Saturday, March 31, 2007
Come on Ken, You Can do Better than This!
Mind you, I have to confess to being a little disappointed with his recent democracy task force report. I had rather thought it was going to range far and wide and offer some solutions to the problem of the yawning credibility between rulers and ruled which uderlies the low turnout figures and the pervading current culture of cynicism. Instead he has focused on an absurdly easy Blair-bashing target: And End to Sofa Government. The report asserts:
"the combination of an over-powerful premiership and the dominance of news management within policy-making have been very damaging to both effective and accountable government".
To counter all this, he calls for a return to more traditional Cabinet practices with papers circulated within time limits which allow proper consideration. Also he wants and end to 'autocratic government'. Presumably he is also in favour of motherhood, apple pie and pictures of puppies in baskets. Apparently this is an 'interim' report but it suggests his task force has been spending its time quaffing the huge amounts of food and drink required to end up looking like old Ken.
Speaking personally, I'd like to read something of the brighter Conservatives' views on issues like political apathy, the West Lothian Question and the possible independence for Scotland, not to mention the proper UK relationship with the EU. Come on Ken, you can do better than this!
Friday, March 30, 2007
Whitewash of DEFRA Incompetence a Disgrace
The introduction of a single payments scheme for disbursing farming subsidies caused an overall loss of half a billion pounds; this was a time when Margaret Beckett, a minister with allegedly 'safe hands', was in charge. The Rural Payments Agency, it appears, consistently warned DEFRA that the scheme was 'complex and high risk' but in the aftermath of the losses only the RPA chief executive was sacked. The committee comments:
When a department fails to deliver a key programme right at the heart of its fundamental responsibilities the ... secretary of state should not be rewarded with promotion but its reverse. New ministerial guidelines should now be drawn up to make it even clearer that if individuals are prepared to accept the glories that come with high office they also know what to do if departmental failure occurs."
But this was not all. Not only was the Defra minister rewarded with promotion- see picture with Condi Rice- but the ministry's permanent secretary, Sir Brian Bender(how he must have suffered in school with a name like that), was promoted to the top job at the DTI. The committee again comments:
"If a failure to deliver on such a scale had occurred in a major plc, the chairman and the senior operating executives would have faced dismissal from post. With this in mind the committee continues to be astonished that Sir Brian Bender continues to hold the rank of permanent secretary. If he does not tender his resignation the head of the home civil service [Sir Gus O'Donnell] should explain why a failure such as this results in no penalty."
On the radio yesterday Geoff Rooker from Defra, denied any further action was necessary, pointing out that ministerial appointments were the job of the PM and civil service ones the Head of the Civil service. For the PM the Cabinet Office expressed
'the full confidence of the PM, his secretary of state and Sir Gus O'Donnell.'
Is it any wonder there is so little trust of government by the governed? Nuff said.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Guido's Newsnight Foray Illadvised
If this had been a contest- which to some extent it was- I fear Guido would have lost by a margin familiar to our not so gallant soccer lads. His first mistake was to appear like an IRA terrorist, blacked out for anonymity(see picture). Paxo rightly poured scorn on this and White quickly blew the disguise by mentioning his real name. Then, there's his voice; as a commenter on today's post on Guido mentions, it's not a good broadcasting voice, sounding too lightweight and youthful. Finally, faced with these two experienced broadcasters he seemed ill at ease and his claim that mainstream political journalists got too chummy with politicians for the good of truth and democracy, seemed to make no discernible inroads.
To be fair, some thought his interview a success- eg my fellow blogger Roy who blogs at Mantex, emailed me to this effect from his Newsnight accessible hideout in Malaga and a fair number of the crowd who regularly comment on Guido's blog agreed. But Staines/Guido himself is probably the best judge of his own performance: 'definitely a mistake'. Correct, but on the positive side, it's a definite benchmark of progress and recognition for us toilers in the blogospere; he's stimulated discussion which is his constant aim; so he shouldn't beat himself up too much.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Why Should Royals Avoid/Evade Inheritance Tax?
To live in fabulous luxury and bask in the high regard of a nation is apparently not enough for the royals; they have, in addition, to be exempt from the rules by which the rest of us lead our lives. It seems Lord Goldsmith fixed this up with Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss in 2002. It is to the credit of that excellent(and, according to this morning's page 2, prize garlanded) newspaper, The Guardian, that their application for the private court hearing to be challenged has been successful. My partner had to pay £9000 inheritance tax on her father's modest estate- that's nine grand more than our fabulously wealthy head of state.
Slightly more intriguing is the paper's second application, to reveal Princess Margaret's will. It seems an accountant living in Jersey, one Robert Brown, claims to be the latter's illegitimate son. The executors of the royal wills sought to have lawsuit struck down, claiming this person had an 'insane delusion without any evidence'. They also revealed that in 2005 no less than 27 people claimed to be illegitimate relations of the royals. Now, I was always told by my elders in the Shropshire village in which I grew up that 'those royals are at it like knives all the time'; I always dismissed such assertions, but who is to say they were suffering 'insane delusions', when so much evidence has emerged-Charles, Camilla, Andrew etc- to suggest they might have been right?
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Hitchens' Savaging of Cameron a Delight
Iain Dale was apparently invited to be involved but spotted it as a 'hatchet job' and declined. He was right: it was. And a very effective one it was too. Starting with Cameron's former boss at the Conservative Research Department, we learnt that Cameron had no discernible political position when he worked for the party and was self evidently an 'opportunist'; when a candidate in 1997 his manifesto was indistinguishable from any journeyman Tory trying to toe the party line; and in 2005, of course, he penned Howard's less than centrist manifesto.
In the absence of Dale, it was Michael Gove who had to face the brutally cynical questions of The Hitch and came up predictably unconvincing. Hitchens nailed down the accusation that Cameron had speedily invented his liberal 'Compassionate Conservatism' when the media plus his psephologically literate friends, suggested he might be in for the main chance.
Whilst on those friends Hitch put Gove on the backfoot too over all those Etonians milling around the 'ordinary bloke' Dave not to mention his investigation of the aristocratic pretending Bullingdon Dining Club(dedicated to drinking themselves insensible and then trashing restaurants while in fancy dress), which, it was alleged, occupied the major part of the future Conservative leader's time whilst at Oxford. The above picture reveals Cameron(second from left) in his true colours: a privileged toff, surrounded by confreres of the same ilk- note the blond mop of Boris Johnson in the front row(see here for the full run down of toffs now working in the City).
I'm not sure if The Hitch convinced many Conservatives that Cameron is a lightweight opportunist who is slavishly following the Blairite route to power, but he sure as hell convinced me. Labour's attack dogs will have greedily feasted on this useful programme for future use. And it was revealing how many of Dave's enemies the programme managed to flush out- they clearly are not limited to that ageing old head-banger Norman Tebbitt, though he was in it too.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Mandelson and Blair want to Scupper Gordon's Chances
Last Week Peter Mandelson seemed to revivememories of some harsh criticisms of Gordon Brown. On Friday he warned that a contest for the leadership was desirable and today on the World this Weekend, we heard him amplifying his case by pointing out that when Michael Howard received a 'coronation', the public shrugged and voted him down; when Cameron won, he came from behind to win a lively contest along with considerable public support. What does all this mean? Two things.
Firstly, that emnities die hard in politics and Mandelson has clearly not forgiven Brown for the hostility born against him by the Scot following Mandelson's change of sides for Blair in the mid nineties. Mandelson dropped Gordon once he considered Blair the better bet and, under the code name 'Bobby' went on to advise Tony on his successful campaign.
Secondly, I think the briefings given by Blair's intimates to the Observer are not unconnected with the silky Commissioner's warnings- and suggest both Tony and Peter are seeking to scupper Gordon's chances. We read that Blair has said Miliband could beat Brown. From the article linked above it seems clear Blair is seeking to encourage his tyro Environment Secretary to enter the field and that he has no warm feelings about the prospect of Gordon succeeding him. Does any of this matter? Yes, I think it does. A dished Gordon would possibly make Tony cavort with the schadenfreude of it but I wonder if the elimination from the contest of Labour's most successful post 97 politician can do anything but extreme harm to the party.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Fight by Yang and Wu Sign of a Human Rights Thaw in China?
Reading the history of Communist China one is struck by the brutal authoritarianism of Mao and his political descendants. Around the time of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s this harshness began to modify as a gradual reintroduction of private ownership and an embryonic market economy was introduced by this geriatric (relative) liberal. This continued for a decade and laid the foundations of China's current formidable economic might. I had always assumed that introducing free enterprise into an economic dictatorship would decentralize power and strengthen human rights. Not so.
When the dictatorships collapsed in Eastern Europe and the USSR I thought the framework of the Chinese state would not be long in crashing down as well. But it didn't. And in 1989 the old guard showed how strong they were by instigating the Tiananmen Square massacare. Since then we've seen the economy grow apace but the government still censors Google and bloggers and anyone who wants to act like a genuine democrat.
One can read of many local uprisings in China against corruption and unpopular government decisions but nothing to suggest the iron hand is being finally slackened. Yet we see that a couple can apparently stand up against government development plans without being harrassed, imprisoned or even murdered. Any or all of those things would have surely happened even ten years ago, so I really do think that the fight being waged by Yang and Wu is something to applaud and view as a hopeful sign that in terms of human rights, China may finally be coming in from the cold.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Fining Post 16 SLA Truants Would be a Disaster
i) Already a proportion- many of them living in the sink council estates- of those required to stay in school until 16 are hopelessly disengaged from the system and would be better off working than either skipping classes or attending but disrupting them out of boredom and the perversity it breeds. It only needs a few really disenchanted kids to make teaching impossible or at least excessively stressful for teachers.
ii) Adding to their number with even more alienated youngsters will only make matters much worse, as any teacher with experience of this age group will vouchsafe.
iii) Fining truants or slapping down Asbos will merely criminalize the people the measure is designed to assist and drive them further onto and beyond the bounds of society.
The alternative is to reinvent post 16 education to make it genuinely beneficial and attractive in laying the foundations of adult careers. A tough requirement I know but rather than this policy of compulsion I think it better to leave the SLA where it is. Though with youngsters not being affected until 2015 there is still time to row back from this potentially disastrous course. Lets hope the government of the day- and I note the Tories are against compulsion- will see sense in time.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Brown Budget Little more then Brown Electioneering
Even the pro Labour Guardian had to admit that the average gain will only be £1 a week and the lowest paid will suffer most from the removal of the lowest tax band- see also this report. The main purpose of the budget, of course, which had little room for either give-aways or take-aways, was political. Brown was aiming at two audiences. Foremost was the the Labour Party, especially the group behind him, Labour MPs, the highest profile element in Labour's electoral college. They loved Gordon's barnstorming performance and howled their support throughout his hour long self advertisement. Their votes are now safely locked up Union members and ordinary party members will also have been warmed by his reprise of a remarkable economic record as they shuffle around mean streets delivering leaflets for the upcoming local elections.
The second major audience was the general public- the voters. Polls show the Tories 12 points in front, 15 if Brown goes head to head against Cameron. But a strong economy has a huge influence on the way voters finally cast their vote. There is nothing like low unemployment and low inflation to encourage the naturally conservative instincts of most voters. One has also to recall that at the same stage in his surge to power, Blair's lead was 20 points- and the voting system has a built in bias in favour of Labour as it is. Brown knows that reminding us how solid the economy has been is a sure-fire way of shoring up some of the support lost through Blair's foolish Iraq adventure.
On balance I'd have said the day was Gordon's but the combative way Cameron picked up the challenge when answering Brown's speech(I'm never clear why it has to be the Leader of the Opposition and not the Shadow Chancellor who does this)was impressive. He refused to be wrong footed by the tax cut but instantly laid into the chicanery of it and delivered a highly creditable virtually extempore response. The next election will be quite a contest.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Turnbull's Hypocritical Assault Will Hurt Gordon
The hearing of the Public Administration Committee in December 2005, considered the memoirs of former ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer which had seriously criticised a number of New Labour ministers. Giving evidence to the committee a former senior public servant urged MPs to ask Sir Christopher what he thought would be "the effect of patronising and derogatory comments in relation to elected politicians whom the ambassador had been paid, and paid handsomely, to serve". He went on to say that civil servants had traditionally urged ministers travelling abroad to stay at ambassadors' residences rather than hotels. "What chance do we have when ministers fear their confidences will be betrayed or they will be sneered at?"
Pressed by chairman Tony Wright, he said Sir Christopher should resign from chairing the Press Complaints Commission. Well, who was that senior public servant, now retired? None other than Lord Andrew Turnbull, former Secretary to the Cabinet and close colleague of Gordon Brown who has now violated the public servants' code more spectacularly than Sir Christopher could ever have managed. According to him, Gordon exercised a 'Stalinist ruthlessness' in controlling expenditure, treating ministerial colleagues 'with contempt', allowing them no information ad merely informing them of their financial settlements for the year.
The election is still some time away but the former Cabinet Secretary has delivered a damaging kick to his former boss's goolies which will provide Cameron with priceless ammunition for PMQs and help colour the public image of Gordon as the time ticks down to the next election, probably in 2009. Negative publicity only works when it has some purchase on proof in reality.
Turnbull has provided just that, reinforcing the swingeing criticisms made by Charles Clarke in the wake of the 2005 conference 'coup' attempt, that Gordon was not collegiate and very difficult to work with. I suspect Lord Turnbull had better abandon any hopes he may have entertained of chairing important committees or commissions, courtesy of his former boss. And I would suggest that Tony Wright invite Sir Christopher Meyer to comment on the noble Lord's interview in a future hearing.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Time for a Third Force Again in British Politics?
We had our own third force moment, of course, in the early eighties but the SDP lacked any roots in major social groups and as soon as the media tired of it, it faded. But now we have a situation where we have a national disenchantment with politicians and politics and a surfeit of traditional politicos trying to bend our ears. Fertile soil, I would have reckoned, for a new force, offering itself as 'anti' system, to make some alternative political hay. To some extent we have alternatives with the SNP looking to become the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament after the may elections with their very alternative message of an independent Scotland.
There are also other fringe alternatives, like the BNP's unwholesome message which one sincerely hopes will remain locked in the cage in which voters have chosen to place it for the last few decades. What is needed is a political movement which is alternative, yet mainstream, appealing to all classes with a basically centrist programme and with access to some substantial political funding. 'The Lib Dems!', I hear you cry, but they are perhaps too 'traditionally alternative' with their leader who looks like a Conservative Cabinet minister, to fill the Bayrou slot to any degree. It would seem we are waiting for that third force and will probably remain so, perhaps indefinitely, short of the political earthquake which the amiable, tractor driving farmer seems to be causing in France.
Saturday, March 17, 2007
Trident Decision Wasteful and Misdirected
The current debate about Trident is very different of course, but essentially, it seems to revolve around something akin to the knee-jerk thinking of those early postwar years. Blair and Brown want us to have the capacity to punch at the same weight as the heavy-weights, even though we are closer to being light-weights or even less. The problem is that none of this makes much sense militarily, politically let alone morally. Labour has long had a love affair with unilateralism which helped to lose it elections in the latter part of the Cold War when voters reasoned, quite rightly in my view, that divesting ourselves of nuclear weapons would not be perceived as a an act in line with the finest thoughts of Ghandi and Bertrand Russell, but as a sign of weakness that might be exploited. This strain of unreason in Labour- however worthy- tends to blind it to the unforgiving realities.
Writing in The Guardian on Thursday, Simon Jenkins delivers a withering counter-blast to the MPs about to vote for the costly renewal of this weapon system. Unilateral opponents he brushes away as traditionally unable to see clearly but he reserves his harshest criticism for those realists who believe the weapon will improve our security. He points out that:
1. Nuclear weapons did not deter aggressors from North Vietnam and Galtieri to Saddam and Milosevic. These aggressors took the view that nuclear nations were so reluctant to use such devastating weapons that they could safely operate in their shadow. If this is the case, then nuclear weapons fail to deter and are of no strategic value.
2. Recent wars have shown that lightly armed guerillas can eventually overcome superpowers armed to the teeth. Jenkins comments: 'Defence against such aggression requires diplomacy, espionage, special forces and, I have no doubt, secret ruthlessness.'
3. If nuclear weapons are not effective against modern adversaries, then surely available resources should be allocated to improving basic conventional weapons and equipment- rifles and radios which work, personnel carriers which are not vulnerable to roadside bombs, bullet-proof jackets for everyone who needs one.
4. How can we realistically persuade nations to remain non nuclear when we are so keen to upgrade our own? Is this policy not impossible to justify to nations who, quite properly, ask: 'If you are so keen to prevent proliferation, why are you improving your own?'
I understand that the vote on Trident was not necessarily final and the decision to renew might yet be rescinded at a later date. But with Brown apparently as convinced as Attlee was that such weapons are needed, and Cameron automatically taking the same line, opponents of Trident shouldn't hold their breath.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Can Governments Manage the Public Sector Efficiently?
A friend of mine who used to be a senior manager in the media recently lambasted the 'consensual management' favoured almost as a religion in the public sector, citing the recent highly critical programmes by Gerry Robinson on the NHS. My mate's basic argument was that if you cannot tell people what to do as a manager- as is basically the case for the public sector- then you cannot manage efficiently. But it's not quite as simple as that is it?. For one thing, both sectors have differing objectives: the public seeks to provide (in the UK mostly free) services for the public while for the private sector the bottom line everything is directed towards making money. In the latter case, if someone has failed to maintain expected levels of profit, then he/she is smartly shown the door. In the public sector however, efficiency is hard to measure, failure is a hotly disputed concept and sacking people regarded as too cruel a punishment.
Importing private sector techniques into the the public encounters identical problems. This is a huge collection of problems of course and I make no pretence of knowing the answers. But to illustrate it allow me to recall a management course I attended as a head of department when working for the University Manchester. When asked what their biggest problem was virtually all those on the course, cited their inability to employ top quality researchers and to lose those who were not. In the private sector such a problem would not exist while in universities individual lecturers could hide behind their powerfully protected tenured contracts to ignore, should they choose, what managers wanted them to do. Moreover, when chances of promotion are limited, as they often have been in HE, heads of department have neither sticks nor carrots. The result was that they felt enormously frustrated and yearned to have proper managerial powers.
Is it possible to devise a managerial regime in the public sector which raises performance or should we just accept accept that the public sector is just different and necessarily less efficient than the private? Unfortunately on the national stage the problem is exacerbated by the fact that most politicians are almost wholly alien to the job of managing a department and in addition ignorantly embrace schemes- as the Eye report highlights- which were turkeys from the outset.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Will PM Gordon Usher in a 'Cascade of Constitutional Change'?
Her argument is that the cash for honours scandal has so discredited the appointed chamber that it has no choice but to accept the Commons' decision about its future shape. She goes on to suggest that 'we are on the edge of a major change in the constitution'. This is because firstly the new chamber cannot be elected on anything other than proportional voting, given that such a system has been de rigeur for new assemblies and secondly because the Commons will have to change too 'since MPs are unlikely to want a senate to be democratically representative than they are'.
Given an expected close election with substantial Lib Dem influence applied, then 'the chance of a cascade of constitutional change is now very high'. She concludes by suggesting that Brown will need to gear himself up sharpish to take on 'an agenda of radical change'. Her logic is persuasive but so was that of my colleague way back in the seventies when the change he predicted was still twenty years away from being achieved and then only in part. My feeling is never to underestimate the power of inertia and the conservative instincts of our rulers. But, according to Ashley, we don't have long to find out as her sources tell her Blair will announce his departure on May 10 or 11 and that Gordon(yes, that really is a picture of the young tyro) will be in Number 10 by July 5.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Is Australia a Good Place to Live In?
[This is my last word on Australia, I promise] I'm asking the same question of Australia as I asked of Singapore some weeks ago. Once again I'll look at the pros and cons and then try to sum up my conclusions. Inevitably, my experience of the country is limited to a month in Sydney so I'm not claiming to offer anything other than a partial and superficial analysis.
i)The climate: this is a very considerable incentive to live down there. Coping with our grey and miserable skies means our leaden hearts tend to leap at all that sunshine. Contrary to popular myth though, it's not sunny every day in Oz and they do have rain, thunder storms and cloud. But I noted that even days for which 'showers and cloud' were forecast, usually contained a few hours glorious sun; yes, we'd even lap up their weather categorized as 'poor'.
ii)The natural surroundings: As my picture of the Blue Mts shows Australia has magnificent scenery on a par with anything offered by, for example, the USA. The flora and fauna also offer huge and exotic variety. Exploring such a continent of delights could occupy pleasurably any number of years.
iii)The Economy: The Australian economy has proved dynamic ever since wool provided its motor in the 19th century and since then it has provided its citizens with plentiful work and prosperity. Currently unemployment is only a few percentage points and the economy has enjoyed a period of stable expansion which has helped sustain John Howard's eleven years in power.
iv)Social Attitudes: Generally I found Aussies very friendly, positive and lacking in the negativity which is par for the course in the UK. This applies to:
a) young people do not seem so disaffected from society- I saw nothing like the groups of menacing, often feral youngsters with which we are so familiar in the UK. Sydney seemed safe and free to walk around at any time of the day or week, compared with, say Manchester, which is virtually off limits at weekends thanks to yobbish behaviour. Indeed, the dominant impression is of a very law-abiding people, although vulnerable as any modern society is, to crime and deviant behaviour.
b) Australia is famous for alleged heavy drinking but I saw no examples of people being drunk in public; having said that, there were a few winos and beggars but very few of them.
c) The country was originally intended to be a southern hemisphere British home from home with no mixing of the races. Inevitably racism lurks beneath the surface of national life- and from time to time breaks out into the open- but all I could see were groups of Australians from Thailand, China, Korea, India as well as Europe, all living and working together in commendable harmony.
d) There seems to be a different dynamic in Australia, more like that encountered in USA, of an energetic optimism, a belief that things can be achieved. Immersed as I am in the culture of dear old cynical, pessimistic Blighty, this seemed a very attractive difference.
i) Probably life in Australia favours the young and energetic, rather than the older person- so that would be a disincentive to people of middle age and above. I found the health service pretty good but there are critics who reckon it inferior to the NHS.
ii) The 12000 miles one has to travel makes regular return to homes in Europe something of a deterrent.
iii) The climate, while wonderful in the more temperate areas, can be uncomfortably hot and sweaty, especially within the interior.
iv) Property prices have sky rocketed in recent years and this together with high tax and interest rates currently makes life problematic for young families.
v) Australian culture has been much pilloried by superior European critics and, whilst there are superb writers, musicians and artists of all kinds down under, anyone seeking a popular culture superior to that of the UK, is destined to be disappointed.
As must be obvious from my lists of points, my feeling is that Australia is a wonderful place not just to visit but to make one's life in. Had I been thirty years younger during my visit I would have seriously considered settling in this beautiful and exhilarating country.
Monday, March 05, 2007
Rudd Damaged by Scandal Connection- Valedictory Posting
His personal satisfaction rating has fallen from 68 at the last count to 62 today but his party is still doing really well. I'll be watching developements closely from Blighty, assuming I get back alright. it seems so far to travel and this time it's non stop. But I do intend to do a 'is Australia a place to live in?' post once I get back and try to put things in perspective. That it is a delightful and exciting place to visit there is no doubt whatsoever.
PS I reinforce all these comments as I add this PS on 8th March....