Friday, 26 June 2009

Brown pledges to fight on as Bercow climbs the greasy pole.

In an interview given to the News of the World last weekend Gordon Brown said that he was ‘determined’ to lead the Labour Party into the next election, this despite the party having managed to attract only 16% at the recent European Parliament elections and his premiership having been plagued by a string of resignations and threats to dethrone him.

He struck a decidedly bullish tone saying of his embattled government ‘We must win and we will win’, he also urged MP’s to spend the long summer recess in their constituencies rebuilding relations with the public that have been severely damaged by the expenses scandals of recent months.

Regarding his own political motivations Mr Brown said: ‘It has never been the trappings of power I care about but what we can do in power to help hard pressed families.’

Well he would say that, wouldn’t he? Chorus the cynics, and Gordon Brown attracts cynicism like no other politician and yet it is not entirely impossible that he could be speaking truthfully.

Whatever we may think of Gordon Brown’s leadership style or the means by which he came to be Prime Minister there are still some impressive and too little recognised aspects about his character.

Although it has done him few favours in the constant glare of the twenty four hour news media the most important of these is that he is demonstrably ill at ease with himself and has trouble reconciling his ‘moral compass’ with the messy compromises required by personal ambition and the demands of day to day governance.

Although his moment as a significant political figure is coming to an end in the long term history may take a kinder view of Gordon Brown, if not the party he led, than his current fortunes suggest.


John Bercow, the self styled ‘change candidate’ was elected Speaker of the House of Commons this week, collecting 322 votes to the 271 given to his nearest rival Sir George Young.

Bercow, like all the other hopefuls in the race to be speaker stood on a platform of reforming Westminster after the disastrous tenure of Michael Martin and the scandal over MP’s expenses. Although his election formally welcomed by the leaders of both parties Bercow is not at all popular with his fellow Conservatives, many of whom see him as a opportunist and as only paying lip service to the need for change.

You can see their point, Bercow, in the definition of such things provided by Tony Benn is more of a weather vane than a signpost, meaning he changes his political outlook in line with the whims of fashion rather than standing by a clear set of principles. In his case that means moving from being an ultra-Thatcherite to a position of smoothly metropolitan liberalism allowing his to move to whatever part of the middle ground looks most promising at any given moment.

Despite his choice to abandon the Speaker’s traditional robes in favour of an academic gown John Bercow is no kind of change candidate. Proof of this can be seen in just one line from the speech he gave during the hustings debate before MP’s voted on who was to be the next Speaker.

He wanted to take one of the most important offices in the land, he said, because, ‘I don’t want to be somebody: I want to do something.’

Awful; the sort of trite nonsense spouted by managerial buffoons and written by cynical PR types, it spells out the sorry message that for all the window dressing under the new Speaker business within the Westminster bubble is going to carry on as usual; and that is the last thing MP’s or anyone else needs.


The sun is shining, the Pimms is chilling and strawberries and cream are being sold for the price of a bachelor pad in Knightsbridge, it could only be Wimbledon fortnight.

As usual Andy Murray presents Britain’s only real challenge in the tournament having strolled into the second round with a 6-2 7-5 6-3 victory over Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis. Needless to say the press has already deemed this to be the year when Murray becomes the first Briton since Fred Perry back in 1936 to win the tournament.

What of the other British players? Well might you ask they all fell at the first hurdle, proving, yet again, that despite being awash with money, a large slice of it from the public purse, the Lawn Tennis Association is little more than a production line for amiable amateurs unable to cope in the modern sporting world.

The problem, so we’re told in the annual round of hand wringing that follows another failure to win Wimbledon by a British player is that, as a country, we don’t really care about tennis. Quite true in that apart from two weeks a year the sport barely troubles the public interest, but a little success could change that overnight.

There is though only one way that will ever happen and in may just be too much for the blazer wearing chaps of the LTA to cope with. The time has come to uncouple the underachievers from the funding gravy train, put the funds released into a sensible programme for encouraging tennis in schools and reminding those who may be inspired to play the game professionally that the most important qualification they need is the one thing that, now he has learnt to control his aggression, is the one thing Andy Murray seems to have in spades; the hunger to win.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Time to start worrying about the bomb?

This week a commons select committee concluded that Britain should do more to promote nuclear disarmament; despite having the best record out of the five major nuclear nations in this area the UK is perceived as doing to little to encourage fellow members of the nuclear club to fulfil their obligations.

Committee Chairman Mike Gapes welcomed the government’s plans to ‘scale down’ Britain’s nuclear arsenal, including the decision taken by Gordon brown the Trident armed submarines would carry fewer warheads in future. He was critical though of the lack of information regarding the country’s nuclear commitments provided to the committee, making it hard to judge if the weapons retained truly constituted the ‘minimum’ requirement for a nuclear deterrent.

The question, once you’ve got over the shock of reading about members of parliament doing something constructive rather than fiddling their expenses, is just who these days are we trying to deter with our nuclear arsenal.

The various strands of radical Islam would, I don’t doubt, love to get their hands on enough fissile materiel to build a bomb and some of their number may be mad enough to use it, but the horrors of 9/11 and the London bombings show that the lunatic fringe is only too capable of causing mayhem without going nuclear.

For developing nations, who feel having the bomb is a means of joining the club of ‘major’ nations, the cost of building even a modest nuclear arsenal is ruinous for their economy and forces them into political allegiances that threaten their budding democracies.

During the dark days of the cold war only the most idealistic of campaigners would have denied there was some wisdom to having the nuclear card available, if only because it prevented anyone else from attempting to play it, but those specific dangers have, thankfully, passed.

In our new and no less frightening world Britain and the other major powers have to take the lead in nuclear disarmament and use the resources, both financial and technological, to build lasting security at home and abroad.


‘Has nobody heard of magna carta? Did the brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge die in vain?’

Lovers of liberty can sleep a little easier this week as a poll conducted for the campaign group of the same name discovered that 95% of Britons still consider the right to a fair trial and respect for privacy, the home and family life to be important.

You could make a cheap joke at this point by saying the problem is the 5% who think otherwise are all in the cabinet or hold senior position in the police force, but that isn’t really the point.

The slow decline in public trust in politicians that has gathered momentum during the scandal over MP’s expenses could well have led to a growth in the number of people who subscribe to the dangerous idea that strong leadership matters more than the preservation of a democratic system that sometimes throws up legislators who are either venal or inept.

That is hasn’t, despite the electoral success of the BNP, and so many Britons still subscribe to the ideas that underpin democracy, which are always the first casualty of the sort of ‘strong leadership’ provided by dictators, suggests there is still much about which we can be hopeful.


Terence Stephenson, the new head of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has called for adults to be banned from smoking in cars with child passengers.

Writing in his ‘Scrubbing Up’ column on the BBC website he said ‘You can’t inflict this (second hand smoking) on your colleagues any more. Why should we treat our children’s health as a lower priority?’

Similar bans have already been put in place in Cyprus, California and the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The proposal has attracted support from anti-smoking group ASH and a spokesperson for the Department of Health said the government would be reviewing the laws around smoking next year.

Once you climb over the obstacle set up by an instinctive and often justified distrust of the nanny state it is possible to see the sense in banning adults from smoking in cars when they have child passengers. Banning smoking has made many public places much more pleasant and trying to control a car whilst smoking a cigarette, whatever the age of your passengers, no safer than trying to do whilst using a mobile phone.

The problems arise when practicalities intrude upon good intentions, for example how would the law be enforced? Using a mobile phone whilst driving has been illegal for several years but many people continue to do so because they know the likelihood of getting caught is minimal. Perhaps a better route to go down is the more subtle one of trying to educate the public and letting cultural change solve the problem over time.


Friday, 12 June 2009

UPC’s to the rescue?

Angry, self regarding and uncomfortable in his own skin, just three of the terms used by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson to sum up the character of Gordon Brown. He used them in a string of emails sent to Derek Draper, some time editor of the Labourlist website better known for playing Dastardly to Damian McBride’s Muttley in the email smear scandal that wrecked both their careers, published in the Mail on Sunday last weekend.

Few people would disagree with that character assessment and most would suggest that it could be applied equally well to the party he leads and which this week, again, lost its nerve when challenged to back or sack him.

Like the Tories under John Major the Labour Party, as led by Gordon Brown, has lost the ability to make the public like, let alone trust or respect, them and the collapse of the party’s vote at the European Elections predicts disaster at the polls in May 2010 or maybe sooner followed by a generation or more in the political wasteland.

As disaster loons and even the most loyal and determinedly upbeat activists begin to talk about limiting the size of the party’s defeat rather than playing for a last minute turn around the stature of Alan Johnson continues to grow.

Promoted to Home Secretary in Gordon Brown’s last ditch reshuffle of his cabinet Johnson continues to maintain with Zen like calm that he has no ambition to be either Prime Minister or leader of the Labour Party were it to find itself in opposition this time next year. Cue much nodding of heads by the sages of Fleet Street and proclamations that he would say that wouldn’t he since politicians always profess to want least the one thing they want more than anything else, don’t’ they?

In any other case I would be inclined to agree, with Johnson thought things are never quite how they seem. He has outsmarted the Oxbridge educated chancers in the cabinet by the simple, but devastatingly effective tactic of being honestly ordinary, and he may well be being honest now when he claims to have no desire to be party leader.

Honest in the sense that he realises that in its current form the only place the Labour Party seems in the mood to be led is over the edge of a cliff.

It must have been a supremely satisfying experience for some lucky Unite Against Fascism activist to land an egg right in the fact of BNP leader Nick Griffin as he attempted to give a press conference to mark his election as a member of the European Parliament, satisfying; but counter-productive in political terms.

The disruption of his press conference by protesters angered, quite rightly, by the continued rise of the far right in British politics, allowed the odious Griffin to sound almost like a real politician when he told the BBC that ‘people should be entitled to hear what we have got to say and to hear journalists question us robustly.’ Suddenly the people who really are in the right because the oppose the nasty checklist of prejudices and paranoia put forward as policies by the BNP were made to look like an extremist mob as this witless man with little of consequence to say found himself the lead story on every news bulletin and decorating the front page of the next day’s newspapers.

It may sound dull and timid to the sort of people who cut their politics with a hefty shot of adrenaline but the only real way to beat the BNP is though the ballot box. That requires real thought from the three main parties about how they address the practical problems faced by may Britons and a mature determination to rise above petty point scoring that is seldom in evidence amongst our elected representatives.

Anything else, however satisfying it may seem at the time, is just so much sound and fury signifying nothing.


As the dust of the scandal over MP’s expenses finally dies down thoughts within the Westminster bubble turn to reforming the political system, which means, inevitably, reviving the ancient debate over whether or not we should embrace proportional representation.

Viewed from a purely political perspective the answer is yes, although as recent experience has taught us politics is seldom pure and rebuilding its reputation is more about rebuilding grass roots democracy than changing the way we vote.

To do that we need to embrace UPC’s rather than PR. Who they? How much will that cost? They acronym stands for ‘unreasonably persistent complainants’, the sort of people who sink their teeth into an issue and don’t let go until they get a result and they would probably cost no more than the price of a stamp.

What any UPC deserving of the name does is highlight local issues, often to the frustration of local and national government that would prefer to deal with an electorate that doesn’t trouble its fluffy little heads with scrutinising what the great and the good are getting up to in their name. Once upon a time back bench MP’s used to do this job back in the innocent days when politics was still a vocation rather than a safe berth for mediocrities.

Friday, 5 June 2009

A tale of two implosions.

Last weekend a ‘Street Dance’ troupe by the name of Diversity won Britain’s Got Talent, a television programme so determinedly witless it’s enough to make the lowest common denominator forswear television in favour of some more improving way of passing his time.

Given that, despite its lack of any demonstrable merit, the programme produced a winning act that confounded some of the tabloid press’s most dearly held misconceptions about young people, namely that they’re all binge drinking hooligans, everybody should be talking about the result, in fact almost nobody’s talking about it.

Nobody’s talking about who won Britain’s Got Talent because everybody’s talking about who didn’t win the contest, one Susan Boyle. A determinedly dumpy Scottish spinster with a remarkable singing voice, they’re talking about two things, the wonder of someone who looks like she thinks botox is a posh name for what you sit on being able to carry a tune and the speed with which her fifteen minutes of fame turned sour and ended with a trip to the Priory.

Boyle, it emerged in the copious media coverage of her fall from being a household name in somewhere other than her own house into the pit of celebrity martyrdom, has learning difficulties. That shouldn’t, of course, have prevented her from being allowed to take part in a televised talent contest, even a witless one referred to as BGT by the unfortunate souls who think it matters, if it had done there would have been a sick irony in choosing a winning act called diversity that I doubt anyone involved with making this programme would have been intelligent enough to recognise.

The fact that Boyle was a little more fragile than the majority of the hopefuls willing to trade their dignity for a few moments of screen time did mean that she needs to be handled with care. Someone should have taken the time to explain to her that, so far as the media is concerned, the spotlight around a celebrity is only there to help them take aim at his or her frailties.

This hasn’t been a good week for another Scot under stress, Gordon Brown. In the space of five days four cabinet ministers have resigned and the Guardian, a newspaper as famous for its loyalty to the Labour Party as its printing errors has turned its back on his floundering government.

Gordon Brown and Susan Boyle are united by more than their shared nationality and troubled relationship with the media, both are, in their way, talented people with an unfortunate inability to connect with the world around them. Both need someone on hand to offer advice about the pitfalls of a world that treats human frailty as a form of entertainment, what they’ve been given though is, respectively, a feuding government and a pack of TV executives on the make.

The advice, at least for Susan Boyle is simple, talent is seldom enough to carve out a career in the spotlight, it almost always has to be combined with the sort of thick skinned determination necessary to withstand death by a thousand pricks armed with telescopic lenses and tape recorders. Anyone who doesn’t have that, and the reason, perhaps, why the public took Boyle to its heart for a couple of weeks is that she demonstrably doesn’t, is best advised to recognise that fame without the robustness to stand up to its slings and arrows is seldom a game worth the candle.

For Gordon Brown things are much the same, twice, in the autumn of 2007 and during the phantom challenge to his leadership last summer he had the chance to prove his mettle by calling an election and chose not to. They’ve closed the bar in the last chance saloon and it is time for him to leave the stage for good.