Sunday, March 30, 2008

In praise of...the NHS

Politaholic is typing this one-handed with his arm in a sling following a cycling accident (dislocated shoulder, it was agony). We take so much for granted. I walked into the A and E at Manchester Royal Infirmary, told them I was in great pain. They saw me within 10 minutes. A nurse first looked at me; then I had to wait for an x-ray for what seemed ages, but probably wasn't really that long. Then two nurses and a doctor gave me some morphine, attached various bit of equipment to me to monitor heart beat, took my blood pressure, manipulated the arm, then another x-ray before being allowed home. Walk in, walk out. Competent, sympathetic staff. As I took a taxi home I thought: "Thank God I don't live in Detroit". The NHS truly is a marvellous achievement. As I say, we take so much for granted. The picture shows Nye Bevan with the first NHS patient, Sylvia Diggory.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Apathy? Who Cares?

The Hansard Society annual audit on political engagement (the fifth) has just been published and is available on their web-site. The key findings are:
  • Only 13% say they are "very interested" in politics; 19% say they are "not at all" interested. Just 51% say they are "interested".
  • Only 53% say they are certain to vote at the next election.
  • Only 41% say they have discussed politics with friends or family in the last two years.
  • Only 31% believe that "when people like me get involved in politics, they really can change the way the country is run".
  • Young people are less likley to be interested in politics; so are those in social class DE, readers of tabloid "newspapers", people who belong to an ethnic-minority and - for some reason - the Welsh (!).
  • 12% say they know "nothing at all" about politics and 45% "not very much".
  • Only 23% of 18-24 year-olds say that they will vote.

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian argues that "what makes people vote is having something worth voting for - and something to vote against". There is something in this: turnout in last year's French Presidential election (where voters were presented with a clear choice) was fairly high (over 80%). The old refrain that politicians are "all the same" is, Toynbee argues, "not wrong in these strange political times". There are many reasons why people don't vote. Those who favour a "cyclical" explanation argue that, if an election is closely contested, turnout will go up. On the other hand, turnout at the next election would have to rise by an astonishing 17.6% to match the 1950-66 average and by 10% to match the turnout in 1997. That seems to me unlikely. Toynbee advocates electoral reform - she argues AV (a "small change") could be introduced in time for the next election. The trouble is, if AV were introducted, this change would probably block what might be called "proper" electoral reform: the introduction of a PR system. In any case, it is hardly a remedy for the deeper malaise Toynbee identifies: the feeling - that many people have - that it doesn't really matter who wins, it will be "business as usual" for the corporate fat cats, that political engagement is simply futile. I can't see that changing any time soon. Prediction? turnout will go up next time; but will fall far short of 70%.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Is Brown Butch or Sundance? Neither.

The long-awaited draft Constitutional Renewal Bill presented by Jack Straw to the Commons appears to be a damp squib. Simon Carr in The Independent accurately described it as "a self-defeating mish-mash of bilge, bollocks and fudge". Lords reform has been put on the long finger yet again. The Attorney-General is to remain in the Cabinet and continue to act as the government's legal adviser and, where "national security" is concerned retains the power to halt prosecutions. The royal prerogative power to declare war will be transferred to Parliament, but when "special forces" are deployed no Parliamentary vote will be required...and on it goes. The good Lord gives with one hand and takes away with another (much like a Brown budget). Brown seems to have a fatal weakness for finessing everything out of existence. Allowing a free vote on some amendments to the Bill on embryo research but not on the Third Reading is an example of this. It looks clever. Maybe in Parliamentary terms it is. But to the wider public it looks like talking out of both sides of your mouth at once. Too clever by half is the phrase that springs to mind. It looks at if, for all their half-heartedness, the bold measures of constitutional change occurred under a (reluctant) Blair: devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Human Rights Act, the removal of the hereditaries from the Lords. Brown signalled that he intended to step up the pace; but it doesn't look at though this intention has survived a few months in office. In the Guardian Jonathan Freedland recommends a "Butch and Sundance" strategy to Brown. Even if Labour loses the next election they can go out fighting. Go out in "a blaze of glory as they pursue one last change - a democratic second chamber, a written constitution, an improved voting system...". Fat chance. The cautious, calculating, hesistant, dithering Brown is not the man for that. He will weigh the pros and cons and produce something so balanced and hedged around with qualifications and exceptions as to be as inspiring as a bowl of cold porridge.

Bling Wars

The King of Bling (Nicolas Sarkozy) met the Queen of Bling (Elizabeth Windsor) yesterday and it was no contest. When it comes to vulgar displays of ostentatious wealth he is a mere amateur. But the real star of the show was of course Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Was it just me or did the Commons collectively swoon at PMQ’s yesterday when Brown welcomed President Sarkozy and his wife to Britain? And well they might. Here are two photos of the striking Carla. One with some of her clothes on. She was dressed a little more demurely yesterday.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama's Pastor Plays the Race Card

The Clinton's have been getting a pasting in the media for allegedly playing the race card. The evidence? Hillary apparenly denigrated Martin Luther King (by pointing out that it was Lyndon Johnson who pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress) and Bill pointed out that Jesse Jackson won primaries in the south in the 1980's. Pretty tame stuff, really. The ringing phone ad was apparently racist also, although I can't see it. Well, here is the race card played for real by Obama's pastor (Obama has attended his church for 20 years yet says he never heard Pastor Wright say anything like this before). It isn't that there isn't some truth in what the Pastor says (about poor black folk and rich white folk). It is, rather, the whole tone and manner of it. Hillary Clinton may be many things but she doesn't really deserve this. One of the pleasing things about this video is that, if you look closely, the audience seems divided and some appear to be trying to remonstrate with Pastor Wright, although we can't hear what they say because he has the microphone. Not everyone is applauding. There were some - black people - even in the Church, who appear to think he was, as they say, "out of order". It is, of course, damaging Obama (this morning's Guardian reports white votes ebbing away) and, should he win the Democratic nomination, this - and Pastor Wright's "God damn America" together with Michelle's embarassing gaffe - will be used relentlessly by the Republicans. They are both already all over YouTube and the blogosphere.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tim's Cold War rolls on...

The old Cold Warrior hasn't changed his spots. Timothy Garten Ash holds forth on China and Tibet in yesterday's Guardian. He refers to the repression of Buddist monks in Tibet, the "familiar apparatus of a police state", the "repressive regime", and so on. Oh, and it seems there was "some" violence against Han Chinese. Ah, that weasely "some". On Radio 4 this morning the BBC's man in China referred to "brutal" violence against Han Chinese in what anywhere else would be called sectarian attacks. Elsewhere the same edition of the Guardian reports that: "independent witnesses reported vicious ethnic attacks on Han Chinese and Hui Muslims in the Tibetan capital last Friday..." And Tim? What he says is: "it seems there was some violence..." against Han Chinese... Only some and it only seems that way...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hutton hoists the Blairite Flag

The notorious Mandelson mantra that New Labour is "seriously relaxed about people getting filthy rich" has been revived by John Hutton. He says that "rather than questioning whether huge salaries are morally justified, we should celebrate the fact that people can be enormously succcessful...", and "any progressive party worth its name must enthusiastically advocate empowering people to climb without limits". He adds - incoherently - that our "overarching goal" is that "no one should be left behind". But if some people become filthy rich that must mean they become rich relative to others. If we were all equally filthy rich then even the strictest egalitarian could hardly complain . If some people become rich relative to others, social inequality must increase and someone must be, by comparison, "left behind". Being rich is about leaving others behind. And there is an awful lot of evidence that greater inequality per se has adverse social consequences (Politaholic has posted on this before). But perhaps what is most odious about Hutton's comments is the vulgarity of equating success and achievement with amassing money (rather than with distinction or achievement in some field of endeavour); with that he really is the spokesman of the celebocracy. Consider, lets say, a distinguished professor of metallurgy at UMIST (as was); a first violinist with the Liverpool Philharmonic; a dedicated and talented primary school teacher or nurse. These are all failures, in Huttons vision, compared to a hedge fund manager or a management consultant. Why? They don't make as much money.
Of course, it is obvious what this is about, Hutton is hoisting the flag of Blairism against Brown, perhaps positioning himself for a future leadership contest. I doubt whether with these remarks he has done himself much good. They are not just out of kilter with what one in possibly very naive moments thinks of as "Labour values", but with the broader public mood.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

All Hail the Teapot!

In Malaysia, according to the Telegraph, a 57 year old woman has been sentenced for worshipping a giant teapot (pictured). Her crime is to convert from Islam to teapot-worshipping and this is forbideden in Malaysia under sharia law (what the Archbishop of Cantebury thinks of this is anybody's guess). The woman says the teapot signififies the purity of water and "love pouring from heaven". Completely bonkers, of course, but quite sweet in a way and no more bonkers than any other relegion. Do these fruitcake sharia judges realise how utterly ridiculous - not to say how small-minded and nasty - they make themselves look? Probably not; they are intoxicated by bigotry and nonsense.

Milan, Paris....Liverpool?

Apparently there is going to be a Liverpool fashion week. No, not shell suits and tattoos but a really fashionable event to rival Milan and Paris, with the shopaholic WAGS (wives and girlfriends of Wayne Rooney et al) taking centre-place (it seems they provide a "fashion template" for young women). There is, the Guardian reports, going to be "a Sex and the City-themed high street fashion show". Of course there is.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A referendum?

My boss reminded me the other day of a remark of Winston Churchill that the best argument against democracy was "a five minute conversation with the average voter". The comment is apposite apropos the argument about whether there should be a referendum on the European Reform Treaty. Let's be honest: are voters really competent to judge its pros and cons? I feel the same about membership of the single currency. In my gut I favour it, but its a complicated question, there are pros and cons, I'm not an economist, and I'm not really sure I'm competent to judge. If there was a referendum on the Treaty would voters really be voting on the Treaty? Or would they use the occasion to pass judgement on Gordon Brown? Or would Sun-driven Europhobia determine the outcome? Here's the truth: None of the parties really want a referendum. The Tories - or the sensible ones not the nutters - want the government to put the Treaty through Parliament without a referendum because they know the EU needs it, and they get the best of both worlds because they can bleat about there not havng been a referendum. If elected after the Treaty has gone through they will not revisit it. Labour don't want a referendum and neither do the Lib-Dems (and I suspect this is true also of the Lib-Dem rebels!) because they are afraid of a "No" vote. Putting it through Parliament is the right way to do it: the UK is a parliamentary not a plebiscitary democracy. And anyway democracy can easily be fetishised: it is a system of government which allows voters every now and then to get rid of a really unpopular government. Other than that (and that of course is very important) ordinary voters do not really have any more control over decision-making than in Putin's-Russia (as it still is). We have lots of liberal freedoms, thank God. But that's not the same thing. The Eurosceptics are in a way right, the European project has from the start been elite-driven and has progressed by stealth; but I kind of think that European unity is a "good thing", and that it couldn't have been done any other way.

Going Negative: why are the rules different for Obama?

Jonathan Freedland was at it again in the Guardian on Thursday: Clinton won in Texas and Ohio by "going negative". The TV ad in question features children sleeping, then a 3 a.m call to the White House and asks who you would want to answer the phone in a crisis? It is fairly negative, but hardly dirty. It plays on Clinton's "experience" and, frankly, that seems fair enough to me (Although I don't think it is a good tactic, since it allows Obama to depict her as a "Washington insider". His campaign is based on the oldest trick in the book: "running against Washington" as the candidate of "change"). Obama responded with a very similar ad; asking whether you wanted someone answering the phone who has so misjudged Iraq (as had Clinton). Just as negative, but also fair enough. Why then is only the Clinton campaign castigated for being "negative"? Why is it "negative" to scrutinise Obama's actual record over Iraq or NAFTA to see if his account is wholly accurate? From what I can see he called it right originally but wobbled a bit on both and the wobbles have been air-brushed out (and mentioning them is forbidden: it's "negative"). And, again, accusing the Clintons of being racist, of dishonouring Martin Luther King and so on: isn't that negative? The "Vote Different" ad depicts Hillary Clinton as a sinister "Big Brother" figure and seems to me far more "negative" than the phone-ringing-in-the-White-House ad. Michelle Obama says that Clinton can't run the White House because she "can't run her own House". Negative? Yet for all this Freedland says "...Obama has avoided hitting back in kind". Eh? I think Hillary Clinton hit the nail on the head (although the studio audience booed) when she said, after Obama's Saturday Night Live appearance (a tad "negative"?) that the toughest question he has been asked so far is whether he wants another pillow. Why are the rules so different?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Ordure, Ordure

Speaker Martin has never struck me as the sharpest tool in the box, but he seemed a fairly harmless, genial old buffer. The ugly derision from Tory Toffs ("Gorbals Mick") earned him some sympathy. But he is certainly aboard the gravy train. Of course, its not corruption of Italian proportions; and the sums of money involve pale into insignificance when compared to the zillions wasted on PFI and consultancy scams and failed IT projects. Even so. Over six years he claimed £75,000 in expenses for his house in his constituency even though it has no mortgage. His wife spent £4000 on taxis cruising around London shopping. His salary is £138,000 and one would have thought you could afford a taxi fare out of that. It seems it is all part of a broader pattern of dodgy expenses used to push up the MP's salaries. No wonder the public holds politicians in such low esteem. Martin Rowson hits the nail on the head.

Obama's Achievements

Sue Carrol of Rutger's University says (quoted in yesterday's Guardian) that: "Frankly, I think the media in this country has ben pretty favourable towards Obama". Recently, in Texas, he was wildly cheered by his fans for, um, er, blowing his nose. But this may be changing, as this shows.

Harry Windsor's PR stunt

Marina Hyde in yesterdays Guardian mused that it was "nice to see Prince Harry in a British uniform, as opposed to one of Hitler's". One must admit, however, that it has been a well-managed PR stunt. Was he ever in any danger? Were his personal bodyguards with him? I imagine he was carefully coddled. But then again if he did meet a sticky end it would be tremendously good publicity for the Windsor family. Can you imagine it: the state funeral (one or other Dimbleby sycophantically droning on), heaps of flowers, the "peoples prince", etc, etc? Doesn't bear thinking about.