Sunday, March 08, 2009

Brown pays homage to Washington

So Brown has been to Washington to pay pledge fealty to the new Emperor. Addressing Congress was - so it is being reported - a highlight of his career, something of which he is immensely proud. From where I sit it was a display of rather embarrasing grovelling by a local satrap eager to please. The theme? "America the wonderful". The so-called "special relationship" was laid bare. Special it may be to Brown, but I doubt if, for Obama or Congress, it is especially special. They looked at Brown and saw someone who came to pay them homage, and took it as their due.

Thatcher - a sympathetic portrait?

I seem to be out of kilter with everyone else in respect to the TV drama Margaret, about Thatcher in her bunker. The prevailing view - in nearly all the reviews I have seen - is that it was at least a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Thatcher, showing her "human" side. I didn't see that at all (but maybe that's just me). The arrogance and conceit was there, the petty humiliation of colleagues (asking Howe to fetch her shawl), and even the vanity (the smirk of pleasure as Charles Powell comments on her ear-rings or remarks that she looks "radiant" - a very unsympathetic but probably accurate portrait of Powell as a scheming, sycophantic courtier). Yes, there was the "private side" but I didn't find it sympathetic - it was mostly maudlin self-pity. She was certainly depicted as having a limitless capacity to feel sorry for herself but there was little evidence here of any ability to empathise with others (and of course the real Thatcher didn't have any). Yes, she put a blanket over Crawfie in one scene; but then Crawfie appears to have been a family retainer, someone useful. To anyone not useful to her, or to whom she was not related, Thatcher - on the evidence here - gave no thought at all. It was all about Margaret. She didn't even have the grace to leave the stage with dignity after the gig was over; she had to be dragged from office kicking-and-screaming. Lindsay Duncan's performance was excellent, but one thing was missing. It is impossible to truly appreciate the awfulness of Thatcher without that voice. It turned my blood cold; it was both repellent and nauseating. Time moves on. It is thirty years since Thatcher was elected; nearly twenty since she left office. One has to be in one's fifties to have lived through those awful years. You had to be there. You had to hear her in her pomp. Ever now I cannot hold back a shiver of distaste.

Should there hae been a ballot?

Arthur Scargill and the other Miners leaders have often been criticised for not holding a national ballot on whether to strike in 1984. I am fairly agnostic about this. Perhaps it was a mistake - it certainly handed the Tories a propaganda gift. But I doubt if - had a ballot been held (and even if the Miners voted to strike) - it would have made a difference to the eventual outcome. The whole might of the state was against the Miners and add to that the pusillanimity of most of the rest of the trade union leaderships and of Kinnock et al and it seems to me the Miners had a very uphill task. Scargill argues - in Saturday's Guardian - that if the pit deputies union Nacods had come out the strike could have been won (he obviously suspects that some behind-the-scenes skulldugery explains why they choose not to, and he may well be right) and he thinks that if picketing had been increased at Orgreave after June 18 the coking plant could have been closed. Maybe. But vis-a-vis the ballot Scargill has a point. The difficulty was that Miners in some areas - believing (falsely) that their jobs were safe - could vote against a strike, effectively voting Miners in other areas out of a job. Scargill quotes Peter Heathfield speaking at the time: "...a ballot should not be used and exercised as a veto to prevent people in other areas defending their jobs". As I say, I am not convinced the decision taken not to hold a national ballot was correct; but this is certainly a fair point. Very often the "recieved version" of past events is allowed to stand with insufficient scrutiny.

Lock-em-up and take the cash

Saturday's Guardian has a truly horrendous story about judges in Pennsylvania recieving kickbacks from the private-run prisons for passing custodial sentences on children. Each inmate represents a bundle of cash paid from the taxpayer to the private-run prisons; the more there are the more money there is; so it makes sense to buy judges (two were bought for $2.6 million). The case has been called "kids-for-cash" . Judges have passed custodial sentences on a child for throwing sandal at her mother, on another for stealing a jar of nutmeg worth $4, and on another for slapping a friend at school. One judge in the first two years of his term passed custodisal sentences in 4.5% of cases; by 2004 (by which time he was on the payroll) it had risen to 26%. Of course, here in blighty New Labour as been pushing private prisons with great enthusiasm. Whether the same sort of thing happens here we shall probably never know; but it is perfecly obvious that a privatised prison sector has a deep vested interest in ever-higher levels of incarceration.