At times it appears as if the courts are the only place an increasingly powerful executive can be held to account. As a leading Fleet Street reporter said to me shortly after the Public First ruling, ‘the opposition can’t lay a glove on the government. We struggle to, too. Only the courts seem able to stop Johnson.’
In response to a series of adroit questions from Dean Russell about the structural and institutional lessons that might be derived from his experience, Cummings could only return to Johnson’s personal flaws, ‘like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle into the other’. It’s true that ‘don’t elect Boris Johnson’ is a useful first step for dealing with any problem, but it is a little galling to hear it coming from the man who masterminded Johnson’s rise.
‘Is Dishy Rishi on your side?’ asks a recent attack ad made by ‘One Rule for Them’, aiming to expose the chancellor’s allegiance to an international class of billionaires. Sunak’s portfolio is certainly breathtaking. The MP for Richmond (Yorks), known in his constituency as the ‘Maharaja of the Dales’, is the wealthiest in the House of Commons, boasting property worth around £10 million (most of that’s a five-bedroom mews house in Kensington). His father-in-law is the billionaire businessman and co-founder of Infosys, N.R. Narayana Murthy. He has declined to clarify whether Thélème Partners, the hedge fund he co-founded with Patrick Degorce, would profit from the escalating share price of the biotech firm Moderna, which reported on Monday that its Covid-19 vaccine appeared to have an efficacy of 94.5 per cent.
When McDonald’s announced that it would be delivering a million free school meals to children in need, the fast food giant was said to have ‘shamed’ the government. But McDonald’s – with its union-busting techniques, poverty wages and insecure working conditions – isn’t shaming the government by intervening; it’s fulfilling one of the Conservatives’ key articles of faith: that people should be dependent on the will and generosity of the private sector and the free market. When the Conservative MP Ben Bradley claims that extending free school meals ‘increases dependency’ on the state, he is not only peddling a myth about the psychopathology of working-class people, but toeing the line that, even in a pandemic, we should not turn to the state.
Given the economic orthodoxy over the past ten years, the smiles and sunshine approach is hard to swallow. The chancellor proposes deficit spending, and by the end of the parliament expects the national debt to hit £2 trillion: the measures that the longer-serving Tories have grizzled, harrumphed and waved their papers in support of in the Commons since 2010 have vanished. Debt numbers that once seemed sacred are swept away like plaster idols. What, then, was the last decade for? The stagnant wages, the shrunken services, the slashing of the social state? George Osborne’s apparent claim – that austerity paved the way for the new munificence – is in no way credible. The NHS is about to discover that a few extra billion now can’t make up for frayed investment over a decade; new intensive care services, and trained staff to run them, cannot be conjured from thin air.
This week’s nadir came with the prime minister’s wholesale importing of the language of the alt-right into his performance at the despatch box: over and again he spoke of the ‘Surrender Act’ passed before prorogation; his attorney general, in the warm-up slot, bellowed that this ‘dead Parliament’ had forfeited its ‘moral right’ to sit. When reminded that the language of ‘surrender’ and ‘treachery’ was associated with the murder of Jo Cox, Johnson gave little more than a sneer. It was hard to watch the malevolent pantomime without thinking of the earnest anxiety of some of the Labour Conference debates, or the distraught and unvarnished message delivered by Greta Thunberg to the UN two days earlier: ‘You are failing us.’
In the latest episode of the Talking Politics podcast, David Runciman catches up with Catherine Barnard on the Supreme Court's unanimous decision against prorogation, and discusses what's going on in Italian politics with Lucia Rubinelli and Chris Bickerton. They also explore the similarities and differences between the situations in the two countries, from fears of an election to the role played by president and monarch.
In the new episode of the Talking Politics podcast, David Runciman, Helen Thompson, Catherine Barnard and Chris Bickerton ask what’s at stake in the prorogation case at the Supreme Court.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s greatly overestimated aide, promises that however Parliament tries to constrain the prime minister, even by toppling the government, he will force through Brexit on the promised departure date. The hope is to turn Brexit into a runaway train, with Vote Leave cadres guarding any access to the driver’s cab.
When Britain’s insular political class thinks of Italy, it is usually as a byword for instability or venality – an unwarranted form of self-congratulation. Britain had no Tangentopoli: its forms of corruption are more sedate and domestic, and, if not always entirely legal, usually occupy a grey zone of establishment omertà.
Boris Johnson has mugged and gurned his way into Number Ten, through a leadership contest with a virtually preordained conclusion. It is hard to imagine how he could have lost – perhaps a hostage video with the queen in a grimy basement would have swung the needle away from him a few points – but harder still to imagine how he might govern.
Energy and optimism have been the watchwords of Johnson’s press ambassadors since his victory was announced; the man himself continues to duck press scrutiny. The stress on sunshine and optimism makes Tory politicians and hangers-on sound improbably like wide-eyed Californian acolytes of The Secret, but without any solution to the problems that felled Theresa May it is hardly surprising that his defenders fall back on voluntaristic brio.
Fear of a Corbyn government stalks the Tory leadership race. Each candidate has claimed he alone possesses the necessary quality to defeat the red menace: Gove points to his gyrating denunciations at the despatch box; Johnson’s proxies emphasise his anti-politician charisma. The closer a candidate comes to elimination, the more obvious the recourse to fear and the more outlandish the claims made in its service: Sajid Javid, now out of the race, said on Monday that a Corbyn government would put Tories and journalists ‘against the wall’. There is some strategic wisdom to this, since a recent YouGov poll suggests that Corbynphobia is the only animating passion equal to Brexitphilia among Tory party members.
Peter Mair once observed a curious paradox in European elections: people often use their votes to express their dissatisfaction with the fundamental nature of the European Union, despite that being outside an MEP’s purview – the Union is founded on treaties signed by national governments. Conversely, national governments are often elected to pursue policies that are properly the domain of the European Parliament, and so find themselves unable to deliver on their promises – an effect especially pronounced in the Eurozone’s smaller economies.
The recent spate of milkshake protests against the far right began in Warrington on 2 May. A young Asian man was being harassed by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. ‘Tommy Robinson’, formerly of the BNP and EDL, now Ukip). As henchmen bristled around him, he defended himself with what came to hand. Yaxley-Lennon got another dousing in Wigan the next day, and Nigel Farage caught a banana and salted caramel coating in Newcastle earlier this week. Various professional hyperventilators have decried the apparent coarsening of British politics and predicted a rapid skate down a slippery slope. But this form of grassroots censure has a long history. George Eliot wrote of Mr Brooke being ‘disagreeably anointed’ under a ‘hail of eggs’ while campaigning in Middlemarch.
Saturday’s Times carried on its front page a protracted complaint by the headmaster of Stowe School that Oxbridge was actively discriminating against the beneficiaries of private education, and that any complaint about the staggering overrepresentation of the privately educated in every avenue of British life was born of the same reasoning as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a particularly inept rendition of a favoured right-wing talking point: that any analysis which talks in terms of groups or classes is already merrily chugging along to the gulag, with precious individuality flattened under its wheels.
Ten years ago today, the Telegraph began publishing, in daily instalments, the expense claims made by British MPs over the previous four years. The humiliating examples were laid out like the yard sale of a bankrupt family: digital radios, hobnobs, light bulbs, fluffy dusters, scatter cushions, ice cube trays and toilet brushes.
Before the local elections last week, the Conservative Party had said that losing a thousand councillors would be a disaster. In the event, the collapse of the Tory vote was more than three hundred seats worse than that. The wipeout in Chelmsford left the Tory MP, Vicky Ford, in tears; at a gathering of Welsh Conservatives, the prime minister was greeted with active heckling, a rare choice for the Tory grassroots, who generally prefer to dissent in truculent silence. Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip, was ‘surprised anyone was bothered to vote for us’. At the coming European elections, with the Brexit Party in contention, the faithful remnant may be yet further diminished.
At a meeting on Tuesday of the Bruges Group, one of the proliferating and fissiparous Tory sectlets devoted to hatred of the European Union, Mark Francois topped off a speech of near-hallucinatory weirdness by lapsing into Poetry Voice – cod solemnity with pauses and emphases scattered at random – and sweating his way through the last few lines of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, a doughty lump of patriotic Victoriana to ginger up a senescent audience.
On Monday, seven MPs resigned from the Labour Party – though not from their seats in the Commons – to form a new ‘Independent Group’ in Parliament. An eighth joined them yesterday, and three Tories today. Few people, arguably including the splitters themselves, have much confidence that the breakaway group can garner significant public support, or achieve any particular objective.
The two most famous graduates of the Horace Mann School for Boys, class of ’67, were Barry Scheck, of O.J. Simpson ‘dream team’ fame, a lawyer who became expert in the use of DNA evidence in criminal defence cases, and William P. Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. He previously held the post under the late George H.W. Bush. Barry and Bill at the age of 14 were almost entirely recognisable as the adults one reads about or watches on TV. Both boys, so far as I remember, entered Horace Mann in the ninth grade, as a handful were allowed to do. Most of us started in grade seven. We all were required to wear ties and sports coats and proper trousers. I remember Barry in a tweed jacket, a small-ish boy, my size, carrying around an outsize and packed-to-bursting briefcase. He was very determined, and academically aggressive. Bill was then, as now, a pleasant-faced, pillowy-looking boy.
In November 1982, Brazil held its first direct multiparty elections since the 1964 coup. A month before the vote, the captain of the national football team wrote a four-page spread in Placar, the country’s bestselling football magazine, in which he articulated his proposals for jobs, housing, health, education and food security. These are issues that ordinary people worry about, Sócrates said, and if addressed properly will ensure a better life for all. ‘But we will only achieve this when everyone has full and total freedom to speak, to learn, to participate, to choose and above all to protest,’ he wrote. ‘That’s what living with dignity is all about.’
A week is a very long time in Italian politics, but also no time at all. When the last issue of the LRB went to press on 25 May, it looked as though a new government was about to be formed in Rome. The Movimento 5 Stelle and the Lega had drawn up, signed and approved a coalition agreement – a curious and probably unworkable mix of their variously anti-establishment and racist policies – and nominated Giuseppe Conte to be prime minister. The president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, had reluctantly agreed to ask Conte to form a government. But then it all fell apart when Mattarella and the leader of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, couldn't agree on who would be finance minister: Salvini refused to propose anyone except the eurosceptic Paolo Savona; Mattarella refused to give him the job; Conte threw in the towel; ricominciamo da capo.
On Monday, 21 May, Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson launched a new Conservative think-tank, Onward. Its aim, in the words of its director, Will Tanner, a former aide to Theresa May, is to ‘reach out to millennials in their twenties and early thirties – my generation – who overwhelmingly voted Labour in 2017’. The inspiration behind the name is Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign, En Marche! The irony of invoking Macron to boost popular support – for all the media buzz, he won on the lowest election turnout in the history of the French republic – seems to have been lost on its organisers. With Onward, Nick Timothy writes, ‘the future of the Conservative Party is about to be revealed.’
It must be spring. New political parties are sprouting all over. Two of the latest are Britain’s millionaire-funded Project One Movement – a provisional title, presumably – and, in Sweden, Alternativ för Sverige, the name obviously a nod to Alternative für Deutschland, formed in Germany in 2014.
All the frocks at the Golden Globe Awards this year were black, bar three. The unofficial dress code was to publicise Time's Up, a new organisation campaigning against sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap. Its founders are a mix of A-listers from film and TV, and A-listers from politics and law (including Christina Tchen, Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, and Roberta Kaplan, who brought Edie Windsor's case to the Supreme Court and thereby the Defence of Marriage Act to an end). The red-carpet blackout was a spectacle. Time’s Up’s muscle is a crowd-sourced legal defence fund to support working-class women pursuing harassment cases. The money isn't only for lawyers. Recipients will get help with filing fees, travel, and the other hidden expenses that keep poor women from seeking justice in the courts. After three weeks, the pot is $16.5 million.
Before she was a royal-in-waiting, Meghan Markle said on a television talk show that she might move to Canada rather than live in a country governed by a misogynist like Donald Trump. Prince Harry recently interviewed Barack Obama on the Today programme, giving the former president several opportunities to cast shade on his successor. The Sun quoted a senior UK government source saying that the royal couple want the Obamas at their wedding.
‘Can I just point out,’ Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote in a widely shared tweet during the Conservative Party Conference, ‘that Theresa May is wearing a bracelet of Frida Kahlo, a member of the Communist party who LITERALLY DATED TROTSKY.’ The Telegraph, though not without making a joke of it, pointed out some of the similarities between the prime minister and the late Mexican artist: their feminism, for example, and their fortitude. Any reference to communism must surely have been a ‘pointed message’ to Jeremy Corbyn, whom the paper styled as an apologist for Trotsky.
The post-election deal, between a dogmatic and narrow sect in the grips of a 17th-century mindset and the DUP, isn't a full-scale plighting of troths. It's more of a fling, for confidence and supply, between the Nasty Party and their Ulster brethren – devotees of the summer's glorious twelfths, when they have fun socking it to grouse (August) and nationalists (July). Each party remains hostage to its own contradictions. The Tories' lie between their laissez-faire ideologue Brexiters, whose holy of holies is free trade, and little Englander nativists, miffed that the wogs now start before Calais. The DUP's voter base, like everyone in Northern Ireland, depends on open borders with the republic, but its ideology covets a Brexit yet more rejectionist than that of many a gin-sozzled Tory backwoodsman.
On Thursday, Labour outlined plans to apply VAT on private school fees to fund free school meals for every primary pupil in England. The numbers add up: the provision would cost £900 million a year, and the prospective tax would raise far more than that. Speaking alongside the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, Jeremy Corbyn said the measure would help ensure that ‘no child is held back because of their background.’ Free school meals are far from gesture politics; their nutritional and cognitive benefits, especially for poorer children, are well documented.
In yesterday’s by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central, Labour’s Gareth Snell beat the Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, into second place. Many people, in the Labour Party and the media, had talked up Ukip’s chances in advance, with one commentator even speculating it could be ‘Corbyn’s Waterloo’. Last summer, 70 per cent of the city voted to leave the EU, with Nuttall describing the seat as Britain’s ‘Brexit capital’. Between that and Labour’s ever diminishing majorities, Ukip were understandably bullish. But they came second, with only 79 more votes than the Tories. As the dust settles, it’s easy to see why: beyond Nigel Farage, the party contains not one competent politician; Nuttall couldn’t have run a worse campaign; Labour’s ground game was very impressive; and Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to triggering Article 50 meant Labour wasn’t as vulnerable as it could have been over Brexit. Had Owen Smith led the party and insisted on ‘rejecting’ Article 50, things might have turned out very differently.
There are many similarities between the Brexit vote and Trump's win. The reliance for victory on white voters without a college education, fear of immigration, globalisation being blamed for mine and factory closures, hostility towards data-based arguments, the breakdown of the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘conclusion’, the internet’s power to sort the grain of pleasing lies from the chaff of displeasing facts, the sense of there being a systematic programme of rules and interventions devised by a small, remote, powerful elite that polices everyday speech, destroys symbols of tradition, ignores or patronises ‘real’, ‘ordinary’ people, and has contempt for popular narratives of how the nation came to be.
While Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential race is the starkest example of the failure of the centre-left to confront the rise of right-wing populism, a similar pattern has already been set across Europe.
May Brown, a Nigerian woman with leukemia, made the news last week when her sister was denied entry to the UK to provide life-saving stem cells. The Home Office said it wasn’t satisfied that the trip was genuine, or that the sister had enough money. This isn’t the first time Brown has been on the wrong side of British immigration; denied asylum in 2013, she attempted suicide. ‘We are sensitive to cases with compassionate circumstances,’ a Home Office spokesperson said last Friday, ‘but all visa applications must be assessed against the immigration rules.’
If you were so inclined, at the Conservative Party Conference you could don a virtual reality headset, sit on a McDonald’s branded lorry, grasp the steering wheel in front of you and pretend to be a potato farmer. Delegates who liked more violence in their fantasies could have a go on the grouse shooting simulator. If it was retail therapy you wanted, a cushion with John Major’s face on would set you back £30, but you could buy two white babysuits printed with ‘Little Iron Lady’ or ‘Future Prime Minister’ for the same price.
Theresa May invoked the ‘spirit of citizenship’ as the thing that holds Britain together today. The term has an ingrained tension: ‘spirit’ invokes a mystic national soul; ‘citizen’ something rational and rules-based. On the one hand, May seemed to suggest the concept was more about rules and moral norms than anything metaphysical, equating the ‘spirit of citizenship’ with paying tax and not being an absolute bastard to your employees:
On 13 September, the Boundary Commision for England published its proposals for the 2018 Boundary Review and launched a 12-week consultancy period. David Cameron initiated the review to equalise constituency size while cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Cameron’s rationale for axing fifty seats was saving money, the idea being that, under austerity and after the expenses furore, the public didn't want politicos living high on the public hog. Projected savings aren't that much – around £12 million a year – and the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has repeatedly said that the case for the cut hasn't been made. Whether or not the public wants fewer MPs, there’s been little demand for the far bigger recent increase in the Lords (current size 809): austerity is not for the nobs. Cameron created 246 peers, each entitled, like extant members, to a £300 per diem for showing up. The Lords has become a bloated public welfare scheme for aging apparatchiks.
The mood at the Labour Party Conference this year was markedly different from last year: after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced in Brighton in 2015, there was a huge amount of jubilation among delegates, while many MPs and political advisers wandered around the bars at night with bereft expressions. In Liverpool this week, the most that supporters could muster was temporary relief as they wondered where the attack would come from next. At private parties, MPs looked resigned as they gossiped with journalists.
Opinium and the Social Market Foundation have released a report based on a survey of 2000 people in the wake of the Brexit vote. Respondents were asked for their views on various policies, and to say where they saw themselves on the political spectrum. The report's conclusions, repeated in the press, were that public opinion is currently centrist-to-right-wing, and the left is split over policy in a way that the right is not, above all over immigration. The report also identifies Britain's eight ‘underlying political tribes', the two largest of which – ‘the Our Britain tendency’ and 'Common Sense' – make up 'around 50 per cent of the population' and 'hold a range of traditionally right wing views, offering a solid foundation on which to aim for the 40-42 per cent of the vote which normally guarantees a healthy majority under our electoral system.'
You can’t discount an argument on the grounds that you suspect some of its proponents of ignoble motives for making it. It is almost certainly the case that some critics of the state of Israel are motivated by anti-Semitism, but that doesn’t invalidate all criticism of Israeli policy or actions. The occupation of the West Bank is illegal whether you're anti-Semitic or not. Defenders of Israel sometimes ask – the international relations equivalent of a drunk driver telling the police to go after real criminals – why the left is so focused on Israel’s wrongdoings, rather than the often far worse crimes of other states. But the answer probably has less to do with anti-Semitism than the fact that, of the $5.7 billion the United States spends each year on foreign military financing, $3 billion goes to Israel. You can’t police the way people think, only what they do, which may sometimes include what they say.
The inclusion of Russell Brand on Prospect’s annual list of ‘world thinkers’ has been met with predictable outrage and ridicule. The Guardiansaid that his ‘presence looks designed to be provocative’. Reviewing Brand’s book Revolution for Prospect a few months ago, Robin McGhee attacked ‘Brand’s political stupidity’. At the same time, the Telegraph said that ‘Russell Brand's politics are staggeringly stupid.’ The Spectator called him 'an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance'. In the Observer, Nick Cohen once derided Brand's 'slack-jawed inability to answer simple questions'. Nathasha Lennard in Vice said she didn’t ‘think Brand is totally idiotic. But, to be clear, he is an idiot.’ If there's one thing Brand is not, however, it's stupid: that much should be obvious from watching or reading him, unless you think that having an Essex accent and taking the piss are signs of stupidity.
In the Republican Response to the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Joni Ernst, a newly elected senator from Iowa, referred to legislation that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline as the ‘Keystone jobs bill’. It’s the latest in a long line of Republican rebrandings.
I stayed up late the other night, following the café siege in Sydney on the Guardian website: 'What we know so far...' the live updates page said. Below that, like the punch line to no kind of joke, was a bullet point: 'Uber were criticised for charging minimum $100 for people trying to leave CBD during the siege. They have since offered free rides.'
The chancellor's Autumn Statement is as political and obscure as we might expect. A bit of spending here and a bit of cutting there. A tilt at the rich and corporations which, except for the change to stamp duty, won’t do much. The ‘banding’ of stamp duty is a kind of mansion tax which in principle would be desirable, if it didn't mean that the government has yet another reason to ration housing. (More houses means cheaper houses, which means a lower return on stamp duty.)
The Palace of Westminster is crumbling. It will require £3 billion to restore it. I’ve never been very fond of the building architecturally, and it wasn’t popular when it was built – least of all among MPs, who complained of the stink it let in from the Thames – but familiarity often breeds acceptance, and the silhouette has become so iconic that of course the place needs to be put back into shape. Whether or not that’s worth splashing out three billion for, when there are so many other worthy causes to hand, such as bailing out banks, is for taxpayers – or rather the chancellor – to decide.
The philosophers ‘will need to use a lot of drugs’, Plato says in the Republic, talking of the guardians’ need to con the banausics into thinking that their destiny is to keep their betters pondering. It’s one of my favourite Plato lines – ‘No pun intended, man!’ as Russell Brand might say. The other night, I speed-read – or, if you like, e-read, crack-read, acid-read – Brand’s shlockbuster Revolution, and had the strange feeling of having read it faster than I had.
Tuesday morning's session at the Labour Party Conference last week went totally unreported. On BBC Parliament, the titles said: 'Delegates are taking part in a debate about conference arrangements' – in other words, 'don't watch this'. But it was the most eventful discussion of the week.
The speed with which David Cameron has turned the victory of No into the West Lothian question is not surprising in a man who is both an opportunist and partisan, and who is concerned to protect his own leadership. But Ed Milband is right to resist Cameron’s rushed attempts to exploit promises made to Scotland, which almost certainly need never have been made, to justify legislation that would allow only English MPs to vote on ‘English’ measures (however they might be defined). Such a proposal is wrong for two reasons.
Last week a fracking company was refused permission to drill in the South Downs National Park. Celtique Energie is considering an appeal to Eric Pickles to overrule the decision. He might be reluctant to cause a furore in West Sussex, but would he feel the same if aggrieved companies could sue the government for lost profits? This can happen if foreign firms have access to an investor-state dispute settlement, as provided for in the new trade agreements being finalised by the EU with Canada and the US. Ministers reassure us that the provisions are nothing new, without mentioning that US companies are the world leaders in making ISDS claims. The two main ISDS tribunals, run by the World Bank and the UN, operate behind closed doors, with private attorneys who rotate between being judges and advocates, and have no appeals mechanisms.
Lady Gaga once said that ‘more mayors in the world should be like Jón Gnarr.’ In June, Gnarr left office after serving a full four-year term as mayor of Reykjavík. His memoir, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, will be published in Britain this week.
Selahattin Demirtaş, one of the leaders of Turkey’s left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is tall, self-confident, strong and soft-spoken. When he ran for president earlier this month, some of his supporters tried to convince undecided friends to vote for him by asking them to choose the ‘most handsome candidate on the ballot paper’. A friend’s grandmother said Demirtaş may be handsome but she would ‘never vote for a Kurd’. He came in third, with just under 10 per cent of the vote (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won with 52 per cent).
Just how nasty are politicians expected to be? Maybe they need to look nastier than they really are, because the demos demands that they hang tough. Even so, voters baulk at politicians who go home and dismember effigies of opponents or torture kittens; indeed the public, at least as ventriloquised by the press, demands politicos not succumb to such common moral foibles as fibbing, graft and the wedlock-bucking hump. As the two demands clash, modern politicians find themselves flip-flopping between machismo and piety – which explains why, taken in the round, they often present as characterless vacuums. Thatcher’s and Blair’s premierships managed to strike both poses at once, in a tic that degenerated into self-caricature.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises that climate change is a moral problem or, to use its cautious language, it ‘raises ethical issues’. The authors of the IPCC’s recent Fifth Assessment Report therefore included two moral philosophers. I am one of them. I have been a member of the IPCC’s Working Group 3 since 2011.
Istanbul's mayoral election is tomorrow. I wonder if rescheduling it for two month’s time would make a difference. I have a hunch that it might: 27 May marks the first anniversary of the beginning of the Gezi Park demonstrations, and the results of the election will in part reflect the way people here feel about last year's protests. My walk to the polling station will take me past Gezi, which is now a refuge for dozens of homeless Syrians. The continuing existence of the park is itself a triumph for the protesters. Had the proposed shopping mall been built there, the refugees would almost certainly not be allowed inside. There is a reason people want to preserve public spaces.
Paul Foot on Tony Benn (LRB, 22 February 1990): For nearly a century, Labour MPs have been going to Parliament to change the world, but have ended up changing only themselves. Tony Benn is unique. He went to Parliament to change himself, but has ended up determined only to change the world. This extraordinary conversion has taken place not on the backbenches, where a young socialist’s revolutionary determination is often toughened by being passed over for high office, but in high office itself. Indeed, the higher the office Tony Benn occupied, the more his eyes were opened to the horror of capitalist society, and to the impotence of socialists in high office to change it.
Being told to say sorry for my wrongdoings was my introduction to the double bind. I got the hang of how it worked, but never figured any way out of it. 'Don't just stand there. Haven't you got anything to say for yourself?' It became clear pretty quickly that a rational discussion of the pros and cons of my misdemeanour was not what the parent had in mind. 'Well? And you haven't even got the decency to say sorry.' Deep breath while I prepared myself for entering the mire. 'I'm sorry.' 'No you're not. You're just saying that, because you think you should.' This was almost always true. I was certainly sorry for the trouble I was in, but rarely sorry in a contrite way. It would go on like this. The demand for an apology, the apology, the rejection of the apology and further fury until some punishment was decided on and I was sent in disgrace to my room.
David Cameron must be confident that his conference pledge to scrap benefits for the under-25s will help the Tories win the next election, even if it leaves a million young people homeless and penniless. His promise that the young will ‘earn or learn’ rather than ‘opt for a life on benefits’ may be popular among welfare opponents, but it’s a nonsensical way to get the young into education, employment or training.
From Glasgow to Brighton to Manchester, the party conference roadshow grinds on and, as every year, the big relief with the Tory do is that it’s the last one. The party shindies – still called ‘conferences’, but rallies in all but name – offer televiewers (and who watches this stuff?) a window on Totalitaria, a Lego Pyongyang. One-liners are delivered, opponents are trashed, and it often takes the somnolent claque a while to cotton on that they’ve missed their cue to ovate. Speakers offer little in‐jokes to nervous titters from the floor. Why don’t the party managers go the whole hog and have the rank and vile simply holding up cards, North Korea-style, to make a big smiley face when Osborne or Pickles reaches a claptrap moment? The telly coverage, too, is a pain in the arse, with kitsch‐complicit cutaway shots from whichever hack is on the rostrum, to their spouse or arch-enemy, to humanise the whole ghastly spectacle.
Ed Miliband's promise to freeze household energy prices, even if it doesn't happen, is a meaningful step towards a better understanding of what has truly happened to democracy in Britain in the last thirty years. The Labour initiative exposes a weakness in the hitherto unchallenged power of the mainly overseas investment agents who have taken over – or, in the case of the Royal Mail, are about to take over – formerly not-for-profit British providers of essential services.
As everyone expected, Tony Abbott and his crew have won an easy victory in the Australian election. But it was not the landslide the opinion polls and even the exit polls predicted. They all suggested the Labor Party would lose most of its seats in its Western Sydney heartlands and in Brisbane. They also suggested that Kevin Rudd would lose his Brisbane seat. In the event Rudd held on quite comfortably and Labor kept most of its Western Sydney seats – as it did in Melbourne and Adelaide.
Rejoice. Rejoice. The first chain of vassaldom has been broken. They will repair it, no doubt, but let’s celebrate independence while it lasts. For the first time in fifty years, the House of Commons has voted against participating in an imperial war. Aware of the deep and sustained opposition inside the country and within the military establishment, members of parliament decided to represent the will of the people. The speeches of all three leaders were pretty pathetic. Neither the opposition amendment nor the war resolution could muster enough support. That’s all we needed. The thirty odd Tory dissidents who made British participation impossible by voting against their leadership deserve our thanks. Perhaps now the BBC will start reflecting popular opinion instead of acting as the voice of the warmongers.
The pitiful defence made this morning by George Osborne, that defeat is not defeat and that in offering Parliament a vote on the principle of military intervention David Cameron was showing statemanship, stands high in the chronicles of absurdity. The whistle was blown, the hoop held out, not very far from the ground, and the good old dog sat on his haunches and slowly shook his head. As one of the admirable Tory opponents, Crispin Blunt, put it, our illusion has been that by instant deference to US wishes we function as a great power when we are not a great power. Blunt, an experienced diplomat, was joined by the likes of Adam Holloway, a former serving officer, in speaking a rational language alien to Labour and Conservative governments alike.
There was a sense of inevitability about Julia Gillard’s fall; the surprise is that it was so long delayed. The Australian Labor Party’s standing is low enough that sooner or later enough MPs would become convinced that their continued presence in the federal parliament demanded a new leader. Or rather an old, new leader, Kevin Rudd. There is nothing unique in what has happened. Gillard’s overthrow is simply another example of the extreme instability of leadership that characterises Australian political parties. The fearsome institution of the ‘spill’, by which parliamentary coups can be staged, and the relentless short-termism of Australian politics, mean that parliamentary leaders are under constant pressure. Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, staged a successful coup against Malcolm Turnbull, who had staged a coup against Brendan Nelson. Earlier this year Ted Baillieu went to work as the premier of Victoria and ended the day as no one, having been overthrown by a man whom he had originally himself overthrown. Such instability is made worse by the destructive effects of opinion polling. Australian politicians insist that polls are the furthest things from their minds; in fact, they hardly think of anything else. Rudd himself was unseated as prime minister after one bad opinion poll.
Ed Miliband’s latest speech on welfare pretty much capitulates to the Tories, just as Ed Balls has capitulated on the economy. Both have willy-nilly accepted a Tory ‘interpretation’ of the financial crisis, even though that ‘interpretation’ has been relentlessly political. How little austerity actually has to do with the economy or those on welfare was demonstrated by the hooting and hollering of the Tory front bench when Miliband was seen to give in; and by Iain Duncan Smith’s casual description of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’ as though that were self-evidently a bad thing. It is clear what Tory priorities are, and they are not the well-being of the people. Labour’s capitulation was both unnecessary and unwise.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spent yesterday talking. On Saturday, the authorities relented and withdrew the police from Taksim Square, when it became clear that serious clashes would be unavoidable. Crowds were approaching from four different directions and the police were trying to stop them before they reached the square, but they kept coming; at around 4 p.m. news came that the police were pulling back. Many thought that this might be tactical. In the end, however, the demonstrators had Taksim to themselves. On Sunday morning, under a drizzle, they peacefully cleaned up the square while Erdoğan made the rounds, denouncing the extremists, justifying his actions and defiantly repeating his commitment to overhaul the social and physical space of the meydan.
A general paper from the 2011 Eton scholarship exam has been exhumed and is doing the rounds. The first question required candidates to read a passage from The Prince ('it is much safer to be feared than loved' etc) and then (a) summarise the argument in no more than 50 words (5 marks); (b) in their own words say what they find 'unappealing' about the argument (5 marks); and (c), for 15 marks: The year is 2040. There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East. Protesters have attacked public buildings. Several policemen have died. Consequently, the Government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army. You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.
For the next period, debate over the UK’s relations with Europe, and UK politics generally, will be dominated by Ukip. Because of but also despite Nigel Farage’s persona – about one part Jeremy Clarkson to two parts Mr Toad – the purple people won big in last week’s local elections, and can now enjoy watching the Tories rip out each other’s gizzards in a political version of the Eton wall game. As the general election’s witching hour draws near, the Tory undead have started to rise, stakes uprooted from their hollow chests. Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for an electoral pact with Ukip. From his Telegraph column Lord Tebbit tacks as close to endorsing Ukip as any Tory can who wants not to be blown out of the party. Now Nigel Lawson, dad of the more famous Nigella, has become the first major Conservative to announce that if David Cameron manages to hold his promised referendum on EU membership around 2017, he’ll vote for the trapdoor.
By-elections seldom mean that much. The idea that they matter a lot is an illusion jointly propagated by party hacks, to whom they do matter a lot, and press hacks, whose job is to make them look as if they matter. Party candidates, ventriloquised by their minders, are egged on to terrorise hapless local voters with the prospective death of Nato or the EU, communist invasion, or droves of dark immigrants if they stick their cross in the wrong box. Journos generally play ball. They roll out their watersheds, such as the 1962 Orpington by-election, ‘credited’ with springing the old Liberal Party from the morgue gurney (and, one might add, much good that’s done us).
One of Mario Monti's least popular reforms among Italian property owners is the introduction of a new property-based council tax (IMU) to replace the one that Silvio Berlusconi scrapped in 2008. On Wednesday, everyone on the electoral register was sent a letter with 'Avviso Importante: Rimborso IMU 2012’ printed on the envelope. The two closely printed sides of A4 inside explained how people could get last year's council tax refunded, either by bank transfer or in person at the post office. The letter was signed by Berlusconi: all people have to do to qualify for the rebate is vote for him in next week's elections. But not everyone read that far; apparently hopeful queues formed at post offices within hours. They'd have done better to mob Mediaset's headquarters.
A couple of years ago, Swedish politics were shaken up by the fresh-faced young Jimmy Åkesson’s Sverigedemokraten getting 5.7 per cent of the parliamentary vote on an anti-immigrant ticket. Now Centerpartiet – traditionally the party of the countryside – has been taken over by another fresh face, Annie Lööf (pronounced ‘lurve’), advocating unlimited immigration. Both are considered to be of the right, but totally opposite rights: the Sweden Democrats nationalistic and chauvinist, the Centre Party just about as ‘new liberal’ as you can get. (This kind of contradiction isn’t unique to the right. The left has its state socialists at one end of the spectrum and anarcho-socialists at the other.)
Steve Hilton’s denunciation of the Civil Service earlier this month should be taken lightly. David Cameron’s former adviser, who in the early days of opposition leadership set his employer on a democratic bike while his shoes travelled behind by Lexus, has made a habit of attacking public servants for standing in the way of government ministers pleasing sectional profit. It is, the argument goes, undemocratic: power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats – the habitual drone of interested parties. This is the language used of the BBC by politicians compliant to the point of servitude with Rupert Murdoch.
The whereabouts of Ibrahim Magag are causing concern. The 28-year-old hasn’t been seen at home since Boxing Day, and though that might ordinarily be the business of no one but his wife and kids, his absence has set off a police manhunt and exposed him to the risk of five years in jail. Magag isn’t a defendant awaiting trial or a convict due to be sentenced. His brush with the law has arisen because he is one of ten people on whom the home secretary, Theresa May, has served a notice under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011. Although it is impossible to be sure what the TPIM notice said – its contents are not a matter of public record – it seems to have asserted May's belief that Magag, who was born in Somalia, was linked to the extremist organisation al-Shabaab. That belief entitled her to impose restrictions on his liberty, including a curfew, and he is a fugitive only because of his apparent breach of those restrictions. In other words, Magag stands to be criminalised because the home secretary suspects him of criminality.
Speeches at party conferences normally do not have a long life, since they are designed for immediate effect. Ed Miliband’s speech was an exercise in showmanship and self-projection and as such was fairly successful. Whether it will linger in the memory is another matter. But it rallied the troops and partly disarmed the press – which is as much as he could hope for. Miliband has two problems; himself and policy.
Oh, to be in Belgium, now the British party conference season is near. As a talking-point here in the brasseries of Euroland, the UK political season’s kick-off is bested only by Bernard Arnault’s application for Belgian nationality and Herman van Rompuy’s Elvis obsession. David Cameron looks increasingly like a man in over his head. The best that can be said of the reshuffle is that it didn’t make things much worse – but then, a reshuffle makes little odds when all the cards are jokers.
The Republican National Convention’s first day was cancelled out of deference to tropical storm Isaac, but for most of Monday Tampa was rainless. At around 4 p.m. I was standing a block from the convention centre, next to Charles O. Perry’s 1985 sculpture Solstice, which looks a bit like a space age Christmas tree ornament, or a pair of Slinkys copulating, beneath the Bank of America Tower. On a Saturday in January 2002 a 15-year-old-boy called Charles Bishop crashed a stolen Cessna into the tower, killing himself and nobody else, because, as on Monday because of the storm scare, there were few people downtown. ‘Osama bin Laden is absolutely justified in the terror he has caused on 9-11,’ Bishop wrote in his suicide note. He has brought a mighty nation to its knees! God blesses him and the others who helped make September 11th happen. The US will have to face the consequences for its horrific actions against the Palestinian people and [illegible] by its allegiance with the monstrous Israelis who want nothing short of world domination! You will pay – God help you – and I will make you pay! His parents at first blamed the incident on acne medicine-induced psychosis but before long dropped their $70 million lawsuit against its manufacturers. On Monday the skies were protected by helicopters. ‘Here comes a mob,’ a pedestrian said. At the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa Street beige-clad policemen in riot gear formed a line to meet a protest march. The ‘mob’ turned out to be the Poor Man’s March, a permitless echo of a demonstration earlier in the day that had resulted in one protester being arrested after getting tackled by a cop for wearing a mask. Leading the crowd was a man on a bike pulling a trailer with an upside-down Stars and Stripes waving on a pole. Several marchers were carrying pizza boxes. ‘I don’t know about the pizza theme,’ one said. A man with a megaphone addressed the cops: ‘I’m an anarchist. I hope you’re not scared of me because I’m not scary. They’ve got you dressed up like turtles.’ He was wearing a black plastic boot on his head, had a rat-face toy gas mask dangling from his neck, and is apparently called Vermin Supreme. ‘Read my op-ed, it’s an open letter to the city to provide you with corn starch to prevent chafing in your riot gear.’ The signs – ‘Capitalism Is Cannibalism’, ‘Dump Both Parties of Wall Street’, ‘Food Not Bombs’ – were more standard-issue than the chants. ‘We are the proletariat, we are the pizza resistance!’ ‘The pizza ignited will never be reheated!’ ‘Fuck Mitt Romney, Mitt Romney is a fuckin’ asshole!’ ‘What does $50 billion look like? This is what $50 billion looks like’ – i.e., like a bunch of turtles in beige.
When politicians talk about ‘democracy’, what they mostly mean is elections, though they do their best to avoid ones they are likely to lose.
On Wednesday afternoon, excerpts from a speech by the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan to the Bloomberg Ireland Economic Summit in Dublin, purportedly copied from the Irish Times website, appeared on PoliticalWorld.org. The contributor, PaddyJoe, accused the newspaper of removing a paragraph from an earlier version of the story, in which Noonan, speaking about the Irish government’s ability to secure a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming referendum on the European fiscal compact, was apparently quoted as saying:
The first European Pirate Party emerged in Sweden in 2006, when a group calling itself the Piratpartiet was formed to campaign for the right to download everything. The German Pirates were first elected to the Berlin Landtag last September. Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein followed, and now they have been elected to the assembly in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. The Pirates have won support at the expense of all the other parties, and there is talk of their joining a coalition government after the federal election in September 2013.
Here in Sweden – as, I believe, in other Scandinavian countries – everyone has access to everyone else’s tax returns on the internet. I’m sure it’s sometimes circumvented, but not in most cases, and it seems to deter dishonesty and greed. People really do feel that they are ‘all in it together’ (whatever ‘it’ is). Maybe David Cameron learned about this from Fredrik Reinfeldt, when he visited him in Stockholm in February. Apparently they got on famously, with Cameron taking away all kinds of ideas. It is interesting how the ‘Swedish model’ has flipped recently, so far as Britain is concerned; formerly an ideal of social democracy, it has now taken on a much more rightist tinge. George Osborne may have got the idea of increasing pensioners’ taxes (in effect) from Reinfeldt, who did the same when his coalition was re-elected in 2010. By that time his ‘Moderaten’ (Conservatives) had cunningly rebranded themselves as the ‘real workers’ party’: of workers, that is, as opposed to slackers, which pensioners essentially are.
A first reaction to the Bradford by-election is one of anger: that a self-promoting blowhard like George Galloway, who was ejected by his Bethnal Green constituents after only one term, should be so acceptable to the electors of Bradford West; and anger at a political system that allowed this to happen. Whether anger at the system, however, is wholly justified is another matter. Bradford West is not a typical northern working-class constituency. That it is nearly 40 per cent Muslim matters. Galloway’s last victory, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, which also has a large Muslim electorate, occurred when Labour still won a comparatively easy victory nationwide. Furthermore, Labour has done well in all previous by-elections in this parliament, which suggests that Bradford is to some extent exceptional. Labour would, therefore, probably be right not to take it too tragically.
Yesterday evening I had nothing better on, so I went round to some friends’ for a catch-up. Nothing too fancy, just a kitchen supper with some old muckers. Phipps the footman – no doubt a professional alias – met me at the front door of the flat and put me through the in-house baggage scanner before escorting me straight into the kitchen. It was the usual scene familiar from descriptions of London labouring-class homes. Plasma screen the length of the Bayeux Tapestry, blaring away over the Aga. Fair-trade bush-meat in the Smeg. Enamelled jerrycans brimful with bio-diesel.
According to classical Garbage Can theory, set out in a landmark 1972 article by Marshall Cohen, James March and Johan Olsen, bureaucracies are essentially chaotic systems. In the public policy soup, policy entrepreneurs vie to find problems to which they can offer a solution. With an ad hoc cast of contributors, policy-making is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for a decision situation in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision-makers looking for work. George Osborne makes an unlikely Garbageman.
In the latest issue of the Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, along with the usual spread of articles on such subjects as the threat and promise of ebooks, the pros and cons of talking at literary festivals, and the cut in the Public Lending Right, there are two self-regarding items of Tory cheer. The first is by Toby Young, plugging his latest book, How to Set Up a Free School, in the guise of a piece about the 'writer as political activist':
Whatever the outcome of the A4e affair, it is a symptom of virtually everything that has gone wrong with British political life since 1979 – and especially of the worst thing, the privatisation of the state and its functions. The decision to hand over so many of the state’s responsibilities – and not only in Britain – to the private sector or voluntary associations or charities has had several terrible consequences. First there is the loss of expertise. The state has built up historically a huge fund of knowledge and experience which is simply not available to voluntary associations, however enthusiastic they are. The result is notorious wherever the Big Society is found. The contracted bodies do the easy bits while passing back the difficult and more important bits, like finding jobs for the unqualified unemployed, back to the state. It is exactly the same as with the PFI projects: the profits are privatised while the risks remain with the taxpayer. That is why the history of the welfare state is the history of the decline of private welfare. It was, among other things, never up to the job.
How does it happen that Scottish Nationalism walks and talks as if it’s able to call terms over an independence referendum which opinion polls suggest it would lose? A major reason for the SNP’s sweep to absolute majority last May was the inadequacy of the Scottish Labour Party. At Devolution, such was Westminster complacency, only one first-rank Labour politician went to Holyrood: Donald Dewar. Since his death in 2000, the party has been led by what Scots call numpties, five of them over eleven years, remembered for the impact they didn't have.
There is no inherent harm in the opposition defence spokesman accepting ministerial defence cuts. From a party committed to Trident replacement, it might be a faint, late virtue. There is every possible objection to coupling it with talk of rejecting populism (whatever that means here) and hinting at readier general acquiesence.
Disappointment is the frequent outcome of science’s yearning to be honoured and heeded by politics. For scientists appalled by George W. Bush’s indifference to scientific data and values, candidate Obama looked so promising. And even more so when he vowed in his inaugural address to ‘restore science to its rightful place’. A few months later, he told the National Academy of Sciences: ‘Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.’ Nearly three years later the ‘rightful place’ is still unspecified, and the wants and ways of science have not triumphed over the needs and methods of electoral politics. Silly to think they ever would.
The chancellor’s autumn statement was rhetorically quite adroit. It remains within the ‘narrative’ established by the coalition when it was formed – that Britain’s debts were at unprecedented levels, and as such there was no alternative to paying them off as fast as possible. Anything else would lead to our being no better than Greece, Spain or Italy. The happy consequence of drastic debt repayment is that yields on British government debt are as low as Germany’s (true, but not because of debt repayment) and much lower than the decrepit Mediterranean states. That the ‘size’ of Britain’s debt is largely folk myth doesn’t alter the fact that the perpetuation of the myth is consistent with everything the government has already said.
The late Philip Gould was a man of conviction, but he personified a fundamental political error: insisting on the fighting the last war during the next. The Labour Party lost all its radicalism in the 1990s because influential people like Gould were still armed for battle with Arthur Scargill, the Militant Tendency and Michael Foot's unsuitable overcoat. New Labour moved absurdly far to the right to show that they weren't like that any more. Partly in consequence, we are picking ourselves up from the debris left by Peter Mandelson's ‘filthy rich’.
In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, the eponymous couple wage attritional marital warfare. Mr Twit gradually lengthens his wife’s walking-stick and chair-legs to make her think that she’s got ‘the dreaded shrinks’ and will soon die by dwindling and finally disappearing. Such an end now awaits the fast-shrinking Big Society. Before Margaret Thatcher, Conservatives in government were chary of pursuing political projects. The likes of Lord Salisbury and Stanley Baldwin saw their job as keeping the seat warm, for fear it might pass to someone who meant to use office and not merely sit in it. But it doesn’t do nowadays for Tory leaders to own blandly that the propertied interest has its fists round the loot, and intends to keep things that way. Unlike Bob Cecil or Stan ‘the man’ Baldwin, Dave Cameron has to ‘reach out’ to the rank-scented many. Even the party of cloven-hoofed squirearchs must proffer a ‘vision’ or ‘narrative’ to voters who supposedly crave such a thing.
With great power, as Spider-Man's Aunt May didn't put it, comes great opportunity to shirk responsibility. It's one law for the feral underclass, bundled into the all-night magistrates' court for speedy and punitive sentencing; another for their feral overlords, dodging a £10 million tax bill with a handshake. For a while there it looked as if Liam Fox counted himself among the immune elite, clinging to office as the revelations of malfeasance kept on coming. But David Cameron and the so-called Thatcherite wing of the Tory Party, as if the prime minister weren't a Thatcherite, must have reached a deal, and Fox has been flushed in favour of 'the motorist's friend', Philip Hammond.
'It would not be surprising if the first resignation were to come from Liam Fox,' John Gray wrote in the LRB nearly a year ago (though he admittedly didn't have Adam Werrity in mind).
In the old days of party conferences, the nomenklatura would wash up for oysters or jellied eels at some windswept seaside resort, with predictably farcical results, such as the spectacle of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea. Anno 2011, times are soberer. Kinnock has been towelled down and ennobled, and the parties’ annual beanos now go on not in Brighton’s decaying stucco gulches, but megalopolises like Manchester and Birmingham. Front benchers, and especially the leaders, fall over themselves to shmooze up to the party’s rank and vile – invariably referred to by hacks as ‘the party faithful’, though ‘the boundlessly credulous and opinionated’ seems nearer the mark – while also appealing over their heads to those at home who haven’t forsaken the telecast for Celebrity Poodle Parlour or a hump on the sofa. This need to triangulate his audiences explains, charitably, David Cameron’s turn at the Tory rally this week, where the prime minister chose to adopt the mien of a Butlin’s redcoat jollying along passengers on the Titanic.
Chris Christie is very fat. That wasn’t the problem, as he contemplated running for president on the Republican ticket: 75 per cent of Americans are overweight, if not quite that overweight. Governor Christie is also Roman Catholic, and that is a problem, a very considerable problem, as regards his electability nationally. You can be certain his religious affiliation was in the mix as he sat down with his people this week and made his decision not to declare himself as a candidate.
The late Bernard Weatherill told me that between 1964, when he entered the House of Commons, and the late 1980s, his constituency duties increased twentyfold. It's one of the reasons backbenchers spend less time arguing and being difficult in the chamber than they once did. When Tony Blair had a large majority he put Labour members on a rota for extra constituency duties. Reducing the number of MPs will only make the situation worse: David Cameron's Commons-slighting venture cringes to populist prejudice. Yet as the recent Murdoch-grilling showed, a committee of backbench MPs can still make creditable difficulties.
Barack Obama suffered a split lip nine or so months ago playing basketball, severe enough to require 12 stitches. Obama likes basketball and has played it competitively since he was a schoolboy in Hawaii. One of his enduring grievances is directed at his high-school basketball coach who didn’t make him a starter on the varsity team, a decision Obama regarded as unfair and, perhaps, related to a certain animus on the part of the coach.
It’s slightly less than a week since my piece on Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour went to the printers, but slightly less than a week is a long time in the crazy circus that currently passes for British politics. Ed Miliband has won a victory of sorts by getting David Cameron to admit that he should never have hired Andy Coulson, but now he has the problem of knowing what to do about Tom Baldwin: if he gets rid of him, he rather diminishes the victory; if he keeps him, he allows the Tories to taunt Labour with being the party that hangs on to its News International insiders. Miliband’s riposte to questions about Baldwin in parliament today – that Baldwin’s line manager when he worked at the Times was Cameron’s education secretary, Michael Gove – is ingenious, but only adds to the sense that the story is descending into farce.
In all democratic societies the relations between politicians and the press are close and problematic. But in Britain those relations developed earlier than anywhere else; earlier even than in the United States or France. Britain was the first society to develop a mass urban industrial working class and industrial-commercial middle class. Its newspapers were a consequence of this, and some, like the News of the World or the Daily Mirror, had circulations without equal in the world. In such circumstances it was inevitable that the political class and the newspaper-owning class – who were often, as in the case of Lord Beaverbrook, the same people – would become intimate, since both thought the press a uniquely powerful instrument of persuasion.
For quite a while now the Kremlin has been preoccupied with creating and managing a loyal ‘opposition’ to itself. Credit for the idea seems to go to Vladislav Surkov, the president’s first deputy chief of staff under both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. In 2006 Surkov met with Sergei Mironov, the leader of a small centre-left party and chairman of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. Surkov spoke of the need for a two-party system: ‘Society needs “the second leg” to shift on to, when the first one gets stiff.’ The second leg took the form of A Just Russia, created from the merger of several smaller parties to attract the votes of ‘the left with strong nationalist inclinations’. United Russia was to remain the dominant leg, of course.
Ed Miliband’s enemies in the Labour Party are indulging in luxury: a pointless, expensive thing that only people with four years to spend can afford. Up to a point, they resemble John Major’s enemies in the Tory Party – a chorus of Viv Nicholsons who spent, spent, spent down to the penury of 165 surviving MPs in 1997. Those Tories had a reason, if an absurd one. They were hung up on the EU as a conspiracy by the heirs of Hitler to abolish England. The other motive for hating Major was devotion (in the High Church sense) to Margaret Thatcher, Queen and Martyr.
Italian politics rarely make British headlines unless it's a story about Berlusconi's buffoonery and this weekend's local elections have been no exception. But they may hold a salutory lesson for the bigoted right elsewhere in Europe. The results have been anything but predictable, with surprise first-round wins for the centre-left in former right-wing strongholds across the north of the country, though it's less a victory for the centre-left – the mainstream Partito Democratico didn't do especially well, relying on votes for smaller coalition partners – than a defeat for the right.
Sunday. My landlady accosts me: have you heard what’s happened in America? ‘Histoire de fesses!’ She is agitated. Whose business is it that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF and hot tip for the Elysée in 2012, has lunged at an employee of Sofitel in midtown Manhattan? What do they think they’re doing arresting him? Who was she, after all? A chambermaid! So, it’s an engraving in an 18th-century romance for gentlemen. Or if you read the New York Post, a ‘perv bust’, following ‘alleged sodomy of hotel maid’. Not such bad news for the right in France, despite the national disgrace.
On 26 March the New South Wales Labor government suffered a shattering defeat in the state elections. It won only 25 per cent of the votes, lost 32 of its 52 seats – one to the Greens and the rest to the conservative coalition – on swings against it of up to 35 per cent. Much of its heartland was lost and will be difficult to regain. It was the worst defeat in its history: even worse than in 1932, when the party succumbed to a major economic and political crisis. This was more than just a defeat in one part of a not terribly important country.
Mid-April, and Britain attends to the 5 May referendum on the Alternative Vote with all the rapture of a gutted cod. Voters will be asked: ‘At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?’ This version of the question is a redraft, made at the Electoral Commission’s bidding. When the government published the original, one-sentence version last year, which rendered MPs in unabbreviated form, the commission worried that people would be too thick to understand it. Now campaigners merely worry that people are too thick to understand AV itself.
'If Ed Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself,’ Mary Ann Sieghart writes in today’s Independent, ‘he is in danger of ending up like William Hague.' She doesn’t mean he’ll be foreign secretary one day; rather that he stands no chance of being prime minister unless he manages to ‘project a political personality that engages voters’ imagination’. ‘People want to know what type of person he is and what motivates him,’ she says. Newspaper columnists have been complaining about Miliband along these lines since before he was elected Labour leader. And they couldn’t be more wrong.
Last week Chantal Brunel, the right-wing UMP deputy for Seine-et-Marne, told the press that it was time to stick immigrants back in the boat. She was thinking of the large numbers, mostly Tunisian, who came ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa in February. But her real worry was the fizzing popularity of the Front National – a champagne bubble bath lovingly filled by the pollsters for the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, in which she’s continued to bask as the rest of the political class queue up for cold showers.
Auditions started this week for the next series of The X Factor, to be broadcast in the autumn. Yeah well, so what. If you don't like it, don't watch it; who cares if 19.4 million people tuned in for last year's final? But the problem with The X Factor isn’t merely the bland uniformity of the music – that the show is, in Elton John's words, ‘boring and arse-paralysingly brain crippling’ – or even the grotesque parody of the democratic electoral process that it enacts, down to the endless newspaper post-mortems and manufactured outcries over vote-rigging. The X Factor is more than a diversion: it's a glaring symptom of much that's wrong with Britain's political landscape.
Thanks to the public employees of Wisconsin, thousands of whom have occupied the state capitol building for the past several days, the class struggle has returned to the United States. Of course, it never really left, but lately only one side has been fighting. Workers, their unions and liberals more generally have now rejoined the battle.
‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.
The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election was pretty good for Labour, better than it might have been for the Lib Dems and not very good for the Tories. Labour’s vote was up 10 per cent, which is more or less exactly the figure represented by the national polls. It probably represents a flow of ex-Lib Dem voters who went to Labour as soon as the coalition was formed. But the result tells us less about the composition of the coalition vote. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Lib Dem vote was bolstered by tactical Tory voting – Tories who took their cue from a prime minister worried that the Lib Dem vote would collapse. It is less likely, though not impossible, that the same thing would happen in a general election. In any case, the Lib Dem vote in any by-election is usually not representative of the Lib Dem vote in a general election. The politics of the by-election, however, point to the coalition’s longer-term problems.
According to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech on 19 July, the government means to ‘foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action’. It was Peggy Noonan, one-time phrase-turner for the Gipper, who as George Bush senior’s speechwriter in the 1988 US presidential election campaign came up with the tag ‘a thousand points of light’ to lip-gloss the Bush I prospectus of hollowing out state provision and part-plugging the gap with charity. Bush’s thousand points of light were a bit like the starry welkin, but with the sun switched off. Cameron is now following this lead, the Big Society being the minimal state writ large. It has just floated the idea of soliciting charitable gifts from ATM users; will those be tax-deductible? It’s already cut back sharply on central grants to local authorities and to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whacked university teaching grants, and farmed out parts of the social care budget to charities – whose government funding is also getting cut. Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well.
Researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have analysed the impact on households in London of the changes in taxes and benefits due to come into effect by 2014-15: - The increases in taxes and cuts in benefits and tax credits due to take effect between now and 2014/15 hit lower income Londoners harder than those on higher incomes. For instance they amount to 5.7% of net income for the poorest fifth of Londoners, on average, compared to 1.7% for the richest fifth.- Roughly half of poor children and one third of children just above the poverty line are in families that report they are receiving housing benefit. Furthermore, almost 90% of all children living in families receiving housing benefit in London are in poverty or just above the poverty line. Meanwhile, the coalition’s poverty tsar, the Labour MP Frank Field, has published his review of child poverty, The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children from Becoming Poor Adults. It calls for greater investment in early years education and argues that funding should be both shifted towards the first five years of children's lives and weighted to help the most disadvantaged. It also calls for all disadvantaged children to be provided with affordable, full-time, graduate-led childcare from the age of two. So far, so reasonable. But at the same time Field also thinks, as his subtitle implies, that we may as well give up on trying to alleviate child poverty:
When I started working as a housing officer in Westminster in 2006, I finished my first week of visits feeling relieved. There were few signs of antisocial behaviour, no gangs of youths intimidating residents in dark corridors, no evidence of overwhelming deprivation. Which isn’t to say that the tenants’ lives were easy: most were living on low incomes, some had mental or physical health problems, others had learning difficulties, some were addicted to drugs or alcohol, others were simply struggling to bring up their children in small flats with poor sound insulation and tired neighbours complaining about the noise. But they were, for the most part, getting by. And with tenancy for life, low rents and housing benefit, as long as they kept to the terms of their tenancy agreement they had a secure home in an area where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live. That security has now gone.
At a press conference earlier this year, in response to a question about the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said: ‘There are no dissidents in China.’ No one believed him at the time; but now that Liu has been given the Nobel Peace Prize, it will be even harder for the authorities to make such denials to the international media. A bigger concern for Beijing, however, is with the way the news of the prize plays out in China. Few Chinese people have heard of Liu; reports of CNN blackouts and internet blocks suggest that the government wants to keep it that way.
Doesn’t anyone out there care what’s happening to Sweden? I posted two pieces a couple of weeks ago on the elections here; hardly anyone responded, apart from a handful with Swedish, Danish and Norwegian email addresses. In the British press, so far as I can tell, the only aspect of the election that has made even inside-page headlines is the ‘rise’ of an anti-immigration party, now in the Riksdag for the first time. To be fair, you find that in Swedish papers too. It has clearly been a bit of a shock, but should be put in perspective: Sverigedemokraten got a grand total of 339,610 votes (5.7 per cent); 100,000 people demonstrated against the party in Sergelstorg in Stockholm the day after the election. Sverigedemokraten also apparently found it difficult to find dedicated candidates; one of them resigned his seat on a local council the day he was elected after reading their manifesto for the first time: ‘What’s all this? Immigrants are my friends.’ The big change was that they managed for the first time to inch over the 4 per cent line that entitles them to have members of parliament. But no one else there will have anything to do with them.
David Miliband, he of the ‘sad eyes’ after ‘betrayal’, has departed the front bench. He remains in the Commons, but on inactive service and as what? Brooding presence, focus of retribution to the betraying brother? Unencumbered by duty, he can now expect devotion from the Conservative press and offers of lavish employment. Compare him with Denis Healey, who spent six years as defence secretary and five as chancellor before being passed over for Michael Foot – nice man, wrong choice – in 1980.
The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party is surely not as surprising as much of the media suggests it was. He may have started at the back of the pack five months ago but any half-serious candidate to the left of David Miliband had a good chance. Diane Abbott, who is definitely to the left of David, was not a serious candidate, and Ed Balls, who is probably to his left, could not escape from his relationship with Gordon Brown. What’s really surprising is that David should be thought to have been an inevitable successor to Brown.
It is more than 100 days since the Dutch general election, and the party leaders are only now coming to a final decision as to who will form the new government. But the interregnum has stretched even longer than that. The last government collapsed on 20 February, following a conflict between the two leading parties, the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Labour, over the issue of continued Dutch troop involvement in Afghanistan, and the election was called for 9 June, almost four months down the line. Since then, the Netherlands has been governed by a so-called ‘demissionary’ (demissionair) or caretaker government, with CDA ministers taking over the functions of their former Labour colleagues. This holding operation has been running for more than seven months.
There is at least one reason to welcome Ed Miliband's victory: his brother didn't win. David may be both intelligent and rather nice – I remember having fish and chips with him during a Brighton conference pre-97 – but he is by training a follower. He has been cherished, favoured, advanced and made grateful. He is a professional protégé, the candidate of a leader and of the leader's faction. Gratitude would have paralysed him in the future as it did when he voted for the Iraq war, recited its sad rationalisations and, at the FO, followed the Bush line as Blair followed it. He is a man in a conga, a good trooper, not the man to challenge the unrelenting coalition mantra that Labour and Brown are the chief begetters of the deficit, as they are not. Blair deferred to City assumptions.
Yesterday I voted in my first Swedish election – not for the parliament, as I’m only a resident, not a citizen, but for my Kommun, and for the local health authority. It was held in our neighbourhood school. There was a stall outside selling coffee, sandwiches and buns, staffed by the schoolchildren and their parents. You get the same sort of thing if you deliver your tax return in person to Skattehuset on the deadline; almost a carnival atmosphere, with hot dog stalls and the like. People were sitting around in the autumn sun discussing how they had voted; I don’t ever remember seeing that in England. This was social citizenship on display. Maybe it’s why Sweden regularly gets turnouts of over 80 per cent (around 83 per cent this time).
A grim truce prevails in my commune, in South-West France, between the travellers who live here – ‘gens du voyage’, ‘Tziganes’, ‘Gitans’ – and the indigenous French. The expulsions (none in these parts) have changed little. Like most truces that work, it’s founded on lack of trust and there are any number of assertions doing the rounds. A favourite is that out of fear for their own families, police don’t intervene when crimes are committed by travellers. Last year I was tending the bar at a fundraiser when a fight erupted at the door. A friend was badly injured. As it happened, and it often does, the incident involved travellers. The gendarmes were slow to fetch up but quick, in the weeks that followed, to pursue their suspects.
The date of Burma’s forthcoming elections (7 November) was officially announced on 13 August. But the news trickled out slowly here: internet access has been even more unreliable than usual. It often gets bad around the time of public events or incidents, though there’s no way of knowing whether that’s because of deliberate government intervention or simply weight of traffic. Maybe it’s paranoid to suspect the former, but there’s a lot of that going around. The same day, the government imposed new restrictions on the movements of international staff working for NGOs.
If you’ve had nothing but the British (or, I imagine, American) press to go by these last few weeks, you can be forgiven for being hardly aware that a general election is brewing in Sweden. Perhaps the newspapers don’t think it’s important; or that an election there can make much difference to the social democratic consensus that has dominated the country, virtuously but boringly, for years. Visiting the various party booths on Sergelstorg in the centre of Stockholm – almost identical little kiosks (can you get them from IKEA?) staffed by clean young political clones – it is difficult to think of it in terms of a contest at all. Posters carry portraits of smiling party leaders with anodyne slogans against pastel backgrounds. The television coverage is ubiquitous, but polite and low-key.
After two weeks of negotiation Australia finally has a government: a Labor government with a majority of one as long as the Green MP and three of the independents continue to support it. All this contrasts strikingly with British experience where the present coalition was negotiated in a couple of days. One reason for this is that Labour was never a serious negotiator in Britain whereas in Australia both Labor and non-Labor were. Another is that three of the independents are former members of the rural wing of the conservative coalition who represent constituencies that would normally return MPs from that wing. (The two who declared for Labor earlier hold seats that would usually be Labor.) They all, however, are maverick figures who seriously quarrelled with the conservatives and have sympathies with some of Labor’s traditions. And they don’t simply want barrels of pork for their constituents. They could not, therefore, be expected to make up their minds quickly. How long such an arrangement can last and how stable it will be is almost impossible to say – though it would be surprising if the independents had not secured a guarantee that the prime minister, Julia Gillard, will not attempt an opportunist premature election.
The Australian Labor Party, and Australia itself, scored an own goal recently with an inconclusive general election and the imminent threat of a hung Parliament. Or so one might reasonably surmise, but the locals don't seem too terribly agitated about it, at least the Aussies I run across. The country is prospering, in a way that Britain and the US clearly are not: building cranes sweep across the skylines, shops and restaurants are jumping. The most recent economic forecast is bright. This could all change in a hurry should Chinese real estate go bust and/or there's a double-dip recession in the West, but at the moment the situation is looking ripper.
In the election in the Netherlands in June, Geert Wilders’s far-right Freedom Party got 15.5 per cent of the total vote – a 10 per cent increase on its showing in 2006. It now has 24 seats out of 150 in the Dutch parliament, making Wilders an influential powerbroker. He is a state-of-the-art populist. He doesn’t need to rally a crowd: his incendiary one-liners are disseminated on the internet and recycled by the Dutch media, day after day. Everyone follows his antics, whether or not they agree with his politics. On 11 September he will be in New York protesting against the proposed construction of a mosque near Ground Zero.
It was the 90th anniversary this week of the achievement of women's suffrage in the United States. On 18 August 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment – ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex’ – and it passed into law. For those who remember how the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in the 1970s thanks to die-hard Republican opposition, it may come as a surprise to realise how much women's suffrage was a Republican achievement.
On Stoke Newington Church Street last night Diane Abbott formally launched her campaign for the Labour Party leadership. There were about 80 or 90 of us there: I’ve no idea whether that counts as a good turnout or not these days, though it was hard not to be impressed by the fact that a quarter of those present were middle-class black women, almost all young or youngish – there were probably only half a dozen people of Abbott’s own age (she’s 57) or older. A late-running Sikh with a steel-wool beard was the only indication of the Asian-British community. Abbott gave her ever-popular account of her life as The Little Engine That Could. Really, of course, this is what her campaign platform is, but naturally she felt obliged to make a few political observations in deference to conventional behaviour on these occasions.
We have a new prime minister, heading up a centre-right coalition, with a fondness for bear-shooting and cerise tops. It’s Mari Kiviniemi, elected on Tuesday by the Eduskunta, the Finnish Parliament, as leader of the governing coalition’s dominant Centre Party by a margin of 115-56. She takes over from the discredited Matti Vanhanen. Though the talk is that Vanhanen’s hand was forced by irregularities in party funding, he has blamed his departure on his leg (phlebitis). Vanhanen, like his successor, was chosen partly for his boringness: in a past life he was, incredibly, a teetotal journalist. He hadn’t even been through detox. But he then spoiled it all with a slather of extra-marital affairs.
A conversation overheard at a meeting of the Parliamentary Double Standards Committee: Newspaper owners of all colours are worried about David Laws. He has had to resign for something about which we really ought to have been more understanding. He took money he wasn't entitled to and didn't declare it. It’s against the new Commons rules and is often called fraudulent conversion. End of argument.
Yvette Cooper said at the weekend that criticism of her decision not to stand for the Labour leadership was unfeminist. I didn't entirely follow her reasoning, but then I also don’t understand why having small children should be a reason for Cooper to hold back but not for her husband, Ed Balls. No such qualms would restrain Louise Bagshawe, heavy metal fan, chick-lit author, ardent Catholic, divorcée, millionaire, mother of three and the new Conservative member for Corby and East Northamptonshire. ‘I was quite annoyed that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister,' Bagshawe has said, 'because that meant I couldn't be the first woman prime minister.’
There's an oddly fawning interview with the work and pensions secretary in today's Guardian. Iain Duncan Smith is apparently a 'politician with no personal ambition' whose only aim is 'to help the worst off'. He's got all sorts of schemes to get people off benefits and into work, improve their quality of life in the process, and, in the long term, save the government a great deal of money. What a miracle worker. There's some indication even in the Guardian, however, that the Tory noises about making everyone better off and Britain a fairer place are too good to be true.
When I used to cover Liberal Democrat party conferences, the late-night curious journalist could wander the hotel in Harrogate or Torquay, push against a glass door and, at 1.30 in the morning, find a dozen of the delegates in workshop mode, discussing the minutiae of land valuation tax or the single transferable vote. The spirit of earnest still flourishes among them. Their assault on compulsory ID cards and biometric passports lifts the heart. What makes it twitch is Nick Clegg’s invitation to the People to tell the Ministry what reforms it wants. We are getting far too much of ‘the People’ at present.
The United States had elections this month too. Most of Tuesday's ballots were primaries; one was a by-election, for the House seat long held by the Democrat John Murtha, who died three months ago. Murtha became famous in 2005 when he called for US troops to get out of Iraq. His antiwar position was a surprise: he was never especially liberal, and his district was anything but. Pennyslvania's 12th Congressional district is on the border with West Virginia – it's coal and steel country, except where it's rural, and its median residents are socially conservative, white people who support the Democrats (if they do) thanks to their unions. PA-12 was the only one of America's 435 Congressional districts to choose John Kerry in 2004 but John McCain in 2008; the by-election seemed to present low-hanging fruit for Republicans, and polls had it too close to call.
The shade of Earl Russell, ‘Finality Jack’, still moves among us, and his name is Clegg. The deputy prime minister’s brief in the new administration is political reform, whose compass, he promised in yesterday’s statement, will be wide – as wide as Russell’s vaunted ‘final’ settlement of 1832. Clegg describes the electoral system as ‘broken’. The Electoral Reform Society branded the general election result ‘unrepresentative’. The criticism is invited by the umbrella labelling of the electoral reform statutes of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 etc. as ‘Representation of the People’ Acts. The complaint that the system is unrepresentative is levelled indifferently at the simple plurality voting system (‘first past the post’), and at the remaining ‘pale, male, stale’ demographic in the House of Commons. These two complaints are distinct. Clearly proportionality defangs the first charge, of unrepresentativeness, or at least those forms of PR that make seats won directly proportional to votes cast. But it doesn’t fix the Commons’ dominance by middle-aged white males.
So the Lib Dems have caved on Trident, immigration, the euro and voting reform. Quite a list. True, you can't have power without compromise, but too much compromise starts to look a lot like powerlessness. At least they've won a concession from the Tories on income tax: according to the BBC, in their summary of the coalition's policies, there will be a ‘substantial rise in income tax allowances for lowest paid from April 2011’. Hang on a minute, though. Can it be that the public broadcaster has fallen for the new government's spin? Because, as it happens, raising the personal income tax allowance won't benefit the very lowest paid:
It has been a Grand Guignol for the moral majority. Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon, if not Margaret Moran, belong within the inner ring of the Blairite rump. All four are leaving the Commons for good on dissolution. Apparently Monday evening’s PLP meeting saw a mass outpouring of grief and loathing, as backbenchers who aren’t standing down waxed bilious at having their re-election hopes shafted. Hoon and Hewitt may have calculated, after the fiasco of their January putsch against the PM, that they had little left to lose. Their places on the red benches in Another Place have been cancelled. The one Tory MP suckered by Channel 4, Sir John Butterfill, has also hit the ermine ceiling.
The victory at the Oscars of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker over James Cameron’s Avatar was generally perceived as a good sign of the state of things in Hollywood: a low-budget, independent film overcomes a superproduction whose technical brilliance cannot cover up the flat simplicity of its story. So Hollywood is not just a blockbuster machine, but still knows how to appreciate marginal creative efforts. Well, maybe. But it’s also the case that, with all its mystifications, Avatar clearly takes the side of those who oppose the global military-industrial complex, while The Hurt Locker presents the US army in a way which is much more finely attuned to its own public image in our time of humanitarian interventions and militaristic pacifism.
Some ex-ministers one of them ByersRevealed themselves greedy and liarsBoth Hoon and Pat HewittSaid pay me and blew itBut they all pale into insignificance beside the post-prime-ministerial £20 million of Tony Blair.
For those Tory campaign posters in full, go to www.mydavidcameron.com
It's one of those ironies of history: a by-product of the clerical revolution in Iran was the emergence of a new wave of Iranian cinema. Kiarostami became the most celebrated auteur in the west, but he was part of a much larger creative and critical community. They view each other’s work at rough-cut stage, they comment on scripts, they suggest actors: there is a strong sense of solidarity. The cinematic language is varied, the interior destiny of each filmmaker is different, but even the self-contained Makhmalbaf family benefits from being part of a larger group. Watching their work one can see the influences that stretch from Rossellini, Fellini and Godard to Kurosawa, Ray and Hou Hsia-hsien. I’ve always regarded one of this group, Jafar Panahi, as the country’s most fearless filmmaker.
In the wake of Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated trip to Israel last week, many people would agree with the Israeli ambassador Michael Oren's remark that ‘Israel's ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975… a crisis of historic proportions.’ Like all crises, this one will eventually go away. However, this bitter fight has disturbing implications for Israelis and their American supporters. First, the events of the past week make it clear in ways that we have not seen in the past that Israel is a strategic liability for the United States, not the strategic asset that the Israel lobby has long claimed it was. Specifically, the Obama administration has unambiguously declared that Israel’s expansionist policies in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, are doing serious damage to US interests in the region. Indeed, Biden reportedly told the Israeli prime minister, Binyahim Netanyahu, in private: This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace. If that message begins to resonate with the American public, unconditional support for the Jewish state is likely to evaporate.
The anti-government protests in Bangkok, which have drawn at least 100,000 red-shirted protestors from across rural Thailand, have attracted a lot of attention from the global media. This is in large part down to the gore: demonstrators have been donating litres of their blood to be poured on government buildings. The United States government, however, Thailand’s longtime foreign patron and ally, has said almost nothing about the red demonstrations. During a brief visit to the country shortly before the current protests, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell issued a bland statement:
From an interview to be published in the next issue of the 'LRB': One of the most expensive programmes in France, the retirement system for railway workers, was established in the years after World War Two. Its powerful Communist trade union negotiated a very good deal, particularly for train drivers. They could retire at the age of 54 on full salary until their death. At the time it was a very reasonable deal. These men normally started working when they were 13, and they had been working on steam trains all their life, which was physically difficult and dangerous work. When they reached 54, they were exhausted. Their life expectancy after that was about eight years. The pension was therefore not all that expensive for the state. Today their sons and grandsons have the same deal. But they leave school at 16, they go to work on the TGVs, where they sit on comfortable chairs, air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, and the most demanding thing they do is push a button; they retire at 54 on full salary and their life expectancy is another 24 years.
Last month, the Dutch coalition government collapsed on the issue of the involvement of Dutch troops in Uruzgan. The Dutch parliament had earlier voted for the troops to be brought home by August, a policy supported by the Labour party, the second party in the coalition. The dominant Christian Democrats disagreed, and wished to accede to a US and Nato demand for a further extension of their troops’ engagement. The breach between the governing parties was unbridgeable, and the coalition broke up. This was the first Nato government to collapse over Afghanistan, and one of very few governments to have collapsed over a foreign policy dispute.
The Australian (Labor) government has just published a white paper (‘Securing Australia – Protecting Our Community') which assures its readers that the terrorist threat to Australia is stronger than ever. External threats remain, of course, but are now made much worse by the dangers of homegrown terrorism, a result of the spread of jihadist propaganda among Australia’s Muslim population. The government is proposing to increase significantly the powers of the federal police – including the right to search the property of suspected ‘terrorists’ without a warrant – and to introduce further (and severe) visa tests on people coming to Australia from 10 unnamed countries. Sound familiar? It should, because the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has acknowledged that in preparing the legislation the Australians consulted the British government. What lies behind all this?
With the obvious exception of Baltimore, the most fashionable American city in which to set a cop show with a twist lately seems to be Miami. Perhaps Michael Mann's big screen remake of Miami Vice has something to do with it. The same year that movie came out, the first season of Dexter went on the air. The eponymous hero (played by Michael C. Hall) is a forensics expert with the Miami PD. In his spare time he kills murderers who've escaped more regular forms of justice. He thinks of himself as a serial killer, and that's the show's ostensible conceit: Our hero's a serial killer! But, that aside, he's a nice guy! It's a bit more cunning than that, though,
The New York Times Magazine recently profiled Charles Johnson, who – back in the good old days of Dick Cheney’s ‘Go fuck yourself’ – was an important online player in what one ex-associate of his terms ‘the trans-Atlantic counterjihad movement’. A ponytailed, LA-based jazz guitarist, Johnson was one of those who went a bit nuts after the 11 September attacks. Little Green Footballs, previously a personal blog devoted to web design and bicycle racing, rapidly became the go-to site for defenders of Western civilisation who wished to share genocidal fantasies about Muslims, fret or gloat over the plight of ‘Eurabia’, send pizzas to Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories and so on. Melanie Phillips became its best-known British fan.
The recent spate of attacks on churches in Malaysia, following a court ruling allowing Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ for their god, has surprised many outsiders who thought the country was relatively tolerant. But for decades, even as Malaysia’s government portrayed the country as a racially harmonious society, non-Malays have quietly chafed at discrimination against them. Following race riots in 1969, the government launched an affirmative action initiative known as the New Economic Policy. It was intended to redistribute wealth from ethnic Chinese, who make up about 25 per cent of the population but historically ran much of the country’s business, to ethnic Malays, who comprise about 65 per cent. Most of the rest of the population are ethnic Indians.
The enemies of Gordon Brown are a wonderful company as, God knows, were the enemies of John Major. A government suffers bad shocks, its leader stumbles and attracts a bad press. What government and prime minister do next, over time and rather successfully, may well redeem them with mere voters. But party members in internal opposition at Westminster will have none of it. What follows is suicide bombing – of a genteel and wittering sort.
The honeymoon between Barack Obama and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva didn’t last long. When Obama was elected, the US press imagined a natural alliance between the two men, expecting them to sideline the ideologues and set the Western Hemisphere back in greased grooves. ‘This is my man, right here,’ Obama said at the G20 summit in London in April, grinning and shaking Lula’s hand. ‘I love this guy.’ The first bump in the road was the coup in Honduras in June, which sparked a clash of wills between the US and Brazil over how best to settle it. ‘Our concern,’ said Lula’s foreign-policy adviser, Marco Aurélio Garcia, is that Washington’s push to legitimise the Honduran elections ‘will introduce the “theory of the preventive coup”’ – an extension of Bush’s doctrine of preventive war – ‘in Latin America’.
The BNP clearly hopes it has the wind in its sails. It has dispatched a newsletter to its supporters which, though it apologises for the lateness of the 2008 accounts (just completed), is intended to sound pretty self-confident. Indeed, one reason the letter gives for lateness is that the party has been overwhelmed by new members. (There is also a coy reference to ‘unresolved internal problems’ as factors which made life difficult, problems which have, we are to understand, now been resolved.) Party membership, it says, is now 13,000 and rising – with 3000 ‘on hold’ as a result (it does not quite say) of a ruling that the BNP was in breach of the law by imposing a racial bar on membership. There are two interesting features to this letter.
Laos is run by a regime every bit as repressive as the Burmese junta, but it somehow gets a free pass from outsiders. At least Burma has political parties – Laos has none apart from the ruling Communists. On the few occasions when Lao activists have tried to hold rallies, they have been quickly arrested and disappeared. This week, Thailand began forcibly repatriating 4000 ethnic Hmong who had fled Laos during and immediately after the Vietnam War. The Hmong are likely to face harassment or arrest on their return, both because of their role during the Vietnam War – many of them fought alongside US forces against the Vietnamese and Lao Communists – and because of longstanding racism. The Thai government admits that it fears for the safety of some of the Hmong it is deporting.
Among the dead in last month’s massacre in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, in which gunmen killed more than 57 people known to be supporters of a prominent politician, were nearly 30 journalists. It was the largest killing of reporters in recent history. This was one of the reasons the massacre made the headlines; but it wasn’t otherwise so unusual.
Obama fluffed it. That’s the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the way the military coup in Honduras has played out over the last few months. Claiming that they still regarded Manuel Zelaya, expelled on 28 June, as the legitimate president, the United States eventually got round to appearing to put pressure on the illegal regime in October. Unfortunately, their action was either so hesitant or so deliberately manipulative that Zelaya lost the best chance he had to return to power. The ostensible justification for the coup was that Zelaya was making unconstitutional moves to run for a second term as president. However, despite the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court and most of the media maintaining this fiction, it was obvious that the real reason was his swing to the left and alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Seems like déjà vu all over again in Malaysia. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to jail in 2000 for sodomy (it’s a crime in Malaysia), once more faces similar charges. As before, Anwar, a former leader of the governing coalition who turned to the opposition, claims he’s been set up by the ruling party, which has dominated Malaysian politics (not to mention the police force and judiciary) since independence. He has a point. Several of the people who, in the previous case, had claimed to have had sex with him later recanted their confessions, and the DNA evidence seemed likely to have been fabricated. This time, an independent medical report has found that the man who claimed to have had sex with Anwar was never sodomised. Not that the police have anything to fear. In another recent high-profile case, a journalist who had reported allegations of corruption supposedly fell to his death from a skyscraper while in custody. A forensic report by a Thai scientist not affiliated with the Malaysian government concluded that the man had been beaten severely before he ‘fell’.
Amid all this celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, I’m left wondering whether I was the only one to have jumped the other way at the time. It turned me into a Marxist. All my adult life before then I had thought that Marx had been wrong, for example in predicting that capitalism would need to get redder in tooth and claw before it was undermined by its internal contradictions. The Russian Revolution however had not occurred in the most advanced capitalist country, which is why, by my way of thinking, it could only be kept alive by tyranny – a premature baby in an incubator was the metaphor I liked to use. In the West it had been shown that enlightened capitalist societies could smooth away their own roughest edges, by taking on board social democracy, the welfare state, decolonisation and the like.
During his first visit to China, Barack Obama reportedly addressed a range of contentious issues with his hosts, in private: Iran, North Korea, climate change, the yuan and its impact on the global financial crisis. But, whether in public or in private, the US president tiptoed very lightly when talking about China’s human rights record. At a town hall meeting in Shanghai with young Chinese, Obama deflected the chance to criticise Beijing’s censorship of the internet, for example, talking only about universal rights in the vaguest terms. At a scripted ‘press conference’ – neither he nor the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, actually took any questions – Obama walked the same line, telling Hu that the US is committed to universal rights, but refusing to mention any of China’s specific failings. This is part of a new US strategy towards repressive regimes.
Last Thursday Nicolas Sarkozy gave a long speech at La Chapelle-en-Vercors. It was supposed to be in support of farming, but Sarkozy turned on his heel at the cowshed and launched into a lively exposition of French identity, republican identity, and the identity of everything and nothing. That’s a winning formula. Or it was in 2007 when he campaigned for the presidency on the same combination. It’s probably an opener for the regional elections in March 2010. Sarkozy may well be drawing a pension by the time anyone can say what this great piece of oratory about culture and values really adds up to. Is it worth the struggle? For those who don’t want to find out the hard way, here’s a 17-point résumé: 1. You’re really French when you grasp that the Girondins and the Jacobins were two sides of the same coin. 2. Yes, coins.
Obama’s foreign policy rests on the idea that the world has entered an era in which major powers can work together on such issues as climate change and trade, and that nations can always find some common ground. Arriving in Tokyo, the president emphasised his shared roots with many Asians, and suggested that a new era of co-operation in the region is around the corner. ‘I am an American president who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a boy,’ Obama said, calling himself ‘America’s first Pacific president’. But across Asia, that common ground will be hard to find.
During his trip to Asia this month, Barack Obama is visiting China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. All four are critical to US policy in the region – three Northeast Asian economic powerhouses and Singapore, which has the closest relationship toWashington of any country in Southeast Asia. And yet Obama is skipping the largest nation in Southeast Asia, Indonesia. That’s a mistake. The White House wants to demonstrate that, after eight years of the Bush administration ignoring Southeast Asia, Washington is once again focusing on the region. On Capitol Hill, too, lawmakers seem eager to establish that the US is not willing simply to cede Southeast Asia to China, which has made enormous gains in the region while America was distracted.
In early October the Palestinian Authority dropped its draft resolution calling for a discussion of the Goldstone Report in the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court. The 575-page report was, by all accounts, one of the most exhaustive and withering studies to date of Israeli war crimes. It also chastised the PA’s rival, Hamas, for firing rockets at Israeli civilians. The PA, which looked on at the Gaza war from distant Ramallah, would seem to have nothing to lose in light of the report's findings, and everything to gain. Yet the PA’s chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, was persuaded that going forward with its resolution would give the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, a pretext to avoid resuming negotiations – and the resolution would, in any case, be vetoed by the Obama administration.
It is hard to know what to make of this week’s Question Time. Most of what happened was fairly predictable. Nick Griffin was a rhetorical mess and the other members of the panel (including David Dimbleby) had clearly come well-prepared with damning quotations and facts. If Griffin hoped to advance his cause – as he believed he could – then he failed. But it is questionable whether that matters. Most of his actual and potential supporters are unlikely to watch Question Time and few people who do watch it would be converted, however brilliantly he performed. The BNP draws such strength as it has (and it is not much) from grievances which are not met by arguments from the facts.
Over the past two months, the United States, which for more than a decade has isolated the Burmese junta, appears to have dramatically shifted its policy towards the regime. After a comprehensive internal policy review, the Obama administration announced that it would engage with Burma more directly, though it would also (for now) maintain sanctions on the regime. In a sign of thawing relations, the Burmese foreign minister, Nyan Win, went to Washington in September – a rare visit for a senior junta leader.
As if there weren't already enough reasons to think it a bad idea, Silvio Berlusconi has thrown his weight behind the campaign to install his old friend Tony Blair as the first president of the Council of Europe. It would be funny, if it weren't so depressing (and so depressingly unsurprising), that a demagogue of the right who absurdly claims to be the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy involving judges, politicians, journalists and anyone else he cares to name, should count a former British Labour prime minister among his allies rather than his opponents.
Typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which struck the Philippines, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia in recent weeks, have killed at least 650 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. The total cost of the damage is likely to be more than $1 billion. Over the past decade the toll of natural disasters in the region seems to have skyrocketed: the 2004 tsunami killed more than 220,000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Burma; in 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000. Climate change has something to do with it. But so has another man-made blunder: throughout Southeast Asia, governments from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to China have favoured a strategy of economic growth at any cost.
Last week, Sondhi Limthongkul became leader of Thailand’s New Politics Party. Sondhi, a former media mogul, is one of the men behind the ongoing demonstrations that precipitated the military coup overthrowing Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and which since then have given the military and the judiciary a pretext to bar Thaksin’s proxies from holding office.
Yesterday's decision by Italy's constitutional court to revoke the prime minister's immunity from prosecution was unexpected, but with hindsight looks almost inevitable. The fundamental grounds for it are simple: according to Article 3 of the Italian Constitution, all citizens are equal before the law. Berlusconi's reaction was predictable: he says he's the victim of a left-wing conspiracy involving the courts, the media and even – a charge he hasn't dared level before – the president of the republic. The prime minister said he needed immunity in order to run the country. Since he can't have immunity, the logical upshot is that he can't run the country. But logic has never been Berlusconi's strong point.
Is it too late for the Labour Party to do anything? The delegates at this year’s conference appear not to think so. They loved Peter Mandelson and were coaxed into being enthusiastic about Gordon Brown. But the role of delegates at Labour’s stage-managed conferences now is to be enthusiastic: that's what they're there for. The electorate outside the doors and the security men is unlikely to be so thrilled. Mandelson’s speech, though it certainly had spirit, was precisely the kind of mannered, self-conscious performance that most voters find really offputting. Brown’s speech was certainly not mannered.
'Bill never let his ideology interfere with his news judgment,' Howell Raines says of William Safire, the late New York Times columnist. Never? One example of Safire's news judgment being made misty by party prejudice was the tale of Mohamed Atta's visit to Prague before 11 September 2001. Atta, according to Safire, met an Iraqi secret agent in the Czech Republic, which proved a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, and this association was therefore a reason to go to war in Iraq.
On 16 September the Chinese government claimed to have arrested six people in Aksu (a city in western Xinjiang) for making bombs. Two of the six – Seyitamut Obul and Tasin Mehmut – have Uighur names. Li Wei, the director of the Centre for Counterterrorism Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, warned that 'terrorists have gone underground to organise different forms of terror attacks in Xinjiang . . . such as the recent syringe attacks in the region and plotting bomb attacks.’ He went on to claim that the recovered explosives were to be used in car and suicide bombings. The timing of the arrests is suspiciously convenient: in the run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October, the government would like to show that it has the region under control.
On 18 September Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi's legal team published online a 300-page dossier of evidence protesting the convicted Lockerbie bomber's innocence. The dossier would have formed part of the basis of al-Megrahi's appeal had he not given it up so he could return to Libya to die in the bosom of his family. As Gareth Peirce argues in the latest LRB, there never was any convincing evidence against al-Megrahi in the first place. (In a response to Peirce, former FBI agent Richard Marquise doesn't substantively address either her main points or those in the dossier.) One reason for this is that, when Libya was first fingered for the bombing in 1990, those responsible never expected their case would ever have to stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.
David Brooks professes to know the deep undercurrents of American life, and in his latest column for the New York Times he tries to explain why Jimmy Carter is wrong to say that the rhetorical attacks on Barack Obama are motivated by race: My impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts. For example, for generations schoolchildren studied the long debate between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power.
At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, history seemed firmly on the side of the demonstrators. The Soviet Union was on the verge of cracking apart, and soon after its fall most other one-party states would collapse as well. Many in the Square, and most outside observers, assumed the Communist Party of China would soon take its place in the dustbin. Beijing’s leaders certainly feared so: as revealed in books like The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang’s memoir Prisoner of the State, Deng Xiaoping knew that the Party could well collapse. Even after the regime crushed the Tiananmen protests, the idea persisted that the Communist Party could not possibly survive. ‘China remains on the wrong side of history,’ Bill Clinton said in 1998. Two years later, he warned that the Party’s attempts to control the internet in China would be like ‘trying to nail Jell-O to the wall’. And yet, sixty years after its founding, the Communist Party has done just that – defied history and nailed the Jell-O down.
Craig T. Nelson, an actor (the Coach in Blades of Glory), explains to Glenn 'Obama is racist’ Beck of Fox News why he'd like to stop paying his taxes: 'I've been on foodstamps and welfare.
Among the many very interesting Russian documents published in today's Times is a conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev on 23 September 1989, when Thatcher declared she and George Bush were against the reunification of Germany.
The riots in Ürümqi in July caused more than 200 deaths and led to the imposition of martial law. Though there were differing accounts of who was to blame – the police, for firing on ‘peaceful protestors’, or terrorists whose ‘goal was to undermine the social order’ – the violence was generally perceived as being due to resentment between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority. On 17 August there were reports that people in Ürümqi had been attacked with hypodermic syringes. There were no casualties, and it was unclear who was responsible. But in the following weeks, as the stabbings continued, Han residents began to claim they were being targeted. The government confirmed that most of the victims were Han, but stressed that Uighurs and other ethnic groups had also been attacked. By 3 September the hospitals had reported a total of 531 cases. However, only 20 per cent of these showed any signs of physical injury, which suggests that the greater problem was the fear created by the attacks.
If you ever find yourself wondering what Karl Rove has been up to since resigning from the Bush administration in 2007, but don't feel like subscribing to Fox News or the Wall Street Journal, you can keep track of him on Twitter. This weekend, for example, he's been out hunting doves: you couldn't make it up. Lots of Rove's tweets end up on the #TCOT channel (that's 'Top Conservatives On Twitter'), which at the moment, unsurprisingly, is full of crowing over Van Jones's resignation and attacks on 'Obamacare'. It's mesmerising. auto insurance is mandatory for u to pay, so why not health insurance? think about that one all u "healthers". I half thought about pointing out the benefits of a subsidised public transport system,
When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, years of civil war had destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Constant political turmoil, dating back to the late 19th century and the collapse of the Chinese Empire, had torn apart China’s intellectual class, and driven millions out of the country. The Communist Party promised a period of peace and stability. Many in the West feared that China would come to dominate Asia, and possibly the world. Those fears only grew after the Korean War. It wasn’t to be. Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic and social policies, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, not only killed millions but upended China’s social order far more than the chaos of the early 20th century. Only in the past three decades has China begun to fulfil the potential promised in 1949.
When Edward Kennedy got up to speak at the funeral of his nephew John Kennedy in New York City in 1999, I knew that he had a reputation as a good speaker. I was there because I'd worked for John Kennedy as an editor on his magazine, the glossy and not always terrifically good George; he had died in a plane crash a week earlier. Kennedy did give a good speech – good enough to make you wonder whether you really want to hear a good speech on a bad day. A few hours later, after the congregation had moved from the Upper East Side church to a school on Fifth Avenue, I heard singing coming from a nearby room. The small choir from the church had assembled and were singing Southern a cappellas: in the centre of a circle formed by those looking on was Kennedy, dancing a jig and making a fool of himself.
In politics, the quality of mercy is usually strained through several layers of dirty washing. The Westminster and Edinburgh governments now boast a ‘justice secretary’ each (Jack Straw and Kenny MacAskill respectively). In the old days, it was left to judges to ensure that justice was dispensed without fear or favour. Now it has to be entrusted to politicians. The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has kicked up a sandstorm in the dank and lawyerly chambers of Holyrood. Commentators have deplored the ‘sickening’ spectacle of the saltire being waved at Tripoli airport by Gaddafi’s claque, and Secretary MacAskill’s politically inept audience with al-Megrahi in HMP Greenock. But bad politics is sometimes good politics. We now like the Libyans, emeritus members of the Axis of Evil.
Barney Frank and the dining-room table:
With Senator Jim Webb's return from Burma, policymakers in Washington who want greater engagement with the junta have begun considering their next steps. One South-East Asian diplomat I spoke with suggested Burma's neighbours would try to broker informal, higher-level contacts between American and Burmese defence officials. Webb said that the time had come for the US to abandon sanctions against Burma and pursue greater contacts with the regime. But what these urbane policymakers don't understand is that Burma's junta, seemingly so backward, can easily play them for fools. Over the decades, the junta has mastered the art of appearing to make concessions to the international community and reaping the rewards without making any real changes.
More than two years after the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission ruled that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi may have suffered a miscarriage of justice, it was announced that the convicted Lockerbie bomber would be released on humanitarian grounds. A few days later he dropped his appeal. Then today the Timesreports that Hilary Clinton has warned of an international backlash if Megrahi is released early. It’s no secret the Libyans didn't want their man to die in prison.
Over the weekend, Jim Webb, the senior senator from Virginia, flew to the isolated Burmese capital of Naypyidaw for a rare sit-down with the head of the junta, Than Shwe. Webb, the outspoken head of the East Asia and the Pacific subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went, in theory, to negotiate the release of John Yettaw, the American who was sentenced to seven years in prison for swimming to the house of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And he apparently got what he came for: the junta agreed to let Yettaw leave on Webb’s plane.
When the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a new term of house arrest this week the international community responded with shock and anger. The US government condemned the sentence, which a court handed down ostensibly because Suu Kyi allowed a deranged American tourist to rest in her house after he swam across a lake to see her. He was given seven years in prison. Inside Burma, the verdict seemed to cause little stir, though a heightened military presence in major cities helped keep the population quiet. The military junta had launched the absurd trial – Yettaw was able to reach Suu Kyi’s house even though it is probably the most guarded in all of Burma – in order to prevent the opposition leader from taking part in national elections scheduled for next year.
The New York Times Book Review prides itself on its objectivity: no known lovers or sworn enemies are allowed to review each other. In actual practice, this means that the author of a novel about getting divorced in Pennsylvania will extravagantly praise the author of a novel about getting divorced in Connecticut. A political ‘moderate’ will air and then dismiss the ideas in a book by a left-winger; a right-winger will express some mild reservations about an ultra-right-winger; and a left-winger will only be asked to review something without contemporary content (e.g. a feminist on the biography of a suffragette). Edited by Sam Tanenhaus (biographer of Whittaker Chambers and, in progress, William F. Buckley), the NYTBR is predictably softcore right-of-centre.
Although everyone is denying it, European public opinion is obviously being softened up, especially by the Kinnockian wing of the Labour party, for Blair’s emergence as the first full-time president of Europe. And although in a rational world his election would seem self-evidently absurd, given his record, it is being put about that many European leaders – including, improbably, Sarkozy – are enthusiastic. If they are, they should ask themselves what a Blair presidency would actually mean. Blair does not share the Conservatives’ blockheaded hostility to ‘Europe’ but he would nonetheless be the candidate of the United States – and that is what the Tories want. America has never shared the Conservative Party’s extreme Atlanticism. It believes in ‘Europe’ and always wanted Britain to join the EEC, now the EU. But it certainly does not believe in the European ideal.
Swine flu has been spreading in Britain for three months. The virus has got about quite well, although the great majority of infections have been mild. Until two weeks ago reassurance about our preparedness for a pandemic was the order of the day. But the media tone changed with the reporting of the deaths of six-year old Chloe Buckley and Dr Michael Day. Chloe was said to have been infected with the virus but didn’t have the ‘underlying health conditions’ usually present in fatal cases, and Day was the first healthcare worker to have a lethal infection. Coincidentally, the tenor of official public pronouncements altered too. The chief medical officer for England mentioned the possibility of 65,000 deaths. On television he was quick to qualify: that figure was a worst-case scenario, necessary for planning, not a prediction. But the number, not the caveat, got the publicity. There was also a change in the way that case statistics were announced, with a shift from laboratory confirmation to estimates based on GP consultation rates and clinical diagnoses. The overnight five-fold increase in ‘cases’ was inevitable. Lab tests tend to underestimate, and consultation rates increase because of the media coverage.
In the current issue of the LRB, Slavoj Žižek argues that Italy is leading the way as the West descends into authoritarian capitalism. One of the ways that Berlusconi maintains his grip on power, as Žižek says, is by fostering fear of immigrants. 'Our governments righteously reject populist racism as "unreasonable" by our democratic standards, and instead endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures,' Žižek writes. In one respect, when it comes to 'reasonable' racism, Brown's Britain has the edge over Berlusconi's Italy. The threat of compulsory ID cards for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons and other British citizens seems to be fading (more to do with the need to save money than with an upsurge of libertarian feeling in the cabinet).
'I see God's hand all over this place,' Sarah Palin says of Alaska in an interview with Runners World. The former mayor, former vice-presidential candidate, now former governor, is much absorbed by running, and it's on a run that she knows profund thoughts.
The protests spiralled quickly out of control, but the ethnic tensions in the west China region of Xinjiang are not new, and this unrest has been brewing for years. Unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs – a Muslim, Turkic people – have no global spokesperson capable of bringing their cause to the attention of the West. But like Tibet, Xinjiang once laid claim to being its own nation, and Uighurs have harboured separatist ambitions since the founding of the People’s Republic. As I found during a number of visits to the region over the past decade, Uighurs and Chinese in Xinjiang have almost no interaction with each other.
Britain's isn't the only newspaper culture to make a habit of naming and shaming. Last year in Serbia a national tabloid vilified the human rights activist Sonja Biserko, calling her a traitor and a threat to 'Serbian homogeneity'; it also published her home address. In Kosovo, despite bitter memories of Serbian domination, this practice of whipping up animosity against public enemies, while canvassing a paper's readership for henchmen, hasn't gone away. The journalist Jeta Xharra is the latest public enemy. She presents Life in Kosovo, a weekly televised debate on current affairs for the public service channel RTK.
So the centre-right candidate easily won the run-off for mayor. (Is it just me, or is it the case that there's very little that's centrist about the so-called centre right, just as the so-called centre left seems to have very little of the left about it?) The town hasn't had a right-wing mayor since the end of the Second World War. Posters have sprung up everywhere, emblazoned with the logo of Berlusconi's Popolo della Libertà, saying a big thank you to voters and announcing that the town is changing, though without specifying how. It's all rather sinister. But then the losing centre-left candidate's runner-up prize is to be the majority leader on the town council, so what we probably have to look forward to, rather than the threatened change, is five years of stalemate.
In an interview with Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tony Blair told an audience packed with eastern seaboard celebrities how he is writing his memoirs. 'Instead of doing this as "I met such and such five world leaders on such and such a day and they said such and such,"’ he explained, 'I'm writing it more as, if you like, a personal journey.
If it isn't bad enough that the government believes it can stagger on, Britain's universities are to be made part of the answer to the economic mess. The portfolio of Peter Mandelson, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council – who does he think he is, Thomas Strafford? – will include higher education. Teaching and research are to be considered 'economic sectors', and according to Gordon Brown this reorganisation will lead to a ‘single department committed to building Britain's future economic strengths'. Everything under New Labour, it seems, must have an economic function.
Circumstantial evidence suggests the traditional left is alive and well in Berlin. My neighbourhood is full of posters printed with Marx's picture and slogans such as 'Marx is Back' and 'Permanent Crisis: we're not paying!' Thanks to the recession, Kreuzberg's May Day demonstrations were livelier than they've been for some time: more flaming mattresses, more paint-bombed buildings, more arrests. And at the Freie Universitaet the only party with any discernible campaign presence in the run up to the European elections was the uncompromisingly anti-capitalist Die Linke, a part-successor to East Germany's old SED.
There seems to be one clear message from last Friday's voting in Ireland: people liked their Celtic Tiger, and now that it's gone, they want somebody to pay. Elections for the European Parliament were held alongside local council polls, and there were a couple of Dublin by-elections thrown in for good measure, so the opportunities to stick it to the ruling coalition were delightfully varied. Fianna Fáil had an awful day, their worst since the 1920s. They were overtaken by Fine Gael on a national scale, but the details of the defeat must have made it particularly galling for Ireland's one-time vote-harvesting machine.
There wasn't much excitement about the European elections in Spain. A couple of vans with loudspeakers came round my district advertising the main parties, the PSOE (left) and the PP (right), but they caused far less interest than others announcing vegetables, wine by the litre and cheap trousers. I went down to the local polling station at eight, when it was supposed to open. It was indeed open but the police informed me that no one could vote before nine. At nine I was leaving town with a party of friends from my mineral club. And so I spent most of election day en route for the tiny mountain village of Navajun, in the Rioja region. I once saw two pensioners, one of them disabled, get into an undignified physical fight in a village bar over a general election. Local elections, too, can cause feelings to run high. Europe is a different matter.
Sweden starts to wind down about now, preparing for the short – but glorious – summer. So, not much excitement over the European elections here. The quality dailies carried some serious articles on them, of course, but that's just the political class. A few party posters appeared, very late, all almost identical (just faces), and in pastel shades. Swedes have always been ambivalent, at best, about the EU, joining it very late (1995), resisting the euro, and endlessly carping about the way Brussels seems to want to interfere with their cherished customs, like the state liquor-store monopoly, snus (vile little cushions of tobacco you put between your bottom lip and your gum), paying immigrant workers decent wages, and – well – democracy generally.
Like a complete idiot I assumed that informing the ufficio anagrafe I'd changed my address would automatically mean the electoral register would be updated too. Residency is a big deal here: the police are supposed to come and check that you live where you say you do before the town council will update the official record, and all sorts of things – from being taxed and getting an ID card to buying a car or paying lower (domestic rather than business-rate) electricity bills – are dependent on it. I thought the right to vote was one of them. By the time I learned a couple of weeks ago that the ufficio elettorale is distinct and down the hall from the ufficio anagrafe, it was too late to register for the weekend's ballot. (I'd have been just as stuffed in the UK, where the deadline was 7 April.) Even for the local elections? Even for the local elections. Oh dear.
Maybe one should be tremendously worried about the electoral victories of the British National Party. Maybe not. 'Leading historians' say there's no reason to panic. Still, worry seems to characterise some of the reaction. Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling both say that their party is responsible because – oh no! – the Labour Party has let these voters down, though only Labour, they also insist, can now rescue them from the clutches of the wicked Nick Griffin.
Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.
Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week was, of course, addressed as much to Americans as to Cairenes (or for that matter Muslims). The crowd hardly needed to be reminded of their civilisation's accomplishments in maths, science and learning; but many Americans could surely benefit from the history lesson the president so succinctly and eloquently provided. Likewise, most Egyptians know that there are worse places to be Muslim than the US: that's why so many of them are desperate for American visas. Europeans, on the other hand, could learn something from American tolerance of the hijab.
From the Washington Post: He was a courtly State Department intelligence analyst from a prominent family who loved to sail and peruse the London Review of Books. Occasionally, he would voice frustration with U.S. policies, but to his liberal neighbors in Northwest D.C. it was nothing out of the ordinary. "We were all appalled by the Bush years," one said. What Walter Kendall Myers kept hidden, according to documents unsealed in court Friday, was a deep and long-standing anger toward his country, an anger that allegedly made him willing to spy for Cuba for three decades. "I have become so bitter these past few months.
There has, I hear, been much whispering in dark corners at the Palace of Westminster in recent days. But if the papers are to be believed, the darkest of dark whisperings have been taking place on the internet, in the form of the super-secret 'Hotmail conspiracy' to oust Gordon Brown. To recap: on Wednesday night, a few hours before polling opened for the European and local elections, the Guardianexclusively revealed that a group of parliamentary plotters had set up an anonymous webmail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, in order to gather virtual signatories to a virtual letter calling for the PM to resign.
Last week in the Occupied Territories, a bunch of (mainly) British writers, guests of the Palestine Festival of Literature, were asked to run workshops for the students at Birzeit. I was paired up with Robin Yassin-Kassab, the author of The Road from Damascus. Our workshop title was 'the role of writing in creating new political realities'. Right. Something about change then. Yassin-Kassab is a novelist; he knows what it is to ring the changes. I'm a journalist; I know how to change an inkjet cartridge. But we both agree that shouting tends to lock 'old' political realities in place, so why not turn this into an experiment about making a point without banging a drum?
Short-term profiteering is one explanation for the banking crisis. Who was among those who warned of the dangers of short-term economic and financial thinking? Gordon Brown, who has begun to resemble Richard Nixon in the way he is clinging to power because that's all there is left to cling to. Twenty years ago, in two pieces he wrote for the LRB, Brown attacked Thatcher for promoting short-term gain at the expense of long-term investment and research. In fact, Brown equated the entire Thatcher project with short-term thinking, blind as he also believed it was to long-term growth.
A good way to grasp what's happening to East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories is from the air. Google Earth can do that for you, but there's a history of contention: in 2006, users created tags for Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the war of 1948-49; the following year Fatah's al-Aqsa Brigades were said to be checking potential Israeli military targets against Google Earth pictures; last year there was a controversy over the Israeli coastal town of Kiryat Yam, when a user called Thameen Darby posted a note claiming it was formerly a Palestinian locality 'evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war'. Kiryat Yam, its residents protested as they reached for the nearest lawyer, was built in the 1930s.
Last week, the Palestine Festival of Literature organised a discussion about travel and writing at the Dar Annadwa cultural centre in Bethlehem. One of Palfest's star guests, touring the West Bank and East Jersualem, was Michael Palin, whose early glories, before his reinvention as a traveller, were much on people's minds. He spoke well about growing up in Sheffield and cultivating a passion for Hemingway, but the audience was delighted when someone suggested that living under Israeli occupation was a bit like being in the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil. As the panellists stood up and tidied their books, a young Palestinian in the seat in front of me said she couldn't believe we were all with Palin in Bethlehem – Bethlehem! – and no one had thought to ask about Monty Python's Life of Brian. But with two other writers on the stage, there'd been a lot of ground to cover.
The parliamentary crisis, the Guardiansaid two weeks ago, can be compared to the crisis that led to the reform of Parliament in 1832. Last week, the Guardiansaid: 'In the end, we need a new politics more than we need a new government.' What does this mean? That MPs, when they appear on TV or write editorials in newspapers, must radiate the right moral tone, just as their American counterparts do every Sunday on Meet the Press or in the pieces they write for the op-ed page of the New York Times? Making the UK more like the USA appears to be the assumption behind this clamour for change, as if the further Americanisation of institutions and practices were always for the good. If only Britain were more like the US – two wholly elected legislative chambers! two-year-long presidential election contests! the money! the expense! – the better off we would all be? And what is it with this fixation with dates?
Right from the start of the MPs' expenses – sorry, ‘allowances’ – scandal, I think we’ve all had personal favourites. The multiply-flipping Labour ministers may edge the contest in terms of the outrageousness of what they’ve done, but the Tories have had the upper hand in terms of vivid details. The wisteria was good, the manure was better, the moat-cleaning was better still, and then best of all was the £1645 floating island for Sir Peter Viggers’s duck pond. (Incidentally, it’s not clear whether Sir Peter got the money: according to the Torygraph, the claim had ‘not allowable’ scribbled beside it.
David Cameron and I visited the Open University the other day, he to give a speech to the world, me to learn something about day-old chicks and biochemistry. Neither of us knew the other was going to be there. I was told at the reception desk to wait on one of the seats behind me and handed a label, one of those clip things I can never work out how to fix to myself. As I turned to go to the chairs, preoccupied with my label dyspraxia, someone grabbed me by my elbow and pulled me to the left. I dislike being grabbed so I pulled away and carried on the way I was going. But I'd failed to notice that the world had changed while I had my back to the room, and a semicircle of large chests in suits were claiming all the space for the man at their centre.
In his remarks to the American Enterprise Institute last week, Dick Cheney said that inmates at Guantánamo should remain imprisoned on Cuba because they are too dangerous to be incarcerated in American jails. What about the Americans arrested and jailed under the terms of the war on terror? Should they be incarcerated on Cuba, or does Cheney suppose that Americans are, regardless of what they have done, inherently less dangerous than other people and therefore don't need to be jailed at Guantánamo? Nor – surely – can Cheney have forgotten that immediately after 9/11, hundreds of men were rounded up by the FBI and other police forces in the US and imprisoned in high security American jails: 760 in total, 184 of whom were considered especially interesting by the authorities. Just over half of them were interred at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, a former warehouse on the waterfront overlooking the harbour and the Statue of Liberty. The story was covered by the New York Times, but it was treated, mostly, as local news and carried in the 'New York Region' section of the paper.
The Orwell Prize committee this year introduced a new prize for political blogging. It has been won by an anonymous 'English detective' who calls himself 'NightJack'. His posts are a mixture of general comment and diary accounts of apparently typical days in the lives of English policemen. They are vigorously written and sometimes perfectly reasonable. NightJack regrets that the police today are kitted out as imperial stormtroopers, he has little nostalgia for the old canteen culture, he laments the mass of paperwork that has been foisted on the police (like everyone else in the public sector) and fairly argues that if plea-bargaining is to become entrenched it ought to be formalised. Thereafter, however, reasonableness ends.
GQ (formerly known as Gentlemen's Quarterly) has just released some mind-boggling artefacts from the Cheney-Bush Era: the covers – like elementary school reports – of the daily intelligence briefings that the Department of Defense prepared for a few eyes only, and that were often personally delivered by Donald Rumsfeld to the Oval Office. (There's also a background article here.) One of the lessons of Watergate and the investigative journalism of the 1970s was that the wildest stoner rumours of the 1960s turned out to be perfectly true (‘Whoa, dude, I heard the CIA tried to put some powder in Castro's shoes that would make his beard fall out . . .').
The Obama administration has applauded the Pakistan army’s offensive to oust the Taliban from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. It’s gingerly being heralded as a change in army thinking that no longer sees the 'mortal threat' as nuclear India to the east but a spreading Taliban insurgency to the north and west, which – if a BBC map is true – now controls most of the tribal areas on the Afghan border. The scale of the operation is immense. Up to 1.5 million people could be displaced by the fighting, if the current civilian exodus from Swat is added to earlier ones from the tribal areas. Pakistan’s federal and provincial civilian governments have given unreserved political authority to an operation devised wholly by the army. Opposition parties, the media, religious leaders and 70 per cent of the people (according to polls) all support it, aware, finally, that the savagery of the Taliban’s rule in Swat posed a graver threat to Pakistani democracy than to American imperialism or Indian hegemony.
It's like being a grown-up caught picking your nose and eating it. There you were all alone, absent-mindedly doing what you do – doesn't everyone? – when all of a sudden you realise that that door is open and someone's standing there watching you. Were they there when you . . . ? You drop your hand to your side and frown into your book, your keyboard, the clouds outside the window in the hope that either they weren't there, or that your new move obliterates, invisibilises, what you were doing. But for the rest of your life at any time, waking in the middle of the night, sitting on the loo, chairing a committee, that moment will come to you and you will seize up inside, curl, if it's at all possible, into a foetal hummock and moan gently. Can it be otherwise for the MPs who see their receipts in the Telegraph?
What’s the difference between Martha Stewart, ‘lifestyle guru’, ‘third most powerful woman in America’ etc, who was refused entry into the UK last year, and the 16 foreigners who have just been barred by the Home Office? Jacqui Smith’s initiative – name the naughties – was announced on Tuesday, with some fanfare and much triumphalism. It fingers people likely to stir up hatred or ‘glorify terrorist violence’, which obviously isn’t Stewart’s bag, and not all of them have criminal records, which obviously is, yet somewhere here there’s a bigger difference. It was about this time last year that Stewart was planning a visit to Britain but a few days before she was due to jet in, she was told she couldn't come. Her criminal past in the US was the problem. She wasn't convicted of insider trading, but she did fib to investigators during an inquiry into the sale of shares in the cancer-drug company ImClone hours before the public announcement that its wonder therapy, Erbitux, had failed to win FDA approval. That was in 2001; Stewart offloaded more than $200,000 worth of shares. In 2004 she was sentenced to five months in jail, which she served, coming out under supervised release in 2005. She famously told Barbara Walters that she wasn’t the only irreproachable human being in history to be sent down: ‘Look at Nelson Mandela.’
Outside the main gate of RAF Wittering, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, just past the funny old sign that says 'Beware: Camp Entrances', is a shiny new sign saying: 'Now Recruiting'. It's there outside RAF Scampton, on the A15 in Lincolnshire, too. And then in a lay-by on the A165 in East Yorkshire there's a big camouflage-green truck with a sign suggesting that if you'd like to drive it, you should think about joining the army. Back in London, on every other phone box (which are surely just glorified advertising billboards these days) I see there's an army recruitment ad, reminding people that doctors and engineers are needed too; it's not all about killing and being killed.
On Good Friday, the Times reported, with much self-righteousness, the news that a sculpture by a convicted criminal has been removed from the Royal Festival Hall. Bringing Music to Life is a model of an orchestra made from folded sheet music. The Southbank Centre bought it for £600 after it was displayed in an exhibition of prisoners' art organised by the Koestler Trust. The artist was unnamed, but the Times took it upon itself to identify him, and couldn't have been more pleased to announce that Bringing Music to Life was the work of Colin Pitchfork, who was jailed for life in 1988 for raping and murdering two teenage girls.
The Tax Justice Network has cautiously welcomed the commitments made by the G20 to take a tougher line on tax havens: 'Great strides have been taken on tax havens in the last couple of days,' although the OECD list is 'deeply flawed'. John Christensen, the director of the international secretariat of the TJN, wrote a piece about tax havens in the LRB in 2005.
On Tuesday, the hapless leader of Italy’s centre-left opposition, Walter Veltroni, quit after his party was trounced in Sardinia’s gubernatorial election. The timing couldn’t have been better for the government, since Veltroni’s resignation pushed off the front pages the news that David Mills, the estranged husband of Britain’s Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, has been sentenced by a court in Milan to four and a half years in jail for taking bribes from the prime minister.