Monday, April 30, 2007


'Nipping Crime in the Bud'

Tony Blair's article in the Daily Telegraph last week indicated, once again, the significant shift on thinking on law and order which has taken place in government, is very controversial but which is likely to survive for some years to come. Blair notes that crime has fallen during his time in power(official estimates say 44%); that the prison population has increased by 20,000 and that sentences have got longer. However he also notes that people have been reluctant to believe this:

But for many people it simply doesn't feel like that. This is because our feelings of safety or security can't be measured by statistics alone. If there is an air of intimidation in a community or discourtesy in the way people are treated, then that creates a feeling of fear, discomfort, unease.

He explains that he had diagnosed a 'breakdown in society'-which he thought 'curable through Sure Start and the New Deal on jobs, better and improved schooling and so on'. But now he thinks he was wrong, just when David Cameron has come around to agree with him. This change of heart follows a recent visit to Moss side where he found

Ten years on, Moss Side has radically improved in schools, housing, employment. Its residents want to live there. All those I spoke to acknowledged the progress. But a small minority of "out of control" children and families still caused a huge problem, leeching into drugs and gangs. In short, the rising tide had not lifted all ships.

So they were/are both wrong: there is no 'generalised breakdown' in society: the 'overwhelming proportion of young people I meet today are law-abiding, respectful and caring'.

The reality is that we are dealing with a very small number of highly dysfunctional families and children whose defining characteristic is that they do not represent society as a whole. They are the exception, not the rule. They do not respond to more investment. They do not conform to social norms.

Blair now thinks that answer is to intervene:

I now think that the proper answer is to add to the ASB laws measures that target failing and dysfunctional families early, and place those families within a proper, structured, disciplined framework of help and insistence on proper behaviour.

Such action is 'very tough' and 'intrusive', he recognises, but argues that 'for some of these families and their children, a nanny state is what they need'. I was very dubious about such an approach initially but as I've thought it through it makes more sense. Teachers, police and social workers know very well the conditions likely to create dysfunctional families with ASBO laden children transforming the lives of neighbours into hell on earth. So why not seek to pre-empt such problems by spotting families at risk and seeking to help? Having come to accept the validity of the theory though, I still retain severe doubts about the ability of the services concerned to deliver the practice with any degree of efficacy.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Brown in for a Mega Culture Shock Predicts Major

Odd how politicians seem so much nicer once they've retired don't you think? Not that I ever really disliked John Major- any cricket lover gets a free pass on that with me. This morning ,in relaxed and witty mode, on Radio Four's The Week at Westminster he predicted Brown would face a major culture shock on entering Downing St.

Firstly, he'd find that he was no longer dealing with a small coterie of 4-5 people but a full Cabinet and a huge array of ministers and civil servants. He could no longer commune exclusively with Ed Balls and his other close associates. This relatively anti-social politician would have to pro-actively mediate and problem solve in a way he has not been required to hitherto. No longer could he present the PM with a fait accompli and then let him sort out the associated problems.

Secondly, he'd find that he could no longer be so narrow in his policy concerns. Dealing with the full gamut of government problems meant he would have to deal with crises in one area followed by crises in another completely different one and so on, each day and every day. He will be forced to move out of his traditional comfort zone of Treasury policy and do what Blair has tried to do these last ten years: govern the whole country.

Thirdly, he was not going to enjoy the advantage Major had in 1990 when his accession to the throne was not a new administration but nevertheless seemed like one to many voters. Brown and Blair have been a well established duopoly and Brown will be closely associated with Blair's record. The public might well think the time for a change has arrived in 2009. Major pointed out that the really huge, disabling party defeats have tended to come in the fourth term of governments: 1906, 1945, 1997.

Finally, he prefaced all these, surely accurate observations with an encouragement to Blair to enjoy his freedom once out of politics. He added that he now knew far more about the world, the EU and politics in general than he did when PM, despite having served as Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and in several other government posts. Now that really is a bit worrying....

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Blair Might Know His Mind on Foreign Policy but Still Wrong to be Bush's Poodle

Another of my favourite columnists, Timothy Garton-Ash, chooses to disagree with Simon Jenkins today in that he argues that on foreign policy, Blair would offer 'liberal interventionism' as his distinctive contribution and, presumably, as a strand in something which could be called 'Blairism'. This would be fine if the record contained merely Kosovo and Sierra Leone- good examples of something which more or less worked, but Iraq, and arguably Afghanistan, make the policy seem potentially disastrous.

It would be an irresponsible shame to exclude any intervention- something desperately needs to be done right now in Darfur for example- but it should only be pursued as a last resort, after very careful planning and only if it seems absolutely certain that the action will be successful. None of these conditions applied in the case of Iraq. Military violence is a spectrum entered only at a nation's peril; it is so volatile and unpredictable that what emerges from it is rarely what was intended.

On the subject of his slavish obedience to Bush, Blair claims:

'Start distancing yourself from the US and see how your influence will be diminished.'

I beg to differ on this emphatically. Being identified as an ally is one thing, but to be seen as an automatic acolyte is another. The former might win one respect and attention; the latter only contempt. When Blair told Bush after 9-11 that his country would always support the USA, he engendered huge goodwill towards himself and the UK in general, but he made a profound diplomatic mistake. Nations tend not to write such blank cheques to each other. If one's support is taken for granted, that is how one's country will be treated: taken for granted. Nations which maintain a decent distance are far more likely to be wooed and given special treatment.

Blair claims the alliance itself has won us substantial benefits. It might have gilded his own sense of self importance- acting as Bush's unpaid deputy foreign affairs representative on a world-wide roller coaster- but I can only think: of the occasion when Rumsfeld said he didn't need our military assistance to invade Iraq; the refusal to alter tarrifs which discriminated against our steel exports; and the fact that the US refused to allow the UK essential access to the technology of the Joint Fighter Jet(yes, joint!) and rejected the £2.4 bn Rolls Royce bid to manufacture the engines. Sir Digby Jones for the CBI summed it up well:

We fought shoulder to shoulder with them. This is no way to treat your best friend.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Does Blair Merit an 'Ism' After his Name?

I am a huge admirer of Simon Jenkins- making him number one in my top ten political columnists, if anyone remembers- but I fear I don't altogether agree with today's article. In it he argues that, as we approach tributes appropriate to Tony's departure, we should be clear there is no such 'ism' as 'Blairism'. I'd agree any 'ism' requires a 'coherent set of ideas' and that it's hard to find any such construction in the wide mish-mash of New Labour ideas.

He goes on to assert that both Brown and Blair were converted to 'Thatcherism' 'by conviction in the early nineties and have never deserted the faith.' It's hard to deny the adherence of both Labour leaders to the tenets of market capitalism, the virtues (not to mention the vices) of which were emblazoned on the memory of the former Tory leader. However, I think he over eggs his thesis when he claims 'New Labour' represented a 'coup' or 'hijack' of the party by Blair and his acolytes which 'made Thatcherism safe for for another decade'.

Firstly, Steven Fielding's 2003 book on The Labour Party, disposes, for me at any rate, of the coup idea convincingly and establishes an umbilical connection between Blair's approach and the mainstream of pre 1979 social democratic thinking.

Secondly, as he proceeds to develop his argument, Jenkins is factually incorrect to state that under Blair 'the poor have appeared to have grown poorer under Blair'- the rich have certainly become richer and inequality has increased, but over the past decade the poor have become richer not poorer.

Finally, I would argue that Tony Blair has, if not a fully developed ideology to his name, then at least a fundamental tenet of supreme importance: that Thatcherism or market economics should be allied to the principles of social justice. Jenkins' criticism of New Labour's embrace of capitalism could equally apply to Swedish social democracy which has also sought to increase the size of the cake via a disciplined free enterprise economy; in contrast, few on the left take issue with such a successful and egalitarian outcome.

Both the Swedes and New Labour have tried to distribute the fruits of wealth creation in a more equitable fashion, to the many rather than the few. Thatcherism never accepted social justice as a political goal. It is the success of Brown and Blair's joint vision which deserves to be recognised; they might not have convinced Thatcher to share it but they have managed to convince the fresh-faced David Cameron. To this extent, at least, there has been a highly significant 'ism' which Blair, should he choose, can proudly append to his surname.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Even James Bond Can't Make Scotland Independent

We hear today that Sir Sean Connery, of worldwide but essentially kilt wearing James Bond fame, yesterday helped launch the SNP's new web TV channel. Expectations of a crushing SNP victory over Labour are growing by the day as the may election date looms. But there are signs that the canny leader of the would-be breakaway Scots, Alex Salmond, is having to exercise significant wriggle room.

According to The Sunday Times poll the SNP(35%) are seven full points ahead of Labour,(28%) with Lib Dems and Tories both on 13%. This would translate into the respective seat allocations: 50, 42, 18 and 16. So a coalition with the Lib Dems would sweep away Labour's traditional hegemony in Scotland but there is a wee problem or two. Firstly,the Lib Dems are not too keen on ending the union and the Salmond proposed referendum in 2010 would be a major stumbling block on his ambitious road to Holyrood. Instead we now hear he is prepared to compromise just a tad or two. Instead of a 'yes' or a 'no' questions, he is prepared to offer a range of options. He hopes this will appear less scary to the party usually associated with nations coming together rather than splitting apart.

Secondly the ST poll showed that only 26% are in favour of complete independence while 37% prefer a strengthened Parliament. Given that voters can soon lose faith in governments an SNP dominated government might find that by 2010 its prime political aim has been well and truly holed below the water line.

Finally, there is the tax. We all know an independent Scotland would lose the 23% per head additional public spending it receives compared to England. 68% of poll respondents accordingly expect an independent Scotland to put up taxes. Now I happen to recall an awards ceremony back in Thatcher's time when the brave tax exile Sir Sean, received his award with remarks congratulating the Tories on bringing taxes down. Given that he's promised to come back and live in Scotland should the SNP win, he might be relieved that independence still seems so far off in terms of practical politics.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


It Has to be Gordon- Subject to a Possible May Election Hic-cup

Well, now he's said it. He's definitely not running and even by American standards of dissembling on such matters, this has to be good enough. I've been persuaded of his sincerity for a few weeks now on his own intentions and have not been won over by the more kremlinological analyses produced by some commentators, suggesting surviving 'wriggle room' indicated a planned candidature.

Is it because he's not so ambitious or because he thinks he can't win? A combination I think, but with more of the latter than the former. His natural style is self effacing and he values family privacy, both factors leading him away from the leadership hustings; but the undeniable fact that more than half of the PLP being solid for Brown and polls suggesting similar states in the other two sections of the electoral college must have been the clincher. Why risk humiliation and your future career by pitching for something you are not even sure you want?

If there was any remaining doubt about the party's support for Gordon, his performance against George Osborne in the censure debate on pensions during the week, must have removed it. Osborne tried to hit the light, witty tone of an Oxbridge debater but he had nowhere near prepared for the 'heavy clunking fist' of Brown's crushing debating skills. Better briefed and quicker on his feet, Brown made mincemeat of the Tories attempted ambush to the Chancellor's reputation on the cusp of his accession. 'I relish this debate' he began ominously, 'I will answer every question put to me.' And this is exactly what he went on to do(click if you want to read some of the debate).

In his Observer article Miliband believes the New Labour project needs to be broadened and deepened into 'New Labour Plus' with a 'new emphasis on the power of individuals and communities to shape their own lives'. I'm not sure that particular title will survive beyond today's article but the general idea has to be sound. The only fly likely to sully Gordon's ointment will arrive through the window in the wake of the may elections.

If, as seems likely, they bring only grief for Labour in Scotland, Wales and town hall, there will probably be a brief flicker of competitive intent from the likes of John Reid or (these days) the Falstaffian figure of Charles Clarke, neither of whom have wholly ruled themselves out of the race. Brown would still win but either or both might calculate that a reasonable showing in a leadership contest is the best way to win a seat in Gordon's first Cabinet.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Should Blair be Tried as a War Criminal?

This question was posed to me by someone following my post yesterday on Blair's record. I'm no lawyer so what follows reflects merely my lay understanding, but it seems to me that given Blair was not in command on the ground in Iraq, such a charge would have to focus on the decision to go to war. From here on in one encounters a number of key questions.

i) As the decision was endorsed by Parliament is it not all those approving MPs who should face such charges?

ii)if i) above is not feasible then was Blair culpable of misleading Parliament?

iii) Arguably the September 2002('45 minutes') dossier was such a misrepresentation of Saddam's harbouring of WMD.

iv) Could it not be maintained in response to the above accusation that Blair was accepting, in good faith, what many other intelligence services throughout the world also accepted as the truth?

v) But, allowing for iv) above, did Blair massage intelligence which Lord Butler went on to describe only as 'thin and patchy' into something much firmer and apparently authoritative?

If it were down to me, on the basis of everything we know, especially Butler's damning report, I would argue the case against Blair under v) above is pretty solid and should/would have led to his resignation in more honourable times. Why did he(or rather his aides) massage the data? In order, we can only assume, to bring the UK into line with the US for the invasion which he must have known was going to happen.

Now such slavish obedience to the White House constitutes a grave political misjudgement, or even 'crime' by any standards- which should have put paid to his career in Downing St- but whether it constitutes a prima facie case for a charge of war crimes, under international law, I would very much doubt.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Lets not be too Unfair to Poor old Tony Blair

God knows, I share with many other party members a deep disillusion with Blair. I have also been impressed, in the past, with the articles of Neal Lawson, Chair of the left of centre Compass and the source of much innovative Labour alternative thinking. But his article yesterday posed a problem. Whilst it offered some genuine critical arguments, I thought it seriously over-egged the negative narrative of his ten years in power.

I thought Lawson justified in suggesting that the capture of middle class votes in 1997 had a negative effect on Labour's reforming zeal. Blair seemed-excuse the pun- to be too intent on keeping them in the tent. It was a political fact that with a shrinking working class constituency, Labour had to appeal to a fair slice of the middle class to win and maintain power. But this was only achieved at a price paid in abandoned Labour principles close to the hear of Labour members.

However, it seems absurd to assert that:

'The Blairites started off thinking progressive politics weren't feasible and have ended up believing they are undesirable....the man who refused to join the SDP ends up to the right of Heath, let alone Macmillan and Eden'

It all depends what one defines as 'progressive' but to exclude from its definition the minimum wage, many billions poured into health and education and a very considerable redistribution of wealth via Brown's annual budgets, seems to reflect a determination not to allow the man any achievements at all. Iraq has been an appalling error which should have caused his resignation- that it did not is the responsibility of the Parliamentary Labour Party- but we should not, on the cusp of his departure deny Blair a fair assessment of what he has managed to do in the name of progressive politics. Crude Blair bashing sometimes seems more insistent on the left than on the right and with as little justification.

But one point Lawson makes which is undeniable is that:

'The party is again on its knees, only this time the Tories don't look ready to implode. The nation no longer listens to Labour. The party's traditional base has been ignored and has crumbled.

The question here is: how much has this decline the result of the the inevitable vicissitudes of ten years in power and how much the consequence of Blair's alleged 'triangulation' of Labour policies with Conservative ones? As the man bows out I think the fairest judgement lies closer to the former than the latter.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Jury still out on whether American Society 'Sick', but it certainly 'Ain't Healthy

After writing about unruly young Brits for two days, I'm faced with the inexplicable and horrendous 'Virginia Tech' tragedy; the picture shows its perpetrator, Cho Seung-Hui. Simon Jenkins suggests in his article today that this was not the 'sign of a sick society' but merely of an 'incurable evil'. I'm not so sure the event has such a miminal connection with US society.

Firstly, this is the 19th and, at 32 fatalities, most serious campus killing spree since the early nineties. If these are indeed 'copycat crimes' as novelist Lionel Shriver suggests, there must be some weird pathology in US society nourishing such a deadly imitativeness. We have occasional similar atrocities in Europe and elsewhere but this pattern of peacetime mass slaughter, is now seen as quintessentially American.

Secondly, and quite obviously, the easy availability of firearms to people with such hair-trigger control over their sociopathic anger, must explain much. Maybe, as Jenkins asserts, this 'remains America's choice and America's business', but with 3000 children killed by guns every year and thousands more adults, this seems a complacent point of view; should we then, avoid criticising their crazy gun legislation? What is so deeply worrying about this question however, is that with 200 million firearms owned by Americans, the genie probably cannot be put back in the bottle. If guns were banned now the American Rifle Association's warning that this would only help the criminals, is likely to be correct. To exorcize the US love affair with guns is clearly a work of several generations.

Thirdly, as Michael Moore pointed out, in Bowling for Columbine, Canada has relaxed gun laws and a tradition of hunting, but has no similar horrific record of homicides. One can only conclude that there must be something in US society which fuels these frequent eruptions of mindless slaying.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Unruly Youth in UK, Part 2

Two 'plus ca change' comments on yesterday's post suggested I was repeating the mistake of lamenting the sins of a younger generation in the time honoured fashion of so many older generations. While accepting that I am indeed guilty as charged, I would also like to argue that we do have a problem which is specific to our country and is a genuine concern.

1 Evidence of Foreign Travel.
In recent years I have travelled to most parts of Europe -including Germany, France, Italy, Singapore and Australia- and note a qualitative difference in the way their youth behave. In all these countries, I have seen no binge drinking in city centres, no large groups of bored, disaffected youngsters and no evidence of anti-social behaviour. Of course my experience has been partial and touristic- France suffered from widespread youth disturbances in autumn 2004 for example- but nevertheless my experiences are mostly borne out by friends who have also travelled abroad. How about you?

2.Unicef Report
In February this year Unicef published a report which showed Britain at the bottom of the league of wealthy countries for the conditions in which young people have to grow up.

Unicef's research - based on international polling of children and young people - showed British children were the most likely to feel left out, awkward and lonely. They were less likely to eat the main meal of the day with parents. Barely 40% of over-11s found their peers "kind and helpful", the worst score in the developed world. They suffer greater deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those of any other wealthy country in the world

3. Alcohol Addiction
Writing in The Observer Jasper Gerard claims that the relationship of young Brits to alcohol is desperately worrying.

The number of medical procedures carried out by the NHS for alcohol-related conditions such as liver disease have doubled in a decade, to 262,844 a year. The number taken to A&E with alcohol-related injuries has also doubled since 1997, to 148,477 a year. This includes 8,299 under-18s, a 40 per cent increase in three years. Did you know - I certainly didn't - that 22 per cent of 11-year-olds admit they have had a drink at some point? By 13, children who abstain are in a minority. Moreover, 30 per cent of the population are bingers and 15 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are alcoholics. There are 367,000 violent attacks a year caused by alcohol. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 60 per cent of binge-drinkers admitted to criminal or disorderly behaviour. Drinkers were five times more likely to fight and 13 per cent of those excluded from school were suspended for drinking.

So there we have it. Am I worrying unnecessarily? I wish. Why do we have such problems? I would suggest two major failings in British society which encourages such behaviour:

i)Attitudes to Family: Commenting on the Unicef report, Mary MacLeod, of the Family and Parenting Institute commented:

"Children do not seem to be as cherished and loved by society as a whole as they are in other countries. We bombard them with negative messages and the tyranny of 'cool'. We take away their playgrounds and playing fields, blame them for so many of the problems of our society and then wonder why they are unhappy and have such poverty of wellbeing and ambition."

ii) Poverty: As the home of the industrial revolution we have never solved the problem of the resultant massive lumpen proletariat who suffer from poor living conditions and even poorer expectations. Middle class families which fall upon hard times are buttressed by a supportive family and, usually, tolerable living conditions. Subtract those two supports and even the most secure family units would begin to wobble, so is it any real surprise that the children of so many poor working class families encounter acute problems? This article provides some interesting support for this argument:

Being poor will not in itself make you more likely to murder another person of your own age, but being poor, brutalised and unloved - or loved in a way that alternates neglect and indulgence - might.

Monday, April 16, 2007


'Your Sons and Our Daughters are Beyond your Command', Discuss. Pt 1

Rafael Behr in The Observer yesterday touched on a perennial social problem: youthful anti-social behaviour. He laments the 'premature onset of Victor Meldrewism among thirtysomethings'; how much more intense then is it in my own 'baby boomer' generation? [read on and you'll find out] Behr makes a shrewd point about privacy in that so many people act- with an apparently unthinking entitlement- in public as they would in private, and thus impinge upon that of others: speaking loudly on mobiles in public; listening to loud music; turning one's car into a mobile sound system and turning the volume up to 11 as they career around residential areas; swearing loudly and obscenely in public; and spitting on the pavement, especially when a gobbet of chewing gum is included for good measure.

Personally, what I find unsettling is the tendency to hang around looking menacing in my local town and city centres. This group usually comprises a group of young men who wear the obligatory drab black shell suit topped by the obligatory(often black) baseball cap. And they all seem to bear that kind of hollowed out feral look which not only intimidates but makes one feel acutely for the wasteland their lives most probably are. It is for this reason that myself, my partner, and most of our friends, avoid local town and city centres in the evening over the weekend as they are more often than not occupied by what seems an alien army of drunken, urinating, swearing and otherwise dangerously volatile young men. Looking any of them in the eye risks an unpleasant confrontation; conversations with my people of my age confirms this experience to be widespread.

Walking around then next day one in struck by the heaps of casually cast away food wrappers, the metal skeletons of bus shelters their bases crowded with crystaline piles of broken glass. Nothing, it seems can be left in a public space unprotected for fear of the mindless destructive violence which is so much a feature of our time. The civility and respect for others which was drummed into my generation, seems to have faded away totally. But, one sometimes hears, all modern societies have similar problems with their young males and always have. But do they? Tomorrow, I'll say something about that as well as try to explain why we have problems singular to our own society.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


David's Dilemma

If you were advising David Miliband(notice no-one ever tries to call him 'Dave'?) on whether to stand against Gordon Brown for the leadership of the country, how would you weigh up the pros and cons? Michael Portillo's article today helpfully identifies some of them; he is someone who, after all, seemed to be in a somewhat similar position back in 1997, and then again in 2001. First the arguments against standing:


i) If he stands and polls negigibly, he may damage his standing in government and ruin his chances of ever standing again.

ii) If he does stand and loses, then Brown -well known for bearing grudges as Blair has discovered- might freeze him out of his plans for all time.

iii) If he genuinely lacks the ambition to stand- it may be a huge honour but being PM is a bed of nails we'd all agree- then he should stand aside. Major showed how a man out of depth really suffered during his time in Number 10.

iv) Brown, if he wins, is bound to reward him with a senior job in the Cabinet, even allowing for his youth and inexperience. [Incidentally, what has David ever done to date to suggest he even might be a good prime minister? Are his supporters merely buying into his 'unknown quality'? if so, it's worth remembering that Major was probably elected in on the same principle in 1990]

v) Blairite supporters may encourage him to stand but they are probably exaggerating his degree of support and anyway are only interested in advancing their own prospects not his.

vi) An election might split the party badly between Blairites and Brownites and contribute towards defeat in the 2009 election.

vii) I don't know what the union or membership sections of the electoral college are thinking, but everything coming out of the PLP suggest support from Borwn is decisively solid.


i) By not ruling himself out to date Miliband has probably earned the ire of Gordon already so he might as well go the whole hog and stand.

ii) Most of his his chief rivals have already ruled themselves out: Straw has thrown in his lot with Brown; Milburn and Blunkett have fallen by the wayside and both Clarke and Reid are dithering.

iii) As I've mentioned before on this blog, the Tory high command believe Miliband is the candidate to really fear: Osborne told a questioner at a conference I chaired in 2005 that they would much rather face Gordon than Miliband.

iv) Maybe the clinching argument is provided by Portillo: given the vicissitudes of politics and the fact that history is full of 'nearly men' this may be the only real chance David has of becoming PM:

If he does not grab it now, the opportunity may never recur. Brown will become leader, might lose the general election and condemn Labour to a decade in opposition. By which time Miliband will be a has-been, his best years spent fruitlessly harassing the Cameron government, for ever marked by his failure to seize the day, consigned to history as a vacillator. I can tell Miliband that this does not feel good.

The crucial moment will arrive on 4th May in the wake of the elections in Scotland, Wales and the local councils. if they are a disaster, David might well decide the 'tide in the affairs of men' has reached its high point, rally the Blairite Brown haters and take the plunge. Whether this 'leads on to fortune' or to 'shallows and miseries' of the kind from which Michael clearly still suffers, only time, and the extent of David's ambition, will tell.

[PS I wrote this before seeing Chris Riddell's cartoon in The Observer, which takes a rather similar approach to mine. Nor did I see this highly relevant profile of him in the same paper]

Friday, April 13, 2007


Tabloid Hypocrisy is Breathtaking

My left hand picture is of Fleet St; the other one is by now all too familiar. Polly Toynbee today excoriates our press as 'the worst in the world'. By this I suppose she means the tabloid and not the broadsheet variety unless she includes her own august employer as part of this lamentable state of affairs. Certainly the tabs have managed a difficult cork-screw turn over the released 'Iran' servicemen. First they sought to seduce them with tempting offers for their stories and then, when the MOD said selling their stories was permissible, they howled outrage at the government. As Polly observes, particularly of the Mail and the Express:

'The press is blaming the government for failing to stop them buying stories'

The hypocrisy of this section of the press defies belief and no-one surely, can trust the word of such media outlets? Yet, they continue in business and in the former case at least, do rather well compared with the rest of the dailies, many of whom struggle to survive. There is no justice of course on this topic and maybe we should wearily accept a wider application of Enoch Powell's observation that:

'A politician complaining about the press is like a ship's captain complaining about the weather'.

Sadly, perhaps, we have to allow that the popular press is here to stay some time yet. At least voters who read the tabloids ingest their minimal political content and that is not to be discounted. Moreover, Polly's calls on New Labour not to be so 'cringing' to the press is unlikely to be heard. As Peter Wilby observed, recently, Gordon Brown enjoys surprising depths of support in both The Sun and the Mail. As long as that obtains Polly will have to tolerate a fair bit more sycophantic cringing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Will all Future PMs be a bit like Blair?

Let me explain the train of thought behind today's post. Having just voted in Paul Lindford's poll I thought of the article by Dominic Sandford in last Sunday's Observer which placed Blair below Attlee in his historical rankings of Prime Ministers. Then I wondered about Gordon Brown and whether it might be possible for him to cultivate successfully a personna as a serious, policy led, and, yes, maybe rather boring prime minister, as Attlee most definitely was. He was also, according to most historians, especially the distinguished Professor Peter Hennessey, far and away the most capable, honest and effective PM Labour have ever produced.

'Serious, policy led, rather boring'? Yes, it could be our Gordon couldn't it? But the question I'd like to pose is; 'Is it possible to be this kind of PM in the world of the modern media?' We observe that the Opposition seem to have a template for accession to power which accords Blair almost holy status and drives Cameron's image managers to make him ever more slick, smooth and winningly glib. We also observe that Brown, in recent months, has sought to make his own image voter friendly in a rather similar, though so far markedly less successful, fashion.

So would voters welcome another Clem? Well, I suggest we examine Attlee's provenance a little. As Deputy Leader, he inherited the interim leadership after Lansbury was blasted out of it by Ernie Bevin in 1935. Maybe his excessively modest style went down well after the empty bombast of the traitorous Ramsay MacDonald, and he beat both Morrison and Greenwood in the subsequent post election contest. And he went on, of course to be a successful deputy PM under Churchill and PM of the historic post 1945 labour government.

But his laconic minimalism would not, I suspect, suit modern times. Our 24 hour media require a PM to be more readily available for comment and display than Attlee would ever have been capable of or happy with. And I fear Attlee's ability to persuade via the broadcast media would today be found desperately lacking. I have to conclude that these days, we don't warm to 'boring and dull'; Gordon had better carry on taking his 'Tony Blair' lessons if he wants to succeed as prime minister as his opponent seems to much further ahead in his transformational studies than he is.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Beefs About the Blogospere

Jonathan Freedland today addresses the topic of 'Blog Etiquette' in his article, leading on from the one from yesterday by Ed Pilkington. Abusive comments are an occupational hazard when blogging and I imagine some people are repelled by it; we have the example the appalling threats made to Kathy Sierra with photographs of her head alongside a noose. My instinct is to accept complete freedom of expression- surely a huge asset of the internet- and to suggest those who don't like the rough and tumble, not to join in. I've had some robust comment on my blog but nothing really abusive so far. Inevitably people have strongly disagreed; I have a regular and forthright rightwing commenter who probably regarded Thatcher as too centrist but I regard his far right (but always intelligent) comments as an arguments to be met- as I'm sure he regards mine.

It would be nice if everyone agreed with us but this is not the nature of democracy; nor is it the case that debate remains always polite; my advice in these circumstances is for the sinned against to ignore the abuse and carry on trying to making their points. The aim of democratic debate is to win over the undecided and the best way to lose their sympathetic attention, is to descend into rudeness. What about the suggested code? I'd be prepared to support it- what is proposed would not limit free expression- but would hope that, given blogging is not even a in its teens, we should give it a chance to mature and evolve a natural courtesy.

The second item for discussion is the article by Oliver Kamm last Monday. He concluded what I can only describe as a rant in this way:

The blogosphere, in short, is a reliable vehicle for the coagulation of opinion and the poisoning of debate. It is a fact of civic life that is changing how politics is conducted - overwhelmingly for the worse, and with no one accountable for the decline.

He also accuses we political bloggers of being parasitic upon mainstream media but as Norman Geras, in his effective rebuttal, points out, discussion of articles in the press or elsewhere, is surely the lifeblood of democratic debate. Stephen Pollard and Danny Finklestein add their voices to those who think Kamm is talking virtual nonsense. Rereading the article, I got the impression that Kamm, as a regular Times columnist as well as a political blogger himself, sees himself as more than few cuts above the herd. From the tone of his piece he sees himself as superior to the coagulating and poisonous mass of bloggers; presumably he'd like everyone else to close down their sites and fall into line behind his views. As he has no doubt by now gleaned from the robust- and, yes, in some cases, abusive reactions to his article, this ain't going to happen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Blair Years Assessed: Part II

Part II of my assessment focuses on the authoritative opinion poll used in The Observer supplement on The Blair years. It has to be said that the results carry a depressing message for all politicians, along the lines of: ‘don’t complain about ingratitude, just expect it.’

Gaby Hinscliff, The Observer’s political editor sums up the major findings as follows:

‘While just over a quarter rated the government's general performance under Blair as good or very good, 61 per cent disagreed that Britain was 'a more pleasant place to live' now than in 1997, 69 per cent thought it was more dangerous and 58 per cent disagreed that it was happier. On education, 45 per cent rated the government's performance as poor or very poor while 60 per cent thought the same on transport.’

In addition, over half rated government performance on the economy from ‘average’(31) to ‘poor’(15) or ‘very poor’(10). Such an assessment is hard to believe as the UK economy has been the envy of Europe and has performed exceptionally well with Brown at the helm. Virtually everyone is now better off then they were in 1997 but somehow voters have taken prosperity for granted. In similar vein, judgements on Education are extremely negative with 76% rating the government from 'average' to 'very poor'; on the NHS it is 84%. Now I would be the first to allow that both areas have fallen below expectations, given the amount of money thrown at them but that bad? Memories are short it would seem and the near meltdown state of both services in 1997 have been forgotten. Do voters think they would have been in a better state had the Tories stayed in power? I would imagine not.

Similar figures are returned on ‘tackling poverty: 77%; and crime: 87%. Yet Brown has done a huge amount to redistribute income to the less well-off and crime figures have plummeted by almost 40% in the last ten years. As many as 69% think Blair has been ‘soft on criminals’ yet most lawyers and civil libertarians would argue the direct opposite. It doesn’t quite add up. Whilst judgements on Iraq, transport and climate change are understandable and justified these earlier ones seem savagely unreasonable.

I think the answer to this negativity is found in the other responses offered to Blair personally. 24% said they 'strongly disliked' him with another third registering on the 'dislike' side of the scale. When it came to associating pejorative qualities with him the story was even worse: 'too concerned with spin'- 49%; 'out of touch with Britain'- 45%; 'not trustworthy'- 43%; while 55% believed he 'is too influenced by the rich'. Significantly, while 28% thought he 'genuinely believes all of his statements and actions are morally right', a damning 51% believed
'he manages to convince himself that whatever he has decided to do must be morally right.' Adding to the bonfire of his popularity is the judgement of 69% that Blair's relationship with the US has been 'too close' and, even 48% that Cherie's influence has been a 'hindrance' and not a 'help'. Oh dear.

What has happened to Tony Blair, since he was welcomed as the Messiah in 1997, is that limitless expectations have been disappointed to the extent that what has been achieved has virtually been discounted. He has, moreover, been his own worst enemy in: sucking up to Bush and leading us into the worst foreign policy mistake since Suez; sucking up to the rich in a multitude of ways but most damagingly by those freebie holidays; by his obsession with presentation and overuse of his admitted gifts in this department; and it seems his acquisitive wife's behaviour has not brought anything to the party either. So, to return to the 'love affair' metaphor used in my previous post, we seem to have become so bitterly disillusioned with the man we once loved that his perceived betrayals have soured perceptions of everything else he has done. What makes it worse for his party, is that by hanging on far too long, he appears to have made Gordon Brown's chances of winning the 2009 election about as buoyant as England's cricket team of winning the World Cup in the West Indies.

Monday, April 09, 2007


Our Love Affair with Tony Blair Part I

Andrew Rawnsley's brilliant assessment of the ten Blair years makes much of the marriage analogy when considering his relationship with Brown. It strikes me that in a sense we've all experienced something similar in our personal relationship with the soon -to- be former prime minister. It began with wild euphoria; after the frostiness of Thatcher and greyness of Major, Blair became the answer we all yearned for and with his chameleon skills he encouraged and nurtured all our varied expectations. Then came the first suspicions that he might just not be telling us the truth, subsequently reinforced by leaks like that memo calling for 'eye catching initiatives'- was he just another shallow male politician, vainly obsessed with his own image?

Then, after 9-11 he began to see too much of another man and it soon became clear this was a serious relationship(sorry about this metaphor, it just snuck its way in). Then he was joining his new man in the mad adventure of Iraq and warning us about WMD which never seemed to turn up as promised. Looking back, we began to realise that so many of his stories had never quite added up. I thought he should have resigned after the evidence to Hutton made it obvious his staff had indeed 'sexed up' that awful dossier, but, as is so often the case with such men, he had no shame. Some people, aghast, swore they were gobsmacked, betrayed, totally disillusioned. They swore they would never again believe a word he said.

Me? I decided to be civilised about it. We rubbed along unhappily for several years with infuriating vestiges of my earlier admiration stubbornly refusing to go. But I knew it was over and just a matter of time so that I was rather hoping the 'coup' attempt in 2005 might hasten his departure, as it eventually did. Soon it will indeed finally be over and we'll all have to look elsewhere for someone else. I just hope we're not conned again by a public schoolboy with a fresh face and a beguiling manner, into thinking we've found true love again.

Friday, April 06, 2007


Where are we According to Toynbee's Theory on Declining Civilisations?

Arnold Toynbee(pictured and grandfather of Polly) has always intrigued me with his theory of how civilizations emerge, mature and then fade. He based his theory on intensive study of no less than 23 civilizations. I'm far from sure the author of the twelve volume A Study of History would agree that the author of Charlemagne in the current Economist has accurately summed up his masterful thesis in one (admittedly long) sentence. But I think it's worth a brief discussion anyway:

Civilizations proceed... from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage.'

Where abouts then, are we -as part of western civilization- on this on this trajectory? Well, you decide, but it seems to me we must be somewhere in the 'abundance-selfishness-apathy' stage. We have abundance for sure- witness the total abandonment of repair as a practice in favour of 'buy new'; we have selfishness big time- look at those City bonuses or the self indulgent obscenities being revealed by the trial of Conrad Black; and we do have apathy as evidenced by turnout in the last two elections and by any conversation about politics with most people younger than twenty. Should we be worried? I'm sorry to add another layer to the ones we have concerning global warming, terrorism and the rest, but I fear the answer must be at least, 'probably'.

However, a ray of light is offered. Unlike Oswald Spengler who believed civilizations rose and fell according an immutable cycle, Toynbee believed civilizations always had a chance to overcome their challenges: 'Civilizations die from suicide not by murder.' So it's up to us to overcome all those challenges. For those who might be interested but intimidated by the thought of twelve volumes(I have the two volume abridged version), a fuller and more accurate analysis of Toynbee's theory can be found here. My own view is that these wonderful theories take insufficient account of external factors like climate, which did for the Mayans for example. Jared Diamond's book, Collapse(2005) provides a fascinating analysis of such endings of civilizations.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


Blair Deserves Nobel Peace prize for Northern Ireland Progress

Following his recent historic meeting with Gerry Adams Paisley has now met and shaken hands with Bertie Ahern. This was quite an advance on pelting the Taoiseach with snowballs as Paisley did Sean Lamass way back in 1965. I agree wholly with Andrew Rawnsley that this promising state of affairs owes more than anyone else to Tony Blair. He refers to the 'much derided' politicians and how they have used their skills of charm, persuasion and persistence to overcome 'hate and violence.' The troubles in Northern Ireland have formed part of the invariable backdrop to my generation of baby boomers and it is hard to believe it may well be coming to an end. Please God that it is.

That sectarian passions still run deep and bitter is beyond dispute and the fragile settlement may well, even now, haul the province and its long suffering nearly 2 million people back to square one. I know that Paisley had not shaken hands with Adams and in the above picture- reproduced too small for this purpose I fear- we see that while Adams gives an ear to ear grin, Paisley's is thin and tight lipped. Maybe this symbolizes the reluctance of the Unionists to abandon the traditional superiority over the Catholics which they abused for so many years but this is why more fulsome contacts between their leader and the other side are so heartening.

From this side of the Irish Sea, freed of the incubus of history which British misrule so carelessly bestowed upon Ireland- and for an inkling of it see Ken Loach's powerful The Wind that Shakes the Barley- we find it hard to understand the lethal enmities which divide the province. We tend to know both Irish Catholics and Protestants and find them both charming and warm hearted; so it seems incredible they can hate each other so passionately when they have so much in common. But now, perhaps, they are finally beginning to realize this fundamental truth themselves.

When Paisley saw Ahern on his arrival at Farmleigh House in Dublin he quipped 'I better shake hands with this man. I'll give him a firm handshake.' Later he emerged to declare:

"I trust that old barriers and threats will be removed in my day. Business opportunities are flourishing. Genuine respect for the understanding of each other's differences and, for that matter, similarities is now developing."

To seal the deal they will both visit the site of the Battle of the Boyne later this year, the symbol of division between Catholics and Protestants since July 1690 when the newly installed King William of Orange defeated the forces of the deposed James II of England. Slowly the behaviour of the old turtle of Ulster politics demonstrates that the ice is breaking. It is to be hoped that the process continues apace; it is more than possible that his bowler hatted Orange militant followers will take their lead from him . And here's a thought to cheer Tony up as he contemplates early retirement, if Mairead Corrigan, David Trimble and John Hume can win the Nobel Peace prize for their work in Northern Ireland, how much stronger a case can be made for Blair to receive the same honour?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Politicians and Brain Power in US and UK

We like to think that our politicians, despite their inadequacies, are intellectually a cut above American ones. Because our prime ministers are chosen by their peers within the parties after several years of close assessment, and not by the more superficial and populist US process, this is probably true on balance, though there are many exceptions e.g. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton.

A former editor of the New York Times today suggests that the recent trend for low brain wattage 'conviction politicians' set in with Reagan-elected 1980- who had a few powerfully held beliefs which luckily

'meshed in almost perfectly with a moment of opportunity to remake cold war geopolitics'.

He sees the younger Bush as the apotheosis of this trend and quotes Arthur Schlesinger's judgement that this is 'the worst president ever'. Looking forward to the next presidential contest Raines opines that:

What is striking about this presidential cycle is that for the first time in a long time, there are a number of plausible candidates in both parties who seem, at a minimum, informed enough for the top job.

The list includes Al Gore, Hilary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama while on the other side John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Mitt Romney and Giuliani are all brighter than the average Republican. While sincerely hoping he is right, I got to wonder how we currently compare? One only had to see Blair and Bush doing joint press conferences to clearly see how much more nimble of brain our boy is than theirs, yet, by our standards, Tony is not thought to be that bright: he was never the equal of his wife, Cherie, as a lawyer and Roy Jenkins- perhaps patronisingly- never rated him intellectually higher than a 'b'. Looking across the divide I'm yet to be convinced Cameron has any real depth- more 'Blair-lite' I'd say and few of his front bench impress either though Osborne might prove to have hidden qualities.

Maybe the calibre of our politicians has declined since the days of Wilson, Jenkins, Healey, Macmillan, Lawson and Biffen but, it has to be said on this topic, that there is one man this side of the 'pond' who currently impresses as intellectually distinguished, hugely knowledgeable of the government machine and able to manipulate it to achieve given objectives. Who, then, is that? Why, none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Gordon Brown.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


If Tax and Spend Can't Cure Poverty, What Will?

[Sorry if this is a longer post than usual but it IS a big topic] A comment on my last post by the excellent Bloggers4Labour was sufficiently thought provoking for me to eschew day to day politics to attempt a more measured-but hopelessly brief- response in a separate post. I fear I cannot offer much optimism on the basis of my analysis. For those who have not read it the comment is as follows:

I certainly wouldn't want to rule out - for ever - a policy of soaking the rich, I'm just wary of the idea that it's impossible to make a substantial difference to the poor without going that far. Where would we go from there, if the problem were not solved forever? The sums we're raising and spending as a government are vaster than we could have hoped for in the wilderness of the 1990s, and yet the poor are only "less poor" than they were. Sure, taxes can rise, and loopholes can be closed, but they can't be answers to the fundamental problem...

This seems to me to get to the nub of modern progressive politics. If massive tax and spend fail to improve the lot of the poor except marginally, what can those on the left realistically do? The answer turns on how the economy is approached, especially difficult now we live in a globalized world.

1. Do we seek to sweep away capitalism and replace it by a fairer system?
My view on capitalism is a bit like Churchill's on democracy: 'the worst system in the world, except for all the others'. Communism was certainly inferior as an answer and socialism, as practiced by Old Labour, was revealed a failure by the end of the seventies. It seems we don't have any acceptable alternative just yet, so we're stuck with free enterprise as the best, or least bad, means available for generating wealth. If this is indeed the case, we have to ensure the economy is duly looked after and made to work reasonably efficiently.

2. Do we use democratic means to change society or embrace more robust forms of political action? If the latter involves violence, I would foresee nothing but harm ensuing. It has taken centuries to expunge violence as a political method in the UK and nothing has occurred since the French Revolution to convince me it has any modern cost-effectiveness. Once violence enters the scene you may as well rip up any list of political objectives you might have painstakingly drawn up. So we have to use peaceful democratic means.

3. Do we adopt leftwing policies of even higher tax and spend?
This seems unlikely to bring home the bacon in that the bulk of taxpayers have just about reached the limits of their tolerance and are unlikely to approve any manifesto advocating such a direction. Scandinavian tax levels of up to 50% of GDP are just not feasible in current British conditions. At least Gordon's 'stealth taxes' have allowed a reasonable slice of middle class earnings to be used for the public services- if he had come clean and stated an aim to tax to current levels, Labour would probably not have won three successive elections.

4. Do we give the Conservatives a try with a return to even more unbridled capitalism? The eighties should have cured us of any notion that this is a realistic course of action. Public services in meltdown, a savagely divided society, even more hopeless problems of crime and poverty; these are just some of the likely legacies
of such a course of action.

This survey of the arguments is very simplified but I've tried to provide the beginnings of an answer to B4L. To sum up: if we accept a laissez faire economy plus democracy, our options are few. To compete effectively in a globalized economy, some social injustice seems inevitable and maybe the best we can aim- and fight- for is yet more gradual amelioration along the lines attempted to date. Activists can campaign for more radical change but will not find much traction from the present political culture which is resistant to any radical change in the social and economic order. This may change-just as attitudes towards the environment have changed- but even that took several decades and has nowhere near reached the point required to effect the radical change needed. Well, I did warn I couldn't offer any optimism...

Monday, April 02, 2007


Taxing Rich Only Way to Compensate for Effects of Globalization

Recent figures on poverty and inequality form the Office of National Statistics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies make sobering reading for this Labour government as Larry Elliot writes in today's Guardian. As my picture suggests, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer- the opposite of Labour's basic mission since it formed in 1901. Elliot notes the slow down in income growth: from 3.1% 1997-2001, to 1.7% 2001-5; and 1.3% since then. Elliot warns that 'A squeeze on real incomes leads to political disaffection'. Such warnings are strengthened by the fact that during the past two years growth has been at the top end of the scale while the bottom quintile has actually pegged back a shade in the face of government pay restraint, cheap overseas products and the inflow of low wage workers from overseas. As Elliot observes:

Globalisation is used by those at the top to explain both why they should be paid more (talent is mobile in the modern world) and why their workers should be paid less (the disciplines of the borderless world).

Poverty is calculated at 60% of median income- the level which bisects income distribution- meaning that with the latter at £362 per week the former is £217 but 1.5 million hover above that, only £10 a week better off. The problem is about to become more severe. To achieve his object of halving child poverty by 2010 Brown will have to bite the bullet, says Elliot, and tax the rich more severely. He suggests increasing the top tax rate by 1% over the next three years would raise the necessary £4bn to achieve his poverty reduction goal.

Since 1997 Brown has redistributed income substantially. The two poorest tenths of the population have benefited by 12% while the richest tenth have lost out to the tune of 6%. But the rich are still doing very well out of New Labour and can clearly afford to pay more. Tax increases are never popular even when the rich minority are being squeezed but to any doubters I'd say this: if the Conservatives get in in 2009, instead of inching ahead, inequalities will soar and the redistributive achievements of this often unfairly slated government will soon be destroyed.

The Economist weighs in this week with its own analysis[page 40- I can't afford to subscribe to the online version]. It sums up Blair's 1997 strategy as: 'The rich can get as rich as thy like, so long as the poor are getting better-off too.' It concludes that the position of the poor has deteriorated to the extent that taxes may have to be looked at again: 'The 20 year old settlement that Mr Blair so eloquently summed up is now looking increasingly shaky.'

Sunday, April 01, 2007


Tony Blair to star in The Crucible?

Having read The Observer up to page 15 I had almost forgotten about the date and so began to read the article about Blair naively unaware. On the face of it, it was not an unreasonable story-that Blair had been persuaded by Kevin Spacey to play a role in Arthur Miller's The Crucible at the Old Vic.

We all know Tony was a gifted actor at Fettes and his recent Comic Relief sketch revealed he had lost none of his thespian timing and relish for the grease paint. Playing a substantial but not major role also seemed to make sense. But being asked to appear in a Christmas Only Fools and Horses began to sound suspect and, even though I could not elicit 'April Fool' from the names of the article's author or assistant author, the pay-off paragraph about a cabinet minister concerned that Tony had welcomed an ambassador to Number 10 'dressed like a Puritan, waving a crucifix in the air and shouting about chasing out the devil' gave the game away. Nice try though.

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