Saturday, April 14, 2007

Brown Plays it Smart

Brown hits the right note in his interview in today's Guardian. After weeks of Blairite assaults (the Milburn-Clarke web-site, the Turnbull attack, Mandelson's musings about the disadvantages of a "coronation", the "revelations" about pensions, the talking up of Miliband, etc) Brown directs a barely-coded sneer in Blair's direction. Coinciding with the launch of his book on "Courage" (Yuck!) he says : "I think we're moving away from this period when celebrity matters, when people are famous for being famous". He says he has faith in the "essential decency" of the British people who, he thinks, "want to talk about big and important issues in a way that does justice to them" (Yeah, sure). But that is exactly how Brown should play it: presenting himself as a "serious", "substantial" figure, who is uninterested in trivia and celebrity. It does several things. First, it plays to his strengths; in a way that earlier attempts to make him more "touchy-feely" plainly did not. Second, it distances him from the Blair style; it is hard not to see his remarks as a rebuke to Blair with his pathetic infatuation for money and celebrity, with which public opinion may well be becoming rather tired. Third, it is just the right note to strike against Cameron, who can be portrayed as a over-privileged policy-lite bantomweight obsessed with image but lacking substance. I am not arguing that Brown does not need to be media-savvy, but that he and his team should use all their media-savvy skills to project just this image: a bit dour, not a natural media star, but serious, solid, hardworking, competent, experienced, and informed by simple but decent values (Which Brown describes as follows: "...every child should have the best start in life..everybody should have the best chance of a job...nobody should be brought up suffering in poverty...these are not the beliefs of the past. I would call them the beliefs that you associate with civilisation and dignity". A bit worthy, perhaps, but absolutely Labour). Brown the enthusiast for PFI and "flexible labour markets" is a bit too right-wing for Politaholic's taste, but at least he sounds like a Labour leader; Blair always sounded as if he had just arrived from the planet Zog.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Filthy Swine

They called him Mr. Bean. They flicked the back of his neck with their forefingers and thumb. But worst of all they made him wear a fake Hugo Boss shirt. Fake! Is there nothing to which they will not stoop?
Oh, and will Des Browne take the fall? Downing Street is saying they had nothing to do with the decision to allow Arthur Bachelor and Faye Turney to sell their stories. Gordon is saying nothing (Browne is a Brownite). The Times is reporting that, if the rules were followed, it could not have been a Royal Navy decision, and must have been cleared with the MoD. Oh dear.

Wheatcroft the Sinn Feiner

It seems Geoffrey Wheatcroft has become a Sinn Feiner. In an article in Wednesday's Guardian he offers as a model, for the solution of the "Scottish problem" the Austro-Hungarian "Ausgleich" of 1867. The Augsleich establshed a "dual monarchy" but the two countries were - Wheatcroft argues - "distinct in their internal government" with two separate parliaments united under one monarchy. This was the model adopted by Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, who was attracted by the policy of abstentionism, adopted by the Hungarian nationalist Franz Deak, who organised the abstention of Hungarian representatives from the Imperial Diet at Vienna, in order to bring about the re-establishment of a separate Hungarian Parliament. Griffith enthusiastically championed this policy, and abstentionism (but not of course "dual monarchy") was inherited by "the second Sinn Fein" in 1919 and became part of Republican doctrine thereafter. Wheatcroft is not, I think, advocating that Scottish MP's refuse to attend the Westminster Parliament (although that might not distress him) but he does think that the Augsleich model "must seem increasingly attractive". Politaholic knows little about the Augsleich (as did Griffith) however, in Ireland Since the Famine (a book that stands up well after all these years) F.S.L. Lyons remarks that Griffith "underestimated the complexity of the Augsleich and failed to realise how the existence of common ministries of war and foreign affairs and the retention of close economic ties between the two parts of Europe diminished Hungarian autonomy..." . In any case, leaving aside Hungarian parallels, if the two countries are to have complete self-government then what is the point of keeping a single (hereditary) head of state?Is it - for those who like this sort of thing (not me) - sentiment? And if Wheatcroft has in mind something less than separate government in mind, then there is no need to talk of Hungarian parallels: its called "devolution" and it won't satisfy the SNP. As an aside, Wheatcroft also says that Alec Salmond is "happy to keep sterling as the Scottish currency" but I have just visited the SNP web-site and they plainly favour joining the Euro. I can find no mention of the Euro in the SNP Manifesto for the forthcoming election "It's Time", but a quick search of the SNP web-site turns up plenty of material (admittedly some of it a bit dated) attestng to the SNP's eagerness to join the Euro. Salmond may be back-tracking on his for tactical reasons at the moment, but - unless I've missed something - I doubt that he is "happy" to keep sterling.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Romping" in the Isles

What is it about the Scottish islands? Must be the climate. It seems the SNP MP Angus MacNeil enjoyed a 3-in-a-bed "romp" with two teenage girls (17 and 18 at the time) a couple of years ago. Iain Dale detects Labour dirty tricks behind the story and my guess is that he is probably right (McNeil kick-started the police inquiry into “loans-for-peerages”); Bob Piper appears to be arguing “so what, the Tories have their dirty tricks too” which is also true. Rough old game, politics. Decoding the euphemisms used to describe what actually happened in Angus's hotel room – how the hours fly – I am suddenly reminded of similar "rompings" by one Lady Orkney (I know, Orkney is a north-eastern isle, as it were, but still…). In Capital Volume 1 Chapter 24 “Primary Accumulation” Marx recounts that the “glorious revolution” installed in power not only William of Orange but also “the territorial and capitalist appropriators of surplus value”. As evidence of “the private character of this bourgeois hero” (i.e. William III) Marx – rather priggishly - quotes a 17th century manuscript to the effect that: “The large grants of lands in Ireland to Lady Orkney, in 1695, is a public instance of the King’s affection, and the Lady’s influence…Lady Orkney’s endearing offices are supposed to have been – foeda labiorum ministerial…”. Angus was more frugal; all he offered was a few free drinks. Lucky bastard.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The frozen embryos case

Natalie Evans has lost her case to use frozen embryos fertilised by her ex-partner to try to have a child. The issue was whether her partner, who originally gave his consent, has the right to later withdraw his consent. I suspect the case has been decided correctly in law. Ms Evans has spoken of her "right" to have a child, and of course no one has any such right. Even so, it is very difficult to understand the motives of the man in this case. Relations end, often bitterness and hatred follows (you hum the tune, I'll sing along); but simple humanity might be expected. I suppose his argument is that he is concerned about financial liability, or in 20 years time being confronted by a biological offspring; but without having the power to see inside someone else's head I am sceptical that this is all there is to it. Perhaps I am being uncharitable but it looks like spite. And that is very sad.

Bullingdon Boys

It seems David Cameron was not the only member of the Bullingdon Club - remember their principal activity consists of getting trolleyed, smashing up restaurants, and then using Daddy's money to hush-up the proprietor. Here is another pompous prat, pictured on the far left: George (Gideon) Osborne, along with assorted Rothchilds and the like.

And - lest we forget - a reminder of Cameron and his Bullingdon frat-brat chums (above, No. 2).

Council Tax Scam

As someone wholly innocent of financial matters, when I get my Council Tax Bill here's what I do: I divide the sum owed by 10 (the Council insists on being paid over ten months and although I could insist on paying over twelve months it's too much hassle). Anyway, I divide by 10. But if it comes to, say, so-many-pounds-and-so-many-pence, I just round it up to the nearest pound. Then I pay that each month. My assumption is that, if I am a couple of pounds in credit at the end of the year, that will be carried over to the next year. BUT IT ISN'T. At least not unless you phone up and go through the Kafkaesque system ("Press 1 for X, 2 for Y...etc.") designed to prevent contact with anything human. Imagine my surprise when, according to this years bill, my payments last year were penny perfect. That didn't seem right to me (given my careless ways with money), so I phoned up, went through the maze, and eventually discovered there was (so the council tell me and it is too much trouble to double check) the grand (and rather odd) sum of 38p (in credit) which had not been carried forward. Well 38p is neither here nor there, so it doesn't really matter. But, wait a minute, how many people pay council tax in Manchester? Now maybe they are all much better organised than I am, but I'm pretty sure plenty are just like me. How many don't notice that no balance has been carried forward, and just let it go? How many tens or hundreds of thousands of 38p's are that? A nice little earner. A bloody scam! Now this year I have a cunning plan. I will divide by ten and if it is so-many-pounds-and-so-many-pence I will round down rather than round up. That should leave me in debit at the end of the year. Let's see if that is carried forward, or if any red letters arrive demanding payment of said amount... I'm not thinking of taking bets on this.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Blair's Ten Years

The Observer has a special on Blair's ten years; including a BPIX poll and a long essay by Andrew Rawnsley. The poll shows the public pretty much has the measure of Blair: 51% think "He manages to convinve himself that whatever he has decided to do must be morally right", with only 28% preferring: " He believes all of his statements and actions are morally right". Reviewing the poll, David Sanders and Paul Whiteley conclude the voters do think Blair "is a moral person" but also think that his morality is "flaky". 49% agree Blair is "too concerned with spin"; 45% that he is "out of touch"; 40% that he is "tired, run out of ideas"; only 7% find him "visionary", 12% "principled"; 7% "in touch"; and 6% "trustworthy". Most voters - 58% - see the war in Iraq as his biggest failure (the next highest option - on 10% - is "being in office while the gap between rich and poor widened").
The poll findings on "public performance" (the NHS, crime, etc) are also very poor; but this is perhaps unfair. The truth is that there are many things that it is simply beyond the ablity of government to control. When a government has been in power for a long time and there are - as there inevitably will be - still problems with the NHS, crime, etc, then voters begin to make an adverse judgement on the government, and the pendulum begins to swing. That is why it is so important for governments to try to "renew" themselves. On the other hand, the judgement of the voters is not altogether unfair; "reform" for Blair has meant only one thing: privatisation and part-privatisation (this is the ideological mania - inherited from Thatcher - at the heart of New Labour and why Rawnsley is wrong to say that Blair is ideologically "of no fixed abode"). Sanders and Whiteley suggest that: "One possible explanation for the negative scores lies in the enormous disillusion of many public service workers with the tide of target, monitoring and audit that inhibits their ability to perform their "real job"". More than 40% of British adults either work in, or have partners who work in,the public sector. They talk about "their largely negative experiences of the public sector" with their "friends and acquaintances". So these "negative views" spread to the wider population. On the other hand, it might have been interesting to know how voters would have responded had they been asked the counter-factual question: "Would the NHS (or whatever) be in better shape had the Conservatives, rather than Labour, been in office over the last ten years?". The outcome of actual General Elections suggests voters would not answer in the affirmative.
The poll shows Blair's biggest achievement is considered to be the Good Friday Agreement (23%) - and although this may reflect good recent publicity it is a good call.

The Rawnsley essay gets Blair right in many ways : he is a brilliant "tactician" with a "magic flair for performance", and is "superb at the thespian aspects of politics", "fantastic" at the "poetry of politics", the "most accomplished communicator of his era" (bar Clinton, I think). But he is uninterested in the minutiae of politics, finding policy detail "tedious", "an acrobat politician, not an engineer politician". He is "too easily seduced by wealth" and has "an awe of riches".
Much of what Rawnsley says (e.g. about Blair/Brown) is familiar enough. Here are some things which (although not novel revelations) caught my eye:
(i) many Blairites think it unfortunate there was not a leadership election in 1994; after the 2001 election Blair considered sacking Brown; and after the "wobble" in the spring of 2004 it was Cherie Blair who rallied the Blairite troops to persuade Blair to stay (one might have thought she had other priorities at that time). It seems Cherie Blair's hatred of Brown knows no limit.
(ii) On Iraq, Rawnsley says that Blair committed himself to regime change in Iraq as early as his meeting with Bush, at his Texas ranch, in April 2002. Rawnsley doesn't think it right to call Blair "Bush's poodle". He was not - Rawnsley argues - "being pulled by a leash held by Bush". I don't quite agree with this. Even if it was Blair who was pulling the leash (like a dog who wants to go "walkies" while his master is sprawled in front of the TV) he was still on a leash. Not so much a poodle then; a yappy Scottish Terrier perhaps. Rawnsley also argues that Blair did not lie about Iraq (he "did genuionely believe that Saddam had some sort of weapons programme") but does not dispute that that "hedged and conditional intelligence" was presented as "cast-iron evidence". In other words the evidence was "sexed-up" to suit a pre-existing political committment. In any case, Blair can make himself believe anything he wants to believe.
(iii) According to Rawnsley, "virtually everyone who has served in the cabinet" regards the war in Iraq as "a total disaster".
(iv) One (unintended) consequence of the war in Iraq, Rawnsley argues, is that it weakens "the very cause of liberal interventionism of which he was such an eloquent and impassioned champion". This he thinks "the most tragic" consequence of Blair's premiership. This I think is true; intervention in Sudan is made much more difficult, even impossible, by the disaster in Iraq.
(v) Rawnsley implies Blair was already committed to introducing variable university tuition fees at the time when an explicit committment not to do so was included in the 2001 Manifesto (he calls this "particularly stupid"; dishonest is another word that springs to mind).
Overall, Rawnsley's summation is pretty favourable: 40 continous quarters of economic growth, low inflation, interest rates and unemployment, "the largest increase in spending on public services there has ever been in British history", SureStart, pensions credit, tax credits for working families, the minimum wage (But most of this is Brown rather than Blair, isn't it?). It is hard to disagree that: "If he (Blair) left Britain still a very unequal place, and one in which social mobility had become disturbingly frozen, it was a much less unequal place than it would have been had the trends of the Tory years continued". And yet...there is the increased Home Office-driven authoritarianism, there are the repeated scandals arising out of deference to money and the monied, there is the obsession with privatisation, there is the failure to make any serious inroads into reducing inequality (and the unwillingness of Blair to do so) as opposed to "holding the fort", there is the fraternising with Aznar and Berlusconi, there is the committment to "flexible labour markets" (which spawns vulnerable part-time workers on temporary contracts with few if any social benefits who are easily sackable), and there is Iraq. The Government has been a curious mxture of (i) neo-Thatcherism (low income taxes, privatisation, etc), (ii) "stealthy" social-democracy (minimum wage, pension credit, etc), (iii) halting constitutional reform (devolution, removal of the hereditaries from the Lords, etc), and (iv) blind support for US Foreign Policy. It is a very mixed record.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Name, Rank, and Number

If Politaholic was taken prisoner by the Iranians - or by anyone - he would do pretty much anything to get home safe and sound. If they asked me to do a naked handstand in the town square I'd do it (or at any rate I'd try my level best). But I am not a professional soldier. In yesterday's Guardian Marina Hyde takes a hard line, arguing that getting captured is "a risk inherent in the type of work" for which the captured British sailors and Royal Marines "signed up". I 'm not sure I am quite so willing to be so hard-line, as a life-long "conviction coward" it would make me just a teensy bit uncomfortable. But the captives do seem to have rolled-over with remarkable ease. It also seems to me that having negotiated their release (there was clearly a quid pro quo involved since the Iranian diplomat Jalal Sharafi - held in Iraq - was released one day earlier and the U.S. has agreed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit five Iranians captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in January) it is bad form to immediately call a press conference for the purpose of detailing how badly they were treated (in fact, they seem to have been treated a damn sight better than those held in Guantamano, but that, admittedly, is to set the bar rather low). Would it not have been better to maintain a dignified silence? Now we learn the captives are to sell their - presumably "sexed-up" account - to the press. I wouldn't have thought there was much to boast about; but it looks like they are about to become tabloid "heroes". For doing what is unclear: getting captured?

Shock New Development: Samantha Fox Refuses to "Get Her Tits Out for the Lads"

Yesterdays Guardian had an incredible story about Samantha Fox refusing - yes refusing - to get her tits out. It seems that she is, so to speak, big in Serbia. So big that the Serbian town of Croak was intent on erecting a life-size marble statue of Samantha to coincide with a concert she was giving there. Anyway, during the concert fans started to chant that they wanted to see her tits, not unreasonable since that is her forte. The titchy Tory with the improbably large breasts threw a tantrum and stormed off stage - I mean, the very idea - so the plans to erect a statue have been scapped. Samantha is a "lady who lunches" these days, very respectable, you know. Of course, there were all those photographs in The Sun years ago, but you have to understand they were all done in the best possible taste; they were really quite artistic and not at all smutty. Anyway, Sam is a accomplished vocalist these days. Years ago her first pop single was, if I recall, called "Touch My Body". I can't remember which wag suggested that the follow-up single should be entitled: "Now wash your hands". The photograph is a reminder of what a Tory Tit looks like, and even Politaholic must admit that it is quite fetching.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Easter Tidings

The British Humanist Association has details of a Ipsis MORI poll showing that 62% agree with statement A that: "Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe" and only 22% agree with statement B: "Religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe". Support for A is lowest and for B highest among those with no formal educational qualifications (46% and 30%, respectively). Only 27% think that: C: "People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong". 45% seem to believe in some kind of life after death; whereas 41% reject this. 42% think the Government pays too much attention to religious groups and leaders. The BHA's analysis shows around 36% are humanists "in their basic outlook".

It is worth reminding ourselves of this at a time of year when people - some of whom think it appropriate to wear an instrument of torture as an item of jewellery - will be celebrating the death/resurrection of their Messiah (which, according to their cruel and irrational doctrine, was necessary to "save" us poor sinners, although some of the more zealous of these chaps think that if we don't subscribe to their beliefs we aren't "saved" at all and will burn in hell for all eternity). They apparently think their "saviour" was killed but later came back to life and floated into the sky.

Monday, April 02, 2007

April Fool

So what was the April Fool story in The Observer yesterday? Was it the front page lead: that the Home Office is preparing to deport hundreds of Zimbabweans, including a teenager who exposed the sex-for-asylum scandal in the Immigration Service? Or perhaps the story that guests at Thornton Manor for the bithday party of Wayne Rooney's wag were greeted by "stilt walkers dressed as swans and jugglers in sailor suits"? Or perhaps the story that the chef at Alton Towers, asked about vegtables for children, replied: "We don't do things like that". (The chef at Milton Keynes Xscape adventure complex said:" There are no vegtables here. We're not that kind of place"). Or could it be Bob Kiley musing that he gets £3,200 a day for doing "in all honesty, not much"? Or the story that Patricia Hewitt repeatedly called Jack McConnell "Jack McDonald" on TV? Or possible the story that the BBC - which so far as I can gather is wall-to-wall Eastenders - is "too upmarket"? Or that someone called Abi Titmuss is to be given a small fortune for a book in which she will relate that she shagged "a footballer, a singer, and an actor"? There was also a story that Tony Blair is to return to acting (when did he ever leave it?) and appear in The Crucible at the Old Vic. But that seems far more plausible than these other stories. It can't be that, can it?