Sunday, December 28, 2008


George Bush Unmasked and Unmade

[This is a review of a book I thought exceptionally readable and useful, so instead of a short analysis I've gone for a full length one some 1500 words-you have been warned.]

The Bush Tragedy: The Unmaking of a President, by Jacob Weisberg(2008), Bloomsbury.

The hardback cover of this book(for paperback see below) does not serve its contents well in that its jokey depiction of father and son as manipulated marionettes, suggests yet another crude Bush-bashing tract. It is far from that but is a vividly written, scholarly and hugely insightful study, which I would heartily recommend. Weisberg, a journalist on a variety of US publications, denies his book is ‘an indictment’ but rather, ‘an attempt at an explanation’. If the reader concludes, that by the end of the book, the two seem synonymous, that is not wholly the author’s fault. He confesses to rather liking W who is ‘comfortable in his skin and fun to be around’.

Weisberg uses the Bard’s Henry IV and V to help explain the mystery of Bush’s eight years in power. Henry IV was a competent but not great king with what appeared to be a feckless waster of a son. However, ‘Prince Hal’ eventually cleans up his act and ‘accepts the obligations of his breeding’. Having proved his father and most other former judgements wrong, Hal goes on to win the astonishing victory of Agincourt; evidence, he claims of the ‘hand of God at work’. The book begins with an analysis of the two families which created the dynasty, the Walkers and Bushes. The latter were mostly calm, assiduous, modest and public service inclined while the latter were boastful glory seekers ‘unsure of their abilities’.

W was definitely more a ‘Walker’ than a ‘Bush’. Unlike his father he was not good at games or his books or, to be honest, being able to open career and political doors. He was a ‘sore loser’ with a combination of overconfidence and insecurity. Having got into Yale ‘on the strength of family connections’, he did not lack for social popularity however. He became frat house president and the master of ceremonies of initiation ceremonies described by the Yale Daily News as ‘sadistic and obscene’. He coasted through Yale, sneering at ‘pretentious people who thought they knew better’ while believing in his own superiority: the explanation, suggests the author, for his omni-present smirk.

In the real world he had less success, his casual approach making him a hopeless failure in business and acquiring a reputation for wild drunkenness. But he was not without political ambition, standing for Congress in 1978. His father pulled strings for him behind the scenes but junior proved an excellent campaigner, with an easy folksy manner; he lost the contest by 6000 votes. His marriage in the same year to Laura Welch brought order to his life and, crucially perhaps, an eventual rejection of alcohol. Meanwhile brother Jeb, essentially in the Bush family tradition was developing a reputation as the ‘clever one’ who tilted at the Florida governorship, going on to win it in 1998.

W responded by buying up, along with friends from Yale, the Texas Rangers baseball team. This gave him visibility and name recognition but W’s management approach was wrong:

‘As a manager Bush prides himself on sizing up people quickly and not getting lost in details. An intuitive decision-maker, he de-emphasizes analytic judgement in favour of [Walker] instinct’ (p61)

During his five seasons in charge the team went nowhere.

However, W had found a vital ally. His father’s former aide, Karl Rove, was helplessly seduced by junior’s charismatic charm and helped him win the Texan governorship in 1994 while Jeb lost his first contest in Florida. The ‘waster’ Prince Hal was showing unexpected mettle. But W was keen to separate himself from his father; where his father had ‘considered religious enthusiasm a form of bad manners’, junior eagerly courted the evangelical right. And

‘Where his father engaged in the details of policy, the son saw himself as a leader who set priorities, tasked people to carry them out and held them accountable…the son was an instantaneous “decider” who didn’t revisit his choices or change his mind…He told people he wanted to be a “consequential” president, not the manager of an inbox like his dad.’

His father’s foreign policy advisers like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker he tended to view as ‘patronizing, meddlesome and tedious’ but he assiduously wooed Scowcroft’s star pupil Condi Rice, converting her to a more aggressive assertion of US power. The author notes:

‘Perhaps because she had no family life, her relationship with the president became her strongest emotional bond. In one of the great Freudian slips ever to occur at a Washington dinner party, Rice impulsively referred to George W as “my hus----".

He preferred the company of his own people, especially his alleged ‘brain’ Karl Rove, who proved to be his brilliant detail obsessed Machiavelli, constructing strategies for winning elections, ruthlessly neutralizing opponents, politicizing the executive branch and exercising a day to day stamp on the conduct of government from the White House. But, as Weisberg notes:

‘What Bush and Rove shared was the machine politician’s insight that distributing rewards and aligning incentives can make the public sector work effectively. But when it came to executing a new policy approach in the face of major obstacles, they were essentially all at sea.’

Rove nudged Bush ever rightwards, crucially, argues the author, after 9-11 when he had a chance to become a genuine consensus president instead of the ‘polarizing figure’ he became until the end of his presidency. The other dominating figure of these years was Dick Cheney. A mediocre scholar, Cheney shared, with Bush, a sense of resentful inferiority towards his more able Yale classmates. He was able to link up with the Nixonite Donald Rumsfeld to forge his subsequent political career.

During these years the presidency suffered a decline after Watergate and then the relative failure of Jimmy Carter. Cheney resolved to work, in his secretive, behind the scenes way (he is a naturally retiring man who shrivels the limelight), for a revival of executive power at the expense of the legislature. Bush’s ‘hands-off’ management style, eschewing detail and micro-management, allowed Cheney to insert himself, without precedent for a Vice President, as a major influence.

I thought the best part of the book was from chapter six onwards where foreign policy and the decision to invade Iraq is analysed. It needs to be said that he mentions no role for Tony Blair as a player of any clout whatsoever, either as moderating force or stout ally. Rather, Weisberg sees a number of threads coming together in the genesis of the decision to invade: a disinclination to follow his father’s multilateral diplomatic route; a determination to make ‘with us or against us’ the acid test of international friendship; a particular, Cheney inspired fear of biological weapons-explaining why the anthrax attacks caused such alarm in Washington; the neo-conservative belief that a democratic Iraq could act as a beacon of freedom in the Middle East; a belief, borrowed from the Arab scholar Bernard Lewis, that Muslims had been engaged in a ‘cosmic struggle for world domination’ since the time of Muhammad; and, finally, a conviction that certain states constituted an ‘axis of evil’ which had to be resisted and defeated. According to Andrew Card, Bush still believed WMD would be found as late as 2006, though the searcher after them, David Kay, was amazed to discover no sign of disappointment when they refused to be discovered.

What made it go wrong was Bush’s extraordinary ignorance of Islam- he did not know the difference between Shia and Sunni for example; his belief Iraqis would welcome an invasion as a liberation; Rumsfeld’s conviction that the firepower available to the US meant the size of the force required to do the job could be relatively small; and no forward planning to rebuild Iraq once Saddam had been toppled.

Weisberg concludes much of the tragedy is owed to ‘the old family drama’.

‘Where George HW Bush weighed options, W sizes you up and decides. Where 41 saw shades of gray; 43 finds moral clarity. ‘The son [according to Scowcroft] prides himself on being the guy who cuts through it all, who is decisive, not wishy- washy’.

Junior compares himself with the great leaders and presidents –Churchill, Truman, Reagan- people who were initially ridiculed but finally proved heroically right. Truman is singled out as someone who also believed, rightly, that a democratic Japan could be transformative in Asia. Yet the analogy is woefully inappropriate: Truman was imaginatively bi-partisan and worked though a network of multilateral agencies.

The author also charts the convolutions of Bush’s failed desire to find a ‘Doctrine’ from being ‘humble’ and almost isolationist in 2000, to advocating a globally ideological version of democracy in 2006. What was extraordinary was his ability to sustain his self assurance in the face of massive unpopularity. Even now, a month before he goes, and globally reviled, he talks of walking away ‘with head held high’. Weisberg states his aim is to explain Bush rather than judge him, but he cannot help the judgements peppering his analysis, for example:

‘A son who tried to vindicate hiss family by repudiating his father’s policies, ended up doing the opposite of what he intended. He showed the world his father’s wisdom and brought shame to his name.’ (p72)

‘If Bush was Truman, where were the durable institutions, the supportive alliances, the sound doctrine? Bush’s contribution to the new era was an unnecessary war, an overblown conception of the terrorist threat, and a hollow rhetoric of victory.’(p236).

If we need to know history in order to avoid making the same mistakes again, I would like every aspirant politician on both sides of the Atlantic set Jacob Weisberg’s book as compulsory reading.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008


How Much Are Traditional Books in Decline?

In its 'Looking to 2009' feature today Michael Tomasky, the Guardian's US editor, sees the future of the book being threatened in the coming year. He cites in evidence the unspecified number of lay-offs by Random House in its 'sweeping restructuring' not to mention the dramtic current growth in 'e-books'.

Meanwhile we learn that the web has overtaken newspapers as the main sourse of news for respondents to a Pew Research survey in the US. The percentage of those using rthe web as their 'main source of news' leapt from 24% to 40% in just one year. Newspapers managed only 35% and TV slipped from 74 to 70. Advertising revenue is drying up and recent job losses are bound to increase as the recession bites.

Readers aged under 29 favoured the web by 59% compared to 34%, equal to TV but with the papers on a dismal 28%. So the writing seems to be on the wall. Is this a good thing? I'm not sure. The key thing, from the point of view of democratic health, is that voters imbibe sufficient to use exercise their judgement wisely. At the moment I have to say, my feeling is that young people absorb far too little. My students at two universities, with honourable exceptions, seem to be isolated from current events and most developments seem to pass them by. Their most regular source of newspaper news would appear to be tabloids or the free-sheet Metro.

Political apathy in terms of ignorance and low turnout is a condition that web based news and comment might very well mitigate. I hope I'm wrong but my experience so far is that news taken in via the web is even skimpier than that elicited currently from the printed media. As a writer of politics books and a teacher of the subject,I find this depressing so I do hope Tomasky is proved wrong.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Should Bush and Co. be Given the Pinochet Treatment?

Jonathan Freedland raises a really important issue in his column today. The Bush administration is beginning to take its leave with Cheney, gazing into the future, envisaging history delivering a benign verdict on what has transpired since 2000. Freedland points out that a bipartisan Senate committee report, chaired by no less a figure than John McCain, has reported after 18 months of study:

It shows how the most senior figures in the Bush administration discussed, and sought legal fig leaves for, practices that plainly amounted to torture.

Interrogation techniques for which elite troops were prepared in training were 'reverse engineered' at Rumsfeld's behest:

so that Americans would learn not how to endure them - but how to inflict them. Which they then did, at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and beyond.

Freedland continues that not only Rumsfeld was involved:

The report's first conclusion is that, on "7 February 2002, President George W Bush made a written determination that Common Article 3 of the Geneva conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, did not apply to al-Qaida or Taliban detainees". The result, it says, is that Bush "opened the door" to the use of a raft of techniques that the US had once branded barbaric and beyond the realm of human decency.

It could well be that Bush will play his final card to pardon his cronies but that writ won't necessarily run in other parts of the world and Bush, Rummy and Cheney might face an embargo on travel abroad for the rest of their lives. Now that would be a small first step towards what might be called justice.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


A Sea Change in Voter Attitudes to Public Spending?

The ComRes Poll in the Independent, which showed Labour closing on the Conservatives last month, this time shows Tories on 39, Labour on 34 and Lib Dems 16. Not so bad, you might think, only 5% difference but the other major finding of the poll will worry the government to its very bone marrow, as Andrew Grice explains:

But asked how they would vote if the Tories committed themselves to a lower level of public spending than Labour and to try not to raise taxes – Mr Cameron's current policy – 49 per cent said Tory, 32 per cent Labour and 11 per cent the Liberal Democrats. There was a similar result when people were asked how they would vote if Labour committed itself to higher public spending than the Tories and admitted it was likely to mean an increase in some personal taxes – Mr Brown's current position. The figures were: Tory 48 per cent, Labour 30 per cent, Liberal Democrats 13 per cent.

This poll suggests the public are undergoing a major shift of opinion as the recession begins to bite. It also means that even if Labour's 'fiscal stimulus' succeeds in reviving the economy, voters may well punish them for the price paid in the coin of increased taxation. We've been here before, one wearily observes, during the 1980s. Then Conservatives exploited public rejection of Labour's high seventies taxes and began to cut services to allow tax cuts to be made.

The result was the virtual atrophy of the health and education services, much to the anger and disgust of voters who found themselves waiting for months for much needed operations. So the pendulum swung back towards the cleverly positioned Tony Blair who presided over the avalanche of funding poured into public services since his second electoral victory in 2001. Most-though not all- polls showed improved perceptions of the NHS but, unless this poll is a rogue one, the banking crisis and the resultant recession look like swinging voters back towards starving public services once again. Depressing? You bet.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Maybe we are Enjoying(sort of) this Mega-sized Flutter?

Interesting pieces in the press on Brown's inverse proportion to prosperity revival and Cameron's difficulties in exploiting the economic crisis. Rawnsley points out that:

The conventional rules of politics say that such a massive reversal of economic policy should destroy the credibility of a prime minister just as Harold Wilson's reputation never recovered from the "pound in your pocket" devaluation of the mid-Sixties and John Major was wrecked by Black Wednesday in 1992.

Yet in Brown's case his stock has risen as the crisis has deepened, so that the once unassailable lead enjoyed by the Conservatives has been reduced to one which is certainly surmountable by Labour. Rawnsley suggests Gordon's dour character, which has not changed one bit from the one excoriated widely in the run up to the Manchester conference, somehow suits these straightened times. It could be though, he concludes:

...the public will turn against the government in the New Year as the recession grows more savage, business bankruptcies multiply and dole queues lengthen.

Bagehot, in the The Economist, also ponders the irony of Brown's ascent from the depths and contrasts it with the rarely smiling countenance of David Cameron. This columnist argues the Tory leader's inability to find the right message is behind Brown's better showing. His attacks on Brown's Keynesian stimulus policies combined with his harping on the 'broken society' theme have not struck the right notes:

Combined with his glumly parsimonious economic message, this social pessimism now makes him seem unappealingly bitter and recriminatory. He has begun to resemble those much-derided, Tebbitean predecessors, only with better hair.

Personally, I think a deepening recession will indeed erode Labour's current standing and all now depends on whether the Keynesian medicine works. Certainly Gordon has been perceived as being pro-active and concerned while Dave has seemed casually detached from the dire state of the world's and UK's finances. While we wait for signs of recovery- or further decline, voters are prepared to give Brown the benefit of the doubt rather than trust his sleek and well-fed crtitics, Cameron and Osborne. To return to the theme of my last post, it's a gamble, but maybe, in some part of our psyche, we enjoy the mega- sized flutter?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Labour Should Not Gamble on the Strength of this Poll

Politics is so astonishing right now with polls in The Guardian today showing Labour narrowing the lead held by the Conservatives. This comes only just over a fortnight after ther same company showed the public spurning the PBR and extending the Tory lead. Labour are now only five points behind compared with 15 on 29th November.

Further, Brown is doing well in his ratings on handling the crisis and honesty(!) though Cameron leads on 'most potential as prime minister'. Lib Dems are doing better too on 19 points, up from the low teens so Clegg will be relieved there is unlikely to be any calls for Vince Cable to ntake over just yet.

But should Gordon go for bust and call a February election? I note Derek Draper in The Guardian predicts Labour's poll standing will improve which will increase pressure on Brown to do the snap election before unemployment gets really bad and before the economy has demonstrated if his medicine is going to work or not. I suspect we are already in that closed circle of speculation for the next feww weeks but I am of the same opinion as Martin Kettle that such a gamble would be a disaster.

He points out that Labour would be unlikely to 'win' such a contest and a hung parliament would likely result in the place of the majority Brown has to command for over a year yet. He also notes the dire record of February as a month Gladstone(1874), Attlee(1950) and Heath(1974) all found was not condusive to victory. I would add that the polls do not seem reliable right now and are highly volatile as the swing over the last two weeks demonstrate.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Two Alternatives to Revive the Economy

It's hard to criticize Gordon Brown when one has no alternative to offer, so I was gratified to find two distinguiished columnists coming up with one apiece.

Simon Jenkins recently suggested that better than merely loosing those 12 odd billions into the economy and hope that it will ast as a stimulus to end the recession as Keynes says it should:

Get people to spend by giving them money, and just stop them saving it. Give them non-cashable vouchers for domestic goods and services that expire in three months. Drive them to the high streets, supermarkets, restaurants, entertainments, garages, anything that is not saving and has an employment multiplier effect. Only firms should be able to bank the vouchers. Demand must feed straight into business revenue, because revenue is collateral for credit. Without revenue, boosting credit is pointless.

Maybe this idea is deceptively simple but I'd like to know why; it has already been suggested by German Social Democrats.Wemust reflect that it took the Second World War and FDR's New Deal for Keynesian ideas to win favour. The second idea comes from Andrew Rawnsley yesterday when he suggested Brown shouldn't throw money at the banks but do an FDR and invest in our decaying infra-structure.

If the government is going to spend like there is no tomorrow, better to use the money building things that might be useful when tomorrow comes. Better to invest in Britain. That way, when we do eventually emerge the other side of recession, we will be in a fitter place to exploit a resumption of growth. The case is even more compelling because this is a country crying out for serious investment to improve its creaking infrastructure.

It's a strange thing about innovative ideas; some people are opposed to them by instinct as if they have some toxic quality or because they didn't think of them personally. Of the two I think the latter is the most persuasive and also much needed as anyone trapped in a motorway jam or waiting for a train knows. Chances of being implemented? At the moment, more's the pity, I'd say nil.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Strictly and X Factor Appeal to Divided Demographics of Britain

Seeing as it's Sunday and nearly Christmas, I'm eschewing politics briefly to comment on the two reality show biz competitions screened last night. [I can already feel a bit of a rant coming on so stop reading now if you are resistant to them] I've been a fan of Strictly for years. While I cannot dance for toffee I've always admired those who can so the basic premise of 'amateur does good' appeals strongly, as does the competitive element. XFactor I had not really seen before regularly but I was drawn to watch it by the full page articles being written about Cheryl Cole, the latest person to advance from car crash social background, via a talent show, to the status of National Treasure.

The two programmes are poles apart regarding presentation and mirror the division of our country into different classes and cultures: Strictly's 'Wimbledon' contrasting with XFactor's 'Championship Darts from Purfleet'. I discovered that in this dichotomy, I am well into the middle class part: I enjoy the dancing but abominate the presentational style of XFactor. The former focuses on the dancing, or at least it has since the withdrawal of John Sergeant. The presenter Bruce Forsyth tells execrable jokes and, despite his catchphrase denials really is doddery. But he is an old time pro who presides genially over a genteel middle class celebration of ballroom dancing: Guardian and the Times stuff. XFactor, however is The Sun, Star, News of the World and People rolled into one in its appeal.

The latter really was a strange concatenation last night. The 16 yearold leprechaun, Eoghan Quigg,sang dismally flat and then duetted inexplicably with Boyzone. JLS, the fourstrong act sang harmoniously and might have been good if their act had not been joined and upstaged by Westlife. Similarily with Alexandra Burke, the only genuine talent in the final- and eventually worthy winner- whose thunder was stolen by the duetting superstar, Beyonce Knowles. To make matters worse a legion of 12 yearold dancers crowded the stage for Quigg and constant eruptions of 'fountains of light' in the background bestowed a tacky, Las Vegas style false glitter to the proceedings.

The presenter of XFactor, Dermot O'Leary, seemed to declaim tabloid headlines rather than perform any discernible role. And as for the much bruited charm and wit of Cole, I thought she uttered, along with her fellow judges, the most anodyne of banal comments. What was really irritating was the fact that they offered no criticism whatsoever, just variations on the theme of 'Eoghan, you are already a major star!',something which is plainly not yet the case. As for the minor public school boy super-smug Simon Cowell, there was not even a hint of any of his famed barbed comments or wit, just the same mish-mash of tired superlatives as the others.

But worst thing about the show was the cacophanous noise. There was no attentive aural space, it seemed to me, in which the contestants could properly perform. We had shots of Dungevin and Derry where it seemed every denizen below the age of 10 had been coralled to scream their support for the diminutive Quigg. And so it was for JLS and North London Alexandra. Even the judges useless comments were shouted at top decibel force above the shouting of the inexplicably hysterical audience.

Oh, and the tears! Everyone's lips seemed to be helplessly a-quiver, whether contestant, judge or audience member. It was as if Cowell had imported all the very worst of his US television 'entertainment' experience to cascade over us like a giant skipful of lukewarm dirty washing up water. Why did I watch it if I hated it so much? Well, I had no idea it would be so bad but, God knows, I won't be doing so again. At least the contestant with the most talent finally won, so a kind of justice was done in the end.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Don't Blame Me, I Voted For the Congestion Charge

When I checked a couple of weeks ago, the referendum turnout was only around 25% but I see that after that it grew so that it was eventually 53% of the 1.9m balloted once all the postal votes had been counted. The 'yes' people did not sell their message very well and the 'nos' were able to play on underlying-uninformed- fears of a charge which could exceed a grand a year and might go up even higher. A 4-1 majority is pretty emphatic but to me merely reinforces the gist of my last post that voters will almost never vote for 'pain'. In fact, if voters, rather than the Commons, had been given the chance, I doubt very much if Churchill would have been returned on his 'blood toil, tears and sweat' manifesto of his famous speech of 13th May 1940.

Charging would not have started until 2013 and by then 80% of the improvements in public transport would have been completed. Only one in ten would have been affected and two thirds of housholds would not have had to pay the 5 pound charge: discounts and exemptions would have covered the lower paid and those in peripheral areas. Given that Edinburgh rejected the idea in 2005, it now seems highly unlikely that Leeds, Bristol or Cambridge will go for it.

So we have a future of 'more jam' to look forward to but on our roads and not our bread. The £1.5 bn and 10,000 jobs incentive offered by government in exchange for our democractic compliance was ignored. So, rather like the voters of Sark, voters in my region have fended off something they don't like but only at the price of a massive financial hit, more congestion, more pollution and the whole idea of self restraint in aid of anything at all let alone climate change being held up to bitter mockery.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Honesty a Rare Commodity in Opposition as Well as in Government

I found myself agreeing with Max Hastings' piece on Monday that Cameron has to be careful what he offers voters. To be truly responsible he ought to advocate swingeing cuts in expenditure on welfare or projects like Trident in orderto minimize tax increases needed to reduce debt. But he won't because, as he points out:

what sort of platform would it be for the Conservatives to promise The Politics Of Pain? So accustomed is our pampered society to the notion that all suffering should be avoidable, that a party which promised to be cruel to be kind would almost certainly be decimated on general election day....A truthful opposition could say many things to the people, but most would do scant service to its poll standing.

To reinforce this truth, one only has to recall Labour's telling tactic in the last two elections of demanding to know where the Tory cuts will be. And the Tories have no reason to complain. When John Smith explained his moderate proposals to increase taxation in 1992, Tories attacked them rabidly as a 'Double Whammy' and went on to win the election. It's true that political culture has changed since then: people have accepted that good public services require adequate funding and having them so run down by the Tories 1979-1997, has made us wary of anything sounding as if it will produce the same result.

But voters will always want to have their bounty from government while not wanting to pay for it. It would be honest to come clean but Hastings is right to predict that Cameron won't.

[I'm sorry not to have blogged so often recently but I've been very busy this term and on top of that my computer has broken down and I'm forced to use my less than adequate lap-top]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Aitken's Testimony on Prison Bears Stamp of Authority

Jonathon Aitken is not someone who commands a great deal of sympathy, let alone respect on the left. He was involved in arms dealing, sued our beloved Guardian and then used his daughter in a perjurious attempt to clear his name. He went down, did his time, came out, found God not to mention another wife and yesterday gave evidence to a Select committee on the efficacy of prison.

He was disarmingly frank in the Radio 4 parliamentary report I have just heard. He explained how his Eton and Oxford education proved useful to his fellow innmates- many of whom he befriended and one or two of whom he even invited to his wedding- by drafting letters for them to send to loved ones on the outside. He recalled that, as a young Tory MP, he used to parrot the rightwing tropes like 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' and 'life should mean life'. Such an approach he now sees as total rubbish. Prison makes only a minimal attempt, he testified, to rehabilitate those whose lives have taken a seriously wrong turn and should be reformed from the top to the bottom.

It seems perhaps ironic that it takes a spell in chokey for a Conservative to realise the emptiness of their attitudes and policies on social policy but one is enthused to suggest that all of his erstwhile colleagues, presently serving in the Commons, should also be consigned to Her Majesty's prison accommodation for six months to improve their education on how life is led by those at the wrong end of society's social spectrum.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Economy Still in ICU: Will it Respond?

Andrew Rawnsley found some good analogies yesterday with which to describe the state of the economy. He argues the initial injection of billions 'kept the banking sector alive':

The bail-out did prevent the immediate implosion of the entire financial sector which was a gravely serious threat at the time when Mr Brown unveiled the grand plan. Without that emergency action, it is highly likely that we would have seen the simultaneous collapse of several of Britain's biggest banks.

But, he adds:

What it has yet to do is get the patient out of intensive care. One senior minister who is currently spending most hours of his days with bank executives compares them to men who have 'suffered a massive heart attack'.

The analogy is apt because when someone has a heart attack, if they survive until they make it to hospital, a spell in the ICU is the only treatment. The image breaks down soon enough in that, while doctors have a range if not a multitude of drugs to feed into the heart patient, governments seem to have only one drug for a heart attack economy: huge injections of money.

One reassurance is that Obama seems to be planning to emulate FDR's New Deal to the letter:

The economy is going to get worse before it gets better," he told NBC television. He announced the biggest public works expenditure in half a century in his weekly radio on video address on Saturday, saying there would be projects to improve roads and bridges, make public schools more energy efficient, and computerise medical records.

He even manages to use the same medical metaphor:

He said he was focused on projects that would create the most jobs in short order, saying the economy was like a critically ill patient who needed a blood transfusion for survival.

Meanwhile, those of us who depend on the patient getting better-I exclude the Tories whose best calculation is that it won't- sit anxiously around the bed waiting for those indicators of good economic health- recovering share prices, stable exchange rates, resumed bank lending- to start beeping away cheerfully. Fingers crossed.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Of Damian Green and the Home Office Mole

I initially thought this Damian Green arrest issue was trivial enough to sink out of the news within a few days. Shows how much I know. Bernard Ingham used to say that if nothing new had emerged after nine days, an issue could be said to have died. Alastair Campbell suggested the limit was 12 I believe. But by this standard the thing is still going strong as new items are injected almost daily. MPs love to stand on their dignity and get awfully exercised about liberty and honour and the sanctity of the House; you get the feeling they want to keep scratching at this one until it bleeds properly.

The important parts of the problem are:

1. Who knew the police action was going to take place? the Speaker? Home Secretary? Both say no and the police claim they acted independently of government anyway. John Reid, former holder of Ms Smith's office says he is 'surprised' she had not been told. But can she be blamed if the police did not tell her?

2. Why did the Sergeant at Arms, Jill Pay, let them in without a warrant? And why didn't the police tell her she could demand one? The latter point seems less important than the former. Jill Pay is new to the job so maybe that was a factor. Incidentally, I have to say I always visualise the holder of her office as a retired military old sweat, with shoulders broad enough to carry that mace and a permanently stern countenance. While she fails on the first two Ms Pay does manage to fulfill the third having a face-see above- which would silence the most riotous of stag nights in seconds.

3. How long had Chris Galley been feeding Green information? Had he been encouraged to do so? How important was the intelligence? Did it contain budget secrets for example as has been suggested?

All governments leak and ministers themselves are the worst offenders, though they claim that for them, this is a form of 'briefing'. All oppositions benefit from leaks too, for example the present prime minister gained hugely from leaks in the civil service during the 1990s. But should a free for all in leaking be tolerated? Surely governments, of whatever stripe, need to make policy with some confidentiality and need a legal framework to facilitate this?

Leakers may leak and Oppositions can benefit but if they get caught out they may have to pay a price. If Mr Green cares so much about the nation's right to hear his leaked information, he should be prepared to pay the price for having done so via a process which was possibly illicit. A short bout of martrydom won't do his career any harm in any case.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


A Tale of Two Legislatures

'Shame on you Barack Obama! declared Hillary Clinton during her losing primary campaign. Now on the payroll she refers to those abrasive exchanges as a 'lively dialogue'. Such is politics. Something which struck me though about Hillary's recent elevation is that initially the offer did not seem like one. Hillary was said to be merely considering the idea. In the UK, you don't hesitate when offered a job in the Cabinet; if you are a politician this is the Holy Grail, or as near as dammit. But an academic discussion forum I belong to was divided over Hillary's best interests.

Doyen of pollsters, Sir Bob Worcester, reckoned Hillary would 'be mad to leave the Senate' as the Secretary of State job might only last a short while before she is replaced. Being in the Senate would keep her profile high should she fancy another shy at the White House in 20012.

Other scholars weighed in with the observation that service in the Senate carries real power and legislative clout- you can be on a committee actually redrafting clauses on the Senate floor. In other words, this example displays the fact that our legislature is by comparison a mere 'influencing' one compared with Congress's more policy-making role. Indeed some politicians over here regard the House of Commons as just something you have to get into in order to achieve the real power of government office. In the US you have to give up your legislative role to fill a Cabinet post while in Britain, it's just your entry card into the competition for one.

But in the end she ignored Sir Bob's advice and took the job. She'll have to work out why she voted for the Iraq War while presumably negotiating a withdrawal and wonder why she thought it would be such a bad idea while meeting representatives from the likes of Iran. But, this again, is just politics; its vagaries throw up all kinds of odd circumstances and bedfellows. Talking of bedfellows, it'll be interesting to see how 'Big Dog' husband, Bill, handles the role of being 'Mr Secretary of State'. Given his skills and experience together with his instinct for political compromise, I suspect Obama will be getting two high quality people for the price of one.

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