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.

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.