Tuesday, January 31, 2006


'Centre Ground' v 'Common Ground'

David Cameron made an interesting speech yesterday in which he defined himself as the true heir of Blair, who in his turn, was the heir of Margaret Thatcher. He dedicated his party to occupying the centre ground in which most elections are won. But not all. And that is the problem so many rightwing Conservatives have with the Etonian wunderkind. They harken back to the 1979 election and the seventies when Sir Keith Joseph explained his idea of the 'common ground'. By this he meant the values which united British people of all classes and which were- if people only realised it- well to the right of the political centre at the time.

I recall being asked by the 'Mad Monk' if such an aproach was 'intellectually respectable' when he came to deliver an address to students at Manchester University in 1975. I replied that I thought he was wrong about the 'commoness' of the common ground; in other words, I thought his idea was wrong. He made some mega mistakes and faded from view while the housewife from Grantham romped home and went on to champion his idea of the common ground to the point when history had been changed. That is the problem for Conservatives. When all signposts indicated left, Mrs T and her cohorts defied convention and carved out a new approach which won power, changed the country and, if we believe the true believers, changed the world.

So now we hear the likes of Norman Tebbitt and Simon Heffer reminding their dishevelled troops that Cameron's Way involves compromise, fudging, tacking to the left. This is not what the glorious Margaret did. She was bold, brave, magnificent and spoke the truth as she saw it. Compared with her Dave is a typical old fashioned politician, testing the wind and calibrating his line accordingly. Why not be true to the real Tory message like the party's lost leader had been? This is what confuses so many died -in- the- wool Conservatives and dims their enthusiasm for this new untested youth whom their party elected with such acclaim.

Surely he doesn't really mean to re-align his party somewhere to the left of Ted Heath? This way lies eventual defeat they predict and sorrowfully turn to their Melanie Phillips' article in the Daily Mail. The problem here is the inaccurate historical parallel. Mrs Thatcher was whistling in the wind during the late seventies and dismissed by many as too far to the right to have any chance of beating that tough old pro, Jim Callaghan. But the thing which transformed her chances, was not the innate strength of her ideas but the implosion of Labour ones.

Their prostration to the unions throughout the decade had sapped the economy and helped nudge it down the slope of uncompetitiveness, bad design and woeful inefficiency. Having weathered the hyper inflation of the middle part of the decade, voters were appalled at the 'winter of discontent' and the apparent crumbling of the economy at the hands of the unions. This is what gave Thatcherism its relevance and edge: the spectacular failure of Labour. As long as the goverment was doing alright, voters were prepared to put up with it- but when chaos engulfed the nation the mood changed- as Callaghan himself noted as he drove to ask the Queen to dissolve parliament in 1979. From being out on the right, Conservatives suddenly seemed to be making the correct diagnoses and offering hopeful, if tough prescriptions for the much needed revival of economy and nation.

Compare that with the present and we find the analogy does not fit. Blair's governments have been disappointing and he has made some major errors- I would include invading Iraq in that list- but the country is not in chaos, the economy is not in free-fall and the 'emergency treatment' that was Thatcherism, is not relevant. Instead, it's back to traditional democratic politics, the steady salami slices of public opinion which have to be won from the opposition until a bid for victory can be mounted. This is the business Cameron is about and he is right to ignore those dinasoars from the eighties.

Monday, January 30, 2006


ID Cards: the road to ruin for Blair?

Even supposing Blair extracts something like his original education Bill from the legislative process, he will face another sullen phalanx of dissent over his palns fdor ID Cards. I blogged on this last summer but I thought a more detailed coverage of the topic is now required.

This policy saga- for that is what it has become- first entered the public domain in February 2002 when David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, announced an ‘entitlement card’ to prevent benefit fraud and deter terrorism. The idea soon attracted vitriolic criticism, if only for its estimated cost of over a billion pounds and its erosion of civil liberties. In consequence the idea was repackaged to be introduced in stages with a full decision on a compulsory scheme delayed until 2013. Many suggested the idea should be dropped but instead of dropping the scheme after the 2005 election, when it was eminently pssible, it was submitted to parliament at the end of June. This time the card was to include biometric information relating to the subject’s face, finger prints and iris ; it was passed on its 2nd Reading but the government’s slimmed majority was further reduced, by rebels-mostly from the leftwing Campaign Group- to a mere 31. In The Guardian 28th June 2005 Martin Kettle discussed objections by David Davis, Charles Clarke’s then Conservative Shadow Home Secretary who had suggested the idea had to pass the test of four penetrating questions:
i) Will it work to achieve stated goals? Certainly it would help prevent benefit and identity fraud but few believe, even in government, that it would deter terrorists, thus producing an at best opaque case for ID cards in the first place. Debates in the Lords during January made the case seem more 'dubious’ the longer they continued according to The Guardian 18th January. In a letter to the same paper 23rd January, the minister in charge, Tony McNulty, argued the card would be a major blow against financial and benefit fraud: ‘linking a unique biometric to personal data means people have control over access to their details.'
ii) Is the government capable of introducing such a system? IT based schemes have turned out to be notoriously difficult to introduce successfully and huge amounts had been wasted by the NHS on new data processing which had proved calamitous as had the tax credit scheme which had resulted in huge overpayments being claimed back from recipients.
iii) Is it cost effective? Initial estimates of the cost exceeded one billion but that soon tripled, with the government’s best estimate of the cost to the public of the card- in combination with a passport- being £93. Over half of respondents to an ICM poll supported the scheme at such a price in June 2005. The Home Office calculated the cost at £6billion over ten years but a careful study by the LSE placed the total cost at £19bn or even £24bn. While rebutting the LSE estimate as absurd, the government however resisted giving detailed costings on the grounds such commercially sensitive information would prevent the public receiving the best possible deal when contracts were issued. Lord Crickhowell in the Lords debate inevitably accused the government of offering the taxpayer a ‘pig in the poke’. McNulty claimed government figures were correct and the LSE wholly wrong.
iv) Can civil liberties be safeguarded? The Information Commissioner , Richard Thomas, thinks not. He addressed the Home Affairs Select Committee in June 2004 and confessed himself ‘increasingly alarmed’ by the plan. He did not see a ‘sufficient rationale’ for recording or the whole population: name, address, date of birth, gender, nationality plus biometric details from finger and eye scans. The idea had ‘potential for significant detrimental impact on the day to day lives of individuals.’

So, ID Cards appear to be too expensive, too riskily experimental, and far too dangerous a violation of civil liberties. But, at the time of writing the government seems determined to push through a ‘flagship’ piece of legislation. Maybe, the signs of the deathwish are becoming more dramatic- I very much doubt this idea will ever become law.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Will Blair go for broke over Education?

There are quite a few theories about Tony Blair's mindset just at present. One says he is demob happy and determined, if he cannot persuade his party, to go out unbashed and guns blazing. Martin Kettle in The Guardian today, comments on how far he has moved from the days when he was dubbed a consensual focus group politician. Kettle points out how he seems almost to seek out conflict as if he is some kind of adrenaline junkie, drawn to the very 'high wire politics' he referred to in his recent press conference when describing education reform. Certainly, the Education Bill- when we finally get to see it- promises to contain elements repellent to many in his own party and has prompted remarkable degrees of opposition from former trustees, Lady (Estelle) Morris, Lord (Neil) Kinnock and... who's this here....? why, Alastair Campbell. Will Blair decide this is an occasion when it's 'better to be right and lose' as opposed as he recently said, to being wrong and win?

My feelings are that-while he does indeed seem to be drawn to reckless projects- this will not be the political route he will follow over this hugely imnportant issue. The unspoken threat of a reshuffle reported by Philip Webster in today's Times, suggests he is closely in charge of the fight to win through with his plans for a new breed of 'trust schools', independent of local government control. In the same article we learn that Brown is working very constructively with Blair over this reform and that the report of the Education Select Committee which has recommended alternative approaches might offer opportunities for skilfully calibrated concessions. To rely on Conservative votes to win through would be a disaster, summoning up Labour folk memories of the hated Ramsay MacDonald, and rendering him politically impotent during a concluding period of his premiership during which he hopes to achieve so much of what so far has not been achieved. Blair is going to play the traditional political game and not go for broke. If he needs to compromise, he will.

Friday, January 27, 2006


Gay Scandals, Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberals

One might almost say that a kind of justice has been done over Simon Hughes. In 1983 he must have known that Liberal attacks on Peter Tatchell were outrageously homophobic yet he allowed them to take place and took his seat partly on the strength of them. Now his acceptance of that campaign- unacceptable even if passive- has come back to deliver a mighty swipe across the face of his career. He lied about this sexuality and automatically raised questions of his suitability for high office. Can we trust such a man? The answer can scarcely be yes.

At least Kennedy- we can assume- was in the grip of an addictive condition when he lied about his problem but no such excuse exists for Hughes. Why did he not come clean? I have a theory about people like Hughes and Mandelson and even Matthew Parris. They grew up in the era when it was illegal to be a practising gay person, when the stigma was deep and life scarring. They must have been relieved to mature into a more tolerant atmosphere, but they were atill reluctant to risk the possible odium of coming out. Like Kenneth Willaims too, they may have internalised society's disapproval and developed a degree of self loathing. Hughes referred to his homosexual activities as 'mistakes'- better to feel and admit no shame as the likes of Chris Smith and Ben Bradshaw have done with impunity.

It is all such a mess for the Liberal Democrats. Yet it should be recalled that the biggest ever scandal- in my view- in British politics, occurred some thirty years ago over another homosexual Liberal, Jeremy Thorpe. If the plot of that scandal, involving a plan to 'whack', 'rub out' or otherwise 'hit' Norman Scott, who could not keep qiet about this affair with the Liberal leader, had been pitched to Hollywood, no one would have touched it as it was so unbelievably unbelievable. Only the dog was shot in the end- was it called Rinka? Lib dems have much to be grateful for that at least there is no dog involved this time.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Ming next in line for skeletons to be revealed?

Revelations that Simon Hughes is also gay come as no surprise to those of us who recall the bitter exchanges during the Bermondsey election in 1983 when Hughes beat Peter Tatchell- to some extent, said the leader of Outrage's supporters at the time, through the use of homophobic smears. Being a 54 year old bachelor and declaring one's straightness, even citing women to whom one had proposed, also seemed the perfect lead up to today's admissions.

So poor old Lib Dems- Charles, the problem drinker, Oaten, the user of rent boys(and practioner- if the blogs are to be believed, of the most ingeniously filthy sexual activities I've ever heard of) and now now Hughes, admitting his previous denials were lies. If he had come clean from the start he would almost certainly have avoided any damage.What else can happen? Bad news comes in threes we are told so maybe LiB dems have received their quota but, I wonder if Ming has any skeletons in his cupboard? Happily for the third party, he looks too strait laced, old fashioned and, frankly, boring, to be harbouring any suppressed revelations of deviance, sexual or otherwise.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Gorgeous George about to meet double nemesis?

I get the feeling that two rather unpleasant things are about to happen to George Galloway: the first is expulsion from the Big Brother house and the second the major four strong Serious Fraud Office enquiry into his alleged benefitting from receipt of oil from Saddam Hussein. Galloway has always struck me as a dodgy geezer- those sharp suits, the bling, the permatan- and his conduct in the BB house has not endeared him to me or, I suspect, anyone else. Sure, it's the ultimate in fatuity but I watched a bit last night just to see what the fuss was about.

Gorgeous George was having a go at Michael Barrymore: aggressively, relentlessly, somewhat brutally. And for no clear reason. The idea is that the public vote out inmates they don't like till the one remaining picks up the cash. So the weird menagerie of characters do what they think the public will like to win favour. Barrymore has seemed, by all accounts, to be too close to the addictive illness which ruined his showbiz career- I saw a picture of him after he had broken eggs over his head. Why did George think such a sustained attack would win him advantage? I think maybe he couldn't help himself.

One earlier clip of the show has revealed Barrymore weeping in a corner. An easy target which no one would wish to criticise or stop to attack? Not to Galloway who tucked into this broken man with real venom, at one point repeating 'Pour me, poor me...' in a bid both to ridicule the man's self pity- which is there to see- and mock his addiction. The exchange was not edifying or entertaining and revealed the Scot as the bully he really is. If the watching public has any sensitivity they will cast this man out this evening when I understand another ejection is slated to occur. Then he can come out and refute- in that same hectoring tone, no doubt- the allegations which, according to the Guardian today seem formidably well supported by documentation. He won his last libel case against a newspaper which accused him of this crime; I get a feeling this time they are going to nail him.

All a great shame as Galloway is a talented politician who, could have been a minister- some have even suggested Foreign Secretary- had he not been in my view, such an egotistical attention seeking maverick. His footnote in history and the high poiint of his life will remain that roasting he gave the US Senators over Iraq.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Tory Advance Stalling?

I have no doubt that the entry of David Cameron onto the political scene has caused much excitement and opened up a great many new possibilities. The implosion of the Lib Dem leadership, for a start, is partly attributable to the impact of the wunderkind. But as the weeks have past- and it's been some six of them now- I get the feeling that the onward rush of 'New Toryism' has faded. Some polls were showing the Conservatives four points ahead in December but today's poll in The Guardian shows a lead of barely one while the Lib dems are not too far adrift at 19. For the new sexy message to be continuing its early tsunami like dynamism I would have expected a lead of six or seven points at least for the opposition in the third term of a government which is divided, unpopular and facing almost certain defeat over its key education reforms.

Rupert Murdoch, always a keen sniffer of the political winds, did not endorse Cameron but rather, criticised him fo not making his position sufficiently clear. And then today we see George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor, shuffling tax cuts- that sine qua non of popular Conservatism- further down the pack so that 'stability' or 'sorting out' any mess in the economy, 'will have to take precedence over any promises of tax cuts.'

As soon as policy becomes refined in any way, suddenly Dave's brave new world seems very much like the old familiar one we know so well of compromises and obsfuscation. And remember this, because of the bias in the voting system towards Labour, caused by the piling up of 'wasted' votes in safe Tory seats, the Conservatives will have to beat Labour by upwards of 7 percentage points before they can command a proper majority. My guess has not changed for some time that the next election will see a hung parliament with all the delights of coalitions and alliances to keep us political junkies happy. The local elections in May are awaited with particular interest.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Lembit Opik and lost causes

The Liberal Democrats seem to have hit a run of bad luck, with Charles Kennedy, the most successful Liberal leader since Lloyd George, departing because of an unfortunate drink problem. Now it's Mark Oaten, an energetic and ambitious front bencher, who has stepped down because the News of the World-who else?- has exposed a six month affair he had with a male prostitute. Bad luck often seems to run in sequences I've thought -when losing at cards or any game in which luck matters- and the poor old Lib Dems are in the middle of the opposite of a 'roll'.

The only comfort is that luck seems to be cyclical and all parties cop for it eventually. Tony Blair, if you read Seldon's biography, was incredibly lucky at the start of his career, especially getting the nomination for Sedgefield, late in the day just before the 1983 election. But the one aspect of recent Lib Dem travails is the slightly lugubrious figure of Lembit Opik, the man with the starngest name in British politics. His special interest is in setting up warning systems against extra-terrestial objects hurtling towards the planet.

Maybe his name suggests some extra terrestiality himself. But his record so far in his party's scandals is that he was the only person prepared to stand by Kennedy, even though it was obvious he was finished. And he was the only person to support Oaten in hbis bid for the leadership. Bad luck is contagious; Lembit needs to ward it off by acquiring a lucky rabbit's foot I suggest.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Crime really is coming down

Crime is something which concerns everyone and is always a political football, especially at election times. But is the situation as bad as we are often led to believe? Certainly it used to be bad. The BBC Panorama programme on 2 August 1993 revealed how widespread the perception of crime is in the UK. In a study commissioned by the BBC, majorities were found who had been burgled in the previous year and who expected to be burgled again. Crime is ubiquitous and all-pervading. Many people can recall a different era when it was safe to leave a car unlocked for half an hour or more or to leave doors unlocked at night. Not now. In 1921, a mere 103,000 notifiable offences were recorded; by 1979, the number was 2.5 million; by 1993, it had increased to an alarming 5.7 million, a 128 per cent increase in fourteen years. During the mid-1990s the figures began to fall, although the first two years of the new millennium witnessed a new upward curve.
According to the British Crime Survey, a survey of victims, not reported offences, (and widely regarded by criminologists as the most reliable indicator of crime trends) 1992, 94 per cent of all notified crimes were against property, while 5 per cent were crimes of violence. By 2002 the BCS showed, contrary to recorded figures, a surprising drop back down to the levels of the early 1980s.
Figures for 1998 exceeded 5 million but reflected a new way of recording crime that counted every crime suffered by a victim, e.g. a man stealing six cars is now recorded as six offences not one. In addition, new categories of crime were recorded, including ‘possession of drugs’ and ‘common assault’. This tended to inflate crime figures misleadingly.

Using the ‘old rules’, the 1998 figures revealed the sixth successive annual fall, although the subsequent increases up to 2002 were relatively small. From there annual BCS figures showed surprisingly large reductions. Figures for domestic burglary fell by one fifth during the twelve months from 2003-4 to 2004-5; vehicle thefts fell by 11 per cent during the same period and violent crime by 7 per cent. The figures recorded by police tend to be less cheering as they are often in conflict with the Home Office’s BCS. So, for example, Home Office experts challenge that violent crime has really increased and attribute the difference to changes in reporting and recording practices. Hazel Blears, the Home office minister added, back in 2005, that the pattern of crime recording had changed with people more likely than before to report low-level scuffles to the police and to the ‘increased activity of police on Friday and Saturday nights in city centres.’

Reductions in burglary though matched exactly, prompting the assistant director of Home Office research, Jon Simmons, to note at the time that it was the biggest fall registered since 1915, bringing overall numbers back to the level of 1981. This means the risk of being burgled had declined from once every 58 years from a high of once every 27 years in 1995. Moreover, apparent increases in sexual crimes were explicable, according to the Home Office, by the fact that a new crime- indecent exposure- had been added to this category. Using BCS figures the overall reduction in crime since the 1995 peak, was a massive and unprecedented 44 per cent.
And yet figures for fear of crime show that over half the public think crime is still increasing and not reducing as it almost certainly is. maybe our police are not as bad as they are often painted?

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Violence as Political Strategy

The revelation yesterday that a breakaway group from Father's 4 Justice were planning to kidnap 5 yeear old Leo Blair comes as something of a shock. Hitherto this group, founded by Matt O'Connor in 2002, to improve access for fathers not allowed access to their children, had indulged in highprofile stunts with members dressed as super heroes. So we had David Chick dressed as Spider Man atop a crane on Tower Bridge. It caused huge inconvenience but everyone shrugged and rather admired the intrepid Brit doing something typically eccentrically British.

More stunts followed but then, in May 2004 came the bombing of Blair in the Commons with purple flour packed into condoms. It was a clear step up the ladder of the peaceful-violent spectrum. And now this. Matt O'Connor is furious and says he'll close down his group now that extremists have undermined its credibility and efficacy. But it does open up an interesting question of whether violence can achieve worthwhile objectives.

Writing in The Guardian, 14th November 2005, columnist Gary Younge discussed the riots devastating French suburbs and considered efficacy of violent means to achieve political ends. He quoted African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s aphorism that ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ He pointed out that the mostly unemployed ethnic minorities, living in rundown estates and suffering acute racial discrimination, had nothing to lose. Partly because of this, maybe their arson, theft plus a murder or two immediately won government concessions designed to alleviate their problems: better employment possibilities, tax break for companies in sink estates, lump sums for the jobless who return to work, extra teachers and 10,000 scholarships to encourage brighter pupils to stay on at school. Younge comments ‘none of this would have happened without the riots.’

Any amount of peaceful measures would have attracted sympathetic feelings and closer attention but it was the damage to property and the threat to life which galvanized the French government. He goes on to say that ‘When all non-violent, democractic means of achieving a just end are unavailable, redundant or exhausted, rioting is justifiable,’ But he goes on to add: ‘Rioting should be neither celebrated nor fetishised, because it is a sign not of strength but of weakness. Like a strike, it is often the last and most desperate weapon available to those with the least power.’

He warns that rioting easily becomes an end in itself and something which can polarize, divide and set loose murder and mayhem in society. He issues something like a partial endorsement of violence as a political weapon urging that it be used with restraint and economy. Yet, critics might suggest to him, such methods are effective only because they threaten such irrational and cataclysmic spirals into chaos. The problem is that using the threat of chaos to win concessions is perilously close to unleashing the real thing. Maybe violence is too hot a technique to handle for all but the desperate in conditions that are unambiguosly unacceptable.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Modern society less trusting

A new book on our social life by the Young Foundation- recently set up in the name of the social researcher Michael Young and called Porcupines in Winter- has produced a fascinating collection of essays edited by Alessandro Buofino and the former most influential number 10 adviser, Geoff Mulgan. Comparisons are made with the fifties- the decade of my own childhood- and the present day. During the fifties I can recall the closeness of the Shropshire village in which I lived and the degree of support my mother received as a school teacher struggling to bring up three children on her own. And yes, we did not lock the doors at night and crime was virtually non-existent in the village and surrounding areas. The only deviant behaviour occurred on a Saturday night outside the village hall when local lads- boozed up in Shrewsbury- would fight each other, often over girls at the dance.

Families were close knit- in my village most families had relations close by; in Bethnall Green each old person had 13 relations living within a mile and over half had a married child living within a five minute walk. These days old people tend to live alone and suffer acute loneliness. The economy has changed. In 1881 Slough had only 13 per cent working in manufacturing; by the 70s the figure was over half; but by 2000 it was back down to 16 per cent, the new activities being mostly service industries. But while we have many more 'super rich' we also have a stratum of people at the bottom who eke out insecure lives ether as part-time workers or as the unemployed. And whilst in the fifties working class communities contained quite a few people with experience of leadership- as foremen, union oficials or non commissioned officers in the military, these days it's possible to find not a single person living in similar communities. Consequently respect for the working class has declined-its white elements are dismissed by the midle classes as 'riff-raff' or racist whilst its multicutural elements are widely feared as subversive.

And we don't trust each other so much. In the fifties 60 per cent of people polled said that other people could usually 'be trusted'; now the figure is a mere 29 per cent. Why should this be? Publicity is given to the activities of paedophiles which was never the case in the past and children are kept at home in consequence. Much of the communal playing on streets and socialising outside has disappeared. Neighbourliness is in decline with many people actively dsiliking their fellow citizens and wishing to live separately. It seems we are more misanthropic generally, more likely to bully colleagues at work or indulge in road or air rage. And we fear crime, despite its relatively low incidence and most people perceive it as rising rather than falling as most of the indicators show. We are generally more insecure: the result of wider media coverage of crime, terrorist outrages and misbehaving drunken youth.

What can be done to alleviate these shortcomings? The book suggests a number of ways forward: decentralising power to local communities; discouraging the hostility towards clients in many public services; design buildings and infrastructure which encourages contact and cooperation. The authors admit that reversing these trends is a big task. They can say that again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Japan and the Workaholic Ethos

We often read or hear about the things which unite us between nations- love of peace, the desire to live comfortably, have children- but a piece in today's paper caught my eye and reminded me how incredibly different cultures really are throughout the world. One of the uniting features I would have put money on was the desire of everyone worldwide, to get away from work and enjoy time pursuing hobbies, travelling, or even- my favourite- not doing very much at all. But the article in The Guardian today shows that we vary enormously in the amount of holiday time we are firstly allowed and then secondly choose take. It seems France tops the league of holidayers with an average of 39 days a year; then comes Germany with 27; UK gives 23; and USA, capital of the capitalist work ethic, a measly 12. Japan provides 18 but on average its workers take fewer than 9 days holiday. Why is this so? I ask (almost hysterically).

The most important reason is that, based on ancient aspects of its culture, modern Japan has developed an ethos of collective service-the idea that everyone has to contribute to the common purpose. This means that workers voluntarily turn in early and work late, every day they can manage just to stop feeling guilty. Amazed? I am. A further factor is that employers exploit this ethos and reinforce it by equating loyalty and assiduity with long hours at the desk. 57 year old Terumasa Yoshido starts work at 5.0. am and often finishes at 2.0am and there are hundreds of corporate slaves who behave the same way. Japan has, it has to be said been staff cutting to recapture its position of dominance, so remaining staff often has to work harder to maintain eficiency. But Japan needs more workers to support its ageing population and long hours discourage time with family. As a result families are few and far between. Young couples are so tired by long hours that they neglect the effortful business of procreation and the annual birth rate is currently barely over one child per couple. So acute is the problem that Kuniko Imuguchi, the minster with responsibility for raising the birthrate(yes, I know, there's a joke there somewhere) is going to introduce a bill to make the taking of one's full complement of days off compulsory. Even more amazed? Same here.

Just think of the way we approach our jobs over here. Most people I know in my field enjoy work but cannot wait to get away at weekends or to laze on beaches whenever they can. In the academic profession we are used to some colleagues apparently enjoying more leave than work. They get up pretty late, wander into their department just before a long lunch and then repair home for leisurely hours reading, eating and later, chatting in the pub. And these same people can complain endlessly of the pressure, the exhaustion, the unrelently grind of teaching at a university. They ought to try emigrating to Japan. The truth is we really are different and it's not surprising we have conflict from time to time; maybe it's surprising we rub by with so little overt misunderstanding and conflict.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Media under the John Lloyd Microscope

Much has ben written about the role of the media, especially since the David Kelly affair, so I offer the following analysis, prompted by discovering a major feature on the topic in the Media Guardian, from January last year.

John Lloyd’s Critique of the Media- and a ‘hack’s’ Response

In his book, What the Media are Doing to our Politics (Constable, 2004), John Lloyd diagnoses a parlous condition in the strained dealings between media and politics in Britain, not to mention other western liberal democracies. He sees the relationship as one which has evolved from a fractious symbiosis to a damaging struggle for power in which the media have:

‘Claimed the right to judge and condemn; more, they have decided-without being clear about the decision- that politics is a dirty game, played by devious people who tell an essentially false narrative about the world and thus deceive the British people. This has not been the only, but it has been the increasingly dominant narrative which the media have constructed about politics over the past decade or so and, though it has suffered some knocks, remains dominant.’

We can see some support for Lloyd’s thesis perhaps in the aggressive interviewing techniques- which seem to assume ulterior dark or hidden motives- which have placed politicians on the defensive since about the mid sixties. Also, more arguably, the assumptions underlying the BBC’s stigmatizing of the government over the Gilligan interview in May 2003 which set in train the events leading to the death of Dr David Kelly and the ensuing Hutton and Butler reports. In his Reuters lecture early in 2005, Lloyd discerned a ‘parallel universe’ in which his colleagues lived and described but which bore little relation to the real world in which the real actors-politicians, corporate executives, trade union leaders, bishops, NGO heads –live and seek to do their jobs. But do these negative assumptions constitute a correct view or are these actors justified in complaining that what the media report is ‘deeply inadequate’?

Various journalist reviewers of Lloyd’s book were not impressed but back on 10th, January, 2005, The Guardian asked a number of these ‘actors’ to give their own views. Most felt the charges were justified. Tony Wright MP, academic and chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, felt the media should accept that they too had played a role in ‘the collapse of trust in politics and politicians’ which newspapers enjoy trumpeting in their pages, because they have helped to ‘….nourish a culture of contempt, engulfing the whole of public life.’ Michael Bichard, One time Permanent Secretary in the Civil service and currently Rector of the University of the Arts, supported Lloyd’s argument :

‘There is much evidence of –especially in the press- of lazy, complacent and arrogant practice and the consequence of this is the parallel universe to which Lloyd refers.’
Richard Eyre, the stage and screen director observed: ‘Journalists often regard Daniel Ellsberg’s maxim- “all leaders lie and it’s our duty to expose their lies”- as a vindication of at least, deviousness and, at worst, blackmail, while blinding themselves to the fact zealous exposure of lies isn’t always the same thing as revelation of the truth. And the motives of individual journalists are at least as venal and self-interested as those who they are indicting…’

Anthony Sampson, who reviewed all these responses to Lloyd’s critique concluded:
‘Most respondents think [that Lloyd is right], and there can be no doubt about the genuine anguish of many distinguished people who feel aggrieved or simply resigned to the misrepresentations of the press.’

David Leigh's Response
So is the press malign and determined to distort perceptions of those in power? David Leigh, also of the Guardian, writing ‘from the frontline’ as it were, contributes a powerful defence of the toiling hack. From his own experience he argues: ‘….when a journalist asks members of British institutions uncomfortable questions about what is going on, they respond with more or less polished evasions or with downright lies. They employ expensive PR teams to paint pictures that drift artistically away from reality. They try to intimidate with their lawyers. They conceal what they can and what they can’t conceal, they distort.’ He argues that all people in power are prone to this tendency: dictatorships try to suppress all dissent but democracies are not saved by elections every five years but by ‘free speech coupled with a network of civic agencies which are truculent and unfettered. It’s important that the various media behave as countervailing powers in a democracy; in fact it’s absolutely necessary.’

He goes on to say, even more controversially, that: 'In a society like ours, those who have fight their way to the top of the political heap often have unusual psychologies. Like police officers, or gynaecologists, some of them are quite deranged.’ Leigh concludes that on balance journalists do a necessary job pretty well but their performance is marred and debased by the fact that there is ‘a race to the bottom in a declining market’ and that it is true that:

‘some newspaper owners and newspaper people are venal, vain, cynical, sycophantic, low minded, partisan unscrupulous or vindictive.’ However, he excludes his own newspaper from such criticism: The Guardian he describes as ‘trying hard to raise standards.’

Both sides of the argument can be supported and justified, it would seem, but for us humble voters, the best advice is perhaps to be aware of the tendencies on both sides and to refine our own ‘falsification detectors’ when either listening to politicians’ claims and appeals or reading journalist accounts/analyses of what they have said.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Charlie maybe not an alcoholic?

Simon Hoggart in The Guardian today questions whether Kennedy is really an alcoholic. It's a good question. The definition of an alcoholic is quite wide and often covers anyone who cannot control his/her drinking or the effects therefrom. So in one meeting of concerned people I heard of, a woman reported her 'aloholic husband' as not drinking daily but only about once every three months. Someone else said they thought such occasional bingeing did not constitute alcoholism-rather, an acceptable pattern of imbibing. Those who were older hands in the group smiled looked at each other knowingly; one explained it was not how often or how much one drank which was crucial but how one handled it.

I've always been a bit worried about this kind of elastic definition as loads of my friends -and even my good self- would possibly be caught in such a definition. Charles was clearly not a 'constant drinker' but it was also clearly true that his drinking affected his work and that he was not fully in control of it. The truth maybe is that there are many categories of alcolholic. If the key criterion is the impact it has on being able to live and work normally, then Charles is maybe an 'alcoholic' but it's via the wider definition, not the more familiar narrow one of hidden bottles and daily comatose states.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Ming the Magnificent for me

'Ming' is the way the Scots pronounce 'Menzies' it seems- another great mystery cleared up. But the ownwer of this magnificent soubriquet is under a small cloud as a result of his 'poor' showing at PMQs. He should have seen the trap opening up before him, say wise onlookers, and not allowed the PM to squash him so effectively. On top of that Diane Abbott last night castigated him for looking 'like a Conservative Cabinet Minister', something which she thought was likley to do for him. My feeling is that the PMQ thing was a slip though an important one as, unlike most voters, Lib Dem party members, like any party members, are part of that small minority who are involved in politics. They will have seen and noted. Though the slip was hyped up more than it should have been I think-maybe because of Blair's masterly riposte delivered with perfect timing and without malice. Nothing to turn many people off him I reckon. He remains my pick of the candidates.

Hughes, the bookies favourite- is too boring and like a parson; Oaten is almost as uncharismatic on TV too and a little too keen. And Huhne? he is just too little known to cut a lot of ice and does not even have extreme youth on his side-he's 51; Though I'm told by my gambling mate he's a good bet at 7-1. Ming may be older and elderly looking to boot but he has a lot of charisma and a lot of sense and if his party members share any of it, they'll elect the best leader they have so far never had as their leader.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Respect Agenda and Frank Field

Blair's Respect agenda has been criticised roundly for being to legalistic and draconian, but one Labour critic has argued from the other end of the spectrum. Frank Field is an unusual maverick, we learn from the extensive interview in Society Guardian on Wednesday, 11th January. Originally a Conservative grammar school boy from west London, he was thrown out of the party for protesting against South Africa and went on to direct Child Poverty Action Group 1969-70. He was soon Labour MP for Birkenhead and a respected chair-on both sides of the divide- of the Social Services 1974-80. Blair apointed him to 'think the unthinkable' on welfare reform in 1997 but rejected him when his ideas proved unthinkably expensive.

But he has not gone away, prefering to refine his ideas on the backbenches. His view of the Respect package is that Blair is not being tough enough. His experience of living in a pooor constituency is that one has to be clear and tough, just like his friend Mrs T.(she invited him to her 80th birthday). He argues nuisance neighbours should be sent to live in indestructible houses under motorways and have their housing benefit reduced if they continue to misbehave. He hearkens back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras when working people were enjoined to accept a code of citizenship. He blames the erosion of such robustly healthy ideals on the welfare state which he sees as encouraging a breed of workshy, feckless scroungers. No wonder, one reflects, he was/is so close to Maggie.

Field thinks Labour suffered a loss of nerve on welfare- it should have been much tougher and Blair should not have given in to backbench pressure. I'm not sure he is right. Part of me agrees with him but that's what worries me; everyone -me too- harbours a desire to be tough on anti-social behaviour as it so offends middle class people's sensibilities. My worry is that being tough does not change anything necessarily. People who have had benefits reduced or ended still need to survive and will just as easily turn to crime instead. Consigning them to the darkest corners of society will just as easily ensure their exclusion as win them back into the orbit of decency and responsibility. Field offers fascinating ideas but they seem a bit too dangerous on balance.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Outlook transformed for British politics

Following on from my last post, I have a few more things to say about the general political situation in British politics as we gaze forward into 2006.

Firstly, we have not the restoration of 'real choice' as the Guardian's editorial put it on 2nd January, but the further reduction of choice. We now have three parties clamouring to control the centre ground. All three favour high spending on public services and tight control of inflation. All three favour being tough on terrorism though there are some variations as to how illiberal they are prepared to be. All three, if Oliver Letwin is to be believed, favour some redistribution of wealth to the advantage of the poor. On foreign policy the Lib Dems oppose Iraq and are very cool on being too close to Bush but the other two seem to favour sticking with the occupation and with the 'hug them close' policy towards USA.

Secondly I accept that we do have choice in as much that the Conservatives now have credibility, maybe, as the polls suggest, one which equals that of Blair's New Labour.

Thirdly what Tony Blair said yesterday is basically correct. The Conservative Party has finally come round to accepting that Thatcherism is history and that Blair's 'settlement' of Thatcherite economics married to social justice in the form of well funded public services, is now the new reality of British politics. Just as Thatcher changed Labour, so has Labour changed Conservatism in a huge, spectacular volte face the like of which I have never seen before in British politics.

As Blair pointed out, he took eight years to change Labour from Old to New but Cameron has had only a few weeks to work his transformation. The Tories are so starved of power they seem prepared to eat their grits but I am sure it won't go down that well all of the time. Cameron will ahve to show fighting zeal as well as smiley charm- just as Blair had to. But the whole political spectrum is now changed totally from one year ago, with only the Lib Dems in temporary limbo while sorting out a new leader. It promises to be a fascinating and eventful year which will keep political junkies like me as happy as any Chelsea fan.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Cameron's Impact on British Politics

As we are the beginning of a new year I thought it might be an idea to review the impact made by David Cameron on British politics so far.

1. Labour
a)Cameron has clearly rattled Labour more than a little. Blair seems bemused by him, not sure whether to go for the jugular or treat the new boy with polite and wary condescension. Brown favours the former strategy but so far has not found the suitable occasion to deliver the head butt he yearns to stick on the public school toff.
b)Blair's recent release of a home video showing him being lovably family oriented and blokish, might well be seen as part of his reaction to the Tory new boy.
c)By offering to support Blair's education proposals Cameron has speared into Labour's internal divisions. Blair must now realise that the backbench insurgency will, like that in Baghdad, get worse before it's over. The rebels are determined and organised and this is one legacy issue on which Blair will have to compromise or face humiliation. The Economist this week speculates that if 100 or more revolt, Blair might have to resign now and not in 18 months time as seems to be his plan. He may have to rethink his whole public services stategy if he wishes to remain in power and secure any kind of the legacy he is after.
d)I also wonder if Cameron's youth might not encourage Labour to look to the next generation of Miliband or Douglas Alexander rather than 'yesterday's' Brown.

2. Liberal Democrats
We have seen what damage the rethinking on their leadership caused by Cameron's accession has done. The Lib Dems know that Cameron is busy colonising 'their' bit of the political spectrum and they felt that a more pro-active attitude was necessary than the famously laid-back one of Kennedy. At the next election the Conservatives will threaten many current Lib Dem seats and the new sof focus Tories need to be robustly resisted. Kennedy has now gone and his successor would appear to a short-term lease on the leadership by Ming Campbell. My feeling is that his age will not stand against Campbell but once he goes, the baton is likely to be passed to the younger challenger Oaten than to Simon Hughes. The highly praised Nick Clegg might even appear in the frame to keep the challenge even younger.

3. Conservatives
It is on his own party, of course, that Cameron will work the biggest changes. It is, of course, not before time as the Tories seemed to be headed for terminal decline without some major change of direction. I suspect the devastating report by the Policy Exchange, last June, might have provided the fillip the party's leadership needed. Howard was probably already convinced that his neo Thatcherite approach was the stuff of history books and no basis for the party to build on for success. But now we are just beginning to hear the cries of muted protest from the cadres who have been in charge for the past two decades. We've heard Melanie Phillips on Radio Four last Saturday lamenting the progress of the Tories away from Conservatism and read her in her 2nd January Daily Mail column but I am sure old lags like Tebbit and his ilk are quietly seething into the G and Ts in their London clubs as their prized values are unloaded and cast aside by the day. There will be more negative reaction as Cameron continues to paly the game Blair played in the mid nineties of shedding his party of electorally liabilities in terms of shadow ministers and policies which conjure up the old unelectable Conservative Party of the nineties and since.

What of the end of the year?
i)Will Blair still be there as PM? I think so, but with authority even more underminded and hisparty counting the days until his departure.
ii)Will Cameron be leading a party still on the upwrd trajectory? I think yes; his first moves have given us no reason to think he is anything other than a clever and respourceful politician who will continue to be surefooted. I ecxpect the Tories to be well ahead in the polls by then.
iii)Will Campbell still lead the Lib Dems? Yes, I think he'll win the contest and stay for a year at least. He might even prove to be so good that he reclaims some of the substantial ground lost to youth by midle-aged politicians in recent months.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


Kennedy tarnishes his legacy

Not sure that Kennedy has come out of this all that well. He displayed a curious blindness to the interests of his party by first of all lying about his condition and then by using various ploys to hold on to his position, hoping the membership would prove his trump card. It was the threatened mass resignation of his Shadow Cabinet and their tacit threat not to turn up to PMQs on Wednesday next, which must have given him pause for serious thought, not to mention the editorials of all today's broadsheet press.

Despite all his achievments for the Lib Dems, his manner of departing its leadership will be remembered long and without much sympathy I suspect. Whoever was advising him- assuming he has been advised- has been way off the mark and helping Kennedy to live in a false reality-something which alcoholics do as a function of their condition anyway.

So what now? Campbell has said he'll stand in the leadership contest- triggered by Charles and now going ahead with the purpose of replacing not endorsing him. At 64 he'll be too old to continue for much longer but he has great leadership skills, in my view, and has been brilliant over Iraq. It was said he wanted a 'coronation' i.e. no messy public contest but with likely rivals standing back to allow him a free run. This may well happen as the party needs to be in good shape for the May local elections; a leadership contest involving all members would take up most of the time before polling day.

I noted also today that both Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten-the two most liklely to oppose him- were noncommittal about standing and they may be about to offer Ming the free run he would prefer. Given that he should have won back in 1999 against Charles, but for his cancer condition at that time, it's only fair he should get a crack at leading the party for a few years later on in his career.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Kennedy now appears desperate not brave

So, Charles has admitted all and said he'll stand in a leadership contest. Now the 'Men in Sandals'-I love that phrase- have been gathering, mumbling and a sending him a letter written before Christmas, telling him they no longer have any confidence in him. He insists he's going to carry on, stand in a contest and retuen in triumph. But none of those besandalled men wish to stand against him as yet. Some say Charlie has taken this step to avoid a motion of no confidence from his MPs. He still believes he his political banker lies in the membership which will bale him out in a vote.

But his apparent honesty and bravery are being questioned by those who say his hand was forced, in any case, regarding the statement as ITN had evidence from a former aide now working for them, that Charles had received professional help for alcoholism. This angle now makes his statement seem less like bravery and more like desperation. And can he really expect to be taken seriously about remaining as leader? OK, what if he wins membership votes and is 're-endorsed' as leader?

How can he function properly if his MPs feel deceived and still lack confidence in him? The Lib Dems are a democratic party but it is the Commons where political muscle in the form of voting strength has to be used and Kennedy's seem ready to shrivel away. He should go with as much dignity as he can muster. It's desperately sad for the man but he has lied about his condition and compromised his position as leader. One or two MPs remain loyal but he really is, as one of his colleagues said this morning a 'dead man walking'.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


Charles, I fear, is Toast

A very odd press conference by Charles Kennedy indeed. First he overturns his steadfast insistence he has never had a drink problem- remember that time ages ago when Paxman was criticised for pressing him on the issue?- and now says he's had professional help which makes him sound like he actually had a very serious problem- enough to take him off the booze completely.

Secondly I don't think the Lib Dems will wish to keep as leader someone who is 'flaky' enough to be an alcoholic. Occasionally and alcoholic can survive if he'she owns the company or has protection from the top brass in a big set-up. But in a democratically elected body- with rivals active for the throne- it seems unlikely Charles will stay long. Though a leading swedish rightwing politician once managed it I believe, back in the eighties.

Thirdly, he talks of a leadership contest- again over-turning much of what he has said over the last week or so- but I doubt now he has an earthly.
Finally, and separately, we hear that before Christmas half of his Shadow Cabinet wrote him a letter expressing no confidence in him as leader. The rank and file still love him- it is said (and by Charlie himself quite a lot)- but will they continue to do so now? This seems like yet another a tragic end to a distinguished career; a scalp for Cameron in one sense and a relief for Blair that the person at the heart of the storm is not in the Labour Party.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


'Wet' Cameron faces discordant voices on the right

David Cameron has had little but good press so far for his debunking of hallowed Tory tenets. As he casts out rightwing favourites connected with education, the health service and immigration and promises to redistribute wealth he is feted; each item thrown overboard receives a cheer. He is the darling de jour of Fleet St, his every utterance and movement a news story. But dismantling one's party's ideology does not happen damage free. Two examples suggest just a little of the backwash which must be disturbing the sand on Tory beaches. Firstly, in the Daily Mail, on 2nd January, Melanie Phillips complained that Cameron had left:

'Millions of natural conservatives effectively disenfranchised-and, even worse, demonised as dinosaurs by the party that is supposed to represent them, but is now telling them to go hang while it tears up everything they believe in.'

In the Guardian today I note that heavyweight rightwing economist Irwin Stelzer- someone who has spoken very warmly of Tony Blair- accepts that unpalatable rightwing medicine requires a 'spoonful of sugar' to help it go down, just as Ronald Reagan prescribed so successfully. Cameron offers the sugar, Stelzer allows, but what of the medicine? Instead of the 'low tax, less regulation, unambiguous defence of the realm' from the Gipper's medicine cabinet he sees a drift back towards insidiously soft consensus:

'An ever expanding state; money taken from high earners, risk taking entrepreneurs and the hardworking middle classes to support that growing state... sympathy for measures that raise the cost of doing business, getting tough on the cops instead of the crooks, pushing green measures whether effective or not, sucking up to celebs-if that sort of consensus doesn't bring Britain down to the level of struggling European economies, I don't know what will.'

How long before such mumbling in the back rows begins to gather some force and be heard in the still jubilant front rows of the party? 'What is the point of being a Conservative'one can hear many a blue rinse matron complain, 'if all it does to get into power, is become indistinguishable from Blairite New labour?'

Something which George Osborne and Alan Duncan might finds takes the fizz out of their champagne mood since December 5th, is thae fact that a fair slice of the Conservative Party is still pretty Thatcherite and dead set against endorsing policies which their famously combative former leader dismissed contemptuously as 'wet'.

Monday, January 02, 2006


Justice Ridiculed in Maya Evans Case

Reading Marcel Berlins in The Guardian today I was reminded I had not vented any spleen about the case of Maya Evans who was convicted under the Serious Organisationd Crime and Police Act merely for reading out near the Cenotaph, the names of British soldiers who died in Iraq. That is so shocking it is scarcely believable that any government, let alone a Labour one, could conceivably pass a law that makes this sort of thing possible. It seems the law was passed solely to bring an end to dedicated anti-war protestor Brian Haw in Parliament Square who so irritated the government with his constant reminders of their folly that they passed an act especially to neuter him.

The joke is on the government, however, says Berlins, as a judge has ruled that Mr Haw's activities are not covered by the law. How incompetent is that? The same article laments the decision to allow police the right to arrest, without warrant, anyone for any offence, however minor-instead of only for crimes which can be punished with over five years in prsionment. This means that those so arrested will have to submit their DNA to police files as well as fingerprints and photographs.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Charlie Kennedy's New year Grief

Predictions that the 46 year old leader of the Lib Dems would face a 'drip drip' of steady criticism in the new year, seems to be coming true according to today's Sunday Times. Ed Davey, the education spokesman, complained that 'the need for some sort of change was established before Christmas'. Another MP quoted by David Cracknell in the S. T. produced an observation which somehow seems to sum up his critics' feelings and accord with the impression Kennedy has given over the last six months: 'There is a feeling Charles is merely presiding over the party and not leading it'.

Simon Hughes, popular with the grass roots does not want the job it seems, even though he knows he'd win it. His concern is that he is not that popular with his colleagues in parliament and that holding the party together would be a bed of nails. He also feels that seats might be lost at the next election. Ming Campbell is ready to serve as a caretaker leader for a short period but wants an effortless transition, a little like the 'coronation' accorded to Howard in the Tory Party in autumn 2003. The situation is further complicated by Mark Oaten, the 41 year old home affairs spokesman, who has made it clear he has designs on them leader's chair. Further evidence that Charles's position is crumbling is the 3000 oetition signed by party members, including 386 councillors, asking him to resign.

The only person so far unmoved by the ructions is Kennedy himself who talks blithely of carrying on. He will have to accept that the process is too far gone and that his goose is cooked. It seems unfair but Charlie will maybe be the first scalp which can be attributed to the young David Cameron, whose accession to power has transformed UK politics as surely as Tony Blair's did in 1994.

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