Thursday, February 24, 2011

Clegg 'Forgets' He's In Charge!

Nick Clegg apparently forgot he was in charge of the country while David Cameron is busy touting for business in the New Improved Middle East. Actually, to be fair, he merely made an off-hand comment, saying that he supposed he was in charge, but the whole issue is rather overblown in the modern era with the internet and blackberrys.

Clegg has it right. His refusal to make a big play of deputising for the PM, and instead acknowledging that things don't change much just because the PM is out of the country, is a welcome difference from the bear-pit politics of the Blair era. In those days, the issue of who should be 'in charge' when Blair was on holiday, or away, was savagely contested amongstt he Labour high command. It was meant to be John Prescott, but that didn't usually stop a Mandelson or a Straw or a Reid claiming they were really the ones pulling the strings. More recently, under Gordon Brown, he had barely left Downing Street for a brief sojourn before Harriet Harman came charging in, holding press conferences and playing the role of acting PM for all it was worth (which wasn't much!).

So well done Nick Clegg. Ignore the ludicrously puffed-up nay-sayers and keep acknowledging the deputising role for what it is - virtually an irrelevance.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Foreign Office Shambles and the Tragedy of William Hague

Everyone knows it's difficult running the British Foreign Office, having to deal with those pesky foreigners and not having a clue which country's going to stage a revolution next against one of our chummy autocrats. But really, William Hague seems to be excelling himself in his frontman-for-a-lost-cause routine. A few days ago he was telling us that the firmly Libya based Colonel Gadaffi was on his way to Venezuela. Now he's trying to explain why Britain can't even match Turkey in evacuating our nationals from Tripoli. Actually, to be fair, he finally gave up on the task of fronting one of the British Foreign Office's most lamentable performances to date by not even appearing on a predictably aggressive Newsnight interview, leaving the field to his rather clueless junior minister Alistair Burt whose only line was that we did well in Tunisia and Egypt.

I've not got a huge amount of sympathy for the Brits who have been busy propping up the Gaddaffi regime with their corporate involvement in his wretchedly governed state, but I do think the Foreign Office might still try and manage to charter a couple of planes to get its own people out. They probably encouraged them to work there in the first place after all.

One of the more ludicrous aspects of the Burt interview on Newsnight was when interviewer Kirsty Wark turned the conversation to Hillary Clinton's hint that the US might use military force to intervene in Libya. Burt was asked whether Britain would hold a similar line. Now wait a minute - here we are, having failed to get either military or commercial planes into Libya to rescue a few benighted British citizens, possibly because we've cut so much of the RAF there aren't any spare planes to fly out there in any case, and a British Foreign Office minister is seriously being asked whether we're up there planning military action with the big boys? I know the Foreign Office still lives with the illusion that we count for something in international affairs, but do the BBC have to nurture the illusion quite so gratuitously?

Anyway, whatever the outcome of today's failure, it looks as if William Hague has made some powerful enemies within the Foreign Office. Perhaps his attempt to shoehorn Chris Myers in as an unqualified Special Adviser last year is still smarting, but one mainstream magazine blogger mentioned that he had heard 'journo after journo' criticising Hague today, and concluded that someone, probably from the FO, was briefing against him. He wondered whether the Venezuela comment had embarrassed someone there as well - the hostile briefing could be their revenge!

Hague's already announced an enquiry into the poor British evacuation effort, but that's not going to get 540 Brits out of Libya, and it may not manage to save Hague's job either. The lecture circuit could be beckoning again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Politics, Parties, Leaders and Image

There is much to be gleaned from psychology in understanding politics. I'm just not sure that the lecture some of us went to this evening did much of the gleaning. The phrase of the evening from the very pleasant and engaging Dr. Tereza Capelos was "We need more information". She also noted that, on the whole, political scientists aren't there to provide answers, they're there to ask questions. So on the whole, her initial comment that "we would go into the minds of the voters" may have been a little ambitious - especially when you consider that most voters don't venture much into their own minds. Any visitor is likely to find....well, something of a sparsely populated desert I suppose.

Nevertheless, in amongst some of the stuff we probably already guessed at (most voters vote according to feelings rather than on specific issues; politics is emotional etc) and the occasional piece of academic jargon on the impressively large overhead screens (try "Parameter estimates are unstandardised regression coefficients" as an example of one of the bright little explanatory notes) there were some interesting comments and experiments. We grammar school types - well, ok, four grammar school and one smug fee paying type - rather liked the Huxleyan division of the voters into two classes - the sophisticates (er, us, obviously) and the unsophisticates (Sun and Express readers anyone?). And there was a great experiment conducted in the Netherlands where Dr. Capelos and her colleagues asked people to indicate approval or disapproval of policy statements they said belonged to either Nelson Mandela (generally liked and respected) or George W. Bush (generally not). Mandela's policies received far greater approval than Bush's. No surprise there. The catch, though, was that the canny academics had actually switched some of the policies round, telling their unsuspecting subjects that policy statements which actually originated with Bush belonged to Mandela and vice versa. So there you have it. Actual policy matters less than who's delivering it. Unless you're Nick Clegg.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

True Grit, True Class

This is a time for great films. Don't know why, maybe the studios have started to understand the value of brilliant scripting and superb acting over blockbusting, sequels and effects. Whatever the reason, I hope there's more to come. Much attention has been deservedly given to those superlative films "The King's Speech" and "Black Swan", both of whose main actors are up for Oscars which they richly deserve. You can add to that consummate coupling an equally outstanding third film, the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit".

The story is a straightforward revenge quest, as a girl hires a US Marshal who has seen better days to help her hunt her father's killer. What turns this relatively simple story into a masterpiece of modern cinema is a combination of sparkling scripting, with the spare dialogue leaping off the screen at you; cinematography on a scale grand and well observed enough to truly capture the rugged, wide expanses of mid-western America; and, of course, a calibre of acting that simply draws us indelibly into the characters whose story we are following.

There are no weak acting links in this film - just as there aren't in the other two mentioned - but Jeff Bridges makes the role of Marshal Rooster Cogburn (played by an Oscar-winning John Wayne in the original) a wholly sympathetic one that simply shouldn't be the case with such a rollicking, wise-cracking, callous, disreputable drunkard. He grates out his dead-pan one-liners with gruesome effectiveness, provoking several laugh out loud moments in the cinema. Meanwhile newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, playing the 14 year old heroine, so grips the screen and draws us on side that you are reminded that there can be really good child actors. She was 13 when she played the part, and I don't know which acting school she went to but I only wish the child leads of Harry Potter had managed to go there, even for only a week. Steinfeld was superb in the difficult role - she acted (Daniel Radcliffe please note) and showed an emotional range that didn't just about struggle to get to B from A. She had to hold the film together and in that she triumphantly succeeded. There are many great lines in the film, and she utters one of them when she observes the forthcoming punishment of her father's murderer - You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.

And the ending for this fantastic western revival tugs with such empathy at our emotional weak points that it nearly had me descending once again into the persona of a lachrymose imbecile. I've never seen the original version (neither, apparently, has Matt Damon, playing the second bounty-hunter in this film); having seen the Coen Brothers' version, I've don't think I've got any desire to go and watch what could only surely be an inferior film, even if it did provide Wayne with his Oscar.

For a great review of the film by the way, read David Sexton's in the Evening Standard.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Defending Ken Clarke From The Tories

My old stamping ground, the Tory Reform Group, has a new blog, so I thought I would post one final thought on the old one, before disappearing altogether. Ken Clarke is once again making waves with his honest assessments of the political scene, and is also under regular attack from his right-wing opponents, so I thought it only proper to provide a defence - a somewhat limited one, but it is with specific reference to the accusations that he persistently undermines Tory leaders.

The Rotters' Club

"There were a couple of men dining by themselves. One was taking out his glasses to study the menu, the other was tipping brown sugar into his coffee cup from a paper sachet. Their actions seemed banal: but how was anyone to know what storms, what torrents of ideas and memories and dreams were raging through their minds at that instant?"

Anyone who can deliver that wonderful insight from such an everyday scene is worth reading further for the way in which he tries to get under the skin of how we all tick, and Jonathan Coe is such an author. I have discovered him only recently, thanks to a couple of former students, and have read only two of his books, but they are high on my list of recommendations. "What a Carve Up" was a great read, and an incisive dissection of Thatcherite Britain, but if anything "The Rotters' Club" is even better. Set in that weird decade of my own childhood, the 1970s, with its divisive politics, odd music, strange fashion sense and atmosphere of impending doom, it is a captivating coming of age tale of a group of grammar school friends. Coe deals with friendships and relationships admirably, painting them against the political and cultural background of the time with compulsive clarity. The book doesn't quite 'end', in that we are still left guessing about some of the outcomes of events recounted along the way, but it has its fair share of twists and surprises throughout.

The grammar school setting gives it a degree of familiarity with anyone at SGS, and a key focus is the school's student-produced newspaper, used in the novel as a fulcrum for much of the plot development. It may not be a sports paper, but the way its sixth form writers use their new-won positions of literary influence to settle a few scores is not unfamiliar to readers of SGS's own "What's the Story..."

Coe writes feelingly about human relationships, and revealingly about politics and produces, in sum, a readable novel that should engage anyone interested in the way we were just a few decades ago.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

10 o'Clock Live and the Big Society

It's getting better. Not, alas, the Big Society, which is still stuck up a cul-de-sac with no obvious means of escape, but Channel 4's new (ish) political satire show, 10 o' Clock Live. The scheduling is admittedly chronic, cutting across that other show for political anoraks, Question Time, but there is an increasing chance that they are not going to be shedding half their viewers at 10.30 for too much longer. This evening's episode was, as expected for a one hour show, uneven, but much less so than earlier episodes. Jimmy Carr's opening news review is still poor - the audience laugh at his mis-steps and his deprecatory look when things go wrong rather than the rapidly dying wit - but it was followed by two excellent, classic monologues from Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell. Mitchell's interview with Simon Hughes was better than his fold-up-and-wilt approach to Alistair Campbell a couple of weeks ago, and Hughes defended himself quite well too. But for a current affairs show they managed to hit a nerve over the 'Big Society' with Mitchell chairing a genuinely passionate debate between Johann Hari and Philip Blond, and occasional interjections from Shaun Bailey.

David Cameron has always had trouble defining the Big Society and it's running into the sand even more as much of the glue of our local communities is gradually dissolving away under local government costs. Whatever the original aims (and what were the original aims?!) it looks increasingly like an effort to get people to take the place of local services on the cheap. Utter nonsense of course, and Johann Hari sounded more convincing when he pointed out that US states which spent more on their services from tax had higher rates of volunteering, than Big Society defender Philip Blond did when defending, er, the survival of volunteering when all the structures within which one might volunteer are being stripped away.

This week's satire thus managed to make some decent points, although I think they could do a lot more on the dismal state of the print news media. The few digs they did make were well aimed, but the Star is an easy target and it's time to take on the big boys!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Politics of Justice, US Style

Lord Phillips may be concerned about his lack of judicial independence under the current funding and structure of the Supreme Court in the UK, but the legendarily independent US Supreme Court is also facing scrutiny. Or at least, one of its justices is. Clarence Thomas was always a controversial appointment as a very conservative justice beloved of the Republican movement. His wife, a former Tea Party group founder, is now a political lobbyist, and Democrat representatives in Congress are asking the good Justice to recuse himself (step down from) from deliberations on the constitutionality of the national healthcare bill on the grounds of possible conflict of interest. This is becoming a thoroughly political issue, as a Republican senator has also suggested that Obama's newest appointment, former Solicitor General Elena Kagan, should also recuse herself from the same issue because of her former government position.

Lord Phillips should cast a wary eye towards Washington, and perhaps thank his stars that his job isn't quite as politicised as his American counterparts, for all their vaunted independence, just yet.

The Politics of Justice, UK Style

Some of the more adventurous SGS politics students take advantage of the regular lecture visits organised by the indefatigable Mr. Bartlett, and last night's trip to hear Supreme Court President Lord Phillips at UCL proved to be a high profile one. The Supreme Court is, of course, the body that replaced the House of Lords as the UK's highest court. Apart from giving its leader a Star Warsy type of title, it was a move to ensure the independence of the UK judiciary. Lord Phillips last night suggested that the set-up of the court was hardly conducive to much independence, with its funding granted on an annual basis, its civil service answerable not to him, as president, but to the political Justice Secretary, and its appointment of judges subject to MPs' scrutiny.

These are serious charges, and strike at the heart of the constitutional question of how far judicial independence requires independent funding, limited scrutiny from parliament etc. The Supreme Court was an attempt to move closer to the US ideal. For Phillips' money (such as it is!), it hasn't yet moved nearly close enough.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, the genial giver of votes to prisoners, responds to some of Phillips' charges on the Today programme here.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Nick Clegg, Universities and Social Mobility

Nick Clegg, famous alumni of exclusive Westminster School, wants universities to widen access to those who didn't go to a famous public school. It's a campaign full of fraught joys, from poking fun at Mr.Clegg's own privileged background, to damning the universities for daring to dumb down their entrance requirements, to quite properly demanding a return to grammar schools in all areas to give social mobility a bit of meaning. As ever, the Economist's university educated Bagehot is on hand to put things in perspective, including the insight that universities have always been prepared to give lower offers to pupils from tough comprehensives. Makes a change from the boring, predictable, dull but well prepared public school toffs. Which leaves the grammar school boys and girls where, exactly?

We Are Being Poorly Governed

Simon Heffer in the Telegraph is no friend to David Cameron, and he uses his column today to note the growing unrest amongst Conservative backbenchers at Cameron's leadership. In this, he echoes other right-wing commentators such as James Kirkup, Tim Montgomerie and James Forsyth (see earlier posts). However, he has a fresh take on one aspect of the problem that the Coalition government is facing, and that is the very quality of governance.

Heffer cites the recent Forest Furore as an example of idiotic presentation of a policy, and goes on to examine the Defence Department. He has harsh words about the quality of the all important civil service:

One of the greatest difficulties the Government has is with the quality of the Civil Service, diminished and emasculated after 13 years of politicisation by the Labour administration. A reader wrote to me last week about how a letter to her husband from the Ministry of Defence began "Dear Lt Cdr (Ret'd) Smith", something that one hopes would make the First Sea Lord weep. At the top level, inexperienced and compromised permanent public servants are shaping and supporting decisions made by inexperienced and not especially bright politicians. The Cameron loyalist to whom I spoke, having praised much else that was happening, conceded that the defence review had been a "shambles". Given the quality of those who had to put it together, that can hardly be wondered at.

Attacks on Mr. Cameron's leadership have more than a whiff of the political partisan about them of course, and should be sifted accordingly, but the civil service, the once reliable, ultra professional, neutral, impeccable, Rolls Royce engine of the civil service - well, if that's failing us, can it be long before the ravens start to leave the Tower of London?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

More Right Attacks on Cameron

If you judge a man by his enemies, then David Cameron is doing pretty well as a centrist, consensus minded One Nation Tory. Barely a day goes by without the sirens of the right launching yet another whinge in his direction. Tim Montgomerie, the editor of online site Conservative Home, now regularly breaks cover from the safety of his internet operation to take the battle into the frontline of the papers that bloggers enjoy deriding as the 'dead tree press'. In the Mail last week, and the New Statesman this week, he is busy sounding his by now familiar message of "Woe to Cameron who won't listen to his right-wing backbenchers'. Time was when Montgomerie used to have something interesting to say, but his record got stuck some time ago.

He's joined by the usual variety of right-wing nay-sayers in the predictable corners of the press. James Kirkup, holding forth in that long-term battalion of Thatcherism the Daily Telegraph, provides a detailed analysis of Cameron's governing style which concludes that, er, he's not very good at it. The sort of conclusion, from that source, that's right up there with the shock announcement that Christmas Day will fall on December 25th. this year.

However, amidst the sound and fury of a right-wing that feels ignored, and yearns for the glory days of Thatcherism when we didn't have to put up with the whiney Liberals in government and could watch the Tory vote gradually disappear from the urban areas and that bit of England we know as the North, there are some warnings for Cameron. Not least, his need to sharpen his defence of his government's agenda, and step in early to pre-empt regular attempts to undermine him from his parliamentary opponents. Perhaps his new Communications appointment will help him in this. Meanwhile, there are still several publications that haven't yet printed Mr. Montgomerie's Variation on a Theme so keep a good look out for more of the same.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Post-Mubarak Fears

One Egypt based blogger expresses his fears of the anarchy that might envelop Egypt in the aftermath of the current protests. Hope for a better future competes with such pragmatic pessimism.

Egypt's Eruptions Show Signs of Spreading

President Saleh of Yemen certainly gets it, although possibly too late. He has announced he will not be seeking re-election in 2013, ahead of Yemen's own planned 'day of rage' on Thursday. It may still not be enough, as the extraordinary 'people action' which started in Tunisia continues its rampage across the Arab world. There are reminders here of the fall of communism in 1989, which erupted so unexpectedly and then gathered steam across all of the eastern European countries. The danger in the current instance, however, lies in what on earth will replace the tottering regimes. The dictatorships of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen sit atop a simmering cauldron of poverty and unrest which is easily exploited by the well organised Islamic fundamentalist groups waiting to seize their chance. The protests in Egypt, and the putative ones in Yemen, seem to be led by liberal minded middle class and young citizens who would have little truck with the conservative islamicists, but unlike their religious counterparts the protestors are not well organised politically. The spectre of Iran hovers above the unrest, and although there are significant differences, including the fact that these protests have not been spun from the sort of religious agitators who took the lead against the Shah in 1979, there can hardly be any western analysts who aren't currently shuddering at the prospect of a post-Mubarak Egypt, or a post-Saleh Yemen. Democracy, after all, is fine, except when it delivers the wrong verdict.

Paxman's Gem

Courtesy of the Media Blog, edited by Old Sutt Will Sturgeon, we have this gem of an email from Jeremy Paxman, announcing the death of the Newsnight daily email.

"The time has come to put this exercise in fatuousness out of its misery" announces Paxman, with typical under-statement. He goes on to say, in his usual mild tones, "The reason for killing it off is pretty straightforward. It's crap." There's more brilliant material in that vein in what is one of the few must-read news emails issued by the BBC.

Paxman's tone clearly hasn't changed from when he was forced to do weather reports on Newsnight. He responded by injecting them with as much verbal contempt as possible, as shown in this compendium from Have I Got News For You:

Good Journalism, Bad Journalism

We watched "All the President's Men" at the History Film Club last Monday. It's slow, but it shows the painstaking care with which the two Washington Post journalists working on the Watergate case - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - went about proving their case. Their story eventually brought down a president, but it took many months to get there, and the film illustrated the frustrations of real, investigative journalism, and the painstaking need for certainty, for getting every controversial fact approved by at least three sources. It was a remarkable tale, and no less tense for knowing the eventual outcome. It was a portrayal of journalism at its best. It was an illustration of what one hopes men and women go into journalism for. To bring the mighty to account, to represent the poor and voiceless, to bring us true stories that illuminate the world we live in, to answer the almost unanswerable question of Pilate in the gospels - "What is truth?"

So hold all that in mind and turn now to this harrowing tale posted by one Juliet Shaw (and which I came across courtesy of Jack Burkill, pursuing a little bit of investigativism of his own!). It concerns her dealings with the Daily Mail in 1993. The Daily Mail is one of the most influential voices in the arena of public discourse in this country, and while it is ridiculed on facebook it is read devotedly by hundreds of thousands of citizens. But in the instance described by Miss Shaw, it comes across as a paper that lies and misrepresents its interviewees, to extraordinary detriment. Juliet Shaw was just one of four women, none of them famous, whose lives were trashed by the newspaper and its fatuous, inadequate, shameless reporter.

The Washington Post was at its most triumphant in the 1970s. Its reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, and its editor, Ben Bradlee, and countless others working on it, managed somehow to see journalism as a decent, even moral calling. The Daily Mail should recover some of that spirit itself. I'm aware that Juliet Shaw's tale dates from some years ago, but comments below the story suggest that the Mail is still in hoc to such poor stroy making methods as were evinced in 1993.

There is good journalism out there. The Guardian and Independent stand out in this regard. The Guardian's Nick Davies broke the story of News Corporation's bugging pandemic, while that same paper's media commentator, Roy Greenslade, has used his blog to bring Juliet Shaw's story to a wider audience. Davies, of course, has also authored one of the best recent books into the convoluted world of the media, "Flat Earth News".

UPDATE: This post sums up one of the Mail's reporting techniques beautifully.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Prime Ministerial Power and Christmas Cards

I've linked to Tim Montgomerie's analysis of David Cameron's exercise of the premiership opposite (but note that Montgomerie, as a right-wing Tory, is intrinsically hostile to Cameron), but it is the little things that matter as well, as Iain Martin at the Wall Street Journal noted.

The Significance of the 2010 Coalition Negotiations

One of the doyens of political commentary, Peter Riddell, has written of the lessons that the coalition negotiations following the 2010 election have on our understanding of the impact of a hung parliament. To some extent, the successful coalition outcome has forced a review of previous asumptions about what should happen when an election produces a hung parliament. Riddell's conclusions are certainly worth noting.