Friday, August 26, 2005


Conservative leadership

As a Labour voter all my life it's a form of schadenfrude to take an interest in the Conservative leadership elections which happen so regularly. As a person of the left I should exult in their disarray but in practice I think they should have the best possible leader as this will check Blair's excesses and provide the country with a real alternative. So who is the best candidate?

The person most likely to win is not Davis, and not Cameron in my view. The best person is still, by a mile, Kenneth Clarke. He has the confidence and the ability to knock bits of Blair in debate and the experience to manage his party back to electoral ground again after nearly a decade in the wilderness. He is a effortless performer on the media and impressive in any debate. He is also liberal, centrist and an obvious human being who likes birdwatching, jazz, and, a crucial one for me, cricket. But there are problems.
Firstly he is 65; a bit too old these days for a crediblke leader. Remember how the Tory press got to Michael Foot in 1983? He was then 70 and did look older I suppose but it did offer up a flank of attack and Clarke would be vulnerable.
Secondly Clarke is overwieght. This sounds a fattist comment but it matters. In the television age appearance is so important. Robin Cook's appearance was a career limiting factor and it was another factor counting against Foot too.
Thirdly Clarke has a record of being too Europhile for his party activists. Recently has has distanced himself from the euro and the draft constitution but he is still seen as too sympathetic to a body which some Tories see as a malign dictatorship. Finally, he is suspected of being too leftwing, too proto New- Labour perhaps by his party members. Polls show that he is perceived as closer to the centre ground than Howard and the body of his fellow MPs and he is the person who is most liked by the general voter out of the candidates on offer. So he is liked by the voter but not by his party members. A nice dilemma and one which ultimately might do for him.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Pax Americana in decline

Timothy Garton Ash writes an excellent article in todays Gaurdian. In it he compares USA now to UK in 1905 when we were a hyperpower but uneasily so with economic and military competitors clamouring around us and a nasty little war in South Africa. Iraq, he says is the American Boer War though we had nearly half a million men down there compared to the 150,000 in Iraq. Also, we herded a quarter of the Boer population into concentration camps in which many thousands died. So we should reflect on that when we condemn Abu Ghraib. TGA points out how the US is finally beginning to realise how false the war prospectus was and how they have been misled. So far Iran seems the only beneficiary of the changing power situation in that part of the Middle East. On top of thewe changes oil has pushed petrol up to $3 a gallon which to US drivers seems obscenely high. All this makes the US horizon more than a little cloudy at present.

But those who predict a crashing colossus in the near future should note that we survived for 40 years after the above date and even managed to expand our empire before that. It was the second world war which finished off our empire as we sacrificed it to bring down Hitler. China and India now atand as the nations poised to emerge are great powers. China has the second largest foreign currency reserves after Japan. To those who exult in the imminent passing of US greatness TGA points out that usually a transfer of power takes place after a long and bloody war and there is no guarantee that the new superstate will be any better than the USA- it could well be worse.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Replace the armed forces with snipers

The call by Pat Robertson, the US televangalist, for President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to be assassinated, was quite amusing. Not just because the USA is curreently embarked on a war on terror but because this is thelatest of several weird staements by the 75 year old. Last year he reckoned liberal judges to be more of a threat than al-Quaida; he recently stated that feminism encourages women to 'kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.' But his advice to his government reflects a widely held view that special forces can do what it would take a proper army to do, only much quicker and cheaper.

I recall a leftwing Labour MP in the late sixties, John Lee MP for Reading, I think it was, who recommended something similar: get rid of the hideously expensive armed forces and substitute a highly trained team of snipers who would be tasked with killing dictators the world over. I also recall that normally extremely realistic and clear thinking Dennis Healey, suggesting that invading Iraq was a mistake as Saddam could have been more easily picked off by special forces.

The problem with such thinking is that it is unrealistic. Firstly it would be in breach of international law. This might not deter some but governments do usually try very hard to stay within elgal limits- if only to avoid their members facing tribunals of enquiry followed by jail or worse at some point in the future. Secondly, dictators are usually very good at one thing: surviving. Saddam survived a number of assassination attempts and took very careful precautions like never sleeping in the same bed twice before moving to another location. His own bodyguards were also highly trained. Thirdly special forces opoperations only work like clockwork in Hollywood. In practice debacles such as those which happened in Iran in 1978 and in Somalia some years later, tend to happen all too often. The CIA, it is famously recorded, once tried to kill Castro and were reduced to considering an exploding cigar to do the job. It's a nice idea but seductively impractical.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Mo Mowlam's Legacy

Much has been written about Mo Mowlam since her death aged 55 last week. I'm always a bit cynical about such effusions of emotion. Mo played a peripheral role in New Labour and indeed Northern Ireland but the tributes suggested she was as crucial to both as Tony Blair, or perhaps more. Maybe it all goes back to the 2002 party conference when Blair referred to 'our Mo' and the audience gave her a genuine standing ovation. It is said that Blair's staff- not Blair himself- were so discomfitted by a display of popularity which rivalled that of their own dear leader, that they began a 'whispering campaign' against her.

Mo had, of course, had a benign tumour operation in 1997 which had ruined her once graceful looks -there were rumours too that her once 'lively social life'(as the obituaries put it) had included perhaps more lovers than is strictly consistent with being a leading politician (though Lloyd George might have disagreed with that). She had been a university lecturer in politics before becoming a politician proper with a doctorate, so she had some intellectual ability. But her chief contribution to the political world seemed to be a propensity to be irreverent and unconventional- to bestow hugs and kisses and- notoriously- to address former terrorist Martin McGuinness as 'babe'.

Indeed, these qualities probably explained why she won such widespread popularity in the country- the 'common touch' is rare enough among politicians and where it genuinely appears- as with Bill Clinton in the USA- it tends to endear the politician to the voter and make everyone feel they somehow know this figure performing on the national stage. So Mo was the beneficiary of her own warmth and tactile personal gifts- though not all those curmudgeonly Ulster Protestants appreciated them quite as much as the rest of us. But as for running a department, that wouls appear to be something apart. I once interviewed a very senior journalist whose understanding of our poolitics is second to none, who told me he had once attended a briefing by Mo after she left the N. Ireland Office and was a Cabinet Office minister.

This man testified that Mo was unable to think or talk coherently about the issues and appeared not up to the job. His take on the 'whispering campaign' was that it was merely the accurate response of those who had heard or observed her at work and were unimpressed. My own sightings of her on chat shows and the like would tend to reinforce this analysis. Maybe it was connected with the illness or the treatment she received but it never detracted from the real ability she had to express warmth and her unaffected feelings on the political stage and for that she will be long remembered and appreciated.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Morality of Hiroshima bomb

When I was a student who had also seen the film Hiroshima mon Amour, I thought the decision to drop the bomb was a great crime; for killing a hundred thousand civilians and establishing the precedent of use. I was happy then, along with many others of my generation, to condemn the US military and political figures who had decided to drop the bomb. Recently anniversaries of the event and Japan's surrender shortly after the second bomb obliterated Nagasaki, have encouraged me to reconsider the morality of America's action. Such matters do not lend themselves to certainty, except for the unthinking or the bigoted, but I now tend to think the decision was justified, despite its horror and associated slaughter of innocents. I offer three basic arguments to support such a position.

The first reason is purely pragmatic: by ending the war then US troops did not have to invade the Japanese mainland and suffer incalculable losses as the Japanese soldiers fought to the death. Experience in taking Pacific islands like Okinawa as well as the phenomenon of suicide bombers suggest the end game was going to be both protracted and bloody. Add to that the argument that the purpose of the war was to defeat a dangerous set of ideas which were subversive of life and freedom plus to minimise casualties on the allied side and the decision seems unavoidable, though still tragic.

The second reason is that Japan was also seeking to build nuclear weapons and, it seems, would have had no qualms about laying waste our cities should they gain and use them before we did.

Finally, there is the folly of hindsight application of values. Viewed from our present vantage point, the deadly flight of Enola Gay might seem unjustified. But if one projects oneself back to the time it seems perfectly logical. The second world war saw standards of morality deteriorate fairly quickly so that bombing civilians became par for the course as erosion of home morale was deemed a valid objective. It was hard for decision makers to think morally 'out of the box of war'; indeed it was hard for them to think morally at all. Previous air attacks on Japanese cities had wrought damage to human life similar to the death toll at Hiroshima so it was not so unnatural to think in terms of blitzing cities. Anything which reduced home casualties was held to be justified. After so many deaths- went the argument- why worry about the enemy in saving the lives of battle exhausted allied troops?

The second line of argument- that the Nagasaki bomb was in no way justified- is much more difficult to defend and I don't think I would try, as, while the above arguments all apply, the initial explosion was surely sufficient to achieve Japan's surrender.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Indoctination nazi and muslim style

Watching the Channel4documentary, Hitler's Children, I was struck by similarities amd differences between the nature of nazism and the current problem with extremist muslims. Four out of five Germans during the thirties were members of the Hitler Youth; the programmes detailed the intensive indoctination they received- sporting, social, proto military and, always, the glorification of Hitler himself. Consequently they were easy clay to mould into the children's Division, which fought efectively resisting the D Day invasion force. Also the young neophytes who defended Berlin as the Russians entered. They were prepared to lay down their lives for their fatherland and hundreds, thousands, did so. Some willingly executed innocent Jewish prisoners and committed other atrocities, rather like the young members of African militias in the Congo and Sierra Leone. Some former members spoke to the camera of their horror at what they had become and their remorse at what they had done in the name of false values.

Muslim recruits to extremist groups seem to undergo a similar process of indoctrination whereby they believe giving their lives for Islam is a noble thing to do. They do not join vast organisation. Rather, they seem to have entered a process when at vulnerable ages or stages in their lives; some middle class and angry with their parents, others already deviating and detached from society, even to extent of being part of the criminal world. Some travelled to Afganistan or Palestine and were drawn in at this time. The typical form of organisation is a small discussion group or cell which forms, developes and becomes determined to do something to defend muslims under attack in the Middle east and elsewhere.

Muslim activists do not undergo training in the field but plan specific acts, often briefed by instructions on the internet or, we know little about this, some kind of 'mastermind' or charmismatic teacher. The process is almst wholly different but the results not dissimilar. Wheras Hitler's constructions were defeated on the battlefields of Europe, the challenge of the radical muslims can only be met through a combination of understanding the grievances which lead young people to commit themselves to such action; squeezing out the support for such actions in their respective local communities; and infiltrating the dangerous groups out of which cells emerge.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Can the Conservatives arise from the ashes?

It's an odd irony that Mrs Thatcher aimed to destroy Labour but succeeded only in destroying socialism while her unlikely heir, Labour PM Tony Blair, has not only finished the job of burying socialism but has also done a fair job, to date, of destroying the Conservative Party. Are they completely finished? The recent report from the Policy Exchange was fairly damning but did hold out the possibility of resurrection if urgent changes were made. However it didn't specify what changes were needed. So I'll have a modest stab at it, just out of interest as I'm a Labour supporter myself of course.

1. Managerialism. Much has been written about refining a new Conservative ideology but I think this is a red herring. To the extent that there is an ideology, Labour has already usurped and colonised much of what passed for Conservatism, though with essential differences which I expalin below. Rather, we seem to live in times where ideology is not much in dispute; efficient managerialism is what politics is currently about.

2.What is this consensus?
a)acceptance of a mixed economy with an emerging emphasis on service rather than manufacturing industries.
b)low inflation via the mechanism of an independent Bank of England.
c)employment laws which favour the employer much more than under previous Labour governments.
d)public services which are funded to a level approximating to the average in the EU i.e. much higher than under the Conservatives. This effectively rules out taxes much below 40% of national income.
e) acceptance of privatisation and of internal markets in many public services as the most efficient way of 'reform'.
e)an attitude to the EU which is at best 'arm's length' and at worst 'eurosceptical'.
f)a supportive attitude to the USA in most of what any president might wish to do.
g)an atittude civil order which is less liberal than in the past and might even entail the ignoring of the Human Rights Act.

3. Blair and the Middle Ground
One of the superb graphs and tables produced by the Policy Exchange revealed how voters perceive themselves, the parties and their leaders on a scale of 100 points to the left and 100 points to the right. Howard and Tory MPs was seen as 52 points to the right with Ken Clarke on 24. Gordon Brown was seen as 22 points to the left, Labour MPs as 25, Charles Kennedy at 15 but where was the Prime Minister? Perfect positioning at 4 points to the right. He has assiduously worked his way into a place which dominates the centre ground, where most elections are won and, for the Conservatives, lost.

4. Way Ahead for Conservatives.
a) accept the new consensus- as Labour did the essence of Thatcherism during trhe nineties. But don't try merely to emulate Blair
b) Drop any attempt to reduce taxes dramatically.
c) Concentrate on ineficiency and value for money issues on which there is good potential for public support. The James Report before the last election was a sound idea but was presented in a way Labour could either rubbish or steal.
d)work on policies attractive to women and younger voters e.g. initiatives to make mortgages cheaper for public sector workers. [I recall a similar scheme in 1974 which convinced some friends of mine to vote Tory, even though they were inclined to be Labour supporters.]
e)Rebrand the party to lose its backward looking, intolerant, old fashioned image from which the Policy Exchange report so graphically revealed it as suffering. This is a difficult task but will entail: more women and ethnic minority candidates,less Eurobashing rhetoric and- the crucial first step- a younger, more empathetic leader.
f) if all the above are not possible, then disband the party and advise members to join Labour.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


Robin Cook Appreciated

It was a real shock to hear of Robin Cook's death. He had become so much a part of everyday political life it seems hard to think how we can not have him around. His career is significant for a number of reasons I think.

1. He was part of that clutch of hugely talented young politicians who came down from Scotish universities in the seventies- John Smith, George Robertson, Gordon Brown and, a little later, Alastair Darling. He was close to Smith and figured highly in his Shadow Cabinets but he fell out with Brown-allegedly because Cook did not show enough gratitude when Brown helped in an early campaign- though he was able to make it up in recent years and most expected him to take a senior portfolio under Brown, once he stepped into the main job. He was initially against devolution but came to accept it in the late eighties, thus helping the left to achieve unity on the issue as he also did on accepting membership of the EEC in the eighties.

2. He was the leading parliamentarian of his generation, truly excoriating in opposition and rock solid safe when in government. His greatest moment came when he was handed the Scott Report-6000 pages- a mere two hours before the Commons deabte on it and succeeded in impaling Major's government with probably the greatest speech in parliament during the nineties.We now learn however that Cook had prepared some two thirds of the speech beforehand through hoovring up details from the Inquiry and merely adding key points from the Report during his speech; but few could have equalled this or delivered the speech with his devastating blend of wit and contempt. He won the Spectator awrd of Parliamentarian of the Year in two successive years. One problem with Cook's outstanding intellect was that he tended to discourage close friendships. He could be prickly and alienated some in the party by his brusque and occasionally arrogant manner. He might have needed those friends if he had continued to aspire to high office. In 1994 he did consider standing for the leadership but by then Blair's bandwagon was well on its way. Besides, as he once confessed; 'I am not good looking enough to be leader of the party.' Sadly, perhaps, this was true, but an indictment of our image obsessed times.

3. Foreign Secretary 1997-2001. Cook surprised his civil servants at the Foreign Office in 1997 by stating he would pursue an 'ethical foreign policy'. There is no doubt that the decisions to intervene in Kosovo and Sierra Leone fell in this category and can be put down as successes in that they diminished suffering substantially. However his record on arms sales was not so exemplary. The Independent on Sunday in July 2002 revealed that Britian had been selling arms to nearly 50 countries which where conflict was judged to be endemic including Israel, Pakistan, Turkey, Angola and Colombia. If he did not achieve a genuine ethical foreign policy then he did at least achieve a genuine change of emphasis.

Conclusion: Cook was possibly the most talented complete professional politician in Labour's ranks after Tony Blair. He was cleverer than virtually any of them and a better speaker- though Brown would push him on both counts. He commanded a forensic intellect and would have made a fortune as a barrister. But he possibly lacked the ability to express warmth and to attract close friendships- still a perrequisite for those seeking the top of the greasy pole.

Despite this he did have a 'hinterland' of outdoor pursuits and horse racing. I recall meeting him at an awards ceremony when my firend Paul Haigh was racing journalist of the year. He was charming and solicitous of my interest in politics. He agreed Neil Kinnock, whilst a lovely man, did not have the intellectual self confidence to survive for long in the highest post. He reckoned John Smith was a better replacement. But he cannot be replaced and this is a source of great regret not just for Labnour but for the country as a whole.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


New publications on state of the world

Today's Guardian provides news about a number of fascinating new publications:
1. Richard Haas-former senior adviser to both Clinton and Bush- has written a book entitled, The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's Course. According to Haas, America should change its style and direction of leadership. He suggests it should abandon hubristic ideas about American exceptionalism so that US can co-operate with emerging powers like China and established ones in Europe.
'The US does not need the world's permission to act, but it does need the world's support to succeed. No single country, no matter how powerful can contend successfully on its own with transnational challenges.' To effect this the US should decide not to develop new nuclear weapons, 'abandon the Bush doctine of pre-emptive war and regime change, break the climate changing oil habit and recommit to international rule making bodies like the UN.'[Simon Tisdal Guardian 4th August]

2. Peter Galbraith,former US ambassador in new York Review of Books condemns US 'arrogance and ignorance' in Iraq which could produce a country broken into Kurds Shias and Sunnis. He advises a loose cofederal solution in which the three elements govern themselves.
3. Brian Urquart, former UN senior official reviews Haas's book and points to the power of corporate lobbying which would work against any such changes of policy. He concludes by asking whether the world would accept US leadership, even if it began to make the right turns of direction, considering the mistakes made in the recent past, i.e. is it too late and has the US blown any chance at all of establishing a stable world order?
4. A historian of globalisation, James Kuntsler, asks whether globalisation is not merely a phase which the world is going through and is about to vacate. He argues in the Guardian that

'The American suburban juggernaut can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources inthe history of the world. The mortgages, bonds, real estate investments and derivative financial instruments associated with this tragic enterprise must make the judicious goggle with wonder and nausea. Add to this grim economic picture a farfulng military contest, already underway, really for control of the world's remining oil, and the scene grwos darker. Two thirds of that oil is is in the possession of people who resent the west, many of whom have vowed to destroy it..... Viewed through this lens the sunset of of the current phase of globalisation seems dreadfully close to the horizon. The American people have enjoyed the fiesta, but the blue light specail orgy of easy motoring, limitless air-conditioning and supercheap products made by factory slaves far away is about to close down.'

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Policy Exchange report on Conservatives

The Policy Exchange has produced a remarkable report on the state of the Conservative party. It has very little text and comprises some 36 tables and graphs. It begins with a page marked simply 'the case for change' and then proceeds to make its case. We see how the party has 'flatlined' in the polls from late 1993 onwards with scarcely a peak thoughout the decade and halfway into the next. Those who claim party supporters have just not voted aree presented with a table showing 48% of non voters in 2005 would have voted Labour, 23% Lib Dem and only 21% Consrvative.

Another table shows how in 2005 only slight increases in the vote were registered in southern regions plus Wales and Scotland while in the Midlands and the North there were reductions. Those Conservatives who exulted at their 31 gains were reminded that 18 of them were won because Labour voters switched to Lib Dems and others and only 18 because Labour voters changed to Conservatives.

Those optimists who are waiting for Blair to go have to accept the evidence that his near certain successorm Gordon Brown is even more popular and hugely more trusted: polls show Labour with Brown as leader would have attracted 48% of the vote in 2005 compared with the 37% Blair managed. More worrying perhaps is that the well springs of the Conservatives' huge historical success are drying up. While the party had led Labour among ABC1 voters by 35% in 1974 and stayed at 30% plus until 1992, it collapsed to 5% in 1997 and sunk to 1% in 2005. Similar stories are told by a look at other key demographic groups like women and the 25-45 age group. Age profiles revealed that increasingly older people were those who voted Conservative; moreover while 67% claimed 'Britain was a better country to live in 20 or 30 years ago.' compared with 51% of non Tory voters. The threat of the Lib dems is illustrated by the 189 seats in which that party came second in 2005 compared with 109 in 2001.

The table on values shows 52% of voters felt that Labour and the Lib Dems 'shared my values' compared with 34% who said the same of the Conservatives. After this a devastating battery of evidence the rport confronts Conservatives with the bald statement: 'No Change, No Chance'. Talk about pictures saying more than a thousand words.

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