Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Bush Repression of Global Warming Science was Truly Totalitarian

Suzanne Goldenberg's piece today put me in mind of Trofim Lysenko(pictured), the 'scientist' in thirties USSR who told Stalin what he wanted to hear first about agriculture, then genetics and broader areas of science. Lysenko was a charlatan, of course, but he nevertheless became a senior official in charge of scientific research who allowed his protection from on high to indulge his quick temper and dislike of criticism. Many of his opponents were arrested and executed. I can think of a few academics who would welcome such power today actually, but there inevitably comes a reckoning. After surviving Stalin's death Soviet scientists eventually summoned the courage to expose this dangerous fraud. Typically it was Andrei Sakharov in 1964 who delivered the first denunciation:

He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.

It then became open season on Lysenko and his reputation was shredded by furious Soviet scientists, though he continued to be respected in China for a while. The reckoning for George Bush on climate change seems also to be arriving. A Congressional hearing yesterday exposed the campaign from the White House to eliminate references in scientific reports to 'global warming' or even 'climate change'. It seems, in a further echo of totalitarian practice, the Bush administration 'assigned minders' to scientists to keep their research output on message.

One example of the control exercised was the insistence by officials that a NASA report on rapid warming in the Antarctic was renamed, meaninglessly as Scientists Study Antarctic Climate Change. Much of this control was exerted by one Philip Cooney, who used to work as a lobbyist for the oil industry and who was made chief of the Environmental Protection Agency. He has now gone 'home' and works for Exxon Mobil. He must have one of the best claims to be the modern Lysenko; but if we agree that comparison, who would that make George Bush?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Super Casinos a Dangerous Step Too far

So it seems Manchester has got the nod over Blackpool and the Dome for the first super-casino licence. Funny, I thought the rationale was to regenerate marginal areas so I was a bit gob-smacked that ailing Blackpool should not make it or Greenwich either. This is not to say that Beswick in east Manchester won't value 2500 new jobs and the inflow of hundreds of millions of cash into the local economy which the development will bring. And it's a relief too that the Dome did not win a prize over which John Prescott was so over-enthusiastically lobbied by billionaire owner Philip Anshutz. But am I alone in feeling very uneasy about all this?

Addiction: Evidence from USA, the home of the super-casino and Australia where gambling was deregulated in the nineties suggest- or should I say 'prove'?- that increased access to gambling always leads to more compulsive gamblers developing. And more often than not it's the working class have-nots who end up losing their homes and having their families broken up. Are we really shore we want to inject this malign element into our urban life?

Crime: Experience in the USA in places like Las Vegas and Atlanta City show organized crime bosses sees gambling as their area of interest and they usually manage to get involved. Now all this could have changed, but the association is so strong that I'd like more reassurance than I've had to date.

Symbolic Significance: I've never been to Las Vegas, but everything I've read and heard about the place suggests it's close to the moral nadir of American life: gambling, prostitution, crime and the rest. I am profoundly troubled that it is the party of which I have been a member for over thirty years which is introducing a Las Vegas super-casino into our national life. Truly this party seems to have sold itself totally to Mammon. The casino will have an area of 5000 square metres-the size of a football pitch- and will house up to 1,250 unlimited jackpot slot machines. How unutterably depressing and what a retrograde step. Even the US has banned Internet gambling but now on top of that for us: this!

The government have decreed that this first step is only an exploratory pilot scheme and that it will be closely monitored for adverse impact on the local community. I just hope not just the promised overseeing social impact commission in Manchester but also we, the voters, will hold the government to this pledge.

Monday, January 29, 2007


Has the Blogosphere Revolutionized Political Communication?

Jackie Ashley today addresses the question of whether the internet has revolutionized political communication, and contributes much good sense. The first thing to say though is that Simon jenkins' recent take on this topic was a bit wide of the mark. His piece sought to debunk the idea that we are living through a revolution at all, arguing that, beneath the hype of new technology, most things remain the same and, for example, that:

Most people send emails back and forth twice a day, roughly the same exchange as the Victorian letter post achieved.

My experience is exactly the reverse of that in that most people I know send zillions of emails in a year and many, many more than the elaborately nib scratchingly written epistles sent by the Victorians. My son regularly spends hours engaged in one huge multi-addressed online letter exchange. But the topics discussed are mostly trivia- gossip and pop music- or what we grown - ups might call 'rubbish'; Ashley is concerned with the bit of the net facilitating political communication. Politicians often suggest that a 'revolution' has been forged in this area.

To some extent they are right: for example, the idea of being able to tune into an informal address by the Leader of the Opposition based in his own home, would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. But Ashley computes the numbers. Once you subtract the 43% of households who do not have net access- proportionately more working class, and in the north- plus older people, the very young and then the huge tranche who have no interest in politics at all you are left with the reality that:

The politically enfranchised, active internet community is very small indeed. If Guardian sites are any guide, bloggers tend to be disproportionately young, male, angry and rightwing.

Most bloggers reading this will know it to be true. The two most popular UK political blogs are Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale's Diary. Both are well right of centre. The former is exuberantly trivial and entertaining and hugely popular. The latter is almost as popular but is more serious and reflects the fact that its author aspires to become an MP and presumably part of a new Conservative government. If we'd had such a government since the end of the last century I suspect there would be quite a few leftie blogs pulling in the visitors, but the bottom line is that the political blogospere is quite small and is the preserve of rather untypical people.

If the revolution is to be judged by the numbers drawn into the ongoing 'national political conversation' I suspect that there has been no revolution. But so moribund is political participation in our democracy that any additions should be welcomed and celebrated. That doyen of political commentators, The Times' Peter Riddell, last autumn, at the Politics Association annual conference told me he spends at least half an hour a day surfing the opinions offered in the political blogosphere as he found it a valuable extra way of taking the nation's political temperature.

So we are not unimportant. But Ashley is right to remind us that we are most definitely not yet much more than a curiosity, even in the USA where the net is used more widely and scandal mongering blogs have claimed more than a few scalps. I prefer to see the political blogospere, as my picture suggests, as an entertaining and stimulating Tower of Babel. Whether we are an acorn which will grow into a mighty oak only time and I suspect, more technological advances, will tell.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Nick Cohen's cry of 'Betrayal' Should be Aimed at Far Rather than 'Liberal Left'

What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way is a book written by Nick Cohen, the sparky Observer journalist whose column bristles with indignation every week. I've always enjoyed his provocatively informative writing but have to say I'm a bit foxed by his book, a large chunk of which appeared in last week's paper, see here for the extract plus comments. According to the author,

The book is a history of a phenomenon that is so commonplace now hardly anyone notices it: the willingness of people on the liberal-Left to support or, more often, excuse or explain away totalitarian movements of the ultra Right. The reverse side of this debased coin is if anything an even more depressing story. Solidarity – the noblest virtue of the old Left – vanishes as people who call themselves feminists, socialists and liberals in the rich world refuse to support the victims of fascistic religious and secular movements, even when those victims share their values. As long as the persecutors are anti-American, their slaughters cannot be condemned unequivocally.

This 'betrayal' came as news to me. I've always voted Labour so consider myself part of the broad 'liberal' but never 'far' left. I'm sure I'm not untypical of a large tranche of left leaning opinion which does not feel guilty of any such 'betrayal'. Let me explain. My world-view was largely set more by the Cold War whereby I saw the US as more of a saviour than aggressor. Vietnam changed that perception but as long as the superpower pursued a multilateral approach I still retained a degree of trust in its good faith. My sea change occurred when the neo-cons took over, seeking to impose a no ifs or buts Pax Americana. They were well placed to colonize George Bush's limited intellect once he was elected and went on to dominate his reactions to 9-11.

I was also desperately anxious for some sort of intervention to prevent the depredations of Saddam, the greatest political monster since Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. But Bush's targeting of Iraq, at neo-con bidding, as responsible for 9-11 and willingness to send in the cavalry so soon after Afghanistan, was the thing which repulsed me. This was too prodigal and casual a use of such a volatile and infectious instrument, and seemed to be motivated by the oil issue(another pocket in which Bush resided) more than the world's security. I feared this war, with no legal justification and a casus belli which increasingly began to look like a pretext, would drag the US and our reluctant selves, into the quagmire we now find ourselves in. In other words, the preferred solution to the Iraq human rights crisis was too dangerous and was not justifiable. Now where is the betrayal in that?

I suspect that the answer is that Nick is incensed not by the many centre left leaners like me but the far lefties of which (I also suspect) he was once a member. They tended, like Nick regarding Blair, to apply a rigorous economic analysis and could not accept the leopard could be trusted to have changed its spots if charging into the Middle East, guns blazing. So some of them made common cause with Muslim opponents of the USA, as in the case of the Respect Party where such an alliance unseated Oona King in Bethnal Green in 2005-see picture of victor. Such lefties can be seen to have betrayed their opposition to Saddam -fascism but I don't see how Nick can direct the mighty force of his indignation at those of us who opposed and still oppose Iraq on wholly separate grounds.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Northern Ireland Success Will Boost Hain's Prospects

Is Stormont Castle about to become, at last, the seat of genuine shared government for the troubled province? The report in The Guardian today suggests that centuries of conflict might, just, be about to be put to rest. The crunch moment comes on Tuesday when ministers from London and Dublin decide whether to give the green light for new elections... or dissolve the assembly. Some moment.

To think that we're on the cusp of the lion lying down with the lamb-whichever role one attributes to Paisley and/or Adams- seems like a dream or a scene out of some parallel unrelated universe; certainly it's hard to imagine the former terrorist leader working peacefully with the the furiously bigoted and loud voiced leader of the DUP; someone, incidentally, who acquired his Phd without the usual preliminary of writing a thesis reckoned to be of publishable standard. But if the IRA-Sinn Fein at its Dublin conference, can swallow acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, then this outcome is likely to be achieved.

Even without such a happy outcome- though the possibility of an early breakdown in a relationship which has not yet risen, on Paisley's side, to the warmth of a handshake, must remain a strong possibility- the condition of Northern Ireland represents a remarkable achievement. From a strife torn part of the world echoing to constant explosions and the wailing of those robbed of their loved ones, we have witnessed the emergence, during Labour's rule, of a new Ulster, prosperous and peaceful, with very few remissions into barbarity.

Assuming it all goes smoothly on Tuesday, this will represent a huge achievement for Tony Blair not to mention those, along the way- Major, Clinton Mitchell, Aherne, Mowlam, Mandelson and the indigenous Hume, Adams, Trimble and Paisley - who assisted the tortuous peace process. Blair will be able to wear this success as a badge which to some extent offsets his Iraq and other failures but the major beneficiary in terms of the future is likely to be the perma-tanned S of S, Peter Hain. In a party so starved of decent successes, I can see his chances of winning deputy being considerably enhanced. Certainly his stock as the man who'll take over if Gordon falls under a bus, will begin to climb rapidly.

Friday, January 26, 2007


'Prison Works' Philosophy Causes Acute Problems

Most people I know in my local community, if asked, would probably identify crime and menacing behaviour by youngsters as the things about which they are most worried in society. Most of them also, I suspect, would prescribe periods in jail-see picture- for offenders of varying lengths, tending to the longer rather than shorter. The latest crime figures from the most reliable source, the British Crime Survey, indicate a slight increase in crime and reveal some of the problems which such attitudes help generate.

Since the mid nineties crime has reduced by over 40% but:

1. Prison population has rocketed to its highest ever level so that now there is so little room available that even paedophiles are being spared the prison sentences judges hand down.

2. Prison fails utterly to rehabilitate prisoners so that most of them go on to re-offend within two years.

3. Martin Neary, former director of prisons, quoted in The Guardian's leader claims that overcrowding has now reached the counter-productive stage where there is no finance to support what educative and preparatory work which previously existed. The results, he claims, are made evident in the latest figures.

4. The guideline that minor offenders should not be imprisoned, something which successive Home Secretaries have urged, seems to have been ignored: in 1993 there were 29 shoplifters in jail- now there are 1,500.

To prove he is making a genuine difference at the Home Office, John Reid needs to sort out both prisons and sentencing policy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Language, Politics and Resisting the Bombers

The talk by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken MacDonald, to the Criminal Bar Association yesterday revolved around language and politics, a fascinating, understudied area which changes subtly by the day. Remember the endless rows about whether the IRA had decommissioned arms 'permanently'? It mattered because the nationalist paramilitaries did not want to concede the appearance of surrender.

A somewhat amusing further example was offered last year when we saw the debut of a phrase to describe painful hikes in energy prices which were said to be 'eye watering', a term with a possible digestive provenance. Sir Ken focused on some key words and phrases which he felt were inappropriate. He insisted the 7/7 bombers were not 'soldiers', as they claimed on their video but rather, 'deluded narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals. They were fantasists'.

Again 'The fight against terrorism on the streets is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws.' He argued that such alarmist terms undermined 'The values critical to to the maintenance of the rule of law-upon which everything else depends.' The DPP is clearly sensitive to the way words come freighted with associations and wider connotations.

He wants to change the terms of the discourse, to regain the advantage the bombers have already won by provoking alarming, horrific images of conflict which have encouraged the public to become disengaged from those crucia values of democratic society. In essence he is arguing that the word 'terror' provides the wrong concept, the wrong lens through which to view the events of 9-11, 7-7 and the rest. He is saying, I think rightly, we should reclaim our own vocabulary of a civilised society from the bombers.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


'First Draft' of Blair's Legacy Finds Only Blunders

Max Hastings today offers a 'first draft of history'(as columnists are often said to provide) on Blair's legacy:

His record will speak for itself, however. He will leave behind a country that has failed to solve the huge problems of its public services or Europe; he has entangled his country in an American clash with the Muslim world likely to persist beyond our lifetime; his programme of constitutional reform threatens the union of England and Scotland.

If this is to be the template for imminent assessments of Blair's legacy, it doesn't augur well for his rumoured desire to stand tall in the history books. But, even though I have long since ceased to be a Blair admirer, I think this is too negative and harsh a judgement. I agree that his Iraq adventure was a leap in the dark which has left us all in even greater darkness but on the other issues defences can be made:

Public Services: certainly the problems of health and education have not been solved during the decade Blair has been at the helm, but I would argue things are much better than they were in 1997 when services were on the point of collapse. Waiting lists are minuscule compared with the early nineties and educational standards have shown some improvements, even if inadequate for the nation's needs.

Europe: Blair has tried to play are more wholehearted role in the EU and to some extent has succeeded; at least there has been none of the frigidities associated with his predecessors' efforts. But I have to concede he has to take responsibility for his Iraq policy which has forced a split in Europe so profound it even influenced the voting of Europeans in the Euro-vision Song Contest.

Devolution: It's true that the possible victory of nationalists in Scotland, and maybe even Wales, in the May elections poses questions about the future of the Union. But seriously, what were the alternatives? Nationalist feeling had been building throughout the eighties and nineties; trying to repress such sentiment has often led to acute problems as we have seen in Ireland and the Basque Country. Labour's 'halfway house' approach of conceding control but not sovereignty was a subtly calibrated attempt to find a solution acceptable to both sides. For all we know, this solution may well yet prevail. Too soon to call.

Moreover, Blair has to be allowed some credit for economic success- he led the team which has delivered it after all. And life in Northern Ireland has improved out of all recognition since Blair has been in power. At worst Blair's legacy will be a mixed one- it cannot be said to have been a disastrous one across the board.[hat-tip to Paul Linford for the picture]

Monday, January 22, 2007


Hegemony of the Image

Roy Hattersley makes a good point about our current politics when he says we've had enough 'personality politics' in the form of Blair and need some austere 'son of the Manse' treatment from the more substantial Gordon. He illustrates by invoking another pairing, that of the charming Clinton and the boring but thoughtful Gore. Roy is quite right, of course, we need people to rule us who are not playing to the grandstand all the time or telling us what we want to hear in order to get elected. It would be nice to have wise, selfless public men who only want to serve.

The more romantic version of Conservatism used to suggest that this was possible, via the cohorts of the aristocracy. I recall that amusing old Tory, Peregrine Worsthorne, arguing that the Duke of Devonshire(related by marriage to the then prime minister) was preferable as a minister to any alternatives because he had no axe to grind, no constituency to nurse and nothing but undiluted duty as his motivation. Such a view was going out of date before the 19th century had closed though one still occasionally encounters it. Roy's view, however, from one point of view is equally out of date by reason of how the media works in our modern society.

As Hattersley himself observes: It is perception rather than reality that matters when votes are cast. And this brings us up sharply with the nature of our society. The bottom line is that most people are unable to understand politics and consequently wholly uninterested in their fine detail. Brown's relentless incantation of economic facts has passed over the heads of most of the people he aspires to rule. While he may well be 'at least as relaxed and approachable as Tony Blair', he doesn't appear to be, or not yet anyway. The fact is that, while they probably shouldn't, voters respond more positively to someone who engages easily with them and seems to be more like them. Reducing complex matters to down-home simplicities has been the politicians stock in trade ever since democracy was invented. This helps to explain, perhaps, why the clearly less able Bush was able to beat first Gore and then Kerry because voters felt charmed by his folksy style and intimidated by his opponents' command of the issues.

Roy suggests the 'second rate Tony Blair' offered by Cameron will be rejected in favour of a 'first rate- that is to say unvarnished- Gordon Brown'. Of course I hope he's right but something tells me that conned voters are not always immune to the same three card trick and remain vulnerable to the traditional tricks of the politician, amplified and strengthened as they have been by the modern media. At least this time, Gordon will face such a challenge from across the political divide as, to date, there seem no Blair-alikes on the rise within his own party.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


A Not So Green and Not So Pleasant Land

I'm aware that as I grow older my Victor Meldrew tendencies have strengthened markedly but the article today by Jason Cowley makes me feel a lot better. I'm not alone in my inner fulminations. He articulates what I have been thinking for a long time on:

'just how coarse is so much of our public discourse and how degraded are so many of the places in which we interact: our trains, our cinemas and high streets.

Coming back after a spell abroad he has noticed things in sharper focus. He notices the Stansted Express to London, the pride of One Railway, has: 'ripped and buckled seats'; 'rancid lavatories which are often scarcely serviceable at all'; 'has litter and trash strewn everywhere'; and 'has no appropriate luggage storage facilities' even though 'this a busy airport train'.

And when travelling he notes how the convention that led mobile phone users to speak quietly and apologetically has been blown away; now people 'jabber away... without the slightest regard for' anyone else:

'our private lives spilling out into the the public space, our voices loud and our language coarse'.

His jeremiad continues taking in cinemas drowning in litter(my personal bugbear) and high streets overrun every weekend by 'inane drunks'. And the cause? He suggests Mrs Thatcher rejected the state and handed over responsibility to us and our families. Unfortunately we and our families just could not hack it, with the degraded, hedonistic results we all see hear and smell, all around us, every day.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Distorting Media Prism Makes Cynics of us All

The media gets blamed for so many things, there's a tendency for Guardian reading types like me to draw back from believing some of the more fashionable accusations. For example John Lloyd in his 2004 book, What the Media are Doing to our Politics claimed the media had unjustifiably decided:

'politics is a dirty game, played by devious people who tell an essentially false narrative about the world and thus deceive the British people.'

He doubted this chimera of a 'parallel universe' which bore little relation to the real world in which politicians and the like live and seek to do their jobs.

Journalist David Leigh exposed the limited truth of this critique by replying that in his experience:

'when a journalist asks members of British institutions uncomfortable questions about what is going on, they respond with more or less polished evasions or downright lies'.

However a more recent critic, Peter Wilby, argues a different case. He cited the YouGov poll on New Year's Eve which revealed 40% of respondents judging 2006 as having been a good year for them: and only 26% a bad one. But asked about the nation as a whole, only 7% thought it had been a good year and 24% were not optimistic about 2007. He points out:

'The effect is familiar to pollsters. Asked in general terms about the NHS or the schools, people often say both are in dire straits. Yet asked about the local school their children attend or about their own or a close relative's stay in hospital, the majority express complete satisfaction'

He concludes that the explanation for such disparities is provided by the media's -especially the Mail, Express, Telegraph, Sun & News of the World -overly critical attitude and conviction the 'country is going to the dogs'. Not everyone reads these papers-and circulations are falling- but they tend to set the agenda for television. And maybe there is something in our national character which enjoys revelling in such downbeat analyses; we must do or such material would not appear in the press with such depressing regularity.

So, to some extent, we are the authors of our own low opinion of ourselves. But the corollary of this must be that a great many polls about public services being rubbish, despite the millions poured into them by Blair governments, should not be taken seriously. It might seem odd to articulate this but, to some extent, we should not believe our own opinions.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Future of Multi-Level UK Politics Needs a Royal Commission

Two articles recently highlighted the UK's system of 'multi-level government'. Yesterday we had Simon Jenkins writing on the need for more devolution and today we have Peter Mandelson urging a closer relationship with the EU and the euro. The latter is a, by now, familiar clarion call to pro Europeans to 'confront the visceral anti-Europeanism in British political culture'. He argues that we would be better placed to deal with globalization and the challenges of the Asian renaissance, if we seek a solution via Europe. Similarily with the requirements of the post Iraq world when we will need to 'establish a more equal relationship with with the US'. Of course anything which accentuates the importance of the EU is likely to advance career options for the epicene Commissioner in the domestic political context, after which I have always suspected he still hankers.

So much for the supra-national level; Jenkins addresses the sub national one. He argues that:

i) 'Prescott's best answer to the West Lothian question would have been to have conferred partial autonomy on England's counties and cities. They would be viable: the county of Hampshire is the same size as the autonomous state of New Hampshire, and three times the size of sovereign Luxembourg'

ii)Many of Scotland's requirements for more autonomy are 'not beyond the wit on man' to answer. He points to the 'common travel area and shared citizenship since the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922' and the shared economic union forged between the Slovaks and the Czechs after they parted in 1993.

iii) 'All parties...[should] to agree a grand commission to review constitutional arrangements between Westminster and the components of the UK-national provincial and local. This commission would put its proposals to the relevant electorates, who would decide'.

Not a bad first step towards finding solutions for the immensely complex problems thrown up by Labour's attempts to make our politics more democratic. But, a small point maybe, Simon is wrong to say Scotland has '72 Scottish MPs'; the number was reduced to 59 before the last election.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Non Story of the Year Boosts C4 Ratings

I never thought I'd ever post anything on Big Brother. If that sounds that I'm something of a cultural snob then I put my hands up in this case. But I've just watched Channel Four News and this 'racism' story was the second item, commanding several minutes featuring Tony Blair, Gordon Brown (actually in India) as well as Shilpa's Mum, Jade Goody, Jade's boyfriend and Jade's mum - who inexplicably spells her name 'Jackiey'.

The story is allegedly about racism featuring in the programme but I can't actually find any evidence of it from what I've variously read in the press. It seems Jade's boyfriend used to 'c' word to describe her(saying more about him than her), and one of the other women called her a 'dog'- patently absurd as she is clearly beautiful; more than can be said for any of her female critics. I haven't watched the programme for more than 15 minutes(honest I haven't) but Bollywood actress, Shilpa(pictured) seemed to me to be composed, serene and charming. Maybe that's why Ms Goody et al disliked her so.

Actually I don't think this story is really about race- it's more about education and class. Shilpa is an educated, talented woman from a race which used to be subservient. Jade and co. reflect the prejudices of envy and resentment more often found among the graceless and the uneducated. But the obvious thing is that Channel 4 will be delighted at this furore as ratings for this series were well down....until yesterday. Moreover, they have a good story to tell; it's allegedly about race but isn't, at least explicitly, so they can protest the innocence of their 'housemates'. It's in reality more about bad behaviour and transparent envy- both acceptable on the telly and compelling magnets for more regular future viewers. But you can be sure I won't be one of them-well, apart from the occasional peek that is.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


BBC Poll Reduces Fear of Scottish Secession

Most of the attention paid to the recent BBC Poll focused on the increased support it indicated for an English parliament(see also here). My eye however, was taken by the fact that more respondents favoured the status quo than independence. Only 32% of Scots wanted independence while 56% favoured staying in the union[keen eyed viewers will have noticed my pictures of Holyrood in session alongside a symbolc thistle]. This result differs from other recent polls which have shown majorities for independence both north and south of the border. This is an outcome which terrifies Gordon Brown, who knows Scottish MPs are likely to be the difference between government and opposition for Labour come the next election.

This poll reinforces the general feeling I have long held that even if the SNP won an election in Scotland, the broad body of Scots would prefer to stay within the Westminster fold. This is because:

i) Scotland is a high tax economy with some 50% of GDP generated by public spending. Should an independent Scotland seek to introduce an Irish style low tax economy, as has been suggested, there would be a massive bonfire of welfare institutions which no Scot could easily contemplate.

ii) At present Scots receive some £1500 per head of public money more than those south of the border; they would not wish to lose this Barnet Formula inspired bonus either.

iii) Without the England connection Scotland's influence would count for little on the European and (especially) world stages.

iv) If the Scots converted to the euro, as the SNP suggest, they would encounter severe problems of adaptation with the country which is likely always to be their chief market.

v) Most people living in our political culture are conservative with that small 'c' and would not welcome the turbulence such an upheaval would cause.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Surely Bush-Blair can't wage war against Iran as well?

You would think that after blundering into Iraq, getting bogged down in a civil war though your own incompetence and then losing your legislative majority in your country's mid-term electoral verdict on your presidency, that Bush would shrink from getting into any further trouble. But, according to Dan Plesch, the well informed defence specialist, this is precisely what he is planning to do. His reading of the runes connected to troop and weapons deployments is that Bush contemplates a future military strike against Iran.

These deployments to the the Gulf include Patriot anti-missile missiles, an aircraft carrier and cruise missile firing ships, none of which have relevance to the Iraq war. Plesch writes:

Many military analysts see these deployments as signals of impending war with Iran.

...and concludes that the demise of the neo-cons advising the Texan has been called wrongly: they still have his ear.

The political context as seen from inside the White House and Downing St is that we are in a war as serious as the second world war...and there is every sign, to judge by his warmongering speech in Plymouth on Friday, that Tony Blair would be keen to join him[Bush]if he were still in a position to commit British troops to the field

The implications of such a move do really not bear thinking about. Iran is now the major power in the Middle East and, as the picture shows, close to Syria. Military action against Iran would merely draw us deeply into another unwinnable conflict and light the blue touch paper to a conflagration in the region which might presage something not so far removed from that second world war comparison Plesch mentions above. We must hope Bush is just seeking to deter Iran through a bluff but my feeling is that Ahmadinjehad seems not the type of politician to be easily fooled.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Bush seeing sense at last on Global Warming?

It's been a long time(much too long) a coming but today we're told George Bush is planning to reverse his position on climate change and the human causal connection. [My picture shows the Pasterze glacier in Austria which was two kilometres longer in the 19th century and is now no longer visible from this angle.]

We learn that after seven years in power, Bush has finally accepted the connection between global warming and CO2 emissions and the concomitant need for international agreement on a cap as agreed at Kyoto in 1997. The US had signed the Protocol but the incoming president who refused to ratify it; this despite the fact that his country, with 5% of the world's population produces one quarter of its emissions. Blair apparently discussed the topic with Bush before Christmas and may have had a bearing on the predicted U turn to be announced in the State of the Union message later this month. Well, that, supported by the Stern Report, would be some kind of return for the one sided 'special relationship' and maybe even a segment of that famous legacy...?

The timetable could be an EU agreement on a successor to Kyoto this spring, followed by formal agreement at the G8 in the summer. However, the article in The Observer cited above, also contains a warning by one source 'close to the negotiations' that Bush might flatter to deceive on this issue yet again. In August 2004, Bush seemed to make a U turn on causation but the expected follow up never materialised. The energy lobby did much to place their man in the White House and will not allow their poisonous golden goose to be slain without one hell of a fight. Let's hope and pray Bush has experienced a genuine epiphany on this vital issue.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Key Problem of Raising the School Leaving Age to 18

My picture of blank faced children in St Agnes's school, Longsight Manchester, from 1915 accompanies my thoughts on Alan Johnson's proposal to raise the school leaving age to 18. The World at One ran an item on it today in which it was reported that in the sixties there were 8 million jobs for the unskilled; now there are only 3.5 million and by 2020 there will be only 600,000. It is clearly crucial for young people to acquire some of the skills required to make a contribution, not to mention a living, in our modern economy.

Back in 1915 the majority of jobs were available to the unskilled working classes. Clearly the world of work has been transformed; my question and worry is: have the attitudes to training and education changed accordingly amongst the groups who most need it? Back on February 3rd 2006 I reported on some teaching I had done involving GCSE candidates. My experience was mixed; some groups were attentive and motivated and I think/hope benefited. Others were completely alienated from the introduction I was offering to help equip them the better for the adult world they were soon to join.

No matter how much I persuaded, wheedled, exhorted or finally, begged, they were wholly uninterested and wanted only to subvert my teaching and mess about. Very depressing it was too. Yet these same young subversives had stated they wanted to become civil engineers, barristers, doctors. It used to be said that working class kids lacked ambition but here the mismatch was between their aspirations and attitudes to the means whereby such goals could be achieved. Our relatively low school staying on rate helps explain why our skill levels are low enough to threaten seriously our international competitiveness.

We seem to have produced a large group of people who bring up their children to share the aspiration to achieve the end products of higher education(good) without accepting any of the rigours required for the necessary route to such objectives(disastrous). We learn that Alan Johnson has recently been to Canada and been impressed by their wheeze of with-holding driving licences from young people who refuse to stay on at school; apparently this has drawn in loads of youngsters who would otherwise have drifted onto the labour market bereft of skills.

I wonder if that works though, because it seems to me that if youngsters do not want to stay on in the first place they would be unlikely to exert much effort to benefit from such opportunities even if they were bribed or bullied into doing so. How do we solve this vital preliminary requirement? Search me, but it might be an idea to recognise the problem in the first place.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Bush Blind to Realities of Iraq

Dennis Healey's famous quip about the first thing to do when in a hole is to stop digging was never more apt than it is to George Bush's reaction to the Iraq Study Group's advice to seek a solution based on withdrawal and regional diplomacy. Given that a large majority of Americans now disapprove of his handling of the war and that the Democrats recently won the mid term elections based on the implicit premise of withdrawal, Bush's recent announcements smack of fantasy laced with desperation.

His decision to pour yet another 21.500 troops into Iraq in an effort to control sectarian fighting is almost certainly too little too late. US generals in 2003 advised a force of several hundred thousand would be needed to topple Saddam and secure the country but Rumsfeld insisted he could manage with a fraction of that. Since then the situation has worsened and the numbers needed to win the war are probably politically impossible to send. Moreover, the idea that the Iraqi army will soon be able to take over responsibility for internal security is undermined by the fact that it has almost certainly become an instrument of Shia militias.

Bush has manufactured one final throw of the dice but the judgement of most experts is that the gamble will end only in many more deaths for US troops and thousands more Iraqi civilians. This is what happened when Nixon was elected in 1968 on a ticket to end war in Vietnam and this desperate, flailing last round effort to land a knock-out blow will end with the same result.

The ill-fated mission is effectively over but Bush refuses to accept this and throws thousands more lives into the shredder that is Iraq's civil war. US Polls register great resistance to the White House but I suspect it won't be until Washington fills with demonstrators and the campuses with anti-war students that Bush will finally accept his reality does not match with that of his leading generals not to mention most of his fellow Americans. I just wonder how Bob Gates, Rumsfeld's successor who was also a member of the ISG, is going to swallow this dangerous policy of an ostensibly temporary but in reality open ended 'surge' in troop deployments.

As for Blair, he seems like Bush, not willing to see the facts. Yesterday he insisted Basra does not suffer from the same problems as Bagdhad but the civil war seems as endemic in Iraq's second city as in its first. It will be down to Brown in the end to close this sorry chapter in British foreign policy and create some necessary distance between London and Washington.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Sir Humphreys to Blame for Yet Another Home Office Debacle

It's a strange thing, maybe, to say I feel a bit sorry for John Reid as Home Secretary. But then I felt sorry for Charles Clarke too and for similar reasons. The scandal about the 1000 foreign prisoners being released last year which precipitated the less than gracious exit of the burly Clarke is dauntingly similar to the present bit of turbulence about 500 offenders of serious crimes in various parts of Europe. It seems the information relating to them was sent to the Home office but has been collecting dust in files rather than being entered into the police national computer and appropriate action taken.

Instantly the opposition, not to mention, I suspect, sections of the police, have been calling for Reid's balding pate. But, speaking as a former(briefly and ingloriously) civil servant, I would suggest that it's not Clarke or Reid who should be in the firing line but Sir John Gieve, former Permanent Secretary to the Home Office (now safely departed to a billet in the Bank of England) and Sir David Normington, the present incumbent. Typically, we understand, it is ministers who construct policy while it is civil servants who administer it.

At the same time it is ministers, according to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, upon whose desks the buck stops. Well, up to a point Lord Copper. There has to be limits to what one expects a minister to do; in a department like the Home Office there are so many responsibilities for the politician in charge one cannot reasonably expect him or her( actually don't think there has been a woman Home Secretary) to monitor every aspect of this sprawling empire.

I would think it more reasonable to expect such a routine job to be performed by departmental desk officers-that's what they get their pay and fat pensions for after all. If the task was performed badly, or not at all, then it seems bizarre to blame the guy at the very top of the pyramid. You wouldn't, for example, blame the chief executive of Mercedes if your luxury car was not serviced with expected Teutonic thoroughness but take your complaint to the garage exercising the franchise. It's Sir Humphrey and co. who should carry the can on this one.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Blair betrays Green Cause

Tony Blair is sufficiently experienced, God knows, to understand that his recent comments on air travel would be interpreted as they have been. His comment that taking long haul flights is perfectly acceptable and that science is the best way to tackle global warming, sounds like something George Bush might say rather than someone who has allegedly been campaigning passionatelyfor the reduction of emissions worldwide. Only the other day Ian Pearson, the junior environment minister, lambasted airlines for not signing up to what is necessary to fight greenhouse gas depredations of the planet.

To them, Pearson needs to add the name of his boss. It is beyond belief that Blair should desert the cause which many of us felt was genuinely close to his heart. Was it truly felt or just careless talk? Either way, it's hugely disappointing as Jonathan Porrit said on the World at One today.
I can see that it is difficult and that there may be limits to what people will accept- I've argued before that many of us are essentially tied to high consumption and will only give up the cars, the food, the flights and the exotic meals kicking and screaming with fingers prized reluctantly away from the door frames of their comfortable lifestyles.

What we needed was a clarion call to change our way of life to save the planet for our children; instead we got a fudged muttering of compromises and unrealities. If we have to wait for science to save the planet we are investing in optimism alone instead of accepting that an obligation rests upon all of us to rein in consumption and live less lavishly. Making compensatory payments offers only partial exoneration; as the leader of the nation Blair has a duty to make an example of his own life. Yet he blithely talks of carrying on with his extravagant high carbon footprint lifestyle. John Gummer, not to mention David Cameron sound a lot more acceptable to the part of me that has turned green over the past decade than the leader of the party to which I belong- and at times like this, I wonder why.

Monday, January 08, 2007


On Gordon Brown and the Renewal of our Politics

Gordon's master plan for Number 10 inspires some confidence in me, if only because his objectives chime on with some of those I suggested over the weekend. Jackie Ashley, a columnist said to be close to Brown, is however, a bit too enthusiastic for my taste:

"Brown's words were strikingly clear and ambitious. Britain needs 'a new kind of politics', with a 'government that intervenes less... you have got to listen and be prepared to talk, consult and debate. The challenges of the future demand something quite different from the past.'"

We can all agree with that. Having helped campaign for political literacy all my professional life, I'm dismayed at the decline in our civic culture that has seen election turnouts plummet and cynicism proliferate(though I have to confess to consuming a fair helping of it myself). We certainly need to revive our civic culture: a tolerant , engaged and responsible culture which has matured over centuries and made Britain a beacon of liberty as well as a wonderful place to live. But looking at Brown's proposals, I'm not sure that:

i) Brown is the right person to talk about a government which intervenes less; at The Treasury he has intervened obsessively with every aspect of government.

ii)Nor do I think his record suggests someone who is able or ready to listen if the criticisms of his former colleague Charles Clarke are anything to go by.

iii) His prospectus of strengthening parliament, culling political advisers and terminating 'sofa-government' will do more than scratch the surface of our intractable political apathy.

What has happened, it seems to me, is nothing less than a wholesale collapse of faith in our civic procedures and culture. We have become so immersed in our complacent cynicism that its akin to an addiction. We have failed to appreciate how hugely advantageous that culture is compared with the alternatives; Will Hutton's report on China yesterday emphasized how the more liberal Chinese envy what we have allowed to be be devalued in our own eyes. What will it take to bring ourselves to our senses? Addicts usually require a period of hitting 'rock bottom', a period of despair, before they begin to reacquire that life positive mindset. I hope I'm wrong, and I don't wish it, but it might require a serious crisis in our national life to achieve the renewal our politics really needs.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


No Time Left for Blair to leave the Stage to Applause

Blair's former 'chief adviser political strategy' writes in the Observer today that Tony can 'leave the stage with them still wanting more'. In deference to this pleasant fantasy of an idea I've re-used perhaps the most flattering photograph of Blair-or maybe any politician- ever taken.

Matthew(son, I think of sociologist/broadcaster, Laurie) is bullish about what Tony can do in the six months left to him. Taylor was 'charged with developing a fundamental policy review to be overseen jointly by Downing St and the Treasury.' It will envisage:

A radically reformed central state-smaller, more strategic, less controlling, focused more on the causes of poverty than, ignorance and sickness than the Sisyphean struggle to ameliorate their consequences.

That would be interesting if I knew more about what it meant. Next week, we are told, a No 10 seminar will decide what issues will be given to a 'high profile citizen's forum' which will look 'in real policy dilemmas' and 'pave the way for how policy has to be made in the future'.

Forgive an old cynic for being cynical but I seem to recall a People's Panel being introduced in the early years of Blair's first administration-1998 to be precise- and being wound up shortly afterwards- in 2002- for being not useful. Nevertheless we must with-hold judgement and allow the idea a fair wind... again. Matthew hopes that by the time Tony goes, day to day violence in Iraq will have reduced. 'Even more important in the long term', he judges, 'Blair's pre Christmas visit to the Middle East' has contributed to 'progress'- albeit, he admits, of a 'small and fragile' nature. You could say that again. He recognises the primacy of the NHS deficits problem but expresses some optimism about Northern Ireland(guardedly), education, party funding and Lords reform. As for the future,

Blair's final challenge may be the May elections. If the outcome is disastrous for Labour, particularly if the SNP is seen to win a mandate for independence, his decision to stay on until the summer could be seen as a misjudgement to rival Jim Callaghan's 1978 rendition of 'Waiting at the church'.

Blimey! This line seems to suggest Tony's former key adviser on political strategy has very serious doubts about Tony's.. er... political strategy. Blairism might well survive the demise of its eponym but to suggest the fag-end last sixth months of his period in office can witness the fulfilment of his central reform ambitions is to live in a world too far removed from the political reality such a key adviser should inhabit.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


'Gizza Job' Charlie and 'Brown's Year'

[Well, I'm back, albeit with technical problems alleviated rather than wholly solved. Many thanks to Roy and 'Cassie' for their unstinting assistance- the blogosphere is heart-warmingly generous with help and advice of this kind, I've found.]
Arch Blairite Charlie Falconer has plumped unsurprisingly for Gordon Brown ('a towering figure') as the only conceivable replacement to Blair, suggesting either that the Blair camp has reluctantly accepted their destiny as elements in a imminent 'Brown's world' or that Charlie is applying for a job, or both. On the first, they are surely right; on the second Tony's flatmate might just have established his efficacy as a fast moving, likeable fixer sufficiently to secure his berth on HMS Gordon- but including him in preference to the burgeoning assemblage of established Brownites might prove too great a problem. I imagine the 'bit of both' is closest to the truth.

The Guardian is right to dub 2007 'Brown's year'. The only possible rival is John Reid whose recent speech on the need to continue as New Labour reminded the party's movers and shakers that he's there if either Gordon slips up or they change their minds. [For a shrewd assessment of Reidy's intervention see Paul Linford's post last Thursday.]

Tomake this his year properly, it seems to me Gordon should focus on the following four items:

1) Include a raft of new younger ministers to manufacture a sense of a completely new administration- it worked for John Major long enough, at least, for him to win an election.

ii) Reformulate foreign policy in way which puts distance between UK and USA and edges us closer to the EU.

iii)Offer a new approach to managing the public services; the sense of 'good money after bad' has grown under Blair and may prove the most potent recruiting sergeant for Conservative votes in 2009.

iv) To help achieve the above, adhere to a more traditional form of government in which civil servants advise, minutes are taken and Cabinet really discusses.

Friday, January 05, 2007


Blogging Problems

Visitors to this blog will have noticed it's gone a bit pearshaped with repeated postings, no margin and a 'falling' down to the bottom of material. My IT literate colleague and friend, Roy Johnson is very kindly using his expertise in trying hard to solve this technical problem for me; in the meantime I'm having to suspend posting. If anyone is familiar with these problems perhaps they can leave a message explaining how it can be remedied. Hoping that normal service will soon be restored, Skipper

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Beckett Forced to Over-rule her own Opposition to Foreign Policy

An intelligent piece by former Downing St spinnerLance Price today reminds us that Margaret Beckett was deputy leader in 1994 but made the decision to go for the top job instead and lost. Had she remained in the number two post she might well have succeeded in remaining in this role for the full New Labour period in power. Price suggests her adherence to principle, compared to Prezza's opportunist prgamatism, might have had a bearing on how things panned out. I'm not so sure.

I once asked her to address a small seminar of politics teachers back in the early eighties.[her fellow presenter was no less than Robert Kilroy-Silk would you believe?] She basically went on to deliver the then familiar Bennite agenda of making MPs more removable by the membership, permeating all sections of the party with democratic accountability and so forth. When it came to advancing her own career however, she found it no problem to cast aside all this previously passionately held ideological baggage. She kept mum about it and pretended it had never happened.

But Price is almost certainly right that she is at heart opposed to the thrust of the foreign policy she is obliged to defend on Iraq and defence policy over Trident. But as Price points out such objections, whatever the discomforts, are kept hidden from view. The same is true of the three candidates for the deputy leadership - Benn, Hain and Harman - who are opposed to Trident; with a PM committed to it as well as the putative next PM, they have all avoided grasping the nettle; as with Beckett, mums the word for them too.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


The Problems Caused by the Filthy Rich

A recent piece by Peter Wilby, suggested that a return to 'the politics of envy' would be salutory in a British socio-political culture apparently so relaxed about people, in Mandelson's infamous phrase, 'getting filthy rich'. He rehearses the most recent unpalatable fact: Goldman Sachs employees sharing £9 billion in bonuses with some getting several millions each. When my Current Affairs class discussed this a month ago, a fair proportion, especially the retired businessmen, argued that distributing the largesse of the few who were rich, would only provide a few crumbs for the poor. Brendan Barber of the TUC however points out that this handout alone would give every British worker £350 each; more than a few crumbs maybe.

Wilby lists some of the harmful effects of the kind of inequality which produced a 28% increase in directors pay while ordinary workers had to make do with inflation plus a bit.

i) House prices in the capital have been ratcheted sky high by the bonus laden mega rich and the consequent ripples have helped push house prices way beyond the means of most aspirant first time buyers without house-owning relatives about to drop of their perches.

ii) Very rich people can monopolise the services of scarce resources like the best surgeons, push up restaurant prices and at the same time minimize their tax liabilities through employing the best accountants; this last meaning that the tax burden falls even more disproportionately on the less well-off.

iii) As political party membership declines the super-rich are able to hold them to hostage in lieu of major donations.

iv) As inequality grows Wilby cites evidence adduced by Richard Wilkinson, social epidemiologist at Nottingham University that as it becomes flagrantly unequal, society becomes less safe, more violent, more racist.

'One man's bonus from Goldman Sachs', asserts Wilby, is almost literally another person's killer'.

Meanwhile, David Bolchover in The Times argues that such extravagant bonuses blunts entrepreneurial endeavour and therefore is essentially anti-capitalist. University graduates simply queue up, salivating at the thought of such easy-money largesse from Mammon and neglect the business of setting up new successful enterprises. He also argues that the huge salaries given to traders by the bosses of big companies is used to justify their own even grosser rates of pay. Wilby is honest about admitting the solution to this problem is exceedingly complex and so far elusive but suggests:

It would be good start if New Labour at least recognised the problem. Let us all make a new year resolution to be seriously unrelaxed about the filthy rich...'

I can't help but agree.

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