Friday, 28 May 2010

How can going private be in the public interest?

SO now we have a government pledged to govern “in the national interest”. Oh, good.
But can someone please remind me – when did we have a government that promised to act AGAINST the national interest?
There’s no doubt many have done so, but none, surely, admitted it.
The question then is: Who defines what’s in the national interest?
I, for example, think privatising – or even part-privatising – the Royal Mail is very much NOT in the national interest.
Presumably, members of the government think it’s in their own interests, or maybe the interests of certain of their friends. That’s what privatisation is generally about, after all.
I think renewing Trident is in anything but the national interest – and before the election the LibDems agreed with me.
Conversely, I think the government’s got it roughly right on nuclear power, cancelling the third runway at Heathrow and abolishing house-building targets. But others will disagree.
There may even be someone who’s sorry to see the great ID cards scheme bite the dust. Though that particular piece of NuLabour insanity was surely on its way out anyway, whoever had “won” the election.
The stated intention, carried over from Blair, to “end child poverty” by 2020 is great. Surely no one could argue with that. Except for the blindingly obvious fact that it won’t happen.
Tory education policy (the LibDems appear to have abdicated responsibility here) is to pick up the worst of Blair’s “reforms” and run with them. Not just run, but run amok.
The throwing open of the schools system to private enterprise and private interests is a potential disaster that could damage the country for generations.
Mind you, I’m looking forward to the opening of the first Pagan comprehensive. The first gay and lesbian academy. The first Socialist high school.
I also like the idea of limiting the power of supermarkets, though I’m not holding my breath on how it will work in practice.
All together we face a curious ragbag of pick-n-mix policies. Which is perhaps not surprising when you consider how hastily the Queen’s Speech and all that lies behind it was cobbled together.
One page from your manifesto, one page from mine.
Neither of those manifestoes had any clear, consistent vision anyway.
Maybe that’s the reality of the “new politics”. Neither of us knows where we’re going, so let’s hold hands on the way.
Tony Blair’s “Third Way” was code for “lost our way”. Cameron and Clegg are but babes wandering in the same wood.
There is a common ideology of a sort, though – one all the parties seem to share. And that’s giving primacy in all decision-making to “the markets”.
In other words, making us ordinary folk pay for the mistakes and greed of that parasitic growth known as The City.
So when exactly did “in the national interest” come to mean “in the bankers’ interests”?


I WOKE at 3.33am to a sound of frenzied twittering outside the window.
The baby great-tits in the box on the wall, as yet unseen and uncounted by human eye, had begun their constant jabber. Before there was even a vague hint of light in the sky.
From dawn until dusk for a fortnight the parent birds have been on the go, fetching a constant supply of insects, grubs and other titbits to their ever-demanding offspring.
I have never seen any creatures work harder. Surely they don’t have to keep it up during the hours of darkness too?
At 4.13 the nightingale began. I was glad, because I’d been wondering whether there was one around this year.
There it was, loud, clear and utterly distinctive in its endless variety of musical phrase. And probably further away than it sounded.
No, certainly further away. It sounded as if it was in the bedroom with us.
But even if it costs you a little sleep, you cannot begrudge the nightingale his song. It’s one of the most wonderful, life-affirming sounds there is.
And now the great-tits are gone.
They, or others of their kind, are still visiting the feeders and the apple tree. But they don’t live here any more.
Was that great pre-dawn racket the sound of the young family emerging and flying the nest?
I guess it was. And I wish them well in the world.


WHATEVER the ads may say, Exile On Main Street is not the greatest rock ’n roll record ever made.
I’m not sure it’s even the best album The Rolling Stones ever made, though it’s close.
The newly remastered and chart-topping CD doesn’t really add much to the original vinyl. Unless you get the version that comes with a ten-track “bonus disc”.
And that raises a sad conclusion.
That the best new Stones album since 1978 consists of out-takes from 1972.

Friday, 21 May 2010

There''s a historical precedent for Con-Dems' reform bid

SOMETIMES you just can’t help falling foul of Godwin’s Law.
I don’t mean breaking it. You can no more break Godwin’s Law than you can break the law of gravity.
I mean demonstrating the truth of it. And the thing about Godwin’s Law is that you should try to avoid demonstrating it until absolutely necessary.
Mike Godwin, an American lawyer and writer, first proposed his law in 1990. It states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” In other words, becomes a near-certainty.
Though Godwin’s Law is an internet adage, in practical terms it doesn’t only relate to the net.
It applies equally to pub conversations, for example. Or, I fear, to newspaper columns.
So here I go.
Having found themselves without an absolute majority after a March 6 election, the party that polled most votes could only form a government by allying themselves with one of the smaller parties.
But this didn’t satisfy them. They wanted “strong, stable government”, and managed to persuade nearly everyone that this was what the country needed.
So they changed the law to keep themselves in power for a fixed term of years – even if more than 50 per cent of Parliament was against them.
Sounds familiar?
The year was 1933. The country was Germany. The smaller party in the coalition was the so-called Centre Party, which had the third largest parliamentary presence.
And the big party, which rewrote the rules to its own absolute advantage, was of course Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party.
David Cameron has not quite attempted an Enabling Act, which was Hitler’s short cut to dictatorship.
But he wants a fixed five-year term of office – not the four years Hitler claimed.
And he wants to make it impossible to unseat a government with anything less than a 55 per cent majority of MPs against them.
Which is patently undemocratic, surely unworkable, and transparently – laughably – based on the arithmetic of the present Parliament.
Mike Godwin says his law was only intended to dissuade people from making glib or inappropriate references to the Nazis.
The analogy this time was too painfully close to avoid.


IT’S a lot of years since politics in Britain was as interesting as it’s been these past few weeks.
And one of the interesting things is the reversion to tribalism brought about by the LibDems’ chicanery.
I have never known such a wave of people rushing to join, or re-join, the Labour Party. Not even in the first flush of enthusiasm for Tony Blair (which was when I quit).
The battle for the Labour succession will be more than a fascinating sideshow to the coming trials and tribulations of the Con-Dem coalition.
It could – indeed, it should – be a contest to determine the country’s next PM.
The choice between the Miliband of brothers is interesting in itself. It will become more so if more, and more varied, candidates come forward.
I’m disappointed the admirable Jon Cruddas has declined the opportunity.
“Hand on heart,” he says, “I do not want to be leader of the Labour Party or subsequently prime minister. These require certain qualities I do not possess.”
I don’t know exactly which qualities he means.
Perhaps a craving for fame and the ability to handle the constant attention it creates.
Maybe the arrogance – as best exemplified by Blair and Thatcher – to know you’re right even when others can plainly see you’re wrong.
Or maybe the ability to squash your doubts and press ahead, for pragmatic reasons, with policies you don’t fully believe in.
If all or any of those points explain Cruddas’s lack of ambition, then I see his point.
He might serve the country – and certainly himself – better as a voice of conscience from outside the seat of power.
As Tony Benn has always done so splendidly. And as Michael Foot should have done to the end.


IT sticks a little in my craw to say it, but our new government is not all bad.
In fact, in a few important ways it’s better than we might have hoped for from any other alignment of parties.
Principally, because it features Chris Huhne in the role of energy secretary.
As a committed opponent of nuclear power, he will not offer any financial support to electricity companies wishing to replace our aging nuclear power stations.
The new policy allows for private companies to continue down the nuclear road. But only at their own expense. And, crucially, at their own risk.
Which, in his assessment – and he’s almost certainly right – means they won’t do it.
And that’s a good thing for the environment – now and for generations to come. For the avoidance of colossal and unnecessary dangers.
And because it will put the onus for development back where it always should have been, with wind, tidal and especially solar power.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Has shifty Clegg signed LibDems' death warrant?

SORRY. I got it wrong. Horribly so. Not just in my predictions – heck, nearly everyone who made a prediction about the election result was wrong.
The bigger error I made was in the polling booth. Me and about 6,827,937 others.
We all mistook the Liberal Democrats for a party with principles.
Those of us who believed that by voting LibDem we were voting against the prospect of a Tory government have been had. Stitched up. Betrayed.
We won’t be doing that again.
From now on, it’s the right-wing vote that will be split between Conservatives and Liberals, not the centre-left between Lib and Lab.
So much for all Clegg’s banging on about fairness, openness and decency. So much for his stated wish to position the LibDems clearly as a party of the centre-left.
Put in the position of kingmaker, he opted not for the party with whom he supposedly shares principles but the one that could hand him a top job.
That was something Labour, in their slightly weaker position, couldn’t do.
They couldn’t offer a full-blown coalition, because a Lib-Lab government would still have had to rely on support from minor parties.
The so-called Rainbow Alliance might have been difficult to organise and run, but it is a great opportunity missed.
An opportunity to run the country for interests other than those of big business.
Interests that would have included the most vital of all, as represented by the Green Party.
Instead, Clegg bought the line pushed by David Cameron (and, sadly, Gordon Brown) that what the country wanted and needed was “strong, stable” government.
In fact, if the British people can be considered as a single entity at all, what it voted for last week was not strong government, but the opposite.
‘The people’ voted for a Parliament in which MPs of different parties have to talk to one another. For consensus, not single-party rule.
Which is, I suppose, what we now have. Except that those of us who voted LibDem were misled about what that would mean.
So has Clegg, by entering into this grubby pact with the Tories, signed his party’s death warrant? Or is that just my wishful thinking?
He’s certainly pinning a heck of a lot on his hopes for voting reform.
Of all the things he got heated about in the leadership debates, he’s given up nearly all the rest.
On public spending cuts, on immigration, on Trident (where the biggest spending cut could actually have done good) the LibDems had good policies, which I voted for. Clegg has waved them aside in exchange for a referendum on how we vote.
Reform on that is certainly decades overdue. But we’d better be sure about what we’re voting for when that referendum comes around. It might not be exactly what you think.
There’s been a lot of airy talk about proportional representation.
There are various ways in which PR can operate, but generally it should deliver a parliament that reflects the broad range of opinion in the country.
It should mean that all governments were coalitions of one kind or another, probably including some small parties as well as one or two bigger ones.
It’s the way a lot of countries work, and it’s not always ideal. It certainly doesn’t always deliver “strong, stable” governments.
Under such a system, I would vote neither Liberal nor Labour, but Green – and it wouldn’t be a wasted vote.
The down side is that BNP and UKIP votes, for example, wouldn’t be wasted either. And such extreme parties could end up holding the balance of power.
All of which is interesting, but irrelevant.
Because what’s on the table isn’t PR at all, but AV – the “alternative vote”.
Under that system, constituencies would stay as they are. You’ll still end up with one local MP in a Parliament of big parties.
You won’t put one cross on your ballot paper, but a list of preferences – just as we already do in European elections.
And what that delivers is not proportional to anything. It simply tends to favour everyone’s second choice.
No wonder the LibDems fancy it.
Whether it’s worth setting aside all their precious principles for is another matter.
You may have gathered by now that I’m feeling a tad peeved – not by the election result itself, but by what the men in suits have made of it.
The immediate future is grim indeed. But the longer view may not be so bad after all.
Not if Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, was right in his prediction.
That whoever took power now would become so unpopular it would be their last stint in charge “for a generation”.
Maybe Labour can use its period in opposition to purge itself of Blairism. To revive itself under a new leader. To re-connect with its core values.
To take sole command of that centre-left ground the LibDems pretended to be battling for.
I’d vote for that. And I suspect ‘the British people’ might too.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Who said we want it strong?

OK, I was wrong. I predicted a thumping Tory majority - and despite having more things (and more money) going for them than any Opposition party I can remember, they didn't get it. Phew.
And I predicted no real change in the pattern of British politics. But now change is what we might get at last.
However loving Cameron's overtures, I can't see how the LibDems can possibly accept them.
But I could see a Labour-led coalition in which LibDem, SNP, Plaid Cymru - and even Green - voices have to be taken seriously.
Which sounds a lot better to me than the "strong government" which Cameron and Brown both claim the British public wants.
If you can talk at all about the British public as if it were one organism, it seems to me that strong government is exactly what it has said it doesn't want.
Brown and Cameron, incidentally, both described this myth of strength in remarkably similar terms - but not identical.
Cameron spoke of "strong, stable and decisive" government, while Brown phrased it as "strong, stable and principled".
Personally, I'd take the principled over the decisive every time - always depending, of course, on the principles. And I'd certainly take liberal (or Liberal) principles over the Cameron-Osborne kind.