Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Cameron and rebranding his party

'Dave' Cameron, it seems will today map out the way forward for the Conservatives in a speech in London addressed to party activists. This will be an opportunity to draw together some of his rather incohate new ideas and to try and mould them into a coherent set of beliefs. He has already made a few pledges, the most crucial of which, to me is: 'The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich.' This gets to the heart of it. Lots of Labour supporters, like me, in the past have become embroiled in arguments with Tories, in pubs, at parties, who insist the government should take away constraints- rules, taxation, employment laws or whatever- so that business can proceed with greater despatch and more profits be made.

When the question was asked 'Yes, but what will happen to employees if this happens? Who will defend their interests?', the answer was often: 'Individuals alone have the responsibility for creating their own future prosperity.' In other words, they did not care too much if people had to become or stay poor for them to become or stay rich, that was not their problem. Conservatism provided a nice rationalisation of selfishness to make selfish people feel better about being selfish. I do not include in this generalisation the many Tory voters who hearkened back to the more inclusive approaches of Macmillan and even Heath.

It was this fundamental selfishness which defined the Conservatives for me, especially during the Thatcher era- and I hated it. It appears that over time, many hundreds of thousands of others did too and the 'natural party of government' was perceived by a majority of people rather in this fashion. The rightwing Policy Exchange report in September 2005 revealed 52 per cent of voters thinking Conservatives were 'stuck in the past'; 51 per cent who saw them as caring 'more about the well off than the have nots'; 44 per cent who thought them 'narrow-minded and bigoted' and 67 per cent who saw them as 'out of touch.' Tories had become a diminishing enclave of ageing, selfish mean- minded people and voters had acquired an image of them which was going to be hard to shift.

This is what 'Dave' is seeking to do with his charm offensive. The similarity between his strategy and that of the younger Blair is both flattering to New Labour and an indictment of how the Conservatives have behaved over the past decade or so. I see he is even using the device of the party plebiscite- his policy document will be published, circulated and voted on by party members. Blair did the same and, surprise indeed, won the kind of ringing endorsement which warmed the hearts of East European party bosses before their systems imploded. Will he succeed? I think he probably will. A large chunk of voters are fed up with Blair and Tories are fed up with being out of power. Just like Blair in the nineties, they will envisage doing just about anything to sieze back the levers of power.

Will the right frustrate him as they did Hague, IDS and Howard? Not this time. Cameron won a landslide victory and has a mandate to push his 'New Conservatism' through. Many commentators have argued that howls of rage from Tebbit, Melanie Phillips and the like are just what Dave needs. He needs to slay a few rightwing dragons to convince voters his party really has changed. Blair had his Clause Four debate- Cameron desperately needs a similar kind of highly visible victory over the forces of reaction within his own party.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Prince Charles: a rethink considered

Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times today writes a persuasive piece on Charles as someone who: is entitled to express his views, especially as he seems to have so many; does no-one any real harm through such expressions; expresses the views of many people who are mostly ignored by the media; and who provides some must needed gusts of fresh thinking into the incestuous Westminster obsessed political media. He goes on to argue that Britain's unwritten constitution is surely flexible enough to accommodate the views of the heir to an extremely circumscribed constitutional monarchy. Far from shuting up Simon thinks Charles might even increase the dissemination of his opinions.

As so often with Jenkins, one feels he has penetrated to the heart of the issue and made an impeccable, unanswerable judgement. However, I'm a bit worried. If the heir's views are misinterpreted by some foreign state the nation might consequently suffer. I have in mind here the time when he ostentatiously snubbed the visiting President of China because he opposed China's human rights record. Few would support such a record, of course, but international diplomacy often requires some deliberate turning of blind eyes or unsaying of the obvious and maybe morally necessary, just in order for the world to continue in its functioning. Expedience often needs to overule morality. Having such a loose cannon in a representative role is probably unwise, especially given the hypersensitivity of Muslim minorities and Muslim states.

But otherwise I tend to agree with Jenkins. Yet somehow I do not feel any upwelling of support in my breast for the man or observe much elsewhere. Why is this? I think it is because the prince is, not to put too fine a point on it- a bit of a plonker. I refer, not especially, to his penchant for imagining himself to be a tampax or for his clear championing of causes close to the heart of the Conservatives- eg Foxhunting- but more to another aspect of the prince. He is a snob and a not very nice guy. Fulminating about travelling first class says a certain amount about him- his Scandinavian cousins would not have made a peep in the same circumstances. But what gets to me most are the stories regarding social gatherings with his close friends. They, it seems, have to all rise when he enters the room or leaves it and have to address him as, wait for it... 'Sir'. What kind of person treats his closest friends in such a disrespectful fashion? My case rests

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Top Ten Political Novels

Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for with his novels encouraging us to create lists of favourite things. Paul Linford in his blog Paul Linford's Top 10 Political Books succumbed to the temptation recently by publishing two lists: best political books and best political speeches. To show my craven imitative tendencies I'm doing one myself: top ten political novels. I realise the category is a bit vague- when is a novel a 'political' one? Very subjective I know but my following list makes it clear, I hope, why each book is in it.

1. Arther Koestler Darkness at Noon
Wonderful account of old Bolshevik Rubashov being 'persuaded' by Stalinist interrogators-principlally Gletkin- to 'admit' his non-existent crimes- not necessarily because he committed them but because doing so would objectively assist the cause of the revolution. The best account of the clash of Marxist versus liberal values I've encountered and gripping from start to finish.

2. George Orwell Nineteen Eighty Four
Dystopian projection of totalitarianism worldwide, it pits Winston Smith against the invincible all seeing Big Brother- a clear version of the propoganda created version of Stalin. Animal Farm maybe should be in the list too but 1984 is the novel which most entered into mainstream culture in my view with its horriffic vision and gave the keener critique. Truly a book which helped prevent his awful predictions coming true.

3. Aldous Huxley Brave New World
Sort of science fiction dystopia which explores the downside of being perpetually happy. People at some time in the future live idyllic lives where all is provided throughout life including a wonder drug- a kind of ecstasy called 'soma' - which always provides a happy state of mind. The book ilustrates, beyond doubt that without some suffering, we would be even more miserable than we are and that overcoming obstacles is an essential part of the human condition.

4.Joseph Heller Catch 22
Ultimate anti-war novel which pokes brilliant fun at its absurdities through highlighting the poor bureacracies of armies- a soldier called Major Major being given the rank of ...? Major- and the ubiquity of the profit motive even when nations are seeking to destroy each other.

5.Charles Dickens Hard Times
Not an obviously political novel, maybe, but to me its message is explicitly so. The arid values of capitalism are wonderfully lampooned in what is possibly one of the two or three best novels ever written in English. Dickens' genius gift for characterisation has seldom been shown to greater effect.

6. David Mitchell Cloud Atlas
Another dystopian view of the future cleverly created via a number of intertwined tales. Here we gain a glimpse of what the world might be like once the energy has run out; once scientific irresponsibility has created rogue species and humans have been forced to live in backward societies dependent on primitive technolgies and methods of food production.

7. Orhan Pamuk Snow
Am just finishing off this outstanding book and can see that already it has become a classic analysis of Huntingdon's 'Clash of Civilisations', that is to say western values pitted against those of Islam. A Turkish poet, Ka, visits a remote town called Kars in eastern Turkey and becomes involved in a semi-absurd local coup by pro-secular forces against fundamentalist Islamists. All of the action and the characters are clothed in the numbing, overpowering, all purpose symbolic winter snows. The passions and strength of argument on both sides are vividly expressed. A book for our times.

8.Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake
Another dystopian vision occupying similar ground to Mitchell above, but in Atwood's singular and inimitable style. This concerns a man called 'Snowman' who was once a key person in an earlier version of a crumbling future stage of society who retreats and retreats and eventually lives in a tree wrapped in filthy bed sheets. He sustains a dialogue with Oryx, a woman whom he once loved and who now is no more. A tour de force of imaginative writing- but the doom laden vision is not especially uplifting, even if the prose is.

9. Philip Roth The Plot Against America
A fantasy based on the idea that Roosevelt did not win the presidency at the outbreak of the second world war but that Charles Lindbergh did; on an isolationist and implicitly anti-semitic ticket. Roth bases his book in his personal family and social enviroment in New Jersey around that time and creates a wonderful kaleidascope of an emerging Jewish American identity, forged in the crucible of powerful yet covert racism.

10. Anonymous Primary Colours
We later found out the author was Joe Klein, a Clinton aide who was well qualified to clothe his experience and views on his former boss in the form of a rather well written novel. At once it was hailed as the definitive portrait of the best political communicator since Churchill and Roosevelt(Oh Lor, I feel another list coming on...) who was also beset with human frailties and obsessions which eventually overwhelmed his political career.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Prince Charles embroiled in new revenge drama

I wish I could illustrate this post with a picture of the heir to the throne scratching his head, face bemused, in that slightly dotty upperclass way he has. But what I think we see is another revenge drama being palyed out against him. Mark Bolland, was a hugely trusted aide who apparently was largely responsible for rehabilitating Camilla Parker- Bowles and setting up the marriage. Then he was fired and no honour dished out. Sensitive souls were damaged. [Wonder why Camilla was not able to intervene with Charles to ensure justice was done to her favourite?] So he was the natural person for the Mail on Sunday to invite to prove the leaked diaries could be published because it was ín the national interest´- that hoary old Fleet St cliche- to do so. Bolland, has now properly kippered his former boss with his evidence in support of the rightwing tabloid.

Those revelations are that: his office is ´chaotic´; letters are routinely circulated to all staff; some letters are politically explosive and Charles has to be persuaded to tone them down or not send them; Charles sees himself as a ´dissident´working against the consensus of the day, presumably seeing himself working in the national interest; and Charles sends many ´spider´letters written in his own hand, to ministers on a whole range of matters.

So what? Why should he not? Probably little will come of any of his half arsed initiatives but The Times made a good point when it pointed out that Charles´s personal boycott of the visiting Chinese delegation some time back might have been interpreted by the orientals as an official snub and the national interest thereby adversely affected. Prince Charles has no real business deciding such policy issues, even if, on this issue, he might have been expressing the national mood. His job is to be a constitutional monarch in waiting. Like the Queen, he should keep mles away from political controversey unless it´s a non political topic like architecture or mutton or recalcitrant youngsters. Good works, yes, political opinions, no thanks.

It does cause one to reflect however, that if we have a monarch, middle-aged and impatient to do something significant with his life, we should not be too surprised if he occasionally slips his shackles and speaks his undiplomatic mind. If we want to avoid such eventualities, we could always abolish he monarchy- now there´s an idea...

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


British expats- do they really regret leaving?

I´m posting this, experimentally, from Nerja on the Costa del Sol, though there is no sun shining as I write this. I always thought it was difficult to post from a foreign country but here goes anyway. I thought I´d say something about expat Brits as I´ve met a few since being here. It´s dangerous to generalise, but of course, I´m about to, and very speculatively too: expats do not really seem to be very happy. They have in this location at least, a beautiful part of the world, seldom less than sunkissed (apart from when I visit), a pretty good education system, so I´m told and a passably good health system too. So why are they so apparently dissatisfied?

I think the sort of person who ups sticks and leaves is clearly not very happy with life in the old country; yet somehow, irrationally, this unhappiness seems to persist. Some I´ve met are still railing about Harold Wilson,(´clearly a communist stooge´) or Margaret Thatcher(´mad old biddy´), so it´s not necessarily linked to party disillusion though there seem more on the right down here than the left which should make such expat diasporas happy hunting grounds for Conservatives Abroad vote snarers. Some have done well for themselves- bar owners who´ve often ploughed the ´home from home´furrow- but others are doing less well and are surviving on far less than theyearned back home.

Whatever the reasons they seem to have visceral feelings both towards Blighty and the locals in equal measure. Few had mastered the language, as far as I can gather, yet have been happy to crticise those immigrants to UK who had not tried to ´fit in´. But the dominant feeling I detected was a clearly detectable nostalgic longing for the homeland- whatever the advantages of being away, they miss the place like hell. Newspapers are eagerly siezed and passed around like samizdat tracts; news of the Royal Family is reverentially dsicussed; mid afternoon tea is a tradition recognised with colonial discipline. Don´t be so ready to envy those relatives and former neighbours who now send Christmas cards from one of the Costas- secretly they envy you much more but now cannot do anything about it.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Free Speech and those Cartoons- a further comment

[I'll be away in Spain until Friday so a period of silence will ensue until then.]
I posted about those cartoons a short time ago and thought I had decided on my own balanced viewpoint: free speech was of supreme importance but should be applied with the recognition that it was not an absolute value and that there is no purpose in upsetting volatile people unnecessarily. At the same time Muslims should realise how important it is to western culture and avoid giving offence themselves. Very balanced, I thought and about right for this Guardian reader.

Then I read Andrew Anthony in the Observer last week who asserted how vital it was to defend free speech and I read Norm's blog where he argued this was a universal human right which could not be compromised, and I began to wonder if I had not been a bit too wimpishly liberal. Then I read a letter to the Observer Review today which reminded me I was right after all.

This was from Leofranc Holford-Stevens and it pointed out that if he went into certain pubs in Belfast and banged on about how excellent was the Union with Great Britain he would provoke the same violent response as if he decamped to certain other pubs in a different part of the same city and banged on equally about the merits of a unified Ireland. 'Would those' he concludes, 'who rush to support the Mohammad cartoons call me a martyr to free speech for expressing either of these perfectly legitimate points of view or an idiot who ought to have known better?' as Hercule Poirot might have said: 'Precisement mon cher monsieur Leofranc'.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Acting skills vital for Politicians

In today's Guardian Weekend magazine Anna Chancellor does the Q and A spot. She responds to the question 'Who do you despise most?' with 'Tony Blair-bad at acting'. Well, she's the professional so we have to take her judgement seriously but, according to Anthony Seldon's brilliant biography of the man(Blair, Free Press, 2005), Blair, at Fettes, starred as Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar and was even more stellar as the drink sodden Captain Stanhope in RC Sheriff's Journey's End. Maybe he would never have made it to RADA but, maybe politicicians do not have to be that good.

It does not follow, however, that they do not have to be any good at all. Politicians have to have certain thespian qualities to prosper and succeed to any degree. For example they have to: have the ability to face an audience without blanching- something which daunts most ordinary people; have a presence at meetings, in parliament and in committees; and they have to be able to express and project a variety of recognisable emotions in order to achieve their basic aim and function: to persuade people that they and their views should be supported. It helps if, like Blair, one has impressive physical stature and personable good looks.

Now in respect of persuasiveness, I would say Blair is possibly the finest political communicator in the world, at least in the western world of democratic politics. Compare him to George Bush and you see just how far ahead he is in terms of articulacy and the ability to project himself. But this depends to some extent on to whom one is seeking to project. Admittedly Bush is not a very impressive communicator to us Europeans but to his own constituency of Republican, moral majority, god-fearing mid-west Americans he is pitch perfect. For them he acts to the last raised eyebrow the kind of person they feel comfortable with in the White House.

Reagan, too, though never especially bright intellectually and given to taking two hours 'down time' every afternoon, had no peer at playing a particular kind of approximation to an American hero: modest, fair, relaxed, witty yet resolute and unyeilding. Of course he enjoyed a huge advantage through being a film star: in the US this confers a near heroic status from the outset. His Hollywood training enabled him to transform the speeches prepared for him by his clever aides into performances which held the interest and won over doubters. He was never an especially gifted actor but maybe, I suggest again, politicians do not have to be outstanding, just good enough. We are quite easily fooled it would seem.

Blair is certainly good enough. Even though we have learnt to see through that ersatz, blokish, ordinariness and to doubt his passionate sincerity on so many of those issues, we still somehow end up giving him the benefit of the doubt on most things: how else did we elect him for a third term last May? His ability to interpret his script so that it seems he is addressing individual voters while giving the impresssion of being an intelligent, concerned and decent guy, is a rare gift and one which I suspect Gordon Brown does not possess to anything like the same extent.

Does it follow that actors make excellent politicians? Not really. Andrew Faulds, the booming voiced MP who once so memorably played Carver Doone in a television series of Lorna Doone, never made it out of Labour's leftwing ghetto. And Glenda Jackson(who actually appeared with Faulds in The Music Lovers), made it into the junior ministerial ranks but somehow failed to cut the mustard even at that level. She now festers in the 'embittered former minister' part of Labour's persistent rebels. Maybe they were just too good at acting to become outstanding politicians?

Friday, February 17, 2006


Tories Washington trip ticks few boxes

Was slightly amused by the treatment meted out to Hague, Fox and Osbourne in Washington. They arrived, to some extent, still in the doghouse after being excommunicated by Karl Rove following Howard's criticism of Blair's defence of invading Iraq. After meeting Bush's eminence gris they declared the rift healed but we learn from reports that:

a) their hope that they could use the main front entrance of the White House was denied them; they had to enter via anopher building- effectively the back door. These things really do matter in the world of diplomacy.

b) their hope that there would be cameras and press to greet them after their audience with Rove was denied them: the media over there were still too embroiled with Dick Cheney's markmanship. They had to be satisfied, in the end with two British reporters and one photographer.

c) their hope-if they had any- that their party could win some brand recognition was denied: journalist Julian Borger even suggested that most Americans would assume Blair was Conservative anyway.

d) Grover Norquist, the prominent conservative Washingtonian aimed a cruel shot across the new Tory establishment's bows: 'No, we don't intend to close down our economy to make the Europeans feel good about global warming. The view here was that the Tories should stop playing musical chairs and pick somebody as a leader; and now they've picked someone who wants to move left. I don't think that's going to work.'

More evidence, if it were needed, that most Americans have little understanding of British politics and society; the reality being that had they not moved to the left, the Conservatives could only have moved off the political stage altogether.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Hague set to become Cameron Rival?

I've wondered, in retrospect why I rated William Hague so poorly when he lead his party. Since his resignation in 2001, it seems to me, he has emerged as a mature and interesting man in place of the unimpressive plonker wearing that baseball hat. Reading his wonderful biography of the Younger Pitt helped a lot- and that Cockerell documentary on Tory leaders as well. Maybe I was just being partisan- so many of our convictions are shaped by the things we dislike or hate. I've always been a moderate kind of Labour supporter but became hugely exercised by the Thatcher era; seeing her face on the television was enough to push my blood pressure up to apoplexy levels. I kind of regret this as a political analyst should always try to distance judgement from the partisan fray.

Another example is Kenneth Baker. For some reason I found this guy the quintessence of everything I hated in the Thatcherite ethos: smarmy, biddable and prepared to trim every policy to gain a personal purchase on power. He supported Heath with the same loathsome enthusiasm as he did Thatcher and then, when he claimed the victory in Wandsworth council in 1990 reflected the merits of the Poll tax, I felt like becoming an urban guerilla. Then I met the guy a few years back to interview him in connection with some research and he was so charming, so helpful, so insightful, so mocking of the insincere sarabands of politics, I could not fail to warm to him.

Hague's performance at PMQs yesterday-where he substituted for a leader busy changing nappies- had a similar effect on me. His opening joke was a cracker: 'It's probably the first time in history of question time that all three parties have been represented by a stand-in for the real leader.' Gordon could be seen smiling but inwardly I bet he was growling. Later on, when he clashed again with Blair over the terror legislation, Hague advised him to seek the 'opinion of a decent lawyer... you've probably got one at home.'

Someone in this form prompts one to wonder if he might ever regret stepping down and then renouncing any further ambition for the top job. My reading of politicians is that, once they have caught it, they never really shake off the disease; they always somewhere, deep down, are convinced they would make a wonderful Prime Minister. I wouldn't mind betting that Cameron, in the increasingly likely event he becomes PM, will find a rival in his Cabinet, no less serious than the one faced by Blair since 1997 in the form of his near neghbour.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Blair's shameful prostration to George Bush

I suppose it's sensible to regard resistance to terrorism as a long term thing. Since 2001 billions have been spent and thousands of lives lost and yet even sorting out Iraq properly seems several years away. So Rumsfeld's recently published plans for a 'Long War' against terrorism is at least in line with what has preceded so far. And creating a flexible, unconventional approach to accommodate the unpredictable nature of terrorism seems sensible too; our defence policy seeks something similar, though our defence budget is a fraction of the US 2007 budget of $513bn. What worries me is not this strategy so much as the UK-US alliance. We have long comforted ourselves with the thought that we have a 'special relationship' with the USA yet compared with a country like Israel our relationship with the world's single super-power is relatively a distant one.

Which is just one of the reasons why the British public was less than enchanted with Blair's policy on Iraq. It was quite nice to see our prime minister, like a latter day Churchill, spitting defiance at Bin Laden, standing shoulder to shoulder with George Bush and then being cheered to the echo by both houses of Congress. Blair must have felt he jointly bestrode the world that day, helping to determine the planet's future. And we sent in our 8500 troops and took a hundred casualities and face the same agonising dilemma's over what to do, what will happen and how to get out of this. And then there were the underground bombings last July.

Yet if we look for reciprocal advantages for our loyalty and our sacrifice, they are hard to find- very hard to find. We liked to think we were a valued ally who actually exercised some kind of a veto but Rumsfeld scotched that illusion when he said the US would go in with or without us. Then there were the foreign policy objectives which Blair, in his committed Christian way, felt he could extract from Bush, maybe as quid pro quos for his loyal support. There was healing the 'scar on our conscience' of Africa- few believe much has been achieved there. There was advancing along the 'road map' to peace in the Arab -Israeli conflict- again, Bush's willingness or maybe even his ability to deliver, proved a chimera. And if Blair ever expected to change George's mind about climate change, that change is gonna be a very long time a coming(though circumstances will probably succeed eventually where Blair, Straw and others failed).

So where does the advantage lie? Maybe it's technological. We want to upgrade Trident after all- though expect a battle over this as tough as any Blair has faced so far; so maybe it's collaboration over weapons where we receive our pay-off. What about our agreement over the Joint Strike Fighter(JFS)? Lots of money, contracts for Rolls Royce, a major new aircraft carrier defence asset, it looked like a very good piece of trans Atlantic co-operation. But, we read in the Economist a week back, RR have had the contract cancelled. In addition to this, and something which is infuriating MOD, the US will not allow us access to the high technology they have developed in connection with the new plane. This means they do not trust us with such delicate and sophistaicated state of the art computer technology. Digby Jones of the CBI was publically scathing in his description of how a so-called close ally was being treated. Senior officials in Whitehall apparently feel the same.

Maybe Blair will be proved right in his determination to 'hug them close' in the words of Petr Riddell's excellent book on the special relationship. Maybe, with only one super-power, this is the only sensible option- to seek to use its power by proxy. But so far no power has been deployed on our behalf; we would have received much more attention if we had shown the independence of a Chirac or a Schroeder; and even the bread and butter coin of shared defence agreements has not been forthcoming. But, for me, the keenest sense is that of shame, that we have prostrated ourselves, without stated limit, before an unfeeling and ungrateful ally and have scarcely been acknoweldged.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Is the Party System breaking Down?

[I'm writing this not knowing for sure if I've uploaded a picture of myself successfully. I should explain, I'm autistic when it comes to IT and have become a blogger mainly through the patient pedagogy of my friend Roy Johnson who blogs at Mantex.]

Anyway, my post today picks up on The Economist's (always excellent) Bagehot column from last Friday entitled 'The Rise of the Untouchable MP'. He argues that indiscipline in the Labour Party is not just a symptom of Blair's fading authority and time limited- thus diminishing- patronage. No, he thinks a group of MPs have ceased to be bullyable by the whips. He cites the lack of major ideological differences over the economy; the non ideological nature of contentious issues like ID Cards which encourage cross party consensus building; and the power of incumbency which enable MPs to use email shots and tap into consituency single issue campaigns to help secure their re-election. Add these characteristics to those Labour MPs who are out of sympathy with Blairism, bitterly disappointed former ministers or passed over promotees and you might just find a critical mass of those 'untouchables'.

Accordingly, it is argued, this means that for 'a substantial number of MPs...the idea of party is an increasingly contingent one'. An interesting argument and one which suggests our system is moving in the direction of the American one where Congressmen raise their own re-election funds and can defend their seats without worrying too much about party discipline. But I wonder if Bagehot has discerned a possible trend and over extrapolated it just a little? In contrast to his argument I would suggest:

1.Disappointed former office holders, both actual and potential, have always been a problem for governments ever since the nineteenth century and a lame duck prime minister like Blair, who has deeply offended his party over foreign policy- was always going to have a hard time.

2.Labour MPs' indiscipline was a habit picked up during the days of large majorities and which- as Philip Cowley's work has shown- is a habit which tends to become absorbed into an MP's mind-set.

3.Emailing constituents is a useful extra vehicle for bolstering core votes but is scarcely revolutionary; I suspect many such communications are given no more attention than spam before being deleted.

4.In my view tribalism is still a strong force in party politics. Labour MPs chafe desperately at the bit but when it matters still save the government from defeat on those key issues like ID cards. Moreover, the public- admittedly often running a bit behind changing reality- still perceives the parties as tribal entitites. This means that perceived disunity is punished and even safe seats made vulnerable.

5. It follows from the above that party is still the most compelling factor in becoming and remaining a member of the legislature and-in the UK system, of the executive.

So I suspect that what we are seeing is not a sea change in MPs' behaviour but merely the logical and familiar consequences of a prime minister approaching the end of his time in power. John Major faced terminal rebellion as he headed towards the inevitable and Tony Blair, though perhaps a more resouceful and resilient politician, is faced by something very similar. But I would love to think Bagehot was right and that a more democratic alternative was emerging to the tyranny of the whips.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Gordon Brown's Equally 'High Wire' Route to No. 10

It struck me over yesterday and this morning how delicate Gordon Brown's role will be over the next year or so. Blair has spoken about his own 'high wire' politics over the education bill but Gordon's seem equally vertiginous. He has to stay within the following limits to maintain his chances of serving out a decent time as prime minister:

a) appear to be loyal to Blair, even when he has severe doubts e.g. over education policy. If he fails in this task he might well lose party support for his own election. If he weakens party unity he will hasten Blair's demise but throw his succession into question.

b) appear to be establishing his own profile and agenda. John Major failed to do this, prefering merely to follow Thatcherite policy tropes and arguably lost much of the momentum his remarkable 1992 victory should have won for him. Brown's speeches at the moment, all scheduled to be on non Treasury matters, are designed to do just that.

c) sustain his stewardship of the economy. It should not be forgotten that his is the key job in any government and after 8 years doing it, he must be feeling the strain- especially with a young child in the house and another on the way.

d) defend himself from crtics. These are found amoung Blairite supporters in his own party who fear their chances of either retaining or acquiring office wil be damaged with Gordon doing the hiring and firing. In addition David Cameron has been relentlessly targetting Brown as a dinosaur obstacle to much needed reform.

If Gordon departs too far from a) in pursuit of b) his balance on the high wire is threatened. If he fails with c) or becomes too prone to d), his chances of even a brief time in Downing St are might fly out of the window.

All this reminds us, as if we needed it, that politics at this level is exhausting and immensely demanding physically, nervously, emotionally and, indeed, intellectually. That BBC2 programme on Blair and the EU on Saturday evening showed Jack Straw struggling at an EU summit to persuade Austria's female foreign minister( so immensely tall she dwarfed him) to allow concessions in her country's oppostition to Turkey's entry to the organisation. Having been immersed in highly detailed discussions thoroughout the summit, Michael Cockerell told us the Foreign Secretary had only thre hours sleep in two days; Straw looked and sounded shattered.

In our often unreal expectations of our politicos we tend to criticise mercilessly before we appreciate just how thanklessly draining these jobs must be. But, I suppose, we shouldn't feel too sorry: they entered this strange world voluntarily; they seem to enjoy- even revel in- its rigours; and should they falter, there are legions of pretenders just waiting to take their place.

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Dunfermline, Lib Dems and Gordon's hopes for the Big One

The repercussions of Dunfermline and West Fife continue to rumble on. Labour just cannot seem to believe it happened: what a loss. Remember how failure in such contests seemed to signal the endgame was nigh for Major? Hence, no doubt, Matthew Parris's headline in yesterday's Times of 'the death rattle of Labour'. Since stepping down from the Commons, this personable and clever journalist, has tried to tip-toe along a supposedly non partisan line but I've always felt that deep down, his heart still belongs to his first political love: Maggie. He hopes the victory will give a boost to Ming, who now seems to trail in the Lib Dem leadership contest. Matthew also adds a comment on Huhne describing him as 'mysteriously and indefinably ghastly'. Why so Matthew? He may be a bit short in the charisma stakes but 'ghastly'? That kind of gratuitous abuse from a socalled leading commentator is just a bit hard to accept.

And those local issues which apparently swung the vote are a bit odd too. The hike in toll bridge charges were not the responsibility of Westminster and Holyrood is controlled by Labour but in coalition with? the Lib dems of course. At root I think Parris is close to it when he suggests voters had just decided they had had enough of New Labour and wanted to sock them in the eye, more particularly Gordon Brown's single remaining one. It must be galling for him to see the constituency in which he has made his home, falling to the enemy, especially as he campaigned so vigorously for the(it would seemfar from outstanding)Labour candidate. Will it harm his chances of promotion to the top job? Almost certainly-The Times even led yesterday with a headline that Labour MPs were furious with 'loser Brown' for his poor leadership. Ming Campbell was certainly right to question the ability of Brown to win the support of the south-eastern Home Counties when he cannot win over the support of his own backyard.

I see the Observer leads today with a story that Brown and Blair will hence-forward rule as a duopoly. I thought this had been the case since 1997 but now, maybe, it's more official. Presumably this is because both men realise the transition is dependent on two crucial things: that Brown is perceived as up to the job by Labour MPs; and that the party maintains at least a semblance of unity as the day for handover approaches. Otherwise we might see the enticing prospect of new hats being thrown into the ring. Charles Clarke has also suggested Brown needs to stake out his own ground if he wishes to win the next election. I'm sure that is true and that we'll hear more and more about his thoughts on public services and, even, foreign policy where his support for the Iraq adventure has probably been inspired more by loyalty and desire for unity than personal conviction.

My reading of the Observer interview with Clarke however, is that is was, in part, a warning to Brown to step up to the plate and give Blair total support during the forthcoming close votes on education and ID cards. Unless they both hang together, they will both hang separately in succession. But with so many rebels lining up on both issues- and there are others too- I wonder how long Labour can maintain the pretence of genuine unity anyway? A cynical view of this agreement- if indeed that is what it is-is to see it as an alliance of convenience: Blair is being maintained in the frame to keep onside the southern English middle classes which it is now feared Brown will not be able to retain.

But are relations any better between the two men? Andrew Rawnsley, in The Observer today says not:

'Scratch beneath the surface and you find seething resentment and distrust. One close observer of the relationship calls it as 'mad as ever'. The prime minister is not convinced his legacy will be safe in the hands of Gordon Brown. The Chancellor does not trust Tony Blair to hand him an inheritance that is not poisoned. Priovate arguments between have blazed between them over the schools reforms. During one recent row, Mr Blair was confronted by Mr Brown raging: 'Why are you trying to destroy the Labour Party?'

Friday, February 10, 2006


Lib Dems benefit from swing of political pendulum

Whoever said politics was dull? Last night's events confirmed for me why I study the subject: what a turnaround! When I was a teenager I recall thinking the Liberals were a bit irrelevant- only 6 MPs and nothing much to say. I was not wholly uninterested in them though as Clement Davies, the former leader of the mini-party in the early fifties, was a distant relation. Then came the Orpington by election and everything went Liberal bonkers for a few months. This pattern has been repeated ever since to some extent: sudden surge at a byelection followed by fading of Liberal star and, often, loss of seat itself at next general election.

So the party should not get too euphoric but I don't blame them if they do. After May last year they had been hugely reinforced by election victories. Then came the whispering against Kennedy and his sad, dignified but still humiliating farewell. Then came the Mark Oaten revelations- rent boys and all- followed by the Hughes saga and the admission that he had lied about his sexuality. Lib Dem poll standings fell from around 20 to 15 then to 13, 11 and downwards to who knew where. Dunfermline West Fife was a safe Labour seat with an 11000 majority, Gordon Brown sits for the adjoining constituency and had campaigned vigorously for the Labour candidate. While the thought of a greatly reduced majority was certainly expected by Labour, defeat was not. This must go down as possibly their greatest ever byelection victory- and won very much against the odds.

This is a body blow to Blair as he struggles to reassert his political credibility, win the razor close contests to install his reform agenda and leave with legacy in place. The poor showing of the nationalists seems to confirm that devolution has drawn that movement's sting; the desultory vote for the Conservatives reveals Cameron, despite his Scottish name, is no miracle worker. As for the leadership contest, this too is hotting up to be a surprise. When it started I gave Chris Huhne no chance at all and thought his candidacy a little presumptuous- even though my constantly punting mate had backed him at 7-1. He's now 8-11 and scarcely worth backing so assured does his victory seem. The former Guardian journalist stuck to it, campaigned cleverly and doggedly and now polls suggest he'll beat Ming to the finishing line, probably with the help of Hughes' second preferences. Iain Dale's blog comments on the debate- I missed it as I was in the pub- suggests Huhne did OK but was not a sensation in last night's Question Time.

So the whole face of politics continues to change radically. Cameron started it by torpedoing the Thatcherite right; Kennedy continued it by standing down; Huhne has inherited the mantle of 'youth' bestowed on the zeitgeist by the youthful Etonian and Blair has continued to appear like a prime minister who is, to use a cricket analogy, playing out time for a probable score draw. Within a period of 18 months from last autumn- to, say summer 2007- the political terrain will be so changed as to be unrecognisable.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Blair might just fall off his 'high wire'

Patrick Wintour of The Guardian is supposed to be close to New Labour's inner counsels and so the revelation in his piece today are really interesting:
a) concessions have not succeeded in winning over enough rebels on education.
b)Blair is still intent on keeping his new trust schools independent of local authorities.
This means he faces a possibility of falling from that high wire and actually having to resign if his proposals are rejected in forthcoming votes. Add to that the strong possibility that he faces a possibly equally powerful rebellion over identity cards, and we could yet see Gordon Brown chairing the Cabinet by the autumn. The option of winning through Conservative support I do not perceive as a realistic option unless Blair throws caution to the winds and accepts his legacy will be that of the 'Ramsay McBlair' of New Labour.

Whilst on the subject of education(see post for 3rd February) I was struck by the piece in the THES today-reported in the Guardian- that in a survey of 250 admissions officers at 16 universities: 'undergraduates are less numerate, less literate and less knowelgeable than ever before. Tutors bemoaned new students' lack of 'independenct thought, 'fear of numbers' and their expectation to be 'told the answers'. My contacts in the treaching profession confirm this to be true of pre-university entrants too.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Leftwingers and Power

I really enjoyed the BBC 4 programme last night in which the children of life-long communists told all. It was a tale for theirparents of disillusion and the bitter betrayal of leftwing principles by Stalin culminating in the offial winding up of the CPGB in 1990. Their children, for the most part, seemed to follow on with their parents' illusions- Marxist though this time of slightly differing varieties: SWP, IS, and sundry other militant factions. John Torode was there, so was Brian Pollit and, most amusing of the lot, Alexie Sayle. It was fascinating to see how gullibly the children had absorbed their parents' gullibility, though all of them seemed to be highly intelligent, creative and-I'm always impressed by this- deeply concerned about the world and its injustices.

The best line of the programme was delivered by Sayle who grinned at the camera and said feelingly: 'Thank God we never succeeded! Thank God we never got our hands on the levers of power! What a mess we would have made.' And I have to say, he's right. Marxism was an acute and basically accurate analysis of capitalist society but it offers and offered no antidote to its failings. The USSR was a pathetic abortion of justice and freedom for working people and those often very clever people in the west who believed it was bound eventually to improve according to the immutable laws of history as perceived by Marx, were criminally naive.

But can lefties ever rule efficiently and effectively? I heard a very interesting contribution to Today this morning by Christopher Hitchens who argued that the left, having failed to win at the ballot box had embarked on a long march through the institutions to convert them to 'Marxist culture': multiculturalism, political correctness and so forth(he was very vague in defining his terms). Leftwing figures like John Reid, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers, argued Hitchens, had eschewed their international revolutionary past and seized those levers of power Sayle was so concerned about. Whether these New Labour incarnations of their former leftwing ideologal selves have managed to display competence in power is a question much asked- and answered mostly in the negative I would have said. However, I would like to hear Hitchens elaborate his argument more fully as he may just be on to something.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Of Sir Max, Plebs and Toffs

Max Hastings, in The Guardian today writes about the surprising lack of fuss about the social provenance of David Cameron to voters and, indeed, much of the media. He goes on to suggest 'a growing number of voters are discovering virtue in elites'-though not one shred of evidence if offered to support this assertion-'in the concept of promoting excellence, if the alternative is to sustain parity of ignorance.' His insinuation is that 'the plebs have had their go; now it's time to give the toffs a try'. It's true New Labour have been disappointing in all sorts of ways, but at least there has been some improvement in public services since they took the decision to pour in the resources the Conseravetives would never have ventured.

Under the 'toffs' during the Thatcher years- and she employed not a few of them-hospitals declined to the point when nobody could have any faith in them-I have personal and family experience of that- and schools atrophied for desperate want of investment. And I suspect that behind this article lay some wishful thinking by Sir Max. He, after all, is no pleb-Charterhouse and Oxford- and was a thoroughly dependable rightwinger until that awful little oik Major got hold of the nation's driving wheel. I am I have to say, a great admirer of Hastings' journalism- he writes one of the very best columns in what is in my view the far and away best newpaper- but I detected a touch of relief and self congratulation in his piece that 'we-our people- are on our way back'

Speaking as someone-still a chippy Grammar Schoolboy at heart- who loathes the traditional ruling elite and believes they retain far too many expectations of special treatment and the forelock touching Hastings rightly condemns, I sincerely hope he is wrong. I suspect we'll hear quite a bit about the gilded youth, born with the stockbroker's silver spoon in his mouth, before the next election. And I suspect and have every hope Gordon Brown will exploit his own ordinariness to substantial effect

Monday, February 06, 2006


Racist's siren voices strengthened by Muslim response to cartoons

Amazingly, perhaps, the cartoon controversy continues. It's now reached the similar status to the Salman Rushdie affair, with people dying in riots and threats of murder and mayhem writ large on demonstrating Muslims' placards. The Muslim group spokesman who argued so powerfully on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday morning was from Hizb -ut-Tahrir and I'm concerned to hear the government may be thinking of banning it. Their's is one voice of reason and calmness which should be retained in this increasingly manic debate.

But the thing that worries me is that slogans like 'Massacare those who insult Islam' and 'Behead those who insult Islam' is that they will alienate the decent, tolerant Britons who have been prepared to accept the gulf between 'us' and 'them' as just one more aspect of the diverse world in which we live. The insidious thinking of the racist response is thereby made much more persuasive and closer as is the danger of real violence between races and religions in this generally harmonious muticultural society.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Cartoons, Islam and Free Speech

Final evidence that the world really is mad? It seems unbelievable that- we are told poorly drawn and unfunny- cartoons published in a Danish newspaper, should have caused so much worldwide fuss. I was going to ignore dignifying it with a posting but, it seems, it won't go away. My first instinct was to support the principle of free speech and to reinforce my basic antipathy to any religion, let alone this one, which applies such strictures on the human spirit. Then I began to think it through a bit. Now, an articulate contribution to Andrew Marr's show this morning, by a representative of a Muslim body in the UK, plus a well argued piece by Henry Porter in the Observer, has made me reassess. This is how I see the argument against publishing the cartoons:

a) free speech is not absolute- we are not allowed to publish defamatory untruths about anyone and we would not, presumably think cartoons depicting child abuse to fall within its ambit.
b) it is a fact that we do not really understand Islam; though we ought to try as the 'clash of civilisations' threatensd to obliterate far too many innocent people.
c) there seems to me to be a case for pragmatic caution: if the patient is paranoid, surely we should be careful about giving grounds for inflaming the condition?

So I reckon, whilst free speech is of great importance, it is not more so than needlessly endangering innocent people- our own children maybe as they use the underground or are out enjoying themselves. The editors should have exercised such caution and not published and others should not have republished.

But this restraint must surely apply equally:
a) Muslim papers constantly carry archetypal cartoons of Jews with big noses, black hats and evil faces. If our editors have to withold offence- so should theirs.
b) some of the demonstrators in London and elsewhere, were clearly inciting violence or murder e.g. a sign saying 'We will butcher you'.
c) Muslims should make an effort to understand that the west is not devoid of principle and that free speech is a foundation one.
d) whilst there is some possibility of us understanding demonstrations against the cartoons, it would be nice, to see, from time to time, equally passionate demos against the televised beheadings of hostages, the 9-11 or 7/7 attacks.

Reciprocity has to be a principle accepted by all nations and cultures if we have any chance at all of peaceful coextistence.

Friday, February 03, 2006


Education at the Sharp End

Education and my taste of the Blackboard Jungle

Education is the rock, we suspect, on which Blair’s legacy might founder later on this month. Some 40 per cent of children leave our schools without qualifications: one of the major reasons for our poor competitiveness in the globalised world. The Education Bill will produce stronger schools, better teaching and higher standards, we are told. But critics fear the re-emergence of a two tier system in which middle class kids succeed and working class ones get left in the dustbin. We also daily hear tales of how awful it is to work in a down-market comprehensive. Given all these educational themes under discussion, I was intrigued to be invited, as a teacher, to do a couple of days examination coaching of upcoming GCSE candidates drawn from state schools around the area north of Manchester. We’d had a comprehensive briefing regarding the materials prepared for us focusing on confidence building, study skills and organizing for exams.

My group of a dozen boys and girls looked disarmingly normal, just like any one might see on a trip to a shopping centre or being noisy on the bus. I introduced myself, wrote down their names and had some chat about their hopes and fears. They seemed to share the normal aspirations for kids of that age: some wanted to run their own businesses, others to become lawyers, teachers or whatever. I felt re-assured- these kids seemed to know where they were headed- and began to began to address the study materials. Instantly two of the boys- Kevin and Roddy asked to be excused as they were ‘bursting’. Off they went … for the longest pee, it transpired, in history.

I began to find some in the group were unco-operative; when I asked them to turn to a particular page some failed to do so; Peter leaned back and closed his eyes, Bernie chatted to her friend nearby, Kenny got up and walked around; Ahmed tossed sweet papers at Kevin. I began to feel I was losing it. Did they not find the materials useful? No. Did they not need help with exams? They would do OK, they were very sure. Most were confident they would go onto university and make successes of their lives. So why wasn’t Peter addressing the materials? ‘I am Sir, honest’, this while his book remained closed, ‘Why you picking on me?’ And so it went on. The dominant tone was one of arrogant, immature misanthropy. They didn’t care, they didn't need this, they could succeed without it but they were determined not to provide any evidence to prove they could. Who knows how they will handle the disappointment and failure which is assuredly waiting down the line for them I’m not usually forceful as a teacher- I seldom need to be- but I can be if needed..... or so I thought.

By upping the exhortatory level I merely seemed to encourage them further in their rubbishing of the day’s coaching they had been given the opportunity- at no little cost-of receiving. They would not stop talking while I was talking. Whilst I tried every teaching trick I knew; in response a whole panoply of techniques-unknown to me from my schooldays- were unfolded to frustrate everything I attempted. In the end, angry and a bit desperate, I played my last card. I told them that in over thirty years teaching I had never met a group so hostile to learning, so apparently oblivious to their own best future interests. Unless they agreed to buckle down after lunch I was going- my time was more valuable to me than this. They mumbled- some looked a bit sheepish and promised to keep such a contract. The infuriating thing was that about two thirds of the group were reasonably well disposed to the day- just three or four were causing the trouble. And they were not unintelligent- in fact Bernie, was the brightest of the lot.

During lunch I chatted to the organizer- sympathetic, experienced, she’d seen it all. She marched into my group after lunch and extracted the three worst subversives to be dealt with in a separate group. Bernie, I then spotted, was an ‘item’ with the worst of the recalcitrants. Things now got much better: for the rest of the afternoon we made a little progress; it was, in my view, worthwhile…almost. At the plenary feedback I was pained to realize that some groups with other tutors had done loads of really good work. I returned home chastened and scorched by a sense of failure: I had thought I could help solve a small but important part of the nation’s educational culture problem. I had failed, and miserably at that.

I was doubtful if a second day was worth the candle. The money was not so good that I would miss it and at my age I felt I did not need my nervous health testing to such a merciless degree. But I knew that if I failed to turn in I would be handing on the same problem to someone else and merely intensifying my own sense of failure. So I turned up- and was so glad I did. I was a bit cannier on the second day- introduced myself more effectively and inspired a couple of laughs to break the ice and used the materials more selectively. The school was from a different catchment area plus the mix of kids was totally different. It was the luck of the draw; with another negative group my cup of woe would have been bitter indeed. Instead of four negatives, I now had three or four positives including a wonderfully pro-learning and strong minded girl. They wanted to learn, have a good time while showing teacher enough respect and take what they could from the day. I was delighted, relieved and redeemed, at least in my own eyes. Maybe, pathetically, one of the most important things for me was that they all liked me.

What did I learn? That teachers in the toughest schools experience what I did on my first morning every day of their careers with groups three times the size. Of course they learn to cope and counteract and make some progress. But the problem, the lack of motivation (not ability in my brief experience), is there day in and day out. No wonder they say they are paid merely as childminders, that sometimes have nervous break-downs or take to drink, or fail and fail again. Teaching adults and undergraduates all my career, I’ve been protected from these grim realities. This has not prevented me, of course, from pontificating about how schools should be organised or reformed. It would be salutary indeed if every MP could do a couple of days teaching in ‘bog standard comprehensives’ just to know a little of what they speak and legislate upon. I'm wholly unsure of the answers but at least now I feel I know what the problem is.

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