Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Blair's future as leader

I know I shouldn't indulge in 'I told you so' type feelings but allow me to remind us of one of my earliest posts, just after the election:
'I am emboldened to offer my own predictions regarding Blair's future. I make two predictions. First, that the present febrile atmosphere in which accusations of loss of trust and authority swirl and the Prime Minister is called upon to get himself hence, will not last long. I predict that by the autumn it will be business as usual with Blair just as comfortably ensconced in Number 10 as he ever was.

Secondly, I predict that Blair will stay rather longer than many people are suggesting. It might be best for the party and even for the country that he go sooner rather than later, but politics, it seems to me, is much more of an individual sport than a team game and Blair is still at the wicket and scoring the runs.'

The Brighton conference seems to be bearing out my prediction with Blair showing he has lots of lead left in his pencil. Some of this will be to ensure his government will be taken seriously, rather thwan written off as 'tired' but the commentators must also be right that he is telling Gordon that he will ahve to wait a bit- possibly a lot- longer. Brown's speech seemed a bit too assuming to me- all that stuff about touring the country and 'listening'. It will have infuriated the Blair camp and made them more than ever determined to dish his hopes of an early transfer.


German Politics

A couple of days ago I tried to post from Germany, on German politics, but I couldn't read the instructions in German and it got lost in cyberspace. So here-second attempt- are a few of my thoughts on the current crisis in the biggest economy in Europe.
The first thing which must be said is that Germany is a very admirable place. It is amazingly clean and well run and there is no binge drinking yob culture of the type which keeps people like me from visiting town and city centres on Friday and Saturday nights. Interestingly various media organisations have combined to lead a campaign in favour of talking the country up- spending 30 million euros in the process. Clearly there is a self confidence problem in germany as well as in France where the loss of the referendum and the Olympics have allegedly plunged the nation into introspective gloom.
But there is a problem of course. Econmically the biggest economy in the EU is stagnant with slow or no growth and high levels of unemployment. The SDP has tried to introduce necessary reforms but has encuntered much resistance from a popualtion which ahs got comfortable with a secure, supportive welfare state. The recent election produced a virtual dead heat result. Angela Merkel, the alleged Thatcher like new leader of the CDU, began the campaign 20 points in the lead and many assumed she would walk into the Chancellor's office. However, she came unstuck firstly by associating with Professor Paul Kirkhof, who advocated a flat tax- this did not appeal to the middle class German demographic which decides elections in Germany- and secondly by not performing well in the televised debate which Germany now offers to voters before elections. This means her predicted landslide turned out to be a mere one per cent of the vote, leaving the two big blocks almost equal-222 seats SPD and 225 CDU- with enhanced results for the smaller parties: the FDP(61), the New Left(54) and the Greens(54).Making a coalition work out of that lot is not going to be easy: i) Schroder hates Lafontaine, leader of the New Left, from the days when they were both candidates for the SDP's leadership. The charismatic survivor of an assassination attempt in the nineties- a woman knifed him from close up- has always borne an animus against the Chancellor(warmly reciprocated) and his setting up a new party further distanced him. Its far left message has endeared him to eastern Germans where unemployment is over 10%- but not recommended him to the rightwing CDU. So that block is hard to fit in. The other bits of the jigsaw are almost as difficult as Fisher, the Green leader is standing down and the FDP, seem unwilling to be steam rollered into any alliance.
ii) a coalition between the two big parties is also difficult as such a government would make it even more difficult to introduce the derugulation and employment law liberalisation which most economists agree should be put in place to help cure Germany's chronic unemployment and slow growth. Moreover, both leaders wish to be Chancellor and neither seems inclined o defer to the other. Schroder has been dealt a blow by losing so much ground but Merkel has lost so much credibilty for losing a contest which she should have walked. Her political incoimpetence has been revealed and the old master's reinforced.
iii) Merkel also has some problems with her partner the CSU. It is hard for British observers to realise that the CSU is a separate party, based in Bavaria where Stoiber, still has ambitions to lead the jointly allied party.
It seems no coalition is possible and a new election will be necessary after a few weeks have passed. When that happens I expec Schroder to win through and stay on as the top man.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


New Labour and Lying

I've just read Danny Fikelstein's piece in The Times(21/9/05) about New Labour and lying. He recalls the moment he realised they lied without conscience and experienced a kind of negative epiphany in consequence. With me it's been a slower process perhaps, as a Labour supporter. But I have to confess it was the book by Peter Oborne, The Rise of Political Lying, which truly confirmed what had become persistent suspicions. They began when I interviewed Peter Mandelson for an article I was writing in the mid eighties on how senior politicians handled interviews. He denied that Neil Kinnock had received any advice on how to dress or otherwise present himself;in contrast to Mrs Thatcher, he pointed out, every inch of whom had been the recipient of make-over activities. This just did not ring true to me. Later, when the same Prince of Darkness was suffering his second ejection from high office, I recall hearing two radio interviews with him. In the first he seemed to imply he might be interested in serving in the EU Commission; in the second, on local not national radio, he denied having any such thought. Small things- but this is how it starts maybe, in politics as in any aspect of life.

Blair's behaviour over the WMD was another major asssult on my faith in my party's veracity; how could he have assumed we were so stupid as to believe him over the Dossier's claims of 45 minutes and that he did not know details about the Kelly affair. Then came a number of revelations, the most recent of which was the biography of David Blunkett in which his biographer- and such people are usually sypathetic- admitted his subject was 'a liar'. And I had been taken in by the idea that a blind man must have more integrity somehow. How naive can you get- and I always thought I was too cynical.

The most recent source of disillusion is the diaries of Lance Price, a former press officer in Number Ten. He explains that lying was an automatic response to adversity, no sense of guilt seemed to accompany the lies. A depressing picture of our political leadership at the very top. But where does one go from here?
It's hard, as I always assumed a moral superiority of Labour over the Conservatives. But it seems they are just the same. Will I keep on voting Labour? Yes, I will as at least Labour manage to achieve things which I support- more funds for public services for example. Maybe New Labour are a bunch of lying bastards but at least they are 'our lying bastards'. What I would like to see is one of the senior guys caught red handed lying to the Commons. Our system is not so inured to untruths that it would over look such a transgression. Even Bliar could go that way and it might even become his leaving of the stage.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Why are politicians so unpopular?

A survey carried out by the BBC World Service involving 50,000 people in 68 countries containing 1.3 billion people has produced the depressing statistic that most citizens of the world have little or no confidence in their governments. Three quarters of the former Soviet block feel their governments do not reflect the will of the people, 64% of Europeans and 60% of those in the USA. Worse politicians were seen as the least trusted occupation in the survey with only 13% saying they were trusted. The figure for religious leaders was 33%; for military/police leaders 26%; for journalists 26%; and business leaders 19%.

I was amazed at the high score for military/police leaders; one thinks of Pinochet and other tin pot generals in Africa and South America not to mention the junta in Burma. Maybe their mere association with law and order- even when not merited in practice- explains some of the preference. The low figure for journalists strikes me as unfair-there are many spendid journalists who are dedicated to freedom and truth- but perhaps it's their association with tabloid distortions or the lickspittle ones who serve repressive regimes which explains this. Religious leaders' popularity is understandable as many of them will seem prefereable to the military and disproportionate numbers of respondents from countries where religion is strong might also explain this figure.

But do politicians deserve such poor ratings? I have always argued that they do not. Most people who have close relations with politicians in the UK say there is the usual mixture of the good, the bad and the enigmatic. Clement Attlee was clearly a person of great integrity and conviction; some might say Ted Heath was as well as Callaghan and Douglas -Home. So why do the pols get so much flak? Four reasons I would suggest:

1. In most political systems compromise is inevitable as, in our finite world, politics comprises the clash of desires which cannot all be met. This means that those who are left unsatisfied by compromises feel hostility to those who engineered them. After a series of compromises alienation grows and the popular reputation of politicians declines accordingly.
2. Politicians deal in persuasion and in pursuit of their compromises will seek to tell a number of audiences more or less what they want to hear. Eventually both sides of the argument realise what is going on and disillusionment ensues.
3. Seeking compromises is a dangerous task ultimately as the progressive surrendering of positions can lead to an erosion of the principles upon which political positions are based. So sea green incorruptibles who are totally opposed to certain solutions can be led by salami compromises towards a position where they more or less accept what was once hated. So Ramsay MacDonald found he could bury his differences with the Conservatives he once hated to stay on a Preime Minister in a National Government in the thirties.
4. The final reason is that Lord Acton was right: power really does corrupt. Politicians are unusual people who are often motivated into the activity by idealism but, once power has been achieved, find they like the feel of being in control, of having people treat them like species of royalty, of being the most important people in their country. So power to achieve good becomes merely power for its own sake. Many examples exist of this: Milosevic, Mugabe, Charles Haughey, arguably Harold Wilson. In many countries too its ordinary venality, the love of wealth and comfort for family and friends which fuels the desire to achieve and then cling onto power.

But in democracies our politicians are crucially important social agents, defusing conflicts which could otherwise cause immense bloodshed and seeking solutions which please most of the people most of the time.

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Tabloid trends

This is a somewhat trivial (and short) blog but my friend Roy Johnson - of fame - sugested to me it was worth the effort. It relates to the style of language used in the Sunday tabloids, and indeed some of the daily ones too, to describe the details of kiss and tell stories. In the past such stories would be related in the style of 'and then we went into the bathroom and had sex'. Fine, you might think: that's what they did, we don't really need to know more. But the modern tabloid editor has divined, probably correctly, that we do wish to know more; the bald facts leave just us a little unsatisfied.

Now we learn that the C list celebrity- be it a Sven or a Peter or a Jude- 'fondled'her breasts at length, 'slowly removed my panties' and then indulged in activities which could be rated on a scale from one to ten with a similar standard applied to his physical attributes. Yes, in other words, such stories have now been transformed into a species of pornography. One can almost hear the journalist involved in eliciting the kissing and telling posing the questions: 'So how did his fingers feel when he fondled you like that?', 'Did you feel excited when he did that to you?', 'How often have you felt desire quite like that?'. Cynics might conclude that in its small way this is yet another benchmark of the general decline in our culture; on the other hand, if one is less apocalyptic, or works for a tabloid paper, one might see it as just a 'bit of fun'.

Thursday, September 08, 2005



An excellent article by Timothy Garton-Ash in today's Guardian chimes in with one of my long held beliefs: that the veneer of civilisation in which we live and enjoy security and comfort in the developed west, is brittle and could rupture just as easily as in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina. TGA points to similar collapses during the last war and subsequently in Berlin as the Russians entered and then in Bosnia in the nineties. 'Remove the elementary staples of organised civilised life,' he says, '-food shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security- and we go back within hours to a Hobbsean state of nature, a war of all against all.'

Garton-Ash exhumes a Jack London word- 'decivilisation' to describe this, a word which could also be applied to the young children all marooned on that island in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. TGA suggests we are closer to this process than we realise and identifies as possible triggers:
a) natural disasters caused by climate change
b) terrorist attacks on a bigger scale than hitherto.
c) the invasion of the world's poor into the richer parts of the world.
d) possibility of war through the accommodation into the international system of emerging powers like China and India.

He concludes with another of my hobby horses: that we are currently enjoying a hiatus before things begin to go seriously wrong. Hope I'm wrong about this but I fear I am not.


Mo Mowlam: confirming evidence

Just as a additional comment to my notes on Mo Mowlam, I note Private Eye do a piece on her in its current edition. In it is quoted her husband John Norton who comments that her radiotherapy treatment for a benign brain tumour in 1997: 'led to a shrinkage of the brain which put pressure on the blood vessels, causing them to fur up. It makes it harder for blood to get to all parts of the brain...It had caused a form of dementia.'

The Eye goes on to suggest that the 'whispering campaign' against her of which she complained, was merely an accurate reflection of her dimished abilities. Jon Carr-Brown in the IOS quoted aiides who spoke of her 'erratic behaviour' and 'no longer having the intellectual rigour to do the job'.

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