Month: January 2010

So what was that all about then?

I was astonished to find myself on the front page of the Western Morning News today as part of a curious ‘process’ story on the use of Twitter from Council meetings. I haven’t actually seen it myself, as I tend not to buy confused right-wing newspapers, but I have seen the online version. That’s right, it’s your basic slow-news-day hatchet job and I shouldn’t really complain because I’ve written far worse about other people on these very pages.

What was perhaps most surprising was that the news editor at this esteemed (Daily Mail owned) publication felt that publishing ‘tweets’ from a meeting that took place ten days ago was actually (a) news, and (b) worthy of the front page. What was less surprising was that the ubiquitous Tax Payers’ Alliance were wheeled out to foam at the mouth about… well, they weren’t quite sure really, but something was definitely an outrage. (I must confess to feeling slightly proud to have finally won my ‘TPA wings’.)

Life will go on and all of this will no doubt blow over in a day or two. While I’m still not entirely sure what the whole thing was about, I have at least learned one valuable lesson: beware the phone call from a friendly journalist on a slow news day.

See also: A Slow News Day

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Iraq – Labour’s War

with thanks to "The Unsuitablog"

(Image from "The Unsuitablog")

Credit where credit’s due, I suppose. Gordon Brown did at least call the Chilcot Inquiry. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, a diversionary tactic in the wake of a pasting in the European and Local Elections of June 2009, and an attempted leadership coup by Hazel Blears and James Purnell (last year’s Hoon & Hewitt).

It is a mark of Gordon Brown’s continuing allergy to any kind of good luck that, in doing the right thing and establishing the inquiry, all he will really do is succeed in bringing Iraq back to the forefront of voters’ minds with a General Election only a matter of weeks away – particularly since he will now be the star turn of the inquiry alongside his predecessor, Tony Blair.

The 2005 Election was, in many parts of the country, largely defined by the Iraq War. Five years ago Labour was able to withstand this. The vagaries of Britain’s bizarre electoral system and the continuing dysfunction in a Conservative Party led by Michael Howard meant that Blair was able to ‘win’ the election on 36% of a 61% turnout. 2010 will be a quite different kettle of fish, not least because, for over a year now, the opinion polls have barely shifted from the 40/30/20 split that just about favours the Tories.

Of course, the Tories shouldn’t be let off the hook over Iraq – they happily voted alongside the government when the decision was taken to invade. Would a Conservative government have gone to war alongside the Americans? Of course it would, and the Tories’ sabre-rattling tendency was very much in evidence during the build-up to the war. In office their unquestioning Atlanticism would certainly have delivered the same result, and if anything George W Bush would have found in the Conservatives a whole government of kindred spirits rather than simply a rogue Prime Minister who slavishly did his bidding.

The only consistent and meaningful opposition to the war came from Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats, but the electoral system offers no reward for simply being right. Labour looks incapable of any meaningful revival anyway, and it would seem that all the Tories need to do is sit tight and repeat the refrain “we were lied to” every time the subject of the war is raised. Sadly, given the near-total lack of media scrutiny of the Conservative policy agenda, they’ll probably get away with it.

When the dust has settled from the Chilcot Inquiry it shouldn’t be forgotten that Iraq was Labour’s War. Yes, Tony Blair will rightly take the bulk of the flak, but the Labour Party had the numbers and the personalities to call the whole thing off. Instead the vast bulk of the parliamentary Labour Party dutifully filed through the ‘Aye” lobby, Robin Cook’s was the only Cabinet resignation and Gordon Brown, at the time still regarded as Britain’s most powerful post-war Chancellor, happily signed the cheques.

Don’t forget – people are wonderful

On Saturday it rained in Cornwall, rained like I’ve never seen it rain here before.

I’m lucky enough to live in an old house in the country, which is my dream life for most of the year. There are one or two drawbacks to this, the main one being that we are quite often prone to minor flash-flooding. It’s a costly irritation which has defied many attempts to remedy and generally leaves us feeling sad and disheartened.

On Saturday the field we sit at the bottom of had just soaked up the thawing snow when, in a very short space of time, enough rain fell to send a Wonka-esque chocolate river heading towards us. Nine hours of mopping up ensued.

We were blessed, if I can use that word in a secular sense, that we had a fantastic group of family and friends who dropped everything on a Saturday night to come to our aid, helping with the flow-stemming mopping, wringing out towels, making tea, not to mention working in the mud to try to find a way to stop the advance of the water. They came without being asked for the simple human reason that they recognised friends needed help, and I’m still trying to work out how I can ever thank them properly.

Much as I love to sit here and have a good bitch about those richer and more powerful than me, it’s good to have the occasional reminder of how great people really are. I was genuinely touched by the warmth of those wonderful people for whom nothing was too much trouble on Saturday night.

As we had a chance to draw breath on Sunday morning I picked up the paper and saw a front page headline about water shortages in quake-devastated Haiti, and it quickly put our temporary difficulties very much into perspective.

Zac Goldsmith – Yet another warning about the Tories

It will come as no great surprise to connoiseurs of the Conservative Party’s love of money (and complete disregard of what anyone else thinks) that Zac Goldsmith has once again appeared at the centre of a Tory financial scandal. You will remember that Mr Goldsmith recently came under the most fleeting scrutiny for his ‘non-dom’ status as a parliamentary candidate. Now it turns out that the Conservatives have been covering up cash donations he’s channelled to the party through the ‘wealth management firm’ Unicorn Administration.

None of this shocks me in the slightest, nor should anyone else be surprised. What does disappoint is the fact that, once again, the story only merits the merest of mentions in the news media (although I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about that either).

Let’s not forget that this last week we’ve had wall-to-wall coverage of a half-hearted attempt to unseat Gordon Brown by two obscure former ministers, a relative non-story that even managed to shunt aside the media’s current obsession with levels of snow regarded as perfectly normal in the rest of Europe.

In contrast the Tories (who, it should be remembered, are the bookie’s nailed-on favourites to form the next government) once again escape any real examination of who is paying their hefty campaigning bills and what those donors might hope to receive in return. I guess I should probably accept that the tone was set a year or so back when Gideon easily managed to sweat out that grubby business on the yacht with Nathaniel Rothschild, Peter Mandelson and Oleg Deripaska, but that last remaining part of me that I can still call idealistic does rather hope that someone (anyone) sees fit to find out what type of people might be running the country come June.

Labour’s Deathwish helps no one but the Tories

It looks like the latest (and very probably last) attempt by factions within the Labour Party to remove Gordon Brown has already run its course, with all the major figures in the Cabinet lining up to offer their public support to the Prime Minister. It doesn’t really matter how weasel their words are, or whether they are doing so because they feel they ought to rather than because they want to, Brown will survive. Again.

It’s difficult to work out what thought processes, if any, were whirring away in the otherwise empty heads of Geoff Hoon (a former Chief Whip) and Patricia Hewitt when they drafted the email to backbenchers which has caused all the fuss. Labour has had a (relatively) good start to the year: the opinion polls have showed the Tory lead narrowing, David Cameron has been having a fit of the wobbles over tax and Brown put in a dominant performance at PMQs just minutes before the story broke. Why then did Hewitt and Hoon make a move that has served only to take the heat off Cameron and snuff out Labour’s recovery before it had even warmed up?

Yet again rolling news made more of the story than was warranted. Sky (with its seemingly indelible ‘Breaking News’ banner) and the BBC have valiantly done their best to give the story legs all day, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the press will have another stab at blowing it out of all proportion tomorrow, but it really does look as though this coup is going to go the way of all the others and that Gordon will limp on to probable defeat in March/May/June. I can’t help but think that there wouldn’t be such a feeding frenzy if, say, Douglas Hogg and Stephen Dorrell (or any other obscure pair of former Cabinet ministers) had sent an email around Tory backbenchers calling for David Cameron to face a leadership contest, but I suppose I should be quite used to the media running with the Conservative news agenda at every opportunity.

The only winners from this are the Tories, who once again manage to give the slip to one of those rare moments when their policies were actually being scrutinised. And the sad thing is, if the Tories are the winners there are going to be vast numbers of people who will be the losers. There are many areas where Labour has failed over the last twelve and a half years (tackling inequality, protecting civil liberties, meaningful constitutional reform, avoiding illegal wars, to name but a few) but it has to be remembered that on all of those issues a Conservative government would be inestimably worse. As someone who isn’t a Labour supporter, perhaps I shouldn’t intrude into the private grief of others but – if today’s events are indeed the pre-cursor for a comfortable Tory victory at the General Election – the Labour Party will have a good place to start when the inevitable inquest gets under way.

The Tories, Tax and Marriage

“I like you guys who wanna reduce the size of government – make it just small enough so it can fit in our bedrooms.” Josh Lyman, The West Wing.

I’ll never learn. I wasted half an hour this morning listening to a radio phone-in about David Cameron’s plans to “recognise marriage through the tax system” or, as FiveLive’s Nicky Campbell billed it, “Is wedlock the bedrock?”. Quite. Inevitably I ended up shouting at the usual reactionary Daily Mail nonsense that spewed out of many of the ‘contributors’ prissy, moralising mouths until I realised with disgust that I had allowed their Middle England rage to push my buttons. The thing is, if the Tories get in this year I’ll have to be prepared for much more of the same as there will no doubt be an endless stream of core vote-pleasing guff emanating from Downing Street.

What annoys me most about the policy of tax breaks for married people is the interference with people’s private lives and choices. The Conservative Party have spent much of the past twelve years moaning about the ‘Nanny State’ yet don’t see the irony in proposals which foist their own version of morality onto everyone else. The unspoken part of the deal is that, if you’re co-habiting, divorced or simply choose to live alone, you are somehow inferior to those (like me) who have decided to get married. It’s classic, old-fashioned, prescriptive Toryism and it’s one of those things that the people who are flirting with voting for Cameron have completely overlooked.

It’s not as if there is an unarguable case that marriage makes everything better. The Tories seem more than willing to pin all of society’s problems on the declining popularity of the traditional family unit without any solid evidence to back it up. They conveniently ignore the role that basic old-fashioned poverty may have to play in crime and social division (problems that their eighteen-year period in office did much to exacerbate) instead choosing to believe that a ring on the finger will make it all better. It is, of course, patronising nonsense aimed at the already affluent and (coupled with the inheritance tax giveaway to the very wealthy) gives a fairly clear indication of the direction Cameron aims to take us in, not that it was ever really in any doubt.

UPDATE: 9th April 2010. The Tories have put some flesh on the bones of this daft policy now that the election campaign is under way – it equates to £3 a week. £3 a week may well be useful to many, but it’s hardly likely to cause a stampede in the direction of the registry office. Wouldn’t that money be better spent helping people who are struggling – married or not?

Doctor Who – the new boy will do just fine

To those who don’t give a damn, I make no apology for posting an item on Doctor Who. I’ve loved the programme since I was a kid (I vaguely remember Jon Pertwee, but Tom Baker was ‘my’ Doctor) and have greatly enjoyed Russell T Davies’ ‘re-imagining’ of the show over the past four or five years. Last night one of the great Who traditions continued with the passing on of the sonic screwdriver from David Tennant to new boy Matt Smith.

Much discussion has surrounded the change with many fearing that Smith, a virtual unknown for those who never saw ‘Party Animals’, will never be able to fill the boots of the mighty Tennant. We have, of course, been here before. Patrick Troughton replaced William Hartnell, the original Doctor, and went on to become one of the best-loved incarnations of the Time Lord. Similarly Jon Pertwee, the action man dandy of the genre, was superceded by the then unknown Tom Baker (who has subsequently ‘regenerated’ into barking-mad national treasure). After a mighty seven years in the hotspot, Baker made way for Peter Davison who managed to make the role his own, despite a dodgy re-working of the theme tune and the shunting of the show from Saturday tea-time to midweek.

After that, it’s fair to say that the show struggled. Colin Baker always seemed a bit too grumpy (in a badly-clothed psycho-killer sort of way) and Sylvester McCoy – well… By the late eighties it was difficult to argue with Michael Grade’s assessment that the programme was “rubbish” and the then BBC1 Controller cheerfully brought the axe down on Doctor Who in 1989.

Enter Russell T Davies in 2005. The show was given the benefit of Davies’ scripts, a half-decent budget, 21st century production values and Christopher Eccleston in the title role. It was an instant hit but many were shocked when Eccleston announced he would quit after just one series. David Tennant had worked with Davies on ‘Casanova’ and was seen by the production team as the obvious choice for the tenth Doctor, but many in the wider public wondered if such an early change at the top might kill the Doctor Who revival before it was even a year old. (I remember thinking at the time that John Simm would probably have been a better bet, but he was destined for darker things.) Tennant went on to become the most popular resident of the TARDIS since the programme began way back in 1963, and the latest in a long line of actors who have proved that, no matter how loved their predecessors were, the show must go on.

So give Matt Smith a chance. He looks the part, he can act and he has a great production team around him who have demonstrated that they know what they’re doing (although Davies has moved on to pastures new). Doctor Who always seems to keep its popularity, come what may, and a new face will not change that. Within a year or so Smith will have become as synonymous with the role as (nearly) all the other Doctors have done. The new boy will do just fine.