It’s hard not to gloat about The Ashes

I began fiddling around with this post before play had even started on the final day of the Fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, and that is probably another indication of how annoying fans of English cricket will become to Australians over the coming days, weeks and months. Cockiness has seemingly become part and parcel of the England fans’ mindsets over the series so far, at least in the eyes of the Aussies, and the bad news is there’s almost certainly worse to come.

Last night Andrew Strauss’ team retained The Ashes by comfortably winning the Fourth Test, thereby assuring at least a draw in the five match series. The series isn’t won yet – a win or a draw for England in the final Test at Sydney would clinch that – but the gloating is well and truly underway.

The thing is that it’s particularly hard not to gloat about any sporting triumph against ‘The Old Enemy’. I don’t even like rugby, but I couldn’t resist reminding any Australian I encountered of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the 2003 World Cup Final for some months after the event. Similarly, the Ashes triumphs on home soil in 2005 and 2009 were brought up at any opportunity, even if the 5-0 whitewash at the hands of the Aussies in 2006-7 put everything briefly into perspective.

This one is special, however. Every English touring side over the last twenty-four years has had to endure the sneering and sledging of the home nation and acres of accompanying newsprint devoted to the topic of whether such uncompetitive opponents warranted a five match series. Suddenly such commentary has fallen silent while the previously packed venues have steadily emptied as the home side’s fortunes have disappeared down the pan.

The Australian media have been a joy to behold on this tour, one minute claiming their favourites were not fit to wear the famous Baggy Green, the next pointing sharply at perceived English hubris. Now they are left to face defeat, and in so doing have given us a reminder that perhaps the British media aren’t the only ones who enjoy nothing more than giving their own a brutal character assassination. (My favourite outlet of the series has been the Sydney Morning Herald and an example of their no-holds-barred criticism of a deflated Australian side can be seen here.)

So I for one will not be afraid to wallow in a healthy dose of gloating at the expense of the previously unassailable Australian cricket team. Yes, England can still lose the Fifth Test and yes, Australia will almost certainly rebuild and come back stronger, but it’s hard to put away the memories of a quarter of a century of relentless Aussie gloating. It may not be big, clever or even slightly magnanimous, but I can’t take my eyes off the current disaster of Australian cricket – and I’m loving every minute of it.

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Tuition Fees – A mess of our own making

And so the government has won the controversial tuition fees vote 323 to 302, giving them a majority of 21. While the Tories have escaped much of the spleen-venting over the issue (presumably people expect them to live up to their billing as ‘the Nasty Party’) the whole issue has torn the Liberal Democrats apart.

I have to admit to being fairly agnostic over the fees debate. I’d love to see a system where everyone could have a free university education, but equally I don’t think that the Coalition’s extension of (let’s not forget) Labour’s policy is the end of society as we know it. I don’t even blame my own party for making the concession during the frantic negotiations after the election in May – the Lib Dems didn’t win the election and therefore don’t get to have their own way within a coalition government.

Having said that, if you allow yourself to be photographed gurning over a signed pledge to vote against an increase, then vote against is what you must do when the time comes. And here (among other things) lies Nick Clegg’s problem. As long as people are able to stumble upon the photo above, the conclusion will be drawn that Clegg was more interested in the trappings of power than sticking to the clearest promise he made in the run up to the General Election. No matter what happens now, no matter if the Coalition turns out to be the finest government this country has ever seen (stick with me on this) Clegg will always have this image hanging round his neck.

Some good might come out of this. The Lib Dems will have learned a harsh lesson to “think hard before you pledge” – something that parties who are used to government have known for a long time. And I hope that those who have been so quick to condemn will recognise that many Lib Dem MPs (including my own, Dan Rogerson) did what they promised to do and voted against the government. But, try as I might, there’s no way I can spin this as anything other than a bad day for my party.

 

The Alternative Vote – a step in the right direction

In an ideal world I don’t think I’d have much to do with the Alternative Vote method of electing MPs, the option which will be put forward in next year’s referendum on Electoral Reform. I’m a long-standing believer in Proportional Representation and, whatever the merits of AV, it is certainly not proportional.

Having said that, there are many advantages of this system over the current First Past The Post method of electing our MPs. (The following passage is taken from the Electoral Reform Society’s website.)

The case for AV

  • All MPs would have the support of a majority of their voters. Following the 2010 election 2/3 of MPs lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history.
  • It retains the same constituencies, meaning no need to redraw boundaries, and no overt erosion of the constituency-MP link.
  • It penalises extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes.
  • It eliminates the need for tactical voting. Electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote.
  • It encourages candidates to chase second- and third-preferences, which lessens the need for negative campaigning (one doesn’t want to alienate the supporters of another candidate whose second preferences one wants) and rewards broad-church policies.

Additionally the AV system would reduce (although not eliminate) the number of safe seats in the British Parliament. It is no coincidence that the worst excesses of the MPs’ expenses scandal occurred in the safest parliamentary constituencies – security seemed to breed a lack of accountability, complacency and contempt for the electorate.

Those who argue against the fairer votes campaign will tell you that FPTP is a simple system which provides strong government. The first part of that argument is true – FPTP is a simple system. However, the inference is that AV is complicated. This is clearly not true. The arrogance of many behind the ‘No’ campaign is clearly demonstrated by their view that voters are somehow not bright enough to be able to number their electoral preferences 1, 2, 3 etc. As for the suggestion of strong government only being possible through FPTP one only has to look back to the Brown, Major and Callaghan governments to demonstrate that, in recent years, this is not a given.

There is bound to be a heated debate in the run-up to next year’s poll and a taste of what’s to come can be seen by the choice of figureheads for the ‘No’ campaign. A selection of dinosaurs seems set to be wheeled out to tell us all, in essence, to leave things as they are because they know best. By contrast the ‘Yes to fairer votes‘ campaign offers an optimistic view that it just might be possible to change politics for the better.

Nick Clegg once infamously described AV as “a miserable little compromise” and to a certain extent he was right. I would far sooner see a referendum option on the Single Transferable Vote but the simple fact is that no such choice will be on the ballot paper. Britain will have a choice on 5th May 2011 whether to persevere with a system which worked well a century or so ago, but which seems a poor fit in the modern multi-party political framework, or to at least take a step in the right direction by – finally – making sure everyone’s vote counts. And what could be simpler than that?

Be afraid…

In 2004 the journalist Adam Curtis made an excellent series of films for the BBC called The Power Of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics Of Fear. In those films he made the point that, back in the 1950s, politicians ran for office with a positive agenda, promising to make our lives better through forward-thinking initiatives – by the 2000s the message had changed to a promise to protect us all from the dark and unquantifiable threat of international terrorism. This week’s terror alert has shown that, while the political colours in both the White House and Downing Street may be different from the Bush/Blair era Curtis talked about, the 21st century message of ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ is never too far from the surface.

In the wake of the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ voices have inevitably been raised in the UK and America, calling for tighter worldwide security measures and a heightened state of alert to protect against the global machinery of terror. Just as inevitably, there will soon be calls for more domestic legislation giving ever-greater powers to the organisation of government. Mercifully, so far, the governments on both sides of the Atlantic have shown a little restraint in their tone but, as Andrew Rawnsley wrote in this weekend’s Observer, how much pressure will it take from vested interests like the head of MI6 before the encouraging Lib Dem and Conservative noises in Opposition are brushed aside when it comes to decisions over, for example, the control orders regime? A sensible, informed debate about the balance between security and liberty would be most useful right now.

I don’t wish to belittle the very real danger that the ‘Cargo Bomb Plot’ presented. There can be little doubt that there are all manner of ‘terrorist cells’ trying their hardest to garner the worldwide publicity that a major atrocity would have afforded them. Where I struggle is with the suggestion that there is a highly organised global network of terror, masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, operating under the banner of ‘al-Qa’ida’.

I’m no natural enthusiast for the conspiracy theory. I’m certain that NASA landed on the Moon, that the death of Diana was a tragic accident and that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the man who pulled the trigger in Dallas on that November day in 1963. Similarly I don’t believe that the US government was complicit in the 9/11 outrage, other than through its incompetence.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that the Bush administration used the fallout from the attack on the World Trade Center to unite the western world against a common enemy, in the same way Ronald Reagan painted the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and the global arms and oil corporations used this fear to push their hard-edged neo-conservative agenda. The damage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was both massive and utterly counter-productive. The onus is now on politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that the climate of fear which led to those campaigns is not fostered again in pursuit of an enemy which bears no relation to the image painted by those whose motives are considerably less than pure.

 

‘Movember’ – Second Time Around

Apparently having learned nothing from last year’s month-long itchy top lip extravaganza, I am once again growing a moustache. This Movember, the month formerly known as November I’ve decided to donate my face to raising awareness about prostate cancer. My donation and commitment is the growth of a moustache for the entire month of Movember, which I know will generate conversation, controversy and laughter.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. One man dies every hour from the disease in the UK. This is a cause that I feel passionately about and I’m asking you to support my efforts by making a donation to The Prostate Cancer Charity. To help, you can either:

• Click this link and donate online using your credit card or PayPal account. Or,

• Send cheques and CAF vouchers (made payable to ‘The Prostate Cancer Charity Re Movember’) directly to The Prostate Cancer Charity – First Floor, Cambridge House, Cambridge Grove, London W6 0LE. Be sure to include the person’s name on the back of the cheque.

The Prostate Cancer Charity will use the money raised by Movember for the development of programs related to awareness, public education, advocacy, support of those affected, and research into the prevention, detection, treatment and cure of prostate cancer.
For more details on how the funds raised from previous campaigns have been used and the impact Movember is having please visit http://uk.movemberfoundation.com/research-and-programs.

Thank you in advance for helping me to support men’s health.

Jeremy Rowe

Desert Island Discs

Some time ago my good friend Edwin Squire posted this item on his blog, which was his stab at the thorny old dilemma of selecting eight records for a hypothetical appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I make no apologies for the self-indulgence of this post as I attempt to do the same.

These aren’t the eight records I listen to more than any others, rather a snapshot of the kind of choice I feel I would need if I were stranded on a rock somewhere for any length of time. I’ve made a point of choosing no more than one song from each artist/composer even though I could just as easily have chosen eight songs by Led Zeppelin. Feel free to launch a critical assault via the comments.

1. Echoes – Pink Floyd This 24 minute epic took up the whole of the second side of the 1970 Meddle album, and for me was the first move towards the seventies Floyd sound that many associate with the band. Prior to Echoes there was a sense that Floyd hadn’t really managed to find a defining sound after the departure (due to a greater interest in LSD) of frontman and creator-in-chief Syd Barrett. It’s fashionable (particularly since his death) to become overly nostalgic for the psychedelic Barrett-era Pink Floyd sound, but any sensible examination of the band’s back catalogue must surely confirm that their best work was done after Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, the only album Barrett recorded with Floyd. The band scratched around for a couple of years producing such oddities as Ummagumma, the soundtrack from the film ‘More’ and Atom Heart Mother, but it was the Meddle album where they seemed to nail the concept of producing something melodic, unhurried and beautifully crafted. This turned out to be the prelude to probably their most famous album of all: Dark Side Of The Moon, which is another great piece of work. But for me, Meddle will always have the edge.

2. Kashmir – Led Zeppelin As I mentioned above, I could quite easily have picked eight Led Zeppelin tracks and been done with it but, for the sake of this exercise, I’ve landed on just one. But what a performance it is. Jimmy Page’s beautifully constructed chord sequence (borrowed a thousand times since), Robert Plant at his very best on vocals, stunning use of the quirky old Mellotron by John Paul Jones and the amazing force of nature that was John Bonham on drums. One of those songs that just gets better every time you hear it – even after all these years.

3. Beethoven’s Ninth – Second Movement I can’t pretend to be a classical music “buff”, but I include this for the sake of variety and a rounded collection to listen to while stranded on my rock. It occurs to me that the Desert Island in question could just as easily be a windswept crag in the South Atlantic as a sunkissed collection of palm trees in the Pacific, so it’s probably just as well to have something a little bracing. This great work from one of the greatest composers of them all was immortalised in modern popular culture by Malcolm McDowell’s drooling, hypnotic reverence of its “gorgeousity” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange but, powerful as I find it, it has mercifully not had a similar effect on me.

4. Unfinished Sympathy – Massive Attack One of those songs that will always be synonymous with a time and a place for me, and that was Plymouth in the early nineties when I still used to force myself to go to nightclubs. I’ve never been a huge fan of the club scene – bad beer, bad music, doormen suffering from delusions of adequacy – but just once in a blue moon you’d get to hear a little pearl among the dross and this was one of them. Massive Attack became recognised as pioneers of the ‘trip hop’ genre in the nineties but, for me, this song is all about the massive voice of Shara Nelson. Beautiful.

5. No Surprises – Radiohead A difficult one this. Radiohead are another band I could comfortably have chosen half a dozen records from for this exercise, but I settled on this one for similar reasons to the last one – a time and a place. Thom Yorke’s lyric reminds me of 1997, a period of change in British politics which saw the demise of the eighteen-year Tory nightmare and its replacement with the fresh-faced Tony Blair. Such optimism, so misplaced. Yorke knew all along…

6. Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival Short but very sweet, a classic three chord trick. Jangly guitar and foreboding lyrics squeezed into 2 minutes and twenty seconds – marvellous. Brilliantly used as  part of the film soundtrack for An American Werewolf In London.

7. Southern Man – Neil Young I chose this for the lyric more than the performance. Neil Young’s a clever guy but I wouldn’t stretch so far as to call him a great singer. Nevertheless, Southern Man is a scathing attack on the deeply ingrained racism of America’s Deep South. “Don’t forget what your ‘Good Book’ said.”

8. Need Your Love So Bad – Fleetwood Mac Peter Green’s struggle with schizophrenia deprived popular music of one of the creative greats and, for all their mainstream highpoints and their position as the sound of Formula One, Fleetwood Mac were never the same band without him. The guitar part on this song is not intricate or showy – it’s just beautiful.

I’ve appalled myself with all the marvellous things I’ve left out of this list, and if you asked me again next week the list would probably be completely different, but here it is. As for the two items you can take on the hypothetical desert island, a book and a luxury item, I’ll go with a boat-building manual and a toolkit – I could never survive with only eight records.

(It’s only on finishing this post that I learn that Nick Clegg has appeared on Desert Island Discs this morning – haven’t checked his selection yet although I imagine it’s full of early promise but…)