Friday, February 29, 2008


So Farewell then, Plastic Bags: You Won't be Missed

Using the turtle picture (right) the Daily Mail yesterday declared itself against plastic bags. Public opinion is a strange beast. At times it seems immovably selfish and conservative- for years the overuse of plastic bags seemed not to cause a ripple of concern, whilst supermarkets in Ireland charging for them virtually changed the culture back to using 'proper' shopping baskets and other cities abroad, like San Francisco got the message. It seems like pressure builds up over time and then, suddenly, a collective epiphany occurs. And in the most unlikely places, like the Daily Mail for instance.

The paper credited with a direct hotline to Middle England, points out that the 13 billion bags handed out each year are both an unnecessary expense and threat to the environment from the point of view of litter, danger to certain animals and the fact that it takes 1000 years for them to biodegrade.

A Press Association release shows that the culture is finally changing, with usage of bags dramatically declining by 8%, 2006-7. With Sainbury's and M & S also getting in on the act, it seems the demise of the bag is nigh. Great news, say I, together with the hope that the next cultural change, gestating slowly and painfully onto the agenda, will be a determination to stop the nation drowning in litter.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


We All Have a Duty to Offer Local Leadership

I feel guilty about local government. There, I've said it. The thing is I have come to feel so angry and frustrated and impotent at so many things: litter, poor recycling, poor care of roads and public buildings, complete lack of response by the Town Hall to my complaints and calls for action. I campaign for labour council candidates but when asked to stand myself I demurred. I'm not sure if I am just avoiding the responsibility which I feel we all share in such matters, or wisely refusing to do something I think I won't be much good at. So I end up feeling vaguely guilty that there is something I should be doing which I am not.

So the article by Simon Jenkins yesterday made me feel even a little more guilty. He argues that local government has lost something-

A tier of social control has been lobotomised from British public life. There is nothing between the individual or family unit on one hand and the central state on the other.

-going on to quote De Toqueville:

"every man is a stranger to the destiny of others. He is beside his fellow citizens but does not see them ... while above them rises an immense and tutelary power, that of the state".

He contrasts UK with other countries, observing that in most other western countries, there are always elected officials to offer leadership when problems arise. And they will be known by their constituents. Civic leadership by elected mayors has led the renaissance of US cities, as it has also in Spain and Eastern Europe. In the UK local elections no longer impact on vital public services- long since having fled to other even more anonymous agencies- and the size of local authority units make it difficult anyway, for people to relate to this level of government:

In France there is an elected official for every 120 people, which is why French micro-democracy is alive and kicking. In Germany the ratio is 1:250; in Britain it is 1:2,600. In France the smallest unit of discretionary local government (raising some money and running some services) is the commune, with an average population of 1,500. In Germany that size is 5,000 people. In Britain the average district population is 120,000, and even that body can pass the blame for any service deficiency to central government.

Jenkins concludes that, as a result of local government being stripped of its functions and independent funding, we 'have come to regard democracy as we do 'weddings and funerals- a ritual to be endured as briefly as possible'. He dismisses Brown's attempts at 'conversations' as 'top-down paternalism'. He finishes with:

Democracy bites only when it votes, taxes and delivers. Only then do its participants have the legitimacy to enforce social responsibility and communal discipline.

The problem is, not enough people- like me and many thousands of others- who are concerned, educated and, to some degree at least, able- are prepared to get stuck in and do the job of representing their fellows- accepting the challenge of local leadership, if you will. That's why I feel guilty.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Field's Manifesto for Democratizing Government

Jonathan Freedland directs attention to a pamphlet by Frank Field, the Labour MP with ideas which often span the party divide. This represents something of a manifesto of government reform which offers much food for thought; see also here for a summary.

The headline suggestion concerns the introduction of primaries, US style, to choose candidates in safe seats. Presumably they would be defined on the basis of their majorities and then all voters would choose, meaning candidates would need to stretch out, to a degree, to embrace all parties. This idea has been stimulated by the exciting US election procedures and other Field ideas have been drawn from there too
like: fixed term elections; election of public officials; and electing chairs of Select Committees by the whole House plus extending their powers to approve major appointments and initiate their own bills.

Freedland is enthusiastic, suggesting further, that party leaders might be elected by all 'declared' party voters in every constituency in the country. But certainly safe seats are the prime target for such reform in that there is no real contest and the majority of votes are wasted. This really could inject some democratic life back into our ailing system where, allowing for all the non voters, the current government was elected by only a pathetic and scarcely democratic 21.6% of the total electorate.

Freedland's determination have separate elections for the legislature and executive might also appeal to some admirers of the US democracy but, given the already impressive focus of Labour on constitutional reform since 1997, such a geological shift is not even a remote possibility. I noticed Cameron, also influenced by US events, suggested to Brown at PMQs that regular televised party leader debates be held during campaigns. His supporters cheered, thinking, no doubt, their boy would 'whup Gordon's ass' no problem; they are probably right as that Blair predicted 'great clunking fist' has seldom been used by the great lumbering Labour prime minister. Brown replied, predictably perhaps, that the US does not have weekly PMQs as we do, though the idea that the charade of PMQs provides anything approaching rational debate, is a sick joke.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Accusations of UKIP Abuse of EU Allowances

I have to confess to a mild frisson of schadenfreude when reading in the Sunday Times piece about Nigel Farage. The leader of UKIP never tires of condemning everything about the EU especially the 'Brussells gravy train'. If the ST guy is right, it seems UPIP might have a problemette to solve along the lines off the Conway family.

After the Conway sons, the article alleges UKIP has also got in the on the act in the form of Sam Farage, the 19 year old son of UKIP leader Nigel. This Exeter politics student, says the ST, is being paid to work for his father out of Dad's MEP expenses allowance; his Mum is on the payroll to the extent of £24K as well claims the article. UKIP is also being investigated as to whether some of their staff are being funded in similar ways. Farage-who refuses to answer 'ridiculous questions' about his son told Newsnight that UKIP was in the business of exposing 'this sort of thing. Which makes it even more delightfully apt that this rather unlovely party should be found with its hand in the EU till.

Since writing (a version of) the above last night I have received notice (see comments), including threats of legal action, (I guess the commenter is from UKIP), that Farage has made a statement claiming his son does not work for him; it can be found here. No doubt m'learned friends will be looking into the ST article to ascertain if snouts have in reality been in the trough. If they have not, I am more than happy to remove this amended post. But I am curious how the ST journalist got hold of his story in the first place.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Rebuilding of Gordon Coming Along Nicely

Jonathan Oliver, in the ST yesterday commented on the much needed work being done for Brown by his new permanent secretary Jeremy Heywood(pictured left) and his new top political adviser, Stephen Carter(pictured right- sorry, can't raise links for either article). It seems Gordon is such a relentless detail man that he feels impelled to force his single eye to read everything(it is said he even staples his own notes for PMQs and once stabbed his finger).

While in the Treasury this approach was just about possible, but his working practices once inside Number 10, with no system to filter out what was essential, became over-whelmed. The new boys have imposed a strict diary upon Brown's 16 hour days-any old mate wanting to chew the fat with Gordon now has to apply for an appointment. The ultimately decisive action over Northern Rock is thought to be the most important dividend from this investment in sound organisation. Oliver also fingers Tom Watson-remember the guy behind the 2006 'coup' attempt on Blair?- as the motive force behind the solid phalanx of Labour MPs who drowned out Osborne last Monday by shouting like Millwall supporters.

All this makes for better news for the Labour tribe, drenched, as we have been, by a six months torrential downpour of cock-ups and misjudgements. Even better, we learn that Michael Portillo, whose political demise brought such joyful comfort to us in 1997, now fancies Brown for PM after the next election. And he thinks this will be good for Cameron who, having worked out how to lead an Opposition, will now have an additional term in such a role to work out how to be a good prime minister: 'He could then devise, maybe even articulate a radical agenda' His strap line declares this is 'Good news for the Tories'; Oh, I don't think so. No wonder the likes of Iain Dale have nothing but contempt for the former Tory wunderkind.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Phew!........It'sNo Black Wednesday

A few days ago I expressed the hope that Northern Rock being nationalised would not amount to Labour's 'Black Wednesday; Andrew Rawnsley today demolishes
the Tory case that it is. Naturally, Cameron and Osbourne have been desperate to stick this damning label on the government's handling of the crisis and to emerge, maybe, with the prestigious scalp of Alistair Darling. Such an outcome would depend on voters' perceptions of the crisis and we discover from the Economist poll that this is not the case.

According to this, only 5% blame the government while over 40% rate government actions from 'fair' to 'good'. Only 20% reckoned the Conservatives could have handled it any better and some 60% saw the Tory criticisms as merely 'playing politics'.

It's quite reassuring to discover that the public can see through the spin surrounding this issue and spot that this is no Old Labour 'nationalisation'; the government is extremely keen to off load this extra responsibility as soon as it can painlessly do so. It is also the case that, while Black Wednesday cost taxpayers billions of pounds, the Rock has not yet had to call upon monies merely made available. Even the apparent 'dithering' by Brown-Darling over the decision can now be seen as determination to exhaust every avenue in the search for a private buyer.

There is still much rocky terrain to negotiate before this crisis can be said to be over- one thinks of those share-holders claiming huge compensation and bogging things down in legal action. But, amazingly, considering his position just before Christmas, Brown seems to escaped the worst of the political damage and his attempts to re-establish his credentials for good government and sound economic management, can continue. As for the Tories, they have to search anew for that elusive knock-out blow and reflect that their poll ratings are nowhere near what they need at this stage, to stand any real chance of winning the next election. Phew!

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Should we Abolish Public schools?

Author of the excellent Austerity Britain, David Kynaston, writing in The Guardian, has a pop at public schools. He talks about meritocracy having its own dangers of creating a ceiling to social mobility based on ability as measured by the education system; an LSE study has shown we are now going backwards and that lower class Britons are now less likely to 'break free of their backgrounds than they would have been a generation earlier'. In the LSE league table of 8 developed countries Britain came 7th in terms of social mobility.

Worse, was the Sutton Trust Report autumn 2007:

This ranked the success of schools, over a five-year period, at getting their pupils into Oxbridge. Top was Westminster school with a staggering 49.9% hit rate. In other words, if you pay your annual boarding fees of £25,956, you have a virtually evens chance of your child making it to Oxbridge - the pathway to the glittering prizes that will almost certainly lie ahead. Altogether, there were 27 private schools in the top 30; 43 in the top 50 and 78 in the top 100. Put another way, the 70th brightest sixth-former at Westminster or Eton is as likely to get a place at Oxbridge as the very brightest sixth-formers at a large comprehensive.

In addition privately educated candidates were five times more likely to be awarded a place at one of the top 20 Russell Group universities. And in today's Guardian we learn that of the 30,000 who achieve 3 As at school, only 176-half a percent- come from those who receive free school meals. It is, in truth, a shocking indictment of a Labour Party dedicated to achieving equality. Kynaston hopes there is an answer:

I sense in Gordon Brown the first prime minister of my lifetime to be wholly driven by the moral imperative of equality of opportunity. It is also clear that New Labour, more than halfway through its third term, needs a fresh, compelling narrative.

I'm sure he's right but also that his dreams are just, well, dreams. Labour has always attracted a slice of its leadership from the private sector from Attlee to Blair and many of them sent their own children to similar schools. Richard Crossman admitted in his diaries that he was opposed to abolition as his own children were attending public schools. But since those days a sea change in attitudes has taken place. I have a number of, (apparently left-wing) friends who educate their kids privately. One claims he does not want to 'let his principles interfere with his childrens' education'. The leftwing taboo about such things seems to have faded into the background and the 'own family' oriented actions of then likes of Blair, Dianne Abbot and others makes it clear private education is one middle class citadel which Labour will never dare to storm.

Friday, February 22, 2008


EU Really Needs Strong Leadership

In an impressively erudite and well argued piece today Simon Jenkins insists Tony Blair should abandon any hope of becoming president of the EU. He reaches back to Julius Caesar and Charlemagne before moving on to Frederick Barbarossa, Louis XIV, Naopleon and finally Hitler to prove that dreams of European unity have always proved to be illusions. He asks:

Has the man never read history? His professed ambition is one that invariably ends in tears.

He then goes on to assert:

Europe has never tolerated being led. It is a continent of cats, not dogs. Diversity is its glory, cantankerousness its defence. It is not a family or a community but a marketplace, a cultural entrepôt. Those who have sought its unity, even as a political metaphor, have come to grief.

It's a tour de force of historical argument but, somehow, it persuades me of the opposite of the case Jenkins argues. As I see it, the world faces huge problems for which collective action is the sine qua non, including: global warming, relief of poverty and disease, international terrorism and crime and so forth. So far the world's record of collaboration has been dismal on all fronts, apart from the degree of unity achieved in Europe. The EU's strategy of founding progress on economic cooperation has proved amazingly successful: 27 nations now represent the biggest economic grouping in the world.

True, the nations of Europe still fight like cats in a sack but, surely, if the founders of the whole enterprise had approached their task with Jenkins' degree of pessimism, it would have never lasted 50 days instead of its 50 years. The fact is that Europe needs more strong leadership, precisely because it has so many divisions and because the world needs to foster more unity if it is to survive in any fashion.

As for Blair, he might well prove an effective unifier of Europe, maximising consensus on the key issues- whoever thinks such a president is after the same power as a Bonaparte or Adolf?_- and his record in achieving such things is attested by his creation of New Labour and his efforts in Northern Ireland. The problem is that his chances of being elected are slight indeed. The most important player in this contest is Angela Merkel, and she does not favour the former British social democrat PM. Moreover, given the way he is perceived in Europe, having Sarkozy as your chief cheer leader is a bit like putting Nick Leeson in charge of Northern Rock.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Strange Story of the Lord Haw Haw of the Conservative Establishment

Having written my PhD thesis on the second world war period I thought I was quite clued up on it, so I was astonished to discover last Sunday a juicy bit of its history of which I knew nothing. It concerned the son of Leo Amery, right-wing Conservative Cabinet minister and mate of Winston, famous for calling out to Arthur Henderson in the 1939 pre-war debate 'Speak for England, Arthur!'. I was aware also of his gravel voiced son, Julian, who served in Tory Cabinets and seemed intent on believing he was Churchill reincarnated. What I had not realised was that Leo had another son, John(see frontispiece of the book by David Faber, left).

Vanessa Thorpe wrote the story in the Observer about this 'disappeared' son- I can't raise a link but the wikipedia entry is here. It seems Ronald Harwood has written a play about Amery junior called An English Tragedy. And an apt title this would appear to be. John went to Harrow-and other schools from which he was also expelled- and became an affected dandy who carried around a teddy bear. He moved to France in the thirties and became a follower the French fascist, Jacques Doriot; from there he translated into Germany once the war was in progress. He met Hitler and was clearly a propaganda gift to the Nazis. Along with 'Lord Haw Haw' he made hundreds of broadcasts from Berlin, seeking to spread the word of fascism.

The impact of a scion of the Conservative establishment working for the hated Nazis, must have been considerable; in his Who's Who entry Amery acknowledged only one son. Eventually John was captured in Italy and tried for treason. He pleaded guilty, was condemned in 8 minutes and then hanged in Wandsworth prison 19th December 1945, after allegedly joking with his hangman, Albert Pierrepoint. Harwood thinks Leo's suppression of his (half) Jewish ancestry, for fear his career would be damaged in those anti-semitic times, helps explain John's rebellious behaviour. So far I haven't read anything about his sexual preferences, but I wonder if John Amery was just simply gay and that this caused the same renunciation of his social and patriotic background as it did the spies Burgess, Maclean and others?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


On the Civil Service 'Generalist'

According to the National Audit Office, Whitehall mandarins, by 2010 will control £678 billion of public spending and mostly without any specific financial training. David Hencke details the extent of the charges: no permanent secretary has a professional financial qualification; six departments have no qualified financial director on their management board; and the MOD, spending £35bn has a financial director also bereft of such letters after his name.

Most of the Sir Humphreys seem have degrees in the arts or the classics, exactly the reality which the 1968 Fulton Report tried to change, but clearly failed. Maybe this explains the many cock-ups reported from Whitehall? Maybe. But I'd like to dissent just slightly from such a view. I did two years in the Civil Service and, whilst I was an unmitigated failure as a potential mandarin, I was able to notice a couple of things about the people who were not. Firstly public service is like no other I have encountered. It is immensely complex, involves public money and takes place in the gaze of parliament and the media. Whatever subject you might have studied at university-Politics, Spanish, Economics- becomes irrelevant as soon as you sip your first cup of Civil Service tea. If any subject is relevant it would be law- something which the graduates of the Ecole Nationale D'Administration tend to take with them into French public affairs with conspicuous success.

Secondly, our high fliers are really, really clever guys- mostly with Oxbridge firsts behind them. They soon adapt to the demands of the job, absorbing massive amounts of information which they can recall in an instant and commanding formidable powers of clear,(though seldom colourful)expression. It matters little what they studied. It's the same with finance. The finances of government departments is mired in the mysteries of estimates and parliamentary votes of funding- studying accountancy or economics at university won't really help anyone much I'd argue.

Thirdly, if such training is to be acquired, it should be 'on the job' study whilst in post. Only in this way can relevant skills be imbued. The 'generalist' approach to public administration has been much pilloried-witness Yes Minister- yet it is probably, on balance, the most appropriate approach to the tasks required. Ministers, after all, are not trained in specific skills- Brown read history and Cameron PPE- and usually, when able- acquire formidable skills in their respective departments after a year or so in post. It may sound old fashioned but I think sheer ability is preferable any day to subject relevant study at university as a preparation for the world of public service.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Darling the Pawn whom Brown cannot Sacrifice Just Yet

I think probably Peter Preston is right(by the way, am I the only person to find his written style really irritating?)in suggesting that Darling's actions are dictated by Gordon. And we used to say Blair was a control freak! Preston reviews the conduct of the Northern Rock crisis and points out that the charge of 'dithering' aimed at Darling is probably the result of Brown's restraining hand on his arm.

Brown has a record of freezing a little under pressure and putting off what needs to be done or just avoiding it in a bit of a funk; critics cite 1992 when he avoided standing for the leadership; or two years later when he bottled out of fighting Tony Blair or indeed, in October last year when he pulled back from that snap election. So procrastinating over the Rock was in character, as was meekly obeying his master's voice for Darling. Seldom can a senior minister have been so outrageously dull as this man: handsome(though with funny eyebrows), clever, and apparently articulate, he fails to raise the slightest frisson in anyone over anything.

I wouldn't be too surprised either if Gordon was responsible for forcing those two damaging U turns by his Chancellor over Capital Gains Tax and the taxing of non doms. Each time Darling looked feeble, apologetic and a bit pathetic for a senior Cabinet member. Maybe Gordon took the wind on both issues, judged its direction and tugged on the strings he has attached to his neighbour and fellow Scot so that he could take the flak. Preston suggests Darling is being set up as the long term fall guy- if the economy goes pear-shaped before 2009, he can sack Alistair who'll take the blame and then appoint Ed Balls- the man with the lowest blink rate in politics- as our putative saviour. So he's alright for now as sacking right now him would really sink Brown's ship. I just hope the nationalisation of the Rock won't turn today into a future 'Black Sunday' or 'Black Monday' for Labour.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


On 'Narratives' in Politics

We hear quite a bit about 'narratives' in politics these days and I sometimes wonder what is being described. I suppose it's a variation on the idea, expressed I think by Churchill, that the voters 'needed a tune to hum'. Maybe voters respond if they are told 'stories' of some kind. If we look at the article by Andrew Rawnsley today we find he talks of Gordon Brown selecting 'the opportunity revolution' as the theme which could prove to be a winning 'narrative'. Voters will be provided- so the argument runs, with a series of angles on unlocking talent in the national community. Maybe this would do the trick, though it seems a bit thin to me.

Another aspect of this is that parties need negative narratives about the opposing party. Cameron, thanks to the shortcomings of Labour since last August, has 'incompetent government led by PM not up to job'; this has taken Conservatives quite some way already and still has loads of potential. Elsewhere Rawnsley judges Cameron continues to make Blair's career his template for success. As for Labour, they have only 'Tory toff basically defends toffs' interests'; a nicely atavistic story for the party but is it one voters will eventually swallow? I'm not so sure.

But current evidence suggests Tories need a better story. At the equivalent stage in his career, during the nineties, Blair led by nearly 50% in the polls. While Cameron basked in double figures before Christmas, he has had to watch his lead shrink to under 10 points: good but not enough to see off Labour in 2009-10. The Economist offers an analysis from which the government can take some comfort. The journal suggests Labour has stopped the rot basically through(shock horror) good government:

Gordon Brown has drafted promising young ministers into his cabinet and strengthened his own back-room team with a new chief of staff and head of communications. And by embracing public-service reforms about which he used to sound ambiguous (he made a bold speech in favour of health-care reform in January), he has begun to give his government the sense of direction it lacked. Mishaps over tax policy have not yet dragged him seriously off course.

Now a bit more of this and Brown might well have a narrative which will keep him in power.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


'(Beijing) Most political games since Berlin in 1936'

The title of my post is lifted from Simon Jenkins' article today. Jenkins has long been a critic of the games as a waste of money and a political stunt. But now he argues it will provide a fundamentally illiberal regime with an unjustified massive showcase in which the heads of state from the west-Bush, Brown- will obsequiously bend their knee to the gerontocracy ruling the most populous nation on earth.

China has had a reasonably good press in the west considering it's not all that long since Tinneman Square. It's explosion of manufacturing energy has saved the world from degrees of inflation and recession for which we are mostly grateful. Moreover, its tentative moves to join international organizations-and host the Olympics for example- and extend hands of friendship suggest China really wants to be perceived as a responsible, leading world power. Within this plan the Games clearly occupy a crucial role. But China's leaders will have to learn the hard way that the downside price of such publicity is the merciless scrutiny under which their country will be exposed by the 20,000 visiting journalists.

The Sudan-Darfur row will be the lest of it: human rights within the domestic politics of the state plus treatment of Tibet and related issues, will flood onto the agenda and Hu Jintao will have his work cut out fending off a barrage of criticism. Maybe, he just might start to listen and realise that he ought to address these questions and allow his subjects a little political freedom. Or he might choose the road preferred by his allies in the Burmese military junta and ignore every protest from within a bunker of his own making. The latter would be a self defeating strategy if worldwide acceptance is what the leaders of China are genuinely committed in achieving.

Friday, February 15, 2008


BAE and Saudi Princes 'Dirty Tricks' Revealed in Ending SFO Investigation

When the news first filtered out regarding the BAE sweeteners to Saudi Arabian potentates in the al Yamamah arms deal, I remember being a little blase and rather dismissing its importance on the grounds that 'well...everyone does it'. Now I see just how morally lazy I was being on this matter. Today's revelations emerging from the civil case being heard by Appeal Court judges make it clear that Saudi rulers behaved disgracefully, especially that close friend of Bush 's inner circle, Prince Bandar who was the recipient of a £1bn pay-off.

The record shows that BAE lawyers exerted might and main to get the 2004 investigation by the Serious Fraud Office stopped by lobbying ministers but when this failed BAE changed tack and the next thing was a threat from the Saudis to with-hold security information on terrorism from the UK. When the Attorney General called off the SFO investigation into BAE in December 2006, he explained it was 'necessary to balance... the rule of law with the wider public interest.' Shortly afterwards Tony Blair publicly reinforced Goldsmith's contentions.

Now we learn that a few days after Bandar's visit to London in December 2004, Blair took the 'exceptional step' of writing to Goldsmith to warn him that continuation of the SFO investigation 'risks seriously damaging confidence in the UK as a partner'. An SFO internal memo, of 13th December 2006, summed up meetings with the British ambassador who passed on the Saudi warning:

'We have been told that "British lives on British streets" were at risk...If this caused another 7/7, how could we say our investigation was more important?'

So it now seems that the supreme insider, Prince Bandar, put a gun to Tony Blair's head in order to prevent an investigation continuing in which he was a prime suspect? It is to Blair's discredit that he backed down and allowed the course of justice, effectively to be perverted. What is also utterly reprehensible is that Bandar should have used as a threat something which ostensibly his government supports to the utmost: common action to fight the War on Terror.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Labour's Quango Shame.

During the eighties and nineties I recall working quite an indignant head of steam over the Tories' use of Quangos.

[Quangos-what they? officially the government defined them as: "A body which has a role in the processes of national government, but is not a government department or part of one, and which accordingly operates to a greater or lesser extent at arm's length from Ministers."]

The key thing was that these were appointed not elected boards tasked with running public services. They were a means for the Tories, I argued, and wrote at the time, of sidestepping the democratic process, removing accountability for billions of public expenditure, while rewarding with chairmanships and membership, former Conservative politicians. I was not alone. In 1995, the Shadow Chancellor, one Gordon Brown called for a: "a bonfire of the quangos and greater democracy".

However we still await such a 'bonfire'. The Daily Mail todaypoints out that while quangos disbursed £24.1bn in 1997, by 2007 expenditure had increased seven times to £167.5bn. The Economic Research Council's recent report shows that: 200 additional quangos have been created in the past two years; staff(mostly from the Home Counties) employed by these bodies have leapt over the past decade and the table above shows; and pay for chairmen has rocketed to sums like the £273,000 paid to Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "Public bodies are only established where this is the most effective and efficient method of conducting government business." but i suspect most will tend to agree with Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, who comments: "Some of these are enormously powerful bodies that dispose of vast quantities of money, are largely unaccountable and are often staffed with extremely highly paid executives, yet they produce results of questionable merit."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Guantanamo Trials Set to Shame USA

The news that six inmates at Guantanamo are going to be brought to trial has not been well received on this side of the Atlantic, none less so than Bronwen Maddox in today's Times. Her witheringly critical article reminds us that on the morning of 11th September 2001, the USA commanded the world's sympathy-excepting some Muslim enclaves- throughout every nook and cranny of the planet. Some 3000 innocents were slaughtered for reasons of obscure hatred and we all stood back in stunned, appalled sympathy. But the way Bush and his administration have treated suspects held in relation to the event has achieved the sensational feat of alienating just about everyone who formerly was on the US side. Let's list just a few of the mistakes:

1. Deciding to define suspects in such a way that the Geneva Conventions were evaded.

To see the most powerful country in the world scrabbling on the edge of a nearby island, with whose leader it is not on speaking terms, for the sole purpose of evading its own laws and principles, is an embarrassment.

2. The decision to try suspects according to 'military commissions' rather than according to US domestic law.

3. To delay any proceedings for over six years while keeping prisoners under dreadful conditions.

4. To 'export' some inmates to countries less scrupulous about torture where interrogators could 'take the gloves off'.

5. To have used torture to extract confessions; chief suspect Khalid Mohammed, confessed under the administration of the infamous 'water-boarding' technique which simulates drowning.

6. To seek the death penalty for anyone convicted, thus alienating Europe and much of rest of the western world.

7.The decision not to let suspects hear evidence brought against them should it be deemed classified.

8.The prosecution plans to get around the objection that the men have been tortured by arguing that the CIA interviews have been repeated without torture by the FBI, who used time-tested rapport-building techniques, officials said, including giving the men Starbucks coffee.

9. Maddox concludes with an argument which is impossible to deny:

From the start the US should have tried its captives in its established criminal or military courts. Those it could not charge it should have released. It would have had the world's respect, as well as sympathy. But in setting aside its own principles so easily, it has done profound damage to its standing.

By acting in a way which only the most knee-jerk 'hang 'em high' red-necks from the Midwest supports, Bush has ensured that as the cases come up for legal action this is the only section of the world's public opinion whose support he has succeeded in retaining.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Is It Too Late For Amy Winehouse?

I think this is the first time I've posted on anything connected with pop music but I feel I want to in this case, so great is the possible tragedy hanging over Amy Winehouse. Female singers come and go normally for me these days, with very few registering on a personal radar which recognises few other than Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and (possibly) Dusty Springfield. But I have no doubt that Amy is in that class. She has only produced one classic album, Back to Black, but it is of such surpassing excellence that even those murky people who award the Grammys have bestowed no less than five awards upon her.

She could not travel to collect her awards because of visa problems but did so via video link and even managed to sing a couple of numbers from her album. Music of her type has long attracted doomed chanteuses like Billy Holiday and a clutch of male singers too depressing to mention. Having seen pictures of her in recent months where she looks even more wasted and waif-like than above and seen those pictures of her allegedly smoking crack cocaine, I rather doubt whether the revival enabling her to sing her songs, is evidence of an imminent recovery.

She is still totally enamoured of her imprisoned drug addict husband Blake Fielder-Civil and even her precious art has emerged from the depths of an addiction she shows no real signs of overcoming, or even of wanting to overcome('They tried to make me go to rehab/ I said "No, no, No!'). I desperately hope that an artist so liberally endowed with musical gifts can fight back and overcome her problems but, to be honest, right now the chances appear to be be slight indeed.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


Fleet St Defender Demolishes 'Strawman'

My own memories of Fleet St focus on the George(pictured) which I used gratefully to visit after work up in Holborn at the Air Ministry back in the early 70s. In his piece yesterday, Simon Jenkins defended the modern press against its detractors, looking back to some mythical 'golden age'. He insists there was no such age:

They[the newspapers] were dreadful. Newspapers were brief, humourless, reverential of authority and composed of Hansard, publicity handouts, court reports and agency copy. Wars were reported from "our" side. A political story was simply taken from a secret "lobby" briefing. Foreign news was rarely more than one broadsheet page.

He goes on to deny that there was any real investigative journalism, outside the Sunday Times; defends owners who for the most part do not aim to make money out of their papers; and points out that we still have nine titles reflecting a much superior product. Since corporate ownership arrived, moreover, pagination has tripled and newspapers are bolder, more diverse and, crucially, a much better read. He ends up quoting sociologist Stein Ringen who describes the British press(though I guess he means more the upmarket bit of it) as 'simply brilliant' and a boon to democracy.

I tend to agree with most of this; the quality press has improved amazingly since the seventies and infinitely since the fifties to which decade some look back nostalgically. But I'm not sure if these points answer the critique made by Nick Davies a few days ago. Davies's article summarised his book on the veracity of the press and discovered, alarmingly that misinformation was rife:

I commissioned research from specialists at Cardiff University, who surveyed more than 2,000 UK news stories from the four quality dailies (Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent) and the Daily Mail. They found two striking things. First, when they tried to trace the origins of their "facts", they discovered that only 12% of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. With 8% of the stories, they just couldn't be sure. The remaining 80%, they found, were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material, provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry. Second, when they looked for evidence that these "facts" had been thoroughly checked, they found this was happening in only 12% of the stories.

Now, I'm sure the press is glossier, more informative and more entertaining, but is it more reliable? are we sure it tells the truth? Davies's article was worrying and none of Jenkins' arguments refuted these allegations.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Williams Talks Rot on 'Inevitable Adoption' of Sharia Law

Rowan Williams is a curious national figure: ecumenical to a fault; hairy the the point of being unkempt but with a wonderful mellow Celtic voice which, next to Donald Sinden, is the ultimate archetype of thespian speech. This makes him very easy on the ear but does not guarantee that what he says makes any sense or not. And his recent pronouncements on the adoption of sharia law being inevitable in this country, fall very much into the 'not' category. Let me offer just a few of the objections which spring immediately to mind:

1. It is not possible for one group of citizens to be subject to a different system of law and maintain the basic tenet of a sovereign state of 'all citizens equal before the law'.

2. For one constituent minority to have their 'own' legal system is to create a 'state within a state'- just as the IRA created in certain parts of Ulster during 'The Troubles'.

3. This suggestion plays into the hands of Islamic extremist bodies, like Hizb ut Tahir which seek to form a unitary Islamic 'caliphate'.

4. What happens when a clash occurs between sharia law and UK domestic law? For example, what if an Islamic male decided he wanted to take advantage of the four wives he is allowed under such a system? This, and other examples would relegate Islamic women to an inferior position in relation to Islamic men.

5. The suggestion will cause- and already has caused- an outcry by tabloids and groups with a more sinister axe to grind.

However, it is true that Orthodox UK Jews have their own Beth Din Judaic court which exercises legal authority over certain matters restricted to the Jewish religion. If this is merely what Williams is suggesting, then there may be some room for discussion. But I rather think the good Arch-bishop has made the mistake David Blunkett suggested on Today this morning on radio 4: confusing 'civil society' with the legal system.

Many groups operate within their own sets of rules which apply sanctions and their own disciplines. Sometimes these rules have the force of law- as with those relating to employment law- but often they do not. If groups of Muslims wish to conduct their communal affairs according to sharia law then there can be no objection- as long as there is no spilling over into areas subject to the law of the land. Rowan Williams seems a thoroughly decent sort and I'm sure his suggestion derived from the very best of liberal intentions, but on this occasion, he has allows an excess of liberal zeal to place his ideas beyond the limits of either the desirable or the practicable.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Can Obama Lead a Historic Shift in US Politics?

I tend to agree with Michael Tomasky that 'there's been no contest like it. Not since never'. He argues that the already campaign hackneyed word, 'change' is code for the US considering whether 'to give liberalism another chance'. He takes us back to the mid sixties where he locates liberalism's high water mark. From then on liberals warred among themselves and handed the game during the 70s and 80s to the right-wing think tanks, media outlets and interest groups.

The Reagan years provided a new high water mark for conservatism the momentum of which survived the Clinton interlude but Bush, with his war and myopia over New Orleans, has finally squandered his capital. The question now is: are we at another turning point? Is the USA, appalled at electing and then re-electing George Jnr, about to embark on a new centre-left experiment? This is the underlying theme of key importance to America, the world and, of course, to us in the UK. A victory by the Democrats would reassure Labour that their string had not quite run out, while a victory for McCain would put a spring into Conservative steps for the upcoming election in 2009-10.

So how does the contest look after Super Tuesday? McCain seems a shoo-in after narrowly surviving political death six months ago. Hillary narrowly won the delegates tally(818-730) but Obama won more states. My fear is that the USA is still not ready to elect a black man, but my hope is that it just might be ready to elect a woman. A related fear is that Obama is not yet ready himself to be president but this fear is ebbing as I begin to share some of the hope his candidature represents. I'm not sure Obama can beat McCain but I feel fairly sure now that he can beat Clinton.

His appeal now extends beyond the limits of his own black constituency and threatens to overwhelm Hillary in the remaining contests leading up to the convention in August. Super Tuesday resulted in a dead heat, but only because it interrupted Obama's relentless rise. He is the candidate with the momentum, the novel appeal and, we now learn, the money.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Does living in Social Housing Need to be Made any more Difficult?

Council house estates are now perceived so negatively that proximity to one can adversely affect property values. 'Sink estates' have entered the language as synonymous with crime, burned out cars, drug-taking and trading plus a welter of anti-social behaviour from families unused to the discipline and self sufficiency of working for a living. It was not always thus.

I lived in a council house for ten year aged 7-17 and in each case the tiny estates we three siblings lived on in rural Shropshire with my separated school teacher mother, were well kept and tenanted by hard-working working class families. Nor was there any stigma attached to living in such houses(our last not unlike the one pictured). Indeed, council houses were seen as highly desirable back then in the fifties and sixties, with their running water and flush toilets. Unfortunately things began to go downhill during the seventies when councils began to refer any problem family to occupy their stock of 'social housing', to use the description. This led to more problems and a desire by some families to 'escape' elsewhere, anywhere.

Next, as Lynsey Hanley observes, mass unemployment in the eighties hit the working class most severely, beginning the shameful dynastic family sequences on unemployment to the extent that some children still grow up wholly unsuited for work of any kind. Moreover, the 'right to buy' policy of the eighties led to nearly two million families selling up and leaving our council estates proportionately even more populated by social casualties. Hanley concludes the current proposal by the gorgeous, pouting housing minister, Caroline Flint, to link occupancy rights to job-seeking, is to add to social housing tenants yet another layer of the present day stigma of living in these benighted areas. She may well have a point.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


The Curious Case of the Wintertons

'I'm a great supporter of public schools' declared Nicholas Winterton on Any Questions a few years back, 'they made me the man I am'. 'And that is precisely why I'm so opposed to them', responded Paul Foot, to widespread laughter. Sir Nick, has always been a bit of a right-wing stereotype as well as someone whose brows are seldom furrowed by serious thought, but I always respected his work on the Social Affairs Select Committee, where the value of his work was in inverse proportion to the appreciation it received from his party whips. And his work as a constituency MP is attested by the increasing size of his majorities down there in Macclesfield.

But this business with the flat in London really defies belief.
According to the Daily Mail the husband and wife MPs:

have claimed £165,000 in Commons expenses for their £700,000 second home six years after they paid off their mortgage. Tory politicians Sir Nicholas and Ann Winterton switched their fashionable London apartment to a family trust and used their parliamentary allowances to avoid death duty. Using a loophole in Commons rules, they claim more than £30,000 a year in "rent" from the public purse, which is paid to a family trust set up for their two children.

On Look North last night, they refused to respond on camera but claim they did nothing illegal according to Commons' rules. This may well be the case but surely something must have told them that having bought their flat some years ago, exploiting a loophole to squeeze more money out of the taxpayer- and this from a man intent upon imposing tax cuts- was just a little, you know, at variance with the spirit of the idea of official allowances? When they set up this little, albeit legal scam up, did they not think about how it might look if it became public?

Having said all this, I also find myself agreeing with George Monbiot today over Hain's acceptance of money for his doomed deputy leadership campaign from a former supporter of South Africa's National government:

He was a brave and remarkable campaigner. But in 2007 he trampled his medals into the mud to get the money he needed.

He adds,tellingly, that:

This is the story of our political system, of most of the world's political systems. You enter politics with the highest ideals and end up grovelling to multi-millionaires.

Monday, February 04, 2008


Cameron Determined to Follow Blair's Route to the Last Detail

It's quite interesting to note the evolution of David Cameron as he tracks his course to a putative premiership. He began with a massive swing to the centre and left to rid his party of the 'nasty' image, much as Blair swung away from Old Labour's preoccupations in the mid nineties. Having been a loyal Thatcherite apparatchik to that point-even to the extent of being entrusted with writing the 2005 manifesto- this might have, and did raise a few Tebbitlike eyebrows. But his subsequent aping of the Blair twelve point route to Number 10 has not seriously deviated.

Now we see that, despite his recent attempt to reconnect with Maggie, Dave has decided stick with Blair, at least as far as the shiny surface is concerned. So we see the casual pics of him-slacks, open-necked shirt- holding a mug of tea. What could be more natural? Then it's the emphasis on Samantha- Tony tried that with Cherie, but it kind of backfired. Don't rule out the possibility that a woman from a toff background might also get on the wrong side of the tabloids, though I agree, she isn't as likely to as the Blair spouse. Stand by to be made thoroughly nauseous by endless gushing tributes to 'Sam' if you have not already.

However, one aspect of his Blair-alike behaviour which I rather admire is his decision to send his kids to state schools. Among high earning families, this is such a touchstone of their rightful 'belonging' to the elite, it must have been hard to resist- I note that George Osborne, gracefully or otherwise, gave up the unequal struggle. As the children grow up, I'll be interested to see if his resolution holds out- recall, it didn't quite for Tony.

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Can Blair really Expect to be Elected President of EU?

Lots of people have suggested that Tony Blair could never be content with being a mere ordinary person after standing down as PM aged only 54. When some politicians aspire to be president of the USA, aged 71, there would have to be something more for 'God's chosen one'. We learn today that the prize after which Tony is now pitching, is the future presidency of Europe. Small beer, you might conclude until reading US scholar Parag Kahanna's assertion that the EU is destined to become the world's most successful empire:

The EU is now the most confident economic power in the world, regularly punishing the United States in trade disputes, while its superior commercial and environmental standards have assumed global leadership.

If Blair reads the same article today it might well quicken an ambition which has never been slow in expressing itself. Cynics might point to his rubbishing of the referendum idea for what became the Lisbon Treaty and the fact that he delayed his departure just long enough to make sure the new constitution, with its new, shiny presidential appointment, was effectively established. But is he likely to get it? I am dubious.

Being a sort of social democrat is bad enough for the likes of Angela Merkel-though Sarkozy seems to recognise, with his support, that labels have a habit of falling off Blair's jacket. Worse though, and possibly fatal, is the unwholesome miasma of Iraq and his insistence on giving unconditional endorsement to whatever George Bush decided was US foreign policy. I just can't see the majority of EU states opting for such a divisive figure when, it would seem to me, one of the principal roles of such a person would be to stand up to and establish a distance from the USA whoever ends up in the White House in November.

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