcher is still the only living person (her opponents dispute the strict interpretation of the word living) to have a statue in the palace. And the House of Lords still has a system of democracy envied and emulated by our very own Student Voice. And Lenin.

We didn't see many famous people, one of the real purposes of visiting Westminster, or the Ivy restaurant. One or two had hoped to see UKIP's Nigel Farage, before remembering that he hadn't actually been elected to the place. We did bump into Betty Boothroyd, the greatest female Speaker the Commons has ever had, and there was another chap who looked as if he might be famous but on the other hand might not have been. On the whole, though, who needs fame when you're part of a group comprising the editor of Sutton's least read tabloid, the self-appointed chairman of Sutton's least influential people's body, and the convenor of Sutton's least attended law society. Sadly, it also comprised one of Warley East's least voted for parliamentary candidates in the bad old days of 1992.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Art of Cross-Examination

The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials have the necessary drama to attract lawyers and non-lawyers alike, but for the aspiring advocate there is an interesting lesson from the cross-examination of Hermann Goering. Jack of Kent, in his legal and political blog, analyses it here and explains why British lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe deserves praise for his superb - and case-rescuing - questioning of one of the most prominent Nazi criminals.

Fractious Tories Need Soothing

That there is a group of right-wing Tory MPs who are distinctly out of sympathy with David Cameron is no surprise. That they are becoming more fractious is perhaps predictable in the wake of the Oldham by-election loss and the rebellion on Europe. But the Prime Minister probably also needs to take note of the fact that the every thought and bother of this group gets a good deal of media coverage, given the innate sympathy of much of the 'Tory' press for the certainties of Thatcherism, and their inability to deal with or understand coalition politics. The Spectator's James Forsyth, who earns a useful extra crust with a Daily Mail column, is a youthful cheerleader for them, and seems to have impeccable right-wing contacts. The first part of his column today (for in true Daily Mail style it is not deemed safe to spend too long in print on any one issue) illuminates the problem, including putting the verb 'to Flashman' into the public domain, and re-telling a nice little tale about Cameron and arch Euro-sceptic Bill Cash debating matters over lunch. It might be time for the PM to start getting his own tribe of media commentators behind him!

The Tory MEP who Wants To 'Turn' Homosexuals

I thought Roger Helmer, a Tory MEP, had defected to UKIP. UKIP's loss will certainly be the Tories' gain if he does. He has been tweeting today that it should be OK for psychiatrists to try and 'turn' homosexuals. And apparently he has a history of such enlightened attitudes. He blogged a year ago that the word 'homophobia' was a propaganda device for defenders of homosexuality, on the grounds that a phobia is an irrational fear, and that he personally had "yet to meet anyone who has an irrational fear of homosexuals". Hmmm. Start with the mirror perhaps?

UPDATE: Amidst the outrage, there is a genuinely intelligent discussion of his comments on the Jack of Kent blog.

Academic Treacle

The blogger Guido Fawkes seems delighted that he has achieved the respectability of being mentioned in an academic report for the journal 'Parliamentary Affairs'. Sadly, it's a report written in a typical academic style that is probably most closely analogous to the art of wading through a noticeably thick treacle. Lots of long words to hide a limited conclusion. It starts like this -

The 1990s e-democracy paradigm was preoccupied with the creation of deliberative spaces, particularly discussion forums.

And if I mention that that's one of the shorter, snappier sentences, you begin to get a sense of why it's unlikely to be a best-seller, for all its presence on one of the UK internet's most visited blogs. The research done by political academics can often be illuminating and valuable, but why it has to be written in so utterly impenetrable a style I'll never understand, and it does nothing to attract students to studying politics at university. Do we really have to extract the life out of a fascinating study in this way? In the deathless prose of our 'Parliamentary Affairs' authors, it might be an issue of quality, and notoriously -

‘Quality’ as a concept can be too wide and too subjective for empirical study unless a clear definition of the constituents and the exclusions is made.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lord Heseltine's Deathly Interview

I like Lord Heseltine. A great One Nation Tory politician. Used to have huge amounts of energy, which he expended in various ways - swinging the Commons mace at his Labour opponents or rejuvenating Liverpool after the Toxteth riots to name just two. He loathed Thatcherism and its creator, so it was never going to be the case that he would be particularly warm to an interviewer from that gospel of Thatcherism, the Daily Telegraph. And he's not a hugely warm person in any case. You could talk to Michael Heseltine quite happily until you realised that his eyes had glazed over and your presence had become nothing more than a background irritation. But the co-assassin of Margaret Thatcher is still a great man. And if he doesn't like you, I guess he's given up (if he ever tried) bothering to seek to hide that inconvenient fact. As the Telegraph's Bryony Gordon discovered when she went to interview him.

Her interview in today's Telegraph is glorious. Glorious because it went so badly, and she is a good enough writer to give us chapter and verse on what was clearly a car crash of an interview. Her opening line is a gem:

There is a faintly decaying smell in Lord Heseltine's living room, but I can't work out if it's coming from his musty carpets or our interview, which died a tragic death before it ever got going.

And her piece just gets better and better. If J.K.Rowling hadn't already done a bit of work on creating a super-villain called Lord Voldemort, you get the impression that Bryony Gordon might just have been able to pull out the stops in giving the role to Lord Heseltine. Cold and condescending, a man who prefers trees to interviewers - what a great guy. And what a great job from Bryony!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Oldham's Message

A Labour seat has been held by a Labour candidate with an increased majority at a time when the fiscal conservatism of the existing Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government is starting to prove unpopular. So far, so relatively predictable. The furore surrounding the discredited former Labour MP for the seat, Phil Woolas, originally gave rise to the hope amongst the narrowly defeated Liberal Democrats that they might be able to take the seat. That they didn't is not the biggest blow the party could have received, especially given that they have managed to sustain their vote (adding a small 0.3% on a lower turnout) at a time when the Lib Dems as a party, and Nick Clegg as leader in particular, have been given a hammering over student fees. So they can breathe reasonably freely today.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, never far from civil war, may find the result rather less encouraging. Reports are that they ran a lacklustre campaign, despite keeping their strong local candidate, in order to give the Lib Dems a clearer run. Their vote, in consequence, pretty well collapsed. As it happens, the vote that turned out appears to have gone primarily to Labour, rather than to an obvious Tory protest party like UKIP. The rest of their vote simply stayed at home. This is going to give the Tory rightists, agitating ever more obviously for a dilution of David Cameron's commitment to the Coalition, a chance to enter the fray again and slate the party leadership for its unwillingness to fight a full blooded campaign. As such, that decision of the Tory High Command's may prove to have been a tactical error, particularly as a higher Tory vote, and a better campaign, may not in fact have damaged the Lib Dem chances as much as Cameron and co obviously thought. Whatever the state of play in Westminster, the Tory and Lib Dem voters are not so easily transferable it would seem.

For Nick Clegg, it may be a bit of a relief that attention could turn for a while to the Tories' woes. After all, he has been a useful lightning conductor for them for a little longer than he might have liked. For David Cameron, it's another in his endless round of internecine warfare with his traditionalist opponents. And for Ed Milliband, the result has bought him some time off from the quiet sniping about his leadership that was already beginning.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two Politicians

It is difficult not to contrast Sarah Palin and Barack Obama and their public responses to the Arizona tragedy. The Tea Party poster girl recorded a message for her facebook page. An angry, defiant message where she painted herself as a victim and spoke, controversially, of being the victim of a 'blood libel'. The President, and the man one suspects she would quite like to replace, spoke to a capacity crowd in a state that hasn't usually welcomed him. He summoned the spirit of the nation, spoke to its soul, and sought to rise above politics with the dignity that he so often manages to achieve in his set-piece speeches. Obama moved; Palin annoyed.

Andrew Sullivan has this comment on Palin's attempt to play the victim. The White House text of Obama's speech is here, and defences of Palin's video are here on right-winger David Frum's site.

Obama caught a mood, again. He invoked scripture, and spoke of the heroism of ordinary people. And this father of two young daughters was at his most passionate when he spoke of 9 year old Christina Green:

Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future... She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model.

She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sarah Palin and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords

There has been an inevitable backlash against the blame being directed towards Sarah Palin and her ilk over the Giffords shooting. The blogger Cranmer, usually a reasoned and thoughtful writer, has produced one of his worst ever efforts on the subject. So let's be clear - blaming Sarah Palin directly for a murder committed by a clearly deranged assassin, in a country where fruitcakes with guns are hardly an unknown quantity, is clearly ridiculous. What is not ridiculous, what is in fact essential comment, is the association one can make between Palin's notoriously hard-ass rhetoric and campaigning - which includes putting cross-hairs over the target seats of her political enemies (including Giffords) and using gun-toting language to urge opposition - and the impact that has on society as a whole and perhaps some unbalanced individuals in particular.

The Republican right simply cannot get away with absolving themselves from blame on this front. They use, and associate with those who use, such incendiary rhetoric that they have managed to poison the political atmosphere in the US to a considerable degree. The tragic John Rolls, the judge who fell as a result of yesterday's shooting, is a good example of this. When he allowed a civil rights suit pursued by immigrants he was subjected to horrendous abuse from the right and their fellow travellers on the talk radio shows, including explicit calls for his death. A writer on the liberal leaning Daily Kos blog has a point when he observes -

Those whose violent, eliminationist rhetoric has polluted the air waves and other media for the past couple of decades, ramping itself up a little more each year, especially with the arrival of an African American in the White House, are, of course, denying that the shootings of a Congresswoman, a judge, a child and bystanders on a street corner in Arizona have anything to do with their savage words. No surprise. One thing they're good at is refusing to accept any responsibility for the consequences of this murderous talk, whether it's Timothy McVeigh blowing up a federal building or Scott Roeder assassinating a doctor.

Sheriff Dupnik's comments (see here and post below) are amongst the crispest and most sensible. The person to blame for the shooting is the unbalanced young man now in custody. But the atmosphere that may have contributed to it is the responsibility of many, and when you're a leading figure like Sarah Palin, who glories in polarising debate and using absurdly over-the-top language against her opponents, you cannot escape responsibility. It is telling that she took down her 'cross-hairs graphic' soon after the shooting was known - if it was such an innocent thing, why take it down? And a final irony, in the fact that the poisonous atmosphere created by Mrs. Palin is the result of an Arizona senator's choice to put this little known and undistinguished governor of just two years' standing on a national presidential ticket. John McCain never served his country so badly as with that one ill considered decision.

Dallas was a mecca for hatred in 1963.....

Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish is usually on the money. He ended his reflections on yesterday's events in Arizona with this quote from William Manchester's 'Death of a President' - the first paragraph is thus:

"In that third year of the Kennedy Presidency a kind of fever lay over Dallas County. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed “Impeach Earl Warren.” Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas. Fanatical young matrons swayed in public to the chant, “Stevenson’s going to die–his heart will stop, stop, stop and he will burn, burn burn!” Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy’s name was booed in classrooms; junior executives were required to attend radical seminars. Dallas had become the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies . . ."

"We have become a mecca for prejudice and bigotry"

So speaks Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Tucson, Arizona. Dupnik could have come straight out of central casting for the role of sheriff - he looks and sounds like an experienced man of the world, dealing effectively if sometimes wearily with the crimes and misdemeanours that he is charged with preventing. His press conference, updating on the condition of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was fascinating for his remarks about the febrile political atmosphere. He commented that there had indeed been violent threats not only against Congresswoman Giffords, but pretty well every other political figure standing in the recent elections. He went on to note that while the killer who is in police custody may be deranged, unbalanced people are just as or more likely to respond to vitriolic rhetoric. Dupnik cited vitriol about 'tearing down the government' - the sort of charge one hears with regularity from the Republican 'freedom fighters' - and made a heartfelt plea against the escalation of violent political rhetoric. Let's hope the Palinistas are listening.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Congresswoman Shot in Arizona

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona's Eighth District has been shot and seriously wounded in what appears to have been a would-be assassination attempt. The Congresswoman was known to hold forthright liberal views, as a Democrat representative, and featured on Sarah Palin's website which placed rifle cross-hairs over the districts that Republicans need to take back. These facts alone have ensured a fevered level of political speculation and a poisonous blame game in the US, with Palin's facebook site receiving over 3,800 comments as I write, a mix of thoroughly antagonistic and quasi-devotional comments. The BBC's Mark Mardell comments on the reaction as illustrative of the poisoned atmosphere of US politics at the moment. Andrew Sullivan is maintaining a live-blog of developments, containing a full and ongoing assessment of what has happened.

It looks as if the would-be assassin is a psychologically damaged nutcase, rather than a coolly calculating right-wing nutcase, but as Sullivan points out:
...this does not exonerate violent or excessive rhetoric from the far right or far left: it's precisely the disturbed who can seize on those kinds of statements and act on them. The danger of violent rhetoric, especially involving gun violence, is its interaction with the disturbed.

The shooting - which has claimed five lives, including that of a 9 year old girl, a political aide to the congresswoman, and a federal judge who did himself become the target of ferocious, murderous rhetoric from the right - has allowed political hatreds to explode. And while the left express - perhaps too hysterically - their alarm, there is a correct focus on the hate-filled, gun and target obssessed rhetoric of an increasingly rabid right. We await further news.