Thursday, May 31, 2007
The Ultimate Sir Humphrey Makes Judgement on Blair's Cabinet Style
... the informality and circumscribed character of the government's procedures which we saw in the context of policy making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgement.
was effectively a coruscating denunciation by someone totally bilingual in the polite subtleties of 'Whitehallese'.
Earlier this week at the Hay Festival, Butler judged that the only decision the Cabinet took during his eight months in post under Blair was the one to approve the Millennium Dome:
"And the only way they could get that decision was Tony Blair left the room to go to a memorial service and John Prescott was left chairing the meeting. There were in fact more people against than for it and the one thing that John Prescott could get cabinet agreement to was that they should leave it to Tony. That was the one decision."
Cabinet government had 'progressively weakened' since the Second World War, according to the former Oxford Blue. Thatcher had clearly talked more than she listened, Major had lost control through indiscipline and leaks but Cabinet government had 'virtually disappeared' under Blair. New Labour was more interested in discussing presentation and 'the lines to take' than 'discussions about policy'. So Cabinet papers-formerly the staple of discussion at the highest level of government-ceased to be written and circulated and meetings had to survive on a diet of oral reports: 'not a satisfactory way of proceeding' was Butler's dry verdict.
It will be interesting to observe- via those many informal journalistic ways whereby we explore life behind the scenes- whether Gordon continues in a fashion which also seems to have suited his own style, or reverts to something closer to traditional, 'proper' Cabinet government.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Benn Shaded the Newsnight Debate for Me.
Harmon showed more strongly than I expected but Blears was a bit squeaky and lightweight though undeniably feisty. Cruddas gained valuable publicity for party members like me as, not being a minister, he lacks face and name recognition. He will have gained leftwing brownie points for urging withdrawal from Iraq(not Gordon's line at present) and I was attracted by his view of the job as purely a nexus between party and leadership. But I have to confess that throughout I found his face a little hard to like- shameful I know, but I'm trying to be honest. Peter Hain seemed a bit awkward. His mien is rather superior as if he's senior to everyone else and he dresses in more senior and superior way (don't ask about that permatan). He almost seems as if he shouldn't be there. He handled the questions like a true professional but that was part of his problem - he seemed like too much one of the New Labour 'establishment' and trust suffered accordingly.
Alan Johnson was impressive. He is transparently honest and refreshingly direct but I think he struck a slightly wrong note for this contest when he denied any restrictions should be placed on high level earnings on the grounds that this was 'non aspirational'. Just at the moment there is much muttering in activist ranks about 'fat cats', City bonuses and the growing inequality gap and a less honest, more finessed response might have served him better- most of the other candidates- with the exception of Hain- tacked in this latter direction. Some polls have shown Johnson leading the pack but for me the most impressive person was Hilary Benn.
His height and natural courtesy lend him authority, something which his ministerial experience has enhanced. His voice too- so much like his father's- is soft and persuasive but with a strong hint of underlying toughness. He charmingly evaded questions such as who he would vote for if he were not standing himself by saying he was happy to leave the matter to the party membership. According to the excellent Political Betting Benn leads Johnson in the stakes with the rest some way behind.
Given his name recognition and his inherent communication skills I cannot see who can now stop him, despite his earlier difficulty in acquiring sufficient MP nomination numbers. He also benefits from the Labour Party members' 'leftwing conscience' effect. For years we kind of knew with our hearts Benn senior's arguments were right but in our heads reasoned they were impractical. This election, by proxy, enables us to vote with our hearts for once. The contest- as this tends to confirm, must be Hilary's to lose from now on.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Has the Left been in Control since the late Sixties?
Hitchens' thesis seems to be that Blair is not at all rightwing, as the left absurdly accuse, but rabidly left as Polly Toynbee insists when listing all the redistribution and the like carried out in his name. But he goes on to say that 'Butskellism' or consensus politics born in 1945, has never died and has reached a new apogee in the person of David Willets who 'could easily pass unnoticed in a Fabian Society conclave'. How an unbroken line can be discerned from Attlee to Blair with no rightwing interludes, I cannot imagine and I'm sure the bulk of Conservative Thatcher admirers would dismiss this as the nonsense it clearly is. But Hitchens is not stupid- he merely starts his arguments from a place very few have thought to occupy.
He makes a more interesting argument when he suggests a 'new liberal consensus on social and moral matters.. has ruled Britain' ever since Roy Jenkins' day in the late sixties. Separating political- economic issues from moral-social does produce a different kind of answer. I've heard him argue that 'Marxism' has been in control ever since these days. But is this correct? I don't think so. In 2007 we can see that racism has been even more thoroughly demonised, that contraception and single mothers have become accepted, homosexuals have been assimilated into society and that minority rights have been recognised to a degree which has made 'political correctness' a bone of fevered contention.
But these battles were not won forty years ago; indeed they have not been truly won even now. Women, racial minorities and gays still have much ground to make up before genuine equality can be said to have arrived. Hitchens is a wild right-wing maverick who would probably wish that we all still wore powdered periwigs and truly believed monarchs ruled by divine right. But he is always very entertaining, provides a comforting fantasy world for Conservatives to enter every Sunday and I did so enjoy his demolition of David Cameron on that recent Dispatches programme.
Monday, May 28, 2007
Cameron Must Win his Civil War Over Grammars
As the political journalist savant, Peter Riddell points out, this topic has not been deliberately targeted as a symbol, as was Clause Four, nor is it defended merely by party dinosaurs; the issue is one of real substance for Conservatives and opposition comes from across the party gamut. As the always lively and informative Peter Wilby judges, the policy has received a righteous kicking from the right-leaning press with The Daily Telegraph's leader and columnists, including Chris Woodhead, Simon Heffer, Rees-Mogg plus, inevitably, the Mail's Grande Dame, Melanie Phillips not to mention many others weighing in with cries of 'surrender', 'defeatism' or, as in the case of (the Telegraph's) Alive Thompson as follows:
'Willetts has alienated just about every middle-class parent by saying he disapproves of aspiration ... The only pupils he cares about are the 13% who are entitled to free school meals."
One right(ish) columnist who did defend Cameron and Willetts was Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times who
identified all the reasons why the party leadership have no choice but to junk selection. He points out that the 11+ had become hugely unpopular by the 1960s:
At political meetings at the end of the 1960s, the then education spokesman, Edward Boyle, was torn limb from limb by Conservative voters infuriated at their children who had “failed” the 11-plus being sent to secondary moderns, along with 70%-80% of each age group. They had regarded the grammars as “their schools”. The 11-plus, they said, lost them the 1964 election and would lose them every one until it was abolished. Margaret Thatcher recognised this as education secretary after 1970, as has the Tory party in practice ever since.
Maybe it's not quite the right issue at not quite the right time but the genie cannot now be put back into the bottle. Cameron has to engage in trench warfare, ensuring that he and Willets win the argument, thus re-educating their party and confirming it does have some of kind of empathy with the '13% who are entitled to free school meals' - not to mention the 60% odd extra who tended to fail that unfair and unworkable selection process at the age of 11.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Disappointing but Right that Campbell's Diaries should leave out 'Interesting Bits'
Andrew Rawnsley discusses their imminent appearance in The Observer today and provides some tantalizing tasters. With all his experience and knowledge of what really went on, his diaries potentially could make those of Pepys(pictured) seem boring and self indulgent. The sad thing is that it seems what we'll get is very much a bowderlized version of the real thing. There will be little or nothing about the dominating political personality clash of the last ten years.
So there will be no dirt on Gordon Brown, even though it seems he did behave disgracefully towards Blair on many occasions. Nor will we read anything much about Tony's dealings with George Bush- surely the second most compelling relationship of his ten years in power. Finally, we won't even hear much about the authentic, real Blairspeak as Tony was horrified to hear Campbell was going to include his frequent uses of the 'f' word, not to mention the even worse 'c' word used in relation to 'a very senior party figure from the eighties who has been very critical of New Labour'- this simply must be Hattersley.
All this is disappointing for those of us who love political gossip and authentic glimpses into the 'engine room' of government, but with one's 'serious about democracy' hat on it's probably for the best. If ministers and civil servants think/know that one of their number is recording what is taking place for future publication, it could damagingly impede our already far from perfect processes of government. As for Campbell, he faces a situation which could go two ways. Potential purchasers of his book might decide it's had all the interesting bits edited out and stay away from the bookshops. On the other hand, it might sell well anyway and he could cash in again in a few years by publishing the full work, complete with dirt on Brown and Bush and Blair's prodigal use of obscenities(and he seemed such a nicely brought up man). Either way, I can't wait.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Compulsory Action is only way to Progress Fight Against Climate Change
I am constantly astonished at the determination of people, often highly intelligent and well informed, to deny what 99% of climate scientists are insisting is our last chance to do something about a looming planetary calamity. Another line often taken by the 'near deniers' is that they certainly won't do anything to fight climate change until the biggest polluters, the USA, accept the problem exists and resolve to join the campaign. Others say 'what can little old me do? I'm only one out of six billion people, so my efforts are likely to have such infinitesimal effect that it's best to ignore the whole thing'.
This is, of course, as the boffins put it, 'Bollocks'. When the world's future and that of our descendants are at stake, everyone has a responsibility to join the fight. According to the precautionary principle, even the climate change deniers should seek to reduce carbon emissions until their insistence that they are harmless is proven beyond doubt. The risks are too great not to. The first article linked above tells us that: 13% of fliers have given up flying as a result of climate change; 34% have cut down on short haul flights; and 31% on long haul ones. 29% say they have used carbon offset schemes to reduce the bad effects of their air travel- though it is far from clear whether such payments-mine included- do more than donate money to virtually unknown conmen . 83% of people in the top AB economic groups have flown recently compared with only 52% of those in the lowest DE groups.
All this suggests that voluntary action by fliers- despite their educated profile- is unlikely to be effective. It's sad to conclude, but like any other addicts, people, we, will just have to be dragged away from flying through increased taxes, transport charging and maybe even outright prohibition. Hugely depressing, I know, but there really seems to be no alternative.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Not True that Blair a Thatcherite
Blair - except at the edges - was a Thatcherite. Brown, in contrast, regarded Thatcherism as something that had to be taken on board while at the same time seeking to retain as much as possible of the Labour legacy, or Labour values as he would put it. This never troubled Blair because he was never of the party, regarding it as an alien object, at best a neutral vehicle for his own ambitions. Blair was never a social democrat; Brown is.
Certainly Blair bought the economic tenets of Thatcherism- interest rate controlled (and hence low) inflation, limited borrowing and 'flexible' employment- as did Brown, but as for the rest I don't think he can be described as 'Thatcherite'. Consider these questions: would Thatcher have supported these signal policies of New Labour:
* The Minimum wage
* Vastly increased spending on public services
* Much closer relations with Europe?
It is self-evident that Thatcher would have tossed her coiffured head in contempt at the very suggestion of any in the above list. Despite what Jacques asserts, Blair's record-Iraq excluded- falls within the mainstream of social democratic endeavour. To make matters even more confusing the article is headed that, To succeed, Brown must show he is like Thatcher. It would be a pity if, as he takes his leave of us, Thatcherite becomes the accepted label to pin on Tony Blair. There has been much more to him than that.
Monday, May 21, 2007
Shropshire Walking Break
Skipper is taking a short walking holiday in his native Shropshire- initially in Ludlow(pictured left) and then Much Wenlock so blogging will be suspended the while. However, normal service will be resumed on Friday, all being well.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
The NHS has Improved...and Vastly
I'm sure I'm not alone in my bemusement at the poor ratings the NHS has been receiving over the past four or five years. All those billions poured in, all those new doctors and nurses, and still rated as worse than when Labour came in? The Tories perceived as more reliable on the NHS than Labour?
All this is so different to my own experience. When I incurred a stroke while jogging in October, 1992 I spent my first night in hospital lying on a trolley in a corridor (the next day I was transferred to a neurological ward at MRI and thereupon received the best of care). In more recent years I have been looked after by the best GP I've ever had; my small operation two years ago was set up within a month and expedited in a day; recently- a sad reminder of mortality and ageing- I've had to have hearing aides fitted: I was seen as soon as I rang the hospital- despite an alleged long waiting list- and I was fixed up in less than a fortnight. And yet we see these bad ratings. Some commentators have blamed it on the media's badmouthing: individual experiences are positive but people still absorb the angle that the overall system is rubbish from the right-leaning national media.
So I was interested to read the article today by Jo Revill, sometime health editor for The Observer. She reminds us how easy it is to forget how bad the service was ten years ago: casualty patients queuing up for 24 hours, in some cases dying in their quest for attention; not even a single intensive care bed available nationwide with one woman being transported 200 miles to find one; and, the hardest pill for patients to swallow, 18 month to two year waiting lists as standard. Now the problems of deficits, chronic over-centralization, MRSA and insufficient jobs for trained personnel persist, but waiting lists?
The current target, which the health service will meet later this year, is for no one to be waiting for more than three months for anything at all, a colossal achievement, but one which seems invisible.
Other indicators last week provide grounds for something more than mre cautious satisfaction:
A survey for the NHS by the independent Picker Institute of 80,000 patients across 167 hospitals showed that 91 per cent of people feel the care in the NHS is good or excellent.
Revill concludes that the NHS 'is in rude health' which does not need 'another dose of abuse and criticism'. Maybe Brown's promised focus on it will be merely to disseminate more effectively the changes for the good which have occurred thanks to his ministrations? Possibly. But for the Conservatives to be leading Labour on health, after allowing the NHS to falter into atrophy after 18 years of their 'stewardship' is beyond belief. Thatcher claimed for the Tories that the NHS was 'safe in our hands'; it never was and in my view, never will be.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Roll On the Smoking Ban, 1st July
I feel quite strongly about smoking and so Christopher Hitchens' rant about it in The Guardian recently, got me going a bit. Of all anti-smokers I'm probably of the worst category- a former smoker. I was brought up in a Shropshire village where I imbibed the now quaint seeming idea, from my teen confreres, that smoking donated a quantum leap in maturity and sex appeal. Smoking gave us so many things-style, poise, something to do with our hands- and we seldom stopped to consider if it wasn't good for us. I finally stopped, aged 22, when recovering from a heavy cold and when my student finances- having to bear the cost of a wife and a baby girl- just could not manage to fund the regular traffic into my lungs of smoke from those tiny Players Number 6.
Over the years since, I suppose I've never really vanquished my liking for the weed- like any addict I am merely 'in recovery'. But over the years I've also got to hate it more- maybe the two feelings are related- because of the drifting smell of the stuff, infiltrating the pub, the non-smoking section of the airport lounge or whatever; the contamination of my clothes; the disgusting, malodourous mess of a full ashtray. I could go on.
Hichens' piece, beautifully crafted, as always, makes some limited sense but underlying it seems to be two sentiments. Firstly a hatred of being told what to do by anyone, especially the likes of Patricia Hewitt, whom he guesses has not read as many books recently as he has written; and secondly a lofty contempt for anyone who might have the temerity to object to the downside of his beloved, filthy habit. I find myself also objecting to the prissy likes of Hewitt but nowhere near as much as I do to the shameless arrogance of Hitchens and his ilk.
Smokers claim they have a right to pursue their habit if they are not infringing the comfort and health of others. I think most anti-smokers accept this; a bar for smokers would be OK with me; so would a section in a public place where the smoke cannot in any way colonize other parts of it. But when it came to the vote the Commons went for the total ban on the grounds that: smoking parents will tend to influence their children to smoke when too young to make a rational choice; and that the heavy health costs of the habit have to be borne by non-smoking tax-payers. Maybe that was a tad illiberal but I'm not complaining that hard. Roll on the 1st July!
Friday, May 18, 2007
'Two Prime Ministers' furore is a row Without Substance
The press is full of the jibe that we have 'Two Prime Ministers' and that this is wholly unnecessary. Well, it has to be said that this is essentially true in that Blair could step down at once should he choose, though it has come about, as constitutional firsts often do, by accident. Brown and Labour's NEC assumed the contest would somehow fill up the 6-7 weeks before Blair formally hands over the reins. Now that well over 300 nominations preclude the need for an election we have a period for campaigning which is, in effect, void. Gordon could have prevented this by nudging some of his supporters to nominate McDonnell to bring about a contest he could only have won by a legitimising landslide but this went too much against the unforgiving grain for the competitive, somewhat paranoid Scot.
So we have this period of time and everyone is complaining we have two PMs, which is nonsense of course. Until Blair resigns on 27th June, he remains the PM and is constitutionally in control, even if his authority has already poured out of number 10 and into his successor elect in number 11. This situation is now similar to the hiatus between the election of anew US president in November and inauguration in the following January. No-one seems to mind that much across the pond and no-one bleats about there being 'two presidents'. Moreover, the very real and lively competition for the deputy leadership offers a sort of contest by proxy, at least in respect of the key issues. Today Polly Toynbee hopes the main issue will emerge as the growing gap between the poor and the getting much richer.
Let's just accept that we have a short interlude in which Blair can take a lap or two of honour-which he deserves after ten years in the job-and that Brown has time to prepare for his first 100 days and to persuade the nation that he is really that nice Dr Jekyll and not that awful Mr Hyde about whom we've been hearing a little too much for comfort. On final conjecture, I wonder if Gordon's promised constitutional package will address elections for Westminster. I'd not be too surprised if he were to introduce PR to emasculate Tory attempts to regain power for some time to come. Voting reform only happens when it is to the advantage of the government in power to change the system. It might be argued that such a time, for Labour, is now.
[note: the middle picture shows Gordon's head in the shadow of Blair's head-well that's no longer the case]
Thursday, May 17, 2007
A Result of which Stalin Would Have Been Proud
So he's managed to avoid a contest. He has now accumulated so many nominations from Labour MPs(309) that it is now impossible for anyone else to muster sufficient to stand against him. The support of the member for Bradford West, Marsha Singh was claimed by John McDonnell in seeking to muster his required 45 nominations but in the event the MP, (who is male by the way, despite his name) denied he had given it. Another slight oddity of this transition of power, commentators nodded wisely over the resignation of John Reid, suggesting he had no wish to work with the prickly Chancellor, but last Sunday's revelations of the Glaswegian's persistent drunken harassment of a female colleague might have had more to do his decision.
John McConnell had the temerity to ask if Gordon would 'lend' him enough MP names to provide the party with an election but was dismissed with something approaching contempt. It would not even have been a proper fight- the result being a foregone conclusion- but it would have usefully ventilated a few issues concerned with management of the public services, the Iraq War and relations with the USA. The party needs to discuss post Blair issues within its won ranks.
As a party member I feel a bit cheated I have to say; we have few enough privileges but voting in leadership elections once in a decade, I'd begun to think was one of them. If he wanted to side-step such a tiny hurdle, Brown must indeed be as paranoid and as unconcerned with the requirements of democratic debate as the autocrat with whom Sir Andrew Turnbull(he can forget any retirement work for the next two years by the way)compared him.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Media Beast has to be Fed
Initially the media, which flocked over to the sunny holiday village to cover the story, were of assistance in alerting neighbours in the village and beyond, of the little girl's fate, and the police must have been grateful for the extended reach which media interest lent to their enquiries. But as soon as major news bulletins began to be anchored from Praia de Luz, I, for one, felt the thing was slipping out of control.
The most recent suspect, Robert Murat, might well be involved in the abduction, for all we know. He claims he's been made a 'scapegoat' and maybe he has- time will tell. But I suspect the appearance he gave of being a little too eager to please reminded some of the journos of Ian Huntley's behaviour back in Soham and so his name was mentioned to the police. Given the criticism they have received for not producing results we all crave, and given the clamouring massed presence of the media, they leapt upon the new possible lead with gratitude.
So far the police have said they have enough evidence to identify Murat as a 'suspect'(presumably this could be minimal) but not enough to arrest or charge him. He may or may not be innocent, but, in the circumstances he has at least served an important function in our modern times: to feed the media beast for a day or so.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Despatches Questions Gordon's 'Stalinist' Character
But on the debit side we saw a vast chorus of people- Labour insider Derek Draper, former Cabinet minister, Clare Short, Former top Europe adviser Sir Stephen Wall plus many others... Sir Andrew Turnbull and Cherie Blair were not even included- stepped up to attest that he was... well... impossible. He waged obsessive feuds against the likes of Mandelson, Cook, Mowlam, Milburn, just to mention a few. Sometimes it was an ancient slight- as in the case of Cook's refusal to acknowledge his share of authorship of a paper written when both were rival comrades in Scottish Labour back in the Middle Ages. Sometimes it was fear that this fast up-moving colleague- Milburn? Mowlam?- might pose a threat to his own leadership ambitions. Oh, yes, and he didn't like Tony Blair much either.
We also had it confirmed that he was only happy in the bosum of his intimates of whose loyalty there was not a scintilla of doubt. When unhappy, he was capable of huge sulks, sitting in a room full of people, glowering angrily and refusing to speak; he would attend Cabinet and sit through it silently while insultingly working on his own pile of papers. He would refuse to answer letters which he did not like or release papers to fellow ministers if he did not feel like it. He hates anyone to disagree with him. 'Control freakery' of a frightening pitch, to be precise. In fact, we learnt that Turnbull's 'Stalinist' label was as clearly disturbingly close to the truth. These were insiders talking, people who had worked with him and mostly had no obvious reason to badmouth him.
Oh dear! We've just about to see the back of that fluffy, posturing, vain, Bush worshipping Blair but now perceive the Big bad Wolf of Gordon Brown growling his way into Number 10. Should we all, as I suspect Oborne would wish- run screaming into the voting booths in 2009 and vote for Dave Cameron? I think not. Brown may well be a difficult, obsessive and infuriating guy- and he may well continue to display these traits, to a degree in office- but one cannot argue with his record of unique achievement in running a successful economy without crisis for ten years. Can any Chancellor be named who has done better over the last 100 years?
Politicians are often awkward, highly ambitious and self regarding people and have some monster-like characteristics even in democracies. Brown has earned his chance to steer the ship, but if his 'psychological flaws' worsen or the economy implodes, as some predict, then voters can register their verdict in two years time- that's the sometimes unrecognized beauty of our democracy compared to Stalin's autocracy.
Monday, May 14, 2007
Do Political Leopards Ever Change Their Spots?
This is a perennial question in democratic politics and is ultimately unanswerable but let's have a brief historical stab it it anyway. It could be argued that Robert Peel and Winston Churchill both succeeded in doing so: Peel by changing his mind on the Corn Laws and Winston when he swapped, first from Tory to Liberal and then back again, causing many breasts to beat faster but without anyone really making the label of 'traitor' stick.
Neill Kinnock and Michael Portillo both U turned their political standpoints- the Welshman from left-winger to centrist and the former Ribena advert boy from red in tooth and SAS praising claw Thatcherite to touchy-feely compassionate Conservative. But neither of them really succeeded in convincing enough voters, whether in the wider electorate or the Tory Party, that their conversions were genuine. Result? they have both ended up respectably retired from front line politics but both irrevocably daubed with the title: 'nearly men'.
John Reid used to be a tough Glaswegian communist and David Cameron, a right-wing Tory (if Peter Hitchens is to be believed) of unreconstructed Maggie worshipping sincerity. Reid's political history happened so long ago that nobody really cares about it now and the public have happily allowed his spots to change. 'Dave', however, is a slightly different matter. His conversion occurred at a time and at a speed that unerringly summons the accusation of 'opportunism'. To date the spots change has been executed with such great subtlety that voters have not really noticed, but the nature of the silent transformation may yet come back to bite him.
Which leaves us with Gordon Brown. It seems to me he has two sets of spots to change; policy and personality ones. On the policy front he needs to adjust his stance to appeal both to Old Labour core support and to those lost millions of Middle England voters. Quite a big 'ask' I'd say but not as difficult as changing perceptions of his personality. Jackie Ashley today indicates just how hard it will be by asking if he can:
drop the controlling temper and the compulsive fiddling? Can he start to speak plainly, to listen and to apologise? The signs are good, though there is a way to go till he speaks totally fluent human.
Changing policies is always a possibility, given sufficient time and political skill; changing the essence of one's nature, now that is something else altogether, and I'm fascinated to watch Brown's attempt to achieve the near impossible.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Gordon has Time to Persuade us we Need Him
Looking to the future Martin Kettle wonders if Brown is the kind of change the nation now needs and thinks it needs. The first thing about this that occurs to me is that the six weeks of the non contest (about as long as the recent endless cricket World Cup) we now face represent a rich opportunity for Gordon to use to his advantage. His left-wing opponent(s) are the merest off stage distraction; he can occupy centre stage as de facto PM to persuade us that we need him. If he succeeds he can step into Downing St with ease and confidence but if he fails we might have already got fed up with him by the end of June.
He has already begun to give some policy indications. On Iraq he has not plunged into any disavowals and wisely intends to move slowly, but I expect him to gradually place substantial distance between himself and his predecessor's political nemesis. On the real meat of his prime ministerial programme I would suggest he remains truest to his redistributive instincts. Kettle quotes:
'an excellent letter in the New Statesman(which) points out this week, Labour's tax and benefit changes since 1997 have raised incomes for the poorest 20% of British families by 12% and have cut them for the top 10% of families by about 5%. Though the very rich have pulled away, here as in other countries, Labour has done a lot of solid redistribution that it must find a more confident way of celebrating.'
Awareness of growing inequality in the UK is growing and focusing on Labour's raison d'etre might just be the means whereby he can start rebuilding the electoral coalition Cameron is right now so successfully dismantling.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Blair, Campbell and the Media
Much of this is because Blair, as David Marquand points out, Iraq effectively alienated the radical left British intelligentsia. But I suppose the key question is whether his collective achievements (constitutionally, in saving public services, in Northern Ireland, in Kosovo and in Sierra Leone) are outweighed by the damage done by him to public trust and the huge error of judgement over Iraq. I suspect that the latter will overshadow the former for several years but that the former will assume greater prominence over time. But my interest was caught in the fascinating, well documented Newsnight extended discussion last night by Blair's relationship to the media.
Alastair Campbell showed just how effective a political operator he is by virtually dominating the studio, despite the presence of such heavyweights as Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy, not to mention Paxo himself. When Blair's alleged mendacity was raised Campbell vigorously defended Blair as being the first PM who has had to cope with the slings and arrows of 24-7 media coverage. Howard, (a riveting exchange this), recalled that Blair in opposition had been wholly trustworthy and honest but that he had soon changed into someone who palpably lacked these virtues. The reason? He pointed at Campbell and calmly accused him of being the cause, of being responsible for the growth of 'lying and lowering the tone of public life'.
Campbell was clearly rattled I thought, and could only counter accuse feebly that Howard was just expressing sour grapes through losing his electoral battles with Blair. Howard mentioned(correctly) that Peter Oborne's book, The Rise of Political Lying(2005) gave the chapter and verse on this mendacity and that Campbell had not sued. To this Alastair replied that he had not even read the book(Oh Yeah?).It is true that Campbell has not been in Number 10 for four years now but Howard may well be right in judging that the rot set in when AC ruled the communications roost.
Campbell was outraged by Gilligan's accusations back in 2003 but the Butler Report, especially chapters 5 and 6, reveal that the dossier which emerged from Blair's office had embellished the available raw intelligence to an extent that was not justifiable, the '45 minute' claim being the most flagrant example. 'Ah', you might say, 'so it's not really Blair's fault, it's Campbell's'? But Blair's desk was where the buck stopped and, even if Campbell was deeply involved, it cannot be denied that Blair must have been willingly complicit.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Mr Speaker Defends the Fragile Sinews of Democratic Debate
As I grow older I find myself increasingly drawn to the obituary columns as people with whom I'm familiar drop from their perches. Usually they are fairly routine accounts of life and career plus a few anecdotes but the obit of Bernard Weatherill, by Ed Pearce was more a fascinating essay on the office of Speaker during the eighties.
Mr Speaker began in the 14th century as the conduit of the wishes of the House to the King. The bearer of unwelcome news is always in a risky position and nine of the early speakers were executed; this explains the ritual show of reluctance when the Speaker is inaugurated. Over the centuries the office became non-partisan- a 'referee' ensuring fair-play in the emergent game of democracy which was evolving in its unique British way. Usually the succession to the office has been non-controversial but with Maggie Thatcher few things remained so. Pearce claims George Thomas, a famed Speaker whose 'Order, Order!' is still heard regularly on Today in Parliament, had been promoted above his ability by Callaghan and that:
Thatcher, with her combination of gush and command, was a bright flower to his worker bee, and he had become her creature.
Weatherill, a former Saville Row tailor and mild mannered 'liberal' Tory, who had been sacked as Deputy Chief Whip by Maggie for voting in favour of PR for Euro-elections, viewed the suborning of the Welshman as bad for democracy in the House. He believed the Speaker's annual acceptance of Private Notice Questions(PNQs), disliked by government for their ability to throw surprise spokes in departmental wheels, was a good barometer of how the House maintained its independence. He deplored how their number fell from about 60 a year, under Selwyn Lloyd to less than ten under the Maggie friendly Thomas.
As the Conservative government became increasingly triumphalist, the former tailor sought to redress the balance by being scrupulously fair to the Opposition. Eventually, in 1988, enforcer Tebbit was despatched to threaten that the 'dogs' would be let loose on him if he allowed a particular PNQ to be asked. Weatherill showed him the door. Nor would he be intimidated by Thatcher in the Commons and had the courage to demand withdrawals from her when her rhetoric strayed beyond parliamentary bounds of propriety.
The 'dogs' took the form of a whispering campaign against the Speaker in the press that he was not up to the job. In response he appeared on Weekend World to politely insist that he was indeed up to the job and that:
'My absolute intention is to ensure that everything that goes on in our nation is exposed in our House.'
Weatherill was an unsung hero of democratic debate, the delicate sinews of which are just as important as a free press or other tenets of our political system. In a context where his own party exercised hegemony he had the courage to resist and to fly the flag for those modest but essential British values of courtesy and fair-play. My favourite story about him was told by himself to the House when he confessed that after first appearing in the chamber after the 1964 election, he retired to a toilet. As he sat anxiously in a cubicle he heard the well known voice of an MP colleague say: 'I don't know what this House is coming to-they've even let my tailor in this time'. No wonder he always retained sympathy for the underdog.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Paisley Edges Terrorists' End Game
If we look at the historic events of yesterday, it's tempting to believe we've seen the end of terrorism in Ulster. Both sides used it to the hilt: abducting, beating, torturing and murdering innocent people. Such awful things, it seems can only happen in a civil war and they date back hundreds of years, but in its more modern Ulster incarnation, terrorism dates back to around 1970.
The Sunningdale Agreement, way back in 1973, was the first attempt to introduce a power sharing executive. Each successive attempt has been frustrated by violent actions by one side or the other, or, most usually, both. After failure each tribe has withdrawn into itself, watchful and untrusting. Politicians like John Hume and David Trimble acted as sanitized proxies for their respective communities but everyone knew that the real ones were Adams and Paisley and that the real power lay with the armed paramilitaries which stood behind them.
Initially British government tended to side with the Unionists. Their Conservative allies pronounced anathema upon the IRA but some contact was inevitable if progress was to be made and it duly followed, even during Thatcher's time. Finally, in exchange for appearing willing to embrace peace, Adams and McGuinness were allowed to sit at the top table at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. But it was their troops in the field with bomb and gun which had placed them there. Paisley, still, it seemed, irrevocably on the outside, growled out his 'no surrenders' and refused to be pacified, constantly accusing the British government of dark betrayal to the Popish forces in favour of a united Ireland. The Executive was soon suspended over the decommissioning of IRA weapons, then reconvened and then, after the Sinn Fein spying scandal in autumn 2002, it was back to rule from Westminster.
The moment, I think, when Paisley began to move into the 'peace-making' zone, was when the DUP , along with Sinn Fein, won such big gains in the November 2003 elections, eclipsing the SDLP and the UUP. Now, it seemed, they just had to deal with each other directly rather than through proxies. Of the two sides, Paisley appeared the more intractable, Adams the more flexible but maybe it was the euphoric scent of power which began to make the old turtle change his mind. Slowly the impossible began to seem more possible until, courted assiduously by Blair and Ahern, not to mention the concession-giving nationalists, Dr No agreed to suspend his lifelong hatred for the 'taigs' and give peace a chance.
Just look at the picture above and note how Paisley dominates it-all eyes are on him- just as he did the ceremonies yesterday. Adams and co. blasted their way into the negotiating room but it was Paisley's stubborness which enabled him to finesse the end game. Whether this success is merely the prelude for another bout of bloodletting, only time will tell, but seldom has our political process seemed so effective or its outcome so pregnant with hope.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
The Threat of Racial Aparthied in our Cities
Last night's BBC Panorama programme examined race relations in Blackburn, an award winning council area and constituency of Cabinet minister Jack Straw. To say it was worrying is an understatement. We have long complacently congratulated ourselves in this country on having avoided the worst aspects of inter-racial/religious conflict together with having a weak and marginalized BNP. But this focus on a mixed race town revealed that the tendency of immigrants from Pakistan and India(now 24% of the population) to settle in the poorer terraced areas had caused over time:
1. A geographical divide to emerge. The originally settled poorer area has expanded and has become separate from the white area and two almost entirely separate communities have resulted.
2. 'White Flight': as immigrants have expanded into surrounding areas whites have tended to move out to 'white' areas. It's easy to condemn this as racism but, as some of the departing white families explained: the character of their area had changed with English no longer the first language in the local school, with pubs closing and different food on sale in shops. It's easy to see why some whites felt 'overwhelmed' and felt the area no longer seemed like home.The single Asian interviewed who had moved into a white area told how he had visited his neighbours to introduce himself with gifts of chocolates but that very soon they were avoiding his eye when they met on the street.
3. Some schools even organized exchange visits so that 'white' schools could see what Asian schools were like and vice versa. One young man recalled that when in school he had loads of Asian friends but that once they reached their teens they tended to separate and go their own ways. Intermarriage is rare and regarded by whites as highly unlikely through the hostility of Asian families.
4. Whilst some time ago veil wearing young women were a rarity, they are now are so numerous they prompted Straw's recent controversial request that they not be worn in constituency surgery meetings.
As the BBC website article points out:
What differentiates the communities is not just skin colour but a more complex combination of race, religion, and language and culture, and these factors added together are a recipe for social separation.
So we see a situation has arisen in Blackburn where people live together, shop together and work together but do so in a way which subtly avoids any contact. There is no social mixing in houses which are separated into virtual ghettos for both whites and immigrants. And the inevitable consequence of this separation is suspicion, resentment and no little hostility. Blackburn was not involved in those 2001 race riots but, on this analysis, it wouldn't be surprising if it were in future. There are scores of similar towns with similar racial profiles where Muslim minorities-feeling discrimination and economic problems- cling together for identity and mutual support. The really worrying aspect of this tendency is that alienated young Muslims, living in this version of our own apartheid, represent pressure cooker copies of the conditions which gave birth to the 7/7 bombers.
Monday, May 07, 2007
Five Hurdles Gordon Must Clear to Have a Chance in 2009
[It's more difficult to find good pics of Gordon compared with Tony so I've posted two to try and compensate] Michael Portillo might consider getting a job as a Labour spin doctor, so hard does he contrive to present Thursday's election results as 'a rosy dawn for Gordon'. Portillo 's suggestion that Brown will begin his stint up to the next election with the lowest of expectations is probably correct however, and, given that Blair bitterly disappointed so many, one could argue that Gordon's virtual tabula rasa is a significant advantage. To have any chance of being (re)elected in 2009, Brown has to mark a clear break with his predecessor and offer voters a sense that he is part of a completely new regime in which it is legitimate to invest hope. To effect this he needs to do a number of things which I list according to their increasing degree of difficulty:
1. Iraq: Geoff Hoon has paved the way with his admission of manifold mistakes in the conduct of the war. Brown could now quite easily step up with further distancing comment. Declaring a timetable for withdrawal and publicly disparaging George Bush would complete the process, if he has the courage to go that far.
2. Appoint a Young Cabinet. John Reid has assisted this possibility by obligingly resigning but there are a number of loyal older Brownites who will probably be expecting some reward. Brown is famously wedded to his cronies so this will be difficult to avoid. Jack Straw, 61, will have to be given high office, Alistair Darling, 54,(tipped by many to be Chancellor) too (though he is arguably not yet 'old' politically). But if he is to favour the Miliband generation in offering a fresh and dynamic team some old cronies will have to be ditched. I'd imagine a likely casualty to be Nick Brown at 57 a bit on the older side and not exactly a raving success as the last MAFF minister. Expect much commentator speculation on this theme in the next month or so.
3.End the Obsession with Spin. Gordon's dissembling presentation of last Budget and his disinclination to release information about that pension taxing decision, suggests someone wedded to information management. However, this failing of Blair is identified by many surveys as something from which voters felt repelled and Brown must seek to convince us that an era of spin has genuinely passed.
4.Offer a New Approach to Public Service Reform. This is likely to be an intractable problem as Brown has been closely associated with the engagement of the private sector in the provision of such services, especially through such devices as PFI, despite his efforts to court Labour's core support by suggesting residual Old Labour beliefs on such matters. Expect Brown, like Blair, to continue relying on Conservative votes for certain key votes on public services.
5.Resolve Conflicts with Scotland. It may be too early to predict the aggressive and resourceful Alex Salmon will be Gordon's opponent as Scotland's First Minister, but a Scottish PM, sitting for a Scottish constituency, whose writ does not run in his own backyard, is likely to hole his period as premier beneath the water line unless he finds a convincing political solution or settlement.
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Not Quite a Meltdown But....
Labour spinners assiduously claimed, in advance of the results, that disaster was fully expected; in their wake they sought to extract some comfort from the fact that the worst of electoral hurricane had passed them by. But looking at these devolved and local election results the following items seem to stand out:
1. The SNP now has the moral right to form the basis of a new government in Scotland and has another 26 days in which to organise a coalition. Gordon Brown now faces intractable political problems; he is likely during his time in power to seek to undermine Salmond, just as Thatcher tried to do the same to the likes of Ken Livingstone, though without Thatcher's trump card of being able to legislate him away.
2. The SNP gained 20 seats in a dramatic surge which swept up, not Labour and Lib Dem seats, but the smaller parties which the PR system was supposed to assist. Labour did well to survive with 46 seats- one less than the SNP- but its negative campaign contrasted unfavourably with the positive one of the nationalists.
3. The cock up whereby 100,000 votes were spoiled through voter confusion over the AMS Parliamentary system and the new STV local government one, is very worrying and has to be addressed both seriously and instantly.
4. In Wales where Labour once ruled automatically, it now faces a 'rainbow coalition' of Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and the (horror!) Conservatives which might well assemble to take over the executive in Cardiff.
5. In England Labour lost 450 council seats- less than feared- but with their 250 victories from the Lib Dems, the Conservatives' 850 overall gains, means the blue areas of the map dominate and the red ones look like insignificant enclaves dotted around South Wales and the north. Now it is Labour which looks like the party under siege once again, as in the eighties, and the Tories poised to complete its last 18 month's trajectory by becoming, at the very least, the largest party in the 2009 election.
6. One comfort to supporters of the mainstream parties, is that, despite widespread dissatisfaction over immigration, the BNP failed to build on its 2006 gains and managed only a net advantage of two seats.
1. The Conservatives at 40% of the vote are still way behind Blair's 47% performance in the 1995 locals. Arguably they still needed to be closer to 45+% of the vote, with much bigger support in the north given the considerable inbuilt bias of the voting system towards Labour.
2. In the mid eighties Kinnock pulled in shoals of council seats but in 1987 was still crushed by Thatcher. In 2004 Blair won a similar share of the vote yet still went on to win the 2005 election with a comfortable majority. Labour could still win and Brown's considerable skills should not be underestimated, but after yesterday it seems to me the next election is the Conservative's to lose.
3. In today's Guardian, Martin Kettle suggests Gordon Brown might well 'put electoral reform for Westminster back on the agenda'. Facing a revived Conservative threat, such a tactic might offer the hope of Labour staying in power via realigned non Tory parties governing in coalition. However, such opportunism might repel our already cynical voters and, based on the new devolved assemblies, there is no natural law that says the Lib Dems will always side with Labour
Friday, May 04, 2007
Let's Introduce Televised Debates for Party leaders Over Here Too
Probably the most famous televised political debate was the Kennedy -Nixon affair in 1960(pictured). Here Nixon was believed by car radio listeners to have shaded the contest but the greater number watching the little box saw Kennedy's film star profile, compared it with Nixon's dodgy five o'clock shadow and had no doubt as to who had won. Even allowing for the distortions of image makers, however, I think it would be good for our democracy to introduce televised debates.
Possibly one would have been allowed by Blair in 1997 had he been behind in the polls instead of miles ahead. As it was, he turned down Major's request for such a debate, presumably on the grounds that it would allow too much publicity to an opponent. A head to head confrontation would stimulate interest in a democracy which, at times in this country, can appear moribund. It would also show how Cameron performs under real pressure instead of the formalised rituals of the Commons. As for Gordon, it would give him a chance to unveil his formidable intellect and mastery of policy detail for the electorate to judge if he deserves to be elected prime minister rather than merely inherit the title for his erstwhile neighbour and rival.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Why Do People Drop Litter in our Beautiful Country?
"You have this beautiful countryside and yet it is increasingly filling up with scraps and detritus - things that people are throwing out of their car windows as they drive along....Fly-tipping in particular is a scandal and what is almost as much a scandal is that people are getting away with it."
Why do people behave like this? Jenni Russell gets close to it, it seems to me, in her article today. Russell provides examples of incivility based on a recent long train journey (to my alma mata, Aberystywth, as it happens): a woman who insisted on speaking very loudly on her mobile; a young man who lounged against a wall inside the Ladies toilet at Wolverhampton; and a young man who insisted his bag should occupy the nearby seat rather than people who were standing in the carriage. Russell explains the mobile monologist thus:
As far as she was concerned, she was free to do anything that wasn't explicitly forbidden, and the idea of worrying about its impact on others was completely foreign.
Everyone reading this will recognise how typical it is of modern day Britain. How does one combat this undeniable and depressing trend? The Conservatives are 'calling for greater social responsibility, with individuals being asked to intervene when those around them behave badly'. But this involves a degree of courage on behalf of people who may put themselves at risk of at best surly vituperation; at worst physical injury. As Russell points out:
Rude and inconsiderate behaviour is alarming because the message is that the perpetrator is defying convention, and we don't know how far they will go.
Litter dropping seems to fall into the same category of 'I'll do what suits me' behaviour. How does one combat it? Merely passing more laws seems futile if the basic values of respect and civility have not been inculcated. God knows, I love this country, but it's enough sometimes to make one consider emigration.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Hoon Outrider for Brown's Distancing from Iraq?
The Guardian article about former Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon caught my eye this morning for its unusual candour. He freely admits the mistakes made regarding the aftermath of the war: too optimistic over 'streets lined with cheering people'; breaking up the 350,000 Iraqi army and police; the decision to 'de-Ba'athify the civil service; and the failure to anticipate Sunni-Shia violence. He also offers his own fascinating angle on British attempts to influence US decision-makers:
"Sometimes ... Tony had made his point with the president, and I'd made my point with Don [Rumsfeld] and Jack [Straw] had made his point with Colin [Powell] and the decision actually came out of a completely different place. And you think: what did we miss? I think we missed Cheney."
I'm not the greatest fan of Nick Robinson as the Beeb's political editor-he lacks the gravitas of Andrew Marr-but I think he was on to something in The Daily Politics today when he suggested Hoon, a well known Brownite, was acting as the proxy voice of Brown in setting the scene for him to put as much distance as he conceivably can between himself and 'Tony's War', once he moves into Number 10 for real.
Postscript to Yesterday's Post
After all those really negative polls about Blair's performance as PM I watched him at PMQs and had to agree with Roy Hattersley that he was probably in his best ever form. To make him feel even better an Independent poll gave him a rating of 61% as 'very good' or 'good' with only 22% rating him as 'bad'.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Blair Should Echo Brecht on his Bad Reviews
Yet when asked to rate his successes, 52% cite the minimum wage, 42% peace in Northern Ireland and 36% 'steady economic growth,nearly full employment and low inflation'. Admittedly lower percentages appreciated devolution, winning the Olympics and improving public services, but it's not that respondents were unaware of this government's achievements. I would have thought the first three listed above, especially the sound economy, should have won something more than this spiteful, churlish swipe of a judgement.
Compare this with the Observer last Sunday which concluded its survey of his decade in these terms:
Britain is better off after a decade with Tony Blair in charge. Wealth has been created, and wealth has been redistributed. That is what Labour governments have always hoped to do. It has happened without a brake on global competitiveness. That is what New Labour hoped to do: build a vibrant market economy with a generous welfare state; economic freedom and social protection. That is Blairism.
Too biased? Well try(still very much a Conservative) Michael Portillo for size:
Blair will retire unlamented, after all. But he leaves behind a country more easy-going than the one he inherited, less insular and more self-confident. No wonder that the Conservatives have yet to define what their new dawn will bring.
Still not convinced? Well look at the mere 6% who rated Blair's reduction of crime rates- only 6% when the reduction has been 44%? Something is not right here. Maybe it's the fact that the media has swung so heavily to the right since 1997. Media guru Roy Greenslade calculates that rightward leaning papers(Times, Telegraph, Sun, Star, Mail) account for 76% of readers while only 24% read left leaning ones(Guardian, Independent, Mirror, FT). Maybe Tony Blair should echo the lament of Berthold Brecht(pictured) who once complained: 'There's nothing wrong with the play- it's the audience who should be changed'.