Thursday, January 31, 2008


Stockport's Falling Crime Rate not Necessarily Believed by Stopfordians

It is with a smidgeon of civic pride that I offer this post as it refers to my home town Stockport, administered by the 19th century pile pictured left. My pride, regular readers will know, does not extend to the cleanliness of its streets which are a disgrace, but it seems we must puff out our chests in respect of crime figures:

The police commander for Stockport has overseen one of the most dramatic reductions in crime of any borough in England and Wales over the past four years. Car theft is down 40%, burglary down 42% and life-threatening attacks down 29%.

How has he done this? 'active police-work' is the answer:

i) criminals are met at the prison gates and told they are being watched in case they aim to break the law again. In addition they are helped with housing, drugs and benefits:

We've had a number of prolific criminals who have simply stopped committing crime. One of the main reasons is we have sorted out their drug habit."

ii) Better links have been maintained with council services and other agencies like the probation service.

iii) Community support officers have reported problems and the full-time boys have sorted them out.

iv) Surprise visits to trouble spots are made at weekends and the police presence has been mightily increased throughout the borough.

However, I'm a bit sceptical about these results. Even well informed professionals refuse to believe crime is going down when car-jackings and armed robberies continue to provide the staple of what is discussed in the pubs and the around the dining tables. Well publicised crime is much more compelling than stories of dramatic crime reductions based on government statistics which are regarded with perennial suspicion by Stopfordians(as we are described) as well as everyone else.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Welcome Return of Some Real Sleaze: the Tory Variety

Those of us in the Labour Party are feeling mightily relieved that the Conservatives have come to our rescue with a return to their 'default' sleaze mode; never can David Cameron have been made more aware of Macmillan's 'Events dear boy, events' dictum. Moreover, Conway's crimes, which resulted in substantial sums ending up in Conway bank accounts, in reality-whatever the Conservative blandishments - easily outscore those of Hain on the 'Sleazometer'. Cameron did well, politically, to supplement the relatively mild sanctions of the Commons (after a some little dithering) with action which has effectively ended the career of the member for the safe seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup. But two aspects of this affair make me think, Labour should not allow this small relief to go to our heads.

Firstly, I suspect there are a lot of MPs up there in Westminster who are feeling nervous about their own employment of family members in exchange for similar amounts of loot and I bet a fair number of them are Labour MPs. Conway's crime may be a widespread up there as expense fiddling is in business. Certainly, the old fashioned notion that all MPs are 'honourable' has been tossed into the garbage bin and from now on, I suspect, regulations will be tightened up and applied much more robustly.

Secondly, Jenni Russell makes the important point that these sums are tiny compared with the real waste caused by government incompetence: IT debacles costing billions for no advantage and the £10bn spent on consultants as documented by former consultant David Craig in his alarming Plundering the Public Sector. As she concludes:

Our indignation at Conway's misuse of £13,000 or £45,000 is as nothing compared to spending on this scale.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Purnell Suggests he Might be Shape of Things to Come

Tony Blair, became very 'legacy conscious' in his final months in charge and soon into his successor's time in office, there were complaints from some Blairites that his welfare reform policy was being dismantled. Blair's approach was to be wholly pragmatic:if private sector provision could do the job more efficiently or cheaply, there should be no inhibitions about embracing it.

I worry about health entrepreneurs steaming into formerly NHS territory, sacking skilled staff and employing new on inferior contracts but apart from that I think Old Labour objections are mostly irrelevant. It seems James Purnell has been sanctioned by Brown to restate the Blairite holy writ on this. This marks a U turn for Gordon from the days when he sought to distance himself from his PM by appealing to the more traditional left-wing elements of his party. Remember his attack on Blair at the 2003 conference? In a clear assault on Blair's centrist vision of New Labour, his peroration was:

'The Labour Party is best when we are boldest,best when we are united, best when we are Labour'[two minute standing ovation]

The next day Blair produced a corruscating oration which squashed Brown's(widely interpreted) attempted bid for leadership then rather than later; Gordon sat glumly staring, refusing to join in with the rapturous applause. Now we hear Brown will today endorse the Freud Report into welfare reform:

Purnell told The Observer that the government will endorse the report and go further. In language that would once have sparked war between the Blair and Brown camps, Purnell said that Labour is 'ideologically neutral' between the three sectors - private, public and voluntary. 'Progressives want to make the world a better place. If people can do that using the private sector, the public sector or the voluntary, why not? We are ideologically neutral between all three; we want to use all three.'

The prominence the former Culture Secretary has been allowed to make this declaration suggests he might be the next Cabinet minister to bear the poisoned chalice of being labelled 'Labour's Future Prime Minister'. David Miliband will be relieved.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Government Snuffs Out Hope of Voting Reform

It was Tony Blair who first gave those of us who support PR, some hope that it might be introduced, by suggesting a referendum might decide if Lord Jenkins' 1998 report might be implemented and PR introduced to the UK. That proved a pretty temporary false dawn as the report was firmly placed on a shelf where it has since acquired many layers of dust. When Gordon Brown came into office reformers allowed their hearts to beat a little faster once again as Gordon Brown promised a new review of PR. The drama of Peter Hain's resignation has obscured it but on Thursday 24th November, the government published the results and any expectations raised were then dashed.

The review concludes that in the devolved assemblies, where PR is used, 'voters were confused'. It went on to assert that:

i)If PR was introduced in Westminster elections, constituencies could be represented by more than one MP.

ii)But there is no guarantee PR would increase turnout in a general election or make Parliament more diverse.

iii)It also warns that it could cause complications between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Michael Wills, junior Justice minister added the words which consign any chance of voting reform back onto that dusty shelf with:

We hope this review will inform that ongoing debate but we do so in the firm belief that the current voting system for UK general elections works well, and that any future change would require the consent of the British people in a referendum.

So, the fact that PR has been thought necessary for all the devolved chambers has been totally ignored and the allegation that it 'confuses' voters used to deny voters the same democratic fairness enjoyed by most of the countries in Europe. Anyone looking for a more detailed and even more disgusted analysis of this pathetic piece of cynicism should check out Paul Linford, here.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Hain's Vaulting Ambition Ultimately Damages Gordon

Michael White in The Guardian today reviews Gordon's position and how he must be ruing his lack of action on Peter Hain a month ago when the perma-tanned one's alleged crimes seemed so much of a lower order. Having Darling sort out the capital gains furore seemed to have adjusted Labour's course to something approximating the right direction. Brown had already made strides to re-order his own office: the precocious Jeremy Heywood(see picture) had been appointed to the new post of permanent secretary to Number 10(Sir Burke Trend used to say it was the Cabinet Secretary who effectively filled this role for the PM but times have changed); and the role of chief of staff had been given to newcomer Stephen Carter(ditto right). But ill fortune seems to be dogging Brown.

Not that he does a great deal to help himself, as his hapless display at PMQs again illustrated, but the Hain affair is a below the watermark hit. Hain, a good minister by all accounts but never popular in the Labour Party because of his somewhat 'loner' persona, paid for his lack of personal warmth in the tea-room by with an absence of backbench support when the chips were down-often the decider with resignations of this kind. White suggests that whilst his radical bona fides are impeccable, his initial choice of Liberal when joining British politics has always been held against him. He has always been openly ambitious but how he must regret the vaulting that led him to think being deputy party leader was a genuine step up.

If he had avoided that trap he would still be Secretary for Work and Pensions and, (not forgetting the after-thought of Wales). As for Gordon, he will have to start again from scratch at relaunching his standing with the public and the political class. He's still got plenty of time but how often do you have to fail before being labelled a 'no-hoper'?

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Intellectual Ideas Motivating Blair and Bush's Invasion of Iraq

I see that Jonathan Steele has backed up his excellent series of articles culled from his Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq, with another calling for an inquiry into the war's diplomatic provenance. On Tuesday night I chaired a lecture by Professor Inderjeet Parmar(Manchester) on this same subject. He offered a fascinating analysis based on a more socio-intellectual study of the two main enthusiasts for the war. He argued that:

1. Blair's Calvanist education and study of 19th century Liberal philosophers, plus his own 'discovery' of Christian socialism at Oxford led him to support a 'neo-imperial' mission to re-order the world.

2.Both Blair and Bush agreed that the post-1989 period represented 'wasted time', years of drift that could have been used to press home Anglo-American dominance. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, so the argument ran, Washington had missed the chance to move decisively and impose a Pax Americana.

3. 9-11 provided the golden opportunity to exploit the resultant state of flux and move to create a different world with a more interventionist agenda.

4. In addition both leaders were moved by:

i) The 'Democratic Peace Theory' which argues that democracies don't fight each other and that therefore its spread could make war obsolete.

ii) The 'Democratic Transition Theory' which asserts that democracy can successfully be transplanted into a former autocracy, even if no traditions exist therein of democratic traditions or any sympathetic civil society.

I suppose the final piece of the jig-saw was provided by the religious beliefs both shared which convinced them they had somehow been chosen to do His work to engineer good works and remake the world according to His wishes. Such fallacies, one suspects underlie many similar disasters into which well meaning leaders have dragged their reluctant armies.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Let's Hope this is the Last of the Ravings About Princess Diana

Max Hastings doesn't always write the sort of analyses with which I naturally agree but his comments on the Diana inquest are spot on. Ten busy years after her death it seems so many people still don't want to let go of her. The result has been an unseemly peep show in which we are invited into the most intimate details of her life: her contraception methods, her menstrual cycle and so forth. Maybe this is the natural consequence of her love affair with the media but it is no less palatable for that.

At the heart of the process seems to lie the curious psyche of Mohamed al Fayed, the multi-millionaire owner of Harrods and Fulham FC. Any father can understand his grief at losing his son and why he might have entertained some slightly bizarre explanations of how his death came about. Having lost something so precious it is not so hard to understand a father might reject the banality of the 'tragic accident' explanation. But to construct a conspiracy theory involving the Duke of Edinburgh and MI5 and to rubbish any contradictory information as part of that same conspiracy, seems to constitute symptoms of a truly unbalanced mind.

Like Hastings also, I find it hard to understand the role of Michael Mansfield QC, one of the most high profile and genuinely distinguished lawyers in the country. To be the instrument of Al Fayed's efforts to prove his weird fantasy is fact must be truly demeaning. Being a 'taxi for hire' as Rumpole of the Bailey used to describe barristers, is one thing, but doesn't the taxi driver usually reserve the right to refuse certain passengers?

With hindsight, when this sorry affair is over, I bet he'll wish 'pressure of work sadly forbids' had been his response to the Harrods' owner. My one sincere belief from all this distasteful episode is that the ghost of the doomed princess has finally been laid to rest but while the Daily Express still has papers to sell and al Fayed continues to exist in his alternative dimension, I suspect I might be wrong even on this.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Iraq War Needs Official Inquiry

A new book by Jonathan Steele of The Guardian, throws unflattering light on both Tony Blair and the Foreign Office's planning of the Iraq War. It shows that:

1. The Foreign Office failed to warn of any likely adverse consequences despite an open to letter to Blair from 52 former diplomatic officials to the region that an invasion would be a disaster:

All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case. To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful," they declared.

2. Blair consulted academic experts on Iraq only once and then failed to listen to their warnings. George Joffe received the impression of: "someone with a very shallow mind, who's not interested in issues other than the personalities of the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc". When these experts failed to convince him of what he had already decided he must do, he just ignored their advice.

3. Christopher Segar, who took part in Whitehall's Iraq Policy Unit's prewar discussions and later headed the British office in Baghdad immediately after the invasion, said: "The conventional view was that Iraq was one of the most Western-oriented of Arab states, with its British-educated, urban and secular professionals. I don't think anyone in London appreciated how far Islamism had gone."

4.'the real problem was a failure to comprehend that western armies cannot successfully take over Arab countries and force them to run along western lines. The occupation was doomed from the start. No matter how efficient, sensitive, generous and intelligent the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had been, it could not have succeeded. Occupations are inherently humiliating. People prefer to run their own affairs; they resent foreigners taking over their country.

It seems the Conservatives will renew their call for an official enquiry into the the genesis and conduct of the war on Thursday in the Lords. After the Falklands War, after all, Margaret Thatcher did allow the Franks Report to be produced. The difference might just be that the Falklands was a relatively clinical successful military operation while the Iraq affair long ago morphed into the biggest western disaster since Vietnam. If Labour has any sense of honour, it will agree set up an independent inquiry into the provenance and conduct of the war. I'm not optimistic...

Sunday, January 20, 2008


The EU Treaty Should be Ratified

Ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, signed in the summer(see picture), will prove to be the first really big parliamentary challenge for Gordon Brown's government. Just as his recent travails have led to comparisons with John Major's avalanche of disasters in the nineties, so he is faced with a replay of Major's problems over the Maastricht Treaty way back in 1993 when he actually threatened a general election to counter rebels in his own party. Now Gordon has a much bigger majority- 66 to Major's measly 21- but there are rumours that Labour might have as many as 120 MPs-including 4 former ministers plus Jack Straw- who believe a referendum should be held on the treaty.

In the 2005 election all the main parties promised a referendum on the then draft new EU constitution. The defeat of the draft in the French and Dutch referendums, relieved Blair of a fight he would have lost at that time but the status of the redefined version of the constitution, lies at the heart of the current problem: is it 95% the same as the earlier draft, as so many claim or is merely an 'amendment' of existing arrangements? It would seem the former is almost certainly the case and that Labour has a moral duty to offer the vote to the nation. The Labour controlled Foreign Affairs Select Committee will conclude just this in its report today.

Listening to Europe minister Jim Murphy MP on The World this Weekend, the government's case sounds unconvincing: there are no major changes proposed and the majority will be healthy as in previous cases with the EU. But he waffled and talked over the interviewer as if trying to use up time to minimize embarrassment. The Lib Dems, however, have come to the rescue by abandoning their position and deciding to abstain on the issue. We also learn from The Observer article, linked above, that:

Ministers are confident they will defeat the referendum calls, even when the treaty goes to the Lords, because they have embarked on a lengthy lobbying campaign to explain to MPs and peers how the measure will benefit the environment, international development and children's rights. Jim Murphy, the Europe minister, told The Observer the ratification process would highlight how the Tories are more marginalised in Europe than they were under Margaret Thatcher because no EU government or official opposition party shares their rejection of the treaty. David Cameron has suggested that as Prime Minister he would re-negotiate the treaty, a process that can only be launched with the agreement of 14 member states once it has been fully ratified.

I suspect Murphy is being deliberately bullish and that the arithmetic is much closer than he says. Despite Labour's promise and its unconvincing blandishments, I hope the treaty is ratified at the end of what will probably be a bitter parliamentary fight. The world faces huge problems like global warming, the exhaustion of its finite resources, terrorism and international crime. The only way to deal properly with such problems is via international action and the EU represents a sign of hope that such action is not as impossible as history would suggest. If Labour has to forego its manifesto pledge on a referendum to ratify the treaty, then it would be worth it purely in terms of advancing internationalism, let alone protecting the viability of a government,which, for all its faults, much superior to the Conservative alternative.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Do we Really Want Honest Politicians?

Today Simon Hoggart criticises politicians who maunder on about 'hope' and 'optimism', condemning it as 'clap hands if you believe in fairies' territory. He goes on to discuss whether politicians should not eschew all forms of spin and rhetoric in favour of the unvarnished truth:

An honest politician would say: "Look, the world economic situation is desperate; you won't be able to afford your mortgage, and you probably couldn't sell your house if you needed to; more terrorists are being trained every day; and some scientists think the world is going to become a ball of dust in a generation. There's not much I can do about it, but I'll do what I can, and at least I won't con you into expecting anything better."

It's a noble ideal but if someone offered the above degree of honesty while skilled communicators offered, in silken terms, an apparently genuine chance of solutions to such problems, the chances are, say I, that voters would go for reassuring hope rather than depressing truths. It's not that politicians are inherently liars or dissemblers, it's more that we usually prefer the enhanced rose coloured version to the the grim reality. This was not the case with Churchill's 'blood tears and sweat', but in his case the worst scenario, the war, was upon us and his aggression appealed to a desperate nation.

But it was still the hope which he conveyed through his leadership which strengthened our parents/grand-parents' resolve.Bertrand Russell said that he 'would rather be mad with the truth than sane with lies'. Hoggart might agree that the former is the preferred condition but I suspect most people would vote for the latter.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Do we Need a New 'Transportation' Strategy for Teenage Yobs?

Reading stories like the one about the teenage killer on bail who persistently re-offended no matter what, prompted a connection with another article a few pages on detailing how a misbehaving German youth has been sent for nine months to a village in Siberia where he will have to fend for himself in a specially devised programme. I recall a taxi-driver in Los Angeles, who advised the way to beat gang crime in his city was to send all these anti-social members to a big island and force them to get along together. I was rather pleased, at the time, with my reply: 'It's been tried and it's called Australia.'

Anyone who has visited this wonderful country cannot fail to be amazed how it was effectively founded by convicts: the 18th and 19th century criminal urban under-classes of Britain. It took more than a few generations but it worked in the end and suggested that criminal tendencies are not genetic but are socially generated. Transportation ceased in the mid nineteenth century and such a severe option, quite rightly, is no longer available. However, we still seem to have no answer to the sort of behaviour inflicted by the 19 year-old Adam Swellings on the Newlove family. Whatever is done fails to solve the problem of extreme and violent behaviour and the vulnerable peaceful sections of society are forced to live with the consequent anxiety not to mention tragedies when made victims.

I just wonder if the Germans have not cottoned on to something here. We no longer have colonies to provide the setting but there are infinite amounts of unfriendly environments which would provide opportunities for such feral products of our imperfect western societies to discover the fundamentals of communal social life and redeem some of the the shortcomings in their own. Countries like Russia, Canada, parts of Africa and Asia might even capitalize on the advantages their unwelcoming interiors provide and set up settlements designed to reclaim the lost youth of the developed countries. Just an idea.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Ulrich Beck's Vision of New World Order is Whistling in the Wind

Ulrich Beck 's name is well known as a profound thinker on social theory but I thought his article yesterday was, despite its elegant style, fundamentally a bit lightweight. He argues that the pressing problems facing the world are not soluble via 'nation state' politics. Instead he cites the success of the EU as a template for the future. He sees the EU as based upon the values of the Nuremburg trails which 'went far beyond the sovereignty of the nation state', 'broke with the previous nation state logic of international law' and formed a 'community of nations'.

He excoriates the traditional ethnocentric nationalistic approach which has caused so much suffering and invokes the spirit of the EU as the basis of a new world:

The answer to global problems that are gathering ominously all around and that refuse to yield to nation-state solutions is for politics to take a quantum leap from the nation-state system to the 'cosmopolitan state'[ie E.U.] system. More than anywhere else in the world, Europe shows that this step is possible. Europe teaches the modern world that the political evolution of states and state systems is by no means at an end.

Oh wouldn't it be nice. Unfortunately visions of a new world order are not at all new and have been proffered in the past by a pantheon of well meaning intellectuals, from Bertrand Russell and Leonard Woolf to modern day advocates of world government like George Monbiot. But the League of Nations and the UN proved ineffective as embryos for any kind world authority simply because different states, with different cultures and perceptions of the world, refused to sacrifice their sovereignty for anything wider.

Beck is right that the EU, based upon mutual economic interest, has proved a huge success in that it has negated any future outbreaks of the wars which devastated the world during the last century and created a 'community' of some 500 million people with millions more knocking on the door. But the basic unit of world politics, despite globalization, is still the nation state and it is the incompatibilities between them- not to mention within them- that makes the idea of any new logic in international relations merely more of the wishful thinking which characterised so much of the interwar period and proved impossible to realise.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Peter Hain Looks Like 'Toast'

I used to admire Peter Hain quite a bit: his campaigning against apartheid was brave and sustained; his shift into labour from the Liberals was understandable for a man ambitious to succeed in politics; and even his elevation to the Cabinet seemed merited. But actually in office he has failed to impress so much and I'm not sure why. People who don't like him blame his 'perma-tan' and, as with Tony Blair when he assumed a strange 'orangeness', it does seem a tad too self absorbed and undignified.

But I think that in the end, it's not the vanity, or the overly naked ambition, it's his appearance of being too much part of the power elite, too 'Establishment' which deflects current admiration- an ironic criticism perhaps, to aim at a former maverick rebel. So friends do not seem to be too much in evidence just at the moment, when his future hangs in the balance. But looking objectively at the facts, it is not surprising that he is exposed.

To lose sight of, say, a hundred pounds, or even a few hundred, in an election contest, is kind of understandable- the rush of events, the lack of sleep during a campaign and so forth- but a hundred thousand pounds? Personally, I wonder what candidates were doing with such sums given the vacuous nature of the job for which they were all fighting. This 'oversight' speaks either of gross incompetence or wilful deception. It is, frankly, surprising he is still in post.

And that 'front' of a think tank which channelled money into his coffers sounds like a sleazy money laundering operation. So far Gordon has stood staunchly by his minister, fearing his 'relaunch' will be scuppered by the embarrassment of a resignation. But with the police investigation likely to be initiated by the Electoral Commission, I suspect the greater threat to Brown's administration will soon become the further retention of his Secretary for Work and Pensions. The thin thread by which his ministerial career hangs will, I suspect, soon be severed.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Ken V Boris Promises a Close Contest for London Mayor

While everyone, (including me) is enthusing at the exciting nature of the US presidential election, we seem to have forgotten our own close run thing scheduled for May when Ken takes on Boris. We learn from The Economist that, at 45% in the polls Ken is only one point in front of Boris. The Lib Dem candidate, gay former policeman, Brian Paddick, seems to be nowhere in such polls at the moment.

We also learn that:

1. The mayor's budget is up from £3.8bn in 2001-2 to a current £10.6bn.

2. Ken now has powers not only over transport(60% of budget) and police(31%) but also culture, economic development, planning and the environment plus learning and skills.

3. Whilst his powers are much less than that of his New York equivalent, he is less constrained by his legislature- the London Assembly has only the blunt instrument of a veto on his annual budget.

So who will win this currently close contest? My money has to go with Ken. His association with Labour is a disadvantage of course right now, but his cheeky - chappie persona still resonates with Londoners; his congestion charge still earns respect(maybe undeserved- London was as congested as ever last time I visited); and his considerable experience reassures, even if his behaviour frequently doesn't.

Boris, meanwhile promises fun and laughs but has no experience of running anything apart from The Spectator and various extra-marital affairs. But the fact that he attracts so much support means he is a real contender and the contest promises to draw out more than the measly 37% who turned out in 2004.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


The Value of Adult Education

I spent most of my professional life in university adult education and so the topic raised by a small piece in The Observer today caught my eye. It's about the fact that a new approach to adult education is in the mix. The idea here is that groups of adults will be able to 'hire' teachers to provide them with expertise; so they'll have a kind of 'voucher' to access the education they need or want. The courses would aim to be intrinsically interesting without qualifications rather than, as at present, certificated and hence deemed 'economically useful'.

Most of our extra-mural courses were pure liberal adult education- people would attend to study literature, art, history, or, in my case, politics. It's hard to gauge how useful one's career has been in terms of what it has given to people but I like to think those who came- and still come- to my classes, not to mention the many thousands who flocked to such classes, enjoyed the experience of sharing their learning with other adults as well as actually learning quite a bit into the bargain. Evidently, the Conservative government in the eighties did not agree. Courses like ours were seen as a luxury people would have to pay for and subsidies for them was progressively lowered until extra-mural departments became no longer viable in the UK and now all of them have been disbanded, their staff either retired or absorbed into their parent universities.

Labour, much to my disappointment, did nothing to remedy this situation; rather, they argued that resources should be allocated so that young people without qualifications should receive priority. The logic of this was ground out at Manchester in that all subsidy has now been removed from adult courses. Instead of being £50-60 for ten meetings, with concessions for OAPs and those on low incomes, fees have been hiked up to £130 for ten meetings with no concessions. For its first year of operation classes were decimated and I suspect the whole programme will bite the dust come next session.

While I agree youth should receive priority when educational funds are divvied up, I do not think that recreational courses for adults should be priced beyond the reach of ordinary people. Adults deserve the chance to improve their quality of life through study and, as so many medical studies show, to extend their healthy lives through keeping their brains active and their social lives active too. I hope this new initiative will help to achieve such ends though am sceptical that this government can convert any policy intention into beneficial reality.

Friday, January 11, 2008


UK Soon to be Separate Countries Prediction

Yesterday's article by Iain Macwhirter(no relation to Norris and Ross) was a penetrating analysis of the way Devolution is going. I recall that following the Kilbrandon Report in 1973, devolution was devised as a device to draw the sting of the nationalist threat. The Conservatives opposed it at first but have now changed tack while nominally supporting the union along with Labour and the Lib Dems. However Macwhirter tells us the nationalists-sting very much undrawn- are winning hands down:

1. They control or share control in all three Celtic fringe countries.

2. They are, like Scotland, developing 'distinctive social policies' of their own and are advancing claims to 'repatriate'certain powers as well as a swath of other objectives.

The pace of policy differentiation is increasing dramatically as the subordinate legislatures begin to feel their strength. They are now feeding off each other and joining in tactical alliances.

3. Cardiff is seeking to match the powers granted to Edinburgh's powers of primary legislation. Even Wendy Alexander, Scottish Labour leader, now supports this line, in opposition to that of her countryman in Number 10.

4. Federalism now seems the 'least worst option for Westminster'. Cameron's proposal of an 'English grand committee' composed only of English MPs to decide English matters is a plan for a de facto English parliament. If the Lib Dems do a deal to form a coalition after the next election, 'federalism is inevitable'.

Macwhirter concludes:

There is unstoppable momentum now behind the disaggregation of the UK, and time is running out for the political establishment in Westminster to respond.

I'm not sure if Macwhirter supports or opposes these developments but his analysis is hard to rebut. The key weakness in his reasoning is that he overlooks the fact that a majority resist the notion of separation in Scotland, and, given its lower salience in Wales, there too. But his analysis sort of takes care of this key point by suggesting that Salmond is engaged on a 'salami slicing' strategy whereby Scots-by virtue of their animus against London- support each individual call for more autonomy until separation is achieved virtually by stealth. Get ready to show your passports once you've passed Carlisle.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Gordon like Rabbit in Headlights at PMQs

My picture shows Gordon looking keenly at Tony as the latter conducts his last PMQs. But he doesn't seem to have learnt anything from such scrutiny. As I no longer have a class on Wednesday mornings, I thought I'd watch a session of PMQs right through just to see how Brown performs. The answer is... not at all well. Right from the start his body language, not to mention his spoken version as well, bespeaks a man not in control of the situation. He is fine when fielding questions from his own side- some of them no doubt planted anyway- but facing Cameron, the man who is actually in full control- is clearly an ordeal for him.

Taxed on ID Cards, he stuttered and started, like an old car on a cold morning. His head seems to veer away as if to avoid seeing his tormentor and he constantly seeks out his comfort zone of the economy and his famously impeccable record compared to that of the Opposition. Trouble is, that this record has been played so often even his own side are wearying of raising any loyal cheers. Far from being a 'great clunking fist' as we had been promised, Gordon lumbers around like an overweight elephant, presenting a barn door o0f a target for the nimble Cameron.

I noticed too that the Tories have improved their own act somewhat. Dave now slips in additional questions and sneers when asking his allowed number of questions, to maximise Brown's discomfort. Also, when Gordon tried to counter attack by accusing Cameron of delivering lines rehearsed in front of the mirror(didn't a journalist suggest this line of defence?), the whole front bench collapsed with laughter, much to Brown's evident mortification. Brown needs to work harder to combat his tormentors as he only encourages them at the moment. But I wonder whether he can ever acquire the lightness of touch needed to deflect these really rather pathetic attacks; I suspect handling PMQs is either something one has-like Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Blair or one lacks. For the first PMQs of 2008, I fear, one would have to place Gordon in the latter category.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Hillary IS the 'Comeback Kid'

Well, my last post somehow seemed to summon up that 'comeback', the amazing news of which awakened me this morning on the Today programme. The polls in The Times yesterday gave Obama a 10-12% lead but, not for the first time the pollsters were confounded as Clinton delivered a win 39% to 37%. This was especially crushing for the Senator for Illinois as his team had predicted a major success well before the vote was over; all the news broadcasts last night on BBC, Channel 4 and the like predicted the same. James Naughtie suggested it was this pre-emption of his victory which prompted a backlash- I suspect her machine was just super competent at getting the vote out: middle aged women and senior voters, the bedrock support of the party.

As I've indicated, I'm keener on Hillary's competence than Obama's undoubted charisma. The article by David Aaonovitch yesterday reinforced my suspicion that the younger candidate has not thought through his positions with any real care. His bandwagon has suffered a major jolt but the contest is now fully open once again. My money would now narrowly favour Clinton's professionalism and resources over Obama's flair and devoted following. But future primaries leading up to North Carolina and then 'Super Tuesday' in February, will effectively decide the nomination.

Meanwhile McCain has come through to beat Romney as the polls predicted, making it even odder that they called the Democrats wrongly. Guliani, who did not campaign openly mustered a derisory vote and one has to question whether his strategy of keeping his powder dry until a later stage is correct. He has missed an awful lot of media exposure and allowed the ex Vietnam soldier- himself written off some weeks ago- to build up formidable momentum. My 'dream ticket for November would be Hillary for president with Obama for vice president. I reckon that would overwhelm anyone the republicans might manage to put up- even that masterful senior citizen, John McCain.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Now Hillary Has to Be a 'Comeback Kid'

Given the economic and political dominance of the USA worldwide, their elections are maybe as important to us-or even more so-than the ones we have over here. And currently, the next presidential election is showing signs of marking a seismic shift in US politics. In other words, right now, US politics is much more exciting than our domestic scene. I'm not sure about other left of centre Brits, but my natural leanings have been towards Hillary Clinton. Apart from the fact that I was a huge fan of her husband- his (im)morals notwithstanding-she has impressed me with her total mastery of the whole field of politics; a lifetime of being first lady in Arkansas and the White House, plus Senator for New York State, has honed her alpha plus mind into something really impressive.

So I was a more than a little dismayed by the Iowa result, registering a 10 point victory for Obama and reducing the only woman in the race to third place. She's still in there with a chance but her momentum has been totally dispersed and she has to start all over again in New Hampshire which votes in two days time. A perceptive US analysis by Michael Crowley in today's Observer suggests Iowa represents a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates; young people have voted against the US political status quo. For the Republicans, the moneyed campaign of former governor Romney proved a turn-off and for the Democrats, young voters rejected the 'machine politics' as represented by Hillary Clinton. But whilst Huckabee's success will almost certainly be short-lived(he is essentially a weak candidate with little to say), Obama could just be the shape and colour of things to come.

There is no doubt that Obama has charisma in abundance and is an inspiring speaker; some have drawn comparisons with JFK or his brother Bobby. Whilst I would love to see a radical renewal of the US left, and a black person in the White House to boot, my sense is that America is still too fundamentally racist a country to elect a black man as president: faced with a choice, they would vote in another Republican. Happily none seem as desperately ill equipped as George Bush- though Guliani sounds worryingly as hawkish-but the world has had more than enough of neo-conservative disasters and it is time for the Democrats to repossess Washington.

The next few days will reveal if Iowa was a blip or evidence of a youth led groundswell to the left. The 'old guard' will not give up without a fight and we'll see the Republican contest open up with the (impressive) McCain and Guliani now included. Hillary is determined to hit back and there are signs she'll overdo the aggression towards Obama, but the political science professor on Radio 4 this lunch time was persuasive in his view that Hillary will make a comeback as assured as her husband's in 92 and win the nomination for two reasons her opponents need to recognise: 'she's smarter than you, and a whole lot meaner than you too'. Mind you, he might have said that before we heard of the 10 point lead Obama has already opened up in the New Hampshire primary.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Balls as Good as his Name

Andrew Porter's interview with Ed Balls today in the Telegraph is a useful primer for engaging in the seasonal past-time of looking into the future. As a Brown sceptic from way back, I've never been a fan of the allegedly brilliant former Treasury minister. Bower's biography of Gordon points at Balls as the source of quite a bit of negative briefing and some inside sources have suggested he was the most gung ho of Brown's trio of close advisers who led Brown to misjudge that snap election rescinded on 6th October, a date that may come to rival the Tories' Black Wednesday in terms of its negative impact on a party's fortunes.

And yet, according to Balls, I'm way off target here. In his interview, he agrees Brown's fortunes rose and fell precipitously but does not include the non-election as a contributory reason: it hardly happened, it would seem:

"You can talk about cancelled elections until the cows come home, but no one out there is. It has not been a big issue for the public. I don't think it will have any impact on the general election result in a year-and-a-half's time."

Maybe Ed is right- and I hope he is- but my feeling is that the 'election that never was' marked the crucial error from which much else has flowed, not least Brown's surrender to Cameron, any aspiration to shine at PMQs. Black Wednesday was the kiss of death for the Tories, even though most people did not understand the complex economics behind it. On October 6th most people did understand Brown had blundered and was then offering bogus reasons as excuses rather than accept that his own poll based calculations had crashed and burned.

This may be slightly fanciful, but if politics is like a game, that mistake, for me, was like a missed penalty which takes the wind out the team and somehow causes all kinds of subsequent missed chances and own goals. I just hope Labour has clicked back into harmony within the 18 months Balls says we have until the election is due.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


How Useful are US Primaries?

Very often we are told by admirers of the US political system that we old fashioned Brits should brush up on our democracy and adopt primaries as our means of selecting candidates. Well, many, if not most parliamentary candidates these days are selected by party gatherings which vote having heard presentations by all the hopefuls. As for the top job, we all know it's the party leader- also a humble MP- who occupies this role in our parliamentary set-up. US primaries do provide a means of winnowing out the weaker candidates early on through their presentation-often door to door- to the voters in each state. But this difference doesn't stop primaries being advocated for the UK.

Iowa uses a caucus system entailing detailed discussions between activists as to the merits of each candidate; New Hampshire is a bigger state but no less heavily canvassed by those pitching to lead the western world. So, the argument runs, these early tests subject presidential hopefuls to the discriminating judgement of voters following intensive inspection. America's laisser-faire democracy, it is said, moreover, encourages healthy representation from all shades of opinion.

It's a seductive argument but in favour of our system we can point to:

1. The relative absence of money from our elections [mark, I said 'relative' as party funding is of course a major issue right now]. In the US candidates require huge sums; we read today that both Clinton and Obama have raised $100 million each even before the Iowa caucuses.

2. There may be plenty of early runners in this democratic race but it's money which inflicts the most destructive winnowing. Third party candidates are often mega rich, like Ross Perot and the eventual result-I realise this year it could just be different- always seems to produce a rich middle class white male of moderate views from one of the big parties.

3. The US system is so drawn out; it begins almost as soon as the last election has finished and gets properly under way some two years before the date of the poll. I couldn't see the short attention span of British voters surviving such a test.

4. The British system may be less democratic but selection of our leader is initially delegated to party members in our legislature, and then passed down to us, the voters. Maybe this delegation is wise; MPs will know the strengths and weaknesses of their colleagues much better than the average voter and our system is unlikely to throw up a retired actor or the mere much less competent son of a former leader.

We do need more democracy in our system, but perhaps ultimately, the US political system is best left to US voters.

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