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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."