Month: May 2010

The Torygraph: a rant

It seems the Daily Telegraph’s Expenses File is the gift that just keeps on giving. If there’s muck to be raked, that broadsheet bastion of Middle England is the one to do it. Hot on the heels of David Laws’ regrettable but unavoidable departure from the Treasury, the Telegraph has now turned its attention to his replacement, Lib Dem Danny Alexander.

As others have pointed out (notably Anton Vowl on his ‘Enemies of Reason’ blog and Mark Pack at Liberal Democrat Voice) the Alexander accusations are actually a complete non-story. They boil down to the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury not paying tax which wasn’t even due. (I guess the Telegraph, grieving that it doesn’t have the unfettered majority Tory government it wanted, is working on the principle that if you sling enough mud a certain proportion of it is going to stick.)

But amid this piety about financial probity do we get a word about George Osborne’s less than pure expenses file? Or David Cameron’s naked grasping over his Oxfordshire pile? Or even the tax status of the Barclay Brothers, reclusive owners of the Telegraph? Of course not, because the Telegraph is, if nothing else, the go-to-paper of the grasping, venal tax avoider, while effortlessly accommodating the excruciating pub bore who rants about what Brown did to his pension, or the great gold reserve give-away, or how the country has gone to the dogs at the hands of a bunch of left-wing homosexuals hell-bent on handing our national identity over to Johnny Bloody Foreigner.

The Telegraph’s bottom line is that we should all damn well know our place. It paints a rose-tinted vision of a glorious British past (most likely the 1950s) where Tories ran the country free of any scrutiny from the media, and the rest of us were grateful that our masters had learned what to do on the playing fields of Eton or Harrow. (These days you can add St Paul’s School to the equation, but probably not Westminster – bloody Lib Dems!)

The Telegraph used to be fun (for all the wrong reasons, of course). In between laughing at the musty old selection of mouth-foaming columnists, or the po-faced irony-free zone of the leading article, there was always amusement to be gleaned from the ‘Telegraph Letters Page Game’. Rifle through the outraged missives from the Torygraph’s ageing readership and award yourself points for finding the following: retired military officer, comedy double-barrelled surname, Peer of the Realm – find the full set and pour yourself a brain-numbingly large Tanqueray and Tonic.

Many of the Telegraph’s readership are at least self-aware enough to realise that they ought to be embarrassed about the fact – these are the crusty old (and in some cases worryingly young) farts who claim they only buy it for the crossword or the sport pages. Well, the crossword is an insult to the intelligence, and in any case the Guardian’s sport coverage is a country mile better than the rugby-porn extravaganza of the stuffy, dull old Nazigraph’s doggedly broadsheet pages.

Is it a good thing that this most unrepresentative organ should pick and choose the make-up of the government? Aided and abetted by the other poisonous rags that make up the right-wing press, they pour bile over those elected to run the country and play kingmakers to the Tory Party, itself hardly an organisation known for having its finger on the nation’s pulse. Their interventions are accountable to no one and they offer nothing of any benefit to wider society, yet still they have disproportionate power to wield. And which politician will dare say so publicly, when they don’t know the thickness of the Telegraph’s file on them?

With the demise of the ‘Dead Tree’ press only just around the corner, the Torygraph seems to be having one final flourish of ordure-heaping on the democratic processes of this country. I suspect that they are no more comfortable with the Coalition than I am, although for entirely different reasons. Perhaps in the end they will choke on the excrement they continually expel into the public domain – but I doubt that life’s ever that fair.

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Love him or hate him, Lewis Hamilton is one of the greats

Red Bull Racing’s act of self-destruction in today’s Formula 1 Turkish Grand Prix, when both their drivers managed to take each other out of contention from a winning position, allowed Lewis Hamilton, perhaps motor racing’s most acquired taste, through for his first victory of the year.

Having been a follower of the McLaren team since i started watching motor racing back in the days of Niki Lauda, I’m a big fan of Lewis Hamilton. I appreciate that many others don’t necessarily share my enthusiasm. Hamilton can be petulent, hot-headed and arrogant, he appears to be unloved by his peers and strangely feels that a dodgy ear-piercing is a quantum leap up the fashion ladder. (I’m saying nothing about Pussycat Dolls.)

But, and here’s the point, he is arguably the most outrageously talented driver currently in Formula 1. I grew up on a diet of British sportsmen who were nice guys but had the ‘Heroic Failure’ market sewn up (think Jeremy Bates, Gary Lineker and so on). Sure we had Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, but you always had the impression that their successes (fleeting as they were) were almost entirely dependent on the fact that they happened to be driving the best cars in the sport at the time.

Hamilton offers something a little bit different. Like all the great F1 drivers, he can wring something extra out of a car that otherwise wouldn’t compete. Last year’s McLaren was universally recognised as a dog of a car, among the worst the team had ever produced, and this was demonstrated by Heikki Kovalainen’s noticeably poor season as Hamilton’s team-mate. Hamilton on the other hand consistently scored points with the car, ending the season as the clear form driver in the sport.

He is exciting to watch, a driver who doesn’t see overtaking as one of the great sins of the sport, and someone who can seriously consider himself a contender for the Drivers’ Championship at the start of each season. (Contrast that with the perfectly charming David Coulthard who always seemed to be going through the motions when he talked up his own title pretensions.)

Hamilton may not win the Drivers’ crown this year. The Red Bull team and their drivers, Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber look to have the best car this season, and Hamilton’s team-mate, Jenson Button, has taken to McLaren better than anyone imagined. But all of that is just the sort of challenge that brings the best out of Lewis Hamilton. On the track he always seems to be at his most potent when he’s chasing a lost cause and so it may prove with this year’s championship contest.

There are a number of supremely talented drivers in Formula 1 (don’t believe the cynics – it’s anything but boring) and it’s always a pleasure to see them at their best. But nothing makes me smile more than seeing Lewis Hamilton look down on his critics from the top step of the podium.

Morris Dancing: it’s not big, and it’s certainly not clever

I had a near miss this weekend. My day job (i.e. the one that tends to keep most of the bills at bay) is at the rather splendid Quarryman pub, just outside Wadebridge in the People’s Republic of North Cornwall. I normally do the daytime shift on a Saturday, and would have been cheerfully welcoming the first serious visitor rush of the season for the Bank Holiday weekend, but a previous engagement dragged me away for the morning. Fortuitously, as it happens.

For this was the day the morris dancers came. I should state at the outset that the particular group of morris dancers who come to our pub a couple of times a year are an especially polite, friendly bunch who do their business swiftly, enjoy a quick pint and then amble off to their next destination without leaving too much mess behind. In short, they are absolutely no trouble to anyone. Except me.

I have an irrational fear of morris dancers. It must in some way be related to coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, but I haven’t found the correct term for it yet. I can’t exactly put my finger on what the problem is (apart from the obvious grand scale lunacy of the whole thing, of course) but there is definitely something about the stick-wielding, bladder-swinging, foliage-adorned extravaganza that causes the nightmares and the cold sweats. It may be the bells, it may be the beards – either way, I’m nowhere near my comfort zone.

Is it worse than my persistent Gideophobia? (Probably not, but put George Osborne into a morris dancing troupe and I may end up with a whole bunch of issues previously unknown to medical science.) Perhaps I should embrace my fears, sign up to the local morris dancing group and dive in headlong, pewter ale pot attached to my waist like a holster. Then again, perhaps not.

I don’t know what’s the matter with me really. I just thought I’d share all that nonsense with you…

A pleasure watching you work, Alastair

It’s just possible that Alastair Campbell has become the first, and scariest Ghost of New Labour Past – the one who’ll cause panic among government ranks with his every media intervention. This week’s Question Time debacle is evidence of a man, newly re-converted to the opposition mindset, flying quickly out of the traps while the new boys and girls in government show no small amount of clumsiness as they learn the ropes.

Campbell, of course, is the consummate political media operator, feared, immitated and gloriously immortalised as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It. Love him or hate him, his political instincts have generally proven to be second to none (with the possible exception of New Labour’s Prince of the Dark Arts, Peter Mandelson).

Yes, I’m aware of the nature of many of the things his government did while he was part of the inner-circle at the top of the Labour government. I’m aware of his role in the build-up to the senseless Iraq war and his less than glorious efforts to dismantle the BBC over David Kelly and the revolting Andrew Gilligan. And I know how his style of media misdirection while he was Tony Blair’s Press Secretary did so much to undermine trust in the political arena.

But the thing is, when he’s not doing all those things it’s still a genuine pleasure to watch him at work. His gentle invitation to Adam Boulton to lose his rag hilariously on live television (greedily accepted) was as beautiful a demonstration of the art of the wind-up merchant as you’re ever likely to see, and now his very presence on a show as instantly forgettable as the BBC’s Question Time has caused the new government to look precious and slightly paranoid within its first few weeks.

Of course, he couldn’t have known that the government were going to be so foolish about the whole thing, but there’s no doubt he grabbed the moment when it arrived, accusing the government of “a pathetic attempt to bully the BBC”. That the Grand Old Master Of Spin managed to throw this jibe in with few questioning his own history of doing exactly the same shows the skill of the man, and highlights the contrast between himself and Andy Coulson, the government’s significantly less sophisticated answer to Campbell.

Coulson is your basic tabloid bully and the disgraceful odour of phone-tapping and petulance hang around him from his days as editor of the News Of The World. Sure, being a government Press Officer is an inevitably mucky business, but this week has demonstrated the wisdom of the old hand as opposed to the misplaced arrogance of the new.

While I may not be a fan of Alastair Campbell’s time spent defending the indefensible at Downing Street, when the comparison is drawn with the current incumbent it’s a pleasure to watch a true professional at work.

A little early for control-freakery, don’t you think?

I was slightly surprised to hear that the national Tory/Lib Dem coalition refused to send a representative to sit on the BBC Question Time panel last night. The official reason given was that Labour’s panel member came in the shape of the unelected Alastair Campbell, and that the party should have sent a front-bencher to discuss policy. The result was a stand-off, with the government demanding Campbell’s removal and the BBC – rightly – pointing out that it isn’t for Downing Street to choose the Question Time panel. The other-worldly John Redwood presumably leapt at the chance to step in when the BBC came calling for a replacement.

(I should declare an interest here in that I rarely watch Question Time. I used to enjoy shouting at the television for an hour on a Thursday night, practically foaming at the mouth at the soundbites and the deceptions, but these days I’d probably rather curl up with a good book.)

The decision by the Labour Party to send a media man like Campbell, rather than a Shadow Minister, is perhaps a little odd in the week of the Queen’s Speech, but it’s nowhere near as odd as the government refusing to turn-up. Alastair Campbell is famous for his combative style, but I can’t imagine any would-be government representative would have been scared to face him (a little anxious, maybe).

Instead, this would appear to be an attempt by the new government to flex its muscles in the direction of the BBC. It is an early sign of the same control-freakery which quickly poisoned the New Labour project and I strongly hope it fails.

I’ve written before about the BBC and what an asset the corporation is to this country, and it’s no surprise to me that the Tories are attempting to get a few early hits in, using Campbell as their cover. It will be a dark prospect indeed if the Lib Dems, as coalition partners, join in the Murdoch-fuelled assault on this bastion of impartiality which is so highly regarded around the world.

The alternative to the BBC is to go down the route of Sky News, with creeping opinion-forming and skewing of the news agenda. Murdoch has ‘previous’, of course, having given birth to the ugly partisan beast otherwise known as Fox News, and incidents involving Sky’s Kay Burley and Adam Boulton have given an indication of the direction of travel in the immediate aftermath of the General Election result. The most notorious example was Boulton’s, and so here is the video. It includes some chap called Campbell…

(See also: Mark Reckons – BBC Question Time Alastair Campbell debacle)

Should prayer have a place at council meetings?

The National Secular Society is currently carrying out a piece of work examining the link between local councils and the inclusion of prayers as an item of business on their agendas. In some areas this has become an issue of some controversy, while in many other places most people would wonder what the fuss is about, either because prayer forms no part of their councils’ meetings or because it is a long-standing practice which the majority are comfortable with.

Council prayers are something I’ve chosen to absent myself from since I was first elected to Cornwall County Council in 2005, and while some of the ‘old hands’ initially saw it as a direct attack on their beliefs, I think they mostly now realise that I (and the growing number of other abstainers) simply made a different choice.

Those who would defend the scheduling of a prayer session within a council meeting would probably point to a number of different arguments. Many would say it is a traditional item on the agenda, or that a quiet moment of reflection at the start of a meeting helps put them in the correct frame of mind for the business at hand. Many others would offer the slightly more trenchant view that “this is a Christian country” and that those who disagree should bloody well live somewhere else.

The only one of these arguments that holds any water for me is the second, that a calm period of thought at the start of a meeting is good for clearing the mental decks. Tradition is a complete non-argument because that puts forward the case for the perpetual status quo. Societies and traditions evolve (I chose that word carefully) over time and I believe that our representation at local and national level should reflect that.

As for the suggestion that this is a Christian country, I’m afraid that simply doesn’t bear any meaningful scrutiny. Only a minority of the population regularly attend a Christian ceremony, and the long-term decline in footfall at Anglican churches speaks of a growing trend towards secularism. I know that many people still identify themselves as Christians, even if their only contact with their religion is weddings and funerals, but apathy should not be taken for unqualified support.

I would never dream of trying to prevent anyone from practising their belief system, but equally I don’t think others should seek to impose their beliefs on me (or anyone else for that matter). Perhaps a better option than formalising prayers as an agenda item might be holding a voluntary prayer session prior to the meeting itself. This could provide that period of reflection while leaving the meeting itself purely for the business at hand.

I’m always happy to have a philosophical debate with anyone on the topic of what we believe, but I wonder if parliament and councils across the country need to enshrine a particular denomination within business items that otherwise have no connection with the ‘spiritual’. My concern about the first item of business being prayers has never been about what other people believe, it is about inclusiveness and the signals our elected bodies send out to those who aren’t part of the Anglican tradition, whether they are Methodists, Catholics, Muslims, atheists or whatever.

(See also: Council prayers campaign progresses to the next stage)

The Winning Formula?

With the entry of Diane Abbott into the Labour leadership race, the choice before party members suddenly appears to be a wider and more diverse one than before – the other declared names are David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, John McDonnell and Andy Burnham. The fact that there is a contest at all makes this a more different scenario from the 2007 ‘shoo-in’ of Gordon Brown, and Abbott’s candidacy brings a welcome shot of diversity to the equation.

All credit to Labour for that but, realistically, the chances are that the next leader of their party is going to be called either ‘Ed’ or ‘Miliband’ or both, thus conforming to the current major party trend of electing a fresh-faced (perhaps not in Balls’ case) forty-something white male leader, with a full head of hair and an easy television manner. This is perhaps Tony Blair’s most lasting legacy to the political landscape of Britain.

When John Smith died so suddenly in 1994 politics was a very different place to the ‘New Politics’ of 2010. It was a post-Thatcher world where John Major had played the ‘safe pair of hands’ card and won the 1992 General Election in the process, Smith had used his substance and intellect to win the Labour leadership, and the fledgling Lib Dems were headed by the flamboyant Paddy Ashdown. 1994 changed everything. While most of the outside world assumed Gordon Brown would be next in line, Peter Mandelson and the New Labour Focus-Groupies had other ideas. Tony Blair won the – post-Granita – leadership election by a landslide (as a member of the party at that time, I must confess that I voted for him) and things were never the same again.

Blair was fresh-faced, energetic and non-threatening to Middle England. He looked like the sort of chap your average ‘soft Tory’ would be happy for their daughter to bring home. In policy terms, the programme was so light there was very little risk in ‘giving the guy a chance’, and the staged battle over Clause Four showed a man very much in charge of, what had previously seemed, an unleadable party. An historic landslide victory at the 1997 General Election confirmed the new leadership model as a winner.

There have been numerous exceptions to this trend of ‘natural’ selection, of course: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith & Michael Howard for the Tories, Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems, and indeed, Gordon Brown for the Labour Party. Unfortunately the one common strand between these party leaders is that they were all deemed to be failures. Contrast their fortunes with those of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the Daddy of them all, Tony Blair, and it starts to look like there really is a winning formula for the selection of a leader: as long as the policies (where they exist) don’t frighten the horses, go for the young-looking guy with the nice suit.

I’m not saying that any of these men are idiots. To lead a major political party you need intelligence, determination and an extremely thick skin, and all the successful leaders have had these qualities in abundance. Indeed, I’ve often thought that history will be kinder to Tony Blair than any of his contemporaries were. I believe that, despite his many policy failures, he will come to be seen as the great politician of his era, a communicator without equal in the early part of the 21st century. I just think that there may well be women, ethnic minority politicians and people over 60 who have all of these qualities and more.

Will a woman lead a major political party again any time soon? Will the job fall to anyone over 60? Will the chances of any baldies (like me) be forever ruined by association with Hague, Duncan Smith and Kinnock? And what chance have we of following America’s inspirational presidential lead and electing a black Prime Minister? The ‘New Politics’ is all very well, but perhaps there are still a few things to be learned from the old.