Take Me To Your Leader Writer

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...has written more leaders (newspaper editorials) than anyone alive or dead, an honour still to be recognised by the Guiness Book of Records or the Nobel judges. I have produced them for the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Sunday Mirror, Today, the Sunday People, the Evening Post (Hemel Hempstead), the Caithness Courier and the Student (Edinburgh). My creed is: Have opinions, Will travel.

Friday, 31 December 2010

A miserable new year to you all

Take that rictus New Year's Eve grin off your face. There is nothing to be happy about.
We are entering a year that is likely to be as bad as any encountered in our lifetimes.
Barely anyone outside the City will be unaffected as the sackings and cuts begin. Whatever your living standard is now, it will be noticeably worse on the last day of 2011.
Over the Christmas period I have heard of several people who are in the process of making up to half of their organisation's/department's staff redundant. How is that going to help the economy? Ruth Lea was exhorting everyone in The Times yesterday to go on a shopping spree. What with? These people live in la-la land.
Battle lines are being drawn. There are stirrings of action by the unions, though don't hold your breath. Any proposals for united resistance will be met by a bone-crushing campaign by the press accusing anyone who goes on strike of threatening the country and condemning the nation to penury.
Naturally no such accusations were, have been or are made against the bankers who have saddled us with £3 trillion of debt with their naked greed.
Instead we are being force into an un-cultural revolution that will undermine the fledgling edifice of a civilised society which  has been built up in Britain for much of the past century.
A Happy New Year? I really don't think so.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A fool and his job shouldn't be parted

What do Vince Cable, Mick Jagger and I have in common? Give up? The answer is that we are all of an age.
So I feel myself particularly qualified to explain and comment on Cable's behaviour when confronted with two (I suspect) attractive, doting and giggling young women.
It isn't a matter of there being no fool like an old fool. It is that age is no barrier to a man (well, a sizeable proportion of them) continuing to throw caution to the wind when he sees a pretty face, particularly when it appears to take an interest in him.
Everyone expects that from Jagger. Yet recently he seems to be acting with a decorum missing from his earlier years. As for me, I don't get the chance to see how I would behave.
But Vince Cable is different. He is a star. Not just politically but through his Strictly Come Dancing performances. He is widely seen as very clever and fun, a rare combination. And he has come to this adulation late in life.
He is also vain, as are most politicians. It is a dangerous combination which has bitten the Business Secretary very nastily.
Just as dangerous is this form of "journalism" which is a form of entrapment. It is usually applied by red-tops to hook celebrities. Now the Telegraph is using it against MPs.
Vince Cable was an absolute fool to say what he did about Murdoch. But, as with the loss of David Laws, this Government has too few ministers of experience and quality to ditch those who do know how to run something.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Snow? The Government ploughs on regardless

This blog has been off air due to a number of unforeseen circumstances. First it was in mourning for the loss of its little-friend blog Iain Dale's Diary, which passed away to a better ether (mainly LBC).
Then it got snowed in, trapped in the blizzards raging in Gloucestershire. Now, finally, esconced comfortably by the fire and munching on a mince pie, it can resume. And it isn't too late, even though Christmas is so close.
The House doesn't rise for its Yuletide break until Tuesday, the 21st. How unlike the administration of the late leader, Gordon Brown, when hours at Westminster were short and vacations long. By contrast, this Government is busy, busy, busy.  So much to do, so litttle time.
Barely a day goes by without the announcement of another initiative, another part of the revolution which is changing the structure of the UK, while ministers leap swiftly into any situation which arises, as Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has done over the snow crisis.
At this rate, you can expect to see Mr Hammond, accompanied by Messrs Cameron, Clegg and colleagues, distributing mince pies and mulled wine at Heathrow by the middle of the week.
Parliament doesn't return until January 10 but it is impossible to imagine ministers being able to contain themselves until then. There will be a series of launches. announcements and initiatives from the moment the sound of Auld Lang Syne dies down on New Year's morning.
You have been warned.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Baldwin truth

Remember that terrifying scene at the end of Carrie when the hand thrusts out of the grave? Or the moment the bunny boiler bursts up in the bath in Fatal Attraction?
The political equivalent has happened with Ed Miliband's new media appointments. The disembodied figure bursting on an unsuspecting world is Alastair Campbell.
The hand of Campbell is clearly in evidence in the hiring of Tom Baldwin from The Times and Bob Roberts from the Daily Mirror. Apart from anything else, the new Labour leader doesn't really know many journalists so it isn't hard to see why he should turn to the spin master for suggestions.
Bob Roberts is the latest in a long line of Mirror political editors to take the Labour shilling but he is an excellent appointment. He is honourable, trustworthy, likeable and conscientious. The Westminster hacks he will now be dealing with know they can rely on him. Well done, Alastair - good move.
Tom Baldwin is from a different mould. He is certainly a clever fellow and in many ways a good journalist but he has a decidedly dodgy record when it comes to handling politics. He was known as Campbell's mouthpiece when Blair was in power, not a good recommendation.
Greg Dyke says of Baldwin: "When I was still running the BBC I once asked Robert Thomson, Baldwin's editor at the Times, why he didn't sack Baldwin, as he wasn't an independent journalist at all but a mouthpiece for Downing Street. He replied: 'He gets good stories,' which missed the whole point. The reason that Baldwin got good stories from Downing Street was that he was Campbell's man; he acted as their messenger."
Couldn't have put it better myself.
Perhaps Tom has now found his proper home and will be brilliant for Ed. Despite his many faults - including lying, deception and oiling the wheels that took Britain into an illegal war - Alastair did great things for Blair and the Labour Party.
Let me ask one thing, though. Andy Coulson is under continual attack for the role he may or may not have played in phone tapping when he was editor of the New of the World. But I believe him to be a decent, honourable man.
Who would you most trust not to get involved in the production of a dodgy dossier for his boss: Andy Coulson or Campbell/Baldwin?

Monday, 13 December 2010

We're still not all Thatcherites now

So now we know the legacy of New Labour. During the 13 years it was in power, Britain shifted more to the Right than in any period on record.
This finding of the latest British Social Attitudes survey is reported today as the country becoming more Thatcherite. Can that be unwelcome to Messrs Blair and Brown? After all, both invited her into No. 10 for a cup of tea and a homily as soon as they had taken up residence.
Cameron may claim to be the heir to Blair but as Blair was the heir to Thatcher, that makes Cameron the heir to Thatcher, once removed. If you get my drift.
Except that this Government is pushing the boundaries of Thatcherism into territory she could barely have dreamed of. She did the groundwork by changing minds and attitudes, now all they have to do is the dirty work.
Over the past quarter century there has been a relentless hardening of the way people think about the unemployed, those on benefits, the underprivileged and underperforming, immigrants and asylum seekers, and young peope.
Meanwhile the bankers  and the City have ripped us off for countless billions, forcing the country into record debt, distorting the housing market and allowing a tiny minority to revel in greed and roll in dirty money. And so few of us see why that is responsible for what has happened.
It isn't just the fault of the media that this upside-down view has been created, though it does bear much of the blame. It is the result of smug, self-satisfied ignorance.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Out of the kettle, into the frying pan

Forgive me for the break in this blog but I have only just got out of the kettle at Parliament Square.
If only. Though I can imagine few things worse than being trapped by the police in that seething mass at Westminster, I am ashamed to say I was not on the demo.
What we are witnessing isn't a few young people "showing disrepect" by daubing Churchill's statue and pissing on the Cenotaph  but the start of the rebellion of an entire generation.
It is so pathetic to see politicians and the media chastising the young for disrespect. Disrespect to what?
Politicians have a disrespect for honesty and the press a disrespect for the truth. How much less harmful it is to show it to a statue.
At last there is a growing realisation that the big issue isn't that future students will be saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt but that the Government is slashing the money for higher education teaching by 80 per cent.
This is the fifth or sixth richest country in the world yet we are told we can't afford to educate the next generation beyond the age of 16. We should all be on the streets protesting.
The arguments used - by ministers and on radio phone-ins - for the new financial arrangment boils down to: "Why should the taxes of a 16-year-old who has left school pay for the university education of someone who has the priviliege of staying on?" How fatuous is that?
Few 16-year-olds can get jobs at the moment and those who do will pay little or no tax. And why should their taxes and those of others who haven't been to university pay towards the schooling of clever kids or the family benefits of the rich or care of the elderly who own their own homes yet not for higher education?
This Government, by its revolutionary zeal, has unleashed the politicisation of the formerly apathetic. Fantastic. Maybe the real revolution will start here.
Excuse me while I put the kettle on.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Political schizophrenia, Part Two

The sort of people who think it isn't rape for a man to have sex with a woman against her wishes are also the ones convinced that Julian Assange is a threat to our way of life.
So while they would have been foaming at the mouth in defence of anyone else who was threatened with extradition for what the WikiLeaks founder is supposed to have done, in his case they are prepared to make an exception, revel in his incarceration in Wandsworth nick, pray that he will be shipped off to Sweden from where he will be taken in leg irons to America, and there to be jailed for 99 years or, with luck, executed.
That would teach a lesson to those who believe it is OK to shine a searchlight on the sewer of "diplomacy".
On the other hand, the sort of people who want to see any man who forces himself on a woman dragged through the courts are those who would elevate Assange and WikiLeaks to hero status. I am in that camp.
The way out for our double-think is to believe that the charges against him are completely trumped up, that he did nothing at all and the black hand of the US secret services are behind the whole thing. Though personally I think they are too incompetent to have done that.
It isn't possible to separate the sex charges from the accused, although the judge at the extradition hearing pretended it was. It is all about Julian Assange and what he has been doing.
Surely not even his most rabid right-wing opponent could pretend that any other itinerant accused on such flimsy evidence - one person's word against another's, the curse of all charges like this - would face deportation.
The aim is to smear, neutralise and punish him. They have got to be stopped.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The criminals in their coats and their ties

In reaction to Ken Clarke's marginally liberalising penal policy, the airwaves have been bombarded with calls for offenders to accept their responsibilities to society. We could agree with that except a fair proportion of them don't have a sense of responsibility, which is why they commit criminal acts.
But if people who offend should act responsibly, why doesn't that apply to all of us? Which brings me to Sir Philip Green, Vodafone, many other rich bosses and companies, bankers and the finance and pension industries.
None of them have broken the law but all have enriched themselves at the expense of we little people by avoiding paying the taxes the rest of us can't avoid or ripping off our pension funds and/or savings.
Certainly the young thug who steals an old lady's handbag should be taught a sense of responsility. But what about the tax-avoiding businessman or company who make themselves even richer at the expense of the old lady's state pension or other benefits? Or her reduced housing aid. Or her grandchild's education?
A report has just come out revealing that a Dutch pension is 50 per cent higher than one in this country in which the same amount has been invested. The reason? Our bankers and financial rip-off merchants charge usury-level fees and then pay themselves obscene bonuses out of the inflated profits.
Where is the sense of responsibility in any of that? There isn't any. Not to individuals or society. They are no better, in that sense, than a common mugger or burglar.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Abstention doesn't make the heart grow fonder

Why should MPs be allowed to abstain? I ask because this is being touted as an acceptable option for the Liberal Democrats in the vote this Thursday on increased tuition fees.
We live in a representative democracy which means we elect people to represent us. Sometimes we will agree with what they do and sometimes we won't but the least we can expect from them is that they take an attitude on issues, particularly one as crucial as the future of higher education.
Of course the LibDems collectively and individually do have a view, though they don't all agree with each other. They ought to express that view and then put their vote where their opinion is.
Abstention should not be an option. Only Yea or Nay will do. What is the point of having Members of Parliament if they can cop out when the going gets tough and simply sit on their hands or absent themselves in the tea room while the rest are casting their votes?
To make it even more galling, if there is a whipped vote MPs can only not take part if they "pair" with a member from another party who would have voted the other way, thus cancelling out each other's non-vote.
The Speaker should decree that no MP can abstain from an important vote. Any who do will be punished in some way, such as being excluded from the chamber for a week, with consequent docking of salary.
There is no such thing as a principled abstention. Abstention is always unprincipled. If they don't like something, they should vote against.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Why do they hate us so?

In all the furious reaction to England's failure not just to get the 2018 World Cup but be humilitated by receiving only one vote apart from our own, the true reason for the debacle has been missed.
This country is absolutely loathed. You can see that in the way we are treated at the Eurovision Song Contest and now we have had our noses rubbed in it by Fifa.
We can come up with explanations for that - our image of drunken yobbery, our arrogance in dealing with other countries, our clinging to a feeling of superiority and our involvement in the Iraq invasion - but none of it touches the depth of antagonism. Surely we don't deserve it.
America is scorned as "the great satan" by Islamic fanatics and sneered at by Pilgerists. There are parts of the French, the Germans, the Japanese which aren't generally liked.
But it is England - not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland - which is viewed with the most contempt.
Our people are not on the whole particularly ignorant - certainly no more ignorant than 60 per cent of Americans. We are not corrupt compared with the Italians or Belgians. We provide a haven for refugees and a home for large numbers of immigrants. We play our part in most international organisations.
Much of our media may be pretty terrible but taken all in all it is as good as anywhere else's.
So what is it about us? And, more importantly, what are the implications for our future?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Lock 'em up - the columnists, that is

One of the schizophrenic political attitudes that infects policy making is that the people who demand big tax cuts also want to see ever more prisoners banged up in jail.
As each of them costs £45,000 a year to keep (the latest figure, though I have heard senior Tories put it nearer £70,000) why should this additional burden be heaped on taxpayers unless there is a very good reason for it? And there isn't.
All the evidence is that, for most prisoners, particularly those serving short sentences, imprisonment does no good. In fact, it does harm.
Jail used to be called a school for crime. Nowadays it is also fertile ground for drug dealers, with large numbers of non-drug users becoming addicts while serving sentences.
Yesterday's Newsnight, with Jeremy Paxman conducting a debate inside prison, showed how difficult reform is going to be, even though Ken Clarke did his best to put the intelligent and practical case for reducing the jail population.
The people who really know - the governors, officers and, above all, prisoners themselves - could not have been clearer in explaining what works and what doesn't, and what the effects of imprisonment are when the main aim of penal policy should surely be to prevent crime.
However, Newsnight had wheeled in Peter Hitchens who inhabits a la-la land of makebelieve rather than the real world. And the Westminster majority - Labour as well as Conservative - are frightened to listen to the truth, preferring to cow before Hitchens and the other dangerous media eccentrics.
So, despite the courage of Ken Clarke, the prison population will grow and crime will escalate.
I blame Hitchens, Melanie Phillips and the rest of their creed.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Some day the prince won't come. Hopefully.

There are some reasons for the continued existence of the monarchy and some members of The Firm who contribute something useful.
Prince Andrew is not one of them. A former colleague once told me he was the most stupid man she had ever met.
Yet he is employed as a business ambassador for this country, jetting all over the world at our expense to promote British goods and industry.
What sort of a pathetic foreign investor is going to be so impressed by Andrew that purely by meeting him he switches his plans to the UK?
Now, thanks to WikiLeaks, we have a first-hand account of how the Uncharming Prince behaves when he is representing us. Like the sort of really dumb, right-wing twit you meet over a G&T at the 19th hole.
I am never sure how useful this idea of special ambassadors is. A few are an asset - David Beckham is an obvious one. Anyone whose autograph people want to get for their children is going to impress.
Andrew is surely more of a hindrance than a help. He gives totally the wrong impression of this country.
Or maybe he doesn't. Maybe we are still like that as a nation. If that is so, then God help us.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Mad Men of the BBC

Today I am in double mourning. Not only does the fourth series of Mad Men end on Wednesday but I have just discovered that the fifth series will only be shown on Sky.
There is still a lot of trumpeting that British television is the best in the world and the BBC is the best of the best. Really?
Of course it has a fair number of good programmes - it ought to for the money it receives. Yet what are the greatest series that have been made in the past decade?
The Sopranos. The Wire. The West Wing. Deadwood. And, naturally, Mad Men. All American, all totally brilliant - the writing, the direction, the stories, the acting, the drama.
What else do they have in common? That they have mainly been ignored not just by the BBC but by terrestrial television.
As far as I can remember, The Sopranos were on terrestrial, though late at night. West Wing might have been too. The Wire wasn't until it was hailed as the greatest television series ever, when BBC 2 belatedly decided to run it around midnight. Deadwood, possibly my all-time favourite, has never been on terrestrial.
Mad Men, hailed by every critic as magnificent, has been on BBC - though buried in a graveyard slot - but has now been dumped and gratefully picked up by Sky.
This was bound to happen. When complaints about the obscene sums of money paid to BBCexecutives flooded in last year, one of the fatuous responses was that they would no longer buy "American imports like Mad Men." But it is because the BBC showed Mad Men that I didn't mind paying my licence fee.
Now I must subscribe to Sky to see series five or wait for the box set.
It should be the BBC, the public service broadcaster, funded by taxpayers, which runs the great programmes no commercial station will. Instead, once again Sky shows an artistic appreciation and understanding the Corporation lacks.
Rupert Murdoch for Director General?

Friday, 26 November 2010

Peersing into the future

If you are looking for something to do at seven o'clock this Sunday evening, you might try tuning into the Parliament Channel and watching the debate on the future of the House of Lords.
I was there in the Royal Opera House to see the action when the programme was recorded earlier this week, having been invited because of an article I wrote for Total Politics last year saying that although I had spent all my life demanding an elected Second Chamber, I had now changed my mind.
Not wanting to spoil the excitement for you, I won't reveal how the audience voted but can let slip that it is worth watching if for no other reason than to see the incomprehension felt by Polly Toynbee, a supporter of an elected House, at Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty speaking for the other side.
Fundamentally, the argument is this: Do you believe that voting for representatives is not just the highest but the only expression of true democracy; or do you believe that government is so out of control that you need to have individuals of experience and principle who are not under the thumb of the whips and party machines and who will stand up to the juggernaut, which the Lords did more than 400 times against the last Government.
However much certain peers can be mocked (and rightly mocked), they are far more active in the fight for our rights and freedoms than most MPs.
What is needed is reform but not abolition, which is what the effect of an elected second chamber would amount to. Let's have independently appointed peers, a retiring age, a much smaller number of members and expulsion for those who don't attend regularly. And no buying peerages.
An additional reform I would enact - and which wasn't raised in the Opera House debate - is to strip peers of the titles Lord and Lady. If members of the Upper House were called simply Mr and Ms, those who want to go there purely for self-aggrandisement might change their minds.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Michael Gove: A psychiatrist writes

Is it just me or does Michael Gove become ever madder and more fanatical with every passing initiative.
About a year ago I heard him address a meeting of mainly educational academics at the RSA where he proposed that all school pupils should read Socrates. This is the sort of crazed ramblings which are quite amusing when you see them on the pages of The Spectator but he actually believes the extraordinary notions that flow from between his ears and is inflicting them on a generation of children and teachers.
Where should we start on the list of revolutionary fervour that  burst on the nation today? How about the plan to turn former members of the armed forces into teachers. Hopefully not using the Deepcut Method of tuition.
A few might make the transition but the skills needed to teach chilldren is rather different from those required to fight the Taliban. Most of us realise that. Not the Secretary of State for Education.
One former officer who had made the jump was on the radio today. What was his greatest achievement? He had got his pupils to do ten press-ups. Perhaps the next Gove initiative will be a GCSE in press-ups - so much more useful than media studies, you can hear him saying.
He doesn't want teachers to have a series of piecemeal changes imposed on them - Good. Thirteen years of New Labour exhausted that avenue - so instead he is changing everything at once. How are teachers supposed to operate at all when they are in the eye of this revolutionary hurricane?
Michael Gove has no contact with reality. Especially the reality many teachers experience in their daily lives. He is effusive in his praise for good teachers but his reforms are fundamentally about rubbishing the teaching profession and just about everyone involved in education.
Bring out the men in white coats.

Monday, 22 November 2010

In praise of Ken and coalition politics

Thank God for Ken Clarke. I was ready to shoot myself - or at least throw the radio out of the window - if I heard one more pundit or politician blame the euro for Ireland's woes.
Then on to the John Pienaar programme on Five Live came Ken. How I love him. He is authoritative, sensible and deals with stupid questions with an attitude just the right side of patronising.
Having had to put up with wall-to-wall Douglas Carswell, whose grip on reality (at least when it comes to Europe) is a shilling short of a Billcash, it was fantastic to hear Ken brush off the nonsense.
HIs argument is this. If the euro is to blame for the Irish economic problems, why wasn't sterling to blame for ours, the dollar for America's and the krona for Iceland's implosion?
The crisis everywhere was caused by greedy banks and criminally reckless lending. End of story. But not end of euro.
Once I had finished cheering Ken, it struck me how great it was that a Cabinet minister could come on the radio and say something which was so controversial within his party and not completely at one with his government's views.
This is a wonderful side effect of coalition politics. It has given ministers a bit of freedom to say what they believe, which is so refreshing after the straitjacket of the New Labour years, when a word out of place would get an MP, let alone a minister, taken into a back alley by the Mandelson/Campbell boot boys.
So three cheers for Ken Clarke and two and a half for the freedom that comes with coalition government.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A man of principle and a throwback

A quarter of a century ago I worked on a campaign with a young researcher from the union SOGAT (Society of Graphical and Allied Trades). His name was Graham Allen.
He went on to become not just a Member of Parliament but one of the most principled, individualistically bold of all MPs. Nothing has more demonstrated his belief in principle over party than his work with Iain Duncan Smith on welfare reform and families.
Last night Graham was the keynote speaker at the London Early Years Foundation's annual lecture, dealing mainly with the importance of early intervention to rescue children who might otherwise slip into a life of disadvantage and failure.
He is convinced that the way this should be funded is through large commercial organisations that have seen the error of their ways and social enterprises. The panellists with him, all from various branches of child care, agreed.
I was struck by how the parameters have changed. There is widespread acceptance now that the state cannot pay for everything. A few MPs such as Graham may have led the sea change but the mainstreams of all parties are flowing in the same direction.
Which makes the comments of Lord Young all the more ridiculous. He is not just a throwback to another era but an embodiment of a strand of political  belief which is usually only encountered in the comment pages of the Mail, Express and Telegraph, and which is quite out of touch with the experiences of ordinary people.
There is no place in modern politics for those who think like David Young. If only Graham Allen could be cloned and his clones populate the green benches.
Incidentally, doesn't the failure to ever give him a government job tell you all you need to know about how small-minded and weak the Blair and Brown administrations were?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Royal apprentice - you're fired!

Speaking as someone who has spent a fair proportion of his working life writing leaders about the royal family, I suppose I should welcome the upcoming nuptials of William and Kate.
There is something missing, though, isn't there? It's not Charles and Diana - not even Andrew and Fergie, amazingly enough. I can't detect a frisson of excitement, though the media has done its best.
What I enjoyed about my royal leaders was that they weren't just "Isn't she lovely" or "How terribly she is being treated" as I tried to put all that silly stuff into some sort of political/constitutional context.
The monarch is our head of state, a ridiculous concept, I know, though anything that replaced it could well be even more absurd. But in an age when deference is diminished, if not dead, and there is an ever greater demand for our leaders to be barely out of short trousers, it is folly not to recognise that the head that wears the crown may become even uneasier in the years to come.
After Diana died - and with her passing the greatest opportunity to derail the monarchy was lost - and Charles openly came out with his long-time mistress, there was a lot of discussion about whether the British people would ever accept Queen Camilla.
That was never going to be the question that would be asked in the distant future when the Queen finally vacates the throne.
If she lives as long as her mother - and she is looking pretty fit at the moment - Charles will be almost 80, having completed the longest apprenticeship in history. The question then will be: Are the British people prepared to accept someone of that age ascending the throne?
William would be getting on for 50, which is a better age, though still old by the standards of today's political leaders.
Perhaps the ending of the compulsory retirement age for the rest of us should have an exception for the monarchy. They could be forced to retire at 70 or 75 in special circumstances, like judges.
The monarchy's critics complain that it is an outmoded institution but it has its advantages. It is the rules that govern it which are really from a long-gone age and which should be changed.
How great it would be if Kate and William's first-born was a girl and she could take precedence over her younger brother when their father passes on sometime near the beginning of the 22nd century.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A national shame and disgrace

Even though I know the situation well, the session on our libel laws at the Society of Editors' conference in Glasgow yesterday was still shocking.
Not only is the cost of a libel trial in this country 140 times higher than elsewhere in Europe but we have become the world capital of libel tourism
As John Kampfner of Index on Censorship said, Britain is the equivalent of a tax haven only what we provide is a haven fOr litigants who couldn't fight a case in their own country - or anywhere else.
Some of the recent actions taken in our libel courts - particularly the persecution by drug companies of anyone who raises questions about their products - are disgraceful and an assault on independent criticism.
As I said to Kampfner later, it made me realise that my investigation into Epilim, which I wrote about on this blog last week, would never have been published now. The risks would have been far too great of getting hit with huge legal costs.
A few judges have been allowed to take us down this shameful path. So shameful that America has had to pass a law preventing their citizens being sued for libel in the UK.
It would be simple for our Government to pass a law of its own putting libel on a sane footing. The coalition has made sympathetic noises but there is no sign that I can see of them rushing to right this disgrace.
Don't they care about Britain's image in the world? Or are they secretly content to allow the current situation to continue because they think it is a way to control the media?

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The ultimate failure of leadership

It didn't need to be like this. There didn't have to be a Tory-dominated government, slashing public spending, consigning a million to the dole queues and turning back the clock more than half a century.
The Conservatives certainly won by far the most votes at the election but they didn't get that many more seats than Labour. If the current state of the parties in the polls had been the result in May, Labour would have won. If not an overall majority then certainly it would have been the largest party and could have headed a coalition government.
So what has changed in the past six months? That is obvious. Gordon Brown is no longer Labour's leader.
Just what a disaster he was not only as a politician but in the essential human qualities needed to appeal to voters was confirmed yet again by the excerpts from David Laws' book in today's Mail On Sunday.
While Cameron and his negotiators dealt with Clegg and his team with reason and an understanding of the situation, Brown hectored, patronized and showed a total failure to grasp what was happening.
Why it didn't need to be like this is that just about everyone in the Labour Party knew Gordon was a disaster and they couldn't win with him. But, with the honourable exception of James Purnell, they refused to act. If anything disqualified David Miliband from being leader it was his weakness in not following Purnell.
A new leader would have made the difference between Labour ending up with fewer seats than the Tories and getting ahead of them. Those who were scared to remove Brown have condemned their party to opposition.
Far worse, they have condemned the country to the revolutionary fervour now being unleashed on it.

Friday, 12 November 2010

So who is left holding the baby?

These are the most extraordinary times. This Government is the most revolutionary since Oliver Cromwell's big cut on Charles I's neck 361 years ago.
The higher education system is being dismantled, as I wrote yesterday. The welfare system is being totally changed. So is the health service and, particularly, the education system.
Hundreds of bodies which have existed to hold government to account are being abolished or threatened with abolition.
Cameron and Osborne make Margaret Thatcher's admininistrations look like lily-livered liberals.
So this is the time when the Opposition must come into its own. The Liberal Democrats, who have provided a proud defence in the past, have been neutered by the baubles of office.
Which leaves it all up to Labour and particularly its new leader. But where is Ed Miliband at this critical moment? He is at home on paternity leave.
I am all in favour of fathers spending a few days with the family after the birth of a new child but surely there are some jobs which shouldn't be put on hold short of a terrible family disaster.
Tony Blair started the rot after the birth of Leo but he will have been bullied by Cherie into taking time off. Nick Clegg took leave after the birth of his third child but he was only leader of the LibDems then so no one noticed.
David Cameron should have broken the ritual when his latest arrived in the summer. He had only been Prime Minister for three months. Samantha surely would not have objected to him staying at work.
Now Ed Miliband, instead of leading the fight against what the Government is doing, is billing and cooing at home. Why? There might have been a few objections if he hadn't taken paternity leave - though not as many as for his failure to register himself as the father of his first child - but there should be a lot more for him not being around to do his new job at this critical time.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Dig out your balaclavas

When I was at university (rather a long time ago) we didn't see much of Professor James Drever, the head of our psychology department, because he was serving on the Royal Commission looking into the future of higher education.
The report they produced led to the explosion in the number of universities which saw the proportion of students at them rise from about five per cent to its current figure of well above 40.
If you ignore the small amount of anarchic violence at yesterday's demonstration and even if you put aside the impact on the future of young people which massive debts will have, what the Government is planning to do to higher education is shocking.
It is going to send this country back to the era almost half a century ago when Professor Drever and his colleagues set the pattern for a society in which university education could become the norm for most middle-class young people.
Britain remains the only country in the civilised world in which education is looked down on. Young people are accused of being uninterested in politics (not true) and having it easy (not true) yet a great weight of public opinion thinks it is a waste of time educating them unless they are going to do something practical.
There clearly is something seriously wrong with an education system which produces citizens who are so ignorant that they can't see the intrinsic value for society in educating future generations.
Maybe public money shouldn't be used to entirely fund higher education, though I am not sure that is right. But what is being proposed is to virtually withdraw it entirely. There may be 24 universities which will lose their complete grant and another 73 will have their teaching budgets slashed by more than 75 per cent, according to Left Foot Forward.
In other words, higher education is being shrunk - with some universities closing and a vastly increased number of young people going straight on to the dole queue from school - and privatised.
I am afraid it makes even me feel like rioting.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Crossing borders and impregnable boundaries

What a sweet moment it was when at noon yesterday I walked into 32 Smith Square, a stone's throw from the Palace of Westminster.
For all my political life it was the building known as Central Office, the headquarters of the Conservative Party. But, in a cost-cutting move, they have transferred to Millbank Tower, home of the Labour Party during the 1997 election.
That was a good joke but not half as good as what has happened to their former HQ. It is now the London headquarters of the European Commission and, to make it even more rib-achingly funny, it has been renamed Europe House.
So the building from which the assault on Britain's place in the EU has been masterminded - and which was the site of the iconic photo of Margaret Thatcher waving triumphantly out of a window on the night of her 1983 election victory - now hosts the eurocrats and europhiles who the Tories so despise.
I was there for the monthly meeting of the Association of European Journalists and our guest was Edward McMillan-Scott, for more than two decades a Conservative MEP but kicked out of the party for being pro-European.
He believes that the apparent conversion of Cameron and Hague to support for the EU is a facade forced on them by the realities of office. He revealed the ways in which the UK is now sidelined and isolated by the Tories being outside the mainstream EPP group - something you never hear about from the British media, naturally.
The conversion of Conservative Central Office to Europe House is highly amusing. But there is nothing else funny about what is happening to this country's relationship with Europe.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Dubya in black and white

The thing of which I am most proud about my final years at the Mirror were the remorseless attacks on George W. Bush.
I can usually find something redeeming about anyone but I can't when it comes to Dubya. His combination of stupidity, arrogance and power were hugely destabilising for the world and we will be paying the price for a very long time.
Tony Blair, in his ridiculous book A Journey, insists it is incontestable that Iraq is better off now than it was when Saddam ruled it. Bush makes the same claim.
They don't have to say that to keep up the pretence that invading Iraq was all for the good, despite being carried out on the lie that there were weapons of mass destruction. Even at this late stage they could be honest.
Theirs is such an ignorant view of what life in Iraq has been since Saddam was deposed. He was a brutal tyrant and responsible for huge numbers of deaths and, yes, it would be better if people like him didn't exist.
But tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been slaughtered since the invasion, sectarian genocide continues, corruption is rife and basic services still don't work.
George W. Bush was a pathetic little monster thrown up by the dysfunctional American political system. I notice that to accompany its interview with him, The Times prints its photos in black and white.
There was no white about the Dubja Presidency, though. It was all black.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The worst scandal since thalidomide?

The news that dozens of parents have been refused legal aid to fight for compensation over the damage a drug did to their unborn children brought back memories of the greatest scandal I ever reported on.
Almost 30 years ago I spent three months investigating epilim, which is also known as sodium valproate.
It had been hailed as a new wonder drug for epileptic sufferers and there was no doubt that it brought terrific benefits to many. Unfortunately, it had a side effect. It killed children.
When this allegation was brought to us (I was mainly working on the Paul Foot column on the Daily Mirror at the time) we found it hard to believe. But as I interviewed a number of parents whose children had been prescribed this drug and who then went into a state of collapse ending in their deaths, it became clear that - short of the most remarkable coincidence in medical history - epilim was not being properly monitored.
In this country, there were virtually no warnings given to GPs about it yet in America, the official encyclopaedia of drugs had more warnings about sodium valproate than almost anything.
When my story appeared in the Mirror, we were genuinely swamped with calls. I spent more than a month doing nothing but dealing with panicked readers. I had to explain that epilim was usually fine but there were certain symptoms they had to watch out for. I think we saved the life of at least one child.
Now epilim - produced and sold by a different drugs firm - is back in the headlines, this time for the effects it has - and which are admitted - on the unborn children of pregnant women.
Like the thalidomide scandal, the epilim saga is not only a series of catastrophic personal stories but an indication of the dangers in the relatonship between the drugs industry and doctors.
The advent of NICE should have gone some way to making new drugs safer for patients. But that doesn't help the victims of epilim.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Be afraid...be very afraid

The glee that has greeted the rout of the Democrats in the Congressional elections and consequent humiliation of Barack Obama should make us fearful of what may be inflicted on the world two years from now.
I recently found a leader I wrote for the Mirror before the Presidential election of 2000 expressing amazement that George W. Bush could possibly be considered as a candidate. He was, he won (well, he was declared the winner) and look what happened.
Over the past 24 hours there has been rather a lot of whistling to keep up the spirits by pretending that the bright side of these latest results is that a no-hoper right-winger will be picked by the Republicans to fight Obama, so he will win again.
No one should be so complacent. Sarah Palin or one of her equally scary soul mates is capable of winning the Republican nomination because a large section of that party is certifiable in the same way that much of the Conservative Party was after 1997 (or, for that matter, Labour in the early 1980s).
The greatest threats to democaracy and good government remain what they have always been - ignorance and prejudice. Ultimately we rely on honorable, conscientious politicians to do the correct thing and keep us on the straight and narrow.
Barack Obama is painted by the right - in this country as well as the States - as a wild ideologue, more than a bit of which is the racism suppressed in 2008 bursting like a boil on the body politik.
He is not. He is a decent man, struggling in an impossible situation. If he loses in 2012 to a Palinesque challenger, so will the world. The consequences are likely to be too terrifying to contemplate.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Bonjour, mes amis

There are days I worry about getting up because I think I might laugh so much I will fall over and do myself damage. Today was one of them.
The Conservative Party has been afloat on a tsunami of anti-European sentiment for almost two decades. The new intake of Tory MPs is, with a few honourable exceptions, violently against the EU. It is hard to find party members who don't think we would be better off out, though why they don't in that case go and join UKIP or the BNP I have no idea.
Yet David Cameron, the great anti-European, his foreign secretary William Hague, an even bigger Europhobe, and the defence secretary, the greatest EU hater of them all, Liam Fox, have signed us up for a military pact with the French.
Even without the pressure of the cuts to our defence budget, that would be a sensible thing to do. We and the French are neighbours with much the same interests and have been on the same side (militarily at least) for getting on for two centuries.
The talk of giving up our sovereignty is rubbish. We have been content to give it up to the Americans in NATO since the end of the Second World War (and during the latter stages of the war - it was Eisenhower who commanded Allied forces at D-Day and beyond).
Don't believe the nonsense in some of today's papers. The SAS aren't going to become garlic-chewing, beret-wearing Froggies who won't go on some dangerous mission because they have to finish their cognac.
The pact with the French is good for this country - militarily and economically.

Monday, 1 November 2010

A fine day for it

What beautiful weather it was for the Opening Meet of the North Cotswolds Hunt. A perfect day.
There were more than a hundred horses out with double that number of followers. If only the ignorant people who took part in the League Against Cruel Sports' poll reported in yesterday's IoS could have been there.
It took me a long time to appreciate hunting. It is an integral part of rural life and I defy anyone who saw the North Cots off on Saturday (apart from lunatic bigots and animal-rights terrorists) not to appreciate this wonderful tradition.
Far from being the sport of a few toffs and nobs, the majority of those there - hunting as well as following - were ordinary country people. And there were large numbers of children, some very young, out for a glorious day in the beautiful Gloucestershire countryside.
The hunting ban, apart from being the most shameful abuse of parliamentary process in my lifetime, has created an unworkable law. More people hunt now than when it was legal and the police are refusing to prosecute as the conviction rate is so pathetically low.
What the Labour government succeeded in doing was politicising thousands of rural dwellers and creating the sort of solidarity that used to be associated with trade unionists.
David Cameron is committed to repeal but Nick Clegg doesn't get it. I know. I tried to explain it to him without success shortly before he became leader of his party.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

A voice in the wilderness

I spent an hour wracked by indecision as I squirmed through Nicky Campbell's Five Live phone-in this morning. I guessed the subject would be Europe and sure enough it was. And as usual the airwaves were dominated by ridiculous people ranting on and on about "Europe" and how those foreigners are ripping us off and how much better it would be if we could break away and stand alone "as we did for thousands of years" (one caller said that, honestly).
Whenever there is a European phone-in I agonise over whether I should join in. Yesterday was even worse. By 9.15 Nicky Campbell was saying that while they always tried to achieve a balance between the sides in any debate, no supporters of the EU wanted to speak.
This was marginally improved when brave John from Swansea called to be duly howled down, showing why pro-Europeans are loathe to put their heads above the parapet. It was, as Nicky Campell said, like being held up against a wall and having spittle hurled in your face, but that is the level of debate the anti-Europeans operate at.
The balance improved when Geoff Meades, the Press Association's Brussels correspondent, came on to be followed by an articulate, intelligent young former researcher to an MEP who explained the case calmly and rationally.
There will be more, much more, about Europe on this blog. When David Cameron and William Hague have actually begun to see sense, it is time the British people were given the real facts.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Horseradish, runner-bean chutney and madness

When we arrived at 5am at Gatwick airport on our way to spend a week with our Italian friends Clare and Mario, I had taken a few little gifts for them. There were jars of hot horseradish sauce, runner-bean chutney and Geeta's mango chutney, all things which they love but can't buy in the Umbrian supermarkets.
These innocent delicacies lasted as far as the security screening. I had made the mistake of putting them in hand luggage and was pulled aside and asked to open my bag. That makes you feel guilty for a start, as if you have somehow inadvertently packed a kilo of cocaine. So when the jars were produced in front of me, I said: "Yes?" I wasn't going to deny they were mine.
But they weren't allowed on board. Why? They were paste, apparently, so couldn't be carried in hand luggage. I asked if the security guard thought I would attack the pilot with the horseradish. It was, after all, hot.
It didn't much matter to me that the jars were all confiscated - I hope the security people enjoyed them with their roast beef (actually I don't - I would be delighted if they choked on them). But the episode highlights the lunatic way in which checks are carried out at airports.
Which is why today I found myself doing something I never thought I would - applauding the chairman of British Airways, who has criticised the supidity of airport security checks.
I clearly wasn't going to blow up or hijack the plane with my runner-bean chutney. And no one will convince me that if terrorists are really determined to attack a flight they won't find a way to do it that doesn't involve secreting explosives in a jar of horseradish sauce.
I now use trains for domestic destinations as well as trips to Brussels because I can't be bothered with the security hassle.
The terrorists have won by changing the way we live. Sensible security is inevitable but the authorities have cravenly given in to make air travel an unpleasant obstacle course of belt and shoe removal in the spurious name of protecting us.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The day the music died

It must have been in 1979 that a colleague on the Daily Mirror who had just returned from a trip to America approached me in the newsroom, placed a pair of headphones over my ears and said: "Listen to this." That was my first experience of the Walkman.
Now, 31 years later, obituaries are being written for this revolutionary personal stereo, made obsolete by the i-pad, i-phone and presumably other methods of playing a soundtrack to your life while on the move.
How different it all was in those days. No mobile phones except for a few the size of a bungalow; no internet; no emails. And how different politically, too.
Mrs Thatcher had only just come to power and it was difficult to take her seriously. Though it was a lot harder to take the Labour Party seriously in the months ahead.
The Walkman Years were marked by the irresistible rise of the Thatcher right, melding seamlessly into New Labour.
When it comes to gadgets, we are beginning to realise that they have a finite existence. How long will the newspaper survive? Or petrol-driven cars? Progress nowadays moves with exponential speed and nothing can be guaranteed a future.
But politics and politicians change very little. Some are a bit better, some are a lot worse. They keep on keeping on, though.
And we let them. Just like The People have let them throughout the ages.