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0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"It is curious that the one appealing thing about Ken Clarke - his enormously advanced age - should be perceived as a weakness. There are, of course, a hundred anti- age-discrimination reasons, too worthy to list here, to applaud the promotion, at his third attempt, of a man who has reached the official age of retirement. But it is the return from holiday of Tony Blair, still in the grip of what seems to be one of the longest and most florid mid-life crises in modern history, that now shows Clarke's seniority in such an appealing light.On a superficial level, there is the guarantee that Clarke will never appear in T-shirts with a Burberry trim, in thick makeup, or having recently been made over by a fitness expert. Neither he nor his wife will advertise their prodigious sexual energy. He will not have to waste eight hours a week in the gym strengthening the muscles that will be seen when he deliberately takes his shirt off in public, or risk his heart murmur playing tennis, or dive off boats, or do any of the other things that people aged around 25 do in advertisements for cars.More importantly, we will be spared, with Clarke, the middle-aged man's horror of the old, and his consuming, rather pitiful need to identify himself incessantly with youth and novelty, in everything from pop music to technology to millennia. Above all, the wonderful ancientness of Clarke ensures that when he goes, he goes. With Blair, who is still distracted by the business of middle age, there is one certainty: like Clinton, he will never fully leave us alone. We will be at his side as he allows himself to go grey, exchanges tennis for golf, and makes his first, hesitant experiment with Viagra. After eight years of Blair, the only possible objection to Clarke is that he would be an even safer bet at 70.<b>The milk of human self-interest</b>The celebrity gynaecologist, Professor Lord Robert Winston, is a very clever man. He has created thousands of babies. He is always on telly. He is a peer of the type whose illimitable wisdom supplies champions of the unreformed Lords with their last remotely persuasive argument for not electing its members. Professor Lord Robert Winston, in fact, is so brainy that, were he to tell you to do something, you'd be a fool not to do it. This week, large newspaper advertisements have featured the Labour peer posing in the guise of an enlightened milkman with a litre bottle of full-fat in his hands, over a caption which trumpets the health benefits of St Ivel's Omega 3- enriched Advance: "It's clever milk."Why add fish oil to milk? Let us consult Professor Lord Robert Winston, or at least his new St Ivel's press release. "Children of today do not have enough Omega 3 in their diet," he explains. "The largest source of this nutrient is oily fish and, as many mums have found, this food is not popular with children. What has been lacking is an easier way for families to get more Omega 3 in a more user-friendly format."According to Dairy Crest (the company to which many mums are already indebted for its Homer Simpson Raspberry "Doh"-Nut-flavoured milk), "Anecdotal evidence from teachers and parents indicates that increasing intake of Omega 3 may improve learning and concentration for some children." Anecdotal evidence is the kind of evidence not considered adequate by the government's National Institute for Clinical Excellence. And "some children"? How many would that be? Neither Dairy Crest nor Lord Winston elaborates, in this press release anyway, on which children might belong to this category. That may be because they are referring to the children with behavioural or learning disorders such as dyspraxia or dyslexia who are, as yet, the only ones who have been shown - anecdotally - to benefit from supplements of Omega 3.In a Durham study featured in the 2004 BBC programme, A Child of Our Time, for example, which was presented by Winston, all the children were selected because they were not fulfilling their potential. There is, then, no body of evidence which I am aware of that drinking St Ivel's Advance will make a normal child "clever". Or even enhance its "concentration and learning". Even if the evidence were there, there are, of course, many ways of consuming adequate quantities of Omega 3, from eating a balanced diet to buying rival Omega 3-enriched brands, such as supplemented orange juice or eggs.Still, a few additional glasses of Omega 3-enriched milk are unlikely to do any harm to a child of average build on a balanced diet. It is surely the wellbeing of Professor Lord Robert Winston that we should be concerned about. While I can find nothing in the code of conduct for peers that actually prohibits a sideline as a milkman, there must be the possibility that next time Lord Winston rises to his feet to say something wise about science, his audience will struggle to blot out the image of him caressing the lid of his St Ivel's milk bottle and thus have difficulty in following what Lord Winston has previously described as "the quiet and mature arguments so frequent during ministerial questions in the Lords".Some may even see a potential conflict between the peer's promotion of St Ivel's Advance and the injunction, in the Lords code of conduct, to remember the principle of (a), Selflessness: "Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends." And the principle of (b), Integrity: "Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties."The code also asks holders of public office to remember that they "are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office". No doubt Lord Winston will, at some point, explain why he chose to throw his clinical weight behind St Ivel's Advance, and reassure the distributors of stupid milk that he has nothing against their non-Omega 3-enhanced product.In a chamber that still contains the convicted perjurer Jeffrey Archer, Tony Blair's flatmate Lord Falconer, and any number of disreputable, dim and unworthy beneficiaries of political patronage, we should not, I know, get disproportionately worked up about Winston's new sideline. Perhaps we should even be thankful that he did not decide to endorse Simpsons doughnut-flavoured milk ("bought by parents who want to smuggle milk and calcium into their children's diet",) or Utterly Butterly ("appeals to people who don't take life too seriously"). In an upper chamber where millionaire donors do so well, the pressure to behave in a nakedly self-interested way must be intense.Whatever the thinking behind his celebrity endorsement, Winston's obvious indifference to its more unappealing aspect only adds to the evidence - admittedly anecdotal - that Blair's placeman-enriched, clever Lords, with enhanced powers of concentration, is turning out to be as insufferably self-serving as the old, half-witted version. Now that they are gone, you realise that the one thing to be said for men such as Lord Longford, the late and unlamented Marquess of Bath and Lord Clancarty, who used to believe in flying saucers, is that their imprimatur on a bottle of milk, had it ever come to pass, would have been its kiss of death. Many mums like that in a peer."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"Whatever happened to the Big Conversation? A chill in the air reminds one that it is now a year since Mr Blair launched what he said would be an honest, "grown-up discussion" in which the whole country could participate. "Big issues need a real debate, a big conversation between politicans and the people." There would be meetings, for those who like meetings, and for everyone else, a website, which was launched with a selection of carefully composed tributes from radiantly satisifed Labour supporters. Before long, the Big Conversation had become, more entertainingly, a home from home for the grumpy and resentful: "I can see myself living the last years of my life in poverty," wrote one, not untypical respondent, "the quality of life here is on a steep decline." Others offered detailed calculations to prove that their lives had become a financial catastrophe. From what was published, it seemed most respondents wanted to complain about council tax, inadequate benefits, over-lavish benefits, house prices, speeding cars, speed restrictions, the railways, the bus services, local councils, pathetic pensions, terrible house prices, awful facilities for the disabled, bullying at work, smoking, the evils of outsourcing and the closure of local facilities. I could not, however, find anyone demanding the creation of super-casinos for the democratisation of gambling. Or expressing any interest in smacking. Overall, the tone - and this relates, of course, only to the messages selected for publication - would probably be familiar to anyone working in a call centre, where staff are trained to respond with an unbroken, impartial silence, followed, in the end, by a bland, "What would you like me to do?" In the case of the Big Conversation, that silence continues. There has been, as yet, no formal acknowledgement of the public's anguished postings. No analysis or summary of their views has been published; not so much as a thank-you has emerged from Mr Blair. It has been, then, a rather funny sort of conversation. Just as Britain was, for a while, a rather funny sort of GB: PLC. Of course, as any survivor of the talking cure will tell you, there's nothing wrong with a conversation in which only one side contributes. It's good just to get it off your chest. But even in the world of therapy I believe it is rare for these one-sided encounters to go on for as long as a year. A party spokesman says that the public's responses were fed into Labour's national policy forum. So this will be one of those debates in which the reply comes in the shape of a printed party manifesto. Will it feature baffles on street lights? Or a ban on membership of the Freemasons? Or the reform of council tax? Or the renationalisaton of the railways? The spokesman mentions the strength of public feeling on smoking, childcare and antisocial behaviour. He says the Conversation "achieved what it set out to do". In other words, having created what amounts to a giant virtual dustbin and filled it with complaints familiar from every MP's surgery in the land (minus the hopeless and illiterate, but swollen by comments from constituents with net access), the Labour party has moved on. As the election nears, ministers will no doubt cite comments made by other Big Conversationalists when it suits. But without any analysis of the submissions of its self-selecting contributors, it is impossible to know whether Labour policy reflects consensus on the website, defies it, or, indeed, whether it should have taken any notice at all of this diligently censored PR exercise. When the website opened, Labour officials claimed that nothing would be "off limits". "Tell us your No 1 priority for Britain," they urged. (After all, there was nothing forcing them to publish it.) In the past year there must have been a few of the 15,000 contributors to the website who thought that the No 1 priority for Britain - after local buses, anyway - was resolution of the war in Iraq. But in the world of the Big Conversation (which our Labour spokesman still describes as "a debate without prejudice"), this subject never came up. Perhaps it never happened. Our priorities are childcare, smoking, and antisocial behaviour. The Big Conversation's work is done. <B>Poor, 'bereaved' Paula</B><B>"
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"As well as a very encouraging article about sex over 60, the forthcoming issue of Saga magazine features an admiring interview with its cover-boy, Michael Howard. "The recent career of Michael Howard is an example to us all," begins the writer, Martin Vander Weyer. And not only, he explains to Saga readers, to people beginning "to weigh up the pros and cons of easing toward retirement". It is the "re-emergence" of Michael Howard, he says, that should inspire "anyone who has ever felt that the best is past and the odds are impossibly stacked against a revival of fortune". Not to mention anyone who has just lost two byelections, seen their accent ridiculed, and now suspects their former supporters may be dropping away. Mr Howard may well, in these new circumstances, be feeling that the best part of his leadership is behind him. He will have noticed that, with Lord Tebbit out mischief-making while Mr Blair celebrates his 10 glorious years, the odds are impossibly stacked against a revival of fortune. That is not to say he can no longer make a useful contribution. Maybe he could clean behind the fridge while the lovely and still sought-after Sandra is out on her modelling assignments. Nor is this message of hope springing eternal the only lesson to be drawn from the Saga piece. There is a lesson here for journalists, too. Given the built-in obsolescence of modern Tory leaders, it would probably be as well for anyone interviewing one, and working with a lead time of more than a week, to assume that by the time the article is published that leader will have been pitilessly evicted. Or, at any rate, challenged. Or at the very least, transformed, overnight, from party saviour, to embarrassing loser. Yesterday, after witnessing Howard's dismal performance in the post-Butler debate, the Daily Mail's sketchwriter, Quentin Letts, lamented the way Howard had "shrivelled like a punctured birthday balloon" when confronted with an uppish Blair and an unusually hyper-active audience. "Mr Howard was thrown by this mob. His speech yesterday was a disaster." Even taking into account the sensation - no doubt familiar to fellow Saga readers - of time accelerating with the advancing years, it seems only yesterday that this same Quentin Letts was celebrating this same Tory leader's prowess at the dispatch box. In fact, it turns out to be a full eight months since he described the first Howard-Blair parliamentary bout as "better and bloodier than Giant Haystacks versus Big Daddy ... It was impossible to be in that chamber and not feel a surge of excitement that an element of parity has been restored." He was not the only one to applaud the arrival of Mr Howard, the party's third deliverer in six years. In the Independent, Bruce Anderson dismissed the "myxie rabbit" as he tastefully called Iain Duncan Smith, and hailed his replacement's "incisive, forensic style of argument". Simon Heffer also liked Mr Howard for being "forensically minded", and predicted that, on television, "he will look relentless, even threatening." Alas, the forensic style seems to have gone out of fashion, and even as some of us suspected at the time of his election, being relentless, even threatening on television is not much use if you have no ideas to be relentless about, and still say "pippel". As for the famous, lawyerly ratiocination: it has had a perplexing, most unfortunate tendency to go missing whenever it was needed, which, with so many judicial whitewashes coming out nowadays, has been quite often. In short, like Hague and IDS, Howard has been a terrible mistake. After the byelections, Simon Heffer observed that all the Tories' energetic campaigning had "achieved nothing. After a change of leader and various new policies, their whole strategy appears flawed." Who's next? The conservatives would seem to have a choice of some keen young fellows called Cameron and Osborne, of whom no one outside politics has ever heard, and some keen, slightly older men, both journalists, who are able and may thus be a bit scary to the cautious Conservative party member, who generally goes for something more sinister, comical, or bald. But with the new fashion for disposable leaders, perhaps it doesn't matter much. Any Tories dismayed to find that the latest model has already, irreparably broken down, should remember what the washing machine repair man always says: What do you expect? It's almost a year old, innit? 'Ardly worf mending. You want to go out and get a new one. If William Hague managed four years, IDS two, and Howard is beset by mockery and despair after only eight months, it follows that his successor will barely have long enough to get his - or her! - teeth fixed, learn to say multiculturalism, and get themselves interviewed by Saga magazine before Lord Tebbit, or similar, starts oiling the wheels of the gurney. Like the modern washing machine, the new system is awfully wasteful and very poor value. Before long, the mountains of defunct Tory leaders could present a real environmental hazard. But that's progress for you.<B>Why the SWP likes a bit of discipline</B>This week's obituaries of Paul Foot have been a reminder of the British left's debt to the British public school system. So many leading opponents of privilege appear to have been shaped by early experiences in the house system that it seems probable the left can only suffer from recent attempts to replace traditional, character-building brutality with elements of human kindness. Still, the reintroduction of house points, uniforms and other Bunterish trimmings to the state system is promising; and the songs of Radiohead's Thom Yorke are proof that even a moderately strict public school, such as Abingdon, may engender lifelong mistrust of the establishment. Yorke's school seems to have suffered from nothing much worse than a bad case of rugby and a headmaster "with ridiculous sideburns", but the Radiohead boys are still warbling furiously about "bastard headmaster/i'm not going back/children taught to kill/to tear themselves to bits/on playing fields". Tessa Jowell has had much to say, recently, about the merits of competitive sport, and it is pleasant to think that the main beneficiaries of such discipline may not be her own party, but the SWP.<B>But who will be Alastair's friend?</B>Welcome though it is, as a contribution to harmonious race relations, I wonder if the Commission for Racial Equality's report on friendship goes far enough. The exercise of totting up black and Asian friends only emphasised the poverty of my friends collection, bereft, as it is, of any Welsh friends, friends on remand, estate agent friends, stockbroker friends, traveller friends, car mechanic friends, fat cat friends, sex industry friends, spin doctor friends and friends who are also baronets. To name just a few of the kinds of friends I have yet to meet. How, as Trevor Phillips has asked, can we avoid being misled by stereotypes, and avoid feelings of hostility, if we have no first-hand experience? With schoolchildren, one can imagine methods of enforcement. But how will adults find the time, or the opportunity to ingratiate themselves with unfamiliar people they have not been introduced to? Friendship leave, enforced in the same way as jury service? A better solution - as so often these days - might be a lottery, in which each of us is randomly allocated 20 new friends. After which it remains only to build those close and lasting bonds from which Phillips' dream of a fully integrated Britain can evolve. Swapping and trading in friends will not be permitted. After all, someone, somewhere, is going to get Alastair Campbell."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"After a number of recent battles, in which quite a few hundred people have been slaughtered, the sensitive politician might want to avoid the use of bellicose imagery. At least, until the real war in Iraq is over. Tony Blair, on the other hand, can think of no better way with which to emphasise the violence of his latest volte-face. Such is his disgust for the word "referendum", with its connotations of weedy debates and passive consultation (not to mention innocuous "tidying up"), that he prefers to present it as a rough, tough, gloves-off fight until the best man wins. "Let the issue be put. Let battle be joined." If this seems a repellently stupid, and, in the circumstances, staggeringly tasteless choice of words, we should perhaps consider whether Blair, the born-again warrior, is able to control himself. In Plan of Attack, his illuminating and persuasive new account of the approach to the Iraq war, Bob Woodward reminds us how George Bush flattered our prime minister, after the latter had pledged British troops, telling Alastair Campbell: "Your man has got cojones." Afterwards, Bush would call this the "the cojones meeting". More recently, in an interview with Woodward, the president apparently recalled: "And, of course, these Brits don't know what cojones are." Assuming Bush was referring to our linguistic limitations rather than to some flaw in the national biology, he is, of course, quite wrong. We have read Ernest Hemingway. Cojones is the Spanish word for testicles. Moreover, the heavily cojoned hero of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is taken for a Scot. In attributing cojones to Blair, Bush is saying that our prime minister, for all that he may resemble a not particularly vigorous 50-year-old who likes looking at beach volleyball players, is actually a heroic kind of person, a man who might easily have volunteered for the Spanish civil war, or fought bulls in the ring, or enjoyed any number of the life-threatening sports Hemingway considered truly virile: "It takes more cojones to be a sportsman where death is a closer party to the game" (Death in the Afternoon, 1932). Not the least alarming revelation, in Woodward's account of Bush's covert preparations for war, is the strutting, sparring manner in which his jowly advisers would urge one another on to walk the walk. Donald Rumsfeld advocated moments when you have to "look people in the eye". Bush duly "looked Blair in the eye". (Not to be outdone, Blair looked "Bush back in the eye".) Karl Rove, working on Bush's image, lists among desired presidential qualities, "Strong Leader, Bold Action, Big Ideas, Peace in World". Although it's not always as dignified as that. At a crucial meeting in December 2002, in which he attempted to convince Bush that the evidence for WMD was compelling, George Tenet, the CIA director, threw his arms up in the air and twice declared, "It's a slam dunk case!" (I understand, in the absence of Woodward's guidance, that this is a forceful and decisive basketball shot, meaning, when used by the head of the CIA, that there is no question that the WMD evidence is adequate.) Aside from its flattering new cover depicting the pardners Bush and Blair - in contrast to the all-American line-up on the US jacket - the British edition of Plan of Attack depicts this country's engagement in Bush's war as little more than a tactical requirement. In early attack plans, drawn up by General Franks in December 2001, British involvement was presented as optional. Later, of course, it was thanks to Blair that the US went through the motions of seeking UN endorsement for its war, but only because Bush needed Blair to stay in office, where he could proclaim loyalty and support. "If his government went down, Bush would not only lose his chief ally but it would strengthen Saddam. Imagine the headlines! Plus, Bush reasoned, he would be blamed. It would be a double whammy." So worried was Bush about the PR disaster of being forced, in the absence of Blair, into the unilateral, "imperial option", that he called him, offering to find another role for British forces, an opt-out as "peacekeepers or something. I would rather go alone than have your government fall." Blair, the buen hombre, is recorded as replying: "I said I'm with you. I mean it." If Bush and Woodward's account of these leader-to-leader conversations can be trusted, Blair was not so much the president's poodle, as his little drummer boy, free with declarations of eternal fealty - "I said, I'm with you" - for which he would be rewarded with compliments of the cojones variety, or other forms of presidential indulgence. But for all that Bush needed him, the relationship remained unequal. Demeaningly so. When it came to a second resolution, Blair had to plead with Bush: "Blair said he needed the favour. Please." It was graciously granted. After Blair's successful war speech in the commons, Bush is supposed to have called him, and rhapsodised "leaders" - like themselves - "who take strong stands and define their missions". Exactly how much of this sub-Hemingway posturing actually occurred between the two men, neither of whom has ever been in combat, it is hard to say. Some of it is so shaming that, if untrue, Blair should make haste to deny it. A few, utterly implausible expressions, such as "whip counters" and wanting to "win strong", suggest we should not believe every word. But the cross-my-heart avowals are all too convincing. And Campbell's earlier reports of the dumb, virile fun of war summits (where he, too, got recognised as a man), make it easy to believe now in Woodward's extended account of the eyeballing and bonding and slam dunking which seem to have constituted, for Bush and his allies, an updated version of coating themselves in woad. Today, although slighted by the blood brother who persuaded him to commit 45,000 British troops to war, Blair still appears to cherish his status as a man whose cojones are so surpassingly huge that he can do no wrong. It takes balls to walk all over the cabinet. It takes balls to contradict yourself like this. It takes balls to fly to Bermuda when there's a war on. Maybe he should go off and edit Nuts magazine. <B>Lies, damn lies and EU myths</B>One reason for a referendum, according to the prime minister, is to expose the disgraceful "nonsense-myths" circulated by eurosceptics. Among other fictions, he itemised "being forced to drive on the right, the Germans taking over our nuclear weapons; and, no doubt, the shape of our bananas, too." Some of us would have been still more reassured if, in this list of appalling slurs and malicious inventions, Blair had confirmed that a draft EU directive on gender equality will not, if it is adopted, result in a massive rise in the cost of women's car insurance. For the idea that young women, who drive more safely than young men, should have to pay the same as the sex that accounts for 98% of dangerous driving, is surely quite as absurd as the regulation of banana dimensions. But when one remembers the mischievous propagandists who are keen to damage the EU at any cost, it becomes obvious that they, and not a social affairs commissioner called Anna Diamantopoulou, must be responsible. For if adopted, her proposal must be a precedent for the introduction of strict, anti-discriminatory regulation in every other area of insurance, with non-smokers stumping up the same premiums as smokers, croquet players paying as much as skiers. Next time we hear from the improbable "Anna Diamantopoulou", let us remember Blair's assurances, and resolve not to believe everything we read in the newspapers."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"Barbara Cassani, the American woman leading Britain's bid to stage the Olympics, says that there is absolutely no truth in a report, run prominently in the Daily Telegraph this week, that she had been invited to dinner with Mr Blair, and found, "to be frank, he wasn't that bright". The newspaper alleged that Cassani continued, "He took an interest in what I was saying, and has this ability to make it seem as if he cares, but he didn't seem particularly knowledgeable about anything ... his responses to my questions were slow." She is also supposed to have noted the prime minister's very marked enthusiasm for the siting of beach volleyball on an area of Whitehall conveniently adjacent to his office window (a "masterstroke" of planning, he recently called it, in a public, somewhat heavy-handed appeal to the floating phwooaar! vote). It is unfortunate for Cassani, whose lawyers are demanding a full and complete apology from the Telegraph, that these alleged observations on Blair's mental debility should have appeared so soon after the singer George Michael described what happened after he, too, accepted Blair's invitation to dinner in 1997. George said he found him "a really nice guy ... What worried me most was that he didn't seem the smartest man at the table." A bit steep, you might think, coming from a man whose boon companions include Geri Halliwell and her dog, Harry. Then again, Michael's comments only echo Doris Lessing's verdict. Last year she said, "He believes in magic. That if you say a thing, it is true. I think he's not very bright in some ways." And not very cultivated either, according to VS Naipaul, who has blamed Blair for imposing an "aggressively plebeian culture that celebrates itself for being plebeian". No doubt Blair will accept Cassani's assurance that she in fact holds him "in very high regard". It would be difficult to find a new Olympic champion now, and, besides, even if she had said it (which she didn't!) being called stupid would probably make a nice change from being called mad or, more recently, moribund. Last year Blair was repeatedly diagnosed as mentally ill, not only by amateur clinicians such as Matthew Parris, who found evidence of someone "stark, staring mad", but by the concerned professionals quoted in Prospect and the New Statesman, who, between them, detected evidence of the psychopathic, the delusional, and other interesting varieties of pathological behaviour. For some reason - possibly because so many powerful calmatives are now available - the allegations of insanity do not seem to have prompted any talk of lawyers and apologies and setting the record straight. Even though there was every reason to think this supposed lunatic would have passed all the tests - such as spelling "world" backwards and counting in sevens - used to establish mental illness by NHS psychiatrists. It is difficult, on the other hand, to see how the prime minister could now defend himself against Michael's and Lessing's observations. Even if he sat an intelligence test. The contention that he is not mad, so much as dull-witted, is so apt an explanation for all the idiotic things he has done to squander his majority and compromise his reputation - from bodging reform of the Lords to falling out with the judges, from befriending Carole Caplin to alienating half of Europe - that it seems extraordinary it has not been advanced more often, and more forcefully. Admittedly we are familiar with the line that the prime minister is less intelligent than his wife. And less intelligent than his old leadership rivals Gordon Brown and Robin Cook. And less intelligent, as a public schoolboy, educated within an inch of his life, than the brilliant, grammar-school boys with Oxbridge firsts who used to dominate Labour politics. And less intelligent than the political advisers whose job it is to write his speeches and tell him about the third way and dream up "eye-catching initiatives". Even so, one took it pretty much for granted that he was not actually dim. On the contrary. "Bright" was the word generally applied, when his grin first appeared glinting on the horizon. If he did not always dazzle, rhetorically or in mental agility, then one supposed it was because Blair, being so modern, saw the importance, in this deeply intellectual-averse country, of demonstrating the common touch. Hence all the easy-to-understand turns about glasses being half-full, about the smiles on sick kiddies' faces and reverse gears and the surpassing loveliness of the beach volleyball player. Only recently has it seemed possible that this persistent vegetative state might be involuntary. Blair really hasn't got any ideas left. He really was impressed by the football-mad thug, Alastair Campbell. Left to himself he writes speeches such as his hysterical Sedgefield apologia, in which he justified invading Iraq on the basis that this was what he decided to do at the time. "Iraq in March 2003 was an immensely difficult judgment. It was divisive because it was difficult." Not so: simple things can be divisive too. It was divisive because a great many people thought he was plain wrong, and the evidence he supplied to persuade them subsequently turned out to be false. In the absence of coherent policies, plans, arguments, the word "judgment" seems to appeal to Blair as synonymous with rightness. Or with justice. Which, of course, it would be, if he were God. In an interview for Saga magazine last year, he said, "When I was young, I paid more regard to intellect than judgment. As I've got older, I pay more regard to judgment than intellect." As if the two were alternatives. Since then, anyway, Blair seems to have moved on again. What he really pays regard to, these days, is beach volleyball. <B>Save time - read about TV</B>If only Sex and the City could end, finally and for ever, a bit more often. What with the contributions, for and against, from top career women including Mrs Conrad Black, the lively debates about how far it has, or has not changed/reflected women's sex lives, and the continuation of the story, by means of Amanda Platell, in the Daily Mail, the obsequies have been as enjoyable as they are instructive. With the end of this series, it became obvious that you could have missed every one of its scores of episodes without ever paying the price in terms of ignorance, followed by social exclusion and low self-esteem. Now that broadsheet as well as tabloid newspapers are disposed to treat television characters as no less newsworthy for being completely made up - rather more so, in fact, since they are prettier and live more eventful lives - nobody, even people without televisions, need be at a loss during those brief but challenging periods when a programme becomes essential viewing, before it goes on to join Thirtysomething, Cold Feet and Friends in televisual oblivion. It is the work of a moment to absorb a tribute, or critique dedicated to Carrie and the three imaginary friends who have helped the shoe-crazy figment through good scripts and bad, yet such summaries offer instant authority should you suddenly find yourself lashed to a watercooler and forced to contribute to a discussion of, say, That Controversial Ending. Was the made-up baby obsession a patronising sell-out or a fair reflection of what the average non-existent young baggage really wants once she reaches a certain, invented age? The drift towards fiction has its compensations. Anyone who read, rather than watched Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, Cheers and Thirtysomething will have managed to stay quite as fascinating as the genuine enthusiast, while effectively extending their life by around six weeks."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"A few years ago, Susie Orbach launched a campaign called Antidote, with the aim of bringing "emotional literacy" into British public life. Tessa Jowell was a signatory. Antidote's idea, Orbach explained, was to "widen the political vocabulary so that emotions are open, not hidden". To judge by last week's political performances, Antidote has succeeded marvellously. Not only were we treated to displays of unrestrained exultation, we were addressed by the prime minister in the language that marriage guidance counsellors use on their clients. "What this does," said Blair, after receiving his second, adequately ornate apology, "is allow us to draw a line and move on." The prime minister's spokesman, John Cleese to his Robin Skynner, also hinted at feelings that run too deep for triumphalist press conferences: "It is time, as he said, to move on." It can't be long before they collaborate on a self-help book: Wars and How to Survive Them. Meanwhile, Alastair Campbell also wants us to move on, and Tessa Jowell, once a psychiatric social worker, has hailed Hutton for enabling the Kelly family to "achieve closure". And urged the BBC to "move on". It is a measure of her professional skills that some patients already feel ready to comply. "We've got to move on," agrees BBC2's Jane Root. What, however, is to become of those of us who, were we to lie on Blair's couch, might describe ourselves as having "some work to do"? Or as "stuck"? Or even, in some extreme cases, as victims of recurrent nightmares, for whom it seems that the hideous flashbacks of Blair and Campbell's grinning faces will never, ever go away? Since Hutton, I am assured, it is not unusual for people to feel hurt and let down, isolated and confused, unable to trust. We may feel that the world is an unfair place; so much so that there is no point in voting next time round. Will we ever learn to love again? For anyone who feels similarly at a loss, and in the absence of further guidance from the Downing Street therapy unit, perhaps I could recommend Dr Ann Macaskill's helpful book, Heal the Hurt: How to Forgive and Move On (Sheldon Press, 6.99). Dr Macaskill understands how hard it can be to get over things, even when the prime minister, his pet bully and the culture secretary are all telling you it's essential. "In the course of my professional life," she says, "I have seen many people harbouring hurts that they have carried for years." But we should ask ourselves if the pain is worth it. "Is holding a grudge, nursing a hurt, really worth the associated pain, the feeling of being stuck in the past, unable to move on?" In all probability, she says, the person who hurt you is "getting on with their life, seldom giving you a second thought". Blair, for instance, is already on his next inquiry. Campbell is writing a sports column. Jowell is busy telling everyone off. Forgiveness, Macaskill explains, is a process we can complete for ourselves, even in the absence of any apology - but "we have to be willing to work at it". She suggests various strategies for people who want to move on, such as thinking of all the good times you had with the perpetrator of your pain. You might, for example, want to think about Blair's promise not to introduce tuition fees. His vision of a reformed House of Lords. The thing about being his brother's keeper. For some people, of course, such therapy may only bring up further pain. Why, they may feel, do politicians arrogate the language of counselling, and with such patent insincerity? For they must know that "moving on" is not, according to the therapists who coined the expression, to be achieved overnight, but only after the laborious contemplation of what you are leaving behind. That "closure", even if it were a desirable condition and not the most abject of counselling cliches, is not something you can claim for another person, family or institution. Do they perhaps feel that saying, "It's time to move on" sounds more attractive than what they mean, ie: "I've won, so bugger off"? If so, we can only conclude, in the face of such self-deception, that many, many years of unflinching self-examination lie ahead. <B>Rennie, the BBC's cure-all</B><BR> Who is Dame Rennie Fritchie, the woman whose name now constitutes the government's all-purpose answer to any questions about the chairmanship of the BBC? Interrogated on Monday about the selection procedure, Tessa Jowell repeatedly assured the Commons that Dame Rennie would see us right. She would be "guarantor for the fairness of the process". And who, asked one suspicious Tory, would write Dame Rennie's guarantee? Why, Tessa retorted, "Those will all be matters for Dame Rennie." In the culture secretary's circles, you gather, Rennie Fritchie, the commissioner for public appointments, passes for the very fount of probity and disinterest. Or, as Tessa put it: "Given that Dame Rennie Fritchie has undertaken to discharge the oversight responsibility, we have to be confident of the enhanced independence of the process." If lamentably few people had ever heard of this prodigy before Jowell's announcement, it is scarcely the fault of Dame Rennie, who, it turns out, prides herself on being a "portfolio worker", for whom being a four-day-a-week commissioner (for a well-deserved 126,000 per annum) is but one of a vast array of positions, honours and emoluments too long to list here. Suffice it to say that she is also Northern Ireland's commissioner for public appointments, a "consultant on Strategy and Leadership", honorary visiting professor with a chair in creative leadership at York University, non-executive director of the Stroud and Swindon Building Society, pro chancellor of Southampton University, a "much sought-after coach and mentor", author of Resolving Conflicts in Organisations and inventor of the "wild west view of consultancy". Even as she bestrides the public and commercial sectors like a colossus, Dame Rennie finds time to share her thoughts on leadership, assertiveness, time management and creative thinking. Some indication of the quality of guidance she might, if called upon, be able to offer the privy councillors in their search for a replacement chairman, emerges in a recent lecture on "leadership and partnership". The leader's role, says Dame Rennie, is "to choose the right thing - to show the way, set the direction of travel". She continues: "It seems to me that having the ability to fly at 30,000ft, to see the biggest overarching picture, to know when to drop down to 20,000ft, 10,000ft and where to land and walk is a prerequisite for choosing the right thing." Having walked about, and also, perhaps, checked into an executive suite, unpacked his or her case and investigated the minibar, the leader must also listen to "the five unspoken employee requests", such as "Acknowledge the greatness within me"; and know how to learn from his or her misjudgments. "As leaders we enjoy success but we learn from mistakes." Unless, of course, we work for the BBC, in which case we are forced to resign. Dame Rennie illustrates the leader's need for Balance with a poem of her own: If Life Is a Circus: Who's Laughing? "With the children a juggler I became/Kids, work, home, no two days the same ... Now in my 50s, I finally hold the ring/In my three-ring circus balance is everything." There are practical hints, too, acquired from "my own Leadership Roles", which may be of interest to anyone applying for the BBC chairmanship. For example, draw a square, divide it into four, and fill each box with a list of "allies, opponents, bedfellows and enemies". Here's another precept: "Human beings may appear to be separate, but our connections are deep and we are inseparable." Candidates might also wish to memorise the 13 leadership principles Rennie picked up from Colin Powell. These include "It can be done!", "Get mad, then get over it!", and "Don't let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision." Does the last one still seem such a good idea? That, Jowell would no doubt remind us, is entirely a matter for Dame Rennie."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"Launching his Big Conversation last week, Tony Blair issued a little warning to those enemies of the state who would, he predicted, rubbish this "real debate" about the future of our nation. "There are obvious risks in this. The policy choices are hard. The cynics will sneer." And if the cynics did sneer, even before the exercise had properly started, those responsible for naming Blair's great mission after a recent management consultancy wheeze at the BBC should perhaps take some of the blame. Almost a week later, with around 50 contributions on the website, the least cynical eavesdropper would have to admit that conversation is, to put it mildly, stilted. A typical participant begins: "I am so proud to have voted Labour with my first ever vote a few years ago. Everywhere I look I see new cars, wealth, opportunities, investment and most favourable mortgage rates." Fellow chatterers do not so much reply to these sallies, as attempt to outstrip them in flattery. Caroline, for instance, speaks highly of British trains. "I experience a reasonably good rail service as I commute to work in London. When I've needed a doctor or hospital service, the NHS has always delivered the best services quickly." Other contributors, such as Carrie, contrast their current bliss with the hardship and evil of the old, Thatcherite days. "I can remember when I was young growing up with Conservatives and my mum had to work every hour to try and keep me and my sister and there was no childcare facilities." Another contributor writes: "In the old days, before the glorious Revolution, London was not the beautiful city that we know today. It was a dark, dirty, miserable place where hardly anybody had enough to eat and where hundreds and thousands of poor people had no boots on their feet and not even a roof to sleep under..." Actually, that comes from the party's history textbook in Orwell's 1984. Still, the intended effect is surely not that different from this Big Conversation contribution from Jayne, a teacher: "Have people forgotten the poll tax, the massive interest rates and all the sleaze of that administration?" Or Ian's memories of the 80s when, "I wallowed on the dole. I was in despair, forever chasing Tory dreams - 'get on your bike', 'woolly hats' etc, etc. Ten years after voting Tony Blair in, I am now in a very well-paid job, I have a property here in the UK and a property in Tenerife (Spain). Things have certainly 'got better' for me and all my friends who have similarly suffered in the past and have excelled under the New Labour parliament." Naturally, those running the Big Conversation have realised that, for the sake of credibility, these impeccably loyal effusions need to be balanced with some constructive criticism. A P O'Neill, for example, pleads for "many more party political broadcasts on TV and radio so we can hear directly from our leaders what they really think, what the problems really involve and how they can be sorted out... The TV and radio should be obliged to carry short government broadcasts each night so that a real debate could be founded on proper information and facts." And if I can join in the Big Conversation for a second, why stop there? Ideally, a telescreen in every flat would broadcast party news continually, untroubled by the media cynics and pundits whose carping seem to have upset several contributors to the Big Conversation. Imagine bulletins from Iraq that were uninterrupted by unwelcome equivocation about civilian casualties, brutality, WMDs, but ran along the following lines: "I am authorised to say that the action we are now reporting may well bring the war within measurable distance of its end." In reality, the war in Iraq is a subject the Big Conversationalists have yet, at the time of writing, to engage with (those Conversationalists, that is, whose contributions have been selected for the website). Ditto international relations, George Bush, terrorism, the EU constitution, drugs, asylum, foundation hospitals, parliamentary democracy, waiting lists, council tax, prisons, the House of Lords, the new supreme court, identity cards and the state of London Underground. On the other hand, experiences of the NHS mentioned here have been, without exception, positive: "the care... was second to none". On student fees, there is just the one contribution, from Alex, 19: "I think tuition fees are important because they make people realise the value of education." A foreigner consulting this website to enhance her understanding of this country could only conclude, like the visitors to Stalin's wholesome Potemkin villages, that all is for the best under this best of all possible administrations. Or, as Andy Saxon, who was invited to contribute to the site, put it: "I think Tony Blair's got an impossible job but he does it well." There are, inevitably, various hopeless personal petitions of the sort traditionally reserved for the attention of constituency MPs - who are, presumably, overjoyed to see so many monomaniacs diverted out of their surgeries and into this new bores' paradise. Labour has promised to consider comments from all such supplicants, who currently include: a man who says the NHS dentists near him are full; a woman preoccupied with the A36 bypass; a man who wants classical music on the underground; a woman who says we need legal protection for pagans. So far the only substantial and consistent source of complaint to emerge on the site is anti-social behaviour; a problem which, since it reflects worst on the parents and children responsible, can hardly be attributed to government incompetence. But the Conversation has only just begun. Perhaps not many people have written in yet. Perhaps its unnerving tone of virtually unqualified approval is not so much the achievement of Labour's thought police, but the result of a complete lack of popular interest. We must hope that in time, with sustained promotion, this "real debate" will cease to resemble a letters page from a pre-1989 edition of Pravda. If not, the only illuminating thing about Blair's Big Conversation might well be its unsettling echoes of Orwell's Big Brother. And then those cynics would have a field day.<B>Little people can dump gongs too</B>Yasmin Alibhai-Brown ended her announcement that she plans to return her MBE with a confession that she is not quite sure how one goes about it. Clearly she does not have the good fortune to live in Islington, where the the clatter of unwanted CBEs, MBEs and OBEs recently became so deafening that the council issued each household with a handy honours recyling bin, in which unwanted medals can simply be left on the doorstep every Monday alongside the boxes containing empty Chardonnay bottles and assorted printed refuse. The honours are then melted down and the profits used to start up call centres in former outposts of the British empire. But as Alibhai-Brown implied, it may be some time before everyone shares the "self-contempt" that she now feels at having accepted her honour. With a perceptiveness reminiscent of Leona Helmsley's, who remarked - as a millionairess - that "only little people pay taxes", the Independent columnist noted that, "It is important to remember that the little people are often in the lists which come out - nurses, community activists, dinner ladies - for whom such recognition is priceless..." What can be done to bridge this gap; to make these endearingly humble dinner ladies and nurses more receptive to the urgings of that latter-day Jiminy Cricket, Benjamin Zephaniah? Maybe, if like Zephaniah and Alibhai-Brown, the grateful nonentities could be offered recognition of a different kind - a newspaper platform, for example, in which to simultaneously advertise and repudiate the state's recognition of their achievements - they, too, might be encouraged to snub the authorities? Although they cannot, as a general rule, be allowed a whole article each, there seems no reason why in future, the New Year honours lists should not be accompanied by yet more elite, honours-disdained/returned lists, in which conscience-stricken little people can experience, for a moment, just what it feels like to be big."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"B>The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Thursday November 20 2003</B><BR><BR>In the column below, sub-headlined ' Presidents and the right to protest', we may unintentionally have given the impression that Jiang Zemin is still the Chinese president. He was succeeded by Hu Jintao in November 2002. <BR><BR> <B><HR size="1"></HR></B> <BR><BR> Here are some things that people think. The majority of people, anyway. People think that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is one of the best books ever written. People approve of the reintroduction of capital punishment (lethal injection, for preference). People want fox hunting banned. Their favourite song is Bohemian Rhapsody. People believe in ghosts and are in favour of identity cards. Their favourite meal is fish and chips and they feel sure GM food is a very bad thing. Almost half of them don't think the MMR jab is safe. People underestimate the hygiene complications of preparing a Christmas turkey. They have never heard of the European Constitution. They think parents have the right to know the name and address of any sex offender in the neighbourhood. They think parental selection of a baby's gender is so awful it should be banned. Mercifully, for those who deviate from the majority position on most of the above, the public view does not have to be emulated, or obeyed. We are not subject to its moronic line on literature, music or the paranormal. On gender selection, however, the feelings of the mob are to be enforced. When Suzy Leather, chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, explained why this body, after a year's review, now advocates a ban on sex selection, the main reason adduced for the decision was that the majority of people say they don't like the idea. Or as Leather put it, there is "a substantial public consensus against sex selection for social reasons". In this area, then, the conduct of your private life is to be directed by public consultation backed by a Mori poll. Unless, that is, you have the energy and cash to defy the public fiat: sex selection is legally available, at a price, at private clinics in America and across the Channel. Quite why "people" should be so against this ostensibly not very wicked expression of a preference is not easily understood. If people had concluded, having completed the relevant research, that gender selection might result in a great preponderance of girls or boys, or an increased number of abortions or incidence of neglect, then one might sympathise with their fears, when polled. The deputy chairman of the HFEA, Tom Baldwin, has said that much of the opposition sprang from "widespread hostility", and from anxieties about a "slippery slope". So it is not because sex selection was found wanting by the HFEA experts, you gather, so much as to assuage the public's nightmares about designer babies or hundreds of mini-Bin Ladens (quite understandable if you watch a lot of late-night television) that women such as Nicola Chenery, of Plymouth, who really wanted a daughter after her four boys, should now be prevented from having sex selection by IVF at a clinic in Spain. If this decisive body of technophobes had got their way a bit earlier, Chenery's twin baby girls would never have been born. How fortunate, in fact, that Mori polls were not in charge around the time IVF was invented. Ditto blood transfusion and heart transplants. But it's true: slippery slopes can be awfully worrying. What, for example, are the implications of the HFEA's deferral to public opinion in a country where politicians customarily go to great lengths to avoid doing what the public actually wants? Should we now look forward to seeing paedophiles in the stocks, zero fuel tax, the prohibition of speed limits, a quick exit from Europe and the immediate expulsion of all asylum seekers? The HFEA's recourse to public sentiment suggests that consultation should go much further than that. Most of us, after all, have some acquaintance with the issues of crime and of tax-paying, some opinion on public services. In the case of sex selection, there can be no recourse to experience or, even, to folk wisdom. It's a question many poll respondents might never have considered before - unless you count inclining, secretly, to one sex or the other. If fertility experts on the Clapham omnibus can decide policy on gender selection as well as the outcome of Pop Idol, there is no reason why they should not be invited to rule on other scientific advances likely to prompt substantial ethical debate. Those clinicians currently hoping to attempt a facial transplant, for example, and the few gravely disfigured individuals who have expressed interest in the operation, may need to consider not only the profound questions of identity involved in such a procedure, but whether the public will, once again, be so utterly outraged by the affront to nature that doctors, ethicists and prospective patients must all bow to its opinion. <BR><BR><B>Presidents and the right to protest</B><BR><BR>Isn't it time we had Jiang Zemin round? It's been ages and on his last stay, thanks to Robin Cook's insistence on sparing the feelings of the Chinese president, he hardly got to meet anyone. Quite possibly he went home with the idea that the United Kingdom is, leaving aside 1,000-year-old eggs and the occasional peasouper, just like China. A ruthless police state in which any dissent is either concealed from visitors or suppressed, if necessary by violence. But after George Bush's visit, that should all be different, shouldn't it? Even those who maintain that Bush is the vilest ruler of the most evil empire that ever existed must concede that, if his visit helps restore the right to peaceful protest that Cook suddenly withdrew in 1991, it can't have been all bad. Next time Jiang comes to stay, the Metropolitan police commissioner Sir John Stevens will want to make sure that he sees the welcoming Tibetan flags, banners and T-shirts instead of having all the human rights demonstrators obscured from the presidential view or dragged away by police. Unless, that is, Blair's government has no objection to our shouting abuse at passing democrats, who are probably used to that sort of thing, but draws the line at anything that might offend the sensitive visitor from less tolerant climes. There's only one way to find out. Come back, Jiang, and next time, bring your mates.<BR><BR><B>Where are the women?</B><BR><BR>Was Patricia Hewitt well advised to make gleeful capital out of Michael Howard's almost all-male shadow cabinet? True, Howard's one-to-12 ratio is almost comically shameful (though he was apparently spurned by Ann Widdecombe). But is Blair's record with women so much better? After the departure, hurt, of Mowlam, Short and Morris, Blair's six senior women (out of a cabinet of 21) are: an extremely disturbed person called Margaret Hodge, who seems in need of a long rest; Tessa Jowell, who is probably busy with the Olympics; the tireless caravanner Margaret Beckett; the not-readily-identifiable Hilary Armstrong; Baroness Valerie Amos (appointed, doesn't count); and Patricia Hewitt herself, who is still having a little difficulty reconciling her 1970s feminism with the present day. The Labour ministers with big jobs, are, like Howard's favourites, all men. Until Labour gets closer to electing a woman leader, any triumphalism in this department looks distinctly premature."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"Have we all gone mad? Even madder, that is, than our leader, who is now widely considered to be at best "rambling" (Correlli Barnett), at worst, a "plausible psychopath" (Prospect, The New Statesman)? Even madder than Blair's enemy, the no less totally doolally Clare Short? Yet more raving bonkers than Blair's potential successor, the "psychologically flawed" Gordon Brown (diagnosis, courtesy Dr A Campbell)? Still more barking than the "disturbed and dangerous" (Mail on Sunday) Campbell himself, who presides, according to one mental health professional, over a Downing Street "on the verge of a classic trauma syndrome"? We have. Difficult as it is to keep up with developments in the fastmoving world of amateur psychiatry, there seems to be a general agreement that one of the very maddest things anyone could possibly do, during this period of intense disillusion with Blair, is conclude that it might be an idea to replace him with someone else. Rebuking dissidents for their silliness last weekend, the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley said it "makes you wonder who most needs a session in the psychiatrist's chair". Supposing he is right and to go off Blair is to be insane, it is quite worrying, isn't it? Voter on couch: Doctor, doctor - I don't think I'd vote for Blair again. Am I going mad?" Doctor: "Yes." If the prime minister were not himself a signatory to the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Changing Minds campaign, with its ambition to combat "inaccurate representation, in the media and elsewhere, based on stigmatising attitudes and stereotypes ('nutter', 'psycho', 'schizo')...", we might anticipate real problems in finding adequate beds and medication for the thousands of people who will not forgive Blair for making monkeys of them. Even contented Blairites who concede that such disaffection need not, by itself, indicate progressive mental debility, are apt to dismiss any talk of replacing Blair as sheer folly. "Why try to change the most successful leader in the Labour party's history?", as David Blunkett put it recently. So often and so confidently does this claim trip off his supporters' tongues that one tends to forget that Harold Wilson won four elections to Blair's two. And that if Blair has won bigger majorities, the latter was achieved after the smallest turnout since 1918. Moreover, if the "most successful" claim can, according to certain parameters, be justified, what does it actually mean? That Blair will therefore always be identified as successful, no matter how low his former supporters hold him in esteem? That he can never be held responsible for any subsequent mistakes, however grievous, or for the capital he has failed to make from all this unprecedented success? That he can do no wrong? If I understand Blunkett's defence of Blair, past political success is now taken to confer life-long immunity from failure or competition. Because he ditched Clause 4 and secured a minimum wage, Blair has earned the right to more reverential treatment than, say, Churchill enjoyed after winning the war, or Margaret Thatcher received from her colleagues, having also made her party seemingly unassailable. One recalls that even the achievements of Caesar were not enough to mollify Brutus and co; rather as Suetonius put it, "his other actions and words so turn the scale, that it is thought that he abused his power and was justly slain." Given that Blair's critics are only discussing replacing him one day, rather than stabbing him to death in the capitol, it is hard to understand the pre-emptively Mark Antony-ish tone of his allies, with their accusations of lunacy: "O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason... " Would Blair be so heroic a loss? Would we, after he had gone, find ourselves pining for his dashing band of cronies, or wishing his successor could also go round bestriding the narrow world like a Colossus, or yearning for a figure who cared for us so much that his voice often cracked with emotion? Perhaps we would. The more one attempts to understand why, no matter how much Blair might disappoint, the prospect of his departure from the political scene should be so unbearable, the more this fear of losing him seems an unwholesome but not altogether surprising response to his own cult of personality. Urged, repeatedly, to believe in Blair's self-belief and dedication, we have dutifully put our faith in him. Although doubters cannot, in the absence of much political theory beyond "what works", be called heretics, they can be made to feel like traitors, Judases and ingrates. What would we be without him? Maybe, just as children are meant to heed Hilaire Belloc's admonition - "And always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse" - we are simply anxious about being led by someone who is not Blair, the saviour of his party. My own solution, when either sentimentality or fear of the unknown strikes in this way, is to remember how smartly Blair has evicted individuals, from Peter Mandelson to Derry Irvine, the penultimate lord chancellor, in whom he himself has been disappointed. Without a doubt, whoever finally succeeds Blair will be more boring. He, or she, could hardly cut so handsome a figure, be so proficient at acting or believe, so sincerely, in a semi-spiritual mission to reforge the nation's destiny (exact details TBC). Is it completely mad, however, to think they might be as good, or even better, at housekeeping?<BR><BR><B>Jeffrey's preposterous taste </B><BR><BR>Although, for the most part, Jeffrey Archer's second batch of prison diaries simply confirm what was obvious from the first instalment - that his sentence did nothing but aggravate his existing self-importance - there is, however, one detail which may be of interest to any art historians who have been tempted, over the years, to believe his lagship's oft-repeated claims to be a connoisseur. <BR><BR>Having heard, from a fellow prisoner, a drug-dealer, that paintings by his Colombian countryman, Fernando Botero might become available to the right person at a knock-down price, Archer is keen as ever to make a deal. <BR><BR>Any work by Botero will do, although Archer becomes very excited when he finally receives a photograph of a painting called The Card Players, featuring a particularly massive naked bum, and proceeds to bid $400,000 for it from his cell, without further inspection. He notes, with satisfaction, that "prices may be shaky after the September 11 atrocities, which happened just over a week ago". <BR><BR>Alas, even with Osama's help, prices are not low enough for Archer and his bid fails. Although he is unlikely, without the help of the drug runner, to be able to afford any other work by Botero (an artist neatly described by Brian Sewell as "the preposterous Colombian-Mexican-Parisian whose inflated balloon figures some giants of the art market take seriously as art") the story will no doubt inspire other dealers to whom it may suggest that the way to awaken Archer's covetousness is not so much the appearance of any work of art, nor its provenance, but stealthy allusions to the dodges and low cunning necessary to get his hands on it."
0 (catherinebennett)
0 (Politics)
"The Daily Mail despairs of Cherie Blair. True, even when the woman passed for semi-rational, it never had much time for her, but in the past week, dismayed by her appetite for the manifestly bogus, the paper has focused repeatedly on what an editorial called her "lack of judgment". Lynda Lee-Potter diagnosed her as "gullible, bordering on the cranky when it comes to alternative medicine, homeopathy, gurus and the power of crystals and rocks". And in a special investigation of this gullible borderline crank "the Weird World of Cherie" went into disdainful detail about her allegedly "increasing" dependence on a Dorking-based medium called Sylvia. "The fact that the prime minister's wife faxes questions to the spirit world is at best bizarre, but at worst deeply worrying," wrote Paul Harris. "What's she going to ask them? Should we go to war with Iraq? It is rather an unusual way to organise your future." It most certainly is. But no more so, perhaps, than the Daily Mail's own enthusiasm for another purveyor of occult intelligence, one Michael Drosnin, author of a pre-millennium bestseller called The Bible Code. Throughout the week, alongside bulletins from the weird world of Cherie, the Mail has been treating its readers to lengthy extracts from Drosnin's sequel, Bible Code 2: The Countdown, in which the author rounds up a few scary predictions he forgot to mention earlier. For him, as for so many other professional purveyors of doom, September 11 came as thrilling confirmation that the Apocalypse is - hadn't they told us so all along? - a conflagration just waiting to happen. "All the evidence seems to suggest that the globe will be in a state of perpetual conflict until the year 2006... " His threats concluded yesterday with the clinching revelation that the bible code is the work of visiting aliens, who "arrived here on Earth in a spacecraft". It is thanks to them, the Daily Mail presumably believes, that Drosnin is now able to share the warnings of al-Qaida's activities which he discovered in the aftermath of 9/11. "First, the Bible Code predicted the attacks on the Twin Towers", it trumpeted on Monday's front page, alongside a handy aide memoire: a mugshot of Bin Laden. "Now, it warns of nuclear war. Dare we ignore this message?" Ooh, I don't know. As Harris puts it, it does seem "rather an unusual way to organise your future". Like Cherie, whose relationship with her medium is described as "decidedly long-term", the Daily Mail's reliance on Drosnin and his team of gifted aliens goes back a while, to 1997, when it serialised his first, highly successful attempt to use the bible codes to cash in on premillennial tension. His technique, borrowed from a devout Israeli mathematician, is to search for names "hidden" in the Bible, using a computer to try out equidistant letter sequences. It may be, the Torah being so very long, that it contains a lot of interesting stuff about Lynda Lee-Potter or Alan Partridge, but being a serious person, Drosnin stuck to searching for politicians. When he searched for Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, the name duly surfaced, with the letters spaced 4,772 characters apart. Once the letters have been arranged on a grid, in whatever direction - upwards, diagonally, backwards - turns out to be most rewarding, bible code experts then search the surrounding text for phrases or words that might offer added prophetic meaning. Clinton, for instance, could be made to appear near "hidden secret, lover of maidservant". Drosnin was exultant. "That's as close as the Old Testament gets to 'young female intern'. Rabin, on the other hand, could be made to intersect with the Hebrew words "a murderer who murders". Thus it is Drosnin's boast to have predicted Rabin's murder. His prediction of Netanyahu's assassination is less often advertised. Trying to locate the exact date of Armageddon, back in 1997, proved equally tricky. "There is no way to know whether the code is predicting a war in 2000 or 2006," he decided. "The year 2000 is encoded twice, but 2006 is mathematically the best match." Can't be too careful, eh? Defending this codswallop back in 1997, Drosnin said: "When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I'll believe them. An enterprising Australian computer scientist called Brendan McKay promptly used the bible codes technique on Moby Dick to find the names of a variety of assassinated prime ministers, including Indira Gandhi, Rene Moawad, Abraham Lincoln and Yitzhak Rabin. Sadly, a search of Moby Dick also predicted Michael Drosnin's own death, by a nail through the heart: "Mr Drosnin will be killed either in Cairo or Athens. Probably both places will play a part, but our skills in reading the secret codes are not yet advanced enough to say more." In 1999, McKay also co-authored a comprehensive repudiation of the bible codes in the journal Statistical Science. "A brief summary of the result of our very extensive investigation", he writes, "is that all the alleged scientific evidence for the codes is bunk." A view resoundingly endorsed in a "Mathematicians' Statement on the Bible Codes", available on the net, in which scores of academics, including John Allen Paulos, agree that "the almost unanimous opinion of those in the scientific world who have studied the question is that the theory is without foundation." The pages of the Daily Mail, however, inhabit a quite different, Cherie-style universe, whose laws allow for Drosnin's many critics to be blithely ignored or baselessly discredited. "Many people scoffed," says the paper, "until they saw the astonishing array of modern events spelled out in the ancient Hebrew letters." With Drosnin also rewriting the past - "the case for the code has just kept getting stronger" - many of the Mail's more gullible readers may now be considering cashing in their endowment policies. For unless Drosnin can locate the aliens' code from its resting place under the Dead Sea, it seems that our lives will probably end horribly in 2006. Photographs of Bin Laden, gas masks and burning towers offer a few, surpassingly tasteless hints of what we can expect. Maybe a nuclear holocaust, Drosnin speculates, or "a plague that could kill one-third of the world's population". Hard to say. Whatever it is, only he knows where the aliens left the key "to unlock the code and see our entire future", but the King of Jordan won't let him investigate! "Time is running out - fast... " Is it? Crikey. If consulting the dead were not such a deplorably gullible and cranky thing to do, one might almost be tempted to get a second opinion from Cherie's spirit guide in Dorking. Does Sylvia accept inquiries from the general public, as well as the prime minister's wife? If so, I have two questions. Should we go to war with Iraq? And can we believe anything we read in the Daily Mail?"
1 (georgemonbiot)
0 (Politics)
"Saturday is the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The nuclear powers are commemorating it in their own special way: by seeking to ensure that the experiment is repeated.As Robin Cook showed in his column last week, the British government appears to have decided to replace our Trident nuclear weapons, without consulting parliament or informing the public. It could be worse than he thinks. He pointed out that the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston has been re-equipped to build a new generation of bombs. But when this news was first leaked in 2002 a spokesman for the plant insisted the equipment was being installed not to replace Trident but to build either mini-nukes or warheads that could be used on cruise missiles.If this is true it means the government is replacing Trident and developing a new category of boil-in-the-bag weapons. As if to ensure we got the point, Geoff Hoon, then the defence secretary, announced before the leak that Britain would be prepared to use small nukes in a pre-emptive strike against a non-nuclear state. This put us in the hallowed company of North Korea.The Times, helpful as ever, explains why Trident should be replaced. "A decision to leave the club of nuclear powers," it says, "would diminish Britain's international standing and influence." This is true, and it accounts for why almost everyone wants the bomb. Two weeks ago, on concluding their new nuclear treaty, George Bush and the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh announced that "international institutions must fully reflect changes in the global scenario that have taken place since 1945. The president reiterated his view that international institutions are going to have to adapt to reflect India's central and growing role." This translates as follows: "Now that India has the bomb it should join the UN security council."It is because nuclear weapons confer power and status on the states that possess them that the non-proliferation treaty, of which the UK was a founding signatory, determines two things: that the non-nuclear powers should not acquire nuclear weapons, and that the nuclear powers should "pursue negotiations in good faith on ... general and complete disarmament". Blair has unilaterally decided to rip it up.But in helping to wreck the treaty we are only keeping up with our friends across the water. In May the US government launched a systematic assault on the agreement. The summit in New York was supposed to strengthen it, but the US, led by John Bolton - the undersecretary for arms control (someone had a good laugh over that one) - refused even to allow the other nations to draw up an agenda for discussion. The talks collapsed, and the treaty may now be all but dead. Needless to say, Bolton has been promoted: to the post of US ambassador to the UN. Yesterday Bush pushed his nomination through by means of a "recess appointment": an undemocratic power that allows him to override Congress when its members are on holiday.Bush wanted to destroy the treaty because it couldn't be reconciled with his new plans. Last month the Senate approved an initial $4m for research into a "robust nuclear earth penetrator" (RNEP). This is a bomb with a yield about 10 times that of the Hiroshima device, designed to blow up underground bunkers that might contain weapons of mass destruction. (You've spotted the contradiction.) Congress rejected funding for it in November, but Bush twisted enough arms this year to get it restarted. You see what a wonderful world he inhabits when you discover that the RNEP idea was conceived in 1991 as a means of dealing with Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons. Saddam is pacing his cell, but the Bushites, like the Japanese soldiers lost in Malaysia, march on. To pursue his war against the phantom of the phantom of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, Bush has destroyed the treaty that prevents the use of real ones.It gets worse. Last year Congress allocated funding for something called the "reliable replacement warhead". The government's story is that the existing warheads might be deteriorating. When they show signs of ageing they can be dismantled and rebuilt to a "safer and more reliable" design. It's a pretty feeble excuse for building a new generation of nukes, but it worked. The development of the new bombs probably means the US will also breach the comprehensive test ban treaty - so we can kiss goodbye to another means of preventing proliferation.But the biggest disaster was Bush's meeting with Manmohan Singh a fortnight ago. India is one of three states that possess nuclear weapons and refuse to sign the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). The treaty says India should be denied access to civil nuclear materials. But on July 18 Bush announced that "as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology, India should acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states". He would "work to achieve full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India" and "seek agreement from Congress to adjust US laws and policies". Four months before the meeting the US lifted its south Asian arms embargo, selling Pakistan a fleet of F-16 aircraft, capable of a carrying a wide range of missiles, and India an anti-missile system. As a business plan, it's hard to fault.Here then is how it works. If you acquire the bomb and threaten to use it you will qualify for American exceptionalism by proxy. Could there be a greater incentive for proliferation?The implications have not been lost on other states. "India is looking after its own national interests," a spokesman for the Iranian government complained on Wednesday. "We cannot criticise them for this. But what the Americans are doing is a double standard. On the one hand they are depriving an NPT member from having peaceful technology, but at the same time they are cooperating with India, which is not a member of the NPT." North Korea (and this is the only good news around at the moment) is currently in its second week of talks with the US. While the Bush administration is doing the right thing by engaging with Pyongyang, the lesson is pretty clear. You could sketch it out as a Venn diagram. If you have oil and aren't developing a bomb (Iraq) you get invaded. If you have oil and are developing a bomb (Iran) you get threatened with invasion, but it probably won't happen. If you don't have oil, but have the bomb, the US representative will fly to your country and open negotiations.The world of George Bush's imagination comes into being by government decree. As a result of his tail-chasing paranoia, assisted by Tony Blair's cowardice and Manmohan Singh's opportunism, the global restraint on the development of nuclear weapons has, in effect, been destroyed in a few months. The world could now be more vulnerable to the consequences of proliferation than it has been for 35 years. Thanks to Bush and Blair, we might not go out with a whimper after all."
1 (georgemonbiot)
0 (Politics)
"William Hague, according to the new register of members' interests, makes about 20 times as much for not being an MP as he makes for being one. We don't know exactly how much he is paid for his other 54 jobs, because members are not obliged to reveal the price of work which doesn't relate directly to their parliamentary duties. But he must have raked in about a million last year. Even so, he's probably not the richest person in the house. According to the parliamentary code of conduct, you must declare any shareholding worth more than the current MP's salary. Dame Marion Roe, the Tory MP for Broxbourne, has 18 declarations, which suggests she owns liquid capital worth at least 1m. Archie Norman, the Conservative party's former chief executive, has 17 registrable shareholdings and five external employers. Michael Ancram, the party's deputy leader, lists, with aristocratic modesty, "farms ... houses and miscellaneous property on Scottish borders". Note the unquantified plural. But there is little sense anywhere - in parliament, in the press or among the public - that MPs' second and third and, in Hague's case, 55th sources of income equate to any kind of problem. Thanks to the rules laid down by the committee on standards in public life, you would now have to be both staggeringly stupid and staggeringly greedy to take cash for parliamentary questions. The potential contest between our MPs' duty to represent the public and their interest in representing their other employers is generally deemed to have been resolved. They are forbidden to act as paid advocates "in any proceeding of the house". They can't speak or act on any issue in which they have an undeclared interest. Their sources of income are listed on the internet. The system is transparent and seemly. But it appears to me that all the commission has achieved is to legitimise a series of disastrous conflicts of interest. The most obvious of these is a conflict which MPs appear capable of understanding only when it involves other people, such as the consultant physicians who are supposed to be working for the NHS. If MPs are permitted to moonlight, and if their salaries are paid whether they do their jobs well or not, they have a permanent incentive to spend as little time on them as possible, and as much time as they can making money elsewhere. There are some MPs who have extraordinary reserves of energy. Chris Smith, the former culture secretary, who now supplements his salary by providing services to another 17 employers, tells me he works between 70 and 80 hours a week, and devotes at least half to his parliamentary duties. Howard Flight, a Tory MP with 11 directorships, works an astonishing 100 hours a week, of which, he says, 80 are spent representing the people. But these MPs are surely exceptional. Research by the Labour member Peter Bradley reveals that MPs with outside interests participate, on average, in 65% of Commons votes, while MPs with no other paid employment attend 91%. One representative I spoke to argued, in effect, that this is because they have nothing better to do. The problem is that this is true in both senses. Perhaps more importantly, the more money MPs earn, and the more they associate with other directors and lawyers and consultants, the less like their constituents they become. There are surely two components of representation: representing the people and being representative of the people. MPs' pay (at 57,500, more than twice the national average) already removes them from the economic lives of most of their constituents. Outside earnings push them into the richest 1%. The servants of the people can employ the people as their servants. All the MPs who defend second jobs argue that the other work they do informs and improves their parliamentary performance, as it keeps them in touch with the outside world. I would be more inclined to believe this if they were moonlighting as hospital porters or assembly-line workers. But no MP takes a second paid job unless it is either prestigious or lucrative. They have no simultaneous experience of soul-destroying drudgery. Howard Flight argues, reasonably enough, that those MPs who are sponsored by trade unions remain informed by the worker's point of view. The problem is that 76 MPs are paid by corporations, and only six are sponsored by the unions. (More MPs have declared gifts of pheasant and grouse shooting than union support.) The trade unions have less money than the corporations, so they can purchase fewer loyalties. The MPs counter this by pointing out that their constituency work brings the whole world through their doors. Ian Taylor, a Conservative MP with seven directorships, told me: "I don't have to be a hospital porter to understand the problems hospital porters are facing." This is true. Being true, it disposes of the argument that external employment is necessary to understand the outside world. Perhaps the biggest problem arises not from the interventions MPs might be prompted by their interests to make, but from those they are prompted not to make. Eighty-seven MPs, including the leaders of the three main parties and eight cabinet members, earn at least 5,750 a year by renting out property. As a result we are unlikely to see action taken against one of the UK's biggest social problems: house price inflation caused by people buying to let. Even if MPs were inclined to attack their own interests, they would expose themselves to the charge of hypocrisy. So they keep quiet and incur no penalty. No one has to declare an interest in what he is not saying, and no code of conduct could make him do so. The clash is perpetually and inaudibly resolved in favour of money. Ask yourself what can be done about it, and you are immediately apprised of a fourth, overarching conflict. We could propose, for example, that MPs should be forbidden to work for anyone other than their constituents. Or we could suggest that they are allowed to continue working or owning houses and shares, but that the money goes either to charity or to the exchequer. The problem is that the last people who are ever going to vote for such measures are the people they would penalise. Peter Bradley was forced to withdraw his attempt to prevent MPs from being paid for neglecting their duties when the Tories promised to talk it out of time. What all this shows is that transparency is not enough. We can read the register of members' interests and immediately discover who is moonlighting and for whom. We can search Hansard and discover whether they are using their parliamentary roles to pursue their own economic interests. But this information simply confronts us with our own powerlessness. Transparent corruption is doubtless an improvement upon opaque corruption, but it seems only to have dissuaded people from pressing the case for no corruption at all. If there is one job which should command a person's undivided loyalties, it is surely the job of representing us. "
1 (georgemonbiot)
0 (Politics)
"The paradox of modern warfare works like this: by enhancing our military strength, we enhance our opponents' capacity to destroy us. The Russian state developed thermobaric bombs (which release a cloud of explosive material into the air) for use against Muslim guerrillas. Now, according to New Scientist, Muslim terrorists are trying to copy them. The United States has been producing weaponised anthrax, ostensibly to anticipate terrorist threats. In 2001, anthrax stolen from this programme was used to terrorise America. The greatest horrors with which terrorists might threaten us are those whose development we funded. Given that the most frightening of these technologies is nuclear weaponry, and given that the possibility that terrorists might acquire them becomes more real as the list of nuclear powers lengthens, we should be grateful to Tony Blair for encouraging disarmament in Libya. Though Libya's programme was less advanced than we were led to believe (its "4,000 uranium centrifuges" turned out to be merely centrifuge casings), and though Blair's enthusiasm was doubtless sharpened by the opportunities Libya offers to British corporations, we should not permit our reasonable cynicism to obscure the fact that, for just the second time in history, a state has voluntarily renounced its nuclear technologies. Libya, unlike India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea or Iran, is now abiding by the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But amid all the backslapping last week, something was forgotten. This is that the treaty which Gadafy has honoured was a two-way deal. Those states which did not possess nuclear weapons would not seek to acquire them. In return, the states which already possessed them - the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom - would "pursue negotiations in good faith... on general and complete disarmament". Libya is now in conformity with international law. The United Kingdom is not. At the end of next month, British officials will be travelling to New York for a meeting about the five-yearly review of the treaty. It is hard to see what their negotiating position will be. For they have precious little evidence of "good faith" to show. It is true that, since the end of the cold war, the UK's total nuclear explosive power has been reduced by 70%. But that appears to be as low as the government will ever permit it to go. The defence white paper, published in December, notes: "Decisions on whether to replace Trident are not needed this parliament, but are likely to be required in the next one. We will therefore... ensure that the range of options for maintaining a nuclear deterrent capability is kept open." Trident stays until it reaches the end of its natural life, whatever the rest of the world may offer. And then? Nothing this government has said or done suggests that it would consider decommissioning those warheads without replacing them. To this sin of omission we must add three of commission. The first is the UK's support for the US nuclear missile defence programme, which could scarcely be better calculated to provoke a new arms race. This month the Fylingdales radar station in North Yorkshire is being upgraded to accommodate it. The second is that the government has laid out 2bn to equip the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the means to design and build a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons. In this respect, as in all others, we appear to be keeping the US company. Earlier this month, the US National Nuclear Security Administration released its budget documents for research into the "robust nuclear earth penetrator", a first-strike bunker-busting bomb which, if developed, would blow the non-proliferation treaty to kingdom come. The US government had claimed that all it wanted to do was to conduct a feasibility study. But, the new documents show, it has now budgeted to design, test and start producing it by 2009.The third is that our policy on the deployment of nuclear weapons has changed. In March 2002, for the first time in British history, the government suggested that we might use them before they are used against us. Since then, Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, has repeated the threat several times, on each occasion further reducing the threshold. Put items two and three together and the UK begins to look like a pretty dangerous state. So how does the government reconcile all this with its commitment to the treaty? By reinterpreting it. In October last year, Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons: "Under the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, China and Russia are legally entitled to possess nuclear weapons." The treaty says nothing of the kind. It's a short and simple document, which anyone but Geoff Hoon can understand, and it says just two things about the nuclear weapons possessed by the five major powers: they mustn't be transferred to non-nuclear states, and they must be dismantled. Fifteen years ago, amid massive controversy, Labour abandoned its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. Now Hoon's rewriting of the non-proliferation treaty suggests that it is quietly abandoning its commitment to multilateral disarmament. Or we could put it another way: that the Labour party has rediscovered its enthusiasm for unilateralism, as long as it's someone else who is doing the disarming. As Simon Thomas pointed out in a Commons debate last week, the government's "non-proliferation unit" has recently changed its name to the "proliferation prevention unit", to reflect the new policy of reverse unilateral disarmament. How all this plays with the new nuclear powers is not hard to imagine. If a nation like Britain - whose prime minister poses as a broker of peace and disarmament - has abandoned the non-proliferation treaty, is installing the capacity to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, has asserted the right to strike pre-emptively and is beginning, in short, to look like a large and well-armed rogue state, then what possible incentive do other nations have to abandon their weapons? Indeed, the lesson the weaker states will draw from the conduct of the major powers over the past year is that they should acquire as many nuclear weapons as they can. If you don't possess them, you can expect to be invaded. If you do, you can expect to be left in peace, or (if you have oil) courted and bribed. And if you get rid of them, you would be an idiot to expect the big nuclear states to reciprocate. Power, the new British doctrine appears to assert, grows out of the payload of a bomb. This may once have been true, when our enemies were states which had everything to lose by starting a nuclear war. But when your enemies are suicide bombers, and when they have no direct connection to a nation state, mutually assured destruction ceases to be a useful threat. Your intransigence merely encourages proliferation elsewhere, and so enhances the possibility that nuclear material will fall into the hands of terrorists. The more we assert our strength, the more vulnerable we become.<B>"
1 (georgemonbiot)
0 (Politics)
"The left, almost everyone agrees, is on the run. George Bush's seizure of power has dragged governments everywhere still further to the right. Most of the world's media are deeply hostile to progressive ideas. Now the war in Afghanistan has greatly empowered the illiberal men who launched it. 2002, most commentators believe, will be the year of the right. All this may be true, yet it fails to describe the full scope of problems the left now confronts. The real crisis for progressives, indeed for social democracy in general, arises from a much deeper trend: the gradual atomisation of society. Collectivism has been both the principal source of social oppression and the principal means of liberation. It has destroyed the lives of women, minorities, heretics and foreigners. It has provided monarchs, capitalists and communists with populations which are easily led and readily deceived. It has also offered health and education, social security, the rule of law, universal human rights, environmental protection and representative government. Today, totalitarianism may be unachievable, but so, perhaps, is the effective redistribution of wealth. There is a widespread fallacy that the destruction of society was engineered in recent times, notably by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The notion is comforting because it suggests that the trend is reversible. But social fragmentation has been the work of centuries. In Britain, the rise of the merchant class undermined the cohesive power of the church, the monarchy and the aristocracy. Enclosure dispersed the peasantry. The urban proletariat was, paradoxically, fragmented by successful mass action, which helped bring about universal education and a better distribution of wealth and power, in turn enabling people to pursue their own destinies. Now, the state has little to gain from social cohesion. We no longer require collectivity even in warfare: battles are fought by a handful of specialists, while the rest of us gawp at them on TV. The only national tasks which demand our engagement are taxation, voting and spending. Otherwise, as far as our leaders are concerned, the less we act in concert, the better. While we can celebrate the end of socialisation imposed from above, we have also lost the class loyalty, the worker solidarity and the coherent demands for universal rights and services developed from below. Political parties and trades unions are withering. Charities are likely to follow. The absence of effective mass action has enabled tiny numbers of people to capture much of the world's wealth, and tiny populations of target voters to capture the attentions of government. There is, in other words, not much left with which traditional social democrats can work. Mobilisation has acquired a new meaning: it's not just that people aren't moving together; they're not moving at all, from in front of the TV or the computer screen. Anti-corporate campaigns have brought together vast numbers of people every few months, but they have so far largely failed to generate a sustained mobilisation of the kind once deployed by trade unions, suffragettes, Chartists, Diggers and Levellers. This leaves them vulnerable to capture by outsiders, such as the alienated young men of the black block, which rampaged in Genoa. It is striking that those campaigns which have proved capable of sustained action - such as the peasant movements in Mexico, Brazil and south-west India, or the strikes by the Liverpool dockers and the Dudley hospital workers - have drawn on people who are still bound together by geography, class and profession. These may represent the end of the old collectivity, rather than the beginning of a new one. What this implies is that those of us who remain committed to the principles of distribution and social justice must strive to develop new forms of collectivism, which do not rely on existing loyalties or patterns of behaviour. This is a formidable task. But, just as mass action accelerated individualism, individualism may help us develop a new kind of mass action. The smashing of society provides us with the means of building movements which are not limited by national or ethnic loyalties, by adhesion to the workplace or the village. It may permit us to create an internationalist movement far bigger than any before, united by a common opposition to what is now an international ruling class. But first we progressives may have to abandon almost every strategy which has worked in the past.<B>"
1 (georgemonbiot)
0 (Politics)
"A few months ago, I accepted an invitation to speak at the Oxford Union, the university society famed throughout the world for the brilliance of its debates. I don't think they'll be inviting me again. We were supposed to be discussing an issue of critical importance ("this house believes that big business is the natural enemy of the environment"), but it soon became clear that hardly any of the students who had chosen to speak were remotely interested in the subject. One of my supporters appeared to have confined his research to examining the definitions of each of the words in the motion. One of my opponents flatly contradicted himself six times in his efforts to establish his circumlocutory magnificence. The president - a drawling, swaggering 20-year-old in white tie and tails - announced that, as was customary, the Spectator magazine had reserved a magnum of champagne for the best speech from the floor; before awarding it, as also appeared to be customary, to the person who made the evening's most fatuous contribution. Throughout the "debate", the speakers used conventions which made the House of Lords look chic: "No, honourable sir, I will not yield". The men forced their squeaky voices down the register until they sounded like port-soaked peers of the realm. They were no more than 19- or 20-years-old, but it seemed to me that they had hearts like stones. I went home feeling physically sick, and turned on the radio while I was brushing my teeth. It was Today in Parliament. I listened with a growing sense of recognition: there was the same cleverness, and the same utter lack of conviction. It struck me more forcibly than ever before that power in Britain remains the preserve of those who care for nothing but themselves. Shaun Woodward, complete with butler, estate and personality bypass, slides effortlessly across the house. Michael Portillo, once the most illiberal man in mainstream politics, can reposition himself as the champion of the oppressed. When politics is a matter of convenience, not conviction, only the self-interested prosper. So how, in the age of information, do these people continue to steal power from the rest of us? An article this weekend by Tess Kingham, who was elected Labour MP for Gloucester in 1997, but who stood down at this election, shows just how far unprincipled and power-hungry people will go to defend their political monopoly. When she refused to vote for cuts in disability benefits, Labour whips threatened that the government could withdraw resources from her constituency. If she continued to cause trouble, she was warned, her "political career was finished". She complained to one of the papers. In response, the whips threatened to expose her private life in the tabloids. Another woman MP who refused to vote as the government instructed was physically assaulted in a House of Commons corridor. Tess Kingham was given a bal lot form for the national executive committee elections, only to find that it had already been filled in for her by party managers. She was told how to vote even on early day motions, which are supposed to be independent of party control. It's impossible for idealistic, free-thinking people like Tess Kingham to survive in a system like this. But for some of those I met in the Oxford Union, who appear to possess neither standards nor principles, it offers a straight path to power. Only those who are prepared to make a mockery of representative democracy can prosper under the parliamentary whip. Before the 1997 election, Tony Blair promised to change all this. He would, he maintained, "create a new relationship between the government and the people, based on trust, freedom, choice and responsibility." He launched a programme of constitutional reform to tackle some of the 17th-century absurdities which still govern our political system. And he did, in truth, introduce some significant reforms: establishing Welsh and Scottish assemblies, allowing the passage of the Human Rights Act and reducing the number of hereditary peers allowed to vote in the House of Lords. But, as the pressure group Charter 88 has shown, Labour has swept away parts of the old constitution, but failed to replace it with a new one. By dismantling some of the old-fashioned checks and balances, it has merely consolidated the inordinate power of the prime minister and his advisers. Mrs Thatcher's constitutional legacy lives on in the New Labour government. Tony Blair has continued to challenge the independence of the civil service, to remove power from local government, to bypass the cabinet, to bully his MPs. His office appears to have controlled even the appointment of the new "people's peers". In March, when one of the government's bills looked as if it would run out of parliamentary time, Labour MPs were forced to agree that the bill "shall be deemed to have been reported to the House ... as if" its clauses and schedules "had been ordered to stand". In other words, as Private Eye has pointed out, for the first time in history the Commons voted to pretend that a bill had been passed by parliament when it hadn't. MPs are now all but redundant. Though New Labour has dismissed real constitutional reform as "a chattering classes issue", it must surely now be obvious that the abysmal turnout among voters of all classes was the result of its failure to change the way that politics works in Britain. When Labour MPs are forced to vote as if they are Tories, there's not much point in choosing between them. And while our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system survives, there's not much point, in most constituencies, in choosing anyone else. When the political class keeps power to itself, it can't expect the rest of us to participate. It seems to me that one of the key tasks of the next four years is to mobilise the millions of disenchanted voters who stayed away from the ballot, to demand both a wider choice of electable candidates and their freedom to vote as their constituents would wish. Proportional representation and the full state funding of political parties must clearly be part of the package, but we also need to find the means to prevent people who are interested only in themselves from representing anyone else. My proposal is to peg MPs' salaries to the national average wage and forbid them any further earnings. This would ensure that they were forced to live like the rest of us, rather than, as the sonorous pipsqueaks of the Oxford Union are practising to live, like our lords and masters. People interested only in self-advancement would keep away from parliament. It seems to me that there is also a clear case for abandoning the entire parliamentary whipping system. It should be illegal to interfere in an MP's decisions. If parties wish to persuade their members to vote in a particular way, they should do so by means of argument, not threats. Any suggestion that someone's voting record will affect the course of her career would be referred to a parliamentary ombudsman. With a written constitution, full public disclosure of all government business and an enforceable list of MPs' duties towards their constituents, the people of Britain might begin to see the point of parliament once more. But if Blair is not prepared to complete the constitutional reform he has begun, we'll be left with the least accountable political system Britain has seen since women secured the vote. And when politics belongs to someone else, it's not hard to see why the electorate should be so reluctant to endorse it."
1 (georgemonbiot)
0 (Politics)
"British people are no longer taxed on their income, but on their immobility. Only those who cannot move are obliged to pay. This, though almost everyone seems to have missed it, was the real message of this week's Budget. Income tax remains unchanged, but the tariffs on business are collapsing. Capital gains tax has been slashed. The "withholding tax" imposed on financial corporations will be abolished. The biggest lorries - but only the biggest - will be exempted from much of the duty they now pay. For big business, Britain is already one of the world's most luxurious tax resorts. In 1979, corporation tax stood at 52%. After successive Conservative and Labour cuts, it has been reduced to 30%. This, Gordon Brown boasted last year, is "now the lowest rate in the history of British corporation tax, the lowest rate of any major country in Europe and the lowest rate of any major industrialised country anywhere, including Japan and the United States". Mr Brown claims that he wants to wage war on tax havens. But, under his guidance, Britain is becoming one of the worst. It is not hard to see why this is happening. More mobile than ever before, big businesses can bully governments into relieving them of their responsibilities. If a state won't cut the taxes it levies, they threaten to disinvest, and move to somewhere which will. By these means they have been able to shift the burden of taxation, worldwide, from the rich to the poor and middle- incomed. Fifty years ago, corporation taxes in the United States rendered more than 30% of federal revenues, which was more than the union received from personal taxation. Now they account for just 12%, a quarter of the amount delivered by personal tax. While the Confederation of British Industry clamours for cuts in corporate taxes, it has also lobbied against cuts in consumer taxes. It wants the money spent, instead, on public infrastructure, providing lucrative contracts for business. Personal taxation has not been growing evenly. The highly paid, like the corporations which employ them, are mobile, and can play one state off against another. The poor are forbidden to move, so their taxes remain as high as their weakened democracies allow. They pay their immobility tax, and reap the insecurity caused by this global race to the bottom. The great corporate tax rebate, in other words, mirrors the great corporate handout. Before it came to power, Labour hinted that it would stop doling out money to big business. But it reckoned without the protection racket big companies now operate in Britain, threatening to clear out and take the economy with them if they don't get what they want. Last week it gave 530m to BAe, to persuade it to build its new jet here rather than elsewhere. Some economists have suggested that the subsidies corporations receive from governments now outweigh the total tax they pay. Big business has further reduced its contributions by means of ingenious tax avoidance strategies. Rupert Murdoch's British holding company, Newscorp Investments, has managed to pay no net British corporation tax on the 1.4bn in profits it has made since 1988. As companies move their transactions on to the internet - a shift encouraged by this week's Budget - their business will become both more opaque and even more mobile. They will install their servers where taxes are lowest, disguise their trade in goods as a trade in services, and even launch their own virtual currencies. The British inventor of one internet currency - beenz - appears to understand the implications. "I wouldn't want to be working for the Inland Revenue when it happens," he says. The tax burden, in other words, is shifting to those who are unable to move their assets either offshore or out of the old economy and into cyberspace. While the beggar-thy-neighbour economics that Gordon Brown practises hurt rich countries, the poor are wounded still more gravely. With little else to offer, poor countries end up giving everything away in a desperate attempt to undercut their rivals and attract "investment". If, in other words, taxation is not to become wholly regressive all over the world, we will have to revolutionise the means by which the rich are charged. Some innovative schemes have been proposed. The "Tobin tax", for example, would penalise short-term financial speculation. If it were collected internationally, it could fund, for example, the United Nations, and pay for development and emergency programmes. War on Want calculates that a 0.25% tax would raise an annual 250bn. The "total consumption tax" proposed by Professor Robert Frank would exploit the gap between richer people's incomes and savings, levying steep tariffs on the purchase of luxury goods. Land taxation would make use of one of the few assets big business can't move. Some people have proposed a "bit tax", imposed on all electronic communications. This, though, is surely just as likely to punish the impoverished internet anorak (or, for that matter, the information-hungry Guardian columnist) as the tax-exempt corporate predator. But it seems to me that we need to be still bolder. Perhaps it is time to give serious consideration to the idea of a global corporation tax. The corporations have, so far, succeeded in globalising everything except their obligations. Their rights have been harmonised, while their responsibilities have been shed. They have ensured that international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation establish only maximum standards for corporate behaviour, rather than minimum standards. We need to turn this formula around, obliging corporations to respond to human needs. And among the measures we should force on them is a fixed rate of business tax, payable by companies wherever they trade. This would not be easy either to implement or to enforce. It would hand a formidable advantage to countries playing outside the rules, as corporations would flock to them just as they flock to tax havens today. But it is possible to conceive of a system of sanctions, rather like the sanctions imposed today upon countries seeking to protect their markets. None of this could work without the democratisation of global treaty-making: prior parliamentary approval of all national negotiating positions, for example, and referenda on important decisions. But this needs to happen anyway: corporations have been able to extract such advantages from globalisation only because they have been able to keep the public out of international decision-making. Governments will reassert their control over corporations when people reassert their control over governments. Global taxation will be troublesome and politically hazardous. But whether we intervene or not, corporate taxes will converge worldwide, but downwards, rather than upwards. If business is not forced to redistribute its wealth, then the rich will roam the world, free of obligations, while the rest of us will be left to support society, the state and even the corporations through an ever more onerous immobility tax."
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"John Smith did not have the chance to be a great leader of the Labour Party. But he was the necessary, probably the inevitable, leader in his time and place. As such he was a brilliant success. Never did a more decent man rise to the top of British politics. He had a rare coherence of morality as well as mind. Although he was a skillful advocate in court, and a wonderful performer in the bear-pit, it was the advocacy of social improvement that came from the core of his being, and here his hierarchy of principles never changed. With unqualified passion, he wanted the betterment of all society, not just part of it. The Scottish belief in community, and in the duty of successful men to advance its case, came as naturally to him as it once came to a certain kind of Tory: the generous, inclusive outlook most public people used to have. It is not too soon to see John Smith as a transitional figure. When the decencies have been done, you can see it right away. He ran a half-modernised Labour Party but he was a man of the old politics, the last survivor of the Callaghan cabinet. Steeped in Labourism, burnished by the swiftness of a clever Scottish lawyer, he asked the party few awkward questions. With the Government in free-fall decline, this comforting style paid dividends. Fate compels the party to look at itself once more, and make a statement about what it is. The necessity for choice will pose essentially two alternatives: carrying forward the momentum towards true modernity, or extending the transitional phase Smith thought sufficient to take Labour into power. By demanding such a debate, John Smith's tragedy need not be the party's catastrophe. Handled sensibly, the contest could yet make Labour a party for which people will vote with enthusiasm rather than the resignation that now widely obtains. It will range the John Prescott against the Tony Blair school of politics, and those men will surely be among the main names in the field, with Gordon Brown and Robin Cook upholding the claims of the Scottish dynasty. For my part, I hope the party thinks deeply about what it means to look forward, not back, and seizes its chance to make the positive appeal John Smith had yet to articulate. The leader matters. The wrong choice could bring disaster in its train. The system, as much as the party, is owed a leader the whole nation can respect. But the state of things is on his side. The leader is dead, long live the leader. Without the 18-month tenure of a brave, accomplished man, that sentiment would have been impossible to set down, except as a sour joke."
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"When Ronald Reagan dies, will Dan Rather wear a black tie? Unlikely. Will American television newsmen be cursed from one end of the print media to the other for their sartorial disrespect? Out of the question. When Reagan dies, Americans will behave with respectful maturity. There will be a big funeral, and many television obituaries. But there will be no collective nervous breakdown over the finer details of the obsequies. That is because Americans have much to teach the British about a healthy attitude to the past. Reagan, the defiant British may reply, is not royal. He was only a temporary piece of history. He came and went, and held no constitutional role after his presidency. He disappeared, lost to the public mind as thoroughly as Alzheimer's claimed his own mind from himself. Yet Reagan was a head of state. He did enormous things, helping to change world history. He merits far more reflective consideration by the American body politic than the Queen Mother does by the British. But there will be no national frenzy if he's judged by some people not to be getting enough. Reagan's death will take its place in the scheme of things. Americans have a reverence for their past, but not an obsession with its power to guide the present. They know their history, cultivate their heroes. Washington has a selection of monuments commemorating the greatest of them. They take care of their historic sites, especially those that mark the civil war. Sometimes they seem to want a longer history, and come to Europe looking keenly for it: marvelling at medieval cathedrals, searching for roots. But for most Americans, the past gets in the way of the future. They look backwards as much in apprehension as celebration. They think hard about the lessons of disaster, such as slavery and Vietnam. The old preoccupation of the American psyche with isolation from the entanglements of the world lives on. But history does not infuse everything they do. Respect for history is not a precondition of contemporary action. The past does not suck them in, preoccupy them, define their sense of self. Hardly any American ever says how much better life was 30, let alone 100, years ago. It's a sentiment I've never heard expressed there. There is rather little nostalgia in America. The British are still different. Here the national psyche is inextricably defined by the past, the period of national greatness that has gone. For some people, clinging to the past is a way of remembering that life undoubtedly was better however many decades ago. The past and its icons seem to supply the strategies by which we stoically remind ourselves that things, alas, can never be the same again. The Queen Mother's death expressed that. But what did so even more were the arguments about how it should be talked about. These revealed some deep insecurities. The worry was not just about the tone of the commentary but, underlying it, the very future of the monarchy. Was sufficient respect being deployed? Was the timelessness - the unchangeability - of Britain being adequately recognised? Were we still in touch with that great country where the army was once powerful, the people knew their place, and respect for authority was reliable and might, if only that queenly world could be rediscovered, still be so. The British dream, whereby the past is required to infuse the present, has not, even in modern times, always been a fantasy. There's something fitting in the coincidence that the Queen Mother died, unleashing all these passions, in the week when memories of the Falklands war are doing the same. The war is relished, if at all, not so much for its contentious substance but the fact that it happened. It proved that the days of imperial duty were not entirely gone. We did it. The 20th anniversary is marked by poignant, sometimes angry, analysts getting to grips with the awful fact that Britain could never do that kind of thing again. Whether these longings, or this wallowing in the past, reflect the majority mood of Britain is debatable. Each side in the argument claims the nation for itself, but especially those who make the fullest-throated case for honouring the past. My own impression of most people, when they think about the Queen Mother, is that they do not engage with much of this argument. They don't reflect the Guardian letters column, an atypical fount of bile. They soberly recall a pretty admirable old lady, who lived to 101 and did service to the nation, but then they move on. They mark her departure politely, while remembering that she was hardly more of a monarch than Ronald Reagan. The political class, in which the media should always be included, are another matter. The charge and counter-charge that this very normal death has prompted are more fatuous than in any political argument I can ever recall. The disproportion between the facts and the response seem to reveal editors and columnists who have lost the last shreds of a sense of scale. Their righteous rage at the BBC could not have been greater if the person of the Queen herself had been violated by Greg Dyke. Betrayal has been the word of the week. The betrayal of the people by the BBC is matched only by the betrayal of Falklands veterans by the MoD, when it calmly says it is accustomed to celebrating 25th but not 20th anniversaries of battles large and small. Modernity does creep in here. The foaming rage of the Daily Mail is part of a topical agenda, to do with trying to dismantle the BBC. We learn that in fact the Royal Family were not at all furious with the way the BBC performed. Prince Charles himself said so. One would suppose not, given the vast output the corporation has set aside on all channels. Mendacious venom, however, is not troubled by tedious truth, when commercial rivalries are being conducted behind a sanctimonious debate about what is and is not proper. It's hard to imagine the Times, under any other ownership, actually leading Tuesday's paper with a headline about Peter Sissons' tie, reinforced with pious little pictures showing what a good little black-tied boy the Sky presenter had been compared with the burgundy hooligans on BBC1. There are many subliminal routes towards establishing the fake parity of respect that Sky would dearly love to claim. But essentially the passion is not modern. It is the old British disease raised to new levels of hysteria: of fear for the passing of the past; of sentiment that's always in danger of overspilling into every corner of British life. This is a country that still finds in the past a place of safety. While nobody would want to forget history and still less, of course, undo it, what is better worth remembering is that history can be a curse. In Britain more than most countries, it has been the enemy of the future. Now that our oldest embodiment of history has been gathered, perhaps her finest epitaph would be that she marked the beginning of the end of that affliction."
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"The manufacture of consent is a familiar art of the government propagandist. It's something the media need to avoid playing their unwatchful part in, but it's part of what political persuasion is about. The invention of consent is another matter. It's the modern byproduct of a politics that turns people off. It's therefore likely to be especially alluring to a government that managed to induce only 59% of the voters to turn out at the last election. So we are discovering now. The single most contentious element of the Blair-Blunkett law reform programme is being prepared with the invention of consent. The appointed inventor is Michael Wills MP, junior minister to the lord chancellor. His Saturday letter to the Guardian, replying to a leader, let us into his workshop. Curtailing the right to trial by jury, he wrote, would be subject to the full panoply of consultation. But this was not the point. The change was already a done deal with the people. "I am surprised you ignore the manifesto on which this government was elected last June," he declared, from a substantial height. "The people considered that manifesto and voted for it." There was hardly any more to be said. Seldom has the doctrine of the mandate been more starkly, or more absurdly, put. First, it seems to overlook the problem of scale. When governments got in with 50 or even 40% support, as they did at times in the last century, the mandate might have been a plausible construct of what could be called the general will. The Blair government got the votes of 23% of the electorate. Was this proof of anything in detail, except a level of reluctant approval exceeding that accorded the other parties? Second, it must be doubted how many of the few people who, as research always tells us, "considered that manifesto" read the section on trial by jury. Their omission would be forgivable. The subject was never mentioned in any speech by anyone in the Labour leadership. It had no priority. It did not feature in the party broadcasts. It could not have been in even the remoter minds of many, if any, of the 10m voters who gave Blair a second term. That is because of a third factor, namely the absence from this famous, legitimising, solemnly examined manifesto of any explicit promise to abolish the right to jury trial. There were no speeches on the subject partly because the words of the manifesto were crafted to avoid the provocation that might require them. It promised to "remove the widely abused right of defendants alone to dictate whether or not they should be tried in a crown court": words that only aficionados of courts were meant to understand as promising the widespread curtailment of jury trial. What we have, in short, is the opposite of the Wills version of the truth. Instead of majority consent being demonstrably given by the classic democratic method, an attenuated minority were deprived of such opportunity as they might have had to object to a proposal whose purpose was carefully masked in gobbledegook. Far from the voters having agreed to abolish some jury trials, even the small number who read the manifesto were not confronted with the meaning of what the next Labour government intended to do. If they had been, no doubt Labour would still have won. But this only adds to the corruption of the mandate theory as Wills and his masters are applying it to trial by jury. What they claim to have got approved, they dishonestly concealed. Now they're relying on it as protection against the thinness of their substantive arguments: their dissembling about the quality of justice that will result: their pretence that the change has nothing to do either with getting more convictions or with saving money: the abject sophistry with which Mr Wills proposes that, because 95% of all crime is tried by magistrates, jumping that up to 98% (why not 100?) should cause us not the slightest apprehension. The plan grows out of a recommendation by Lord Justice Auld, whose inquiry into the trial process was always likely to be hot politics in an election year. He adroitly deflected blatant attempts to nobble him, or leak a few cherry-picked ideas. Telephoned one day by a Downing Street official probing to find out where his report was heading, Auld apparently asked Mr Blair's man to put his questions on paper. The official, recoiling in horror, proposed just a casual, always deniable conversation. Fine, said the judge - but wait a moment while I get my shorthand writer. The probe was quickly abandoned. But abolition of the right to trial by jury turned out to be one of Auld's central recommendations, and one most pleasing to ministers. The right, he proposed, should no longer be available across the range of medium-level cases carrying prison sentences of up to two years, where defendants can now choose whether to go before magistrates or a jury. Under the rules laid out by Auld, some experts have estimated, this could halve the 50,000 jury trials that take place every year. Internal Home Office papers, picked up in a pub and never formally repudiated, show one official even estimating a two thirds reduction. So this is not a minor re-drawing of the frontiers, as Wills implies. It's an attack on the historic right - one of the most celebrated and worthwhile instruments of British democratic freedom - of perhaps half those accused of serious crimes to be tried by a jury of their peers. Governments have dreamed of doing this for at least a decade. The last time it was subjected to rational discussion, when Jack Straw was home secretary, the legislature threw it out. Straw brought it forward twice, in different forms, and each time the House of Lords rejected the new mode of trial he proposed. Each time, the bill fell essentially because of outrage at what could easily lapse into class-based justice. Shoplifting might attract a small sentence, but for first-time offenders would ruin their reputation, which meant their right to a jury must be inviolate. On the other hand, if that right existed for a white professional, why should it be withdrawn from a black street robber with a record? Such were the dilemmas the Lords thought irresolvable by any bureaucratic system that transferred the decision from the defendant to the magistrates or the district judge. The arguments have not changed. Auld has not demolished them. It's a matter, in the end, of moral choice. Wills' invention of popular consent is a way of not engaging with the assault the government wants to make on a cornerstone of liberty. It is saying to the House of Lords: do not dare, once again, to defy the will of the people. But the clearer message of this history is to Labour MPs in the House of Commons: you did not get elected to abolish the right to trial by jury, and therefore have no duty to be whipped into abandoning the belief many of you hold, that it would be indefensible."
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"This week, two former national leaders joined forces to do their country service. They were from different parties, but had each done time in the highest office. As such, they had a role in public and political life that transcended politics. They enjoyed, in a word, general respect. They were and are a credit to their class, the political class. When politics closes down in some societies - whether for the summer or for life - its denizens are not written out of the script. They rise to a certain kind of occasion. Neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter was among the great US presidents. Arguably they were the two least successful holders of the office since the war. But they carry the stamp. They've kept authority. So it was natural for them to head the National Commission on Federal Election, which was charged with proposing reforms in the aftermath of last November's bitter farce in Florida, hanging chads and all. Their report, with a raft of plans to re-enfranchise voters and make federal elections more meaningful, has been greeted with somewhat restrained enthusiasm by the beneficiary of that calamitous event, George Bush. But nobody has challenged their bipartisan credentials for writing it. They've both retained post-presidential dignity. Carter in particular has become a kind of ombudsman, often self- appointed, creatively investigating many ills of the world. He seems a selfless, yet still ambitious, man of global purpose. The US is a land of intense partisanship, where the linkage between party and patronage is more richly oiled than it ever is in Britain. Party labels are for life. But great men rise above the battle. They want to. They're allowed to. In Britain this couldn't happen, and it's hard to be certain why. Former prime ministers are invariably damaged goods. The idea of putting Margaret Thatcher and Jim Callaghan in charge of electoral reform would be unimaginable, partly because nobody would trust them to agree but also because they wouldn't accept the task. Consider the last two holders of the office, and you recall that most former prime ministers, unless like Callaghan and Harold Wilson they opt for withdrawal, focusing mainly on two things: salvaging their reputation, and making a lot of money. Lady Thatcher is the prime example. Just about every utterance she makes is directed at self-vindication. She travels incessantly abroad, not speaking for Britain as much as promoting herself and filling her pockets. Britain is worth talking about only as an embodiment of Thatch-erite prejudices and values, not for any other quality or any other leader. The lady's vanity knows few limits. Not long ago, asked at a meeting of business people in Texas why the first George Bush hadn't gone into Baghdad to take out Saddam Hussein at the end of the 1991 Gulf war, she replied, to rapturous applause: "Because I was no longer prime minister." That's the measure of the baroness's post-political life. Far from rising above party, she remains an ever-baleful influence upon it, to the plea sure of an ever diminishing circle of people who call themselves Conservatives. Her special gift has not been to the breadth of the nation but the narrowness of a self-created sect, with the brilliant results we now see unfolding in the leadership election. In his own post-political world, John Major has followed her. No Ford or Carter he. For Major too, money and exoneration seem to be what count. He struggles for an eminence we decline to allow him. The pre-political years of scraping a living are being followed by years of plenty that the old Major could only dream of. He owes every penny of it to what the voters did for him. Yet there's no windfall tax on the benefits from boardroom and memoirs which, without the prime ministership, would not have been available. The tax comes in terms of reputation. These people soon lose most of their credentials to epitomise, at some special level, the national interest. They cease, unfortunately, to be a national asset. Bill Clinton isn't like Ford or Carter either. For one thing, he's as interested in personal money as any Thatcher. He has bills to pay, and debts to meet, so he must speak and write for money. But a scene took place on Monday that proved how large a figure he still remains, and how available for national duty. Opening his post-presidential office in Harlem, he was received like a hero. The bands played, and a crowd of 2,000 waited two hours in the sun to see him. He has started to establish an agenda above party politics. One of his biggest themes is the worldwide struggle against Aids, another is the American rural poor, another the empowerment of places like Harlem. The aura of authority and the manifest fact of commitment are not, apparently, undone by the rotten pardons that marked his last days in the White House. He plainly will not fade into civilian life and, as plainly, the nation doesn't want him to. His reception in Harlem called up memories of another young ex-president. Theodore Roosevelt's second term ended when he was 50. After a year of travelling in Africa and Europe, in 1910 he too landed in New York, receiving, according to his biographer, "a truly royal welcome". The harbour was crowded, the city packed, the reception "like nothing ever given a private citizen coming back to his native land after a brief absence abroad". In response, Roosevelt remarked that "the role of sage had no attractions for him, but that he considered it both his privilege and duty to take active part in the discussion of public questions, commending or criticising as his judgment dictated". In due course, Roosevelt couldn't restrain himself from going further. He ran for a third term, an ambition barred to Clinton, much though he would surely like to do it. Their similarities, though, are striking. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican president who became a Progressive, was plainly an early practitioner of the third way, decades before anyone had heard of Clinton or Tony Blair. He had the same intense interest in the substance of social reform, cutting through conventional ideological labels. Clinton shares with Roosevelt a passion for engagement and the energy to apply it, together with the quasi-monarchical status that, admittedly, distinguishes an American head of state from a British head of government. Being still young, Clinton has active years ahead of him as a national figure. He will be accorded special gravitas. Former presidents always are, if they want it. A week before Jimmy Carter handed President Bush the report on election reform, he delivered a scathing attack on several of his policies, notably national missile defence. "I have been disappointed in almost everything he has done," Carter said of Bush. It was an unusual exchange from one president to another. But it did not diminish Carter. Nor was it seen as invalidating what he had to say about elections. We miss that quality in our retired politicians. Our cohorts mostly despatch themselves into cushioned pettiness, fighting old party battles, removed from national service. Where was Ted Heath when you needed him? Sucking up to China, first-class."
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"All parties agree that ideology is dead. The word is as dirty to Tories battling out the leadership contest as it is to Tony Blair delivering a major speech on public services. And who is not pleased to hear it? But there is a downside. Having no ideology means that all aspects of politics become more perplexing. Government is complicated to do and just as complicated to understand. The silver thread that linked and determined everything has gone. When the defining mantra of the left said public good and private bad, and the right said roughly the opposite, politics was easy to make sense of. Now everything is messier. While the practice of the trade has eventually had no alternative but to recognise this, public understanding has not caught up. It strives to cling to the old simplicities. The mindset of ideology survives the passing of the ideological age. It's not merely in newspaper headlines, groping for the familiar matrix, that Blairism's plans for public-service delivery are seen as a private-sector takeover. I bet most people in the country see it that way too. For this the government is largely to blame. In its first term, feeling its way forward, it wasn't straight. It wanted to please all the people all the time, so it tended to reassure the business world with one spin about innovation and competition, while distracting its own constituency with words that said nothing fundamental would change. Its attitude to the health service covered a gamut of promises from tough to tender. Its replacement weapon for ideology was "what works". But this became its philosophy well before it knew what worked in either health or education. It knew that what the Tories had done, especially in the NHS, did not work, but was far from sure how to replace it. There remains a lot of confusion. Important differences are still not widely apprehended, partly because ministers' own schemes reflect the complication of post- ideological government, and partly because producer unions want to make things seem more threatening than they are. Enlisting private-sector skills and money to develop surgical centres or improve failing schools is not the same as privatisation. Very little of the public sector is capable of being run by the private sector in any case. Instituting regimes of competition or "contestability", a practice common in the public sectors of France, Germany, Holland and other continental models, isn't an assault on public-service principles but a minimal necessity for raising them to the best-practice levels everyone is entitled to expect. Yesterday, Mr Blair got closer to clarifying some of this than he has done before. It was the most important speech he has made since the election. Though the news line will be his commitment not to "flinch" from producer union opposition, the real message was a more cogent invitation than ever before to move out of the ideological box. Some of the unions believe he is thirst ing for a fight, even looking for a demonstration combat such as Mrs Thatcher had with the miners. Actually his words sounded as though they came from the last-chance saloon of the British version of social democracy, which has rather suddenly woken up to the danger of its core proposition being seen to fail. It was a sobering not a militant address. The case it made chimes with the experience of most people who use public services of every kind, which tells them that while more money is absolutely necessary, it is not necessarily sufficient, and that reform is essential if delivery is going to improve. This was an inaugural moment for the second term in another way as well. It put into operation the vow of plodding, responsible realism with which Mr Blair said he would replace the ever-deceptive spinning that was the leitmotif of 1997-2001. As such it sent three signals. First, the government has no single plan for public services. There is no Great Blueprint, the temptation towards which it was lured in the first term. Compared with some of its first-term rhetoric, the glorification of the private has actually receded. There are different answers for differ ent problems. If more than half of local education authorities are described by Ofsted as either fairly or very successful, as they are, the sweeping abolition favoured by some reformers makes no sense. It makes as little sense to insist that only NHS units may tender to run the new surgical centres just because they are being set up as a supplement to NHS hospitals. A senior trade unionist told me yesterday he was sceptical of ministers' ability to get down to the detail of reform. They were, he said, more at home talking about, and endlessly revising, their fancy institutional structures than with the tedious practicalities. He also regretted the adversarial - anti-union - subtext that seemed to have made its way into the discourse. But Blair avoided that. His real subtext was that, at a time of peace and high employment, no task of government is in greater public demand than making essential public services, the base material of a functioning society, work properly. Second, it is without doubt true that only a social democratic government has a chance of doing this. Only the party with an incontestable belief in the primacy of public services can be trusted to reform their delivery in ways that do not merely profit private business and ultimately deprive the less advantaged members of society. As a matter of fact, this belief may be a little more widespread than it was: another victory, perhaps, for a new spirit of the times. Two of the candidates for the Tory party leadership make almost everything of their commitment to health and education, and admit that it was failure in this field that contributed most to the public's hatred of their party at the election. But the third candidate might yet win. Iain Duncan Smith is the voice of the hard Tory right, which flirts with the minimal state, and much of which favours an American-style approach. With that line, IDS would be even less likely than Michael Portillo or Kenneth Clarke to win the next election. But the state of Conservatism makes plain the danger that, without visible improvements brought about by progressive politicians, the public sector will become the source of yet deeper cynicism and despair. Thirdly, though, the challenge is in one sense impossible to meet. Blair said yesterday that it was "as great as any that has faced a postwar government". We have to be aware that he has staked everything on outcomes that will, in many people's eyes, never be satisfactory. The famous glass, whether in school or hospital, is always in danger of being half-empty. If the world economy, dragging Britain's with it, faces a prolonged downturn, not even the prudence of Mr Brown will have been enough to preserve the required budget surplus. All one can say at the moment is that Mr Blair has set out, without glamour or spin, on the defining stage of his engagement with the realities the people most value. Even that is worth saying, however - and worth supporting."
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"Scouting the tundra that is New Labour, some Tories claim to know where it will break up. They think the issue will be Europe. Iain Duncan Smith is running his leadership bid on that misguided fantasy. Actually, the real fault line is about as uncomfortable for him as for Tony Blair. We see the beginnings of it in the Greenpeace escapades at Menwith Hill. For two days running, demonstrators broke past dozy guards at the American listening post in Yorkshire to make their point against national missile defence. It has been a perfect gesture: well-organised, attention-getting and sparking into life an argument the government was hoping to suppress. It also signals a contest in which the anaesthetic sibilance of New Labour will face its hardest struggle to put the instincts of the old left to sleep. Unlike Europe, NMD strikes at the living heart and mind of Labour. As an issue of principle, Europe is dead. The socialist souls it stirs are barnacled with age. George Bush's missile defence schemes, by contrast, draw conscience and politicstogether to demand a statement about the modern world. Here the argument has only just begun. NMD's presumptions about the post-cold-war world challenge the European left to think seriously. Mr Bush ended his recent visit apparently thinking he had it licked. Such was the briefing from spokesmen and spinners, especially in Washington and London. Europe, we were led to believe, agreed that there were missile threats from rogue states, and did not fundamentally oppose the US in its efforts to counteract them. The phrase "moral imperative" was even attributed to one European power, believed to be not a million miles from Madrid. The strategists, both political and military, of the Republican right sustain the assertion that, come what may, NMD is irreversible, will go ahead and - a more recent promise - will be deployed whether or not it has been proved to work. The imperative has become political. "It is a simple question," the June 9 Washington Post quoted a Pentagon official as saying. "Is something better than nothing? The president and the secretary for defence have made it pretty clear that some missile defence in the near term is in fact better than nothing." The definition of near term appears to be set just before the end of Bush's first term as president. The European response is in fact more fragmented, more aware than ever of the fragility of some of the claims coming out of the ultra-hawkish Pentagon, and the plethora of defence businesses that would be the only unambiguous gainers from NMD. There's a seamlessness between the Bush and Clinton missile programmes, and more evidence appearing of the critiques that were made of the Clinton approach even from within his administration. In a telling piece in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, John Newhouse, who worked in the Clinton State Department, pours scorn on the threat-analysis that persuaded Clin ton he needed "red meat thrown to the rightwingers on the [Capitol] Hill". North Korea and Iran were depicted as capable, within a few years, of threatening the US with strategic missile systems. "But within and beyond the administration," writes Newhouse, "as well as within the intelligence bureaucracy itself, the threat was widely seen as greatly inflated." It reminded him of the later 1970s, "when cold warriors in and out of government exaggerated the strength of Soviet strategic forces, in part by intimidating the intelligence community and skewing the intelligence product." The key player in both the late 70s and late 90s was Donald Rumsfeld, the present secretary for defence. "His agenda is modest," writes Newhouse. "He concentrates on just a few subjects, but these he routinely bulldozes into submission." Although, on his own recent visit to Europe, Rumsfeld continued to bulldoze - NMD is "simply inescapable", he said - many allies are becoming less not more willing to accept his analysis. The politeness they showed to Mr Bush masks the growing likelihood that any European government with a socialist element in its coalition will be working to oppose NMD, as a source of global instability which Washington has not succeeded in talking down. In response, the British line is that it's too early to raise such alarms. Everyone should hold off arguing until we know more about Washington's real intentions. This is typically disingenuous. "
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"Four weeks after the election and it almost might not have happened. If elections are meant to bring an infusion of energy to the body politic, this one, seat for seat, was the deadest in living memory. This is not another treatise on the apathy of the voters, but is prompted by something scarier: the desiccated inanition, the droning indecision, of ministers. What a second dose of power seems to have done to them is not renew their purpose but redouble the unbearable caution which, in the first term, persuaded us to suspend every expectation. No sooner have they got back than they've started again on the long haul through the cliches of postponement until the end of the day when the dust never settles. Consider Stephen Byers, secretary of state for transport and a few other things. On Sunday, he had eight minutes on David Frost's sofa to state his case. His field of responsibility is in massive crisis. Transport affects the lives of far more people than either health or education. Rail service is collapsing, roads are slowing down, the London tube is going nowhere. We need to know what Byers will do. Instead we heard a man supremely complacent in the utter emptiness of what he had to say. Asked about the trains, he admitted things were grim. But he was going to take command. "It's my responsibility to change that round and really give the industry a sense of focus and do the simple things," he grandly said. "Get trains running on time, safely, and comfortable. That's what the travelling public want." This was a startling insight. But how would he get the railway people to comply? "By saying to them they've got to focus on delivering the 10-year plan," he puffed. "And it's got to be done quickly, because travellers were fed up with the industry blaming other people and not taking responsibility." This minister knows plenty about not taking responsibility. It is the kernel of his purpose. He was going to get on to Railtrack, he said. Railtrack would be pulling the operating companies together "to work out a new way forward". And Byers himself? The imperious command to Railtrack went forth from the Sunday sofa. They must, the minister insisted, "do that sooner rather than later". And if this didn't work? "There'll be more announcements in the next few weeks about the powers that we are using." Not even the scandalous million-pound pay-off to Gerald Corbett, Railtrack's disgraced former chairman, could stimulate what might remain of Stephen Byers' capacity to share the indignation of the millions of travellers who now depend on him. When Frost put the question to him, he ran like a neutered rabbit to his burrow. That's not an issue for the secretary of state, he burbled. It was up to the shareholders. But isn't the government, in a way, the biggest shareholder? He was proud enough to say that "we are making significant investment in Railtrack", yet didn't seem to see any connection between this fact and the need to account, as a Labour minister, for Corbett's disgustingly generous treatment. On petrol, we were offered the astounding dictum that "the British public will not tolerate a price for fuel which is excessive". On the tube, "we need to rule out privatisation" - as if anyone was any longer contemplating it. Throughout the piece, Byers sat in perfect comfort, oblivious to the embarrassment he deserved to feel, no doubt thinking he was doing well, shameless in his refusal to engage with a single policy question, unaware that he epitomised the worst of everything about New Labour: patronising, secretive, indecisive, terrified of breaking with the party line - a line whose commonest ingredient is that nothing should be said. Watching this performance, I saw more clearly some of the characteristics of this government which, during the second term, seem likely to make us love it less and less. First, it contains few ministers of any scale. Here was an experienced Cabinet minister who didn't have a single interesting idea about his new job. Like most of them, he is driven by the short-term news agenda, which means essentially remaining in defensive mode at all times. It's all that bothers him. Robin Cook and Clare Short rise above this, and David Blunkett may learn to. But Lord Chancellor Irvine has gone silent for years. The Byers approach, positively yearning for grey anonymity, is the template. The notion of the politician as leader, as challenger of received opinion, as generator of daring debate, is unimaginable in the cohorts of New Labour. Second, this is a style not merely encouraged but insisted on by the only two ministers who are allowed to matter, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It has been the feature of their duumvirate.Fighting the battles in the war before last, they insist especially that there must be no perceived disagreements - except the ones they can't conceal between themselves. In most departments, no minister is supposed to have an idea that one of the two duumvirs hasn't had first - or at any rate run through every kind of personal security check. This breeds a crippling shortage of political imagination. Blairites are a generation of timid politicians. For all I know, Stephen Byers may be a one-man cauldron of creativity. But he never lets it show. The retreat into committees and commissions and proposals "coming forward" and plans "we may look at" and all the other artefacts of unripe time is a move he makes by reflex instinct. This is the style that comes from Blair's insistence on bilateral agreement rather than collective discussion, and from Brown's tireless efforts to impose a regime of fear. The hidden presence on Frost's sofa, ensuring that Byers made a fool of himself whenever he was asked to address the voters' concerns about transport, was the chancellor of the exchequer. Third, though, we do have to return to apathy. The low voter turnout at the election, it is sometimes said, diminished Labour's mandate. I've heard it cited as a reason for the government to resume the ultra-caution with which it conducted itself from 1997 to 2001. This seems precisely the opposite of the truth. If there's a connection, it works the other way. It's the very timidity of ministers, their corporate greyness, the fact that the Cabinet has barely two personalities to rub together, which finds its echo in the electorate. If ministers are run according to a strategy that favours robotic vacuity on the part of almost all of them, why should the voters be expected to take them seriously enough to perform their own part in the democratic process? The Byers performance was a little Sunday insult. Evidently it's the norm we're meant to accept, from a government that faces no political pressure except that which comes from its own failure to solve problems. It doesn't enlist people's support, but treats them as the enemy, in need of reassurance without promises, and condescension without commitment. I still believe the government can do better than that. But it has to be admitted that the first four weeks have set a style that seems to say the end of the day will never really come."
2 (hugoyoung)
0 (Politics)
"The government reshuffle made a lot of column mileage. Covering it was a journalistic duty, the journey being fuelled by many practitioners of the politician's trade, whose whispers became a form of necessary news. The large truth is that it will barely matter. Hardly anyone outside politics has reason to give a damn about the unchanged cabinet. This is not mere summer ennui, however. It states a truth about the uniquely unpolitical state of modern politics. The truth, murmured but unelaborated, is that there may not be enough talent for Mr Blair to choose from. He worries about this. The word from his circle is that there are too few stars making an irresistible case for promotion. What's left of the reshuffle is designed to test this proposition. The lower ranks - hoisting first-time ministers from the ranks of backbench Blairites - were always going to be more suggestive than the fate of old sweats by the names of Cunningham and Beckett and Mowlam. With luck, some stars will reveal themselves. Very possibly, however, Mr Blair is chasing a chimera of his own making. For how does a politician become a star? When is he or she big? What is the route to mattering? Unless they look like making a difference, they can never hope to be heavy hitters. Yet the style of the Blairite hegemony is designed to produce the opposite kind of political creature. Last night's bet on stasis was further evidence of it. Previous Labour governments were not short of big politicians. There were the usual obscure middle-weights, but there were also Castle, Healey, Benn, Jenkins. They were people of substance, who made a difference. They tended to be listened to. Why? Partly, no doubt, because they were the cream of the progressive crop. In their time politics was the highest pursuit a leftist could aspire to. There was academe and the civil service, but there were no consultancies, no lobbyists, no media that might satisfy such a person as a proxy for politics and a back-passage to power. Yet there was another reason for these leaders' weight. They were independent spirits. They stood for something. A factionalised party produced factional chiefs who rose to prominence by argument, and remained there because of the portions of power they were seen to wield. Quite apart from her persuasive talents, Barbara Castle was a political force whom Harold Wilson could not ignore: ditto Tony Benn with Jim Callaghan. Roy Jenkins became a major politician, both prop and menace to Wilson, partly because it was recognised, at different moments, that he might soon be leader himself. The politics of faction is the culture that Mr Blair has sworn to exorcise from the modern Labour party. He has already paid a price for it, and will deserve to pay more. We learn that political weight - the star quality he apparently misses - has some thing to do with political menace; some connection with independent credibility; some dimension of awkward separateness. The same was evident under Mrs Thatcher. When Geoffrey Howe moved out from under her unchallenged command, he finally became a politician to reckon with in his own right. A colourless disciple, it is true, was chosen as her successor. But throughout the Tory period it was the ministers who stood for something often oblique to what the leader preferred - Clarke and Heseltine are good examples - and then became proven risk-takers for positions they believed in, who stayed in the heavy-hitting league. The operational principle of Blairism is quite different. Such characters are not allowed, let alone encouraged. There are ministers who in their youth shared a platform with Tony Benn, but their self-validation as new Labour lies in the abjectness with which they watched their past draining out of them. Not only is faction banned and rebellion unthinkable, but evidence of an independent mind is proffered with caution - and then only by cabinet ministers exceptionally sure of their position. This is a matter of circumstance as well as character. The demands for uniform spin have a mighty power to suppress discussion, let alone disagreement. The end of ideology has a similar fall-out on the system. The absence of faction, and therefore of the sub-potentates whose power came from faction, reflects a paucity of the issues around which the old doctrinal fury used to rage. A good thing too, say Blair and his friends. Here we have a united party, shining eyes fixed on the progressive millennium, able to report all 177 manifesto pledges on course for keeping. Isn't GB plc doing well? Besides, don't voters hate a divided party? Isn't it for this reason that the famous second term, which eluded all those warring titans of the sixties and seventies, looks a near certainty? Maybe. But the future political class look a rather threadbare lot. That is the way they are being formed and trained. The voters may eventually punish chronic division, but they don't admire a party of neutered robots, which is what Blairism requires its backbench politicians to be: as they're about to find out yet again, with the Millbank verdicts on their fidelity, and the Millbank invitation to constituencies to take action against back- sliders who have dared to show a sign of independence. There are some able people in this government. But the climate doesn't encourage them to show that they are potent politicians. When Blairite insiders say that David Blunkett is able, they mean he has shown the will to do, as efficiently as possible, what the leader wants. When they say that Robin Cook has recovered from a bad start to become an important player, they mean he conducted Kosovo well, and now understands that his future lies entirely in mirroring Blair rather than posing as a threat to him. The fate of Mr Cook, once an independent force in the party, illustrates better than anything what has happened since the days when Harold Wilson fumed to Benn that Jenkins was about to unhorse him. As a politician, Mr Cook, like everyone else, seems to have little clout left. The test of quality, instead of being political, is administrative, though with a side-glance at the sub-political art of media performance. Has the minister made progress with enough of the 177 items in the company prospectus? This is the benchmark question for the Blair project. All the cabinet evidently passed it. But if political stars are to reappear, it is the wrong question. It kills political talent. What the regime prefers are men in suits whose words will never sing, and women whose command of bullet-points ensures a reliable absence of imagination. None of them are meant to carry menace or even interest. That is why it's hard to care whether Cunningham came or went, or Ruth Sycophant is promoted under-secretary for bicycle bells."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"It seems a long time ago now, back in the spring of 2007, when the Labour tribe was so certain Gordon Brown was the right man to lead them they didn't even want a contest for the top job. They had a clear image of the prime minister, he would be: solid, anchored in moral purpose, a heavyweight able to punch the light out of the Tories - and with a reddish tinge which meant he stood, even if not openly, to the left of Tony Blair. That was the Gordon Brown the Labour faithful hoped they were getting 15 months ago. In the past year, many had almost forgotten him, as a different character seemed to take up residence in Downing Street: Bottler Brown, the ditherer who ducked an election and took from the poor with a scrapped 10p tax rate, who could barely speak like a human being and who watched, paralysed, as a 12-point Labour lead turned into a 20-point deficit. But for one sweet hour yesterday afternoon that man was banished, replaced by the Gordon Brown Labour once yearned for. In a speech performed with greater skill than any of his previous efforts - the cadences rising and falling in the right places, the high-volume, machine gun delivery ditched - the prime minister reminded the Labour party of why they had once admired him so much. The improvement began even before he had appeared. In a surprise piece of stagecraft, his wife Sarah came to the podium to rapturous applause - one of several elements yesterday borrowed from the recently-completed US convention season. Like Michelle Obama or Cindy McCain, she testified to her husband's devotion to public service. Her unflashiness, the sense that she has endured tough times as well as good, threw a kind of protective layer over the PM: he gained credit by association. Brown built on that, insisting "I'm serious about doing a serious job." Riskily, given that he had just deployed his own wife, he bragged that he had not "served up my children for spreads in the papers" - a clear dig at David Cameron, who is often photographed with his family - because "My children aren't props; they're people." It was a return to the message he had sought to convey in that distant summer of 2007: not flash, just Gordon. He marched on determined to retake the moral high ground. Speaking more personally than usual, he offered a quasi-apology for the 10p tax error, saying he was "stung" by the accusation that he was no longer "on the side of hard-working families", vowing that from now on "it's the only place I ever will be". He borrowed a line from Barack Obama's convention speech to ram home the point: "This job is not about me. It's about you." More surprisingly, Brown cast himself as a Scottish Sarah Palin, adapting one of her signature lines, though with Fife in place of Alaska and Westminster in place of Washington: "I didn't come to London because I wanted to join the establishment, but because I wanted to - and want to - change it." But Brown's chief effort was to push the image of himself which, during those first three months in Number 10, had begun to take root in the public mind, before it was so pushed aside. He would be "the rock of stability". Brown will hope this stems the decline in his standing but that was not his primary purpose yesterday. With talk throughout the conference of a plot against him - the only issue being when, not if, he would be toppled - addressing the wider public was a luxury. He had to win over the hall. He did that by returning to what had been old form, staking out territory to the left of the Blairite project. Never mind that he had been the co-architect of New Labour, a favourite Brown manoeuvre was always to tickle the erogenous zones of the Labour faithful, serving up some old-time religion. Yesterday he did that by promising a "new settlement for new times", a shift to reflect the convulsions in the world economy. Now the market would be returned to its rightful place as a servant of the people - never its master. In a sentence which delighted his audience, he declared: "Those who argue for the dogma of unbridled free market forces have been proved wrong." All week the conference fringe has hummed with similar sentiments, as Labour folk have seized on the collapse and bailout of the big banks as evidence that the neo-liberal era is over. Yesterday, Brown was keen to ride that wave. So he spoke of freeing agency workers from "the scourge of exploitation" and laid into the traders guilty of "reckless speculation." That's not language that often passed the lips of Tony Blair. That it comes easily to Gordon Brown was one reason why he was able to remain as Labour's heir apparent for so long. Indeed, he turned to Red Gordon to get him out of trouble many times in the past and did so again yesterday. The politics are not hard to fathom. Brown hopes that by securing his left flank, he can cast himself as the more appealing alternative to any putative rival, who would swiftly be branded as "Blairite" and on the party's right. He knows that the trade unions are not impressed by David Miliband: in yesterday's speech Brown sent the message that in any future choice, they should stick with him. That was not the only way in which the he pushed back at those conspiring for his removal. The public "would not forgive us", he said, if Labour was to turn inward during the economic storm. This is proving to be one of Brown's sharpest weapons: the claim that to leave the country leaderless during such a crisis would spook the markets and anger the voters. But the moment that caught the attention - as it was surely designed to - was a line officially directed at the Conservatives but with a handy double meaning. "I'm all in favour of apprenticeships," he said, "but this is no time for a novice." The TV cameras instantly cut to Miliband's forced smile as the Brown camp knew they would. Not that the Tories escaped a pounding. Brown attacked them more potently than he has managed since becoming prime minister. He won gasps when he quoted George Osborne (not accurately it emerged later) declaring it was financial markets' job to make money out of the "misery of others". There was still some confusion on precisely how to attack the Tories: whether to accept that they have changed, conceding that they now have genuinely progressive intentions - but are not ready to support the means to those progressive ends - or whether to argue that the change is merely cosmetic. In the end, Brown did a bit of both. Still, this was more like the great clunking fist Brown had promised and which he had not yet bared. It gave Labour heart that, if Brown carried on like this, he might just rescue himself - and them. There were longueurs in the speech, especially in the middle, during what even his own aides described as "the policy slab." And while he offered a sketch of what needed to be done to cure the global financial system, the speech was short on the domestic steps Brown plans to take. The policy proposals were all relatively small-bore: not quite lagging on pipes, but home internet and personal tutors for kids rather than an overhaul of the economy. Still, it's not on policy proposals that a speech such as this is judged. It's on the intangible, almost emotional sense that lingers once it's over. Brown needed to leave his audience with the gut belief that he's not done for just yet, that he could still come back. He did that yesterday. But it will have been for nothing if it ends there. As one cabinet colleague said, he needs to do that "every day, every week from now on". He has to kill off the man he has been for the last year - and bring back the Gordon Brown his party once dreamed of."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"It must have been the effect of reading Martin Amis on the prime minister's last days in office so soon after watching England draw against Brazil, but I have finally realised who Tony Blair reminds me of, who indeed serves as his spiritual doppelg&auml;nger. Why, of course, it's David Beckham.It's not just that both men are engaged in drawn-out epilogues after long spells leading their nations. (In 2006, Beckham resigned the England captaincy and Blair announced he would be gone within a year - both prompting a rash of tributes. Yet look: they are both still here!)Nor is it that they are both en route to pastures new and more lucrative: the US. We know Beckham has signed a four-year, &pound;128m contract to play for Los Angeles Galaxy. But Blair is no less of a cert on the US calendar for 2007/8, where he is surely destined to rack up mega-bucks on the lecture circuit.The money will come in handy, because both men are partnered by women with a taste for the finer things in life - combined with a nose for a good deal. Note the fondness for free stuff exhibited by both Mrs Beckham, when she was caught by a 2002 TV documentary gladly receiving merchandise gratis from Topshop, and by Mrs Blair in 2003, when the manager of a Melbourne clothes outlet suggested Cherie pick out "a few things" as gifts - only to see the PM's wife leave with 68 items, worth more than &pound;2,000.Nor is it even that both men have overcome the impediment of speaking voices that do not automatically fit the macho expectations of alpha-male leadership. (Listen to early Beckham and Blair: their voices are slight, even vaguely effete.)All of these parallels are striking, but there is one that matters more. It was touched on by Blair in that interview with Amis. What will you be in the future, the novelist asked: an ex-politician? Oh no, came the answer. "I'll be a former celebrity."This, of course, is what sets both men apart from their peers. Blair was never just a politician, just as Beckham was never just a footballer. They both transcended their fields, becoming internationally iconic figures. When the historians of the future want to understand the Britain of the early 21st century they could do worse than start with these two. Like paired lions on a coat of arms, they are the very symbol of contemporary Britishness."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"Think of it as the sonofabitch school of foreign policy. Legend has it that when Franklin D Roosevelt was confronted with the multiple cruelties of his ally, the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, he replied: "He may be a sonofabitch, but he's our sonofabitch."More than 60 years on, that serves as a pretty good expression of American, and therefore British, attitudes to Islam Karimov, the tyrant of Tashkent who has ruled the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.That he is a sonofabitch is beyond dispute. Like so many despots before him, Karimov has looked to medieval times for ever more brutal methods of oppression. Hence the return of the cauldron, boiling alive two of his critics in 2002. Uzbekistan holds up to 6,000 political prisoners; independent economic activity has been crushed; religious practice is severely restricted; there is no free press; and the internet is censored. On December 26, when the world was marvelling at Ukraine's orange revolution, Karimov was hosting an election that was not nearly as close - he had banned all the opposition parties. But, hey, what's a little human rights violation among friends? And Karimov has certainly been our friend. Shortly after 9/11, he allowed the US to locate an airbase at Khanabad - a helpful contribution to the upcoming war against Afghanistan. Since then he has been happy to act as a reliable protector of central Asian oil and gas supplies, much coveted by a US eager to reduce its reliance on the Gulf states. And he has gladly let Uzbekistan be used for what is euphemistically known as "rendition", the practice of exporting terror suspects to countries less squeamish about torture than Britain or the US. This was the matter over which the heroic Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Tashkent, fell out with his employers: he argued that Britain was "selling its soul" by using information gathered under such heinous circumstances. Brushing Murray's qualms to one side, London and Washington remained grateful to Karimov. A procession of top Bush administration officials trekked to Tashkent to thank the dictator for his services. Donald Rumsfeld, not content with that 1983 photo of himself shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, praised Karimov for his "wonderful cooperation", while George Bush's former Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, admired the autocrat's "very keen intellect and deep passion" for improving the lives of ordinary Uzbeks.And perhaps this egregious example of sonofabitchism would have remained all but unnoticed had it not been for the past few days. For having ugly friends can only work if people don't look at your companion too closely - and this week the world saw Karimov in action. When opponents took to the streets last Friday, the dictator ordered his troops to open fire. Uzbek official figures speak of 169 dead; human rights groups estimate the toll at between 500 and 750 - most of them unarmed. When crowds demonstrated in Lebanon, Ukraine and Georgia, the Americans welcomed it as "people power". But the brave stand in Uzbekistan brought a different response. Washington called for "restraint" from both sides, as if the unarmed civilians were just as guilty as those shooting at them. In the past couple of days, the tune has changed slightly. Now the state department wants Tashkent to "institute real reforms" and address its "human rights problems". It is at least possible that Washington may soon decide Karimov has become an embarrassment and that he should be replaced by a new, friendlier face - but one just as reliable. Less of a sonofabitch, but still ours. Sonofabitchism has always been an awkward business, even in Roosevelt's day; it hardly squares with America's image of itself as a beacon in a dark world. But the contradiction - some would call it hypocrisy - is all the greater now. For this is the Bush era, and the Bush doctrine is all about spreading democracy and "the untamed fire of freedom" to the furthest corner of the globe. If that's the rhetoric, then it's hard to reconcile with a reality that involves funneling cash to a man who boils his enemies. Maybe Bush should just break with the past and fight his war for democracy with pure, democratic means. But that would frighten him. Allow elections in countries now deemed reliable - say Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco - and who knows what havoc might be unleashed? Washington fears it would lose its friends, only to see them replaced by the enemy itself: radical Islamists, the force most likely to win democratic contests in large swaths of the Arab world.That is the conundrum. And yet the case that America, and Britain for that matter, should not only talk the democratic talk but walk the democratic walk is powerful - and not only in pure, idealistic terms. This argument has realpolitik on its side, too.First, despots make bad allies - who all too often become adversaries. Let us recall two men who once played the role of America's sonofabitch. In the 80s, the US backed Saddam against Iran and Osama bin Laden against the Soviets. The US gave those men the guns that would eventually be turned on itself.Second, pragmatic pacts with the devil don't work. For one thing, by repressing their peoples, tyrannies foment, not prevent, terrorism. But such deals in the name of democracy also taint the very cause they are meant to serve. Thus liberal reformers across the Middle East now struggle to make their case to Arab publics who have grown suspicious that "democracy" means US occupation, a sell-off of oil and Abu Ghraib.Third, if democracy really is the panacea the Bush doctrine insists it is, then shouldn't it be trusted to work its magic? Put another way, surely a government that truly represented its people would bring the freedom and stability Washington yearns for - regardless of its political complexion?Perhaps most reassuring to policymakers would be this fact. Even Middle Eastern democrats themselves are not calling for an overnight revolution; they know that in their stifled societies the only public sphere that exists, besides the state, is the mosque. It is for that reason that if elections were held tomorrow in, say, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood would take power.But if the west made the vast financial and military aid it already gives to these regimes conditional on perhaps a three-year programme of gradual liberalisation - lifting emergency laws, allowing proper funding of political parties - then soon some space would open up, terrain occupied neither by the despots nor the mullahs. Different parties and forces could start organising for a future ballot in which they had a decent shot at success.That surely would be more logically consistent than the current, contradictory reliance on tyrants to advance the cause of freedom. And it might have a chance of working in practice - even in a place as benighted as Uzbekistan."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"Schools do it, hospitals do it, even FTSE-listed companies do it. So let's do it, let's see how we've done. After all, this is the age of the performance assessment review and this column is surely not immune. We're happy enough to dish it out on these pages, so we can hardly object if the harsh light of scrutiny is turned on ourselves, just this once. As it happens, I have an easy mechanism in place for some searching self-assessment. A year ago I set out a clutch of "reckless predictions" for 2004. Flush with the success of a similar effort 12 months earlier - in which each one of my guesses came true - I thought I would have another go. To look back at the list now is to have a handy, at-a-glance guide to where I hit the bullseye - and where the dart plunged deep into my own foot. I began with the Hutton report, which was then just a few weeks away. Rightly, I predicted that there would be no "killer sentence" accusing Tony Blair of leading the country falsely to war, and that the prime minister would survive. I also guessed that his lordship would fault the BBC for its sloppy editorial processes and the dual role of its board of governors. After that, my vision got distinctly cloudy. I reckoned that Hutton would "spread the pain evenly", criticising the government for the naming strategy that outed David Kelly, perhaps even laying some direct blame for that at Blair's feet. I suggested that some Ministry of Defence officials were vulnerable, too. As we now know, that was all wrong. Hutton inflicted pain only on one side. I thought the judge would "steer clear" of the most perilous terrain - the honesty or otherwise of the September 2002 dossier - but he was not nearly so timorous. He ruled unambiguously that the dossier had not been sexed-up. Next was the US election. I guessed the final result right - predicting that Bush would win comfortably - but got the other half of the race badly wrong. I tipped the former Vermont governor Howard Dean to be the Democratic nominee, failing even to mention John Kerry. On Iraq, I was again only half-right. I expected the violence to continue, dismissing the wave of euphoria at that time over Saddam's capture and the faulty assumption that he had been masterminding the insurgency from his spiderhole. That was OK. But I also guessed that the US would spend 2004 looking for the exits, timetabling elections for August so that at least some US troops could start coming home - in time to be photographed hugging their wives before Americans went to their polls on November 2. Not so. Iraqi elections are scheduled for next month and the US is as dug in as ever. Israel-Palestine offered similarly uneven proof of my soothsaying abilities. I didn't have to be Doris Stokes to guess that Washington would continue to refuse to pressure Israel. But I also said that a slew of rival peace plans would dominate Israeli domestic politics and that the old Sharon way would be seen as futile. That turned out to be right, though in a way I did not predict. For it was Sharon himself who felt compelled to generate a new strategy, in the form of his Gaza pullout plan. Where I was 180-degrees wrong was my hot tip that corruption allegations would finally engulf Sharon, prompting his resignation. It's nearly 2005 and he's still there. On the home front, I thought Michael Howard would have a goodish year and score solidly in June's European elections. It's true that the Tories did top the poll - but with a dismal 27% of the vote, their lowest share in any nationwide election since 1832. On Labour, the crystal ball was slightly clearer. I wrote that Ken Livingstone would be readmitted to the party and cruise to re-election as London mayor: he was and he did. And on the government's longest-running soap, I offered just one line: "Gordon Brown stays on as chancellor - and waits." All told, it's a patchy, middling record. So, in the manner of these exercises, it's probably wise to look for some lessons learned. On the US, the Dean debacle has taught me to relearn a rule I used to swear by when I worked in Washington: that the US conventional wisdom is always, always wrong. I can give a hundred examples, but the most recent is surely the consensus that existed among Washington know-alls on the afternoon of November 2, declaring that America was about to salute President Kerry. The US punditocracy has a knack for getting it wrong, and I should have distrusted that herd instinct on Dean - and on everything else. But there is a larger point that connects the blunders and, coming from a journalist, it's a surprising one. Put simply, I suspect I was insufficiently cynical. I really did think that Lord Hutton, as a senior judge, would feel obliged to weigh all the evidence fairly, rather than give the constant benefit of the doubt to the state he had always served. I similarly believed that the Israeli political system, for all its flaws, would recoil from the evidence against its prime minister. But that's not how it was. This turned out to be a theme of the year, one I certainly did not predict: unaccountability. Thus Tony Blair could survive a second inquiry, even though its inescapable conclusion was that he had led the nation into war on a false premise. In America, the truth about Abu Ghraib could be revealed - and not a single senior head roll. So 2004 has taught me a couple of lessons. First, don't expect the mechanisms of accountability to work. Second, predictions are a mug's game. As we have seen this week, the world is just too turbulent. Put it this way: if someone had told you that 2004 would see a cabinet minister caught in a love triangle with an American socialite, who would have been the last name on your list? Mine would have been David Blunkett."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"In a neat bit of symmetry, why not end the year as we began it? On January 1 this column made six reckless predictions for 2003. The first was that the US and Britain would take military action in Iraq. Next came forecasts that Ariel Sharon would be re-elected in Israel, going on to rule with a narrow, rightwing coalition rather than a government of national unity; that Gordon Brown would say the five economic tests on the euro had not been passed; that the new constitution for Europe would end up as a dish of classic Brussels fudge; that the Tories would dump IDS; and that Northern Irish elections would see Sinn Fin and anti-agreement Unionists emerge as the two biggest forces in the province. OK, maybe it didn't exactly take Mystic Meg to predict war in Iraq or, indeed, any of the above. And the European guess turned out to be far too optimistic; instead of a fudge, the union did not agree a constitution at all. But there is the beginning of a tradition to maintain here, so why not give it another whirl? <B> 1 The Hutton Report. </B> His lordship is due to publish his findings on January 12. Officially, all he is required to do is offer a full account of the "circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly", but the conventional wisdom has already endowed the Hutton report with much more significance than that. It is, they say, the document that could destroy Tony Blair and transform the BBC. <B> Reckless prediction: </B> Hutton steers clear of the ground that could be most perilous for Blair - the honesty or otherwise of the September 2002 dossier on Iraq's military capacity. There is no killer sentence accusing him of leading the country falsely to war. (As an unelected judge, Hutton would tremble at the thought of toppling an elected head of government.) Instead, Hutton spreads the pain evenly. The BBC is faulted both for the sloppy editorial procedures that allowed Andrew Gilligan to overshoot on his original story and for the dual role of the board of governors, acting as both regulator of the BBC and protector of its independence. Hutton suggests the latter be reformed. As for the government, he criticises the "naming strategy" that exposed Kelly, perhaps even laying some personal blame for that on the prime minister. Blair bites his lower lip and takes full responsibility - but survives. Likeliest heads to roll are at the Ministry of Defence: Geoff Hoon is vulnerable, but so are his mandarins. <B> 2 The US election.</B> This month sees the first tests of Democratic opinion, in Iowa and New Hampshire. The winner there will then hurtle into a sharply accelerated contest whose outcome should be clear by March. With no primary challenge on the Republican side, the Democratic winner will go head-to-head with George Bush in November in a contest that will profoundly affect the world for the rest of the decade. <B> Reckless prediction: </B> Former Vermont governor Howard Dean dominates the early contests. On February 3, in South Carolina, the field winnows, with a single Stop Dean candidate emerging from the pack; there is a southern surge for former general Wesley Clark. But it is not enough: Dean is the nominee. Meanwhile, Bush enjoys the huge advantage handed him by the absence of a primary battle. Unopposed, he strives towards November, distracted only by a flurry of speculation as to whether he will dump the cardiacally challenged Dick Cheney from the ticket. With the economy improving, Saddam Hussein in captivity and Dean easily lampooned as a 21st-century McGovernite liberal, Bush walks it. <B> 3 Iraq.</B> The American dilemmas persist. Should we stay or should we go? Should we carry this burden alone or allow others, including those in the coalition of the unwilling who refused to back the war, a piece of the reconstruction action too? And what should we do with Saddam? <B> Reckless prediction:</B> Day to day anti-occupation violence continues, taking the shine off the Saddam capture - it proves he was not directing the resistance from his spider hole after all. The Americans, mindful of their electoral timetable, start looking for exits. Bush family retainer and presidential special envoy James Baker negotiates a deal with France and the other refuseniks: they give international legitimacy to Iraqi elections in return for lucrative reconstruction contracts. The elections - run as local caucuses rather than under the traditional, but less controllable, one-person, one-vote system - take place in August and are hailed as proof that America's mission of liberation is accomplished. The troops start coming home: these pictures, unlike those of returning coffins, are televised. To be on the safe side, "legal process" ensures Saddam gets nowhere near a dock - where he might shoot his mouth off about past US support for his regime - at least not before November. <B> 4 Israel and Palestine. </B> According to the US-backed road map for Middle East peace, a viable, independent Palestinian state should be just 12 months away. Yet there was next to no progress in 2003 - just fine speeches and a signing ceremony in June, followed by the departure of moderate Palestinian PM Abu Mazen in September. Will 2004 be any better? <B> Reckless prediction: </B> Washington, in an election year, refuses to pressure Israel. Violence continues. But the cracks in the domestic Israeli ice that appeared in 2003 get wider in 2004. The host of rival peace plans dominate public discourse; a consensus emerges, from the military elites down, that Sharon's way is futile. In a shock development, the corruption allegations that have long swirled over the PM engulf him and he is forced to resign. He is replaced by Binyamin Netanyahu. <B> 5 The home front. </B> In what is likely to be the last full year before a general election and the start of Labour's eighth in office, how will the domestic landscape look? <B> Reckless prediction: </B> Michael Howard continues to get good ink from the rightwing press, especially when bolstered by a solid result in June's elections for the European parliament. Back in the Labour fold, Ken Livingstone cruises to a second term as mayor of London and hints that his election-winning formula is the clear alternative to Blairism. Gordon Brown stays on as chancellor - and waits. <B> 6 And finally.</B> Finding Nemo is nominated as best picture at the Oscars and England do well in the European Championships. How well? Now here is where the crystal ball begins to get a little cloudy... Happy New Year."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"You may have drawn up your own list: a catalogue of decisions that have to be made in the year that begins today. Perhaps 2003 is when you finally resolve to change jobs or move house. Maybe this is the year a key relationship has to shift gear. Whatever dilemmas we face individually, we've certainly got a stack of decisions to make collectively. Think of them as an alternative set of new year resolutions: questions we have to resolve in 2003. Here are just six that loom over Britain and the world - and a reckless prediction for each one. <B> 1. War on Iraq:</B> Any day now Americans have to decide whether to take on Saddam Hussein immediately - or whether to delay a year. The advantage of a wait is nakedly political: it would give George W Bush the glory of victory in the election year of 2004, rather than seeing him peak too early (his father's mistake in winning Gulf War I in 1991 rather than in election year 1992). But delay has a cost too. The world can't remain on hair-trigger alert for another 12 months without getting twitchy and irritable. As the North Korea flap shows, other global crises get neglected when the world's hyperpower is focused so obsessively elsewhere. America's allies almost want to get this thing over with. Also, the longer this stand-off drags on, the more Bush risks looking indecisive. The argument has raged in the Bush inner circle for a while now, but a decision has to come soon: the winter window will close next month, only reopening in November. <B> Reckless prediction: </B> Desert Storm The Sequel is a 2003 production. <B> 2. Israeli elections:</B> Voters in Israel have to choose a new government on January 28. If they pick Labour's dovish ex-general, Amram Mitzna, they will be opting for an instant restart in the peace process with the Palestinians. If they re-elect Ariel Sharon, they will be asking for - and will get - more of the same: a military crackdown on terrorism and no more diplomatic activity than the minimum required to keep Washington happy. <B> Reckless prediction:</B> Sharon wins handsomely, but goes on to rule with a narrow, rightwing coalition that struggles to survive long into 2004. <B> 3. The euro:</B> By June Gordon Brown has to decide whether his five economic tests for British entry into the single currency have been met. If he says yes, a referendum will prove the biggest challenge for New Labour since the 1997 election. If he says no, Tony Blair's ambition of a "Britain at the heart of Europe" will remain unfulfilled. <B> Reckless prediction:</B> The chancellor has already made his decision. (Witness Brown ally and T &amp; G leader Bill Morris's call for no referendum in 2003.) Brown will declare that his five criteria have "not yet" been met, marking the clearest breach yet with euro-enthusiast Tony Blair. It will also postpone (if it was ever going to happen) the handover of power famously promised in 1994's Granita summit: Brown will have to wait for his prize and 2003 may be the year he gets impatient. <B> 4. A new Europe:</B> By this summer, the EU will be handed a draft of a new constitution, even mulling a new name. Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing has led a constitutional convention which aims to do for the EU what Philadelphia in 1787 did for the US. It hopes to restructure the union to cope with 26 (or more) states, making the EU the greatest supranational enterprise in history. Blair is said to regard the outcome of Giscard's convention as "more important than Iraq." <B> Reckless prediction: </B> this will be no Philadelphia. Instead of a clear, simple new structure to please logical purists, Europe's leaders will broker and horsetrade their way to a fudge. Britain (and France) will get their way with a strong council of ministers, keeping national governments as key players, with foreign policy and taxation still in national, not EU, hands. Federalists will be happy with a beefed-up commission and greater integration on justice and home affairs. Giscard will not win a name-change to United Europe: it will still be the EU. <B> 5. Britain's mini general election:</B> On May 1 UK voters everywhere but London should have a chance to cast ballots. Elections for the Scottish parliament and for the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies are due to coincide with council contests throughout England. Voters have to deliver their verdict on the newly devolved institutions - and to decide whether to give Labour a bloody nose in time-honoured, mid-term fashion. Toughest of all, the UK government must decide whether or not to allow elections to go ahead in Northern Ireland at all. If they do, Sinn Fein is likely to emerge as the largest nationalist party, with anti-agreement unionists enjoying similar success. <B> Reckless prediction: </B> Labour remain in charge in both Scotland and Wales, though still reliant on coalition allies the Lib Dems. Edinburgh might see a boost for the nationalists, building on their low base of 1999, while in Cardiff, Plaid Cymru fail to repeat their high-watermark performance of four years ago. Both struggle with turnout, especially in Wales where Labour already predicts voter participation of 35% or below. In England, Tories do well - but is it well enough?<B> 6. The future of IDS:</B> In 2003 the Conservatives will have to decide whether to stick with Iain Duncan Smith - or dump him. May 1 could be crucial. If Tories fail to poll above the 33% they won under William Hague in 2001, the IDS-must-go cry will become deafening. <B> Reckless prediction:</B> On a low turnout, Conservatives scrape to or just above 2001 levels - giving IDS a reprieve. But the whispers and sniping intensify over the summer, leading to full-blown plotting in time for the party conference in the autumn. Eventually the Tories' instinct for self-preservation kicks in, as they realise a failure to ditch IDS in 2003 will leave a new leader only 18 months to prepare for battle with Tony Blair. Expect 12 or more months of Tory bloodletting. Oh, and a happy new year.<B>"
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"Summer can be the cruellest season for those whose life is politics. The big cat only has to slip away for a week or two and the mice are soon at play, cheerfully wreaking havoc. Tony Blair has seen the summer curse work its familiar magic these last few weeks: environment minister Michael Meacher would not have allowed himself to be quoted attacking his own government's green record while the boss was in town. But Blair should be used to it by now. In 1997 he had barely cracked open the Ambre Solaire before John Prescott and Peter Mandelson were squabbling over who had been left in charge. (A highlight came when the deputy PM held up a jar containing a crab, telling bemused photographers he had named the ugly crustacean Peter.) Still, Labour's holiday woes seem rather innocent compared to the summer spectacular being laid on by the Conservatives. They have followed up last year's ratings winner - Leadership Contest, in which an entire parliamentary party does its best to destroy itself in full public view - with a fitful, but enjoyable sequel. Once again, the same motifs have been on display: vicious attacks on one another, profound disagreement on the way forward and a desperate fear of electoral oblivion. As befits his role, Iain Duncan Smith set the lead. He sacked his ambitious party chairman David Davis while the latter was soaking up the Florida sun, thereby injecting a whiff of civil war into the air just in time for the plotting season. Sure enough, the conspirators have taken the leader's cue and spent the steamy July and August nights scheming. The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday a plan by 50 Tory young turks, including a dozen parliamentary candidates, to break away and form their own Start Again party. Over swish dinners and via email, the disaffected have apparently shared their collective panic at the Conservatives' seemingly permanent residency of political rock bottom. They are worried by polls that refuse to budge, stubbornly holding them at 35%. Their plan may be mere fantasy at this stage, but they believe a fiscally conservative, socially liberal SAP could do for the Conservatives what the SDP did for Labour: inflicting a painful split, but one that ultimately brings the old party back to its senses. If that is the threat from the left - most of the SAPs backed Michael Portillo last year - the Tory right is hardly being any kinder. Duncan Smith's replacement of Davis with Theresa May, trumpeted as a gesture of kinder, gentler inclusiveness, was a modernisation too far for Norman Tebbit: "The politically retarded managers at central office ... seem obsessed with the ethnic and sexual minorities, forgetting that those who share our values will come with us and those who won't will not." More insults are on their way from the same wing of the party tomorrow, in a new pamphlet, Paralysis or Power?, from the arch- Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies. "Conservative spokesmen spout 'baloney'," writes its author Rupert Darwall, a former adviser to Norman Lamont and a veteran of the legendary Conservative research department of the 1980s. Tories have become "political pariahs", he says, short on talent or anything else that might make them attractive to voters. "The hard truth is that the Conservative party wasted its first term in opposition," he concludes. Lest IDS draw comfort from that apparent blame shift on to William Hague, Darwall hurls a rock with Duncan Smith's name on it: "More than one year into the second [term], little progress has been made." The attack has two clear prongs. The first is that the Tories have erred by fretting about style rather than substance, trying to change their tone of voice rather than what they say. As one former Hague lieutenant puts it, in a voice dripping with derision: "This is the lip gloss and Botox strategy - trying to make Tories look nice." Instead, says Darwell, Conservatives have to get to the heart of the matter, fighting Labour on the battlegrounds of philosophy and principle. So far they have mistaken Blairism for mere opportunism. That is "a huge error". For Labour stands on one side of a clear, ancient ideological divide: it believes in the active, expanded state while the right has always demanded the reverse. That is the second limb of this new critique. Conservatives used instinctively to argue for minimal government and low taxes, but since 1997 they have lost their nerve. "The Conservatives didn't lose the argument. They stopped making it," seethes Darwall. Rather than robustly opposing Labour's lavishing of cash on hospitals and schools as doomed in principle, the Tories have mumbled and muttered that they would do the same but with slightly smaller sums of money. That "amounts to a Vichy response to Blairism". At first glance, this argument should make Blair cheer and IDS sob. For what Darwall is advocating is a platform that would surely send the Conservatives plunging into polling gloom. If the Tories followed his advice, they would tell voters the "hard truth" that they will have to pay "charges for healthcare"; that Railtrack was a perfectly good system that failed only because Labour ministers "wanted to prove that rail privatisation wouldn't work" and that lower taxes would rapidly produce better public services. Imagine IDS or any member of the shadow cabinet going on television to argue any one of those cases: they would be eaten alive. So the fact that talk such as this is bubbling in Conservative circles should be good news for Labour. They want clear blue water between themselves and the opposition and now the Centre for Policy Studies has provided bucketloads of it. This year's budget and comprehensive spending review drew the dividing line, with the government coming out clearly for an active state funded through higher taxes. The centre's paper suggests some Tories are ready to stand on the other side of that divide, loudly opposing, on ideological grounds, such collective action - preferring a low-tax world that leaves individuals with more money to pay for their own private schools or hospitals. Labour should not be too encouraged by this Conservative return to hardcore market fundamentalism. For the centre's text also serves as a warning. If the Blair-Brown strategy fails, if the river of cash flowing into the public services does not transform the NHS or the local comp into first-class services, this is the argument waiting to be deployed. In their thinktanks and salons, this is what ideological Conservatives want to do: to reduce public spending from its current level, around 40% of GDP, to 30% within two parliamentary terms. So Labour, which likes to say that now is the "social democratic moment" cannot afford to let the moment pass. For now we know what will happen if they fail."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"Apparently all is well. The custodians of our civic good health have conducted a thorough examination and found nothing untoward. We are in the clear. Sir Anthony Hammond was first to give the good news. He methodically prodded and poked into the cash-for-passports affair, before declaring happily that he had found nothing "improper". Peter Mandelson, Keith Vaz and their numerous officials were guilty of no wrong- doing; their relationships with the Hinduja brothers were perfectly sound. On Monday the House of Commons sleazebusting committee of MPs issued another set of exonerations, this time not quite as complete. Their probe into the earlier affairs of Mr Vaz cleared him of nine charges, finding him guilty on only one: failing to declare that a man he had nominated for inclusion in the honours' list just so happened to be a contributor to his own constituency fund. Still, that was not too serious, certainly not worthy of any punishment. The committee decided no action was necessary. And there has been an equally cheery verdict on the weekend reports that Downing Street intervened in a controversial planning application by the billionaire arms broker, Wafic Said. Sure, an official memo spoke of "pressure from the prime minister's office not to delay the decision" on Said's plan to build a business school on the site of a much-loved old railway station in Oxford. But that means nothing. Number 10 insists it was merely concerned with the timing of the decision, not the decision itself. Once again, everybody behaved perfectly properly. So given this rash of good news - confirming our public officials' complete probity and propriety - why do we feel so bad? Why is this sequence of denials, rebuttals and exonerations not good enough? If the rules say nothing wrong happened, why doesn't it feel quite right? The answer is common sense. Forget what the reports and inquiries say; these cases are all versions of the same, all-too-familiar story: someone, somewhere got special treatment because they have money. Hammond confirms it. Even as he insists there was no wrongdoing, he provides chapter and verse on the extraordinary efforts made in pursuit of the Hindujas' applications for British citizenship. Their forms weren't processed by some overworked staffer in the passport office - they were championed by the head of the immigration and nationality directorate himself. The rules were bent, too, so that SP Hinduja got his passport in a quarter of the normal time, even though he clearly did not meet the usual residency requirements. Watching over it all were a choir of guardian angels, from Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath to Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw, all doing their bit to make sure the Hindujas' request was dealt with "helpfully". Hammond accepts all this as perfectly proper, but we don't have to. We know what it amounts to: special treatment for the wealthy. Just as we knew it when Tony Blair exempted Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising after Bernie Ecclestone gave 1m to the Labour party. We knew it when the Tories bagged a peerage for Michael Ashcroft soon after he gave the party so much money he became their treasurer. The officials may tell us everything is "proper"; but all that proves is their definition of "proper" is wrong - and we ought to get a new one. But how? How can we stop money talking? The default response is to demand that politicians stay well clear of millionaires, by freeing them of the need to raise cash in the first place. Then Blair and William Hague wouldn't have to grovel to the likes of Ecclestone and Ashcroft. The state could fund political parties and all would be well. Wrong. Even if state funding did not contain risks of its own - like squeezing out new movements by denying them funds - it would not solve the problem. After all, the Hindujas were not offering money to the Labour party, but to the dome. State funding would not have kept Mandelson, Blair and Straw away from them. Accepting the presence of money in politics, but regulating it, seems the next best step. But that's what the MPs who just cleared Vaz are meant to do - and just look how ineffective they are. They had to give up on eight additional charges against the minister because he refused to cooperate with their inquiries. They were powerless to resist. No, we need a new, more radical solution to the problem. And we may find it in, of all places, the law. For what is the real offence in the Hinduja case, or episodes like it? Surely it's the clear evidence that there's one rule for the rich and another for everyone else. It is a violation of our deep belief that everyone should be equal under the law. That can be more than a sentimental hope. In the United States, the 14th amendment's insistence on "equal protection of the laws" has formed the basis for countless civil rights actions demanding fairness and an end to discrimination. It was that clause which underpinned 1954's legendary Brown v Board of Education decision, ending the racial segregation of America's schools. It has been invoked regularly ever since, with Americans petitioning their courts to outlaw preferential treatment for one group of individuals over another. That option is now open to us. Under a happy coincidence, we have a 14th amendment of our own: article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, now absorbed into British law as the Human Rights Act. That article bars discrimination on grounds of sex, race, colour and "any other status." That "other status" could be wealth. Put simply, there is nothing to stop two, hypothetical Patel brothers petitioning the courts to demand why the passport request they made for their third brother was not treated as swiftly as Prakash Hinduja's. A Wafic Smith could complain that the decision on his planning project was not announced as swiftly as Wafic Said's. Bernie Bloggs could claim discrimination denied him the policy exemption that so pleased Bernie Ecclestone. Such scenarios need not be fanciful. Leading human rights lawyer Keir Starmer says: "The whole point of the Human Rights Act is to give protection against discrimination - and discrimination against those with less money could come within the prohibitions set out in article 14." As long as you amassed the evidence and could prove that, say, the Patels and the Hindujas were genuinely comparable in every other respect bar riches, Starmer reckons you could make a serious challenge under the act. At the very least, it would force the discriminating authority to explain why they favoured one set of individuals over another. The experts always told us this new law would make a big difference. In the US the bill of rights has long been used to advance civil rights, from abortion to women's status at work, that were too hot for the politicians to handle. Now it can be our turn. For those of us who are sick of the fast track and special favours granted to the rich, politicians are now too much the problem to be the solution. It may be time to go to court."
3 (jonathanfreedland)
0 (Politics)
"Like a maestro debuting his fourth and finest symphony, Gordon Brown's hour at the dispatch box yesterday should have been his most golden. The climate shines on him more generously than any chancellor you can name. Just days ago Britain learnt that its economy had nudged ahead of France to become the fourth mightiest in the world. Under Brown, the country's accounts have moved from blood red to reassuring black. Yesterday he could brag and boast his way through an astonishing battery of numbers: growth higher than predicted, inflation lower than planned, unemployment at its lowest for 20 years and a deficit in 1997 converted into a 12bn surplus today. Even the usually-ascetic chancellor couldn't resist offering a toast to himself. This fine record was the result of a strong economy and "our prudent management". But self-congratulation was not enough for the restless Mr Brown. He quickened the pace, the maestro wowing his audience with sheer audacity. He revealed delights that would have made even his Tory predecessors blush. He slashed through capital gains tax too fast for the scribblers on the opposition benches to keep up. Within seconds he was on to inheritance tax, hacking away at it at such speed that the thing was in ribbons before MPs could pause for breath. Once he was done, the House could only marvel at a Labour chancellor who had served up a budget that could have been written by the Elders of Middle England. They will now pay the lowest corporation tax anywhere and, if they inherit money, only four in a hundred of them will pay tax on it. The reviews on planet Daily Mail should be stellar. But he was not done yet. Having tickled the New Labour converts, he would soothe the old Labour faithful. "Something for the heartlands," was the tacit message as he announced bundles of cash for education and health. He had pulled it off again. Just as last year he seemed to squeeze a 40bn injection to schools and hospitals into the same budget as a penny tax cut, so yesterday he simultaneously announced giveaways for the well-off and spending for the needy. Within 50 rapid-fire minutes, galloping Gordon had cut taxes, increased spending - and still kept the public coffers in the black. Surely this was yet another Brown blockbuster, satisfying left and right alike? And yet it didn't quite feel that way. Despite the confidence of the opening, the final flourish on health sounded oddly defensive. That was because a performance which had begun with economics ended in politics. Far from displaying Gordon Brown as the unchallenged master of the universe lionised in Westminster mythology, yesterday's speech revealed him as a mortal politician - as vulnerable to the gusts of mood and "events" as any of his colleagues. For although Brown's speech lasted less than an hour yesterday, it looked as though it began two months ago - on David Frost's sofa. There, on January 16, Tony Blair sought to cool anger over the winter crisis in the NHS by admitting that spending was too low - and promising increases of around 5% above inflation for the next six years. To the naked eye, yesterday's speech seemed like an urgent attempt to honour that pledge - with a commitment to spend a staggering 69bn on health over five years. (In fact Brown exceeded Blair's promise, pledging cash rises at 6.1% above inflation.) That may be unfair. An alternative version says Brown and his aides realised more than a year ago that health was too hot a political issue to be handled like the rest of government activity. Where other departments could be told to reform first and receive new money later - and to wait for the Treasury's comprehensive spending review to take its course - health, the Brownies realised, was a special case. Ministers might be able to attack teachers for low standards, witholding extra cash until they changed their ways, but no politician could dare do the same to doctors and nurses. When David Blunkett appears on the Today programme pitted against a teacher, chances are the audience is rooting for him. When Alan Milburn squares off against a cancer specialist, it's the doctor demanding money who wins everytime. Brown's team calculated that they would have to cut through the "noise" about resources by breaking their own rules and announcing money up-front first, insisting on reform second. That's why Brown promised the cash yesterday, with Tony Blair launching the major review today. Either way, the chancellor acted like a conventional politician yesterday, reacting to events rather than shaping them. With most ministers that would be no big deal; but you notice it with Brown - partly because normally he does such a good job of appearing above the everyday fray. Colleagues dislike the way he dodges the flak - ducking when trouble looms over Kosovo or the NHS crisis - but it adds to the aura of Brown as a heavyweight, a grown-up among political juniors. Sometimes he seems more like an emissary from the global economy than a humble British cabinet minister. But that mystique was punctured a little yesterday. There are three other worries. First, BMW's dumping of Rover left many Britons anxious to hear Brown say something for manufacturing industry. BMW insists its hand was forced by the strong pound: it made exporting British goods economically unviable. Yet nothing in the Budget hinted at a fall in sterling: on the contrary, tax cuts and increased spending, as promised yesterday, could well have the opposite effect. But Treasury insiders argue that their record of fiscal discipline - turning debts into surplus - should have begun to reduce the value of sterling by now. The fact that it has not suggests not that the pound is too strong - but that the euro is too weak. A second concern centres on one of Brown's loudest applause lines yesterday. He announced sackloads of money for schools - going straight to the head teacher's cash-box and bypassing the local education authority. That has obvi ous, anti-bureaucratic appeal. But that logic could eviscerate local government, eventually depriving authorities of half their budget and a large chunk of their raison d'etre. This is hard to square with Brown's constant rhetoric about a decentralised, devolved Britain flowering into a rich, civic society. Finally, the chancellor may come to regret bowing to politics on health. What's to stop other ministers now demanding similar up-front injections of cash ahead of reform? Has he perhaps created an incentive against reform, by rewarding the service with the deepest problems ahead of those which have most improved? These are not urgent worries. Gordon Brown's centrality to this government was confirmed rather than undermined yesterday. He is still, at the very least, a co-conductor of the Labour orchestra - standing at the front, calling the tune."
4 (martinkettle)
0 (Politics)
"A year or so ago, I got into discussion with a Labour minister who knows his history. At one point, we found ourselves talking about George Dangerfield's 1935 classic (still in print, I believe, and still being discussed in relation to modern politics) The Strange Death of Liberal England, the book that tries to make sense of how the apparent Liberal hegemony in early 20th-century British politics collapsed into complete marginality in the aftermath of the first world war. Were we beginning to witness the Strange Death of Labour England, I wondered. Even then, it felt as though Labour was sliding inexorably downwards from its own hegemonic years under Tony Blair. It was hard to see a sign, or indeed any reason, why the slide should not continue. Not so fast, responded my ministerial companion. Labour is certainly sliding disastrously, he admitted. No argument about the short-term seriousness of the decline. But you forget that Labour's vote is still based on class identity, not ideology. That wasn't, in the end, true of the Liberals once all men and women got the vote after 1918 and 1928. The Liberals were an ideological party. When they went into decline they went into decline everywhere north, south, east and west as their ideology fell apart in new conditions. Labour is simply different. Even in decline, Labour is still electorally concentrated in particular regions, where its class identity remains strong. As long as first-past-the-post continues, Labour is likely to remain strong at Westminster, and thus is in a position, if it takes the right decisions, to rebound. The classic proof of that came in the 1983 election, when Labour and the Liberal/SDP Alliance each polled about 8m votes, but Labour ended up with 209 MPs against the alliance's 23. Today, as the 2009 Labour party conference disperses, there is still truth in what the minister said. Those who are angrily anxious to write the obituary of the Labour party on the basis of its current slide in the polls at 23% this week, Labour is now five points adrift of the 28% it polled in 1983, hitherto seen as the most ignominious result in its modern history need to recognise that opinion poll decline does not necessarily translate into terminal irrelevance. First past the post has a lot to do with this, but in a different way in 2009-10 compared with 1983. Back in 1983, it was the solidity of the Labour heartlands that allowed the party to remain a big player. This time, the growth of third, fourth and fifth parties may have a similar effect, allowing Labour to win a surprisingly large number of seats on quite small shares of the poll in individual constituencies. In other words, Labour could benefit from a microcosmic effect rather similar to the macro effect from which it benefited in 2005, when 35.2% support gave Labour 356 seats and a healthy Commons majority of 66. A lot of Labour MPs may actually survive next year thanks to the strength of small parties outright winners with shares in the low 30s and even the upper 20s may not be uncommon. Brighton gave one a kind of hallucinatory vision of how this process might feel. Inside the conference bubble, Labour has had a decent conference. Gordon Brown was quite good. His senior ministers were often more than OK. The party had good things to say. There were no plots and few embarrassments. The conference found, to its surprise, that the party actually felt quite good about itself. The conference has been, in short, restorative for a party that fears and even knows that electoral disaster is now just months away. It's all relative, of course, and blind loyalism is an unattractive quality at the best of times, but my point, which I don't think anyone who has been in Brighton can seriously dispute, is that this has been a good conference for Labour in all the circumstances. Outside the bubble, of course, it feels and is different. People aren't interested. They think Brown is useless. Politics is not an important part of their lives. Leave the conference centre and you don't meet lobbyists or protesters, you meet freshers' week students getting legless on pub-crawl drinking binges. It's another world entirely. But that's my point. When the election comes, most people will vote, not stay away. And in Labour areas, a lot of them will continue to vote Labour for all the old mix of reasons. I'm not at all saying Labour will win or do well in the general election. The result will probably be decisively awful. But I remain to be persuaded that Labour is as dead as some now believe. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, a sign of hope or of despair, is not the point. This isn't the strange death of Labour England (or Scotland or Wales). It's the strange living death of Labour England. And that's a different thing from the oblivion that was wreaked on the Liberals nearly a century ago."
4 (martinkettle)
0 (Politics)
"Readers may be aware that the left has stormed to power in three memorable and widely separated electoral landslides since the Victorian era. They are, in reverse chronological order, the New Labour triumph of 1997 (repeated in 2001), the postwar Labour landslide of 1945, and the Liberal landslide of 1906. They were won, readers may also recall, under the respective leaderships of Tony Blair, Clement Attlee and, er, someone else. The name of this third electoral magician of the left? Step forward this country's forgotten radical prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman.It is a hundred years ago next month since CB, as everyone always called him, began the Liberal party's longest, greatest and, as it transpired, final era in government, an era that would last in one form or another until the fall of the Lloyd George coalition in October 1922, nearly 17 years later. Not bad, 17 years. It is a span of office as yet unmatched by any other British government of the left - twice the lifetime of New Labour's reign so far. And, while it is rightly associated most of all with the two names of Asquith and Lloyd George, its first and greatest victory - the January 1906 election that the Liberals called as soon as they took office - was won not by either of them but by Campbell-Bannerman.I like the sound of Campbell-Bannerman. He was, wrote Margot Asquith, "essentially a bon vivant, a boulevardier and a humorist" - and of how many prime ministers since Disraeli can those attractive words be said? According to his only late-20th-century biographer, John Wilson, CB was "an unusual person to emerge as the leader of a great political party, or to be a politician at all, for he was easy-going, had little ambition and inclined to let well alone". He kept politics and government in proportion. No one ever accused CB of being a workaholic. And unlike so many other politicians whose personalities have been warped by grievance and bitterness, he was never a grudge-bearer.But don't be misled by all this into dismissing him as nothing more than a lazy pragmatist. Campbell-Bannerman may not have been an intellectual, but he knew what he fought for and he loved what he knew. His politics were as deeply and thoroughly imprinted on him as his lifelong love of Balzac and Flaubert. CB's Liberalism was real, straightforward and unshakable. "What is Liberalism?" he asked in a speech of 1898, before coming up with an answer that, while not exactly Noam Chomsky, nevertheless still wears pretty well, both in principles and language, more than a century later:"I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life."I don't just warm to Campbell-Bannerman. I admire him. I admire him because, when this broad, inclusive progressivism was put to the test by a seriously divisive issue, he did not bend with the wind but made the right and principled call. Nowhere was this more true than over the Boer war, on which the Liberals - then in opposition - came close to rupture, with much of the party hierarchy under Lord Rosebery supporting the war while the radicals opposed it. As newly elected leader, CB tried to steer a middle course, but in the end it was he who in 1901 made the most important anti-war speech of the era, denouncing the Salisbury government for using "methods of barbarism" to pursue the campaign against the Boers.Admirable too was his highly pragmatic but radical way of governing. The most important example of this was his embrace of the emerging Labour party. CB liked Labour people, agreed with their principal grievances and, within months of taking office in 1906, delivered them the 1906 Trades Disputes Act. Fighting off efforts led by Asquith to water the legislation down, Campbell-Bannerman pushed a much stronger bill through the cabinet which became the cornerstone of 20th-century labour law.Admirable above all was his cool political touch. CB led his party from the centre, not the extremes, rebuilding it to sweep from the bad defeat of 1900 to the massive win of 1906. He took his party from a Tory majority of 134 to a Liberal one of 130, one of the largest general election swings of all time. He did it by concentrating on his opponents' weaknesses - the divisive protectionist tariff campaign - while not exaggerating what the Liberals could achieve. Most of his colleagues thought he was wrong; the result proved him triumphantly right.In office, the Campbell-Bannerman government outperformed expectations - and how many radical governments can make that claim? Had it not been for the Tory majority in the House of Lords, CB would have accomplished education reform and abolition of the multiple franchise - as well as trade union law reform - by the end of his first year in office. As it was, his ministers - Haldane on the army, Lloyd George on merchant shipping - showed themselves real reformers.All political careers end in failure, wrote Enoch Powell in a famous remark in an essay about Joseph Chamberlain. David Blunkett must be reflecting on the truth of that this weekend. But Powell's remark was not true of CB, except in the sense that Campbell-Bannerman's political career ended with his death in Downing Street in early 1908, a few days after he had resigned the premiership on his deathbed in favour of Asquith. If that isn't going out at the top, what is?Yet the gods have had an even crueller fate than failure in store for Campbell-Bannerman: oblivion. Andrew Bonar Law once vied with CB for prime ministerial obscurity, until the late Robert Blake rescued him from neglect with a biography entitled The Unknown Prime Minister. Perhaps, in a few decades' time, Alec Douglas-Home will have receded far enough into the historical shadows to be even more forgotten by future generations. Until then, sadly and most unjustly, the palm of being our unknown prime minister remains with the admirable and unjustly neglected Henry Campbell-Bannerman."
4 (martinkettle)
0 (Politics)
"Ever since 2001, the comparison between Tony Blair and William Gladstone has become columnar stock in trade. Matthew Parris, ever sharp, was one of the first to draw it after 9/11. Lots of the rest of us have echoed it since. And, yes, some of the similarities between the prime minister and his four-time Victorian Liberal predecessor are striking. Few British leaders have combined the religious, the morally driven, the interventionist and the impetuous more readily than these two.Yet the Gladstone-Blair comparison goes only so far. It is hard, for example, to imagine Blair returning from holiday in Egypt this week and feeling the inner confidence to say the following, noted down by Gladstone as he returned to London in the autumn of 1876 after campaigning against Turkish policy in the Balkans. "On Monday morning last between four and five o'clock, I was rattling down from Euston station through the calm and silent streets of London, when there was not a footfall to disturb them. Every house looked so still that it might well have been a receptacle of the dead. But as I came through those long lines of streets, I felt it to be an inspiring and a noble thought that in every one of these houses there were intelligent human beings, my fellow countrymen, who when they woke would give many of their earliest thoughts, aye and some of their most energetic actions, to the terrors and sufferings of Bulgaria." Politicians of the democratic age have a more cynical and nervous view of their countrymen and women. Rattling through the streets of London in the early hours in 2005, a passing prime minister is more likely to notice the ravages of late-night partying and drinking. And it would be a very confident leader who persuaded himself that the waking thoughts of many Londoners this week would concern the sufferings of Bulgaria or its current equivalent. That is why it is going to take rather more than the current swell of national self-esteem about the British people's response to the Asian tsunami to reshape Blair's view of the electorate to whom he will shortly make his appeal. The popular response has indeed been inspiring, and may also be a reminder that better angels lurk within all but the most selfish souls. But it does not prove we are a nation of consistently energetic visionaries on the Gladstonian model. In a sense, we have been here before. Twenty years ago, in the summer of the Ethiopian famine, it was briefly fashionable to see Live Aid and its associated work not just as a rebuke to Margaret Thatcher's aid policy - which it undoubtedly was - but even as a harbinger of new forms of political engagement - which it turned out not to be. Live Aid was, indeed, a major event. It left its mark on many lives. But it did not fundamentally change either Africa's vulnerability to famine or the state of British politics. The response to the 2004 tsunami, like that to the 1985 famine, caught politics by surprise. In both cases, ministers were wrongfooted by the public's capacity for generosity. But in each case the furore about government inaction has frequently been a surrogate. Those who have had it with Blair have taken out their anger on the fact that he stayed on holiday. But such people would have damned him if he had come back (imagine the charges of presidentialism and headline chasing), just as they have damned him for not doing so. Any stick to beat a dog. Nevertheless, things have moved on. Twenty years ago, we had a government that deliberately cut overseas aid, that saw supplicants as scroungers, and that was intellectually attracted to the notion that all aid was both corrupt and futile. Today, that is demonstrably no longer so. It would be a travesty to pretend that Blair shares Thatcher's gut contempt for aid as such. None of this, though, makes Blair a Gladstone. The Grand Old Man may have thought he discerned a sleeping nation capable of being roused to action by Turkey's injustice towards the Bulgarians. Blair, by contrast, is more likely to discern a sleeping nation fearful of an influx of Turks and Bulgarians alike. And who is to say, despair over it as we may, that he is wrong about that? Right now, we may feel good about ourselves. But enjoy it while you can. Come the election, things are likely to be very different. <B>"
4 (martinkettle)
0 (Politics)
"Back in February, the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, did one of those things that help to mark him as one of the most interesting politicians of our age and continent. En route from Berlin for talks in Moscow with Vladimir Putin, Fischer stopped off for the first time in his life in the Baltic city that was once Knigsberg and is for now Kaliningrad. He did so to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of the city's most famous son, laying a wreath and delivering an oration at the grave of Immanuel Kant. Clutching his dog-eared copy of The Critique of Pure Reason, Fischer told his audience of diplomats and philosophers how Kant, along with Hegel and Marx, remained one of his own greatest influences. An understanding of law and morality as the basis of the rational world was Kant's continuing legacy to the present, he argued. Kant's 1795 essay Perpetual Peace, which envisages a global association of republics, could even be seen as a pointer towards the creation of the UN, Fischer suggested. It is impossible to imagine many circumstances in which one of Britain's past or current ministers would reflect on the continuing influence and relevance of one our own great philosophers. Jack Straw, Fischer's opposite number, is a serious thinker, but he will not be taking a leaf out of the German foreign minister's book on Thursday to deliver a graveside tribute on the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke. Very few people appear to make the pilgrimage to Locke's last resting place in a tomb against the church wall at High Laver in west Essex. When I went to pay my respects there last weekend, I had the church and his memorial to myself. No one had signed the visitors' book for nearly two weeks. Locke's significance as a guiding spirit of the US constitution is duly marked by a church plaque erected by American admirers in 1957. But his importance in his own country is not acknowledged in any way. This neglect seems somehow bleakly appropriate of our current uncertainties. Locke certainly has his faults, and his critics, and it is important not to romanticise him. There is confusion, self-contradiction and much that is unresolved in his thinking. He was a man of the 17th century, and his advocacy of tolerance did not extend to Catholics or to atheists. His civil society of free, equal and rational men essentially excluded women and the labouring poor. Yet you do not have to be an enthusiast for Locke to recognise the sheer scale of his contribution to British life or his central position at the fountainhead of so much that came later. Indeed, it is hard to think of anything important about societies in general, and our own in particular, on which Locke did not have something pertinent and lasting to say. He is the essential philosopher of consensual constitutional government, the key expounder of the notions of the social contract, the sovereignty of the people, majority rule, minority rights and the separation of powers. He is our leading defender of individual civil liberty, the greatest advocate in our history of religious and civic tolerance, and the first proponent of progressive educational methods, as well as the principal godfather of all those attitudes of common sense, reasonableness, kindness and politeness that later eras have so often thought of as essentially British. So if anyone deserves to be the object of serious civic commemoration or reflection in Britain, then Locke surely qualifies. Yet this week's notable anniversary will pass here almost without notice. Elsewhere the interest is somewhat greater. Locke is generally taken more seriously in America, where a crude Lockean view of the contract between the individual (sovereign) and government (limited) remains widely held. Yet he has become a prophet without much honour in his homeland, even though he is the principal intellectual begetter of the 1688 constitutional settlement, which he did so much to legitimate and which has lasted from his day to ours. I am not arguing for large-scale celebrations, renaming of streets, a special issue of postage stamps or even an anniversary lecture by Simon Schama on the BBC, although none of these would be unwelcome. But it seems more than a mere oversight that we do not even consider doing any of these things. There are, of course, special reasons why Germans should wish to recall and connect with Kant. But other European countries also have explicit places and rituals of honour for their own great thinkers and writers. Britain is unusually negligent in this respect, especially considering our riches and our strong, if conflicted, sense of national identity. So one has to wonder: why? The big answer is surely that we gradually lost sight of the liberalism of which Locke has such a large claim to be the source. And lost confidence in it too. A hundred years ago, Locke's position at the head of a still vibrant British liberal tradition seemed utterly secure. Since then, the liberal tradition has declined, faltered, and has even seemed to have spent itself. For much of the 20th century, socialism appeared to be the philosophy and programme of the future, a stronger weapon to achieve wider social justice. In those circumstances, Locke inevitably appeared a more distant and less relevant figure. More radical and obscure 17th-century icons, like the Digger Gerrard Winstanley and the Leveller Thomas Rainborough, seemed to have more to say to our times. But socialism has failed. Even the era of the labour movement is passing inexorably away. We inhabit a world that has passed through the industrial socialist era and is emerging on the other side of it, dazed, disorientated and in search of new and more relevant signposts towards modern social justice and liberty. Capitalism has won the economic battle, albeit in a form that no 19th-century capitalist would easily recognise. Socialism has become a religion not a programme. And liberalism, which to socialists seemed for so long to be merely temporising and cowardly, has outlasted socialism. Which is why, in turn, it is time to return to Locke and the tradition at whose head he still stands. Liberalism without social justice is not a political programme in the democratic age. But nor, we should have learned from the 20th-century experience, is social justice without liberalism. The things that Locke thought were important - government by consent, the parliamentary system, civil liberty, freedom of thought and religion, the rights of minorities, an education that is more than functional, the rule of law - have never seemed more modern than they do today. Disregard for these principles has marked every instance of the failed socialist experiment. And it is also perhaps the most lasting - and least excusable - of all New Labour's failings too. To the politics of the future, as of so much else, Locke still holds the key."
4 (martinkettle)
0 (Politics)
"On the morning of polling day in the 1983 general election, I had a conversation in the local Labour committee rooms in Hackney. What do you think the result is going to be tonight, the ward secretary asked. I think the Tories will win by more than 100 seats, I replied. The ward secretary seemed taken aback. That wasn't the mood on the doorstep, he countered. In his view Labour would win by about 20. Well, when the polls closed, it soon became clear that I was right and that the Labour ward secretary was wrong. Mrs Thatcher came back with a majority of 144, Labour slumped to 28% nationwide and just escaped falling into third place. Fast forward 14 years to the 1997 election. Another election-day conversation with another Labour official, only this time with the leader of the party. The subject was the same as before, only this time it was my turn to ask the question. What do you think the result will be? We might win by 50, he replied. More like 150, I retorted. The purpose of retelling these anecdotes is not to boast. The truth is that my powers of prediction are no better than anyone else's. My secret on both occasions was a simple one. Unlike the people I was talking to, I consistently believed the opinion polls. The polls said Thatcher would win by a landslide in 1983, and they said the same about Blair in 1997. I merely repeated what the polls were saying. I believed the polls then, and I believe the polls now. That is why, for example, when people ask me what I think will happen in the US presidential election, my answer is that John Kerry is winning. I say this, my abusive rightwing American email correspondents may like to note, not because I am a jerk or a pinko or because I come from a country that has lost its manhood, nor even because I want it to happen, but simply because that is currently the conclusion of most of the polls, especially in the battleground states. Which is not, I stress, the same thing as saying that Kerry will win. Maybe he will and maybe he won't. No opinion poll is foolproof. All of them have margins of error. And none of them is ever a prediction. They are merely a necessarily approximate snapshot of the state of opinion at a point in time. And since the US election is not until November 2, and the nuances and momentum of the polls change all the time, no prediction made in August can be anything but a more or less informed guess. All you can say, right now, is that it is a close election and that Kerry is narrowly in the lead. Calling me a jerk doesn't change that, you bigots. I accept, though, that those of us who believe the polls currently have some explaining to do on the domestic political front. This is particularly true in the combined wake of last week's Guardian-ICM poll, which found Iraq at the bottom of a list of prospective election issues, and Friday's Financial Times-Mori poll, which concluded that defence and foreign affairs were the most important issues facing the country. Shurely shome mishtake, even good observers have said on seeing these results, among them Peter Preston, who confessed to "plain confusion" on these pages 24 hours ago. But I think the confusion is more apparent than real, and I also think it is important to be able to show that this is so, not solely for reasons of amour-propre , but also even for reasons of the civic good. It would be good for our collective politics if we could stamp out the lazy conceits that the polls can't be trusted and that they can be made to support anything you want them to say.There are many variables between different polls - date, size of sample, method of contact, weighting and the rest. More than anything else, though, the results of different opinion polls depend on the questions that the pollsters ask. Confusion in; confusion out. Clarity in; clarity out. That is why the key to unravelling the ICM/Mori "confusion" is to be clear that they asked very different - not contradictory, just different - questions.In its poll for the Guardian, for example, ICM asked its sample: "Now, thinking about the next election and the issues that will be important in your own decision on how to vote, which two or three of the following will be most important in your own decision on which party you will vote for?" Respondents were offered 10 subjects, of which "Iraq" - that one word alone, note, not some other formulation like "the Iraq war" or "Tony Blair's imperialist lies about Iraq" or any of the almost infinite number of possible permutations - was one. Just 12% of all voters selected "Iraq", which came bottom of the pile topped by the NHS on 59%. Meanwhile, going into the field that same weekend for the FT, Mori was asking its sample: "What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?", before asking them to add "other important issues facing Britain today". Mori's sample were not prompted with a list of issues - unlike the ICM sample - and their unprompted replies were then allocated by the pollsters into Mori's regular categories. In this latest FT poll, "defence/foreign affairs/international terrorism" came top for "most important" single issue (24%) and retained that place when "other important issues" were added in (38%).Does this mean that the polls are saying contradictory things? It is possible - rogue polls can happen - but very unlikely. It certainly is not happening in this instance. The key thing to notice is that the two polling organisations were simply asking different questions: ICM about the issues that would influence the way you voted at the election, but Mori about the most important issue facing the country.These two polls, far from being contradictory, are in fact compatible. It is perfectly possible to see a subject as the most important facing the country while simultaneously not giving it great importance in your decision on which way to vote. In the 80s, polls regularly showed that unemployment was deemed the most important issue facing the country, and even that Labour had the best policies for dealing with it. But that didn't mean that people voted Labour. They voted Conservative because, when it came to voting, issues like taxes and economic competence - on which the Tories had the advantage - mattered more.A similar dynamic is at work today. Foreign affairs, defence and international terrorism may indeed be the most important issue facing the nation - a pretty capacious bag that category is, by the way, containing many other issues besides Iraq. A party which could find something compelling to say about that bunch of issues would certainly have an advantage - as the Lib Dems have discovered. Even so, when it comes to the election, as ICM found, it's the same old story. Next year, most people will cast their votes because of the things that make a difference to themselves and their families - health, education and the rest of it. Which is why Labour will win. Just as the polls say they will.<B>"
4 (martinkettle)
0 (Politics)
"It says something about the fashions of intellectual life that there are more books in print these days about the historian AJP Taylor than by him. But if ever it was in the collective public interest for a book to be urgently reprinted, because it can speak so directly to our present discontents, then that book is Taylor's The Troublemakers. Subtitled Dissent over British Foreign Policy 1792-1939, the book was Taylor's own favourite from his output. Based on his Ford lectures at Oxford University in 1956, the unerring coherence of The Troublemakers is never in doubt and was never more relevant than today, nearly half a century later. The Troublemakers leaves an infinitely sharper and brighter imprint in the mind than most of the thousands of history books that have been written in the subsequent half-century, about which it can truly be said that they say more and more about less and less. No one could possibly say that about Taylor's book. The Troublemakers is, in one sense, an apologia on behalf of Taylor's own lifetime of radical iconoclasm about international affairs. It was an iconoclasm which he practised as well as preached, as a leading early member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an opponent of Suez and frequently as a defender of the Soviet rather than the American stance in successive cold war confrontations. Taylor was regularly mocked by the foreign policy establishment, for example, for repeatedly argu ing that the Soviet Union had no intention of invading western Europe. But in the end he was probably more right than his critics. The Troublemakers also tells a national story - and it is a story that has not ended yet. For every national tradition, Taylor argued, there is a national countertradition, and the dissenting tradition in foreign policy is one of the most sustained countertraditions of them all. Taylor mined a rich mother lode of anti-war, anti-imperial, anti-Whitehall dissent in British public life through some of the most bellicose eras of modern history, from the French revolution to the outbreak of the second world war. His heroes are sometimes famous men, like Gladstone, more often half-forgotten men, like John Bright and occasionally wholly forgotten ones like David Urquhart or HN Brailsford. Throughout, though, there is an essential message: that there is a radically different way of defining the British national interest from the one embraced by governments down the ages - and that it is one which can embrace both the traditional right and the traditional left. Most of the time, the challenges mounted by the troublemakers have tended to be quixotic, marginal and unsuccessful. But not invariably. At certain moments, the troublemakers understand more clearly than anyone else what needs to be said and done. The climax of Taylor's book marks such a moment. It comes on the evening of September 2 1939, when Neville Chamberlain sat down, in a shocked chamber and without a single cheer, after giving the Commons his latest - and, as it turned out, his last - report on his efforts to strike a deal with Hitler over the invasion of Poland. As Chamberlain took his seat, the acting leader of the Labour party, Arthur Greenwood, rose to reply. As he did so, there were mutterings of encouragement to Greenwood from both sides, and a shout, traditionally attributed to Leo Amery, came from the restive Conservative benches. Taylor treated that shout as the apotheosis of the "troublemaking" tradition -the moment when the outsiders reclaimed the moral initiative from the insiders and saved the nation from its leaders. Today, Amery's words have a power which vaults across the decades to another generation as it stands on the eve of another war: "Speak for England, Arthur!" History never exactly repeats itself, and the supporters of peace and war in this generation are interestingly transposed today compared with their predecessors in 1939. But we are once again a country desperately in need of a clear, temperate voice at a time of unmistakable international crisis. Rarely has it seemed more important in recent years for the national interest on the world stage to be properly articulated and clearly acted upon. And yet if Tony Blair no longer speaks for England - or, more properly, Britain - then who does? Even now, it may seem unfair to write Blair so peremptorily out of the script. He still speaks for many more people - and in more subtle ways - than those who rush to label this as "the Bush-Blair war" ever acknowledge. He has, in his way, been pursuing a necessary, often lonely, frequently unrewarding and at times even heroic effort to prevent a dangerous American war against a dangerous Iraq. He is - or was - right to try to contain the administration that rules the US, just as he is also right to seek to contain the threat from Saddam Hussein. Nor is Blair's frequently stated desire for Britain to have the best of both worlds - European influence and transatlantic influence - either unprincipled or tactically wrong. That policy made enormous sense before September 11, when Blair invoked it to try to head off the Bush administration's early signs of multilateral disengagement. But it has been tested to destruction since September 11. It can no longer bear the weight that the combination of the danger from terrorism and the momentum of the Bush administration's response now place on it. Bush has forced Blair to choose between Europe and the US, and Blair cannot avoid the tragic choice. That is why this weekend's Blair visit to Bush at Camp David could be pivotal in our modern nationhood. Driven by a combination of anger, oil, domestic electoral calculation, and the awesome re-energisation of what Dwight Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, the Americans have got themselves over-exposed on Iraq. By overcommitting militarily so hastily, Bush is now a step away from having to go to war largely to save his own face. War with Iraq is not even in Americas interests, never mind Britain's. In theory this could be seen as a great opportunity for Blair. In theory, this weekend is the moment when Blair can say to Bush that our national interest is at odds with America's war. In theory, that refusal could matter. In theory, it is even the moment when Blair could start to make the great overdue turn towards Europe to which Bush has finally forced him. In practice, none of these things is going to happen. Tragically, when Blair says he positively wants America to act this way, he seems to be saying what he believes. Tragically, he cannot contemplate saying no to the US, even when Bush has pushed him to it. That is why we are again at a "speak for England" moment. Yet even AJP Taylor would have been hard put to explain how the man who currently speaks for England is, of all unlikely people, Jacques Chirac. <B>"
4 (martinkettle)
0 (Politics)
"No one who has ever seriously believed in any cause finds it easy to criticise that same cause in public. The doubter's life can be hard, lonely and insecure. Conscience makes cowards of good people, around whom the habit of loyalty coils like a snake, difficult to shake off. In the battle between the heart and the head there is never an easy winner. Tony Blair's belief in the importance of the US is a classic example of the perils of an undifferentiated loyalty. His own current problems need to be understood with that in mind. Some of his judgments over Iraq make sense, but are not necessarily excused by the fact that Blair is engaged in a struggle with realities which threaten one of his most enduring instincts. Blair has long held the view that British domestic politics take place downstream from the US. He thinks Bill Clinton's election in 1992, and still more his re-election in 1996, were essential preconditions for Labour's own victory a few months later in 1997. He thought that the presence of a Democratic president in the White House made Labour appear to be cutting with the grain of history, not against it. By the same yardstick, Blair saw George Bush's election in November 2000 as a more serious challenge to Labour than most people realise. It was one of the main reasons why he was so determined to be the first foreign visitor to Bush in early 2001. By getting to the president's shoulder at Camp David, Blair aimed to squash any pre-election attempt by William Hague to position the Conservatives as the party in touch with the new America. He is just as determined to prevent Iain Duncan Smith doing the same thing now. Since 1997, Blair's belief in the importance of America has of course widened from domestic to international politics. He seems gradually to have formulated an approach to foreign policy which sees the US as the essential nation in the settlement of global and regional issues, and which identifies the Anglo-American relationship as the necessary catalyst ensuring American global engagement rather than isolationism. Just how much he really believes in the mystique of the so-called "special relationship" is a hard call, especially given the more overwhelming evidence that Blair thinks of himself as a European. But he certainly acts the part of First Buddy with conviction. No one who heard Blair speak at a White House dinner with Clinton in 1998 would be in much doubt where his heart as well as his head lay. That evening Blair quoted the biblical remarks of Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt's emissary to Churchill, at a wartime dinner in London: "Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Even to the end." Nearly two years into the Bush administration's term, it is easy to forget that Blair sometimes had to struggle to secure US international engagement under Clinton too, and over committing US forces in Kosovo in particular. But any problems which Blair encountered with Clinton are as nothing beside those he has faced with his successor. As Frances Fitzgerald writes in a compelling essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books: "The Bush administration has clearly broken with the internationalist premises that have been accepted by every other administration since World War Two, with the exception of Reagan's first." As Fitzgerald points out, George Bush has rarely defined the goals of his administration's foreign policy. In public, he has talked mainly in vague, general terms. Depending on his audience, as in his adjoining article today, there is more or less mention of allies. But in most Bush speeches, the world is a place of threats against which US-defined solutions offer the greatest security. It was summed up in Bush's election campaign comment about threats to America: "We're not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there." One result is that no one, including America's allies and perhaps including Bush himself, has a very clear idea of the kind of world that Bush would really like to see beyond US shores. Perhaps he will rectify that omission when he addresses the UN today in New York. But the other result is that Bush's subordinates, led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, have repeatedly set the agenda in a series of steps which amount to a wholesale repudiation of any theory based on collective action and alliances. The extreme version of this approach is summed up by the number three man at the State Department, John Bolton, who once proclaimed: "There is no such thing as the UN. There is an international community that can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the US, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along." A parallel approach has recently allowed the Pentagon, which has systematically opposed, abrogated and binned a series of international treaties, to abandon its long-standing "threat-based strategy" in favour of a "capabilities-based approach". According to Defence Secretary Rumsfeld this means that America needs to build up its defences on land, sea, air and space "to defend our nation against the unknown". As Fitzgerald points out: "For the overall defence budget, a 'capabilities-based approach' means simply that the Pentagon can ask for whatever it wants without having to justify its requests by the existence of even a potential enemy." This is the reality which constantly subverts Blair's attempts to portray the Bush administration as a willing partner in the new moral order that the prime minister advocated at Brighton last year. He was at it again this week, claiming to the TUC that in today's world "internationalism is practical statesmanship". Everywhere but in Washington, it should be added. It is hard not to feel some sympathy with Blair's predicament. He believes in the right things. He is trying to exert an influence that needs to be exerted in pursuit of a good strategy that would make the world a safer and better place. Yet for all his efforts he gets only grief, in Washington and at home. He gets grief because there is a profound disjunction between what he wants to believe about this administration and what is in fact the case. But this administration has trashed the rules that Blair wants to play by. Rather than face that reality head on, he pretends, in public at least, that it does not exist. It's the mistake that other loyalists in other causes have made down the years. Like them, Blair faces a choice between heart and head, and between loyalty and truth. Like them, he risks allowing excess loyalty and insufficient clarity to make the wrong call. < AA >"
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"Asked by Jeremy Paxman why he was getting married, Charles Kennedy replied: 'Because I'm in love.' This quaint response did not satisfy his questioner, who accused the Liberal Democrat leader of making a very public statement at a time when many people opt not to marry. How impertinent of Mr Paxman. Weddings may no longer be the province of Colette's 'young girls with papier-mch faces' and adolescent bridegrooms in hired Moss Bros, but there is an upsurge of veteran enthusiasts. Ron Davies, the former Welsh Secretary, is to marry his partner, Lynn Hughes, whom he met following his nemesis on Clapham Common and his subsequent divorce. Prince Charles, it is rumoured, may soon exchange vows with Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Church of England has lifted its ban on marrying divorcees. As the Bishop of Winchester put it, the clergy can no longer keep its hands clean on remarriage. The problem for the church is that the demand for even grubby-fingered vicars is scant. The Office for National Statistics' latest figures show that only two in five ceremonies are religious, compared with more than half in 1991. Still, weddings are increasing for the first time in eight years. Almost 268,000 couples got married in 2000, up 1.7 per cent on the previous 12 months and a sign, according to the pro-marriage lobby, of a revived institution. Not quite. The small rise was largely due to divorced people remarrying. Some serial monogamists will end up eternally content; for others the future pattern is Henry VIII minus the blood. The rate of break-up in marriages between two divorcees has doubled in two decades. None of this is a reason not to marry. Charles Kennedy's wedding is a cause for celebration, however sour Mr Paxman might be. The point is that not getting married is equally valid, except to evangelists such as Linda Waite, a Chicago sociologist now advising British people trapped in bad relationships that staying together will make them happier than divorce. Although Professor Waite's work must be conducted with an academic rigour untainted by her affinity with God and the Waltons, her surveys always look as perfectly cooked-up as a Martha Stewart apple pie. Invariably, they deem that married women (though not as content as men) are healthier and happier than their single counterparts. In future studies, Ms Waite will no doubt be proving that matrimony increases one's chances of becoming a lottery millionaire and Pulitzer prizewinner, besides insuring against cellulite and unwanted nasal hair. While her findings deviate from the Wildean idea that marriage is 'as demoralizing as cigarettes, and far more expensive', they fail to establish why enthusiasm for the institution remains so low. Maybe, in a secular age, weddings, whether conducted at St Paul's or the West Bromwich Albion supporters' club, have become commercial and arid. The current Brides magazine contains, squashed between adverts for designer lace, a letter from a reader needing a cheap wedding. Serve sparkling wine instead of champagne, an agony aunt advises. Let them drink Freixenet. This rallying cry may fail to usher the destitute to the altar, let alone reverse the broader trend. By 2021, cohabitants are likely to reach three million and outnumber married couples. Already, a quarter of babies are born out of marriage. As social mores have shifted, English law, which does not recognise cohabitation, has grown, if anything, less accommodating. The notion that being a common-law wife had any legal status disappeared in Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1753. Far from being destroyed by Labour, as the Right always moans, marriage offers a lucrative cushion of tax breaks and financial guarantees for life. Property, pension and assets are for slicing up, post-divorce. Cohabitees, conversely, are entitled to nothing if a partnership ends. The first serious move against this imbalance came a few months ago in Lord Lester's abandoned Private Members' Bill, which proposed legal rights for gay and heterosexual couples who signed up to civil partnerships. Why should a woman who has brought up her partner's children and looked after him and his house for most of her life be left destitute because she did not marry? Why should a man be made homeless because he had to pay inheritance tax after his male partner of 30 years died? Despite the urgency of such questions, some Ministers reportedly claimed that they would not be supporting the Lester Bill because the Law Commission, the Government's legal reform body, was completing a report on the whole issue. The Commission was doing no such thing. Instead it had restricted itself to the narrower matter of rights to shared homes. On Thursday, baffled by trying to cut a deal that fitted incumbents ranging from a granny in an annexe to an abandoned lover, it announced that it had failed to come up with any solution. This bizarre end to years of deliberation coincided with a separate blueprint from the Law Society, which last week ratified an internal report calling for registered civil partnerships. It also recommended, in an advance on Lester, redress for vulnerable ex-partners, whether or not they have opted into any formal system. As both the Law Society and the Law Commission urge a national debate, the Government says vaguely that its review of civil partnerships is 'ongoing'. Ministers are nervous. The family values militants must, like some ghastly maiden aunt, be soothed and placated. The whiff of a fairer alternative always provokes tirades against cohabitation; supposedly a disposable arrangement for the feckless. But when the law expressly outlaws commitment, it is unsurprising that unmarried relationships look less durable. In France and Sweden, where cohabitants have the legal safeguards decreed by almost all European countries, civil partnerships are as durable as marriages. Maybe intolerance underpins our talent for churning out 'feral' children; the truants and the failures. Perhaps there is an allied reason why British girls under the age of consent are eight times more likely to get pregnant than their French and Swedish counterparts. Relationships seen as legally sub-standard and morally dubious must be less likely to produce model citizens. If cohabitation were a rarity, the effects of discrimination would impact only on individuals. But when not marrying becomes the norm, the unfairness of the current system risks corroding a society encouraged to be in thrall to skewed nostalgia. Married coupledom, from the Macbeths to the Shipmans, has never been the idyll its supporters claim. The aftershock of marital schism and breakdown is apparent everywhere; in hideous domestic violence figures or in the death of Claude Mubiangata and his four children in a burnt-out car. Tragedy and horror are not the monopoly of the married, but nor do Handel and orange blossom offer a talisman against disaster. There have been some advances towards accepting diverse lifestyles. Gay partners of MPs and civil servants now have the same rights as married couples, and adoption is less proscribed. It is vital now that the Government spurns the pro-marriage militia and moves faster. While the law and society should not dictate how people live, nor is it their role to damage those who can't or won't subscribe to an arcane agenda."
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"Politician's families shouldn't dabble in policy. The odium heaped on Cherie Booth over a dozen coded words on Palestine showed how rigidly this maxim is applied. Unless you happen to be a son of the Home Secretary. Last week's decision to scrap the snoopers' charter was partly informed by Hugh Blunkett, a computer specialist of no formal constitutional status, who advised his dad to back off plans for wider access to communications data. A child's intervention is not the same as a wife's. Nor did Hugh publicly query Home Office policy. Even so, the contrast was odd. Exaggerated newspaper reports asserting that the Minister's son had singlehandedly overturned a draft order conferred Socratic wisdom on Blunkett Minor. Ms Booth, less gloriously, was branded a Hamas cheerleader, operating far outside her remit. The distinction is simple. Hugh Blunkett is a hero because everyone wants their emails kept private. Cherie Booth is pilloried not because her allusion to the hopelessness of young suicide bombers was too political, but because the Right don't like what they think she was saying. If she had argued for, say, the restitution of the married couples' tax allowance or clemency for householders who murder burglars, the reaction would have been the opposite. Ms Booth, absolved of sins ranging from banging on about human rights to wearing pixie boots at the races, would have been hailed as the advocate of reason. Instead, an apology was issued from Downing Street, where her remark may also have caused alarm. Although the Government opposes Israeli occupation and demands a Palestinian state, the suspicion is that stick-with-Bush pragmatism comes first. Besides, Mr Blair has been this way before. When Jack Straw, quick to offer a qualified defence of Cherie, upset Ariel Sharon by making a very similar point about despair in Palestine, the Prime Minister had to intervene to salvage last September's peace talks. This, one imagines, has been a lonely week for Cherie, an offender against the orthodoxies of the cautious Left and the bullish Right. Some who fit neither template will be repelled by her sentiments. Others will agree with her and think they understand what underlies one sentence, awkwardly blurted out. A member of a generation drawn into politics by outrage over Palestine's fate, she is also a mother involved with charities for the young. Why would she not be appalled by the fate of children bred for immolation? To infer disregard for dead Israeli citizens is wrong. Those who suggested that she would have been in the clear had she deplored the latest bus bomb may have been shiny humanitarians, but most came across as hypocrites advising the spun platitudes they affect to despise. How political can Cherie Booth afford to be? The last high-profile outsider to invite a similar furore was Gretta Duisenberg, who draped the Palestinian flag over her apartment balcony in Amsterdam. Despite relenting after death threats against her and pleas from her husband, Wim, Mrs Duisenberg remained imperious. She might be married to the head of the European Central Bank, but she was a free woman who could do what she wanted. While Ms Booth may not share Mrs Duisenberg's views, she might envy her ability to air them. For partners of senior British politicians, liberty has traditionally been strictly rationed and tact mandatory. Obviously, there have been lapses. On being informed, in 1937, that the leader of the Opposition was to get a salary, a gleeful Violet Attlee told the press that at last she would be able to afford enough maids to run her home properly. Ramsay MacDonald's wife was so lacking in Liz Hurley-style presentational skills that when someone bought her an expensive blouse for a Downing Street function, she wore it back to front. Tory partners have been more reliably schooled never to shock and to intervene in politics only in extremis. Thus, when Alec Douglas-Home began a premier's speech: 'I'm very glad to be here in Moscow', his wife saved him by hissing into one ear: 'Peking, Alec, Peking.' Years on, and despite mould-breakers like Glenys Kinnock, etiquette cautions leaders' spouses to be solid, silent and supportive. Folklore still decrees that a politician has no greater asset than a family. This idea should have expired around the time that David Mellor arranged his then wife and children on a five-barred gate for the photocall intended to eclipse his affair with Antonia de Sancha and rescue his political career. John Major's conflation of sexual morality and party diktat produced an impressive enough array of unfaithful Ministers and stand-by-your-man loyalists to undermine his government and make the Hamiltons the patron saints of uxorious virtue. Long after back to basics fizzled out, the political family remains a dubious image-builder. Families are often a poor barometer for policy, as the 'Euan test' for Blair's Dome showed. Teenage sons get drunk, or scowl through photocalls, and even babies offer unforeseen perils, particularly if lacking full MMR certification. Mayor Livingstone, busy denying allegations of a brawl following a row because his pregnant girlfriend was smoking, never had this trouble as a singleton newt-fancier. The moral is that families are messy, unpredictable and a world apart from Norma Major's chintzy idyll of Teasmades and cheese-freezing. Just how political a statement this image actually was became clear when Norma was finally wheeled out as the Tories' 'secret weapon'; an emblem of proper wifeliness to counter Cherie, silent but pushy. Since then, Ms Booth has revolutionised the role of consort; chairing Downing Street summits and challenging her husband's government in court. She has been mostly, but not always, skilful. Her wish for a public platform, coupled with privacy on demand, has sometimes seemed an uneasy fit, especially to critics alert for any addendum to an encylopaedia of alleged faults, ranging from cellulite and yawning in church to getting the MoD to help with homework and usurping the role of PM. If her critics were less dim, they would see that Ms Booth is potentially their greatest ally. Her Middle East remark was not a blunder. It was the sign of someone prepared, in an age of the tame and the mute, to hold an unscripted belief and air it. This tendency is likely to trouble Labour spin-doctors at least as much as the Tory media. Any whiff of indiscretion on Cherie's part raises the interesting question of what, for example, she might think about her husband's plans for victim-led justice, scrapping double jeopardy and docking benefit from parents whose children play truant. How much more useful if we knew. A modern democracy eager for transparency is intelligent and wise enough to distinguish between the views of elected representatives and their unelected spouses. Why on earth shouldn't Ms Booth offer her views like any other citizen and justify them herself? Presumably because it suits too many enemies to portray her as a meddlesome self-promoter and too many friends to pass her off as a penitent who erred. She should regard last week not as a humiliation but as the first move against all those who think the safe response to crises, however grave or heartrending, is a blend of nodding-dog politics and muzzled women."
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"Be very afraid. The Home Secretary implies the streets are dangerous. Liza Minnelli almost gets mugged on her latest honeymoon. A pigtailed yob of 11 may be hurling breeze blocks through the window of a shop near you. Three thousands offenders currently enduring Her Majesty's oversubscribed hospitality will soon be out, tagged but supposedly casting lascivious glances at the Volvos and Vodafones of a nation on high alert. Few, give or take the lowland fox, can think themselves protected now. In Wimbledon, some rich women barely venture out, for fear of being carjacked on their way to a lettuce lunch. In Primrose Hill, a security firm offers UN-style protection to citizens unloading groceries from people-carriers. In an ICM poll, Labour's lead falls from 17 points to nine because voters are terrified of street crime. But the economy prospers, retail sales are up 1.5 per cent and the daffodils are out. Despite Quatermass politics and newspaper hysteria, the streets feel as safe as they always did. They are. In 1981, Britons had a one in 200 chance of being attacked by a stranger. The same statistic applies today. Under the red tape theorem, the more pen-pushing police officers you have, the higher the number of recorded crimes. The British Crime Survey, a more trusted measure, says that overall crime fell by a third between 1995 and 2000 and that violent offences dropped by a fifth in the final year of the last century. The subsequent rise in street crime is mainly due to mobile phone thefts. Phone-snatching is not, as some suggest, a playground craze, like hopscotch with menaces, but neither is it evidence of civil meltdown. There is no shortage of grim areas and tragedy; a 15-year-old boy is stabbed to death; a woman of 82 is robbed for the fourth time in as many years. But random crimes, however brutal, offer little evidence for notions that most law-abiding citizens are holed up in Mugabe Mansions with drug-crazed psychopaths baying at the gates. So what's going on? David Blunkett wants serious money from Gordon Brown and offers some grim tableaux to make his case. That bullishness is only part of it. Lurid press stories of kids from hell have not helped Mr Blunkett. On the contrary, public unease may have prompted his summons, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to Downing Street. Mr Blair offered support but will also have demanded some solutions. The Prime Minister favours 'eye-catching initiatives'. His wish-list is, however, unlikely to include the spectacle of more public sparring between Mr Blunkett and Sir John Stevens, who share a desire that no crisis should ever knowingly be undersold. Dramas breed fear and Mr Blunkett risks becoming the victim of a muddled and febrile mood his high profile has helped engender. In January, he sought to damp down public anxiety, announcing that the chances of becoming a crime victim were the lowest in 20 years. Last week, he warned that we must 'reclaim the streets'. The mantra is one of toughness, but jails are full and prisoners will be released early. Marching yobs to cashpoints, one of Mr Blair's less felicitous eye-catchers, is back on the agenda in amended form. And the Home Secretary professes 'bewilderment at the debate going on'. Mr Blunkett's not the only one. Nor is he, a Minister who has done some fine things (and a few appalling ones), a prime culprit. He is simply part of a modern jigsaw of confusion. Hierarchies of trust were never reliable, but now few gold standards, or even bog standards, of impartiality, consistency and objective assessment exist in public life. Lord Woolf, the great rehabilitator, demands that young, mobile phone robbers are jailed. Reports linking the Chancellor's mission to rescue the NHS with his baby daughter's death hint that private tragedy informs public policy. The suggestion may be preposterous, but a doubt is sown. Geoff Hoon says he is 'absolutely confident' that, in the right conditions, Britain would be willing to use nuclear weapons against Iraq or any other rogue state. Suddenly, Mr Hoon, a Minister to whom one would hesitate to entrust a peashooter, is a master of the embattled universe, brandishing nukes against Saddam and dispatching 1,700 troops to fight the guerrillas of al-Qaeda. To wonder whether the Defence Secretary has a clue about what he is doing does not imply the slightest disrespect. In the war against terror, publicity swamps insight at all levels. When few have any knowledge and everyone has an agenda, the capacity for disinformation is spectacular. President Bush has exploited it to the full. After months of propaganda, bin Laden remains at large, Mullah Omar is presumably pedalling the cycle lanes of Gardez and no one can explain exactly what mission confronts outgoing British troops. Last week, American defence chiefs announced compelling evidence that al-Qaeda had bases in Somalia. A day later, they retracted that proof as bogus. How lucky for Somali civilians that someone noticed one error in a catalogue of assertions too vague to satisfy the modern consumer in any sphere but war. You wouldn't buy a mail- order sweatshirt on the data provided by the CIA, let alone a possible second Vietnam. The less verifiable the truth, the more febrile the unrest. In Salem in 1692, old scores got settled 'on a plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord'. Once again, it's fine to 'cry witch against one's neighbour', whether the target of suspicion hails from Yemen or Yarmouth. In war, as in crime, terror takes over when truth gets malleable. A quarter of women fear sexual assault, but only 0.078 per cent of victims report such an attack. One in five adults worries that his car will be stolen, when the chances are 1.5 in 100. The perception is that criminals walk free when, as Nacro's figures show, many more are being jailed. Mr Blunkett's tagging initiative may actually drive up the prison population. Crime scares always do. With equal certainty, quiet voices are barely heard. The Prison Reform Trust's new report, Barred Citizens, makes the case for better rehabilitation. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary warns that there is a dearth of analysis of 'what works and why'. Interest in allegations linking Commander Brian Paddick to gay sex on the Gatwick Express far exceeds calls to extend his successful drugs strategy for Lambeth. Car alarms and phone disablers stop crime, but dull measures don't get talked about. Roll up instead for a ghost train ride of cheap thrills. It is easier to turn a child vandal into a media superstar than to ask what sort of a society produces, or gawps at, an 11-year-old girl who breaks up shops for fun. Or what kind of people are more interested in demonising 'evil' children than in devising a system to help stop three in four young offenders being reconvicted within two years of release. If society, in keeping with the hot moral rhetoric of the age, treats the young, the victimised and the deprived as beyond redemption, that is how they will emerge. And then it will be time to be afraid."
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"When ticking off the media for their 'corrosive' cynicism, Prince Charles likes to quote the last lines of Middlemarch. His fondness for this hymn to unsung heroes must mean he thinks George Eliot an ally in bolstering respect for the monarchy. Perhaps the prince does not know that she was much more subversive than the torpid hordes now declining to make jellies for the jubilee. During a flirtation with republicanism, Eliot referred to Victoria, her contemporary and sometime fan, as 'our little humbug of a queen'. Which just shows that you are never safe from cynics. Charles Clarke thinks elements of the press are 'actually about promotion of cynicism'. Tony Blair, on his recent visit to Africa, lambasted 'the cynics back home'. Greg 'cut the crap' Dyke offers yellow cards to can't-do sceptics on his staff, and Gavyn Davies berates 'white, middle-class, middle-aged' whingers complaining about dumbing down the BBC. Alas, Mr Davies's tirade has only invoked a further flurry of cynicism from those who fear that, if Rolf Harris is the jewel of arts programming, it cannot be long before nu-metal band Slipknot is kicking Saint-Sans off Radio 3. We are losing faith in old institutions, and they are losing faith in us. Early next month, the political philosopher Onora O'Neill will address the first of her BBC Reith lectures to the collapse of trust between the British people and the Civil Service, the medical profession, politicians, church and business. It is not certain what Lord Reith might have thought of Mr Dyke's 'Operation Top Dog' fact-finding trip to the United States, complete with a stay in a hotel reportedly favoured by Mick Jagger. Nor is it known what Baroness O'Neill, a latter-day Kantian and Lords cross-bencher, will make of her subject matter. I hope she calls it for the cynics. Cynicism is the fuel of public life. When political ideology and money get sparse, it is a prime deliverer of standards and probity. Blind trust in business is, post-Enron, only for the gullible and shredder salesmen. Unquestioning belief in doctors led to abysmal regulation and arrogance. Those are replaced now, thanks to cynicism, with greater transparency, convictions for the Dewhurst branch of gynaecology, plus the hope that babies are no longer likely to be killed at Bristol or bottled at Alder Hey. But for cynicism, we might marvel at the altruism of Edward and Sophie, believe that Signor Berlusconi is the new prophet of workplace fairness and trust that women who use the right brand of shampoo can rely on mermaid hair. No wonder politicians search for the elixir of squandered faith. Too late. Cynicism is the new politics, and how useful it can be to Ministers professing to abhor it. In an age of innocence, Mr Blair's endorsement of creationist teaching at Emmanuel School in Gateshead would be truly worrying. Now it matters less that children, as neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins rightly protest, are being fed 'ludicrous falsehoods'. The failsafe is that children, even sheltered ones, are cynical rationalists. The debate between evolution and creation was settled, for good and in the former's favour, in the 1860 Oxford debate between between T.H. Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Any teacher now hopeful of persuading streetwise Limp Bizkit fans that God created the world quicker than Glenys Kinnock can rustle up a Fray Bentos supper is likely also to believe in Santa Claus. But politicians think scepticism a sin to be excised. There is something sly, cynical even, in their attempts to re-engage an electorate of whom fewer than 60 per cent voted in the last election. (Even this figure is less worrying in the context of Robert Mugabe's 112 per cent turn-out in some polling stations, but that is by the way.) Moves towards e-democracy and away from in-your-face campaigning are about machinery, not message. Nor do Ministers acknowledge their own double standard. Apathy, the hated twin of cynicism, is the Ritalin of the masses and thus the drug of political dreams. If people were as apathetic as politicians complain, there would have been no fuel protests, no anti-globalisation marches, no MMR furore, no Garbagegate. While not all of these are desirable, they demonstrate plenty of engagement in politics. It's just all the wrong sort, supposedly practised by selfish, embittered carpers encouraged to stick the boot into the corpse of deference by a cynical media in thrall to New Cynicism. Old cynicism looked different. The founder of the Cynic sect, Antisthenes, was a fifth-century BC philosopher so avid for moral wisdom that he travelled every day from Piraeus to Athens (tricky by public transport, even in pre-Byers times) to hear Socrates speak. His disciples' code of strict religious observance, ragged cloaks and revolt against decadence seems, give or take Mittalgate, pink pinstripes by Sir Paul Smith and a BlairForce One jet (cancelled), more in tune with the pious ways of political leaders than with the electorate. Who are the real cynics now? It's hard to judge, when each side thinks the other so corrupted. The certainty is that politicians have not grasped that the British electorate, while abhorring mendacity and sleaze, prefers cynicism to zealotry in its leaders. Morality drives Tony Blair to support currently indefensible action against Iraq. George Bush, a President of unimpeachable godliness, maintains his axis of good by tearing up weapons treaties and sending a mentally-ill mother who killed her children to jail for 40 years. If this is virtue, one can only wonder what terrors Saddam's evil entails. We will have to keep on guessing. The dossier that appalled Mr Bush and Mr Blair is locked in Dick Cheney's briefcase, to be fluttered in front of Middle Eastern leaders who seemed suspiciously unscandalised by the Vice-President's proof. In less doubting times, any government move towards military action against Iraq would be deemed as scrupulously tested as a Which? best-buy toasted-sandwich maker. Instead, there is scant enthusiasm. So thank heavens for cynicism, the province of satirists from Molire to Wilde and the last long-stop of democracy. We are going to need it. That doesn't mean that Mr Blair fails wholly to understand public disillusion. In his convincing speech at the LSE, the Prime Minister ditched the messianic, rabbit-out-of-the-hat salvationism pitched somewhere between Martin Luther King and Paul Daniels. His gospel of public service delivery won't enthuse potential voters, any more than Barcelona smallprint will captivate those stuck on a commuter train at Luton Parkway. But as a move towards the more sober dialogue the Government wants, calm objectives beat both hot rhetoric and the anti-media witchhunts so popular with Ministers and royalty. As Charles should consider next time he dusts off his Middlemarch, such tactics offer an uncomfortable echo of Jonathan Aitken's promise to beat 'bent and twisted journalism' with his 'simple sword of truth'. Establishment moaners will have to find a better remedy against public scornfulness. It would be helpful to Mr Blair if young people were inspired by activism, but grassroots politics, like Passing Cloud cigarettes and jitterbugging, is a redundant craving. Enthusing voters will become easy only when government rebrands cynicism as the manna it professes to crave; the holy grail of reasoned opposition."
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"The on-off British love affair with work is back on. The down-shifters of the Nineties have furtively shifted up again, abandoning wisteria-clad cottages and homemade green bean chutney for Prozac and prestige. The Chancellor propels lone parents towards jobs and declines to abandon his own, even for a few days' paternity leave. Oldies step down reluctantly (Sir Magdi Yacoub) or not at all (Mick Jagger). According to Management Today, six-day weekers have halved to one in 10. Still, the spectre of workplace tyranny lingers. Nearly everyone wants a job, as long as it's flexible. Patricia Hewitt has been clever in advancing elastic working hours. The edict that employers must, by 2003, consider seriously requests for flexibility by parents of children under six has, predictably, enraged Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors. Ms Lea can be relied upon, in any work-related drama, for an obliging shake of gory locks and dire hints that women won't get jobs at all if they demand remission for the school nativity play, let alone hours as malleable as Play-Doh. This fury eclipses the fact that industry isn't worried. The Hewitt plan could hardly be more business-friendly. All parents get is the right to ask, in the same way that Bob Cratchit would, presumably, have been entitled to broach with Ebenezer Scrooge the possibilities of subsidised gym membership, luncheon vouchers and a better work-life balance. Despite offering the possible redress of a tribunal, the Hewitt plan is feeble. It is also a triumph for the Department of Trade and Industry, since business is both the scapegoat and the victor. Meanwhile, government can slither out of the debate we should be having about working parents. Flexible hours, far from being the central issue, are a diversion at best and a fraud at worst. For a start, they are discriminatory. The more privileged you are, the more flex you get. Cherie Booth is able to be a mother-of-four, promoter of charities, part-time consort to the Prime Minister, sartorial adviser to Afghan women and still find time for a session in the Bharti Vyas Flowtron trousers because of her job, not despite it. If she had been a Tesco check-out operator rather than a leading human rights barrister, she would have been fired long ago. Wealthy people who really do have long hours can buy flexibility. Domestic service accounts for almost 10 per cent of the workforce, and cleaners, nannies and gardeners combined now exceed the numbers employed in accountancy, water and gas supply or the railways. As an antidote, or an incitement, to presenteeism, City firms will get your sink unblocked, dry cleaning done or dog shampooed, so that leisure time, however brief, can be devoted to lifestyle rather than to messy living. Ideally, we would all work less and have more say over hours. But, despite horror stories about Gradgrind employers and vindictive non-parents, workers do get some say. In general, the work-life debate is conducted by gloomy protagonists who have a choice over how much they work and earn on behalf of those who don't. For the latter group, flexibility is half-dream, half-euphemism. Mostly, it means part-time. Thirty years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, women still earn, on average, four-fifths of men's take-home pay. The big losers are the short-hours women earning 60 per cent of what a man would be getting if he were doing the same job on a full-time basis. Though women full-timers do better, on 80 per cent of a typical male wage, the gender gap has barely narrowed in the last decade. An effective move towards reducing women's hours without also shortening men's can only reinforce a worse deal for women and for children. In Tuesday's pre-budget report, we shall start to see how serious Gordon Brown is about abolishing child poverty by 2020 and how the competing claims of deprivation and public services will balance out. Although poor children get sicker, stay poorer and die sooner, they have the grace to do so quietly. Even those condemned to young offender institutions with, according to a new report, a typical reading age of seven, hardly cause a ripple unless they kill themselves or someone else while they are in there. It is impossible to have good schools and hospitals without first tackling poverty and the third of all children condemned to be poor. Their salvation, the Chancellor says, is best secured through jobs. That path is not smooth, even leaving aside the contradictory stance of a government that shoos single parents out to work but lauds apple-pie notions of traditional families. More practically, an extra 1.5 million jobs may be needed to take one million children out of poverty down the work-based route. For those who are employed, flexible shelf-stacking or filing is unlikely much to enhance the lot of the working poor. It is true that they may be home for fish fingers and supervised homework, but quality time, a vision copyrighted by Middle England, seems much more delectable when viewed from a company boardroom through a mist of guilt. It is unproven and implausible that children suffer emotionally when both their parents work full time (although such is the hype that a quarter of all readers of the magazine, Top Sant, thought, in recent survey, that it was so.) In addition, the great work-life balance argument is chiefly conducted in the absence of those without any work or much of a life to balance. So what are the answers? First, that mothers (or fathers, if they are the main carer) of small children should never be compelled to work. Second, that securing part-time work, as of right, for new parents is the wrong crusade. Seven out of 10 mothers already go back on reduced hours. The real scandal is that those who want or need to work full time are obliged instead to stay at home or to take low-paid flexitime because the Government has failed to bring in the decent childcare it promised. Still, only one in seven children under eight gets offered a registered place. The remedy - 10,000 children's centres demanded by the Daycare Trust - would cost an extra 2.5 billion a year, or 5 per cent of education spending, offer means-tested care and allow women to work, full or part-time as they preferred. They would also supply the even start that Europe sees as a birthright and whose lack blights the lives of British children rendered unequal from the start. The second necessity is to involve men. Although the Hewitt proposals claim to be for them too, everyone knows that few forklift drivers or vice-presidents of Paribas will demand to be home for bathtime, partly through breadwinner stereotyping but also because society has a growing problem with fathers; classified, hopefully, as Mrs Doubtfires (for current partners) or as feckless deserters (in the case of absent ones). But, violent men apart, bad husbands often make good fathers. Discriminating against them is unfair to children, to whom everyone listens too little, and a block to fair-shares parenting. Part-time equality is not an option. As for flexible working, long hours rarely damage children. Poverty always does."
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"By the time Posh Spice admitted that her lip ring was a fake, the piercing parlours of Britain had been inundated by imitators. 'She is a real cow,' said one hole-punched acolyte. 'She must have known fans would copy her.' Of course. Every time Posh's husband has some new variant personal topiary, a cloned army turns out with Mohican haircuts or half an eyebrow. Who knows better than the Beckhams that we are the most susceptible nation on earth? The Government, for one. A policy consultant to the Department of Health claims that EastEnders and Coronation Street have replaced the State as the main source of sex education for children. Simultaneously, Tony Blair is being urged by liberal commentators to borrow his thinking on teenage pregnancy and lone parents from more dubious sources. Bill Clinton's tough love is working, according to two US think-tanks. Compulsion and welfare withdrawal have wrought a miracle. Fewer teenagers get pregnant. More single mothers go out to work. Left-wing Jeremiahs predicting misery and poverty have been proved wrong. Except they haven't. The think-tank findings, like Clinton's initiative, are nothing new. We have known for some time that the US cut its welfare bill by $9 billion between 1992 and 1998. That period showed a 40 per cent reduction in those claiming benefit, and the number of lone parents working rose from 44 to 57 per cent. We also know the dire trends underpinning the headline results. Coercion and a five-year lifetime limit on claiming welfare meant that the poorest were left to sink. Of the supposed success stories, almost half of those who found work earned less than they got on benefit. Two-thirds of welfare-leavers in Wisconsin lived below the US poverty line. A moral climate in which parents go on Oprah to renounce their 'welfare mother' status as if they are kicking heroin has no resonance in Britain. Nor is there much appetite for a system that forces mothers to return to live with hostile parents or violent partners as the alternative to destitution. But, beyond all that, there is no crisis here. As One Parent Families points out, lone parent families have stabilised at around 1.7 million. Teenage pregnancies are the lowest since 1994. The divorce rate is falling. Big problems remain, but the statistics do not invite panic, let alone a return to a sterile quest to manipulate social behaviour by economic whip-cracking. The debate over whether such tactics could work was held and lost in the Eighties. And yet, curiously, the new American research has not been questioned here. Its findings, whiskery and disturbing, have been greeted effusively. Blair is being chivvied to abandon his crusade to eliminate child poverty in favour of compulsion, cruelty and creating a new caste of the destitute. Why are we suddenly so gullible? The answer goes wider than social policy. Increasingly, we are trapped in a copycat culture that seeps into almost every area of life. Everyone, the theory goes, does everything better than us. We can't boil an egg unless Delia shows us how, or paint the spare bedroom in any shade of emulsion lacking the Carol Smillie imprimatur, or pull up a weed without first consulting Charlie Dimmock's breasts. A Radio Times survey last week claimed that more than one in two Britons does not necessarily need human contact but feels lonely if deprived of a television role model. Private reliance on the views and the guidance of strangers, however, is mild compared with the filching habit of the magpies in the public domain. Like a snoopy neighbour wanting the loan of a cup of sugar, the Government is continually on the borrow from next door. Required items for the national begging bowl this week include the following: 1. More foreign doctors and nurses, as usual. Plus French and German hospital beds for sprightly South-East dwellers. Sick and elderly northerners must continue, usefully, to clog up the waiting-lists that Alan Milburn needs as the chief rationing tool for an inadequate health service. 2. Some teachers. Lightly qualified Australian back-packers welcome, along with graduates from Africa and India. This, as the head of VSO has said, is not recruitment. It is looting by a country terrifyingly bereft of its own resources and ideas. Globalisation means a homogenised world of Starbucks, Gap and sponsored Labour Party conference events run like a Big Mac franchise, but that does not fully explain the deadweight of British dependency. Even last week's Zagat guide survey claiming that London is better than Paris for eating out fell short of an all-out endorsement of Britishness. Eight of the 10 highest-ranked restaurants are French-based. By way of reciprocity, the French are mad for Bottom and Ab Fab, all of which show the British as sad and manic losers. The reason that the copy movie, Absolument Fabuleux, has just bombed in French cinemas is partly because a self-confident nation can't emulate the savage self-satire engendered by a country undergoing a nervous collapse. The flipside of our insecurity is always bombast. We may see ourselves as Blair's 'new internationalists', imbued with chicken tikka massala multiculturalism, but the media mood is for xenophobia. Off go our football fans, a Union Jack-draped yobocracy encouraged to view the Germans as sausage-chomping towel tyrants. In come euro notes and we are invited to pity those who must forgo the Queen and Sir Edward Elgar for ugly modernity. The message is that we are too individualistic and our culture too distinctive ever to bow to bland uniformity. If only. We are the Arthur Daley of the planet, engaged in a global rip-off campaign that extends from pizza toppings to maths teachers. It isn't quite, as Samuel Johnson said, that almost all absurdity of conduct arises 'from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble'. The additional problem is that we steal the wrong things from the wrong people. Gordon Brown, a Class A raider, quite usefully poached American schemes ranging from the Roosevelt-style New Deal to the tax breaks that created the US enterprise explosion of the Nineties as central planks of his policy. More dubiously, Jack Straw got his 'three strikes and you're out' automatic minimum sentences from the States. Labour politicians have bought US policy like trans-atlantic shoppers stockpiling tights from Bloomingdales. But the sprees for fresh ideas are less rewarding now, and when a good one does emerge, notably Bob Kiley's Tube plan, the Chancellor insists, perversely, on a botched alternative. Copying is fine, but we need new, European icons. Germany demonstrates why proper status for teachers is the only answer to our schools crisis. France shows what a better health service can do. Holland suggests the wisdom, stubbornly rejected by us, of vaccinating against a foot-and-mouth epidemic. Our railways crumble, tourism slumps and even the body-piercing industry has been dealt a nasty blow by Posh. We are forced to import our teachers and export our sick. When we need new ideas so fast, the only answer is to abandon we-know-best smugness and beef up our copycat culture. The time has come for kleptomania."
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"Babies and elections have always been, in the jargon of the moment, contiguous. This time round, there is a difference. Now babymania can jump species. Phoenix the calf, an emblem of Disney cuteness among mountains of scorched flesh, gets the livestock cull curtailed. Less flamboyantly, the 750,000 human infants born every year in Britain also score a victory. Each will soon have a dowry of 250 apiece, rising to 500 for the poorest. With three further top-ups of 100 and a government promise to match any family contributions, the least well-off 18-year-olds should end up with a modest nest egg, courtesy of the four fairy godfathers of government. David Blunkett is the political driver for the Child Trust Fund, successfully piloted in the US over the past decade and imported by the left-wing think tank, the IPPR. Alistair Darling is also keen on asset-building. An ominous silence hung over the Treasury when baby bonds were first mooted before Gordon Brown eventually proclaimed himself in favour of a plan designed to ensure that every newborn will enter the world with the word 'Prudence' practically stamped on his or her brow. As for Tony Blair, this idea had everything. To the Right, it offered the camphorous odour of Thatcher's mothballed credo of a property-owning democracy. Baby-bonders would, in the Tory view, be the spiritual heirs to the Sids who snapped up shares and council houses. To the Left, it bore the equally comforting whiff of progressive universalism. While the scheme's foundation, on the shaky faultline where Beveridge and neo-liberalism collide, rendered it acceptable to almost all, the plan has a special resonance for Blair. In his 1999 conference speech, he described two babies, side by side in the labour ward and destined, if he had his wish, to live in a meritocratic society where all began life on an equal footing. Baby bonds match the policy to the dream. Better still, a scheme costing a modest 1 billion a year offers a branding unbuyable even by a government that splurges 62 million on three months' worth of advertising. This, the subtext reads, is an administration that loves poor children. And still, our child poverty rate is the third highest in the industrialised world: 100,000 more children were plunged into hardship during the first two years of the Blair government. Although changes to tax and benefits have reversed that trend, more than three million children will remain below the breadline at the election. Of those, 600,000 of them could have been removed from income poverty if the 2.4bn forgone by last year's cut in the basic tax rate had been used to increase benefits. Regressive taxes on cigarettes and petrol continue to clobber the poor, as does the Social Fund. The Social Security Select Committee recently reported that the fund, a model of Dickensian parsimony, exacerbates child poverty because parents cannot afford to repay crisis loans for items such as fridges and cookers. So far, the Government has resisted subsequent calls for a review. As ever, the children of poor households continue to do worse at school and to get the worst-paid jobs, or none. By their late teens, that damage may be irreversible. Certainly the notion that 18-year-olds will emerge from a chrysalis of poverty into fully formed trustafarians, ready to spend with care (rather than to squander their money on drugs and drink as their rich-list equivalents tend to) seems unproven. Nor are parents struggling to buy food and shoes likely to be sustained by the knowledge that their children are custodians of untouchable funds worth several thousand pounds. Perhaps such caveats count for little against a suspicion that approval from those debarred by extreme poverty from saving, including the seven out of 10 lone parents who currently have no back-up funds at all, is not the applause Labour most desires. Despite last week's volte-face allowing more generous parental leave, women of all backgrounds remain sceptical of a government perceived to have done too little on childcare provision and flexible working hours. So how helpful to have news programmes full of vox pops involving wards full of new 'mums' (not a father in sight, even on politically correct Channel 4 News ) offering warm plaudits to Blair's largesse. Though it would be cynical to accuse the Government of blatantly touting for votes among those impressed by its drive towards child equality, there is no doubt that some remain more equal than others. One minute, the Government is offering Hans Christian Andersen fairytale outcomes, in which all must have equal prospects. In the next, it sketches cautionary tales worthy of a Hoffman or a Belloc, on what must happen to those corrupted by the forces of exclusion. Slap a curfew or a school exclusion order on them. March 'yobs' to cashpoints or incarcerate them in one of our scandalous young offenders' institutions to rot or, if especially unlucky, to die. Tony Blair's latest wheeze, to reward non-offending teenagers in high crime areas with vouchers for CDs or trainers, looks either like a belated balance of carrot to stick or the feeblest of pre-election gimmicks. It may also be a sign that Blair, an expert on wayward adolescents and infant innocents alike, has a Dr Spockish urge to treat the nation's children as his own. The trouble is that parenting is a haphazard, emotional affair, whereas politics is structured and calculating. Conflate the two and the upshot is the liberal press gurgling over Blair's plans while the Daily Telegraph, simultaneously, infers the extinction of the welfare state and the advent of a US-style residuum. The suspicion is that Blair is bowing to the perception that the views of Left and Right must, like the rich child and the poor, be equally indulged. In addition, political entrail-reading usefully magnifies the scope of what's really on offer. Baby bonds, and an allied savings scheme for poor adults, are a valuable gesture, but a tiny one. Suggesting that they are the foundation of a DIY society is as unrealistic as hoping to buy Chatsworth with Green Shield stamps. Last week, Blair's personal think tank filled in the gaps on an anti-poverty strategy. The Performance and Innovation Unit urged him to increase income and inheritance tax and end the middle-class stranglehold on getting the best education. A meritocratic society depended, it said, on high social mobility and the absence of any association between class and opportunity. Such truisms bear repetition in a week when Blair plans to stick to his 1997 pledge not to put up income tax while his 'People's Peers', a Gilbert and Sullivan array of toffery, make the notion of democratic appointments look risible. As for baby bonds, the enthusiasm of its reception should make Labour bolder and less disingenuous. Though the sketch is vague and the budget small, we would love it to work. But voters also know that children's lives cannot be transformed unless direct taxes rise. Blair should flesh out his trust plan, reform the Social Fund, step up the crusade to end child poverty by 2020 and concede that notions of forging equality on the cheap belong in the realm of storks and gooseberry bushes."
5 (maryriddell)
0 (Politics)
"Robin cook likes a curry. I remember sitting opposite him in the Foreign Office canteen one lunchtime, watching him demolish a pile of tweed-coloured slurry draped over a gaudy heap of pilau rice. Personal preference may have informed his decision to spurn the Chinese takeaway (its image dented by foot and mouth) or the doner kebab (never a winner with the River Cafe set) and single out, during his speech to the Social Market Foundation, chicken tikka massala as a 'true British national dish'. How right Mr Cook is. There is something quintessentially British about the diner who piles out of the pub, 10 pints of lager to the wind, in search of an Indian meal to fortify him against a night of aggro. Nothing conjures up some aspects of our national culture more effectively than tanked-up, Union Jack-flapping soccer fans belting out the 1998 World Cup anthem of 'Vindaloo'. Even at the genteel end of the market, the flock wallpaper and acid lighting of the average high-street Indian takeaway evoke exhausting hours and low pay for its staff rather than get-ahead vibrancy. Cook might have been on safer ground if he had stipulated stuffed crust pizza or pot noodles as our culinary emblem of multiculturalism. Alternatively, he could have recalled that politicians seeking to unfurl a vision of a certain type of Britain rarely sound convincing, whether their theme is cricket on the village green and spinsters cycling to Communion or an ode to an onion bhaji. Still, in some ways, the Baldwin of Brick Lane was successful. Given the febrile mood of the Opposition, all antidotes to racism are welcome. As a bonus, Cook's catchy way into the race debate provoked predictable and gravy-curdling wrath from beef Wellington fans incensed by his statement that there was no such thing as an 'ethnically pure' British race. Smoking out racism, in the Tory party and its supporters, would be more rewarding, but for the fact that the cheerleaders for Anglo-Saxon purity are so pathetic. John Townend was unknown before his recent anti-immigrant speech. Sir Richard Body, author of the xenophobically titled book, England For the English , exudes as much Powellite menace as Peter Rabbit. James Cran and Eric Forth, opponents of the Commission for Racial Equality's code of electoral conduct, hardly add up to Jorg Haider and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Michael Portillo, the most senior non-signatory, is not a racist but a tactically- brilliant Judas whose gesture will endear him to all those Tories who cannot decide whether William Hague or the bossy CRE appals them more. Hague is not a racist either. He is something almost worse, an opportunist who decided that it would be useful to mimic one. Hence his 'foreign land' speech, his authorisation of a leaflet on 'bogus asylum-seekers' and his swipe against the Macpherson Report. Some time ago, Andrew Lansley, the former Tory election strategist, told this newspaper that 'immigration played particularly well in the tabloids in the 1992 general election' and 'has more potential to hurt'. Now the pain is all Hague's. His attempt to be both asylum-seekers' scourge and immigrants' champion looks as fake as Lansley's assertion that his leader never played the race card. Of course he did, but so has Cook; not through his message but by his omissions. In particular, his cosy, curry-house scenario seemed oddly pitched in the week when white and Asian communities in the north of England went to war. Whatever racial unrest exists in Britain today is less a product of Tory rants than of the reality of life in Britain under a Labour administration which, as the Foreign Secretary did not say, has too often been a poor deliverer on issues involving race. Foot-dragging over the promised review of the iniquitous voucher scheme for asylum-seekers continues. The wider policy shambles has prompted the Council of Europe to castigate Britain for its treatment of migrants. While Hague might have been even harsher, the measure must be outcome, not intent. Cook, like all his senior colleagues, is a committed anti-racist. Personal credo does not, however, entitle him or any of them to paint a vista of a wish-list Utopia and pass it off as the real thing. Modern Britain, however tolerant and well-integrated, is far from a frictionless haven. As Ofsted discovered last year, the failure gap between Afro-Caribbean and Pakistani pupils and their white counterparts is nearly double that of a decade ago. Students from ethnic minorities have a much lower chance of getting a job than white graduates. In one recent week on BBC2, the only non-white faces in the channel's top 10 programmes (combined viewing figures of 33 million) were those of cartoon characters in The Simpsons. While government cannot be held responsible for who joins Charlie Dimmock on Ground Force , there is, in areas it can influence, too great a mismatch between rhetoric and results. Despite the eagerness by Jack Straw and the Metropolitan police commissioner to apply the findings of Sir William Macpherson, old tensions reappear as the second anniversary of the report approaches. In Bradford last week, a fight at a Hindu wedding erupted into a car-burning, window-smashing, battle between white and Asian youths which echoed the devastating 1995 riot. In Oldham, the tribal battles between young Bangladeshi and Pakistani men have mutated into a new delineation of aggression. According to police, more than half of the 572 racist attacks recorded in the town during the last year have been against whites. However the battle lines are drawn, the causes remain a constant dirge of unemployment, overcrowding and bleak futures. An exponential rise in the nationwide reporting of racist crime, up by 107 per cent over 12 months, no longer looks like Macpherson-inspired openness. It looks like more racist crime. That is not to criticise Sir William or those who seek to implement his recommendations. It is to say that there is a vast, unbridged gulf between semantics and solutions. Presentationally the Government (asylum-seekers apart) has been a model of correctness, but signatures on CRE declarations and benedictions to Macpherson are the easy bits. They are also camouflage on the uncomfortable reality that, at a time when racial harmony is lauded and the economy is strong, too little has been achieved. The conditions that create inner-city brawlers and school failures are also the complex issues of economic and social polarisation that fail to interest the Tories. The measure of their cynicism is that both Hague and Portillo have now, in different ways, mortgaged race issues to personal ambition. As for the Government, Robin Cook's vision of a multicultural nation sitting down to break poppadoms together does not quite reflect a landscape in which teachers, police officers, politicians and the judiciary remain disproportionately white. A Conservative Party that shows no sign of being in a position to ensure that such unfairness prevails looks less worrying than the prospect of a second-term government failing to alchemise its wishes on racial equality into results. Squandered influence is always more dangerous than none."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"Yesterday, about 300 hunts were roaming Britain. If you saw one, you may have wondered if parliament truly had banned hunting with dogs a year ago. Almost everything would have looked as it had always done. Perhaps a few of the hunters would have set off early to lay a trail and one of them could have been carrying a falcon. But the riders would still have charged over the fields and their dogs would still have chased any fox that crossed their path.The anti-hunting law that aroused so much passion is now producing contempt and indifference. Only one hunt has closed and hunters behave as if the 700 hours of parliamentary debate that preceded the ban was so much wasted breath. Those of us who weren't caught up by the passions of either side are seeing the obvious flaw in the legislation work itself out.The difficulty was always that the anti-hunters weren't trying to protect foxes, but punish a particular type of hunter: the caricature Tory toff with a red coat and redder face. As foxes go for lambs and chickens, parliament couldn't declare them a protected species and be done with it. So today, a farmer can still shoot or snare a fox, but if he goes after it with more than two dogs, the police will arrest him. That's the theory. In practice, the police have arrested hardly anyone.Lord knows, I find the class hatred behind the hunting of the hunters easy to understand. Britain is the only rich country not to have had a modern revolution. In France, America, even Ireland, hunting arouses no great opposition because the aristocracy's estates were broken up in the 18th and 19th centuries, or were never there in the first place, in the case of America.The typical continental smallholding, with a few acres on which the owner can do as he or she pleases, is a rarity here. This land is not our land but the property of great families or the Forestry Commission and the National Trust. Naturally, its owners are resented. I also understand how after 18 years of Conservative rule, Labour MPs wanted to get their own back on the Tories and, indeed, on Tony Blair, who had made them to give up so much they held dear. Nevertheless, their vengeance is looking futile: a pretence that the parliamentary Labour party could still fight a war Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had won. The MPs who forced through the ban are starting to resemble an old drunk pretending to be tough by flailing his fists in the air.Because their leglisation would not and could not protect foxes per se, hunters are exploiting all kinds of loopholes. As there is no ancient hatred of falconry in Britain, parliament allowed falconers to set off with an unlimited number of dogs to flush out mammals for birds of prey to swoop on. All right, said the hunts, we'll take a falcon with us.The law says the police have to prove that hunters intended to set their dogs on a fox, otherwise they would have to prosecute a pet owner whose dogs bolted in the country and killed a fox. All right, said the hunts, we will lay a trail for the hounds to follow and if they run off after a fox, we can say our intention was to have a drag hunt, not a fox hunt.The current issue of Horse & Hound contains an interview with one Graham Sirl, who says he despises the League Against Cruel Sports and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for running a lavish campaign that has now produced 'absolutely zero'.No surprise that Horse & Hound should condemn the ban as an absurd waste of parliament's time, you might think. And it wouldn't be surprising if Graham Sirl wasn't a former chief officer of the League Against Cruel Sports. He's not alone in giving up on the cause he once championed.In the past decade, the league has lost two chief executives, two chairmen, one treasurer and one regional head. All of them concluded that an effective ban would lead to the slaughter of foxes by farmers with guns who no longer wanted to keep them alive for the hunts to chase. I cannot think of another protest group that has seen so many of its officers go over to the other side. It is as if senior staff of Greenpeace regularly joined the board of Texaco.The people who are at the league, for the time being at any rate, told me they expected the police to collect evidence that the hunts are intentionally breaking the law and bring prosecutions soon. If they don't, their ban will join Margaret Thatcher's prohibition of the promotion of homosexuality and Jack Straw's curfews for children in that list of fatuous legislation that was designed to make vocal minorities feel good and succeeded only in bringing the law into disrepute.<b> A good man done down by ideology</b>It has long been the case that universities which depend on free speech have contained too many intellectuals who are ready to censor and howl down others. The forced resignation of Larry Summers as president of Harvard, however, takes the treason of the clerks to a new level.His critics hounded him out for being a sexist who believed that nature had made men better engineers and physicists than women. Even the BBC reported last week that he faced a second no-confidence vote because he had said women had less 'intrinsic aptitude' than men for science.He said nothing of the sort. What he did do, in January last year, was go into a long and complicated discussion about why there were more men than women at the very top in maths and physics. He was talking about the few thousand people in the world who understand, say, string theory and wondering aloud if nature or nurture accounted for the sexual imbalance.Maybe nature matters at the highest levels, or maybe breaks for childbirth and social pressures that push young women away from studying science fully explain the difference. Even if he got the emphasis wrong, it ought to a legitimate area for debate. But his enemies didn't want inquiries of any sort. They spun his remarks and pretended he had said that any woman mathematician or physicist had less intrinsic aptitude for science than a bloke in the pub, which is clearly nonsense.That their campaign was successful throws a little light on the cowardly response to the threats against Danish cartoonists from murderous tyrants and religious fruitcakes. When the intellectuals whose livelihoods depend on free thought won't stand up for it, why shouldn't editors and governments follow their lead and abase themselves before fanatics?<b>Oh Huhne, my hero</b>Who can save Britain from her many troubles? We need a leader who is strong and brave and can see through problems with X-ray vision.For years, Chris Huhne roared round London in his company BMW as if it were a Bondmobile with lead-free petrol.Last week, he suggested another comparison when he told the Mirror that his mother, Ann Murray, was an actress who had played Clark Kent's mother in one of the Superman movies.He was 'rather vague about which of the Superman films she was in,' the Mirror noted, and I couldn't find one with an Ann Murray in the cast list.On no account should this apparent lapse stop the Liberal Democrats making Huhne their leader. He may not be able to play the superhero, but he is shaping up to be a fine comic turn."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"I know your New Year's Day will not be complete until you have heard my predictions for 2006, so let me put you out of your misery. David Cameron's bubble will burst when the public realises he's a PR man flogging a shabby brand. Tony Blair will stay Prime Minister after a crash in the property market triggers a classic deflationary spiral that shreds Gordon Brown's reputation for fiscal competence.There will be a few jolly diversions from mass unemployment. Margaret Drabble and the Archbishop of Canterbury will stun literary London and the General Synod of the Church of England when they appear on I'm a Celebrity... In sport, Laughing Boy will delight the bookies when he comes in at 100-1 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Meanwhile in America, Congress will impeach George W Bush after he...I could go on. As I write, I'm aware that all around me, my colleagues are going on. Read the comment pages of the newspapers or listen to radio presenters giving soft interviews to their fellow journalists and a fair chunk of what you will get is Mystic Meggery. It is hard enough to find out what has happened or is happening, and yet a cocksure media devote an unwarranted amount of time to announcing what will happen.We are not alone. Interest rates and fiscal policy are determined by the Bank of England's and Treasury's economic forecasts. Clairvoyants in the City direct their investors' money to companies that are themselves predicting what new lines will sell. The lives of British troops depend on predictions of the likely behaviour of Baathist and al-Qaeda terrorists. Forecasting is the motor which drives politics, economics, foreign policy and industry, while our private happiness can be determined by predictions on whether he or she will say 'yes' if we ask for a date.The mania for prophesy is easy to explain. You have to make guesses about the future to know what to do in the present. The same magical status the Romans gave the keepers of the sacred chickens goes to those who make a career out of it, so there is a strong incentive to pretend you have second sight.But here is something harder to understand. I know a lot about British politics and have only a passing interest in racing. The odds are, however, that I am more likely to get the winner of the Gold Cup right than foresee who will be in Downing Street next Christmas. Actually, it could be worse than that. My political predictions may be more reliable if I made random guesses than if I sat down and drew on my expertise.I can at least foretell my failings with confidence because of a remarkable study by Professor Philip E Tetlock of Berkeley University in California. Expert Political Judgment has been 20 years in the making. He began work in the Cold War when the future of the human race depended on predictions about how the Soviet Union would behave. Liberals lambasted Ronald Reagan for upping the pressure on the communists and warned that his arms race would lead to nuclear annihilation.Not so, as it turned out. Soviet power collapsed. Conservative hawks would have had every right to be satisfied had they not completely failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union because they refused to take Mikhail Gorbachov's reforms seriously.Tetlock finished his work during the Iraq crisis in which intelligence agencies failed to predict that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction worthy of the name. Liberal doves would have had every reason to be satisfied had not they completely failed to predict the success of the Iraqi elections.Over the decades in between, 284 experts in academia, government, think tanks and the media helped by giving him 83,361 forecasts not only on the future of the Soviet Union and American policy in the Gulf, but also on dozens of other public policy issues. They covered everything from the likelihood of Pakistan and North Korea obtaining nuclear weapons to whether Aids or refugee movements would create a humanitarian crisis; from how technology firms would perform in the dotcom bubble to whether countries would abide by their Kyoto commitments to limit greenhouse gases.Tetlock's research reached a blunt conclusion. A chimpanzee throwing darts at a dartboard with a selection of answers pinned to it was more likely to get it right than an eminent professor or distinguished pundit. Indeed, the more eminent the experts, the more likely they were to be wrong. Knowing a little was often better than knowing a lot, and specialisation in the minutiae of a subject was subject to the law of diminishing returns. Because experts invested so much energy in attaining knowledge, they could not accept thoughts that contradicted what they had learnt and staked their reputations on.To prove his point, Tetlock tells the story of students at Yale who had to guess where a laboratory rat would find food in maze. The rat won by a comfortable margin because the answer was stupidly simple. Pride handicapped the humans. The setters of their test made sure that none of the complicated mathematical formulas they had acquired could explain where the food was likely to be.The worst forecasters were those who appeared most often in the media. As anyone who has been on television knows, it fosters a manic egotism. Otherwise well-balanced people are filled with bombastic certainty - 'David Cameron's bubble will burst' - and make spectacular forecasts that please the producers by grabbing the attention of channel-hopping viewers - 'the property market will crash', 'the Archbishop of Canterbury will appear on I'm a Celebrity'.Beyond egotism and pride lies political bias. People who hated Ronald Reagan and George W Bush predicted their policies would lead to disaster, just as those who hated the Soviet Union and Baathist Iraq predicted that all would be well. I think that submerged bias explains the popularity of prophesy among civil servants, academics and broadcasters. They have professional obligations to be neutral. They can get round them by pretending to be time travellers who go to the future and impartially report on the calamities that will befall the world if their partisan views are ignored.Tetlock dismisses the comforting notion that public life is 'a marketplace of ideas', in which the peddlers of daft predictions are exposed as frauds or fools. The market does not work because large parts of the audience want comfort rather than truth. For instance, I have a deep and just possibly irrational dislike of PRs - and Tories, now I come to think of it. Those among you who share it won't turn on me if David Cameron is a winner. On the contrary, you might well turn on me if I accurately predict that he will be Prime Minister in 2009.The above makes Tetlock sound like a bog-standard postmodernist who believes that there is no possibility of finding objective truth. He hasn't ended up in the mire of relativism because, among his experts, was a minority whose predictions were good. In Isaiah Berlin's division of intellectuals between the darting foxes who 'know many little things' and the solid ideological hedgehogs who 'know one big thing well', Tetlock says the foxes won hands down.Like a stopped clock, the ideologues may occasionally be right, and the foxes could end up baffled if they darted about too frantically. Overall, however, it was forecasters who drew 'from an eclectic array of traditions and accepted ambiguity and contradiction as inevitable features of life' who performed well.With lives and livelihoods at stake, his findings are worth noticing. Tetlock offers three pieces of advice to politicians and others who must decide if a prediction is likely to be true. First, civil servants, academics, spies and - may the Good Lord protect and preserve us - journalists should be judged by the accuracy of their previous forecasts. Second, an audience should ask itself how well a prophet's beliefs reflect observable reality. Finally, it should check that the prophet updates his or her beliefs in response to new evidence.His last recommendation is the most important in my view. 'When the facts change, I change my mind,' said JM Keynes. My only good piece of advice for 2006 is you shouldn't listen to those who don't."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"The scandal of the moment is that Sir Mark Thatcher was arrested in Cape Town and is helping police with their inquiries into allegations that he helped finance a plot to overthrow the dictator of a miserable West African state which has no obvious attractions to the sons of Tory leaders other than enormous oil reserves. Among the alleged co-conspirators are Simon Mann, a mercenary and an old boy of Eton, Sandhurst and the SAS; David Hart, another old Etonian and one of the most ruthless operators of the Thatcher years; and Ely Calil, a British-based Lebanese tycoon who makes his money from the West African oil trade. As The Observer reported, Peter Mandelson, twice-sacked minister and EU commissioner, rented a flat from Calil. It was in Holland Park, a part of London so expensive I don't need to waste time describing where it is because you can never afford to live there. Mandelson had been forced to move to Calil's apartment after the press revealed that he had used a private loan from a fellow minister, Geoffrey Robinson, to buy his previous home in Notting Hill, another part of London you may as well forget about. Mandelson and the Lebanese oil baron have a common friend in James Palumbo, the upper-class owner of the Ministry of Sound who made tens of millions by slumming it in the pop business. While Mandelson was in Holland Park, he was forced to offer one of his many resignations after he was accused of lobbying on behalf of the billionaire Hinduja brothers, who were at the time up to their necks in the biggest arms scandal in the history of independent India. No one suggests that Mandelson has anything to do with the alleged African conspiracy. What's telling is that he has been mixing with very rich men, be they the friends of the Thatcher family, sprigs of the Palumbo family or the brothers from the Hinduja family. These are odd circles to find a Labour minister in. Let me put it to Labour readers like this: if you were invited to these people's parties, would you want to go? The scandal before the last scandal was the gossip about David Blunkett's love life. If he had behaved like a decent Labour politician and had an affair with the chairwoman of his constituency's Unison branch, it would have been a private matter. But after so many years of stealing Tory policies, New Labour has moved on to stealing Tory wives. His liaison was with Kimberly Fortier, the American publisher of the right-wing Spectator . Fortier set up home in Britain with her husband, the publisher of Vogue, in a 2 million town house in Mayfair, yet another of those central London districts you can't afford to think about. Blunkett had a romantic retreat on the Chatsworth estate of Deborah 'Debo' Mitford, the dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who, I should add in mitigation, was one of the few Mitford sisters who wasn't actually a Nazi. Again there is a jolting sense of dislocation. Blunkett constantly plays the prolier-than-thou card against anyone who questions his attacks on civil liberties. His opponents are Hampstead bleeding-hearts, he bellows. Guardian -reading girls' blouses who don't know what hard men forged in the furnaces of Sheffield must do to clear the mean streets of crime. But when his day's work is over, he dismisses bourgeois Hampstead as too common for his refined tastes and heads up-market to the aristocratic attractions of Mayfair and Chatsworth; to parties at the Spectator and dinners with Barbara Amiel. He shows no signs of worry that the company he keeps may mark him as a stonking humbug. Before the last two scandals, there was the one about Tony Blair choosing to accept a free holiday from Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire who has bought the Italian media and politics as a job lot. Before that there were Lakshmi Mittal, Enron, Arthur Andersen, Ecclestone. The common thread is money: old money, new money, funny money - and the peculiar individuals who get and spend it. You had better get used to seeing politicians partying with money in all its guises. Learning to love the rich may soon become the only way for politicians to survive. Last week the Electoral Commission released its latest report on party political funding. Quite rightly there was a great deal of interest in the coincidence of Paul Drayson, a biotechnology entrepreneur, giving 500,000 to New Labour six weeks after New Labour made him a life peer. But focusing on the details of one case misses the wider trend: British public life is increasingly dependent on the grace and favour of the super-rich. Such has been the accumulation of wealth at the top, the parties no longer have a financial need for mass memberships. Dr Peter Facey, director of the New Politics Network, a think-tank which monitors the cash flows, adds that for all the talk of the corporate takeover of government, they don't need corporations' money either. Donations from big business have, in fact, all but disappeared. The rich are now so rich they no longer have to go to the trouble of persuading directors and shareholders to authorise a payment from company funds when they can pay it from the petty cash. In the last three months of 2003, for instance, Labour received 4.1 million. About 1.85m came from its traditional source, the trade unions, which can't donate without the approval of their members. The union contribution was matched by the personal presents of three men - Sir Christopher Ondaatje CBE, Lord Paul Hamlyn and William Haughey OBE - who gave 1.83m between them. Sir Christopher alone handed over 1m. Donations of this size aren't always dubious. Try as the media might, we haven't been able to find anyone with a bad word to say about Ondaatje. He's just a rich man who thinks that Tony Blair is an excellent Prime Minister and wants to help him fight elections. But you don't have to go back into the dealings around Ecclestone, Mittal and the rest to realise that the overall effect of the rise of the plutocracy is pernicious, even when it manifests itself in the amiable form of Ondaatje. Last week's figures showed that the UK Independence Party received more money than the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to June's European elections. Its good fortune wasn't the result of a surge in membership, but because a Yorkshire businessman, Paul Sykes, gave Ukip 715,000. Suppose that as well as hating Europe, Sykes despised gays and loathed fox hunters. Would Ukip's leaders and members dare risk losing his money by drawing-up a manifesto which was for homosexual equality and for fox hunting? Maybe they would, but it isn't over-cynical to believe Sykes has bought himself a party which would never dare cross him. It isn't just Ukip. Iain Duncan Smith's fate was sealed when Stuart Wheeler, the Conservative's biggest donor, said he wouldn't give a penny more to the party. When Duncan Smith was duly fired and Howard took over, the spread-betting tycoon opened his wallet and gave another 500,000. The Tories are no longer dependent on the support of business as a whole, but of one businessman, Wheeler, and a handful of like-minded tycoons. Think of how many raffles and discos ordinary party members would have to organise to raise Wheeler's 500,000, Sykes' 715,000 or Ondaatje's 1m. The result is a vicious circle. The big donors' big cheques go to the parties' headquarters in London. They strengthen the power of the centre, weaken local workers and fuel public suspicion of influence peddling. Party members sense their irrelevance. They drop out of politics and leave their parties more dependent on the big cheques from the big donors. Next month the Electoral Commission will offer its proposals for reform. I hope they suggest cutting the cost of politics by banning billboard advertising and offering all kinds of incentives to politicians to seek small donations from ordinary citizens. I hope they're ruthlessly radical because at the moment we're looking at a future where public life will inevitably be run by an ever-shrinking coterie. The Mandelsons and the Blunketts hang around the rich because they want to. Their successors may hang around the rich because they have to."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"Just before the Leicester South by-election on 15 July a flier was slipped under the windscreen wipers of cars in the constituency. It showed a picture of Parmjit Singh Gill, the Liberal Democrat candidate, shaking the hand of one Stephanie Dearden. She looked odd, like a man: indeed, the flier told us, she once was a man. It announced in bold capitals that Singh Gill had joined the Liberal Democrats for GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL and TRANSGENDER Action. Underneath it quoted Ms Dearden as saying: 'I was born in 1956, and as a child growing up, I knew I was different than everyone else. As I got older I realised I was a woman trapped inside the wrong body ... I underwent a full sex change operation in 2002.' No one knows who put the leaflet out. It may have been a rival party. It may have been a freelance queer-basher who got his angry thrills by monitoring obscure trans-gender websites. But the message to working-class voters was that the Liberal Democrats were a bunch of weirdoes who hung out with lady-boys and shemales - an appeal to prejudice which echoes much of modern political propaganda. It's no secret who put out leaflets during the by-election held on the same day in Birmingham Hodge Hill which followed a West Midlands tradition of gutter politicians appealing to xenophobia. In 1964 the Tories secured a shock victory in Birmingham Smethwick with the catchy slogan of 'If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour'. In his 1968 'Rivers of Blood' speech to members of the West Midlands Conservative Political Centre, Enoch Powell attempted to turn the white working class from Labour by telling them that 'in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the upper hand over the white man'. It worked. Not only did he incite the mass beating of blacks and Asians, but Powell's racism helped the Tories win West Midland marginals and with them the 1970 general election. Before the 1997 election, Andrew Lansley, a Tory minister and born-again Christian, declared that immigration had hurt Labour in the past and has 'more potential to hurt' in the future. Nicholas Budgen, a wizened Powellite, took him at his word and tried to stop Labour taking Powell's old seat of Wolverhampton South West seat by running on an anti-wog ticket. Rather marvellously, he lost. And, equally marvellously, Tony Blair declared in his speech to the 2000 Labour Party Conference that he wanted nothing to do with such squalid politics. 'I know asylum is a problem and we are trying to deal with it, but if people want me to go out and exploit the asylum issue for reasons of race that we all know about, then vote for the other man because I will not do it.' But that was in 2000. In 2004, when it risked seeing the Liberals take Birmingham Hodge Hill, Labour reshuffled the pack and played the race card which had been played against it so many times before. Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate, told the voters, 'I know that people here are worried about fraudulent asylum claims and illegal immigration. Yet the Lib Dems ignore what people say. They ignore what local people really want. The Lib Dems want to keep giving welfare benefits to failed asylum seekers. They voted for this in Parliament on 1 March 2004. They want your money -and mine - to go to failed asylum seekers.' Labour didn't mention that the disputed measure was a plan to take the children of asylum seekers from their parents and put them into care, which Michael Howard had denounced as 'despicable'. The leaflet implied that Byrne was a comrade of the working class rather than a former City slicker who made his pile as an accountant at Andersons Consulting and a banker at NM Rothschild. 'I know what you want,' he cried. 'Someone who is tough and on your side. Someone who wants the same as you. And I do. I want to push my new baby's buggy along the road without having to face a gang of youths spitting and swearing.' Who would want that? But I suspect that the babies of former employees of Rothschilds don't have to endure too many tours of the Birmingham slums. In Fairness, the Liberal Democrats often provoke their opponents into going over the top. They pose as saints while fighting campaigns which are as dirty as anything Labour or the Tories can manage - often dirtier. They shift their shape depending on which constituency they're contesting. Are they right or left? Pro-privatisation or anti? For the overthrow of Saddam Hussein if the weapons inspectors had been given more time, or against?Answers to these questions have more to do with geography than ideology. For the duration of a campaign, the Liberal Democrats are whatever a contested constituency wants them to be.Thus in Hodge Hill, a Lib Dem leaflet sent to predominantly Muslim wards featured a picture of Charles Kennedy surrounded by Asians. The same leaflet was pushed through the doors of predominantly white wards, but only after a quick bout of ethnic cleansing at the printers had removed all trace of the brown faces.And, as I'm incessantly told, it's true that the right-thinking, left-leaning middle classes need to think carefully before dismissing New Labour's crime and asylum policies as stunts used by the powerful to con the powerless into voting for them. (They still are, but we'll leave that for another day.)Crime rates may have collapsed, but the sale of council houses has meant that some of the nastiest families in the country are concentrated in the remaining estates. Asylum seekers, like prisoners released on licence and the mentally ill being cared for in the 'community', are also sent to the poorest neighbourhoods least able to cope with them.But when all the caveats have been made, having a rich man rouse popular passions by posing as a commoner helped Labour hang on to Hodge Hill, and is a sign of what's to come. You can expect a lot more in the Byrne style in the run-up to the election.The Hartlepool by-election will come first. The Tories are out of it, as they are out of most things, and once again Labour isn't fighting the Lib Dems on its impressive economic record. Instead it's following the pattern of Hodge Hill and accusing its rivals of being soft on drugs, soft on pornography, soft on teen gangs and soft on crack houses. Typical of the guff was Labour's claim that the Lib Dem lawyer candidate had made 'excuses for junkies', because she had once represented heroin addicts in court.Barristers have to take whatever cases are allocated to them. By Labour's logic Cherie Blair is a supporter of the poll tax because she once represented councils seeking to extract money from protestors who couldn't or wouldn't pay.I shouldn't have to add that raising prejudices by banging on about crime and race are the desperate strategies of right-wing parties with their backs to the wall, and you might have expected an uprising from within the Labour ranks.But where is a principled opposition to come from? From the Labour left? At the time of the Hodge Hill election Ken Livingstone was embracing as a comrade Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a 'moderate' Muslim leader, whose Islam Online website supports the murder of Israeli civilians because 'on the hour of judgment, Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them'; describes homosexuality as an 'evil and unnatural practice', which can only be stopped when Islamic society is cleansed of its 'perverted elements'; says rape victims must carry a portion of the guilt if they dress 'immodestly'; and advises that a husband may beat his wife 'lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive parts'.The new Respect Party, which boldly proclaims itself to be a left-wing alternative to Labour, is as willing to ally with religious barbarism and the enemies of the Enlightenment as Livingstone, and is led by George Galloway, a man who flew to Baghdad to greet a fascist dictator with: 'Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.'These are paradoxical times. The Conservative Party is nowhere, but conservative ideas are everywhere, not least on a left whose manic skid to the far right makes the slipperiness of the Liberal Democrats and the willingness of Labour to betray its principles appear modest changes of position in comparison."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"Every summer the graduates of Britain's universities decide what to do with their lives. As in previous years, thousands will have rejected the ideals of public service and the excitement of setting-up their own businesses and decided instead to fill the gaps in the ranks of Britain's 250,000 accountants.Britain has as many as the rest of the EU put together, and it's easy to see why. There's no state-guaranteed monopoly for engineers, factory workers, call-centre girls, small businessmen or women, computer programmers, inventors or any other wealth-creating trade. Indeed, when the working population's jobs head east they are told in thunderous voices that their sloth is being deservedly punished by the wrathful gods of the marketplace. But auditing can't go east. Every institution in Britain has to have its books audited by a member of one of the British accountancy associations.In theory they are the police officers of finance, forever on the lookout fraud and gross incompetence. In practice they differ from the police in one respect. Detectives are not allowed to sell 'extra services' to potential criminals. They might think twice before breaking up an international cocaine-smuggling racket if their force relied on that same ring for a large slice of its income. No similar pettifogging concerns about conflicts of interest constrain the accountancy racket. Accountants are free to sell advice on how to install IT or avoid taxes to the very managers they are meant to be policing on behalf of pension funds and employees. If they blow the whistle, they might lose the contracts, so the whistle has a tendency to stay in the pocket. It shouldn't be a surprise to learn that British accountants make a comfortable living. Management Today found that the average annual pay packet of British accountants in 2001 came to $117,000 (82,000), which was way ahead of their nearest rivals in Europe, the Swiss, who struggled to get by on $73,000 (51,000). Thrusting graduates have always aimed to hack their way to the top of one of the 'Big Four' accountancy firms - PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst &amp; Young, KPMG or Deloitte - which dominate the global and British markets. The most ambitious will hope one day to emulate Mike Rake, the head of KPMG, who last year received a 45 per cent pay rise to take his salary to 2.4 million. 'What do you spend it on?' a reporter from the Sunday Times asked. 'Sixteen polo ponies,' Rake replied.In the past, Rake and his colleagues were partners who had unlimited liability for their partnership's debts. Like the Lloyd's names, they put everything they owned on the line, and their exposure must have caused the odd sleepless nights. Auditors had approved the accounts of Robert Maxwell, Polly Peck, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, Enron, WorldCom, Equitable Life and many another grotesquely mismanaged company. Until New Labour came to power the threat that Rake and his fellow partners might be sued for presiding over a disaster should have troubled even the self-confident head of KPMG. Everything, the pied--terre in London, the home in Henley-on-Thames, the villa in Spain and the 16 polo ponies, could have gone. The example of Arthur Andersen provided a terrible warning. The Big Four were once the Big Five until Andersen approved the accounts of Enron and WorldCom and earned the imperishable distinction of failing to notice that the first and second biggest frauds in human history were going on under its nose. Andersen went bust because, understandably, no reputable organisation would go near it. The Bush administration reacted by making it all but impossible for auditors to sell other services to clients in the United States. What if Parliament was to enforce the same regulations here? If Enron wasn't bad enough, what of the policy holders of Equitable Life who are suing Ernst &amp; Young for several billion for their failure to warn that the mutual was heading towards a financial calamity? I don't know if Rake suffers from panic attacks. If he does, he will at least be able to reassure himself on one point: however calamitously the accountancy giants audit British business, his polo ponies will be safe. As this column has noted before, the most striking vice of New Labour is not its friendship with business - all modern governments have to make friends with business - but its anxiety to acquaint itself with the most notorious capitalists: the Mittals, the Hindujas, the Murdochs and, now I think of it, the Arthur Andersens. The Tories had banned Andersen from receiving government contracts after its perennially myopic auditors had failed to spot that tax-payers money was disappearing by the boot load from the DeLorean car plant in Belfast. Andersen responded by sucking-up to New Labour and waiting for a change of regime. Patricia Hewitt was hired by its consulting arm. Andersen's services were offered free of charge to Labour when it was in Opposition. When Tony Blair won the 1997 election, the unpleasantness about DeLorean was tidied away and government contracts began to flow Andersen's way again. In 2000, the government bowed to a long campaign by the accountancy giants and limited their liability. Partners could protect themselves by changing their partnership into a limited company. Better still, they could still be partners and retain all the tax advantages and freedom from public scrutiny partnerships brought until they were successfully sued - when they would be able to claim the immunities of the directors of limited companies. The personal assets of the partners - the pads in Chelsea, the piles in the Chilterns - couldn't be seized by bailiffs whatever alternative they choose. The old wisdom about never giving into bullies has held true. The Big Four weren't satisfied with the government's gracious treatment and upped their demands. With personal liability gone, they now want a cap on the damages their firms can be required to pay for negligence or fraud. If they don't get it, they warn that one of their number could go bust. The Big Four would become the Big Three and the group would offer an even less competitive service to the business world. As Rake put it, business 'can't afford to lose another accountancy firm'. From inside the City the apparently outrageous demand for benefit of the clergy for accountants makes a kind of sense. What, after all, are the Big Four worth? Their offices in central London should be fetch a fair price, and photocopiers, computer terminals and the rest. But what was the main asset, the unlimited liability of the partners to meet debts, was removed by an obliging Labour government. A successful action by Equitable Life against Ernst &amp; Young could close it down because Ernst &amp; Young may no longer have the assets to redress the claims of the victims of its alleged ineptitude.Needless to say, Patricia Hewitt's Department of Trade and Industry has been convinced and is all for going along with the Big Four's demands for lame duck accountants to be protected as an endangered species. But the rest of us may wonder that if claims for damages against accountancy firms can be capped, why shouldn't claims against any other business capped? Or claims against trade unions? Or hospitals? Or you? Or me? What incentive will there be for auditors to improve on their lamentable record if they receive fresh privileges? If they are hired by another Maxwell, why should they be any more concerned now about protecting pensioners from penury than they were in the 1980s?These columns normally end with a lament about the general worthlessness of New Labour's unprincipled ninnies. But for once there's a faint whiff of hope in the air. Last week the Office of Fair Trading said words to the effect that the Big Four should stop taking the mickey. Meanwhile institutional investors are lobbying against auditors being placed beyond the full reach of the law. According to rumour, they've been joined by Gordon Brown's Treasury. If the rumour is true, then delegates preparing for the Labour Party Conference should consider asking the Chancellor to overcome his notorious politeness and put Ms Hewitt in her place. The Labour Party wasn't founded to create a Milton Friedman world of socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor; where Mike Rake keeps his polo ponies while savers with Equitable Life lose their pensions."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"With the Hutton Report due in weeks and Blair's future in the balance, it has never been more important to stay abreast of the news. Traditionally, the editor either instructs newsagents not to sell the paper to readers who score 10 or below in the annual quiz, or, if he's in a bad mood, persuades David Blunkett to intern them in Belmarsh. Not this year. He recognises that it's been all but impossible to keep up in 2003 and believes that anyone who has kept up deserves a medal. He is therefore delighted to announce that he has OBEs for the first 25 readers to get all the answers right. (They can be returned, at no cost to sender, within 10 days, if you are not fully satisfied with any aspect of local, national or international politics.) <B>The End of Tony Blair?</B> <B> 1</B> While Downing Street was compiling its dossier on Iraq's 'region-threatening' arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which Blair aide asked Alastair Campbell, 'Alastair, what will be the headline in the Standard [London Evening Standard] on the day of publication?' <B> 2</B> Which newspaper had the headline '45 Minutes From Attack' on the day of the dossier's publication? <B> 3</B> Months after a war in which Saddam didn't fire chemical weapons in 45 minutes (or 45 hours or 45 days for that matter), who said he was confident the claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ready to fire in 45 minutes 'was accurate and that the use made of it was entirely consistent with the original report'? <B> 4</B> Why was this worrying? <B> 5</B> Who admitted he knew that his government's claim that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes referred only to battlefield shells, not long-range weapons that might spread destruction across the Middle East and even hit British bases in Cyprus as the press reported? <B> 6</B> Why on earth didn't he try to correct what was an honest error on the press's part and stop the public being misled? <B> 7</B> Tony Blair said that 'people know Europe needs America, and I believe America needs Europe too'. Who dismissed the idea and revealed the true balance of power in the 'special relationship' when he said that if Britain pulled out of the war 'there are workarounds' and the US had the forces to go into Iraq on its own? <B> 8</B> Who said in July he had played no part in the naming of David Kelly? <B> 9</B> According to Sir Kevin Tebbit, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, who chaired the meeting where the decision to leak Dr Kelly's name was taken? <B> 10</B> On 27 June, who told Alastair Campbell: 'You well know that it is a matter of principle for us not to reveal our sources'? <B> 11</B> On 14 July, who privately told a Liberal Democrat member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that Dr Kelly had been the source of 'my colleague Susan Watts, science editor of Newsnight '? <B> 12</B> On 15 July, when he was asked by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee what lessons he had learned, whose last words in public were: 'Never to talk to a journalist again, I think'? <B>The Death of Anti-Fascism</B> <B> 13</B> Which scientist showed he couldn't spot the difference between fascism and a fast-food restaurant when he told the Independent that to say the overthrow of a fascist regime justified war was the logical equivalent of saying that 'improvement in children's diet' justified blowing-up McDonald's? <B> 14</B> Which scientist avoided that category error when he told the Guardian that 'Saddam destroyed our lives and not the lives of people sitting comfortably in England. What he means to us Iraqis is completely different from what he means to you. You can't begin to understand. I was eight years old when Saddam came to power, and now I am 43. I feel that my life has been stolen from me.' <B> 15</B> Which impersonator of Tony Blair, acclaimed by critics and public alike for his national television shows which attacked Blair's subservience to Bush, said he was fighting the PM's 'moral imperialism'? <B> 16</B> Which impersonator of Saddam Hussein, who was banned from Iraqi television, said of the death squad sent to assassinate him: 'Fortunately the guys were all arrested [by Kurdish freedom fighters]. They were found carrying a list. All our names were on it'? <B> 17</B> <ul>They read good books, and quote,<br> but never learn a language other than the scream of rocket-burn. <br> Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad: <br> elections, money, empire, oil and Dad. </ul>Which poet wrote the above in 'Causa Belli' in January, as Her Majesty's armed forces prepared for battle? <B> 18</B> In April, as Saddam fled from Baghdad, which poet brought up a cause of the conflict missed by his English colleague and wrote these prescient lines in his 'Runaway President'? <ul>O runaway president <br> Listen just once in your life <br> If you have escaped the trap this time <br> I can assure you it will not be for long <br> Even this temporary safety is misleading <br> It is deadlier if you think about it <br> Fear will suck dry your red cells <br> And sooner rather than later <br> You will waste away <br> First you lose interest in your appearance <br> Then you will find no need to shave <br> And like exposed garbage you will start to stink </ul> <B> 19</B> Which playwright, who wept buckets for the victims of a genocidal regime when Saddam was a de facto ally of Britain and America in the 1980s, wrote in 2003? <ul> Dear President Bush, <br> I'm sure you'll be having a nice little tea party with your fellow war criminal, Tony Blair. Please wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments. </ul> <B> 20</B> Who said? <ul> Where are these friends now? Regrettably, many are denouncing a war that would liberate Iraq. Like those [in power] who shunned us in the Eighties, some of our former friends find the martyrdom of the Iraqi people to be an irritant. They avert their eyes from the grisly truth of our suffering, while claiming concern at the human cost of war. </ul> <B> Business as usual </B> <B> 21</B> Who described Charles Kennedy's proposal to fund universities by taxing the rich rather than the young as 'completely unfair'? <B> 22</B> Which Canadian tycoon said in his 1993 autobiography that he had ignored the 'deafening chorus of scandalised self-righteousness' from 'faddish groupies' and Ontario's 'yuppie-ridden lumpen proletariat' and sacked shop workers from a store he owned because 'a minority [had] since time immemorial, stolen more each year than the profit attributable to the shareholders'? <B> 23 </B> In 2003, which Canadian tycoon was the subject of an American Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into allegations that he used shareholders' money to fund 19 million of unauthorised executive payments, a monthly tab at Le Cirque 2000 restaurant in New York, an apartment in Park Avenue, New York, an 11-bedroom mansion in Kensington, a butler, a chef, a chauffeur, a maid and a vintage Rolls-Royce? <B> 24</B> Who, after writing in 'Bought and Sold' that... <ul> The ancestors would turn graves <br>Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder <br>How our souls were sold <br>And check our strategies, <br>The empire strikes back and waves <br>Tamed warriors bow on parades <br>When they have done what they've been told <br>They get their OBEs </ul>... was offered an OBE? <B> 25</B> After he had refused it on many grounds, not least that the Civil Service clearly hadn't read his poems, who then returned her MBE as a protest against the Government's treatment of asylum-seekers, the Iraq war and the behaviour of the House of Windsor (while conceding that the honours lists included 'little people - nurses, community activists, dinner ladies - for whom such recognition is priceless')? <B> 26</B> Who then wrote to the press saying that she may return her OBE because 'the idea of a vainglorious parade [for the victorious England rugby team] is exclusive of the whole ethnic-minority population of this island and redolent of Anglo-Saxon imperialism'? <B> 27</B> Is it socially acceptable for anyone other than 'little people' to accept an honour? <B> Tiebreaker </B> <B> 28</B> Who was Iain Duncan Smith? <br><br> <b>Answers</b> <B> 1</B> Jonathan Powell <br><B> 2</B> The Standard <br> <b>3</b> Sir Richard Dearlove <br><B> 4</B> He's the head of MI6 <br><B> 5</B> Geoff Hoon <br><B> 6</B> Because 'my experience is that, generally speaking, newspapers are resistant to corrections' <br><B> 7</B> Donald Rumsfeld <br><B> 8</B> Tony Blair <br><B> 9</B> Tony Blair <br><B> 10</B> Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News <br><B> 11</B> Andrew Gilligan, BBC defence correspondent <br><B> 12</B> Dr David Kelly, BBC source <br><B> 13</B> Professor Richard Dawkins, University of Oxford <br><B> 14</B> Dr Mohamed Ahmed Salih, University of Baghdad <br><B> 15</B> Rory Bremner <br><B> 16</B> Mahir Hassan Rashid <br><B> 17</B> Andrew Motion, Her Majesty's poet laureate <br><B> 18</B> Salah Niazi, Iraqi poet, who can be read via www.opendemocracy.net <br><B> 19</B> Harold Pinter <br><B> 20</B> Barham Salih, Kurdish socialist leader <br><B> 21</B> Tony Blair <br><B> 22</B> Conrad Black <br><B> 23</B> Conrad Black <br><B> 24</B> Benjamin Zephaniah, poet <br><B> 25</B> Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, pundit <br><B> 26</B> Elsie Owusu, architect. (Only she was thinking nothing of the sort. The letter was a forgery) <br><B> 27</B> No it is not <br><B> 28 </B> Leader of the British Conservative Party (2001-03)"
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"As the stock market crash makes comparisons with 1929 seem too plausible for comfort, the Government has acted decisively. It doesn't want to protect the owners of pensions and endowments, who have seen their savings slashed. Rather, it wants to shield the 'Big Four' accountancy conglomerates, which presided over the frauds and manias of the speculative bubble, from the consequences of their actions. A few weeks ago, Patricia Hewitt slipped out a remarkable parliamentary answer. The Government was considering sheltering auditors from being sued for negligence, she said. The details had yet to be sorted out, but a review of company law would limit auditors' liability. Accountancy Age added that Hewitt had capitulated after a lobbying campaign by the Big Four - PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte &amp; Touche and Ernst &amp; Young - had 'won sympathy' in Whitehall. A cap of somewhere between 100 million and 200m on their liability was on the way. It is perhaps worth pausing to consider how impervious the political class is to a world it no longer understands. Like all bubbles, the 'New Economy' dementia of the late 1990s was powered by the perverse belief that it was profitable to buy dotcom and telecom shares, even when you knew their long-term value was likely to be nothing. But, as the collapse of Enron and WorldCom showed, fraud played its part in whacking up the price of worthless companies. Arthur Andersen was the auditor in both cases. By a weird coincidence, Hewitt was employed by Andersen before New Labour came to power. She won't be able to go back there when she's finally thrown out of politics - robbed American investors have sued Andersen out of existence. However, she can still help the rest of the City. Even before she announced she would grant accountants privileges not available to other institutions, Hewitt had made it clear that she wouldn't tackle the brazen conflict of interest at the heart of auditing. Because auditors can sell valuable ser vices to companies, including advice on how to dodge the taxes the rest of us must pay, they have a compelling incentive to keep senior managers sweet by failing to alert the public to crime in the boardroom. Investigations into the corporations at the heart of the crash have shown that turning a blind eye to fraud wasn't a one-off offence committed by lightheaded auditors in the madness of the late 1990s: it was a systemic policy. As early as 1987, dealers in Enron's New York office were betting on the future price of oil without protecting themselves with hedges in case their gambles backfired. They also set up shell corporations in Panama. These created phantom deals which impressed Wall Street and produced healthy earnings for Enron, on paper at any rate. Large bonuses flowed to the traders in recognition of their good work. The managers in Houston didn't realise that the deals were phony, but did notice that company money was disappearing into the traders' pockets. Kenneth Lay, the Enron boss, refused to fire his thieving employees. 'I have decided not to terminate these people,' he said. 'I need their earnings.' The traders stayed on and committed Enron to supplying tens of millions of barrels of oil it didn't have. The company was stuck in an unsustainable position. If its rivals had found out, they could have wrecked Enron by forcing up prices. With luck and phenomenal bluffing, the management escaped bankruptcy by a whisker, although it was compelled to make an $85m charge against earnings in 1987. Far from learning caution from the near-death experience, Lay learned that the paper profits which impressed shareholders and bankers could be inflated or, let's face it, invented. He avoided the unpleasantness calling in the police would have brought. An Enron accountant who saw Lay stick by his crooked colleagues told Vanity Fair : 'It was obvious to us and to Arthur Andersen that [the traders] had opened fraudulent bank accounts, and we felt that they were going to con tinue to manipulate transactions.' Lay wasn't bothered. He was 'a guy who put earnings before scruples rather than reacting to the dishonesty right in front of him'. One of the reasons why your investments keep going down is that auditors didn't nip fraud in the bud. If they had, the fees from other services, and the possibility of switching jobs and joining the firms they were meant to police, would have disappeared. They don't need to worry about serving the public interest by doing their work honestly. Their sole fear is they may join Arthur Andersen in the corporate graveyard if investors sue them for gross negligence. Hewitt is determined to save them from that terrible fate and, in doing so, is proving that New Labour is well to the Right of the Tories and the Bush administration. You can't turn on the radio without hearing wails about the compensation culture. Lawyers shake billions out of the NHS each year and government departments are punished for insisting that civil servants should have the good manners to be tidily dressed when they meet the unemployed. Hewitt won't limit their liability. The nearest she can come to a justification for giving benefit of clergy to the City is that there will be a cartel if another accounting giant is destroyed by its crimes. She ignores the fact that the Big Four already is a cartel. A reputable system of financial management would require it to be broken up by ending the accounting conglomerates' conflict of interest. If auditors were banned from selling extras to managers, the firms would have to be split into separate auditing and financial services companies. Rather than tackle a quasi-monopoly, Hewitt is strengthening it. In the United States, the regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission have already rejected attempts by British accountants to limit their liability for false statements. Investors who believed what the Big Four said were entitled to sue if the accounts turned out be fraudulent or misleading. Even Bush's corporate-powered America has its limits, it seems. In Britain, there are none. The accountancy cartel badgered Ministers for years to grant it the favour of capping its liabilities. Prem Sikka, professor of accountancy at Essex University, said it lobbied the Tories, but found that they were a tougher proposition than New Labour. In 1996, the Law Commission said: 'We can find no principled arguments for a "capping" system... it cuts across a principle that a wrongdoer should compensate the plaintiff for loss.' So it does. And with so many people facing such large losses, you do have to wonder why the Government is desperate to protect the profession which helped get us into this mess in the first place. <B>It is not only David Irving who denies the Holocaust</B>The ease with which 'a racist, a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history' can prevent the public reading books which expose him as a racist, a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history continues to be a wonder of the English libel law. Last year, I reported on the strange career of Telling Lies About Hitler by Richard J. Evans. The professor of modern history at Cambridge University had produced an account of the libel action David Irving brought against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, the author of Denying the Holocaust. Irving's attempt to ban the book and win a fortune in damages was a crushing failure. Mr Justice Gray ruled that he was a racist, a Holocaust denier and so on. The way appeared clear for readers to learn how fraudulent history prospered. Among the many lies Evans dissected was how Irving inflated the death toll from the RAF's bombing of Dresden tenfold 30 years ago. The fake figure is quoted to this day. Four publishers promised to produce the detective story, but pulled out for fear that Irving would sue. Their terror was absurd. What little reputation Irving had before the trial was destroyed by the judgment. He can't sue because he has no reputation to lose. The mere threat of a libel action was enough, however, to turn the fine liberals of literary London into censors. The story seemed to have a happy ending when Verso, a small Left-wing house agreed to release the book. Six thousand copies were sold, and you can still buy it in good book shops. But not on amazon.co.uk. The online dealer boasts that it provides 1.5 million titles. Nazi works are among them. Yet Amazon has dropped Evans's attack on a man who fabricated in the Nazi interest. As it stands, the law of libel allows booksellers to be sued, as well as publishers and authors. It's as if telephone companies could be taken to court for slanders that their phone lines carry. Given this authoritarian provision, I would have a touch of sympathy for Amazon if it hadn't told Professor Evans's publishers that it put the protection of its shareholders' wallets before freedom of speech and freedom of publication."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"At the beginning of the Second World War, George Orwell gave the young Christopher Hill a stinking review of the sort that no author forgives or forgets. Writing in the New Statesman, Orwell tore into the historian who was to become a great and generous interpreter of seventeenth-century English radicalism - and Master of Balliol to boot. Hill's best work was to come. In 1940 Orwell's fury was provoked by his juvenilia, The English Revolution: 1640, a book with a fair claim to be the most simplistic Marxist version of history published in Britain in the twentieth century. Orwell identified a persistent fault of the far Left. Like those who give a knowing wink and insist that the war against Iraq is 'all about oil,' Hill and his comrades were too 'cocksure'. They wrote off 'religion, morality, patriotism [as] a sort of hypocritical cover-up for the pursuit of economic interest' when they insisted that the Parliamentarians' war against Charles I could be reduced to a battle between the rising class of capitalists and the dead weight of the feudal monarchy. 'A "Marxist" analysis of any historical event tends to be a hurried snap judgment based on the principle of cui bono?, something rather like the "realism" of the saloon-bar cynic who always assumes the bishop is keeping a mistress and the trade union leader is in the pay of the boss,' Orwell continued. Such reasoning was a hopeless guide. 'Long after Hitler came to power official Marxism was declaring that Hitler was of no importance and could achieve nothing. On the other hand, people who had hardly heard of Marx but who knew the power of faith had seen Hitler coming years earlier.' Hill was buried on Friday. Before his body was cold, Anthony Glees of Brunel University and the Times went way beyond the charge that he was once a supporter of Communist orthodoxy and apologist for Stalin's crimes. 'Was Oxford's most famous Marxist a Soviet mole?' asked Wednesday's Times. With Glees's help, it answered its rhetorical question with a triumphant 'Yes.' Hill had hidden his Communism and tunnelled his way to the Russian desk at the Foreign Office during the war. He had suggested that white Russian emigrs should be purged from British uni versities. He formed a friendship with Peter Smollett, head of the Russian desk at the Ministry of Information and an acquaintance of Kim Philby. Before fleeing to the Soviet Union, Smollett performed many small services for Stalin, including persuading several publishers to turn down Orwell's Animal Farm. When I talked to Glees, he said Hill had been 'sinister and disgraceful.' His research proved that Hill was a Soviet agent in the Foreign Office, and a demoralised Hill had come to his home in 1983 and admitted that he was guilty as charged. Glees went on to wonder whether Balliol should go through its records and discover what Hill had been up to when he was Master. The apparently fair and kind scholar may well have promoted left-wing students in the 1960s and 1970s while obstructing the careers of Conservative undergraduates. Glees would not go on the record and name the beneficiaries of Hill's patronage, but he had his suspicions. Stalinism is in the air, and not only because it is the 50th anniversary of the old bastard's death. In Saddam Hussein, Iraq has a tyrant who models himself on Stalin. He has followed to the letter Stalin's policy of killing rivals before they are a threat - even before they know themselves that they might one day be rivals strong enough to pose a threat. (This tactic alone explains why it is difficult to think of a way other than invasion to get rid off him.) Yet virtually everyone I meet doesn't want to hear about Saddam's crimes or read the fraternal requests for support from democrats and socialists in the Iraqi opposition. Like the Left of the 1930s, they put their hands over their ears and scream whenever either subject is mentioned. Just as the greater cause of anti-fascism led decent people to turn a blind eye to Stalin's crimes in the 1930s, so the often silly cause of anti-Americanism leads decent people to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Iraqis. You didn't need to know too much about the dark side of the Left to shudder and think 'Oh no, not again' when Tony Benn flew to Baghdad and played straight guy to a monster with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands. (Benn: 'I wondered if you would say something direct to the peace movement that might help advance the cause they have had in mind.' Saddam: 'We pray to God to empower all those working against war and for the cause of peace.') Benn's subsequent insulting of an Iraqi woman in London as a 'CIA stooge' made the comparison perfect. Reports from Stalin's death camps were dismissed as fabrications of the capitalist press in the 1933: the cries of Saddam's victims are dismissed as CIA 2003 propaganda. Many in the anti-war movement don't bother to hide their nostalgia. George Galloway, an MP whose pain all sensitive souls must share when Saddam is taken out, was asked last year if he would describe himself as a Stalinist. 'If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes,' Galloway replied. 'The disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.' A neat theory is available. The new Left is repeating the crimes of the old. What Christopher Hill began, others are determined to finish. It doesn't work - in Hill's case at least. Hill would not have liked Orwell's review, but on one point he wouldn't have quibbled. When Orwell said that Hill was a spokesman for 'official Marxism' - that is, that he was a Communist - Hill would have agreed. Of course he was. His books were issued by Lawrence &amp; Wishart, the Communist Party's publishers, and followed the party line. Real moles hide everything. They last thing they would do is send out Communist tracts to be reviewed in the New Statesman by hostile critics who would point out their Communism as a matter of course. When Philby was recruited in the mid-1930s, his Russian handlers instructed him to drop his left-wing politics. He was to catch the eye of MI6 by pretending to hold the views of the establishment. In the 1930s, respectability came by posing as a quiet admirer of Nazi Germany, editing the journal of the Anglo-German Fellowship and joining the staff of the Times, a paper as slavish towards Adolf Hitler then as it is towards Rupert Murdoch now. I can't prove that Hill is innocent of the charge of treason, and Smollett undoubtedly was a Soviet agent. But the Soviet Union would have been remarkably foolish if it had recruited Hill, and MI5 even more foolish if it had failed to spot the agent. It is no defence of what Hill believed to say that his Stalin-worship was respectable in the 1940s. The establishment became pro-Soviet when the Soviet Union became Britain's ally in the Second World War. The Times switched from admiring Hitler to admiring Stalin. The British government sent Russians who had fought with Hitler to die in Stalin's death camps. Among the publishers who turned down Animal Farm for fear of offending Stalin was T.S. Eliot, who has yet to be accused of being a Communist spy - although anything is possible at the moment. Hill never gave up his Marxism, but left the Communist party in 1957. He went on to rescue the histories of the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and Fifth Monarchists from obscurity. More than any other historian in the twentieth century, he showed how ordinary people developed ideas of democracy, socialism, secularism and women's emancipation as soon as civil war destroyed censorship and political control and allowed them the space to think and argue. The most moderate of the radical groups were the Levellers. All they wanted was democracy. But 350 years on Tony Blair behaves with the arrogance of a Stuart king and refuses to countenance the thought that the voters should be free to send their representatives to the House of Lords. Because the 'good old cause' of the seventeenth-century radicals is still unfulfilled, the ideas that the old Master of Balliol revived will survive long after the Saddams and Galloways are gone."
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"In the interval between the war against terrorism and the war against Iraq, we've had to find what diversions we can in the collapse of global capitalism and unchecked political corruption and religious mania. The following questions are meant to test your attention levels. A score of fewer than 5 means, I'm afraid, that you are banned from reading The Observer and sentenced to listen to The Moral Maze for the rest of your life. Ten or higher is more than creditable. The only possible way to get full marks is to have your paper marked by an A-Level exam board. <B>The Age of Miracles</B> 1 Which company chairman bankrolled Republicans, Democrats, Blairites and Tories and then told the San Diego Union-Tribune : 'I believe in God and I believe in free markets... Jesus was a freedom lover, he wanted people to have the freedom to make choices'? 2 Did he really add that he expected to go to heaven because God would see 'my total life as a businessman, the way I treated people, the opportunities I've created for people and the standards of living that have been impacted for the better'? 3 According to Jack Temple, Cherie Blair's 'homeopathic dowser healer', the leaves of which plant allow 'the lame to walk, the barren to conceive and the sad to smile' if, and only if, they capture the healing energies of the stars by being planted within the boundaries of his allegedly neolithic stone circle at West Byfleet near Woking? 4 With Christmas over many readers will be planning to imitate the Blairs by visiting the fake Aztec pyramid in the grounds of the Mamora Hotel on Mexico's Caribbean coast. After you and your companion have stripped down to your swimming costumes and gazed on the shapes of phantom animals in the steam, what should you smear each other with before emitting a primal scream of psychic rebirth? 5 Which ally of George Bush accepted the mythical Israeli claim to Palestine when he declared 'I'm content to have Israel grab the entire West Bank'? 6 How much space did a senior American politician's endorsement of the creation of Israeli Lebensraum receive in the American press? 7 The state television of which 'moderate' Arab country is educating viewers by presenting them a serialisation of Jewish plans to rule the world, as revealed in the anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? 8 According to a poll for the Today programme, what percentage of British Muslims believe that an al-Qaeda attack on Britain would be justified? 9 What did Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch citizen and Muslim adviser to the country's Labour Party, have to do after she said orthodox Islam covered up wife-beating child abuse and other assaults on women? 10 Which pious British politician said Christian fundamentalists produced 'very good' exam results and therefore must be allowed to continue to teach creationism at the state-financed Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead? <B>Orders of Merit</B> 11 Which British social reformer who died this year invented the concept of 'the meritocracy' in a 1958 dystopian fantasy about the rise of an 'insufferably smug' elite which believes 'their advancement comes from their own merits' and tolerates 'no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves'? 12 How did this co-author of the 1945 Labour Manifesto respond to the spectacle of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown declaring themselves 'meritocrats' and accepting 'grievous inequality without a bleat'? 13 The basic salary of a trained fire officer is 21,000. To the nearest year, for how many years would a fire officer have to save the lives of others before he earned: <BR>(i) The 754,000 salary and benefits of Paul Dacre, the editor-in-chief of the Mail newspapers which condemned the 'fat cat pay' of Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the Fire Brigades Union?<BR> (ii) The 14.7 million in Associated Press shares Dacre will receive in 2008 if the papers maintain their performance? <BR> (iii) The 500,000 the Blairs spent on two flats for their son at the very moment they were denouncing fire-fighters as 'wreckers'?<BR> (iv) The 157.7m Britain's highest paid executive, Philip Green of BHS, collected in 2002? (Reminder: No calculators allowed in this exam, children.) 14 In 2002 Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC governors, denounced those who criticised the corporation's flight from public-service standards as 'southern, white and middle-class' elitists. To the nearest 10m or so how much did this ragged-trousered and furnace-scarred tribune of the slum-towns' ethnic yoof make when his partnership in the Goldman Sachs investment bank was sold? 15 Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian businessman, gave 125,000 to New Labour. Tony Blair lobbied to win his steel company a 300m contract in Romania. This appeared to be an open-and-shut case of corruption. Blair maintained, however, that he had done nothing wrong because the company was 'British'. All he had done was work the phones to protect British jobs. <BR>(i) In which country is Mittal's LMN steel company registered for tax purposes? <BR>(ii) How many of LMN's 125,000 workers are employed in Britain? <BR>(iii) What was LMN's American arm lobbying George Bush to do? 16 The Tory peer Lord Wakeham was on the Enron board. His tasks included approving the accounts of a company which was about to go bust in one of the biggest frauds in capitalist history and offering advice on how to handle the media. He was also chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. In addition, Blair made him chairman of the Royal Commission on the future of the House of Lords which told a grateful PM the British didn't deserve an elected second chamber. How many other directorships did His Lordship enjoy before his disgrace? 17 How did Tony Blair respond to George Bush's signing of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act earlier this year which required executives and auditors to submit honest accounts? <B>Liberty For and Against</B> 18 Apologists for al-Qaeda have argued that mass murders were inchoate protests against US-inspired genocide from Vietnam to Chile. American authorisation of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor was mentioned repeatedly. How did al-Qaeda let the comrades down when it gave its reasons for supporting the massacre of Australians in Bali? 19 Which novelist wrote in his account of how Stalin was a very wicked man that the noise of his baby daughter crying had forced him to call for the nanny? ('"The sounds she was making," I said unsmilingly to my wife on her return, "would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror."') 20 Which left-wing Labour MP denounces sanctions against Iraq now it is Britain's and America's enemy but called for 'no trade, no aid, no deals' with the 'fascist' Saddam in 1988 when Iraq was Britain's and America's friend? 21 Who condemned the Human Rights Act because it encouraged 'people to take up causes which will make the pursuit of a sane, civilised and ordered existence ever more difficult'? 22 Isn't he meant to keep his nose out of politics? 23 Which ferocious journalist responded to the rise of the neo-Nazi British National Party by ignoring all evidence of the party's criminality and contenting himself with the following interrogation? <BR>Interviewer: Mr Griffin, let me ask you a simple question: if one of your children fell in love with a Muslim or an Asian, what would you do? <BR>Griffin (leader of the BNP): I would be very unhappy about it because I do see two very different lives with their own heritage and their own culture being destroyed. <BR>Interviewer (turning into Gwyneth Paltrow): Do you think that's a greater consideration than the fact that they might be in "lurv"?24 How many of the 11 Arabs interned after 11 September without trial or charge have managed to confound David Blunkett's assertions that they are terrorists despite their denial of basic legal rights? <B>The answers</B>1 Kenneth Lay of Enron "
6 (nickcohen)
0 (Politics)
"Many parents wonder about the point of having children. They burn up your money, sleep and social life, and then blame you for all their problems. In politics, however, children are a source of perpetual joy. They must be seen and heard at every opportunity. In 1993, Michael Howard found that children were just what he needed to prevent the young Tony Blair outflanking the Tory government on the Right. The parents of children as young as 10 would be fined, and in extreme cases jailed, if their sprogs didn't comply with court orders, the tough Home Secretary announced. Alun Michael, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, condemned Howard's plans as 'unworkable and pathetic'. But in the jailing of parents as in so much else New Labour proved it could be flexible. In the run-up to the 1997 election, Jack Straw promised that 'parental supervision orders' would be imposed on the parents of children who played truant. Failure to comply would lead to a spell in the slammer. Howard matched him word for word. Once in power, New Labour announced fines and possible prison sentences for parents in November 1997. It did so again in September 1999. And in March 2000. And in October 2000. And in this year's Queen's Speech. None of these schemes will ever amount to much because the courts have the sense to realise that jailing parents often means sending children into council care - which short of shooting the dears is about the worst thing you can do to them. But nothing stops this Government. Even though the Queen's Speech was scarcely a month old, Charles Clarke tried to divert attention from the Cherie affair last week by announcing - but, of course - the fining and jailing of parents. The media treated it as a serious and novel measure. What with one thing and another in the past fortnight, journalists have given the impression of being cynical brutes. In truth, we are drooling innocents with the memories of goldfish with learning difficulties."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"There's strapping, bustling Jo Frost, sense and sensibility poured into a sensible suit. Dozy dads turned round in 30 minutes flat. Weepy mums dusted down or braced up. Appalling kids tamed on her "naughty seat". She is Supernanny incarnate (with male public school fantasies loosely attached). So why do I keep dreaming about the next TV series after Jo? Let's call it Supergranny, with Supernumerary Grandpa in tow. Supernan and Gramps have been auditioning for the job in Barcelona these past days, minding a three-child shop (six, four and two) while Mum and Dad were away on an Italian job for five nights. See Supernan getting six and four ready for school and a 40-minute commuting trail across town. Watch less-than-super Grumps deal somewhat irresolutely with two's breakfast. I should, perhaps, explain at this stage that Beatrice is pretty memorable as tiny two-year-olds go. Is it her great, dark Spanish eyes? Is it her habit of suddenly saying surprising things? ("Look, Grandpa, the sun is going down over the hill and the shadows are growing longer.") But, for the moment, it's only 7.15am and the sun has barely crawled out of bed yet. Six and four are eating their cereal peaceably in the living room, one eye on CBeebies, the other flitting occasionally floorwards as Supernanny puts their socks on. Beatrice, meanwhile, has clambered on to the kitchen sideboard and is ransacking cupboards. "Do you want Sugar Puffs or Coco Pops?" I say. She wants the Puffs. Clear instruction. So I pour them out into a blue plastic bowl. No!!! Not the blue bowl. The yellow bowl? No!!! The red bowl. This red bowl? No, the other red bowl!! And do you want milk or tea? Tea. No, not in the yellow cup, the red one (which seems oddly orange-coloured, but maybe the racket is turning us both colour-blind). Let's go and see CBeebies with Leo and Georgie, then. We troop next door - at which point it becomes clear that six and four are eating Coco Pops. The Sugar Puffs are duly renounced. It is Pops or nothing, or a bit more of a commotion. In the blue bowl or the red bowl? The reds are still on their winning streak. Supernumerary Gramps departs on the school trek with six and four. The bedraggled Pops float, uneaten, rejected with impunity, in a puddle of milk when I return an hour-and-a-half later. Now there are several things to say at this point. One is that Beatrice, like her brother, sister and our other five grandchildren, is a pearl beyond price. Family politics. Another is that, as I scrabble in assorted cupboards for bowls and Pops and Puffs, obeying ever-changing demands with a vacuous grin, I feel oddly like Michael, Tony and Charlie back home. Red bowls, blue bowls, yellow bowls, krispies, krunchies, munchies? Yes ma'am, just put your cross on this scrap of paper here. Politics as usual. But the one thing you can't do is call for sensible Jo, for this is an entirely different sort of show. Supernanny, of course, is formula TV down to the last kick and yowl. Scene one: desperate parents plead for a miracle. Scene two: Ms Frost whispers in their ear. Scene three: happiness is just a thing called Jo, jetting off to her new rescue act, leaving her trained agents of tranquillity behind. What happens next? There's always a brief line filed "a fortnight later" which claims that the miracle yet endures. And four months later? We're never told. But Supergranny and Gramps aren't in such wham-bang business. Their most precious gift is time. They want to come back again and again, so Jo is mostly total Frost. Are we in loco parents, required to do the full naughty-seat routine when Beatrice demands a large plate of prawns and noodles, sucks the prawns, ditches the spag and demands another ice cream? No: we're not parents. The parents are away. We've nil reason (Supergranny wisely says) for majoring on their absence. Why go around stirring up misery? Our role is to hold the ring, to make sure everyone has the cheeriest days possible and not to let things go to hell on a handcart (or the scooter Beatrice likes to whiz along the corridor on, prompting voluble Catalan gloom from the lady in the flat below). Is that an easy role? By no means. Skills learned across two decades of editing the Guardian don't wash with Beatrice when you have to explain that her sister has swigged the last Actimel. There's no one-hand or other-hand here, nor any firm prescription: only persuasion and distraction or humiliation. Supergranny is a lifetime show, not 30 minutes of brusque denouement. Supergran is being in charge, but not in charge, of leading but following, of lips bitten without demur, of diplomacy and self-abnegation. No, Endemol, you could never sell it - except as a 24-hour rolling stint on E4. Back home for Paxo and Howard and other delights, we have two more (nine and seven) of the eight stay overnight, watch TV from 7am as not-normally-allowed, eat pancakes and demand treacle sandwiches on the Jamie Oliver memorial beat. "Not golden syrup?" says their bristling Supermum. "The sugar drives them wild." No, it's black treacle ... you know, organic, healthy? Diplomacy cuts both ways. Beatrice, as it happens, is three this very morning. Goodbye to the terrible twos. Happy birthday, love. Time and wisdom and beautiful eyes are on your side. And meanwhile, just over there in CBeebies' corner, the leader of the Conservative party, wriggling on a naughty sofa, is putting thousands of refugees in his blue bowl for another Frost - and pushing them out to sea. Somehow, looking after kids feels like a nobler job too."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"Should Sven go? And Chief Constable Westwood, for that matter? Not to mention Ian McCartney, Blair, Blunkett, Posh, Becks - and anyone else whose span in the headlines seems to have outstayed its welcome? This is post-failure time, scapegoat time, the morning after of the long knives: time to go out and make a meaningless sacrifice.Our illusion, most of the while, is that dumping the boss equals dramatic action. Are M&amp;S or Sainsbury's under the cosh? Then bang goes yesterday's whizz kid and everything's all right (or, more probably, not). But the sack, accompanied by sackloads of fivers, isn't the difficult option; it's an easy, often vacuous stop gap, a lever pulled for the sake of appearances. Farewell Piers Morgan, but does anyone think the Mirror's fortunes stand one jot transformed?Occasionally, to be sure, personnel shuffling grows inescapable. Kevin Keegan, and Glenn Hoddle after him, were tadpoles from a shallow, stagnant pool of talent who were never going to make fine frogs, and Sven at that moment of despond was a necessary recourse. He qualified for the big ones twice over and, left in place, he'll probably do it again. But that's not really the crux. The drums beat for him now from habit, impatience, boredom. Forget all the lousy passing, weary legs and absence of a class keeper. (Oh my Swift, Banks, Clemence and Shilton long ago!) Give us somebody else - anybody else - to get the juices flowing again.The impulse, on calmer examination, is exactly the reverse of what we say we want: that is, good management. Good managers know that mostly you have to build from the ground up, recruit solid people, construct a team and an ethos. Good managers know that most quick fixes fall apart just as quickly and that, in all probability, leaving the best man of his generation - Bobby Robson - in charge for 30 prudent years at a stretch would have brought England far more success than all the frenetic switchings. True business builders - like Stanley Kalms at Dixons or the good family Sieff at the old Marks - need the space to think and grow. True leaders aren't packed off if it begins to rain.But then, who cares about basic management theory when the headlines grow too lowering? We're in Chelsea land, Abramovich land, toyshop land, the land of the stinking rich where minds change as easily as fawning acolytes.What's the new wonder ingredient that, uncoincidentally, our government and loyal opposition both suddenly espouse? It's a return to grass roots and local option, an empowering of the consumer-citizen in his or her community, it's choice and connections. Get the suits of Whitehall out of the way. Boot the central bureaucrats. Let doctors and nurses and teachers, just doing their thing, save the day.That's one theory of course; actually the theory that ruled public life through the centuries before there was a national health service or anything you could call a national educational system. But it also shreds now at the first hard challenge.What is the democratic point of local police authorities if their views - close-up, informed, on the ground, community-based - doesn't count at a crunch? Why should David Blunkett know best and, if he does, why do his Health and Education mates sing from an utterly different hymn book? I've read the Bichard report and, if I were some omnipotent home secretary, might well want to hang David Westwood's scalp on my belt pour encourager dozy police forces everywhere. But that's not the point. The point is that the whole tide of government theory is flowing in an exactly contrary direction."Oh, but there are children's lives at stake here," say his supporters. And in the schools and hospitals too, sunshine: you can't pick and choose. Kicking out Westwood won't solve the real story floating at the back of all this - the chronic under-investment in police computer systems and the even more chronic lack of high-level staff to run the systems we have managed to install. (Simply, police-pay rigidities mean that they can't pay the market rate for the skills they most need).Kicking out Westwood, jawboning and litigating over the heads of those who know him best, is just another desultory blow to local democracy, local autonomy, local living. If this particular chief constable has learned all the lessons and is as determined as he claims to put things right, then give him that high-profile chance.Which brings us straight back, of course, to one team facing relegation from the premier league: New Labour, supposedly plotting its last reshuffle of the second term. Whose card is marked for the chop? Why, small, round, squeaky Ian McCartney. Somebody has to pay for June's election debacle, and it's the party chairman.But sooner or later you have to hoot with derision. Was Mr McCartney any less small, round and television-unfriendly when the prime minister solemnly appointed him 14 months ago? Does anyone truly suppose that the Euro-vote was a vote against squeaky Scotsmen? The difficult truth, when you look at it, is that this government of supposed competence and managerial talent has shuffled more twitchily, mindlessly and redundantly than most. It has sacked first and thought later. It has set a lousy, churning, aimless example. And mangling McCartney would put the lid on all that.Does Tony Blair ever wonder why the one pillar of the team which hasn't changed - Gordie next door - is also the most successful? Because of time and experience and long-term toil. Because every shoot-out has its penalties, Sven."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"John Major started it with his potty "family values" crusade. Thou shalt not fall into bed with the wrong woman and remain a member of my blokeish government. (Shurrup, Edwina!) But prime ministerial pottiness is ever with us. Who, doe-eyed and dripping sincerity, invited our trust - and made himself the ultimate repository of that virtue? Tony Blair. So who now lives or dies on the red line he created?Pause, though, for pottiness is a three-syllable word of some complexity. Major wasn't daft to go back to basics per se; he was crazy to let his moral musings turn into a kind of ministerial code of toe-sucking practice. The truth was then, is now and must indelibly remain that politicians are just ordinary men and women, people like us, people no better than we ought to be. Jawbone them about fornication to your heart's content, but don't make silly, rigid rules that will inevitably - in ordinary, lustful humanity - be broken. That's potty.And trust - after seven years of bitter examination - is just the same, a plastic plant plonked in a flowerpot from some Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition. The modern Mail, remember, deals in absolutes. Absolute family harmony or perfidy? A Major-type choice. Complete trust in our leaders or another pile of overspun horse manure from Mendacity Inc? It's a phoney construction, but a hugely powerful one: and we've swallowed it hook, line and stinker.Of course politicians, for a while at least, revel in public trust. Leaders great or small always like the adoration of the led. But try injecting another dose of ordinary humanity into that argument.Trust is a relative, nuanced thing. You may or may not trust your neighbour to feed the cat while you're away. It depends on the neighbour. You may or may not tell the local police you're going on holiday. That depends on what happened last time you went to Majorca. Who trusts a boss in a pay negotiation who says he's run out of money on day two? Or a union leader who promises to pull down the pillars then settles behind the arras?Would I trust the present Archbishop of Canterbury to be strong, consistent and stalwart over gay bishops? I'd be a fool if I did. Or the Cantuar just past, peddling an autobiography, to stay mum about Charles and Camilla? Ditto. Or Andy Gilchrist to hang tough when the fires of fury burned too high? Ditto - or however they say that in Portuguese.Trust is a matter of individual judgment and experience. If you work in an office, look round and categorise the people at the next desks. (No: of course you've done that long since, the first of the necessary work skills learned, office politics.) So why on earth should trust in politicians or governments, in prime ministers themselves, come as a job lot of pretty packages? It's an utterly false dichotomy. It carves professional politics away from politics day-to-day and seeks to bathe it in an artificially kindly light.You may trust doctors, but not Harold Shipman. Academic publishers, but not Robert Maxwell. Presidents of the US, but not ... oh, forget it! Some of the time, out in the back garden smoking a surreptitious fag, you may not even trust yourself.The point - the critical point - about any blanket concept of trust is the way it creates a Daily Mail kind of world. They, those bigwigs over there, are the leaders, and we gave them our trust. We, us lot over here, have been lied to and traduced ever since, suckers, victims, neglected pawns. See: the construct assumes that we are fools, self-deluding, malleable idiots incapable of doing what we do naturally in everyday life - thinking, assessing, making our own choices.There's something convenient, in a fast-food sort of way, about that divide, of course. It means we never have to admit that we, personally, might have got an issue wrong. We were "lied to" over WMD, and so need never grow introspective about what we'd have done on the information then available. We marched and were spurned. Fine, but blamefests come too damn easy.Throughout Europe, eight days ago, politicians in power got a rare old roasting from electorates oozing distrust. Same here: we put our faith in Robert Kilroy-Silk, maybe because Jerry Springer wasn't standing. Last week in Brussels, Blair tried "his cynical ploy" of "making as much fuss about a number of red lines as possible" and "keeping very quiet about the other issues he wasn't going to win". How do I know that? Because the Mail's main European "analyst" told me before the essential bargaining had even started. Never let facts or contemporaneous reporting get in the way of received opinion.This isn't, you may be relieved to hear, yet another column arguing for or against Europe membership. Leave that for the relevant time. What it is, though, is a shivering apprehension of debates that matter conducted in gimcrack stereotypes to barely hidden agendas.The cry from core Labour now is still "Trust Tony" - with an anxious descant demanding to know whether Tony can ever regain such trust. Of course he can't. Such trust is a plastic plant in a plastic pot. It can't be summoned on demand or glued back together.But this trust is anyway a worthless commodity. Its manifest lack didn't wreck Lloyd George or SuperMac or the wizard called Wilson. Nobody gave it to Bill Clinton (though he was more poll popular when he left office than Ronald Reagan). Nobody in full sentience would dream of trusting Charlie Kennedy to tell the same story in Aberdeen and Penzance - or Michael Howard to explain why he sacked the head of the prison service. Too much ado about synthetic sincerity. Trust me, I'm not a politician."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"Politics is one thing (says a disarmingly frank senior Tory of recent acquaintance) and life is rather another. Life isn't 10-year plans or defining choices or big sackings. It is what happens next, the theatre of the unexpected. It is slopping coffee all over your road map. It is Alan Milburn Mark Two, not Mark One. My Tory - another one who doesn't want to be prime minister - could, indeed, have been talking about reshuffle time, the moment when human hopes and fears come brutally together. But in fact, predictably enough, he was on again about Europe and the euro - and hoping that Tony Blair wouldn't run his pending referendums together into some pseudo-apocalyptic vote on whether we want to be in or out. Give the great British people an allegedly stark choice between pottering on and dramatic change, and the faint hearts will have it every time. But there isn't any real starkness here, he says. That's only the phoney edge of political rhetoric. Vote no and something - something we hadn't thought of, something the pundits of doom had discounted - will turn up. See? Life's a ramble, not a route march. Lie back and think of England on a sunny summer day. Or rather, Ireland and Albania on two successive summer days. Go from one to the other, like me, and wash the scent of Blair right out of your hair. Here we are in Dublin, roaming the narrow lanes at the back of Grafton Street. Cafe society, in the universal uniform of tank tops and tight jeans, is sitting out, chattering. The cash swilling over the counters, of course, is the euro. Are the Irish happy with that? They'd have been happier, perhaps, if Gordon O'Brown had gone a bit easier on his five pillars of wisdom - and happier, too, if the old leprechaun of inflation wasn't beginning to jig around again. But let's not pile on the gloom. Growth is still strong by most reasonable standards. Not many blame the Central Bank. And Dublin itself, for the returning visitor, is a revelation. It used, long ago, to be Liverpool continued by other means: great buildings, narrow terraces, decay and decrepitude leavened with jokes and music. Now it is Europe. You sit with Finns and French and - inevitably - Americans. The girl behind the cash desk is English. Her manager is Chinese. Ireland used to be a place to get away from. Today it's a place where the world wants to call, a place to linger and maybe to live. And that has very little to do with politicians, some of them notably duff and tainted, almost all of them voted out of office after a single term. They're no better than they ought to be. The change, with its lightness of spirit, is in the people. They have seen an opportunity - the opportunity of a political space - and filled it with buzz and bustle. They've transformed their physical existence. They've put the quality into their own lives. The latte touch. And so to Tirana, which used to be Europe's answer to Pyongyang, the capital of a bizarre communist midget state drifting in poverty-stricken isolation between Moscow and Beijing. Only two years ago, it was grey and grim, rotting rubbish piled high in the streets, the fetid stench of abject poverty. No wonder that Albanians - like the Irish of old - took to boats and the backs of lorries and tried to escape. But now it, too, is suddenly part of Europe. Heatwave evening and all Tirana - seemingly all its 750,000 citizens - has taken to the streets. The young, in their kit, sit at the cafes and restaurants which line the streets. Kids run in the parks. Mum and dad do their stately promenade. This is the Mediterranean, part Greece, part Italy, wholly surrendering to the night. Who do we thank? A sort-of politician can take a bow. Edi Rama is a 38-year-old art professor who came home to help when the Hoxha regime crumbled, and ran for mayor. He did the simple things. He filled some holes in some roads. He got the refuse collectors off their butts. He built a new cinema and cleaned up the parks. And - because of the art - he had Tirana painted. The greys have gone. The streets are a chaotic blaze of ochre and azure and crimson and brown. There are trees along the pavements. There is a stage on which people can perform. Those people, again. They've been given the opportunity - and borders open, at last, for business - and they've taken it. Tirana, after decades of oblivion, is another happening place. Six months ago - only six months ago - the currency of local choice was the dollar. Forget that. Now, a spasm of fashion, every taxi driver and every cafe wants euros. I spent the last of my Irish stock in Albania. Too euphoric by half? Of course. Progress is more than a coat of paint and a capuccino. The problems - corruption, crime, sickness, education - are as frightening as any in the continent we share. But there is something precious here, and something which links umbilically with the Dublin experience. A feeling of hope and movement. A surge of energy. A belief that we - we, the people - can transform our own lives. So my Tory who started the week was more right than he knew. Politics isn't life. The cabinet pack that Blair shuffled is next week's cold potatoes. No referendum is ever final. Dr John Reid might as well go to Wimbledon. And the euro, with Gordon doing his brooding bit? All Ireland is becoming a euro zone as it flows unstoppably back and forth across that porous frontier. Not a matter of what ministers ordain, just what ordinary people do. Meanwhile, in Albania, they've done it already, done what comes naturally."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"The chances of Gordon Brown ever becoming prime minister have diminished, are diminishing - and will continue to diminish inexorably. A sad, sad song. It's always tough when a hugely talented professional sees his heart's desire slip away. But it is also - no ducking, weaving or glossing - Gordon's own fault: bad politics as well as bad vibrations. Take a few findings from the latest Telegraph/YouGov poll. Do you approve of the government's record to date? No, say 68%. What about issues like Europe and taxation? The Tories are in the lead. And economic competence, the rock of reputations prudently built? Just 32% have kept faith with Brown. And 31% (since you ask) would prefer to see Michael Howard on the Treasury bridge. There's something of the night for all concerned here. Now polls, of course, can be shrugged away. The chancel-lor's spinners say he'll shrug for Britain today when he tells the Social Market Forum that his "prudent and cautious" spending plans are on course, needing no new taxes; that the dear old "fundamentals are sound"; that while our share prices are only 48% down, Germany's have tumbled a whopping 67%. But this, alas, is politics, not comparative economics. This is show-business. Listen, therefore, to the dismal tinkle of luck and applause running out. He said there'd be no more boom and bust. That is not how it feels. He took an early pop at the pension funds. Now they're becoming a national crisis, staggering from pillar to post, demolishing ordinary dreams as they go. Just as the taxation tide turns, so last year's national insurance rises snap into place. Just as the cash for public services comes on stream, so the firemen stoke a different boiler. Just as congestion charges arrive, so the Central line goes awol. And then there is university funding. Every problem that seemed so breezy when there was growth and confidence, in short, now comes glooming round to Gordon's door. Things could be more awful, naturally. That's always true. Yet lustre, once lost, is powerful hard to get shining again. In a normal Westminster world, you'd know what would happen next. A threat to the chancellor would be a threat to the prime minister and continuing governance. It would thus be loyally batted away unless (like Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson) ritual sacrifices were more the order of the day. A chancellor is there to be defended until it's time, in extremis, to ditch him. But Mr Brown and Mr Blair don't live in a "normal" world. They are both big beasts. Almost a decade ago, they sat over lunch in Islington and made the Granita accord. I won't stand against you for Labour leader (and thus prospective PM) if you quit half-way through your second term and let me have a go. Was it ever quite as neat as that? The old Granita restaurant was a famously noisy, clattery place. Maybe Tony dropped his bread roll at the wrong moment? Maybe Gordon found a fly in his soup? Still ... the legend and the black looks live on. What we've had for almost six years now isn't the traditional line of command, prime minister down to chancellor, but more a division of the Whitehall realm into two rival kingdoms. The leaders have their own camps and followers. They jockey, needle and probe. They are allies in public and snarlers or sniffers behind the arras. Like North and South Korea, they always need watching. And it's Granita time, time to move over. High noon. But is Mr Blair going to pack his bags and, like Peter Foster, depart for distant parts? Of course not. That was always an illusion. A disastrous war in Iraq might carry him off - but, in harsh practicality if not morality, it's far more likely that Saddam will crumple and a string of Iraqi scientists thereafter bear witness to the horrors averted. There's no alternative to a continuing Tony. There are, however, plenty of reasons why a continuing Gordon may not be so fireproof. Who wants a magician who's lost his wand? Who wants a baleful, brooding problem when fresh starts are easier? It is because the realm was divided, because the pieces were scrapped over and parcelled out, that Gordon Brown is suddenly so vulnerable. Traditionally, when a prime minister has a night of the long knives with his neighbour, it is the PM's own status and policies that also appear in the frame. Sacking has its costs. But here the equation is different. Because Brown manifestly runs his own five tests, his own prescriptions for the markets, his own private funding initiatives and target-setting squads, because they are his and not Blair's, so the policies and the man can be simultaneously removed without that damage: a liberation rather than an assassination. Would there be crisis and flak when the moment came? Inescapably. But it would also set the prime minister free, on course to be his own man with his own chancellor for a third term. It would allow New Labour a new beginning. And to see the logic, you need only consider the alternative: no change, no joy, animosity as usual. Who can possibly settle for another six years of this? Who would want to? There's the fault with Mr Brown. He shouldn't have believed his own publicity. He should have shifted himself, in triumph, to foreign secretary or deputy PM a year ago. He should have remained forever Mr Boom not Mr Bust. He should have known that, like Jim Callaghan, his time would come if he was loyal and efficient and on the team, not a king over the water. He should, simply, have been smarter."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"There may, at last, be the beginning of wisdom. Our erstwhile "natural party of government" does not expect to win the next election (or, perhaps, the one after that). It's down there in the pits, snarling at the Liberal Democrats, trying to hang on to second place. Even today, through a winter of liverish complaint, it is still failing. But at least abandoning immediate hope is a start. Indeed, Iain Duncan Smith - enduring yet another TV re-relaunch with Frost yesterday - seemed to go out of his way to play Charlie Kennedy without the jokes. He talked only about "alternative" policies (to be formulated) and a "strong, clear sense of direction" (to be be discovered). His claim to credibility (pure Lib Demery) rested on the supposedly mighty achievements of Tory councils out there in the wide blue yonder, so many of them apparently that few more could be expected in May. The phrase "when I'm prime minister..." never crossed his dry, pursed lips. A turning point. The Conservatives have spent almost six years pretending that Blair and New Labour are merely some brief aberration, a hiccup amid continuing hegemony. They picked William Hague because he was the obvious young pretender, the inheritor. Then they sucked their thumbs and picked Duncan Smith. Now "desperate Tory MPs" (according to the Daily Telegraph) are hunting round for some "men in grey suits" to give IDS the push. Darkness without much sight of dawn, and six wasted years. There will doubtless be war in Iraq this year, but there will be no euro referendum. Tony Blair has his own problems. He's wasted his extra layers of popularity. But what does that mean for the Tories? It means that, at last, they have to be serious. Ken Clarke was the only serious runner in 1997. No go: a no-no on Europe. The assumption, remember, was that somehow the Tories would be swiftly back in office, so couldn't be led by some Brussels-truckling bruiser. And 2001? The same delusion ruled in the end. Duncan Smith's main selling point (with the Telegraph, among others) was that he wasn't Ken. Yet, with only a thin smear of hindsight, there never was going to be a referendum during Labour's first term. Gordon Brown had got his fix in. And the second term is merely a re-run in less propitious circumstances. Will a third term look any better? Not if the big majorities have begun to shrivel. Not if the Conservatives begin to look remotely electable again. Not if what we fondly remember as "real politics" is coming back. Take a real politician. Kenneth Clarke, now well into his 60s, is never going to be prime minister. He won't be available in 2010. He isn't the man for the long haul. But he is still - just about - the man to rough up a government losing its confidence and way as fatigue starts to gnaw. He knows about running Treasuries and Home Offices and Health and Education. Been there, done that. Nobody has to look at him, as they do at IDS, and wonder how he would cope. If the job is effective opposition, making up lost ground, bringing a few talented people distantly remembered back on to the front bench, then he remains the obvious choice. If they'd picked him for 2001, then Labour would already be breathing less easily - and 2005 or 2006 would look much more problematic. But it's surely too late for any of that. Iain Duncan Smith isn't going to fall on his sword because Lord Black of Crossharbour comes calling. The "Hague rules" for electing a new leader are death to men in grey suits. The next election is lost and the only remaining question is: how badly? And that is where any sensible party, gradually recovering its scattered wits, would start to think hard. The job next time is damage limitation. The essential task is seeing off the Liberal Democrats. (Not so easy if Charlie, rather bravely, turns out to have called Iraq right.) The true focus is on the future, on 2010. That may not be instant politics as we know them, a shift to some distant time frame. It may be not suit what remains of the Tory press - ludicrously hailing Bush for his billions in tax cuts and deficits. The Conservatives won't get another new leader in midstream. They could, however, get a deputy leader, a leader in waiting for next time round. Say Oliver Letwin. They could actually start to develop policies which will have resonance during Labour's third term (when the money has gone in properly and public services are either better or worse). They could resolve their tangle over reduced taxation or increased provision with something a bit more solid than phrase-making. They could, in short, look serious again by admitting what they seriously know in their hearts: that this is the longest haul, without quick fixes. That, compared with all the toil Neil Kinnock endured, they haven't even begun."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"It is probably the most visceral question of our times, asked from Chechnya to Kashmir to Armagh and often answered in blood. But the odd thing is that, no matter how many times he hears it, no matter how many times he witnesses its consequences, Tony Blair never quite gets the point. Indeed, he, John Prescott and Robin Cook still troop around blank-faced, offering the question up on a plate. As though it were panacea, not potential poison. What do the Chechens, with their bombs and their kidnappers, want? They want to live in a free little country of their own - not as a runt in the litter of Russia's federation. What do the Kashmiris, with their bombs and murderous attacks, want? They want to be free of the Indian federation (and possibly of Pakistani ambition, too). And the Kurds, the Tamils, the Corsicans and Kosovans? Wherever you look, wherever you go, there are minorities buried within bigger countries demanding autonomy. But the bigger countries - thank you President Putin - are saying: "No." Not maybe; not perhaps, one fine day; just no. Their no is the voice of the majority. Minorities have rights. Majorities have the last word. But in Britain, though we seldom pause to reflect on it, there is another way that gives minorities the last word - and majorities not so much as a word in edgeways. Do Scotland or Wales wish to elect their own parliaments? All they have to do is win a referendum first. The done devolution deal. Does Northern Ireland wish to remain a part of the UK, or join with Dublin? A referendum for Northern Irish voters lies constantly open. All republicans have to do to leave is win, and then push off. And - whisper it gently - the same formula lies there for the Scots and the Welsh one day. It seems so obvious, so normal. Mr Cook at the weekend was peddling regional assemblies for anyone who calls. Mr Prescott sells elected mayors like cans of beans. But in fact this seeming normality is rather remarkable; and perhaps remarkable folly. Tony Blair's biggest mate in Europe, Jose Maria Aznar, would certainly think so. Other democratic countries' byzantine struggles against their own minorities tend not to make newspaper headlines here. They are complex, introverted tales. Spain follows events in Northern Ireland closely, because it hears eerie echoes - but London doesn't linger long over the tumult in Bilbao or Barcelona. Nevertheless, there is reason to linger. Britain long ago offered Gibraltar a referendum to ratify or reject a change in its status should London and Madrid ever seek to negotiate one. Because Aznar and Blair are pals, those negotiations have taken place. Because sovereignty can be shared, that is the preferred solution. But 30,000 Gibraltarians want nothing to do with it. They have their referendum - and other Iberians have suddenly taken up the same cry. We'll hold our own vote in a couple of years, says Juan Jose Ibarretxe, president of the Basque country's ruling PNV. Give us a loose association with Madrid plus a place in the European Union and there's a peaceful way out for everyone. Hey, and if they're doing that, says Arturo Mas, the new leader of Catalonia's nationalists, we'll want a better deal, too. What's sauce for Gibraltar's goose is suddenly the sauce of separatism across much of northern Spain. It is a thick stew of politics, with some parallels - the banning of Batasuna, the Basques' Sinn Fein; the goal of "freedom" within the EU - and some important differences, including a tradition of terror attacks to make the IRA seem wimps. But the most important difference of the lot is Madrid's stubborn antipathy to capitulation. Why should a minority be able to decide the fate of a nation without reference to the majority that surrounds and supports it? Where is the fairness or democracy in that? There's the vexatious question. Majorities have rights, too. They want their country kept whole, for fear of wholesale disintegration. So they need a specific voice in deciding its future, just as Aznar demands a voice that represents the interests of all Spaniards, not just Spain's richest, most disaffected regions. But this is curiously not the current British instinct. Want to bale out of a disunited kingdom? Sure: carry on. Want a block on progress to any solution? Sure: the Gibraltarians have it, whatever the wider British interest. Want a fatter range of subsidies from the centre as your price for staying on board? Sure: that is the precise Prescott-Cook formula for introducing more regional assemblies. If the north-east (say) fancies some of the same boodle as Scotland and Wales, then it need only vote to get it. From Middlesbrough to Hartlepool you can even get your oddball elected mayor if you tick the right box. Yet the people who pay for that decision, who have to live with this jigsaw system, are never asked the question square on. We don't get a national referendum to sanctify the process; we are pushed aside. Stand back and ponder the illogic here. Northern Ireland lapses bad-temperedly into direct rule again. But the direct rulers - us - have damn-all say in what happens next. We merely hold the punchbag. A Gibraltar settlement? No dice. A decent accounting of devolution? No way. A local government framework that offers coherence? Sadly not. More elected mayors to re-charge voting turn-outs? Alas, look at Switzerland, with its constant compartmentalisation and referendums. And don't bother to guess which European country has the lowest voting levels of the lot. What sounds so reasonable can be a recipe for stagnation and fissiparous impotence. A switch-off, not a turn-on. The question is itself a stinker because we gave away the answer long ago."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"Sir Humphrey Appleby, lest you forget, was not some modern Whitehall creature. It's well over two decades since he first began stitching up the hapless Hacker on TV. And Hacker, in so far as he was anything to begin with, was probably a gimmick-prone, ideologically challenged Labour hack. (New Labour ahead of its time.) Other boots, other feet. But we do forget. The mood music of the Wilson and Callaghan 60s and 70s - usually with Barbara Castle leading the chorus - was all about a conniving civil service bent on burying socialism and any prospect of fundamental reform. Whitehall, in that time of failure and thwarted ambition, wasn't a superb service industry, the answer to every challenge. Whitehall was the problem, not the solution: the conservative enemy. See what a difference a quarter of a century makes. Now it's streamlined Hackers like Stephen Byers who are the phantom menace; now it's steel-toothed hackerettes like Jo Moore who make Sir Humphrey cringe. The Appleby texts, in their serpentine evasiveness, may not have changed much. ("I was not accountable - but I was responsible," as Sir Richard Mottram told the public administration committee last week. "Events sometimes catch you out.") What has changed, though, is the supposed balance of power. We are solemnly invited to rally behind an embattled mandarin class - even to pass a new act of parliament which bulwarks that class's sacred role. We are solemnly instructed to cherish neutrality as though it was the holy grail of parfit administration. That may be necessary for the outcome of the stale tale which involves thousands of evil spin doctors waging war on the highest standards of public service. But it is also, historically and practically, the most terrible twaddle (or ****ing twaddle, as Mottram might say in one of his events-strewn moments). Pause over the facts. Our government, at the last count, had employed a mere 80 or so special advisers roaming the corridors, serving ministers one-on-one. They are pitted against well over 3,000 top civil servants, who live "in fear" of their interventions and importunate demands. It doesn't sound much of a contest, does it? The numbers of outsiders involved are puny. The expertise they bring doesn't usually extend far beyond a certain knowingness in media relations. What, then, is the fuss about - a fuss which reaches far beyond Ms Moore into draft legislation and the inquiry officially launched by the committee on standards in public life? There must be a crisis because there is so much fuss. In any other walk of public life, I guess, a sceptical Hacker and Appleby would know exactly what to make of this debate - because they'd know they were being set up. Police chiefs complaining about neighbourhood security guards, headteachers complaining about classroom assistants, RMT drivers complaining about Aslef - they'd see the angles coming from bleak experience. They'd know, at least in part, what this protective racket portended. Here, however, the racket-makers wear dark suits and darker looks. They belong not to a common or garden trade union, but to the grandly titled First Division Association. Their paid representatives come down from the mountain tops of probity to defend them. They assert the existence of threat, and feel no need to soil their hands with proving it. They can set the retiring cabinet secretary dancing to their tune, voicing his belated alarm. They can outmanoeuvre a prime minister by exposing his weakest link: fear of unpopularity in the polls. The 80 interlopers - the security patrollers and classroom assistants in this game - are to be corralled and limited by statute. The battle against marauders is swiftly won. Oh, excellent Humphrey! A sordid dust-up in a cubbyhole called the Department of Transport press office and bigger issues go begging. Victory has seldom seemed so sweet. And yet there are much bigger issues. Why, for instance, should the first division 3,000 be spared the scrutiny which normally accompanies disappointment? This is the age for kicking bureaucrats - in Brussels, in local government, in the health service. "Faceless" pen-pushers carry every can. Yet not, apparently, in Whitehall. When grave men are fielded to observe how far the Blair boys have strayed off course, their spokesman is a retired permanent secretary from the permanently retired Min of Ag. Yet nobody lays the disasters of BSE or foot and mouth anywhere adjacent to his door, just as nobody blames Health for NHS sickness or Education for the endless exam disasters. Mandarins can be blamed for not spending ministers' money fast enough: otherwise, seemingly, they're in the clear. Everyone close to the action privately acknowledges that some departments are weaker than others. Education always has been and always will be weak. Who, with ambition, wants to work there? Health is becoming a similar graveyard. Transport and local government don't go together, a jerry-built monstrosity. And anyone who deals - day-to-day - with Whitehall press offices recognises instinctively the need for a better kind of spin doctoring: these regular, neutral guys are mostly journeymen and women. Not even Nationwide League. There's no cause for blame here, of course. How could there be? Governments come and go, and all - out loud or under their breath - agree that private management must have its public place: in schools, hospitals, local provision. But curiously, apart from a few star signings, that does not apply to the most elevated public management of the lot. There may be a whispered shortage of talent: that's why Whitehall salaries are heading for the 200,000 mark (with increasingly a pension to dream of). But there is no crisis of confidence; nor any thought that a machine running on empty for too long needs to be traded in. Thus the aftermath of the Byers debacle (like the debacle itself) is almost impossible to follow. It asserts a success for the system which Mottram's "events" in no way bear out. It claims virtue for a neutrality which doesn't exist. It holds - uniquely in British life - that what was good for the 20th century must, unchanged and unquestioned, be good for the 21st. More twaddle. The question about special advisers is why, in a complex age, governments need them. The question about press departments is why they aren't better at their job. The question about governance is why politicians are so shy of shifting the focus where it needs to be (that is, not always obsessively on themselves). And the question about the committee of standards in public life is whether - run by an ex-mandarin, as so much in this life is - it can break the mould of unscrutinised tradition. Too many questions, Humphrey? Too much smoke and too little fire? There, there minister - time to lie down while I order you a nice cup of Earl Grey."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"What happened when HRH met Tony Blair and the MMR question? They debated life (and death) in the goldfish bowl, that's what. And it's right - as every last tale about Princess Margaret fills those parts of the prints not subsumed by the sum of all fears about measles - that we should join in, too. The core of the matter is kids growing up in the spotlight. Where do their rights begin and end? Our prime minister holds baby Leo's privacy dear (as he and Cherie do for all their children). But is such concern, such passionate concern, rooted in the invasion of the moment, the instant wince over this photograph or that headline? Or is it much deeper, a fear about outcomes? Does it betray a belief that press pressure today equals trouble 10 or 20 years down the road? That privacy, if you will, is a kind of normality inoculation. There's no science to this, nothing the chief medical officer could base a campaign around. Still: 65 years ago, two little girls were growing up in Buckingham Palace. They were (just about) the most famous, most pressured little girls in the world. One, the elder, was earnest and dutiful and a touch uncommunicative. She was in training to take the strain; to marry a suitable man, bear suitable children and provide suitably sensible leadership to her nation. Her sister, by contrast, was the pretty - and pretty wild - one. She didn't feel so much of the heat, because she was second in line and then nowhere in line. The pressure was less. Yet the lid of the pressure cooker kept blowing off. She partied and boozed and stayed out at nights. She almost married an upright chap, and then thought better of it. She actually married a society snapper, but they both thought better of it. And so she ploughed on through more affairs, more empty bottles, more tropical nights - until the chief medical officer's warning on the packet caught up with her. But outcomes? The earnest, dutiful, sensible girl had four children (with three divorces so far and innumerable lurid problems). The wild, mixed-up, generally deplorable girl had two children to share her bit of the goldfish bowl: they have always seemed, and still seem, refreshingly normal, grounded, industrious. There was no cause and effect. It's worth making such parallels and drawing such lessons, however frail, because these connections clearly exist in the Blairs' minds. When the PM lamented the dead Diana, he struck a chord in himself as well as elsewhere. When he rowed in, immediately, gratuitously, to congratulate Prince Charles on his handling of Harry (and the News of the World) he made an implicit comparison. We - that's Charlie and Cherie and Camilla and me - know how difficult it is when teenagers fall off the track. We're united in mutual sympathy, understanding, and closeness to the press complaints commission. We can phone Lord Wakeham (or whoever happens to have not stepped aside) day and night. And, by golly, we do; not to mention tame lawyers bearing injunctions. We walloped Ros Mark with the might of the law, just like HM walloped Crawfie. We know what it is to be (sort of) royal. Now, a quick disclaimer. I remain a considerable admirer of Mr Blair, of his eloquence and energy. When Sierra Leone cheers, it behoves us to listen. And, on last week's gabby form, I'd drop Lord Haskins in the deep end and leave him there. Our prime minister still makes most of his western oppos look lumpen. So this privacy point is not, Daily-Mail-like, twisted into some broader thesis about moral rot: it seeks merely to stand alone. If you talk about Leo through the ranks of government, you'll find a lot of support for the Blairs' line in the sand. Ministers have children, too. They are instinctively protective of them. If Tony and Cherie want to make a big thing of it, they're entitled. They have the "right". (Anyone, including press men, can relate to that.) But what becomes of this right when other rights - other public rights - are thrown into the pot? The same ministers who defend Leo's right to second-remove silence do not, equally, doubt that the Mail's MMR bandwagon would never have rolled so fast or so disastrously if the Blairs, from day one, had said: "Sure, we know what's safe and best and necessary - and our kid's getting (or had) the triple jab". There would have been no contorted denials or blustery defences; there would have been no "hints" or "ever stronger hints"; there would have been no subsidiary ministers, like poor Jacqui Smith, hung out to dry on Today; there would have no repeated evasion for the Mail or Sun to peg a campaign on. The prime minister would have simply told the simple truth. Leo is an MMR baby. Don't do as I say, do as I do. In one sense, the Blairs' reticence is admirable. Better that than George Bush's hawking around private family grief over Enron (his mother-in-law lost $8,000, in case you missed it) as though random victimhood excuses all. But there is also a lack of foresight and proportion. We can say, with fair accuracy, how many children will die over the next 10 to 15 years because they didn't get the jab. Science can do the statistics. The figures don't mean panic stations, and they certainly aren't the end of the world: but there will be deaths and there will be terrible disabilities. Treasury bean-counters, much further down the scale, can tally the price of failed advertising campaigns. Why don't we believe that doctors tell us the truth any longer? Why don't we believe politicians? Not new questions in a world of mad cows and too many medical feet in too many mouths. GM foods have become one cross of political life. So No 10's failure, on the first day, to realise where the hints and the silences were taking it is at best sluggardly and at worst wilful. This was an avoidable disaster. It can still be mitigated - not by the spending of another 3m on ads, but by plain communication from a great communicator. Why hasn't that long since come? Why is it still wrapped in contortions? Why is the issue itself, the privacy issue, a scab to be picked at and worried over? Because - from Amy Carter to Chelsea Clinton - the cause and the effect have never been argued through. Because trained lawyers confuse legal "principle" with what works in practice. Because the injunction and PCC game (as over Euan's college choice) has become an obsession which Charles wouldn't even try with Harry. And because we forget that people, anyway, forget. Who remembers William Straw? Who remembers Peter Townsend, or Roddy Llewellyn? Leading is keeping your balance in the land time forgets."
7 (peterpreston)
0 (Politics)
"I broke the habit of half a lifetime last week and filled out a job application. To Mr Stephen Bampfylde of Saxton Bampfylde Hever plc ... "Dear Sir, would you please put me on the application list to be the next parliamentary commissioner for standards?" Dispatched with a first class stamp. I am not, of course, holding my breath. The next parliamentary commissioner ought to be the present parliamentary commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin. That may still happen - and if it shows any sign of so doing, my hat comes straight out of the ring. But does Ms Filkin accept Robin Cook's bland assurance that she has been "neither sacked nor dismissed" from the job she holds? Does her heart rise at the thought that an "open and transparent system" operated by an entirely opaque House of Commons commission will graciously put her on the shortlist if she fills out one of Saxton Bampfylde Hever's forms? Especially when she sees that her successor is offered the "possibility of (contract) extension by mutual agreement" - which means that transparency ends once she packs her bags? I haven't talked to Elizabeth Filkin - and have no idea what she intends to do. But who, wise in the ways of Westminster, would blame her if she decided to sit this humiliation out? After three years devoted toil - and too much whispered vilification - she may reasonably conclude that enough is enough, that playing more of the House's little games merely gives succour to her enemies. Let's fervently hope it's not so. But what if it is? Then (which is the trouble with little games) we have a nasty hiatus. For who else with her reputation, pray, will volunteer to serve three years in the Commons salt mines in a role briskly downgraded between terms - a three-day week and a lower salary if Mr Bampfylde's small print speaks true? It isn't exactly a glowing prospectus. There will, of course, be some applications. Unemployment is on the rise again. But the Filkin reputation will be desperately hard to replicate - and the damage that her "non-dismissal" has done is manifest. MPs may prefer not to realise it, but the fight against political sleaze and public cynicism which began seven years ago goes on unremittingly. Ask Keith Vaz (if you can find him these days). Ask Geoffrey Robinson after his three weeks in the sin bin studying investment portfolios. These barricades need manning. And the men and women who man them need to be visible, not heads sunk below the parapet. Here's why my application went in. I've "operated at the most senior level within a complex institution" (welcome to the Guardian maze). I've a "reasonable understanding of the working of the House" - for my sins. I've trooped through privileges committee hearings and inquiries by the commissioner, given evidence to Nolan and Neill and the over-arching committee for standards in public life. Appropriate "personal standards of integrity and propriety"? This "hound from hell" could at least make the argument. At least, if I'm known to be a contender, then you on the outside have something to measure the workings of the system and its final choice against. If you know what, in part, went in, then you can judge what came out. Three cheers for Elizabeth Filkin (or Martin Bell). No cheers for Sir Simeon Sludgeworthy. The bitter reality, of course, is that nothing was supposed to happen this way. It wasn't what Lord Nolan prescribed in the wake of the Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith debacle. His committee for standards in public life, in its magisterial first report, wanted a parliamentary commissioner of "independent standing" who "would have the same ability to make findings and conclusions public as is enjoyed by the comptroller and auditor-general..." Linger over that. A person of independent standing, not the servant of a committee of politicians free to disregard or water down her conclusions - and to lever her out of her job in a couple of months. A direct comparison with the comptroller and auditor-general: Sir John Bourn has held that job by Crown appointment since 1988. His independence is guaranteed by total security of tenure. Lord Nolan didn't get his way. MPs closed clubby ranks and Sir Gordon Downey was cast as the port of first resort, receiving complaints against Hon Members, making an initial investigation (though without any investigators on his tiny staff) and passing them on to other Hon Members for action. The "outside" influence Nolan thought so crucial to public trust and proper accountability became a transit zone. The fig-leaf tendency glimpsed sunlit uplands just over the time horizon. Not, perhaps, without a struggle. Elizabeth Filkin has struggled mightily. She has taken the rules her political employers gave her and applied them punctiliously. Her investigations of Mr Vaz and Mr Robinson are masterpieces of forensic energy and detail. She has done her duty. With what reward? Murmured moans from the ex-great and good on the lecture circuit. Schoolboy antics of tit-for-tat complaining across the political divide. And, most depressing of the lot, orchestrated briefing against her from "friends" of threatened ministers. Who will rid us of this troublesome commissioner? Enter Saxton Bampfylde Hever plc. Enter due process. In an ideal world, the PM would pause in his moral sermonisings to the world and say what, as an ordinary, honourable Joe, he thinks of Ms Filkin's predicament. In an ideal world, the new chairman of the standards and privileges committee, Sir George Young, would have joined hands with Peter Bottomley and spoken on her behalf. In an ideal world, Sir Nigel Wicks, successor to Nolan and Neill, would have broken cover already. His committee has two big things on the boil. One, a big research programme on public attitudes. The other, a giant stocktake of what's been delivered on those seven reports over seven toiling years. The Filkin fiasco sits balefully under both those headings. It was Sir Nigel who said in his first press conference early this year that Ms Filkin should be given greater power "to obtain information when investigating cases", that she shouldn't have to battle so long through the forests of Vaz or John Reid obfuscation. For "greater power", it seems, read less power and no job. In an ideal world, he'd make that point openly. He can defend the way the Department of Transport handled Jo Moore in a letter to this paper. Gratefully received. But what about Elizabeth Filkin and the basic infrastructure of Commons regulation? Well, we'll see. At least now you know that somebody's applied, and why. Because the commissioner is a bridge to you, not a stone wall at the end of a dark alley. Because you need to be involved and concerned. I promise - famous last words - to keep you informed."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"The smell of death around this government is so overpowering it seems to have anaesthetised them all. One bungle follows another and yet those about to die sit silently by. So is that it - the great September relaunch, the great economic recovery plan? The problem is not lack of substance but absurdly grandiose expectations, raised mostly by briefings from No10 suggesting that there were magic answers. The ineptitude of Brown's Downing Street worsens by the week. The shrinking band of those he trusts are now his old rottweilers, who shred what's left of their leader's reputation. This week when they mauled Alistair Darling for telling an obvious truth (his actual words much exaggerated in the reporting), they attacked one of Brown's few truly loyal friends and a decent man. This is the sign of an inner cabal out of control. Brown apparently denies he orders these attacks on others, but fails to sack those who carry them out. The latest disaster is Downing Street's mishandling of a windfall tax on energy companies. The idea was allowed to run until the last moment, suggesting &pound;1bn of unearned profits might be taken to ease the pain of the poorest. Downing Street started the talk of issuing energy vouchers to the needy, and only days ago denied the idea was dead. When Compass, the left-of-centre pressure group, gathered a great popular petition in support of it, endorsed by 122 MPs, several parliamentary private secretaries and, privately, many ministers, it looked like pushing at an open door. After all, Brown himself was the architect of that &pound;5bn windfall on the utilities. So it was a needless shock when the prime minister told the Scottish CBI that windfalls were "short-term gimmicks and giveaways". Instead, the energy companies will next week spend a lot less than that &pound;1bn on lagging lofts and insulating windows. Of course energy saving is essential - but it will get few of the vulnerable through this winter. As talks continue, the government now negotiates like a highwayman without a gun. What's to negotiate? It was not the left, but the Conservative-run Local Government Association that exposed the big six energy companies for giving shareholders a 20% dividend increase. Now there will be a stormy Labour conference as Compass and the unions prepare an emergency motion. The winter death figures will be watched by Brown's enemies: fairly or not, any extra old-and-cold deaths will be laid at his door. All this was so avoidable. In both the housing and fuel plans, no clear principle was spelled out. Brown should have said the government will not, and cannot, stop house prices falling. The stamp duty holiday is a bad mistake - all too characteristic of the prime minister. It's an expensive way to entice first-time buyers into negative equity, as all predictions are of steeper falls in house price. That money - maybe &pound;600m - would be much better spent letting councils buy homes to keep a roof over the heads of families whose own homes have been repossessed - and buying cheap properties for social housing. But again, Brown yearns for that "tax cut" headline. Again he cuts a good tax on property as he did in income tax, while letting unfair purchase taxes hit the poorest hardest. A windfall tax was a chance not only to relieve the hard-pressed, but to signal some recompense for a decade of wealth trickling upwards. Charles Clarke's call for Brown's head was met by resounding silence this week, making it look less a clarion call than a lonely trumpeting of the Last Post. But it may come to be seen as the opening assassination salvo. The danger is it will be a painfully slow-motion stabbing, too late to make much difference. A cabinet of minnows and spineless backbenchers include many - perhaps most - who want Brown gone, but lack the nerve to act. They wait for someone else, for Brown to walk away or for a proverbial bus to save them from the task. First they put it off in July: wait until after the summer, many said. Now it's wait until the party conference - as if that "speech of a lifetime" could make a scrap of difference at this stage. Then it will be "Don't rock the boat before the Glenrothes byelection". Will that deliver the electric shock to end the inertia that neither Crewe nor Glasgow East could? Or will they put it off until after Christmas, or catastrophic May elections? Some say a recession is no time for internal wrangling; but the longer they leave it, the longer the leadership question hangs over them. It will not go away. Soon Cameron's lead will be gold-plated, his succession virtually inevitable. Another year effectively unchallenged by Labour, his contradictions and vacuities unridiculed and unexposed, will gift him an almost unopposed victory. Already at conferences the lobby groups and voluntary organisations hang on every word of shadow ministers, yawning through mere ministers on their way out. Already power, money, glamour, foreign interest and attention flock to Cameron in a political tide whose undertow knocks Labour off its feet with every wave. Stoking up fear of some fictitious Blairite coup is the Brown camp's trump card. They spook the unions with warnings that privatisers, tax-cutters and wealth-worshippers will take over if Brown is unseated. Personal rivalries - as between David Miliband and Ed Balls - are falsely dressed up as second-generation Brown/Blair battles. But this is all costume drama, wearing the political clothes of yesterday. The imaginary Blair/Brown ideological distinction has now been exposed as the sham it always was. Brown used to let it be known he opposed university fees, war, ID cards, Trident, foundation hospitals and a host of other things he now supports. The 10p tax band abolition to bribe the better off was a wickedness entirely of his own devising. Letting rip the disastrous house price boom was him, as was letting top earnings soar unchecked while reckless banks had "light-touch regulation" and public sector workers were pinned to below-inflation pay. The sad truth is that he opposed Blair, not Blair policies. So why would unions save his skin now? As the TUC gathers this weekend, they should consider that whoever was to stand as leader, they could win an election in the Labour party only with a radical new agenda. Unseating a prime minister is very high risk - but a dying party should be ready to take dangerous medicine if that's the last chance left."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"The ID-cards vote passed: however angry Labour MPs are at this succession of pointless provocations inflicted on them, there is sensible a limit to how much damage they will inflict on themselves. Plenty of them have much to fear in their own constituencies in this low season for Labour.Those who did spend a freezing wet weekend in Blackpool found the spring conference pretty dismal and dispiriting. It was planned as a rip-roaring celebration of Labour's glorious centenary, but few people came; there were few MPs, a smattering of ministers drafted in, and the press room was bare. Many constituency parties sent no delegates.The frail state of the grassroots was whispered often in the Winter Gardens. Hazel Blears and John Prescott, trying to bounce the party into a semblance of life with defibrillator jolts of demented optimism, rashly opined that parties which wither at the roots will die at the top. With most big cities lost and a massacre of remaining councils expected at the May elections, some constituency parties that have recently lost their MP, their council and most councillors are struggling to sustain the will to live. Now add in the Dunfermline result and it's not surprising that so few went to Blackpool. As the leadership interregnum drags on, it saps the blood of the party.Tony Blair turned in a below-par speech. But even belowpar and fading in power to convince, every time he steps up to a lectern he reminds them all of his political genius. It is the same in the Commons: he stands amid swelling backbench rebellion, yet on Wednesday mornings he can rouse his party to whooping glee as he lands punches on the bench opposite, reminding his own that they may miss him when he's gone. With all that vim and verve, no wonder he can't let go. So much still to do, so much to stop his successor doing.It is human instinct to clutch after immortality, leaving a footstep in the shifting sand. But political leaders crave it with unnatural passion. Blair is trying to force his legacy on to his successor, fixing Gordon Brown's feet in concrete into his own footsteps. The so-called "dual prime minister" scenario described by Charles Clarke looks more like the grizzly embrace of death, the dying man holding the future leader in a deadly grip with his last gasp.In this terminal phase, Brown has no option but to obey. So out he goes to bat for the ID cards he used to think wildly too expensive. In his speech yesterday on security, he even made a reasonable stab at pretending a pressing need for the "glorification of terrorism" clause, which virtually no one in the Commons believes. His speeches are taking a Churchillian turn as he reprises his Britishness theme, calling for ceremonies in every constituency for Veterans' Day and new cadet schemes to instil military discipline in state-school pupils. "We will not yield, relax, rest, become complacent or lower our guard but will use every means, every necessary resource..." and more, to fight terror.The daily taunts from the Tories (and some Blairites) that Brown will abandon "reform" to lead Labour back to its dark days of producer interests and union power seem to be hitting their mark. In response, no flag is big enough, no trumpet loud enough, no dead hero's memorial tall enough - Brown must add to their patriotic clamour.It may not gladden the hearts of those hoping that his premiership will herald renewal, optimism and progressive enthusiasm. Every time Brown parrots the need for "reform, reform, reform" as defined by Blair, spirits in the party sink a bit lower. But he has no choice. He is destined to follow Blair's footsteps every inch of the way - until the old leader finally departs and discovers that no prime minister can ever command the future beyond his time.All this tells us very little of what to expect when Brown's day finally comes. Expect no more than a tiny flash of the cardinal's red lining in what he says now. Whether once in power he will ever give more than the odd tantalising glimpse, it's hard to know. But for now he has no choice but tough talking. The success of New Labour was built on the "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" slogan that Brown himself devised. Unless Labour can prove itself as patriotic, as ready to fight and as ready to punish wrongdoers as the Tories, it will lose, lose and lose again. True, Blair has taken this game into extreme overkill, fighting more wars and locking up more criminals than any other government. But no Labour leader can survive if they fail the "toughness" test.With Brown, more lies beneath the rhetoric. Everyone is for "reform": he hints that his might be of a different hue. Tucked into yesterday's tough speech on security was a balancing thoughtfulness on stronger democratic accountability and shoring up civil liberties, and a seriousness about rights, with radical constitutional proposals to come. There are layers of ideas wrapped inside his flag as he strives to reclaim patriotism and Britishness for the progressive cause. It sounds so counterintuitive and unconvincing to many Labour ears that it may be a hopeless task - but it does make him unassailable by the Tories. He promises more optimistic themes in speeches to follow - easing the hardship of the lives of those "hardworking" families so often extolled by politicians, with more to come on social justice, children and opportunity.But he can say little while cemented into the Blair footprints. Hints and briefings are not much to go on, leaving his party clutching at straws: some will point despairingly at Brown's ultra-caution, secretiveness and failure to castigate boardroom greed. The economic dysfunction caused by gross income inequality never draws a murmur of disapproval. Some doubters worry it will be more of the same, but without Blair's magic appeal to the middle classes.Just wait until he gets his freedom, say his supporters. There will be a cornucopia of surprises, an opening up of government in a style to confound his critics. Purpose, drive and dynamism will bring the renewal this party needs.Whichever it is to be, even those wary of Brown now join his enthusiasts in just wanting to get the waiting over. At Blackpool I stopped 15 local delegates in a row, including some Labour party stewards. That's hardly a significant sample, but every single one said unequivocally that Blair should go by the summer and let the party start again at the autumn conference. Until he goes this will remain a fractious party in a state of suspended animation."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"At the turn of the year miserablism is in the air. Pessimism, disgust with everything, ennui, cynicism, all these are enemies of progress: thirst for improvement requires optimism and belief. Yet the desperate (and comical) disease of nostalgia for the past and distaste for the present is in danger of spreading from the dottier pages of the Telegraph and Mail into the blood stream of the nation.Nostalgia, usually a disability of the old, is infecting relatively young people too, as thirtysomethings bewail the mass culture of the moment as somehow more mass and more crass than it was. Where is "authenticity" the cry goes up, as people hunt in vain for things so rare no one else has found them. "Decadence" is all around. Everything is worse, values are gone, rudeness is rife, Britishness is in peril, the future is in the hands of fat kids fixated on PlayStations while bingeing yob culture rules and we're all going to hell in a handcart. (Which antique expression only shows how long people have thought society doomed.)Look at the recent strange crop of moral doom books, some on the bestseller lists. Is It Just Me, Or Is Everything Shit? The encyclopedia of modern life, by thirtysomethings Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur, blasts away with a splenetic nihilism at most of the things most people like best. Lynne Truss in her Talk to the Hand - The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, is funny and self-aware enough to know her diatribe is ahistorical, but what the hell, she slams into modernity with the same gleeful outrage. Utterly predictable is Digby Anderson's collection of his fellow Telegraph stable of effete moaners shaking their fists under the pompous title Decadence.Let's get one thing clear. This is the golden age - so far. There has never been a better time to be alive in Britain than today, no generation more blessed, never such opportunity for so many. And things are getting better all the time, horizons widening, education spreading, everyone living longer, healthier, safer lives. Unimaginable luxuries and choices are now standard - mobile phones sending pictures everywhere, accessing the universe on the internet and iPods with all the world's music in your ear. Barring calamity, there will be better. Acknowledging steady progress is the only way to prove what more could be done, if we tried harder.Decadence is an empty word, an emotional spasm over a feared falling away from some better era. A Latin word, the Romans felt themselves in perpetual decline from their own mythical beginnings. Plato bemoaned decline long before that. Drop into history anywhere and find this fear that people were once more civil and more civilised, usually at some time set just beyond living memory. In 1431 Christine de Pisan complained about the decline in manners in The City of Ladies. American universities teach a course in "the rise in the culture of American rudeness". This fear of things forever getting worse is irrational: for how can it always have been true? Since when, exactly?It is doubtful people really are ruder now. Different people may be rude in different ways. There was no more disgusting and vulgar rudeness than the way the upper and middle classes treated their battalions of servants in bygone times: see old diaries and novels passim. Nostalgia is unsurprisingly rare among those with any memory of working class roots. That is because nostalgia is almost always thinly disguised snobbery among those choosing to identify with the upper classes, longing for days when people knew their place, you could get good service and a huge underpaid class lived in dread of losing their job or failing to get a reference on the passing whim of the well-heeled if ever they answered back. Read Dickens to see if people were really nicer or politer. For decadence, look no further than the poisonous snobbery of "polite society" Edwardians. As for drunkenness, bingeing was OK for upper-class youth: read Evelyn Waugh.Is mass culture so deplorable? Shopping is the number one leisure activity - nothing wrong with that. A cornucopia of affordable pleasures invites the eye at Ikea. (It is mostly men who inveigh against retail therapy, but is sport any more elevating?) The self-defeating search for the "authentic" is just another kind of snobbery: nothing is worthwhile if everyone else can have it too. "Authentic" is as empty as "decadent", an inchoate, yearning word. What is inauthentic about wearing clothes someone designed for a chain store instead of for a "designer" shop? Nothing wrong with food from a supermarket, those modern miracles of splendour and choice: the old corner shop selling beans, Oxo and white sliced died because it was worse. Meanwhile, more people listen to classical music, buy books and attend blockbuster art exhibitions than ever before. Culture high and low was never more accessible and it thrives. Television was never better either: memory compresses the good bits. As for pop music, we aficionados of Radio 2's Sounds of the Sixties with yer old mate Brian Matthew (Saturdays 8-10am) are weekly reminded of the excruciating dross that rubbed up alongside the greats. It is human to miss things fondly remembered from youth, but it is folly to imagine those things necessarily "better".This disease breaks out in a virulent rash at certain times. Why now? If this year was the worst it gets economically, with only a minor lessening in 10 years of unbroken good growth, maybe there is a vertiginous sense that such a run of good fortune can't last. Or maybe affluence brings with it other expectations: it allows the great "what's it all for?" to loom.There is plenty to be angry about: poverty, ignorance, helplessness, social injustice, environmental depredation (or the walloping million-pound bonuses paid to City bankers in this bad year). The progressive endeavour is to persuade people to want and believe things can always get better and fairer. What has been dismal since the election is Labour's failure to raise those hopes: instead it has swum with the tide of gloom, demanding "respect" from those who receive none themselves. More children stay on at school and achieve, but Labour echoes the mood of the moment - things are worse, youth is worse with much to fear and little to celebrate. Tony Blair's lack of inspirational leadership may now be bizarrely exposed by the Conservatives as Cameron overtakes on the inside, claiming climate change, redistribution and Africa. (It won't last: wait until Bob Geldof and Zac Goldsmith demand things no Tory party could agree.)But Cameron's clever artifice has rightly identified the great lacuna in Blair's leadership: Blair has triangulated away the big issues that engage the heart, while deliberately hiding the redistributive good Labour has done. This current phoney mood that yearns for yesterday is partly a longing for things Blair has always avoided. People - or at least enough of them - enjoy affluence but they want to be asked for altruism too. Craven politicians offering only better management demand nothing noble of the voter. The "better yesterday" syndrome is partly a symptom of Labour's lack of much vision for better tomorrows. New year needs new resolutions from Labour."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"Politicians of all parties have fallen into the unctuous habit of praising the work done by "faith communities" without stopping to think. Britain is the most secular country in the world: a BBC poll last week showed that among the young there are more declared non-believers than there are Christians; in all, 43% of 18-24 year olds said they had no faith.Yet this Labour government is introducing great swathes of faith-based education. It leaves most non-believers perplexed. Why should the secular state use tax payers' money to indoctrinate a largely non-believing nation?Remember David Blunkett saying he wished he could bottle the special magic of faith schools? Tony Blair has since then promoted faith schools through academies sponsored by evangelicals who deny Darwin. Two hundred more Muslim state schools are being created. Already a third of all state schools belong to the religions, most of them Christian.What's the magic? It is called selection. One way or another, most faith schools filter out the most chaotic families. If the vicar or the imam has to sign a form saying the family are regular worshippers, that screens out the disaster families - the drug addicts, alcoholics and mentally ill - who have never got it together to go to church. Their children go to the next door school, which sinks under the weight.As one school improves, the other suffers and more hypocritical parents hurry to church to get their child into the religious school. The neighbouring school loses all its best children. Hey presto! There is the faith schools' 'magic'. Religion has become a symbol of respectability to keep out bad kids. How holy is that? All this is backed up by academic research into admissions. To be sure a few church schools don't do this, but they sink down the league tables along with other schools in poor areas - no magic after all.Britain's thriving voluntary sector does a vast amount of good - and some religious organisations do too. Sometimes the church is the only organisation in the worst estates. But some faith-based drug addiction centres, youth clubs and other outfits are naked indoctrination centres - and dangerous.There is good and bad work done by voluntary groups, but the faith groups have no special magic. They do have special dangers, however, with "charismatic" leaders causing a high risk of abuse - mental and physical - wherever there are closed worlds of believers. A Muslim council employee told an Islamic debating meeting I attended last week that he had recently visited a Muslim school where girls were not allowed to look out of the windows. Is that magic too?State money should only be spent on secular schools and social services. People are free to believe and practise what they like, but keep God out of state schools and social services."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"The disgusting behaviour of Premier League footballers has shocked the nation, miring the beautiful game in lust and lucre. Greed exceeds goals, obscene cash breeds obscene behaviour. "Who the HELL do you think you are?" screams the Mirror's front page, joining the outrage at these jumped-up boys from nowhere with money to burn. As for the Sun - "You Failed Us" - it was Murdoch who corrupted the game with all this cash. Hypocrisy knows no bounds. But what is all this really about? Leave aside the specific allegations of rape in two incidents where the law will take its course (despite the lynch mob's ready-made verdict). Await judgment on lurid tales of "roasting" young groupies, a story bought for 10,000 by the News of the World from a "party organiser" now himself arrested. At least ask why Rio Ferdinand has been quite so monstered. The other footballers may protest at his treatment, but for once the "spoiled brats" showed some solidarity. After Ferdinand's no-show at a drugs test, "he was entitled to confidentiality and a fair hearing", read their not unreasonable statement. We shall see when those who have broken laws or FA rules are duly tried. Meanwhile, something else is going on here. Alarm bells should ring whenever the nation - as voiced by the press - is in moral panic mode. Moral panic is when some serious crime is allowed to bleed over from the particular to the general. Moral panic is a slippery elision between a horrible event and the idea that it represents the tip of some unknown iceberg of moral collapse. The murder of James Bulger is the paradigm, when a bizarrely horrible crime tipped the nation into cataclysmic panic about modern parenting and wild children. In that hysterical mood, Michael Howard yelled "Prison works!" and prison numbers have soared ever since. So let us assume some footballers have been behaving badly, criminally or are even vicious rapists. What fires this furore goes far beyond these particular events. Take this comment on the radio from Brian Glanville, the distinguished football commentator: "I think many black players - in many cases, particularly with young West Indian players - they come from a society in which families are so often fatherless, mothers have to work, children are left all day in the care of minders. They have very little education and then suddenly these uneducated boys are projected into a world in which they are earning, say, 40,000, 50,000 a week. There are no controls." Foolishly, Glanville may have said a little too boldly what the leader-writers and all the rest have been saying in code. Oiks from council estates - especially black oiks - are all being paid too much. Even more than you or I in the well-paid commentariat, for God's sake! There is no moral panic, only disapproval, when grossly moneyed oiks from the upper classes behave badly: Prince Harry, Lord Frederick Windsor, Tom Parker-Bowles, the Marquis of Blandford or Flaming Ferrari James Archer. Glanville blames footballers' lack of education, but no one blames Eton for its failure to impart one iota of intellect or civilisation into some of its yobs, which might see other schools put on special measures. And unlike with footballers, no one ever suggests that the coke-snorting, rampaging toff yobs have too much money. Or that their whole social class should have their unearned incomes confiscated for failing to act as role models to the less fortunate. This is all about values and the lack of them. Politicians enjoy talking about their "values" in the abstract, but through all three tedious party conferences not a word from the platform was spoken about actual value - in hard cash. What are people worth? Why are they paid what they are? What should be done about obscene pay increases soaring away at the top, while the greatest number of the poor are now in work and earning less than a living wage? This growing fissure is leading to fracturing of pay scales and a new greed at the top that is infecting the public sector too. While politicians fiddle with marginal questions, economic history will show that failure to take action on this widening chasm was the social disaster of our age. While unbridled greed goes unreproved and untaxed, the public message is that greed is good. It poisons everything, makes collective provision of public services almost impossible, fosters paranoia that others are getting more gravy and breaks the kind of social cohesiveness David Blunkett hammers on about. What chance of building "civil society" in a devil-take-the-hindmost pay structure the politicians dare not even mention? At least footballers, like rock stars, earn their money in a genuine market. Every time they run out, they have to prove their cash value with their feet. Now compare that with the latest figures for company directors, published today by Income Data Services. Over the last decade, directors of FTSE-100 companies have seen their incomes rise at six times the rate of other employees. What's more, in this bad year directors in the top 350 FTSE companies had an average increase of 12.9%. Median earnings for top executives is now 1.33m. What for? No one knows. They may or many not do a good job. Their company's success or failure may or may not be down to them. One thing is certain - if there were a referendum on whether they deserve so much, the answer would be a resounding negative. But not a word about raising top tax even a smidgeon passes Labour's lips, nor a word about dysfunctional payscales and its deleterious effect on productivity. Here is the moral question politicians duck. Shouldn't there be at least a national conversation about who is worth what and why? Why pick on the golden feet of footballers, just because they came up the hard way? Deserving and undeserving are still concepts people feel passionately about. Letting "the market" rip does not satisfy most people's sense of social justice and, besides, "the market" is largely a myth when it comes to rewards. The state fixes the low pay of care assistants and hospital cleaners, grateful for the pathetic raise to 4.50 an hour they get this month. Remuneration committees steeped in their own pretended "market" fix one another's salaries among directors. The small pool of experienced hospital and town hall CEOs are now inflating their own pay in pretended competition. Middle-managers, catching the fever, are being paid new multiples above those they manage. Few can offer even a rule-of-thumb justification any longer for what they are paid, except tradition and luck. Examine most pay grades and the myth of a genuine "market" is usually exposed as a fraud. Footballers are among the few whose pay makes some sort of sense. The affront caused by their incredible salaries is classist - an inverted class envy by the haves against counter-jumping have-nots whose skills are dclass and undeserving. But where is the tariff to suggest what fair rewards might be? There should be at least some benchmark."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"Here we go! The golden generation gets its greedy way again. I long ago predicted that when we, the great postwar boomers (vulgarly known as bulge babies for demographic not fattist reasons), reached retirement, we would refuse to give up what we've got. We would have anti-age discrimination laws so that no one could ever force us out of our jobs. So here we go! Or rather, here we stay forever. Talking about my generation, of course we didn't die before we got old. We lived on and we had it all. There never was a more fortunate time to be born in the west than just after the second world war. Consider how doors opened for us: the national health was created in 1948 for us to be born into, the Butler education act made sure we had universal education. Comprehensives followed: I went to the sixth form of one of the first, full of hope and modernity.The Robbins report opened up a swathe of gleaming new plate-glass universities for us, making Keele, York or Essex newly cool, while the Open University caught late-starters. With our new buying power, 1960s youth stamped our tastes on everything: when we were young, the whole world had to be young with us. Growing up, we lived through the greatest upward mobility ever known within a generation. Born some 70% into manual working families, by the time we married and had children society had reshaped itself radically: now two-thirds of us are middle class, with home-owning as good a class indicator as any. The nation's wealth and average incomes have more than doubled since we left university.Our pensions may have staggered badly in the crash, but after years of hefty tax breaks that form the unseen middle-class welfare state, most people will still retire better off than our parents ever dreamed. We are also the first generation where many will inherit significant sums from home-owning parents - a windfall in late middle age that is hardly taxed for most - money to secure our children's wealth or to blow on old-age boozing and cruising. That's the majority story; but for the one third left behind, manual workers suffered the tragic loss of heroic high-paid jobs in coal and steel, replaced by low-grade service work. The class divide is harsh on retirement: the right to work forever is a cruel offer to people cleaning floors or laying tarmac, aching for the day they can pick up their pension. If a secret plan lurks to raise the state retirement age, it must never be for them. But the lucky two-thirds in our generation were always destined to demand the right to keep our jobs if we want. Now we proclaim that 70 is the new 50, just because we say so: by law no one will be allowed to mention our wrinkles, question our memories or notice our hair dye.Size matters in generations. We, the outsize generation, always had the buying and the voting power to impose our will and tastes on all who come after: Brian Matthew's Sounds of the Sixties (SOTS to aficionados) will still be playing Radio 2's prime time Saturday morning slot when we are 90 (and Brian Matthew is about 110). When we need care, we will divert more public money to the best home care or care homes. The weaker generations that come after us have not had it so good. They have had a more competitive exam-driven education: the more people who take exams, the greater the penalty for failure. In our time, when only one in seven went to university, many more could still make their own way upwards without qualifications: now exams are the only ladder up. The young work harder than we did, the colossal weight of ever higher mortgages falling harder on them.How did it happen that all the mega-growth in national wealth has not given them an easier life? Where now the earnest debates about what to do with all the leisure that new technology would bring? Technology just makes over-work easier. The nation may be rich, but our children have a harder time than us because the wrong political choices have been made. No one ever asked the voters if they would like time instead of money - a three-day weekend, perhaps, instead of twice the income. For them the era of social progress is over: children of blue-collar families are no longer moving up. Soon the full weight of our generation will fall upon their frail shoulders - less here than in the rest of Europe - but nonetheless, with 50% soon to be over 50, they will work hard to pay our pensions and our care. That is why encouraging us to work longer is in the end a policy that should ease their burden, as well as please many of us. Luckily, it's win-win for both generations. A third of 50-year-olds don't work: many are pushed out of jobs, some jump with inducements, others are seduced by Saga brochures but may find their pensions fall short. Some retired assuming they'd get another job - only to meet rigid discrimination in recruitment. Most men aged 60-64 used to work, but now half retire before 65.The early retirement boom took off in the 1980s, encouraged by a government trying to solve its unemployment crisis: but too late it found jobs are never a zero-sum game. Losing jobs done by older workers did not create new work for the young unemployed. Economist Professor Richard Layard says the lesson learned then applies now too: more people staying on will have no effect on opportunities for the young, that's not how labour markets work. The US has had anti-age discrimination laws and no retirement age for 30 years: research shows no ill-effect on the next generation. People working longer pay more tax, add to national output and do better drawing their pensions later. Will offices be filled with forgetful ditherers? The government's overview of the academic research into ageing makes encouraging reading: "Work performance does not deteriorate with age." A few older people show a marked falling off, dragging down average scores, but the great majority are exceptionally good employees. Yes, they can master new skills and they "work hard and more effectively, think before acting, have better interpersonal skills, work better in teams, are less likely to leave, have lower absenteeism, have better motivation, fewer accidents, more experience and better knowledge of their company".So, not crabby old geezers after all, but precious assets whose memories are organisationally necessary, not fading. The CBI fears an avalanche of employment tribunal cases with all the trappings of anti-discrimination law. But there is no other way, as the previous code of practice made no impact. Only the law forces culture change. US experience suggests few people do stay on after retirement age - but it does stop people being pushed into it too early. This will help women greatly: ageism has been a covert discriminator against women. All those returning to work after slowing their careers for children will no longer find themselves branded "too old" even in their mid-30s. For this good news, give thanks yet again to a socially progressive EU directive, as ever pulling Britain forwards."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"It was a bravura performance - it almost always is. With eloquence, reason and deftness of foot, the prime minister silenced the war wobblers - at least for now. Many remain queasily uneasy, crossing their fingers that Saddam sees sense in time: yesterday's unsurprising dossier changed few people's risk assessments of war. Yet whatever their doubts, both cabinet and loyalist MPs were forced by their leader's inexorable logic to nod in assent at each stepping stone towards (probable) war. Does the UN and international law matter? (Nods all round.) Is all law worthless unless backed by the might to enforce it? (Nods again.) Is there any point in threatening force if the UN does not mean to use it? (No, of course not.) Did diplomacy unbacked by threat of force ever bring dictator down? (Heads shake.) Would failure to enforce UN resolutions tell all dictators they could flout the law with impunity? (Yes, indeed.) And so the path to perdition may be papered with the purest logic, sanctioned by the highest law and blessed with thoroughly noble sentiments - yet still be a dangerously misguided act. Outside America and No 10 there are precious few leaders (and even fewer of their peoples) who sincerely believe that an attack on Iraq is wise. But the combination of Bush's hegemonic will and barrister Blair's legal and moral logic drive on remorselessly. When is the right time to talk of due proportion and prudence? When does the inexorable logic pause to ask which risk is worse - war or continued no-fly containment? Where is the evidence that Saddam will use these weapons, while thus contained? Though White House hawks at first refused to go to the UN, now the UN emerges as the trap forcing the world to threaten war in the name of its own credibility. If Saddam miscalculates and invites attack, then who can pull back from a logic they have nodded through? The problem for MPs yesterday, and for the rest of the world at the UN, is that once the threat is made it can never be withdrawn. This sabre-rattling phase was not the right time for parliament to hold this debate, when every reasonable person wants to show Saddam that he must comply. Yet it might be the only time to challenge the "logic" of all this. Tony Blair was at pains this week to stress the difference between his fundamental beliefs and those of George Bush. Careful to breathe nothing but respect for the president himself, there is much eyerolling dismissal of the hawks about him. Despite the humiliating master/lackey surface, there are two quite different doctrines at work. The Bush doctrine published last week in his new national security strategy lays out the nature of US power in remarkably bald terms. Scant diplomacy bothered to mask its brash self-interest. It outlines an unfettered "distinctly American internationalism" ready to act unilaterally when it wants. Asserting a US right to pre-emptive attack against any hostile state, it offers a recipe for global mayhem on every disputed border. Above all the Bush doctrine promises that never again will any other nation rival American might, whatever it takes to keep it that way. This is America's first genuine post-cold war doctrine, daring to trumpet its monumental unfettered power. The Blair doctrine, as befits a mini-power lacking brute force, instead summons up a mighty moral imperative. First propounded in Chicago when urging Clinton to rescue the Kosovans, all this week Blair has expounded it to all doubters. Yes, he would intervene anywhere, any time to depose tyrants and free victims. In Zimbabwe, if he could. In North Korea. In the mullahocracy of Iran, maybe: the half world still living without democracy is potentially on his list. It is an admirable ambition, casting away the cynical old Kissinger doctrine that wheeled and dealed with any tyrant so long as he was useful, letting sleeping monsters lie so long as they were our monster, South Africa included. The Blair doctrine also arises from seizing a new post-cold war chance. What need stop the onward march of liberation from tyranny now? The trouble with his doctrine is that it lacks reality. To topple the Taliban, a multitude of filthy regimes had to be paid, strengthened and appeased - in my view, worth the result. To invade Iraq again requires abetting regimes as bad on the Blair moral index. He has been right three times - Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan - and he might be right now; or else Iraq could bring his doctrine crashing to earth. (And his political career with it.) There was another great awakening from the cold war this week when Gerhard Schrder won by breaking all the old rules of European diplomacy. Sensing not only among his own voters, but right across Europe, a significant groundswell of anti-Americanism since Bush took power, he severed an umbilical cord with the US. At a stroke Germany's war guilt, Germany's gratitude for the Marshall plan, plus German reliance on US defence in Nato was forgotten. Whatever reconciliation is patched together, overnight Schrder shattered a European taboo: others may now find it easier to turn away from an America whose present regime is abhorrent to an essentially social democratic continent. Schrder's desperate electioneering ploy may start a surprising new spirit of European independence. That would trigger an angry US review of Nato, forcing the EU to forge a useful common defence capability and a more united foreign policy. Is that over-optimistic, since Blair and Schrder's positions could hardly diverge further at this moment? Blair may have yet again lost an opportunity for leadership in Europe, with even Al Gore standing to his left on this. Unease is everywhere, among senior EU figures and politicians all across Europe, reflected in newspaper editorials of many political hues. They watch the Dow Jones and FTSE falling through the floor as war looks likely, hurtling the world towards recession. They see oil prices rising whenever war is mentioned. Labour is falling in the polls. Serious talk in many corridors of power considers the suitcases of horror waiting under unknown beds to be unleashed in US and EU cities the day Saddam falls: no one doubts the dossier's descriptions of what he has, only his likelihood of using it except in his death throes. He is well enough contained currently in his no-fly zone. Igniting Arab outrage, inciting worse terror, uniting enemies against the aggressor with dominoes of states falling to fundamentalist rebellion: all are logical fears, but they seem like mere self-interested cowardice under the blazing moral light of the Blair doctrine. The puzzle is Tony Blair's uncharacteristic recklessness abroad, risking his own career, his support at the polls and much else. How brave he is over the moral certainties of distant war; how over-cautious, by comparison, he has often been over familiar dilemmas at home."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"The middle-aged are the most discontented, reports Mori. They are the most disgruntled. Life seems not to have lived up to their expectations. This is odd, since most of them - at least two-thirds - have seen most things get a great deal better. Twenty years ago the country felt as if it was in freefall - first in the final year of Labour and then in the first years of Mrs Thatcher. Inflation was frighteningly high, unemployment destroyed a whole generation of school-leavers, and managers found themselves suddenly sacked too. The Italians overtook us economically. Insecurity was everywhere. But now we have just lived through a decade of the greatest growth and prosperity in living memory. The country is 35% richer and likely to grow by roughly the same over the next decade - barring disaster. There is more money in most pockets, more work, more home ownership, more holidays, more shopping. Most schools and hospitals have improved. Crime is lower than for a long time. Never have so many people been so educated. Life expectancy grows. Arts and leisure consumption is rising fast. Everything - except inequality - has got better for the majority. So why the Victor Meldrew nation? Why the grizzling, mizzling, whingeing, whining? Complaint seems to have become a national language for general conversation. You hear it wherever you go, from dry cleaner's to wine bar and dinner table. The country is going to hell in a hand basket. Everything is dumbing down and on the slide, nothing is what it was. Neurotically, anything less than perfect becomes sinisterly symbolic of decline, every minor fault the thin edge of some horrible wedge. There is a panicky lack of proportion, a nervy fear that every shadow foretells the worst. Health scares send shivers down the collective spinelessness, as kitchen surfaces are scoured obsessively with Microban for fear of germs. Science and technology that brought the transforming wonder of the internet among its quantum leaps in discovery are regarded with the kind of superstitious suspicion that would like it burned at the stake. Who would think we had never been safer, wealthier or healthier? All this is partly engendered by old-fashioned politics. Conservatives in opposition may be powerless, unable to raise the faintest scintilla of support for Iain Duncan Smith. But their mighty press can destroy and spread pessimism. Conservatives, after all, don't believe governments can ever deliver. They seek to demolish not just the achievements of this government but the theory that government itself is good: leave it to the private sector, to the individual family in its fortress, to the strivers on their own, never to the collective. Still outraged and disbelieving at finding themselves under a strong Labour government, the feel-bad Tory press resorts to an ever more bizarre Golden Ageism, set in some unspecified illusory era with a Disneyfied 1950s glow. The left conspires in this gloom too. Pessimism is its natural state of mind: as long as anything is wrong, everything is wrong. With its own brand of cynicism, it too sneers at mere progress. In the wider world, some observers suggest an unease about global disorder may disquiet people's sense of well-being. The cold war brought the shadow of the bomb, but keeping an evil empire at bay made grim Manichean sense of world politics. Now, in a world where George Bush holds the reins, everything seems senselessly anarchic. At home, the performance and innovation unit's report on social capital showed the damage fear does. In Britain, people's trust in one another is far lower than in most of Europe. While the most successful countries - Norway, Switzerland and others - score 65% in trusting other people, Britain lags near the bottom at only 31%. Those who belong to clubs and societies tend to trust people more than those who live in isolation. This lack of trust among strangers suggests a dysfunction that spills over into road rage and rude driving, not queuing but pushing at bus stops, or sudden anger and abuse in public. The right would say this incivility springs from the hedonistic, selfish, me-first 1960s generation. The left would say it is the fallout from Thatcherite individualistic grabbing in a free-for-all society. Either way, tabloids stoke up the sense that out there is a wild world in which every stranger seeks to do you down, if not to murder your child. Whoever is to blame, the loss of trust is a symptom of social pessimism. What's to be done? In this mood, the government can keep hitting most of its targets, things can go on improving gradually, yet no one will notice or care, just grumble and sue. They may still vote for the least-worst party, but Labour needs to think harder about the things that make people feel better. Some of these are tangible and practical, others are difficult for politicians to tangle with. Politics trades most comfortably in things easily counted and measured. Looking for quick hits in happiness, one stands out in every survey, yet again in this one from Mori. Work-life balance surveys of working misery now hit the desk several times a week, all saying the same glaringly obvious thing. In this dementedly overworked country, people are acutely unhappy about their working lives. In paid or unpaid overtime, most say they work too hard and this overwork complaint has soared in less than a decade as hours have lengthened. The government's record on this is disastrous. The only country to reject the EU working time directive, more than 4 million people now work over 48 hours, and many of them not voluntarily: it is a condition of their often low-paid job. (Overwork is not a high-fliers' syndrome.) Why not embrace it and enforce the directive? The other great work complaint is powerlessness: Professor Michael White finds those who regulate their work harmoniously in consultation with employers are far happier. But again, the government set itself against the EU directive on consultation at work. These things the government can fix, alongside other working rights. Ignore the knee-jerk opposition by employers and devise a work-satisfaction charter. Free the people from their treadmills, shout it loud. Once contentment is the goal, the mindset changes. What do people really want? What would they trade money for if extra money is not enough? Higher taxes might buy more of what they want: more gardens, swimming pools, classes for education and fun in fine new local buildings, bands in the park with dancing, more carnivals. Or palatial youth centres to delight every disaffected youngster in the neighbourhood. Above all, politics has to offer a vision of progress, a national aspiration, a sense of purpose and a social trajectory. The third way never lifted the sights or talked of collective progress. It was all about nailing the failures, less about imaginative horizons. The glum country is partly the government's fault."
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"The right to die at the right time belongs in the liberal canon alongside the right to abortion. People own their bodies and neither church nor state can impose on anyone the obligation to live longer than they wish nor to bear a child against their will. It is an atheist tenet: the living body is all we have, all we inhabit and no higher power summons it to life nor decrees when that life ends. Catholics and other religions are the chief opponents of voluntary euthanasia because for them, only God disposes of life. When I interviewed Mother Teresa years ago, she explained that she would fight against contraception and euthanasia to her dying day because every soul born to starve on Calcutta's streets was still another soul to the glory of God - and every old person who gasped out one more agonising breath somehow contributed to this too. Religious opponents of euthanasia and abortion tend to hide theological objections in the practical problems of framing safe laws - but polls consistently show over 85% believe people should have the right to die when they want. Once life is not holy, people are free to do as they like with their own. These humanist, post-enlightenment ideas permeate the new Human Rights Act, under which Diane Pretty this week seeks to have her life ended. Liberty, the group taking up her case, cites the right not to be subjected to "inhuman and degrading treatment". Mrs Pretty is in the last stages of motor neurone disease, which paralyses while leaving a lively brain to wait for death by slow suffocation. Her husband would risk a 14-year sentence if he assisted her suicide. Unlike more difficult "living will" cases, where people may no longer be able to express their wishes, she can still communicate via a one-finger typewriter. Suicide may be legal but the law discriminates against disabled people who need help to do it. All this brings back sad memories. Jill Tweedie, much missed writer of this paper, died in 1993, also suffering from motor neurone disease. Soon after she was diagnosed, she asked me to make sure she could always die whenever she chose. The prospect of death was only bearable if she could at least control the time of her going. She was terrified of leaving it too late, so that like Diane Pretty she would be forced to endure the unendurable. She raged against some pious advisers who urged her to consider Stephen Hawking and all that she might still do. I promised her I would make sure she had the means to die, but I never had to. As she grew weaker, she told me she had already acquired pills which if taken together would be lethal. I thought the time was still far off, for although she could barely walk she seemed still so full of life. I was to see her the next day, but there was no next day. A friend who saw her just before noticed her breathing was getting slightly wheezy, the first sign of what she feared most - slow asphyxiation. Left briefly alone, without telling anyone she quietly checked herself into a clinic and died that night. There was no doubt in our minds that she committed suicide, not waiting for the final ravages. It was typically stoical and decisive, causing no trouble to anyone, not wanting to leave her body at home as a problem for others. For those of us who thought there was still plenty of time, it was shocking. Couldn't she have waited a bit longer? Why yet? Why so alone when we could have been with her? But it was her decision. Only she knew how much disability she wanted to tolerate and when she had had enough. Everyone has their own threshold for pain, dignity, the value or not of living another day and how to die. The idea that anyone - family or friends, let alone state or church - should have a say in this most private matter is grotesque. That is what she believed about both euthanasia and abortion and that is how she lived and died. At the time, not a word was said about it in public. Yesterday, talking to the friend who saw her last, she agreed Jill would have written this herself if she were here to do it, an apt finale to her fine and honest autobiography. As it was, the clinic simply registered her as dead from MND, no autopsy - though they must have wondered. So no one came asking where she got the pills. But the idea that whoever in the end provided them might be prosecuted is absurd. Maybe she might have lived longer and willingly endured more if only there had been a legal guarantee that she could summon a doctor to give her a gentle injection at any time. But she feared Diane Pretty's fate and feared putting her friends or family at legal risk. The right-to-die principle may be simple, but under present laws the practice is often cruel. Some time ago, writing about people choosing to die, I visited an old bed-ridden rationalist who had decided to end her life, which had been spent in much campaigning, including for voluntary euthanasia. "I don't want to end up all muddles and puddles," she told me crisply, though in much pain. The day was appointed, her affectionate family assembled, reluctantly agreeing to this last wish. But what seemed like a well-planned death turned out badly. They miscalculated how many pills it would take, how difficult it would be for her to swallow, and she ended up demanding a plastic bag over her head. They were haunted by this horrible scene, so far removed from the deathbed dignity they had planned. Why could she not have requested a doctor's injection? Another suicidal person I met was a young quadriplegic, a motorcycle-accident victim, who kept saying he would rather be dead. Sport and bikes had been his life and he could not get interested in things of the mind. He too spat at the number of times well-meaning people mentioned Stephen Hawking. Once he drove his electric wheelchair to a nearby river to throw himself in, but at the bank his chair ran out of batteries. Despite much time at Stoke Mandeville with counsellors urging him to live, he set fire to his bungalow. I was unsure whether he should have been helped to die, but his death was horrible. Allowing assisted suicide may raise Harold Shipman spectres, but the Dutch have done it well with two doctors and an ethicist reviewing every case. They do warn that free care for the old is a necessary safeguard against people feeling under pressure to die rather than use up their children's inheritance. Oregon allows terminal patients to request death, but only after referral for palliative care to ensure their pain is well treated first. As a result Oregon has the best pain-relief in the world and fewer patients choose to die. Meanwhile, thousands of British doctors risk prosecution by kindly helping patients die, while many patients kill themselves ineptly. Diane Pretty's plight must touch anyone who has witnessed her disease. However, the right place for this debate is parliament, with MPs, not judges, making new law. "
8 (pollytoynbee)
0 (Politics)
"Making incapacity benefit claimants display their wounds every three years is, in the prime minister's words, "entirely sensible and justified". These are not wheelchair users or the severely disabled but the many who might be capable of work. In the ongoing march towards full employment, why should the lame and the halt be left out? Long-term unemployment casts people out of society, debilitates and destroys all but the most self-motivated. Work makes most people healthier, wealthier and probably wiser too. It is true that while the numbers of unemployed fell, the numbers on incapacity benefit quadrupled. Successive Tory employment ministers told local managers to shift claimants off the dole on to incapacity benefit (IB). I interviewed a job centre manager in the north-east at the time, who was explicitly ordered to shunt a set number on to IB every month, to make his unemployment figures seem to fall. He had a gun to his head, but he was torn between anger at this political chicanery and a deeper sense that it was all for the best. Shipyard workers in their fifties were not going to find jobs as filing clerks or waiters. If an extra 25 or so found its way into their pockets, it would help the devastated local economy a little. For men who had savings or working wives, there might be no dole at all on offer, so IB was the only way to help. Illegal, yes; disreputable, no - not in these pitiful circumstances. And the government said so too, for its own bad reasons. This is why the staggeringly high rates of incapacity are all in the places with the highest unemployment figures - in Merthyr Tydfil an extraordinary 26% of all men aged between 16 and 64 signed on for incapacity benefit. (Unemployment does make people ill.) Compare that to Berkshire where everyone has a job and only 5% draw incapacity benefit, most of them seriously disabled. In good employment areas, less seriously disabled people work - some 3m of them. But not surprisingly, where there are no jobs, they don't. Professor Stephen Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam University, expert in incapacity, reckons about half of incapacity claimants could work at something not too strenuous - except that most of them live in places without jobs. So the question for the government is this. Faced with Merthyr, Knowsley or Liverpool, places overwhelmed by unemployment, why worry about the less healthy, less motivated people until the rest have work first? If the government had an active employment policy for dealing with the wastelands of the coalfields, the dockyards and steel, this might make sense. If jobs galore were being created, if vacancies yawned, then it would be worth chivvying the weak and the depressed into taking them. But the words "job creation" are not in the chancellor's vocabulary (Alistair Darling is just his mouthpiece). Gordon Brown will have none of this French type of social engineering. Regeneration yes, he says, but job creation - absolutely no. The New Deal has been brilliant in places near enough to jobs. Personal advisers from the employment service are a higher calibre cadre with an armoury of better offers, spending more money per job-placement than most other countries. But as national employment figures get better, the black spots look worse. So, why? That is the mystery. At Prime Minister's Questions, the Labour benches were scowling. Not one sycophantic question oozed from any of them. Silent as the grave, not a cheer passed their lips. How can it be, they were asking, that the government has learned so little? Attacking the disabled is daft politics - even if there are savings to be had. (However, any savings from this are not expected for 10-15 years.) Even if there were some big gain, has the chancellor learned nothing and forgotten nothing? Remember the Daily Mail's campaign to find disabled families suffering under the last reform? Wait for the first quadriplegic to get a threatening letter. (It will happen.) How are the MPs to go back and explain this to their constituencies? When New Labour first spun its electoral gold, the genius of the project was a deep understanding of political symbolism. With every breath they billowed out smoke signals that could be seen from coast to coast. That red rose may have looked like the logo on a 1950s ladies' sanitary product, but its every petal signified a soft, feminine, gentler party. Ditching Clause IV was an empty enterprise since no one thought Labour likely to nationalise the stock exchange, but it needed doing purely for the sake of the gesture. Politics needs signposts and symbols, but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have forgotten. A limping election campaign has been followed by a crippled four weeks, and now every day they shoot another bullet into their feet. The calamity of the London tube has been another of Gordon Brown's personal madnesses - obstinate, proud and wrong. Yesterday, after four long years of worsening conditions because of his fixation with a particular form of privatisation unsupported by anyone else (not even the PM who tried to ease this impasse), a needlessly lethal row has been added to needless delay. It will now be five years, next April, before it is handed over to Transport for London and work begins. Private finance initiatives everywhere have delayed government spending, as well as hanging a culpable debt on future generations, just to let the chancellor make his spending look more prudent on paper. Meanwhile, veiled threats on NHS and school privatisation are causing pointless anguish, because neither Blair nor Brown will say that the public sector at its best is best: few quarrel with using private alternatives at the margins. Why not say roughly what percentage of private provision they have in mind? Nothing they have said or done since that spectacular second victory tells a strangely disaffected country where the government is going. "Schools and hospitals" was not a direction or a symbol. They are inert things. As a campaign slogan it signified nothing except managerialism. Every gesture and signpost in the last month has been wrong. No one is pleased. Who is all this directed at? What for? Now there will be wheelchairs chained to Downing Street again. Tony Blair's performance in parliament on Wednesday suggests he doesn't get it. He isn't hearing it. The "project" is reduced to managing targets with no vision. There is deep dismay on the backbenches. Charles Clarke eloquently reassured Labour MPs on Wednesday about his role, not as dictator of the party but as the missing link between the party and the leadership: he may be the man to carry their message to the leaders. What is needed now is not show-off rebellions by old parliamentary warhorses, but a united flexing of muscles by Labour MPs to demand consultation so they can stop bad mistakes before they happen. And restore purpose and idealism to their enterprise."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"We all accept that Christmas has become the feast of Mammon - the season of goodwill to all shopkeepers when normally prudent families worship the baby born in the manger by distributing tawdry gifts they have seen advertised on television. Now a new red letter day has appeared in the commercial calendar. Good Friday is the beginning of the festival of furniture. Real worshippers at the shrine of "inspirational leather and fabric sofas" may argue that the celebration of settees, chairs and beds is a movable feast. For every week there are television commercials advertising specially reduced prices that are available only for the next few days. As one offer ends another, miraculously, begins. But this Easter we are witnessing what amounts to a furniture crusade. Tabloid newspapers have joined forces with commercial television companies to advertise Harvey's Easter Collection, Courts' Easter Weekend, Multiyork's Easter Sale, Laura Ashley's Easter Weekend of Made to Measure Furniture and dfs, where "everything is half-price this Easter". Other companies are en fte but make no mention of the end of holy week. They all have one thing in common. They offer their potential customers extraordinary terms. The dfs offer is typical. "Take four years' free credit and pay nothing for the first year." Unless dfs (a "licensed credit broker") loses money on the lending side of its business, someone is paying interest on the capital which finances the deals. So we must assume that another little explanation - alongside "subject to acceptance" - might have been added to the advertisement. It would read "debt charges included in the price". But the company can legitimately claim (in rather larger print): APR 0%. So it is possible, today, to acquire a "corner group in navy blue leather, previous price 1,798" for 897, sit on it for a year without paying a penny and then dispose of the outstanding debt at the rate of 24.91 a month until April 2008. Say what you will about blue leather, the offer is clearly what, in the days of old-fashioned hire purchase, we called "easy terms". Indeed, the terms are a great deal too easy for the health of the economy. Ever since the Tories bought the 1987 general election with an orgy of debt deregulation, Britain has borrowed far beyond its collective means. Low interest rates - part of the government's admirable and wholly successful campaign to secure full employment - removed the fiscal incentive to save first and buy later. The national psyche is represented by the trade union chant of 20 years ago: "What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!" The SCS offer, "Be yourself for less", might be the motto of our time. The idea of credit controls is so alien to government thinking that it took some time - admittedly on a Good Friday - and two immensely obliging information officers to determine whether we are allowed, under EU regulations, to return to the old system. Personal credit is the responsibility of the DTI, but its implications for fiscal policy (and what we used to call demand management) naturally remain within the Treasury. Both eventually agreed that ministers could, if they wanted to, reduce the amount of borrowing by setting out minimum deposits and maximum repayment periods. But this is the age of the individual. We all have an inalienable right to ruin ourselves and damage the economy. The furniture trade is only the padded end of the credit wedge. Its success is very largely dependent on the existence of various forms of lending - bank loans, credit cards and the several conveniences which enable reckless buyers to pay their 24.91 a month to dfs and still discharge all the other careless liabilities which they have taken on. It may well be that were such credit outlets to be restricted, the economy would collapse like a punctured balloon. But payments as easy as those offered by dfs make me uneasy. My objection to credit has nothing to do with personal morality. I left university with an unauthorised overdraft and immediately made hire purchase agreements to buy the first furniture I ever owned. I was sometimes late with the payments. And, when I bought a car, I borrowed the deposit from a more affluent friend. Sometimes I speculate about what would have happened in the early swinging 60s if cheap and easy loans had been as freely available as they are today. Television advertisements provide a clue to the answer. A new industry has sprung up within the financial services sector. The companies which make it up "refinance" debt - sometimes by taking the debtor's house as security. They advertise their wares on late-night television. Satisfied customers sing the system's praises. They were, they say, oppressed by their liabilities until they discovered the advantages of borrowing one big loan. Casualties of the system never appear."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"Twenty-five years ago, almost to the day, Jim Callaghan's government was defeated in a vote of confidence. The enforced general election that followed opened the way for the injustices and inequalities that we now call Thatcherism. In one sense, the anniversary is unimportant. The idea that there are moments in history when the world suddenly turns upside down is a romantic conceit. If the shot across the bridge at Concord had not echoed round the world in 1775, the American colonists would still have cried freedom. And it was Germany's long-held imperial pretensions, not the assassination at Sarajevo, that caused the first world war. But that late March evening back in 1979 at least symbolises the end of one era and the beginning of another. Now, we are told, it need never have happened. Labour whips had spent the previous week struggling to construct a House of Commons majority. I was deputed to convince two working-class Ulster Unionist MPs that Northern Ireland's interests would best be served by the government's survival. The mission was accomplished. But two other Ulster men, who normally supported Callaghan, defected for reasons that were lost in the mist of Celtic obscurity. As the division approached, it became clear that we were still one vote short. The agony of impending defeat was increased by the fact that we knew who that one vote was. Sir Alfred "Doc" Broughton, the 77-year-old MP for Batley and Morley, was mortally ill. Had he been brought to the Commons by ambulance and kept "in the precincts" while the division took place, he could have been "nodded through" the lobby and his vote recorded. But the journey might have killed him. I was unhesitatingly in favour of taking the risk. So - much to his credit - was he. His courage was, however, confounded by the compassion of the Labour leadership. We now discover that Walter Harrison, deputy government chief whip, approached Bernard Wetherill, his opposition counterpart, with the demand that the sick man be "paired". On radio last week, both men discussed what followed. The account of their negotiations will, to say the least, surprise those Labour MPs who lost their seats in the 1979 general election. Wetherill first insisted that "pairs" were never provided for votes of confidence. The government, if it wanted to survive, must marshal all its forces. Harrison replied that the refusal was a breach of faith. Anxious to defend his honour, Wetherill offered to sit out the division himself - simultaneously matching Broughton's absence and destroying his own career. Touched by the act of chivalry, Harrison told him that he could not accept such a sacrifice. Wetherill voted. The Labour government lost, and Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. Listening to the radio discussion, I got the distinct impression that the two men expected their audience to be impressed. Wetherill was undoubtedly justified in his rejoicing. He won. But Harrison had elevated his definition of gentlemanly conduct above the interests of the whole Labour party. His duty was to defeat the vote of confidence, not behave like a boy scout. Harrison is entitled to argue that the prime minister could have absolved him from the responsibility of choosing between conscience and duty. Enoch Powell had offered to lead all his Unionist friends into the government lobby in payment for the promise that a gas pipeline would be laid between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Jim Callaghan rightly refused to put the government up for auction. He went down on a point of principle. But a question still hangs over both men's decision. Did they matter anyway? Had either or both of them behaved differently - and the election been postponed until the autumn - would the rancid tide of Thatcherism have been held back? During the last week of the election campaign, Callaghan himself said that the country's mood had turned and that Labour's day was done. Harrison can say, in his own defence, that - even if the vote of censure had been lost - the inevitable would have only been postponed. Two great planks in Labour's policy platform had been destroyed. After the "winter of discontent", the trade unions no longer seemed an unequivocal force for good. And, by arguing in favour of the IMF agreement, we had all added to the calumny that high levels of public expenditure are the root of all evil. Perhaps there was an even deeper reason for Labour's rejection. Britain had lost confidence in collective and co-operative effort and begun to believe that individualism was the secret of success. Even if we had not held the election at a time of Mrs Thatcher's choice, we might have lost. But I still wish we had been given the chance to find out."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"Perhaps I have spent too much time recently reviewing books about British espionage operations during the second world war. Whatever the reason, I cannot help speculating about the possibility that Iain Duncan Smith has been "planted" on the Tories by the forces of reason and radicalism and instructed to make sure the Conservative party never forms a government again. Most of the British agents captured in occupied France were victims of over-confidence - aces of sabotage so blatant that their true identities became obvious. How else is it possible to explain the appointment of Barry Legg as the chief executive of the Conservative party? Mr Legg is a comparatively young man who became very rich very quickly. There is nothing to complain about in that. Indeed, we should be impressed that, even as he was acquiring his sudden wealth, he always made time for public service. Councillor Legg was chief whip of the Conservative group, which controlled Westminster local government under the leadership of Dame Shirley Porter. Unfortunately, Dame Shirley will not be a guest at the party to celebrate his appointment as Duncan Smith's right-hand man. She is in Israel, a fugitive from the district auditor, who requires her to pay a surcharge of 26.5m as the penalty for attempting to secure re-election by selling council houses to potential Tory voters. It would be quite wrong to find the Tories' new chief executive guilty by association with the perpetrators of what Lord Bingham, while he dismissed their appeal against the surcharge, described as "a deliberate, blatant and dishonest use of public power" - especially so since the district auditor absolved Legg of wilful misconduct. But he is entitled to more than a footnote in the history of the squalid affair. "I find as a fact," wrote the district auditor in his report, "that councillor Legg knew it was wrong for the council to exercise its powers in order to secure an increase in the number of likely Conservative votes in marginal wards. In such circumstances, a member has a duty to speak up." Is it possible that Duncan Smith - mesmerised by ex-councillor Legg's Euroscepticism - had forgotten his new colleague's role in the homes-for-votes scandal? Or does the new Tory leader regard turning a blind eye as an acceptable response to the discovery of politically advantageous wrongdoing? And - public morality aside - can the Tory leader really imagine that the other parties will forget the position Legg occupied when Dame Shirley organised the biggest political gerrymander in British history? Hundreds of council tenants were left in damp and decaying tenements because the houses that were rightfully theirs were allocated to Tory sympathisers. Believe me, Legg's tenure as chief whip on the Westminster city council will be mentioned during the next general election campaign. The Shirley Porter inheritance - hanging round Legg's neck like a slime-covered millstone - will hugely prejudice the Tory party's reputation with the general public. But the beauty of his appointment - at least from my point of view - is that he will also cause mayhem within what is left of the Tory party. I have no idea whether or not he was recruited in a way that violates the Tories' constitution. And I have no doubt Duncan Smith's associates are right to describe Theresa May - Legg's principal critic - as an "airhead". But, all that said, what benefit does Duncan Smith believe he derives from surrounding himself with UK Independence party sympathisers, who made life hell for John Major during the dying days of the last Tory government? Duncan Smith, who made his name by undermining his leader, relies on the cynical message of John Harrington's epigram, "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? For if it prosper none dare call it treason." But in modern politics - believe it or not - men and women retain a residual loyalty to old heroes. The brightest and best of the modern Tory party did not look upon Major with unqualified awe or admiration. They recalled that he was the Thatcherite leadership candidate whose mission was to save her party from One Nation Conservatism. But they still deeply resent the way a handful of fanatical anti-Europeans assiduously undermined him and brought down his government. Now, thanks to Duncan Smith, those rebels occupy more and more power within the party. It is as though, after 1979, Michael Foot had annointed the trade unionists who refused to bury the Liverpool dead. Duncan Smith was right, last Thursday, when he told the Today programme that the political debate is not about the state of the Tory party. But that is only because its prospects have already been written off. Legg's appointment merely confirms that all Duncan Smith now hopes for is the loyalty of the section of his party that exists outside mainstream British politics."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"The New Labour leadership is at its least attractive when its members are at their most unctuous. And when the assurance, "you can trust me", is used as an obvious refuge from the necessity to conduct a rational argument, the politician who stands on his self-righteous dignity becomes absurd as well as an electoral liability. Unfortunately, there is no way of calculating how many votes John Reid lost for the government last week when he expressed the affront that he felt at the suggestion that, from time to time, the Downing Street press office attempts to manipulate the news. Doctor Reid - pretender to the title of Labour party chairman - was attempting to explain away the unfortunate comparison he had made between the security alert at London's Heathrow airport and the destruction of the World Trade Centre twin towers in which 3,000 people died. Part of his bluster was a refutation of the allegation that tanks at Heathrow were part of a publicity stunt designed to reconcile a reluctant nation to war. What sort of people, he asked, would exploit the tragedies of war in order to manipulate the press? One possible case immediately came to mind. The sort of people who had pretended that a research student's out-of-date thesis, speculating about the possibility of a terrorist attack, was an up-to-the-minute intelligence report predicting that one was likely to happen. And that was only one example of the dubious techniques which have been employed to justify almost every contentious aspect of government policy. That ministers behave in that way is now taken for granted by a nation which may still be offended, but is no longer surprised by revelations of dubious conduct. Twenty years ago, the valedictory comments of the retiring controller of the audit commission would have produced splash headlines in every national newspaper. Now the discovery that ministers tried to doctor his report to disguise the failure of PSI school building programmes only justifies half-a-dozen column inches. We all know that sort of thing goes on. The Gulf war has done no more than draw attention to a bad old habit. Last week, attempting to construct a moral justification for invading Iraq, the prime minister told the House of Commons that sanctions - as manipulated by Saddam Hussein - were denying essential vitamins to Iraq's children and vital drugs to Iraq's hospitals. The implication that opponents of the war are supporters of sanctions - or that without a war sanctions must continue - is clearly ridiculous. But it was not very different from the equally preposterous allegations he has made about the quality of teaching in this country - designed to justify changes in the organisation of schools which were intended to attract suburban votes rather than improve the quality of education. Saying whatever is convenient at the moment can only lead to eventual ridicule. Yet ministers still also say, "trust me". I recall the prime minister making that plea at the time of the Bernie Ecclestone "cash for cigarette advertising" scandal. And I remember writing in this column that I did not believe that Tony Blair had come to an improper agreement with the motor-racing industry. That is still my position. But I have no doubt that by repeating today my faith in his innate honesty, I have provoked half the readers of the column into wondering if I have gone soft or been bought off - buying off being part of the fashion of our time. Trust is indivisible. It cannot be enjoyed occasionally, or in part. Once it is lost, it is almost impossible for it to be regained. I retain my faith in Tony Blair as a basically honest politician. But the lapses by him, or the people around him, have (at very best) put that reputation in jeopardy. And it has put at risk the esteem in which thoroughly honest ministers - the Browns, the Darlings, the Hoons and the rest - are held. Five years ago, the prime minister could have won a single European currency referendum on the slogan, "Trust me". Not today. It is the lack of trust which has produced the slump in the Labour party opinion poll ratings - not opposition to war in itself, but a refusal to accept the government's word that war is necessary. People like me, open-minded six months ago, now ask themselves why, if there is a logical case for deposing Saddam - the possession of weapons combined with a tangible threat of their use - do ministers resort to such obviously phoney arguments? Doubts about a government's honesty would, normally, guarantee general election defeat, however great its majority. But the reduction in the prime minister's popularity has come at just the right moment to rescue Iain Duncan Smith. Why, his supporters will ask, change leader just as the revival begins? So, thanks to the ineptitude of the opposition, Labour will win again. Perhaps, in politics, it is better to be lucky than to be trusted. <BR>"
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"Is it possible that 80% of the British population want the 2012 Olympic Games to be held in London? My scepticism about that particular finding is as much the result of my faith in the common sense of this happy breed as the consequence of my contempt for much of what goes on in the modern Olympiad. It is, at least for me, impossible to argue that the importance of snowboarding and figure skating is not winning but taking part. And, these days, the main objective of even the genuinely athletic events is not so much running fast and jumping high as making money. If there was a modern Roger Bannister who thought that qualifying as a doctor was his most important task, but still broke and held world records, I might be tempted to join the demand for a British bid. As things stand, I do not care which city hosts the international festival of exploitation. Nor should the British public - whatever their view on the character-building qualities of beach volleyball. For, wherever the games are held, rank-and-file sports enthusiasts will be left outside the stadium. Most of the seats will be reserved for dubious VIPs' "corporate hospitality" or sold by travel agents who market expensive package deals of flights, hotels and restaurants with a quick visit to the women's 200m final thrown in. For the rest of us, watching the games on television in our living rooms, it does not matter whether the tracks and fields are in London, Rome, Geneva or Reykjavik. The outstanding question is, are we prepared to pay between 2bn and 5bn for the privilege of broadcasting the Olympics from London? Officially, the government has still to come off the Olympic fence, but it is possible to judge which way it is wobbling by the figure it chooses to accept as the full cost. The Ove Arap estimate of 2bn, dismissed a month or so ago as far too low, is back in favour. So we must assume that, at the moment, Tony Blair wants the British bid to go ahead. One billion will be subscribed by the lottery and what is mysteriously called "other non-governmental sources" and Ken Livingstone has agreed that the other billion can be raised by a precept on the London council tax. Spread over 10 years, the addition to the tax bill will, it is hoped, be hardly noticed, quickly forgotten and barely resented. Manchester helped to pay for the Commonwealth Games and Sheffield accepted part of the International Student Games bill. According to David Blunkett, council leader at the time, Sheffield's price included the defeat of the Labour party in the local elections. This year the government sees bidding for the Olympics as a way of avoiding potential political damage. The International Olympic Committee will make its decision in July 2005 - two months after, or three months before, the most likely dates for the next general election. How much better to face the electorate after at least attempting to make Britain the centre of the sporting universe than risk the accusation that New Labour lacks the confidence or the courage to do what Los Angeles, Munich and Sydney have done? From out of the past comes the echo of John Prescott urging the cabinet to carry on the development of the dome. "If we can't do this, we can't do anything." The dome comparison is painfully apposite - right down to the collateral argument that the real object of the Olympic exercise is to redevelop neglected parts of London. And, if the government does bid for the 2012 Olympics, the progress of that second attempt to demonstrate its natural exuberance is likely to be no more successful than the first. Costs will escalate when it is too late to pull out. Private backers will lose their nerve, so the Treasury will have to choose between subsidy and national humiliation. An idea that was conceived as proof that Britain is a "can do" society will turn into the opportunity for critics to attack a "can't do" government. While pondering the objective merits of an Olympic bid, the government thought it right to consult not one but three focus groups. All of them were unanimous in the belief that the government should go ahead, but none of them was sure why. Focus groups are "snapshots" - glimpses of a moment which do not even claim to remain accurate pictures when it passes. Nor do they aspire to present their participants with complicated questions such as, "Do you find something pathetic about a nation feeling that it has to demonstrate its vitality?" But the answer to that question must be "yes". It is countries in decline - see Edward Gibbon - that invent proof of their youth and vigour. Mature democracies get on with the everyday business of being peaceful, progressive and prosperous. Britain should have enough self-confidence to do the same."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"Think of what follows as a Christmas codicil to the splendid and well-deserved assault on columnists which was published in last Tuesday's Guardian. Charitably, Martin Kettle chose not to expose all the weaknesses of the trade. To the sins of ignorance and sloth, he might well have added pomposity - a failing which has been recently displayed in the almost universal complaint that the Liberal leader lacks gravitas. Charles Kennedy has attracted that indictment by performing as temporary chairman of Have I Got News for You? - a task which he discharged with commendable elan. His critics ought to realise that it is his essentially unstatesmanlike persona which makes him popular with the public. His party prospers in the opinion polls because no one could possibly imagine him as a minister - a class of person which is held in universal contempt. Other politicians could make themselves equally appealing by also insinuating themselves into conventionally unsuitable TV and radio shows. A quick glance at the Radio Times confirms that there are programmes which could easily accommodate everyone who has ever sat on either the government or opposition frontbench. Beginning with a sure-fire winner, the BBC could broadcast a special edition of Changing Rooms in which Gordon Brown described how he will redecorate 10 Downing Street as soon as he moves in. Tony Blair fronting Neighbours From Hell would then splendidly round off an evening of "lifestyle" viewing. To preserve party balance it would be necessary, the next day, for Theresa May to star in Have You Remembered What Not to Wear? followed by Michael Portillo in After They Were Famous. Unfortunately, none of the shadow cabinet would be eligible for an appearance in Friends or Band of Brothers. Alan Milburn might be regarded as a natural for Casualty. But that slot should be reserved for Peter Mandelson, the only secretary of state in history to become one twice in a single session. No doubt he thinks of himself as ideally suited to You've Been Framed. Milburn should host The National Lottery. Winners would be awarded a place in a foundation hospital, while the losers would be sent to wait for a bed in an understaffed adaptation of a poor law workhouse. Some of the possible programmes may not be regarded as suitable for transmission before the 9pm watershed. Young and impressionable minds should not, for example, be exposed to Dennis Skinner in The Life of Mammals or Stephen Byers making a brief appearance in They Think It's All Over. It might well be that the broadcasting commission refused to allow Paul "It's the Way I Tell 'Em" Boatang to appear in his Max Miller-style suits and perform his well-known imitation of that great comedian in Stars in Their Eyes. But, on the evidence of recent Newsnight appearances, he would be an ideal subject for Red Mist, "recalling how people react when they are pushed to breaking point." Gerald Kaufman already qualifies for membership of one of the teams in The Generation Game. If he stands for re-election again, he may justify an appearance on Antiques Roadshow. It could be followed by John Prescott in Scrapheap Challenge, though I would enjoy his contribution to The Adventure of English. Prescott certainly deserves a supporting role in a special transport department edition of Bitter Inheritance, starring Alistair Darling. A discussion between John Reid and Andrew Smith in Robot Wars could make an ideal end to the evening's viewing. We should not discount the possibility of radio providing politicians with the lift-off they so desperately need. Who could fail to be impressed by Clare Short in the Moral Maze - arguing for and against the propositions simultaneously - or Charles Clarke, in The Learning Curve, explaining why he condemns the retention of secondary selection in Kent but is prepared for it to continue prejudicing the prospects of that county's children. Finding a vehicle in which the leader of the opposition could be seen to best advantage is not an easy task. Obviously, he would be hopeless in The Premiership on Saturday - or, for that matter, any other day of the week. I have no doubt for which programme you, cynical readers, expect me to nominate him. You are wrong. I would no more suggest that Iain Duncan Smith appears on The Weakest Link than I would propose the leader of the Commons for Ready, Steady, Cook. Robin may well be both of those things, but we columnists have to avoid anything which is obvious and banal. Duncan Smith's natural home is I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Merry Christmas"
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"Tony Blair's willingness to "pay the blood price" that the special relationship with America requires goes down in history alongside Ted Heath's promise to "cut prices at a stroke" and Jim Callaghan's incredulous question: "Crisis. What crisis?" All are united by the fact that each of the infamous phrases was an intentional misquotation. But do not expect an angry Downing Street statement insisting that Tony Blair never used, nor could have used, such infelicitous language. For the notion, inherent in that ugly expression, is a distorted reflection of the prime minister's passion for solidarity with the US. That is why the fraudulent attribution was so clever and so damaging. Heath and Callaghan were traduced in the same way. The fabrication of the prices promise - probably intended at the time to make the Tory leader sound "dynamic" - was justified with the explanation that a Conservative research document predicted a rapid reduction in the inflation rate. The fabrication of the Labour prime minister's crisis question - certainly meant to damage him and his government - was defended with the excuse that, on return from a meeting with the president of France, he had suggested that a couple of days spent discussing ways to avoid nuclear annihilation put the breakdown of refuse collection into perspective. The newspapers had, they insisted, done no more than compress long statements into a suitable size for front-page headlines. In Tony Blair's case, the three-card trick was played rather differently. Michael Cockerell, interviewing the prime minister for a television "special", used the offending and offensive phrase in a question. Did standing shoulder to shoulder with America mean that "the blood price" had to be paid? The prime minister followed a reflex "yes" with the explanation that loyalty required "commitment" as well as "support and sympathy" - a sensible enough answer in a reasonable world. It is difficult, even with three days hindsight, to imagine what better reply he might have given. "I would not put it quite like that myself"? Pusillanimous. "Let us hope it will not come to that"? Evasive. "I pray that not a single British life will be lost"? Sanctimonious and transparently disingenuous. Blair was trapped. That is not to say that the trap was intentionally laid. I accuse Michael Cockerell of neither personal animus towards the prime minister nor political prejudice against the government. But there is still something fishy about the entire episode. "Blood price" is an idea that I associate with Sioux and Comanches as they appeared in Hollywood westerns in the days when native Americans were called Red Indians. It is not a word that is likely to spring to a sophisticated television interviewer's mind. Then the prime minister's apparent acceptance of Cockerell's savage language was reported in selected newspapers two days before the broadcast. I do not suggest that Tony Blair was the victim of a conspiracy. He suffered from what the BBC will regard as high quality marketing. Current affairs producers are as anxious to make the news as to report it. Reading about their programme in the papers is a mark of success. And if the confession or dramatic comment is made public before the broadcast, the notoriety helps to improve viewing figures. I guarantee that there will be BBC ratings fanatics who judge that the blood price story hit the jackpot. There are two lessons to be learned from the episode. The first is that television programmes - no matter how lofty their format and exalted their proclaimed purpose - are always looking for sensation. Tony Blair's balanced view on what he sees as the possible need to take military action against Iraq is, in televi sion terms, far less attractive than a gaffe, a slip of the tongue or, in this case, the endorsement of an extravagant expression. Yet paradoxically the trivialisation - for that is what the search for sensation usually amounts to - is sometimes justified. If we do join with America in the invasion of Iraq, British blood will be spilt. Politicians who positively want a war - a category in which I do not include Tony Blair - may not like that stark description of reality, but it is the duty of journalists to expose gory truth. There are many ways in which to describe President Bush's Middle East adventure - all of them, because of the heart-stopping implications of its consequences, likely to be polarised and prejudiced. The president himself calls it an attempt to deprive the world's worst leader of the world's worst weapons. Who could possibly object to that? We hear nothing from him about the body bags, crippled veterans or the death and destruction that will be suffered by thousands of innocent Iraqis. If we send troops to the Gulf, some of the bodies in bags will be British. That may be a price we have to pay. But it is right to face up to the hard consequences of "commitment". The prime minister was conned. But it was a fair cop."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"I blame the Tory party. The Conservatives have become so hopelessly irrelevant that the old inhibitions on disagreement and dissent no longer apply. No one in government cares if the opposition asks, "If they cannot agree among themselves, how can they hope to run the country?" For everybody knows that the job is not going to be offered to Iain Duncan Smith. There is no incentive to avoid trouble. No matter how hard the boat is rocked, it is not going to sink. Six months of open warfare between the trade unions and the Labour party will not change the electoral history of Britain. There may even be young advisers in Downing Street who tell the prime minister that the more he dismisses the demands of organised labour (representing the working class) the greater will become the prospects of a permanent Blairite hegemony. We can be sure that sentiment will not bind him to the trade unions and we know that in terms of labour market policy he has more in common with Silvio Berlusconi than John Monks. So he will let the public sector disputes fester on, willing to see the breach widened before the wounds are healed by some sort of conciliation. But the trade unions have nothing to gain from the events of the last few months - threats of reduced subscriptions, strikes in public service industries and wild speeches from general secretaries who are not even Labour party members - becoming the pattern for the rest of the year and beyond. The prospect of New Labour creating the sort of society that they want to see depends on them treading softly and maximising their influence rather than intensifying their protests. No doubt most of their claims are justified. At a moment when the country stands poised on the brink of the European single currency, it is difficult to argue that British workers should accept every sort of integration except the harmonisation of industrial relations law. And, principles aside, an improvement in public sector pay is a practical necessity if the long-promised reform of public services is to evolve from rhetoric to reality. But none of the long-term items on the trade unions' agenda will be achieved by shock tactics. Social justice depends on a return to social democracy. An increasingly dissatisfied rank and file will continue to demand a change of course. Only the trade unions, working from inside the party, have the strength to bring it about. It was not Labour's constituency parties, passionately though they felt on the subject, that persuaded David Blunkett to replace the odious asylum seekers' voucher scheme with cash subsistence payments. It was the Transport and General Workers Union. Other changes have to be made in the same way. That is not easy for a union in which the general secretary owes his or her allegiance to one of the no-hope organisations on the wilder shores of politics and supports palpably silly resolutions that force ministers to resign their membership of the union. So the unions should work with the grain of the party. We are at the point in Labour's history where they have to make the choice that they once accused party activists of ducking - emotionally satisfying but essentially impotent gestures or real, but limited, influence. The alternatives they choose may well determine the future of radical politics in this country. I have argued in this column that a permanent separation, or even a formal divorce, from Labour might give the trade unions a freedom of action that they could use to their members' advantage. Some trade unions (out of frustration) and some newspapers (out of malice) now argue for that course. For the party the result would be ideological disaster, compounding the political errors the trade unions made in the late 1990s. By believing that all that mattered was a leader who could guarantee victory, they got the party into the New Labour mess. Now they have a duty to get the party out of it. The combined block vote could have prevented Tony Blair from emasculating the party conference and ignoring the men and women who would have argued for real Labour policies. They abdicated and must now make amends. There was method in his marginalisation. Voices that would have been raised against the part-privatisation of the public services, the gradual return to selective secondary education and the imposition of unwanted and unrepresentative parliamentary candidates, have been stilled. The objections to new Thatcherism are as strong as they ever were. But the new constitution does not allow them to be expressed by rank-and-file party members. The trade unions have an obligation to do the job for them. A summer of discontent will achieve nothing. It will take years of methodical and often tedious argument to set Labour back on the long and winding road to socialism. The unions should pay their subscriptions, vote their full strength and save the party they created."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"All the newspaper metaphors had the sort of literary associations that can be recognised by people who have not read many books. First he was TS Eliot's mystery cat - no more than an excuse to write that whenever the prime minister needs helping out of a jam, in the manner of Macavity, Gordon Brown's not there. Then he was said to be like the dog that aroused Sherlock Holmes' interest and suspicion because it did not bark. Comparisons with Shergar, the disappearing thoroughbred, were only prevented by the near certainty that, when the next big Labour party leadership race is run, the chancellor of the exchequer will win at a canter. Attempts to discover if he was asked to speak up for Tony Blair during the bizarre debate about the proper treatment of the Queen Mother's corpse were dismissed with the weary implication that there was no point in Downing Street issuing an invitation which was certain to be refused. And there is no doubt that Brown's regular detractors spread the word that, if the Treasury is not directly involved in a fiasco, there is no hope of the chancellor coming to the aid of the party. But lofty disdain for the trivia of government makes Gordon Brown Labour's most bankable asset. One day even his most critical colleagues will feel only gratitude and relief that the worst that can be said about him is that he possesses a puritanical determination to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. William Ewart Gladstone said that, in politics, things are best done by those who believe in them. It is hard to imagine the intellectually fastidious Gordon Brown arguing with any conviction that the idea of the prime minister walking down Whitehall to greet the Queen Mother's coffin emanated from the foreign secretary's discovery that the sun was shining and that Her Majesty's ministers would enjoy the fresh air. If he was the sort of man who willingly repeated the official line on Newsnight, he would just be another run-of-the-mill party politician. After all, we never read predictions that John Reid will be the next prime minister. Nobody who recalls the grace with which he faced his daughter's death or heard the eulogy which he delivered at Donald Dewar's funeral can doubt that there is a human being inside Gordon Brown's invariably charcoal grey suit. But his addiction to work and the certainty that what he is doing at the moment is more important than anything that occupies anyone else, does make him a difficult colleague. It also attracts the criticism that his single-mindedness is self-centred. Had the consolation notes to recent ministerial rejects been signed by any other minister, they would not have rated even a gossip column mention. But we all assume that Gordon Brown does everything on purpose. No doubt the next leadership election is always at the back of his mind. And he does not seem to realise he is already close to invincible. Yet he persists in making progress toward the summit of the greasy pole on his own terms. A couple of weeks ago Gordon Brown gave the Aneurin Bevan Memorial Lecture. The chairman, Geoffrey Goodman, once the doyen of labour correspondents and still an authority on Labour politics, described the speech as "what the party has been waiting for since 1997". Most members will have to go on waiting. No text was available. The chancellor spoke from extended notes. A member of the audience believed that had the lecture been widely reported, hundreds of party members, tempted to resign in disillusion, would have stayed to support Gordon Brown. As Mark Antony almost said, ambition should be made of more assiduous stuff. Eventually, after much prompting and the chancellor's insistence that he did the job himself, the notes were made into continuous prose and one newspaper thought them sufficiently important to be given some late attention. However, on the day before publication Stephen Byers resigned. All available space was needed for the obsequies and the ministerial reshuffle which followed. Gordon Brown said not a word on either subject. And quite right too. What has the government gained by John Prescott's allegation that Byers was stabbed in the back or, for that matter, what advantage has been achieved by David Blunkett's suggestion that the newspapers are on the verge of lunacy? Gordon Brown's belief that he has better things to do than slug it out with the tabloid newspapers is an immense encouragement to people who think that politics should be a battle of ideas not images. God willing the spasm of playground politics has now ended. If there is another outbreak of juvenilia, the government in general and Tony Blair in particular have the strongest possible vested interest in keeping Gordon Brown above the fatuous battle."
9 (royhattersley)
0 (Politics)
"I am absolutely certain that, sometime during last year, Norman Baker - the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes - exposed what he regarded as a political scandal and that, in consequence, he appeared on television for several consecutive days. As I cannot recall what the so-called cause clbre concerned, I assume that it did not have a lasting effect on the life of the nation. But it certainly had an effect on Mr Baker. He developed a taste for unearthing impropriety. Last week, the Sussex Savonarola dug out details of the prime minister's Egyptian holiday. The mining metaphor is not altogether appropriate. For what Mr Baker believed to be dirt was buried in the public pages of the Register of Members' Interests. Tony Blair had, therefore, already announced that the Cairo government had paid part of the cost of the holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh and that he had made a donation of an equivalent amount to an Egyptian charity. By denouncing the arrangement as "cheapening the office of prime minister", Mr Baker cheapened the whole business of politics. Politicians who are determined to say something, but have nothing of value to say, have developed the unhealthy habit of accusing their opponents of corruption, certain that - justified or not - their allegations will be reported. Last week some silly ass suggested that, because she lives in Downing Street, Cherie Blair offended against the rules of propriety by seeing her professional colleagues and clients in her own home. It is all part of the degeneration of politics from arguments about conflicting policies to claims about rival personalities. Last week's example of that unhappy trend was the revelation - soon after the government had announced its intentions to relax the gaming laws - that the Labour party had accepted a donation of 100,000 from Peter Coates, the owner of a company called Provincial Racing. All the commentators could think of was the possibility that the gambling free-for-all was intended to repay Mr Coates's generosity. The real explanation is less sinister but equally disturbing. Indeed to me, it is rather worse than "cash for legislation". A corrupt government might change its ways. One which has abandoned its philosophy is more difficult to rehabilitate. I have absolutely no doubt that Mr Coates's gift had no direct effect on the government's decision to allow gambling of every sort to spread like an infection through Britain. New Labour is not corrupt; its collective sin is the combination of arrogance and naivety which encourages the belief that the world is full of rich men who want to make a selfless contribution to the "project". When a donation is handed over, I doubt if the idea that it was written out in the hope of favours passes through the recipient's mind. But I am equally sure that the man who signed the cheque hoped for something in return. That was certainly the case when the Tories used to complain that the trade unions were Labour's paymasters. Unions raised the political levy and used it to finance a political party which shared their aims and sometimes legislated explicitly on their behalf. That was both legitimate and laudable. Labour had been founded to support their interests and defend the welfare of their members. Even without their subventions, Labour would have initiated policies of which they approved. The party was neither bought nor sold. There is no legitimate complaint against a vicar who accepts a large donation to his church restoration from a regular worshipper within his parish. If, on the other hand, a payment is made in recognition of the incumbent changing faith - against the wishes of his congregation - the transaction may not be financially corrupt, but it is certainly morally dubious. The payment is being made as a reward for apostasy. The rector of Downing Street will say that his conversion is genuine - or perhaps that he never believed in the old religion and stumbled into the wrong church by mistake. That is a subject worth reasoned argument. It will not happen while cheap headlines suggest that business is bribing the government. It is not. The payments are a reward for the abandonment of socialism. The companies pay up, as the unions once did, because they think that New Labour is on their side. And, of course, they are right. When Mr Blair cooperates with Silvio Berlusconi to demand a more flexible labour market in Europe, he is making the CBI feel as warm towards him as the TUC felt towards Labour leaders when they promised to repeal the Trades Disputes Act. Yet New Labour's alliance with industry is hardly, if ever, discussed in ideological terms. Indeed, it only breaks to the surface of most newspapers when it can - usually wholly illegitimately - be described as sleaze. There are just too many Norman Bakers about."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"There are times in the Commons when the only tolerable response is to throw food. Sadly this is not allowed. Nor may we shout at MPs from the public and press galleries. Otherwise we'd be constantly yelling "Next!", or as they would say in the comedy clubs, "Taxi for the minister!" The urge to interrupt the proceedings is often strongest when members are trying to be funny. This is usually like watching a walrus attempting to tap-dance: you admire the effort rather than the result. Today Harriet Harman, leader of the house, was standing in for Gordon Brown who was at the climate change conference in Copenhagen. Anne McIntosh, the Tory MP for Vale of York, saw her chance. "Copenhagen is the land of make-believe and fairytales," she said. "Does the leader of the house have a favourite fairy tale?" We groaned, silently, for we could guess what was coming. "Could it be The Emperor's New Clothes? Is she The Little Robber Girl, or is she really the princess?" Oh dear. Laugh? We almost started. A team of top French deconstructionists could have spent semesters on that question. The reference to the emperor's new clothes was, I suppose, something to do with the government thinking it had performed better than it had. Or that Gordon Brown was preening himself while wearing nothing but body hair and goose pimples. Who can say? I don't know which princess Ms McIntosh had in mind, since there are several. As for The Little Robber Girl, no doubt this was meant to evoke high taxes, yet the actual story is horrible, involving mass murder and hideous cruelty. It is the kind of tale that was probably read to kids who have gone on to coin millions with misery memoirs: "Mommy chained me to the radiator, and Daddy read me The Little Robber Girl, every night." Anyhow, Ms Harman was prepared, sort of. She leapt up and said: "We could all learn a lesson from fairytales, which is that you need to avoid" and here she waved frantically at the Tory front bench "the brothers Grimm!" She kept on talking, but we couldn't hear. Labour MPs, who had been largely sitting in a grumpy and morose silence, suddenly erupted as if it were the funniest political barb every fired. They rolled round in fits of comedy delight, slapping their thighs and holding their stomachs as if afraid that the force of the laughter inside them might make them explode. I began to suspect that the noise had little to do with the quality of Hattie's joke but the fact that she had made it and had said something brief and crisp in contrast to the endless vague rambling she had offered before. The row did not stop: it grew more raucous, and in the end the Speaker had to intervene. Good humour was one thing, disorder another, he said. The public wanted to be reassured, not disgusted. A good point, but it may be a bit late to worry about public disgust now."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"The Chilcott inquiry heard from Sir John Scarlett yesterday, a spook as different from the spooks of popular fiction as you might meet beside a hollow tree in St James's Park. Present him with a dry martini and an evil billionaire who wants to take over the world, and I suspect he would be dashing off home to spread more John Innes on his roses. What he does have is a remarkable grasp of modern-day management-speak. Clearly this is far more important now than skills at codebreaking and driving fast cars. Before we were two minutes into his evidence, we were talking about "structure, output and tasking." "Bond, I want you to make sure you stay within structure and output guidelines. And no more tasking gorgeous women." The room where the inquiry is taking place is small and stuffy, with pipes running across the ceiling, so it resembles an interrogation chamber in some anonymous military building. As so often, my mind drifted  in this case to Berlin during the 1950s. George Smiley, played by Sir Alec Guinness, is being briefed by John Scarlett, an up-and-coming operative. All jargon comes from yesterday's session. Smiley gazed at the lights reflected in the Spree. Berlin was bitterly cold at that time in winter, but it was not just the chill that made him shiver under his greatcoat. A slender figure slid beside him. It was young Scarlett. "I hear that Kalashnikov was a disappointment." "Oh, I don't know, sir. The interrogation was never formulaic, always substantial and often robust." "Did you get anything worthwhile?" "Well, sir, obviously we had to pay close attention to the requirements and priorities round, and bear in mind the formulation of the medium-term work programme, coupled with other short-term priorities." Smiley grunted. A young couple, screeching with merriment, went past on their way to a bar or nightclub. The girl was clearly drunk and her boyfriend seemed to be almost dragging her along. Not for the first time, Smiley wondered about the coming generation. "Did you see the minister?" "See the minister, sir? Sorry, I don't know what you mean." Smiley sighed. Sometimes it was like dealing with people for whom English was a second, even a third language. "I mean, did you brief the minister of defence about what Kalashnikov told us?" "Oh, gosh, I see, sir! You mean did I interface the customer?" "Yes," said Smiley with infinite weariness. "I suppose that's what I mean..." They actually talk about ministers, army chiefs, etc as "customers". And they don't meet them but "interface" them. Sir John Scarlett is older now, and has learned the techniques of the civil service. For example, he let Tony Blair off the hook when he said there had been no pressure to "firm up" the dossier on Iraq's weaponry. But, he was asked, his dossier was an assessment of the WMD campaign, not a threat assessment. That was all implied in the alarming foreword, written by Tony Blair. "The foreword was overtly a political statement signed by the prime minister, so it was his wording and his comments. I didn't see it as something I could change." The stiletto sinks in before the victim has even spotted it."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"The Tories must be glad that the new leader of Ukip left their party years ago. At a time when David Cameron is trying to shorten the names of any Tory who sounds even slightly toffish, the last thing he wants is another old Etonian, especially one named Malcolm Everard MacLaren Pearson, Baron Pearson of Rannoch. I suspect that he would be even less willing than Annunziata Rees-Mogg (Nancy Mogg) to have his name shortened to, say, Mal Pearce. What's more, M.E.M.P.B.P.O.R has a set of views being anti-gay, anti-Muslim and pro almost any form of hunting which would curl the neck hair of Tory frontbenchers such as Georgie Oz, Andy Lans, Frankie Maude and others, some of whose names have been conveniently pre-shortened, such as Tess May, Bill Hague and Eric Pickles. And Lord Pearson received 100,000 over six years by claiming that his 3.7m house in London was his second home. And he owns 12,000 acres in Scotland. In short, he is everything Davy Cam is trying to get rid of, or at least brush under the carpet. Anyhow, Lord Pearson is now in office, and has annoyed many in Ukip by saying that if the Tories ever promised a referendum on our continued membership of the EU he would disband his own party. Today in the House of Lords he asked the government whether they would hold a referendum. The answer, from Glenys Kinnock, was "no". She added that his offer to liquidate his own party was a "rather original approach to leadership". In fact, everyone patronised him, and once you have been patronised by their lordships, you stay patronised. Lord Tomlinson announced gravely that Lord Pearson had shown "a standard of leadership which screams that the other party leaders do not have a great deal to worry about". Lord Dykes, a peer who believes we will be better off governed by Belgians and Luxembourgeois, who know better than we do how to govern ourselves, said it was an eccentric state of affairs. Lord Pearson qualified for the Guinness Book of Records as the only new party leader who had caused a mass resignation three days after he had taken office. Lord Pearson will not, I suspect, fret too much about this criticism. Back in the Commons, Liam Byrne, who is number two at the Treasury, was making a statement with the risky title of "smarter government". This seemed to involve cutting the deficit by saving money. But no member of this government could ever say anything so simple. Instead, Mr Byrne, who collects jargon like Madonna collects babies, told us his plans would "make it easier for civic society to contribute to public life by pressing ahead with the new social investment bank and by testing social impact bonds". He would also "free up the front line to innovate collaborate [sic] by cutting back on ring-fenced budgets and national targets joint ventures and regulatory flexibility". The low droning sound of Mr Byrne describing his incomprehensible plans was suddenly cut by an agonised cry from Sir Patrick Cormack: "Can you PLEASE speak English?"
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"A great PM's questions. But first, a moment in British constitutional history. On Tuesday I reported that Sir Peter Tapsell, one of the last knights of the shires, had been reselected. That morning, another thunderously grand knight, Sir Patrick Cormack, announced he would not be standing again. I am told these two events are closely connected. Both men were desperate to become father of the house. But now it seems almost certain that Sir Peter (known as "Blofeld" on the Labour benches) will succeed. For Sir Patrick this is a devastating time, and all our thoughts are with him. He sat behind his rival, in easy backstabbing distance, but being the ultimate gentleman, Sir Patrick refused to take advantage. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown and David Cameron were knocking seven bells out of each other. The Tory leader wanted to know why Britain was the only G20 country still in recession. Gordon Brown made a mistake. He said that Spain was in recession, and six other EU members were too. I assume he meant Latvia, Bulgaria, etc. This is like saying,: "No, I am not the stupidest boy in the class. Snotty Wilson got one less than me in maths." It is better left unsaid. He went on to say Cameron was "talking down Britain". This is always a sign of the end. John Major used the line in the dying days of his government. Any criticism was "talking down Britain". It was weedy then and it's weedy now. Cameron riposted that Brown had promised we would "lead the world out of recession". Brown did what he always does, and accused the Tories of having no policies. The sound in the chamber grew louder and louder as he shot: "The voice might be that of a modern PR man, but the mindset is the 1930s!" "That must have sounded great in the bunker!" snapped Cameron. Brown fought back with his trusty if rusted old sword, the Tory policy of raising the inheritance tax threshold for, he usually adds, the rich people on Cameron's Christmas card list. This time Cameron was ready. The Labour party was the only party which had already legislated for an increase in the inheritance tax! Brown wriggled for him, quite deftly. He brought up the fact that the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith was a multimillionaire who paid no British tax on his offshore income. Clearly he and Cameron had dreamed up inheritance tax policy on "the playing fields of Eton". The battle of pre-cooked, boil-in-the-bag soundbites was getting nastier. A Labour MP raised domestic violence. The actor Reese Witherspoon had spoken about it that morning. Mr Brown paid tribute to "Renny Wutherspoon". Scottish readers: don't hesitate to tell me this is the way it's pronounced in east Scotland, you English bigot! Witherspoon once played the wife of Johnny Cash. Or, as Labour MPs would sing, "Because you're mine/I toe the line". Finally, Sir Peter Tapsell was called. All sides gave him an immense cheer. The prime minister had said that there would soon be 300,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, the same number as the Soviets who were humiliated there. Should the prime minister not RESIGN? (Or as Sir Peter, who has a slight speech impediment, put it, "WESIGN!")"
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"Normally I would not dream of quoting from a private letter, but Sir Peter Tapsell has topped his note to me "Personal (up to a point!)" so I assume he will not mind my sharing the splendid news with you. For on Friday last, Sir Peter was readopted to contest the general election in the Conservative interest for the constituency of Louth and Horncastle. It will be his 15th campaign, and he will almost certainly have turned 80 by the time it takes place. You could almost hear the huzzahs ringing down from Lincolnshire! What makes his victory especially piquant is that as part of his 45-minute speech to the Conservatives, he read out part of one of my sketches. This was from 2006, shortly after Tony Blair had claimed that God would judge him on Iraq. At the time I compared Sir Peter's interventions to watching Alfred Brendel and George Best in action. (I was tempted to rewrite the Tommy Cooper joke: "Trouble is, George Best was a hopeless pianist and Alfred Brendel couldn't play football." But I didn't.) Sir Peter had finished his majestic question to the then prime minister, "Will he tell us which archangel is now beckoning him towards southern Afghanistan?" No wonder that, even in this youth-crazed world, Sir Peter was chosen again. Yesterday he was in his place listening to the prime minister make another statement about Afghanistan. Sir Peter believes that we should not have gone there in the first place, and that since the Soviets could not hold the country with 300,000 men our 500 extra troops will not make the slightest difference. Gordon Brown's statement required a certain understanding of metaphysics. The gist seemed to be that because our military intervention had been so successful, we needed more troops to make it even more successful. And we should send extra men now so that our lads could come home earlier. And the fact that several countries were threatening to remove their forces from Afghanistan meant that even more nations would be represented there soon. Hmmm. You can always tell when a policy is in trouble when the politicians start turning it into new cliches. "We need a military surge, complemented by a political surge, which is essentially an Afghan political surge," he said. Try prising the sultanas out of that cake! Sir Peter did not at first rise to ask a question. Instead he used body language, the Esperanto of the Commons, to express his deep dissatisfaction. He rested his hands on his lap aggressively, if you can picture that. He leaned forward and scowled. At one point he leaned back, folded his arms, and looked, simply, furious. The prime minister continued, deploying more weird pronunciations. ("Mastiff" armoured vehicles he calls "masteef" to rhyme with the French "canif". Al-Qaida is no longer "Alky Ada", the drunken old aunt. She has become Al, Kay, Ada a music hall act of the inter-war years. Finally Sir Peter could bear it no longer. He stood up and, in his pomp, asked a question not about Afghanistan but Pakistan. So it was a disappointment for his fans, but our cup of good news was brimming over anyway."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"We were gathered for the launch of an exciting new thinktank, ResPublica. It was particularly thrilling because David Cameron was there to pat the tank on the head and send it on its way. The launch was in a hotel conference room festooned with velvet drapes, chandeliers, tapestries and tiled pilasters. It looked like the entry hall of the most luxurious brothel in Bradford. Behind the platform was a placard announcing the aims of the new tank. "Radical solutions revolutionise innovation sustainable future," it declared. My law of reverse meaning states that if the opposite of something is obvious nonsense, it wasn't worth saying in the first place, as in "tinkering at the edges sticking in the mud using tomorrow's resources today!" The room was filled with 300 people. We asked a thinktank tankie who they were. "They are the great and the good of the policy world!" he replied. My heart began to ache and a drowsy numbness started to numb me, drowsily. David Cameron arrived. We hear that many of his shadow cabinet are deeply suspicious of ResPublica, which they fear smacks of socialism and some forms of rightwing fundamentalism. They see it as a freemarket Hizb ut-Tahrir. No wonder Mr Cameron did not stay long. "It's great to be at the launch of another thinktank in Britain!" he said, stressing the word "another" so giving his welcome a slightly sarcastic air. He galloped along. We had a broken society, broken politics, and a broken economy. We needed the "bigger society" whatever that might be. And people were often in public services because they loved their work. "We have to unlock the love!" he exclaimed. The one and only begetter of ResPublica, its director, Phillip Blond, said the Tory leader's diary did not permit him to stay. I'll say. He was out of there like a cat chased by a dog on a skateboard. This left the platform bare except for Mr Blond, who spoke with such profundity that I found it hard to stay awake. I was jerked into life when he pointed out how Conservatives had always been great liberators. They abolished slavery, and it was Tories who led the factory reform movement, "against Guardian-reading Manchester liberals". Heavens, Guardian readers get blamed for a lot, but I didn't realise that included child labour. "Profoundly individualating," he went on. "Reciprocality!" he demanded. "Universality should not be compromised!" He called for an "eco-structure for exchange and ethos". I would have paid more heed to these thunderous abstractions if Mr Blond hadn't looked like a cross between Gordon Brown and DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes To Ashes. "Policing the model," he said. ("Awright, Ms Campbell, better come wiv us, my girl, or you'll cop it.") "Economic actors," ("I'd love to buy a round, darling, but I seem to have become parted from my wallet.") "Postmodern verity against an objective void." "Hear, hear, that needed saying!" as no one remarked. Finally it was over. The food afterwards was great."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"It was our first chance to see David Miliband in action after Hillary Clinton's confession of if not love, then of a deep and profound attraction. In an interview with American Vogue, the US secretary of state came over all Mills &amp; Boon. "If you saw him," she said, "it would be a big crush. I mean, he is so vibrant, vital, attractive, smart! He's a really good guy, and he's so young!" You can say that again. The foreign secretary is 18 years her junior. That makes her what is known these days as a "cougar", an older woman who preys on younger men. (I think I know the origin of this curious term, but it isn't very nice, and I would not dare repeat it in the Guardian.) So Mr Miliband must feel a lot more welcome in Foggy Bottom, Washington, than he does in the Commons. The only woman facing him in the chamber today was Anne Main (C, St Albans) and she is a mere seven years older than him. A puma perhaps, or a lynx. And in any case she didn't exactly look smitten. Nor did Sir Peter Tapsell, the Man Who Warned the World About Afghanistan. He too was clearly not suffering from a crush. As Mr Miliband spoke, Sir Peter's expression ranged from sceptical to cynical, from disbelief to scorn. Finally he rose to intervene with a pair of questions designed to upend our deliciously vibrant foreign secretary through his own superior knowledge of the North-West Frontier and associated hell holes. We learned how the Taliban were once supported only by the Pashtun. Now they were being driven into the Swat Valley and Baluchistan! You could almost see that vital, smart brain thinking: "I've heard of them. They were on the news!" But he thought too soon. Sir Peter, never to be out-manoeuvred in the Great Game went on, "which are an immense distance away from the Durand frontier!" What possible answer can there be to that? It was a magnificent example of one-upmanship, a meeting between Stephen Potter, Flashman and Google Earth. Mr Miliband had no reply, and moved swiftly on to the Israel/Palestine question and something he called "the Clinton parameters". Well, I thought, I've never heard them called that before. It turned out that he was referring to the gorgeous, pouting Hillary's husband, who showed the world his parameters back in 2000. Disappointing. Then William Hague rose and enjoyed himself hugely over the appointment of "Cathy Ashton", as he claimed Gordon Brown's third choice as EU high representative. Why, he said, the foreign secretary had been tempted by the job, for all the right reasons including "his belief that the prime minister will soon be gone". Peter Mandelson had also been put forward. Ministers would have a chance to deny this, but instead "an icy stillness" rose from the front bench. This would not just be a case of a rat leaving the sinking ship, but the lord high admiral himself departing "though we are reluctant to suggest new titles, because he might adopt them". The Labour front bench collapsed in laughter. There is little love lost there."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"A handful of Labour MPs turned up on the day after the Queen's speech. And most of them could scarcely be bothered to stand up and ask a question. Nobody believes in this thing. It's not worth the parchment it's written on. David Heath, for the Lib Dems, called it an abracadabra Queen's speech. "Shazam! The deficit halved at a stroke. Shazam! Poverty abolished around the world. This is fantasy politics!" Other MPs were fractious about losing the public's attention. Nigel Evans thought it "bizarre" that more people were interested in how John and Edward performed on The X Factor than in the new president of Europe. I don't know. The Irish twins have more in common than you might think with the various dreary factotums who are standing for EU president: (a) rather weird faces, (b) even weirder hairdos, (c) come from very small country, (d) no perceptible singing talent, and (e) unjustified but relentless ambition. In a desperate attempt to make themselves relevant, MPs drag in popular culture whenever they can. Peter Bone, the Tory MP who looks exactly like Sven-Gran Eriksson, said he hoped Harriet Harman would become prime minister. He claimed to be the founder "and, sad to say, the only member of Hots Harriet's Official Tory Supporters!" This was a deeply embarrassing moment, as if Mr Bone had decided to make public a liking for rubber underwear. Ms Harman reacted rather like a young woman being wolf-whistled from a building site and pretended she hadn't heard. Or at least heard properly. "I had not realised that the hon member was hot," she replied. Some of us didn't know where to look, but he could not be stopped. "No, you're hot!" he exclaimed. Fresh trousers for Mr Bone! Michael Gove, the Tory education spokesman, may have been watching I'm A Celebrity because suddenly he accused Ed Balls, of being "the Katie Price, the Jordan of the government. All he is interested in is being on the front pages, so he has massively inflated what he has to offer!" Oooh, missus! Actually this was Mr Gove's attempt at revenge, for earlier he was the victim of a fine coup de thtre by Mr Balls. The education secretary said he was fed up with the Tories saying that GCSE exams had been dumbed down. He had with him a few questions from recent GCSEs. Would Mr Gove care to answer them? This from the additional science test: "Name the type of enzyme that digests stains containing fats." Mr Gove squirmed slightly but offered no answer. Mr Balls, who is a playground bully at heart, realised he had found a victim. "Explain how a fluoride atom can change into a fluoride ion! The hon gentlemen is well known as an erudite and intellectual man. What is the answer?" Then: "Does he want to try that? Wanna try?" He sounded like an aggressive thug chanting "Want some, do yer? Want some?" in a pub car park. Finally he demanded, from the maths paper: "Work out three and three-quarters minus one and two-fifths." Mr Gove again, sensibly, offered no reply. (It is two and seven-twentieths.) The bully had won."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"It was the Threadneedle Spectator parliamentarian of the year awards today. Lord Mandelson was the big winner. (I wasn't a judge, so I am not to blame. Others know who they are.) He received his award for politician of the year from Boris Johnson. It was, Mandelson said, a great honour. He was the first winner since 2006 not to have been a member of the Bullingdon Club. Then he added: "This is another to add to the list of things I have in common with Boris. We both spent a long time in Brussels. We both had very public resignations. And we both have an overwhelming ambition to do everything we can to undermine David Cameron." From his right came harrumphing and denial. "Humph. No! No! Harrumph," cried Boris. This protestation might have been slightly more convincing if it hadn't been for Boris's own speech a short while before. This took the form of a mock-heroic address to MPs, who had created a "magnificent catastrophe" to distract attention away from the banking scandal. "How proud I am!" he said, addressing MPs, his former colleagues. "I want to give you the most massive plug but unlike Jacqui Smith I would not dream of claiming for it for the chaotic, shambolic handling which has brilliantly directed media and public anger away from the financial services of London!" Warming to his theme and Boris never cools to any theme on which he has embarked "you resemble Leonidas and the Spartans, or Clint Eastwood in The Bodyguard, standing in the path of public rage! You have taken the bullet for the bankers!" Why, he said, it was marvellous that MPs should win all these awards. They would each need a trophy cabinet from Ikea, or possibly John Lewis, to display them all! This would go on their additional costs allowance. The cabinet might be so full that it could damage a wall. They would need to grow wisteria on the outside of the wall. So: "It would be necessary to add a wisteria trimmer to the bill." Did he mention moat cleaning, or duck houses, or flat-screen televisions? No, he mentioned only wisteria trimming. And who is the only MP to have claimed for wisteria trimming? Why David Cameron. You might need to be obsessed by politics, or by the control of climbing plants, to understand what he was talking about. But we knew. That is Boris's genius. He always gets it both ways. Most other award winners were just happy to get their gong and go. Kenneth Clarke, ironically named newcomer of the year, said the judges had made an old man very happy. Paul Farrelly, the Labour MP Carter-Ruck tried to silence over the Guardian's revelations of toxic waste dumping in Africa, was named inquisitor of the year and said it showed there was life in the "old dog of parliament". The Tory peer Lady Warsi was moving. She said she had been voted sexiest member of the House of Lords, "but in light of the fact that I've still got my teeth, that's not so extraordinary. "But I am the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant mill-worker, and I ended up in the House of Lords." We all applauded madly what a wonderful country we still think this is."
10 (simonhoggart)
0 (Politics)
"The House of Lords used to be the politest place in the land. Nobody ever shouted, like David Cameron, "you're useless!" No one yelled "wrong, wrong, wrong!" You would be as likely to see a food fight in the Athenaeum. There were ways of disagreeing. For example, if someone suggested the return of child chimney sweeps: "The noble lord makes an intriguing point and one which your lordships may wish to ponder. However, Her Majesty's government feels unable, at this particular time, to make the commitment he requests." All is changed, changed utterly. It's almost as nasty as the Commons now. Take the question about the ratification of the Lisbon treaty yesterday. It was answered by Lord Brett, of whom I have never heard, but who appears to be a minister in the Foreign Office. He took the opportunity to gloat about the Tories' problems on this issue. I might have paid more attention to what he said if he had not appeared to be channelling the late Les Dawson, whom he resembles both in voice and appearance. "My old mum used to say: 'Never intrude into private grief," he said. There would be plenty of public grief if the Tories got their way. Lord Howell, the Tory spokesman, said: "I knew we wouldn't get far without this kind of vacuous exchange." Lord Brett: "I noted the comments about the vacuous comments, and I appreciate the vacuous comments he added. Ooh, missus!" (He didn't actually use the last two words, but some of the peers did go "Whooo!") Here's a pub quiz question. "What is 10 in London and 1 in Warsaw?" The answer is the letter Z in Scrabble. Lord Dykes said that the Polish papers were much better than our own, lacking the anti-European hysteria shown by quite a few members of the Conservative party. Whooo! Lord Brett claimed to be concerned about the Tories' strange allies in Europe. "Another maxim of my old mum was: 'By their friends they shall be known.'" We are being governed by the spirit of Lord Brett's mother. But everyone got off lightly compared with poor Lord Young of Norwood Green, who answered a question about grants for disabled students. Apparently these are in a terrible mess. It's the usual combination of arrogance, privatisation and computer cock-ups. Being New Labour, Lord Young called the situation "a success story". Lord Hunt, for the Tories, asked what, in that case, he would call a failure. "The higher education policies of the last [Tory] government" he replied. "That would be my description of a failure." The Tories jeered at the wretched response. Lord Young was, I fear, humiliated by everyone. Peers from all sides circled him like hyenas spotting a wildebeest with a limp. We only returned to normality with Lord West of Spithead, who contrived to work in praise for our heroic Royal Navy into an answer about cannabis use. I thought he might take the salute, or at least splice the mainbrace, whatever that means."
11 (willhutton)
0 (Politics)
"You had to blink. Here was the Labour party giving the once-detested Peter Mandelson a standing ovation. Nor was it just his self-deprecatory jokes, his apology for the past and his declaration of love for the party. It was what he said about what he wanted to do a recognisably social democratic but pro-wealth generation programme for building a new British economy. The Labour party roared its approval. The real importance of Labour's 2009 Brighton conference was the reconciliation between the party's new and old wings. It was never likely to be a launch pad to win a fourth electoral term. Falling membership, decimated representation in local government and decaying finances all spell the same message even before the party confronts the issue of its dysfunctional leader. After 12 years in power, the accumulation of compromises and disappointed hopes is too much let alone the economic bust that Gordon Brown promised would never happen. The country is determined on change and unless some dramatic event, cock-up or scandal blights the Conservatives, by next June David Cameron will be prime minister. What happened in Brighton, though, was more subtle and in the long term perhaps more significant. Labour arrived at a new settlement about what it stands for and wants to do with power and it is right. The policy gap between the clever standard-bearer of Labour's left, Jon Cruddas, and New Labour's tribune, Peter Mandelson, is now surprisingly small. There will be some blood-letting after the defeat, but with differences this narrow there is no basis for all-out civil war. Labour with the right new leader (probably David Miliband) could get back on its feet quickly and become a contender for power very fast challenging a Conservative government that has too quickly surrendered to the hysteria over the budget deficit and is set to make some seriously wrong judgments on both the economy and Europe. For politics in the 2010s is going to be very different from the politics of the last 30 years. The Tories won four consecutive elections after 1979 because the political and intellectual currents were so passionately pro-free market; communism and socialism were bankrupt ideologies that had failed in practice and in theory. The 1992 general election defeat was a watershed. It convinced Blair, Brown and Mandelson that whatever their new leader John Smith might think, there was no electoral majority for any social democratic intervention in the economy, however clever or well-designed. Markets and business must rule unequivocally. Labour had to shed any pretension to intervene, redistribute or overtly promote fairness, and could only govern as a quasi One Nation Conservative party, spending the dividends from economic growth not on tax cuts but improved public services, from which the middle class would benefit too.Thus New Labour. Although the party won a landslide in 1997, paradoxically it won as a beaten tradition. What little social democratic radicalism it possessed, like introducing the minimum wage, were commitments made by the revered but dead John Smith from which it could not escape. It would do small social democratic things such as the public benefit test for charities or introducing SureStart but its only big economic social democratic commitment was to lift public spending on health, education and science. Reform was for public services; not for the private sector. The embrace of a pro-business, pro-minimal regulation, pro-City of London agenda was total. Gordon Brown's speech at Mansion House in June 2007 and Ed Balls's address to the British bankers in October 2006 were paeans to finance, financial innovation, light touch regulation, an FSA committed to promoting City interests (City bankers had been allowed to design its terms of reference) and the efficiency of markets only marginally outflanked by George Osborne and David Cameron. After all, it seemed that everything was working like clockwork. There was prosperity, an ongoing opinion poll lead, improving public services and moderate taxation. The electorate had no appetite for a return to social division and the strident certainties of Thatcherism. The Brownites walked on water, pretending to their party that they were the true custodians of socialism, deriding Blair, while being feted in the City. Then came the credit crunch and near collapse of the British and western banking system. Friday's shocking US unemployment figures were a salutary reminder of how hard it will be for western economies to shake off the deadly legacy of a broken banking system and shattered business confidence. There is no easy prosperity for New Labour to piggyback upon, and no easy appeal to Thatcherite low taxes, light regulation and free markets as the solution. Simultaneously to manage recovery, rebalance the economy and restructure much of the private and public sector in the aftermath of a financial shock of this magnitude requires complex, sophisticated and non-ideological responses. The quest is on for a set of ideas that can deal with the new realities. Politics promises to be a lot more like it was in the 1960s and '70s when parties regularly alternated office, trying to put together something that might work in the face of intractable problems, rather than holding power for three or four consecutive parliaments. Brown's speech was thus even more important than Mandelson's. On first listening, it was another Brown clunker overlong, declaiming rather than arguing, avoiding awkward truths and policy reversals rather than confronting and explaining them. But even his critics acknowledged that, despite all that, it had an unexpected force. Brown, although he would never acknowledge it, had reversed the judgment he made on election night 1992. He publicly and enthusiastically returned to social democracy. He attacked free-market fundamentalism. He insisted that finance should be the servant of business and society rather than its master. Brown was now a social democratic regulator and social democratic builder of a new financial system proposing the creation of an investment corporation. Alongside that he proposed social investment a National Care Service and the democratic overhaul and renewal of British democracy. He answered the question of what Labour stood for and what it wants to do with power. There are gaps Labour has not thought hard about why public initiatives so frequently become self-defeating and oppressive, nor about how to marry state and business more effectively. But the party is on the right track, and will not disintegrate when it loses. There is nothing serious to argue about. Last week may not have stopped a Tory victory, but it made it more likely that in the middle years of the next parliament, Labour will genuinely be challenging for power again. Brown, for all his painful limitations, is keeping Labour together and making it a real contender in 2014 or 2015. It might have been the best that any Labour leader could have done."
11 (willhutton)
0 (Politics)
"The emerging consensus on Tony Blair is that he was a successful to very successful prime minister who made one fatal mistake - Iraq. He should never have allowed his Christian conscience and his anxiety to stand by America to trump the fact that he never got the second UN resolution for which he had fought in order to justify the invasion. He should have stood back and allowed the US to invade by itself. If he had he might still be looking forward to many more years of power today.But that decision had another, more fateful impact: it has made the west's dealings with China much more difficult. In the long run, the character of the Chinese state and whether it abides by the protocols of international law are going to have a much greater impact on the world than Islamist terror, which has been the focus of so much of Blair and Bush's efforts.As it is, China only just stays within the carapace of international law. Its cheap loans to African dictatorships undermine western efforts to promote better government; its desire to secure long-term oil supplies from Iran means it protects the Tehran regime in the United Nations, and it shoots down its own weather satellite without notifying the international community beforehand.This is all within its ambit as a sovereign state - as is its refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol on climate change. But as China grows ever more powerful, it will matter more and more that it accepts the framework of international law. Blair has many achievements to his name. In my view, one of the longest lasting will be the invention of a "liberal labour" tradition - the mirror image of liberal conservatism, and just as big a vote winner. However, it is not just Iraq that sits on the debit side of the ledger; there is the green light that his foreign policy gave China, an authoritarian, one-party state, to behave in the same unilateral way as the US and UK."
End of preview (truncated to 100 rows)

Dataset Card for "guardian_authorship"

Dataset Summary

A dataset cross-topic authorship attribution. The dataset is provided by Stamatatos 2013. 1- The cross-topic scenarios are based on Table-4 in Stamatatos 2017 (Ex. cross_topic_1 => row 1:P S U&W ). 2- The cross-genre scenarios are based on Table-5 in the same paper. (Ex. cross_genre_1 => row 1:B P S&U&W).

3- The same-topic/genre scenario is created by grouping all the datasts as follows. For ex., to use same_topic and split the data 60-40 use: train_ds = load_dataset('guardian_authorship', name="cross_topic_<<#>>", split='train[:60%]+validation[:60%]+test[:60%]') tests_ds = load_dataset('guardian_authorship', name="cross_topic_<<#>>", split='train[-40%:]+validation[-40%:]+test[-40%:]')

IMPORTANT: train+validation+test[:60%] will generate the wrong splits because the data is imbalanced

Supported Tasks and Leaderboards

More Information Needed

Languages

More Information Needed

Dataset Structure

Data Instances

cross_genre_1

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 2.96 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.61 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.57 MB

An example of 'train' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 4
}

cross_genre_2

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 2.96 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.61 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.57 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 1
}

cross_genre_3

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 2.96 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.61 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.57 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 2
}

cross_genre_4

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 2.96 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.61 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.57 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 3
}

cross_topic_1

  • Size of downloaded dataset files: 2.96 MB
  • Size of the generated dataset: 2.23 MB
  • Total amount of disk used: 5.18 MB

An example of 'validation' looks as follows.

{
    "article": "File 1a\n",
    "author": 0,
    "topic": 1
}

Data Fields

The data fields are the same among all splits.

cross_genre_1

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_genre_2

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_genre_3

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_genre_4

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

cross_topic_1

  • author: a classification label, with possible values including catherinebennett (0), georgemonbiot (1), hugoyoung (2), jonathanfreedland (3), martinkettle (4).
  • topic: a classification label, with possible values including Politics (0), Society (1), UK (2), World (3), Books (4).
  • article: a string feature.

Data Splits

name train validation test
cross_genre_1 63 112 269
cross_genre_2 63 62 319
cross_genre_3 63 90 291
cross_genre_4 63 117 264
cross_topic_1 112 62 207

Dataset Creation

Curation Rationale

More Information Needed

Source Data

Initial Data Collection and Normalization

More Information Needed

Who are the source language producers?

More Information Needed

Annotations

Annotation process

More Information Needed

Who are the annotators?

More Information Needed

Personal and Sensitive Information

More Information Needed

Considerations for Using the Data

Social Impact of Dataset

More Information Needed

Discussion of Biases

More Information Needed

Other Known Limitations

More Information Needed

Additional Information

Dataset Curators

More Information Needed

Licensing Information

More Information Needed

Citation Information

@article{article,
    author = {Stamatatos, Efstathios},
    year = {2013},
    month = {01},
    pages = {421-439},
    title = {On the robustness of authorship attribution based on character n-gram features},
    volume = {21},
    journal = {Journal of Law and Policy}
}

@inproceedings{stamatatos2017authorship,
    title={Authorship attribution using text distortion},
    author={Stamatatos, Efstathios},
    booktitle={Proc. of the 15th Conf. of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics},
    volume={1}
    pages={1138--1149},
    year={2017}
}

Contributions

Thanks to @thomwolf, @eltoto1219, @malikaltakrori for adding this dataset.

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