Saturday, November 28, 2009


It's the Evidence to Chilcot, not the Report Which will be the More Important

There is a fair bit of scepticism about the Chilcot Enquiry into the Iraq War. Many columnists not to mention my friends and colleagues, reckon it is a 'show' inquiry put on by the 'establishment' and likely to produce the same sort of whitewash served up by Hutton and Butler in their reports. Listening to Simon Jenkins and the gifted historian Peter Hennesssy on Today this morning, it is clear the latter, at least, will have more than enough material for yet another brilliant and excoriating volume.

I see these things slightly differently. These previous reports might have been bland and surprisingly non accusatory but they did succeed in accusing and exposing through the evidence submitted to them. So we can read in Butler, the precise ways in which Number 10 'sexed up' the 'dodgy dossier'. Moreover, the publicity which surrounded both enquiries ensured the likes of Blair, Straw and Goldsmith did not escape free of criticism either by the present and certainly will not not by history.

So we have Sir Christopher Meyer, more or less admitting what we all have come to conclude: Blair was so in thrall to Bush, through power worship or something similar, that he had already committed his country to war long before his party or parliament had any real chance to debate it. Bush was the main culprit but Blair was complicit as hell. Then there was his devastating comment about the trap Blair set for himself with WMD- 'We had to find the smoking gun. And, of course, there wasn't one'. And there will be more, much more. Ignore the report, savour the evidence.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Unlock Democracy's Campaign for a Citizen's Convention

Unlock Democracy is a campaigning body resulting from the merger of Charter 88 and the New Politics Network. Charter 88 did much to put constitutional reform on the agenda-Devolution, FOI and the HRA- during the dog days of the 1980s and 90s. Its present campaign is to campaign for an elected panel to act as an alternative 'jury' on such reforms, taking evidence all over the country and establishing a genuine connection with voters.

I support the initiative because:

1.It's a positive step at the right time. In the wake of the expenses scandal there has been much disillusion, anger and talk of reform. Yet suggestions made some weeks ago seem to have faded along with the initial momentum.

2. It would represent an alternative to the 'establishment' attempts to reform our ailing political system.

3. The current system is discredited and an alternative approach offers advantages.

4. Gordon has offered some initiatives like his attampt to kick off a 'conversation' with the nation and his constitutional reform proposals back in June 2007 which have mostly come to nothing. Before that we had the 1998 5000 strong People's Panel, through incompetence and lack of political will, a complete damp squib which which was wound up in 2002.

5. I like the idea of a representative panel taking evidence rather than a retired civil servant issuing sonorous platitudes as the prelude to doing very little. I've been studying the political process for over forty years and have lost so much faith in its fundamental good faith, let alone its efficacy.

Realistically, however, I don't expect MPs to support the embryonic bill: it probably sounds too radical and alternative and suggests the convening of an elected body which MPs wuld probably see as a rival rather than an ally. More's the pity.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Something, at Last, to Cheer Up Labour

The run into the election, slated for 6th May 2010, promises to be gripping for more than just the political anoraks. Hitherto it had rather been assumed Cameron would promenade through the winter months and early spring to stroll into Downing St come the summer. His poll leads of 20 points a few months back all pointed in this direction- not to mention his high personal ratings and Brown's disastrous ones- and eager politics watchers like me or even depressed members of the Labour Party, like me, had more or less accepted it was 'game over'. But then came Sunday's poll. To say this changes everything would be to overstate the case but then again, maybe it does as it must have rudely shaken up growing Conservative expectations they would win at a canter come polling day. A lead of 6% (37-30% with Lib Dems on 17%) would leave them short of an overall majority by a couple of dozen MPs or more. Oh dear! Time for a Tory rethink.

Of course this is only one poll and it could be a rogue one but it does follow a shortening of the lead in recent weeks and the surprisingly solid Labour win over the SNP in the Glasgow by election. Maybe Cameron's gamble on being upfront about cuts in public spending was a bit too, well, upfront? Maybe, also, the economy is turning the corner. Maybe we're in 1992 territory when a government came apparently from behind, to win a famous victory. I'd settle for a hung parliament to be honest and this is now what all the buzz is about in all the columns.

Bob Worcester (pictured) in the Observer offers his experienced and expert perspective:

Four of the seven polls taken so far in November have given the Tories less than the magic 40% share they will need for an overall majority. None, until now, has had Labour over 30%, its traditional "core" vote. The 37% Tory share to 31% for Labour suggested by the poll – with the Liberal Democrats languishing at 17% – will alarm David Cameron a little, and his candidates standing in marginal seats a lot. On a uniform swing projection, such a close result would suggest that, while the Tories would be gaining a respectable 82 seats, this would still leave them 35 seats short of the 117 they need for an overall majority. They would still form a government, but would struggle to govern. These new figures show a 4.5% swing from Labour to the Conservatives compared with 2005.

Such a swing is 4 whole points below the average during the year so far of 8.5%. Is it a blip? Maybe, but maybe not. Worcester adds a telling coda to his article:

The projections show just how precarious the likelihood of a stable Tory majority is. Bring the Tories down one percentage point to 40% and Labour up a percentage point to 28%, and Cameron's majority falls to just 30 seats (7.5% swing). But if the Tories fall by another point, to 39%, and Labour comes in at 29% (holding the Lib Dems at 18% and others at 14%), then Cameron would be two seats short of a majority on a swing of 6.5% from Labour's 2005 result, even though he would enjoy a lead of 10 points over Labour.

Nick Clegg, after playing the coy m aiden for a while has let it be known he will fall for the man who clearly has won a mandate from the people either in seats or votes. So a coalition possibility is now there but I wonder:

a) would Cameron accept a deal on voting reform ?

b) would Clegg accept Cameron's euroscepticism?

c) is there any way Clegg would give Brown a chance of extending his career as prime minister given the poor fist he had made of it since 2007?

Maybe Jackie Ashley is right today when she suggests a sharp change of leader might be the price Labour have to pay top stay in power. Whatever the status of this poll- rogue, a blip, anomaly- it's certainly warmed up the contest and given Labour supporters something at last to feel more cheerful about.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Lady Ashton and the 'Talent Pool'

Already sections of the press are rubbishing Kathy Ashton because she is an unelected politician. As Neil Kinnock has just argued on Today, I'm not sure this is anything to worry about. US Cabinets have been unelected ever sinced 1787 and, whilst there have been arguments over many of them, some have proved to be very effective. Thed key thing is that they are appointed by people who are elected, as indeed was Lady Ashton. I honestly feel our 'talent pool' of members of the legislature is too restricted.

I once interviewed Tristan Garel-Jones, the former Tory Deputy Chief Whip who left me in no doubt that such resources are always distinctly finite. These figures are approximations but it is usually assumed that a third of a governing parliamentary party are not available by virtue of their total unsuitability: excessive drinking, incapable of running anything, let alone a ministry, too old and enfeebled, too young and inexperienced; too ideologically extreme; or too much of a risk to any government because of bizarre attitudes or personal habits. There could be other reasons. Depending on the size of its majority a government might therefore have around 200 MPs who can realistically be put in charge of Whitehall departments and fill the around 100 posts any prime minister has at his or her disposal. This is a much smaller group than one might have originally thought, to be sure.

Given that ministers need time to prove themselves in the job and display signs they are suitable to go on to higher things at cabinet level, even this number has to be qualified. In addition a prime minister has to be mindful of other considerations, representing: Welsh and Scottish interests, especially in their respective ministries; a fair number of women, given their under-representation generally in parliament; a few racial minority MPs; maybe one or two gay MPs; as well as the major ideological or ‘tribal’ interests in the parliamentary party.

Put like this, Sir John Hoskyns’ jibe that ‘governments are formed from a talent pool that could not sustain a single multi-national company’ seems less a spiteful swipe than a bleakly accurate analysis.

Despite New Labour’s huge majority of 179 and 419 seats, Blair did not find it easy to discover much talent within their number. Astute columnists often attested to this fact. Peter Riddell, 19th June 2003 commented on the recent reshuffle, that it revealed ‘the sheer mediocrity of much of the Government… which has ‘few potential stars. On a generous estimate there are at most ten possible Cabinet ministers among middle ranking and junior ministers, mostly competent managerial types like Beverley Hughes, Hazel Blears and Nick Raynsford.’

Andrew Rawnsley, whose Servants of the People, chronicled Labour’s early years, recalls a conversation with a senior official from Number 10 about

‘….the shallowness of the junior ministerial gene pool and how few really good people there were available to the Prime Minister for promotion to the top table.’(Observer, 4/4/04).

We should abandon the narrow notion that all ministers should be drawn from the legislature and look further afield for ministerial talent. The case of Kathy Ashton supports this analysis in my view.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Climate Change Denial a Cause for Real Concern

Given the widespread publicity given to it is really is extraordinary that so many people reefuse to accept the central findings of climate change scientists. According to The Times 14th November, only 41% of the cpountry believes climate warming is the consequence of human activity:

poll, undertaken last weekend, found that only two in five people in Britain accept as an established scientific fact that global warming is largely man-made. ..

Among the public as a whole 41 per cent agrees that it is established that climate change is largely man-made. Tory voters are more dubious, at 38 per cent, than Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters (at 45 and 47 per cent). A third of the public (32 per cent) agree that climate change is happening but believes it has not yet been proven to be largely man-made, while 8 per cent think that the view that climate change is man-made is environmentalist propaganda. Fifteen per cent believe that climate change is not happening. Only 28 per cent believe that climate change is happening and is “far and away the most serious problem we face as a country and internationally”, while 51 per cent think that it is “a serious problem, but other problems are more serious”.

Occasionally one's faith in the good sense of one's fellow countrymen takes a hard knock and this is one foe me. How on earth can people deny the resuilts of careful scientific studies by world experts in theior field? No major newspaper questions these facts yet a hard core of deniers insist it's all not so, a figment of environmentalists' selfinterested imaginations. I have to quote The Times again, this time the editorial which says the case is 'overwhelming' and that the

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was written by 152 scientists from more than 30 countries and reviewed by more than 600 experts. It concluded that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is due to the observed increase in man-made greenhouse gas concentration. Concentrations of CO2 have increased by more than 35 per cent since industrialisation began, and they are now at their highest for at least 800,000 years. Natural factors alone cannot, on any but the most extraordinary assumptions, get anywhere close to the temperature rises that have been witnessed. Hardly any serious scientists dispute this any longer.

One can only conclude from this that many people just do not want to believe these inconvenient facts and are so addicted to consumption of cars, cheap travel and so forth they are just closing their minds to what might happen to our grandchildren and great grand children.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


'There are no Votes in Pity' and Yet More Plot Rumours Scarcely Credible

Another cracking article by Andrew Rawnsley today, the final sentence of which leads this post. He reprises the saga of the Jacqui Janes letter, the resultant phone conversation with Brown and the evident reality of a Sun determination to belittle Brown and besmirch his name and reputation.

That The Sun overdid it is now palpable with even his enemies like Iain Dale- a Conservative (blogger) but a humane one- Mathew Parris- ditto- and the rightwing Spectator all agreeing Gordon has been pilloried unfairly as a busy man of poor eyesight. A more deserving target would have been his private office which allowed the letter to go out unchecked. Number 10 apparently is pleased the pendulum of sympathy has swung in Brown's direction by the end of the week.

Rawnsley points out us however that Brown was never going to be a leader we'd love and so had aimed to win our respect:

You don't achieve that from having people feel sorry for you. Voters want a leader who feels their pain, not one who asks them to experience his. Countries do not want to be led by people they pity.

Most of us felt sorry for John Major- a 'decent' man- as his party imploded around his ears, but we didn't vote for him 'Leaders who attract our pity simultaneously attract our disdain.'

Finally, a word on the 'plot'. It seems MPs are plotting to elected an anti-Brown candidate as chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party in place of Brown loyalist Tony Lloyd. If either Barry Sheerman or the impressive young Parmjit Dhanda, are elected, then according to Observer sources, 'the prime minister would have little option but to stand down'. Well, I've heard so much about plots and each time it's been 'Brown's last warning'; I really don't think there is either time enough to do the deed or anything like the necessary bottle in the PLP to do it.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Free to Air Sports Poses Critical Dilemma

So the independent review body has reecommended that the Ashes cricket series and other sports be made free to air, rather than remain the preserve of Sky Sports, accessible only to those who can afford the subscriptions. Owen Gibson today gives the details of how Sky will be stripped of its broadcasting monopoly, possibly as a tit for tat regarding The Sun's change of party allegiance.

However, such a move, if the advice is taken will cause much consternation:

The England and Wales Cricket Board has claimed plans to add Ashes cricket, home and away international football qualifiers, Wimbledon and Open golf to the list of events reserved for live broadcast on free-to-air TV will have a "disastrous impact" on grassroots funding for every sport.

Cricket coaches have complained the loss of the Sky deal will lose the game £75m in funding and will lead to scores of staff being sacked. The county game is all but moribund, as anyone who has visited one will testify; it is only the lifeblood of Sky cash which is keeping the game breathing. It's a nice dilemma. Most viewers would love to see international cricket, rugby and soccer free to air, yet most administrators in these sports will shed anguished tears about the viability of their sports without those huge dollops of Sky money.

So who should be heeded: the masses of sports lovers or those who run them? One argument is that free to air will inspire so many youngsters to play the sports their respective futures will be assured. On the other hand, loss of fundsing might mean futuree stars might mature to find the infrastructures of these sports have melted away in the meantime, leaving no clubs for them to join and pursue a sporting career. As a hopeless sports addict, I hope some compromise solution can be found.

[Don't you think the Ashes urn is such a pathetically small trophy to brandish and brag around? Compared with, say the Rugby League Challenge Cup it's a joke but that's whny cricket, with its quirky eccentricities is such an enduringly addictive past-time to some of us I suppose]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


More Thouhghts on That Letter and Afghanistan

I maybe sounded a bit too critical of Brown in my last post and have been roundly taken to task by my blogging colleague Paul Linford in the comments box:

"I think the way the Sun has hounded the Prime Minister over this is quite scandalous and I'm surprised to see you giving succour to it. Gordon is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't in these situations. For goodness sake give the guy some credit for good intentions."

Having observed the awful hounding of Gordon Brown yesterday and today I have to ruefully agree with Paul. It is so obviously a Murdoch press operation to wound Brown via exploiting a mother's grief for her dead son. Nick Robinson added to my regret for criticising today when he pointed out that the PM is blind in one eye and has only 50% vision in ther other. His hand writing is poor because of this and not through carelssness and certainly not callousness.

He is a very well intentioned and highly moral person. This doesn't mean he should not resign and let someone else lead the party to a less catastrophic defeat, but it does mean he's been picked on unfairly. Incidentally, while on the subject of Afghanistan, I emailed Simon Jenkins regarding Ashdown's warning that our withdrawal would lead to the collapse of Pakistan, give nuclear weapons thereby to the Taliban and destroy NATO. His reply began by dismissing Paddy's scant knowledge of the area and concluded as follows:

"The idea that Pakistan "will fall" is rubbish. As for the Taliban having nuclear weapons, that depends on the truth of the first statement. As for staying in Afghanistan indefinitely in order to prop up Nato, that has to be the worst reason of all!"

Monday, November 09, 2009


Gordon's Unfortunate Letter of Condolence

It's a nice touch for prime ministers to write personally to the families of sevicemen killed in action, but Gordon Brown's effort(pictured) has attracted harsh contumely from the mother of Jamie, the soldier concerned and the now officially hostile Sun newspaper. The Sun condemns such sloppy drafting counting twenty spelling and other errors.

Maybe this is nit-picking by a rightwing newspaper, criticising a desperately busy man, but it does seem sensible not to send out letters of condolence which make matters worse rather than provide comfort. One thing which strikes me is Gordon's handwriting. Mine has never been good and I'm no graphologist, but I such an expert has interesting things to say about the character of someone who writes such tortured, cramped and indecipherable characters. If you check out the linked article, you'll find the thoughtful Sun has provided just such expert in the person of an Elaine Quigley. She concludes 'I think he means well but he winds himself up so much it comes out all wrong'. Too true Elaine.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


Afghanistan: the Case for Staying the Course

Having given my account of why we should get out of the war in my last post, here is my version of the arguments why we should stay.

1. Nuclear threat: if the west withdraws it will give the Taliban a golden chance to win not just Afghanistan but Pakistan too and access their nuclear weapons. Al-Qaeda did terrible things with commercial aircraft- imagine what they might do with nuclear weapons. Possibly Pakistan might be persuaded to render their nuclear arsenal unobtainable but this is still a major danger.

2. NATO might collapse: such a break up of NATO unity might ruin the alliance and UK would lose the basis of its defence since 1949.

3. Afghan people: we would be condemning a benighted people another dose of extreme Islam- something which 70% of them say they oppose.

4. US Alliance: we might ruin our close connection with the USA, again a major aspect of our security since the middle of 20th century.

The case for withdrawal seemed to me to be irrefutable when I first constructed it but further thought produced the above points of which I think maybe the first is the clincher. But, like Jackie Ashley today I do think the war in unwinnable and that an exit strategy will eventually have to be found, if not by Brown, then by Cameron when, as seems likely, he becomes prime minister.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Afghanistan: Looks Like Time to Get Out

It was hard not to agree with Kim Howells yesterday, the former Foreign Office minister and respected voice among Labour MPs. Between them US and UK have spent $230 billion on the war and lost over 1500 young lives, 229 of them British. And what have we to show for it? Continuing support for a hoplessly corrupt administration propped up by war money, war lords and the drug trade. Simon Jenkins has been sending in broadsides against the conflict for some time: see his latest. But Howells' revolt is of a differnt order, for here was a man who once believed greatly in the rectitude and winnability of this war. This extract neatly summarizes his case:

"Sooner rather than later a properly planned phased withdrawal of our forces from Helmand province has to be announced. If it is an answer that serves, also, to focus the minds of those in the Kabul government who have shown such a poverty of leadership over the past seven years, then so much the better. Seven years of military involvement and civilian aid in Afghanistan has succeeded in subduing al-Qaida's activities in that country but it hasn't destroyed the organisation or its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Nor has it succeeded in eliminating al-Qaida's protectors, the Taliban. There can be no guarantee that the next seven years will bring significantly greater success and, even if they do, it is salutary to remember that Afghanistan has never been the sole location of terrorist training camps."

Given that we can not defeat the Taliban on their home ground- what army ever has in Afghanistan?- and that al-Qaeda can easily re-establish in places like Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea or Uzbekistan- we should take seriously Howells'alternative 'Fortress Britain' approach: defend ourselves more effectively in our own home, even at the cost of more intrusive surveillance of the Muslim community. Not ideal by any means, but surely a more cost effective policy than the hiding to nothing we're receiving at the moment? Both party leaderships have painted themselves into a corner here, just as Obama has. They may find in a short while that they have a noose around their necks as tight as Vietnam- so best start the rethinking now, as Howells correctly suggests.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Further Questions Regarding 'this Shoddy Shaming Alliance'.

Further to my last post, The Economist has weighed into the debate in the form of its columnist Bagehot. Recent days have seen Conservatives intent upon damage limitation regarding their odd new friends in the European Conservatives and Reformists(ECR). While Bagehot accepts that history has made parties in Eastern Europe, with its tragic 20th century history more complex than our own, this does not mean that no judgements whatsoever can be made about Kaminiski's homophobia and views on the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne; he goes on to offer a few which do not ideally recommend such alliances to what is likely to be the UK's next government. He also judges that:

Their prospects of influencing European deliberations, on matters that they care about such as hedge-fund regulation, have dwindled. They have alienated and baffled other European conservatives. By abdicating the centre of European politics for the fringe, the Tories have convinced many in Europe that they can legitimately be ignored.

Like Peter Oborne, Bagehot returns to the opportunistic wooing of the euro-sceptic's vote back in 2005 when his promise to withdraw from the EPP, coralled their support against his opponent David Davis. Such true blue members gave their support for the liberal policies which have revived Tory fortunes because they had been 'bought off' by the deal on the EU. Bagehot ends by asking a question which Labour and uncommitted voters will echo as the months to the next election shorten:

It is this: if this shoddy, shaming alliance is the price he was obliged to pay his party for the changes needed to make it seem modern and compassionate, what sort of party is it that Mr Cameron leads? What else will its members demand, and what else—when his popularity and authority wane—will he be obliged to give them, after he becomes prime minister?

Monday, November 02, 2009


Cameron author of Tory Woe over EU Argues Shrewd Oborne Analysis

Excellent analysis in an article by Peter Oborne yesterday on Cameron and Europe. He locates the core of the problem with the Tory rank and file. For some reason they perceive Europe as the heart of darkness: a potential supranational dictatorship unlimited by democratic constraints. As they see it, this malign juggernaut- quite possibly the vehicle for revived German plans to dominiate Europe(Oh yes, Dennis Thatcher wasn't the only one to believe that), has to be stopped before this green and pleasant land is suborned and robbed of its identity. Halting the progress of the EU for them is a mission of Churchillian importance.

Mad, I know, but it's a political fact. Oborne claims Cameron used this misplaced sentiment to outflank David Davis in the contest most thought the former council estate Tory would win. In so doing, claims Oborne, it was Cameron who reopened the wound which had kept his party flatlining in the polls since the mid 1990s:

He[Cameron]could gather very little support and the contest looked like turning into a run-off between the two ambitious right-wingers, Liam Fox and David Davis. Suddenly, in a daring move, brilliantly advised by his ally Michael Gove, Cameron outflanked them both by making a promise his rivals felt unable to make. He promised to take the Tory party out of the EPP centrist coalition in the European Parliament, thus securing the support of core Eurosceptics including William Cash, Douglas Carswell and the talented MEP Dan Hannan. Had Cameron not formed this alliance with Tory Eurosceptics, he would never have become leader.

The consequences of abandoning the mainstream for the unwholesome Poles and Latvians have been plain to see in recent weeks. Oborne points to another 'concession' Cameron made to the sceptics, in his 'laborious' efforts to haul the Murdoch press on board.

This wooing was eased by a pledge from Cameron to the readers of the Sun that he would hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. "Today," wrote the Tory leader in September 2007 in an article he must bitterly regret, "I will give this cast-iron guarantee: if I become prime minister, a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations." To dramatically emphasise the point, he wrote his personal signature at the bottom. "Small wonder that so many people don't believe a word politicians ever say," added Cameron, "if they break their promises so casually."

Indeed. We'll see what Cameron's own promise is worth when Vaclav Klaus finally signs the Lisbon Treaty. Oborne makes a final telling point. Kenneth Clarke has been brought in as a necessary heavyweight but is openly pro-EU- the reason why he isn't leader, say some- and is balanced by the formidable euro-sceptic William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is the architect of the new non mainstream rightwing grouping. Like John Prescott for Blair, Hague delivers the party faithful for Cameron. But unlike Prescott, Hague is in the first division of politicians and, if things go pearshaped for Cameron in the difficult years which lie ahead, Hague is a genuine rival for the leadership. How Cameron reacts to his earlier promise when Klaus(picture top left) signs will be a first test of how Cameron will deal with a problem of his own making.

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