Friday, 25 June 2010

Is this the end for the Liberal Democrats?

On Tuesday Chancellor George Osborne delivered what he described as his ‘unavoidable’ emergency budget, outlining cuts to public spending and tax rises aimed at dealing with the ballooning deficit; they were he said ‘tough but fair.’

Tough? Talk about public school understatement, capital gains tax up to 28%, child benefit frozen for three years, add to this the cuts in spending on welfare and to every departmental budget apart from those of the NHS and for overseas aid and you can see the bad times not just starting to roll but damn near turning into an avalanche.

Much of this is necessary to fill in the black hole caused by the spending policies, roughly translated as if a project isn’t working throw some more money at it, of the last government and all of it will be unpopular. There are also questions to be answered about the long term effects on society, particularly on the most vulnerable of its members.

Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, in a speech containing the sort of passion that was so sadly missing when she was in government, attacked the budget as ‘reckless’. She poured scorn on the plans to raise VAT from 17.5 to 20%, something both parties forming the coalition had fought shy of in their election manifestos.

This was, she said, ‘the chancellor’s first budget but we have seen it all before, it is the same old Tories, hitting hardest at those who can least afford it and breaking their promises.’

Often mocked as a shrill metropolitan liberal with little idea how ordinary Britons live Harman made a telling point, however hard the chancellor tries to persuade us otherwise this budget will hit people on low and middle incomes disproportionately hard for the simple reason the they, unlike the rich, don’t have access to accountants and tax lawyers who will find the loopholes that will keep their costs down. All of which makes you wonder why Ms Harman didn’t throw her hat into the ring as a candidate for the Labour leadership, maybe she’s waiting for the winner of the current race to coma a cropper before sweeping in to ‘save the party’. A risky strategy since in politics people who await much tend to come away with little.

Harriet Harman saved the most vicious of her attacks though for the Liberal Democrats, saying their presence in the coalition government was a ‘fig leaf’ for long held Tory ambitions to cut the size of the state. Fears, she said, that the UK would follow Greece into economic and social turmoil were,’no alibi’ for their complicity in sanctioning such a harsh budget.

Again Ms Harman, an unlikely carpenter at the best of times, has hit the nail squarely on the head. This might not be the budget that breaks the coalition, but it could very well be the one that breaks the Liberal Democrats as a party, much to the benefit of David Cameron’s Tories.

On Tuesday George Osborne may have played the wicked fairy at the christening by making the new government a gift of an ‘age of austerity’, but in the longer term it is Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander (a Lib Dem) who will have to play the real bad guy. It is he who will catch the flack in and out of the commons when ministerial budgets and local services start to be cut.

Before the election the question was whether or not Nick Clegg has the steel to grasp the chance of taking his party into government for the first time in almost a century as part of a possible coalition. The chance came and buoyed up by a positive performance in the televised leader’s debates he grasped the nettle, the unfortunate thing about nettles is that they tend to sting.

The cuts, if they work and so far the credit rating agencies have been positive, which in this context probably matters more in the short term than public opinion, will still be deeply unpopular with most members of Clegg’s party. For this they will pay a heavy price at any future by-elections and could see a steady drifting away of disaffected members as the Labour Party did when Tony Blair junked most of its principles, before too long it might not be a case of the Lib Dem’s propping up the Tories so much as the Tories holding out a lifeline to a party on the brink of oblivion.

It is no small irony that the big chance for the Liberal Democrats to move into the political big time could also be the almost certain guarantee of their demise as a party.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Football and what it says about who we are.

We’re football crazy, we’re football mad, at the risk of being branded a heretic I’d like to admit to being less than impressed by the World Cup and the tournament is only a week old.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a despatch from the cultural high ground, far from it; I count myself as being a lapsed football fan. Like anyone who has ever called themselves a lapsed anything I may no longer fully believe, in my case in the doctrine that my club or country really is by far the greatest the world has ever seen, but I’ve no desire to abandon the faith entirely.

It’s just that certain things about the World Cup and football in general get under my skin and it’s probably cathartic to write them down.

For a start I dislike the way football colonises the media every time there is a major tournament, this would just about make sense if England actually won trophies now and again but they don’t, in fact not winning is what defines them as a team. The sports where we do regularly come away with the honours, think swimming at the last Olympics for a start, are usually all but invisible when it comes to television coverage.

There is also the small matter of the extent to which football is taken, and takes itself, seriously. Early last week I heard a normally sensible presenter on Radio 5 asking if following his schoolboy error goalkeeper Robert Green could ever be forgiven. I’d like to pretend there was a hint of redeeming irony in the question; but there wasn’t.

Then there are the songs, ok so we’ve finally evolved out of the stage where it was thought acceptable for out of tune footballers to release a record before the tournament, but we are plagued instead by endless ‘unofficial’ World Cup songs, each one more tuneless than the last. Even these though are musical masterworks compared to the two football related songs that have become alternate national anthems, I mean, of course ‘World in Motion’ and ‘Three Lions’, respectively crimes against music committed by New Order and The Lightening Seeds.

Both songs pretend to be inspiring recognition of past mistakes and a determination to make sure things are different this time in team and listeners alike. In truth they do nothing of the sort; they are, instead, hymns of praise to the dull stasis of being mediocre.

It would be impossible for me to write another word about the present World Cup without mentioning the ultimate achievement of human evil that is the vuvuzela. An instrument that looks like a coaching horn moulded out of day-glow plastic and when played en masse produces the sort of sound you would expect to hear were a riot to break out in a beehive. If the ninth circle of hell has a house band it has a large and noisy vuvuzela section.

Having said all the above this tournament and football in general has the ability to tell us much that is worth knowing about the sort of country we live, although like most things that are worth knowing they tend not to make you feel all that comfortable once you know them.

Despite the hype and the flag waving two poor games have shown the golden generation of England players up to be needy, complacent and guilty of the sin of mistaking being busy for being efficient and taken by surprise when other countries don’t follow suit. It’s a mistake you can see being made over and over again in the economic history of Britain since the war, we didn’t believe people on the other side of the world could make goods that were cheap and of good quality, until they did and our manufacturing sector went down the tubes.

There is nothing like a World Cup for highlighting the smallness of the current crop of politicians. If you don’t believe me try the following thought experiment, try to think of a prime minister before John Major who was in the habit of sending messages of support to England’s football teams, or any other sports team for that matter. I can’t, but every one since has all but addressed the nation wearing a replica top and clutching a can of beer in a desperate attempt to show they’re in touch with we ordinary folk.

It’s a myth of course, in truth football makes the political classes nervous because it is the one mass movement they have failed to infiltrate and make passive with fines and endless petty regulations. Look at a football crowd and you can still see king mob on the march and that has always scared people in positions of authority.

They look at the flags of St George being carried by football supporters or flying from windows and cars and, because they inhabit a cosy gated community of the mind, have no way of telling where an expression of national identity ends and bigotry begins. As a result they fall back on the knee jerk reaction of seeing every flag as being attached to a bigot.

While it would be naive not to recognise the way the far right has appropriated the flag ordinary people who are often far less prejudiced that the metropolitan who write for broad sheet papers have done much to wrest it back from the thugs in recent years. Putting out more flags though is only a baby step towards defining what it really means to be English at the dawn of the twenty first century.

To do that we have to recognise that real patriotism is reflective rather than reactive, meaning understanding what unites us instead of just what makes us different from everyone else. At a time when looming public spending cuts could further fracture our atomised society achieving that may prove to be a more important prize than winning the world cup.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Britain’s got money worries.

Last Saturday a gymnastics troupe called ‘Spellbound’ won ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and are no doubt going to follow in the footsteps of last year’s winner ‘Diversity’ by achieving if not world domination then a lucrative tour of provincial theatres.

I was going to hail their as the most impressive balancing act of the modern age until their crown was stolen early this week by David Cameron. The balancing act he’s going to attempt is, if possible, even more gravity defying than being thrown vertically up in the air to such a height that all the audience below can see of you is the soles of your feet; he’s going to try and pay off Britain’s debts without wrecking the economy.

Those debts, he claimed in an announcement made on Monday were so high that in five years time Britain will be paying £70 billion just in interest on the debts run up as part of a ‘public sector splurge’ by the previous government. Tackling them, Mr Cameron said, would ‘affect our whole way of life.’ Make no mistake chummy Dave had left the building and hard nosed David was in charge of things now and for the foreseeable future; the bad times are about to start rolling.

In the bleakest, and, I fear most honest, section of his speech the Prime Minister that because the legacy of debt left by the outgoing Labour government is ‘so bad the measures to deal with it will be unavoidably tough, but people’s lives will be worse unless we do something now.’ He didn’t promise us nothing but toil, tears, work and sweat; but the message was clear that we’re going to get it anyway.

Responding to the statement on Radio Four’s Today programme Shadow Chancellor Alistair Darling dismissed the claim made by David Cameron that the Labour government had covered up the extent of the debts it was leaving behind as ‘nonsense.’ He went on to criticise Chancellor George Osborne for not grasping the importance of maintaining growth and paying down the country’s debts.

More worryingly for the government the unions have been making threatening noises about resisting any cuts to public services made to pay down the national debt. Dave Prentiss of UNISON called the cuts a ‘chilling attack on the poor the sick and the vulnerable’, fighting talk that could well be backed by a summer of strikes likely to further damage our battered national credit rating.

This is where the ‘big society’, first of all in the shape of the consultation George Osborne has invited us all to take part in about where the axe should fall, becomes a solid entity instead of a nebulous entity in an unreadable book by Philip Blond.

Nobody knows what it will look like yet, but we won’t like it much and it will be less like the ‘big state’ than its enthusiasts hope. It will have its own set of prejudices and pet projects and be run for the most part by upper middle class people who mean well but are fundamentally clueless about the way their ‘clients’ live, what they want and what they fear. Does that sound like anything to you? To me it sounds like a return to the dead end that was Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ to me; and that didn’t end so well did it?

And Another Thing:

I’d like to think Diane Abbott made it onto the ballot paper in the race to be the next leader of the Labour Party on merit alone, but I just can’t convince myself that it’s the truth.

New Labour is no closer to really accepting diversity of opinion, the real issue here rather than race or gender, than it ever was. All that has happened is an election defeat has made it expedient to patronise rather than threaten the shrinking left wing of the party.

After the ballot the party leader will be a pale, stale, Oxford educated male all primed to lead them onto the sunlit uplands of political irrelevance. I hope that I’m wrong about that because were I still a party member Ms Abbott would get my vote, but I’m probably not.

I don’t know what effect the new, angry, Fabio Coppello had on the photographers he berated for taking pictures through the window of the England dressing room, but he frightens the life out of me.

What could be behind his transformation from Mr Cool into Mr Angry, my guess would be that after a run of lacklustre performances in the run up to the tournament he has realised, a little late for such a clever man, that despite his best efforts English footballers just aren’t as good as their African, South American or mainland European counterparts.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Terror in a country town.

This week I had planned to write a comic little piece about the trials and tribulations involved in upgrading your internet connection. Then the news of the dreadful events in the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven unfolded on Wednesday and my store of cheap jokes shrivelled into dust before they had even been written.

Over the course of an early June afternoon Derrick Bird, a seemingly unprepossessing man living an unremarkable life in a quiet town, went on an armed rampage that left thirteen people, including Bird himself, dead, many more seriously injured and a whole country reeling with horror.

In Britain we still cling to the misguided notion that such things don’t happen here, or if they do then the horrors of Hungerford, Dunblaine and now Whitehaven are somehow less graphic than those perpetrated in Columbine or at Virginia Tech. Even the most cursory glance at the crime pages of the average provincial newspaper will turn up a catalogue of minor assaults, add to that the epidemic of knife crime in many of our major cities and the props are promptly kicked from under our feelings of complacency.

The ugly and unavoidable truth is that underneath British society, where levels of inequality are rapidly catching up with those in the US, bubbles a constant undercurrent of anger and resentment. Almost inevitably since the worst injustices are frequently visited upon the people with the least ability to communicate their feelings this breaks out into incidents of violence.

By now you could be forgiven for thinking that I am about to make a case for Derrick Bird being a victim of society and that although his actions were unacceptable he cannot be held fully accountable for them; I intend to do no such thing.

It has been reported that Bird was an ‘awkward loner’ and that he had ‘money worries’; many people live lonely lives and worry how to make ends meet, neither misfortune though is a fit excuse for indiscriminate murder. Derrick Bird, like everyone else, was blessed with the spark that lifts human beings above the level of animals, the ability, if he chose to do so, to be the captain of his own destiny.

However harsh the conditions they face nobody has to be a brute or a murderer, there is always another choice. For Derrick Bird to have so disastrously abandoned the bridge at the time when the personal storm he was facing was at its fiercest is a moral failure for which he and he alone must bear full responsibility. In that context it is telling that he took the coward’s way out of committing suicide rather than face the consequences of his appalling actions.

While the pain of what happened on Wednesday is still raw we should have compassion for the people of Whitehaven, in particular those people who had their lives destroyed in an instant by the lack of self control exhibited by a weak man, but in the longer term we must look closely at some uncomfortable issues.

However much people complain about civil liberties and, bizarrely, its possible effect on whether or not Britain enters a shooting team in the London Olympics, gun laws have to be tightened even further. The next time a tabloid columnist fulminates about the police being kept off the streets by the amount of paperwork they have to do it might be a good idea to remember that at least some of it is aimed at preventing people like Derrick Bird getting gun licences in the first place.

In the longer term we have to look closely at our behaviour as a society, for decades we have subscribed to the creed of ‘letting it all hang out’, no emotion is too dark or dangerous to be controlled; the events of Wednesday afternoon proved that we have been dangerously wrong.