Month: November 2009

Some Are More Equal Than Others…

“We are all in this together!” shrieked the delicious George ‘Gideon’ Osborne at the Tory conference this September (Gideon is absolutely my favourite Tory, ranked even higher than that shimmering human butter mountain, Eric Pickles). I don’t think any of us thought for one moment that he was poised to hand his £4.3 million personal fortune over to the Treasury for immediate redistribution to those most in need, but the speech was intended to give a signal that all of us would have to suffer while gallant George, fighting from the front, dealt with the national debt.

Of course, no one with half a brain was fooled for a second. We know what Tories do: they cut taxes for the very wealthy while cutting spending on public services to pay for it. It’s roughly that simple (perhaps you might want to throw in a bit of righteous whining about family values for good measure). Nevertheless, I was still slightly surprised to learn that Zac Goldsmith, David Cameron’s so-called ‘Green Guru’ and prospective Tory candidate for Richmond Park, has been avoiding tax on his £200 million fortune by virtue of being a ‘non-dom’. Only slightly surprised of course, as the same has long been suspected of another of Cameron’s close aides, Lord Ashcroft. Ashcroft’s position is less clear than Goldsmith’s, principally because no one from the Conservative Party ever gives a straight answer about his tax status, but if he is avoiding large amounts it will certainly be a great help when it comes to pouring vast sums of money into Tory coffers both nationally and in key marginal constituencies.

There will, of course, be a limited level of fuss about all this in certain areas of the media for a day or two, but the Tories will know that they just have to sit tight and it will all blow over. Their immunity to any kind of meaningful media scrutiny will probably remain intact. Goldsmith will still be their candidate at the General Election, Cameron will brush off his implied support for the non-payment of tax in the UK and, as we still won’t get an answer on Ashcroft, the millions will keep rolling in to help the Tory election effort.

At least, I suppose, no one can say they didn’t know what sort of people to expect if the Tories do form a government next year.

‘Supreme Court’ Ruling Hands Banks Another Bail-Out

The ‘Supreme Court‘ (whatever that is) has ruled this morning that the Office of Fair Trading cannot investigate the fairness of high street bank charges for unauthorised overdrafts, in a move that will be hugely disappointing for millions of customers. The ruling is reckoned to be worth more than £2bn a year to the banks and effectively represents yet another bail-out, the cost of which will be met by those who can least afford it.

The basis of the ruling is ‘you should have read the small print when you opened your account’ which, while technically accurate, rather misses the point. It’s not as if, having waded through the acres of small print, your average punter is then in a position to choose between a number of banks with different attitudes to charging – they all do the same thing. In most areas of business this might be interpreted as operating a cartel but, as we’ve seen over the last few months, the banks seem to operate in a regulatory world of their own.

What this effectively means is that the banks are being propped up once again by those who can least afford it. As Polly Toynbee highlighted in her column in yesterday’s Guardian, the poorest 10% pay 46% of their income in tax while the richest 10% pay only 34%, and vast amounts of this tax revenue have funded the recent bail-outs (I’ve lost count of the billions involved). Now the poorest (those most likely to be overdrawn) have once again been shafted by the banks.

The Supreme Court has legitimised robbing from the poor to give to the uber-wealthy but perhaps the most depressing thing is that we can’t even blame the Tories.

Maybe It’s A Rogue Poll, But At Least There’s A Chink Of Light

Twitter has been buzzing today as a result of the publication of an Ipsos MORI poll in The Observer which shows the Conservative lead down to only 6% after a period which has seen Tory leads of up to 20% in some surveys. The UK Polling Report’s swing calculator projects that this would be the outcome of such a result at a General Election:

A poll like this will give a lift to anyone who isn’t an enthusiast for David Cameron’s project to restore the levers of power to the Conservative Party. Gordon Brown and his followers will feel that the game isn’t up quite yet, particularly since the current parliamentary boundaries benefit Labour disproportionately (for example, if Labour and the Tories both polled 36% Gordon Brown would have 333 MPs compared to David Cameron’s 246). The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, will see an opening for the Holy Grail of a hung parliament and the possibility of negotiating to replace Britain’s bizarre first-past-the-post voting system with something that actually reflects the voters’ wishes.

As I’ve previously posted, I don’t believe the Tories have ‘closed the deal’ with the electorate yet, despite two years of mammoth poll leads and media coverage which seems infuriatingly reluctant to ask the Tories any difficult questions on policy.

Nevertheless, we must remember that this is just one poll. I still remember ‘Wobbly Thursday’ during the 1987 election campaign (yes, I’ve been an anorak for years) when Margaret Thatcher’s poll lead was almost wiped out, and the 1992 campaign consisted almost entirely of rogue polls (only one Gallup poll gave the eventual winner, John Major, a lead in the polls – of 0.5%).

So my instinct about this poll is that it could be merely a blip, but I think it also shows that next year’s General Election might still be an awful lot closer than anyone thinks.

Thierry Henry – Is It Because He Played For Arsenal?

OK, cards on the table time: I’m an Arsenal fan who doesn’t give a rat’s arse about international matches (particularly the meaningless ones in which pivotal Arsenal players always seem to pick up injuries). For that reason I haven’t really become overly excited about the Thierry Henry incident in the World Cup Qualifier between France and the Republic of Ireland this week.

Trouble is, I turned on the radio this morning to find ‘they’ are still going on about it, and I must confess that it unleashed all of my latent Arsenal media paranoia. Even as I type, Five Live’s resident Mr Angry (Alan Green) is banging on about Henry’s trashed reputation and, you’ve guessed it, making the inevitable comparison with the Eduardo incident against Celtic earlier in the season. (In case you’d forgotten, Eduardo was the very first player in the history of the game to take a dive in the box, earning a penalty against a team who were already on the way out and who hadn’t managed a shot on goal for the first hour of the Emirates leg of the tie.)

I don’t know whether it’s simply because we football fans are automatically more sensitive to criticism of our own clubs (and their alumni) or whether there is actually a media agenda against Arsenal, but the charge list tends to point to the latter. Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney have all been notorious for tumbling in the box but have any of them been buried under the level of ordure Eduardo was subjected to? You could make an argument that this is because they are all English and are therefore the beneficiaries of a one-eyed, nationalistic media. But what about David Ngog’s laughable dive in Liverpool’s recent 2-2 draw with Birmingham City? Sure there was a bit of fuss for the following 24 hours, but nothing like the level of high-camp outrage that followed Eduardo’s fall.

And now Henry, in my opinion the greatest Arsenal legend of them all, finds that it’s his turn to feel the heat. There is no doubt that his handling of the ball in Wednesday’s match was wrong and it contributed to Ireland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, but can we seriously expect the reaction would have been the same had Robbie Keane pulled a similar trick at the other end? Or if Rooney had done the same for England in a similar set of circumstances? No, that would clearly have been the referee’s fault and we would have read acres of print about teams ‘playing to the whistle’.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the Ireland fans, particularly those who travelled to Paris and watched their team outplay the hosts for much of the game, and I whole-heartedly accept the caricature of Michel Platini’s UEFA as a shady, dithering bunch who were desperate to see France in South Africa next year at whatever cost. What offends me is the righteous indignation of the media (surprise surprise) over a player who will always be a legend to me, come what may, because of the many many great things he has done for the game over the length of his career.

And am I really bothered that the Spurs striker Robbie Keane won’t be going to the World Cup? I’ll let you make your own mind up about that one.

Will Cameron’s Fixed-Term Pledge Survive A Hung Parliament?

Back in May, as the MPs expenses furore kicked off in earnest, politicians of all colours were quick to come forward with their prescriptions for an ailing political system. Solutions ranged from simple reform of the expenses system to full-blown constitutional revolution, involving a menu of changes to the voting system, selection of candidates from open primaries and fixed-term parliaments. Perhaps the most surprising convert to the latter idea was Tory leader David Cameron.

David CameronNever too shy to leap on the nearest passing bandwagon, Cameron announced back in May that he and his party were ‘seriously considering’ fixed-term parliaments as a means of tackling the malaise of modern politics while his aides were briefing that “David’s been thinking about this for a while. It fits into everything we’ve been saying.” (Apart, of course, from Cameron’s endless calls for Gordon Brown to call an early General Election.)

But if, as some are speculating, the 2010 Election results in a hung parliament will Cameron stick to his pledge? If he finds himself at the head of a minority Conservative government, struggling to enact their agenda, how long will he be able to fight off the temptation to call a snap election?

My guess is that this promise (one of very few that anyone has been able to wring out of the Tories) will be ditched very swiftly if there’s any kind of advantage to David Cameron. Indeed, even if there’s a Conservative administration with a comfortable majority, it’s hard to believe that he won’t be tempted to go to the country a year or so early if the opinion polls are favourable.

In my opinion fixed-term parliaments are a great idea, as the Prime Ministerial prerogative has been abused too many times in the past, but I don’t think it would be too much of a risk to predict that this is a Tory promise which is almost certain to be broken.

2010 – The Tories Haven’t Closed The Deal Yet

Bar ChartSince Gordon Brown made the apparently disastrous decision not to call a General Election in the Autumn of 2007, the opinion polls all seem to have been pointing in only one direction – a Labour defeat. Month after month YouGov, ICM, Ipsos MORI and the rest all deliver the same tale of woe for the government, and the easy assumption from this is that the Tories are a shoo-in to triumph in the spring. But the polls and electoral history may well tell an altogether different tale.

Conservative support in the opinion polls seems to be fairly steady around 40% and the pollsters have tended to be reasonably accurate when gauging the Tory vote in recent years (1992 being the stunning exception). Perhaps those people who are going to vote for David Cameron have already made their minds up and are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise. This would explain the consistent ratings.

Consensus on the level of Labour support is much more difficult to find. Since the aborted 2007 election-that-never-was the Government’s ratings have been anywhere between 22% and 29% – dismal by anyone’s reckoning, but certainly not a clear picture. This could well be because it’s very easy to desert a party when interviewed by an opinion pollster. The question for Labour is whether they can make enough inroads into Britain’s consistent non-Tory majority when the real vote takes place and the choice is a stark reality as opposed to a theoretical possibility. It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that, as the General Election draws near and wavering Labour voters are confronted with the possibility of a Conservative government, Labour’s ratings will start to creep above the 30% mark.

The Liberal Democrats are the unknown quantity. They have been polling anywhere between 15% and 23% over the last couple of years, and recent electoral history clearly demonstrates that they are more likely to feel the benefits of equal broadcast media exposure during an election campaign. Add to this the Lib Dem strength as a local campaigning force and they could yet take seats from both Labour and the Tories and confound predictions of significant losses to their number at Westminster.

griffin_hateAnother aspect to the challenge to Labour comes in the shape of the BNP, although this may well be overplayed. Griffin’s party will probably cause the odd localised scare on election night but there’s no evidence to suggest that their showing in the 2009 European elections was anything more than a protest vote. Nevertheless, Labour will ignore their challenge at their peril – the white working class, who make up the vast bulk of the BNP’s support, can do significant damage to Labour candidates unless the government stop taking them for granted.

Amid all this speculation it’s worth remembering that the Tories need a lead of at least 10% (and more probably 12%) to form a majority government, which would represent a swing to the Conservatives which is unprecedented in modern times. Assuming Labour can make even a modest recovery and start to register around 32% in the polls, the 2010 Election starts to look more difficult to call with any certainty. Factor in last week’s impressive Labour by-election performance in Glasgow and it would seem that there may well be hope for Gordon Brown yet, even if it’s only of the damage limitation variety. Hung parliament anyone?

Who The Bloody Hell Does Stephen Green Think He Is?

Five Live Phone-inOne of my many weaknesses is the radio phone-in. In some respects it’s a (metaphorically) abusive relationship – I know it’s cheap radio and I know the exposure to ranting Daily Mail readers is bad for me, but for some reason I just can’t walk away.

Thursday morning’s BBC Five Live effort, entitled “Should you be allowed to say what you really think?” ticked all the usual boxes of the genre: daft opening premise, mostly male participants, more heat than light, early and excessive use of the phrases “the Nanny State”, “political correctness gone mad” and “the PC Brigade”, and ultimately no discernible end product that was of any use to anyone.

However what spiced things up for me in the half hour leading up to the phone-in was the participation of Stephen Green, the wild-eyed mouthfoamer who heads up loony fundamentalist hate-mongers Christian Voice. He had been wheeled out (presumably the Tax Payer’s Alliance were unavailable) to comment on the latest pointless piece of government tinkering aimed at outlawing incitement to homophobic hate crime. As so often with the government, behind this is a worthy goal which is unfortunately backed up with clumsy, counter-productive legislation.

Stephen Green

Our Saviour Stephen Green

Green wasn’t going to miss this chance to promote himself and his particular brand of intolerance, and sure enough he soon fired into his standard homily on why ‘gayness’ is wrong. “Nobody’s born like it, and even if you are born like it you don’t have to stay like it,” he opined, citing his ‘Good Book’ as the one true law. Of course, I took the bait and started shouting at the radio, although thankfully I didn’t phone up and spill yet more bile over the airways. But the sad thing is that this man manages to get a rise out of me every time.

Just who the bloody hell does Stephen Green think he is? What right does he have to drip his extremist poison in my direction? Who elected him? (Even as I type I feel the rage rising.)

I suppose I should declare an interest here. I’m not a Christian. I used to be (sort of) but a diet of forced religion at school soon brought out the atheist in me, and even now I resent the peddling of unsubstantiated superstitions in a public setting. Nevertheless I try to be tolerant, not least because religion often seems to give some kind of comfort to many of its followers, and most priests of whatever religion appear pleasant enough as they go about their business.

Stephen Green is a different beast altogether. Shrill, arrogant and untroubled by doubt, he has no concept of his own hypocrisy as he and his organisation push their fundamental message: hate. (Funny, I thought the principle thrust of Christianity was supposed to be love, but obviously that doesn’t extend to homosexuality or any of the other modern day facts of life that don’t fit in with Christian Voice’s Old Testament agenda.)

Of course, it’s homosexuality that gets Green hottest under the collar, and you could hear the delight in his voice on Thursday morning as he was invited to vent spleen freely at the suggestion that not everyone might find his views on the subject helpful. I wonder why he’s so fascinated about a subject that supposedly has no connection to him…

Green and the others of his ilk like to hide behind the selective quoting of Bible texts, and at times it seems that the exact prose of their scripture is of more importance to them than the philosophy it contains. Many of us may sneer at America and the malign influence of its evangelical groups, but we would be foolish to think that it could never happen here in the UK. Christian Voice are a noisy minority at the moment, but when the Tories follow Murdoch’s bidding and leave the broadcast media to the mercy of the market, how long will it be before our airwaves start to fill up with their nonsense?

Perhaps the scenario in this brilliant clip from the West Wing may not be too far away:

Gordon Brown, The Sun and THAT Letter

I have to admit that this story kind of passed me by yesterday. I heard about it on the radio, was surprised that the BBC led their bulletins on this for most of the day, but essentially dismissed it as more biased tabloid nonsense from Murdoch. When I woke up this morning to find that the Sun was still setting the BBC’s news agenda, and that they’d raised the stakes by publishing a phone conversation between Gordon Brown and Jacqui Janes, I started to become increasingly angered by the whole feeding frenzy. The icing on the cake was when I learned that the Daily Mail’s turd-in-residence Richard Littlejohn had thrown his oar in.

gordon-brownI have to ask: “What the hell is going on here?”. I’m not a Brown enthusiast and I’m not a Labour supporter (not these days, anyway) but the Sun’s nasty, exploitative coverage of this story makes me want to throw a protective arm around the Prime Minister. Yes the letter was a bit scruffy, yes there were errors in it, but let’s not forget that Gordon Brown sat down to hand-write a letter of condolence to a grieving mother. What he didn’t do was set out to find the best way to offend, upset or insult Mrs Janes, although by the tone of some of the coverage you could be forgiven for thinking that.

I don’t blame Jacqui Janes for any of this. She has lost her precious son fighting in a war that many of us are struggling to understand. Surely there can be nothing worse than burying a child. The villain of the piece has to be the Sun ‘newspaper’ for exploiting a grieving mother to give a half-blind man a kicking over his handwriting, because that’s what this boils down to. Murdoch’s agenda is clear: “Back the Tories (because it looks like they might win) and stick the knife into the one-eyed Scotsman at every opportunity”. Nothing short of disgusting.

The other question that must be asked is where are the other party leaders? Why haven’t David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Alec Salmond et al stepped forward to say that, while they may have many issues with the government’s handling of the Afghan War, this kind of personal assault on the Prime Minister is unacceptable? Cameron, of course, wants to consummate his relationship with Wapping but that is no excuse for staying silent.

What is encouraging is that it looks like this may be backfiring on the Sun. Contributors to the breakfast television and radio news programmes seemed to be broadly of the opinion that Brown’s mistake was an honest one and that the Sun’s behaviour was reprehensible, and other blog posts from people who are not natural allies of the Prime Minister (I’ve picked out Caron Lindsay and Sara Bedford, but there are many others) show that there aren’t many outside of the Murdoch empire who want to play party politics with this one.

Having said that, I don’t for one minute think that this will be the last piece of vile gutter journalism from that quarter between now and the election, and I don’t suppose this will be the last time the broadcast media lurches after Murdoch’s agenda without stopping to consider what should really be making the news. But I hope Gordon Brown is undeterred from personally writing to the bereaved and I also hope, when the tabloid vultures have stopped circling, that Jacqui Janes will come to understand that the Prime Minister made an honest, human mistake.

When The Wall Came Down

Berlin Wall

Berlin, November 1989

Twenty years ago this Remembrance Week the Berlin Wall came down. It was a defining moment for a generation; an historical bookmark as significant to its time as the 9/11 attack has been to the early years of this century, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy was to the 1960s. Indeed, it was the Berlin Wall that provided the context to Kennedy’s famous 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech delivered in the German capital just months before his death. It was also the powerful physical symptom of the political and diplomatic failings of the victorious Allies in the wake of the 1918 Armistice, also commemorated this week.

First erected by the Soviets in 1961, the Wall surrounded an enclave of the former Western Allies’ post-war zones in Berlin, in the heart of Communist East Germany. It quickly became the symbol of the Cold War split between East and West. Looking back, it seems extraordinary that this kind of physical segregation took place in modern, industrialised Europe but at the time such division was all an entire generation had ever known.

1960s Berlin

When the Wall came down I was an eighteen year old History student, and I remember that dark period in Europe’s modern history very well. It seemed that we had all grown up under the threat of a devastating nuclear conflict between the Russians and the Americans, and as budding historians we could see that the roots of the Cold War could be traced back to the disastrous legacy of the First World War.

‘The Great War’ had changed everything. The old Imperial powers of Europe had bankrupted themselves paying for the relentless four-year slaughter of their young men in the trenches and, while Western Europe fell into the arms of America’s new-found economic might, Russia overthrew the absolute rule of the Tsars and (after the shortest of flirtations with democracy) replaced it with the absolute rule of the Bolsheviks.

The effect on Germany was even more profound. After the Armistice the victorious powers forced the Treaty of Versailles onto an exhausted nation. It was a Treaty which not only sought to bankrupt Germany through reparations, it also set out to humiliate its people through the so-called ‘War Guilt Clauses’ which tore away the last shreds of their national pride. The now exiled Kaiser Wilhelm said of this draconian humiliation: “After the war to end all war we have the peace to end all peace” and so it was that Germany was made angry and desperate enough to turn to Hitler.

The Second World War, Hitler’s genocidal war of revenge, left a destroyed Europe ripe for the taking and cemented the position of America and the Soviet Union as the two great ‘superpowers’ in world affairs. Perhaps the inevitable consequence of this new rivalry was the formation of the ‘Iron Curtain’ of which Winston Churchill spoke in 1946, and nothing symbolised this more starkly than the Berlin Wall.


1989 was an exciting year to be alive, especially if you were a history student. Soviet-style Communism was being swept away right across Europe and those images of the collapse of the Wall were met with joy all over the world as they marked the change we never thought we’d see. Twenty years on I’m reminded of the importance of those events, and it somehow seems fitting that the fall of the Berlin Wall is being commemorated in the same week as we remember the men and women who have been lost in all the conflicts since The Great War. Remembrance isn’t about glorying in war, or celebrating past victories. For me it’s about remembering that there is always a human cost and far-reaching historic consequences of the judgements of our leaders. It’s about trying to learn the lessons of history so that all those lives weren’t lost in vain.

So remember those men and women; remember why they were sent to lay down their lives; and remember that we have been given the chance to learn from history, to avoid the mistakes that, generations later, cause walls to be built and nations to be divided.