Monday, June 30, 2008


After the Iraq Cock-up Cock-UP, What About the Iran Danger?

At last there is evidencethat the incredulity with which we observed events in Iraq during the post-invasion period reflected the genuinely unbelievable cock-ups occurring on the ground. A 696 page report produced by the US army, based on 200 interviews with senior participants spills the beans we all along suspected:

'The transition to a new campaign was not well thought out, planned for and prepared for before it began," says the history, On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign, published by an internal army thinktank called the contemporary operations study team. "The assumptions about the nature of the post-Saddam Iraq on which the transition was planned proved to be largely incorrect."

Senior army commanders were surprised when told troop numbers were going to be cut drastically back once the invasion was over. The report concludes:

"The department of defence] did commit resources to the planning of post-invasion operations," it says. "In retrospect, however, the overall effort appears to have been disjointed and, at times, poorly coordinated, perhaps reflecting the department's ambivalence towards nation-building."

First in line for the brickbats is-no surprise here- Donald Rumsfeld. It seems intelligence was poor from the CIA and training for dealing with civilians was not underttaken until the invasion was under way. "We had the wrong assumptions" said the officer in charge of training, William Wallace, "and therefore we had the wrong plan to put into play."

Rumsfeld and his pawn, General Franks, have to shoulder at least a measure of the blame but real resonsibility must lie with the president for completely losing control of the whole operation. This is what makes signs that Bush plans an attack on Iran so worrying. We learn that he has authorised £200m for a covert war inside Iran involving assassinations and abductions. If this careless, insensitive foolhardy man fulfills the suspicion that he intends not to leave office until he has 'disarmed' Tehran of its nuclear weapons, the prospects for the Middle East and the world will be bleak indeed.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


How Much Longer Can Labour Afford to Keep Gordon?

I note that Professor Michael Schmidt offered Gordon some cheer a cople of days ago and that Ken Livingstone was kind to his old enemy this morning on the Andrew marr show: just keep on taking the right decisions, he chirped, and people will eventually come round to see you are the person they need. Never someone to sell himself short, Ken seemed to be suggesting this was what he had done as mayor, so I'm not sure how reliable his advice might be. Others have been less kind. In todays Sunday Times Sir Gerry Robinson(pictured right) excoriated Brown's inability to delegate. Labour donor Sir Maurice Hatter(pictured with his hero) did not mince words either:

“He hasn’t got the charisma. He was a good number two, but he is not a number one. I just don’t think he is a prime minister. I was a Tony Blair supporter and I think his successor is doing very poorly. I believe that Brown is a nonrunner. The party would be better without him being prime minister”

Other supporters whose money might have reduced Labour's £20m debts also seem to be suggesting the party need a new leader; these include Sir Christopher Ondaatje and Bill Kenwright. Offering a smidgeon of support, was another old enemy, Alastair Campbell in the Observer today. In his record of his week he says:

To Barking in the evening to speak at a fundraiser for Labour MP Margaret Hodge and her campaign against the BNP. There has been a lot of talk of Gordon's first year and how badly Labour is doing in the polls. But fatalism has to be challenged.
The Tories are desperate for people to think it's inevitable they get back. They say it's like when we won in 1997. But there are two big differences. Labour was making big policy decisions; David Cameron is scared of making them because his party is so divided. Ask David Davis. Also, there was real enthusiasm out there for TB. I detect no such enthusiasm for Cameron.

So what's he saying? That TB should return? And is it surprising that there was no enthusiasm for Cameron at a Labour fundraiser? I'm sorry to say that the polls confirm it's all gone pearshaped: only 2% of voters say their opinion of Brown has improved over the past year; when he became PM 25% saw him as a liability- now it's a crushing 61%. And then coming behind the BNP in the Heley by-election... I thought the past grisliest of weeks was best summed up by Martin Kettle when he wrote:

... this has not been Brown's worst week. Judged by almost any criterion it is an abject and perhaps even an epochal collapse. While recognising the force of all the arguments against a change of Labour leader, it is hard to see how things can continue in this way for another two years.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Should we Worry About 'Celebrity Swearing'?

Max Hastings' eloquently argued piece against swearing has attracted quite a bit of correspondence. Should we be worried about the fact that obscenities litter our language as casually as sweet wrappers on our pavements? I remember going to see Billy Conolly at the Apollo and after some trademark effing and blinding he said:'Someone asked me the other day why I swear so much' He then got a good laugh with his reply: 'Cos I'm so fucking good at it!' Without the swearing he probably would not have been so funny as it helps to express the edge or anger which is central to his ranting style of humour. But there is only one Conolly and it would be wrong to blame him alone for sweeping away taboos regarding use of the 'f' word. Ramsay is another case altogether, yet he also relies on his aggressive verbals to provide his larger than life image.

My school-teacher mother used to chide us kids about any use of swearwords when I was growing up; I probably reacted to this by adopting the profanities of my Shropshire countryside peers as commonplace additions to my own speech. But even allowing for my own habitual swearing, I was persuaded by Hastings. Listening to even very young schoolkids on the bus, it is now the rule for them to call each other 'twats', 'cunts' or to tell each other to 'fuck off'. Whilst my age group used such words privately(and, never in front of women) today's youngsters feel no inhibitions about anyone overhearing them. To intervene to ask them not to speak so coarsely would inevitably invite the accusation of being a 'boring old fart' plus a probable fusillade of the very words to which one was objecting.

Swearing in private, or with one's friends is one thing but to do so in public really does devalue our quality of life. Obscenities can offend the sensibilities of those who dislike the sexual references but more importantly they add aggression to everyday communication which I think we could well do without. If people are offended by such speech then one would hope people would desist in case offence were given. The fact that so many people seem not to worry about such things is a sign our culture has already become 'yobbified' in the way Hastings fears.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Time to Move On from Lisbon

The repercussions of the Irish referendum continue and everyone is bemused as to what to do next. The Economist suggests the best course is now is for the EU to 'bury' the treaty and carry on as before. For those like me who feel the growth of internationalism
is one of the few hopes for the future of the world, this is disappointing but sometimes political options are so limited that the best way forward has to be the 'least bad' one.

1. Putting pressure on Ireland to retake their referendum will not work: it will induce rage in the Irish voter as opposed to the mere irritation which caused the 'no' vote.

2. Making concessions to the Irish- like allowing them a commissioner- is unlikely to produce the desired 'yes' either. The Irish voter said 'no' for all kinds of reasons uncxonnected with the treaty and more to do with: views on the EU as a whole; the current declining state of the Irish economy; the standing of Brian Cowens' new administration; and assorted myths based on misinformation regarding Irish laws on abortion and its traditional position of neutrality.

3. Closing ranks and allowing an 'inner core' to emerge will create all kinds of problems including the probable allocation of the UK eventually to the 'outer' group.

4. Unpicking the Lisbon Treaty must be a non starter given that it took seven years to negotiate; this is just one of the reasons why the result is so hard to understand and easy to misinterpret. There is no appetite for such a long and winding road to be taken yet again.

5. Leaving things as they are is probably the only option available and the best one. As The Economist points out, the EU is still operating as before. Maybe Lisbon would have speeded up decisionmaking but democracy takes time and 27 nations will perforce, be slow in nudging their way to consensus.

If certain things need to be altered- the weightings for national voting in the Council might be one- then maybe they can be dealt with individually and without any major 'constitutional' alterations.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Hitchens is so Wrong About Labour

Peter Hitchens is one of those who loves it when people disagree with him, especially, it would seem his brother. But for a highly intelligent man he makes some statements which are shamefully wide of the mark. Take his line on Labour for example. Most of us party members feel our party has swung substantially to the right since the late nineties but Hitchens insists on the contrary:

'This is the most revolutionary government since Oliver Cromwell, dedicated to overthrowing the moral, social and cultural order of this country.The truth is – and I know it because I was a Sixties Trotskyist myself – that the Blair-Brown Labour Party is crammed full of unreformed revolutionaries.'

He claims that in the Parliamentary Labour Party he sees:

'my generation, the ones who between about 1965 and 1975 learned to loathe patriotism, the Armed Forces, proper policing, proper schools, traditional religion, marriage, the Monarchy and all the other things that ‘alternative’ comedians are paid handsomely to sneer at on the BBC. What a conformist bunch we were.'

Some truth in this view of course, but the key thing is that Hitchens adresses only one side of the argument. In terms of the social agenda huge changes in thinking have occurred but can all this be ascribed to the Labour Party, 'revolutionary' or not? The period of which he writes was one of great upheaval in terms of the breakdown of deference and the collapse of old taboos concerning sex, homosexuality, human rights and feminism. This was by no means a march of the Marxists but a much broader advance involving a huge range of influences, including the articulation of youth, the emergence of socially critical writers and film-makers and the assertion of the rights of women. To blame the Labour Party for all that is to give it far too much credit.

Most students of revolutions during the past century would argue they have been about economics: the way that the means by which wealth is generated allocates rewards that many consider unjust. Labour has accommodated Marxist elements but has never been even remotely Marxist; rather it has been gradualist and liberal. After 1945 it engaged in nationalisation but then abandoned that as irrelevant and sought to redistribute wealth by reforming capitalism to which is retained a degree of hostility. Blair and his New Labour confection changed this by abandoning any vestige of 'socialism' and embracing the markets: it reneged on its traditional ideas, according to leftie critics: any revolution that happened was within the party and was a counter revolution.

By ignoring the economic dimension and focusing on the social one (where he daftly overstates his case) he invents a straw man it is easy to attack but fails to enlighten. Mind you, I think he knows all this but continues with the error because it provides such good attack copy for the Daily Mail. And I did so enjoy his deconstruction of David Cameron in that Despatches programme a year or so back. Keep it up Peter, it's entertaining but it don't fool anyone except readers of the Mail.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Voters Put Boot into Gordon in Latest Poll.

Oh boy, when British voters go off someone, they sure do it bigtime. The recent poll in the Mail on Sunday
really showed how voters' view of Gordon have curdled in the space of a year. Maybe polls are only snapshots and maybe they change daily but politicians watch them obsessively closely, none more so than Gordon Brown. He must have choked over his cornflakes when he read this one.

1. The Conservatives lead by 23 points- 40-26- with Lib Dems on 14.

2. 44% say Brown should resign now.

3. Only 3% say Brown has charmisma while 50% hand that accolade to Cameron.

4. In most areas of character-trust, honesty, even being in the pub quiz team- Cameron leads by two to one.

5. Most worryingly of all for Brown, 53% would prefer Tony Blair to return instead of Gordon!

Brown's response? He insists he is equal to the task of being prime minister, using a recent interview to make a distinction between 'personality' and 'character':

'Personality: this is where someone would walk into a room, look around and say, “what do people want to hear and how can I express it?î That’s personality. But someone who walks into a room and says this is actually where I stand, that’s character.'

The MoS polls shows that ewven if voters might really prefer 'character' when the chips are down, they are usually swayed by personality; someone to whom they can relate, who they find attractive and who can persuade them they can deliver the goods. That such the person winning such a contest is a privileged Old Etonian makes it all the more galling to party members like myself and thousands of others.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


British Refuse to Accept Global Warming is Man-Made

I've long argued that in relation to the good things of life, most of us are addicts: we can't think of doing without our cars, cheap flights, lashings of food, booze and the rest. And like most addicts we are in denial but unlike alcoholics who claim they can handle the booze, consumers say there is no problem to solve in the first place; mind you, they would also deny being addicted to consumption as well. Evidence of all this is now provided in today's Observer where we learn that a majority of Britons, according to an Ipsos MORI poll, still refuse to accept that climate cghange is caused by human agency.

And this in spite of the Stern Report of 2006, ubiquitous government statements, a whole campaign by David Cameron and a UN report by 2500 scientists in 2007 which should have established human culpability beyond the slightest of doubts. The Observer suggests that the environment has been downgraded in our concerns by: the Channel 4 'debunking' The Great Global Warming Swindle; the recent dissenting book by Nigel Lawson and others; and the fact that relative economic hard times are back with us for the first time in a decade. What does this show?

Fairly obvious I would have thought. I have a friend, highly intelligent well informed, who dismisses global warming as untrue and says even if it is it's not going to stop him indulging as many pleasures as he wishes for as long as he can enjoy them. And I suspect such attitudes- mostly undeclared- are commonplace within western societies. Phil Downing of MORI is quoted as saying:

'People are broadly concerned, but not entirely convinced; despite many attempts to broaden the environment movement, it doesn't seem to have become fully embedded as a mainstream concern,'.

This is very depressing and bodes ill for any genuine attempt to attack a process which will flood the world's low-lying cities and turn vast tracts of farmland into dust bowls. Doomy I know, but I suspect we'll only be ready to do something when it's already too late.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Obama Chooses Expediency Over Principle over Funding

Everyone who follows current politics knows that the low level of public trust in modern democracies- from Toledo Ohio to Skibereen, County Cork- has led to a yearning for politicians who mean what they say, who have principles and who adhere to them come what may. This is why Barrack Obama was greeted with such relief in the Democratic primaries: 'at last we have an honest and straight-talking candidate'. And he's charismatic too. But is he that straight-talking? Most students of politics also knows that a moment comes when politicians who offer principles of the driven snow, encounter the choice of retaining such purity and sustaining a reverse or breaching them to maintain or achieve an advantage.

Such a moment has arrived for Obama. Last year he agreed to be bound accept federal campaign funding for the presidential election of $85m provided McCain did the same. Such a move would help restrict the role of really big money in US politics and most on the left agreed with the deal. McCain went along with it.

The alternative was to eschew public funding and opt to raise it all himself. Maybe his staff were unaware of how much their man could raise:$250m during ther primaries and potentially twice that for the main context in November. We don't know how long the Senator for Illinois hesitated but he opted for the latter course and has sustained a fair bit of criticism from both left and right.

Does this mean existing supporters should tear up their campaign literature and decide to abstain? I don't think so. Politics is indeed a tough world of choices between 'bad' and 'even worse'. Ideally Obama should have been true to his pledge and his renunciation of it will damage him. But to lose that available funding would place him at the mercy of a Republican machine which has always called the money shots. Moreover, the most damaging attacks in US elections are often made by 'independent' groups- in reality clandestinely attached to the parties- which raise money and issue attack ads such as the 'Swiftboats Campaign' in 2004 which did much to destroy John Kerry's reputation as a war hero.

Similar campaigns are probably already being planned by Republican supporters and by those with a racist agenda. To counter such attacks Obama needs a big war chest; he therfore needed to opt for private funding and overthrow his earlier pledge. Sometimes expedience offers a better hope for fulfilling those wider ranging principles which can only be fulfileld by winning office, and the bullet, unfortunately, has to be bitten. One is tempted to say to Mr Obama: 'Welcome to the unwholesome world of 'real' politics'.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Optimism OK in Politics but not Dr Pangloss Variety

Tom Harris MP has beenpilloried in the Daily Mail for suggesting voters are 'bloody miserable'. Who he? Well, news to me as well that he is a junior minister for transport. But on his blog he had the temerity to suggest that, despite the credit crunch and other economic problems things were not all bad:

There are more two-car homes in Britain today than there are homes without a car. We live longer, eat healthier (if we choose), have access to forms of entertainment never imagined a generation ago. The majority of us have fast access to the worldwide web, which we use to enable even more spending. Crime is down. So why is everyone so bloody miserable?"

The Daily Mail harangue was not long in arriving and Phil Hammond, shadow Chief Secretary gave his (predictable) answer to the question: 'We've got Gordon Brown as Prime Minister'. But isn't Hall right? We are not so badly placed at the moment- consumer spending actually rose by 3.5% during May- but there is gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts that we have eighties level credit problems and approaching seventies level inflation. Two observations follow:

1.The fact is voters are hard to please; they want more and once they've got it they want yet more again and allow little gratitude for the agents of fulfillment when it happens. Over the past decade, voters have become used to continuously improving economic conditions and are punishing Labour for being unable to maintain this. This is merely a fact of political life which would hold whoever was in power.

2. Optimism, as Ronald Reagan proved, is an attractive quality to which voters warm; if only, one reflects to counter their own often unreasonable pessimism. However, if one is perceived to be straying in the direction of Candide's Dr Pangloss (pictured being played by 19th century US actor, James Haworth)who argued after every reverse that things were the 'best of all in all possible worlds', voters will be unimpressed, especially if they are in the process, accused of being 'miserable'. If young Tom wants to make it beyond junior minister, this is a lesson, I daresay he's already taken on board.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


After a Year, the Judgement has Crystalised

It's a view many of us Labour supporters have tried to resist but one which we have reluctantly come to accept as probably right: 'He is Simply not up to the job'. This is not to say that he is not astonishingly assiduous or hugely intellectually capable; merely that in the crucial skills of being the man at the political helm, he has proved lacking over the past twelve months.

As Andrew Rawnsley has noted, it all started with that 'election that never was'; I wondered at the time if it would prove to be turning point and it very much has. Jonathan Freedland in yesterday's Guardian suggests it was not so much the event itself as the negative quality we had not realised Gordon had: indecisiveness. And his pathetic refusal subsequently to admit it was the change in the polls which had caused his U turn; that was taking us all as complete fools and such assumptions are seldom forgiven easily.

Connected with this is an alternative explanation: Brown lacks that quality he alleges most to admire: courage. When it comes to the sticking point, he can rage and accuse but he hides away from confrontations, from accepting thee blame when things turn out wrong. Blair infuriated us with his self righteous belief in his own rectitude, but he did not lack the courage needed to advance his convictions.

Another quality which his year in office has lacked is precisely that used as an excuse for not calling that election: vision; quite honestly, there has not been any. When in doubt he has retreated to the 'Blair comfort zone on public services and even on Iraq, cuddling up to Geroge Bush during his recent visit whereas his initial approach had been to establish a judicious distance.

Maybe his major failing though, is to have proved so incompetent at the business of communication. In a democracy this is the prime quality a politician requires: to persuade colleagues, party members, the political class and ultimately us the voters, that he or she has the right answers. Brown has been so wooden, so uninspiring. Some suggested in the run-up to last June's handover that voters would find this a pleasant change from all that bogus charm and spin.

But it would seem that we still need lashings of charm and a prime minister who can project powerfully and sympathetically. Cameron's critics used to say the Tories did not need someone so obviously created in the image of Tony Blair: he has proved them wrong. Voters, like maidens in search of a partner, do not like to be duped by their potential lovers, but they still expect to be wooed and courted in a way that pleases them.

Freedland puts his finger on it for me when he suggests that Brown, who plotted and fulminated against the man he was so desperate to replace, in reality needed him. One way of looking at this is that they compensated for each others failings: Brown provided the hard work and attention to detail; Blair the flair for communication and the bottle to take tough decisions.

Indeed this does have the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy: all that gut churning envious calculation for ten years, only to find the prize turning to ashes in his hands:

It would take a Shakespeare to do justice to a story that combines the jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth and the indecision of Hamlet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Applying the Five Point Blair Test to Mugabe

We read today that Mugabe is killing known supporters of the opposition with total lack of restraint. And this on top of: ignoring the earlier poll victory of Morgan Tsvangirai; preventing international charities from disributing food; and claiming the UK/US are behind an imperialist plot to reclaim Zimbabwe for the whites. Today the Guardian offers apoll on whether African states should intervene to 'avert bloodshed'? Others still maintain the west should intervene and topple the shameless dictator.

We know Blair would have liked to get rid of the liberator turned tyrant and in his 1999 Chicago speech offered a five point test to judge whether such 'liberal humanitarian' intervention is justified:

1. Are we sure of our case? There can be no doubt that Mugabe has ruined his country's economy, plundered its resources and imposed upon it a heartless regime of brutal totalitarian control. The evidence is now overwhelming.

2. Are diplomatic options exhausted? It seems South Africa and China are not inclined to use their considerable potential influence and all other attempts at sanctions and the like has found Mugabe contemptuously immovable.

3. Are we prepared for the long term? hard to say as nobody as yet is even on the starting blocks.

4. Are national interests involved? not directly, apart from the interest everyone has in defending human rights.

5. 'Are there miltary operations we can sensibly undertake'? Mugabe would last no time at all should even a small force be deployed if his army is as cossetted and unsued to action as I suspect.

But this last is the killer condition. Mugabe is a monster but a number of African states- few of which worry too much about human rights- still admire the man for standing up to the west and not so long ago gave him a standing ovation at a meeting of African states. As long as he retains such support western intervention is well nigh impossible. Zimbabwe's geography makes it hard to invade and for forces to be kept supplied- nearby allies would be necessary. The UN would be paralysed by vetoes from African states, not to mention China, which now has big economic interests in the country. So the tragedy continues and we can only stand impotently by, until either Mugabe dies- and for an 84 year old he looks pretty fit- or surrounding African states change their minds.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Labour Moves to Neutralise Conservative Funding Advantage

Labour has moved smartly to block a loophole currently being exploited by Lord Ashcroft and others for the Conservatives. While election spending is limited by law during the campaign up to polling day,it is not curbed during any other part of the political cycle. Ashcroft poured money into marghinal constituencies where the Tories had a chance of winning and generally cashed in in 2005. Since then the money has continued to be channelled into marginals and Labour has feared for dire consequences come 2010.

Spending has focused on swing voter identity, computerisation and candidate publicity so that candidates acquire higher profiles and can hit the ground running as soon as the official campaign starts. Now we learn Jack Straw is to introduce legislation in July which will limit all parties to spening on candidates to £12000 from October to the next general election polling day. It seems this will become law as soon as the bill receives its second reading after the recess in October. Conservatives will also have to reveal the name of donors who currently offer anonymous support.

Tories claim foul play- 'an atrocious abuse of power by the government' accused Francis Maude- as Labour have already moved to level the playing field as they see it with its annual £10,000 to sitting MPs to facilitate 'communicating with constituents'; as Labour has the majority of incumbents, such an allowance naturally benefits them. Labour claims such money can only be spent on 'non political' information but it hardly needs a De Tocqueville to deduce such distinctions are impossible to make from material which publicises an incumbents' constituency work, improves name recognition and generally raises an their profiles.

But what about capping national party spending, and more particularly trade union funding of Labour, as recommended by Sir Hayden Philliups' report last summer? As David Hencke notes: 'The goverrnment has backed away fom new caps on national party spending or any restrictions on trade union funding.' Chris Huhne for the Liberal Democrats condemned the proposals:

"This is a feeble set of flaccid proposals that will do nothing to stop the arms race between the parties, or clean up party funding by capping big

It would be hard to refute such an accusation, it has to be said.

Monday, June 16, 2008


The Civil Service, Rockall and Government Competence

Alasdair Palmer's piece yesterday reminded me of my two years in the civil service. Palmer lambasts the appalling waste caused by civil servants' incompetence(e.g. the £2bn tax credits paid to people not entitled to it) not to mention the unnecessary use of hugely expensive consultants(£3bn a year, despite a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee 2007). My little contribution dates to the roll call of incompetence dates back to 1972 when the then Conservative government decided to reinforce British sovereignty over the island of Rockall(see picture) by installing a navigation beacon atop of it. The job of organising the expedition was given to a very junior trainee Sir Humphrey by the name of 'Jones, DS5': i.e. me.

I'm pleased to say the expedition went swimmingly and the beacon was erected courtesy of heroic Royal Marines lowered from a Sea-King helicopter. The next morning, still swelled with pride having watched the event as first item on the BBC six o'clock news, the DTI lighthouse department rang to ask me the date of the expedition to be run the following year. Knowing how the navy chiefs had grumbled like mad, even to do this job, I replied with cries of laughter before asking why such a fantasy event was needed in any case? The beacon, was, after all, established.

'Yes' said the DTI man, 'but how else are you going to change the batteries?
'Batteries?' I yelped, what's all this about batteries?'
'Well, Rockall is a bit too far away to be joined up to the National Grid, you know.'
'Oh I see, yes, well, I'll get back to you on this one.'

The above conversation was repeated several times, complete with pauses and yelps, at various levels in the MOD before it was time for me to leave and work in another section. I later heard that a form of words had been concocted to 'deal with the situation' but I never did find out if those batteries are changed regularly. Whose incompetence was this? My contemporary at the MOD, Clive Ponting, laughed when I told him and said:

'So it was you who is responsible for the Rockall cock-up!'

Maybe I should have asked a question, maybe the DTI should have told us or maybe one of my bosses should have had the prescience to foresee the problem; maybe it was the minister's job to spot it?. But no-one did. These days such a revelation would be blamed squarely on 'government incompetence' but it was just a human lapse by fallible servants of the state. Like so many of these scandals about which we read and about which Palmer writes.

Maybe the whole set-up is wrong. Yesterday's Observer carried a:

'damming assessment of the civil service as a 'desperately overpopulated', 'broken' institution which is stuck in the 19th century has been made by one of its most prominent figures. In an astonishing attack, Zenna Atkins, a director of the Royal Navy Fleet Executive Board, chair of its audit committee and also chair of Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, described the practices of central government as 'utterly antiquated...I could say without doubt that significant parts of the civil service are broken,' she told The Observer. 'The machinery of government is not even in the 20th century, never mind the 21st century.'

Maybe she is right, in fact I suspect she is, but even the most efficient administrators are human and will make errors from time to time.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


OK, I'll Come Clean: Davis Byelection is Best Show in Town by a Mile

I'm aware that my initial reaction to David Davis was, coinciding with the consensus 'commentariat' view, that it was self-indulgent and futile and mostly reflected tensions within the Conservative leadership. I'm still not sure whether that analysis is right or wrong but my more measured view, a few days on, is that I'm rather glad he has done decided to make his gesture, however futile it may turn out to be. Glad because it will liven up a 'silly season' period when news tends towards the mundane and trivial. Glad because the issue of erosion of civil rights is important and I'm aware I have not personally recognised how inmportant it should be. And glad because the byelection is going to be fascinating for anyone interested in British politics, let alone the anoraks, of which I daresay I am one.

Davis is a really interesting politician: difficult home background of single mother overcome through study, hard work and talent which led to a successful business career. His loss to Cameron in 2005 he handled with grace and apparent magnanimity but those who discern a potential 'Blair-Brown' type simmering hostility might be on to something. Putting himself at the mercy of voters is a highly unusual step and might backfire, so it is courageous, especially as he has flouted the wishes of his party leader. The commentariat are divided with rightward leaners like Simon Heffer welcoming it and others, like today's Oberver leader, giving it only a strictly qualified approval. Peter Riddell, for my money the best of them all, was undecided in his last comment and I can only agree.

On partisan grounds I'd like to see him crash and burn but on grounds of principle, I'm rather hoping he can make his point on the wider national canvass. Martin Bell, this morning on Radio 4 expressed his warm support for Davis; so many of us, I suspect, are just surprised and delighted by the uncertainties of the situation. Who, if anyone, will stand against him? Will a wider rift appear in the Conservative party, given that Dave has opted to let his former Shadow Home Secretary twist in the wind? And, most fascinating of all,
i)will the public ignore the sideshow or will it, as Bell hopes, ignite widespread interest in eroding civic liberties?
ii)The polls say ther public favour the 42 days detention measure but will the belection overtuen that and maybe swswing opinion another way?
We all have ringside seats in this unhoped for summer bonus of political entertainment; so it's well done that man, David Davis!

Friday, June 13, 2008


EU sent back to Drawing Board after Irish Reject Lisbon Treaty

While the UK tries to make sense of David Davis's idiotic, futile yet quintessentially self motivated gesture, Ireland has been taking a far more important decision on whether to accept or reject the Lisbon Treaty. Ireland is the only EU country to subject the Treaty to a referendum and results so far suggest a victory for the 'No' camp by 53-47%; quite a turn up considering the only important party to oppose the treaty was Sinn Fein.

Why has one of the most ferevently pro EU nations recanted on its Europhilia? My feeling is that voters have voted, not on the relatively narrow topic of changes proposed by the treaty, but on the broader one of the EU itself. When Ireland joined back in 1961 the country voted about 6-1 in favour as the economy was weak and possible salvation was identified through joining up. This has remained Ireland's defeault position with the exception of ther Nice Treaty ratificsation in 2001 which required two goes before the desired result was obtained.

The vote yesterday as taken within the shadow of a gloomier economic prospect than for many a year. Some indications suggested, moreover, that working class voters voted more heavily against then middle class ones; possible evidence that Irish workers fear the 'Polish plumber' factor- indeed one encounters many East European workers in the Republic, now, wherever one travels. So the referendum, as so often, turned out to express the nation's concerns across a wide spectrum of economic well-being; few people I have met over here confess to knowing anything about the arcane measures of the treaty; this is not surprising as even the official government leaflet on the treaty read like a complex hand out to European Studies undergraduates.

This result must be seen as huge black eye for Bertie Aherne's successor, the pugilistic looking Brian Cowen. Just recently he was heard to mutter to a member of his ministerial team, when assailed by criticism from his own side: 'the fuckers!'. I suspect he will be widening hi8s expletive to include the half million or so of his fellow countrymen who have so embarrassed him. He won't forget this friday 13th.

As for the EU in general, this vote means the whole ratification of the treaty has been placed in question. Will the heads of government, due to meet in the near future, be prepared to unpick the current treaty to make it more acceptable? It's hard to see how they could and it's doubtful they will have the will. It's a sad day for Europhiles and a good one for the far left and the far right across Europe.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


David Davis' Indulgence Deflects Attention from Gordon's Problems

Following the events of last evening, Gordon Brown must be delighted a new rift in Conservative ranks has come to his rescue. He won his division on the 42 days detention issue by 9 votes but, to quote, I think it was a rebel MP on a news bulletin lest night, this was a 'humiliating victory', won only through the votes of the 9 DUP members. Without their help, allegedly 'bought' with 1 billion pouns worth of sweeteners, Brown would have lost, as so many of us think he richly deserved. Steve Richards today, in The Independent, notes the huge waste of political energy on the issue when he could have been working on things which might have helped him recover some respect and authority. Even with the DUP he cut a sorry figure lest night.

But then along comes this political giftto divert some attention from Gordon's awful situation. What's Davis up to? I'm still baffled I have to say. It's claimed his resignation as an MP is on the 42 day issue- fair enough, so he feels strongly about it. But why get re-elected-it seems with no Lib Dem opposition said they won't contest and labour seems likely to follow suit- this will happen easily. All that will happen, in the end is that he's back in the House, to do what? Details are too sketchy right now but I suspect it's connected with some kind of a power bid by the ambitious Davis. If this is not some kind of subtle ploy to advance his own unsatisfied ambition then I'd not be a bit surprised. But it all seems an over-reaction; what if all MPs decided to fight byelections when votes went through with whcih they disagreed? It's a silly indulgence and if Davis's constituents decide to kick his arse it will serve him right.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


More Poll Misery for Gordon on Eve of 42 Day Vote

[Flight to Belfast delayed and then cancelled so I have an extra day at home after all] Just when the Tories are having a spot of bother, poor old Gordon, obsessive about such things, must be cringing at the Peter Riddell article yesterday analysing the Times' recent Populus poll. This shows his popularity has plummeted to a level below that of the least successful party leader of modern times, Iain Duncan-Smith. The Labour party now commands only 25% compared with the Conservatives' 45%. With the crucial 42 Day vote coming up this evening, it appears Brown has been ringing up even those irreconcilable rebels who hate his guts, in a desperate effort to shore up numbers.

While the public seem to support his ostensibly 'tough on terrorism' strategy by a huge margin, the political class, and crucially, his own party, see the measure as illiberal and counterproductive. Brown's fate might lie in the hand of the Democratic Unionist MPs though David Davis, this morning on ther Today Programme, seemed to suggest he expected Gordon's measure to squeeze through. But it should be close and Gordon's nails had better stand by for some more serious knawing.

Worse for the long term is Riddell's analysis of Labour's position in the polls:

Since Mr Brown’s brief honeymoon last summer Labour’s rating has fallen by 13 points on the average of all published polls, with the Tories up ten points and the Liberal Democrats three points higher. Only three fifths of those who voted Labour in 2005 say that they would do so now, compared with 95 per cent of Tories staying loyal. Almost 20 per cent of those who voted Labour in 2005 say that they would vote Tory in an election now.

His conclusions are withering for Labour:

Of course, trends can change, but there is no precedent for a party in the dire predicament of Labour and Mr Brown now winning the next general election, although Mr Cameron still has to consolidate his gains.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Skipper Away Yet Again, this time to Donegal

Skipper will be away once again-busy summer for me- for a few days from today, visiting his daughter and family in Malin Head Donegal. If the weather holds I might well be seen marching down the road shown on the picture(quite close to the famous weather station ctually), circumnavigating the 'Head'- one of the finest walks I know(but not when it rains). As the web is not unknown even in this most remote part of Ireland, I should be able to offer a post or two from this northerly vantage point.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Sleaze Again for Tories but Surely Child Care Costs Should be Met?

After the terrible mauling suffered by Gordon and the Labour Party over the last few months, I have to admit, as a Labpour supporter, a feeling of relief as, it seems, the pendulum of bad news has swung to the right of centre with the news of the four recalcitrant Tories who seem to have- 'whoops a daisy'- mispent their expenses. The Conway affair is ancient history but this flurry of embarrassments seems set to cause Dave just as much trouble. Especially embarrassing for Cameron is the seniority of the people involved: Giles Chichester(son of Sir Francis no less) had been tasked by Cameron- in the wake of the Conway affair- with ensuring rules regarding expenses were spent strictly according to the MEP rules; Den Dover was the Chief whip if Tory MEPs; and Spelman, the party's chair.

Having said all that, and imbibed only moderately on the nectar of schadenfreude, I have to agree with one columnist that it seems maybe a tad unfair on Spelman. As Yvonne Roberts points out:

It's a bit rum that in a profession awash with allowances, including the cost of staying away from home, office expenses and a London supplement, there's no allowance for the one job that should matter as much if not more: someone to care for the children.

So it's 'thank God the pressure's off Gordon for a while' but also 'hasn't Spelman (and fellow women MPs) a case for child care being paid, in any case?' I think they have.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Prejudice Against SUV Owners Well Founded says Study

I've always been biased against SUVs, especially Humvees. It's not just that the Humvee was brought out as a civilian vehicle largely at the behest of Arnold Swarzenegger, The Terminator. It's not just that they gobble up a scarece resource at the rate of 9 miles to gallon, nor that they billow out CO2 in commmensurate volumes. Nor is it solely that, during ther nineties, they seemed to epitomise American arrogance and their absence of empathy with anyone else'ssensibilities.

No. It was also because people who owned them seemed to me to be not very nice people; the sort who will cut you up on the motorway or not let you into a stream of traffic. In other words, they seemed like irremediable shits. I have never met an SUV owner I did not dislike.

Now, it seems I was right all along. Journalist Keith Bradsher has written a book, High and Mighty, about the anatomy of the SUV's popularity. Bradsher cites market research by the manufacturers themselves which paints a picture wholly congruent with my own impressions of this highly resistible group of owners:

The average SUV owner, [according to studies cited in Bradsher's book,] is "apt to be self-centred and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbours or communities." In addition, they are "insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills ... they tend to like fine restaurants a lot more than off-road driving, seldom go to church, and have limited interest in doing volunteer work to help others."

Even more damningly he reports:
Hummers, the GM researchers found, "tended to appeal to people who never performed military service, but wished they had."

Consolingly the Humvee fad seems to be at and end in the USA and the SUV one in decline overall. Sales have slumped and manufacturer GM have closed down four SUV plants in the US, Canada and Mexico. Meanwhile, in Europoe the same trends are evident. In France and Spain sales over the last year fell b y 50% an 35% respectively. Clearly the cost of fuel has much to do with this; it would be impossible to even imagine that the sort of self obsessed people who wish to buy such vehicles had suddenly become conscious and concerned about anything at all, let alone the environment.

Friday, June 06, 2008


'In Office but not in Power'?

John Major today opined that forcing through the 42 day detention measure for terrorist suspects, wouold only assist their efforts to recruit new members. This led me to wonder if Gordon has not yet reached that premier's alleged condition of being 'in office but not in power'. Norman Lamont's famous accusation cut to the quick at the time and was a bit rich coming from someone so complicit in Major's administration's shortcomings.

A definition of the term would probably mean 'a total loss of direction, authority and ability to secure desired measures'. How does Gordon shape up?

1. Direction: even Labour MPs are complaining their party seems not to know what it is for, citing the 10p tax band abomination and the loss of Crewe and Nantwich.

2. Authority: Brown's government has been challenged on a number of items- non doms, fuel tax- and the white flag has not been long in being hauled up. If he does not watch out it will become open season with each and every lobby playing up in its efforts to extract its pound of flesh.

3. Securing Measures: Brown has clearly got the jitters over the 42 day issue and a compromise has been cobbled together by Chief Whip Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw. Even allowing for adjustments which draw its sting, the measure might be lost as up to 50 rebels are possible in the 'no' lobby. This will be a big test of Brown's remaining credibility. To be honest, I've also suspected some of the rebels might wish to defeat Gordon as a means of pushing him further to a position when he can be pushed aside.

On top of all this the poll results are grisly; ther recent Yougov one produced the following:

* Labour on 23%, lower than when Foot was leader and lower than any reading since Gallup started guaging party popularity in 1943.

* Brown's personal rating at a miserable 17%.

* Only 15% of those surveyed were satisfied with Mr Brown - the same as during the worst years of the Major administration in the early 1990s.

All this suggests that even if Brown has not yet sunk to Major's level, he is, to imagine a quote: 'not inconsiderably plumbing very similar depths'.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


How Close is a Recession?

Having predicted Hillary will join the Obama ticket yesterday and read the general rubbishing of this idea in the press today, I'm cagey about making any more crystal ball jobs. But the Economist this week casts a gloomy light on the chances of a recession in the UK, prompted by the ongoing oil price hike. Its main article on the UK analyses the economic situation:

The good news
1. Between 2004-6 oil doubled in price but this led only to a small reining in of GDP and the economy absorbed it without too much trouble. Unlike during the seventies, our economy is no longer so oil-intensive and the increases were gradual not dramatic.

2. Britain is still an oil producer. Though the oil is drying up, the UK is still 'mostly self sufficient' and does not have to transfer huge amounts of resources to oil producing countries.

3. The labour market is much more flexible in 2008 than it was during the seventies when the oil hike 'instigated a damaging wage-price spiral'.

The bad news
1. The most recent oil price increase has not been as sudden as three decades ago but it has been damagingly swift: fronm April to late May the average price doubled on the 2007 figure.

2. During 2006-7 real disposable income increased by less than 1%, the lowest rate of growth since recessionary 1982.

3. Consumer spending have been sustained during the noughties by borrowing against rising house price equity. The credit crunch has now cut off that route to income replenishment and belts will have to be tightened for real.

4. Public spending is due to reduce markedly over the next couple of years, meaning a major device used by Brown to sustain the economy will no longer be available.

5. The Economist warns:

The most serious problem is that the inflationary backdrop to the current surge in oil prices is so much worse than it was earlier in this decade.

Inflation is now lapping at our doorsteps to the tune of 3% and polls show expectations that it will rise to 4.1% over the next twelve months. With figures like that the Bank of England is less likely to lower interest rates to stimulate growth than to increase them to squeeze out the inflation, thus bringing closer the spectre of something we have not experienced since the early nineties: a recession.

P.S. Meanwhile the FT offers a muchy more optimistic view...

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


I reckon Hillary Will Join Obama on the Ticket

After writing a book entitled Madame President, Suzanne Goldenberg must be a bit pissed off that her subject has failed to fulfill the implied prediction of her title. Today she analyses why Hillary failed to make it. She identifies: a message out of step with a party constituency desperate for radical change; the failure to devise a Plan B should Obama be still around after Super Tuesday; a failure to build a grassroots organisation as Obama did; mismanagement of funds; and the mistakes made by hubby Bill, who seems to have lost his sureness of touch politically.

I would add the point made by James Rubin on 'PM' today, that she failed to organise for the early caucus contests and enabled Obama to establish a momentum which he went on to sustain and improve on. Add to that the fact that the Illinois Senator is a truly remarkable politician, the sort who only comes along once or twice in a century. He not only has a distinctive message but the skills to project it brilliantly as well.

So what now for Hillary? One suggestion is she might fancy a run at Senate majority leader, a post currently held by Harry Reid. Maybe this will appeal but I still think she'll go for the ticket with Obama; what is more Obama needs her to negate the 40% of Hillary supporters who say they'll vote for McCain and not the perdon who bested their heroine.

Obama should overcome the 72 year old McCain in a year when the Republican president has negative ratings of 70% but he has weaknesses. Firstly, he did not win in a final glorious burst for the line- rather he crawled over it with defeats in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvannia, Indiana and Kentucky. He clearly lacks support among the white working classes. Secondly his angry spats with Hillary have provided McCain with an arsenal of ammunition for the November battle. Thirdly, he is vulnerable to the kind of psychopath in which America seems to specialize: the loony, racist assassin. As I have mentioned before, sotto voce, the unworthy thought that Hillary best remaining chance of being president is if Obama stops a bullet either between now and November or once installed as Vice President. I do pray I'm wrong on this bit of my analysis though.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Common Sense on Taxation

Polly Toynbee is often attacked by rightwing people and I confess I too have occasionally found her a bit too much to take, but her articles must be among the best researched in the quality press. Today she addresses taxation; and manages to deflate a few myths about who pays it, about Labour relentlessly pushing it up and Labnour's recent record of handling opposition to specific aspects of it.

Firstly, the number of high earners in the UK is really not that great. 90 per cent pay only the basic rate of income tax and earn less than £22,300. The richest 10% live off the real fat of the land.

Secondly a popular notion is that Gordon Brown, through stealth taxes and other probably underhand means, has racked up taxation to record levels. Not so. As a percentage of earnings, the 'tax take' for 2007-8 is 36.8%; now that's quite a lot but is less than the Conservatives 1996-7 and less than every single year under the tax-cutting Margaret Thatcher.

Thirdly, as a percentage of GDP, tax was 50% in 1976, 49% in 1983 and 44% in 1993. Currently it is around 41-2%.

Polly also emphasises that New Labour has tried to square the impossible circle of US levels of taxation and Swedish levels of public services. She concludes by pointing out that taxes designed to change behaviour will always be unfair and resisted: for example on tobacco, which hits the poorest most keenly; or petrol which hits hauliers and cab drivers. Finally, she suggests that Labour's current practice of caving in to criticisms- 10p tax, 2p fuel tax, inheritance tax, non-doms and who knows what else- is not the way to regain respect from voters who now seem determined to think the worst of them anyway.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Can Gordon Survive the Summer?

A week ago Michael Portillo smirked at how the whole country was splashing in schadenfreude at poor old Gordon's multiplying woes. Yesterday he varied the theme a bit but kicked off in the same vein by pointing out delightedly Gordon's rating by only 17% of voters as the best party leader to be prime minister, one point below Michael Foot around 1982. But he does include some valid points within his smirks:

Voters were tired of ideology in 1990 and of spin in 2007. It is not enough, though, to be different from the old regime. In Brown’s case it was ludicrous anyway, since he was more addicted to spin even than Blair.

The irony is that he is so much worse than his predecessor: with the 2p fuel tax increase and the big hiles in vehicle excise duty(VED) he is providing a tax hike strewn progress for David Cameron. He is also on the money regarding comparisons with Blair who reached the end ofg his string with voters in June 2007 but somehow to retain their regard:

People miss Blair’s charm and his speedy decision-making. He was unpopular at the end, but his poll ratings never sank close to those of Brown today. Iraq was a political catastrophe but, nonetheless, in the following election Blair held the Tories to fewer than 200 parliamentary seats. Remembering, too, that Major won reelection after the debacle of the poll tax, it seems that the electorate is more forgiving of disaster than of prolonged ineptitude.

And there we have it: this colossus of huge brain and political wunderkind, has proved so much worse than the two men he followed into Number 10. How this will hurt this historically minded intellectual. I note John Harris dismisses talk of a putch to get rid of Gordon but John Rentoul on Today, this morning and Ian Martin of the Telegraph, both saw things 'rapidly running away from' Brown who will be very lucky to survive the end of ther summer session.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Serious and Consistent can still give Gordon Hope

We learn that Alistair Darling is going to rule out the planned 2p increase in fuel tax planned for October. I think this is a mistake. Andrew Rawnsley argues today that Brown should now rule as if his re-election is already 'lost' but only pursue measures in which he believes, as in the case on fertilisation and embryology, where, two weeks ago, his impressive speech won the free vote.

Brown has spoken warmly on the need to reduced carbon emissions yet, despite the warnings of his former scientific adviser seems ready to unleash more of them upon the world by allowing the fuel lobby to have its way. A principled statement on the need to reduce emissions and the consequent desirability of higher fuel prices would be his better course, rather than allowing his Chancellor to be further undermined through pressure from Number 10. Some tax relief for hauliers and the like might sugar the pill for those hardest hit by the fuel price hike.

Riddell's cartoon in the Observer today brilliantly satirises public fickleness on the topic. In frame one a group of concerned looking people alongside cheaper petrol pumps say 'We need fuel efficient engines...hybrid technology, wind farms...'; the second, showing prices now up t0 118p a litre, has a group of demented customers roaring 'F**k that- we need cheap petrol now!!!'. Rawnley is right that these times need someone steady who is not blown off course by the daily swings of opinion and led into desperate measures like cold calling ordinary people at home for a chat. 'A sensible man for serious times' was the lable attached to Brown a year ago; there is still time before 2010 for Gordon to be true to such a role.

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