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, 30 December 2011

Epitaph for a crap year

Due to circumstances beyond its control, this blog was temporarily suspended. It is now back, firing on all cylinders, and in rude health, thank you for asking.
And back just in time for a retrospective on 2011. How was it for you?
It's hard to think of much good that happened. Even some of the Arab Sprng is turning sour. And pity those poor bankers whose bonuses have been slashed so they have only trousered a million or two.
What is most disappointing, though, is the failure of the British people to realise what is being done to them, their country and their cherished institutions. It takes something quite special for a government to be both rabidly ideological and incompetent but this one has achieved it.
It continues to blindly pursue an economic policy which is the equivalent of a doctor strangling a patient while shouting: "Don't worry - it's doing you good!"
At the same time it is destroying the health service and education at every level. Not to mention our relationship with Europe, which means Britain's position in the world.
There is rising unemployment, high inflation (still) and an unprecedented fall in living standards for just about every sector of society. Yet the Tories continue to run neck-and-neck with Labour, which is partly the party's (and Ed Milkiband's) fault but doesn't excuse the Great British Public its myopic, masochistic view of what should be done.
Some things the Coalition is plotting are barely getting any attention. The drastic reduction in the number of MPs and abolition (in effect) of the House of Lords are an unprecendented attack on the way this country is run. Does anyone realise or care? It hardly seems like it.
Happy 2012. Things can only get worse.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Always look on the dark side of life

David Cameron and his crew must be cursing their luck.  On the day he made his Big Speech to the party conference, when everything seemed to have gone off so smoothly (apart from the cat), he was overshadowed by those terrible economic figures.
It meant that instead of him dominating the news with his message of sunny uplands and hope, the agenda was doom and gloom.
It was always going to be a long shot to persuade a nation in which the majority of us are suffering the worst drop in incomes since the 1930s that "the best for Britain lies ahead".  I pointed that out at a fringe meeting to be told by Damien Green that I had turned into a grumpy old man.
There are no indications that this country is headed anywhere but down. The most that any government can do is ease the downward path.
As Andrew Dilnot pointed out at that same fringe, technical and other advances mean that we are four times better off now than we were after the war, so if we continue to benefit from further improvements, the pain will be lessened. But that doesn't mean the UK isn't going through a similar shock to the system that it did when it lost its empire.
Politicians have to look on the bright side because no one is going to vote for doom-mongers. At least, that is what they think.
But if voters are so dumb they refuse to accept reality, there really is no hope.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

In praise of Janice Turner

In case you haven't seen it, Janice Turner takes Nadine Dorries apart in The Times today.
Who does Dorries think she is - Sarah Palin?  Actually, I suspect she does. But, like Palin, she is stupid and irrational as well as being ideologically vicious and dangerous.
Janice Turner explains how offensive the Dorries slur on Marie Stopes and BPAS is. Though the anti-abortion lobby has aways treated them as if they were an incarnation of evil.
What is unusual about this former nurse's attitude to abortion is that the leaders of the antis have, for as long as I can remember, tended to be men. Abortion so clearly benefits women that it is hard to find any willing to go public with opposition.
Nadine Dorries isn't scared, though. She is on a mission to do everything she can to get abortion banned so the country can return to the awful situation before the Act to legalise it. She wants the age limit reduced - then reduced and reduced and reduced again. She wants, by preventing Marie Stopes and the BPAS from giving advice and assistance, to give control to anti-abortion organisations. Anything, in fact, that will make abortion harder to the point of impossibile.
I never believed that the anti-abortionists would ever give up.  The fight against them is going to have to go on and on. Which is why Janice Turner's piece today is so welcome and so important.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Doing the NHS to a Crisp

To ask the chicken and egg question: Which comes first with bureaucrats and politicians - do they learn to love fiddling because of the job they do or are they that way inclined and so become bureaucrats or politicians?
Today it is Lord Crisp who is at it. He wants to close hospitals to make the NHS better. That is like wanting to pull down houses so fewer people are homeless.
Yes it is sensible to help more patients to be treated in their homes but there are, as Lord Crisp should know, having been in charge of the NHS, that a huge number - running into hundreds of thousands if not millions a year - need hospital treatment.
If hospitals are closed, where will they get it?  Miles away to hospitals that are over-stretched, where staff are hassled and stressed, waiting lists longer and treatment inadequate.
One of the great lies peddled by the Tories and much of the media is that the NHS is in a terrible state. On the contrary, with a few awful exceptions, it is a magnificent service and vastly improved on its condition of a decade ago.
What it - and those who work in it and those who use it - need is money and support. Not another reorganisation aimed purely at saving money.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

BBC sadly misleads on Iraqi prisoner abuse

It's disgraceful how the BBC is reporting the results of the inquiry into abuse of prisoners in Iraq.
Their top line is that the British Army has been cleared of systematic abuse. Of course it has been. Not only would no inquiry (particularly one by a judge) find otherwise, there was never an accusation that the entire British Army was abusing Iraqis.
The charge, made by the Daily Mirror and leading to the sacking of its editor, was that there was systematic abuse by members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment which led to the death of the innocent hotel receptionist Basa Moosah, who suffered 93 wounds as he was beaten to death.
The report appears to condemn various individual soldiers, attacks the QLR's chain of command and criticises the whitewash of the earlier inquiry.
The point made by the Mirror at the time (and I should know, as I wrote the leaders) was that the brutal actions of a few members of the British forces not only tarnished the reputation of the entire army but put the rest of them in additional danger from those who wanted to strike back for the abuse that was going on and which was widely known in Iraq.
The BBC rarely manages to perform well at weekends - all the main executives and journalists are off - but even by their usual imploding standards, this is poor and misleading.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Human rights for everyone but us

Among the utter stupidities spouted by the Tories before the election and subsequently whenever things looked black for them was a pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act.
So who is against human rights? Dictators around the world and the British Right, apparently - the Tories and the Mail, Express and Sun.
Nick Clegg in The Guardian today promises to resist Conservative plans to relegate the UK to a shameful pariah state at the same time when there is such a remarkable movement around the globe to introduce human rights for people who have been denied them for generations.
David Cameron's idea of replacing the Act with a British Bill of Rights is a pathetic ruse. His MPs don't like the European Court of Human Rights (but then, they don't like anything European) because they don't approve of some of it's judgments. But they won't like some of the judgments of our Supreme Court and a many of us don't approve of some things Parliament does.
Once again we witness thestupidity, prejudice and reactionary heart of Cameron's Conservatives. As we did yesterday with their nonsense over immigration.
With the double dip rapidly approaching, it is terrifying to contemplate what they will come up with in an attempt to distract the electorate from their failings and incompetence.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Lies, damned lies and phone-in callers

On Five Live last night, an absolute idiot called in to complain that rioters were being jailed for up to four years whereas "the student rioters" weren't dealt with similarly.
Let us not go into whether it is right for those who were involved in the worst civil disturbances in this country of modern times to face such harsh penalties. But there isn't any doubt, surely, that what happened was widespread looting, violence, robbery and arson in more than two dozen areas over several days and nights.
By contrast, the "student riots" were a peaceful demonstration by tens of thousands of young people protesting at the trebling of university fees and the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance. This was, as ever, infiltrated by a small number (even the police said little more than a hundred of them) anarchists who kicked in a few shop windows. Some held a sit-in in Fortnum and Mason.
So absolutely no comparison to be made. Yet the BBC not only allowed someone on to say there was no difference (over and over again) but he wasn't contradicted by the presenter, who was a stand-in and hopeless.
Surely the BBC has a responsibility to make some sense of its phone-in programmes. Who does it think it is - Fox News?
Bring back Brian Hayes, I say. He was the master of challenging callers who spouted rubbish. None of them today, even if they are capable of it, seem to dare challenge big-mouthed lunatics.
The BBC might think it's entertainment. It certainly isn't contributing to an intelligent debate.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The cry must go up: Call for Charles!

This country is close to disaster. Financial collapse looms, social unrest threatens to overwhelm towns and cities. And the people who are supposed to be steering us out of this mess and running the nation are patently unfit for the job.
If it were only that the current crop of politicians was inadequate, that would be bad enough. But it's worse than that. You can't see another generation waiting in line to take over. There is going to be more of the same for as far ahead as you can see, until the nation is overwhelmed with cataclysm.
What is the solution? Here is a suggestion. Let's get rid of the politicians and put Prince Charles in charge.
Iknow, I know. Totally undemocratic, dictatorship by hereditary monarchy, ridiculous antiquated system. But drastic times call for drastiuc measures and it may just be that Charles has the qualities which are needed and which our elected politicians, propelled through a corrupt political system, clearly don't.
One of the troubles with Cameron, Clegg and even Miliband as well as most of the rest of them is that they came through elite educational, social and political structures. They can't understand or empathise not just with ordinary people but with the reality of their existence.
Charles, of course, has come through an even more elitist system. The most elite of all. He is a man who has never had to put his own toothpaste on a brush, it will be said.
Bizarrely, though, he appears to understand more about tackling the problems - and what the real problems are - than the politicians with all their door-knocking, weekly-surgery experience.
His performance when he visited victims of the riots was wonderful. He looked as if he meant it, whereas the politicians didn't, and he talked sense.
His strength is that he has never had to compromise by appealing to a fickle electorate or a rabid press. He has met and talked to thousands of people, especially young people, who tell him what they really think, not what they think he wants to hear to get re-elected.
Certainly he has some eccentric views but no more off-the-wall than much of the stuff spouted by the politicians.
Let the cry go out: Send for Charles! His country needs him.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Two wrongs and one is from the Right

There used to be a time when you could expect the Left to come up with Pavlovian responses to any crisis, particularly riots or other forms of civil breakdown. Today it is the Right that holds that ignominious position.
Their reprsentatives have been trotted out on television, radio and in the papers to spout the most extraordinary nonsense.
For a start, there is almost nobody apart from some of the rioters themselves who justifies what has happened. Yet the Right never stop screeching that the Left, liberals and their fellow-travellers are making excuses for the looters and attempting to justify what they did. Simply not true.
They then go on to name the people they blame. The last Labour government, obviously. Schools, brought down by comprehensive education, something the Eton-educated Cabinet knows a lot about. The BBC - yes, the BBC! The Guardian (naturally). But most of all woolly liberal thinking and being soft on young people who grow up with no direction from their parents and no prospect of ever achieving anything in life unless it is through selling drugs.
This country is in a terrible state and the riots, looting, arson attacks, vandalism, destruction and violence are symbols of that. If you have a job and a home, you are OK - though for most people their standard of living has fallen and will go on falling. If you are a banker or run a major company, you are untouchable, as are your huge salary, massive bonus and grotesque pension pot.
However, if you are on the outside of this section of society, you are going to have a sad, desperate life. Which isn't an excuse for what went on but needs to be understood by policy makers.
It is clear from his performance in the past year that Cameron doesn't have it and nor do any of his close associates, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. And Labour isn't showing much sign of being any better.
If you think it's bad now, just wait for the double dip, which is coming up fast. The end may not be nigh, but it's out there somewhere.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The other Saint Margaret

Being in opposition has brought the best out of some Labour MPs but none more so than Margaret Hodge.
No one ever doubted her ability in government but it is as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee that she has become a real force at Westminster.
She has brought out a string of reports each one of which drives a dagger into the fluttering heart of this incompetent administration.
The two catch-all criticisms of the coalition are a) it is absurdly and needlessly ideologically driven; and b) utterly useless.
It is not the business of the PAC to investigate the first of those but by highlighting the lack of planning and hopeless managerial ability of the government, she is doing it more damage than the Official Opposition.
Today's sally on what is happening to universities is what Labour should have been doing. Not on a political or ideological level but simply pointing out that the plans, like most coalition policies, seem to have been drawn up on the back of an envelope after a long lunch.
The government never appears to understand the consequences of its policies or the impact they will have. That is why George Osborne is going to be in such trouble, despite his crowing over yesterday's IMF support (anyway, since when has the IMF done anything but support right-wing economic policies?).
Not only does Margaret Hodge's committee tackle critical issues and produce enlightening reports, she follows them up by gonig on the airwaves and giving a lesson to other politicians in how to handle interviews.
Unfortunately, most of the media takes no great interest in the PAC. But its evidence is stacking up and will eventually play a key role in holding this government to account.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Stand by for the supercalifragilistic-injunction

It was more than a farce before today, as I wrote in the Sunday Mirror, but the Giggs (there, I've said it) saga is now beyond fantasy.
The courts have been left floundering because the law is exceedingly slow to move and we live in an age in which everything else moves with breathtaking rapidity. It was a laugh when in the sixties a learned judge asked "Who are the Beatles?", but it's not amusing when they do the equivalent today by refusing to understand Twitter.
Ultimately, though, the weapon that blasted the rock away from the mouth of the super-injunction cave wasn't Twitter but the ancient ruse of Parliamentary privilege. And I'm not sure that Parliamentary privilege should cover what has been going on in the Commons and Lords.
An MP or peer cannot get up in the House and say of someone standing trial "He is as guilty as sin" or whatever. That is considered to be interfering with justice. So why can they break a court order?
The Speaker should have jumped up (he likes doing that) and ordered that what the hon. member had just said should not be reported by the media as it was not covered by privilege. Though had he done that, Bercow would have been hung by the press.
Don't think the problem of the super-injunction is dead now. The lawyers - like those very clever tax accountants - will always find a way to keep ahead of the game.
Prepare yourselves for something like the supercalifragilistic-injunction which will make the current reporting bans look mild.
It is only the rich and powerful who have had resort to the courts and all that money they flash around will find a home in a law office somewhere.
Meanwhile the phone hacking scandal gathers pace as MPs, mainly, try to get back at the press for exposing the scandal of their expenses.
It is a monumental struggle between two unedifying armies and there can be only one winner. Unless the politicians unite to smash the media. And, frankly, they simply haven't the balls to do that.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Why Gordon Brown can't and shouldn't get the IMF job

It is incredible that anyone (apart from himself) could seriously think Gordon Brown was in with a cat's chance in hell of getting the top job at the IMF.
Yet he is being touted as a leading candidate and his failure to receive David Cameron's backing is being put down to petulance and party grudges. What rubbish.
His brief tenure at No. 10 showed beyond doubt that Brown is incapable of holding any managerial role. Dominque Strauss-Kahn had problems with women but Brown's difficulties were with man management, including woman management as he was the first prime minister to make the garden girls cry with his violent and abusive behaviour.
But it is how he acted towards other European countries which has ruled him out so totally.
When he was Chancellor, he treated other EU finance ministers with contempt. He refused to speak to them and Brussells correspondents reported how he would turn his back on them or refused to join their discussions at summits. Why would other European governments think this is a man they could do business with?
They want an IMF director who is sympathetic to the euro project and who will do what he can to helpin their hour of need. Yet Brown's antagonism to the single currency is legendary and he (and Ed Balls) boast about keeping the UK out.
As if all of this wasn't enough, when the recession hit, Gordon Brown went strutting about swaggeringly claiming that he had saved the world and its economies. Politicians may be boastful but they don't like to see others doing the boasting.
As for Cameron's attitude, while it is only marginally true that Brown's spending landed Britain with its huge national debt, his reckless support for the banks is more than partly responsible for the tens of billions that had to be spent bailing them out. Hardly a good record for runninng the IMF.
Gordon Brown's big problem was always that he believed his abilities were far greater than they are. This time, no amount of bullying will get him the job he obsessively feels should be his.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Mess with the Tories at your peril

What do these three politicians have in common, apart from being Liberal Democrats? David Laws, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne. The answer is that all have been undermined by vitriolic stories. As Bob Dylan said: Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press.
Laws became the shortest-serving Cabinet minister for decades when his fiddling of rental expenses was revealed by the Telegraph.
Cable lost his role regulating the press and much of his reputation by simpering and boasting to undercover reporters (from the Telegraph, again). Now Huhne is getting viciously turned over for allegedly getting his ex-wife to take points on her licence when he was caught speeding.
The first two won't have been Tory party stitch-ups. Political parties tend not to be organised well enough to do these things. But the papers are. Never underestimate the ability of the press to pursue their targets to destruction.
It is possible that government fingerprints may be found on Chris Huhne's predicament. What is certain is that the moment he slapped down No to AV propaganda on the Cabinet table and demanded of David Cameron and George Osborne that they dissociate from them, the conspirators got out their hatchets.
His ex-wife is taking the rap for being a bunny boiler but why should she do this now? It isn't true that Huhne's confrontation with the Tory top brass was part of a plan to take over the LibDem leadership from Nick Clegg - he was furious at the behaviour of the Tories and was prepared to go public over their two-faced, disgraceful dissembling. Now he is paying the price.
When Liam Fox appeared to be sticking the knife into Cameron before and somehow anti-Fox stuff got leaked to the press, he got off the hook because the Tory papers weren't prepared to pursue it and him. They agree with him and relish the prospect of an even more right-wing leader. They will back off the latest leak, too.
Meanwhile Chris Huhne will be pursued to extinction as he is seen as an enemy of the Right.
Sad, isn't it?

Thursday, 12 May 2011

A year is a short time in politics

Can it really be only a year since the coalition was formed? It seems to have been going on forever.
Most governments need much longer than 12 months to screw up badly. This one has achieved it spectacularly in almost no time at all.
The bulk of commentary on the first anniversary has been only too predictable - how well they are doing, how much more there is to do, keep your noses to the grindstone, keep right on to the end of the road, and so on and so forth.
There are only two facts worth noting about the "achievements" of the past year, though. The first is that never before has any government been forced into so many about-turns in such a short time and particularly so soon after coming to power.
Secondly, this is an administration of incompetents and incompetence. It comprises a mix of demonically driven right-wing ideologues who refuse to see or accept that their ideas are not just mad but unworkable; and weak ministers who may see what is going wrong but haven't the guts or the authority to do anything about it.
It is going to end in disaster. Ceretanly disaster for the LibDems and Clegg. Surely disaster for the Tories. And, tragically, disaster for the country.
Labour doesn't have the answers or the ability to oppose effectively let alone lead the fight. The cuts are about to bite which will foment real resistance which in turn will cause panic among the headless chickens who believe they run the country.
It is impossible to see where this is all going. The problem is, the politicians haven't a clue where it is going, either.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The stupid party fails its entrance exam again

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I do like David Willetts, who is not just clever but decent and thoughtful, but what a mess he made of the announcement to allow rich kids to buy their way into university.
It was nonsense from the start, made obvious by his claim that letting the children of the wealthy pay above the already high going rate wouldn't hinder social mobility but could actually help it. How painfully inept.
Inevitably Willetts had to rush to the House to say he hadn't said what everyone thought he had said and even if he had he didn't mean it. Pull the other one, David.
There has never been a more gaff-prone government than this one. Time after time they plunge in and then realise they shouldn't have. Sometimes it is a speedy about-turn, sometimes it takes ages (remember the forests sell-off?).
The coalition is driven to make announcements in a quite ludicrous way. They are obsessed with telling the world that they are not just doing things but changing things. But we have had more than enough of their proposals, most of which are ludicrous or unworkable anyway.
The rich kids plan - which suddenly isn't that at all but generous charities and companies paying for poor kids to get into university - must have been formulated to draw attention away from the cesspit into which the 80 per cent cut in funding for higher education and consequent trebling of tuition fees has plunged the Government and particularly the Liberal Democrats. It's just stupid and is hardly the only dumb move they are making.
Which brings us to an interesting point. The Tories used to be known not only as the nasty party but the stupid party. Yet here they are in coalition with some rather bright LibDems as well as having one or two clever people of their own, none cleverer than David Willetts.
So if they still come up with such ridiculous ideas, what does that say about their collective IQ? Too low for even the wealthiest parent to get them into Oxbridge, I'd say.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The only way forward for the free press

It is human to want to keep your private life private and it is human to want to gossip about other people's private lives.
The Establishment has the first principle at its heart while the media thrives on the second. When they come into conflict - as they always have done from time to time and they always will, as no totalitarian state will survive forever - there is an almighty clash. We are witnessing one at the moment. Actually, it is several, all mixed and muddled.
There is the apparent creation of a privacy law by judges using the Human Rights Act, the battle by Max Mosley against the New of the World and the creation of and increaing use of superinjunctions. As well as the problems created by the internet and, lately, twitter.
These intertwined hot issues, providing lawyers with rich pickings and the press with much mouth-foaming material, are very much a matter of opinion and riddled with bias on both sides as well as ignorance. Yet they can and should be boiled down to one simple question: Who controls the media?
Should it be politicians? Only politicians think it should and any who tried to introduce laws regulating the press would be not brave but foolhardy.
So should it be judges? Only in extreme cases of law-breaking. Judges are deeply embedded in Establishment thinking, which should be the opposite of how the media operates.
So who? It has to be the media itself. But the media is totally irresponsible, its critics cry. Not exactly. Saying that is like saying that all polticians are venal and corrupt - some are, most aren't.
Yes, parts of the media are slightly corrupt and view their work through distorting spectacles which make the world a nasty place populated by bonking footballers and unfaithful stars of showbusiness. But most of the media isn't like that and most journalists aren't.
The alternative to journalists controlling what they do is too appalling to contemplate. We see it in many other countries and anyone who thinks that should happen here can be provided with a one-way ticket to Zimbabwe or Libya.
The press in particular has to clean up its act - not a huge or particularly irksome task. Politicians and judges can keep well away.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Why can't political commentators do simple sums?

What is half of five? According to political commentators and analysts, it is one.
We are only a year into a five-year parliament yet everyone is describing the Conservative losses as the usual "mid-term blues".
Not only is this not mid-term, it should be part of that other psephological cliche, the honeymoon period. One year after Labour won in 1997, it managed to increase its number of council seats and councillors .
The Tory result is being presented as satisfactory for Cameron because anything looks good compared to what has happened to the Liberal Democrats and, naturally, their supporters don't want to accept that this is almost certainly the start of a very long slippery slope.
The cuts have hardly started to bite, there will be hundreds of thousands thrown out of work in the next few months and the economy is stagnant, with prospects of another downturn (why does anyone think that isn't likely when the Bank of England's monetary policy committee has again refused to put up interest rates, despite inflation running at twice its supposed level?)
Incomes have suffered their biggest decline for 30 years and house prices continue to plummet in all but the wealthiest areas.
The real test for the Tories will be in next year's local election and the year after. Unless the coalition collapses before then.

The only way forward for Clegg now

If a couple went to a party and he spent the whole time slagging off his wife in the most vitriolic terms to all their friends, it would be hard for their relationship to stagger on. That is what is happening to the coalition.
Chris Huhne is being vilified (by the Tory papers and commentators) for tackling Cameron and Osborne over the disgraceful attacks on Nick Clegg by the No campaign.But he is completely right and displaying the balls which sadly the rest of the junior partners don't have.
The Tory campaign - and the No campaign was precisely that; no one else was running it or funding it - boiled down to: If you change the voting system, you will get more of Clegg and he is the worst kind of politician as evidenced by all the promises he has broken.
But the reason he broke them was because that is the price he and the LibDems have paid for putting Cameron and his thugs into power. I don't agree with Clegg and I think it is appalling that the Liberal Democrats are supporting so many reactionary, destructive policies but why attack a man for doing what you want him to do.
Clegg may have to forgive, even if he can't forget, but the coalition will never be the same. In fact, it can't survive.
Someone is going to walk out before too long - maybe Huhne, maybe even Cable - pushed into it by the inevitable grassroots rebellion by the hundreds of LibDem councillors who lose their seats.
Clegg's two arguments for going into government was that it was for the good of the country and the good of the party. But the consequence has been that the country is being wrecked and so is the party. It has all been for nothing.
If Clegg had got voting reform, he could at least have told his members that, despite everything, despite the pain and the uncertain future, they had finally taken a small step towards changing the electoral system. Instead he has suffered a catastrophic defeat in the referendum, which has put reform back years, possibly decades, and been left looking weak and pathetic by the senior partners in the coalition.
There is only one way out. Nick Clegg should resign.

Friday, 29 April 2011

The spectre at the royal wedding

Thirty years ago I wrote the Daily Mirror leader which appeared on the wedding day of Charles and Diana.
The penultimate paragraph said: "This is the stuff of which fairy tales are made." When the then Archbishop of Canterbury began his sermon, it was with those words. He had clearly got up early that morning, sat down to write the sermon without a thought in his head, then been inspired to plagiarise my leader when he read it over his breakfast tea.
There was a different feel to today's nuptials. It was a pageant but not a fairy tale.  Different times, different couple but those don't completely account for it.
The spectre noticeable by its absence wasn't Blair or Brown, outrageous as their exclusion was, but Diana.
With the passing of time, the anti-Diana brigade has become more vociferous and its sneering at her more acceptable. But she was one of the most significant figures of the 20th century - almost certainly the most significant British woman. Had she lived, I still believe she might have brought down the monarchy.
Strangely enough, I thought Kate today looked rather regal. You can imagine her sitting on the throne in 20 or 30 years.
You never could with Diana. She was something more than that.
I began today by reading the chapter on the beheading of Anne Boleyn in the book The Six Wives of Henry VIII. What a vile woman she was, responsible for the destruction and killing of just about all those she disliked.
But before then and since, the British monarchy has been littered with nasty and inadequate members. They are one of the most dysfunctional families imaginable.
William and Kate seem OK. There is a long way to go, though, before they rule, if they ever do. And their child would be monarch into the next century, which is a long time away.
Diana taught the royals a lot and William appears to have inherited something from her, though not her waywardness and rebellion.
Would that I could be around when it all unravels.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A first class way to improve the trains

Travelling from Paddington to Moreton yesterday I was forced to stand until Reading, as were many other passengers who, like me, had paid for the privilege.
Every carriage was absolutely packed to over-flowing. Well, not exactly. As an alternative to standing next to the lavatories (not a great problem, there, though - they didn't work) I decided to wander down the first-class carriages. There were four of them, only slighter fewer than the cattle class I was in.
I counted 54 empty seats in the two carriages I meandered through, so presumably there were in excess of a hundred vacant seats altogether - which would have provided somewhere to sit for every standee.
This is not a rant against first-class carriages. There is an obvious advantage for people who travel in them and if they or their employers are willing to cough up, why not? Hopefully it keeps fares down for the rest of us (not that we've noticed).
But why are there so many of them? If they are going to be two-thirds empty, which these were, why can't there be fewer first-class and more carriages for other passengers?
There is so much space in a first-class seat, with loads of leg-room, arm-room and every other kind of room, that no one could complain they were crammed in if someone sat next to them.
It is obscene that the rail firms take our money and force us into appalling conditions when so much space is left in another part of the train. Are they trying to make a point? To rub our noses in it?
The rail regulator (is there still one since Tom Windsor moved on?) should lay down rules that there can only be a certain proportion of first-class carriages in every train. Two in ten coaches is more than enough.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Tories take the flame thrower to the arts

In theory, the Tories should be the great defenders of the arts. It would be Labour which saw them as unnecessary fripperies while the Conservatives were the ones who enjoyed the theatre, concerts and art galleries. Their former leader Ted Heath, with his love of classical music, symbolised that.
But today's Tories are heathens. From Heath to heathens in one bound.
The funding cuts to 200 arts groups are cruel, stupid and short-sighted. They impoverish the country because the arts bring something which money alone can't buy.
They can't be done without money, though.  The days of poverty-stricken artists living in garrets and rich benefactors funding brilliant composers and painters are long gone.
State funding of the arts has allowed countless numbers of young people - and the not-so-young - to participate in theatre, particularly, and all sorts of other artisitic activities. It has also made them accessible to audiences who would otherwise have no option but to get their "creative input" from the television.
It won't make any difference to the Tories and their friends.  They can afford to carry on going to the Royal Opera House and other major venues which pull in wealthy audiences at high ticket prices.
It is the small arts organisations around the country that will suffer, wither and die.
Another assault in the Government's scorched earth approach to Britain's future.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Good idea/rubbish idea

Many years ago when I was on the late Today newspaper there was a brilliant IT guy who knew nothing about politics, economics or finance. But, boy, could he write a computer programme.
In the run-up to Budget Day, I would sit down with him and explain the intricacies of taxation. He would look bemused, ask a few questions, then go off and produce the most incredible tables that allowed any movement in tax announced by the Chancellor to be fed in and - hey presto! - seconds later these wonderfully detailed tables were produced and fed straight into the paper.
Today was years ahead of the rest of Fleet Street (in fact, no one has ever really caught up - they don't bother nowadays).
One year I asked him to do something a bit different. I wanted to work out what the effect would be of merging income tax and National Insurance so I could write a feature in advance of Budgtet Day proposing that revolutionary move. He did.
The result was so startling I never wrote the feature. It was just impossible that any Chancellor could ever be so crazy that he would introduce such a merger.
Yet in this week's Budget, George Osbornbe announced that was what he was planning to do, though not quite yet.
Haven't the Treasury got a computer expert like my former colleague on Today? Of course they have. So doesn't Osborne realise what merging tax and NI does?
Put very simply, the merger doesn't make much difference to anyone earning under the cut-off point for National Insurance contributions (about £44,000 I make it) but as soon as you go above that, you are paying an extra 10 per cent tax - except anyone earning in excess of £150,000 a year, who is already paying that amount more, until Osborne abandons the 50p rate.
So the Middle England Tory voters who aren't in the super-rich class would be seriously hit. At £50,000 a year, an extra £600, at £60,000, another £1,600, at £80,000, you will pay an additional £3,600. These are the backbone of Tory voters. Why would even this insane anti-middle class government do that?
It might make sense to merge income tax and NI, as I worked out 25 years ago, but it just is too politically difficult.

Monday, 14 March 2011

My pledge is to fight the Pledgers

It saddens me that Mark Seddon, an old friend and comrade, has become director of the People's Pledge, the latest organisation to be pressing for a referendum on EU membership.
Even though it is described as cross-party, there is no doubt what the vast majority of its leading figures want.  They want the UK out of the European Union.
The consequences of that would be catastrophic.  With all the growing economic pressures on the country, why on earth should we decide to remove ourselves from the biggest trading block in the world?
I don't deny that there are all sorts of things wrong with the way the EU is run. As there is with the Government and the local council and any other body you can mention, including private companies. But the doomsday scenario - "it's not working to my entire satisfaction, so let's get rid of it" - is absurd.
The huge growth in antagonisim to the EU is due to an overwhelming campaign run in the Murdoch press as well as the Mail, Telegraph and Daily Express - which is now calling openly for withdrawal, which is at least honest - and the failure of politicians to explain the benefits of membership.
There is also the nasty involvement of anti-immigration sentiment, which wants the Poles and other East Europeans banned from these shores in the same way it does migrants from the Indian sub-continent.
Who is funding the People's Pledge? It will have shedloads of money, as all the anti-European movements do, thanks to extremely wealthy benefactors.
Meanwhile, the money that is really relevant - the billions that this country gains through trade with our EU partners - is put at risk by this senseless hatred.
Even those arch anti-Europeans Cameron, Osborne and Hague have moderated their attitudes since coming to power. They were faced with the reality of the benefits that membership of the EU brings.
Yet we are heading in only one direction. Out of the European Union and on to the long road to economic disaster and international irrelevance. It is way beyond time that we made a stand against the Pledgers and their fellow travellers.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Double standards: Part 86

One of the main arguments Tories use against the education system is that Labour, egged on by liberal educationists, want to level down teaching.
Instead of accepting that some pupils should be allowed to do better than others, they say, the comprehensive system forces the brightest to be pulled down to the level of the rest.
That point of view doesn't extend to pensions, however.  In fact, the Tories now say the opposite. They insist that it isn't fair for public-sector workers to have a better arrangement than the majority of those who work in the private sector.
Why should this be? They don't complain if, say, banks or oil companies continue to provide final-salary pension schemes for their employees.
It is clearly prejudiced nonsense for the Government to insist that those who work in the public sector should have their pensions cut so they can do as badly as those in private schemes.
It is also rubbish, though still widely accepted, that "the nation can't afford" it. Like it can't afford to pay for higher education and all those essential services which are being axed.
We can afford to pay for it all  - remember how £70 billion was conjured up for the banks to sort out the crisis created by their naked greed.
The one arguable case for changing pension arrangements - and valid for private as well as public schemes - is that we live longer and remain fitter and active til far later in life. So those of us who can work on - which tends to mean people who have had a comfortable working life, not ones who have dug roads or performed other heavy manual tasks - should work on to offset the increasing demands to fund pensions.
That is what the debate should be about. Not a nasty campaign based on it being fair to drag public-sector workers down to the level of exploited private-sector employees.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The beginning of the end for Cameron

Never before has a government been in such a mess of its own making before it has got anywhere near its first anniversary.
Today's newspapers are a catalogue of misery for David Cameron. The traditionally Tory-supporting ones are the worst for him.
It seems there is little he and his ministers can do right. But what can they expect when they attack the middle classes, our frontline troops, the police, the countryside....need I go on?
When at Prime Minister's Questions Ed Miliband challenged Cameron to do another U-turn - this one on the assault on Sure Start - I thought the PM hesitated for a moment because he thought what I did: that Miliband was actually about to call on him to change tack on everything. Not just the deepest ever cuts but the wild schemes such as HS2 and the revolution in the NHS.
The latest polls show Labour would win an election held now by 78 seats. And that is before the cuts start to bite. And with Ed Miliband still an unknown. And petrol still below £1.50 a litre, which it won't be for long.
The LibDems are finished; and I say that with regret. But they have nailed themselves to a ridiculous government driving through absurd policies without thought for the consequences.
The picture of the new Communications supremo arriving (almost late) for his first day at No. 10 said all you needed to know about him and the state of the Prime Minister's operation. Craig Oliver wouldn't last a week working for Murdoch.
If Andy Coulson was still there, would we have had all those hostile headlines and columns today? I doubt it.
We may not be heading for Ed Miliband in Downing Street by Christmas, but there are long dark months ahead for David Cameron and his government.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The fast train to political oblivion

This country is so bankrupt (at least, that is what the Government tells us ad nauseum) that we can't afford to pay for higher education, care of the elderly, libraries, a properly-funded national health service and a thousand other services we had come to take for granted.
Yet we can afford to lavish £17 billion to shave ten minutes off the train journey from London to Birmingham.
There are several unanswerable objections to proceeding with HS2, the high-speed train line that will scar some of the most beautiful countryside in England.
There is the ruin of the environment and the destruction of lives and homes. Not to mention rural Britain having all the pain and none of the gain (such as it is).
But it is the economic argument against this crazed delusion of grandeur which is the killer.  Why should we spend so much money when we are told there is so little around so that a small number of businessmen and women can travel from London to Birmingham (nowhere else) very slightly faster?
Apparently this is David Cameron's passion and Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has to persuade the nation that it is a Good Idea.  He is usally quite a good advocate but even he can't sell this lunacy.
It can be stopped because all the constituencies which will be affected are held by the Tories and some are going to be lost if HS2 pushes ahead. Add to those the Tory constituencies that could be lost because the NHS "reforms" will lead to their local hospitals being closed and you have a lot of worried and disaffected backbenchers.
If you were a Conservative MP, at what point would you openly question, if not rebel against, the wild policies being forced through by the leadership of a party which already doesn't have a majority?
No one will remember that HS2 was originally a Labour idea, dreamt up by Andrew Adonis, who history will remember with incredulity. But more about him some other time. And a lot more about HS2.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Don't motivate bankers, just sack them

The chief executive of RBS, Stephen Hester, stoutly defends the payment of bonuses to his senior managers in a strange - and offensive - way.
For a start, he thinks it perfectly acceptable to hand over £1 billion when the taxpayer-owned company lost £1 billion, so it would otherwise have broken even.
But what particularly irked me was his insistence that bonuses had to be paid because bankers need to be "well motivated".
Does he think teachers need to be well motivated? Or nurses? Or social workers? None of them get bonuses but we expect them to be completely devoted to their work. If they make an error or don't achieve good results, they are vilified.
What is so special about bankers? They were attacked for almost destroying the economy a couple of years ago but normally they get away with making appalling decisions, losing massive amounts of money, and ripping off customers and the country.
Hester also said that the recent cut in bonuses (compensated for by huge salary increases, remember) had led to thousands of RSB employees leaving the company which had in turn led to profits being reduced by a billion. Pull the other one.
I take the rather old-fashioned view that people ought to be committed to the work they do. Apart from anything else, why should anyone be paid at all if they don't do their job properly, whatever it is.
Why should bankers be different? Even without their bonuses, they are the most highly-paid people in the country. Do they really not care a fig for putting in any effort unless they are rewarded with unbelievable bonuses on top of their salaries?
Anyone who had that attitude should be fired, not given a fortune. That isn't how Stephen Hester (bonus £2million this year) sees it, though.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

An awful sense of deja vue

Woke up this morning, listening to the Today programme, and thought I had travelled back in time.
Huge cuts in health service staff, tens of thousands of doctors and nurses losing their jobs. The nation's roads riddled with pot-holes and little prospect of dealing with effectively because there isn't the money.
Sound familiar? Younger readers should start here but for the rest of us we are being transported back to the bad days of Thatcher.
Except that this could be worse. The cuts are more savage and it is impossible to believe, unless  you are a member of the Government or one of their acolytes, that the consequences wont't be more brutal, too.
The report a few days ago that house prices could fall by 20 per cent was largely ignored by the media. Too terrifying to contemplate. But what do they think the result will be when hundreds of thousands lose their jobs and just about everyone else, apart from the bankers, sees a real drop in living standards? How much pain and destruction of lives is needed before this lot are satisfied?
There is a chance of resistance, encouraged by the U-turns the Government has already executed, notably over the forest sell-off. There are a growing number of bodies organising rallies, demonstrations and pickets, as I wrote about for the TUC this week http://www.strongerunions.org/2011/02/22/a-growing-movement/.
The demonstration on March 26 could be a turning point, uniting people from widely different parts of society in the determination to turn the tide of wrecking launched by the Government.
And by the realisatin that, if this goes on for another four years, there won't be much left for an incoming administration to restore.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Is THIS what they mean by the Big Society?

I got a parking ticket last week. Two actually. In my own road.
The resident's permit on my car - which has been parked there for seven years and is well known to the wardens - was overcome by gravity and decided to slip down the windscreen on to the dashboard.
So I was given a ticket. And then another the next morning as the warden was clearly waiting for the restricted time to begin. Luckily a neighbour noticed what was happening and I was able to restore the permit to its proper place before getting a third, fourt and fifth.
Assuming I won't have to pay the fine, all this means is that I have been terribly cross. But there is a wider significance.
Traffic wardens are the only people who walk our streets now. There used to be a road sweeper who knew us all and would keep an eye on the house and the children. He was sacked long ago as part of the council's efficiency drives that have kept Wandsworth council tax rises low. Can't remember when I last saw anyone cleaning our road since then.
The wardens could be performing a similarly useful social neighbourhood function but all they are interested in is slapping tickets on cars. They have no sense of society - they are just in it for the money.
Just about all the places where people could meet or get help in the community have gone. The garden centre, the police station, the post office. The residents play their part in fostering a sense of community but the council and government are working against us.
The criticism of the Big Society - that it will be undermined by the spending cuts - doesn't go far enough.  Since the days of Thatcher - the woman who insisted there was no such thing as society - all that has mattered to the authorities is cash. And New Labour was no better than the Tories.
Don't tell us we must be part of a Big Society when you are doing all you can to cut the feet out from under it. It's not just a matter of seeing if your elderly neighbour is OK. The Big Society can only exist as part of thriving communities. And successive governments have destroyed them, not only in industrial heartlands but in leafy suburbs and rural areas, too.

Monday, 14 February 2011

So who pays for the Big Society?

What has happened in the past week? Apart from Mubarak getting out and uprisings flickering to life in various other countries.
It's the Big Society, isn't it. The Big Idea that was central to Cameron's election strategy and for which he was mocked and which probably played a significant part in his failure to win an overall majority.
Not chastened by that, he has now put it at the heart of his strategy and once again the Prime Minister is being derided and mocked for it.
Some say the Big Society is simply a cover-up for the cuts. A con to make voters think something positive and dynamic is happening rather than the slash and burn of thousands of services.
That isn't right. Cameron believes in it, even if no one else in government does. But equally incorrect is the ridiculous pretence peddled by the Tories and LibDems that volunteering and the third sector will not be affected by the billions being taken away from them.
Most volunteers work for nothing, agreed. But who do ministers think runs the bodies that organise the volunteers? Where to they think people involved in the third sector get an income from?
The Big Society as a concept - that we all help each other, particularly those who most need help - is fine as far as it goes. But Cameron and his ministers just don't understand that there isn't an army of upper-middle class ladies in twin-sets out there with rich husbands and plenty of time on their hands.
For one thing, the third sector employs large numbers of young people who will now be thrown out of work. No longer doing anything useful or having an income beyond minimal benefits. Where is the point in that?
If the Government were really going to pursue the Big Society, it needs to put Big Bucks behind it. Not cut its finances.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The hero taking on the mouth-foaming swivel-heads

If VCs were awarded to journalists, Mary Riddell should be getting one today.
Not only did she write a fantastic piece in the Telegraph about the right of prisoners to vote but she so incensed the Telegraph green-ink brigade that an outpuring of bile was unleased at her on the website.
She is a hate figure for them anyway, with her impeccable background of the Mirror and Observer. But it is her fearless espousal of liberal ideas and, particularly, equating them with what this country really stands for which drives them nuts.
I have struggled to understand why the Right can't understand that Britain is most respected for is its history of liberal and democratic principles and what it is most despised for is its history of at times doing the opposite.
You have to hand it to the Telegraph for hiring Mary. One mouth-foamer today says it was only done to make people buy the paper. On the contrary, they buy it to read the Delingpole-like nutters (his word) and they are more likely to cancel their subscription because of Riddellisms. [Another swivel-head asks if readers have noticed that the real name of the evil Lord Voldemort is Riddle.]
Mary is involved in various justice/law and order groups so there is no doubt where she stands. Closer to Ken Clarke than David Blunkett or Jack Straw - or Telegraph readers.
I just can't fathom what the problem is about giving prisoners the vote. As she says in her column, most countries don't consider it an issue.
Why does it make David Cameron feel physically sick to think of a petty criminal having the right to vote? Does he have a weak stomach? Does he retch when he contemplates the destruction of higher education and selling off our forests to propery developers? Probably not.
The acid test would be how he feels when he reads a Mary Riddell column.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Staring into the abyss...

How much time do I waste because my email isn't working or the computer has a hiccup or the printer cartridge is fading or any of those other marvels of the modern world have let me down?
I have spent much of today struggling to get the emails working. None on the PC since 5.36am; none on the iPhone since 9.59am. Did I forget to put a shilling in the meter?
This is the third time in a fortnight there have been problems with them and it's true that you don't know how much you need something until it isn't there. That saying originated as a barb to goad a partner who takes you for granted, as in: "You'll miss me when I'm gone." Nowadays it applies to dishwashers, the DVD player and, most critically, the central heating.
Last week I saw the film The Social Network and learnt that it was considered critical in the early days of Facebook that it would never, but never, crash or go down or go off air. As far as I know, it hasn't.  If it did, young people throughout the world would be distraught and walk around staring blankly into space as if they had been taken over by aliens. I feel a bit like that without emails.
Just a minute. The iPhone just pinged...Yes, it's come back. I have my emails, all of them. And a quick whiz through them shows that throughout the whole day I have missed....nothing of importance.
But I can't tell you how pleased I am they are back.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Throwing the poor to the sharks

It has always baffled as much as outraged me that usury against the poor has been allowed to continue into the 21st century.
Most of us who pay 20-something per cent interest on credit cards would describe that as close on usury but those rates are nothing compared with the extortionate ones forced on the very poorest people. These run to hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of per cent.
Everyone knows it goes on. At least, they should.  MPs get told about it by their constituents and the media report it with a certain regularity. Though adverts for the usurers appear even more regularly in the papers and, apparently, on the television.
Even it we can understand why the loan sharks weren't cracked down on during the Thuatcher and Major years, it is beyond shameful that 13 years of New Labour did nothing to protect the poor from these vile firms.
The other night Labour MP Stella Creasy attempted to introduce a measure that would have set caps on interest. Hardly controversial, you might think. Surely we are all in favour of that.
And in the course of rather a good, passionate debate, all who spoke did say they were in favour of doing something about the rates charged to the poor for these outrageous loans.
So the Commons accepted Ms Creasy's proposal? Afraid not. It was voted down by 271 to 156 as Conservative and LibDems united to let the sharks carry on sharking.
The minister responsible - Ed Davey, a decent Liberal Democrat before he got into bed with the Tories - used as an excuse for their inexcusable actions that they needed to "gather evidence and assess it". How much more evidence do they need? How much more assessing?
What this was about was allowing a vile, cruel fraudulent industry to continue to exploit and ruin the lives of the poorest people in the country.
The excuse given by one Tory was that he wasn't in favour of more regulation. So why bother having any laws at all? Let's get rid of the regulations that apply to murder,  burglary and rape; will that make him and his kind happy?
It should be the primary role of government to protect the weak in society. A clear majority of MPs failed to meet that responsibility on Thursday.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Opposition to NHS reforms is in rude health

An interesting column by Ben Brogan in the Daily Telegraph. He warns of the dangers Tory MPs may face because of the so-called reforms of the NHS.
David Cameron's support for the health service did as much to get him to No. 10 as anything. However much people moan about it, they cherish the NHS and don't readily forgive governments that harm it.
This Government is about to do it irreperable damage. Don't take my word for it. There has been almost universal condemnation of the Lansley Plan (if "plan" isn't too grand a word for something that looks as if it was sketched out on the back of an envelope over a long lunch) and not just from Labour MPs and the unions.
The letters pages of Tory newspapers have contained many critical missives from doctors, consultants, the editor of The Lancet and others who know what they are talking about.
The beloved NHS is finally being broken up and sold off to private medical firms. As we know from all the other privatisations which have gone wrong, once something is placed in private hands, there it stays, no matter the consequences.
Brogan points out what the impact is going to be when local hospitals are closed and the "reforms" are blamed (that, of course, assumes any local hosptials are left once Labour had finished closing them).
The Government has already backed down on a series of proposals, with the sale of forests about to become the latest (hopefully). But surely it can't be seen to stumble away from something so major as the plans for the NHS.
Lansley would have to go, obviously, but that would be the least of their problems. The Government would look fatally weak, so it won't happen. But pressing on would be another nail in the coffin of the coalition - and Britain.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The fearful consequence of poking the raving Tory lion

Oh what a bunfight there was in the Commons as MPs tackled the ludicrous Bill that sort of sets out sort of conditions for sort of holding referendums if at any time in the future more powers are sort of given to the EU. Yes, it's that vague and bonkers.
I was at a Foreign Policy Centre meeting and Wayne David, from Labour's front-bench foreign team, popped in for a brief respite from the madhouse.
He said the Opposition just sat there a lot of the time with a smug (my word) look on their faces and their arms folded while the real opposition launched wave after wave of attacks on the Minister for Europe, David Lidington.
As I may have mentioned before, Mr Lidington is rather a revelation. He believes in Britain having a proper role in Europe.
He said so, too, insisting that it was good for Britain and good for business and the economy that we are in the EU. To say this to the mad anti-Europeans who infest the Conservative backbenches is like denouncing Mohammed to a branch meeting of Al-Qaeda.
They attacked him, they raged at him, they tore their hair out and rent their garments. Such fun for bystanders.
This Bill breaks the fundamental rule that you should never poke hungry lions with a stick. David Cameron didn't have to poke the anti-European opposition but felt he needed to appease them with a bit of legislation.
It hasn't done that at all. It has only inflamed them. And will almost certainly land us with what Wayne David says was described to him by a long-serving Commons official as the worst piece of legislation he had ever come across - completely impossible to understand and leading inevitably to confusion and the courts.
The passage of the Bill may be fun while it lasts.  The hangover is likely to be very painful.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Toughen the PCC or the politicians will control the press

To the annual Cudlipp lecture last night - held in honour of the great man - delivered by Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times.
As with previous lecturers, he wasn't afraid to stick his head above the parapet. He didn't pull his punches when dealing with the crisis facing journalism and the threat that brings.
He said what I have been saying for some time, that politicians will find a way to get back at the press for their exposure in the expenses scandal. They had a chance to do this over the Telegraph entrapment of LibDems but flunked it, as Barber pointed out.
But phone hacking is manna for them. All the focus has so far been on the News of the World but it is beginning to spread out and hardly a paper will avoid being targetted in the weeks ahead.
So where is the Press Complaints Commission in all this? A pathetic irrelevancy, I am afraid. It was described as having failed by Barber.
When I was on the PCC review group of the Media Standards Trust, I fought to get its report to acknowledge the difficulties journalists and papers work under, while proposing changes in the workings of the PCC that would make it effective.
The danger for the press is that eventually the Commission will be shown to be so hopeless at dealing with the excesses of the industry that the politicians say, Well, nothing for it then, we are going to have to regulate. That would be a disaster for freedom of the press. Look at whatr is happening in Hungary.
Self-regulation is the only acceptable way to control the press but whenever the PCC is faced with a really challenging problem, it backs off. That may allow editors to breathe a sigh of relief but it is only momentary relief. It is just storing up a huge disaster ahead.
I could never believe that the PCC let Piers Morgan off the hook over the Slickergate scandal. It actually had emails which proved he knew what was going on but still claimed there was no evidence that he did.
Now it has failed to act over phone tapping. So the police will and the courts will and, ultimately, the politicians will.
Journalists have most to lose from curbs on their freedom. It is beyond time we demanded that we have an effective, tough Press Complaints Commission that recognises the restrictions on the press, fights on behalf of the media but comes down very hard on transgressors.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Hallo. Hallo. Is anybody there?

Why is Bob Crow so outraged at the thought that his phone may have been tapped? In the old days, it was considered an insult if your phone wasn't bugged.
It wasn't dirty-mac hacks who were doing it then but the security services, desperately trying to keep the nation safe from dangerous Leftists.
Trade unionists, journalists and political activists all had their phones tapped. Even Peter Mandelson, for God's sake.  He certainly has been a threat to the country but not in the way the security services thought he was.
At least journalists might get a story out of listening in to Bob Crow.  Such as him planning to take his wife out for dinner or that there was something wrong with his dog.  The sort of story that would really interest the public.
But what did the security services and police ever think they would learn from listening in on the calls of hundreds, probably thousands, of people considered a threat because they were "Left-wing". (Some of them weren't even that - just thought to be a threat because they held a union post or were a reporter who had been sent to cover Northern Ireland or strikes).
When the late Paul Foot picked up his phone to make or receive a call and heard the tell-tale click that showed someone was listening, he tried to hold a conversation with them.
I'm not defending phone hacking by the News of the World or any other paper but why is that any worse than the illegal phone-tapping by security services that went on for years and probably still does? And has never been criticised by the vast majority of politicians or journalists.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Freedom of the press for what?

I spent yesterday at a seminar for journalists organised by the EU's Journalism Network, though the majority of participants weren't from EU countries.
As I listened to how some of them have to work I got the same feeling of inadequacy I do when judging the British Press Awards' Foreign Journalist of the Year.
It is so easy for British journalists compared with those in many other countries, including some in the EU (step forward Hungary, current holder of the EU presidency while installing the most draconian media laws).
So I sat there getting ever more agitated about how we use our freedom and in particular the nature of the stories journalists were after when they hacked into mobile phones.
If they were investigating corruption or criminality, I would defend the practice. But those were hardly the stories they were after from Sienna Miller and her mother, Max Clifford and Graham Taylor, and the doubtless hundreds of other celebrities.
The sheer stupidity of what Clive Goodman did wasn't that he tapped Prince William's phone but that he thought it was worth destroying his life for a "story" about the heir to throne thinking about having acupuncture.
Maintaining the freedom of the press is the most essential defence against despotism, as the experiences of those journalists I listened to yesterday would have made anyone but a despot realise.
But freedom to pursue tittle-tattle about irrelevant people? I don't think so. It gives the politicians itching to control the media, particularly after the expenses exposures, an excuse for cracking down.
The press is its own worst enemy. I have long thought that and finally I may be proved right. Though I hope not.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Black Sky thinking...

The destruction of the BBC World Service - for that is what the 25 per cent cuts there are the start of - is a startling acceptance by the Government that this country is now Little Britain.
It has as much a failing of vision for the UK's place in the world as Richard Lambert says it does of our economic future.
The Tories - and not just the right wing but most of the current crop, including Cameron, Osborne and Hague - hate the EU because they believe we can stand on our own. At least, that is the implication.
But on our own as what? Certainly not as a great power - that went long ago - or even as a significant force in the world, other than to hang on pathetically to the US coat-tails.
We do have some things going for us. Our language, obviously; our culture, including music, films and television (sort of). And we can cling on to what is left of our international reputation despite the worst endeavours of Tony Blair.
That all came together in the World Service, which has a justified reputation for honesty and integrity. That's not good enough for the current Government, though.
The cuts just announced are just the start of it.  In a couple of years the entire burden of funding will be passed from the Foreign Office to the BBC, which will take it on at the same time that it struggles to cope with huge cuts to its own budget.
The World Service will suffer again, instead of the phalanx of human resources managers, press officers and non-creatives which the BBC employs on the Birtian Model. The day can't be far off when the World Service will no longer exist and the BBC will fade into insignificance, to be replaced by Sky.
The Government is working towards that. It will happen in Rupert Murdoch's lifetime, letting him die a happy man.,

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Even they aren't all in this together

Leaders are only as strong as the people around them. That may not have been true in bygone ages but it certainly is now.
The pressures from media and politics are so great that even the most single-minded and determined prime minister is going to be weakened within a unified committed team.
I always thought that Thatcher started to wobble when she lost some of the people who had helped bring her to power and advised her in the early years of her administration. She was left with Bernard Ingham (Good and faithful servant though he was, in Robert Harris's words) and Charles Powell. By 1990 they were too close to her.
The same happened with Blair. For various reasons, those who were the focus of the New Labour project began dropping off. Alastair Campbell, for all his faults, was a crucial part of the team and irreplaceable. So was Anji Hunter. Mandelson went off to Europe. The only one of the orginals at the end was the other Powell.
But with Thatcher and Blair, the process of losing the crucial courtiers took years. Cameron is losing his at an alarming rate and he has only been in power for a few months.
As everyone has said, Andy Coulson is a huge loss but only the week before he lost Paul Brown, his grid keeper. Conor Ryan, who knows about these things, believes this will have catastrophic consequences.
The inner circle has already been reduced to little more than Steve Hilton, who has few political instincts. As the hoo-ha over the collapse of the Big Society shows, the Hilton Big Idea is disappearing fast as the cuts bite.
George Osborne has his own agenda which is diametrically opposed to the Cameron/Hilton one. Nick Clegg has a mini agenda of his own.
No one is pulling together (Gove and Lansley off on ego trips of their own). No one is holding things together. Not only are we not all in this together, they aren't even in this together.

Friday, 21 January 2011

A ray of hope on a bad day for politics

One problem with writing leaders is that there are some day on which nothing has happened so there is nothing to write about. Other days there is an abundance of riches. This is one of them.
What should I write on? Coulson? Johnson? Balls? Blair? All worthy subjects crying out for comment. So let's do them all - one par on each.
Andy Coulson: A decent man who ultimately had to go. As I have said before - and as David Cameron virtually said on the Today programme - this is not a press secretary who would do what Alastair Campbell did. Whatever involvement he had in phone tapping at the News of the World, he would have been a responsible and honourable public servant. Unlike Campbell, McBride, Whelan and a few others I could mention. Sad for him that he has gone, very bad news for Cameron and bad, too, for good government.
Alan Johnson: Another decent man who will be a real loss to public life and to Labour. He was a different kind of minister to the intense young things we have become used to. He always gave the impression of looking rather askance at whatever new job he was given, then buckling down and getting on with it rather well. I am sure he would have done the same as Shadow Chancellor. We will never know.
Tony Blair: Each fresh performance becomes even more despicable than the last one. He is so deeply mired in lies, misinformation, distortion and self-justification that blood-pressure-lowering pills should be given out for all who listen to him squirming in front of the Calcutt inquiry. What makes it even more galling is that he is allowed to get away with what he says about weapons of mass destruction, his relationship with Bush and the UN resolution. This is not a decent or honourable man.
Ed Balls: I have not been a fan of his. He was, in some ways, worse than Gordon Brown and his role in keeping Britain out of the euro was shameful, though he boasts of it. Yet now it may be a case of "Cometh the hour, cometh the man." He could be exactly what Labour and the country need in these desperate times.
Ed Miliband and the rest of them have been bullied by the Tories into accepting deep cuts, thus leaving themselves open to the sneering accusation that they don't know what cuts they would make. Balls should stick to his guns (which he does anyway) and insist that the majority of the cuts being made aren't necessary at any time and few of them should be done now.
It has been a dark 24 hours for politics but maybe, just maybe, Ed Balls might be the one ray of hope.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The stupid party hasn't gone away, you know

The Tories used to be known as the stupid party and one of David Cameron's tasks in changing its public image was to get out the message that the idiots had been replaced by bright young things.
It was never going to happen. It was impossible to get rid of all the old fools and in any case their replacements were mainly silly young things. Their bizarre grasp on reality is made worse by being fed a party line ( a la New Labour) which they only partially grasp and think it substitutes for intelligent debate.
When listening to Graham Stuart on the Today programme this morning I couldn't help thinking that he should be at school - in a remedial class, perhaps - rather than chairing the Children, Schools and Families Committee.
Instead of holding a meaningful discussion with Sally Hunt of the lecturers' union, he fell back on the pathetic one-note line of challenging Labour and the unions to say what their proposals are for cuts to solve the financial crisis "of their making".  Playground politics.
Stuart was defending the Government decision to end Educational Maintenance Allowances, one of the most disgraceful, short-sighted moves even by this administration's standards.
It doesn't make sense in any way and won't save money. It will just drive many young people out of education.
The decision is papered over with the results of a lone, discredited survey which concluded that most of those receiving EMA would continue in education without it. All other investigations, plus the advice of just about everyone running colleges, come to a very different conclusion.
This is not the first time that Graham Stuart has been wheeled out to defend Government policy rather than provide the independent-minded analysis which we should expect from committee chairs.
If this is the result of letting MPs elect the chairmen of Commons committees, let's go back to the old system.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The question that didn't bark on the Today programme

John Humphreys missed a trick when he interviewed David Cameron on the Today programme this morning.
On more than one occasion the PM referred with apparent approval to the fact that the UK now spends close to the European average on health care.
You may remember that this was a promise made off the cuff on television by Tony Blair to the annoyance of Gordon Brown. But the promise was kept.
Presumably the huge amounts of extra money poured into the NHS played a significant part in pushing up public spending.  Yet Cameron is always going on about the "structural deficit" caused by Labour's profligacy.
Humphreys should have asked him if he is happy with the level of spending on health - as he appeared to be - and, if so, why he now considers it to be part of an unsustainable deficit.
May I answer for you, Mr Cameron?
It is true that the Labour Government spent money like it was going out of fashion but much of it went where it should go - on health, education and benefits, to name a few. What it didn't do was control how the money was spent. Such as the massive rises given to doctors and dentists, chief officers at local authorities, the people who run universities, an army of press officers and communications staff (several armies, in fact) and so on.
Cameron and his lot don't get it because deep down they are involved in a dogmatic destruction of much of the welfare state rather than curbing public spending in a sensible, contructive and sypathetic way.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Gove bottom in league table of ministers

Has there ever been a more preposterous, out-of-touch Education Secretary than Michael Gove? And that is really saying something considering the track record of some who have held the post.
Even the heads of independent and other academically-focussed schools have said that his Baccalaureate league table is ridiculous.
Gove believes that vocational subjects - which he describes as "soft" - are worthless and that all that matters educationally are strict academic courses.
How does that fit in with what I understood to be the Government's plan for more young people to study vocational subjects? Presumably Gove thinks they should leave school to follow them. Let's lower the school leaving age to 11, then.
We have an Education Secretary who cannot understand that not all young people can cope with strict academic subjects. Just as not all of them can run a mile in under four minutes or perform other athletic feats.
As I have said before, Michael Gove is bonkers yet he has been unleashed on the education system. He is already doing appalling damage to a generation of young people - apart from the lucky minority who conform to his notion of intelligence.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

BBC insults us all, not just women

The victory of Miriam O'Reilly in her age discrimination case against the BBC was followed by inevitable claims that this would change the way television presenters were treated. Dream on.
Television in general and the BBC in particular is obsessed with youth. Rather like the Daily Mirror was during some of the time I was there.
Yet the bulk of those who watch TV - and who read newspapers - are older. A fascinating survey which I saw in The Guardian a couple of years ago showed that the average age of those who watch television at peak viewing times is well into the 50s. The average age. (Newspaper readership is even older: hence the success of the non age-obsessed Daily Mail.)
That doesn't mean younger people shouldn't appear on TV - of course they must - but it does mean viewers aren't turned off by older presenters. And, naturally, the ones who get kicked out are always women.
Miriam O'Reilly seemed to me to be the right sort of presenter on Countryfile and the audience it was aimed at. But presumably the Jay Hunters who moved the programme to a peak time thought they needed to turn it into a teenyboppers version because viewers at that time are too stupid to accept a slightly older woman.
That's not just insulting to women but to all of us.

Footnote: Reports of the O'Reilly industrial tribunal result mysteriously don't appear on the BBC website.

Our lack of understanding is another bonus for bankers

If I remember correctly, it was part of the research for the Polly Toynbee/David Walker book which produced some fascinating polling on what people thought the average wage was.
The more someone earned, the higher they believed the norm was. City types, rolling in their big salaries and even bigger bonuses, assumed that the average income was close on £100,000.
Perhaps it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to learn that those on huge incomes have no idea how ordinary people live, especially ones on low wages. But I have come to the conclusion that the reverse is true, also.
Ordinary people - and I include the middle classes - don't really grasp how the very rich live.
Most of us don't know what we would do with a big Lottery win. So how can we imagine winning the Lottery every year. Year after year. Money for those who are on that gravy train is simply meaningless by the standards of the huddled masses.
How many homes do you need? Cars? Holidays? Servants?
Remember, these are mainly not people who grew up like that but the ones lucky enough to have taken a particular fork in the road when they started work. The fork which was signposted: This way to investment banking.
The British people are cross but they aren't so angry that they will take to the streets or absolutely demand that the Government stops the rabid bonus culture.
Is it because they have fallen for the coalition - and New Labour - nonsense that the billions poured in to save the banks was due to an international Act Of God. Or is that they just don't grasp how the bankers are taking the piss at our expense?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Schizophrenic politics: Part Two

A couple of weeks ago this blog wondered how liberals could reconcile taking a hard line on men who take sexual advantage of women while at the same time defending Julian Assange from the thinkly disguised political attack on him and WikiLeaks.
Now here is another conundrum, this one for the Right.
They are always banging on about the dangers of too much freedom of speech infecting the brains of the young and the unbalanced. Clause 28 was imposed on schools because of the terrible threat that children could be turned into homsexuals simply by having it explaned to them.
Similarly they blame the liberal media (such as it is) for unleashing a flood of pornography and violence on the nation by dealing with it in an open way.
So presumably they would abhor anyone who encouraged launching a violent attack on politicians.
Afraid not - at least, not when the person doing the attacking is Sarah Palin.
Two months after she produced advertising with gun sights superimposed on various liberal Democrats, one of them has been shot through the head and nearly killed.
Yet the Right has risen up to protest that it is not Palin's fault nor Fox News's, nor any other ultra commentators.
The person who shot Gabbi Giffords is clearly deranged but would he have done it without being urged to by Palin?
If he wasn't affected by her blatant incitement, why should anyone else, stable or unstanble, be encouraged to do anything they wouldn't have done anyway?

Friday, 7 January 2011

Empty homes, vacant politics

The Daily Mail today reports that 30 squatters - mainly young people from Lithuania and Poland - have taken over a ten-room mansion in Highgate. Outrage!
Personally, I agree that the law on squatters is a mess. In the highly unlikely situation that my home is squatted in while I am on holiday or away for the weekend, there ought to be swifter redress.
But squatting remains very much a rare occurence.  The real question to be asked - and which, naturally, the Mail doesn't - is why this home was empty. Like tens of thousands of properties up and down the country.
There is a housing crisis in Britain and the right-wing press loves to claim it is all the fault of immigrants. Absolute nonsense. The varied causes include a growing elderly population and increasing marriage break-up.
But one major reason is that far too many homes are kept empty, often because the owners live elsewhere or have more houses than they can occupy or are simply what I call "trophy homes" - something to boast about but not to reside in.
The former LibDem MP Matthew Taylor produced an excellent report on the crisis in rural housing for the Blair government. His main recommendation - that when properties changed hands they should be liable to a change of use planning application if they weren't going to be lived in - was naturally ignored.
That mansion in Highgate left empty by its TV mogul owner could have been turned into flats that would have housed people desperate for housing. Even if they had been Lithuanian, the Mail wouldn't have had much to complain about then.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Prepare to shed them now

The first lesson of life is that however bad you think it is now, things are going to get worse.
Just when it seemed that the apoplexy level couldn't get higher, out come the latest earnings figures.
In case you missed them - and you may have done if you weren't listening to the Today programme this morning, as they don't appear on the BBC website, or PoliticsHome or anywhere else I have searched - here they are. Those of a sensitive disposition may care to look away now.
Average earnings have increased by 2.2 per cent. This is a rise from the previous figure of 2 per cent, so hurrahs all round - except for the many people who got less, including those who received nothing.
Now comes the real story. Over the same period, the income of directors went up by 55 per cent. No, that isn't a typo. Not 5 per cent but FIFTY FIVE per cent. I make this 2,500 times more than the rises bestowed on their grateful employees.
Let us put this in context. No, not the context that the poor dears didn't get much last year because their companies had suffered in the recession. The workers didn't get much, either - in fact, they got a lot less even then than the the fatcats who employ them.
The context I mean is that bosses currently receive something like 80 times more than the lowest paid in their companies. So they now get 55 per cent more of that obscene figure. I suppose I could work out what it means in precise financial terms but my head aches just thinking about it.
And the apoplexy level has just burst off the scale.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Two very dark knights

Can I be the only person who wants the House of Lords to continue pretty well in its current form yet would abolish the honours system?
Giving people knighthoods and other baubles is absurd. Ordinary people who achieve something remarkable can be rewarded in other ways and the rich and famous who are the main beneficiaries can luxuriate in their self-importance without having "Sir" before their name or a few letters after it.
Every honours list contains some people whose inclusion is an insult to the system but the award of knighthoods at the new year to Roger Carr and Martin Broughton is about as low as it can get.
Carr is the chairman of Centrica, owners of British Gas which is currently inflicting huge price increases on its customers while enjoying the benefits of  a huge decrease in the wholesale price of gas.
Millions of people will suffer and the elderly, poor and those with large families will be in crisis. Meanwhile Carr will be able to toss another servant on the fire in his mansion if the temperature drops.
Broughton is the chairman of British Airways, a company which has done more to damage this country's name than BP. It treats its customers with contempt. Does he not bear any of the responsibilty for that?
Apparently not, according to whoever it is awards knighthoods.
Both Carr and Broughton are said to be outstanding businessmen. The real reason they have been made Sirs, though, is the help they have given to the Conservative Party.
Wonderful system, isn't it?