Friday, March 31, 2006


How Tory Fat Cats bank-roll candidates in key marginals

It's salutary to realise something you always thought to be the case just isn't. For example I had thought election expenses were well policed in this country and that the few freebies like the freepost election statement plus the allowed expenditure per capita amount for candidates -7p per voter?- was a fine demonstration of how democracy was not as sullied by money as it is in, say, the USA. Here, of course, candidates spend millions upon millions on short 'attack' ads which pollute and demean the whole discourse of political debate.

So I found it hard to believe Conservative fat cats had been bankrolling candidates in key marginals at the last election. Michael White in today's Guardian addresses the subject. Grant Shapps, for example, MP for Welwyn Hatfield, spent £180,382 in 2005 as against the £14,875 spent by his opponent, Melanie Johnson. A sizeable chunk of Shapps' money came via his party's former treasurer, the hugely wealthy Lord Michael Ashcroft. This money was distributed by the Belizean to candidates he thought promising and was not, it appears, sanctioned by Central Office.

In all £1.3 million was directed in this way from three rich donors. Several of the 23 seats won from Labour were recipients of this new form of largesse. Peter Bradley, former MP for the Wrekin, lost out to Mark Pritchard, who received sums of £23,133 from Lord Steinberg and £32,609 from Robert Edmiston, whose proposed peerage was queried by the Lords Appointment Commission.

But surely, you say, you can't do this in Britain's tightly controlled election finance regime? Well, you can, providing you do not spend it during the campaign- in the case of 2005, between the dates 11th April to 5th May. If you spend the cash before that period you are perfectly legal. This development indicates a couple of things:
i) the advantage of incumbency is reduced via such money. If a candidate has the resources he/she can match the publicity seeking activities of the sitting MP, or, indeed, exceed them.

ii) we probably need to introduce some legal controls over spending between elections as well to maintain at least the semblance of a level playing field.

iii)this degree and manner of financing makes the candidate more indpendent of party HQ. In the USA candidates can decide to run, can win primaries to become a party's nominee, raise money for their own campaigns, choose the staff and get elected, all virtually without party involvement. Maybe we are seeing the beginnings of something similar here, though it has to be said that our party machines are still hegemonic compared to the US.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Could 'Loangate' do for Tony?

On the news tonight I see the Electoral Commission and an SNP MP are calling for full investigation of the possible breach of the 1925 Act outlawing the selling of honours. Scotland Yard apparently has a top tec on the job. Could Tony-who would so difficult to shift via party and other political channels- be hounded out of public life in disgrace like Richard Nixon? Many would celebrate such an outcome but is Tony guilty? Of course I have no idea, but the whole business of running a political blog is to speculate and try to read the runes. So what pattern do I see in the tea leaves of this latest event to transfix the Westminster village and its eager watchers?

My feeling is that Blair has been effectively 'selling' honours and is morally guilty of an act which could/maybe should earn him time in the slammer. But is he legally guilty? I would think almost certainly not. He is a lawyer himself and is advised by very clever politically savvy people. I would be very surprised if any loans were handed over on a basis which could see Blair hauled into the dock, just as I'm sure John Major and Thatcher before him not to mention all Prime Ministers back to and certainly including Lloyd George left no traceable fingerprints at the scene of the crime. Cynical perhaps? Certainly once again, but these are professional politicians and, like the top-most professional criminals, they tend not to leave incriminating evidence.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Blair and the Melbourne interview: slip or declaration?

Well, everyone is writing and talking about when Tony might go so there seems little alternative to doing the same. Paul Linford's blog lines up all those calling for an early slinging of the hook- it seems to include most of the pundits plus the editorial writers. Blair's comment to a reporter in Melbourne that anouncing his intention, in autumn 2004, to stand down at the end of this parliament, was 'probably a mistake', seems to have reignited an issue which was still, in any case burning quite brightly.

The reasons for him to go are legion but lets identify a few of the major ones:

i) the debacle into which Iraq has evolved;
ii) the lying over WMD as the reason for invading-most of this emerging out of the David Kelly affair;
iii) the flagrant ignoring of opinion at home and in his party over the issue, especially over his overcosy relationship with a rightwing US president;
iv) the reliance on Conservative votes to pass the Education Bill's 2nd reading;
v) the retention of Tessa Jowell in his Cabinet when it seems clear she must have known about her husband's dodgy gift from Berlusconi- (his job as a high paid tax avoider for the super rich also upsets Guardian reading Labour supporters);
vi) the peerages for loans scandal which has seemed finally to rank Labour alongside Major's governmment for sleazy seediness.

In addition to this we had Jackie Ashley's column in The Guardian yesterday which argued the Melbourne comment was not involuntary but was a clear signal Blair intends to stay as long as he can. She interprets it as a signal to people like Charles Clarke to hang on until they have a chance of besting Brown in a contest. She believes he is now-rather, one supposes, like Churchill with Eden, Macmillan with Butler-actively seeking to deny the crown to its most obvious, and deserving heir. She declares the 'battle is well and truly joined' and urges Brown to 'pick up the gauntlet'.

Against this can be adduced:

i) Ashley is probably a Brown supporter and desperately wants Blair gone;
ii) Blair has possibly reached the point- the nadir- when his popularity is so low he can afford to ignore further criticism and rely on his enemies being too scared to spill the blood a 'decapitation attempt' would reliably cause;
iii) Will Hutton in the Observer, 26th March argues staunchly in favour of Blair:
a) Dromey and the NEC should have known something of the provenance of the £18m needed to fight the last election. At least Blair stepped up and accepted some responsibility;
b) the left are quick to criticise Blair but offer no 'coherent alternative';
c) Brown is 'New Labour through and through' so would be little different from Blair;
d) Blair is right to champion entrepreneurialism and has 'overseen a fundamental shift to the benefit of ordinary people';
e) 'Blair remains... the great persuader and the man who created the new coalition. If he's prepared to carry on soaking up the punishment, the liberal left should be grateful.'

One might also add that to me Blair's comment did not sound like a declaration of war but merely something added as an afterthought.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


'Infinitely Extendable' Sir John to the Rescue

It has long been obvious that government machinery for policing the 'ministerial code' has been inadequate. It was John Major who first issued the code- hitherto kept secret- in 1992. This lays down the ways in which ministers are expected to behave, declare conflicts of interest and so forth. It was reissued in 2005 with its Code of Ethics separately delineated from its Procedural Guidance. Unfortunately there was nobody to act as a watchdog, perhaps because of the old and clearly out of date belief that ministers were 'gentlemen' who could and should be trusted to be honourable.

This also meant Prime Ministers were the final arbiters of when the code had been broken. When alleged breaches occurred it was the Secretary to the Cabinet who was usually trundled out to investigate. When Jonathan Aitken was accused of receiving favours from arms dealers Sir Robin Butler was despatched to investigate. It seems that all he did was to ask Aitken, man to man, 'Did you do it?' In response the old Etonian bravely answered 'No' to which Butler said: 'Well, that's alright then' and reported back that everything was tickety boo. A short time later Aitken was exposed as a liar and served time for perjury.

The most recent case involved Gus O'Donnell poking his fastidious mandarin nose into the Tessa Jowell case, once again to no significant effect. So now a specific watchdog has been appointed and one with whom, as it happens, I have a personal connection. Sir John Bourn(72) has been Comptroller and Auditor General(C and AG) since 1988 and before that was an official in the Ministry of Defence. [That's a rubbish picture of him by the way but the only one available.] In 1971 he was asked by MOD's personnel division to accept into his division a young Assistant Principal(the then trainee grade for the senior civil service) who was struggling to feel at home in the civil service. Yes, that's right, it was me.

As a country boy from the Welsh borders I had suffered ever since joining the civil service as its last ever A.P. to be taken on in December 1970(after that they were called Administration Trainees). It was partly being in constant awe of the government machine, partly a failure to empathise with fellow civil servants- they seemed so joyless and small minded- and partly because my temperment was not suited to commuting for three hours a day simply in order to work through a succession of files of mind numbing tedium for eight hours and more each day.

John Bourn was a possible antidote to this minor personnel problem and, if anyone could have solved it than it was this remarkable and charming man. He had studied at LSE, rather than Oxford like most of the Assistant Secretaries at that time. Hearing I was still trying to complete my doctorate he let slip he'd done his part-time as an A.P., using his daily Tube journeys to work out the philosophical problems relating to his chosen topic: the ideas of Hegel, notoriously one of the most difficult of the German thinkers. John was endlessly helpful and one of those 'infinitely extendable' mandarins who took on mountains of work, never seemed flustered and was always in control. I was not at all surprised he became as the C and AG, one of the most important government officials in British government, in charge of ensuring whether revenue has been spent as legislation and policy intended and with due efficiency. He also wrote a book on management and found time to teach each year for the Open University. Sadly, he is dying breed and the country will be the worse for it.

I was a lost, lost cause and soon escaped back to the groves of academe but since 1988, Sir John has been a hugely respected and fearless public servant, criticising governments of right and left and being listened to with great respect. It seems he will continue to hold his present job and perform the ministerial watchdog one part-time. This is a reform Blair was advised to introduce by the Committee on Standards in Public Life with which he promised to comply.... three years ago. Better late than never. I have no doubt that in his new part-time job, Sir John will apply the same forensic skills and honesty that have illuminated his conduct of his day job for nearly two decades. It would seem that, as the reputation of the Blair government rapidly disappears down the toilet, his services are badly needed.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Top Twenty Prime Ministers in 20th century

Kevin Theakston at the University of Leeds has produced a table ranking the top 20 prime ministers of the 20th century(with M.Gill,'Rating 20th Century British Prime Ministers' in British Journal of Politics and International Relations vol 8 pp193-213). I thought it really interesting-those lists again?- and reproduce the list below together with some discussion of the qualities needed by premiers to score well in such a list.

Table 1 Ranking 20th century Prime Ministers

Ranking Prime Minister
1 Clement Attlee (Lab. 1945-51)
2 Winston Churchill (Con. 1940-45, 51-55)
3 David Lloyd George (Lib. 1916-22)
4 Margaret Thatcher (Con. 1979-90)
5 Harold Macmillan (Con. 1957-63)
6 Tony Blair (Lab. 1997- )
7 Herbert Asquith (Lib. 1908-16)
8 Stanley Baldwin (Con. 1923-4, 24-9, 35-37)
9 Harold Wilson (Lab. 1964-70, 74-76)
10 Lord Salisbury (Con. 1895-1902)
11 Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Lib. 1906-08)
12 James Callaghan (Lab. 1976-79)
13 Edward Heath (Con. 1970-74)
14 Ramsay MacDonald (Lab. 1924, 29-31, 31-35)
15 John Major (Con. 1990-97)
16 Andrew Bonar Law (Con. 1922-23)
17 Neville Chamberlain (Con. 1937-40)
18 Arthur Balfour (Con. 1902-05)
19 Alec Douglas-Home (Con. 1963-64)
20 Anthony Eden (Con. 1955-57)
Source: MORI/University of Leeds

The table is based on a survey of 139 university academics who were asked to rate the success of each PM on a scale of 0-10. Attlee managed 8.34; Lloyd George 7.33; Blair 6.30; Heath, 4.36 and poor old Eden, who cut such a dash when a yiouthful Foreign Secretary a pathetic 2.53.

Theakston cites Fred Greenstein, a US academic, who identifies six qualities and skills by which we can judge former prime ministers.

1. How good are they as communicators? This is probably their key skill as they have to persuade a whole host of people on the way to Number 10: initially their parliamentary party colleagues, next the eagle eyed cynics of the press and, most important of the lot by polling day, the public.

2. How well do they organise Number 10 and their government? Attlee created scores of cabinet committees while Thatcher and Blair have tended to prefer small groups of ministers, aides and experts. Heath was a good administrator but not such a good communicator.

3. How good are their political skills? Again, Heath not so good as he could be rude and seemed to lack any real charm. Major was generously blessed with people skills but lacked the necessary inner toughness. Thatcher seemed to command huge loyalty but often treated those closest to her- e.g. Geoffrey Howe- with scant, if any, respect; in the end she paid a heavy cost for this shortcoming.

4. Do they have a strong policy vision? Thatcher did and it was one of her trump cards as it was easy to understand by colleagues, civil servants and public alike and helped guide her through the storms its pursuit created. Major distrusted the 'vision thing' and Blair seems to have it only at the rhetorical level.

5. What is their cognitive style or how do they process advice and information? Thatcher absorbed large amounts of information quickly and reached decisions with equal speed(perhaps too quickly?); Major listed the pros and cons; Blair focuses on the 'big picture' and rather more on presentational aspects.

6.Do they possess emotional intelligence? Can they m,anage their emotions and cope with the stress? Maggie seemed to thrive on the pressure; Major bowed under it; and Blair seems fortunate in having a supportive family life to help him, though the degree of ageing he has evinced since the Iraq War shows he has paid some considerable inner cost.

Theakston reckons Attlee and Thatcher deserve their high ranking and that Blair still has much to do to move up the list. Given his present parlous state and the chorus calling for his departure plus his dependence on events wholly out of his control in the Middle East, sixth out of the twenty might well be as good as it gets for him.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Blair: Should he(and will he) Stay or Should he go Go?

When Blair will go is proving just as difficult a question to answer as should he go. On the latter question an emergent consensus on the left is that he is a busted flush. After Iraq and those absent casus belli, not much has gone right really. There's been the Terror Bill and the illiberal ID Cards proposals, Ruth Kelly and paedophiles in schools; Tessa, blithely unaware her hubby has just been gifted a third of a million quid; the division on the Education Bill which was so unpopular with Labour MPs it required Conservative votes to get through; and now the unhealthily close relationship which loans to the party before the last election seem to have with the disbursement of medals, knighthoods and peerages. I'm fairly sure that is why The Guadian, keeper of the leftwing conscience, called for Blair to step down yesterday. According to the bookies odds on Blair going by June have halved from 8-1 to 4-1 and many have been calling Brown's budget announced today, his last.

But hold on. In my view the nation's doyen of political columnists, Simon Jenkins- who earned his knighthood most assuredly- has questioned the judgement of the paper which currently pays his wages. He points out Blair has said he will serve 'a full third term' and goes on to suggest that he should. He casts doubt on Brown's ability to win a popular following despite his skilful management of the economy: 'The recent desperate attempt to beathe warmth into his public image has shown how difficult this task is.' He suggests three more years in which Blair- still young, fit and at the height of his powers- cuts the Etonian down to size will suit Brown's interests better than Tony departing the stage just yet.

From Blair himself we hear not a peep of his real intentions- which may anyway change regularly as far as we know- but I was fascinated to read that Charles Clark said yesterday that Blair will stay for until summer 2008. Maybe he's going for the Maggie Thatcher's record of eleven and a half years. What is certain is that trying to get to get rid of him if he does not want to go will be bloody indeed and not an option Labour can readily contemplate. Awful as it might seem for Blair haters(including Gordon Brown), they might have to learn to live him for another two or even three years.

Monday, March 20, 2006


Top Ten Most Boring Politicians

After the relative seriousness of my last post, I feel like something more ephemeral and light so have chosen another of those 'lists of' posts: my top ten most boring politicians. I admit from the start a shed load of prejudice: it's skewed towards the Conservatives' cohort of Cabinet ministers 1979-97 but New Labour does get more than a look-in. I'd also like to say I'm not impugning the ability or probity of any of those named below, merely-with great prejudice not to say mean-spiritedness- their ability to inspire, amuse and entertain. Finally I admit that a number- including IDS, Liam Fox ,Jack Straw and yes, John Major- just missed the cut. So here they are, in descending order of boringness:

10 Nick Brown
The MP for Newcastle and Wallsend has been a Labour Chief Whip and a Cabinet Minister for Agriculture. He came unstuck over the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises when he became, perhaps unfairly, associated with the misery created by the slaughter of all those animals. My belief, however, is that he was sacked for being so boring the whole nation fell asleep as soon as he opened his mouth on the telly.

9 Alan Beith
Liberal MP for Berwick on Tweed who has held a number of portfolios for his once mini-party but never made it beyond being a mere candidate for leadership on account of his unnerving ability- though his appearance, his hair and his voice- to bore everyone sideways.

8 John Gummer
Used to have a 'Selwyn' knocking around his name somewhere once upon a time when he was part of that cabal of cronies from Cambridge(which college? Selwyn of course). MP for a Suffolk constuency for many a year, he bored his way into the Cabinet where, he force-fed his daughter a hamburger to prove 'mad cow' British beef was safe. His membership of the General Synod of the Church of England merely put the icing on the cake of his acute and terminal tedium.

7 Virginia Bottomley
Yes, the one who always looked prim and cool, was much prettier than Thatcher and everyone rumoured was sweet on John Major- when he only, in reality, had eyes for Edwina (it later transpired). I always wanted her to prove she could not be as boring as being married to her fellow Tory minister MP husband Peter suggested she was but she never even came close.

6 Margaret Beckett
Once flirted with the hard left until Kinnock and Blair hoisted the party into the electable centre ground when she swiftly became a moderate. Amazing ability to make every statement anodyne and two dimensional but she still remains as a supposedly able Cabinet minister.

5 Lord Irvine of Lairg
Climbed his way up from very poor beginnings and displayed some of the hubris which often accompanies self-made men. Compared himself to Cardinal Wolsey and manged every sentence he uttered to sound so self regarding and pompous, Tony just had to get shot of him in the end.

4 John Moore- now Lord Moore of Long Marsh
Ten years in the Cabinet during which he emerged as one of Maggie's favourites and hence tipped as a future leader. Inevitably, like the Earls of Leicester and Essex in an earlier age, he did not. Some people say he lost favour through ill health or lack of competence but I was always convinced he was too tedious for words.

3 Tony Newton- Baron Newton of Braintree
Once again, here is a person who served in several jobs- all of them Social Security, it now seems- and yet never seemed to cause the surface of politics to ripple in the sligtest. Who was that man? Did he ever exist?

2 Norman-now Baron Fowler
Almost a clone of Newton, these two seemed interchangeable and, once again served in that ghetto for the crashers, Social Security. He also did some time as Chairman of his party, being seen as so boring he was less likely to mess things up. His memoirs are reliably rated as the most boring ever written.

1 Geoffrey Howe now Lord Aberavon
It had to be did it not? The 'dead sheep' of a Welsh lawyer who, his memoirs reveal, was quite sure he could become Prime Minister. This despite the fact he never even gave much evidence of being alive and sentient in Cabinet and so infuriated the Leaderene that she could not cease from humiliating him. But he got his own back in that magnificent valedictory and fatal speech in November 1990. So, my most boring politician but one to whom I feel an everlasting debt of gratitude.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


Cartoons and Defending Freedom: the Debate Renewed

I’m not usually one to put long posts on my blog as I tend to think shorter ones have more impact. However, the exchange I had with author and journalist Andrew Anthony earlier in the week, I thought was worth putting up as it ranged far and wide and touched on a lot of topics concerning how we, the ‘west’ deal with the world of Islam, especially the more extreme, fundamentalist part of that world. Moreover, the topic is back in the news as some of the London demonstrators against the publication of the cartoons will soon appear in court to answer charges relating to their placard messages.

It began with a couple of posts I made in February(5th and 19th) on the cartoons in which I took the line that the Danish newspaper had acted too provocatively and that in these combustible times Islam had to be dealt with more sensitively. I checked my email late on Sunday night and found the first message from Andrew waiting. Then followed a rapid exchange of messages and replies, over the next day and a half which are essentially as copied below.

I’m sure we both could have carried on-as Andrew’s valedictory PS implies- but nearly 4000 words at the time seemed pretty substantial to me and I am supposed to be hitting a publisher’s deadline by the end of the month. So I resisted the temptation to keep at it; otherwise we’d still, I suspect, be furiously swapping messages. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is our exchange.

Message 1, 12th March

Dear William Jones,

I was checking the response to the Danish cartoons piece I wrote in the Observer a few weeks ago – as you know, some of the best debates on these issues are seen on blogs – and I came across your blog. I was struck by how you were persuaded by the Leofranc Holford-Stevens letter, because I couldn't think of a sillier – or perhaps more revealing – analogy than the one he used. Let's think about it. Is he saying that Europe is now a sectarian environment – like Belfast – and that the divide is between literalist Muslims and advocates of free speech? If he is, then I think that's a little worrying, don't you? But let's, for argument's sake, give him the benefit of the doubt on his rather stark vision. Then sticking with his analogy, does that mean a Danish newspaper, by publishing some cartoons in Denmark, is going into Muslim territory? The Belfast Loyalist comparison only makes sense if Jyllands Posten published the cartoon in Saudi Arabia – unless, that is, he is saying that Europe is now Saudi Arabia and should be considered off-limits to free-thinkers. Now that really is worrying.

I would say this to you. When you speak of there being 'no purpose to upsetting volatile people unnecessarily' you are sending out a signal to the irrational and the violent that the limits of freedom will be set by their level of violence rather than by the law. I imagine fascist groups must look at the Islamic extremist example and think, 'Now why didn't we think of that?'

On that subject, you are right to say that Hizb ut-Tahrir should not be banned, but you are, I believe, gravely wrong if you believe that Hizb is anything but a fascist party. They are no different to the BNP.

Reply 12th March

Dear Andrew Anthony
Thanks very much for your email. We bloggers, as you will know, love to engage in debate so we love to have intelligent comments on what we say. In response I'd say:

1. I did not think the comparison was a direct one- the relevance of Ulster lay in the daggers -drawn state of community relations which makes even careless comments the possible cause of violence.
2. I quite agree with your excellently phrased comment about not allowing the violent and irrational to set the limits of freedom. We must do all we can to avoid this. If we can prevent madmen from commiting insane acts then, of course, we should.
3. But we cannot always control the behaviour of people who are literally beyond our control and we have to recognise this reality and act accordingly. In domestic situations we control the use of violence for law enforcement and, in practice as well as theory, we can usually do this. However, when international dimensions are concerned the writ of the law does not extend much beyond our own borders. For example the USSR broke many agreements during the Cold war but neither we nor the USA were prepared to use military force to defend the proper limits of freedoms violated. This was a typical piece of political decision-making : a recognition that such action would be futile and self defeating. We had to watch, wait and try other strategies which might bear fruit. It took forty years in the end but we can probably say worked. In the case of the Falklands, we could arguably do something to defend freedom and we did so but even then there were those who thought it too risky and too expensive in terms of lives lost.
4.To get to the point, it seems to me that in publishing those cartoons, Jyllands Posten was messing with forces they and we cannot control - the irreguar ranks of jihadi Islam and just like the example cited in the Leofranc letter, it was an act of considerable foolishness- tragically so if the several innocent lives lost are weighed in the balance.
5. I'm not well informed on Hizb so take your word they are neo-fascist. However their spokespeople whom I have heard have been remarkably more lucid and articulate than anyone the BNP could put up, including the Cambridge educated Nick Griffin.
Bill Jones

Message 2. 13th March

Dear Bill (to coin a phrase),

If the Belfast analogy had any meaning at all, it had to be one of context – ie, you don't go into a Republican bar and spout Loyalist propaganda without expecting dire consequences.
1. You must therefore take on board the context of the Jyllands Posten cartoons: in Denmark. Please think about that. It took five months of Islamic extremist agitation to get the mobs out.
2. You talk about people who are 'beyond our control'. Well, they are not beyond their own control. They are not babies. But rather than hold them responsible for their actions we blame a Danish newspaper. It's a terrible precedent and one we will all come to regret.
3. What 'international' dimension? The cartoons, I repeat, were published in Denmark.
4. Your definition of foolishness is anything that might excite the anger or violence of others. Take this thinking to its logical – and inevitable – conclusion and women would be deemed foolish for wearing skirts, indeed for showing their faces or going out on the street unaccompanied by a man. Does that sound familiar? There are countries in which such actions are not only deemed foolish but are illegal. Let the madman decide what freedom is and that's where you end up.
5. If you don't know about Hizb I urge you to find out. Just because someone is lucid it does not mean they are not sinister. There were plenty of lucid Nazis.
6. What bothers me – and it's the reason that I'm taking the time to write to you – is that you seem to be one of the good guys, with decent instincts. And if the good guys can't see evil when it approaches, then we are really in trouble.

Reply 13th March

On 13 Mar 2006, at 13:18, Bill Jones wrote:

1.think we agree Islam is an illiberal and, to many of us in the west unwholesome creed which not only discriminates shamefully against women but also offers up a threat to other cultures which do not offer any reciprocal threat. But this is-and has been the case with other systems of ideas- and we have not taken pro-active steps to counter them. I think female circumcision is appalling but I wouldn't advocate the bombing of Khartoum because of it.

2 Surely we have to accept that other people think differently to us and respect that; all this in the hope they will eventually grow to respect us. My point about the 'international dimension' is that the cartoons caused little or no trouble at home- and even if they did the Danish police could probably cope- but have caused absurd amounts of trouble and deaths of innocent people in places abroad where no-one really has any control.

3. Bottom line remains that publishing the cartoons was a foolish move- and many, including Danish friends tell me the paper has a strong anti-immigrant agenda-which needlessly provoked a religious group currently experiencing fundamentalist extremism.

4. I think I can usually spot evil when it approaches but I'm also very worried about provoking avoidable and unnecessary conflict. A dead person is still dead whatever their religion or nationality.

To conclude the debate so far, I think we agree about ends but disagree about means. I'm for a more subtle diplomacy and management of Islam while it is so volatile and dangerous. And I think dealing with the problem at home is very different from dealing with it abroad.

Message 3 13th March


1. OK, I will try once again to get you to acknowledge that the cartoons were published in Denmark not in Saudi Arabia or Syria. Your argument seems to be that all people in the non-Islamic world must be careful what they do and say lest it provoke Muslims in another part of the world. It's simply not good enough, has no intellectual merit, to keep repeating that it was foolish of the Jyllands Posten to publish the cartoons. What kind of 'bottom line' is that statement? Was it foolish of Salman Rushdie to publish The Satanic Verses? People have died as a result of that decision, too. But Rushdie is NOT responsible for their deaths and neither is Jyllands Posten. As I say, the killers will always determine the nature of our freedoms if they are able to exercise the blackmail of murder.

2. Surely we have to accept that other people think differently to us, you say. Well, Bill, we do. We take it in our stride every day that teenage girls are hanged in Iran (which is a civilized country with a long and rich cultural history) for the crime of sleeping with their boyfriends. We raise not so much as an eyebrow when an imam in the central Mecca mosque lectures his audience on the need to kill all Jews, and that the Nazis were right in their Final Solution. We are all pretty casual and understanding when Christians and Shia Muslims in Pakistan are blown up and terrorised on a regular basis. No, the people who surely have to accept that other people think differently are those who have sent the cartoonists into hiding, those who torched the embassies in Beirut and Damascus. That is the bottom line. And yet so many liberals prefer to focus their disapproval on the Danes.

3. You say you're good at spotting approaching evil, well, with respect, you don't inspire confidence with your reading of Hizb. In recent years they have embarked on the same process as the BNP (only with more success), which is to clean up their media act, and present a more acceptable external face while retaining the same hate agenda for internal consumption. Please read the various former Hizb members who expose the true aims of the group. Hizb have taken the pages down from their website now (though you can still find them at Harry's Place) but there is plenty of anti-semitic and anti-infidel Hizb material if you care to look for it.

4. If you hope that Islamic extremists will grow to respect us then all I can say is that you are either an optimist of historic proportions or you are not listening to what they are saying. I may disagree with the jihadists but I acknowledge their sincerity and their determination. They demonstrate the same contempt for liberals as the Nazis showed, and they will be no more deterred by appeasement than were the Nazis.

5. I think there is an idea that we don't have to take Islamic extremism that seriously because it is merely the cry of the powerless and the oppressed. Thus it is melodramatic to compare it to 1930s fascism. First thing to say here is that the Nazis started out as a tiny group that appealed to the marginalised and the alienated in a country that thought it had been ill-treated by the Great Powers. The second is that in the global age, the ideological menace no longer requires specific state endorsement or support - ie it represents a new and distinct threat to life and liberty. Our first duty in combatting that threat is to recognise it when it shows its face. If we think that by shouting down Denmark we are dealing with the real problem then we have taken up residence in Cloud Cuckoo Land, and I'm not sure what atrocity or incursion on freedom will shake us to our senses.

Very best wishes,


Reply, 13th March

I can't promise my reply will be quite as impassioned as your own last but let me try again too. Rather than me making even more clear how much I abominate the recent terrorism and illiberal attitudes to free speech(plus hanged teenage girls) as well and wish to see every step taken to resist and punish it, let's use the analogy of the hostage situation to see if it shines any light.

Suppose a gunman has taken a hundred hostages and is making demands which, if unfulfilled, he threatens will lead to the death of hostages. At first the police try to reason with him. They cannot respond to his requests they say as they are unrealistic- he should lay down his arms and come out quietly. They suggest negotiations begin but the gunman refuses. He talks wildly and threatens to shoot people at random. He sets a deadline. The police allow it to pass. He shoots two hostages and throws out their bodies. He sets another deadline. The police allow it to pass. He shoots four hostages.

Now what do the police do? If they rush the building the gunman could kill everyone with his automatic weapon. Do they give in to his demands and damagingly prove such methods bear fruit? Do they try to keep him talking and hope for a softening of the gunman's resolve or something which will bring about a change of heart? It's a tough one but seems to me we are in something like this situation.

The Salmon Rushdie affair, using the same analogy, happened early on in the hostage situation- before the first killings which are like the terrorist acts, shall we say, of 9-11, Madrid and 7-7. Things have changed dramatically and we are now in the following stand-off. What is not needed at all in this situation is a sudden provocation which could trigger off the gunman's finger once again. I see the cartoons as like just such a provocation.

Now, I'm not going to pretend my 'wait and see- talk and be diplomatic' approach will produce success, but at least we won't have to send for any more body bags just yet. Cautious if you like, but no less committed than what appears to be your more gung ho approach. But maybe I'm misinterpreting your line: how would you deal with my analogous situation and how would you deal with the cartoon situation as well?

Message 4 13th March


Where to start? You have accepted a situation in which you see the defence of the publication of cartoons – of comic illustrations of the most timid nature – as 'gung ho'. In that respect, you are so far along the road to self-censorship – which ultimately becomes the denial of self – that I'm not sure that I can appeal to you in any language that you won't now instinctively see as inflammatory. But I'll try anyway. As with all such analogies, we have to look at what the constituent parts actually represent, otherwise the exercise is less than useless.

In your analogy, who are the hostages? It seems to me that you're saying all of us. Any one of us can be killed at any time by the hostage-holders so, you argue, we had better not do anything to provoke them. I'll come to how depressing I find your tolerance of that state of affairs. But, before that, what are the hostage-holders demands? First, that we, the hostages, don't do anything to annoy them. You seem to believe if we stick to that, they might let us all go – but presumably with the proviso that they can take us all hostage again whenever they like, in which case we've only gained an illusory liberty. If you listen to real hostage-holders, their aims are not limited to preventing anyone from offending them. So I'm not sure where you get the idea that giving into their demands will lead to peace and understanding. Call me gung-ho, but I can see no reason to believe that it will.

Of course, you are entirely at liberty to hand over your liberties to irrational homicidal madmen, but I would prefer not to. Just out of interest, what do you think the extremists will have taken from the cartoons crisis? Do you think they will conclude a) that these secular liberal Europeans are not to be messed with, they really stand together and defend their values of free speech and the rule of law or b) threaten these gutless infidels with murder and they acquiesce, turn on one another, and will accede to our every demand. My feeling is that it's b) and, I have to say, that concerns me.

What also concerns me is that in mustering all our 'tolerance' and 'restraint' – translation: fear and self-loathing – to accommodate the intolerable and the unrestrained, we are abandoning those poor souls from the 'Muslim community' who are attempting to combat the superstition, homophobia and oppression of women. My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali now lives under 24-hour-police protection, her co-filmmaker Theo van Gogh having been practically decapitated on the daylight streets of Amsterdam. This woman should be a hero – she started out by bringing attention to the appalling level of domestic violence among Muslims living in Holland – but European liberals have by and large forsaken her. Our principled government refused to afford her police protection when she visited here a couple of months ago because they did not wish to offend or provoke the Muslim community! The liberal left looks at her, a brave, thoughtful, rational, caring woman, and it hurts their brains so they decide, ha ha, she must be a reactionary! That way they can maintain a clear conscience and leave her to her fate. It's the same trick they perform with the Danes.

What I find particularly depressing, as I mentioned earlier, is that people who might be expected to stand up and be counted in this debate – the people who stood up to Mary Whitehouse – have all gone missing. 'Ah,' they appear to say, 'if freedom involves sacrifice or danger, then I don't want to know. That's serious. I don't mind taking some old suburban dear to task and really laying into her but I draw the line at people who might turn violent.'

How can I put it, Bill. I refuse to be a hostage. I refuse to stay silent. I refuse to comply with the oppressive demands of a bunch of fascists thugs.

How would I deal with the cartoon situation? Well, for a start I would express my solidarity with the people of Denmark who have been threatened, traduced and made the subject of a vile and orchestrated international campaign. I would have published the cartoons with a warning to readers who might be offended that it was possible to not buy the newspaper or buy the newspaper and not look at that cartoons. I would have exposed all the talk of tolerance and restraint for the cant and claptrap that it is. And I would want as large a showing as possible of liberal, open-minded and rational people to stand up and make clear their commitment to free expression within the law.
The silence is deafening.

Reply 14th March

Dear Andrew
I think the point has been reached when neither of us is likely to change the others' basic position though I have learnt a great deal from an enjoyable exchange which has reached parts of the debate other discussions have not. It is for this reason that I'd like to put an edited version of yesterday's debate on my blog with the title 'The Cartoons and the Defence of Freedom' or some such. Would you be happy for that? I could edit, sending it to you for approval if you required this. It would add a useful additional element to the blogosphere's coverage of this issue.

Message 5, 14th March
Dear Bill,

I'm happy for you to put our exchange up, but if you're going to edit it, I'd like to see it first. Thanks.

Best wishes,


PS I find it a great shame that while I specifically addressed your questions – for example, what would I have done about the cartoons, dealt with your hostage analogy, and answered your point about 'people thinking differently from us' – you never explained why the bottom line was the Danes were foolish (when the bottom line was surely that the Islamists were violently imposing their agenda and the Danes needed to be defended). You did not answer my question about what you thought the Islamists would take from cartoons crisis. You did not follow through on the logic of your hostage crisis – how and when and in what circumstances could the hostages gain liberty? Indeed, you say that we want the same end – I can't speak for you but the end I want is freedom of expression, rule of law, and rational debate – but that we differ on means. Well my means of getting to freedom of expression, rule of law and rational debate is by defending those things, maintaining them, by not going backwards. Yours, from everything you've said, is by restricting freedom of expression, giving into mob rule, and privileging the irrational. How you hope to get to your end by those means is something that you have never begun to address. By all means stick with your basic position but it does seem sensible that if you are going to have a basic position, you should at least ask yourself some basic questions and then, ideally, come up with some basic answers. I'm still waiting for yours.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Loans for Honours and Sod's law Strike Blair

Just when you fall over in the kitchen you don't want the wall cupboard to come carshing down on top of you. Sod's Law, of course, says it will. And so Tony finds he's moved on from the debacle of the education vote to be hit smartly by the disaster of the loans scandal. And it's not just the rightwing press, this time it's the Party Treasurer, sainted Jack Dromey of Grunwick fame, who just happens to be married to a government minister, who is pointing the finger.

What has happened? It seems substantial loans- at 2 per cent above the base rate- from rich Labour sympathisers-maybe £10 million in all- have flowed into the party but it seems Dromey knew nothing about them. In addition it seems three of the people lending money were also up for honours although two of them have since withdrawn themselves from such consideration.

What questions arise from this?

a) Who fixed up the loans? The answer here could be Lord Levy, Tony's tennis partner and ace fundraiser whose dinners for fat cats generally seem to end with the cheque book being passed around.

b) Where did the money go? If Dromey does not know, this is a bit worrying. One assumes it went into the pot to pay the £20 odd million big parties need to survive each year. But if it did, Dromey would surely know about it and he didn't.

c)Why was the process so secretive? This is also worrying. People don't usually seek to exclude light unless darkness favours what they are up to. It seems this funding operation was restricted to Blair, Levy and the donors concerned.

d)Was it illegal? No, all parties receive loans, often on a commercial basis. But it seems Labour's bank will no longer fund its overdraft and so other sources were pursued as the aprty is heavily in debt.

e) Were the loans given in exchange for honours? It looks a bit like it, though this is being vehemently denied. The Guardian today names the top twenty donors to Labour and, surprisingly, not all of them have received honours. Two, one of them actor Patrick Stewart,(who gave £120,000) recieved a measly OBE, something which both recipients might have got anyway; three received CBEs, again, nothing special about them in my view; Seven received knighthoods, although two of them are also currently nominated for peerages; three received peerages but, also surprising, five got nothing at all. It seems one cannot say bunging Blair a million will buy you that coronet. Of course it may help, and a knighthood seems a surer bet, but it can in no way be guaranteed. At least on the basis of what we know so far.

f) When were the loans due to be repaid? We don't know but Lord Haskins, himself a big donor so he should know, said on Radio 4 this morning that he reckoned that such loans would eventually elide into outright gifts. Their initial loan status was merely to get around the rule about declaring gifts.

Has Blair defused it with his instant reforms? Maybe. He acted very quickly-suspiciously so say some, as if this was a pre-arranged 'Plan B', to make noises about state funding and making loans as transparent as gifts. Cameron has followed suit, illustrating that all the parties are in something of the same boat on this problem. But the damage has been done- Labour seems to be floating on a sea of sleaze, just like Major towards the end. It has almost certainly damaged Brown too but he might be able to offer himself as the puritan son of the Manse who will come in a scourge the Augean Stables of Blair's administration. It's been a another bad week for Labour and this issue has some way to run yet.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Blair's Position Unravels

Blair described the business of passing the Education Bill as a 'high wire' act and so it has come to pass that he has, sort of, fallen off. Comparisons with Ramsay McDonald are deemed 'ludicrous' by The Times but, as someone who has used it, I don't think depending on Conservative votes is behaving unlike Labour's infamous traitor. Admittedly, it's only one vote and I know Attlee had a similar vote and that Heath relied on Labour votes to get us into the Common Market. But this was a core piece of legislation- regarded as a pivotal element of his welfare reform programme by the prime minister- and he could not carry his own party's majority. Moreover, as the bill staggers through parliament, he may need Tory votes again, and again.

And then what about renewing Trident? Philip Cowley's research suggests that the big step for a rebel is the first one. Now the rebels have lost a slightly different kind of virginity(OK, I know)- forcing Blair to survive with enemy votes, they might well find they enjoyed it and want to do it again. How many times will it take before a more explicit tacit alliance has been forged? It's a good job Blair is on the way out and not due to lead into another election and maybe, as Peter Riddell in The Times observes, he will, at least be pleased he's on track to 'secure most of the big changes to the school system he wants'.

Electing him out of office as leader is too long-winded, as I suggested in my last post- but pressure from within to move aside will grow now that Blair is in any case a lame duck premier. Labour's equivalent of the 'men in suits'(men in flat caps?), maybe a joint delegation from the NEC and the PLP might see it as their duty to deliver the pistol and the bottle of whisky to their embattled leader and ask him to do the decent thing. The Guardian editorial today comments that: 'Only a very naive observer would conclude that this[Labour] is currently a party with the focus and energy to win another election, whoever its leader might be.' Gordon Brown might already have been cheated of his believed birthright. Blair's highlighted problem today has focused more on the ignorance by the party Treasurer, (Brownite) Jack Dromey, of the advantageous loans fed into Number 10 via Lord Levy(possibly in exchange for honours), but the real problem he faces are concerned not just with the future of his government but with that of his party.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


So 'Ramsay McBlair' it appears to be then

It hurts a bit to say one is wrong, but if one obsessively watches what Julian Critchley called the 'spectator sport' of politics, one has to get used to it. I was sure that as the acid test of vote on the Education Bill approached, the Labour rebels would review their situation, calculate the damage a defeat or an 'assisted victory' might inflict, both on their chances of re-election and the immanent Brown regime, and decide to row swiftly back from the precipice. BBC and Guardian surveys of intending voting MPs reveal this is unlikely to happen and that this flagship Blairite 'legacy' issue will be passed only with Conservative assistance.

The scar of the McDonald betrayal, as Martin Kettle reminded us in his Guardian column 11th March, is such that Blair's remaining time in office will be tough if this comes to pass. As he also points out, 'Failure to carry your own party turns out not to be fatal any more.' It really seems the unthinkable is about to happen and a version of the Great Betrayal is about to be reprised. Of course, the Conservatives might take this likelihood on board and pull out the rug at the last moment on the grounds the bill have been diluted too much to win over the rebels. But, according to David Willets, this is not due to happen.

So what happens next? Blair might decide, I suppose, to cash in on this source of parliamentary support and push through other measures his party cannot stomach though, at present, it's hard to see what they might be. The rebels might decide to challenge their leader. For this to occur a challenger would need the support of 20 per cent of the PLP( it used to be only 5 per cent until Benn challenged Kinnock in the early eighties) and then two thirds of the annaul conference has to approve the contest. [Could the annual conference be brought forward for such a vote? I don't know.] Then the electoral college would stride onto the stage to mount a battle royal and one likely to weaken Labour for the foreseeable future. Labour was out of power as the party forming government for fourteen years after Ramsay's betrayal- if Blair were downed, they could be lookng at a similar period back in the wilderness.

Appreciating this, the rebels might either: a) decide to support Blair on the vote; b) deny him support on the bill but accept the McDonaldite pact on this issue; c) accept Blair could thereafter stay in office with Conservative support as a fact of life. Optrions b) and c) would take our politics into uncharted territory and be quite fascinating for those of us who are fascinated. But the public division caused might well scupper Gordon's big chance and lifelong ambition of serving a full term, after 2009, as his country's Labour prime minister.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Profumo, the man who made scandal fashionable

I remember in the early sixties-yes, I am that old- hitching a lift in mid Shropshire and chatting to the lorry driver, a voluble son of Salop. As male talk will, we got to talking about the misdeeds of our socalled betters. When I mentioned the Royal Family as a group of people I could not imagine indulging in sex, let alone getting up to the sort of things which seemed to fascinate my driver, he exploded with scorn:

'Whaaat? Them Royal buggers is the worst of the lot! Edinburgh, Kent, Margaret, they's at it all the time, like dogs on 'eat they is.'

In my youthful naivety I put this down to his probably reading only the News of the World as his window on the world. Of course since then, we've had a shed load and a half of stories about the royals at it like rabbits, ferrets or any kind of sex starved animals. So my chauffeur was not poorly informed; merely prescient.

But I first began to sense this much earlier than the Squidgy tapes and the lurid tales involving army or rugby captains. It was the Profumo affair which first opened my eyes, and the eyes of millions of fellow countrymen and women. This story was just wholly unbelievable to a teenage schoolboy at a very conventional grammar school. I followed the details of the Cliveden weekend, the affair between the minister and the 'tart'(though today she would merely be called an 'It Girl' I suspect), the osteopath who seemed to be drowning in gorgeous women, Keeler's rightly named West Indian boyfriend, 'Lucky' Gordon, the lies to the House, the shaming resignation, the death of Stephen Ward and then the Denning Report into the whole amazing, exciting business. I even read the whole of it through as I thought maybe it might contain some salacious detail about the sex involved.

Now we are very familiar with such stories, the most recent of which was absurdly unlikely, involving a blind socialist Cabinet minister in his fifties, siring a child by a rich, rightwing publisher. But, it seems, Profumo was the progenitor of it all; the first member of the upper classes in the modern era to get caught with his pants well and truly down. We loved it at the time and I've enjoyed it vicariously, recently, reading all the reviews of the affair.

In retrospect, it helped to demystify the upper echelons for us lower down the social food chain; we never perceived them in quite the same way again after this shocking revelation that they were much more immoral than most of us- not that many, like my lorry driver, had not suspected as much for years.It also helped to set in train the media obsession of invading private lives of public people in search of newspaper selling scandal. Maybe, also it discredited a Macmillan government well into its dog days by 1963. What chemistry is it, by the way, which dictates such scandals break out repeatedly after a government has lost its popularity? It is said by some that Profumo had some enemies in the House- annoyed that a young sprig of a former officer had been promoted so easily. It is also said that some establishment members- and boy were they stuffy old sods in those days- were all too ready to believe that someone who had been to Harrow and not Eton; who was of Italian provenance and who had been sufficiently infra dig to marry and actress, would be unable to control his natural urges.

But it did not really change much else for all the huge outpouring of moralising opinion by the likes of Quintin Hogg- I recall so well his eyepopping performance when interviewed by good old Bob 'Swingometer' Mackenzie. One thing it certainly did not establish, was the practice for disgraced ministers to seek redemption by devoting the rest of their lives to good works. Profumo should be remembered for them and not his one month dalliance with the now 64 year old Ms Keeler. But he won't.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


NHS 'fast track' inefficiences exposed.

Those of us who care about the NHS-not least because it has saved our lives once and may do so again- were dismayed and depressed by Sweeney Investigates,, BBC2 9th March. This looked into the government's much trumpeted success in reducing waiting lists via 'fast track' operations, many involving foreign surgeons for this specific purpose. The programme challenged the company which organises the extra help, revealing muddle and inefficiencies, despite its claim to achieve a 99% success rate. Individual cases were then exposed where the surgery carried out was worse than substandard, in one case leaving crippled a woman who had presented her condition in the hope of being saved from such a fate. Extremely dodgy surgical work- and associated surgeons-were tracked down and interrogated.

Two NHS consultants were interviewed who claimed many of these short-term contract doctors had not been trained up to NHS standards and who could not perform in NHS conditions. Far from a near perfect success rate, they suggested a substantial proportion of the operations had to be re-done, with much suffering for patients along the way. Caroline Flint, the junior health minister, on radio 4 yesterday, blithely reprised the government script of a 'small proportion' of failure- such as one might always expect, but Sweeney's programme raised much more fundamental worries.

I have always been a bit dubious about 'fast track' assaults on the most chronic waiting lists for hip operations and other joint replacements. The reason why such waiting lists have backed up is that these are difficult operations requiring much care and espertise. Throwing hired hands at this problem was fine as long as that help was of the highest calibre but we now see this has by no means been the case. Maybe, taxpayers might ask, a fair slice of the £90bn p.a. due to be spent on health by 2008, is due to be wasted in this way? Maybe the government, with best intention, has bought in substandard workmen to do the job on the cheap and patients are suffering as a result?

The real worry- as deficits for health trusts spiral towards £1bn a year- is that the problem is proving insoluble. A free health service is what we want but this example of Labour's attempts to get it on the cheap is little better than the studied ignoring of such problems adopted as a strategy by the Tories as the service declined into near atrophy during the eighties and nineties. If Labour cannot make it work, with massive cash injections, we cannot expect the Conservatives, whatever Cameron promises, to do any better. Bit of a deepressing situation allround for NHS supporters.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Gordon not as as nice as Tony, complain Tories

I was interested to hear George Osbourne, the Shadow Chancellor has attacked Gordon Brown for being unfriendly and petty in their personal dealings. Michael Portillo weighed in on the PM Programme tonight with recollections of how Brown violates the ministerial etiquette of welcoming in opposition spokespeople and being nice to them. Boris Johnson was on too complaining that, whatever one said about 'Tony', he was a pretty decent sort of cove; but as for well!

Is it true? Friends like former adviser Neal Lawson, disagreed, describing Brown as warm, loyal and charismatic. Maybe, as Portillo suggested, Brown is one of those old-fashioned Labour types who does not hold with fraternising with the enemy. I think this is probably the truth of it. Does it matter? Not much. George is looking for a vulnerable flank and as the heat on Jowell cools down, this is just another ploy to keep the drip, drip, drip of negative news items oppositions try to keep saying about the goverment.

But it does matter a bit. Blair has changed so many things in our political culture and making the prime minister a nice, polite, moderate and well dressed kind of family centred person is included. There will be some expectation that his successor will be something like him; if not, why else have the Conservatives chosen someone who seems to have modelled himself on New Labour's political wizard? Already Brown has been keen to show he is far from the brooding, obstructive figure which the Tories seek to portray. He has married for a start and started a family with which he seems extravagantly delighted. We have recently seen the two page interview spread in the Daily Mirror in which he answered softball questions about his love of sport and Scotland. Stand by for many more similar little skirmishes as the battle ground for the next decisive election is cleared.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


NHS Questions of Value for Money set to Increase

Turning on the radio to accompany my lunch I was alarmed to hear that apalling red haired Chris Evans, shouting something about hospitals. I then realised it was David Cameron haranguing Blair over the NHS. Just listen next time and you may hear the same resemblance. Chris Evans sounding like an old Etonian or vice versa is not the issue however: the NHS is. Whether the NHS has improved or not since 1997 is the vital, key question New Labour has to answer in tye near future as it will comprise a major part of the next election campaign, as indeed it has done in the previous three.

When Labour acceded to power in 1997 spending on the NHS was £34bn- by 2007-08 it will have trebled to £90bn. Huge numbers of new staff have been taken on: 23,000 more doctors, 67,000 more nurses, 26,000 more therapists and technical staff and 72,000 clinical support workers. It's a huge input of cash and new resources even before the £6.2bn in IT schemes is added together with the scores of new building projects mostly funded by PFI arrangements. Today Blair boasted how waiting times for operations had plummeted. Of course it's better he claimed: when we inherited it in 97, the question was not 'can we improve it?' but 'can we save it?'

But has the spending led to the huge improvements Blair claims? Everyone seems to have a different tale to tell. MPs complain about constituents waiting for operations; there were the dirty hospitals which surfaced at the last election; and we have our own experiences to inform us. Personally, I recall how my mother's terminal illness was not diagnosed at all in 1989 when the Tories were in power- my sister moved her to where she lived in Germany and the diagnosis was near instant and subsequent care excellent. When I incurred a stroke while out jogging in 1992 I slept all night on a trolley in a corridor, during the time when close medical attention is crucial. Looking back I realise I was very lucky to escape with only minor permanent effects. More recently I have had two smaller operations: both were conducted with great despatch and efficiency and I was out in a matter of hours. Other people of my age tend to report similar experiences, but this is all subjective.

Objectively, we learn that the NHS is heading for a deficit approaching a billion pounds and staff are allegedly being laid off in some health authorities. We hear staff costs have sucked away most of the extra cash with only a quarter going on real front-line improvements. We hear some hospital trusts can hardly pay the outgoings on the PFI schemes which created them; a kind of generous rent payable to the sponsoring companies over a 30 year period. The Economist ran a piece this week on productivity in the health service based on the work of Sir Tony Atkinson of Oxford University.The journal concludes that it is impossible reach any conclusions based on this work as it has produced six alternative measures of productivity, all of them different. But even the mot favourable only shows about a 10% increase since 1997 compared with the more than doubling of funding over the same period. So, we tend to fall back on subjective impressions instead. Stand by for much more of this- or a new magic way of measuring- as Gordon's big election approaches.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Jowell: will she stay or will she go?

Will Tessa survive? It's a tricky one but let's have a look at the elements of the problem:

Why she should go

1. Labour Party MPs and members are still worried about: her apparently blithe signing of successive mega sized mortgage agreements; her unlikely claim that she knew nothing about the 'gift'; the very fact that she was party to such dealings with relatively vast sums of money. Labour rank and file are unhappy about ministers with plenitudes of cash when their rason d'etre is supposed to be the alleviation of problems caused by poverty. [The Sunday Times quoted and insider as saying that the reason New Labour people are so interested in money is that they mix with mega-rich people and begin to think they'd like the same levels of luxury for themselves.]

2. Jowell is down to lead the campaign for the London elections. Her position will cause problems- Kate Hoey has already asked her to step down from the role.

3. Hubby's ongoing involvement with Italian court matters offers up a very big hostage to fortune- what else will crawl out from the woodwork?

4. Alastair Campbell has said that anyone dominating the headlines with personal problems for more than 14 days, has to go as from then on the government is damaged by the inability of the minister to do the job properly.

Why she should stay

1. There is no conclusive evidence she was connected with her husband's dealings and she has been cleared by both Gus O'Donnel and the Standards Commissioner.

2. Labour MPs went out of their way to show support for her yesterday when she faced questions in the Commons. What is more, even the Tories held back from demanding her scalp.

3. Blair is apparently solidly behind her (though he would be wouldn't he?).

4. Much of the clamour for her head is media led by rightwing papers like Mail.

5. Despite 'Campbell's Law', Ruth Kelly was able to tough it out some weeks ago when her conduct in office was questioned and is now firmly back in the driving seat. What's to say Tessa can't do the same?

So will she survive? I think it's close- no more than evens if I were a betting man- and incidentally, even my betting- mad mate cannot find any odds on her going.[Though he did find 70-1 on Blair going by end of the month if anyone is interested]

Monday, March 06, 2006


Miliband: through his blog shall we know him

Ambition for the top prize is an elusive quality to discern in politicians; too much enthusiasm tends to disqualify while too little often smacks of the disingenuous. David Miliband is a good case in point. He is a little over 40, boasts a high-flier academic and, to date, political CV, having being in the Cabinet since May 2005. George Osbourne has already said, in my hearing, that he would prefer to face Gordon Brown as leader rather than this personable, youthful son of Marxist academic Ralph Miliband. With so much going for him it must be hard for the precocious rising star to ignore the voices suggesting he might consider standing against Brown when Blair finally steps down. It is my belief that he has already decided to set his sights on Downing St.

Evidence? He has recently issued a major speech and shared in a pamphlet about decentralisation of power down the level which will revive our flagging political culture and once again involve voters in our political system. OK, this could be seen as part of his official brief for local communities but the press, by dubbing him the leading light of Labour's 'Primrose Hill Set'-the counterpoint to cameron's 'Notting Hill Set', seems to have reaached the same conclusion as I have.
And now we hear of his latest move to deploy the thoughts of the young pretender to a throne which surely would have surprised a father somewhat dismissive of parliamentary routes to major socio-political change. He is beginning a blog.

Why should this provide a signal of vaulting ambition? Because Cabinet ministers as expected to sit tightly within their briefs and not stray outside it- already we read Sir Gus O'Donnel is concerned the blog will intrude into other policy areas and wishes to defuse the problem. But if you have wider ambitions, you have to show you can handle the much, much wider brief prime minister. Look at how Gordon has been doing exactly this over the last month or so. But if speeches are very public and high risk, blogs are low key and, if necessaey, easily disowned as personal musings; but, they are very effective at disseminating ideas. Or so we bloggers think. So stand by for a series of thoughts from the young tyro on possibly the full range of government policy. Through their blogs shall we know them. We bloggers know.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Jowells' split a defensive ploy?

It's hard to be sure about Tessa Jowell and her break from her husband, David Mills. I'm sure the pressure of the last few weeks, let alone the years this case has in reality lasted, has not been good for the Jowells' marital harmony. Maybe she also discovered something about his dealings which has caused a reappraisal of her relationship with her lawyer husband.

Now we hear she has broken up and immediately the cynical question arises: is this a ploy? Firstly it places distance between her and Mills, the better to preserve her career if his implodes. Secondly, and this would be subtly effctive, it gives credence to the story that she was anaware of David's activities with the loans and mortgages. What sort of a marriage is it when wife knows nothing of a third of a million pounds 'gift' to husband? One which is breaking down of course, when communication has ceased. Maybe this is being desperately unfair to Jowell but- given the parlous state of her political position- this just might have been an underlying consideration.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


It all worked our rather well in the end

What a roller coaster ride the Liberal Democrats have enjoyed/suffered over the last nine months! First there was that high of the 62 seats last May- the highest number since the days of Lloyd George. Then came the dog days of not sustaining the momentum, with old Charles not behaving like a leader and the associated whispering campaign by those who thought toper Charles should move over and let someone else take over. Then came the high of the conference and the emergence of the 'Orange Bookists' who favoured a more market led economic strategy. But this did not cause the whispering to cease- rather it increased as now it was clear the party had two factions- especially when Charles was less than up to scratch in the Commons. It all began to go pearshaped then from the autumn onwards with meetings, drama, denials and then finally Kennedy's admission he had a drinking problem and that the demon drink had been given up some time previously- which he naively thought would solve the problem. It didn't.

Next came Charles' resignation- dignified and honest- but still a bit humiliating for the party. Then came the rush to compete for the job. First Oaten came and went- grounded by a rentboy or possibly two. Then Simon Hughes had to own up about his bisexuality. It was delicious for lovers of political gossip and the bloggers had a field day. We waited for more dirt on Ming and this new boy Huhne but sadly, nothing happened. The polls showed the Lib Dems had slumped to the mid teens - but then came Dunfurmline and all of a sudden, the future seemed Orange. Huhne fought a lively campaign and many thought he'd win but the vote in the end saw him fall 8000 votes shy of Ming's total after Simon's second preferences had been distributed.

So where now? Ming in charge of 63 MPs with a new star-and continuing possible rival- born for his front bench plus poll ratings back up to 21. Many experts predict a hung parliament in 2009-10 so Ming might well hold the key to who sits in Number 10. Which party will he swing his votes behind? Labour seems exhausted and on its last legs but somehow I can't see Lib Dem members-on display when the result was announced- agreeing to a coalition with Cameron, however sweet smeling, touchy feely, liberal and lovely he might appear to be. But come the next election day results, the chances are the force will lie with the Magnificent, if 64 year old Ming. Yes, it's all worked out rather well in the end.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Centre Ground Analysed

All this discussion about Cameron, Blair and the Lib Dems 'crowding the centre ground' raises the question: what exactly it is? Most people define themselves as being in it and for a decade the Tories have been seen not to be so, but rather on 'its' periphery. And if you are not in it, so goes the received wisdom, you have no chance of winning a majority. Yet Margaret Thatcher challenged it and ruled for over a dedade. So it can be over-turned and new ideas are not always rejected just because they are new. Here's my take on what constitutes the centre ground:

1. The middle ground is essentially the broad consensus of the day. In the mid nineteenth century it would have featured such beliefs as: economic activity should be unhindered by government regulation; Britain has a God given right and duty to expand its Empire; and poor people can only rely on themselves to improve their lot in life. All those items disappeared from the consensus by the early decades of the 20th century.

2. What causes the consensus to change? a)persistent propaganda over a long period e.g. Labour Party and socialism; b) evidence that existing policies have failed e.g. nationalisation by the end of the seventies. c)events which change the context of politics e.g. the winter of discontent 1978-79 which appeared to show unions had too much power.

3. New ideas are constantly on the edges of the debate but mostly, they are kept where they are e.g. 'deep green' ideas urging the reduction of economic activity. But a powerful advocate and propitious circumstances can propell a new set of beliefs into the middle, centre ground or 'mainstream of politics'e.g. Thatcher in late seventies aided by the winter of discontent.

4. What ideas are moving into the centre ground at present? Most emphatically green ideas. Deep green is still too strong a brew for most voters but slowly the public is coming around to support: recycling, the pressing need to reduce CO2 emmissions and to preserve disappearing species. For the future I think restriction of cheap air-travel might well edge into the middle and become a feature of party programmes- most likely the Lib Dems at the moment- but who knows how quickly knowledge about the planet's dire predicament will become to be disseminated. The consensus at the moment accepts the need to restrict civil liberties in defence of terrorism but perhaps the current problems of related legislation reveals the limits are being reached. A new outrage would probably make further erosion possible and likely however.

5. Should all the main parties aim for the centre gound? Probably, if they seriously want to win power. But appearing too much like all the other parties could be a disadvantage. Parties need to add a few distinctive policies which catch the eye and win respect and support- rather as the Lib Dems did with their opposition to the Iraq War. The trick all politicians try to play is to anticipate those issues which are moving into the mainstream and then jump aboard them. That's why I think all the parties should alert themselves to the emerging agenda on the environment. The more practical reason for this is that if something is not done and very soon there will be nothing much left for politicians to fight over anyway.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?