Thursday, 28 May 2009

Citizen legislators and sonnets at dawn down Oxford way.

On Sunday, as the scandal over MP’s expenses lurched into its fourth week Conservative leader David Cameron set out his vision for a new and cleaner type of politics.

His recommendations included reducing the number of MP’s, setting up a service that would send text alerts to voters about the passage of bills through parliament, quite who, outside the usual suspects, policy wonks and the like, would want to be given an update by text about the progress of a bill to regulate the size of paperclips or something of that sort is a mystery, and opening the list of prospective Conservative parliamentary candidates to people with no previous involvement with the party.

This move, which garnered the most interest from the media, Mr Cameron assured the world was motivated by his deep belief in public service and a desire to fill the commons with people, head teachers, charity workers and the like, who want to ‘help clean up politics.

It was time, he said, to show the public that ‘politics really matters and this is the opportunity to do that.’

Quite so, politics does matter and the shabby fiddling of certain MP’s has done the reputation of the commons serious harm. Mr Cameron also has a point when he calls for more people with experience of life outside Westminster to enter the political fray, so why do his plans make me feel more than a little nervous?

While an influx of citizen legislators, as the Americans call such people, may be a good thing in some respects the presence of a large number of inexperienced people in parliament may be to the advantage of an incoming Cameron government because new MP’s are more likely to toe the party line than old hands.


The death of two British servicemen in Afghanistan over the weekend and that of a Royal Marine later in the week from injuries received in combat should serve to remind us there are more things to be concerned about than MP’s building homes for ducks at the public expense.

Following the first of the deaths, that of Fusilier Petro ‘Pat’ Suesue Captain Mark Durkin, a spokesman for British forces in the region said that Fusilier Suesue had died ‘helping to provide a brighter future for the Afghan people’, noble sentiments and unlike most of what has been said about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan free from spin.

You have to wonder at the waste of such courage and the suffering inflicted on the people of Afghanistan by politicians sleeping safe in their beds in London who are either unable or unwilling to provide the equipment and leadership to make them a reality.
All is not well, it seems, underneath the dreaming spires of Oxford, Ruth Padel has been forced to resign from her post as Professor of Poetry following allegations that she was involved in a campaign to smear another candidate for the distinguished position which was created in 1708 and has been held by Seamus Heaney, Matthew Arnold and WH Auden.

The candidate in question, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, had allegations of sexual harassment made against him whilst he was teaching at Harvard twenty five years ago made public and was obliged to withdraw from the race describing what had happened as ‘degrading character assassination.’

Ms Padel denies having anything to do with making the allegations public, although she admits to having talked to journalists about Walcott.

All this intrigue makes life at one of the country’s premier universities sound like an episode of Inspector Morse; Colin Dexter set his sublime mystery novels on Oxford of course, minus the dead body in the library, at least for the moment. In its way the thought of squabbling amongst the intellectual elite is quite amusing, at least it is if you don’t mind knowing that poets are just as capable of briefing against one another as politicians.

Quite how Oxford will choose the next person to sit in its poet’s chair or settle the matter of honour between Ms Padel and Mr Walcott in anybody’s guess; by sonnets at dawn perhaps?


Friday, 22 May 2009

The Duck Island Parliament.

Calling an event or sequence of events ‘historic’ is often the last resort of the lazy and the unimaginative and yet no other adjective seems to fit the week we have just stumbled through. A week that began with the resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons and ended with the world inside the Westminster bubble turned upside down.

Speaker Michael Martin handed in his resignation following a poor performance in the chair during a debate on his own future that was different from his last poor performance only in that he didn’t end up firing insults at Kate Hoey. All the other elements anyone with a passing interest in democracy has come to know and not like about Mr Martin, partisanship, confusion and a not at all hidden sense that everyone was out to get him. Well this time they were, and get him they duly did.

In what must be one of the shortest resignation speeches recorded by Hansard Mr Martin said he had ‘always felt the house to be at its best when it is united.’ Unity, of course, being something the house could never hope to achieve with a man who had mounted a Cnut style campaign against the tide of public opinion in the Speaker’s chair.

The beach against which the tide of public opinion has spent much of the past two weeks battering itself against is the staggering capacity of our elected representatives for fiddling their expenses claims. These people didn’t just put the odd Kit-Kat of blue movie watched by their other half (in a moment of madness of course, politicians and their significant other or someone else’s significant other never seem to do the wrong thing in any other sort of moment) on the public tab, they put the kitchen sink in both their houses on it too.

The flood of revelations about how dishonourable some honourable members have been has thrown up some interesting flotsam and jetsam. Three senior members of the Labour cabinet have been caught out not paying capital gains tax on the profits they made on selling houses the public had helped to pay part of the mortgage on, they didn’t, they have all protested, break the rules and anyway they paid the money back so let’s forget about the whole thing. Not likely chum. I was acting within the rules looks likely to join ‘I was only following orders’ in the pantheon of excuses that tend only to confirm the guilt of the person by whom they are being made.

The prize for combining greed with a near total lack of self awareness goes to the hitherto unknown Tory MP Alan Steen, who put in a claim for the building of a ‘duck island’ at his country home to the Commons Fee’s Office. In another moment of madness they signed it off. When questioned about the matter by the BBC Mr Steen seemed more annoyed by the impertinence of the press asking why he had spent a hefty chunk of public money building a home for ducks when some of his constituents were struggling to keep a roof over their own heads.

In what was the most assured press conference he has given so far this year Gordon Brown, for whom interpreting the mood of the nation has been problematic of late, said that Westminster can no longer ‘operate like some gentleman’s club’, from now on MP’s will have to get used to no being able to decide on their own pay and expenses.

These are, and here comes another cliché that has risen to meet the moment, revolutionary times, life in the Westminster bubble may never be the same again. All week we have been warned that the simmering discontent over MP’s expenses could translate into votes and undeserved political legitimacy for a slate of extremist parties including the BNP.

We are, perhaps, making our own flesh creep a little unnecessarily over that prospect, while the BNP vote may rise on the back of dissatisfaction with the three main parties the majority of disenchanted voters will probably make their resentment known in the way the British almost always do, by staying away from the polling station in droves. The oafish Nick Griffin may have blagged himself an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, he may have to wait a little longer for the keys to Downing Street; like until Satan starts going to work on a snow plough.

Something profound has changed though in the way the British feel about politics and politicians, the MP’s who conspired to depose a commons speaker for the first time in more than three centuries got a whiff it, so did the people in the audience of the BBC’s Question Time who have shouted down MP’s representing all three main parties for two weeks in a row. Politics has to be in earnest now, Westminster is no longer a place where the mediocre or the borderline criminal can carve out a comfy niche, the people have had a taste of power and business as usual will never again be a viable option.

Quite where this will end I have no idea, most likely in a compromise of the sort for which we Britons are famous the world over, all that is certain is that whether they told the truth on their expenses forms or not our elected representatives as a whole, like the Magi in Eliot’s poem are ‘no longer at ease in the old dispensation’, and no more should they be.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Out of control expenses and an expendable Speaker.

Sunday is the day when the opinion polls come out and, for the government; it is the day when they find out that things have got a little worse since last week.

This week things got off to an even worse start than usual, a poll conducted for the Sunday Times by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher showed that Labour are trailing far behind the Tories and the Lib Dems in the 34 local authorities where elections are due to be held on the 4th of June. Another poll, carried out by YouGov this time, puts the Tories on 43 points, Labour on 27 and the Lib Dems on 18.

Speaking to the Sunday Times former general secretary of the Labour Party Peter Watt said the Brown government appeared to have ‘absolutely no direction,’ nobody asked why Labour had seen its support fall by another seven points because everybody knows the answer; MP’s expenses.

Only a day earlier the Daily Telegraph published a damning list of the expenses claims made by members of parliament. The items claimed for ranged from kit-kats and tampons to the activities of Margaret Moran and several other members who repeatedly changed the designation of their second home in order to play the system for a fat profit.

As for the most absurd expenses claim of all, made for the £25,000 cost of providing police protection for Tourism Minister Barbara Follett. Politicians, like everyone else, have a right to overrate their importance, but if they happen to be married to a multi-millionaire novelist they shouldn’t expect a lot of much poorer people to pick up the tab for their hubris.

Labour aren’t the only party with skeletons bought on expenses rattling in their closet, the Tories have had to answer some awkward questions, but David Cameron was able to make his apologies in the certain knowledge that sleaze sticks closest to parties in government.

Amongst the most prominent political careers turned into ashes by the scandal over MP’s expenses is that of House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin.

Gorbals Mick, as he is not at all affectionately known looked unlikely to be one of the more illustrious Speakers before the expenses issue blew up in the faces of our legislators, he has been soundly criticised for being partisan, living high on the hog courtesy of his own expenses account and being generally below par.

Now he faces a possible vote of no confidence instigated by Tory MP Douglas Carswell and has come under fire from the Labour benches with David Winnick calling for him to apologise for ‘personal comments’ made to former Sports Minister Kate Hoey during a commons debate on expenses.

It is unusual for a Speaker to be forced to resign before he or she chooses to retire but an exception could well be made for the deeply unloved Mr Martin. What, you wonder will history say of this pygmy of political debate? Only, I suspect that he contrived to make being a middle aged man in knickerbockers look even more ridiculous than usual.

A dual carriageway complete with cycle path runs for half a mile or so from the gates of the University Hospital of North Staffordshire before losing itself amidst the closes and cul-de-sacs of a rather dowdy housing estate. It is a road I have travelled along almost daily for the best part of twenty years without ever having really thought about why it should end so suddenly as it does and why it should be there at all.

I know now, thanks to a well informed friend, that it was built during the 1930’s as part of a project to make work for the unemployed, a little piece of historical trivia that has acquired an unsettling relevance over the past few months.

This week the unemployment figures for the first three months of 2009 were published, they make for grim reading; there are now 2.2million people out of work in the UK and the rate at which unemployment rose over the period covered was the most rapid since 1981. Despite this a few brave souls have claimed to see the green shoots of recovery poking through the wreckage of the financial disaster that started with the collapse of Northern Rock on the eve of the 2007 Labour Party conference, there optimism is based on a modest rise in the number of new mortgage enquiries and surprisingly robust consumer spending.

All well and good I’m sure, although my own opinion leans towards that expressed, in more erudite terms, by Mervyn King, Chair of the Bank of England, that we have no grounds yet for being sure the light we think we can see at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train. More to the point I wonder if we will have to build more than a few of our own roads to nowhere before the good times return.

Friday, 8 May 2009

What poetry can do and ID cards can’t.

Carol Ann Duffy has been appointed as the first female Poet Laureate, telling the BBC she had accepted the post as a ‘recognition of the great women poets we have writing now.’

The gender of the Queen’s official poet matters less than what the incumbent does with the role. Thankfully Ms Duffy looks likely to continue the tradition established by Andrew Motion of concentrating less on writing doggerel to accompany national events and being instead a roving evangelist for poetry, as she put it in when interviewed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour she wants to ‘contribute to people’s understanding of what poetry can do.’

She’ll have her work cut out as a pernicious culture of tests drives literature and the idea that people might read poetry, or anything else for pleasure, ever further out of the educational mainstream.

Alan Johnson for PM? According to the Mail on Sunday a number of ‘plotters’ on the Labour back benches are ready to back the affable Health Secretary as a challenger to Gordon Brown.

On the same day Hazel Blears, New Labour’s very own little miss sunshine, wrote an article for the Observer in which she described the attempts made by minister to communicate with the electorate as being ‘lamentable.’ For ‘ministers’ read Gordon the manic micro manager since his dead hand seems to hover over every movement this luckless government makes.

As the government lurches between the self inflicted wound of its ungrateful attempt to prevent Ghurkhas who fought for this country from settling here, the fall out from Alistair Darling’s hike in taxes for high earners and the seemingly never ending scandals over MP’s expenses it is easy to see why Alan Johnson suddenly looks like the man who could bring an end to all their troubles.

He represents, to many party members, the one fixed point of calm and common sense in a government that is fast entering an irreversible tailspin. Are these the qualities a troubled nation looks for in a prospective Prime Minister? Probably not, even Alan Johnson himself seems unsure of his credentials as a potential saviour, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr show last Sunday ‘I have no aspiration to be party leader. My aspiration was for the deputy leadership and I didn’t even get that.’

Such a demonstrable lack of the killer instinct suggests Johnson would, however much backing he has, be unlikely to seize the crown this side of a general election, however his amiability might make him the best choice to lead a traumatised and fractious Labour Party during its first difficult term in opposition.

Your papers please, the sinister request issued by hatchet faced secret policemen in countless mediocre thrillers came a little closer to being spoken on British streets this week. The Home Office has announced that Manchester will, this autumn, become the first city in the UK in which citizens will be able to, voluntarily, apply for ID cards. The cards will be available to anyone over sixteen and will cost £30.

The cost of the scheme, as shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling pointed out could run to between two billion pounds and, although not compulsory, it sends the message that ‘the government’s plans are quite clearly for a compulsory ID card scheme in the end.’

This current scheme has, of course, one major problem, apart from a few swivel eyed policy junkies few residents of Manchester will bother to take part rendering the already exorbitant costs even more wasteful. There is also the small matter of whether or not a bureaucracy given to leaving the most sensitive information lying around in train carriages like a discarded copy of Metro can be trusted with the personal of every resident in one of our major cities, let alone the whole country.

There is a more serious point to be made about the idea of having ID cards in the first place, for all the claims made by the Home Office that they will help to combat fraud and terrorism there is a real concern they will also change, for the worst, the relationship between the public and the authorities. When every identity is considered to be suspect until evidence to the contrary is produced trust dies and with it the idea that the law and the people who enforce it are there to protect rather than control the public.

Poetry, as I’m sure our new laureate understands only too well, is valuable because it unites people, giving them a sense of place and shared identity that, for all their biometric technology and the undoubted good intentions of many of the people who support their introduction, is something putting an ID card into the pocket of every Briton can never hope to do.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Endgame for Gordon Brown.

Enoch Powell, not a nice man but an astute observer of the political scene, famously said that all political careers end in failure unless cut off early at some happy juncture. The career of Gordon Brown seems to be on a fast track towards that destination at the end of a week that has seen his government, rightly, defeated in its attempt to prevent Ghurkhas who fought for this country from settling in the UK and then got itself into a tangle over MP’s expenses, again.

The seemingly unstoppable slide towards disaster of the Brown administration is marked by some truly farcical aspects.

An epetition posted on the Downing Street by Kelvis Jonsons, a mathematician and disillusioned Labour supporter has attracted 31,000 signatures, taking it comfortably into the top spot and aides charged with maintaining Gordon Brown’s personal website have, according to Wednesday’s Daily Mail, blocked the public from adding comments because filtering out the abusive comments had become too time consuming.

The announcement of his planned reform of MP’s expenses posted on Youtube in which Brown grins inanely whilst weaving from side to side as if dodging tennis balls thrown from some point off camera and described by one leading opposition politician as ‘a music hall turn’ that became an internet sensation a couple of weeks ago has now been eclipsed by the 624,000 hits attracted by a video compilation of Brown picking his nose on the government front bench.

I have written before about the way the criticism any politician should accept as going with the territory has, in the case of a man with Brown’s particular mix of personality traits, tipped over into something that resembles playground bullying and the corrosive effect this has on the dignity of the office he holds. I still subscribe to that view, although feel it must be tempered by a recognition by Brown and his few remaining supporters that the Prime Minister has been the author of many of his own misfortunes.

He put a huge question mark over his legitimacy by fixing the leadership election to prevent a ballot of Labour Party members from taking place by ensuring he would be the only candidate; then flunked calling an election in the autumn of 2007 when he stood realistic chance of winning, admittedly with a much reduced majority.

Gordon Brown has set the tone for a government that seems to favour a ceaseless parade of initiatives, most of which sink without trace in a matter of days, to creating a consistent narrative by his own hyperactive scuttling about the international stage. In only the past week he has popped up in Pakistan, Poland and Afghanistan. He has consistently misread the public mood on every major issue, culminating this week in a shaming attempt to prevent soldiers willing to lay down their lives for this country from being able to settle here after they leave the service.

As it stumbles into its last twelve months, whatever the people who sign online petitions may think Gordon Brown will never give up the job he believes defines his entire political career until dismissed by the electorate and the Labour Party flinched at attempting to force his hand last Autumn, his career attracts comparisons with the two other great failures of post war British politics, Anthony Eden and Edward Heath.

Eden, a brilliant Foreign Secretary, was the heir apparent to Winston Churchill and was destroyed by the Suez crisis when he finally took over the reins of power; Heath entered Downing Street in 1970 on a tide of optimism, this, so the thinking of the time went, would be the man who will end the industrial strife tearing Britain apart. Things ended rather differently four years later when he went to the electorate with the plaintive question ‘who governs Britain?’, the answer came back; not you chum!

For all their ultimate failure as political leaders both Eden and Heath had proved their mettle, literally, under enemy fire, that isn’t true of Gordon Brown, quite the reverse in fact, his premiership has been dogged by repeated criticism of his perceived lack of courage, as evidenced by the election that never was.

I do not feel it is fair or appropriate to question the courage of a man who has overcome the personal misfortunes experienced by Gordon Brown, but it is time for him to show some political courage. He must recognise that his government, for all the good Labour has done since 1997, is now a mortally wounded animal in need of being put out of its misery by the electorate; it is time, in short for it and him to leave the stage with their last few shreds of dignity.