Friday, July 30, 2010


Skipper away for Weekend

Skipper is away for a few days on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


First Major Faultline Appears in Coalition

Personally I'm strongly in favour of voting reform and would like to see Labour support AV; it's not the ideal as it's not a PR system, but it's a start. Many Labour MPs have expressed support for voting reform- even one Gordon Brown a few months ago, you might recall- but some are still lost in the toils of Old Labour, trade unionist style thinking and do not want to surrender a system whose distortions so favour their side.

Today we learn that Labour is likely to oppose AV in next May's referendum. The main reason cited is that the Tories are trying to manipulate constituency boundaries in their own interests and have abolished independent public inquiries into such changes, rendering the process a virtual 'gerrymander'. Jack Straw seems to have led the move to oppose the AV proposal as these changes will arrive on its coat-tails.

Should this come to pass we can predict the coalition has less than a year left to live. With 45 rightwing Tory MPs led by Bernard Jenkin(pictured) stoutly opposing the measure, voting refom will not get through. The Lib Dems regard voting reform as the ark of the covenant of the coalition agreement and their only major 'pay-off' for putting their party in such dire risk of destruction. If it fails there would be little point in continuing. So this unholy alliance between Labour and the Tory right could well scupper the 'Brokeback Coalition' before much more than a year has passed. However, I foresee a year of frantic political activity before the referendum, with Cameron, whipped on by a nervous Clegg, desperately seeking to discipline his rightwing colleagues. Fascinating stuff for political obsessives...

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The Bottom Line Problem with Education Lies in Our own Culture of Disdain Towards It

The Observer's article today on retired secondary school teacher Alan Hems-worth(pictured), considers his lifetime's experience of state education. He has seen a huge change in the system, the approach, the culture and he aims a number of arrows at the: National Curriculum, Targets and the obsession with Exam Results. No doubt all are valid criticisms to a degree, but it got me thinking about my own views after a lifetime in teaching: sedcondary, adult education and the higher sector too.

During the last fifty years we have seen some progress, but still we find a massive 15% of 16-18 year olds without work, education or training(NEETS). This is an appalling indictment of our failure to dissolve the disinclination of our poorest lumpen stratum of society to drink at the educational well. I use that metaphor deliberately because the fault is not just on the side of the state provider. The opportunity is there but so many youngsters do not want to take it. And this is the fundamental flaw in our system. The teachers are generally competent and well intentioned; my experience is that so many kids absorb the dominant culture of their peers and deride the notion of learning or acquiring skills generally.

Am I blaming the pupils? To some extent yes, If any highly paid critic of teachers who dismiss them as pathetic, were to attempt to do what teachers in tough urban areas do, they wouild keep very quiet. It is immensely hard to confront the sheer apathetic, subversive do-nothing, say nothing attitudes of kids who do not want to learn. I am surprised more teachers do not succumb to drugs, booze and nervous breakdowns.

Each generation a sliver of this almost immovable social group are peeled away and join those who relish the acquisition of an educated mind. But it's only a sliver. However much successive governments seek to fiddle and tweak the system, there is this huge reluctant elephant of cultural apathy which recruits our underclass, invests in incalculable future misery, wasted welfare spending and desperately undermines our international competitiveness. How do we solve the problem? I wish I knew, but my point is that this is the problem, not the system per se. Until we devise a solution to this oddly Anglo-Saxon problem(USA suffers from it too- most European countries much less so) we will always find NEETs weighing down our society and overburdening our support services.

Friday, July 23, 2010


Lib Dems' decision to join the Coalition Begins to look like Suicide

Today at Chequers (pictured) Cabinet members discussed 'political' matters. The huge problem, apart from Cleggy's poor showing at PMQs, is the fact that the Lib Dems are dying as a political force. I had some sympathy with them after the election. It was easy for left of centre types like me to criticise their deal with the Tories and say it was the last thing Lib Dem voters wanted when they voted for their party on 6th May. But on the other hand, the country desperately needed a well supported government to deal with the economy. The alliance with Labour was just not on, so what happened was kind of unavoidable. The Lib Dems, one might say, had a 'duty to commit suicide'.

Because that is what I think Clegg and company have done for them. The latest Yougov polling shows Tories on 43%, Labour on 35% and Lib Dems a perilous 13%. Party members are drifting towards Labour and the party risks being 'hollowed out'. Clegg and Cameron are keen to cement the alliance and were expected to reassure their colleagues that both parties would 'ultimately benefit' as long as they stayed the course in tandem, till 2015. Hmm. But here's some questions to mull over:

1. What will Lib Dem members think when the cuts really begin to bite and front line services return to the levels of the early 1990s? Will they want to deal with the public odium this will cause?

2. What if key measures like university fees and the referendum on AV is defeated after their 'allies' have done their best to rubbish the system?

3. Who will Lib Dems feel like voting for in 2015? If the two parties are still in league, won't any vote seem wasted unless it's cast for an opposition party?

4. Is it not already clear that the Tory right abhor their new partners and are none too keen on Dave either?

5. Is it not already clear that if the Lib Dems want to survive as a coherent, credible party they will be forced to leave the coalition?

6. Moreover, isn't it crystal clear the Tories and Cameron are benefitting enormously from the coalition- Dave's approval ratings are hovering around 48!- while the Lib Dems are being hideously damaged?

Wintour, in the linked article, suggests Cameron will have to actively help Cleggy to achieve some prominence and win some support. It's just that this will be so hard to do. And when Nick had a chance to be prime ministerial on Wednesday, he blew it. Oh Lor!

Wintour's article quotes Julian Astle, director of Centreforum as saying:

The [poll] divergence is not that surprising. When everything in British politics is dominated by the deficit, and the left is queasy about cuts, left support for the coalition is going to reduce. As soon as Clegg joined with the Tories, it was clear the party can only play it long. My guess is the polls are going to get worse, and it may last a long time. The party is going to have to grit its teeth and say at the next election: 'Yes it hurt, but yes it worked.'"

For an interesting analysis which suggests the centrist consensus around Nick and Dave is flanked by the Tory right and the Lib Dem left read this

If you want my view right now, I'd not lay any money on this arrangement lasting more than two years.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Eliza Does for Tony's Reputation

Perhaps the last nail has been hammered into the coffin of Tony Blair's reputation by Baroness Manningham Buller, the former head of MI5 in her evidence to Chilcot yesterday.. I've read loads of accounts of the lead up to the Iraq war in March 2003- most recently Rawnsley's End of the Party, Meyer's DC Confidential, Seldon's two volume biography of Blair, and Mandeslon's recent controversial volume. In all of them Blair comes over as naive, credulous and so dazzled by the power wielded by George Bush that he failed to check him in even the slightest way.

Bush asked Blair more than once if he wanted to pull out as the USA felt able to do it alone if rquired- Blair insisted on each occasion that he-or rather British troops- would be at Bush's shoulder. Several authors who have questioned the leading players judge that Blair's influence was virtually neglibible and that on no occasion did he speak up to check US plans even when he felt strongly or had some genuine leverage. Finally, he was so supine that he even withheld any criticism of Israel's merciless assult on Gaza in 2008-9, for fear of offending the pro Israel Americans. A shameful record which I thought could not really be sullied further.

But the redountable Eliza Manningham Buller, looking couriously like Theresa May in the above picture, has added to the indictment by her evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry yesterday. I cannot do any better than to quote her own crystal clear words:

"We regarded the direct threat from Iraq as low"

"Arguably we gave Osama bin Laden his Iraqi jihad"

"Substantially" – when asked to what extent the conflict in Iraq exacerbated the overall threat facing Britain's security from international terrorism

"Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people – not a whole generation, a few among a generation – who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack on Islam"

"It is fair to say that we did not foresee the degree to which British citizens would become involved …"

"Very few would argue that the intelligence was substantial enough to make that decision [go to war]"

All this to deter him and yet Blair still was impelled to go ahead. I can only think that he was desperate to utilise the great power of the USA to fulfill his own high minded vision of how the world could be. To protect this strategy he decided not to deviate one jot from a 'prostration strategy' towards George Bush. And its results? A political, military, moral and humnanitarian disaster with which hnis name will be irrevocably linked.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Mandelson Vague on Key Question on Why He did not Help Depose Gordon

I recently asked, of Mandy's memoirs, why, if he thought Gordon was so crap, he didn't join those trying to depose him, rather than defending him- rather effectively I thought at the time. I've been reading Rawnsley's End of the Party again and have reached the bit about the attempted coups. Mandelson is portrayed as being contemptuous of Gordon as a prime minister in private yet supportive in public. No change there, then you might say.

Then I saw his interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday and Marr asked the very question I had posed. Mandelson said he could in no way have joined in any coup attempt as: firstly there was 'no way' he could have known what other Cabinet members thought. Well, I doubt that. Mandeslon is a natural plotter and would hnave known almost intiuitively what his colleagues were thinking or would have quickly found out. Secondly he said there was no way he could have helped to bring down Gordon during an economic crisis. More credibilty to this argument but if he really wanted to defend New Labour, there was time to remove Brown and replace him with a less toxic leader. Mandelson has estimated Gordon cost the party 40 seats; that's enough to have made the coalition unformable.

The third reason, not mentioned by Mandeslon but crucial at the time, was that there was no obvious candidate. Miliband D, was up for it to a degree says Rawnsley, but lacked the cojones to break cover. This absence of a replacement- though virtually anyone would have been prefereable- was a key reason why Brown survived and an indictemnt of those now contesting the Labour leadership.

I suspect Mandelson too, had slipped back into 'courtier' mode with Gordon after October 2008, when he returned to the Cabinet. He was enjoying it too much to risk it ending: a new leader might well have deemed him unemployable. And, just maybe, he felt a little loyalty to the man who used to be a close friend and who had awarded an Indian Summer to his career.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


David Cameron's 'Socialist Paradise' in Scandinavia

I was probably the only person in the UK listening to Ed Stourton's 'Politics UK', on BBC World Service at 5.0am today, but it had a fascinating little item on Sweden and how political perceptions of it have changed. I take a special interest in the country as I have visited many times and was married for over 20 years to a Swedish lady. When my contacts with the country began, it was perceived as a kind of social democratic utopia, with fabulous public services run with a Germanic efficiency. 44 years of Social democratic rule had transformed this once poverty stricken 'poorhouse of Europe'(from which one third of its population emigrated to America during the first decade of the 20th century) into a species of paradise.

I marvelled at the gleaming public services, the amazing levels of care for the elderly and the generous adult education provision. Labour supporters, like Anthony Crosland led his own party to place Sweden on an admiring diaz. But not everyone was impressed. Roland Huntford's The New Totalitarians, in the early 1970s, accused it of being so cloyingly helpful it resembled Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Rightwing critics were vocal in condemning the alleged homogenous 'boring', humourless nature of Swedish society. Knowing as many funny, interesting Swedes as I did, I could never agree with such negative views. To me it always seemed like the acceptable synthesis of a wealth creating free enterprise system, distributing its gains on socialist principles of fairness.

But now it's all changed. It's now, apparently, one of Cameron's favourite countries, exemplfying how market forces can remove the dead hand of state bureaucracy and add dynamism to moribund services. This applies to education- their socalled 'free-schools' and their health services too. So odd to hear this socialist paradise being praised so passionately by people who once excoriated it. But it might have more than a little to do with the Moderate's leader (ie Conservative),Fredrik Reinfeldt(pictured), who emerged as prime minister in 2006 and has done much to add a transformative gloss to half a century's social democratic achievements.

Friends tell me Sweden is still an amazing country in which to live where the social democratic ethos still survives. If Cameron is drawn to emulate any country, I'd prefer it to be Sweden rather than the USA, but the problem is that Britain starts from a position lagging so far behind the point when Reinfeldt took over. And Swedish conservatives are so much futher to the left than a party most of whom still idolise Margaret Thatcher. But carry on Dave, you might even learn something about fairness and social justice.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Peter M's Memoirs a Delight but Leave Unanswered Question

I have been so enjoying Mandy's memoirs. Of course they are self serving and reflect some of his worst characteristics but for those of us who also perceive democratic politics as a diverting parade of human weaknesses, it is truly a treat. I love the way he is apparently so reasonable, above the pettiness of others while Campbell's diaries record an incident when he had a spat with PM over how Tony's hair was to be styled and, in an extreme hissy fit, rained blows on the Burnley supporter and then a few more on the prime minister himself when Tony intervened.

To those who conclude, like Gary Younge that this is the history of 'little people', I'd reply that all of us are 'little' in so many ways- it's what makes us human and even the greatest leaders indulged in extreme pettiness from time to time. Bad rulers tend to be especially petty; if you crossed Pol Pot or Stalin, in even the smallest of ways, you could have ended up dead. It has also to be said that sometimes apparently petty things cn be the focus of more important issues. The spat over Tony's hair for example could have been the culmination of Mandelson's feelings of being excluded and his advice not being taken.

It does strike me though that the book, so far serialised in The Times is a none too covert attack on Gordon Brown. We learn today Tony though him 'mad, bad and dangerous beyond redemption' (The Times has now led its front page for four days on the memoirs). It seems a fair percentage of the Cabinet had lost all confidence in him yet were afraid or disinclined to support any coup attempts. While criticising them Mandeslon does not expalin adequately why, if he thought Brown so hopeless, he did not join in attempts to dethrone him before the May election. Ultimately his hatchet job on Brown, comes back to question his own resolution and political courage. 'A fighter, not a quitter'? Well, he didn't fight to depose the person who probably coast his beloved party a two or three dozen seats. Instead he effectively defended this political liability until it was far too late.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Dutch Blame Webb When They are the Real Culprits

I'm not really a fan of soccer but, as a sports fan in general felt I had to watch the final on Sunday. I might just have not bothered, so wretched was the display by the Dutch. Once the exponents of fluid, graceful and highly skilled football -the likes of Kyuff, Bergkamp, Gullit, Van Nistelroy spring to mind- their team, realising they couldn't match the Spanish skill, descended to brutal physical fouls, shirt tugging, trips and provocations more usually associated with the worst of South American football. Mark Van Bommell should have been sent off in the first half and throughout made Vinnie Jones seem like Mother Theresa.

And yet the Dutch players and officials blame poor old Howard Webb, from Yorkshire for their loss! It really is shameful of them to deny their own appalling behviour. At least Johan Cruyff saw it as it was played like all the rest of us:

Regrettably, sadly, they played very dirty. So much so that they should have been down to nine immediately, then they made two [such] ugly and hard tackles that even I felt the damage. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football."

I thought Webb did as much as he could to keep the game 'level' with 11 players on both sides but he could easily have sent of 2 or 3 Dutch palyers before half time. He did his best to control players who refused to be controlled. They have shamed their brilliant tradition in my view.

Friday, July 09, 2010


Thoughts on Sovereignty

Students of world history reckon the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, marks the inception of the notion of 'state sovereignty'. This applied to the complete legal control which a government was required to exercise within its borders to be recognised as legitimate by other governments. It also established a rule that states were not allowed to violate the sovereignty of others, unless certain specific conditions applied, like self defence. Inevitably, in an only slightly less anarchic world after 1648, such rules were frequently ignored or flaunted.

The simple fact is that legal equality means little compared to military inequality and a state intent upon using force to advance its interests was seldom been overly scrupulous about rules concerning sovereignty. This was most obviously demonstrated by the likes of Hitler and Stalin and more recently by Saddam Hussein, but in the second half of the last century the rules changed. By the end of it the USA spent as much on its military than the rest of the world put together. And yet the greatest power the world has known was not really able to exercise power: the ability to induce others to do one's bidding. This first became apparent in Vietnam where hundreds of thousands of US troops, horrendous amounts of munitions and repulsive weapons like napalm, failed to conquer a tiny country.

The term asymmetric warfare is often used to describe this phenomenon. We have seen it also in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan where less well equipped guerrilla troops have used a variety of unconventional tactics to bleed the more powerful combatant to the point when they begin to wonder if the effort is worth it. The Taliban know they can lose scores of fighters and still remain in the field while eventually the constant arrival of body bags is eroding the will of the west to continue.

The recent declaration by Cameron that he does not not want British troops to still be fighting in Afghanistan in five years time is a sign that the Taliban are winning; the recent withdrawal from Sangin is another. Asymmetric warfare has revealed that legal sovereignty is ultimately less important than individual sovereignty, the ability of individuals to pursue their own will. No amount of military hardware or activity can quell a people determined to resist. Nixon used to say that 'if you grab someone by the balls, their hearts and minds soon follow'. Afghanistan has shown this is by no means the case.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Poverty Set to Rise but Tories Now Accept 'Relative' Version of it

Poverty is relative not just within society but over time. When I was a member of that school group-circa 1954- pictured above many of my fellow schoolchildren were painfully poor(my Mum in back row one from end on right). Virtually all of them are wearing hand-me-downs, (including me as my elder brother Pete's clothes were all all I had to look forward to sartorially.) Shoes were a particular problem and it was common for parents to tell of times when they were sent to school without boots or in makeshift ones with cardboard soles. Food was also a problem- 'bread and marg' was the staple diet for many of the kids in the photo. Poverty analysts these days would place my 1950s schoolmates in a third world category by comparison.

Given the deep cuts we are going to suffer in public spending, it is inevitable poverty is going to intensify over the next few years, but it will be of the relative and not absolute variety. The Economist offers a typically acute analysis of poverty in its current issue. It lists Labour measures-Minimum Wage, Tax Credits, The Child Trust Fund- acknowledging that runaway pay at the top end exacerbated relative inequality: the UK has more people living in homes earning below 60% of the national median wage than all but six of the EU's 27 members. Moreover, the percentage of people living in poverty 1997-2008 fell only from 19.4 to 18.3.

How will such figures fare in the 'new austerity'? Clearly the Lib Dems will want to hold Cameron and Duncan Smith to their stated aim of not 'balancing the budget on the backs of the poor'. The IFS has already predicted that the 22nd June Budget will bear down mostly severely on the poor and I suspect the Coalition's stability will come under its most severe pressure in about a year's time. I wouldn't be surprised if it founders then either. The Economist article concludes with the reflection that few would have expected the party of Thatcher to have moved to accept the concept of 'relative poverty', something against which Norman Tebbitt used to rage in the 1980s.

A decade ago, the prospect of the Conservatives accepting the idea of relative poverty—rather than an absolute measure of want, such as a basket of goods that every household should be able to afford—would have been fanciful. Nowadays, it is a reality. The government has retained Labour’s goal of ending relative child poverty by 2020. Labour now admits that the target, which is unlikely to be met, was aimed at cutting inequality and not just deprivation. A welfare state invented, in the words of Gordon Brown’s maiden speech as an MP, to “take the shame out of need”, now has a more ambitious equalising mission that commands the support of the three main parties. If the ultimate victory in politics is changing your opponents, this was among Labour’s

But will they succeed in protecting the poor from the worst effects of the new austerity or will they return to the default position of previous decades? It is the issue on which the future of this government will depend.

Sunday, July 04, 2010


On the AV Referendum

I can confirm Sardinia is a lovely place to visit, though I would like to meet the man in charge of road signs in the island and subject him to some impassioned butr polite consumer feedback. On the plane home I happened to read David Aaronovitch's piece in The Times, which can't be linked now unless I pay Rupert Murdoch a fee, and was intrigued by the logic of his argument which, when I've thought a little more about it, might even seem irrefutable.

AV won't deliver to Clegg and his mates what they really want- AV Plus or STV which are truly proportional systems- but, they hope, it will be a staging post along the way. The Conservatives regard the proposal as antithetical to their cause and merely as a necessary concession to the Lib Dems to secure their collaboration. Aaronovitch notes that all five Labour leadership candidates are on record as supporting the move, though some Labour MPs are reported as oppposed. The deal is that Lib Dems and Tories will be free to campaign according to their preferences, meaning Dave will express his comradely disagreement by carrying the 'anti' banner.

But, points out the columnist, while Cameron once declared such a move would be 'a recipe for weak coaliton government', he IS now he is in just such a coalition and, presumably regards it as hugely sensible and well founded, adding tartly:

'Mr Cameron has not just shot his own fox but made love to it'.

He goes on to argue that if he leads the 'anti' campaign AV is defeated, the Lib Dems will be 'screwed', having given a great deal in exchange for a 'smack in the teeth'. They might very well decide, only a year after the historic deal, to withdraw from the coalition, go back to their constituencies and prepare for genuine opposition. And then it will be Dave who will be screwed and suddenly a new scenario of coalitions will be on the table with Labour looking the most suitable candidate for Clegg's youthful embrace.

Aaronovitch goes further and suggests that if Cameron loses the fight against AV he will be seen to have suffered a defeat and to be anti-change. The answer to these depressing possible outcomes? To be bold and lead his party to support AV! After all, it was never the case Lib Dem second choices would all go to Labour; an increasing number now might swing to the right.

In his piece today Andrew Rawnsley covers similar ground but comes up with the point that Dave could always 'lead' the campaign against AV in a number of ways:

The real question about David Cameron is whether he takes an up-front or a backseat role in the referendum campaign. There will be a world of difference between a "no" campaign which has the full-throated support of the prime minister, the big Conservative beasts and all the resources of the Tory party and a campaign in which they stay on the sidelines.

Right now, I'd bet on the 'backseat' role.

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