Monday, June 12, 2017

The post-election liberal narrative is hopelessly wrong

There seems to be a popular liberal narrative emerging about the present state of British politics which is largely summed up by (1) the Tories have got us into a mess over the past couple of years and (2) they, especially Theresa May, should apologise for getting Britain into this mess.

Utter bilge.

There may be a number of things Mrs. May needs to apologise for - a poor campaign, an overly insular leadership style, the loss of a number of Conservative seats - but all these apologies need to be directed purely at the Tory party that she leads and its candidates.  Further, an acknowledgement that she has learned lessons from the election and will seek to adapt her premiership to suit those would be helpful and politically adept.  But an apology to the country?  What a fruitless, pointless, unnecessary exercise that would be.

I presume the apology in question that liberal commentators have in mind would be along the lines of saying sorry for calling an election.  Really?  In a democracy?  The election may have been called for opportunistic and rather venal reasons, but the idea that we should somehow ration the amount of democratic engagement at the polls that the people should participate in is ludicrous and reeks of political class elitism. Mrs. May's motives in calling the election may have been ever so ignoble, but in the end she remained at the mercy of the voters.  Hubris did indeed come to rest at her door as a result, and she may wish to ponder many lessons from this, but we should not be demanding apologies from a wounded leader for the decision delivered by the people in an election.

Neither should there be an apology for calling another election in a few months if one is needed.  We are a democracy.  It is the people's right and responsibility to hire and fire their political leaders, and if that has to be done on a more regular basis until the people become satisfied with their collective decision then so be it.

There is an extraordinary feeling afoot, and it is embedded in the post-election liberal narrative, that calling elections too often is a Bad Thing.   We may be a democracy, harbouring rights that have been fought and argued for over many decades and which are still denied to the majority of people in the world, but we really shouldn't ask people to listen to political debate and hobble along to a polling booth too often.  It is the ultimate elitist nonsense, and it caters to a terrible view which suggests that we should cravenly give in to the anti-politics brigade who believe that a national political discussion shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of everyday lives to often.

This is the same view that we hear expressed about the referendum held last year which led to the Brexit process.  Now as it happens I am no fan of referendums, but I can't deny that they are the ultimate expression of the popular will on a particular issue.  It is a virtue of democracies that the popular will for change doesn't need expression in a revolution because it has a ballot box to use. 

The sub-text of much of this criticism, of course, is that the vote didn't go as liberal commentators wanted.  Rather than blame the people, however, it has become easier - though a lot more cowardly - to lay the blame at the feet of the leaders who dared engage the people in such a momentous decision.

If there is a "mess" in British politics then the responsibility lies squarely with the voters.  They have had the chance, more than they have ever had before, to direct events.  They have chosen to do so in a messy and sometimes indeterminate way.  But that is democracy, and we get the one we deserve because we are intimately involved in it.  Don't like the leaders?  Then do more than just vote.  Do more than just write well-paid columns about how bad it all is. Take some responsibility and get involved.  Stand, argue, persuade.

As it happens, I don't think the result of Thursday's election was a bad one.  It has yielded a humbled government, more willing to moderate its previously inflexible approach on Brexit, more willing to operate on a collective basis, more willing to appreciate the aims and aspirations of the voters who chose to withdraw their support.  This is what democracy should do.  The voters also, by a smidgeon, determined that they wanted the same government to continue in office.  For all his and his allies' blow-harding, Jeremy Corbyn didn't win and has no chance of forming a government with the present parliamentary make-up.  He hasn't got the numbers.  Because the voters didn't give him the numbers.  And yes, the DUP do actually count as a legitimate party.  Enough people in a part of the UK voted for them to send ten of their representatives to parliament.  They get the same rights as every other representative and that is the right, under the full scrutiny of voters who will be asked to deliver another verdict again at some point, to support or deny the biggest party its political programme.  

This isn't a "mess".  It's democracy in action and I'm sorry so many liberal commentators aren't very happy with it.  It doesn't require an apology from the prime minister.  The only people you can demand an apology from are the British electorate, and they are simply exercising the right hard won by their ancestors to nudge the government whichever way they want.  Live with it.



Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tone-deaf May is absolutely the wrong person to lead us into Brexit

If you thought Theresa May was tone-deaf and unresponsive during the actual election campaign, then that's nothing on her performance since.

Following her seriously reduced circumstances I initially thought it was right for her to continue in office.  The electoral arithmetic suggested it as the only viable option, at least until the parliamentary circumstances changed.  She could have chosen to take on board the disastrous result that her cavalier election calling produced and govern as a minority leader but with significant consultation with other parties on Brexit.  That her own Brexit stance - which has been irredeemably, if unilluminatingly of the "hard" variety - would need modifying seemed evident too.

Then came the day after.  The prime minister's speech outside Downing Street was one of the most misjudged exercises I have come across.  She made no reference at all to the lamentable election result.  She simply announced she would be forming a new government, and for good measure she replaced the old "strong and stable" with the word "certainty".  I began to wonder if somehow she had been kept isolated from the election results.  It was a performance of astonishing misjudgement and ineptitude.  Compare it with David Cameron's eloquent and moving "mea culpa" after the referendum.  So utterly disconnected was her speech that she had to follow it up with a hurriedly organised television interview in order to "apologise" to all of the Tory MPs who had lost their seats thanks to her calamitous campaign.

More than anything else, this speech captured exactly why Mrs. May must not be allowed to carry on as prime minister.  The speech bespoke an absolute determination to ignore any circumstances that don't suit her.  It shed light on Mrs. May's utter inflexibility.  Here was someone who was so myopic and incapable that she couldn't even acknowledge the earth-shaking circumstances that everyone else was talking about and which had brought her to this pass in the first place.  She couldn't move from her script.  She couldn't develop a quick response to her massively changed circumstances.  She couldn't find it within herself to express any sort of empathetic understanding to her disappointed supporters and allies.

And if she couldn't do this simple task, part of the basic toolbox of political leadership, then how on earth could we expect her to manage the infinitely more challenging unpredictable and difficult Brexit negotiations?

I thought originally that Theresa May should stay and provide some continuity in difficult times, even if those times were largely of her own creation.

Now it seems to me that if we are to have any chance of a successful start to our increasingly unwanted and unloved Brexit negotiations, then Theresa May has to be replaced immediately.  All those foolish Tories who think she will be able to open such negotiations with imagination and flexibility, who have you been listening to?  For Theresa May, alarmingly and bizarrely, "nothing has changed".  This is a woman who can row back on a policy and claim it is the same one.  That level of delusion has now been extended to some sort of weird understanding of the election that suggests it has said nothing of value to her.

The Tory Party may be in a bind because of the lack of top rate talent in its upper echelons, but at the moment almost anyone - obviously excluding Liam Fox - would be better than the delsuional, mad force currently in charge.  Instead of ringing their hands and moaning about her advisers, Tory MPs should step up to the moment and actually try and serve their country.  And they should do it by providing new and better leadership.  If they do, in time we might forgive them for the Mayist aberration.


Friday, June 09, 2017

Lessons from an election

1.  Don't take the electorate for granted.  Theresa May's party (she abdicated the Conservative name for the duration) did this twice.  It assumed everyone would ignore the opportunistic nature of the election, and that they would then happily respond to a patronising campaign of empty slogans.  Turns out they didn't.

2.  Every vote matters, even under First Past the Post.  Young voters complained about Brexit, but their complaints carried little weight given the fact that many didn't vote in that ill conceived referendum.  This time they voted, and the change has been palpable.

3.  Traditional campaigning still matters.  Theresa May's party thought they could win this with a big data machine and by programming, without variation, key phrases into the political dialogue.  They thought they could avoid real voters with impunity, whether in televised debates or in the streets.  Jeremy Corbyn suffered a media monstering, but built up support through a consistent round of old fashioned rallies.  Crowds matter, it seems, and he was able to appeal to a decent proportion of the electorate through these rallies.  We're a democracy, and he met people.  Somehow it seems to work.

4.  Manifestos should not be insulated efforts.  Whatever the fine aims of Theresa may's manifesto, it was drawn up quickly by a tight group of May loyalists who failed to road-test it within the wider party.  It then backfired.  Surprised?

5.  Leaders should be able to campaign.  As everyone is noting, this election was entirely the product of Theresa May's desire.  There was no reason at all to call it, and certainly not the one she gave.  In consequence, though, one might have expected her to show some campaigning vigour and ability.  Alas, when calculating her election gamble, she failed to factor in her own dislike of campaigning.

6.  When you have a venerable party with all its traditions and brand, use it.  Theresa May's team confined the party name to a footnote and insisted that all of her candidates do the same on their official campaign literature.  Prospective MPs once called Conservatives simply became people "standing with Theresa May".  Once the electorate decided they had their doubts about Theresa May, there wasn't anywhere else to turn.

7.  We are a parliamentary system, not a presidential one.  See 6 above and remember that for all the dominance of party leaders, constituency candidates do still stand on their own merits as well.

8.  The "vision thing" still matters.  When all was said and done, there wasn't much of a discernible vision behind the May campaign.  "Brexit means Brexit" was as empty a slogan as has ever been uttered on a campaign trail, coming as it did with absolutely no enhancing narrative or vision at all.  Compare that with Labour's ability to appeal to a range of people with a clear vision of what needed to be done for Britain.  Agree with it or not, it gave the impression they were thinking about what to offer.

9.  Personalities are important.  Theresa May would have obviously been a dominant figure even without the quasi-presidentialism of her campaign. just as Jeremy Corbyn was on the other side.  The problem for May is that she failed to project any warmth or spontaneity and appeared to actively avoid contact with ordinary voters.  In a modern democracy it isn't possible for a leader to survive without a decent skill at communications.  May utterly lacked that.  Contrast her with the cheerful and positive Ruth Davidson, leading something of a Tory revival in Scotland.

10.  Is politics being re-set?  There is a case for this.  The election has seen the return of two-party politics, the effective icing of another Scottish independence referendum, and the likelihood of a more pragmatic, Europe friendly Brexit.  Are we coming through a nightmare period, for all the veneer of chaos that exists today?

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Theresa May will be returned as a damaged prime minister

After the scares for the Conservatives of the past couple of weeks, the broad consensus is still that they will return to parliament as the biggest party in the Commons after the election - and by some margin.  Or perhaps, in Conservative campaign terminology, the emphasis should be on Theresa May returning to office as prime minister, since the party itself has had very much second billing in this campaign.

The problem with the way May and her people have decided to run the campaign is that they had no way out once it went bad.  And it did go very bad.  If you are going to relegate the actual party to a virtual afterthought, and insist that your candidates announce on their election addresses that they are "Standing with Theresa May", rather than "Standing as Conservatives", then you do need to be very sure that the product you are selling is up to the billing.  In this instance it wasn't.

While the Tories are clawing back some points in the polls, the latest Comres poll is interesting in that it graphically shows the damage the campaign has done to May's own standing.  The Conservative Party remains at 12 points ahead of Labour, but May's personal negative ratings have soared by 10 points.

Having started out with the "strong and stable" mantra, Mrs. May seems to have done everything in her power to disprove it.  Michael Crick's "weak and wobbly" accusation was seized upon by many.  A quick review of the campaign shows up the problem.  Mrs. May didn't vary from the lines she had been given from the start, causing negative comment from thinking observers and a damning belief that she was a robotic campaigner taking people for granted.  She was insulated from ordinary crowds, and when she did face them it went wrong, as in the Abingdon market square.  She avoided the televised debate and failed to provide a good or credible reason for so doing.  She put out a daring manifesto pledge which had been ill tested and then rowed back within a day once it caused upset, refusing to acknowledge that that was what she had done.  On the single issue which she claimed the election was about - Brexit - she has failed to give any information whatsoever.  No-one is any the wiser now than they were at the start of the campaign exactly what this Prime Minister's approach to Brexit, the single most important issue of the election by her own admission, is.

The Tories may still win a significant majority in the Commons, but they do so behind a seriously damaged leader, and it is almost entirely her own fault, and that of her notoriously tight team.  Many voters started the campaign with a broad belief that Theresa May was the best person to be negotiating our exit from Europe.  I doubt few hold that belief now.  The best that can be said is that she is likely to be better than Jeremy Corbyn,  although in Keir Starmer he has a putative negotiator who would wipe the floor with the likes of Liam Fox and Boris Johnson and easily hold his own with David Davis.

She didn't intend it to, but the campaign has exposed Mrs. May's shortcomings under a harsh and unforgiving light.  She will never wield the same authority after this campaign that she did before, whatever the majority.  The days when her Director of "Communications" Fiona Hill could send dismissive messages with impunity to senior ministers should be over.  If nothing else, there needs to be a sea change within Team May and at the top of government.

The two chiefs of staff need to be downgraded as soon as the new government starts.  A proper, civil service trained chief of staff needs to be appointed, and an effective Communications Director - this campaign has suffered appalling communications as well as much else.  As for the senior ministers, Philip Hammond - who has been hung out to dry by No 10 several times - should be kept on with his authority enhanced and his ability to make an independent contribution to the counsels of government kept intact.  Liam Fox, virtually invisible in the campaign and unable in any case to speak without putting his foot in his mouth, should be relieved of his duties and an able minister appointed in his place.  I would also replace Boris Johnson with a more low key and effective foreign secretary too; either move Amber Rudd (leaving space for the promotion of Damian Green, perhaps, to the Home Office) or possibly promote the well regarded Michael Fallon.  Liz Truss, incidentally, should definitely be moved away from Justice and a more rigorously independent minster put in her place - Dominic Raab perhaps, or even the return of Michael Gove who was well regarded there previously.

Sadly, that is a wish list.  Mrs. May has never been the most flexible of people and she may well not see the need to make any changes, for all the evidence of her terrible campaigning.  One thing we might consider though.  After an election such as this, will she really want to fight another in five years time?  More to the point, will the Conservative Party really want her to?





Wednesday, May 31, 2017

AS Politics: Party Divisions - the Conservative Party

The problem with examining Conservative Party divisions is that we tend to still be using out of date terminology.  The party has moved on from a Thatcherite/One Nation division (if it ever really existed in one) not least because the times have changed.  No Conservative leader seriously disputes the need to maintain Thatcherism's principal legacy of a privatised economy and lower taxes (a legacy that even social democrats like Tony Blair undertook to essentially preserve).  The headline issue that split the Conservatives in the post-Thatcher years was Europe, although there was also debate around liberal versus conservative social attitudes and the extent to which public services like health and education should be submitted to the rigours of free market medicine.

The key to determining the direction of the Conservative party lies with its leaders and the best way of understanding Conservative divisions is probably via them.  Unlike its main rivals, the Conservatives are driven to an extraordinary degree by the men and women who lead it.  While Conservative grassroots members are broadly right-wing, often putting them at odds with more liberal minded leaders, they are also fundamentally loyal.  They do not have pretensions to directing the parliamentary party, even if they now expect a say in how it is led (although such a say is rare - only Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron became leaders as a result of a grassroots vote).

Party historians date the Conservative Party back to either Robert Peel or William Pitt the Younger.  Pitt embodied the free trade philosophy that has remained part of the party's policy DNA (leading to a substantial internal divide at the beginning of the twentieth century) while Peel was an early social reformer.  Peel's cabinet included William Gladstone while his backbench MPs included Benjamin Disraeli.  Gladstone took his economic liberalism to the Liberal Party after the repeal of the Corn Laws split the party, while Disraeli eventually came to articulate what he called a One Nation vision for the Conservatives.

One Nation Conservatism - a somewhat inchoate, pragmatic blend of paternalism and specific government action to benefit the working poor in the interests of national harmony - came to dominate the Conservative Party for much of the twentieth century.  However, it was encountering problems under Edward Heath and it fell to Margaret Thatcher to provide something hitherto unknown for Conservatism - an ideology.  The liberal conservative Ian Gilmour had noted that "the wise Conservative travels light" but such lightness of travel wasn't benefiting them by the 70s, so Mrs. Thatcher brought back a form of Gladstonian liberalism in economic thought - essentially a promulgation of the virtues of the free market and private ownership - and married it with traditional Tory social conservatism.

Whilst opposed by liberal, or One Nation, Conservatives such as Gilmour on account of its negative impact upon working class communities (notably miners and traditional manufacturing workers), Thatcherism became the dominant Conservative ideology in the latter part of the 20th century.  Economic liberalism, in the form of a small state, low tax vision, was not seriously questioned although social attitudes did become a battleground between liberals and conservatives.

David Cameron became leader in 2005 and sought to modernise the Conservative brand without seriously changing its policies.  He coined the term "Big Society" for his 2010 election manifesto (an updated version of One Nation Conservatism), though in practice this amounted to little specific in terms of policy.  He also sought to focus more on 'Green" issues and social liberalism to soften the Conservative image; his embrace of gay marriage was a success for social liberals but put him at odds with a still significant socially conservative membership of his party.  He pursued some further devolution of powers away from Westminster, to a proposed "Northern Powerhouse" (the hobbyhorse of his key ally and Chancellor George Osborne) and the metro mayors elected last May - a lingering legacy.  There was also a feeling that his desire for a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats was in part motivated by a need to have a liberal firewall against his own more right-wing back-benchers.  In government, however, he and Osborne found themselves nonetheless pursuing an austerity agenda in the light of the 2008 financial crisis that wouldn't have looked out of place under Mrs. Thatcher herself.

Like all Conservative leaders since Thatcher, Cameron was faced with a Europe problem, which he resolved by promising a referendum.  He can hardly have foreseen that this referendum would spell his own precipitate political end just a year after winning an independent majority for his party in the 2015 election.

And so we come to Theresa May.  Her speech on taking office seemed to mark the outlines of a form of One Nation Conservatism, and the 2017 Conservative manifesto - which more than many of its predecessors is the work of the leader's small coterie, notably co chief-of-staff Nick Timothy - seems to have embedded this further.  Characterised by some as "Red Toryism", May's manifesto actively promotes the idea that the state can be used to further the public good.  It talks of the "good that government can do" and rejects what it calls "the cult of selfish individualism". It wants public schools to set up state academies, promises to maintain the workers' rights that are currently embedded in EU law and even rejects the idea of ideology as "dangerous".

In her determination to use the state to protect workers and provide government oversight of businesses, May echoes some of the activist agenda of Disraeli (or more accurately his Home Secretary Richard Cross).  In identifying herself as the emblem of conservatism and thus the nation, the only person trusted to negotiate our exit from the European Union,  there are echoes of Stanley Baldwin's "Safety First" agenda in the 1930s, although they lack his sense of ease at the state of the country.

In the modern age of an expansive state, however, which has often been the target of Conservative determinations to reduce it, May has also arguably carved out a new brand of Conservatism.  One which seeks to utilise the state rather than attack it, and do so in order to widen the appeal of 21st century Conservatism to those who are not people of wealth or rank.  The so-called "just about managing" that she identified in her first speech.  Shorn of the Brexit veneer, she could be seen as the most left-wing Conservative premier yet.  This is why a High Tory like historian Andrew Roberts is so worried, as he argues in this piece, suggesting that she is not really a Tory at all. 

The Conservatives are the most pragmatic and flexible of democratic political parties.  It is one reason why they are still in business after more than two centuries.  How long lasting the May changes will be are of course dependent on the level of endorsement she gets from the electorate, and a couple of weeks before the election itself that isn't looking quite so rosy.

AS-level Politics: Party Divisions - The Labour Party

Clause One of the Labour Party's constitution commits it to maintaining a strong parliamentary party:

“[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.”

Given that Jeremy Corbyn is opposed by 95% of his own MPs (only 15 MPs voted for him in the 2015 ballot; he wasn't required, as the incumbent leader, to check out that support again in 2016), the first obvious division within Labour would appear to be that between those who want to maintain a strong parliamentary party  (the MPs who opoosed Corbyn) and those who want to make it more a grassroots-run organisation (principally Corbyn supporting groups like Momentum and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy).  This New Statesman editorial summarises and comments on the division. 

The policy differences, of course, are severe. The leaking of Labour's election manifesto suggested serious opposition within the party to it.  It has become a fundamentally binary struggle between one-time Blairite or "centrist" Labour members (the majority of the parliamentary party) and the more left-wing, nationalising tendency (Corbyn and his grassroots supporters).

The "Economist" neatly summed it up thus:

Labour is not so much an organised political party as a blood-soaked battleground between two warring factions: the far-left faction, led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and including acolytes such as Dianne Abbot and Emily Thornberry, and “moderate” Labour. “Moderate” Labour consists of the bulk of their MPs, including Yvette Cooper, the moderate wing’s current leader and wife of Gordon Brown’s right-hand man, Ed Balls, Stephen Kinnock, the son of the party’s former leader, Neil Kinnock and Hillary Benn, the son of the left’s former champion, Tony Benn, as well as the majority of traditional Labour voters. The Corbynistas consist of hard-left activists, many of them former members of Marxist groupuscles, who joined the party in huge numbers in the past couple of years. The manifesto is pure Corbynism. The leak is clearly an attempt by the anti-Corbyn faction to embarrass Mr Corbyn and derail his launch.

(The whole piece - from Bagehot - is worth reading).

The moderate Labour faction draws its ideological position from the recent history of New Labour, personified by Tony Blair and given shape by Peter Mandelson (and, as it happens, Gordon Brown despite his attempts to subvert it through personal opposition to Blair). More distantly, it is comparable to most previous Labour leaders such as Wilson and Gaitskell, fundamentally social democrats who believed in working effectively through parliament to gradually change Britain's economic and social institutions towards achievement of the cause of equality.  They propounded a broadly "strong", pro-US foreign policy (supporting British possession of a nuclear deterrent) with the belief in a mixed economy.  Blair's spin on this was outlined in the so-called "Third Way", a belief that Labour's brand of social democracy had to adapt to the post-Thatcher era by embracing privatisation but coupling it to the public sector (Public Private Partnerships).  He also adopted a more clearly socially liberal attitude (notably in the field of liberalising legislation on same-sex relationships).

The left-wing Labour faction of Corbyn has a new movement supporting it (Momentum) and an old one (the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy).  Somewhat ironically the CLPD is an old Bennite movement.  Tony Benn was the leader of the left in the 1980s, the last time Labour took a severe leftward turn, and his son Hillary is now one of the leading moderates in the parliamentary Labour Party, sacked as shadow Foreign Secretary by Jeremy Corbyn.  This left grouping draws its ideological position from a more radical, even revolutionary brand of socialism that despises the democratic socialism of the moderates.  They believe in a grassroots movement and a return to a state run economy, coupled with more recent cultural issues related to diversity and opposition to "country" actions like hunting and badger culling.  They also tend to embrace immigration as a positive force.

The divisions above seem straightforward enough - a classic left v right - but are muddied by the division of ordinary Labour supporters into social activists and traditional members.  The social activists who dominate Momentum are young, active on social media and committed to a range of left social causes.  The traditional Labour members are more conservative socially, oppose immigration and also tend to favour Brexit (which Corbyn, after much hesitation, supported and continues to support).  For Labour's electoral success, much depends on where these traditional members and voters decide to cast their vote, with early polling evidence suggesting that many would not vote for Corbyn.

The moderate, or social democratic, element of the Labour Party remain in a quandary.  The Labour leadership has moved far away from them, taking with it many of their constituency memberships.  There is no guarantee that Corbyn would leave the leadership if he loses (he has said that he will stay on) and should the October conference approve a further reduction in MPs' power to select future leadership candidates, they may find it impossible to restore a moderate leadership.  Which begs the question of where they go.  They are ideologically opposed to the Liberal Democrats, but the last example of moderate Labour MPs trying to form a new parliamentary grouping and national party - the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s - was ultimately a failure.

If Corbyn wins - an unlikely scenario even given the Yougov poll projecting Tory seat losses -  then moderate Labour MPs will find themselves having to support a left-wing Labour government whose policies they fundamentally disagree with, or opposing their own party in government and signing their death warrant in the constituencies.

Win or lose, Labour's existential crisis isn't going away.







Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mrs. May and her flawed campaign

The Manchester atrocity hasn't actually persuaded people to forget what a very poor offering Theresa May is wanting to give them.  This is despite the serious efforts of May and her few loyalists, who have been banging on non-stop about security and doing everything they can to remind us all of Jeremy Corbyn's IRA links.  The fact is, though, that people on the doorstep are still interested in policy details that will affect them personally.

This is why the scorchingly bad social policy U-turn is still having an impact.  Tory candidates report a poor and antagonistic doorstep reaction with the U-turn itself having done little to restore any faith in Mrs. May's promises. Meanwhile the Labour party has been making more hay than expected with a range of policies that are basically saying "we know things don't work, so let's go back to a golden age of government intervention".  That works because the first part of the message resonates today and ever faulty memories allow the second part of it to gain traction.  There has been nothing particularly attractive in the offerings made by the May team, which is unfortunate because their manifesto begins with one of the best and most pronounced efforts to pitch conservatism towards the centre that has probably ever been seen in an election document.

More than part of the reason for the Tory shambles is the nature of both Mrs. May and her top team.  The lady herself is a solid but unimaginative and inflexible political performer with little depth.  She spent her Home Secretary years powering out some robust and occasionally draconian measures, toilingly defended some big mistakes and sat herself distantly from the Cameron/Osborne claque then ruling the party.  She was uninspiring but worthy; her public speeches and interviews were mundane and ultra-safe efforts, hard work to wade through and unilluminating. Fortunately for her, the more sparkling members of the political firmament all decided to implode and she was left sitting atop of the heap.  It's not the first time a worthy plodder has emerged on top and it is not necessarily a bad thing either.  However, it is not the basis for a personality campaign either.  Not in a democracy where you have to communicate outside the tribe at any rate.

Add to this the tight nature of her top team.  Just two people, her co-chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, hold any sort of power or offer any sort of advice - of the type that will actually be listened to.  This is never a good set-up, and when it is compounded by an insular defensiveness from all three of them the situation becomes worse.  And while Mr. Timothy appears by all accounts to have tried to use his position to do some genuinely blue sky thinking about Toryism, his colleague Ms. Hill seems to have spent much of her time throwing her weight around and making sure everyone knows she is in charge.  A woman who has no public accountability and has never operated in the public sphere now sends bullying or demeaning texts to elected representatives, many of whom have a deal more political experience than she does.  More fool them for taking this sort of nonsense but the overall image has been of a paranoid and narrow clique desperately preserving their power and viewing everyone outside their trio as potential enemies.

This then is the set-up that gave the Tories the cataclysmic communications failure over the social care policy (a failure for which Ms. Hill, who acquired for herself the role of communications chief once she ousted any competitors, needs to take the blame).  It gets worse though.  Calling a quick election the Conservatives resorted once again to Lynton Crosby, a man whose stock in trade is to run highly personalised and dog-whistling campaigns that seriously endanger the long-term integrity of the brand he is working for.  The abysmal Zac Goldsmith London Mayoral campaign is the stand-out example, but go back a bit further and you can unearth the Michael Howard campaign of 2005 which left many voters with a nasty aftertaste.  This time the brand isn't even Conservative.  It is firmly focused on Theresa May herself, as if a party with over two hundred years of tradition and evolving ideology has really nothing to offer.  May's halting and repetitive speech-making has made us yearn for more articulate Tory spokesmen, and reached its apogee in her car crash interview with Andrew Neill.

The Tories - and Theresa May - are still the odds-on favourites to win this election.  They may, however, be counting the cost of their victory for some years to come, especially if the centre-left ever acquire a leadership that is even marginally more competent than the Corbyn mob of hucksters.  It takes many years to build up a credible and popular political brand.  It is a brave person who can say with confidence that Conervatism will survive Brexit Mayism.


Does Diane Abbot deserve the hate?

Having just watched shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot being interviewed by Andrew Marr, I definitely haven't come away with the feeling that she is a sharp, canny and effective political operator.  She tends to be rambling, anecdotal and cornered by her past comments and attitudes.  At best, she gave a mediocre performance.  What did cause pause for thought however was the rapid vitriol she attracted on twitter.  If you ever think the print media isn't weighted against Labour - and left-wingers like Abbot in particular - then just consider this.

Abbot was asked by Marr to defend herself against the charge that she would be a dangerous Home Secretary.  Beginning a list of several personal factors that she felt were good - or "helpful" - characteristics in a home secretary, she noted that she had worked in the Home Office as a graduate trainee so had knowledge of it from the inside.  She went on to note some others, including working amongst diverse communities.  It took mere minutes for several denizens of the print media to seize on her trainee graduate statement however, and pin it as her main justification for being home secretary.



Later, trying - somewhat inarticulately - to explain that she had changed her views on the IRA, she tried to draw an analogy with her hairstyle having changed over the years.  Not a great gambit, but it was obvious that she was attempting to show that people change over time and that her views had thus changed as she grew older.  Here is an example of what it became on twitter:



And those examples are the kinder ones. 

I think Diane Abbot is a pretty useless media performer, who after years in politics is still unable to articulate with conviction and sense her more radical positions.  This is a shame, and it is arguably a seering indictment of Corbyn's party that she now holds a position shadowing one of the great offices of state.  Mind you, we are in an age when stupidity and unfitness are the leading characteristics of the president of the United States, so go figure.  Nevertheless, Abbot does attract undue rage and the willingness to caricature her every poorly chosen phrase on twitter is neither elevating to politics generally nor fair to her.  Unlike the journalists and twitterati who leap to condemn her with such alacrity she has at least sought to dedicate her life to public service.  That deserves some respect surely?




Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What do voters want?

The Nottingham University professor, Steven Fielding, has published two posts on the excellent university politics blog, Ballots and Bullets, dealing with the issue of what voters want - and therefore vote for - in their political leaders.

His first post was written after Theresa May appeared on the One Show.  In explaining why she would take part in a light entertainment magazine show, he noted that not only was she after its audience - some 5 million probably not very political viewers - but also needed to use the show to develop her empathy with voters.  Reasoned argument does not penetrate particularly far in a modern election, and some might dispute that two or three repeated mantras amounts to reasonable argument in any case. What voters are looking for is someone they can both admire as leaders and support as individuals who understand their own circumstances.  Fielding notes Aristotle's argument on "ethos, pathos and logos" in developing his point.

In his subsequent post, Fielding looks at the desire for voters to have a "strong and stable" leader.  Again, one might dispute whether the facts of May's leadership thus far really merit those words (weakness in the face of popular press campaigning and U-turning on budget promises within days don't constitute either strength or stability) but the reality is that she and her campaign managers have been successful in instilling that as a feature of her leadership.  Fielding references the arguments on "strong man [or person]" leadership from Plato, via Carlyle to Archie Brown (who disliked it but acknowledged the public's desire for it).

Fielding's two posts are engaging and accessible for A-level students, and help to consider what the features are for a successful leader in elections (both American and British).  They also illuminate the ongoing problem for anyone who thinks electoral politics is about an engagement of rational ideas, competing for the available political space.  It isn't and probably never has been.  It is about an engagement with the gut instinct of voters, the vast majority of whom are not interested in the minutiae of ideas.  Most voters, indeed, are not particularly exercised by the idea of democracy itself (the number of non-voters certainly indicates this, while even those who do vote contain a large number of agnostics who wouldn't miss the process if it were abolished).  What exercises them is the need for food, shelter, jobs and the chance of leisure - all exercised without obvious government presence.  If they do want to acknowledge a leader, they want that leader to look as if he or she knows what they're doing, makes occasional obeisance to the people's condition, and harasses their enemies with the minimum of actual conflict.  Currently, May understands that better than Corbyn.  Much better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How voters think....or don't

There was a fascinating piece on the "Today" programme this morning (scroll to 1:20:35).  Listen to these voters try and identify party policies (they mostly fail), and then explain why it doesn't matter anyway.  They may or may not be a representative sample, but these ordinary voters are classic examples of the principle of voting with the gut rather than the mind.  They are happy that they don't really understand any policies, it doesn't matter what detail parties promise as "they all promise the same and never deliver".  The personality of the leader is the most important thing.

Parties spend a lot of time developing their manifestos.  Voters spend a lot of time ignoring them and then claiming the promises don't amount to a hill of beans anyway.  Win the battle of perception and you've pretty well clinched the election.  That's Lynton Crosby's key understanding, and Theresa May - neither particularly strong or particularly stable as it happens - is his most obedient pupil.  Of course she's winning.  Policies have nothing to do with it.

One friend who has been canvassing for the Lib Dems reported a voter telling him that it was important to vote for Theresa May as she needed all our support to negotiate for Brexit.  That's nonsense and it doesn't actually mean anything.  But it is the simple mantra put out regularly by May and co, and a voter who doesn't spend much time thinking about politics has swallowed it whole.

Want to be depressed about human nature?  Want to understand Thomas Hobbes a bit more?  Follow an election!



The failure of Republican leadership

It is truly stunning that the President of the United States has almost certainly given classified information to the Russians because he loves bragging and has no control over his tongue.  He has himself pretty well admitted this in his latest tweets (here and here).

It is worth taking a moment to think about how extraordinary this is.  The president of the United States gives intelligence to the Russians!  This was the stuff of jokes not very long ago, or far fetched political thrillers.  Now, it's real.

Now consider the reaction of the Republican leaders on the Hill, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.  They hounded Hillary Clinton over her emails (though no significant information was ever discovered to have leaked) and set up numerous committees to investigate the Benghazi Embassy attack.  They portray themselves as American patriots.  With the exception of a half-hearted mention by Ryan, they have had nothing to say on this issue.  No comment on the fact that the president has given classified information to a hostile power, endangering the intelligence relationship with an ally in so doing.

Ryan and McConnell have spent a long time demeaning themselves and placing party interests before country, but so far this is their nadir.  It's ok to put intelligence lives at risk and betray your country's secrets if it means keeping a Republican in the White House.  McConnell has already shown how little he regards America's once revered constitution with his party games over the Supreme Court.  Ryan's whole mission in his political life has been to cut funding to any form of welfare programmes. Not exactly a couple of inspiring political heroes even before the Trump juggernaut exposed their self-serving, vindictive and malicious political dealing.

Donald Trump is a braggart and a moron who has little idea of the implications of his actions.  His only defence is that no-one expected any better of him; his whole political adventure has been to extend the brand of Trump and give his barely thought through political beliefs a megaphone to the world.  But Ryan and McConnell have come through political life.  They have brains of a higher working order.  Unlike Trump, they do know exactly what they are doing.  And it is one of the most depressing political spectacles ever witnessed.  Not since the days of Franz von Papen have we seen such naked political self-interest and cowardly retreat from morality give service to such an unspeakable populist power.

 When the history of the decline and fall of the American Republic is written, Ryan and McConnell will have prominent roles.  But why would they care?  What is the future of the republic compared to their political careers?


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Firing Comey won't hurt Trump

President Trump's sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, just after a former fired Justice Dept official, Sally Yates, had been giving damning evidence to Congress, is an extraordinary event.  But not unprecedented in style.

Trump has fired Comey while Comey is overseeing an investigation into Trump's links with Russia.  Back in 1973, Republican president Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox while Cox was investigating Nixon's links to the Watergate break-in.  Reports have not been slow to raise the links, and Democrats on the Hill have quickly referred to the Comey firing as "Nixonian".

Nixon's actions led to his eventual impeachment.   But enemies of Mr. Trump shouldn't be too keen to expect significant retaliatory action against him.  Here's why.

1.  Nixon's actions came after a slow-burning revelation of the internal paranoia of his presidency through initially unregarded reports in the Washington Post.  By the time Cox was fired, the Nixon White House was already in a state of siege.

2.  Nixon faced a Democrat controlled House and Senate ready to use their significant constitutional power to investigate him.

3.  Trump faces a House and Senate controlled by virtually supine Republican leaders utterly in thrall to his presidency.  Ryan, McConnell, Nunes, Grassley and others have all shown their willingness to roll over in front of Trump if it furthers their judicial or economic agenda.

4.  Trump still retains a strong support from his voting core.  This won't budge.  He has already faced down public protest over a range of other unorthodox or unethical moves in his frist 100 days; this is simply one more.

5.  The presidency was still regarded as having to work by understood ethical and political standards under Nixon.  He breached those, and thus began his downfall.

6.  There has never been an understanding that Trump will use the presidency in a dignified or ethical way.  Media and political opposition have failed to shift this narrative, due to Trump's continuing hard-line support from his activists and an extraordinary abdication by Republicans of any thought that they will offer independent scrutiny of the president.

7.  Popular pressure is all, but it has to be seen to be large and widespread.  After Nixon's firing telegrams and messages poured into Congress and the White House from concerned citizens.  It suggested a general shift in the public mood away from the president.  Trump can remain secure in the knowledge that the base which put him into office still would so again.  Millions of opponents in Calfifornia or New York will have no impact on him.

8.  The Democrats have colluded in undermining Comey, notably Hillary Clinton herself.  She has consistently blamed him for her own election defeat and been supported in this view by supporters such as Chuck Schumer.  This makes any opposition they now express to Comey's firing extremely suspect.  They should have kept quiet and understood the need to coalesce around an independnet minded Director who was, after all, appointed by a Democratic president.

No-one can tell how this latest abuse of presidential power will run.  Trump is still at the beginning of his presidency, he enjoys support where it matters, and neither the media nor Democrats have yet found a way of seriously challenging him.  They may still not have managed to do so in four years' time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

US Politics - A-level round-up

Parties

Democrats in the House

While Republicans have effectively divided into two warring parties over the Obamacare repeal, Democrats have retained a strong congressional unity, says the Washington Post’s Daily 202.

Key points:

1-      Democrats have voted with consistent unanimity in rejecting repeal proposals, even those up for re-election in Trump states and districts
2-      The House Democratic caucus has changed since Obamacare’s passage in 2010.  “Blue Dogs” have been wiped out and the party’s base has moved left; of 34 Democrats who opposed Obamacare in 2010, only 3 are still sitting in 2017 and they are all opposed to GOP repeal attempts.
3-      The Democrats are reacting to the so-called Resistance movement’s pressure from outside the House; similar to Republicans and the tea party at the beginning of Obama’s presidency
4-      House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi acknowledges it is easier to mobilise votes against something than for something and imposes strict discipline on her caucus
5-      In a Washington Post interview, also promoted in the Daily 202, Pelosi noted the importance of keeping the Democrat tent a wide one, incorporating pro-lifers as well as abortion rights activists.

Democrat Problems

“Commentary’s” Noah Rothman says the Democrats have been learning the wrong lessons from their 2016 defeats:

1-      Blaming Hillary Clinton and other external party factors for their defeat, the Democrats have concluded that re-energising their base is the way forward
2-      The problem is that the Democrat base was already energised in 2016 – but for Donald Trump
3-      The so-called “Obama Coalition” seemed to show that Democrats no longer needed their white working-class voters; 2016 showed that Clinton could not keep the “Obama Coalition” in place – perhaps no other Democrat can
4-      Democrats are thus allowing a new and radicalised base to drive them, whilst ignoring the original white working-class base which used to win them elections





Hillary Clinton on defeat

Hillary Clinton has been speaking about her reaction to her defeat in an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour.  Whilst accepting “personal responsibility” for the defeat, she also cited other factors as being decisive – notably James Comey’s re-opening her email case, the Wikileaks hack of John Podesta’s emails, and misogyny in politics.   Clinton’s campaign has also been the subject of a “tell-all” book – “Shattered” – which is hostile to the former Secretary of State’s failed candidacy against Donald Trump, suggesting she was insular, secretive and isolated from disenchanted Democrat voters. 



Race and Parties

Trump and the resurgence of race issues

President Donald Trump has reiterated his admiration for President Andrew Jackson (the first real “Democrat” president), claiming that had Jackson been president later the Civil War would not have happened, in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

Salon writer Chauncey Devega sees this as further evidence of Trump and the Republicans’ neo-Confederate racist leanings.  His key take-aways:

1-      Trump’s inner circle hold white ethno-nationalist, supremacist beliefs
2-      They came to power in part by promoting a false idea of white victimhood
3-      Andrew Jackson, who carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the American west against Native Americans, is an appropriate symbol for this movement
4-      Neo-confederates promote a historical fiction that the Civil War was not about slavery but states’ rights
5-      It is no surprise that the KKK endorsed Donald Trump
6-      Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act gave birth to the modern, white supremacist Republican Party.  It “transformed the party of Abraham Lincoln into the party of Jefferson Davis”.
7-      The Trump Administration’s treatment of undocumented Latino immigrants is redolent of the hunting of fugitive slaves before the civil war.
8-      Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to be dogged by allegations of a racist past.

Historical note: The Washington Post noted that Democrat House Leader Nancy Pelosi sat beneath a portrait of the first Republican president Abraham Lincoln, while Trump espouses the virtues of the first Democratic president Andrew Jackson.




Saturday, April 22, 2017

The bleak outlook for liberalism - in all parties


Labour and the Conservatives have never been particularly hospitable homes for their moderate, centrist members.  Corralled within an insulated party bubble consisting mainly of true believers, the moderate members have often been regarded as potential betrayers, consensual minded types who occasionally find common ground with their opponents; worse, as people who seem too willing to question the orthodoxies of their chosen tribe and challenge some of their heart-held beliefs.  What kept them going was the belief that their party leaderships, whatever they said in public, often shared their own centrist, outward-reaching attitudes.  In a sense they had to, for how else could they expect to govern except with the support of some of that part of the electorate which didn’t traditionally identify with their party?  So for decades in the past century or so, the two parties were, for the most part, led by mainstream centrists. 

Since 1945, the Labour party has had only one exception to this general rule until Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victory; Michael Foot, who presided over the disastrous defeat of 1983.  For the Conservatives, the story has been more mixed, as the era of One Nation leadership came to an abrupt halt with Margaret Thatcher’s election as leader in 1975.  Her electoral success was enabled by weak and divided opposition, but her leadership eventually became too divided for the party’s parliamentary leadership and was brutally shunted aside in favour of the more centrist John Major in 1990.  Major’s appeal brought his party an extra term in government, but his three successors ditched the appeal to moderation and presided over two election defeats until the more One Nation oriented David Cameron took over. 

Even in their darkest times – the early 80s for moderate Labourites, the noughties for moderate Tories – moderate members of each party could take solace from both the possibility of a return to favour at the top, and the knowledge that at least their opponents weren’t out and out lunatics.  A centrist Labour leadership benefited from the Tory retreat into its right-wing laager in the noughties just as David Cameron was able to see off the leftwards tilt of Ed Miliband.  Alas, no more.

If the liberal progressives in either party were tempted to be despairing about the outcome of the Brexit referendum, that is as nothing compared to the political landscape that looms before us in the 2017 general election and its aftermath.  Never has it been such a bad time to be a moderate in politics.  While Jeremy Corbyn exercises a complete control over the Labour party on behalf of his left-wing supporting movement, Momentum, Theresa May abandoned some time ago any attempt to face down her right-wing in turn.  Indeed, for all the eloquence of her chief of staff’s speech writing in the early months, it is difficult to discern a clear political vision from May, other than the need to stay in power and bludgeon a hard Brexit through parliament whatever the consequences.  There is a small remnant of moderate, independent minded MPs on the Tory benches, but they are unlikely to be much enlarged by the influx of new Tory MPs on the back of this election.

It is a bleak picture, but is there some light to be had from the direction of the Liberal Democrats?  Tim Farron has bounded fresh faced and energetic into the election and his party has trumpeted over 5,000 new members since the election was called.  They may even pick up seats – probably at the expense of Tory MPs in Remain-leaning southern metropolitan seats, or traditionally liberal south-western ones.  As nice as such a boost will be, they are unlikely to reach their glory days of 60 plus MPs without further work in the Labour strongholds of the north, and here it is more likely to be Tories – as in Copeland – who take the prize.

Why has liberalism, the progressive attitude once prevalent in all parties, reached such a dire state?

In essence liberalism has never been a far-reaching ideology in populist terms. Labour’s brand of social liberalism was smuggled onto the statute books by Roy Jenkins and his successors on the back of its more populist electoral appeal to manual Britain for better wages and working conditions, and better public services.  Margaret Thatcher’s economic liberalism came cloaked in populist attacks upon the failures of social democracy, and then appeals to national identity (via the Falklands and latterly Europe). 

Progressive liberals always sought validation from the establishment in power, and not from the people.  The belief in a reasoned, consensual, progressive building of a civilised state served by governments committed to at least some aspects of the liberal cause wasn’t one easily sold in gut electoral terms.  But populism was always tearing away at the fabric.  Most people, uninterested in politics and prepared to vote instinctively and emotively, and once upon a time tribally, had no time for the finer aspects of political debate and theorising.  While the liberal state delivered, this seemed fine, especially when each party had a core of leaders committed to variations on the same project.  Nevertheless, as turbulence swept the global community, and mass migration became a feature, the fragile belief in a liberal state that could both serve its people and extend magnanimity towards others started to explode. 

The incendiary devices for such resentment had long been readily to hand in the form of the popular press.  Once the liberal state stumbled in its attempt to explain the impact of global trends that put indigenous workers out of their jobs, and seemed to fail to arrest influxes of foreign workers to occupy the lower reaches of the salary earning spectrum, the way was open for the ever louder beat of nationalism. 

It came from the right-wing press, and was quickly adopted by politicians with an eye to the main chance.  It seems odd, in the age of social media and the generally accepted ability of anyone and everyone to forge their own news sources via facebook, blogs and twitter, to talk of the power of the press, but power it is.  Few twitter accounts or facebook pages can match the reach – even today – of traditional newspapers.  Where social media is bifurcated and diverse, newspapers still provide a common currency in news and opinion.  In some respects, social media merely amplifies this.  A single front page in the most powerful of the papers – the Mail or the Sun – can drive social media comment for days.  A largely mediocre political class remains in thrall to the apparent and high profile power of newspapers.  The Telegraph had MPs on the run for months over expenses a few years ago; Theresa May crafts her agenda almost entirely to suit the Mail and the Sun today.  And what makes these papers even more powerful is their ability to dance to the otherwise inchoate beat of the nationalist drum up and down the country.

Liberalism – the belief in reasoned, rational politics – is upended today by the resurgent triumph of nationalism.  In a shrewd column recently, the Economist’s new Bagehot (Adrian Wooldridge) identified the posthumous triumph of Enoch Powell’s vision for Britain (“Thethird man”).  The party that succeeds, he argued, would be the party that successfully articulated this ideal of a national identity, and he further noted that Theresa May’s provincially rooted Englishness seemed to have a far better chance of success than Labour’s messy, divided party. 

For the liberal, this is a most unappetising vision.  Having successfully emerged from the last wreckage of nationalist triumph in the first half of the twentieth century, securing what seemed to be a permanent supra-national and liberal dominance, the collapsing of that same hegemony, and the accompanying lack of confidence in its future, is once again unleashing the darkest of political forces.


It is a bleak time indeed to be a moderate.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

6 quick election announcement takeaways

       1.  Theresa May hasn’t actually called a general election yet.  She can’t.  The Fixed Term Parliament Act leaves that decision with the House of Commons, so in reality the fate of this putative election lies with the other parties (see Lord Norton's short sharp analysis).  If Labour – as Corbyn has asserted – supports the call, along with the SNP and the Lib Dems, then the one thing they cannot do is accuse May of putting party interest before country.  The Act no longer allows her to do that.  Instead, it makes a 2/3rds majority of MPs responsible instead.  Murmurings of turkeys and early Christmases spring to mind, and I do wonder if all Labour MPs are going to sign up to Corbyn’s suicide pact tomorrow.  If they do, then for more than a few it will be a means to hastening their unloved leader’s end.

2.       2.  Most forecasts – actually all forecasts – give the Tories a whopping likely majority.  This is pretty solid, and it will take a small political earthquake to dislodge the Tory advantage (although…Trump, anyone?).  Therefore much of the interest will be on how the opposition forces realign themselves.  If Labour really does head into an electoral meltdown, are the Liberal Democrats well placed to take advantage of it?  Tim Farron was far more sure-footed today than Jeremy Corbyn, and the Lib Dems are claiming a thousand new members in the few hours since Theresa May’s announcement.  They may also benefit from the “Remain” leaning seats currently held by Tories in south London and the south west – some estimates put their possible gains from the Tories at 27 seats.  Nevertheless, can the Lib Dems also budge Labour in its northern heartlands?  The now redundant Manchester Gorton by-election was showing some real LD strength thanks to a good local candidate, but can that be repeated across a swathe of Brexit believing Labour seats?

3.       3.  Will this election make UKIP formally redundant?  They are not defending any seats since the defection of sole MP Douglas Carswell (who was never a spiritual UKIP-er anyway)  and it will be interesting to see what happens to their 3 million 2015 votes.  If they see a sharp decline, we can probably rule them out as a political force from June 9th onwards.  If we haven’t already done so.

4.       4.  Theresa May has crafted this as an election on Brexit, but does that mean she is hoping no-one will look too closely at the rest of her domestic agenda?  She is struggling to define herself at the moment, making speeches that lean towards One Nation conservatism but carrying out actions that suggest old style Tory callousness.  Catastrophic morale in the NHS, short-funding of schools, budget incompetence recently over NI contributions, craven-ness on challenging the corporate interests she claimed to be ready to face up to….all this points to an uneasy domestic agenda that has hardly been crafted to win popular support. 

5.       5.  It’s about personalities.  With Brexit the dominant political item, and no-one really having a clue about how it will or should pan out, the election will – as so often – come down to personalities, and for May there is very little competition.  Jeremy Corbyn is as hopeless a leader as you could hope for in your opponent, while Tim Farron will struggle, even with an election megaphone, to make the impact he needs.  By slapping down the chance of a TV debate May has also deprived Farron of his possible “Cleggmania” moment.  It was a smart move on May’s part – she had nothing to gain from such a venture.

6.       6.  Finally, the result doesn’t mean a one-party state.  Should the Tories win big – the most likely outcome – they still face inordinate problems over the next five years, and such a result gives both Lib Dems and Labour the chance to properly regroup (under a new leader in Labour’s case, or with a spun off new party).  Five years may seem like a lifetime to upset liberals, but it offers May a mere two-year extension on her current lease.  In the end, that may not actually be enough if Brexit bombs.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Is Trump treading Reagan's path?

Republicans consistently rave about Ronald Reagan as one of the twentieth century's greatest presidents.  There is more than a little yearning for Reagan in their attitudes to Donald Trump. Trump himself is an admirer of the 40th president and sees himself treading the same path.

And Trump may well be right.  I was struck, when reading William Leuchtenburg's chapter on Reagan in his "The American President", just how much there was a similarity between them.  Forget the traditional smiling picture of Reagan, and consider this:

"If the casual observer thinks that Trump’s presidency is headed for the rocks, then reflect for a moment on the actuality of Reagan’s presidency.  His swingeing budget cuts condemned millions to poverty and wretchedness, cutting off millions more from any realistic chance of health care. His tax cuts benefitted primarily the very wealthy.  He sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act and became the first president to veto a civil rights act; in both his elections he received the smallest share of African American votes ever given to a presidential candidate.  He appointed an anti-environmentalist to the Environmental Protection Agency who proceeded to halve the EPA’s budget, urged drastic weakening of the Clean Air Act and refused to enforce most of the congressional regulations on the environment.  Her name, incidentally, was Anne Gorsuch, and her son became President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee.


 In foreign affairs, Reagan actively connived with a hostile power (Iran), selling them arms in a trade that his administration banned as aiding terror when undertaken by other countries.  He went to great lengths to deceive Congress on this, and when he could evade responsibility no longer he threw those of his aides who had done his bidding under the proverbial bus, sacking them without a backward glance.   His consistent defence was that he couldn’t remember authorising such sales.  He also supported some of the most brutal and dictatorial leaders in the world, including the murderous presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala.  Early in his presidency he sent several marine divisions to Lebanon against the advice of his military chief.  Over 260 marines were eventually killed, mainly in suicide attacks, before Reagan recalled them, having gained nothing.  

For all the mishaps, for all his political ignorance and his utter disdain for the poor, working class victims of his domestic policies, Reagan is somehow remembered as a great president."  

There are some extraordinary parallels between Trump and Reagan, even down to the reason why so many people voted for them.  The above extract is part of my longer article on Reagan as Trump's curtain-raiser, and even when writing it I felt increasingly pessimistic about the chances of anyone really dislodging Trump before his time is up.

The full piece is here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Democrats unappeased by Gorsuch choice

Democrats are in no mood to play nice with the Gorsuch nomination it seems.  I still maintain that since Gorsuch will be confirmed anyway, Democrats might want to hold their most lethal fire for the next one, who may not be as qualified or as easy to sell as a suitable Supreme Court Judge as the undeniably credible Gorsuch.  Nevertheless, after denied a vote on Merrick Garland, with Republican leaders McConnell and Grassley mounting a very effective year-long blockade, you can see why there is such anger on the Democratic side.  It can't be denied that Republicans have no moral authority on this issue at all.

For a sense of just how deep the anti-Trump anger runs, look at any post on Daily Kos.  Or have a read through this interview with New York Magazine's Frank Rich.  Rich was the most famous and feared theatre critic of his day and he has lost none of his punch when discussing - or writing about - politics.

Gorsuch's presentation by Trump reduced him to the "status of a supplicant at a corrupt royal court".

Trump was "using language you'd expect to hear from a Vegas lounge singer paying tribute to Frank Sinatra".

And on the wretched House Speaker Paul Ryan, Rich is especially sharp, describing him as "the leading Vichy Republican.  A coward who will do anything to hold on to power."

Meanwhile, Politico's report on the prime time presentation ceremony noted Trump's lack of apparent understanding of any of Judge Gorsuch's legal opinions.  The show was everything.   As, so far, seems to have been the case with the whole of this presidency thus far.


Can the Gorsuch nomination restore dignity to the Supreme Court process?



We simply don't have a similar institution in Britain.  Our own relatively new Supreme Court - a creation of Tony Blair's - received its first real bit of headline publicity with its deliberations on triggering Article 50, and acquitted itself perfectly soundly, providing a new and important constitutional document in the process.  But British citizens are unlikely to get too exercised by the UK's deliberately down-played Supreme Court.

It's a whole different matter in the United States.  The very pillars of the Court breathe remote majesty and authority through their brilliant white marbled stone.  The nine robed justices play such a significant role in the legal ante-room of American politics that they were once even charged with deciding the president of the United States.  It is said that candidate Trump paid most attention to the poll that said the Supreme Court was the single most important issue to them.

After eleven days of perhaps deliberately provoked chaos and division, President Trump's Supreme Court nomination looks positively statesmanlike and actually presidential.  The originalist nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is respected across the spectrum and is clearly a fine jurist with the capability of producing lucid, deeply thought out rulings.  He is no right-wing head-banger.  He speaks honeyed words when defending the law and the principle of an independent judiciary.  Even if you disagree with his broad legal philosophy, you get the impression that the integrity of the Court is safe in the hands of this man, this chosen successor to Justice Scalia.

Of course that isn't quite how this is playing, and the Republicans have only themselves to blame for that.  The unprecedented action of Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Grassley has undeniably poisoned the atmosphere of Supreme Court nominations.  For Democrats, this is the "stolen" seat.  The one that Republicans held back when President Obama still had nearly a quarter of his last term to run.  If Neil Gorsuch is being garlanded with praise by Republicans and their ilk, is being spoken of as a great jurist, a man with previous support across the political spectrum, well then so was Merrick Garland similarly presented back in March of 2016.

This National Review article by Jim Geraghty is pretty typical of the paeans of praise to Gorsuch and damnation to oppositional Democrats currently being generated (this one too, from American Greatness, lays out the Republican case pretty clearly).  How stupid of the Democrats, how narrow-minded of them to want to oppose such a universally loved jurist as Judge Gorsuch.  But nearly everything in this article could have been written by a Democrat about Judge Garland too.  The Supreme Court process has become so politicised that neither side can give credence to any suggestion or nomination from the other.

But, you know, this was also Justice Scalia's seat.  Gorsuch's appointment simply maintains the old balance of the Court, with a man who undoubtedly deserves his nomination.  Democrats may be wise to row back from a dust-up over this one.  They may still be fuming over the Garland obstruction, but fighting Gorsuch would seem to be the wrong battle this time.  And maybe we should remind Democrats that they had their scalp long ago, back in 1987 when they successfully prevented Robert Bork's nomination.  The Republicans are simply catching up.

Gorsuch should be given tough questioning by the Judiciary Committee Democrats, but they might be willing to give the Supreme Court itself a chance to recover some much needed dignity by not invoking a filibuster here.  By submitting to Gorsuch's nomination, the Democrats can keep their moral high ground, leave the Court where it was before Scalia's death, and most importantly keep their more lethal ammunition in reserve for the nomination that truly matters.  The one to replace the first liberal to step down.

Despite himself, Trump has played this one well.  After an exhausting eleven days, plenty of people would thank the Democrats for not picking an unnecessary fight.


Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trump in his supporters' words

There is a lovely twitter post by the Toronto Star's Washington correspondent, who asked various Trump supporters in Washington for the inauguration their view of the man they admired.  He tweeted their responses with their pictures, without comment.  Have a read.  If you are cynical about Mr. Trump, you will find the responses intriguing, and will certainly be left asking, "But how could they think this?"


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Theresa May and the delusion of a special relationship

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, has arrived in the US to be the first foreign leader to meet President Trump, and she sounded as if she was in optimistic form, suggesting that “opposites attract”.  The visit has caused a resurgence of hope in Britain that the much vaunted “Special Relationship” is back in vogue.  In Britain, the term “special relationship” refers to what is believed to be a unique partnership between the two English-speaking powers of Britain and its old colonies across the Atlantic. 

The problem is that Britain is rather more devoted to the idea than the United States.  Whilst the new president undoubtedly has some anglophilic tendencies – he is, for example, restoring the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, and speaks positively about the British vote to leave the EU – the British prime minister should tread warily.  Mr. Trump himself is quite clear in his commitment to “America First” – it dominated the thinking in his inauguration speech – but British prime ministers have always tended to be a little disappointed by their attempted diplomatic embrace with the much bigger power overseas.  Whether President Trump breaks the decidedly one-sided nature of the relationship remains to be seen, but if the actions of past presidents are anything to go by this may be one area at least where he is well in vogue with his predecessors.

Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt and the expansion of American power consequent upon the Second World War the British, for all their desperate flirting, have often been left in the cold with occasionally just enough acting paint to hide the tears.  Here is a brief history of the not-so-special-relationship that Theresa May is hoping to reignite.

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
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. He didn’t believe the Russians posed a threat and decried Churchill’s pleas to the contrary.

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.
Obama and Cameron
They played table tennis and cooked burgers together, but when it came to an alignment of interests there was precious little empathy.  President Obama famously noted that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” when it came to negotiating new trade agreements after a Brexit vote, and he was very critical of Cameron’s role in foreign policy.  Obama believed Cameron was wrong on Libya and stymied his own efforts in Syria when the British PM allowed parliament to vote against intervention. 

Theresa May, then, is following in a grand tradition of trying to re-start a special relationship that has never got past the warm-up phase.  She might be lucky.  President Trump will be in the business of surprising everyone over the next four years and he might just take a different tack on this one too.  But don’t bet on it.  Realpolitic will be as important to him as his predecessors, and by that principle Britain is just another pygmy, albeit one with a common language.