Sunday, March 30, 2008


Are We at War with our Children?

The lead article in Time magazine currently is about Britain's mean streets and it is sobering to realise such a piece could be written about the country one lives in and, still (mostly) loves. The article(I've lifted its title picture) makes its charge regarding 'Britain's Mean Streets' with a list: over 20% of adults are scared to go out at night for fear of young hooligans; 27% of 15 year olds have been drunk more than 20 times(compared with 12% in Germany, 6% Netherlands, 3% France); 44% have been in fights (28% Germany); our 15 year old girls are the most sexually active in Europe with the highest level of illegitimate kids and STDs; violent crime for under 18s has increased by over a third 2003-6 with 27 teenagers murdered in London in 2007.

Quite a charge sheet and hard to answer as we know its basically true. My partner and I have given up going out at weekends in Manchester because of the 'wild-west' binge drinking of youngsters and the menacing atmosphere this causes; Stockport, where we live, is no better. Why do we have these problems? The explanations offered are varied but all contain an element of truth.

1. Poor Parenting: The 2000 OECD report into British youth concluded they had the hardest time of it in Europe with the least time spent with children. In consequence young people have not been integrated into the adult world and have created their own disaffected 'counter culture'.

2. Binge Drinking a National Epidemic: certainly young people receive few lessons on moderate drinking with all ages and classes indulging in it together with influential celebs like sportsmen and even royal princes.

3. Large Wealth Gap: we all know how this has gaped ever wider over the past three decades leaving one third of children in the 'disadvantaged' category; ethnic minorities even more so than indigenous kids.

4. Education is Poor: we don't need Ofsted reports to tell us our state schools are very poor in many areas, making it hard for poorer youngsters to rise above their backgrounds. The Sutton Trust recently revealed a study showing children who won scholarships to fee-paying schools went on to earn double that of their less fortunate peers.

5. Negative Attitude to Young People: We Brits are not very child friendly- visits to Italy and Spain where children are celebrated with astonishing warmth and allowed to eat with parents until late at night. In Scotland the age of criminal responsibility, at 8, is the lowest in Europe; in England and Wales it's 10.

It is hard to read all this about one's own country in an American magazine with a worldwide circulation. To retort that figures in USA are even worse is no real answer. In December last year Ed Balls declared:

a 10-year plan "to make England the best place in the world for children and young people,"

Electoral arithmetic, depressingly, makes it seem unlikely his party will have a chance of achieving this. Are the Tories our last hope? I doubt it. I end this post by quoting one of the many case studies in the article; this one refers to a crucial intervention by a stranger:

Dan-Dan Walker was born one of nine kids to drug addict parents:

his first arrest, at 7, was for stealing baby milk and disposable diapers for his siblings. Now 18, he learned about Kids Company seven years ago as he rode on a London bus. He was about to snatch a handbag, and his accomplice was already seated next to the target, hemming her in against the window. As Walker moved to grab the bag, a stranger tapped him on the shoulder. "You don't need to do that," he said, and gave him the address of a Kids Company drop-in center. "I fell off that cliff," says Walker, "but someone caught me." Would that all British children could say the same.

Trouble is, most 'strangers' would be too scared to nudge the arm of any potential bag snatcher for fear of being attacked, stabbed or even killed. So are we at war with our children? To some extent, I think we have to confess that we are. Should we be worried? I am.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


How 'Special' is the Relationship?

Surveys which merely tell us what we know are often portrayed as a waste of time and money but they can sometimes explode fond myths or adjust established verities. The one in The Economist this week does a bit of both, concluding:

Broadly, the differences between the two countries look more striking than the similarities.

1. We tend to be more left-wing than American on political and social issues being more tolerant of abortion('usually'-UK 60%, US 30%), homosexuality('perfectly acceptable'-UK 45%, US 25%) and premarital sex('perfectly acceptable', UK, 75%, US 25%) but(surprisingly) we seem to both agree on the death penalty: 'yes always'- 20%; 'sometimes' 55%; 'no, it's wrong'- 20%.

2. We tend to be more left on matters such as tax-more in favour of reducing tax for the poor(UK, 40%, US, 20%) but both (surprisingly) heavily opposed to taxing 'the better off'(both 3%); and believing the government should support redundant workers(UK, 40%, US 18%). However, we are both more or less agree that 'the profit motive is the best spur to job creation'.

3. We both virtually agree on Iraq: 'withdraw troops now', around 15%; 'withdraw by end 2008' around 20%; 'set a date for withdrawal by 2009-10', around 25% 'stay until country is safe and secure', around 30%)

4. We tend to think free trade is 'generally a good thing': UK, 55% while the US is less keen: 30%. We are marginally less inclined to think 'globalisation a 'bad thing': UK 32%, US, 52%. We seem to agree re 'immigration has helped the domestic economy grow': both around 25% agree- 50% not, 20% neither.

5. Alarmingly large minorities who are unconvinced of the dangers re Climate Change: 'Warming due to humans?' both around 50%; 'warming but not due to humans?' both around 20%, 'not warming at all' UK, 10%, US 20%. Unsurprisingly both countries are opposed to increased petrol taxes, airline fares and 'clean energy taxes'.

This is a very brief summary of a major survey and I have left out some fascinating nuggets. For a fuller coverage see the linked article or log onto:

Friday, March 28, 2008


Political Apathy in UK Now a Major Problem

The article by Polly Toynbee today is truly depressing. The Hansard Society has been conducting annual audits of the nation regarding their willingness to participate in politics and this year's results include the following:

-only 53% of voters say they are certain to vote
-only 4% have ever made a political donation
-55% say they know nothing much about politics, are indifferent about a bill of rights or a written constitution.
-only 23% of the 18-24 age group say they will vote
-meanwhile 78% of the over 65s say they'll vote

Newspaper reading is falling, BBC news and current affairs struggle for audiences. People are good at grumbling about everything, yet they won't lift a finger to change anything.

We've been here before, of course, but never quite so worryingly; if these survey results are repeated in an election 2001, will seem like a high turnout. And the fact that young people are the most apathetic suggests the problem is not going to get better any time soon. If we continue down this road where are we likely to end up? With political parties which are mere shells, lacking membership but customised to organising and winning the votes the constitution says are needed to win office.

With a huge wilderness of voters who are ignorant, disaffected and not a little angry at why they have somehow brought about this state of affairs. These are the perfect conditions for parties on the extreme to wade in with their seductively easy simplicities; as de Tocqueville wrote, when the public: 'assents to the clamour of the mountebank who knows the secret of stimulating its taste.'

These would be dangerously uncharted waters for our political leaders to navigate and who knows if they would succeed, assailed, as they will be by an ever growing intensity of problems to solve originating in the exhaustion of the world's natural resources. Some experts -Professor Anthony King for example, believe all is basically OK and that all we need is a 'closely fought election at which a great deal is at stake' for voters to turn out again 'in their droves'.

Polly opts for constitutional change. Straw has ruled out making voting compulsory, as is the case in parts of Europe and Australia, and PR seems still to scare Labour's horses to death. Instead, she goes for the small but useful: introduce the Alternative Vote(where voters state preferences and a 50% requirement elects a candidate) which will stop candidates winning on minority votes and give more space to smaller parties which will play a role in tactical voting.

This would be a useful beginning and some progress towards the voting reform we have needed for some time; odd that we've introduced it for devolved assemblies, Scottish and Ulster local government and the London Assembly but not for the most important elections in the country. Problem is , the government is too apathetic itself to recognise the actions needed to counteract the dangers of political apathy.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Sarkozy and Carla Make Themselves Agreeable

I'll confess that I cannot fully exclude the possibility that my posting of this picture has been done for prurient reasons but it is in the news and it is seldom that one has a valid excuse to blog an image of such a beautiful woman. As for le president 'bling bling', I suspect, that like so many shortish men, he is delighted that so many of his fellows are now able to appreciate fully his extraordinary charisma and pulling power.

But in addition to the strangely opportunely choreographed glamour picture of his missus, Sarko has piled on the charm to anyone British who cares to listen.According to Simon Hoggart:

He loves us. He adores us. He reveres us! Listening to Nicolas Sarkozy address Parliament yesterday was like being underneath a torrent of crème Chantilly sprayed from a high-pressure hose. He actually said "thank you" for the liberation! Previous French presidents have implied that events in Normandy were mere skirmishes while the French got on with the job of throwing off the German yoke.

I bet Jacques Chirac, who, during twelve years as president, appeared not to have a single Anglophile thought, must be still grinding his teeth in rage at what the young upstart has allowed himself to say.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


The NUT, Army Visits and the Rightwing Press

'Teachers declare War on Army' shrieks the Daily Mail headline; following up with:

Teachers yesterday vowed to boycott military recruitment activities in schools - claiming they "glamorise" life in the armed forces.

This article suggests the left-wing NUT- currently conferencing in Manchester- is banning army visits because it is ideologically opposed to the military. Would such a stance be justified? While I can understand the left-wing case against armed forces and war in general, I would strongly rebut the idea that the military is of no use and a 'bad thing'. Anyone familiar with the history of the thirties knows that the Labour Party was initially pacifist and resisted rearmament against the threat of Hitler.

It was the 'realist' trade union types like Ernie Bevin who agreed with the likes of Hugh Dalton and, across the political divide, Winston Churchill, that Hitler represented a threat that would only be resisted with equal or superior force. Eventually Labour came to share this view and the pacifist tradition lay very low until CND came around in the fifties.

Political choices are seldom between 'good' and 'bad' but between 'bad' and 'even worse'. War is always a tragedy but sometimes it has to be risked or exercised in defence of the nation's way of life or security from attack. For this reason it is essential that we have the best possible armed forces which are well trained and looked after in a way commensurate with the sacrifice such men and women are prepared to make. So, if the NUT was arguing along such lines, I think the Mail justified in rubbishing the union's position. Army visits to schools careers days are both justified and necessary to recruit the best people for our armed forces.

However, a quick look at other sources reveals the vaunted 'mouthpiece of Middle England' was misrepresenting the union's argument. According to the BBC's report the union was saying something different:

Teachers have voted to oppose military recruitment activities in schools if they employ "misleading propaganda". Young people must be given a true picture of Army life, not a "marketised version", the National Union of Teachers conference heard.

The key proviso was if 'misleading propaganda' in the form of accompanying work-sheets and the like were to be used. The Guardian report says pretty much the same. So here we have a good example of a right-wing newspaper deliberately misinterpreting a union's actions to make political capital for its cause. Daubing the NUT's vote as foolishly pacifistic would have been justified if correct but setting up a 'straw man' and then setting fire to it is among the favourite devices of those, like the Daily Mail in my view, who seek to confuse and deceive.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


'Mandela Card' Will Always Trump Malcolm X one for US Voters

The Guardian's US editor yesterday wrote that a tipping point in the Democrat's campaign was upon us:

We're reaching the bottom-line point. And the bottom line for what seems to be a majority of Democratic insiders is fear of a drawn-out and divisive nomination process. That argues for getting things settled sooner rather than later, and it means settling them in Obama's direction, since he's won more votes and delegates.

He goes on to quote sources urging Clinton to quit in the party's interest, to provide clarity and end the infighting: Time magazine offered 14 reasons why she should stand down. However, with three more primaries due in the next six weeks- including the crucial Pennsylvania one on April 22nd- it's probably too early for Hillary to throw in the towel just yet.

And Obama? Tomasky cites the need for poll evidence after his recent Philadelphia speech on race designed to quell unrest caused by his personal priest Jeremiah 'Sing God Damn America' Wright's incendiary comments. In a well balanced speech he distanced himself from Wright but refused to disown him, reminding Americans of their own history on race relations. In the immediate wake of this latest eruption, Clinton took a lead as voters reacted negatively. Obama, to date, has managed the trick of dancing so gracefully around the permeating topic of race in the USA that Americans have been able to suspend feelings of guilt; call it his 'Mandela card'. Wright's comments seemed to spoil all this, raising the spectre of Malcolm X instead.

We learn today that Obama's speech seems to have squared the circle; a nationwide Gallup Poll put Obama on 48% and Clinton on 42%. So the Illinois senator is back on track and it is now Hillary who must await the verdict of elections rather than polls over the next few weeks.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Cecilia is Still Breaking his Heart

My last post on Sarkozy featured that picture in which he seemed about to receive a gay kiss from Gordon; his romantic profile, of course, suggests he is anything but that way inclined. Which is not to say that his love life has been an unalloyed success. Just recently married for the third time to his glamorous former model cum folk singer, Carla Bruni, his celebrations seem to have been mitigated by more than slight residual yearning for the fair Cecilia, wife number two. According to Agnes Poirier, he texted his former wife just before his last(i.e. third- keep up!) marriage: 'If you come back, I'll call it all off'. Far from doing so his former spouse continued romancing Richard Attias, finally tying the knot with him yesterday.

This must have hurt a proud man: to be rejected for someone who used to 'organize events for Sarkozy's UMP party' when he is the glorious President of the Republic, must have hit his ego amid-ships. And if he surrounded-as he did- himself with an apparently doting family during his election campaign, was not that cynical spin? But it's so much worse than that. His wooing and then marriage to Carla, something which in theory the popular press should love, has proved unpopular to a fickle French public.

Swooning around the Middle East, with his fancy woman went against the grain for the French who wondered why all his famous dynamism was being invested in a vanity project when he had promised to solve his country's problems. The French have not been slow to pick up that in one of the four books on Cecilia shortly after she bade him goodbye, she says that Nicolas was 'never fit to be president'. All that manic activity focusing on himself, suggests his former missus might be close to the truth. Voters expressed a view of sorts in the recent local elections where Sarko was hammered by the socialists. The moral to be drawn? 'Celebrity' premiers might capture the interest of democratic voters for a while but without real evidence of substance, they soon rumble they've been conned. Nota bene anyone seeking to follow the Tony Blair route into Downing St- and that means you, David Cameron.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Recent Developments in Brown's 'Engine Room'

I love those articles which draw aside the veil on the inner centres of power and explain which adviser is in and which out. Patrick Wintour, known to be close to New Labour's inner counsels, provides a good one today. It focuses on public service reform and why Gordon, after flirting with Old Labour(remember that conference speech in 2003: 'Best when we are Labour'?) and rubbishing Blair's policy of embracing private sector dynamism to improve public sector efficiency, delivered a speech in January which might have been written by the smooth one himself.

The answer, it would seem is Jeremy Heywood(pictured) former Blairite adviser and now Brown's head of domestic policy. He it was who canvassed Cabinet opinion on public service reform before Christmas and encountered the consensus that Blair's reforms had to be pursued and not dropped as some feared might happen when Brown took over. Ed Balls and other Brownites had been fiercely opposed to Blair's agenda and the man himself refused even to visit an academy school. But now, it seems all that has changed and the Supreme Leader, as the Eye have dubbed him, has decided to make Blair-Adonisism his very own as he made clear in a recent piece in the FT:

"There can be no backtracking on reform, no go-slow, no reversals and no easy compromises."

And another policy wonk has been appointed to Brown's inner circle named David Muir(can't find a picture), drawn in, as so many are, from the world of advertising, though having been to university with John Smith's daughter and a long-time Labour supporter. As Director of Strategy it is hoped Muir

could be the man to polish Labour's policies and help bridge the growing gap in the polls.

From being reliant on a fairly constant clique of which he was the 'clan leader', Gordon Brown has rung a lot of recent changes since the limited advice on which he initially called caused so many disasters. The next few months will show whether his new appointments-especially former Ofcom chief Stephen Carter- will bear real political fruit.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Obama Bombs as Wright Issue Reflected in Polls

American University teacher, John Grant, has been commenting on my posts on the US elections. His views are especially noteworthy as they are backed up by polling work undertaken by his graduate students. I hereby reprint edited sections of his last comment.

It has to be tough being a Democrat right now. Eliot ‘Mr. Clean’ Spitzer has fallen from grace amid an anal sex/prostitution/drug scandal that makes Bill Clinton’s office fun look like child’s play (Plus there is a client 10 from Illinois), then you have a civil war brewing in the party over who to nominate, both candidates supporters (especially Hillary’s) indicate they would consider voting for McCain or not at all if their candidate does not win, then you have Obama’s former pastor and his racist, hate filled, anti-American comments among other things. The only thing the Democrats have to be happy about is the fact that more people identify themselves as Democrat, but both candidates can’t pull ahead of McCain by very much and their electoral college lead is down to near nothing and is continuing to go down. Again, something my post grad students are tapping into in their ‘deep’ polling.

Now a recent Congressional poll indicates that Democrats only have a 4% advantage over the GOP, The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that, if the Congressional Election were held today, 44% of American voters say they would vote for the Democrat in their district and 40% would opt for the Republican. That’s unchanged from a month ago and the third straight month that the Democrats’ lead has been in single digits. It’s also the third straight month that support for the Democrats has been at 43% or 44%. Before that, support for the Democrats had been at the 45% level or higher for ten straight months.

Take note that Democrats had a 15% advantage 4 months ago and 6 months they had anywhere from a 18% to a 27% advantage. The GOP continues to gain ground and continues to keep races at all levels of government close despite a poor economy, an unpopular president and a public that identifies more with Democrats than Republicans. Our prediction is the GOP is either going to take back control of the Senate and cut into the Democrats lead in the House or keep control of the presidency, or both. And all Bush has to do is . . . keep his mouth shut!

In addition we learn today that Obama is being badly hurt by his association with his paster Jeremaih Wright- who called on his congregation to sing 'God Damn America'. Hillary has opened up a lead on him of 49-42 in a recent Gallup poll; an earlier one had her in front by 51-35. With the Pennsylvania primary still to come, the Clinton camp must be optimistic that the introduction of 'racism for real' into the campaign is rebounding to their advantage. At the start of all this I opined the USA was not yet ready to elect a black man as president and felt they were more likely to accept a white woman. It could be, of course, that they are prepared to accept neither. McCain can be the only beneficiary of these developments.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


British and French Premiers Audition for 'Brokeback Government'

I never believed all that stuff about Gordon Brown being gay; if you read the biographies he was always interested in women and, indeed, seemed to treat them, if anything, in a markedly selfish macho fashion. It was just the sort of absurd anti-Labour rubbish peddled by right-wing bloggers such as Guido so was easily dismissed.

But this picture in today's Guardian is bound, I predict, to reignite such speculation. That affectionate pose of Gordon's head and the obvious eye-lock with Sarko's plus the Frenchman's yielding, smiling welcome for the expected mucoid gift from the brooding Scot. Did they think such a frank exhibition of their mutual regard would appeal to the gay vote and revive their respective ailing political causes?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Obesity Will Have to be Recognised as an Addictive Condition

Like so many middle class, middle aged people who have always tried to keep reasonably fit, I have a horror of obesity. Of course we've always had it in our society but nowhere near as pronounced as in the last two decades. I recall visiting the US in 1996 and being amazed at what I observed:

1. A guy so huge it took him ten painful minutes crossing the forecourt of the place at which we were eating whereupon he slumped into a chair and proceeded to feast on huge portions of chips, pizzas and beefburgers.

2. A scene on Oprah Wifrey's show where a woman had to be hauled to her feet by two people and admitted, sobbing, that her ambition in life was to be able to walk into the park nearby and watch the kids play.

More recently I saw a programme on fat people in Texas where a woman was so vast she needed a trolley to move around. And then there was that story in the press about a woman so huge her children had taken pictures to show her of parts of her body she had never seen. A recent report showed that 1 in 4 kids in the UK are obese before they start primary school, a figure that rises to 1 in 3 by the time they are 11. God knows what serious conditions such kids are incubating.

Most people react by saying 'Well, just eat sodding less food!" Yet it seems clear to me that this is like telling alcoholics to 'drink less sodding booze' or a depressed person to 'Come on, buck up, will you!" In Japan we hear penalties are being introduced in Japan to help curb the problem:

Corporate Japan will join the country's battle against bulging waistlines next month with the introduction of compulsory "flab checks" for the over-40s and penalties for firms that fail to bring their employees' weight under control.

This conjures up images of companies trying to do the same over here. I suspect any building form banning fish and chip lunches washed down with two pints of Guinness would receive short shrift from our indigenous fatties, whose tempers are often as out of control as their weight. I suspect the problem will get worse and worse until it is finally recognised as an epidemic as serious as drug addiction. Until then I just hope I avoid ever looking like Tony Soprano(James Gandolfini has suffered for his art), or even worse, his sister.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Labour's Recovery Dashed

I posted a week or so again ago that Labour was making a steady recovery in the polls- trailing by only a single figure digit and having avoided any huge cock-ups for at least a few weeks. Julian Glover today analyses the ICM poll which gives Cameron a 13 point lead- a whopping 42-29 difference to follow the recent Yougov's 16 points. The detailed figures make even worse reading.

This is basically unfair of voters- but politics is not a matter of fairness as we know- as earlier polls had shown only a small proportion blamed the government for what was perceived as an international phenomenon. So why the shift?

I can hazard an educated guess- Alistair Darling and his thin gruel budget. Recognising 'turbulence in international markets' is one thing; listening to the drone of Darling's voice while he ladled new taxes on booze and the like, was another.

Voters have decided they don't like our Chancellor- and this is also so unfair as he is only doing what Gordon tells him to do in the first place. Brown will be happy that Alistair has deflected the odium to a degree, but I suspect it won't be long before the PM has to bear the brunt of it. In the meantime? Tip Boris- 12 points ahead of Ken- to win the mayor's race and expect Labour's local government bastions-if indeed any remain- to be over-run once more.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Paxo Misses Point on Oxbridge

In the Observer, 16th March 2008, Carole Cadwalladr examined the stranglehold Oxbridge seems to exert over the British Establishment:

‘[The Sutton Trust] calculates that 81 per cent of the judiciary went to Oxford or Cambridge, 82 per cent of all barristers, 45 per cent of 'leading' journalists, and 34 per cent of front-bench ministers and shadow ministers.’

Somewhat appalled, she emailed Jeremy Paxman, for a comment and received the following peremptory reply:

‘God, this is a boring subject, isn't it? Surely the reason is perfectly obvious. Oxford and Cambridge are the finest universities in Europe and two of the best universities in the world. They are also intensely beautiful, operate on a small college basis and employ some of the cleverest men and women in the world as teachers. They therefore attract some brilliant students. Only someone whose chip was so big that it completely obscured their eyes could be surprised - or consider it undesirable - that these two universities contribute lots of people to some of the more prominent areas of British life.'

Yes, but, Jeremy, isn’t it the case that even though only 7% of schoolchildren are educated privately, about half of all entrants into this key entry-point into the ruling elite, are from this tiny rich and privileged segment of our society?

Meanwhile Cadwalladr reveals that only 20% of entrants originate from 'comps'. Paxman (Malvern College and Charterhouse) seems to ignore the inequity of the Oxbridge intake, and the case made by David Kynaston (also privately educated) that parents buy places for their children in elite occupations and contribute thereby to the stifling of social mobility:

If you pay your annual boarding fees of £25,956, you have a virtually evens chance of your child making it to Oxbridge - the pathway to the glittering prizes that will almost certainly lie ahead. Altogether, there were 27 private schools in the top 30; 43 in the top 50 and 78 in the top 100. Put another way, the 70th brightest sixth-former at Westminster or Eton is as likely to get a place at Oxbridge as the very brightest sixth-formers at a large comprehensive.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Top Blair Aide defends Sofa Government

Fascinating article in Guardian's Saturday magazine by Ian Katz on Jonathan Powell's relationship with Tony Blair. I once interviewed Jonathan's 14 years older brother, Charles, Thatcher's panjandrum of an aide who had special responsibility for foreign affairs. Charles was a superb interviewee and pleasingly indiscreet but when I pressed him on his brother and similar things, he replied 'Jonathan won't say anything about his work; he's like a Trappist monk'. So finding this extended article by Katz was a rare delight. One possible reason for his vow of silence might be his tendency, by his own admission, to say rather stupid things:

"Sometimes I say things which are extremely plonkerish at just the wrong moment... which is one of the reasons they kept me away from the press. It would've been a complete disaster if I'd have talked to the papers."

It's a long piece which I recommend but the section which caught my eye particularly, was his defence of sofa government. This tendency of Blair- and Thatcher before him- to gather key aides and officials to discuss specific problems has been much criticised by the mandarins, especially Lord (Robin) Butler who even saw fit to take a swipe at it in his 2004 report on Intelligence on WMD(p160). Powell is quite unapologetic:

I'm completely unrepentant about sofa government... having a formal meeting of cabinet does not make a decision or a discussion any better than having an informal decision and discussion in a group. The key is to have the right people in the discussion and make sure their views are aired and then the right decision is reached... Criticising us just because we did it in the one office rather than the other office, doing it informally rather than formally, strikes me as not fair."

With respect Jonathan, I think you rather(deliberately?) miss the point. Firstly, such meetings were often not minuted and so did not provide a paper trail of the kind all government organisations need to function efficiently. Secondly, as Butler points out, such groupings are selective and reduce the 'scope for informed collective political judgement'. The Cabinet is there to apply its collective judgement to the major problems of the day; shunting it into a siding and adopting informal procedures is no way to govern the country.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Skipper in Wales for Short Break

Skipper is away for a few days for a pre-Easter weekend in his alma mater, pictured so posts will be infrequent to light over the next few days.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Two Purveyors of Tripe

Two people who said foolish things in the last few days: John Hutton MP(right), S of S for Business and Enterprise and Kelvin McKenzie, former editor of The Sun. Polly Toynbee, has a robust pop at the minister for saying:

"Rather than questioning whether huge salaries are morally justified, we should celebrate the fact that people can be enormously successful in this country. Rather than placing a cap on that success, we should be questioning why it is not available to more people. We must be enthusiastic - not pragmatic - about financial success ... Any progressive party worth its name must enthusiastically advocate empowering people to climb without limits [his emphasis], free from any barrier holding them back."

At a time when 80% of voters are voicing discontent at the growing gap between rich and poor, this crass statement indicates insensitivity and political ineptitude of the highest order. Especially when we read that those millionaires who commute to London for 90 days a year in order to avoid taxes will easily evade the new rule, which says their 90 days in future will now have to include travel(or rather, 'commuting' time) to London. Hutton seems to be as genuinely vacuous as his default expression suggests.

The second example of crassness should not surprise us left of centre types. I always secretly admired Kelvin McKenzie, outrageous, charismatic star of Chippendale and Orries's brilliant history of the organ he edited. I loved the story about him seeking (but failing) to headline an ambush by guerrillas in Sri Lanka with 'Tamilamowdown', but I forgot what a knee-jerk Littlejohn- type right-winger he is in reality.

Guesting on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday, he ridiculed the idea that people lived in poverty in the UK; it seemed he believed no-one had the right to do so in such a rich country as ours. The unspoken message was that poor people are poor because they are workshy dole scroungers. I'd love to see him try to live on unemployment benefit for a week and hear what he'd say at the end of it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Oaths of Allegiance Contrary to our Political Culture

I've just heard Lord Goldsmith debating with John Humphrys on Today the idea that school children should swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen (or otherwise country) at a ceremony before they leave school. The need is seen to derive from the diminished sense of citizenship we have compared with days of yore; no doubt the behaviour of suicide bombing 'home grown' Muslims is a powerful factor also.

The idea seems to derive from the US practice(see picture) but, I would suggest, the culture over there is so much different. Americans are all immigrants originally and measures were taken by governments to maximise a sense of belonging to a new country- hence the reverence of the flag, constitution, offices like the presidency and the idea of nation itself. It all seems over the top to us when school kids recite their morning commitment to their country but there is a huge difference between them and us. Americans represent people who have travelled 3000 miles or more, often from desperate circumstances, in search of a dream of fulfilment, prosperity, peace and happiness. They genuinely believed and believe still in that dream; so do their children and so do new immigrants.

We, on the other hand, have a history stretching back over a thousand years and most of us feel we know we are English, Welsh, British or whatever. We also have that luxury of such a situation- the gift of self mockery; we laugh at our antiquated traditions and think them risible even when we secretly value them. The habit of satire is now so deeply ingrained that I doubt very much whether this oath idea will just end up as an expletive in the minds of participants. I can see the reluctant mass of school children, all colours and races, being shepherded into the school hall and the head trying hard to instil some dignity into what the kids have already decided is a farce. Lord Goldsmith is trying hard to solve a real problem but this idea is not part of the answer.

Monday, March 10, 2008


All Gain for Republicans from Democrat Contest?

Last Thursday Jonathan Freedland argued that the extended 'mud-wrestling' contest between Hillary and Obama could only assist McCain and the Republicans. On Sunday Andrew Rawnsley argued pretty much the same thing. The argument is that as the two Democrats bite chunks out of each other, McCain can stand aside and appear not only above the fray but able to cherry pick the best of the negative arguments to use in his November campaign against whoever proves to be the Democratic victor. This is especially the case when negative smears against Obama seems to have stopped his relentless surge in the Texas and Ohio contests- as Rawnsley notes:

The Clintons did not just throw the kitchen sink at Obama; they bunged in the lavatory as well. For months, the internet has been used to spread smears that he is a closet Islamic radical. Asked whether her opponent might be a secret Muslim, Hillary archly encouraged the slimesters by responding: 'There is nothing to base that on - as far as I know.'

If the April Pennsylvania contest doesn't produce a knock-out blow for one side or the other then it could be down to the wire in late August in Denver. And then it could down to those 'super-delegates' which we don't really understand too well on this side of the Atlantic but seem to be senior party people with the equivalent value of one fifth of all the convention delegates. Hillary was well ahead with this group- as might be expected of a politician of such influence and longevity; but Obama is said to be making inroads even in this 'Clintonite' constituency so it's hard to foresee how this group would vote in any case.

But I wonder. Will an extended contest really damage the Democrats' chances? We have seen how Guiliani's bid for the presidency withered as he foolishly stood aside from the early primaries. McCain maybe will be free of the mud slinging but will he not have a lower profile imposed upon him? Both Hillary and Obama will dominate the headlines for much longer now and who knows whether this lion's share of the election limelight will be more important than the negative attacks both candidates will no doubt use?

I still think the essence of this election is the desire for change and that Obama will emerge the winner in consequence. I'm sure I'm indulging in a slice of wishful thinking here, but I reckon if Obama wins through, McCain will find it hard to counteract an idea whose time has arrived in the form of the charismatic mixed race Senator for Illinois.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Thank Goodness for Paisley's Ego

I've always thought it a bit unfair that some people who make a point of being rude, unco-operative and generally misanthropic are somehow forgiven all their faults on those rare occasions when they are reasonable or pleasant. 'Shows he's got a good heart behind all the bluster' people intone wisely. Yet if someone who tries to be nice all the time transgresses just once those same heads will nod knowingly: 'Always thought he was basically a shit'. I kind of feel something like that has happened with 'Dr'Ian Paisley.

Now retired even his former enemies have nothing but nice things to say about the man they once tried so hard to kill. 'A fascinating, gracious man' contributed Gerry Adams and not dissimilar tributes have come from both the main parties in Britain, offering similar encomia. It takes a hard bitten journalist, Simon Jenkins to remind us that this is no benign paterfamilias of the Ulster protestants. Jenkins described how the first time he heard him preaching- an 'electrifying performance' he allowed- he was reminded of a 'mad Celtic Druid':

The man was a monster, a fanatic, a hangover from the middle ages. I remember wondering how on earth Britain had allowed Ulster's constitution so to fester as to have this man roaming the woods and hills of Ulster. One thing Britain does not do well is postcolonial partition. It creates a fertile breeding ground for the likes of Paisley, and his antagonist, Adams.

Whilst most Ulster protestant leaders in the 70s and 80s began to recognise that the Catholics had been badly mistreated, Paisley furiously insisted they represented the ranks of the ungodly owing allegiance to the 'antichrist', the Pope. Between them, Adams and Paisley appealed to the baser natures of their followers, paying lip service to peace, yet, by their rhetoric, rousing their impulses to violence and intransigence. We were all amazed and yes, delighted, that 'The Big Man' found it in him to make his peace with McGuinness, and even, in appearance at least, to make him his friend. Taking his followers with him has not been easy and it could be dissatisfaction with his volte face has been a major factor in his departure.

Simon Hoggart today suggests that the secret to Paisley is that behind that fierce and noisy facade is an over-size ego just yearning to be massaged; something which the intuitive Tony Blair sensed early on:

What he spotted in Paisley was not the intransigent priest but the vast ego. Did you know that Blair made him a privy counsellor, so he is the "right honourable Doctor Ian Paisley"? A stroke of genius. Blair also knew that he was desperate to become first minister of Ulster and saw that he would reach almost any accommodation just to hold that position, even for a few months.

Whatever the correct analysis we all have to be grateful that divisive politicians are very often, just rather small men shouting to be recognised and receive the deference, the trappings, the official imprimatur of leadership.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Do We Really Need the Fat Cats?

I'm a bit confused about 'non dom' fat cats. When Gordon Brown was in opposition Labour was going to crack down on such parasites who avoid paying tax in their own countries because they locate their business affairs off shore and avoid paying any in the UK as, unlike most developed countries, we waive such annoying minor inconveniences.

Last autumn the Conservatives proposed exactly such a minor inconvenience- a one-of payment of £25,000. Given public anger at fat cats this went down well and helped push Tory poll ratings upward. Labour, rather pathetically jumping on a bandwagon they should have created, followed up with a suggestion that they levy a £30,000 tax on those who had enjoyed our hospitality for at least seven years; but in addition they would have to declare more information about their income. Since then there has been much breast-beating in the pages of the FT and elsewhere: it seems we are being unkind to the dozen or so billionaires and assorted other mega rich who occupy stately mansions and the like in our green and pleasant land.

The argument is that having the super rich over here gives us some kudos for being the country they have chosen to settle their enormously expensive rear ends. It also helps the City attract those whiz kids destined to fill the pages of the Forbes Rich List and whose expert fingers on City keyboards will, given that we no longer make anything, help earn the nation more much needed dosh. Finally, claim their apologists, having such big spenders within our borders ensures that their super expensive tastes are catered for by UK tradesmen and women to the general advantage of the economy as a whole.

On the debit side we have to tolerate the likes of Abramovitch and his ilk, accept they enjoy benefits for which we and not they pay and put up with the sky-high house prices which their impact on the London market has caused. Finally we have to put up with their substantial contributions to the huge gap between rich and poor which now characterise both the UK and the USA. And what might happen if we have the temerity to ask them to pay a contribution which is as dust in their bank balances?

According to Tony Cohen, head of client services at Deloitte, quoted in today's Guardian:

"They can have huge amounts of income and gains elsewhere and pay no tax anywhere," said Cohen, who added that some of his clients would leave if the rules change. "It isn't all about the money - there's something about not feeling wanted."

So, in addition to sitting on mountains of cash which they can never spend these people are so sensitive that even if we ask nicely for a tiny widow's mite of tax, they'll get all upset and clear off elsewhere. Am I being unpatriotic in thinking that we shouldn't really care too much if they do?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Democracy and the Internet

Charles Leadbeater (his book cover, We Think, on left)has been variously touted a thoughtful social analyst plus one time guru to Tony Blair, so his analysis of how the web is changing the way we live is worth paying some attention. In his recent (linked above)piece in the Indie, he describes the explosion of web use in China as now constituting 'part of the fabric of Chinese society'. The new invention of Timothy Chen, 'Shanda' has tens of millions of game players constituting 60% of web usage. The government loves game playing but is suspicious of the subversive potential of websites all of which have to be officially registered.

The sheer size, spread and inventiveness of the Chinese internet could create a new civic space with enormous potential. The protesters in Tiananmen Square could be boxed in by tanks. That is harder to achieve on the web. In December 2005, for example, news filtered out through the internet that Chinese police had killed villagers in Guangdong province protesting against a wind farm that threatened their livelihoods. To suppress news of the protests, the authorities shut down cybercafés in neighbouring areas, cut off internet access to residents, impeded queries for the town's name on search engines and erased blog mentions of the incident. Despite all that, a human-rights group investigated the incident and posted its report online.

In other words, the web makes it much more difficult for autocrats to be autocratic and survive for long. Mind you, in response to that I'd mention the case of the Burmese rebels who did much to tell the world about their brutal government via the web but still see no signs of them packing their bags or being deposed. Leadbeater sees the web as an instrument of democracy par excellence and argues for its protection:

The net is slowly changing US politics: the internet is home territory for Barack Obama. But its biggest impact on democracy will be in China. That is why it so vital for us in the West to preserve the internet as an open global commons for the exchange of information and ideas and to resist it being controlled either by corporations or governments.

Amen to that.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Hillary Faces Dilemmas of US Macho Culture while McCain has to Embrace Change

On the morning of another crucial day in the race for the White House, both Hillary and John McCain face decisive contests. I'd like to mention two analyses which I've recently seen which I felt had the ring of truth about them.

Shirley Williams observes that the US political culture is very macho. This creates a problem for any woman seeking to succeed within it. Firstly, she is seen as weak unless she talks tough but if she does so, as over Iraq, then her own supporters are alienated- as has happened and will continue to happen quite possibly in the Texas and Ohio primaries. Secondly, if she comes over all girly and feminine, she risks alienating the mass of voters on whom she relies to vote her into power. Seems like, for a woman, right now, it's too difficult to make it- though Hillary carries some extra baggage, of course, like her husband's over colourful biography, in addition.

McCain is on the cusp of clinching his nomination and now faces a contest, probably, against Barack Obama. In the ST last Sunday Andrew Sullivan suggested McCain should not emphasise his experience and record as a legislator. This is because this election has turned out to be one of change If he plays the experience card Obama will trump it with his youth and change ones. He is better advised to go easy on the 'surge'; if it fails he looks bad- if it succeeds Obama can realistically call for withdrawal. Sullivan concludes:

Don’t run on experience. It hasn’t worked with Clinton and it won’t work for him. In McCain’s case it speaks for itself. Why downplay this obvious asset? Because this is a “change” election. If the economy continues to tank, it’s going to be even more of a change election. Remember the Bill Clinton mantra in 1992? “Change versus more of the same.” It worked. And it will work even more this time, since the number of Americans believing that the country is on the wrong track is even higher than in 1992.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Class Conundrum

Indie hack, Simon Carr today raises the fascinating contradiction of the fact that the upper classes- together with the higher reaches of the middle classes- no longer talk as if someone has either a hand up their bottoms or around their throats. In the sixties the Queen used to talk in a high register whine which owed much to the twenties and thirties fashionable 'debspeak'. Prince Charles still speaks with his mouth full of interwar plums, but Prince Harry, in between all those clips of him trying to slaughter the Taliban, speaks in a different 'neutral' accent. I'm not sure it's quite like that as anyone can pick up the public school accent there but it is different from his Pa's weird 'chewing a wasp' pronunciation.

At the same time, Carr notes that:

Statistics show social mobility continues to worsen. Someone growing up on one of those estates we read about, has less chance of getting off it now than at any time since the war. So although the visible or audible effects of class have slunk out of sight, class itself retains its grip on the British.

Visitors to this country might be seduced into thinking what many of those on the right tend to assert is in fact the case: that Britain is now a 'classless society'. How wrong they are. The gap between the rich and poor is bigger than ever and the cosmetic changes to accents which lead the kids of posh people to adopt some of the habits of the non posh,(largely, I suspect, to appear 'cool') should not delude us otherwise.

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