Thursday, December 29, 2016

Debts of gratitude

In a year which has seen the departures of so many iconic figures, it's hard to single people out for special mention, but as 2016 draws towards its close, I wanted to express my own debt of gratitude to the ten who have had the biggest impact on my life and that of my family.

So thank you:
  • David Bowie, for providing part of the soundtrack to my teenage years and for two songs in particular - Life on Mars and Starman - whose spins on the turntable were the musical highpoint of every sixth form party.
  • Abe Vigoda, forever Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather, the greatest movie ever made and that will ever be made. 'Can you get me off the hook, Tom, for old times' sake?' 'Can't do it, Sally.'
  • Maurice White, leader of Earth, Wind and Fire, whose dynamic funk tunes in the late 70s and early 80s laid the foundations for my lasting love affair with dance music.
  • Tony Warren, creator of Coronation Street, which, in its original incarnation as a gritty portrayal of Northern working-class life as opposed to a vehicle for ever-more ridiculous and sensational storylines, was for a while the best thing on telly.
  • Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, two thirds of Emerson Lake and Palmer, whose weird albums pushed the boundaries of prog rock in the 70s and inspired numerous others, including Genesis, to do the same.
  • Johan Cruyff, whose exploits for Holland and Ajax thrilled this football-mad youngster in the 70s and whose invention of 'total football' showed the world how the beautiful game really should be played.
  • Muhammad Ali, whose dramatic recapture of the world heavyweight title from George Foreman in 1974 was, along with Boycott's 100th hundred and Viren's double Olympic distance double, the sporting highlight of my childhood.
  • Gene Wilder, whose magical portrayal of Willy Wonka in the original and best film version of Roald Dahl's tale opened up a world of pure imagination that not only had my son George captivated from an early age, but his dad too.
  • Richard Adams, whose creation of Watership Down opened up another magical world for my boy and me to enjoy together. 'We go by the will of the Black Rabbit. When he calls you, you have to go.'
RIP all.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bye bye Dave, hello Theresa. Some reshuffle reflections

Originally posted on my Facebook page on the day after David Cameron stepped down as PM and Theresa May took the carving knife to his Cabinet.

1. David Cameron remains a class act. Of course, he had no alternative but to step down after accidentally leading us out of the EU, but nothing in his six-year tenure of the office of Prime Minister became him like the leaving of it. I never voted for the man, and probably never would have done, but he even had me in tears during his leaving speech outside Number Ten, with his references to his family followed by the group hug on the doorstep. It was a reminder that behind all the political drama of recent weeks was a very human story about a family suddenly forced to leave their "lovely" home - in little Florence's case, the only one she had ever known.

2. It is good to see that, despite the post-factual, "we've had enough of experts" spasm of the Brexit vote, experience remains a prized commodity in British politics and that the most experienced candidate for the Conservative leadership eventually won the day. Three of the last four Prime Ministers acceded to the top job in their 40s. Theresa May is 59 and I, for one, find it oddly reassuring that once again we have a Prime Minister and Chancellor who are both older than I am.

3. George Osborne and Michael Gove finally have their just reward for their years of plotting and backstabbing. Theirs is a deeply unpleasant little clique and it is completely understandable that Mrs May saw no place for it in her government. I just hope she doesn't come to regret her failure to abide by Michael Corleone's famous dictum - "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." Gove and Osborne will be dangerous enemies in the years to come.

4. In terms of other Cabinet departures, I am particularly pleased to see the back of John Whittingdale and Nicky Morgan. Whittingdale's constant efforts to undermine the BBC and attempts to privatise Channel 4 posed an existential threat to two great journalistic and cultural institutions. Similarly Morgan's attempt to force academisation on schools would have wrecked primary education in this country and will hopefully now be consigned to that bit of St James' Park where they can't quite get the mower.

5. Although there have been some well-deserved promotions - Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, James Brokenshire - Mrs May has at times today appeared to value loyalty over ability. There is probably a reason why Damian Green and David Lidington reached the age of 60 without previously achieving Cabinet office. Similarly the appointment of her former Home Office junior Karen Bradley to the culture gig had a whiff of the old chumocracy about it.

6. There are some obvious hospital passes for the Brexiteers Mrs May has promoted. Andrea Leadsom at DEFRA gets the job of explaining to the farmers that Brexit won't leave them better off and that the UK won't be able to pick up all the EU farm subsidies they have enjoyed for so many years. Priti Patel at International Development gets to run a department which, three years ago, she suggested should be abolished.

7. In any reshuffle there is always one bit that doesn't go to plan and this year it concerned Jeremy Hunt. It seems clear he was on his way out of the Department of Health only for rumours of his demise to prove greatly exaggerated. My guess is that Mrs May had someone else in mind for the job and that someone turned it down. Either way an opportunity has been missed to detoxify the junior doctors' dispute by moving a man who has become a hate figure.

8. In terms of reorganising Whitehall departments, Mrs May has made a good start but should have gone further. The Cabinet is far too big and ideally needs to be slimmed down to about 12-15 members. Liam Fox's new international trade role and Priti Patel's international development role should ultimately be combined, as Ms Patel has herself previously suggested. Separate Cabinet ministers for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local government are a hangover from the days when everything was run from Whitehall, and should surely be replaced by a single Department for Devolution - although I could understand if Mrs May decided that was one for another day.

9. Looking at the bigger picture, the May government's success or failure will ultimately depend on how it responds to the three key post-Brexit challenges: stablising the economy, refashoning Britain's role in Europe and the world, and preserving the Union. In terms of the first, Philip Hammond is exactly the kind of solid, dependable figure who will reassure the markets and has already announced a welcome shift away from Osbornomics by postponing the deficit reduction target indefinitely. In terms of the second, David Davis is absolutely the right person to negotiate our departure from the EU, and if anyone can refashion Britain's role in the wider world, Boris can.

10. Finally, the Union. Those who know me well know that my principal reason for voting Remain on 23 June was the fear that a Leave vote would break up the UK, and if Mrs May's words outside Number Ten on Wednesday and her decision to visit Scotland today are anything to go by, she shares that concern. The Union is indeed a precious, precious bond, but one which has been stretched to breaking point over the course of the Cameron years. If Mrs May can repair those bonds, and manage not to go down in history as the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I think that will be quite some achievement.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Corbyn's leadership predicted on this blog in 2006!

Looking back over some old blog posts today, I came across this gem from 2006.  A propos of a discussion of who might succeed Tony Blair and whether Alan Milburn might put up as a challenger to Gordon Brown, the former Reading MP Jane Griffiths appears to predict Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party.

Former politics professor Bill Jones, who blogged as Skipper, was less than impressed by the suggestion!  The original blog post is here.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Healey: The antithesis of the machine politician

My Journal column may have gone, but life and politics goes on, and since this blog is now the sole remaining outlet for my political writing, it is here that any periodic musings on the state of the nation will be appearing.

I could not, of course, let the death of Denis Healey pass without comment.  On my Facebook page I described him yesterday both as my political hero and without doubt the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had.   As those are bold statements I feel the need this morning to amplify them a bit.

There have been many politicians I have admired down the years - Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, David Owen, Charles Kennedy and Robin Cook to name but five.  What was it that made Denis stand out in particular?

I think it was probably summed up in the word he himself used - his "hinterland."  A WW2 hero and genuine polymath, Healey was the very antithesis of today's machine politicians who progress effortlessly from uni to MPs' research assistant to parliamentary candidate without experiencing anything resembling the real world.

Opinions will invariably differ about whether Denis was a great politician.  His tendency to make unnecessary enemies at the height of his career in the 70s and early 80s probably cost him the leadership of the Labour Party, but it was that very refusal to 'play the political game' that made him, in my eyes, such an attractive figure.

An alternative history of Britain in the 1980s would have had him as Prime Minister in place of Margaret Thatcher, using the benefits of North Sea Oil to build a Swedish-style social democracy instead of the American-style market economy we became.  I happen to think Britain would be a kinder and fairer society now had that been the case.

Could it have happened?   Probably not. Denis's best chance of becoming PM probably came in 1976 when Harold Wilson retired, but he came a poor third behind Jim Callaghan.   By the time Callaghan stepped down in 1980, the left was in disarray and the Thatcherite hegemony was in full swing.

Denis as leader in place of Michael Foot might have limited the scale of Thatcher's victory in the post-Falklands election in 1983, but I don't, in all honesty, think he would have stopped it.

Where a Healey leadership would have made a bigger difference is in terms of the internal politics of the left.  Had he succeeded Callaghan in 1980, the marginalisation of the hard left would have begun five years earlier than it actually did, and the impact of the SDP breakaway would have been greatly reduced.

In this respect, it is tragic that Denis should have lived to see the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader - an outcome he sought to prevent in what proved to be the last political intervention of his career.

Ever since I first launched this blog more than ten years ago, the footer has contained a quote from Denis's autobiography 'The Time of My Life' - a comment about his old friend and rival Roy Jenkins which says just as much about himself.

"He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change."

Why do I like this quote so much? Well, partly because it references Trollope, but mainly because it sums up in a single sentence the tension which makes politics such an endlessly fascinating business.

It is, more often than not, Jenkins' definition which prevails. But Healey's definition of politics is the way it probably ought to be. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

It's the end of an era for me - but what about Labour?

Today marks a bit of an end of an era for me as I have filed my last Saturday politics column for The Journal after 18 and a half years.

The column was launched by my former editor Mark Dickinson shortly after I joined the paper as political editor in 1997, and his successor-but-one Brian Aitken agreed to keep it going after I left the staff in 2004.

I will miss the opportunity to hold forth on the week's political events, but all good things come to an end and I will always be grateful to The Journal for having given me an outlet for my writing for so many years.

Anyway here's the final column, which focuses on the fallout for Labour from Jeremy Corbyn's leadership election victory. The pay-off line is a Journal in-joke, but I am happy to explain it anyone who wants to know.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Opposition parties pay bitter price for 2010 mistakes

Labour hobbled itself in Thursday's election by choosing the wrong brother as leader in 2010, while the Liberal Democrats lost their political identity by joining the coalition. Here's my election round-up which will appear in today's edition of The Journal.

SO we all got it wrong.  All the speculation about hung Parliaments, deals with the Scottish National Party, questions of what would constitute a ‘legitimate’ minority government – in the end, it all proved to be so much hot air.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are not the only political institutions that will need to take a long, hard look at themselves after the biggest general election upset since 1992.   So will the opinion polling industry.

Its continued insistence that the two main parties were running neck and neck, and that we were duly headed for a hung Parliament, ended up framing the main debate around which the campaign revolved in its latter stages.

Had the polls showed the Tories with a six-point lead, the debate would not have been about whether Ed Miliband would do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon, but about whether the NHS would survive another five years of David Cameron.

There were many reasons why, to my mind, the Conservatives did not deserve to be re-elected, not least the divisive way in which they fought the campaign.

By relying on fear of the Scottish Nationalists to deliver victory in England and thereby setting the two nations against eachother, Mr Cameron has brought the union he professes to love to near-breaking point.

Preventing this now deeply divided country from flying apart is going to require a markedly different and more inclusive style of politics in Mr Cameron’s second term, in which devolution and possibly also electoral reform will be key.

Thankfully the Prime Minister appears to recognise this, although one is perhaps entitled to a certain degree of scepticism over his sudden rediscovery of “One Nation Conservatism” yesterday morning.

But what of the opposition parties?  Well, it is fair to say that both suffered more from mistakes made not during this election campaign but in the aftermath of the last one.

Make no mistake, this was an eminently winnable election for Labour, but it would have been a great deal more winnable had the party chosen the former South Shields MP David Miliband as its leader in 2010 ahead of his younger brother.

That said, Ed fought a much better campaign than many anticipated and stood up well in the face of some disgraceful and frankly juvenile attacks by certain sections of the national media.

What may have swung the undecideds against him in the end was his apparent state of denial about the last Labour government’s spending record, while I shouldn’t think the tombstone helped much either.

Of course - Stockton South aside - Labour continued to perform well in the North East on Thursday, and the party also had a reasonably good night in London.

It was the East and West Midlands that proved particularly allergic to Mr Miliband’s party, and it is here that whoever emerges from the forthcoming leadership contest will need to concentrate their energies with 2020 in mind.

Mr Miliband has facilitated that contest by swiftly falling on his sword, and with deputy leader Harriet Harman also set to stand down, the party will now be able to choose a new team to take it forward.

After such a shattering defeat there will doubtless be calls for a completely fresh start, and new names such as Liz Kendall, Dan Jarvis and Stella Creasy will come into the frame alongside some of the more usual suspects.

As for the Liberal Democrats, well, the Tories’ cannibalisation of their erstwhile coalition partners seems to prove once and for all that Nick Clegg made a catastrophic misjudgement in taking them into government in 2010 – as some of us warned him at the time.

He has also been rightly punished by the electorate for what many saw as an appalling breach of trust over university tuition fees.

The upshot is that a party which achieved a fifth of the national vote under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy has not just lost nearly all its MPs, more seriously it has lost its identity.

The laws of political dynamics will ensure Labour eventually bounces back from this defeat, just as it did in 1964 and 1997.  For the Lib Dems, though, the future is much more uncertain.