All posts in the Politics category

A route out of Brexit

Published June 25, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
Let's help him back down to Earth

Let’s help him back down to Earth

The problem with pressure group politics, referenda and suspension of cabinet collective responsibility is that two can play at that game.

The British people have voted Leave and already its implications (real ones this time, not “Project Fear” or whatever soundbite was last doing the rounds the last time the bickering was underway) have begun to sunk in, not just to horrified Remainers but to quite a few Leavers, who never really expected their vote to be on the winning side, but wanted to give David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn a bloody nose. There’s a petition collecting signatures to re-run the Referendum, but that’s not going to happen – not as the result of a petition anyway. But there might just be a route back for the UK, a way of carving out a kind of “cooling off” period that applies to big financial decisions and subsequent reconsideration. Fire must, after all, be fought with Fire.

A new political party should be formed which defines itself as a kind of reverse Ukip (say “Ukeu”), a single issue party with the sole objective of putting MPs in Parliament who will move a Referendum motion immediately after the next General Election, therefore long before the mechanism to divorce the UK from the EU has run its course. The Labour Party, the SNP and other parties committed to EU membership should allow their members to join and campaign for the Ukeu alongside their usual party work and commit to voting for the motion. Ukeu would, in return, only stand against candidates who refuse to back their Referendum Now position.

The beauty of this proposal is that it would bring lots of political outsiders into the electoral arena (they would commit to resign any seats they won immediately after the Referendum is secured). Eddie Izzard might be the figurehead / leader but many more well known, non-politicians may wish to take up the chance to stand as prospective Ukeu MPs. The party would be a magnet for the protest vote against the political machines, something that surely motivated plenty of Leavers on June 23.  Ukeu need not win any seats  – how many has Ukip won – its mere presence in marginal Tory seats being enough to jeopardise chances of a Tory majority and, in consequence, Boris’s grip on Number 10. And, having fought so hard and sacrificed so much to get there, he’s not going to let go easily is he? An EU associate membership, a five year suspension in the leaving process, a new treaty might all look attractive to Remain Tories if the alternative is a Corbyn – Sturgeon coalition. Compromise, presented sensitively, might stick with all but the Farageist Right.

This is why referenda are such dangerous and unpredictable political beasts to unleash – it’s a reason why they are so rare, why so many governments of such differing political hues did not reach for the option. If the plebiscite worked to get us out, can we not use it to get us back? There’s millions of Scots thinking the same thing now about their referendum for independence and it’ll take a lot of denying if the UK moves quickly to Brexit. A broken UK (with rumblings in Ireland) is a prospect that many natural Tories will do all they can to avoid.

In the febrile political climate in which we find ourselves some 48 hours into thinking the unthinkable, it might just take a leap of Machiavellian boldness to show the way forward. If there’s a Ukeu for me to join on the terms above, I would and I suspect I would not be alone.




The Chris Mullin Diaries

Published January 15, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
TB and CM

The man behind The Man

“Tomorrow is another day” did not just give comfort to Scarlett O’Hara – the phrase pretty much defines the experience of reading diaries. It often comes to mind if slightly bogged down with accounts of a (then) crucial Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meetings (for example). So the best political diaries have the pace that comes from the extraordinary day-to-day variety of a pol’s life and the presentation of history’s ever unfolding first draft, warts and all, from a ringside seat. Alastair Campbell’s Diaries are all testosterone-fuelled execution (of policies and enemies); Tony Benn’s favour an extraordinary mix of high political ideas with personal and family introspection; Gyles Brandreth’s go for the laughter in the dark, as John Major’s decency is smashed by his party’s deathwish.

Chris Mullin’s Diaries (published in three volumes, but very much a continuous narrative) are none of those things – not as power-soaked, not as personal, not as funny – but those absences allow much more to bleed through the text and the details accrue. The diaries start when the man Mullin calls The Man wins the leadership of the Labour Party and with it, becomes heir apparent to 10 Downing Street’s keys. Pretty soon, the Blair charm is radiating everywhere, not least on the former leftwing journalist and campaigner and MP for Sunderland South. He doesn’t quite fall in love like a 13 year-old does with Harry Styles, but, well, that’s near enough.

The personal connection animates much of Mullin’s work – something of a surprise in a politician with such a strong leftish history, if a continually fading belief in The Left as a coherent ideological construct. Though his open-mindedness tortures him on Iraq and many other issues as he tries to plot the route his conscience is dimly revealing, it allows him to form and discard opinions with entertaining haste. Sometimes The Man can do no wrong; and sometimes no right; sometimes John Prescott is a tongue-tied bully; and sometimes an inspiring and caring boss; sometimes Mullin yearns for high office and sometimes he dreads it. In other words, he’s a lot like the rest of us.

Along the way, there are fascinating insights into how high stakes politics is played – the whips as ever, scheming, plotting, paybacking. There are beautiful accounts of trips to Africa, with the edge of corruption, poverty and war insisting in from the margins, polluting paradise. There are friendships that endure – Jack Straw weaves in and out of the text, a decent and loyal man, and other unlikely buddies from across the House in the persons of Tory grandees Nick Soames and George Young. Even a boyish David Cameron wins praise in the far off days when he talked sense about drugs policy.

Mullin agonises most about making a difference: to the asylum seekers who arrive in his office shaking with fear at the prospect of deportation to a failed state; to the government departments run by the Sir Humphries for the Sir Humphries; and to his own family, growing up as the months fly by. If he wasn’t given the chance to do all the right things, he (mainly) did the right things when he could and left us these diaries as a wonderful insight into why the right things (and the wrong things) happened.

A Blaze Of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries by Tony Benn – Review

Published November 5, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

TBI met Tony Benn once. Though it feels like I met him thousands of times – through the famous diaries, the ninth and final volume of which is somewhat different to those that have gone before. No longer at the heart of politics, no longer driven past any intimation of fatigue by the fierce fire of his convictions, no longer a politician, the political has given way to the personal. This is still a diary of ideas but, contrary to an entry in which he deplores his self-obsession, this is very much a diary about friends and family.

The political principles still weave through the text: socialism; the commitment to democracy as the only means to organise life; the support for the Palestinian cause; the relentless opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the trust in trades unions.

Criticism of Benn as a champagne socialist is unfair and trite, though one can’t help thinking of the line about enjoying one’s grandchildren more than one’s children (because you can get away from them when it becomes too much). Benn’s sentimental vision of the working class is (in the eyes of this writer, who has observed it up close and personal) underpinned by the townhouse in Holland Park Avenue, the Palace of Westminster and some very non-working class friends. I’m left with the impression that he loves the working class like a grandparent loves their grandchildren – though it’s no less real for that.

He despises Tony Blair and, not without a pang of sadness, comes to despise Gordon Brown too, as New Labour flounders in the absence of its Charismatic Leader and in the backwash of the crash of 2007-8.  He’s not above a few “I told you so”s – and why shouldn’t he be – remarking, not for the first time in the diaries, that there’s always money for war and for The Establishment in crisis. He remains disdainful of the need to spin and compromise in the furtherance of electoral ambition – he still prefers to win the argument, rather than the majority.

In his mid-80s, he’s become more interested in his friends, his family and the little struggles that make up life at an advanced age. He glows with pride at the achievements of his (now middle-aged) children and their children, thinks often of his brother, dead at 22 in the War, and apologetically relies on the Benns to fix his computer, cook Christmas dinner, clear his gutters. Friends – glitzy and glamorous like Saffron Burrows and Natasha Kaplinsky and the less well known, but equally valued brothers and sisters from political battles past and present – pop up for conversation and company. As ever, his loyal editor, Ruth Winstone, goes far beyond the call of duty – something for which readers too are grateful. Amongst so many friends and family, one feels, for the first time since the diaries began in 1940, that Tony needs their company more than they need his – and that he knows it.

Inevitably, his body is breaking down – though not as much as a dedicated and unrepentant smoker might expect – but, his mind betrays him only a little (the usual forgetting of names etc). He is tired often and – what a change for the man who barely slept at all in his Cabinet years – he stays in bed more than he would like (though he’s still not afraid of a 5.00am alarm for a 6.30am taxi). Slowing down – like so much else – is relative.

The time I did meet him was about five years ago. He arrived at London College of Communication alone, slightly doddery on his legs but ready to speak to the students. I had wondered what I should say on greeting him and knew that there was one thing I definitely did not want to say. I shook him by the hand and said. “Mr Benn. I have read all your diaries and I want to thank you for them. They taught me much about politics and history.” And then, almost automatically, I said what I was determined not to say.  “They also taught me about what it is to be a man.”

I’m not sure which of us was the closer to tears.

On Suarez, DRS, Workplaces and Science

Published December 27, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

That's not what I wrote - it's what you're reading.

Democracy, consultation, evidence-based decision-making – who can be against this sort of stuff? Increasingly, and uncomfortably, I am.

Exhibit A

Luis Suarez’s eight match FA suspension has provoked an unedifying response even for the considerably less than Beautiful Game. Leaving aside the ranters and racists, some of the most eloquent and thoughtful of observers wish to reserve judgement until they have “seen the evidence”. This is not a sustainable position.

In Jorges Luis Borges’ short story Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote, the protagonist rewrites Cervantes’ text line by line re-creating the story, but not re-creating its meaning, for its contemporary re-writing is informed by all the events that have happened to the tale, to the reader, to the world since it was originally published. Applying Borges’ moral, whatever is released by the FA in support of the Suarez disciplinary panel’s decision is not “the evidence” – at best it is a transcript of that evidence (and even a verbatim transcript is not the thing itself). “The evidence “ is gone, impossible to see as it was seen by the panel. People will not judge “the evidence” – they will judge the material released in the light of everything that has happened between the suspension being made public and their reading of what they will, erroneously, refer to as “the evidence”. Borges’ point – and that of other postmodernist literary critics – is that the meaning of a text is created anew on every reading and I suspect this point is about to be driven home by the sledgehammer fists of keyboard warriors and phone-in squawkers very soon – more’s the pity.

Exhibit B

Cricket’s DRS uses technology to increase the information available to decision-makers mediating it through a protocol to ensure that it is applied consistently and correctly. Except, of course, that it isn’t. The extent to which the DRS is used varies according to which teams are playing, what technology is available, whether the cameras capture the pertinent action and so on and so on and so on.

In the case of the DRS, the epistemological issue is different from Exhibit A above, since we see exactly the same pictures as the Third Umpire to whom the referral has been made, and at exactly the same time. Every viewer is a juror with the facts of the case before them (the only viewers excluded are those actually in attendance at the ground – though they arch their necks to catch a glimpse of the televisions in the hospitality boxes and are advised by the champagne swillers as to what the decision should be).

Even with information spread as widely and as instantly as is the case with cricket’s DRS , controversies rage for exactly the opposite reason that they rage in the case of Exhibit A – the web lights up with indignation not because of what the public does not know, but because of what it does know. Everyone has the same standing as everyone else, their opinions equally valid, their quasi-vote in the quasi-plebiscite as to whether the DRS got it right or not as valid as their vote in a political election. Noise ensues.

Exhibit C

Ease of communication in the workplace and home has elevated “consultation” to a kind of drug for which its addicts demand greater and greater fixes. Decision-making, once so opaque, so corruptible, so arbitrary has become transparent, open and collegiate with paper trails, minutes and gant charts if you must, to prove it. It has also buried the decision-makers under an avalanche of e-mails, meetings (virtual and real) and systems that give less and less time to the business of getting the decision right and more and more time to following the consultation procedure designed to ensure that the decision is got right. This road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

Exhibit D

24 hour news broadcasters and rolling news websites devour content and we like it – come on, who couldn’t wait for December 26 and the firing up of news, politics, sport info suspended for all of 24 hours while we ate and drank too much within the narrow confines of our families? Partly in order to fill that space, partly because of the fetishising of consultation (termed interactivity in this world) and partly because it’s cheap, the media is filled with ill-informed opinion, assertions presented as facts and wafer-thin knowledge posing as authority.

At its sharpest, this trend is exemplified by the mainstream media’s reaction to science stories. On the one hand, the media flutters its eyelashes and plays the dumb blonde stereotype to its maximum (applying equally to male or female writers / broadcasters), wearing its ignorance like a badge of honour, the more to appear humble in the eyes of the public. Recent discussions of the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson were characterised exactly by this kind of glorified stupidity as is the media’s reaction to Brian Cox – this year’s licensed boffin (there’s always one).

None of this would matter much were it not for the other side of the media’s embrace of scientific ignorance. Whether the Higgs Boson exists or not is (literally) of academic interest, but feeding the world’s population and curing some of the most hideous diseases visited upon Man are anything but purely academic. Despite that and the extraordinary impact that science has had on public health in the last two hundred years, every scientist who wishes to engage with the media on such vital issues as genetically-modified crops and stem cell research is confronted, more or less instantly, with the accusation that they are “playing God”. Those same journalists so happy to be in the dark about dark matter position themselves at the cutting edge of medical ethics. And there’s a real price to pay for this confederacy of dunces – politicians, always with one eye on public opinion, make research funding decisions that can determine where science goes. And that’s before we even talk about education and curricula and let’s not start on referenda, TV talent shows, opinion polls, focus groups, pre-screening audience panels…

So what is the answer? Reluctantly, counter-intuitively and guiltily, I feel compelled to place my trust in the philosopher-kings. If they are appointed appropriately; monitored to ensure that there is no partiality, pandering to special interests and corruption avoided; and they are supported by an appeal system that is fair allowing injustices to be addressed and the system to be improved as a result, I say we should let the philosopher-kings get on with it. Sure they will make the odd mistake, but the system has to bear that cost.

We have to trust that the FA panel got the Suarez decision right on the evidence presented; that the DRS gets more decisions right than any other combination of man and machine; that workplace decisions matter more than the process that produces them, that good decision-making needs relaxed and confident decision-makers and that scientists can regulate themselves because they are the only ones who understand how.

We need, in an age of limitless communication, to consult less and decide more.          

Welcome fellow scoundrels

Published January 1, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

From May 2007 (with a superb discussion below the line here including much useful information about Peter Norman, the “third” man on the podium who stood in solidarity with his friends to the very end ).

332 years ago, Samuel Johnson warned us that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” and the intervening period has borne out his point rather well. So how has sport become the last refuge of the patriot? (Betting without the Eurovision Song Contest, on television as I write!)

If we discount Athens vs Sparta some time ago, England vs Scotland football internationals were possibly the first platforms for flag-waving, but that’s more the kind of patriotism we see at the Song Contest, so I’ll date the start of scoundrel-patriotism with Leni Riefenstahl’s extraordinary “Olympia” created to celebrate the Nazi hijacking of Berlin’s 1936 Olympiad, but more accurately described as a love poem to the human body in motion as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwmYFz01MxA demonstrates. The character of Great Art is its very otherness and I find myself so transported by the beauty of the subject and the technical command and innovation of the film-makers, that it takes the jarring cutaways to the Nazi elite to remind me of Fraulein Riefenstahl’s purpose. 

Fast-forward seventy-odd years and millions of deaths in the service of misguided patriotism to the most cliched image in sport:

How I long for an Olympic winner to do a much more modest version of Tommie Smith’s raised, gloved fist salute by throwing the flag back into the crowd and grabbing the five rings of the Olympic movement, however tainted that symbol may be. No chance of that! More chance of the winner grabbing a flag displaying the Nike swoosh. Here’s a reminder of a more potent use of the platform sport provides:

Finally, the next 10 days in England will be filled with football phone-ins and journalism demanding that us English get behind Liverpool’s attempt to win a sixth Big Cup in Athens. Leaving aside the dubious “Englishness” of Liverpool as a club (or, perhaps, even as a city), shouldn’t every fan of any other English club be willing Maldini and friends to the victory? Frankly, the money earned by Milan from a Big Cup win would be unlikely to be spent on James Vaughan of Everton, but Liverpool’s winnings might. And that’s enough for me to wish Hannibal and friends well, but hope that they come home disappointed to a Premiership just a little more competitive next year for their defeat.