Thursday, 23 September 2010

A Liberal Gamble

I have spent the last day or two watching pictures come out of the Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool, and I wonder if I am the only one who has my head in my my hands when I hear Nick Clegg speaking.

In contrast to the way that Vince Cable strains at the leash, mouth foaming in his restrained desire to put capitalism to the sword, Clegg seems limp and deceitful, a man who postured pre-election firmly at the side of the centre left that forms the backbone of his own party but knows all too well that he is now sleeping with the enemy and is in way too deep to pull out.

The chilly echo that greeted his keynote speech at the party conference is all too telling. Liberal voters have been swift to denounce the Orange Book cognoscenti within the party and many are now of the opinion that the party has completely sold out to the Conservatives. By moving away from the core of his own support, Clegg is now running a lonely three-legged race with David Cameron, and faces the likelihood that while failure to resolve the crisis within the country will see blame apportioned equally, credit for any successes is unlikely to be shared by the blue half of government.

These are unique and uncomfortable times for the Orange Book politicians. Regrettably for the Liberal Democrats, many of their big name politicians are not, in fact, big names at all. Chris Huhne, Mark Oaten and Susan Kramer are not the profiles that will save the party from rejection by its own faithful. In Vince Cable they have at least one extremely knowledgable and respected trump card; however, he is bogged down in the unpopular Royal Mail privatisation debate, and will not win internal political arguments about bank taxes and bonuses.

As the stakes are raised progressively higher in the coming months as those bank bonuses continue unabated and the real scale of economic cuts becomes apparent to the voter on the street, I believe that Clegg will begin to look increasingly like a man gambling in a casino at stakes where he simply cannot afford to lose. Clegg spoke earlier in the week about the 'quiet courage' of the party in choosing to form a coalition government with the Conservatives. These are fine words which fool no-one, and he will not genuinely expect things amongst his own party to stay quiet for long.

But then, this is a new kind of politics, and Clegg speaks of taking risks in government. His supporters will hope that he is aware of just what kind of risk he is taking. The very future of his party is at stake. However, rather than acknowledge this truth, it seems that Clegg has taken to the ether and started to believe his own hype. The Liberal Democrats are, after all, the new kingmakers - it just seems that somewhere along the line, they have begun to fool themselves that they are the kings.

Monday, 20 September 2010

What Your Country Can Do For You

The newspapers have been full of a story today about Britain's so-called worst dad. This may be unduly harsh criticism. Growing up as I did in one of Britain's most deprived areas, I can confirm first-hand that Keith Macdonald, the dad in question, is comparable to any number of my former classmates who have similar numbers of children to whose futures they do not positively contribute. But I digress. I mention this story not because of the sadly predictable social implications of this man's activities, but because there is a cold political wind blowing in the background of this story.

Suffice to say, those with an eye for the bigger picture will look at such stories and already be able to see the Tory organised middle-class backlash against benefit claimants gathering pace with each passing moment. Yes, there are benefit fraudsters out there who need to be identified and appropriately punished. But there are also vast numbers of unfortunates, people who would love to work but whose disabilities make this genuinely impossible, or whose skills are non-transferable following redundancy. Perhaps they are people with close home ties who are simply born into towns with little expectation of growth or possibility of finding work.

A blanket approach to dealing communities with a high level of benefit dependency (e.g. by reducing the amount of benefits paid, for example) risks hurting those most in need more than false claimants. Someone claiming incapacity benefit or income support while working on the side will obviously suffer less from a benefit reduction than a genuine claimant. We should be wary of applying a sledgehammer mentality to a problem which would benefit more from a scalpel in skilled hands. There are cultural issues amongst certain sections of our society which must be addressed, and we will all benefit from innovative solutions that tackle the underlying problems of dependency.

The real battle for a government interested in reducing benefit dependency in future generations is not in the minutae of doctors' letters or in the semantics of amounts. It is in education - showing people the positive benefits of a life well-lived and giving them genuine aspirations to achieve.

Whatever your opinion of benefits claimants, a government so ruthlessly committed to free-market service delivery at the expense of the public sector has to take responsibility for the welfare of citizens in areas where the private sector does not offer suitable employment. With that in mind, it becomes even more difficult to associate the government's intentions to charge progressively more for a university education with a genuine desire to offer a better future to Keith Macdonald's children.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Money for Old Pope?

The media will once again be centre stage in the forthcoming days as a lot of interested commentators, myself included, are set to preside over the UK's first papal visit for nearly thirty years.

When I first mentioned the forthcoming visit to one of my more politically-informed friends, he immediately asked, 'Why's he coming then?' It was a question that took me somewhat by surprise. Does he need a reason? After all, he's the Pope. Head of the Roman Catholic Church, and in theory at least he is afforded all the rights of a head of state. However, his visit would not have created more controversy if it had been Robert Mugabe or Colonel Gaddafi strolling down the red carpet.

It may surprise a few people who know me well, but I am supportive of the Pope's visit to the UK, even though it is likely to cost taxpayers £10 million. As well as being a comforting reminder to British Catholics that they are a welcome part of the church's future, the very presence of foreign heads of state (albeit in loosely defined terms) is a reminder to other countries that the UK still has a role to play on the world stage.

For the church too, this may turn out to be a more positive visit than many would expect. In much the same way that those without faith only find themselves tested in the presence of those that have it, the church too needs to confront twenty-first century attitudes and seek to adjust its principles to reflect modern realities. For example, it is only by meeting children ravaged by AIDS in Africa or lives blighted due to overpopulation in certain parts of Asia that the church will ever be forced to reconsider its stance on sexual health or contraceptives. The world is ever-changing, and if a religion is to survive, it must develop through the changing attitudes of its followers.

The news that one of Pope Benedict's closest aides would not be accompanying him after the story broke that he had described England as a 'third world country' and suggested that we were subject to 'an aggressive new atheism' is profoundly disappointing but not particularly surprising. England is simultaneously a welcome home to people of all religions and yet it remains proudly secularist - we remain profoundly suspicious of anyone who proclaims to act on behalf of a religious dictat. Having said that, we are all guilty of presupposition. If we were playing Family Fortunes and the question was asked of us, 'What things do you associate with the Catholic Church?', it would be inevitable to hear 'child sex scandals' as one of the top five answers.

Does the Catholic Church deserve better? Perhaps. There must be senior members of the church who have spent their whole lives working quietly and honestly for their congregations, genuinely unaware of the acts of their fellow priests yet inevitably tarred with the same despicable brush. In their position, some must wearily wonder where the next inevitable paedophile accusation is coming from. Even in organisational terms, it must be difficult to face the future when your whole past is forever centred on the worst acts that you ever committed.

This is the main reason why the Catholic Church must see this visit as an opportunity. They are set to reap the financial rewards of at least 65,000 ticket sales for a single event where Pope Benedict is set to speak. If the purpose of their visit is genuinely about more than the money to be raised, it is time for Pope Benedict to publicly excommunicate all of the priests who have been implicated in sex scandals and make a long-overdue apology to the millions who have suffered horrifying abuse at the hands of the church's representatives.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Very Civil Disobedience

'Unrest on the streets!' cry the newspapers, discontent is the watchword of the day, and with a heavy heart I realise that once again, Britain is set again for a period of exceptionally civil disobedience.

Make no mistake, I am a union man and a very proud one. But when you hear TV channels spinning words like 'attacks' and 'militancy' (so very close to military, with all its attendant connotations) and you are subjected daily to multiple video slots of people stranded at airports, holidays untaken, it all becomes a little bit much. Trade Union Congress is underway in Manchester, and both sides of the domestic cuts debate are slinging mud at each other like there is no tomorrow.

The unions are handicapped somewhat by their close relationship with Labour, who are themselves handicapped by the fact that they cannot decide if they are Old Labour, New Labour or New New Labour. It looks increasingly likely that the next leader of the party will be named Miliband, but the ongoing saga of the leadership battle threatens to overshadow the union agenda, which can be summed up nicely with the phrase, 'Cuts? Not bloody likely!'

In place of grand schemes, there is rhetoric. The normally reserved general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, compared the forthcoming spending review to a second poll tax. Dave Prentis of UNISON pointed out that working people were not responsible for the unprecedented situation that the country finds itself in. RMT leader Bob Crow, fresh from a stint irritating commuters on the London underground, insisted that unions needed to work together to 'face the same enemy'.

Meanwhile in Westminster, as the economy continued to run despite the best efforts of bankers to stop it from doing so, hooded coalition generals cackled and trimmed zeroes from already pared budgets. If the trains weren't running, people shrugged and went to work on the bus instead. Hospitals are still dirty. Social care remains underfunded and underappreciated. The welfare state continues to provide for those in need and for a reasonable proportion who aren't.

Somewhere in the midst of this, a Liberal Democrat peer is expected to declare later this week that if the Inland Revenue could only reclaim the amount of tax lost each year due to evasion and avoidance, the country would not even be running at a deficit. Most likely, no-one will listen. The modern British spirit is not one of resistance, but indifference.

I very much suspect that there will not be a winter of discontent ahead. The unions will agree plans to work together on key issues such as coordinating strike days, and those strikes will then take place. People will be inconvenienced, but despite the hysterics seen daily in our national media, the country will not suddenly come crashing to a halt.

A budget for austerity need not be a bad thing if it really does cut away the deadwood that seems endemic in key areas of our society. Equally, the prudent agenda should not be used as a stick with which to beat public services for purely ideological reasons. There is still a convincing argument for increasing the taxes of the highest earners, and also increasing regulation to ensure that the behaviour of banks is more carefully scrutinised so that reprehensible profit-chasing behaviour does not threaten our future prosperity.

Tomorrow the papers will once again be full of battle cries as the respective combatants wheel out new angles and quote statistics that support their viewpoints while simultaneously obscuring the real underlying issues. Both sides need to get perspective and realise that we have more to gain by working together to find solutions to our problems.

Truthfully, we should recognise that while some cuts are inevitable, there are other options for tackling the financial crisis and it is high time that these were explored. Sadly, opportunity may well be buried in newspaper headlines. It is perhaps the greatest shame of our time that a battle for hearts and minds is not fought on facts and well-reasoned logic.

Sunday, 12 September 2010


How, oh how, Barack Obama must wish for the kind of popularity surge that formed the wave that he crested into Washington on in January 2009. His campaign had eerie similarities with our own Labour landslide in the 1997 general election that brought Tony Blair into power. However, unlike Blair, Obama is struggling to fill the shoes that the world wanted him to following his inauguration eighteen months ago.

Say what you like about Tony, he was certainly a 'big' politician in the sense of having a remarkable impact upon the country, like Churchill or Thatcher - regardless of whether you believe those particular ideologies. Obama, on the other hand, looks like a man struggling against the tide. This was epitomised for me in his weak response to manic preacher Terry Jones' planned 'Burn a Qur'an Day'.

In what was a calculated effort to further destabilise interfaith relations in a country which is still struggling with the possibility that a mosque may be built at the location of Ground Zero, the world needed Obama to stand head and shoulders above the controversy, and remind us all of us who was in charge. Instead, he mewled deferentially about getting Jones 'to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform.' In truth, it could have endangered us all. Internet rumour suggests that Jones only pulled the plan for a book-burning at the last possible moment when it was made clear to him how much he could be fined for violating local fire regulations.

Obama's inability to show strong leadership over the planned book burning was also evident in his clumsy mishandling of the Gulf Oil crisis (and still it continues). In scenes reminiscent of George Bush's failure to take action following Hurricane Katrina, Obama showed more of a tendancy towards hand-wringing than genuine leadership and his lack of decisiveness was evident as the administration showed plenty of willingness to criticise BP, but showed no real desire to step in and tackle the issues that arose.

What else then, has Obama done (or not done) to make himself so unpopular? The very same people-powered effort that propelled him into the limelight has evidently caused its own problems. Obama's campaign efforts were staggeringly effective, but this generated a lot of expectation from voters and so far, the safest of his policies have failed to live up to the hype.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most controversial of his policies have have a distinctly negative effect on his popularity. The healthcare reforms that he promised have been agreed, albeit in a watered-down form, and while this does mean that many thousands more people than before are now covered by health insurance, the monstrous cost (supposedly in the region of $900 million) could not have come at a worse time for the US, given that it is already in the fiscal mire.

Add to that the perceived weakness already discussed, the US Foreign Affairs department's inability to deliver any kind of coherent, positive foreign policy, the continued involvement in Afghanistan and the fact that even his own populace mistakenly believe him to be a Muslim, and you have the recipe for a Presidential-sized mess.

Nile Gardiner wrote recently that 'America at its core remains a deeply conservative nation, which cherishes its traditions and founding principles.' Obama may do well to remember this statement and look towards future policymaking with it in mind. With a likely pasting due in the forthcoming midterm elections, there is evidently much still to be done if Barrack Obama is set to convince the American people he is worth a second term.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

'We are not having someone who built their career on incompetence...'

So went the political epitaph of one Jenny Watson, former head of the Audit Commission, removed from post this week by the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles.

Pickles has made a few waves already since his appointment to his new role after passing the position of Conservative Party chairman to Baroness Warsi in May. As well as swiftly ending the proposed changes to unitary council arrangements in Exeter and Norwich, Pickles has declared plans to allow ministers to cap council tax rises where this is demanded by the local electorate. Given his reputation for forcing through his agenda regardless of opposition, I will be following Mr Pickles' career with interest in the near future.

The Audit Commission became ridiculously bloated under New Labour but under the auspices of David Cameron's Big Society, the work performed by the commission will be farmed out to private and voluntary, not-for-profit organisations. Opinions are mixed as to whether the new arrangements, due to come in 2012, will be more efficient or make the required savings that the coalition expects, but it does show the government's commitment to tackling the quango culture established under Blair and Brown.

Jenny Watson retains a number of other jobs including the head of the Electoral Commission, and has come under fire from many quarters for her refusal to accept responsibility for the debacle that occurred at the General Election earlier this year when voters arrived en masse at key times at certain polling stations and were turned away.

The phrase from a source in the Communities department, as quoted in the Times today, reads like a thoroughly unveiled insult. I quote:

'We are not having someone who built their career on incompetence continuing to milk the taxpayer. She is not fit for the role.'

Regardless of your feelings about Ms Watson, it is hard not to feel for her when the country's toughest performance reviewer makes their feelings plain in such a public fashion.

From a wider perspective, I suspect that like me, other political bloggers may be storing this quote away for future use and rubbing their hands with glee. For instance, if the new coalition is vehemently opposed to incompetence, it may wish to cast its eye over the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, who holds one of the highest offices in the land but evidently has a blind spot for the word 'Sandwell'.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Coulson does a Hague

I have decided to invent a new term.  I’m hoping that it will enter mainstream use, perhaps through the initial medium of word of mouth and then into some internet lexicon of frequently used terms, before becoming as popular as the use of the word ‘gate’ after any political scandal.

The phrase will be ‘to do a Hague’. From now on, this will refer to someone who doesn’t think through their actions, despite having every reason to do so. It could refer also to those caught between twin accusations – perhaps that of someone accused of either abuse of a position of power, or incompetence for not having identified a potential conflict of interest.  Maybe there could be a verb form – ‘You’ve been Hagued’.

After my discussion yesterday of the issues that have affected William Hague and his quite extraordinary statement responding to media whispers about his homosexuality, the foreign secretary must surely be glad that it is someone else’s turn in the spotlight.

It seems as though Number 10 communications chief Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, may be questioned again over his role in a 2007 scandal in which royal editor Clive Goodman was jailed for conspiracy to access phone messages left for royal aides.

Coulson maintains, as he has always done, that he had no knowledge of Goodman’s actions.  Indeed, no evidence has ever suggested differently and he has received the full backing of the office of the Prime Minister.  However, without Cameron’s heavyweight presence at the helm due to his paternity leave, the rumours about Coulson’s role in the matter have persisted like a bad smell, prompting Shadow Education Secretary Ed Balls to state earlier this week that Coulson's role at the heart of Number 10 meant that the government's 'integrity' was under question.

For me, Coulson has done a Hague.  While he may well be correct in his assertion that he did not order or have knowledge of Goodman’s activities, the unfortunate question remains of why he did not know what his own staff were doing.  From the detail in the stories that would surely have resulted from such phone tapping, can Coulson not have wondered about the sources of such information?  Should he not have made more effort to find out?

Days pass, the media focus remains and it seems increasingly likely that Coulson will be questioned by Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates about his role in the events that took place three years ago.  Despite their vocal public support, senior Conservatives may well be beginning to get twitchy.  The coalition has quietly built up a decent amount of political capital in the first hundred days since its inception, but Cameron has spoken in the past of 'returning integrity' to government, and with each passing day, Coulson is becoming more and more dirty by proximity.  He will fervently hope that he is not the first high-profile figure to be sent to the coalition’s sacrificial altar.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, 6 September 2010

An Issue Missed

I read a blog earlier today by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in which she slams Westminster gossip bloggers, particularly prominent rumourmonger Guido Fawkes, for their treatment of William Hague.

In her entry, Ms Alibhai-Brown states that the actions of such bloggers 'deny a minister privacy'. Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that Mr Hague should be denied a private life, but the office that he holds in public life surely demands better judgement than he has shown this week.

According to Ms Alibhai-Brown, Fawkes 'makes history' by 'disseminating titbits on politicians, most low and distasteful'. Somewhat confusingly, she then proceeds to qualify this statement by listing instances when Whitehall insider information has uncovered matters of genuine public interest, such as Tessa Jowell's husband's fraudulent interaction with Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. For Fawkes' part, he makes no secret of the fact that his blog is based on rumour and gossip. He even sells branded merchandise.

I cannot claim to have intimate knowledge of Westminster, so I am reliant entirely on information from the papers. However, what is certain is that Christopher Myers, just 25 years old, is now Mr Hague's former adviser, having resigned when the first hint of potential scandal appeared in the mainstream press. Some commentators have suggested that Mr Myers had no specialist knowledge and that he was too young and inexperienced for the role, while others insisted that Mr Hague already had a full complement of experienced advisers and didn't need more. But in the face of what seems a bizarre appointment in the first place, did Mr Hague seriously believe that sharing a room with this young man was not going to result in gossip and newspaper stories? If so, this is astonishing naivety from a man who first stood for parliamentary office nearly twenty-five years ago.

The fact here is that the issue that the media picked up on, namely Mr Hague's suggested homosexuality, is of supreme indifference when compared to his ability to be head of a high office if indeed his judgement is so remiss.

Ms Alibhai-Brown, while acknowledging the positive role that the internet has played in our democracy, goes onto say that it has led to the end of 'decency, fairness, self-restraint' but that these qualities still apply to journalists who work for newspapers. I am sure that Wayne and Coleen Rooney appreciate the 'self-restraint' that the papers showed in their exposé this weekend. Perhaps the best that we can do as individuals is to set an example, both with the maturity of our behaviour and the sensitivity with which we comment on the actions of others.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

An End to Nationalist Violence?

An End to Nationalist Violence?
I was reading Guardian reports of Tony Blair's visit to Dublin yesterday, and it seemed to me very much that new coverage escalated as the day went on.  While there were some people on the comment pages foolishly trying to compare the bombs that fell on Iraq to the eggs being thrown at the signing, there were very genuine questions being asked about whether it was reasonable to close a large section of a city centre and incur a large policing bill for what amounts to a commercial book signing.

It set me thinking about why a 200-strong group of protestors would even bother to turn up for such an event.  Blair was one of the main (albeit certainly not the only) politicians responsible for the peace deal that was brokered in Northern Ireland - surely he should be popular in Ireland?  Regardless of his record in other areas, his influence there is generaly regarded as a very positive one, and there are those who would say that without him, the deal would not have been reached.

Some reports yesterday suggested that men with Republican sympathies were heard to shout, 'How many kids have you killed today?' at Blair.  If this is true, it is staggering hypocrisy given the IRA's record of casual violence towards civilian targets during the troubles.  In the last few months, there have been increased numbers of attacks on police stations and officers in the province by Republican splinter groups, and it is fortunate that the response to those attacks has been dignified and measured.  It seems that the political will exists to work with the communities to bring perpetrators to justice without resorting to the tit-for-tat violence that existed in the past, and all involved in those communities should be congratulated for their resilience.

On the world stage, ETA, the Basque separatist movement has announced a retrospective ceasefire and announced in a video sent to the BBC that it is now trying to further the cause of Basque nationalism through a non-violent democratic strategy.

As I touched on yesterday, violence is the anathema of civilised society, and it is obviously very good news that a terror organisation has agreed to end its sustained campaign of violence that has resulted in 800 deaths since its formation in 1959.  However, ETA has previously agreed to this course of action on two other occasions, and both times talks broke down due to incidents of sudden violence.  It is very much to be hoped that this time, ETA will see sense, renounce their past activities and go into dialogue with the Spanish and French governments.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Common Enemy

I should probably apologise for giving Blair yet more valuable airspace.  Lord knows how many column inches have already been devoted to him over the last few days as he subtly elbows his way into the spotlight surrounding the Labour leadership campaign, but his comments regarding radical Islam irk me too, and here is why.

Radicals, by their very nature, tend to be idealistic and romantic visionaries, prone to seeing what they want to see rather than what is there.  The irony of Blair using this term to describe others is probably lost on him at this stage, as it has been on a number of other blogs I have read today praising his comments and hysterically spouting Islamophobia.

I have no doubt that there are people out there in the wider world who despise the West and all they feel it stands for.  I should be clear too that I am not simply talking about those liberal-minded types who oppose or challenge an accepted point of view - a true radical will not accept that there are shades of grey in any argument and will accept no other viewpoint than his own.  Furthermore, anyone who uses violence to further their agenda, regardless of their ideology, must be stopped or freedom will inevitably be restricted as a result.

In the face of growing evidence to support climate change, world financial meltdown and continued imperialism from former colonial powers, the threat of radical Islam pales somewhat in its influence upon the daily life of the man in the street.  Fear of an enemy lurking around every corner and living amongst us does, however, have a genuinely corrosive effect on multi-cultural communities within the UK.

The simple fact is that the 9/11 bombers have as little in common with a typical moderate Muslim as the white Christian who bombed Oklahoma City does with any typical white layworker in the street.  Remember that the Allied invasion of Iraq, okayed by Mr Blair, was deemed illegal by Kofi Annan, who was at that time Secretary General of the United Nations.  This illegal war has done more as an incitement to violence and a propogator of bad feeling between the religions than possibly any other act since the Crusades.  For commentators to declare, as some have done, that the world is now a safer place as a result of the war on terror is simply spurious fiction.

The common enemy of all right-thinking people is the man who will lie and cheat others, turning them against one another to achieve his own goals.  I hope you will forgive the poor analogy, but Tony Blair blaming Islam for world insecurity is like blaming wasps for ruining your day after you have spent the morning throwing rocks at their nest.

Share your thoughts in the comments.