Sunday, April 30, 2006


A Prescott Resignation could Prompt Leadership Challenge

According to one Sunday, Prescott was considering resignation following the 9 page spread in the MoS of revelations by his former diary secretary and lover, Tracey Temple. Later, on Radio 5 Live he was reported to have rejected such a course, but I suspect he might have no choice in the matter. Having an affair when a Cabinet member is not necessarily a sacking offence but it did for Parkinson and it did for Mellor, partly because the huge media furore makes it difficult for the mininster to do his job properly and the negative publicity harms the government. Since those ancient days the situation has worsened if anything. Alastair Campbell's rule of thumb was that if the noise has not abated after 12 days, the minister has to be thrown to the wolves. I get the feeling with Prezza's case that the calls for him to go will continue for at least that period, if not longer. We learn there have been previous lovers- one of whom claimed he was rubbish in bed- and other revelations are just queuing up to be made we learn from the blogosphere.

The nature of his crimes entail not just lurid bonking(the entertainment from which we are grateful for) but: deceiving a wife very popular in the Labour Party; having an affair with an office aide, suggesting status exploitation; and using the perks of office like access to Dorneywood and official cars, to pursue his affair. This last might occasion investigations of improper conduct at an official level as the MoS suggest has already been initiated. But it is the implications of the affair which bode even more ill for Blair's limping administration.

Coming on top of the Clarke foreign prisoner debacle and Hewitt's travails with an overspent NHS, the removal of the DPM might precipitate that deadly challenge to Blair's leadership which will possibly sound his death-nell. My analysis has been that he can tough it out as long as Labour MPs see their own fate as synonymous with his. This forces them to keep the daggers sheathed but recall that in November 1990 a fair wedge of Conservative MPs calculated that Thatcher's continuation in office was unacceptable and moved to depose her. If nothing else the DPM's role as a trusted mediator between Blair and Brown has been torpedoed and we might just be seeing the barriers to a leadership challenge beginning to be removed along with Big John. No wonder the Observer's editorial, calls for a rapid infusion of new blood via the reshuffle which most expect to follow in the wake of next Thursday's woeful local government elections. Clarke and Prescott will be lucky to survive even until then.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Blair's Awful Week and the Question of his Future

It's been quite a week for Tony Blair: the 'triple whammy' of Clarke, Hewitt and Prezza has left him winded politically and comparisons have been made with the 'fin de siecle' mid nineties period of John Major. How bad is it? Not as bad as that, I'd venture, for these three reasons:

1. Major's problems sprang substantially from the niggardly majority of 21, bequeathed him by the 1992 election. Blair's majority was slashed in May last year to 67 but is still highly servicable.

2. The economy is still doing pretty well. Unemployment is increasing and there a few danger signals but Brown is very used to managing things by now and, short of a major unforeseen economic, crisis should continue to do so. As the man hoping to inherit the throne, he has every reason not to lose his touch at this point.

3. Blair is a much more talented and resourceful politician than Major. We saw that after his re-election in 2005, voices were raised that he should go by the end of the summer. By the autumn, a combination of the removal of the EU constitution problem, the Olympic Games success and Blair's Churchillian response to the July bombings had transformed the situation. A mix of benign events plus his own formidable political skills had made the idea that he should go, in retrospect, seem absurd.

Blair is now a battle hardened politician who enjoys his job immensely and believes he has a mission to complete. As I have opined several times before, he will take some shifting. Is his position secure? The local elections, of course, are important and a total Labour meltdown in London would put more pressure on him to stand down. But as long as they are some way short of that and not too disastrous in the rest of the country, he can ride such failure out. The scandals swirling around the government are very damaging in the short and also longterm but unless a trail leads directly into Number 10, he will ride out those too. Will he go soon or will we look back on this fragile period from a position of transformed Blair strength by the autumn? My money would be on him surviving and going on until 2008-9 but it's the uncertainty, the volatility of politics, especially now, which, as Julian Critchley, used to say makes it such a rivetting 'spectator sport'.

Friday, April 28, 2006


Hypocrisy, the Default Mode for Politicians

Hypocrisy, depressingly, really does seem to be an essential element of politicians' DNA. We have the case of John Prescott, in a wonderfully old fashioned 'pants-down' scandal the like of which we have not seen since David Mellor donned(or rather, we have since been told, didn't) his Chelsea strip. Like everyone else I was astonished that a 67 year-old, visibly overweight Deputy Prime Minister should have been engaged in a steamy and very passionate two year dalliance, especially as he seemed to be so happily married to Pauline (with whom he jived so skilfully at party conferences). 'It just shows that men are all the same' commented my partner, drily, but then surprised me by saying that, even though he was pretty far along the opposite end of the scale from Brad Pitt, Prezza did have much to offer a woman: as she saw it, warmth, strength and, yes, cuddlinesss. It seems the girls will overlook an overhanging beer belly if these qualities are present- which, at least offers solace of a kind to my mates in the pub.

The hypocrisy, of course, comes in with Prezza's broadsides in the run-up to the 1997 election against Tory sleaze and how he claimed they regretted only the fact they got caught. Well, now he's got caught and it seems he had neglected to tell his boss about his little secret- maybe he feared the possible solidarity between Cherie and Pauline? Mind you, is it any surprise he didn't? I'm always amazed this is brought up; can you imagine a Cabinet minister craving a private audience with the PM to say 'I think you ought to know Prime Minister, that I'm regularly giving one to a very sexy secretary in my office.'? Men only engage in such things if they think they can keep it secret, though presumably MI5 might have known about it - most of the rest of Whitehall seemed to(yes, I know, given our security services, this does not necessarily follow).

All this gives rise to another entertaining speculation: could Tony ever, conceivably, also prove to be a philanderer? One's immediate thought is no, no, no, but that was the feeling about monochrome John Major, the 'big man in the blue underpants' as Edwina yearningly confided to her diary. But even allowing for that most unlikely of scenarios, I would eat my keyboard if Tony were ever to be revealed as having been 'at it'; as with God, I'm sure Tony 'doesn't do' adultery.

Just to maintain political balance in my post, I'd like to give a small mention to David Cameron's craven hypocrisy at trumpeting his green credentials by cycling to the Commons, carbon emissions free, but then employing a chauffeur driven Lexus to collect his clean shirt(that essential modern accoutrement of the top politico), paperwork and polished shoes. A small thing, perhaps, but in such small things do politicians reveal the truth about themselves.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Clarke Must Go

I'm never one to call for the head of a minister- unless it's a Conservative one, I suppose-as so many of these campaigns are orchestrated more by political and media opportunism than by the merits of the case. However, in the case of Charles Clarke I think he must go. Clarke has always struck me as a powerful, formidably able figure, who was always succinct to the camera and no nonsense in the House. It is true that the period over which the 1000 odd foreign criminals- including sundry rapists, murderers, violent robbers, drug dealers and paedophiles- were released back into British society rather being than deported, covered the period by three Home Secretaries. But he was told about the problem ten months ago and still nearly three hundred were released on his watch.

To say this resulted from lack of communication between the Home Office and the Immigration and Nationality Inspectorate and to compare the situation to navigating slow moving oil tankers is just not good enough. It really does seem as if the Opposition jibe that New Labour have mastered spin but not to trick of making the government machine deliver desired outcomes, is substantially correct when this sort of thing happens. Clarke has admitted 'unacceptable failure' but says it's not a resigning matter for him or anyone else. And all this after his Monday evening attack on leftwing media critics of his heavy handed policies on security. When even his existing policies are being carried out so ineptly, how can he expect the nation to trust his new ones to succeed?

If Clarke does not resign over this, a total mockery is made of the idea of the always tenuous idea of ministerial accountability. Blair will not wish to lose a staunch Cabinet ally but the parlous position of his party as it enters the local elections- a Sun poll puts it as low as 30 per cent- this is exactly what Blair did not need. Nor did he need his Deputy PM, John 'Two Shags' Prescott being caught with his pants down, but that's another story.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Freedom less of a worry than Security to most

Defending freedom is the central aim of politics for libertarians. One might argue that their message has been amplified over the last half century by the human rights depredations of totalitarian regimes and by the general incremental advance of state power in developed countries. Works like Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia added intellectual muscle to a popular feeling that liberty was under threat. I've noticed that libertarianism is a popular theme too among bloggers; maybe it's reflective of a medium which enables individuals to express themselves in a way which governments cannot control. It is also a collection of ideas which combines naturally with human rights and helps explain why Charles Clarke is so annoyed. He feels his and his boss's critics are out of touch with 'the balance of powers that exist in our society.'

His concern is that many citizens are worried about their security, from external attack by terrorists and also from thieves, yobs not to mention occasional psychopaths. His belief is that such people are more bothered about this than they are about 'liberty', which seems like a bit of an abstract notion compared with the realities of a suicide bomber or a man with a knife in a dark street. I suspect he is probably right. I know I personally have no objection to CCTV cameras being installed in urban centres to help police identify trouble and its makers; I never have any intent to join them so feel no pain at my privacy being invaded. I suspect mine might be the majority view and that Blair, so clever at interpreting the zeitgeist, has got it about right regarding both terror and law and order threats.

What is more bad news for libertarians is that personal freedom is likely to be eroded even more in the future. As long as human beings interact and technology becomes more complex, individual freedom to act is likely to diminish. I've mentioned the massive problem security, exacerbated hugely by the growth of terrorism, but the drive to preserve the environment, with its potentially devastating restrictions on travel and lifestyle will also shrink the range of choices open to us. It sounds pessimistic but life is bound to get less enjoyable in some ways as these restrictions bite, as they must do, despite the wilful myopia of George Bush and (these days only some) of his supporters. Those weird militia groups, who have set up enclaves in Montana and the like, have tried fanatically to preserve degrees of liberty but I suspect that in the future- and a closer future than we might wish- real freedom will be the preserve only of the very, very rich and the very, very lonely.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Far Right on the March or a Flash in the Pan?

While delivering leaflets for the Labour Party -in desultory fashion- I was suddenly alarmed to see so many union jacks and crosses of St George. My God, I thought, the BNP have got one hell of a lot more support than I thought. Then a bulb lit up-Queen's birthday; then another, accurate one lit up too- St George's Day. That my first thought was of the BNP is indicative though of how much the far right have usurped ownership of the national flag; and also that they are suddenly right in there punching for seats in the local elections. Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking says she has met a lot of voters who say they are thinking of voting BNP; the Joseph Rowntree Trust say their survey shows a quarter of voters would consider voting that way.

Ned Temko's article in The Observer today(couldn't get it online, sorry) suggests that the dominant reason for this apparent surge is the feeling that immigrants receive favourable treatment in front of British people: 'My wife and kids have been waiting for a new flat, but the Kosovans are getting them all.' Middle class commentators in safe suburbia tut- tut at this deplorable racism but life in the inner city must look a lot different. Whether these stories are true is always the big question, especially as people on the right seem to have a fecund imagination for scare stories. I remember a Tory Councillor for Longsight in the early seventies telling me that an Asian family in his area had a big removal van parked outside their house in which workers would sleep in shifts all round the clock. I received no confirmation of that but have heard the story since from many others. Other stories- and there were quite a few- were truly revolting lies.

The key point is perhaps, that people who are living in hardship find it easy to believe such stories, that asylum seekers are receiving hundreds of pounds a week in handouts(in reality they get a fraction of this), that white girls are under threat from predatory Asian youths and much more besides. When one is suffering from low income and poor quality of life, it is easy to suspect others of getting free rides and it is emotionally satisfying to blame some other group for one's troubles.

Peter Kellner points out in an article on the same page that such surges for the far right are not uncommon but to date have been shortlived. Mosley's attempt to exploit economic hardship in the thirties was spurned by voters in the end and few occasions on which his heirs have garnered significant votes have quickly fallen away. According to the Telegraph the BNP commands 7 per cent support though Kellner thinks the racist proportion of that amounts to only 5 per cent. But the insecurities caused by globalised forces creating job losses, often to foreign workers; the breakdown of traditional party loyalties and trust in our leaders; the influx of multicoloured new comers to our inner cities plus the fact that the main political parties are now taking the same liberal line on immigration and much else has left a gap which the far right is eager to fill.

This is very worrying but I have some faith in the suspicion British voters have always displayed of political ideas which appeal crudely to hate and racism; other European countries have not shown the same instinctive distance from racist ideas. In the thirties our parents saw through Mosley's posturing and I hope the current spurt of support for this thinly disguised racist party will be similarily shortlived. But it will require a genuine effort by Labour and Conservatives to see them off. The upcoming local election results will be more than usually interesting from this point of view.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Fat Cats Part III: Cherie's Hair

I mentioned Cherie's hair in my last post and note the predictable press furore which has erupted around the "275 a day cost of tending to her coiffeur. Cherie is indeed damned if she appears less than perfectly turned out and damned if she spends to achieve this end. On balance she receives a very bad and unfair press. Should we care? Yes, a little, but she must expect that this really does go with the territory. If she were a retiring little mouse like Norma Major or Mary Wilson, she would escape the predatory talons of Fleet Street's female cats, but she is, into the bargain, a prominent lawyer with views of her own and so she cops for it. I generally think she does well to survive the merciless attentions of the media but I think she has a real problem with money which is damaging to her party and her husband.

This sounds like so much media carping over the absurdly trivial matter of someone's hair. But small things can matter out of all proportion if they transmit certain kinds of signals and Cherie's hair does just this. We learn today that focus groups reveal that Tony may be 'more damaged by his wife's money conscious reputation than by the war in Iraq'. Now that is something to worry about. Of course she has every right to look as nice as she can but this degree of spending- more than many families have to last the whole week- sends out a horrendous message about New Labour's asumptions regarding lifestyle. Sandra Howard, we learn, spent only £65 thoughout the campaign, having had her hair done once only- and as a former model, one might have expected a rather more extravagant attentions to such matters. Cherie is scarecely in the Imelda Marcos category, but she shows tendencies in that direction which greatly concern ordinary members of the party her husband leads.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Fat Cats Get What They Don't Deserve: Part II

Further to my last post, I read Polly Toynbee in today's Guardian and find more grist being offered to the mill. I have to say she sometimes appears to me to typify the nannyish political correctness of this much satirised organ at its worst and at other times she tries too hard to praise a government which, it seems, she desperately wants to support. But she is very good on the rich-poor relationship and once wrote a brilliant book based on working as a cleaner on the minimum wage. Today she addresses the subject of the massive salaries of BBC stars and how a great deal of acrimony and jealousy would be pre-empted if everyone could examine everyone else's tax returns on the web as in Norway and Finland. Yeah, as if...

She also points out that in 1979 chief executives paid themselves 10 times more than their workers; now the multiplier is 54. What's more these huge increases have come without any concomitant increase in productivity. It's merely 'a mutually agreed cartel, all racing to prove they are top dog for no extra productivity or risk.' Despite the facile arguments deployed by executives about competing in a high wage environment, only 4 per cent of the workforce earn over £52,000 a year while two thirds earn less than the average £28,000.

She also finds that, despite recent increasses and more favourable pensions, public sector workers still get less than their equivalents in the private sector. She finishes off by demolishing the idea that performance related pay actually improves performance in any way. It seems this comes most easily when employees feel they are respected and working as valued members of a team in which their voice is heard. Polly has nothing to say in her piece about Cherie Blair charging the party astronomic fees for her hair dos during Labour's election campaign. Charging, I suppose, was justified, but all that money, just to do her not especially attractive hair, does rather nail down the impression of a lady with very non socialist lifestyle tastes .

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Class, New Labour and Taxation Rates

Left of centre commentator, Neal Lawson recently dilated on New Labour and class. He argued that Blairism's abandonment of the class war of Old Labour and acceptance of 'globalisation' had cast us all in thrall to the narrow elite which controlled the world's newly formed capitalist constellations. The concomitant of this has been the preservation of inequality at Thatcherite levels and the freezing of social mobility. A 'reward' has been Francis Maude saying 'one of the great achievments of New Labour is to have taken the class out of politics'.

We have to acknowledge that inequality has not changed since the end of the eighties, despite massive handouts by Gordon Brown. But, capitalism, as we know, produces winners and losers and in the globalised world, these pressures have hugely increased. To have arrested growing inequality in these circumstances is therefore no mean achievement. Having said that we can all see the increased polarity with a new uber class of super-rich and an underclass of cheap- often imported- underlabourers to do the dirty jobs.

It is this extension of our class profile which is worrying and which New Labour ought to address. The mega- salaries handed out to top executives now demeans our national life and replicates practice in the USA where inequality is nothing short of obscene. Such grossly unfair handouts are a constant insult to those who do more socially useful tasks for minimal reward. Maybe seventies style tax rates of 98 per cent were far too punitive but some increase in higher tax rates would at least be a sign that the government now disapproves of this tendency rather than 'being intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich' as Mandelson infamously said of New Labour shortly after it had been elected.

New Labour has not really taken the class out of British politics, just as John Major's 1990 aspiration to the same end remained unfulfilled. But just because the concept has been ignored and stuffed out of sight to avoid embarrassment, does not mean it has gone away or is any less relevant now than it was under 'Old' Labour.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Tony's Iraq nightmare will get worse if he pulls out

Apparently this is Depression Week - an appropriate state of mind fo Tony Blair if he has been reading the interview with Zalmay Khalilzad, the Muslim, former Afghani US ambassador to Baghdad. Blair has been pilloried mercilessly over the decision to invade Iraq but has not yet come under comparable fire to withdraw from the whole supporating mess. In fact Old Dubya has probably come under more pressure to perform that particular manoeuvre. But if he or Tony are ever tempted to sigh, spread their hands and say: 'Aw shucks, we gave it our best shot, lets pull out now', they should digest Zalmay's warnings of the three possible scenarios which might transpire as a result.

1. 'Sectarian conflict could escalate and produce circumstnces in which regional states could be sucked in on one side or the other.' Iran, would appear to be already 'sucked in' or at the very least, in the process of being so.

2. Al Quaida might take over part of Iraq and create a 'mini-Talibanistan' able to utilise Iraq's resources to create much more chaos than Bin Laden's original powerbase in Afghanistan.

3. Iraq might implode in a sectarian war with the Kurds saying 'look we'd better look after ourselves'. If this led to the seizing of oil-rich Kirkuk, Turkey might be drawn in and we're already in scenario one.

This slighly desperate damage limitation approach-'stay with it or it'll get a whole lot worse'- is all so far away from those naive expectations that Iraqis would garland US-UK 'liberators' with gratitude; that Iraq would become a beacon of democratic hope in the Middle East; that terrorism would be dealt a stunning blow; and that... yes, just maybe... Blair and Bush's fight against Islamic terorism would go down in history as the modern day equivalent of Churchill and Roosevelt's defence of civilisation against the threat of Nazi barbarianism.

All those dreams have withered on the vine and, if Zalmay has anything to do with it, Tony(and then Gordon) along with George's successor(s?) we'll be counting the dead for years to come, with no sign of respite or success. If I were Tony I'd order a bumper bottle of Prozac for this week and an indefinite number to come.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Shades of Maundy Gregory in Des Smith's arrest

I wonder if this cash for honours scandal is going to lead all the way up to Blair and become his Watergate? The whole question is fascinating with implications for the future of this government and echoes of past scandals. The person in the spotlight for the moment is Des Smith, former headmaster and member of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust(SSAT) from which he resigned in January having been caught in a sting operation by an undercover reporter. It is alleged Smith offered honours to potential Academy sponsors- a gong for one but five would make a sponsor a 'certainty' for a peerage- see S. Times.

I'm sure David Miliband, cited by Smith in today's story, is safe but Smith himself might go the way of Maundy Gregory. Who he? He was a clergyman's son at the turn of the last century who flunked out of Oxford and then became involved in the newly formed secret service. By the twenties he was selling honours for Lloyd George with a well worked out price list. Victor Grayson, the maverick Labour MP began to investigate but was, strangely, beaten up and then, when he failed to stop making accusations, probably 'rubbed out', after last being seen entering a house owned by Gregory.

Finally, this political 'Del Boy' of his times approached Lt Commander Edward Leake, an updstanding member of the Establishment who immediately shopped him to the Peelers. Gregory got six months but was out in two and was met at the prison gates by representatives of the Conservative Party who arranged for him to live in Paris on a £2000 a year pension. He died in 1941 in an internment camp. An amazing story which ought to be made into a film but I doubt if Mr Smith is in the same league regarding interest or severity of (alleged) crime.

What is interesting is if the trail leads from Smith back into Whitehall and up the political chain. Will it reach Blair? I'm sure Blair and his aides are clever enough to have avoided any direct linkage. It was probably a 'nod and a wink' sort of thing and these unspoken rules would be hard to prove in court. Blair is almost certainly the 'Mr Big' in this drama but, like most of the shadowy mister bigs, I reckon he'll stay in the background, naturally enough, protesting both innocence and outrage.

Friday, April 14, 2006


Top Ten Political Films

It’s been a bit of a slow news week- with due respect to the awesome topic of Global Warming and the tawdry one of cash for peerages-so I thought, as it’s also a Bank Holiday, I’d do another list – this time on my top ten political films. I’m aware that some films are explicitly political while others are implicitly so but I have judged them all together. No doubt some would challenge whether a choice is really political- but this is where lists become very subjective. I’d also like to say that, apart from the number one choice, most of the others could be in the top five depending on how I was feeling when I ranked them. And I question myself how I could possibly have left out such minor masterpieces as Primary Colours, Reds and American History X. Anyway, 'Get on with it', I hear a distant voice call, so I start, as always, in reverse order.

10. Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
Not an explicitly political film but one which made much fun out of the religion and politics and ideological politics too. Apart from a million other moments I loved the distinction drawn between the ‘Liberation Front of Judea’ and the ‘Judean Liberation Front’ plus the whispered comment of someone leaving one of Christ's orations: “What Jesus doesn’t appreciate is that it’s the ‘meek’ whoare the problem”.

9. Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)
Wonderful 'straight to camera' documentary of Ford Executive turned Secretary of State for Defence under JFK and LBJ calmly unpicks his policy in South East Asia and perceives looming similarities with the war in Iraq.

8. Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997)
Spin doctor invents a war in order to distract attention from a Presidential sexual scandal. All too credible I thought.

7. Dr Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)
The Robert Bolt screenplay of the Pasternak novel captures the writer’s plea from an oppressed country, for people, especially the creative ones, to be allowed to live unmolested by the state and the madmen who run them.

6. Goodbye Lenin (Wolfgang Becker, 2003)
Hilarious ‘recreation’ of pre 1989 East Berlin for the benefit of a mother who has come out of a yearlong coma and might have another heart attack if confronted by the shock of the new order's reality.

5. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965)
The French Foreign Legion seek comfort from their Vietnam retreat by torturing Algerians who respond with bombs in cafes killing scores of innocant victims. An astonishingly powerful experience of the dirtiness and horror of this kind of war.

4. Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)
Reese Witherspoon is excellent as the obnoxious high achiever seeking to win the voting approval of fellow pupils in a process involving sexual and other myriad complications. Clever microcosm critique of the electoral process.

3. The Candidate (Michael Ritchie, 1972)
Robert Redford plays Bill McKay, a candidate who tries to fight but is eventually rather overcome by the media’s domination of political life and its requirements for deceit and dissembling.

2. Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)
All star (Lancaster, Tracey, Dietrich, even Judy Garland) investigation of universal moral truths involved in the trials of Nazi war leaders. Riveting performances and a first class screenplay.

1. Dr Strangelove, or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(Stanley Kubrik, 1963)
Peter Sellers stars as several characters in this ultimate satire on the horror of nuclear war. The very bestest film about politics and war, in my humble opinion, ever made.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Huxley's 'Soma' Within Reach of Human Race?

Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World- that seminal novel all university students used to read as a matter of course in the sixties- introduced the notion of 'soma', an officially sanctioned drug which made everyone happy and banished low spirits. Since then some Marxist leaning political theorists have suggested that governments effectively do something similar by allowing drugs like alcohol to be freely available-i.e. while they are happy people are not aware of how they are being exploited and bamboozled. Unfortunately alcohol has nasty side-effects like hangovers, enormous beer bellies and death (if you consume too much too regularly).

But maybe this unhappy state of affairs is about to end and the Huxley utopian vision achieved...(yes I know the novel described a DYstopia but stay with me). In today'sGuardian , Ian Sample tells us of a new development involving 'partial agonists'(PAs) which, according to Professor David Nutt from Bristol University, will provide all the advantages of booze without any of the nasty bits. Neurologists have apparently cracked the processes involved in inebriation and reckon they can produce a drug which simulates only the good side of being squiffy.

'You could design one chemical', says Professor Nutt, 'to replace all the benefits of alcohol in drinks and it would save hundreds of thousands of lives.' Sounds good? Even better is the fact that at the end of an evening (presumably) swigging back pints of the old PA, you could take an antidote called 'flumenazenill', sober up and then drive home! Problem is with all these 'breakthroughs' is that we only hear of them at the theoretical stage when some publicity seeking scientist issues a press release. Then, somehow, we never hear of them again. I do so hope this one is not merely a ruse by some professor to attract more research funding for his cash strapped department. I always empathise with Philip Larkin who reflected ( approximately) that 'sexual intercourse was invented in 1963/ which was far too late for me. Just hope I make the cut on this one to enhance and delight my later years.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Come Off it Ollie! We can't believe this lot!

What is happening in the Conservative Party is almost surreal. Today in the Guardian Oliver Letwin, the party's head of policy, claims Conservatives have also signed up to Labour's target of eliminating child poverty by 2020. This is to be 'an aspiration not a pledge' has adds a little guardedly but there is no doubting his desperation to squeeze his party into the centre ground on social justice. As as has been said before: 'How can we believe they mean it?' It's hard after such a long period when such sentiments would have been dismissed by gimlet eyed Tories as the naive dribblings of a bleeding heart liberal. Letwin, however, writes an article much of which which could easily have been penned by the most lefty of leftwing Labour MPs.

I remember well hearing She Who Had to be Obeyed saying that she was fed up with hearing about the need for people to be equal- 'what about the right of people to be unequal?' I also recall Enoch Powell visiting a sixth form conference in Manchester at my invitation and explaining the key role of the Conservative Party in convincing the public of the moral need for inequality. Folks were born unequal, went the argument, and some made more of their lives than others. Inequality was the essential prerequisite for dynamism in the economy in particular and society in general. Poverty had always been the spur to effort, betterment for self and family and eventual success. To abandon so easily a fundamental tenet of Conservative philosophy- without any debate or consultation- seems a tall order indeed. At least Blair's repeal of Clause Four involved a campaign to educate, not an edict from on high.

Tory leaders seem to think they have simply to encourage members to 'change' or 'modernise' when what they really mean is that they should eagerly endorse the full range of Labour values, almost without exception or cavil. Letwin argues their approach would be different, being based on encouraging 'social entrpreneurs' to build 'from the botom up'. But this sounds pretty much what Labour does already and lacks the coherence of the government's Sure Start programme, which, despite equivolcal early results, at least seeks to break the vicious circle of deprivation in a way supported by some kind of logic and a fair amount of experience abroad. Come off it Ollie!

Monday, April 10, 2006


Milburn and the Art of Political Signalling

Signalling what one intends in politics is not a science; it's more to do with nudges and winks. In the USA, intending candidates deny any intentioin of running for president before they suddenly rouse themselves to the country's call and decide to do just that. That's why Condi's recent denial of wishing to stand for her boss's job cut no ice. It's more or less the same over here. Blair's Melbourne comment a few days ago was regarded by many as a signal he would stay on and on; many others thought it meant merely that he had failed to still comment by pre-announcing his departure at the end of the parliament. That's the fun of politics to some extent: wondering precisely what was intended by the statement, the interview, the speech.

Which brings us to Mr Alan Milburn MP. This former Trotskyite is no political naif; he served as a loyal Blairite Cabinet minister for many years before retiring to 'spend more time with his family', the classic euphemism for someone who has resigned before being sacked. In his case though, it seemed to be heartfelt, which was even more of a shock in a way. Now he says on BBC television yesterday in response to the question of whether he would challenge Gordon Brown in a post Blair contest, that that is a 'really good question which deserves a really, really good answer'.(Good intro there Alan) He went on to say there was no vacancy at present, that such a vacancy was 'highly unlikely' but that 'that is a bridge I think we all need to cross'(very Delphic Alan, not to say pleasingly opaque). Check out the report in today's Guardian and see what you think.

Nothing categorical about standing- of course not, that would be breaking the rules of the game-but crucially, he did not rule out the possibility of his candidature either. Still not a definite 'yes'? By American standards it would probably have been interpreted as an unequivocal declaration of intent. But he could be playing a more subtle game. Remember Gordon does not like Alan and was well miffed when he was given the election manager's job in 2005 over Gordon's head. It might be argued that Milburn has realised that as a Blairite he won't get much of a look-in under Brown so is strenghtening his hand by threatening to stand against him. Gordon might decide to offer him a top job just to persuade him not to stand.

On the other hand, if he did stand and did well, Brown could scarcely ignore the claims of Blair's standard bearer to a very senior position. What is rather odd about the whole thing is that his desire to see his family growing up rather than mortgage every weekend for two years to his job, seemed genuine at the time. Has he decided to get ambitious again? Or is he just doing what some think he tends to do: act as an outlier for Blair, showing the old enemy that he won't face any pushover when the time comes and that the Blairite legacy will be something for which many Labour MPs are prepared to stand up an be counted?

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Tories' Yawning Credibility Gap

Pity poor Francis Maude, Conservative Party chairman, who admitted a couple of days ago that, while the public liked the new leader, they still did not like the party. He compounded this possible error by also saying that it was not clear if they could win the next election. Oh dear. But the ICM poll for Channel 4 News suggests he is spot on. From the poll we learn that both parties are currently level pegging on 35 perc ent with Lib Dems on 21 and that:

i) 37 per cent think brown is best qualified to be PM;Dave got 32 per cent.
ii) 40 per cent thought Dave was more 'spin than substance'.
iii) 58 per cent thought the party 'has not really changed much at all'.

The Tories basically face the same problem as Labour in the late eighties: they had changed at a breakneck pace under Kinnock but a huge slice of voters, quite reasonably, did not believe such rapid change was the genuine article. Moreover Labour's change was, of necessity, not quite such a big ask. After all, Labour had governed moderately under the moderate Wilson and clawed its way back to moderation under Sunny Jim Callaghan. The loony left period under Footie had been more of an aberration really; Labour had merely to reconnect with its revisionist tradition and then convince the public that this had actually taken place.

Even so, this took a long time and required the brilliance of Blair's campaign to ditch Clause Four. As posted on earlier occasions, the Tories have no such convenient 'clause four issue' available to them. The result is that, even though Dave has worked a small miracle to put his party back on the road to contention, he needs a much, much bigger one to give the Conservatives any realistic chance of governing after the next election. Maude may be criticised for raining on Dave's triumphant rhetorical parade, but in truth he is merely telling his colleagues the harsh reality of the task they face.

Friday, April 07, 2006


From Far Left to far Right

The Strange Case of Living Marxism
Updating one of my textbooks recently I came across a highly unusual case of an extreme leftwing movement setting in train one which has ended up extending links to American think tanks and institutes on the far right.

Living Marxism a descendant of the CPGB’s Marxism Today, morphed into the more modern sounding LM in the late 1990s when it published an article accusing ITN of fabricating the discovery of an apparently emaciated Muslim in a detention camp which in reality was haven for such refugees. The magazine was sued, lost the action heavily and was forced to close. But it is the provenance of the magazine and the movement it subsequently set in train which is so interesting for students of the far left. The story is traced to 1974 when a Trotskyist faction split from the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party)- which, in the words of David Pallister et al, (Guardian, 8/7/2000) ‘used to spend most of its time in textual agonizing over the third volume of Das Kapital.’- to form the Revolutionary Communist Group.

The RCG saw its role as training a ‘vanguard elite to storm the citadels of capitalism’. However, Trotskyist groupings are notorious for being both fickle and factional and in 1976 one of the group’s thinkers, David Yaffe, led out a like minded section (broadly in favour of collaborating with certain other far left groups), called the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, later changed to 'Party' or RCP. Living Marxism was its mouthpiece and, as such, it attracted notice for its intellectual energy and creativity. New members were often recruited in ‘up-market’ places like Oxbridge colleges and Covent Garden, and, after a period of ‘political education’ were encouraged to enter the professions, often those associated with the media or academe. They were then asked to donate a proportion of their salaries to the party.

In the wake of the Cold War’s demise, came a change of direction; the RCP was disbanded and Living Marxism became LM, the raison d’etre for which was held to be ‘freedom’, freedom to challenge, to offend, to say what one wanted. Under the influence of two thinkers, Frank Furedi (now Professor Sociology University Kent) and former social worker, Claire Fox, LM waged war on what was held to be government manufactured panics over issues like GM foods, child rearing, Aids as a heterosexual disease and much else besides.

‘The spirit of LM’, in Furedi’s words, ‘is to go against the grain: to oppose all censorship, bans and regulations and codes of conduct; to stand up for social and scientific experimentation; to insist that we have the right to live as autonomous adults who take responsibility for our own affairs.’

The mission of the ‘LM Group’ was alleged by some to be a permeation of the opinion forming professions; Fox’s Institute of Ideas andLM magazine were two facilitating agencies to this end, organizing seminars and conferences, involving ‘Establishment’ bodies like the Institute for Contemporary Arts and intellectuals like Blake Morrison, Lisa Jardine and Linda Grant.

This philosophy of ‘Ban nothing, question everything’, unsurprisingly, found supporters on the libertarian right. Pallister et. al. suggest that the rightwing grouping of think tanks and research institutes in the US, known as the ‘Freedom Network’, offered a source of likeminded ideas, support and, indeed, quite possibly, finance. So, we see a slightly weird evolution here of an extreme left faction morphing into new forms, imploding dramatically and then becoming a broader cultural movement which joined hands with groups which are sufficiently for to the right to make poor old Leon Trotsky revolve in his grave.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


The Identity Crisis of 'Greater England'

England's identity is not what it was. In his Between Europe and America Andrew Gamble argues that to the three spheres identified by Churchill- 'Empire', 'America' and 'Europe', should be added another, that of the 'British Union' as factors influencing our sense of whom we are and what we are for. The Empire is clearly a historical infuence only, though Gamble sees the sphere overlapping strongly as recently as the eighties when to rightwing Conservatives, the Falklands had more than merely an imperial echo. Thatcher also applied such harsh economic medicine that the Celtic fringe, emphatically non Thatcherite, became even more determined to loosen or sunder the links which made such political anomalies possible. So England found itself in the new century with only a few stale crumbs of empire and with Scotland and Wales inhabiting new more autonomous identities.

As it was English expansion at the heart of the nation which became the centre of an empire covering a quarter of the world and containing an equal fraction of the world's population, this dual loss really hurt the rightwing English sensibilities of the likes of Simon Heffer, Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton- as their journalism at the time displayed. Indeed Great Britain would have been better dubbed 'Greater England' as it was English values and vices which characterized the empire. Immigration has also affected our sense of who we are, with our cities turned into rainbow like multicultural societies and not without some friction.

Then there is the key dilemma facing our nation: towards which sphere should we cleave: Europe's or America's? We have always been reluctant Europeans, whatever Churchill and Bevin orated after the war. We stood aloof until the bus had left and then the driver chucked us off even when we caught up and tried to get on. And it's not just our leaders, it's the lot of us who are basically Eurosceptic. America seems more accessible- not really 'foreign' to us at all, what with the language and all that shared telly- and we all remember how important the alliance was during the fights against Hitler and communism. We might compain about the Yanks but most British people still see them as 'cousins' or something close.

On top of that we have Tony Blair's contribution. He tries to persuade Europe they too share the same interests as the the UK and the US and that he can be a 'bridge' across the Atlantic. The problem is that they don't agree with the Blairite perceptions of shared interests and suspect, rightly, that the bridge offers only one way traffic: it can help Europe become more like America but won't make America more like Europe. No, England has been winkled out of its 'Greater'incarnation and is stranded somewhere still out in the mid Atlantic. National identities take a long time to evolve, to decline and then reform- in our case our new identity is currently under construction.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Blair Already has his Legacy

Tony Blair has become obsessed with his ‘legacy’ as his period in power approaches the end he ordained in autumn 2004 by announcing he would not contest the next election. With Gordon Brown constantly snapping at his heels and keen to step into his shoes, the (maybe regretful) Blair manoeuvred for time, saying there was much he still wanted to achieve. It became a commonplace of politics that he wanted to leave something, an array of things maybe, to rank with Attlee’s welfare state or Thatcher’s turning around of the economy. Public service reform was known to be high on his list of priorities-shiny new modernized health and education services would be a lasting achievement which would go down in history associated with his name.

However, public services offered a contradictory set of pressures. They became black holes for investment of tax- payers’ money but Blair’s Conservative style market reforms infuriated union leaders and Labour MPs alike thus hampering progress towards any genuine reform. Throughout the public remained massively unconvinced that any substantial improvements in the public services had taken place anyway. However, the one major legacy which Blair can arguably say he has already been achieved: nothing less than the death of Thatcherism.

When he came to power, Thatcher had changed the political weather. She had declared war successfully on: union power, over-manning, secondary picketing, high tax and spend politics and inefficient nationalized industries. Blair came to lead Labour just when it had began to adjust-under Kinnock and Smith- to the new realities of a globalised economy. He recognized that legalized union restraint had to be retained, that inflation had to be sat on firmly and that changes needed to improve competitiveness had to be encouraged. He worked hard to edge his party away from its traditionally held positions and succeeded. He did not mind, very early on in his reign, inviting Margaret Thatcher around to her old home in Downing St in a symbolic sign to his party that there would be quite a bit of continuity.

One result was the absolute clamp down he and Brown declared on expenditure during their first two years in power. In retrospect this time can be seen, perhaps, as the high tide of Thatcherism. Once he won his second term and Brown began to deploy the billions of accumulated treasure his skilful stewardship of the economy had garnered, New Labour slipped back into the social democratic traditions of what has become known as 'Old' Labour. The public were not convinced he was working any magic in schools and the NHS but most could see that at the very least, the disastrous decline had ceased. Meanwhile the Conservatives stewed in their fratricidal juice, mourning their own assassination of their great leader and failing to rise in the polls above their one 30 per cent core vote. Each attempt at a ‘compassionate Conservatism’ was soon followed by a reversion to the hallowed tenets of Thatcherism, the gaunt, familiar features of Norman Tebbitt serving as her mouthpiece in the political market place.

Blair had stolen their clothes but had subtly retained his own party's character as liberal, tolerant and dedicated to improving the place of the less well off majority. As leader followed leader the Conservatives finally got the message: they would have to change, just as Labour did starting in the mid eighties- David Cameron being the eventual result. Now the litmus teat for a new policy is, amazingly it seems, 'what it can do for the disadvantaged'. Homophobia is out; environmentalism is very much in; pro business yes, but at a distance; tax cuts maybe but not until the economy can sustain them-public service spending has to be a priority. Already the signs of Blair’s greatest legacy perhaps are evident in our present politics: Thatcher finished off left wing socialism but Blair has put paid to rightwing Conservatism, probably for all time. Now that is a legacy of which any left of centre politician can be exceedingly proud.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Dying Old and Poor? Pensions Matter a Lot

'If you think pensions are dull, imagine how boring poverty in old age will be'
Thus began the editorial of the Daily Telegraph 13th October 2004(Thatcher's birthday I add irrelevantly). I certainly thought pensions were boring and even considered drawing out my benefits at one stage in my youth, calculating I needed the money more at that age rather than later when I was sure 'something would be in place'. Well, luckily I kept my benefits where they were and just as well. I found that at the age of 46 I suddenly needed a pension as a stroke, incurred while out jogging, flattened me and made full-time work no longer possible. I was lucky enough to get the university lecturer's pension complete- no fractions, the whole lot- when I was 46 and retired on medical grounds. Since then I've made a good recovery and can work part-time but that pension saved my bacon.

Our pensions crisis is caused by the combination of: the baby boomer generation coming up to late middle-age; increasing longevity making 65 too young an age to retire; the erosion of state pensions through its linkage to prices and not wages; and the disinclinationof 12 million people to save enough for their retirements. Adair Turner's report in autumn 2004 suggested changes to one or a combination of three approaches: later retirement, more taxation; or more savings. The alternative was a lower standard of living for pensioners who would in any case suffer a 20-30% reduction by 2035 if the present system is unchanged. He favoured raising the retirement age to 70 by 2050; increasing pensions in line with earnings and encouraging people to save much more than at present. Gordon Brown did not like the plans as they implied more taxation. Blair does like them and has declared he'll back them. Result? Battle royal pending between the two rivals. Can we afford it?

At present we pay only just over 60% of the median earnings in state pension compared to 85-90% in Germany, Italy and Holland. On average the EU spends 11% of GDP on pensions compared to our 6%. Seems to me- and I declare an interest!- older people deserve more rewards than they are getting, especially when company pensions are ceasing to pay 'defined benefits' and leaving savings schemes up to the vagaries of the stock markets. The basic pension needs to increase to above the poverty line and the means testing which Brown favours, targets poverty in old age to limited advantage but one third fail to fill in the comlplex forms and because savings are swallowed up during the process, means testing discourages saving as the system robs the saver of any advantage.

Pay up Gordon or you'll lose the 'grey vote' and lose even more local government seats in the coming elections. They may not mean much to the 25-40 cohort now, but, boy, in 20 years time they will.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


How Tony could scoop the jackpot

Seems everyone is still speculating like mad on when Tony will go so I thought I might as well join in. Gaby Hinsliff in the Observer today looks at four scenarios when Blair might bow out:

i) May 2006- this might follow in the wake of a disastrous showing in the local elections. 70 MPs might decide to support a rival candidate and there is no shortage of likely stalking horses. Likelihood? 2/10 says the article with Brown to succeed.

ii) Autumn 2006-Spring 2007- the scenario here might be an announcement at the annual conference and a dignified departure followed by Gordon making his tenure in No 10 official. Likelihood? 7/10

iii) Summer 2008- this assumes some turn-around in Labour's fortunes and also that younger rivals might decide to stand against Brown.Likelihood? 3/10

iv) Summer 2009- this assumes senior figures might have become alarmed at the thought of a Brown premiership and turn back to Tony. Blair would have broken Thatcher's record by now but also maybe scuppered the Son of the Manse's chances of elevation. Likelihood? 1/10.

All this is good clean fun and means almost nothing. What might matter more is whether Blair is:

a) really keen to deny Brown the crown as if he is he can seriously hamper the latter's chances.

b)really keen on achieving those legacy issue prizes in the public services.

c) determined to tough it out and dare the party to risk damaging itself by an internal coup of the kind which toppled IDS. Such an act might keep Labour out of power for a decade and few Labour MPs would wish that. As long as Blair sits tight and refuses to panic, there is no reason why he should not bluff his enemies for years to come.

Also well in the frame are Macmillan's 'events'- who knows what might happen in the next year or so? A mega sleaze story reaching up to and into Downing St? A sudden death or illness? Something major in Iraq? An even bigger terrorist atrocity? We have no idea and each one of the scenarios mentioned might be as likely or unlikely as Hinsliff's scenarios covered above. But the 'nuclear option' scenario is still a wholesale rebellion by the party. If up to a half openly told him to go I cannot see any Prime Minister staying on, even this resourceful, resilient near political genius who has now led Labour for nearly twelve years.

A friend of mine, Paul Haigh, a very sophisticated betting -savvy racing journalist for the Racing Post- and no fan of Tony- suggests Blair has at his disposal the means to clear his massive mortgage in one fell swoop and sweep out of Downing St in a fashion of which Cherie would mightily approve- say, a brand new Aston Martin. The gambling scenario would look like this: Blair sets the date when he is to leave and punts all his savings that he will do so on that date. It would be a sure thing- though scarcely moral- but to paraphrase Peter Mandelson's infamous quotation: 'New Labour has always been intensely relaxed about being morally flexible where becoming filthy rich is concerned.'

Saturday, April 01, 2006


Olaf Priol Nearly Got Me

I read the piece in today's Guardian with mounting anger and dismay. Chris Martin, inspiration of angst ridden songs by Coldplay which have sold 17 million albums worldwide, had joined the Conservatives? Martin had discovered he's played Cameron at fives when he was at Sherborne? Blair was a disaster and Chris was now a right-on Tory because he liked Dave's shoes? 'Come on' I shouted at the Guardian, 'you can't hit me with this shite!' And there's more: he's written a song to Dave which contained the lyric about the stylish footwear- 'It was the converse trainers that did it for me/I got mine in orange, wait til you see'. I actually liked Coldplay until this and feel disappointed, let down, betrayed. Even Tony Blair does not deserve this.

Cameron, it seems, is hoping for more bands to follow suit; he wants to call it 'Blue Wedge' and he wants the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaiser Chiefs to join in. This was so bad it was becoming surreal...or even untrue. Then a light bulb began to gather light in my poor old brain. Who wrote this? Olaf Priol. Sounds a funny name. Must be an East European journalist they've taken in on the cheap. Then the light came on. Well done Guardian. You always do it and usually I spot the joke- like that 'coup' on the island of San Serife way back- it but this time I was really very late on it.

Later note 2nd April: Was delighted to read in today's Observer, that Labour's information machine had swallowed the bait and sent out information about Martin's defection to all government members.

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