Saturday, October 31, 2009


MPs' Pay and Expenses- Being Fair

I know this topic is already fairly dogeared but I wanted to add a few thoughts to it as I feel MPs have been rather unfairly judged. This is not to say that there have not been shocking excesses which should be condemned. These include:

Shame Column
1. Claiming for Mortgages already paid up. One or two MPs did this(Elliot Morley?) and must have known they were cheating the system.

2. Flipping. Altering the choice of one's 'main residence' to maximise expenses in order to sell on the property falls into the same category. MPs are not voted into Parliament and paid salaries by voters to become property entrepreneurs. Such MPs must have known what they were doing and it was right they were exposed and shamed.

However it seems the public as a whole have extended the obloquy deserved by a few to include all MPs willy nilly. A number of points need to be made in their defense.

Defense Column
1. Many MPs did not exploit their expenses and yet have had to accept the pariah status earned by the recalcitrant minority of their colleagues.

2. MPs arriving in the Comons entered a relatively generous expenses regime. Most people, whatever they might say, when they can claim epenses, do so up to the limit. I've worked in the public sector all my life and know this to be the case. Private sector claiming is even worse. I remember, in the seventies, some television employees asking for restaurant receipts from friends do they could submit them to employers and fraudulently cash them in as expenses.

Journalists are among the worst for doing this and it's ironic they should have lead the charge against MPs. Some tell of when they first joined the payroll of being told by older hands not to underclaim as this would show the rest of them in a bad light.

3. I recall Alan Duncan on that infamous Have Got News For You clip, smugly boasting about how well he was doing out of his allowances. This sort of thing must have done the rounds of the Tea Room and encouraged similar claiming styles. Moreover, MPs' wives, usually running the home, must have disseminated a fair bit about what you could claim in coffee mornings and the like. Once one heard a claim for something was possible and legitimate, they would be likely to urge hubby to do the same.

4. At £64K p. a. MPs' salaries seem pretty good to an impecunious semi-retired academic, but I realise this is relatively low compared with the amounts available in the private sector- law, the media, accountancy- or indeed, many parts of the public sector. To attract the best talent from which our ministers are to be drawn, a decent salary has to be offered. MPs, after all, have to feed their families and live in reasonable comfort. Expenses were used by the whips for a long time as a 'compensation' or 'top-up' to this relatively low headline salary. If it was poffered on this basis, then we should not be too surprised if MPs filled 'their boots'acordingly.

I was amused, on the last point, to read Simon Hoggart this morning who points out the delicious irony inherent in such a whips' tactic:

It's pleasingly ironic that MPs were encouraged to exaggerate their expenses to replace a pay rise which would have attracted public opprobrium. Now they are suffering vastly more contempt than they would from a salary increase which would have been forgotten in a week.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Cameron Likely to Find More Than One Term is Beyond Him

A week last Sunday Andrew Rawnsley suggested Cameron might only last one parliamentary session. It seems a trifle early to be gazing ahead like that, but we'll all be doing it soon, so why not. He points out that the last 30 years have witnessed periods in govbernment of quite extraordinary length: 11 years for Thatcher followed by 7 years by Major for the same party. Then 10 years from Blair followed by two more, to date by Brown. Rawnsley notes:

Between 1949 and 1979, Britain got through many more prime ministers. Attlee was followed by Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home, the last old Etonian at Number 10. Then came Wilson, Heath, Wilson again and finally Callaghan. Not one of those prime ministers achieved more than six continuous years in Downing Street and the average stay was more like four.

The columnist wonders if Cameron will be someone who stays in for two or three terms or if he will be a 'one term wonder'. Is the ealier postwar pattern about to reassert itself? There are reasons to think incumbency might not be the huge advantage it has been in the past.

1. The MPs expenses has created a very 'anti-politics' mood which is likely to make any kind of government difficult.

2. The economy will not be so accommodating as it was for Blair in 1997, albeit on a basis we came to see was unsound.

3. The initial period of any Cameron government is likely to be characterised by deep cuts to bring down the deficit. Paying off the debt is liukely to be an extended and unpopular affair.

All in all, it is going to be tough for any government and Cameron might have to just enjoy his period in Number 10, as it might well be only until 2015 at the outside. For what happens then my crystal ball is entirely and murkily unreadable.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Tony Blair Would be Good as EU President

If, as seems likely, the Czech president finally decides to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, the next issue to make Tory Euro-sceptics wet their knickers is whether Tony Blair should be the first incumbent as EU president- well discussed here and here. Oh yes, and here. My view is he would make an excellent choice. This is not because I wholly trust him or think him especially truthful but because I see him as a highly effective politician-Hague's high pitched protests bear testimony to that- who will do a job Europe needs doing.

My position begins as a committed internationalist. I think we need more collaborative action to stem global warming, terrorism, international crime and world poverty. The UN has failed to achieve: the EU has achieved its goal of economic integration and a degree of political unity also. But, as is sometimes said: Europe is an 'economic giant but a political pygmy'. For years Europe has meekly accepted a distant second place to the US and even looks like being shunted into a lesser future role than China as the future shape of the world's power dispositions begin to emerge.

Blair would provide the dynamism and flair to raise the EU's profile, to ensure its voice is heard. True he has been a divisive politician but he has also been a unifier too as in Northern Ireland. I find it hard to accept that the Tories are so viscerally opposed- unless they fear this guy is just too good for them- as surely a Brit in such a high profile position would be a good thing for the UK? To oppose him just because of domestic rivalries smacks of small minded parochialism.
To get the Economist's odds on the competition see here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Why, oh Why Do we Have to Keep on Putting the Clocks Back?

[Last year, about this time, I expressed my indignation at the absurd putting back of clocks every year by that precious hour. I have not heard one single person in favour of this measure-well one, anyway; see comment box- which continues to shroud in gloom a period of the year which does not need any more more gloom than it already has. So I'm republishing my post of last October and intend to do so until this ridiculous outdated practice is done away with(I know, I know).]

No doubt most people in this country have felt the first chill of autumn as recent unseasonably warm temperatures begin to give way. This reminder that winter is at hand is bad enough but what astonishes me is our government's insistence on putting the clocks back by an hour; this year it's on 25th October.

The case against this joyless annual donning of a temporal hair shirt is as follows:

i) studies show that while there might be more accidents in the mornings these would be more than compensated for by fewer in the evenings; The Guardian some time ago, quoted studies predicting a net saving of 140 lives.

ii) 80 per cent of the population want to keep summer time throughout the year.

iii) Many influential pressure groups favour it, including the CBI, the Police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

iv) the experiment of maintaining BST through the winter 1968-71 was, as far as I recall, a substantial success.

v) It would extend the tourist season, the sporting season and..., perhaps most important of all it would make us all feel a damn sight better about the miserable imminence of winter.

The case against reversing the measure is summed up in the two words: Scottish farmers. They would face much darker mornings as the sun would not rise until 10.0am. However, against this it can be adduced:

i) The rate of decline in accidents would actually be greater in Central Scotland(5.5%) than in the south of England(2.5%).

ii)When I used to visit Northern Sweden regularly, farmers up there did not see daylight until much later than 10.0am and accepted it as part of their cost for living in that latitude.

iii) Now Scotland has its own parliament, why doesn't it set its own regional time and do us all a big favour?

iv) is it fair that a nation of 60 million should suffer merely because a few hundred farmers should be able to see their cows more clearly on a winter's morning?

In the war we had a clocks turned forward two hours- Double Summer Time!- why not return to those good old days? Brown might even find his recently flagging popularity recovering immensely if he introduced this simple yet highly popular measure.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Griffin Exposed by Democratic Debate on Question Time

Did you see it? It was woeful I thought from Griffin's point of view. The panel were very well prepared- had read all the damning quotes and had them to hand, had seen the Youtube clips of him actually speaking the offending quotations, so his claims of being misquoted carried little weight.

Baroness Warsi was particularly effective and the Tories clearly have a potential star here. Jack Straw was a bit bumbling I thought but made some telling points in his somewhat wordy way.

I actually felt a bit sorry for the silly man at times, so effectively was his pretence of being 'just a concerned patriot' dismantled. If this is the best he can do British political culture has little to worry about.

For democracy, free speech and British values of toleration, not to mention the BBC's obligation to give every point of view a fair crack, the programme represented 'Job Done'.

He may well think he negotiated the 60 minutes without conceding too many own goals or even, any major gaffe, but the vast majority of the viewers will have seen someone struggling desperately to answer the charges regarding vicious racism and Holocaust denial. He did get some good publicity for his odious views but it was not good publicity.

But I'm fully aware I might be wrong. Many viewers might have ignored the effective kebabbing of his arguments and merely received the thinly disguised racist messages with approval. The future will reveal how effective or ineffective has was, but I thought he was, in a word, rubbish.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


NIck Griffin on Question Time

Nick Cohen gave us a good run down of Nick Griffin's rise from a Suffolk educated child of a Conservative family, through an early personal rightwing epiphany-he read Mein Kamp aged 14- to a Downing College Cambridge degree in history-to an apprenticeship at the feet of notorious National Front organiser, Martin Webster until he finally replaced John Tyndall as BNP leader in 1999. In June his party polled 6.2% of the national poll in the euro-elections and won two MEP seats from northern constituencies.

That was when the BBC felt it had to invite Griffin to join the Question Time panel, a programme which has become a kind of popular, dumbed down version of parliamentary debates, albeit policed by the benign dictatorship of David Dimbleby. Several questions have been hotly debated arising from the programme which will air tomorrow evening.

1. Should a party which does not fully endorse the rules of democracy, be allowed to exploit such rules when seeking power for itself? The example of Hitler's Nazi party is usually wheeled out to support the negative response to this question.

2. Should a party which advocates and practices violence,['Defend Rights for Whites' with well-directed boots and fists,"] be allowed to benefit from this kind of exposure alongside parties to which such methods are anathema?

3. Will he receive a rigorous interrogation? Cohen suggests this might not happen as the populist context with a studio audience militates against forensic questioning.

My feeling is that we should trust to democracy and hope that the thinly disguised racism of the BNP will be exposed and dismantled. However I have two fears. Firstly that Jack Straw might not be on top form- he's a bit too avuncular and maybe not hard edged enough for this confrontation. Secondly I fear a fair numberr of neanderthal viewers will ignore any intellectual demolition and merely react to the poisonous emotive appeal of Griffin's arguments. But in a democracy it's a risk we just have to take. Please God the panel will be on tip-top form.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Legg Letters Pile on Unnecessary Agony

I was in two minds whether to use a picture of Tomas Torquemada rather than Sir Thomas Legg, so closely have their roles appeared to merge. After the shameful idiocy of the expenses scandal we now have its pathetic revival whereby expenses drawn(and approved) years ago are being raked over yet again and some MPs asked to repay substantial sums while others escape virtually scott-free.

Public opinion is being whipped up again over something relatively trivial compared to the huge bonuses the bankers are apparently being allowed to draw again- possibly of the same scale as those which are alleged to have contributed to the near meltdown last autumn. Conspiracy theorists might be tempted to say the expenses scandal is the perfect smoke screen behind which the masters of capitalism can continue to rake in the loot.

But such expalnations are always too simple of course. It's much more to do with the next election, the campaign for which has been robustly in train since the conference season. All the party leaders are terrified of allowing one of the others to establish an advantage by offering a tough macho posture to voters on a matter they are belived to be greatly exercised. They're a bit fed up with it actually in my view. That old columnist warhorse Alan Watkins in the IOS yesterday offered a good analysis on why Brown and Cameron are trying to out 'bully' one another, pointing out that such ridiculous posturing led to the end of that deservedly popular MP, Ian Gibson:

Mr Brown farmed out sanctions-imposing powers to the National Executive Committee: about as suitable a body for imposing sanctions as the social committee of the Millwall Supporters' Club. This body's or Mr Brown's principal victim was Dr Ian Gibson, who had been member for Norwich North and had provided a trifling benefit for his daughter. He was liked in his constituency, highly regarded in the House and a critic of Mr Brown. Accordingly, he had to go. It was a clear-cut case.

Would it not have been far better, in John Major's famous words, to 'draw a line' under the scandal and 'move on' as we are all supposed to after emotional traumas? This farting about with repayments benefits nobody and merely pours more unhealthy contumely over an institution already in intensive care.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Lords Ministers to Play Role in Commons?

The revelation that Lords Mandeslon and Adonis will be allowed to take questions from MPs, has interesting constitutional implications. So far such questionings will only take place in the adjacent medieval Westminster Hall, but once and if they become nrmal who knows if m'lords might be seen at the Despatch Box itself. It's only precedent and flummery- of which we have far too much- which prevents it. Tony Ben is against the idea as these two ministers are not elected. But neither are any Cabinet ministers: they are appointed by the prime minister. Whether they are elected by a constituency seems to me a foible of our antque constitution.

Most senior ministers in other countries are appointed because they are thought capable of doing the job. I'd like to see the device of roping in ministers via the Lords used more widely to widen the talent pool available to Cabinets. Bringing in someone of great energy and ability to run a government department, say from business, academe or even the civil service, seems quite logical to me, and sensible too.

I realise this road might possibly lead even further: eventual prime ministers sitting in the Lords? The last one to do so was Lord Salisbury(1895-1902) and one wonders if such a development could usher in a new lease of life for the Lords as an entreport for new talent up to the highest level? Don't think this would be possible because parties run British politics and they function via activity in the Commons. But, maybe Mandy's enthusiasm for this innovation might have its origins in his perception of a circuitous constitutional route to his own elevation to the top job? Too little time, of course, and it would not happen but it's a thought to mull over.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Tax Payers Alliance: Pressure group or Tory Front?

‘Since it was launched six years ago the alliance e has become arguably the most influential pressure group in the country..’ So wrote The Guardian 10th October 2009 in a major article on the new phenomenon, written in the wake of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. Indeed, any organisation which presumes to speak in the name of all taxpayers needs to be looked at a little more closely.

“The idea of tearing down the walls of big government as Cameron did in his speech on Thursday is something we have been talking about for years," said its chief executive, Matthew Elliott, yesterday. "The Tory party has moved onto our agenda."

The TPA also claimed authorship of George Osborne’s public sector pay freeze and that no public sector worker should earn more than the prime minister without the Chancellor approving it. The TPA also urge the wholesale abandonment of cherished Labour achievements: the secondary school building programme, child benefit and Sure Start centres for young children.

The media too-especially the rightwing press- have proved deliriously receptive to its messages:

“In the last year the Daily Mail quoted the TPA in 517 articles. The Sun obliged 307 times, once bizarrely on page 3 when a topless Keeley parroted the TPA's line against energy taxes. The Guardian mentioned the group 29 times.”

The term ‘Alliance’ suggests that the TPA has some kind of democratic legitimacy, that it represents the voting public in some kind of genuine fashion. Indeed, it claims to be: ‘the guardian of taxpayers money, the voice of the taxpayer in the media and their representative at Westminster’. The Guardian had investigated the TPA’s sources for its £1m annual funding and discovered 60 per cent of it comprised donors giving £5000 or more to the Conservative Party. Moreover one of the group’s directors lives abroad and does not pay any UK tax.

Perhaps inevitably after this Labour sources called foul. Former Deputy Prime minister, John Prescott, denounced it as ‘nothing more than a front for the Conservative Party’, calling on the BBC-which regularly interviews TPA staff- to clarify its umbilical links to the Tories when its representatives are quoted or interviewed.

The Chief Executive of the TPA, Mathew Elliot, dismissed the attack, claiming it was as hard on the Conservative councils who wasted money as it was on Labour and pointing out its donors had once given to Labour in its earlier days.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Jo Berry and Patrick McGhee Impress with their Journey of Reconciliation

I sometimes wake up and listen to the World Service and have just had to profound experience of listening to Jo Berry and Patrick McGhee discussing at length their friendship. And a strange friendship it is. She is the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry who was one of the five people killed by the Brighton bomb and he is the man who placed the bomb which killed her father. They have met some 60 times since the event and have done many interviews like the one I heard. Yet, for me, it was deeply moving. She, a member of the British ruling elite and he a Northern Ireland Catholic community, they have tried valiantly to understand one another.

This despite, I suspect, the powerful opposition of the communities from which they originate. The likes of Norman Tebbitt, whose wife was crippled and who was personally injured has shown nothing but defiant contempt for such terrorists. How would I, or how would you react? I'd like to think it would be like Jo Berry as hers is the kind of bravery required if communities at war are to learn to live with one another, not just in Ulster but in the Middle East and other places where sectarian hatred and murderous violence drive the agenda. But I suspect I'd seek the all too understandable refuge of hatred and desire for revenge.

The two make a strange couple: she seeking to extraxct something good from her personal tragedy and he overcome with remorse and sadness for what he did. He admits to feeling 'relief' when the bomb went off 'successfully'. I suspect, like other bombers, he also felt delight but that would have been a bit too honest. Jo explained she did not forgive him but said she did 'understand' him, how someone from his background and upbringing could be drawn into the IRA and its struggle. For his part he admitted he was sorry for what he had done and how he too wished to move on from the savage feelings which had created the tragic impasse in his home province.

It was a strictly limited reconciliation but both people were so sincere and humbly desirous of escape from the prison of negative passions, I was moved by their journey towrds mutual understanding. And if it wasn't a total healing of wounds who could wonder? He had killed her much loved father. Yet without such extraordinary behaviour and emotional bravery, I cannot see how either side in the conflict- still bubbling on under ther apparent surface calm in Northern Ireland- will ever transcend its history and achieve the liberation required to live properly again.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Tory Support For 'Good Friend' Kaminski Truly Shameful

David Miliband is right to attack the Conservatives' rightwing flank just as Jonathan Freedland suggested a few days ago. Miliband says in The Observer:

"There will be incredulity in Washington, Beijing and Delhi, never mind Berlin and Paris, that a party aspiring to government in Britain – the party of Winston Churchill, no less – chooses allies like this,"

The 25 Tory MEPs sit alongside Kaminski and other equally unsavoury Latvian and Lithuanian rightwingers in the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), the group they moved to from the more orthodox previous rightwing grouping because it was deemed too close to being 'euro-federalist'. Kaminski has refused to apologize for his country's role in the massacre of 300 Jews at Jebwabne in 1941 and his party is openly homophobic. Miliband is himself of Jewish extraction, of course, and many of his relatives-possibly as many as 80- were killed in the Holocaust.

William Hague, Shadow Foreign Secretary has described Kaminski in a letter as 'a good friend of the Conservative Party'. If Cameron and his opportunist cronies want to win the 117 seats needed to form an overall majority- something they have not done since 1931- they will have to weigh the value of such alliances when they hit support in two influential groups of voters: the gays and the Jews.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


'Ere We Go 'Ere We Go Again

I've always been a supporter of trade unions. Without them there would be no Labour Party and pay and conditions for working people would be infinitely worse than they are. But the Communications Worker's proposed strike fills me with a dreadful foreboding that they are displaying the very worst aspect of self destructive union activity.

The Royal Mail is a fine institution delivering our letters in all weathers and, in my experience, with a friendly cheerfulness I have always appreciated. But the business is clearly failing. The internet is reducing the amount of letters we send but increasing the amount of parcels. Because practices are out of date, the Mail is losing custom to private agencies which are becoming ever more efficient; the Mail is sliding into impotent irrelevance.

Mandelson tried to introduce a part privatisation to inject capital to improve efficiency and reduce the shortfall in the pension fund. Labour MPs foiled that sensible objective and the dispute over reorganisation has now reached a crisis which will lead to strikes which in turn will only weaken the business yet further. As Christmas approaches postal workers need not assume the public will be on their side either.

It seems aas if the real culprits are local union militants who are determined to frustrate centrally negotiated agreements as they apply to local areas. In consequence huge piles of mail are building up in urban sorting offices all over the country. Amazon has had enough and has terminated its £25m contract with the Mail. Others will surely follow. The shortsightedness of union activity whereby they are destroying the service they claim to be protecting is quite tragic and hearkens back to the unionism of the seventies.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


Skipper Temporarily Silenced

This is the say a fault with my BT line has made it impossible for me to post anything for a few days. Sorry about that- not that it has stopped the world turning even to the slightest degree. But as a blogger since 2005 I have tried to keep reasonably up to date and to post regularly.

I hope to be back online once the BT man calls to sort out my landline tomorrow.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


Blair as EU President Possibility has Spooked Tories Dreadfully

Can't wait to hear if Ireland has said 'yes' to Lisbon. Then if the Poles and Czechs ratify- as they appear to be on brink of doing- Blair's presidency will become a live issue and he could be in post by the end of the month. The Tories are still terrified of Blair as the 'political miracle worker' and hero of Dave Cameron. Hague has already alluded to the fear that he will create a powerful role for the presidency, just as the Younger Pitt- the subject of the former boy wonder's brilliant biography of course, made First Lord of the Treasury the most powerful office in Britain's emerging democracy in the late 18th century.

As for Labour, many of them- including this blogger- would love to see someone from their tribe heading up the EU. Will it happen? I don't think Ireland will say no to Lisbon but some heads of state might balk at the joint architect of the Iraq invasion. My fingers are crossed. Peter Riddell wonders if Tories are not going to get too involved in Europe again. It won't win them any votes and most brits could not care less if Blair becomes EU President. I would love to see the EU strengthened as an institution: as an internationalist I want to see MORE integrative pooling of sovereignty and less nationalistic anarchy in the world. I'd rather like to think well of Tony Blair again too. If he could only still those inner voices telling him to do God's will, he could still achieve something like greatness.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Narratives for General Election Emerging from the Fog

Well, I thought Gordon's speech a let down but had few expectations of any stirring oratory. Andrew Neil and a few others seemed to think the promise of a referendum on the AV voting sytem was a move towards PR but, as all politics students know, AV is not proportional and such a system in 1997 would have given Labour an even bigger majority, (which is possibly why Brown has come to accept it as harmless). But it won't change our relentless slide towards defeat Gordon! PR would have been the 'game changer' and he's let the moment pass... as we knew he would.

He also bottled out of including the section on allowing a TV debate with other party leaders but we read this morning that, according to Lord Peter, he will take this route. Very sensible as he has no choice, as the rank outsider. Mind you polls today show Labour have reduced the polling gap by six points, nearly a half. Cameron won't be worried as this is just the usual post conference bounce- recall that it was the Tory's bounce in 2007 which scuppered the 'snap' election idea Gordon was so keen on.

But the 2010 election campaign is now clearly under way and we can just about discern the outlines of what the parties are going to say. Labour will say:

'We have hugely improved public services, presided over an expanding economy and then took the right decisions when things went wrong (through no fault of our own). This means we are to be trusted with the economy and while the Tories would have caused disaster through inaction, their determination to cut services and shrink government will cause widespread suffering and snuff out the frail economic recovery'- Vote Labour!

The Tories will say:

'Labour have messed up the economy, wasted billions on ill run public services and borrowed far too much money for the future of the nation's finances. We will impose across the board savings, eliminate huge amounts of wasted spending and allow the economy to grow back into health. Vote Conservative!'

Which sounds more credible? Obviously I think the former, but Gordon has so devalued his partry's brand, people just stop listening asd soon as he starts to speak. He could have the arguments used to such good effect by Major in the not disimilar situation of 1992, but he has even less ability to project them even than the Tories' infamously 'Grey Man'.

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