Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Cameron a dead Cert

I read in the paper today that a punter has bet £200,000 on David Cameron winning the Conservative Party leadership contest on 5th December. If he wins he stands to gain £8000. Seems a lot to risk such a sum for a gain which is one twenty fifth of its whole. But perhaps it illustrates that there might be something in the aspiration of a gambler friend who despairingly declares: 'If only I had enough money to bet PROPERLY'[needless to say he loses heavily]. Eight grand would do very nicely for most of us who punt only on the Derby and Grand National but I wouldn't fancy selling my house to raise the wherewithall.

It also shows that Cameron is now a dead certainty to win. As if we had not gathered. But I wonder if the bookies might offer odds on other things which seem certain but which have at least a Heisenburg degree of chance about them. Like whether it will rain before Christamas? Or whether the sun will rise on the morrow. Mind you, if it doesn't there won't be much chance of either collecting one's winnings let alone spending it.

Monday, November 28, 2005


Archer according to Max Hastings

Quite a bit of comment on Jeffrey Archer's attempt to achieve rehabilitation in the paper today. Max Hastings was especially condemnatory. How can we forgive the man, he asks, if he has shown no sign of contrition or regret 'except about getting found out'. He goes on to thunder magnificently at those of his media colleagues who have the temerity to glug down the legendary Krug champagne and shepherds pie which by tradition as I understand it, comprised the menu at these annual bashes:

'At the risk of being denounced as a prig, I suggest that anyone who goes on attneding Archer's parties now that he is no longer a mere object of suspicion but a convicted criminal, is so stuck in the moral maze that they are unlikely to find a way out'

I would hate to pass up the chance of free champagne myself, but, as I will never be asked feel I can say that I rather think Max is right on this one.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Iraq, Shrinking Energy Supplies and our 'unconscious guilt'

Henry Porter writes an article in the Observer today which I thought very intersting and important. His key points are as follows:

1. A US sponsored idea is just about to be announced whereby the development of Iraq's oil reserves- one third of those left in the world- will be handed over to US and British companies. The person forcing through this measure is Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi-a convicted criminal in Jordan- who fed the US State Department and Pentagon so much guff about Saddam's WMD and how the Iraqi people would garland their 'liberators' once their regime had been changed.

2. The average citizen does not realise it but we are also involved in this process and, to a degree, culpable as well. Porter argues that we are helplessly habituated to warmth, transport,plentiful food, holidays abroad, cars, comforts of every kind: the whole careless consumption of energy that is our modern way of life. We are so used to it we cannot imagine life without it. We do not realise that it is our expectation that the politicos will round up whatever energy sources there are- oil, gas, uranium- which drives the whole thing forward. Many on the left 'tremble at the idea of war while at the same time demanding as much energy as they can use.'

3. 'We were lied to about WMD because realists like Dick Cheney, Alastair Campbell and Ahmed Chalabi{ and presumably Bush and Blair too) knew that our Western public would not accept that oil was even part of the apparent mission in Iraq.'

4. Iraq has turned into an awful mess but Porter suggests the 'highest counsels in both Russia and the West regard al Quaida as a side issue in the scramble for energy'. Indeed the fear of terrorism might even prove useful to such governments.

5. He calls for the transfer of resources allocated for Trident and ID cards to energy conservation and related educational campaigns: 'these things have become a matter of conscience-of linking the use of the SUV with your stance on the war, of tying together the cheap flight to Majorca with a failure to insulate your home.

Such an analysis is quite troubling: it was our thoughtless, but unaware, demand for energy which fuelled the determination of our leaders to corner the substantial reserves of energy available in Iraq once its flaky tenant had been removed. Maybe, if we had known the truth, we would have spoken up loudly and halted an obvious grab for the oil. But maybe we would not have, or not enough of us would have. This analysis suggests a kind of 'unconscious guilt'.

Study of human nature over the centuries tells us that self interest usually wins out in politics. It is an intriguing question: if Bush had openly said: 'We need this oil to keep our Western way of life viable for the foreseeable future and we're going to take it come what may', would he have been stopped or would the self interest of voters in western democracies have kicked in and our reaction reduced to passive approval?


Jeffrey Archer, Politicians and Lord Acton's Disease

I note that Jeffrey Archer has applied for the whip in the Lords. When Jonathan Aitken tried to seek acceptance as a Conservative candidate before the last election, Michael Howard gave an emphatic 'no'. I also note that David Cameron has also ruled out a return to the party of Lord Archer, judging, no doubt, that such a move would taint hisparty just when he yearns for the sqweakiest of cleanliness. All this raises again the topic I discussed relating to Conrad Black: why the fall of certain people in the public domain cause delight- even if slightly shameful- and others cause much emphathetic mourning. For me the 'delight' attended the fall of Black, as we have seen, Aitken with his ludicrous 'sword of truth', Thatcher, with her teary eyed departure and vicious judgement on her assassins; Maxwell, who slipped overboard to avoid shaming bankruptcy; and Archer, the eternal courtier to Thatcher and then Major but without any substance as a politician and a seeming fantasist in most of his personal life.

An example of the other kind? For me it was David Blunkett, brought down by treachery and naivety rather than personal failings-though there is some evidence that he had changed much from the original poor blind boy who overcame titanic odds. Most assessments conclude the damage was done by the malady so memorably diagnosed by Lord Acton.

Maybe it is purely personal- I felt political sympathy with Blunkett but not with the other names mentioned. But here's a strange thing. There was a time when I would have loved to see Kenneth Baker's ruination. He once supported Heath with uncritical fervour and then switched far too easily to Heath's successor. He was the evil genius behind the Poll Tax and expressed a kind of oleaginous cringing attitude to power combined with what I saw as contempt for the public. And yet, when I interviewed him a while back for some research I was doing, he was charming, thoroughly likeable and the reverse image of what I expected.

This is where the personal and the public conflict: how can I claim consistency of judgement and allow myself to exult at the destruction of careers when my own feelings are so contradictory? I suppose it's because we just cannot know the reality behind the public mask. If I met Archer, would I be charmed- as so many have- or would I be confirmed in my intense dislike? It's a worrying thought which undermines much of what I feel about politicians; and there is no escape from it.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


24 Hour Drinking and the search for the 'cafe society'

24 Hour drinking came into existence on Thursday 24th November. Only a few licensed premises took the 24 hour option but it seems most pubs will stay open a bit longer. The cunning plan behind the liberalisation of drinking hours is based on the assmumption that the chief problems are caused by pubs all closing at the same time. Drinkers' dash for oblivion before a closing time early by European standards, runs the argument, makes them more likely to get drunk and then to fight others similarily stumbling at this same hour onto the pavements of our towns and cities. This assumption has not been widely accepted-especially by the police- and perhaps a more logical reading of the new laws is that, with more time to drink, drinkers will set about the job of getting drunk with even more unwholesome enthusiasm with chaos even more unconfined. The minister concerned, James Purnell, someone whose own binge drinking days cannot be far behind him, seems singularly unconvincing.

Where I live, in a mercifully quiet suburb of Stockport-itself a suburb of Manchester to a degree- we have an excellent pub nearby, The Nursery as it happens, which performs a superb role of providing a meeting place for convivial conversation, a social centre, as well as a cheap but quality eating place. No publically provided centre could quite equal the contribution it makes to the community in my view. And it almost never causes noise or violence, unlike the centre of Manchester which has become a virtual no-go area for middle-aged old farts like myself and those of like vintage. My recent visits have reminded me of western films with brawling, vomitting, young guys urinating in shop doorways combined with an all enveloping sense of menace.

Will the new laws affect us in our peaceful enclave? I doubt it. Our pub is frequented mostly by middle-aged men and their wives plus the occasional gaggle of youngsters. But mostly the latter see our pub as 'boring'- not a place with buzz or pick-up potential. I suspect, and hope, this state of affairs will continue.

But how about the country as a whole? When I raised this with students yesterday they seemed unconcerned about the new laws; they did not feel threatened in the city centre; they enjoyed a drink but were not worried by those who could not take it. They thought things would continue pretty much as before. One even felt the chances were high that that the government's ambition of weaning us off binge drinking would be achieved in time and that we will move towards that mystical objective of a continental cafe society where people sit and chat and make a drink last a while instead of engaging in the national ritual of a lemming like rush to the cliff edge of leglessness.

But some Swedish students I met the week before argued that we northern Europeans do not drink like the french or Italians; we are hooked on achieving that fuddling of the senses -preparatory to no senses at all- as soon as we can. We drink quickly because we want rapid results. Why? who knows but the Nordics, the Finns and the Russians all seem to be drawn to this gloomy style of drinking. These students even thought British young people were nowhere near as into binge drinking as their own peer group back home. Their view was that British people drank 'sensibly' and not 'crazily' like Swedish and other Nordic youngsters.

Well, that put things into perspective to some extent I suppose. But my feeling is that even if we do not rush into the numb lethe of alcohol with quite such headlong abandon, we do get here in the end. Oh yes we do. And I'm sorry to sound like an unreconstructed Victor Meldrew note but I'm not optimistic that this relaxation of the laws will achieve anything except create more work for the police and more mayhem for the peace-seeking rest of us.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Charles Kennedy: is he up to it?

Arising from my last post, and George Osborne's prediction of a leadership contest within the Liberal Democrat Party, I realized it articulated something I've been feeling for a while. When was the last time Charles Kennedy said anything interesting, arresting or politically significant? I suppose it was the party conference-and how long ago was that?- but even then it was muted and did not cause many or even any ripples. It was more a routine and somewhat tepid rousing of the cadres who were little more than tepid themselves.

At the same time we have seen the emergence of two developments. Firstly the articulation of a 'harder' more market based economic line from the 'Orange Book' authors and enthusiasts like Vince Cable and David Laws. Secondly, the first inklings of a rapport has emerged between Conservatives and such rightward leaning Lib Dems. In the past few months Kennedy has not appeared on the radar of many journalists or even politics 'junkies' like myself. He has been virtually invisible. Maybe the point has been reached when he has lost his ability to even make it onto the radar. Is it really a viable concept to think of Charles Kennedy as a possible Prime Minister? From his own conduct in his office, he does not appear to think so.

But he ran an effective election campaign, it might be said in his defence. Maybe, but did his laid back approach not merely appear preferable to the frenetic, competitive and uncertain styles of Blair and Howard? I wonder if he has the resources to cut it during normal 'peacetime' conditions when making one's presence and views felt is not easy. This is not to say it's impossible, witness the ubiquity on the airwaves of Mark Oaten and the admirable Norman Lamb. Maybe the most impressive Liberal Democrat since Ashdown has been Ming Campbell. This soft spoken Scottish former sprinter was hit by illness when he should have been standing and winning the leadership of his small but potentially important tribe. My conclusion is that Kennedy has had his chance, has served his stint and should now stand aside and let someone take over who is more committed to the fight and more equipped to conduct it. Ming is probably too old now but I for one would like to see him put kn a year or two to make upsome of the ground Kennedy has lost.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Of George Osborne, the Notting Hill set and the future of the Tories

I often get a bit jealous of those bloggers who live in London with access to mates in the media and political events of which we in the sticks of ther northwest cannot be a part. But today I chaired a Politics Association-the charity dedicated to spreading of political literacy- dayschool for 6th formers in the Royal Horticultural Hall near Victoria. I introduced then listened to George Osborne, the MP for Tatton and Shadow Chancellor. Did he say anything interesting? Well I just about thought so; here it is:

a) he believes the Liberal Democrats will shortly have a leadership election: shorthand for he thinks Chas Kennedy is about to be shafted.

b) When asked who would he prefer to fight Brown as leader or Miliband, he answered Miliband as he thinks Brown and Blair can now be convincingly portrayed as the 'past' while he, Cameron (and the rest his Notting Hill set presumably) can be offered as the young, dynamic and charismatic future. Clearly he and his mates see their youth as a key weapon against the ageing, clapped out, balding Blair and his presumably geriatric gang.

c) he is opposed to PR even though it might advantage his party because it does not give a clear outcome to elections viz recent events in Deutchland.

d)he believes Blair's special gift has been to accommodate his party to the changes wrought by Thatcherism while, I guess, he sees the new regime in the Tory Party as about the task of adjusting it to changes engineered by Blair and co e.g. devolution, the independence Bank of England etc.

Was he impressive? Well, yes, I think he was. I don't think he'll ever be his party's Michael Oakshott(though he did express some vintage Oakshottian views) but he is clever and politically astute and has some of the cerebral adroitnes, I thought, of Douglas Hurd, a politician who never reached his very considerable full potential. And George is every bit as charming, young and winsome as the man whose campaign for the leadership he is running. Anyone in the audience could be forgiven for thinking they might have seen the next but one Chancellor of the Exchequuer in action.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Global Warming and the Individual

Global Warming is an odd topic. Most people find it both boring and upsetting. The former because it's complex and attracts the obsessive attentions of the self righteous Green brigade and the latter because it makes people feel guilty they are not doing enough to 'save the planet'. My brief study for my weekly class -see full handout at companion site via link in lefthand margin-makes me realise it reallyn is essential for everyone to attend to the problem. In a UK poll last June less than half of respondents-40%- saw it as a 'threat'; over 80% saw it as a responsibility of governments and wanted Blair to challenge Bush on it at the upcoming G8 summit; but over 60% were opposed to a tax on air travel even though this is a highly greenhouse gas emitting form of transport. Only a quarter had 'done a lot' to adress the problem while a fifth had done nothing at all.

The consequences of Global warming are potentially worse for mankind than terrorism was a recent comment by Sir David King, Chief Scientific Adviser to the government. They lie in terms of what raised temperatures will do to the planet's delicate ecosystems. Briefly this is what will happen if something is not done, according to the best scientific knowledge.
a) Once the Greenland icecap melts sea level will increase by 23 feet flooding low lying areas worldwide including: The Maldives, the east coast of USA, Bangladesh, London, Holland and many other areas in Asia and America.
b) Mosquitoes will breed in over half the world causing a pandemic of malaria and other diseases.
c) By the middle of the century it will be impossible to grow the crops needed to feed the world.
d) Tropical storms of the hurricane strength will possibly double in regularity.
e) Melting glaciers will cause scores of lakes in high ground to overflow, sweeping away villages and communities in Tibet, India and China.
f) fishing stocks will further deplete as oxygen in sea water is reduced.

Taken altogether doing nothing will lead to the slow death of the planet which our grandchildren will inherit. The USA needs to awake to the danger and there is some evidence that, apart from Bush and his oil lobbyist cronies, the US public is awakening to what needs to be done. But much can be done by individuals to reduce their 'carbon footprints'.

Some of this is again boringly obvious: reducing central heating settings, walking and not using cars, using the train instead of planes or cars, wearing warmer clothing in the house, acquiring a lower energy using car, recycling as much and as often as one can. It reads like a awful nannyish list of dos and don'ts but if we care about the future inheritance of our children we will pay more attention to a problem which has become worse and threatens to become critical before the middle of the century.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Fall of Conrad Black

Conrad 'Ozymandias' Black
Perhaps it shouldn’t be so but there is something profoundly satisfying to see a bully and a self regarding member of the world’s power elite bite the dust so resoundingly. A very clever and rational friend of mine once tried to convince me of the existence of a moral pendulum which swung inexorably to strike down those who had specialized in selfish and malevolent behaviour. I never quite believed him-too many bastards never get their comeuppance- but the case of Conrad Black suggests that old pendulum has maybe, for once, swung a great arc of justice.

Black is a scholarly man who has written a well received biography of FDR as well as other works. He started from relatively small beginnings with a single title in Quebec in 1969 but went on to construct an empire which included scores of titles including the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, acquired in 1985. As a rampant right-winger disposing of barrels of print ink every day, he quickly became an intimate of Thatcher and filled his Hollinger International company board with powerful cronies like Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle, the neo-con adviser who blew the horn so loudly and influentially for invading Iraq. He had residences in New York, London, Toronto and Palm Beach. He even owned a separate flat below his New York apartment to house his servants.

His journalist wife, Barbara Amiel, dominated the op-ed space of his major titles for as long as she wished, no doubt causing some resentment at the Telegraph and derision in other parts of Fleet St. Her spending habits were legendary-‘my extravagance knows no bounds’- and were at least in the same category as Imelda Marcos. But spending one’s own money is one thing, spending money improperly acquired from one’s parent company is quite another. According to a report by Richard Breedon, former chief of securities and exchange, it seems Black and a small group of fellow directors systematically milked Hollinger, mostly through ‘non competition fees’ supposedly paid to prevent individuals from setting up in competition. Altogether Breedon claimed they had stolen $400m, a figure exceeding 95% of the company’s profits.

‘Corporate kleptocracy’ was the delicious term used to describe the operation. He tells a tale of expenses fiddles on a cosmic scale, private jets, corporate money used for a vast range of purely private purposes; hubris unconfined. Black denies all the charges and has counter sued those who he claims, quite accurately, have turned him into a ‘loathsome laughing stock.’ His problem is that his second in command, David Radler took a plea bargain in exchange for blowing the whistle on Black who now faces prosecution by the relentless Patrick Fitzgerald, who threatens also to be the nemesis of Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff.

Black, 61, faces the possibility of 40 years in jail, enough to see him out. And in the US senior execs really do go to jail, witness Bernie Ebbers of World Com. Such falls from grace are often described as tragic and regret expressed that a talented man through exceeding his proper share of rewards, has fallen so low. Yes, maybe, but Black was not a pleasant man by every account I’ve read and I’m quite pleased to see someone who radiated contempt for the ordinary man about to get some of what he handed out so prodigally. Swing low (and wide) sweet Pendulum.


Gary Glitter

This post is influenced a little by Trinny and Susannah so if it is maybe a bit trivial I apologize in advance. I have just seen a piece in The Guardian featuring Paul Gadd in Vietnam, where he has been arrested for alleged sex with minors. My first reaction to his picture was one of acute sadness. I remember when, as Gary Glitter, he exploded onto the pop music scene in the early seventies as the original 'glamrocker'. He was fit, had ample wild hair and trademark bold, staring, almost magnetic eyes.

Now he is clearly overweight, bald and his eyes-to the extent that they can be discerned- seem dead. All careers end in tragedy said Enoch Powell and the principal author of that tragedy is time, of course. But even if these things are known and expected, it is still a shock to see how the end of his career in disgrace- he served time for downloading pictures of sex involving children-has brought him so very low.

And the clothes bit? He is wearing a T shirt for which, what ever happens in the Vietnamese court, Trinny and Susannah would certainly pronounce a death sentence.

Monday, November 21, 2005


Democracy and public opinion

Today’s Guardian leads with a story that Tony Blair is warning the Lords not to interfere with anti-terror legislation that the public clearly supports. This is an odd thing for a British politician to do as it flies directly in the face of how our system works. We do not have a plebiscitary democracy but a parliamentary one. We elect people to parliament to consider such matters and judge them on our behalf. As an example, public opinion has for a long time favoured the death penalty yet parliament has countermanded insistent demands to bring it back on the well considered grounds that: it makes very little difference to the murder rate; it can kill innocent people; and is not morally appropriate in a civilized society. People spraying prejudices around the public bars of the land are less well suited to making laws than those given that job in the highest debating chamber in the land.

Admittedly the role of the Lords is ambiguous as it has still not been reformed- and whose fault is that one might ask the man who favours no change- but it is still one of the two houses of parliament. Seems to me it’s no good citing public support in the country when parliament exists to provide a superior and better considered judgment. More-over, if public opinion is so important, then how come it was ignored over the decision to invade Iraq? You can’t have it both ways Tony. And whilst on that topic, it seems a little odd to cite widespread police support for anti-terror legislation while ignoring their opposition to liberalization of the licensing laws. Consistency is a sure test of good law as it is of a logical mind.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Meyer row in context

I've just unearthed a profile of Meyer from earlier in the month which provides interesting and explanatory background to the current spat between him and the Blair government.
1. Meyer had a heart condition in 2002 but, on grounds of cost, the Foreign Office refused to fund a second opinion. He then had open heart surgery in London which had to be supplemented by another operation when he developed a blood clot. Reason enough to feel a bit cheesed off with the government.
2. When he left Washington Bush threw a dinner party for him; Blair did not even say thank you. Reason enough to feel aggrieved and, for a vain man I daresay, vengeful.
3. Meyer has been married before-he has two sons from his marriage to Francoise Winskill- and his divorce cost an arm and a leg. This helps to explain why he needs the money from the book and his job at the PCC.

Anyone who has been divorced cn feel some sypathy with this situation. So the full picture is not as black and white as my previous posts have suggested and maybe Sir Christopher comes over more sympathetically in the light of the above. He has certainly written an insightful and rivetting account of events which arguably, we have a right to know about now rather than the usual 30 years hence.


Bitching About Sir Christopher

Sir Christopher Meyer's memoirs, DC Confidential, continue to attract criticism from the government. Rather like Jack Straw,well kebabbed by Meyer, John Prescott suffered the same fate, accused of being badly briefed, not understanding his brief as well as being too prodigal with his trademark malapropisms. 'A red-socked popinjay' accuses the DPM of the socialite exambassador as well as a deal more in similar vein. Evidence, as if we needed it, that professional politicians do get mad and then DO get even.

Reviews of his book have not neglected to accuse Meyer of vanity and an inflated view of his own importance; anyone would think the ambassador outranks the Foreign Secretary or the PM in negotiating with the USA, suggested one review. But Meyer might be justified in feeling a little insecure over the future of his three day a week job as chair of the Press Complaints Commission for which he receives the salary of £155,000 a year. Anyone who discloses 'tittle tattle' about Major in his underwear and details of confidential advice, might just not be best qualified to arbitrate over complaints regarding similar behaviour by the press.

Much has been made of the fact the he has given the quarter million he received for serialisation to charity-albeit one run by his wife- but it remains a fact he will keep all the royalties from the book itself. Indeed, quite a case can be built up against the silky civil servant and his kiss and tell memoirs but his key, no his trump, card is that he submitted the book for approval to No 10 before hand and got it. Maybe they didn't read it properly or maybe they liked his support of the invasion of Iraq plus his demolition of the story that the decision to invade had been made as early as 2002; equally they must have rejoiced at his claim that war was still avoidable right up to a few weeks before it started in 2003. Whatever the reason, Number Ten should pipe down about a book they considered and then approved. Bitching about it merely makes them look even more ridiculous.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


PS on Turkmenistan

On 8th November I posted on Turkmenistan, making the point that however bad we might think our own government to be, President Niyakov can prove how very much worse things can get. Of course you need a power mad callous psychopath in charge for this to become the case, but, as I tried to point out, the seeds of such extremes are present in many politicians and only the removal of restraint is required to see the malignant progression begin.

Radio 4 offered an audio portrait of the place this morning and it merely confirmed everything about which I wrote on this and my companion blog, Politics Considered. The reporter encountered:
i) great poverty in a country rich in oil and gas which could be enjoying living standards comparable to those of Norway.
ii) apalling health services where untrained medical staff botch patient care. Niyakov sacked 15000 nurses and other medical staff recently to save money. One nurse was seen cleaning a syringe by wiping the end of it with her fingers. Any proper care has to be paid for privately- sometimes by leaving the country. Many flee to Uzbekistan seeking better standards.
iii) Interviewees insisted on having their voices disguised to avoid possible sanctions from their police state homeland where informers and spies abound.
iv) one man spoke of being sent to prison for two years. He spent it in a cell meant for ten but which in fact held 56, all of them standing up as it was impossible to do anything else.
We complain, we blame and we moan; we are all Victor Meldrews now. But we should give thanks very day that we are so very, bloody, incredibly lucky!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Trinny and Susannah

This blog is about the media as well as national politics so I thought I'd make a short posting on how one particular programme struck me as providing insights into current society. I've never really been a fan of reality television nor indeed of clothes and appearance- as any friend of mine, let alone my partner, Kate will confirm. But Kate persuaded me to watch Trinny and Susannah recently and I have to confess I was amazed and impressed. Why?

1. The programme concerned girls in their mid twenties and I was astonished how frail they seemed when talking about their appearances. After ten seconds or so they were sobbing helplessly, unable to address the degree of their failure to be the person they wished to be.

2. The two hosts carefully listened and sympathised in best 'counselling' fashion and then began the makeover which is the purpose of the programme. But it is much more than a mere makeover type programme.

3. Slowly the people chosen for transformation were encouraged to address the reality of their bodies- not easy for some but T and S were ruthlessly kind in the way they insisted on an accurate self perception. Then the question of how best to build on what they had been blessed or cursed with was dealt with and one could only applaud the skill of the two privately educated debutante types who have made this niche their own.

4. The final transformations were incredible to behold. People who seemed to be on the verge of suicide were now striding forward into their futures. New people.

I considered what had happened. Initially these unhappy people had an acute problem with communicating a version of their inner self to the rest of the world. T and S offered them a wholly new and superior version which seemed to revolutionise their self perceptions. This was both a mirror and a superior version of the inner self and it worked like a miracle. Suddenly a new possibility of self had been provided, courtesy of the BBc and reality TV. The show seemed to confirm to me the prime importance, in our society of self presentation or 'image'. One might even say that presentation has become synonymous with self. Maybe, and I think more than maybe, this is a not so good thing, but it represents a correct reading of the zeitgeist: you are what you appear to be. if you look attractive and confident to the world, then, perceiving this, you become these things. The external liberates the internal. I'm going to do more than grab and don the first things I see in the morning from now on. I think.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Of Pygmies, Civil Servants and Politicians

It's not often I get a chance to use that wonderful word 'disingenuous' but it's totally appropriate in the case of Sir Chritopher Meyer's defence of his recent memoir revelations. This is the man, remember, former ambassador to Washington, who wrote slightingly of Blair's readiness to accept the full nine yards Bush package on Iraq without cavill and who, whilst good on the 'vision thing' lacked the grasp of detail that would have made Thatcher and Major ask for considerably more than nothing in exchange for their support. He compounded his offences against the establishment by deriding a number of now senior ministers-Straw, Prescott, Hoon- as 'pygmies', out of their depth in Washington who were overawed and not up to the expectations of their hosts.

The reactions? Some wounded souls at once demanded his resignation from his job as Chair of the Press Complaints Commission, Blair allegedly called him a 'prick' and a bevy of diplomats, present and past, believed Meyer had breached the relationship of confidentiality between civil servant and politician which lies close to the heart of the British system of government. Meyer himself said he would not resign and that the politicians were being hypocritical as they were publishing revealing memoirs all the time. Now this is where my seldom used word comes in. Sir Christopher must know that the comparison is false. Politicians are in the business of having and publicising opinions by way of appealing to the public for support. It follows that their memoirs will reflect a good deal of this and their views on colleagues into the bargain.

The crucial difference for a civil servant is the role played by them in the British constitution. Sir Humphrey and his ilk are in theory wholly devoted to the anonymous advising of the representatives of voters, providing the expertise required for the elected politician to do his or her job properly, in the public interest. It is argued, and with some force, that such advice has to remain confidential for it to be effective. It is rather like the doctor patientor lawyer-client relationship. They have an obligation to keep their advice private and certainly not to use this delicate nexus to advance their own careers as authors once retired. Rubbishing serving ministers is wonderfully entertaining for political gossip junkies like myself and most of Fleet St, but it might well compromise future advice to ministers and cannot be compared with politicians' memoirs. Jack Straw, one of those calling for Mayer's PCC head said he was not upset by what Meyer said about him (' a man to be liked rather than admired') but was more upset by his revelation that, when serving him as Press Secretary, he used to meet up in the Major's bedroom when he was walking around in his underwear while Norma sat up in bed reading magazines. Now THAT's disingenuous!

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Now what has Blair done?

Since my last post on Blair things have moved on like Hurricane Katrina. The decision to go to the brink on 90 days has proved to be a huge misjudgement. Not only has it reinforced Howard's jibe about Blair's authority 'haemorrhaging' but it has posed additional questions about his political judgement. I even wondered if he had acquired Ron Davies's fabled addiction to risk situations. The whips had told him before last weekend that he could not win on this issue and Clarke announced a compromise would need to be sought. Then Blair gave a gung ho press conference on Monday, addressed the parliamentary party in similar vein and suddenly there was no going back. Blair seemed to anticpate defeat in his 'lose and be right' comment, but the eventual scale of that defeat was beathtaking. 31 is awhole lot more than the single vote majority won on the 'glorifying terorism' clause last week.

To make matters worse, he recalled Brown from the tarmac in Israel to come back, vote and use his considerable influence to help win the vote. I note Clarke claimed on Today this morning that it was he and not the PM who insisted on the retention of the clause with no compromise but most columnists assume it was Blair's doing. Was it worth the effort? I honestly think not. Pegging back to 65 or even 42 days would not have cost a great deal to the viability of the measure and would have saved a shed load of credibility. Over the last two years, we are told, only 11 people have been detained up to the full fourteen days. It really did seem unnecessary.

Is this the end? Probably not, given Blair's amazing ability to bounce back: talk about our version of the 'Comeback Kid'. A period of calmness plus some goodish headlines and Blair could rise again. Another trrorist attack would do wonders for him it is perhaps morbid to reflect. But any further body-blows in the next week or so and Gordon can start to wrap up his crockery and put it in tea chests for the big move.

From one point of view the events of yesterday proved that the Commons is not a cypher; it can intervene and deliver a very bloody nose to a prime minister out of touch with feeling in his own party and too inclined to back his own judgement over that of others. Such reflections are unlikely to assuage the feelings of a deeply wounded Tony Blair as he considers the now hugely reduced chances of winning party consent to his plans for education, health and benefits.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Be Glad we're not living in Turkmenistan

One aspect of my part-time occupations is to teach an adult current affairs class at Manchester Univeristy. Tomorrow I'll be doing a class on Turkmenistan. Relevance to UK? Not much except that study of such places reminds us, or should do, how fortunate we are to live in a relatively civilised and well ordered society in which human rights are well repsected. What about the terror bill? Yes, fair point, but in Turkmenistan there would be no such debate, President Niyazov would be delighted to bang up anyone suspected of muttering under their breath for several years and applying daily torture to discover what possible subversive things were being muttered.

The full briefing for the class will appear shortly on my companion site Politics Considered (which can be accessed via the link on this site), but the following aspects of Niyazov's rule might interest any leftish casual reader who thinks Blair is determined to turn us into a police state:

a) there is no opposition in Turkmenistan- such brave souls have either been locked up and tortured or driven out of the country.
b) Niyazov has festooned his country with statues of himself- the 'Turkmenbashi'-Father of the Turkmen. One has been plated in gold and revolves so that it constantly faces the sun.
c) He has written a huge tome called the 'Rukhnama' which children have to read for two hours a day. Familiarity with it is necessaary to acquire any state job or even to pass one's driving test. The true test, in my view, that a leader is bonkers, is when he writes huge tomes of apparent 'philosphy'e.g. Mao and Gadaffi.
d)Opera, ballet and any foreign service broadcasts are banned as unnecessary.
e) 60% of the population are either unemployed or living in poverty despite the fact that the country is oil and gas rich. Still not convinced?
f)To show just how ridiculous the cult surrounding the president has become, it is worth noting that he has renamed the month of January after himself with May and September renamed after his parents.

We must not forget the blessings we have. Blair may be untrustworthy and given to telling porkies but he is essentially a democractic politician and if we want to get rid of him we can. Niyazov was made President for life in 1999 by his handpicked bunch of crony ministers. The slightly wider concern arising from examples like this is that if left to itself, this is what the corrupting effect of power produces: an attempt by a ruler to turn himself into a living God. God preserve us from such madness.

Monday, November 07, 2005



Jackie Ashley wrote an interesting recent article in the Guardian when she talked of the Conservatives trying to separate Blair from his party. This has already attracted the term 'decoupling' and has been mentioned by Blair himself at his press conference. The reasons why this possibility has been raised are that:

a) Blair has never been that close to the Labour Party. That posh school and accent, Oxbridge education and stint as a barrister, not to mention his penchant for rich friends and uber-luxurious holidays enjoyed free at their expense, have all emphasised the difference between the present leader and previous: Wilson and his HP sauce; Attlee being driven(badly) by his wife around the country during campaigns with sandwiches packed for lunch.

b) Blair has advocated with great enthusiasm a strand of Tory thinking as the way to reform the welfare state, indeed most of the public services: the injection of more market forces. While Blair insists, his party resists. But the Conservatives say they agree with Blair, and are inclined to support him; in fact, should they get into power, they would ratchet up such private involvement in the public to a degree way, way beyond Labour's. That's how much they agree with him. In other words Blair is speaking the same language as the Tories and by agreeing with him they are exposing and reinforcing the distance bewtween leader and led.

c) Blair seems to be concerned, some say obsessed, with his 'legacy', with leaving something substantial that the future will associate with his period in power; rather like Attlee and the Welfare State; Churchill and his victory over Hitler. Given this determination and the finite period of time remaining for Blair, the Tories hope to use the pressure Blair is putting himself under to drive a division between Labour and the leader Roy Hattersley insists in today's Guardian, was never really Labour anyway.

Can they succeed? Certainly they can and to some extent are already doing so. But they need to be a little more ambitious in encouraging Blair to flout the sensibilities of his party. The more Blair rows with party rebels, the more Tory stock will rise. The Labour escape route, of course, is to shift in Gordon Brown sharpish. The dour, Labour history worshipping son of the Manse would soon disperse the champagne decadence of rightward swinging Tony and his acquisitive wife. If Tony succumbs to too much decoupling and comes off worst against Marshall Andrews and his ilk, Gordon can think pretty soon about whether calling Pickfords, or, given that it's only next door, Salford Van Hire plus a couple of arse- licking acolytes.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Is the End of Blair in Sight?

I wrote just after the election, on this then newly minted blog, that from columnists advising him to go at once the beleagured Blair might be seen in a different light come the autumn. I was partly right. Blair soon shrugged off the poor perceptions by carrying on as if nothing was any different. This strategy works when there is not anything seriously wrong and when the press criticism is more the result of hacks looking for something to fill their columns. The terrorist assaults of 7/7- which might have resulted in a backlash against the man who made the country more vulnerable to such attacks- ironically gave him the platform to show himself at his best: being firm of purpose and Chuchillian of phrase at the G8 meeting in Edinburgh. This effect lasted until quite recently.

But a number of legislative hitches have hampered the government's progresss and Blair' authority. The education White Paper, which suggested removing schools from LEA control as the Conservatives had done to Labour outrage under Thatcher had caused even more outrage now that Labour was suggesting a reprise. The proposed amalgamation of Primary Health Care Trusts had raised more hackles within the Labour Party; health has been much reformed and few believe more restructuring is jufified. The Terror Bill has caused much dissent-that victory on a part of it by a single vote last week weakened Blair- and still does. The smoking policy Cabinet upset drained a little more from Blair's prime ministerial authority. Other bones of contention concern invalidity benefits and pensions, but the biggest blow has certainly been the loss of Blunkett, after Blair had supported him several times and in public. And Blair really needed Blunkett's connection with Labour voters to strenghthen his hand on a number of measures not just with public opinion but in Cabinet too. This one was below the waterline, hence the near obituaries being penned right now and the comparisons with the last days of Major.

George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, gave a talk to a conference I was at last year in which he spoke of the rapid flow of authority from the Major government in its last years. He was working partly in Number Ten so was well placed to observe this. Everyone knew Blair was the next PM: 'You could almost feel the authority draining away by the day' I recall him saying. Has this point been reached by Blair as Sir Anthony Meyer suggested in the Guardian this week?

I don't think so. Blair is a remarkably resilient and resourceful politician who is well used to crises and to surviving them. The Labour Party needs him to stay in power and engineer a smooth takeover for Brown so that the party can be in good nick before the last date for an election, which is May 2010. That there is a strong faction which wants him to go now is not in dispute and part of that is because Blair is being perceived as a PM intent on extablishing his place in history, possibly at the expense of his party. If enough MPs join this camp Blair could find himself, like Thatcher in 1990, suddenly faced with a revolt he cannot handle. To avoid this he has to ensure the 'loyal rebels', like the impressive John Denham, does not swell the 'usual suspects' of Frank Donson, Clare Short, Bob Marshall Andrews et al.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Dave Vs David

The confrontation between David Davis and David Cameron on Question Time last night was interesting enough to have me hurrying home from the pub; but, as so often with such hyped up bouts, it promised more than it delivered. It was important because:

a) it was the only time most of the voters in the contest- paid up members of the Conservative Party- would get to see the candidates at the same time, engaged in a head to head debate.
b)the voting papers are being sent out today and, as experience from earlier contests suggests that votes come back in almost immediately, it would be fair to assume this debate might prove decisive for many votes- already being cast and posted as I write this posting.
c) as David Davis was running far behind in the polls, this was the chance for him to rectify the perception of him as a bit boring and uninspiring.
d) this debate was a 'first' in British politics and, if successful, would strengthen the case for a US style debate during General Elections.

How did it go? Well, it was decorous, polite and sort of interesting, but it did not grip one's attention and after five minutes I wondered if I'd been mistaken to leave almost a pint of Hydes bitter back in the pub in order to watch. Davis did better than at Blackpool but did not emerge as charismatic. Cameron did maybe less well than his well rehearsed performance at Blackpool. But he made no major gaffes and gave a reasonable account of himself. He was less charismatic simply because he could not know questions in advance and spend time rehearsing his answers. So, because of the different medium, his thespian talents were less in evidence.

Both seemed to agree more than disagree and there was much matiness until close to end of the programme when Davis suddenly showed the trademark steel which some say is both his greatest asset as an attacking politician and disadvantage as a team player. A questioner accused Dave of waffly non specificity on policies and David pounced by decsribing this as the biggest difference between them. Davis maintained vagueness was a Blair characteristic and that this was not the time to ape the hated chameleon in Number Ten. A shrewd blow this as Dave is often dubbed the 'Tory Blair'and David supporters have predicted the 'bubble' of Cameron's shallow popularity would be exposed during the campaign just as Blair's had over the last eight years. Dave answered, perfectly reasonably in my view, that it was too early to go specific and that what Davis seemed to be suggesting smacked even more of Blair's practice of 'new policy a day for each new problem'.

But the blow had struck home, one felt, and so did the audience in the studio. Cameron DOES tend to waffle and rely overmuch on his personable charm and this weakness was hereby nailed in the debate. But Davis, while scoring a blow of sorts here, did nothing much else either right or wrong. Probably his ratings will improve as they will benefit from the 'correction' of his poor showing at the recent conference in Blackpool. I would expect cameron to be still leading in the polls and to go on and win. But the debate certainly reinforced the arguments for something similar between the PM and Opposition leader at our next General Election.

Blunkett Note
Having predicted Cameron will win I have to return to my wrong forecast that Blunkett was not fired but offered his resignation. A report in The Guardian today says Blair decided to fire him shortly after his interview Wednesday morning- so he 'cut the rope' after all, deciding Blunkett had become a liability at a time when he did not need any more liabilities.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Wrong again

Well, I always say my predictions are wrong, but in defence of mine yesterday that Blunkett would survive I plead:
a) there were a couple more revelations this morning
b) it was he who decided to go, not Tony.

If he had really wanted to stay he could have. Maybe he should have agreed to the inquiry which may then have exonerated him. Interestingly my current affairs class this morning were mostly sympathetic to him but two or thre did express the view that he had overstepped the line and should go with one saying they thought he had become arrogant and corupted by power.

Whatever these views, I will mourn his losing his life's raison d'etre anyway. Stand by for crocodile tears from the very press which hounded him so mercilessly though. I was interested to hear my old doctoral examiner Sir Bernard Crick, saying very similar things to me on the World at One this afternoon.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Can Blunkett make it this time?

This time last year what was the media obsessing about? Correct, whether the much assailed Blunkett could survive. I thought he could and wagered with a mate that he would remain in office. He didn't. But maybe his vulnerability now is a result of three things:

a) he was brought back too soon- memories of his silliness with Kimberley Quinn were still too fresh in the mind in May. He should have maybe waited till now before rejoining the Cabinet.
b) 'There's no fool like an old fool' is an axiom which Blunkett has reinforced all too powerfully. Seeing two dramas recently poking cruel fun at the blind exCabinet minister was no fun for me and I doubt to very many others. But the fact that he was so in love with a woman he could not see who was exploiting his feelings so flagrantly has somehow- though it should not have done and we may feel a bit guilty for laughing- made him a figure of fun. And that is difficult basis from which to establish political authority.
c) He really does seem to have ignored the Ministers' code. Declaring interests is not voluntary it is obligatory, and should be so. To claim ignorance in one's defence might work for some people but for a Cabinet minister it elicits the retort; 'Well, you sodding well SHOULD have known about the rule'. And he was told about it in writing by Lord Mayhew shortly after he stepped down as Home Secretary.
Is all this enough to merit resignation? Hard to say. I'd say yes, just about, if one were being strict, which is what the Opposition would wish to be of course. [At least Grayling is doing his job properly as the Shadow Leader of the House.]

But I hope and indeed expect, that he'll survive this time. It would be too, too unkind to see this basically decent man have his achievments and life's work come crashing down again within twelve months. I think maybe the inquiry which the Tories are calling for might help to clear Blunkett as it seems he has done nothing legally or morally wrong- merely exercised judgement poorly. Bernard Ingham always used to say that if nothing new had happened in a scandal after nine days, it was effectively over. So far it's been a revelation a day but if they can stop for a few days or if something new can take the media's fancy, he'll pull through; but if not, not.

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