Month: March 2010

The Daily Mail Song

I stumbled across this little beauty and simply had to share it:

(from the excellent Dan and Dan)


F1’s sparkling return to form

Fans of Formula One will have heaved a huge sigh of relief at the sport’s return to form at this morning’s Australian Grand Prix. After the crushing tedium of the season opener in Bahrain, Melbourne delivered an altogether different slice of entertainment.

F1 isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course. Most will complain that it is too processional, that it’s all about the car, and that you will see more overtaking in Moto GP, Nascar, Indy Racing etc, etc, etc. All of that is quite often true, but Formula One is not supposed to be like other forms of motor racing. F1 is a technical formula, more so than any other type of racing, and a large part of the challenge is to find a technological solution in order to win races. There is less passing than in many of the alternatives, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Overtaking in F1 is hard, that’s what makes a successful pass more exciting, more of an achievement. Mika Hakkinen’s relentless pursuit of Michael Schumacher at Spa in 2000 was far more exciting for me than watching the lead change hands half a dozen times each lap in other forms of racing.

For the F1 fan, the Australian Grand Prix was (mercifully) a wonderful advertisement for the sport. There was plenty of overtaking, the teams faced the technical challenge of adapting to uncertain conditions and the drivers had to use all their skill to deal with a slippery track. There were also scrapes, spins and the odd tantrum over the radio link.

Jenson Button put in a majestic drive to win the race comfortably in his McLaren. I’ve previously speculated that Button might struggle in the shadow of his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, but there were no signs of that in Melbourne. Admittedly Hamilton’s race was hampered by a poor strategy call from McLaren and a driving error from Red Bull’s Mark Webber, but his mini-rant over the radio to his engineer betrayed signs that perhaps he was more than slightly fazed by the performance and strategy of his cool-as-a-cucumber team-mate. It will be very interesting to see how he responds over the coming races.

Sebastien Vettel’s early-season run of poor luck continues, but I still believe he is a really special talent with a wonderful future in Formula One. Michael Schumacher and the Mercedes team still look short of sharpness but it would be foolish to write off a pairing (with Ross Brawn) who delivered seven Driver’s titles in their heyday.

And (I’ll show my bias here) it was lovely to see Ferrari not having everything their own way today. Formula One has much going for it but it only ever works as a competitive spectacle when the teams are closely matched. Many feared the worst after Bahrain, with everything pointing to a season of Ferrari dominance, but Australia has demonstrated that there are three teams (McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari) who look very competitive with Mercedes and Renault not that far behind. More of the same please, Formula One.

Ashcroft – Hague’s favourite airline

The Tories are currently, without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness, doing their best to give the Labour Party a good hard shoeing over their links with the trade union Unite. This has, of course, come to the public eye as a direct result of the BA Cabin Crew strike, a story which gives the Conservatives an increasingly rare opportunity for a two-pronged attack on the government.

Firstly the Tories have the chance to highlight British Airways as a success story from the ‘golden’ era of mass privatisation (of course they gloss over the disasters of rail privatisation or the selling off of public monopolies which left my part of the world with the highest water bills in the country). BA was, for the last government, a shining airborne phallic symbol for the ‘success’ of Thatcherism, deregulation and the markets.

The second part of the Tory attack is to use this industrial dispute to try to paint a picture every bit as bleak as the infamous “Winter of Discontent” of 1978/9. This is self-evidently ridiculous. The stories from 1979 (I can just about remember it) were of piles of uncollected rubbish and the dead lying unburied in morgues. In 2010 a few holiday-makers will be greatly inconvenienced – annoying if you’re one of them, but hardly the end of the world as we know it.

But perhaps what is most surprising is the Tory attempt to turn this issue into a point-scoring exercise on party funding. Their faces redden as they talk of Unite “owning” the Labour Party, and distorting the electoral process by piling all that money into the marginal constituencies. Perhaps the theory is that if they go in hard enough on the trade unions the wider world will forget all about Michael Ashcroft and his ten year bank-rolling of the Tory marginal constituency operation. It’s nearly as laughable as the Tory claim to be the party of the NHS.

I’m not a Labour member or supporter but I can clearly see the difference between an organisation which passes on political donations on behalf of its membership, and a single, off-shore, tax-avoiding donor. Sure, there are flaws with the unions’ political levy, but that process is considerably more transparent than Michael Ashcroft’s tax affairs have been for the last decade.

British Airways used to fly under the slogan “The World’s Favourite Airline”. Michael Ashcroft has, for some time, been the Tories’ favourite airline. The Shadow Cabinet have flown to Israel, Mali, China, Cuba and the Czech Republic – all on Ashcroft’s Falcon 900 private jet.

The most frequent flier has been William Hague, a man whose judgement now appears under serious scrutiny. A close friend of Ashcroft’s since 1998, Hague has never given a straight answer on the Tory paymaster’s tax position. Now that the dirty truth is finally out in the open questions are being asked of Hague’s honesty, not just with the public, but also with the leadership of his party. When did Hague know that Ashcroft was still a non-dom? Did he tell David Cameron? If so, why has Cameron spent  his leadership dodging straightforward questions on Ashcroft?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the BA strike, the most extraordinary thing for me has been the stratospheric level of Tory hypocrisy over the issue of funding. Never mind stone-throwing, Tory preaching on this particular topic is about as sensible as firing up one’s private jet in a glass house.

Another view: Edwin Squire – Corporate Airline v British Union

Leave the BBC alone

In my (occasionally humble) opinion the BBC is one of the very best things about living on this island. The news coverage is second to none; radio, documentary, drama and comedy output is far superior to the British commercial networks; the website is just about the best there is, and you only have to suffer five minutes of Clive Tyldesley’s infuriating, moronic football commentary (“remember that night in Barcelona”) to know that the quality of sports coverage on the BBC is unrivalled, even if the other networks wield a greater budget.

You wouldn’t think that, of course, if you had endured regular exposure to the right-wing press over the past few decades. In the world of Murdoch, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the BBC is nothing short of a subversive plot to overturn everything that is decent and traditional in Britain; it’s a hotbed for raving left-wing homosexuals who spend their every waking hour plotting to giftwrap our freedom and identity and hand it all over to those sinister imperialists on mainland Europe and the international Islamic conspiracy.

The BBC is constantly under assault from these quarters and there seems to be an eternal stream of spineless politicians who are more than happy to play along. There are never-ending accusations of bias against the BBC, ludicrously from all sides of the political spectrum. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw recently accused the BBC of “feeble” coverage of planned Tory spending cuts only to be ticked off by Jeremy Hunt, his Conservative Shadow, for “interfering in the BBC’s day-to-day political coverage”. Hunt, of course, had conveniently forgotten his own call a few weeks earlier for the Corporation to recruit more Tories to their news-gathering team, but who said you had to be fair when sticking the boot into the BBC? The truth is that the BBC is soft on everyone these days for the simple reason that, as an institution, it is terrified.

Murdoch has been circling for some time now, and he has a willing accomplice in David Cameron, a man who gives the impression of being so desperate for a favourable mention in The Sun’s ‘Page Three Briefs’ that he is more than happy to oversee the carving up of the BBC into bitesized chunks. (Anything to help his fairweather friend have his wicked way with Britain’s media.) You get the impression that the BBC don’t want to give the – essentially empty – Tory project a hard time because they fear what may be on the way.

Of course, the BBC isn’t perfect. It’s had its difficulties (Ross/Brand, Gilligan etc) and it’s a struggle to justify the continued existence of BBC Three, but do I think the licence fee represents value for money? You bet I do. Compare the expense of Murdoch’s Sky (which still comes with adverts, yet demonstrates no gain in quality in spite of all the extra revenue) to the TV licence and there’s only one winner.

The BBC is easily Britain’s strongest overseas ‘brand’, a name known and trusted all over the world, yet we are constantly taught by the press barons that we should hold it in contempt. So switch the BBC off for a week and see how you get on. Enjoy Murdoch’s “fair and balanced” FOX News or the rather sneakier Sky News, revel in the sporting insight of Tyldesley and Beglin, or maybe you’d enjoy an afternoon diet of adverts for consolidation loans and ambulance chasers. After seven days of such mediocrity it might become a touch clearer that perhaps the BBC isn’t so bad after all.

A bizarre political injury

I’ve written before about my continuing problem with radio phone-ins, and today I received the physical proof that it is bad for my health.

The occasion was George Osborne’s appearance on Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC FiveLive morning show. Gideon has quite an effect on me, and not in a good way. He slithered into the BBC’s Westminster studio with the Tory media enforcers’ training clearly still fresh in his mind. The usual vacuous Tory crap-speak was free-flowing from the word go. “Change.”  “Time for change.” “Ready for change.” “Change in a changey sort of way.” (It’s quite possible that I imagined that last one, but the red mist had descended too far by then.)

Very swiftly I found myself shouting at the radio. I don’t know why I do that. The broadcasters can’t hear me, and I’d struggle to explain why a sane or rational person would find any value in such a pointless demonstration of angst. Nevertheless such reasoned consideration rarely deters me from these outpourings, and you must understand that the appearance of Gideon (whether on the radio, the television or by direct satellite link from the Death Star) makes self-control an ever more distant prospect.

Eventually I pushed myself too far. I screamed, swore (I won’t repeat the word, as it’s neither big nor clever) and made some half-deranged physical gesture all at the same time. I’m not entirely sure what happened then, but there was a mess of spilt coffee and biscuit crumbs and I had somehow twisted my neck. It hurt. And I became aware that I was beetroot red.

I’ve spent the remainder of the day in some discomfort and feeling more than a little foolish. I will nevertheless be hugely surprised if I’ve learned anything from my needless exertions. I just hope the BBC can keep my Gideon exposure to an absolute minimum over the next few days, for the sake of my health.

Hung Parliament or Strong Parliament?

The Tory Party’s media ‘Agents of Doom’ (the right-wing press) are currently peddling the line that the ‘threat’ of a hung parliament will send the markets and the economy into a terrifying downward spiral of chaos and that the only way to avoid this nightmare scenario is to vote Conservative. Er, no thanks.

It is, of course, a complete load of nonsense. The British electoral system is a bizarre throwback to an era when the Whigs and Tories were the only two shows in town, and first-past-the-post provided the simplest method of choosing between them. Things have moved on a little since then.

Although Britain still likes to think of itself as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, the bringer of democracy to the world outside, most of the rest of the world left our model behind some time ago. Yet we are still stuck with a system that nearly always rewards a single party with a parliamentary majority even if (as in 2005) their share of the vote is as meagre as 36%. Maybe not this time though.

The opinion polls (I know, I know, only one poll matters) are currently painting a picture of an ever-tightening race, particularly in the marginal constituencies, and it’s beginning to look as though David Cameron may have something of a job on his hands winning the seats he needs to form a majority administration. And so we have the possibility of a hung parliament.

Would that really be such a bad thing? Would a minority or coalition government really be a catastrophic threat to our economic well-being? Some of our nearest neighbours (Germany and Sweden, for example) seem to manage economic stability while governing through consensus – why should we be any different?

Of course, it’s fair to point out that British politics isn’t terribly good at consensus, but I would suggest that that’s probably because the voting system doesn’t easily lend itself to co-operation. If everyone knows the rule is winner-takes-all then why would anyone bother to try to find common ground with their opponents? A hung parliament this time around may very well lead to a change in the system and therefore the rules of engagement. Labour has already indicated a willingness to at least entertain the possibility of proportional representation and one wonders how long the Conservative Party can continue to bury its head in the sand over the issue of a fair voting system.

It won’t always work. Sometimes the differences of philosophy will be just too great. But does a system which delivers up to five years of ‘elective dictatorship‘ tell a story of unbridled success and stability?

Michael Foot 1913-2010

Great sadness has been expressed from across the political spectrum at the news that the Labour politician, peace campaigner and life-long Plymouth Argyle fan Michael Foot has died at the great age of 96. He had been ill for some time.

For me Michael Foot was an emblem of the time when I first began to have an interest in politics. He became Leader of the Labour Party in 1980 having been a parliamentarian since the Attlee landslide of 1945. Although he was ridiculed by his opponents in the print media for his appearance and lack of image-consciousness, he was perhaps the only man who was capable of holding the Labour movement together in its dark days of idealogical splits and in-fighting.

He was a highly intelligent man of deep principle as well as being a gifted orator. He was also something of a legend at Home Park, Plymouth and, as a board member towards the end of his life, had been honoured with a squad number and a special place in the hearts of Argyle fans.

His death serves as a reminder of a time when politics was perhaps more honest and certainly more colourful. He gave many great speeches but the rhetorical flourish I remember best (it has been on my office wall for years) was this one, defiantly delivered on the eve of the 1983 General Election:

“We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer ‘To hell with them.’ The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.”