Tuesday, July 31, 2007


George Needs Gordon as Much (or Maybe More) as Gordon Needs Him

The Guardian leader today is headed: 'Leaders bond, Iraq splits'. Certainly the second part rings true, but not the first. As Nick Robinson notes(yes, I nicked his pic), Gordon was careful to avoid any statement of personal warmth with the US president, in contrast to Dubya who, as the leader noted, piled it on:

Gordon Brown was a humorous Scot, not a dour one, a problem solver with the same sense of morality. He was a principled man who wanted to get something done. He was a man who saw a glass half full, not half empty, and when it came to battling terrorism and providing leadership, "he gets it".

The explanation for this apparent lack of reciprocity, of course, is that Brown is striving to make a statement: unlike his predecessor, he is not Bush's poodle. There is no message his national constituency would better like to hear than that and Gordon has subtly let it be known: no tactile bonding, no jokes about shared likes, no crutch hugging jeans, no ill chosen sweater- just a businesslike suit and tie. Brown has already shown how subtle he is at communicating via symbols; his Cabinet appointments were gleaming with them and his subsequent public words have been cleverly nuanced to indicate shifts from the past.

Indeed, the whole business of distancing himself from the US has been achieved in this way. He was happy to allow junior ministers- Balloch- Brown, Alexander- to make statements edging away from too close a relationship with American foreign policy so that he could 'reinforce' the Atlantic alliance with his own careful statement. US officials were 'worried' we were told, even 'irritated', but Gordon was happy to let these apparent slights remain: the signals were received. So it follows that he has carried on passively communicating during his visit, apparently moving closer while actually stepping back.

That Bush seemed to understand all this is not just evidence of his political acuteness, he is now squarely a lame duck president who desperately needs his British ally to stand firm while he plays out the next 18 months or so. Since Blair flew over in 2001 to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' and sign blank cheques of support, the relative power relationship has substantially shifted.

Monday, July 30, 2007


Has Cameron Used up his Political Capital with Conservative Members?

I was amused by Tim Hames' metaphor for David Cameron's dilemma in The Times today. He compares it to the film Nine and a Half Weeks (see pictures) in which the pneumatic Kim Basinger submits herself totally to the bullish attentions of Mickey Rourke:

The affair blazes until, 9½ weeks in, she has to decide whether she is content to enslave herself to him. At this point, partly to her own surprise, she chooses to walk away, leaving him shattered. David Cameron is Mickey Rourke and the electorate Kim Basinger. After a swift but red-hot relationship, it would appear from the polls that the Party is distraught at this development with parts of it pondering whether it, too, should flounce away from a leader in whom it was interested only because he looked like a winner.

He goes on to list Dave's mistakes: his failure to reshuffle the ineffective Osbourne while Hague's formidable talents are being wasted; his inconsistent line on taxation; and his shrill, angry tone when dealing with Gordon Brown, who, in contrast has confected the perfect slogan for himself: 'a serious man for serious times'.

I suspect the Tory Party has already shed much of its Neanderthal tendencies, thanks to Cameron's commendable revolution, but in the process he seems to have used up his political capital with Conservative members: they have taken the medicine but ended up going off their doctor big time. I'd love to see a polling company test what percentage of them would now ask for the mega impressive William Hague to come back as all is now forgiven.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


Is good Government like Good Parenting?

I was debating with my son recently about the 'nanny state', the idea of which he is very much opposed to on the grounds that the state has no right to intrude into the personal realm. I argued however, that good government is a bit like good parenting: both aim to encourage good behaviour and to achieve prosperity or otherwise happiness for their respective objects. More precisely:

1 Children have inbuilt rebellious tendencies, as do voters. It follows that like good parenting, government should avoid being overbearing if possible: persuasion is of the essence. An arrogant government alienates the public in no time at all.

2. As with rules for children, government always works best when citizens have been properly prepared. For example, the smoking ban is a good example of effective preparation as it seems to have been accepted, more or less, without cavil. The introduction of Poll Tax, on the other hand, generated riots in central London.

3.It follows that rules should be reasonable/sensible ones: the two above examples also illustrate that when they are not, prior consent is impossible. By the same token, any attempt to insist children go to bed at, say, 6.0pm, is likely to be met with furious refusals.

4. Of course, in both instances rules must be applied consistently without exception, favours or discrimination. Any deviation from this rule creates chaos both in families and polities.

The parenting analogy however, implies excessive intrusion. Perhaps the criterion here should be the prevention of harm to others: e.g.children should be prevented from bullying their fellows just adults should be. It is when harm to oneself is involved that problems arise. Parents naturally step in to prevent their children harming themselves- playing with sharp objects for example- but libertarians argue that adults should be allowed to inflict harm on themselves should they so decide: drugs, dangerous sports and the like.

This is when cost to taxpayers becomes a factor. Both drinking and smoking cost us billions in medical cost so should both be discouraged? Gambling also breaks up families and causes untold misery to growing children, so should it also be discouraged? Possibly not, but there seems a good case for not actively encouraging any of them. To conclude, possibly the major reason for being wary of pushing my comparison is that it might encourage politicians to vie for the 'parenting' role. No-one wants to see a Big Brother installed in Number 10 and I seem to recall that the coterie of Conservative politicians around Thatcher used to refer to her a 'Mother', to which I respond: 'pass the sick bag'.

Friday, July 27, 2007


No Early Escape for Dave's Problems in Sight

I'm sorry, but I've always found schadenfreude impossible to resist and the latest Channel 4 Yougov poll brings further grief for poor old Dave; and all this in spite of the fact that Gordon- as is the prerogative of all governments- has indeed stolen the Tories' policy on a 'national border force' It's odd how polls six months ago showed Gordon faring so badly in comparisons with Cameron when the reverse is now very much the case:

'it showed only 28% believed Mr Cameron was "serious and trustworthy", while 39% disagreed. Mr Brown scored 49% and 28% respectively. Just 22% of voters thought Mr Cameron was in control of his party, and 52% believed he was not. In comparison, 62% thought Mr Brown was in control of Labour and 16% disagreed

Small wonder than that with private polls showing an 8 point lead for Brown, that a recent meeting of Labour's top brains should have discussed election plans together with possible manifesto outlines. Especially when the best economic advice now rules out another rate increase by the bank of England this year. Why then, this 'collapse in the popularity of David Cameron'?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft rather confirms my own musings in this blog when he suggests that Dave, with his 'eye catching initiatives' is following the Blair template too slavishly. He argues that 'Cameron and his claque have been in adoring thrall to Blair':

The opposition front bench includes, after all, Michael Gove, who not long ago wrote: "I can't fight my feelings any more: I love Tony ... as a right-wing polemicist, all I can say looking at Mr Blair now is, what's not to like?"

An astonishing confession of hero worship there from the lugubrious Michael. But Wheatcroft reserves his real-and in my view justified- venom for the Conservatives' recently appointed 'director of communications', Andy Coulson who:

used to adorn the Sun with Andy Coulson's Bizarre, a showbiz column trashy even by tabloid standards, and then edited the News of the World - a smut sheet rather than a newspaper, in case Cameron has never looked at it - before losing his job in the wake of a phone-bugging scandal. And this man, who makes Alastair Campbell seem a cross between CP Scott and Hugo Young, will now be the public voice of Toryism.

In his recent meting with the 1922 Committee he called for 'discipline' and for the party to 'hold its nerve'. Oh boy, it's going to need to. Oh, and I nearly forgot to add: in 1945, on this very day Labour won 390 seats to the Conservatives' 195.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Binge Drinking: a Problem out of Control

I fear that perceptive and articulate Mancunian, John Harris, has written something in my daily house journal(that's The Guardian by the way)with which I thoroughly, though slightly guiltily, agree. Why the guilt? Well, it appeals to the Victor Meldrew side of me, which, as I grow older, is becoming more and more dominant and also because his argument is antithetical to a favourite student pastime of mine: binge drinking.

Harris points out that:

i) Alcohol, according to an RSA study, if classified as a drug, would be between A and B: in other words, made illegal.

ii) Alcohol is now 55% more affordable than it was 25 years ago and can be bought in some supermarkets at a price cheaper than bottled water: e.g. 60 cans for £20 at Tesco. At least when I was binge drinking, its availability was limited by cost and when the money ran out we had to stagger home to sleep it off.

iii) There are 7.1 million 'hazardous and harmful drinkers' and alcohol linked hospital admissions have doubled over the last ten years.

He could also have mentioned the fact that over 40% of 18-34 year olds are binge drinkers; the high percentage of violent crimes which are caused by alcohol; or the billions of pounds lost through work absences; or the thousands of families shattered by alcoholism; or the fact that people of my vintage rarely now visit Manchester's centre- where Harris says there is now room for 200,000 drinkers- because it seems like 200, 000 binge drinkers have descended upon the city and filled up all the doorways with urine and the city air with ghastly, manic shouting. See what I mean about the Meldrew rant there?)

But what to do? Banning drink in certain areas of the city- as has been tried elsewhere- might be an idea; raising the drinking age- as in USA- to 21; or simply increasing the price to make it a less attractive option. But this course- not favoured by the Treasury- would be a huge blow to the urban economies of this country and, if young people will find the money to buy various species of drugs, won't they raise the funds for their cans of Stella and Fosters just as easily? But, before the youth of this country, urinate the better part of their internal organs-including their brains- against the walls of our cities, something really has to be done.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Is this Something More than a Mere Honeymoon?

I have to confess that as a Labour supporter a few months back I was apprehensive about Gordon's accession-all that well referenced stuff about his moodiness and Stalinist tendencies- and not at all sure that the departure of the devil we knew was going to be an unalloyed relief. Now, I'm happy to say, it seems I was wrong: good appointments and initiatives on governance; rowing back on super-casinos; making PMQs an occasion for serious announcements; all seem to have engendered the desired feeling of genuine change.

The ICM poll today shows Labour striding to a six point lead-the research was done before the by-election defeats- but much worse for Cameron is the detailed findings on the two main players. 21% of voters(including one in four Tory voters) say their opinion of Brown has improved over the last month with only 8% for whom it has fallen. By contrast 21% say their opinion of Cameron has declined since Brown became PM. Moreover 60% think the new PM is offering new policies and 63% a new style of government.

For the Tories 42% say they like the party but dislike the leader with a mere 3% saying the reverse. For Labour the figure for those liking the party and the leader is an impressive 75%. These poll results seem to indicate voters are pleased Blair has gone but that maybe Cameron has been too much like him in style and has suffered accordingly. The intriguing question which the next few months will answer is whether this bounce turned into a honeymoon will last for much longer. Blair's honeymoon, Cameron might reflect, went on to last several years-and that would suit Gordon very nicely.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Why the Elections in Turkey Mattered

Turkey's recent election has been greeted with some relief in western circles as the re-election of Recip Erdogan has been interpreted as a vote for continuity and modernization. Turkey's emergence from the shades of the Ottoman Empire began in 1923 when the great Kemal Attaturk established a secular republic, distinct from connections with the Sultanate and directed at removing religious barriers to joining the 'modern' world of the west.

Would that it had been that easy; since the second world war there have been four military coups and the tensions between the supporters of Attaturk and the bourgeoning world of Turkish Islam are never far from the surface as Orhan Pamuk's brilliant novel Snow illustrates so well. As one of the few Muslim democracies, Turkey represents the interface between the west and the world of Islam and is something of a barometer of how the two are co-existing. If a successful modus vivendi can be established between the two it will bode well for the wider world's attempts to achieve the something similar. That is why Erdogan's success at the head of the Justice and Development Party(AK)- a party with Islamist roots but inclined towards modernisation- has been welcomed in the west.

The election was called when the army made bellicose noises in the spring that the government's candidate for the presidency, Abdullah Gul, was perceived as too Islamist leaning for the secularists, who demonstrated in the streets in their millions. The problem was heightened by the fact that both Gul and Erdogan(see picture) had wives who wore the Islamic headscarf, even though it has been banned in public buildings and has highly potent symbolism for both sides of the religious divide. There was some fear at the time that the army might intervene and stage yet another coup, which would have plunged the country back into the past.

To defuse the crisis Erdogan called an early election, one which he went on to win emphatically with 46% of the vote and 340 out of the 550 seats in parliament. As The Economist noted, the AK has presided over an average annual growth of 7.3% plus plentiful inward investment and $40bn a year form tourism. Turkey is emerging from the poorhouse of Europe at quite a rate. Erdogan has proved an astute balancer of the divide between secularists and Islamists, while steering the ship of state subtly towards a position acceptable to both the USA and the EU.

Maybe the most pressing problem for the new prime minister to solve is the gung ho attitude of the army, massing on the Kurdish border. The Kurdish nationalist PPK has long been a thorn in Turkey's side and the army would love to intrude across the border to crush the 3500 PPK militants said to be sheltering there. America's disinclination to wound its Kurdish allies in Iraq has caused its popularity to plummet in Turkey and the army consequently has a dangerous degree of popular support. It will be a difficult and perilous job to rule Turkey over the next year or so but as The Guardian leader comments today:

It will not be easy to reform a country as large and varied as Turkey, but Mr Erdogan is the right man for the job.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Hitchens Camp's Rightwing Delusions

I never used to have much time for Peter Hitchens' ranting rightwing analyses, but his Despatches programme on David Cameron a few months back was a good critique and entertained me royally. However, my faith in the clarity of his insights suffered more than a bit yesterday when I read his piece(sorry, no link possible) in the Mail on Sunday. It was headlined: Clapped out Cameron: A Wreck Ready for Crushing and asserted that:

i)Cameron completely messed up the lost by-elections, despite Dave making winning Southall his personal project. He pleads: 'Please stop pretending David Cameron is a success'.

ii)Left-wingers warm to him as 'after all, he is one of them'; he cites a conversation with pollster Peter Kellner, ('veteran Labour supporter whose wife is Labour leader in the Lords') who claims the Tories are the "best bulwark against(the) nasty politics of a substantial Far Right nationalist xenophobic party in Britain."

Hitchens concludes that 'If the Tory Party were your car, you'd be broken down; if it were your fridge, all your food would go bad; if it were your accountant, you'd be bankrupt; if it were your lawyer, you'd be in jail. And in all cases you'd get rid of it and get another one.'

Good, stirring tabloid rhetoric but surely meant for one which supports Labour? Yet even a Labour supporter like myself cannot quite go as Far Left as these criticisms:

i) Cameron's Conservatives cannot be that incompetent. They may be mistaken or misguided perhaps, but I'm sure they would be no more or less competent than previous administrations under their banner.

ii) Hitchens' (presumed) assumption that a 'new' party dedicated to genuine Tebbitt- like right-wing policies like withdrawing from the EU and halting immigration has been disproved no less than three times in the last decade and yet Tories like him and Tebbitt still cling absurdly to the idea that modern elections can be won from the rightward fringe of the political spectrum and not the centre-ground.

For me the most perceptive piece on the ailing Tories yesterday was Nick Cohen's in The Observer. He argued that the Conservatives had done so well out of the Blair years that they could not now muster Labour's passion to kick them out in the nineties:

New Labour's rule has been very good for most Tory voters and it shouldn't be a surprise that they can't find the passion and the single-mindedness to drive Labour from power. As for the poor, their state remains pitiful. But they don't vote, so few politicians care what happens to them.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Cameron Embattled

The implications of the by-elections and the removing of the Yates inquiry sword of Damocles, are discussed by columnists today. Martin Kettle points out that Brown has been the substantial beneficiary of the CPS decision: the inquiry helped hasten the demise of his predecessor and its ending enables him to swish his new broom around. The by-elections were not fabulous victories but they were won against the dominant political tide of the past two years.

So what about an early election? Stan James is offering Labour at 1.73 and the Tories at only 2.0. Kettle does not think an autumn poll is likely but is sure 'the option is being discussed at the highest levels'. Peter Riddell in The Times also discusses the election question:

The party leader with the most headaches this weekend is David Cameron. None of this means that there will be a snap general election in the autumn. There will almost certainly not be, but Mr Brown now has the freedom to establish the identity of his own Government and a range of choices for an election next year or in 2009.

Cameron's investment of so much energy and hope into the Ealing by-election came badly unstuck. He made no less than five visits during the campaign and on the ballot paper Tony Litt's name was accompanied, unusually, by the description 'David Cameron's Conservatives'. And still he managed to increase his share of the vote by the merest sliver.

The Guardian leader piles on the agony for Cameron by concluding from yesterday's happenings that:

Labour may have mutated from victim to potential conqueror.

But the most telling comment on Cameron's plight is given by Mike Smithson, author of in my view, the best political blog going, who suggests:

Why doesn’t he pre-empt his opponents and seek to restore his authority by resigning and seeking a fresh mandate from his party in a new leadership election?

If the most knowlegeable political blogger in the country thinks Cameron is facing so much dismay in his own party that he should do a John Major a la July 1995, then he must be in seriously deep doo-doo.

Friday, July 20, 2007


'Black Friday' for Conservatives hit by Triple Whammy

How the Tories must have longed for prosecutions from the Cash for Coronets police inquiry led by Scotland Yard's John Yates. A big scalp or two would have suited them nicely as they seek to neutralize the (for them) worryingly buoyant Brown Bounce.

But an 18 month inquiry, costing over three quarters of a million pounds and involving scores of interviews-three with the prime minister- plus three high profile arrests, has not convinced the Crown Prosecution Service that a conviction is likely.

It's easy, and true, to say that the whole enterprise was misdirected in the first place. Honours have been handed out for favours to the government ever since the Anglo-Saxon kings; the age of democracy has accelerated rather than reduced the flow, whatever colour of government has been in charge. Does this make it right? In the case of medals and even knighthoods I don't see a huge problem-though they are supposedly handed out on the basis of merit, not ability to give cash to parties- but it is the peerages which are crucial as they help- albeit in a limited way- to make the laws of the land.

Money should not change hands in deciding who does this, though in effect it does to some degree. Even if both major parties have rewarded donors with peerages, the law introduced in 1925 to end what had been Lloyd George's flagrant abuse of such patronage, was more than justified.

So how did they avoid prosecution given that We know Blair and co. must have dangled rewards in front of rich donors? I suspect Number 10 has been pretty clever at avoiding anything in writing which would incriminate and maybe shredding anything which looks even vaguely as if it might. The other reason might easily be-as the The Guardian suggests- that the wording of the act is too precise to make a conviction straightforward; one Labour MP said: 'It's difficult to get anyone unless you actually catch them handing the money over.' So those Number 10 aides can relax, it would appear, but Yates's meteoric career might have been badly slowed by this failure to make his formidable efforts stick. I wonder if he will comment as some suggest Scotland Yard is furious with the CPS.

I said 'Triple Whammy'? Well, the two by-elections- though reducing Labour's majorities- have reinforced the Brown Bounce nicely and Cameron's third place in both poses big questions for where he goes from here as well as increasing the odds on an early election. It must be Black Friday in Conservative HQ.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


The Limits of Charity

I remember back in the eighties when Lawson slashed the top rate of income tax to 40p in the £, The Economist leader welcomed it adding the rider that now rich people had so much more wealth, it was confidently expected they would give much more to charity. This feeble idea owed something to the libertarian thread of liberal economics that taxation was akin to robbing people of their hard earned money and served to stunt their charitable instincts, which should be the sole source of social expenditure. The argument was often buttressed by the suggestion that donors could direct their money to where it would be most effective- unlike inefficient government agencies.

British fat cats have seldom favoured any extravagant largesse. Tom Hunter, Scottish billionaire recently gave £1bn to charity but today Polly Toynbee, reminds us that the UK rich give less than 1% of GDP in charity- a poor percentage compared with the US. That country contains many more billionaires than our own, tax rates are lower and tax breaks are allowed for charitable donations. But at least one example serves to alleviate the cynicism of people like myself. These days I'm a very mild mannered class warrior but I can never quite understand why people, who have become fabulously rich, persist in becoming even richer. Richard Layard and others have shown that, providing one receives sufficient to live a comfortable life, happiness is not enhanced by great additional wealth. So why the striving and the huge effort when one has way more than enough to enjoy the beauties and benefits of life?

At the very least Bill and Melinda Gates have reached this conclusion by donating their Microsoft fortune to their eponymous Foundation, subsequently added to -in squillions- by fellow squillionaire, Warren Buffet(see picture). Their Foundation now donates almost as much to health programmes as the 192 country strong United Nations. So should we abandon taxation and rely on the generosity of the rich who gave so philanthropically during the Victorian era? I think not, for the following reasons:

1. Even allowing for Gates et.al. the overall charity take would not be enough to fund the welfare agencies required to alleviate poverty and suffering.

2. Victorian donors were often generous and far sighted but did not remove the most appalling poverty which existed alongside fabulous wealth.

3. Gates and Buffet are exceptions; most rich people are pathetically costive with their wealth. Toynbee quotes the world's richest man(£33bn), Carlos Slim Helu,

"Poverty isn't solved with donations - my concept is to accomplish and solve things, not going around like Santa Claus."

4. Welfare is too important to its recipients, and society as a whole, to rely on the unpredictable generosity of the rich; what, for example, if they decide to terminate their donations? Where would that leave the poor and the needy?

Rather than rely on charity I would like to see a top rate of income tax aimed at the newly mega rich and the ending of tax loopholes and concessions which have led London to become classed a tax haven for the rich and irrevocably greedy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Polarising of British Society cause for Concern

In 1995 The Sunday Times published a controversial article by US sociologist Charles Murray, entitled 'New Victorians, New Rabble', in which he predicted a large section of the middle classes:

“will edge back towards traditional morality while a large portion of what used to be the British working class goes the way of the American underclass”.

This prediction conjured up the vision of secure, 'gated' communities for the rich with the rest of us taking our chances within the feral remainder. I can recall at the time sympathising with those who condemned Murray for sharing right-wing values but I wonder if the recent report of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Economic Segregation is not suggesting we have slid closer to such a dystopian outcome in recent years?

It records that the gap between richest and poorest is wider than at any time for 40 years and that: "Poor, rich and average households became less and less likely to live next door to one another between 1970 and 2000," It seems the greatest polarity is occurring in the South-east where the richest and poorest are increasingly living in separate parts of the capital with the former on the outskirts ; 'average' families on middle incomes are being priced out of the region by spiralling house prices and are either moving elsewhere or becoming poor.

Professor Danny Dorling, from Sheffield University, leader of the study which analysed census data since the 1970s, commented that increased wealth had not really made the newly rich any happier:

"Rich people in London don't think that they are rich because they don't mix with poor people. That is one of the main differences with the 1970s. In the 1970s and the 1980s there were a few wealthy people almost everywhere. Now, apart from a small number in Cheshire and North Yorkshire, almost all the very rich are in the South East.

Sadly neither Blair nor Brown can claim the last decade, apart from the alleviating the incomes of the very poor has produced much progress towards equality. In February this year a Sunday Telegraph, poll revealed 73 per cent of voters thought City bonuses had become "excessive and something should be done about them"; meanwhile 69 per cent believed the gap between the highest earners and average earners is now excessive. Even more depressing, perhaps, was the finding that:

Asked whether the British people have become more or less selfish since Labour came to power in May 1997, some 43 per cent said the country had become more selfish, while 47 per cent said things were the same. Only four per cent believe Britain has become a less selfish place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


'Bozza' a High Risk Candidate for London Mayor

It seems maybe a little churlish of Polly Toynbee to excoriate old Boris Johnson, after her views on poverty have been so celebrated by Dave Cameron, but I think she has made some shrewd points, if not accurate predictions. Boris, as we know has thrown his blond mop into the London Mayoral ring. He havered for a while but the pressures from within the party and without proved finally irresistible- he can never resist entreaties from his audience. Unfortunately neither can he resist the temptation to play to each audience's gallery.

The Tories have had, and still have, a problem with the London Mayoralty. Remember all that fuss about Jeffrey Archer which ended in grief? John Major backed him as a serious candidate and he certainly thought he was going to win until past crimes came back to derail his campaign. Steve 'Shagger' Norris was a superior candidate to the second rate novelist but lacked the artillery to take on Everyman cheeky chappie, Ken Livingstone. Then we had the false starts of candidates such as Greg Dyke and several others-including, according to one report, Michael Portillo- who were canvassed and declined.

Toynbee's argument is that:
i) Boris will perpetuate and strengthen the impression that the current Conservatives are toffs, wholly divorced from the concerns of ordinary people.
ii) Boris, though able, is not really a serious politician with any capacity for absorbing and implementing policy.
iii) Beneath the clownish exterior there is a very rightwing person, as any analysis of his journalism reveals.
iv) Worst of all, Boris is gaffe prone; in other words, trouble. He has charmed and won over millions with his disarming idiocy but he also cannot resist playing the fool and saying something outrageous. We have seen the results in Liverpool, Portsmouth and indeed other parts of the world as far flung as the 'cannibals' in Papua.

Polly predicts this will be seen as Cameron's 'worst mistake' and concludes the Tories must be 'desperate' to 'put up a clown to run a great global city'. Time will tell if that call is justified but welcoming as a candidate someone with Boris's track record as an instinctive controversialist and rule breaker is high risk indeed. Livingstone may be not dissimilar in some ways but he is at heart a serious politician, with a proven track record and an established following which to some extent transcends party. Boris might well find that he is about to come up against a very painful reality- it will be fun watching though.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Self Hating Campbell's Diaries a Treasure Trove

I think Campbell's diaries are just brilliant. I'm not saying that they tell a pleasant story or that anyone comes out of them especially well, but they are so enthrallingly, thrillingly, fascinating about the shabby reality beneath the shabby veneer of New Labour. I only received the book a day ago-Amazon do the best deal by far- but I've read a fair number of the reviews and watched the BBC's excellent three part series last week. I've always maintained that trying to understand politics is like watching a game with very complex rules and players who wander all over the pitch trying to break them without being found out. This book validates my (if you will) personal political science conceit. I'm still reading the book whenever I can- though at nearly 800 pages it is f**king heavy(sorry, AC's foul mouthed style is contagious)-but I thought I'd post a few preliminary thoughts.

1. The Nerve Required in Politics: we often forget the pressures under which top politicians have to operate. Alastair's record of Blair early on in his Labour leadership reveal how essentially bold Blair was, willing to take risks. Looking back ,winning the party over to ditch Clause 4 seems routine, but this book takes us behind the scenes to taste the uncertainty-Robin Cook was totally opposed for instance- and fear of contemplating, planning and then delivering a brilliant coup within a party immersed in its own history which set up his subsequent career as premier. Campbell recognised this courage as Blair's special quality and was attracted, if not wholly seduced by it. Writing in The Sunday Times yesterday, Michael Portillo's article, addressed to Cameron was headed up: 'Charisma won't bring you power David, you need cojones too'.

2.State of Mind of Key Players: Maybe the courage required to survive at this level of politics carries with it penalties inflicted on the mental equilibrium of the top players. In his excellent review of the book Andrew Rawnsley notes Blair seems often at his wits end, in a 'state of panic', especially before making a major speech. This, maybe is understandable- Macmillan used to say answering PMQs was like 'going over the top' in World War I(something, which, of course, he had actually done)- and as the consummate actor, Blair is, performance butterflies go with the territory. Campbell, however, is a different matter. His image has been one of brutal, ruthless efficiency but as a victim of alcoholism and a nervous breakdown, Campbell was by no means what he seemed. He comes over a classic manic depressive, driven, obsessive, frequently weeping and almost socio-pathic, barely sleeping and in a constant ferment of anguish. As Rawnsley notes: He records being 'chronically' then 'clinically' depressed. By January 2000 he is 'homicidal and suicidal'.

And this is when Labour led by a mile in the polls and before Iraq or David Kelly's suicide, when we might think such states of mind were at least merited by circumstance. And when Labour finally wins- in 1997 and 2001- he feels deflated, empty- classic depressive. Campbell, becomes so screwed up the tension blazes off the pages of these diaries. For some hard to fathom reason he loathes the media, of which he himself had been such a prominent practitioner before taking Tony's shilling.

3.Editing: Many have criticised Campbell for excising comment about the dominating theme of Blair's years in power; his unremitting struggle with Gordon Brown. This means the account is seriously incomplete though I for one, a not particularly loyal party member, agree such material would be inappropriate in a volume published at the present time. No doubt Alastair will give us the unexpurgated version sometime in the future when his pension needs a top-up. Another question is whether such diaries should properly appear anyway- but that is another subject.

4. Conclusions: For all their faults, these diaries are a must-read for anyone who wants to see the reality behind the apparently solemn gravitas of government; for students of it, like me, this is a veritable treasure trove. Should we be worried that we are governed by people like this? Yes, we should, but I fear that any modern government would appear to be somewhat similar; given the 24-7 media tension and pressure seem inevitable concomitants to government. The thought which buzzes through my mind as I read these expletive heavily included pages is that Malcolm Tucker, the dominating spin doctor character of The Thick of It, is indeed the perfect fictional, albeit humorous, reflection of this damaged, driven, charismatic and exceptionally able man. How it's author, Armando Ianucci, could capture Campbell so accurately I have no idea.

Rather than Blair's relationship with Brown it is AC's relationship with Tony which dominates the book and surpassing strange it is too. Blair comes over as something more than a brother- he would be the younger and not the older by the way- but more a partner, even a somewhat gay one. Someone possibly in touch with his feminine side, Michael Portillo, comments: The diaries are disagreeably macho, at times almost homoerotic. Campbell and Blair seem to live so close to each other, sometimes in states of undress, 'intimate' really is the word to describe their relationship.

But the most perceptive conclusion I have read to date is provided by Bagehot, the Economist's columnist:

Like many diarists, Mr Campbell is an unreliable narrator. He is megalomaniacal and vain. He thinks Princess Diana fancies him (“there was something about her eyes that went beyond radiance”, he writes, reviving the skills he honed in another former job, as a writer for a pornographic magazine). Everyone keeps trying to calm his misanthropic fury: his wife, Mr Blair, even Mr Clinton. Eventually, you sense that, sad and haunted as he is, the real target of Mr Campbell's ire is himself.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


No More 'Poodling' to USA

Relations with the US are currently undergoing rapid change and the state of policy flux is fascinating for observers of how policy is made and evolves. We have seen a number of moves by Brown's government- one allows the benefit of the doubt that they were choreographed- which have sought to establish a distance between us and our superpower 'cousin'.

1. Appointment of David Miliband as Foreign Secretary: Miliband was known to be less than lukewarm towards Iraq and was opposed to following the pro Israel US line over the 2006 Hezbullah War.

2. Speech by Douglas Alexander in US: this speech by the young cabinet member was widely seen as a criticism of US unilateralism and wider foreign policy.

3. Lord Malloch -Brown's Telegraph interview was similarily interpreted as an attack on US foreign policy when the former UN official suggested we should no longer be 'joined at the hip' to the USA.

Taken together, these three items indicate a marked shift of emphasis away from the Tony Blair policy of 'hugging close' to the US alliance. Too close for the comfort of the majority of those who live within these shores, if the spontaneous eruptions of approval in cinemas all over the country when Hugh Grant's British PM in Love Actually refused to be bullied by Billy Bob Thornton's over-bearing US President, are to be believed. But as the Observer's leader points out today, we still need the relationship if we are to continue being a player at the top tables and Gordon Brown is well aware of this too. Hence his memo to Cabinet in the wake of Alexander's speech stating:

'We will not allow people to separate us from the United States in dealing with the common challenges we face around the world.'

Messy policy muddle or subtly nuanced messages? A bit of both, of course, but more of the latter than the former. Brown has been able to establish signals of his desire for distance to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and they remain potent, despite his public disavowal of their meaning. He has pulled the old lawyer's trick of introducing a forbidden piece of evidence into proceedings the import of which remains with the jury despite being over-ruled by the judge.

Sometime in the future, in his own time, Brown will probably make a speech on foreign policy which will almost certainly reinforce his commitment to the alliance with the US. It may well also indicate he will plough a more independent furrow than his predecessor, but in Washington the message will already have been digested: no more 'poodling' to the White House.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Conrad Black's Tale a Fable for our Times

Of all the fat cats I've ranted about in this blog since I started it in May 2005, (Lord) Conrad Black and his egregious wife, Barbara Amiel(pictured)are by far the worst. Bolstered by great wealth, grand houses around the world and a title he conspicuously did not deserve, Black fuelled his own enormous ego to become, in my book, the most repulsive media mogul of them all.

But not content with being a millionaire, he determined, along with his wife to live like a billionaire and when the golden goose began to lay smaller and smaller eggs, he resorted to fraud, skimming £60m from his public company's finances via a 'non-compete' scam. The world began to harbour suspicions bout the glamorous couples' finances: columnist Margaret Wente wrote:

"Only a few hundred women in the world can afford to dress like Mrs. Black, and Mrs. Black may not be among them."

His company, Hollinger International, eventually set up a special committee established to investigate his activities ; it produced a 500 page report.

One of the reasons the money was needed, the report said, was to "satisfy the liquidity needs arising for the personal lifestyle Black and his wife had chosen to lead." These choices included the purchase or lease of two corporate jets; a $530,000 holiday in French Polynesia; a $2,463 handbag; exercise equipment valued at $2,083; opera tickets for $2,785; a "birthday party for Barbara" at New York's La Grenouille restaurant costing $42,870; contributions to the salaries of a chef, senior butler, guard and chauffeurs at their homes in London, New York and Florida; perfume; food; shopping trips for Amiel; and cash for tips on such shopping trips.

In the wake of the report one judge coined the phrase, 'corporate kleptocracy' But Black refused to accept that he was living beyond his means: 'it is a total fraud that I lived with any extravagance', he argued, maintaining that he was merely living up to 'certain ideas about how the chairman of a big newspaper should behave'. Meanwhile he revelled in the mega parties he threw for the rich and powerful where, according to former associate, Andrew Neill, he used to lean in a corner watching it all in quiet exultation. He had riches, talent, good looks and a place at the top table, when often it was he who owned the table itself. Yet he wanted more- there was no limit to his ambition or appetites.

His wife, was more than his equal in hubris and contempt for the rest of us miserable little people, referring once to 'those smelly people' in cinemas and swearing never again to travel by commercial flight but to use private jets. 'My extravagance knows no bounds' she freely admitted. Truly a parable for our times. Would that a few more of these who exploit to place themselves on high could be brought down to the level they deserve: a term in the slammer.

The Guardian leader today makes a good point when observing that it was shareholders who raised the alarm, not the specially selected powerful directors including Richard Perle and Henry Kissinger. Gordon Brown should take note and further strengthen the power of shareholders to call their directors to account over items like pay and expenses.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Brown is Restoring Traditional PM from Blair's 'Presidentcy'

One of the standard questions I have set for politics students over most of the past decade has been 'Has Tony Blair become more of a president than a prime minister?' Students have tended to like the question and have generally answered it well. It now seems obvious that Gordon Brown could have produced the definitive alpha plus answer: he must have hated Tony's posing and posturing to make himself so much grander than his position merited.

It has not only been appropriate for Gordon to differentiate himself from Tony: the former also wants to downgrade the office to something more traditional. Tony's 'presidential' tendencies were evident in a number of ways: he was impatient with formal procedures and wanted to short circuit them; he preferred personal decision-making with a small group-'sofa government'; he wanted to feature in 'eye catching initiatives' to put him at the centre of events; he had little respect for Parliament and treated Cabinet as a committee which received reports rather than discussed policy. He liked to swan about the world on 'presidential' business as he sought to save civilisation.

We see Gordon intent on dismantling these faux presidential illusions. So Parliament is to be re-enthroned at the centre of the constitution; Cabinet is to discuss genuine major policy issues-the 'sofa' has been thrown on the Number 10 skip along with the Blair media 'celebrity' flummery. His style is to be cautious, more traditional; more in keeping with a modest, more low key Scottish personality. All this is necessary to make his regime to appear 'new' so that voters won't associate their tolerance fatigue for 'Blair's New Labour' with 'Gordon Labour', but it is also conveniently congruent with a Church of Scotland Son of the Manse from Kirkaldy.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Gordon Just Gets Better and Better

It was back on 30th January that we heard Manchester had 'won' the competition to host the first new 'super casino', a 5000 square metre 'temple' to gambling containing 1250 unlimited prize fruit machines. I worried back then that, in line with many studies of the effects of such casinos in the US and Australia, addiction, crime and misery for those least able to cope would be the result of this decision and regretted that it was the party to which I belonged which had sought to introduce such a monstrosity.

Yesterday, I was delighted to see our new PM be truer to his party's values than the man who argued for a nationwide chain of super-casinos, Tony Blair. As the son of a Scottish preacher, this should not be too surprising, though Brown had not vetoed the idea when it was in the formulation stage, so there was some concern it might actually be built. Graham Stringer, former Leader of the City council and now a Labour MP, was full of indignation on Channel 4 News last night but his assurances that the scheme had included special protection for addicts rang pretty thin. It was also clear that John Snow hated the idea of the casinos too and departed, perhaps too openly, from his usual objectivity to indicate such a bias.

Gordon has suggested that 'regeneration' would be a preferable route for Beswick's renaissance rather than gambling. Stringer huffed that it was an insult to suggest the council had not already considered every conceivable form of economic regeneration. But I would have thought Manchester now has a moral arm lock on the Brown to find some funding for east Manchester that was not available before his decision.

Stringer and co. did have some grounds for complaint that neither they nor the Cabinet had been consulted on the decision arrived at after a lengthy consultation process not to mention a hard fought competition with Blackpool. Gordon promised more 'open' government and a return to more traditional democratic processes and to the extent that this decision marked a departure from such a course, this decision was a little concerning. Of which more tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Options Running Out for Bush in Iraq

What happens to US strategy in Iraq matters greatly to the UK as we are bound to be influenced and our soldiers' lives directly put at risk. Following his ignoring of the Iraq Survey Group's recommendations for a multilateral road map out of the conflict he adopted the contrary 'surge' policy of committing another 30,000 in an attempt to break the hold the militias have over Bagdhad and elsewhere in Iraq. It now seems palpable that the surge policy has failed and Bush's free-fall in standing is now accompanied by the slow defection of members of his own Republican party into the Democrat 'bring our boys home now' camp. Even Senator John McCain's presidential campaign is faltering badly through his support of the 'surge' and he may well end up yet another political casualty of the ongoing disaster.

The slaughter of US troops and even more so Iraqi civilians by car bombs, suicide bombers and internecine murder has not reduced much by the influx of the new troops and the great gust of support leaving the Bush standard has caused a current rethink in strategy. As I see it, there are a number of options.

1. Stick the course: Advocates argue that the new troops have only just arrived and need time to make their presence felt. However, others maintain- I think correctly- this path is now virtually impossible as the fighting amounts to a vicious civil war to which the western presence acts as a constant catalyst.

2. Withdraw now: this course is urged by 70% of the US population, now thoroughly disenchanted with the wretched pass the neocon's adventure has come to. People like Simon Jenkins recommends British troops should do the same but I wonder. Withdrawing so quickly would send a 'surrender' message to terrorist groups everywhere and I'm not sure the world would benefit from that. We have to recognise that, in the absence of any other force, the US is still the world's policeman.

Furthermore, exiting the battle field will leave a power vacuum in the Middle East which will be filled by even less palatable forces: the Shia and Sunni militias, Al Quaeda and Iran whose probable entrance into Iraq-some say Iranian influence is already physically present- would bring a Shia nation alongside a Sunni one in the form of Saudi Arabia. However, when the withdrawal occurs- and it will sooner rather than later- it has to be measured and within the context of reasonable stability. Otherwise the very act of withdrawal will be accompanied by massive losses to the 160,000 US troops stationed there.

3. Retreat into fortified bases: This option is considered by Julian Borger yesterday. This would entail:

'a retreat from the firing line in cities such as Baghdad and Baquba and into [the 40 or so] highly-fortified, 'enduring' bases around Iraq. From there, US troops would only emerge in the form of special forces raids or withering air power for specific missions in support of the Iraqi government.' My feeling is that this would not assauge the fighting, would be a death warrant to the Iraqi army and thousands more civilians and might lead to such bases deteriorating into 40 'besieged' bases.

4. Borger also sketches in a 'variant':

'Withdrawal to bases in the region, in Qatar, Bahrain and possibly Turkey, formally ending the occupation but retaining the strategic capacity to intervene under circumstances such as the threat of invasion by one of Iraq's neighbours or the emergence of an al-Qaida statelet in Anbar province.

This would still be a very dangerous course but would at least remove the hated western troops from this benighted Muslim country, would reduce the casualty rate and act as a 'halfway house' between the present and eventual full withdrawal. Bush might be hanging on to hand over the insoluble state of affairs to his 2008 successor but I suspect political forces in the US will demand action well before then. Whether he likes it or not he will have to clear up his own mess and accept full blame for his criminal foolishness- as Blair should but refuses to do so. The options are fast running out.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Gordon's 'All Talents' Strategy Could Go Pear-Shaped

Recruiting Sir Digby Jones(pictured)into his government of 'all talents' was something of a coup for a PM wishing to display his lack of tribalism as well as his bi-partisan sincerity. But I wonder if this success might not come back to bite Brown, even more than it has already? Writing the most fiercely leftwing article I can remember from him, George Monbiotopines:

He[Jones] was the most neanderthal boss the CBI has ever had. Digby Jones campaigned to freeze the minimum wage, neuter the EU's working time directive, block corporate killing laws, promote privatisation, cripple environmental rules, and curtail maternity leave. Of the unions he said: "They are an irrelevance. They are backward looking and not on today's agenda." As if to show who the boss is, Comrade Digby refuses to join the Labour party: he has been permitted to enter the government on his own terms.

Labour loyalists who have waited years for a ministerial portfolio will have harboured savage thoughts in their breasts at the embrace of such a prominent officer of the 'enemy' classes. Jones, moreover, is famous for being outspoken; I'm fairly sure that he is already well 'off message'. Soon the circling media will corner him and ask him his views on Labour policies, reminding him, no doubt, of the quotes used in the Monbiot article, for example. He is unlikely, to his credit, to seek resort in weasel words.

Gordon's idea was to exploit the admitted energy and business expertise of the dynamic right-winger; embarrassment and possible release of his 'catch' might well prove to be the end result in a few months time. Sir Digby Jones, is I suspect a convinced member of the 'business tribe' and, as Brown surely knows, our politics is still fundamentally tribal too. In LBJ's famous metaphor, including someone fiercely independent in government was thought the better option because this person would be 'inside pissing out' rather than 'outside pissing in'. The danger of Sir Digby is that he'll prove to be someone 'inside pissing all over everyone.'

Monday, July 09, 2007


Electoral Reform an Option Gordon Can Keep Available

In The Times a couple of days ago Peter Riddell commented on Gordon's plans to revive government. He approved of the new possibilities of petitions triggering debates in the legislature and other devices to increase participation. His main criticism of proposals to 'consult'- a promise made by both party leaders- is that the assumption behind such exercises is that leaders tell us what they want and then expect us to agree with them.

If we have the temerity to say 'no'- as over a million did in the case of the war on Iraq- the government can ignore with the impunity shown by Tony Blair. It would be nice if popular opposition to measures could be acknowledged and dealt with in some way more respectful of those who have taken the trouble to participate.

More to the point perhaps, Gordon seems to have kept mostly silent about what is for so many people the key reform: changing the voting system. The Guardian leader today considers this issue with some insight. Brown has promised to 'review the various voting systems of the UK'; the leader points out that any such review is bound to expose the anomalies of proportional systems in Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland and for London Authority elections, yet the retention of first past the post for seats in Westminster.

Labour needs to think what might happen when the pendulum of opinion swings to a point which the present bias of the voting system cannot rectify. We hear that while PR is not smiled upon- problems of coalition in Scotland and Wales have made Labour wary-the Alternative Vote is regarded as a possibility. This enables voters to indicate preferences between candidates, precluding the possibility of elections on a minority of the vote. But as the Guardian points out, this is no PR system: in 2005 Labour's 35% of the vote would have translated into an higher figure than 55% of the seats.

I suspect Gordon will keep voting reform an option, standing in the wings, in case his poll ratings have plummeted as the next election approaches. Changing the system might make coalition near inevitable but that would be preferable- as Labour are currently finding in Wales- to any return to opposition or to the near electoral extinction of the eighties.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Middle Classes Complain About the 'Filthy Rich'

The diagram on the right shows that the richest one fifth of the world receives 82.7% of the world's income while the poorest fifth receives only 1.4%. A shocking statistic which, surprisingly perhaps, most people I meet seem to accept with a resignation only slightly tinged with guilt. Divisions between rich and poor in the UK are also huge but the scale is smaller. Yet there are signs that awareness of growing inequality and concomitant indignation are both advancing.

One of the historical problems for socialists has been that the people who are the victims of inequality have been those least able to do much about it. Now, it seems the middle classes are beginning to feel they are being 'ripped off' they the super rich. Madeleine Bunting recently wrote:

'Inequality has been the lonely preserve of hoary class warriors worried about child poverty for much of the past decade. No longer. Inequality has shifted to the centreground of politics; it has been propelled there not, however, by a sudden outbreak of social conscience worried by poverty in the UK, but by the increasingly powerful sense of grievance of middle England'.

Her claim is that the middle classes are feeling the pinch of huge mortgages, rising school and university fees and shrivelling pensions. Meanwhile they are forced to sit back and feel incensed as private equity bosses scoop billions and yet avoid paying tax. As long as the super rich can claim that are 'non domiciled' they avoid the need to pay tax on the income they earn while actually living in the UK. They can also avoid paying stamp duty on property by transferring its ownership to an offshore company.

The wealth of Britain's richest 1000 has quadrupled since 1997 including a 20% jump over the past year. This injection of mega bucks has caused London property prices to soar and send upward ripples throughout the whole country's housing market.
Meanwhile our middle classes have to pay their full whack of taxes to help pay for services enjoyed by the super rich for virtually no tax whatsoever! No wonder the middle classes are beginning to mutter that a tax aimed at those earning over £100,000 might not be such a bad idea after all.

Bunting cites evidence of dissatisfaction being signalled throughout the right-wing press. One such good example appeared in the Sunday Times recently when Rachel Johnson wrote:

There is now a zeitgeisty sense that the tax burden that has settled like an iron yoke across our shoulders floats like a cloak of gossamer over the super-rich – they can’t see it, they can’t feel it, they hardly even know it’s there, because many of them don’t pay much tax. As a result, even they are hearing the distant rumble of tumbrils. While life seems to get more and more expensive, the bourgeoisie are developing murderous feelings for the fat cats at the top of the tree. The new battleground is between the mass of the middle classes, struggling to afford the services and comforts they were brought up to expect, and the micro-class of the super-rich, who are using loopholes and the 10% rates of capital gains tax to turn everything they touch to gold.

'We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich' Peter Mandelson shamelessly said back in 1997, firing the starting pistol for Labour's decade in power to allow precisely that to transpire. The interesting question now is whether Brown, who has allowed London to become in effect a tax haven, will act on a growing sense of unfairness that straddles party lines; and if he doesn't will Cameron get there before him?

Saturday, July 07, 2007


8 out of 10 for Gordon's First Ten days

It's normal to offer an initial assessment on a new leader after 100 days but on the assumption that a week is a long time in politics, I've shortened the schedule somewhat. So how has he done? I offer four headings but you could invent many more of course.

1. Acceptance Speech in Manchester: This wasn't technically part of the 10 days, of course, but it was so close as to make no difference. Many commentators thought it prime-ministerial and impressive but I, possibly suffering from Blair eloquence withdrawal, thought it dull and full of cliches.

2. Government Building: This was adroitly handled and displayed a sure touch in terms of the signals it sent out about youth, competence and inclusiveness though he may find his party's reluctance to accept the maverick Tory, Digby Jones as a minister in the Lords an ongoing problem for a while.

3. Terror: Martin Kettle in The Guardian today suggests the botched terror attempts have done Brown a favour in that they have enabled him to be tested without the additional element of dead British bodies. Kettle points out that Brown and his new Home Secretary have quietened the rhetoric to excellent effect but have not essentially changed the Blair position on relations with the US or the war in Iraq.

4. PMQs: Some people have claimed that Macmillan's mastery of the House at PMQs enabled his reputation to be filtered down via the political editors to the public at large and helped found the basis of his 'Super-Mac' reputation. It's fairly clear this no longer works- if it ever did- as Hague regularly bested Blair at PMQs but lost the 2001 election. But, to be seen to have authority within the politcal system and the country at large it is necessary for a PM to be in charge of the House and PMQs are part, if a small one, of this challenge. I have to confess that I was in a minority in thinking Gordon's debut was competently 'prime-ministerial overall apart from the apparent ompalint about 'only been in the job 5 days' and the clip around the ear he received, unexpectedly from his friend Ming Campbell. Maybe the jousting is so close that any slip or gaffe results in s 'defeat' or maybe his less than bullishly confident tone produced a general verdict of 'poor'.

So overall, this teacher's verdict is, '8 out of 10: pretty good for your first ten days Gordon, but you need to work harder at your PMQs.'

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Could 'Participatory Budgeting' Revive our Politics?

Could it be that the most diminutive member of the cabinet has come up with its biggest idea for some time? The idea is that local communities should have a direct say in local authority spending. Of course, like almost any idea in the public domain, it belongs not to one person and certainly not to the biker loving Ms Blears. It originates in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the city nominated by the UN with the best quality of life in that country. According to the The Guardian, the idea has 'swept through' the more radical Brazilian cities and has now, apparently, made its way across the Atlantic.

It's foolish to get overexcited over something new but, following my post yesterday on the challenge of transforming public indifference to public life into genuine participation, I wonder if this just might be the way forward? Details of the idea are thin in press reports today, but the essence of it is that a proportion of local spending should be set aside and that local people should vote on those areas where spending is thought to be most appropriate. According to the statement Blears will make today, such decisions will be mediated via local debates, neighbourhood votes and town meetings.

As a start she will announce 10 national pilot projects, to include Birmingham, Merseyside, Lewisham, Bradford, Salford, Sunderland, Newcastle and Southampton. In the case of Sunderland the council will set aside £23m of its budget over the next two years for local residents to decide how the money is spent.

The implications of this approach are potentially immense. Much has been said and written by politicians - not to mention academics- about the need to renew politics and involve voters genuinely in its processes. The problem is these processes are too remote and complex to sustain voter interest- they are bored before the topic is even introduced. Consequently they have ignored local politics, looked down on councillors and avoided voting for them. Giving voters a genuine say in allocating resources though is something hugely different.

Disaffected and apathetic citizens might well be drawn to a process which enables them to direct money where they want it to go, be it roads, anti- social behaviour, leisure services or(my hobby horse) clearing up litter. Or voters might decide even this opportunity is one they wish to spurn. Cynicism born of false dawns and many disappointments leads me to suspend judgement until some feedback comes in from those pilot experiments, but I'm fascinated to see if they work or not.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Brown's Governmental Reforms Admirable but are they Sufficient?

I recall Tony Benn for years banging on about the prime minister being in effect a 'medieval monarch' living in Number 10. As so often I assumed he had been exaggerating, as passionate campaigners often do, but Gordon Brown's proposed government changes remind us how accurate Benn's critique was. The irony is, of course, that the person who seeks to dismantle this accumulation of power is probably the best known practitioner of government centralisation since the last war.

The story of our democracy is one of parliament gradually eroding the power of the king until, after a decisive civil war, the power of the monarchy was broken. Instead an office emerged, in the century following the civil conflict, of the most powerful of the king's ministers- the 'prime minister'- who assumed, amongst many other powers, the 'kings prerogative': those powers for which no parliamentary approval was required In other words the PM became a kind of secular monarch. Now these royal powers are to be renounced and handed to parliament- as The Guardian reports:

'The powers in question are to:
· Declare war.
· Request dissolution of parliament.
· Recall parliament.
· Ratify treaties without decision by parliament.
· Make top public appointments without scrutiny.
· Restrict parliamentary oversight of intelligence services.
· Choose bishops.
· Help appoint judges.
· Direct prosecutors in particular criminal cases.
· Set rules governing the civil service.
· Set rules for entitlements to passports and pardons'.

The Ministry of Justice green paper says the "executive should draw its powers from the people through parliament". Many of the powers, the paper says, "derive from arrangements which preceded the 1689 Declaration of Rights".

But this is only a small part of the change proposed; measures are envisaged on the attorney general, civil service independence, statistics and the ministerial code of conduct. All of these proposals seem sensible and likely to command a measure of bipartisan support, something which Brown, in his first, comfortably handled PMQs today is clearly keen to maximise.

Omissions include anything on the monarchy or the electoral system both of which seem increasingly anomalous in present day conditions. The whole package is designed to counter the collapse in trust and the consequent political apathy which has caused so much concern amongst those of us who care about the health of our democracy. Will it do so? I doubt it very much as a positive renaissance of attitude is required to engage voters genuinely with their government. But, like Brown's first few days in his new job, this is a very good start.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Thank God for the Smoking ban

I know all about the arguments re the 'nanny state' and the libertarian view that people should be allowed to do themselves harm should they so choose, but I am still delighted about the smoking ban. I do appreciate however that I am of the species that smokers hate most: a former smoker. We tend to be even more censorious and sanctimonious than those who have never smoked; smokers start to hiss if they discover we read The Guardian as well.

But what a joy it was to call into my local (pictured) last night to join my two fellow members of our quiz team, The Mount Rd Gay Boys(don't ask) and breathe in air that was neither offensive to the nose or offering a carcinogenic threat. We prepared ourselves for victory(we always do), in the expectation that the pollutant free atmosphere would enable our natural superiority to express itself. In the event our very ordinary 16 out of 20 placed us about 5th- and that out of a turnout possibly reduced by the second night of the ban.

When the idea of the Irish ban was mooted I dismissed its practicability: how would nouty, sometimes punchy Irish drinkers accept such a ban? But they did and for the most part, meekly too. The same thing happened in the North of that country, then in Scotland, Wales and now England. According to today's Guardian:

The government wants the smoking rate to fall to 21% by 2010, from 24% now. Come October, it will raise tobacco's age of consent (the legal age for buying the stuff) from 16 to 18. And Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, has made no secret of the fact that he would like this ban to extend further, into people's homes.

I remember laughing at a Garrison Keiller story in which the CIA surrounded the only remaining group of smokers in the US: 'Come on out, we know you're in there'. Maybe Sir Liam read it too and rather than laughing thought it would make a good policy suggestion. Personally, I'd have accepted pubs having the right to nominate a 'smokers' room but MPs voted for the total ban and that suits me and fellow former smokers-killjoys or not- just fine.

Monday, July 02, 2007


Will Gordon Call an Early Election?

Yesterday Michael Portillo- the man incidentally hated by Iain Dale and Conservative Home(see posts of a few days ago) dismissed the idea of an early election, aroused by the appointment of an Election Coordinator(Douglas Alexander) and the (for Tories) worrying Brown bounce in the polls

By the way, last week’s flurry of speculation about an early election was absurd. Brown would call one only if the opinion polls suggested with reasonable certainty that he would improve on his present parliamentary score. That is most unlikely, and we should expect Brown to stick with his built-in domination of the Commons until well into the fifth year of this parliament.

Yet today Jackie Ashley writes:

Brown's decision to lay the ground for an early election, likelier next year than this, seems sensible.

Who is closer to the truth? Portillo's assumption that it's basically about the size of his majority must be wrong: Gordon wants the extra time a victory would provide and prevent him becoming a 'fag-end' PM like Jim Callaghan. Stringing it out until 2010 would be giving a dangerous hostage to fortune and ideally a quick election victory is what Brown would like. But will he call one?

On balance I think not and that the former Tory 'Leader in Waiting' is closer to Brown's thinking. Why?

1.Voters are notorious for punishing the person who inflicts too many elections upon them.

2.An election within a year, as Ashley implies, would give his new team no time to show its paces.

3. Labour is broke. Calling an election within such a short time span would embarrass a party with a debts of well over £12million.

No, I don't see an election until 2009 at the earliest. Unless, that is, Gordon can extract huge early donations from Sir Ronald Cohen and his mates in the private equity business- given recent run-ins with Knacker of the Yard that's not likely either. But the Conservatives, or anyone except Brown of course, will not know for sure and will have to be on permanent, nervous, election alert which will suit Gordon just fine.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Home Grown Terrorists Play into Hands of Racists

The recent book by Ed Hussein, The Islamist: Why I Joined radical Islam in Britain; What I saw and Why I left gives a startling account of the journey taken by one British Muslim into the land of jihad, 'racist' Saudi Arabia, and then, following his disillusion, back to the liberal western values of his homeland. A similar story is told by Hassan Butt in today's Observer ending with the carefully argued injunction to fellow Muslims to 'renounce terror'.

I do so fervently hope his call is heeded as the effects of home grown Muslim terrorism is potentially catastrophic. The attacks of 2005 were bad enough together with the various court cases involving fertiliser bombs, planned attacks on night clubs, shopping malls and the like. But the most recent attacks threaten to rip through the now gossamer thin tolerance British people have for murderous attacks on innocent people perpetrated, for the most part by second generation Muslim immigrants.

Racism, thankfully, is not rife in our country but, since the dawn of society, most communities have wary of newcomers. They are particularly wary of people who do not blend into their host society but insist on retaining and displaying their differences. It is not surprising that the official doctrine of multiculturalism, has not been accepted easily, or at all, in all areas of Britain, especially the poorer inner city areas where incomers inject competition for scarce welfare resources and for work. But the well publicised accounts of how youngsters, raised by the NHS and educated in British schools, went on to calmly plan the blowing to bits of hundreds of their fellow countrymen and women, cannot fail to make a damaging impact on inter-communal relations.

Also extremely damaging are the opinion polls taken of British Muslims indicating that anything from 10 to 20 per cent of British Muslims, sympathise with the bombers. Recent attacks have failed to inflict their planned destruction, for which we must thank the deities, Christian and Muslim, but regular attempts will eventually produce bombs which do explode and kill hundreds or even thousands. It is to be hoped the advice of Hussein and Butt is heeded or else Enoch Powell's dire predictions about the 'Tiber foaming with much blood' will come so much closer to being fulfilled.

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