Friday, July 31, 2009


Purdy Judgement Makes a British Dignitas Clinic Only a Matter of Time

It seems a bit bizarre for such ecstatic pictures of Debbie Purdy to be adorning today's front pages but we can all understand the sense in which she has her 'life back'. The High Court judgement is a welcome recognition that popular attitudes towards assisted suicide have changed drastically since the 1961 Suicide Act. The road to legalising assisted suicide now seems clear. But this judgement does illustrate the problems policy-makers, not to mention the top judges in the land, face when the law signals such a rethink.

The possibility that ruthless people might manipulate a changed law to acquire someone's wealth, is the most obvious danger but this decision clearly opens up the possibility that hundreds of geriatric patients-and we are an ageing society- will come to decide life is no longer worth living and will queue up in the new exit lounge.

Once this happens, it will be a short step before some enterprising person or organisation sets up our very own Dignitas clinic in this country. In my view this is both inevitable and welcome, but I can see why judges have balked at yesterday's judgement when considering this question in previous years.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Social Codes and Social Mobility

Jenni Russell today questions whether improving social mobility is simply a matter of increasing opportunity. It's also to do with different social cultures. She identifies the ability to fit in as of equal worth as qualifications:

There's much talk of Britain being more egalitarian and multicultural. In reality it remains deeply hierarchical. The dominant culture is that of the white middle class; the elite culture is that of the upper middle. Anyone who hopes to be socially mobile has, by definition, to learn to read a culture that is not the one they grew up with.

I'm not sure she doesn't exaggerate a little here. I would have thought that anyone able to excell academically would have the ability to pick up the codes of a new social milieu, just as any number have done to date. For example, few would realise that former Archbishop George Carey, or indeed Blair's top pollster, Philip Gould had both failed their 11+ and attended secondary modern schools. Yet they managed to fit into their new social and professional setting without any real apparent difficulty.

It's also the case that cultures change. It may still be the upper middle class who set the tone for our elite cuolture, but it has surely changed hugely since the middle of the last century, for example.

More problematic, in my view, is the sometimes expressed idea that merely increasing resources for state schooling will automatically bring them up to equality with the independeent sector. My experience is that the key variable is the cultural background of the child. If they have been brought up to think study is for 'boring geeks' and that aspiring to better oneself is a waste of time, then no amount of money will enable that child to fit into a professioinal post.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Ian Gibson- A Colleague's Version of Events

Quite a bit of comment on Ian Gibson still on my last post-especially from 'Michael Oakeshott'- so I'm putting up this account from Martin Booth, Gibson's former colleague in the Norwich Labour Party. It's from 'Labour Briefing', July 2009 (

Martin Booth, former President of Norwich CLP, gives an eyewitness account of how the Labour Party debarred Ian Gibson from standing as a Labour candidate.

I have been a member of the Labour Party for 30 years and President of Norwich Labour Party for the last two. On 21st May I returned home from work to find that our Norwich North MPhad been on the local TVnews, apparently embroiled in the MPs’expenses affair. I was shocked: Ian Gibson is one of the most ethical men I have met and I could not believe that he would knowingly abuse his expenses. I found out later that the Telegraphhad warned him he would be in the paper, and he had immediately contacted the local media to answer the charges – not the action of someone who has somthing to hide.

The next morning’s Telegraph claimed that Ian had covered up the fact that his daughter and her partner were living in his flat rent free by blanking out the address of the flat in the expenses that he published in the local paper. They also said that he had sold the flat to her at a low price after the taxpayer had paid the mortgage.

I managed to speak to Ian on the Friday. He sounded really shocked and told me that he had been referred to the NEC panel (the “Star Chamber”). On the Saturday I went to see him. He explained that he had not covered up anything. MPs were told to blank out all addresses by the Fees office because of data protection. He had not charged his daughter rent because the Fees Office had advised him not to. Although he had sold the flat to her for the sum which was on the mortgage, he had only claimed for mortgage interest on the flat. He had put £30,000 of his own money, obtained by re-mortgaging his Norwich home, into the flat when he bought it (which remained for him to pay off). I thought it was obvious that he had broken no rules. He accepted my offer to accompany him to the Star Chamber hearing to show he had local sup-

I called a meeting on 29th May of all branch chairs and secretaries in Norwich North and all councillors to gauge their opinions. This meeting was 100% behind Ian, and I wrote a strong letter to the Star Chamber from Norwich North members.

The letter telling Ian he had been referred said that he was being investigated under Chapter 5 Clause C8(b) of the rules of the Labour Party. This says that if it is proved that you have breached the rules (it does not say which rules), you can have the endorsement of your candidature rescinded. The letter stressed that it was not a disciplinary hearing but just an interview, to which he could bring with him only one silent friend, in accordance with human rights.

On 2nd June we went to Victoria Street and were called into the panel at 10.40am. The panel were Cath Speight, NEC chair; Ann Black, NEC vice-chair; and Ann Lucas, an NEC member. Also present were Roy Kennedy, Director of Finance and Compliance, and a man who was not introduced but whom Ian thought was Ray Collins. Ian then asked that I be allowed to speak for the constituency, but this was not allowed. I was to be a silent friend.

Ian presented his case. From the chair, Cath Speight asked Ian how he squared the fact that his daughter could now sell the flat for a profit with a rule from the Green Book which said that Members should ensure that neither they nor their relatives should gain financially out of their expens- es. We had seen no such rule in the Green Book we had looked at. Ian answered that if he had sold the flat on the open market, he would have made a profit which he could have given to his daughter, and he could not see any difference between that and what he had actually done. After a few questions the interview ended: it had lasted 25 minutes.

Afterwards we tried to look up the rule that Cath Speight had quoted and I finally found it in the March 2009 version of the Green Book. Ian sold the flat to his daugh- ter in May 2008. There is no mention of this rule in any of the Green Books before 2009. The panel had used a rule to condemn Ian which did not exist when he sold his daughter the flat.

It was not until 6.45pm in the evening that Ian was told that his candidature had been rescinded, at the same time as it was released to the press by Victoria Street. I was furious and went onto the local media to denounce the NEC and say that the panel had been a kangaroo court. Ian Gibson is well known to be a very independently minded MPand has voted against the Government many times. I suspected that the whips had used this issue to get rid of him.

The next evening I met Ian and his wife and he decided that he would resign as MP straight away – mainly because of the effect that the whole affair was having on his family.

The next morning I woke early. Angry and unable to get back to sleep, I decided that I had to resign from the Party. I just could not stay after I had seen the way that they had destroyed such a good man as Ian. He has been a wonderful constituency MP. When you went canvassing with him, it seemed he had helped nearly every other person you met. His involvement in outside causes, from beekeepers to ME sufferers, is amazing. That the NEC could destroy him because of the poisonous writing of the Daily Telegraphand use retrospective rules to do so was just too much.

As far as I know the NEC has not told Ian what rule he actually broke, even though he has asked them. If the Green Book rule is now applied retrospectively, an awful lot of MPs will be appearing before the Star Chamber, including Hazel Blears. They will not do so: this was just a cynical exercise to look tough and get rid of a trouble-maker at the same time.
Therefore, on Friday, 5th June I announced my resignation from the Party when Ian announced his resignation as MP. I have made many excuses for the Party in the past, but I just could not make any more.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Labour's Uncertain Future

Radio Four's politics show last Saturday morning produced some interesting forecasts for the next election. Peter Riddell and Steve Richards both went for Tories as biggest party but with a possible hung parliament. Mathew D'Ancona went for Tory majority of 80; Elinor Goodman reckoned it would be 30. My instinct is always to trust the wisest of them all- Riddell- but Rawnsley's piece(picture left) last Sunday was fascinating. He diagnosed a major drawing back by voters from the two big parties: they commanded 96% of the vote in 1951; only 66% in 2005, suggesting optioins for 2010 are still wide open.

And since then we've had the economic melt-down and the expenses scandal, neither a mirror of trust or competence. He suggested Labour was in such terminal decline by the 1990s and that Blair's seduction of Middle England, merely provided a disguised patina of life overlaying rigor mortis. He suggested it might be possible Labour would never govern on its own again. Since than we've had the debacle of Norwich and Labour's limp efforts to defend their seat, so I was interested in Neal Lawson's piece(picture right) yesterday. In this he suggested Gordon's best way out would be to add a referendum on changing the voting system-possibly to the Alternative Vote but more desirably to PR- along with the next election poll. Something similar was suggested by Alan Johnson and John Denham a few weeks back.

This way voters, who have simply stopped listening to Brown would be 'electrified' that the radical change they are after was now on offer. It would also present the candidate for change- Cameron- in a reactionary light as he would surely oppose the idea. Finally, Lib Dems would be inclined to vote for Labour and this would limit damage or even assist a surprise victory. My thoughts on this? Nice, innovative(though slightly desperate?) try, Neal- but with Gordon in the driving seat, you know as well as I do, it just ain't going to happen.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Brown's Reputation for Political Judgement in Tatters Over Norwich Byelection

I have just seen John McDonnel MP in Breakfast telly talking about Ian Gibson and the Norwich debacle. He made the points that:

1. Gibson's transgressions were of a different and more minor order than the likes of Elliot Morley and company.

2. Some Cabinet members, caught out over expenses, were treated differently to Gibson and escaped scot free.

3. Labour Party activists in Norwich pleaded with Brown but were not listened to in the slightest- Gibson was summarily consigned to the knacker's yard, possibly because he had always been an independent and not easily biddable voice.

4. All the above encouraged Labour voters in this traditionally Labour seat, to stay away from the voting booths.

My reading of it, and I do know Norwich a little, is that Brown, encouraged probably by Mandelson, was trying desperately to 'up' his game on the scandal and match Cameron's decisive 'punishment' of MPs caught up in the expenses row. In his desperation, he completely misread the situation and: a fine MP has been forced to retire; local activists are totally disillusioned; and the constituency now has a Conservative MP. The fact that Chloe Smith took time out to say gracious things about Ian Gibson in her acceptance speech, speaks volumes about the magnitude of Brown's mistake.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Lying in Politics

Bagehot in The Economist recently suggested lying comes easily to most of us but especially to politicians. All of them promise to be honest and 'pretty straight kinda guys' as Tony assured us, but all of them are found wanting before long we sadly discover. Bagehot recognises that all of us lie in small ways pretty often- telling people they look well or amazing when they don't quite, or, if a teacher, that a student has not done too badly when you know they have.

But politicians have other quite good reasons to lie and we should not be surprised if they do. Some examples:

1. Members of government who have to toe the party line when we know they disagree. The alterative, of course, is thet they lose their job or deeply embarrass their party in government. This is why I cannot dislike Ken Clarke as he shows no respect for theparty line when his own views contradict it.

2. Reasons why they have resigned. This is related to the above of course, but ministers often reachout for safe euphemisms like 'spending more time with family'; 'a time for reflection on the backbenches or whatever.

3. When Treasury ministers have to gild the lily of truth to prevent runs on the stock exchange.

4. When national security is involved.

5. When two political antagonists have to be soothed and led quietly into more peaceful waters.

All the above are very common and quite understandable to anyone but those few 'Robespierres of purity' who deplore even the slightest white lie. The fact is, we have to accept that in politics it is inevitable that truth is going to be distorted and occasionally mangled; this is merely a reflection of the labryinthine realities of reaching decisions when passions are running high. So should we just meekly accept and/or condone such behaviour? It depends. If the reason is understandable then maybe we'll understand but if it's a selfish ploy to gain advantage, avoid culpability or strike someone else down, then we are right to condemn.

Of course, the golden rule for all politicians regarding lying is, as batallions of them led by Bill Clinton know only too well, is: don't be caught out doing it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Social Mobility Blocked in Britain Says Milburn Report

The picture is a bit antique but it still makes the point that such young men, privately educated, represent a hugely privileged race apart in Britain. As the Milburn Report on social mobility makes clear, 7% of this privately educated elite go on to provide 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors, 45% of top civil servants and 32% of MPs.

As I've banged on more than once, The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Tippet, make it clear that countries with high socio-economic inequality manifest the highest degree of dysfunctionality. So we see that when the wealth of the top fifth are compared to that of the poorest, we see how leading countries stack up: USA, 8.5 times, UK, 7.1, Italy, 6.6, France, 5.6, Germany 5.2, Sweden 3.9 and Japan 3.4.

We are close to the top when it comes to inequality and this is a major reason why it is so hard for someone from a lower socio-econiomic class to make it 'upwards' into the professions. It is not surprising young people become angry when they feel locked out from the better things of life. As so many jobs in the future will require high degrees of expertise, those who are privately educated start with one hell of an advantage. On 29% of university students- 16% in the elite Russell Group- come from working class backgrounds, even though they constitute one half of young people.

Milburn's suggestion is a 5000 pound training budget to all young people to use as they think fit- apprenticeships, professional training, H.E. or whatever. It might be a start but:
i) Does it begin to compare with the up to a quarter of a million pounds a well-off middle class family might spend on educating its scions.
ii) Will a cash strapped Treasury contemplate shelling out even this relatively small amount? personally I doubt it and even if Labour enacted it the Tories would rescind it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Pullman Protests Classic Piece of Bad Government

This morning on Today I heard the interview between Humphrys and Phillip Pullman. Along with several other authors who write for the younger end of the audience, he is refusing to do school readings in future. The reason? A new rule which requires him to register with the education department- at a cost of £64- so that they can check and be sure he has no paedophile tendencies. His argument was that this assumption of possible predatory intent was insulting-and I can see that- but his best argument was that anything a visiting author does when visiting a school is right out in the open and supervised by adults in that teachers are presernt throughout.

Who dreams up such rules? Did someone in Whitehall win a brownie point for this piece of unnecessary bureaucracy? While there are so many things which do need doing, why do something which so obviously does not need doing? It's another exampole of the 'could be hit by ba meteor' thinking whereby someone with a morbid sense of bad things which might happen, is allowed free rein. Some things are so unlikely as to be not worth worrying about- because if we do we'll stay locked up in our houses all day.

As result of all this children will miss the chance to be entertained and stimulated into reading because of some fatuous and insulting regulation which should not have been seriously considered in the first place. It is to be hoped Pullman's stand, and that of his fellow authors will lead to this foolish rule being rescinded.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Mandy says Prepare for Cuts But Sage Economists Say Do Anything But.

Yesterday Lord Mandelson warned(incidentally, why is his smile so demonic in my picture?) we are in for a ten year squeeze on public spending although the so-called 'front line' services of health, education and police would be protected. Despite this he reckoned 'the next election is open'. I doubt this very much. Labour, in my view, has lost the next election and can only hope to limit the damage over the few months left before that election is held.

The poll reported yesterday revealed that 64% of voters think governnment should be reducing spending now to 28% who do not, while among these respondents, two thirds preferred Conservatives to Labour as the government to apply such cuts. But they could be wrong as one authority suggests they are.

One of the country's leading economists, and former member of the Treasury's Monetary Policy Committee thinks we may well be in for an extended 'semi-slump' as we suffered once the most brutal first stage of the 1930s one receded. He notes too that the longer but comparable US slump of six as opposed to our four quarters suggests we have more punishment to suffer. He concludes with this question:

So I have a question for Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. What plans do you have to get unemployment down any time soon? If you want to transform a recession into a depression, go ahead and cut public spending. I would advise against it and so, I believe, would John Maynard Keynes. Voters want jobs.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Is Malloch Brown Right About 'Chaos' in No 10?

Mark Malloch-Brown was possibly the most distinguished of the'goats' appointed by Brown in June 2007, so his rubbishing of procedures in Number 10 must hurt Gordon more than a bit. Today's piece is summed up by:

Lord Malloch-Brown, who quits his ministerial post this month, told colleagues he had seen better “strategic thinking” in Latin America and southeast Asia than at No 10.

He went on to describe conditions as 'chaos'.

One colleague explained it as:

“Mark had never worked in Whitehall before, and it is fair to say he was shocked at how everything was cobbled together at the last minute and no one took the time to plan ahead. It was not uniquely a problem with Brown, but a feature of the British political culture.”

Accurate assessment of spiteful swipe at a job of which he had tired? More than a dash of both, I'm sure but I tend to think Malloch Brown was judging No 10 just a little too harshly. Most work in Whitehall is done by the departments and, allowing for mistakes and poor judgement, forward planning is a strong characteristic in health, education and defence. Moving on to Numder 10, surely this the place to which all the really urgent and intractable matters get referred. It would seem quite understandable that such matters are fraught and generate 'last minute' panics.

It would be interesting if the departing minister could provide more chapter ad verse and no doubt long term planning could be hugely improved throughout Whitehall. But whatever is put in place in the very nerve centre of government it must frequently be absorbed by the culture of acute time constraints and anxiety about negative outcomes.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Come off it Andy! Cameron Has to Sack Him

I cannot but believe Simon Jenkins today when he says:

It is implausible for the former editor Andy Coulson to plead that he did not know what was going on.

Andrew Neil has judged that the News of the World newsroom was awash with information gleaned from phone hacking and a number of scoops had been run on the basis of them. If the whole thing cost as much as £1m then it defies belief that the editor would not know all about it.

If Coulson had worked from Brown- and given the mercenary nature of many journalists this scenario would not be inconceivable- you can imagine the excoriating sarcasm the sharp - tongued old Etonian would marshall in rubbishing such an idea. The punch line, of course, would be 'If he didn't know about it, then he was grossly incompetent not to know about it. Cameron will be lucky to avoid having to sack someone he has come to rely on; at least Brown sacked McBride once his misdeeds became evident.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


Noel Gallagher's Thoughts an Oasis of Wisdom

Pop musicians are always good for some summertime light relief and I've always quite liked Oasis, in a guilty sort of way, for their occasional ability to sound like The Beatles. They originate from Burnage, just down the road from where I used to live and when I read somewhere the Gallagher brothers had admitted to doing a bit of car radio acquistion when younger, I felt like sending them an invoice for the several nicked from my car when parked outside my house.

Of the two brothers, Noel is supposed to be the clever creative one, though this article suggests that if this is so brother Liam, cerebrally speaking, might be more than a little challenged. It seems Noel is in a more reflective mood these days and is wondering what it's all about. He's looking for something else to do- maybe join another band. Is he sure he wants to carry on being one of the world's most rockstariest rockstars? Doubts have crept in according to a recent interview with Corriere del Sera. About all those drugs for example, on which he spent an estimated £1m before 1998:

"I stopped because it is bad for your health, brain, life and for people around you,"

So maybe he should join that clean living British band Coldplay? Hmmm. He'd not be sure about that, because that Chris Martin, he sounds a bit of a poncy wimp, a twat. For instance:

I look at Chris Martin who says he has never taken drugs in his life and I think he is an idiot. Doing drugs is the most beautiful thing about being in a rock band."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Brown Resembles Nixon but Without the Deviant Tendencies

Really interesting article by Jonathan Freedland today, in which he admits he has always seen a resemblance between Nixon and Brown, starting with his crumpled, jowly face and extending to his acute social awkwardness and jealousy of his glamorous charismatic predecessor. There is definitely something there, especially when one considers the cabal of rather ruthless henchmen-Gordon Liddy, Damian McBride?- both called on to their dirty work.

But Freedland applies a strict limit to the comparison. Brown is fundamentally decent, has committed no major crimes and is beginning to accumulate a record which is beginning to look not at all bad. This is where I suspect the comparison might become controversial, so visceral and widespread is the dislike Brown seems to engender. Freedland quotes the current edition of the Economist:

"Brown's bail-out was lauded and emulated around the world and probably averted a catastrophic financial meltdown"

The same journal is quoted suggesting Brown has to be given credit for:

"swerving Britain out of the path of "what had threatened to be a devastating recession". Yesterday's word from the British Chambers of Commerce, announcing that the economic worst "is over", vindicates that view".

Hmmm. The more recent judgement of the NIESR is nowhere near so sanguine and I suspect we have far to go before the woods are behind us. The rest of the 'record' cited by Jonathan is more what has had to do or hasn't done rather than what he has chosen to do. So he hasn't declared war on anyone yet and has reined in the banks through nationalisation(not that that has curbed top salaries or pensions). Not sure this amounts to a great deal: Douglas Home didn't do a great deal either but that has not prevented him propping up the league tables of British PMs. So far the most that can be allowed is that saving the UK banking system will gain Gordon his niche in history and place him higher in the tables than either Home or Nixon in his equivalent presidential tables. But those physical and personality similarities are really quite remarkably close.

Monday, July 06, 2009


Does Richard Koo- 'Super Keynesian' Economist- Have the Answer?

No I hadn't heard of him either until Will Hutton wrote about him yesterday. However I learn this Japanese economist is a very clever man, the toast in fact, of that doyen of the 'miserable science', Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman. So what's his angle? Well, it seems his views have been tempered by his own country's dire experiences over the past decade and a half, locked, as it has been, in near permanent recession.

He thinks we in te west are teetering on the brink of a '1930's style depression' and are far too premature in perceiving those fabled 'green shoots'. He bases his prognosis on Japan's recent history:

Koo observed that Japanese firms in the 1990s and early 2000s had changed from profit maximisers to debt minimisers. Between 1970 and the early 1990s... they had steadily built up their debts to finance investment and growth; from the early 1990s on they used every spare yen to pay these off. Even as interest rates fell to zero and firms seemed to have profitable opportunities for growth, they would still pay off their debts rather than invest. Japan's $15tn collapse in asset and share prices - equivalent to three years' GDP - traumatised them, because it meant that their grossly devalued assets no longer matched their liabilities. To restore their balance sheets to health they had to reduce their debts. Demand from Japan's corporate sector dropped by 20%.

He argues that once into their 'debt minimizing', companies defy conventional monetary thinking and close down the mechanisms-spending, investing- which will restore good health. Koo explains Japan's 180% of GDP debt as the reason why a major Great Depression in Japan has been averted. So Koo is a 'super Kenynesian' who urges more not less spending to avert an otherwise highly probable disaster. According to this view, the high bank interest rates in the UK are forcing companies to repay debt rather than investing. The same thing is happening in Germany and USA.

Seen from this angle Darling's caution over borrowing seems foolish and Gordon's alleged profligacy extraordinarily wise. Is Koo just another clever man who has got it wrong.. or has he got it right? With both parties coming around to expenditure cuts the UK is heading in the opposite direction to that Koo would advise. His analysis seems so clear it's almost as if one believes him to be the 'one eyed king' in the land of the blind. As a non economist, I'm never sure but merely flag up this guy's name and ideas in case they turn out to be on the money.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


Inequality is Still the Enemy Labour Must Overcome

Arriving back from holiday last Tuesday I saw an article which surprised and depressed me. A senior Cabinet minister whom I had long respected for his principled resignation over Iraq, had announced the sixties ideal of equality was no longer relevant to Labour. John Denham argued in a speech to the Fabian Society that research showing voters will accept disparities in income if based on genuine talent:

"sounds the death knell for the purely needs-based approach to fairness, and inequality which has dominated much left-liberal thinking since the 1960s...The left needs to stop holding up egalitarianism as the ideal. If we continue to believe that the egalitarian approach is really the right one, and we, somehow, have to find more cunning ways of getting there, we will fail.".

He went on to argue that Labour needed to rebuild a new electoral coalition as the one sustaining New Labour had collapsed.

The next day Roy Hattersley offered a reply to Denham arging that such a view was an 'abdication from the principles of social democracy'. On the need to construct a new electoral coalition he commented:

"Forget the idea that politicians with strong beliefs campaign for what they think right. Read the opinion polls. Consult the focus groups".

He concludes that the party will swing to the left after an election defeat come what may but sees the Denham tendency as a dangerous augury. I agree strongly. Has he not read the Spirit Level which proves to my satisfaction and many others that increased social and economic inequality is the perrenial concomitant of high crime, high drug use, mental illness, physical illness and low life expectancy. If we are not opposed to such social dysfunction, then what are we for, for God's sake?If Labour gives up its commitment to end inequality it might just as well close down its headquarters and surrender to Conservatism. Denham should surely realise this is no foundation for a revival of Labour's fortunes.

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