Friday, November 30, 2007


While I bow to very few in my admiration for Daniel Finkelstein, I'm not sure I agree with him on this one.

I find the fuss about the way May and Smith dressed, baffling and outrageous in equal measure. There was nothing wrong with what they were wearing.

And, while I listen to Melissa with great respect on this, the reaction was sexist, pure and simple.
There is, of course, an element of truth in this: the nonsense about cleavage being undignified or whatever is frankly silly. But I have to admit that when I saw coverage of PMQs, my first reaction was "Blimey! What on earth is Theresa May wearing!?"


I accept that this isn't high level politics. Any disagreement with Theresa May I might have would not be about wither her kitten heels or her cleavage. But I think you'll admit that her outfit was...striking. Worthy of comment. When you consider that Matthew Parris once wrote an article entirely about a particularly bilious Gerald Kaufman suit, and Simon Hoggart has a peculiar fascination with Michael Fabricant's stupendous wig, I don't see that similarly impudent comment should not be raised by an equally arresting sartorial statement.

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Superb line

Gordon Brown's premiership has become the Trabant of British politics: we had to wait 10 years for delivery, then it fell apart after less than six months.
It gets better:
Trabants, you will recall, were the rattle-trap motor vehicles produced by East Germany's control-freak regime. According to Time magazine, they were "constructed of recycled worthlessness". Does that sound familiar?

An enthusiasts' website says Trabants "soon became outdated" and "everyone had a joke" about them. Like Brown, the Trabant "was the epitome of socialism: bad, not capable of doing too many things, not too efficient..."

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I think the Token Bird may just have a point here...

Pretty bad then...

The Conservatives have opened up their biggest lead over Labour since Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her powers as Prime Minister almost 20 years ago.
The thing is, even though the headline figures look awful for Labour, I don't get any real sense that they've hit bottom yet. The donor scandal gets more involved by the day, there seem to be whole cemeteries full of skeletons still to be exhumed from various Labour cupboards.
The worst thing of all for Labour is that, in the grand scheme of things, 'donorgate' is really rather small potatoes. There are big questions over honesty and transparency, and it looks as if the law has been broken, but a Government that wasn't so enmired in trouble already could have made a good fist of passing it all off as administrative failings that didn't have relevance to the wider party. That the mud has stuck so adhesively and so easily is indicative that people don't want to give Labour any benefit of the doubt any more. I don't imagine that the next few polls are going to be any kinder.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

How bad is it going to be?

Rumours from the Telegraph that tomorrow's YouGov poll is, according to Anthony King, one of the most devastating I’ve ever seen. Given that ComRes had them below 30%, just how bad does that mean the results are? No 10 will be sending for fresh supplies of Stop n'Gro...


Still at it...

Since the departure of John Prescott from public life, we have been deproved of one of the great grotesques of our time. So it's nice to see that he's still bobbing about the place.
Spied enjoying himself at a Ditchley Park weekend think-thingy on Anglo-Sino relations was John Prescott. Not quite croquet in Dorneywood, though I'm assured the Oxfordshire pile isn't too good for the workers. Old rogue Prezza, when deputy premier, was appointed by Tony Blair to keep an eye on Beijing, and the Chinese revere former leaders.
But he wasn't alone...
My informant was somewhat surprised to spot the bike minister, Rosie Winterton (below left), presumably invited because the Chinese like to cycle.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gordon Bean

Birth of a nickname

When Vince Cable stood up today at PMQs, I doubt whether many people thought that he was about to give us an enduring image, still less one on the scale of poor John Major's grey underpants. Yet, by referring to Gordon Brown as 'Mr Bean', I think that's just what he's done. For a start, it has the ring of accuracy about it. The over-riding impression of the last few weeks has not been misfeasance, but rather a continuing tide of bumbling incompetence. With the latest continuing scandal over party funding, even if there has been fraud, breaches of electoral law and other disasters, Gordon Brown's tactic has been personally to distance himself - but this also means that he had no idea of what was going on. Just like Mr Bean then.
The second reason that this will probably stick is that Gordon Brown will hate it. A man who cannot stand criticism of any sort will loathe being mocked. Mr Bean is a figure for ridicule - and that is precisely what Brown fears. All the more reason then for this to become a perpetual feature of political cartoonists. The only problem - and I suspect the answer to this is being feverishly worked out in cartoonists' offices across the land - is what physical characteristic brings Mr Bean instantly to mind? The underpants motif was simple and effective. What is the equivalent? How Gordon Brown must be dreading the papers tomorrow...

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Storing up trouble

Ming Campbell's days were really numbered by the very first question he asked at PMQs. Not only was it unintentionally funny, referring to the iniquities of stand-in heads of primary schools at a time when he was himself a stand-in leader, but the delivery was awful. Nervous, twitchy and unable to command the attention of the House, Campbell didn't look a leader.
So the Lib Dems are presumably much happier now they have Vince Cable, who regularly bests Gordon Brown (not that that's particularly hard these days) and today brought the house down by his comparison of Gordon Brown to Mr Bean. He looks confident, he's more or less guaranteed a hearing, which is more than Ming ever was, and he comes up with some good questions that discomfort Brown.
But this, in fact, is a massive problem for the Lib Dems. Cable, of course, isn't standing for the leadership. The two contenders, in a campaign that has been desperately underwhelming, are Clegg and Huhne, neither of whom are especially noted for their oratory, and neither of whom have much experience of speaking in the House. Whichever of them wins (and I know I can't wait to find out which) will face an immediate pit fall. For while either of them would almost certainly have been an improvement on poor old Ming, there is absolutely no guarantee that either will be as good as Cable. If they fall flat at the first time of asking, that will be the primary response of friend and foe alike - why on earth didn't Vince Cable become leader.
I doubt whether this is news to the Tories: one thing that has been noticeable about Cable's stint at PMQs is that the Tories are remarkably supportive. Expect that to change sharpish when the new boy is in charge. And expect the biggest story about whichever of them it is to be how they aren't as talented as Cable when it comes to PMQs.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Michael White-wash?

This is a rather baffling comment piece by Michael White in today's Guardian. It's occasionally disingenuous, like the following:
All the same, it was a bit naughty of Francis Maude, unfrocked chairman of the Tory party, to pretend on Radio 4's Today programme that Labour rejected the Hayden Phillips review formula for party funding - more state aid, matching funds for voluntary donations and a cap both on donations (up to £50,000) and spending.

Labour did it because it would have broken their historic link with the unions, whose members pay the political levy as individuals under ballots stipulated by Thatcher legislation. Labour has few big donors - people like Lord Sainsbury and (we now know) David Abrahams, plus the unions, of course.

The Tories have big donors too, but, much more important, they have many more people willing and able to give smaller sums - up to £50,000, for instance. So it's not surprising, Frankie, as you know very well.
If, as White says in his second paragraph, Labour did it [ie reject Hayden Phillips] then it's not remotely 'naughty' of Francis Maude to mention it is it? And it isn't a pretence. What Labour tried to do was scupper Tory funding while leaving their own untouched. So long as the Union link remains, attempts by labour to prevent large scale individual donations are hypocritical in the extreme.
This was odd too:
It's not surprising either that the BBC's news division makes such a fuss on all channels. Dear old Jim Naughtie was almost shouting "you've broken your own act" at Labour NEC chair Diane Hayter this morning. She was very competent, but refrained from reminding Jimbo that at least one BBC TV programme was among the television shows caught defrauding the viewers on the premium phone line racket this year.
She wasn't remotely competent! She sounded like either an idiot or a liar. To say, repeatedly, that the NEC had no idea of the link between Abrahams and his shadows, when it seems that everyone from Hilary Benn to Baroness Amos did know was extremely unconvincing. And that last tu quoque bit is thoroughly ridiculous. Does White think it an acceptable excuse for the Governing Party breaking a law that it introduced itself on party funding that a television programme played fast and loose with premium phone lines? It's absurd.
But the pack presses ahead, putting the worst possible construction on what happened, which, as an Italian woman reporter reminded the audience, wasn't a very big deal unless corruption is revealed. Brown is sending the money back and investigating what went wrong. Stuff like this happens in most organisations.
Great, so our political climate is better than Italy's and 'most organisations' receive money in direct contravention of the law, do nothing about it for months, if not years, and then promise to pay it back? Weak weak weak.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

David Abrahams

This morning, when I heard that a Labour donor had channelled his donations through other people in order to avoid having to disclose them I thought that this was going to be an embarrassment to Labour, but not much more. Provided they'd done their part of the bargain, however minimally, they should be safe. So the news that the Labour Party's General Secretary has resigned, because he knew the truth about the donations takes this to a new level.
Under the PPERA it is true that the onus was on the people acting as agent for David Abrahams, but the admission of Peter Watt that he knew the true nature of these donations is a clear abuse of the Act. The Electoral Commission are investigating, and given their track record on this sort of thing, any decision that allows Labour to keep hold of the donations will look extremely dodgy indeed. When UKIP were deprived of their donation, I remember wondering whether this would have happened to a 'major' party. We'll know soon.

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Ubiquitous right-winger

Reading through Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's bewailing of the BBC's increasing right-wingery (and, frankly, you could have fooled me) I'm struck by one illustration in particular.
This is much worse than mere dumbing down. Belligerence is sought – bring on the alpha right wingers. Soon a Jeremy Clarkson mascot will replace Pudsy.
If right-wingers and right-wingery are no so prevalent at the BBC, why is it that every columnist who complains about it uses Clarkson as their illustration? If it really is so bad that you can't heave half a brick without hitting half a dozen scary conservatives with a secret agenda, why is it that the only example given is invariably Doncaster's finest?
The other thing that struck me is how sterile her argument appears to be.
Public-service broadcasters must make uncomfortable programmes on any group or on immigration – and there are excellent examples of responsible, critical journalism. But a whole series propagandising against multiracial Briton? To validate the race hate that sloshes all over our isles, from playgrounds to football pitches? Some researcher rang to discuss one programme "re-appraising" Enoch Powell. What's to reappraise? My money is being used to reassure people who hate people like me...
Simply because you disagree with an argument or a point of view does not mean that that argument or point of view should never be expressed. If, for example, you think that Enoch Powell should not be re-appraised and that he is still a toxic legacy for any debate on immigration (as I do) then say that and explain why. There are opposing points of view. Ignoring them does not make them go away.
There's a further interesting point as well:
The BBC we knew and trusted is no more. It is a player in the marketplace of nastiness, and I can no longer argue with any conviction for a licence fee.
The argument against a licence fee is that it is 'unfair' or 'infuriating' or whatever to be compelled to pay for programmes that reflect a specific political point of view that may or may not be shared by the viewer. Yasmin's swift adoption of this position rather suggests, however, that while she had no problem with the licence fee when it was subsidising programmes and opinions with which she, personally, agreed, she is opposed to it when it subsidises programmes with which she, personally, disagrees. And that's not terrible intellectually honest.

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Hurrah for Peter Godwin!

For the first time ever that I have seen, that Ian Smith quote has been given accurately.
The second plank of the 'Smith legacy', his 'never in 1,000 years' quote, is also unfair and inaccurate. Over the years it has become shorn of all context and compressed into a free-floating clip that has now become his epitaph - the epitaph of a white King Canute railing against an inevitable black tide. In fact it was not a prediction of a millennium of white rule - as Ian Hancock and I tried to explain in our book, Rhodesians Never Die.

It was quite the opposite. Made on 20 March 1976, Smith was actually conceding for the first time that UDI was negotiable and that power-sharing with blacks was inevitable. But in tortuous phrasing, he was also trying to placate his white constituency (and the right wing of his own Rhodesian Front party), assuring them that black rule shouldn't happen overnight. What he actually said was: 'I don't believe [my emphasis] in majority rule ever in Rhodesia... not in 1,000 years. I repeat that I believe in blacks and whites working together. If one day it is white and the next day it is black, I believe we have failed and it will be a disaster for Rhodesia.' The language was tortuous, but what is clear (especially if you read the whole speech) is that he was advocating, not predicting, the survival of white rule and telling his people that while he was still opposed in principle to black rule, he had not ruled out the possibility of power-sharing in the immediate future. He was actually laying the ground work for compromise. And in negotiations with the black Zimbabwean leader Joshua Nkomo, he had privately accepted the timetable of black rule in five to 15 years.
As Godwin says, there's enough to condemn Smith as a short-sighted bigot who did desperate damage to his country without making stuff up as well.

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So how bad is it?

Even according to Jackie Ashley, it's very bad. And the reason is now quite straightforward. Gordon Brown has, by a combination of bad luck and his own personal character traits, managed to switch the press narrative from rose-tinted optimism about a new style of leadership to a highly negative assault on his character and his competence. Journalists are essentially lazy people. Stories are much easier to write when they fall within a well-defined narrative. People like to hear tunes they already know. This is why, for Tory leaders from Hague to Cameron, the favourite story was 'the lurch to the right'. We knew the words, we knew the tune: the stories practically wrote themselves.
For Brown the initial story of how a new seriousness, honesty and worthy competence had taken over from tawdry Blairite tinsel was wonderful. Even when he made stylistic mistakes they worked in his favour. Remember that first press conference with the autocue blocking the cameras' view? Then that was presented as evidence of how substance was now winning the day. Today it would be more evidence of how this administration couldn't organise its way out of a paper bag.
The root cause for this switch is fairly obvious - the bungled election that never was. First, it struck at the first part of the Brownite narrative. All the froth over the election was emanating from Number 10, it was a classic example of political positioning without a thought for the higher nimbus of statesmanship. Which would have been fine had not the first plank in the Brownite image been that of the noble statesman standing apart from mere party politics. When the election was finally called off, it was done so in a way that demolished the next two planks. By announcing it in conclave with a single favoured reporter Brown looked 'frit' of being challenged in a hostile environment. At the subsequent wider press conference Brown looked both ridiculous and dishonest by denying that the declining opinion polls had had anything to do with the decision not to go to the country. Petty, scared, dishonest and ridiculous. And incompetent.
So there we had a prototype for a new narrative. Brown's trembling hands at the despatch box, his botched mini-budget, his subdued and stunted cabinet: all these contributed to a new story - the Prime Minister was both trying to do too much, and accomplishing almost nothing - a control freak without a grip. And that was a powerful narrative, because it was easy to tie to current events, and rang somehow truer than the earlier St Gordon line. When the twin scandals of Northern Rock and the HMRC came along, they fit perfectly within this story, and accelerated it dangerously.
Because now there is a tentative flowering of a refinement to this narrative. Black Wednesday, the death of the Major Government, meltdown. There have been a slew of headlines asking 'Is this Black Wednesday for Brown?' Soon the question marks will come off.
Jackie Ashley still sees a sliver of hope:
The Tories' spewing-forth of quick-fix wheezes will tire people soon enough, particularly since they are moving back to the right. When people eventually come to vote, it won't be a referendum on the Labour government, it will be a choice between alternatives.
But, if Saturday's Australian election result was anything to go by, General Elections pretty much are a referendum on the ruling party. If the opposition can do enough to persuade the electorate that it wouldn't be a disaster, as Rudd did and as Cameron is doing, a long-term incumbent is in trouble. BEcause there's one narrative that's potentially even more powerful than Black Wednesday - and that's 'Time for a Change'. Time is not on Brown's side.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ian Smith

Ian Smith, the last Prime Minister of Rhodesia and the signer of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, has died in Cape Town. Opinion was always going to be sharply divided about him, with some decrying him as a racist tyrant who was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Africans in Zimbabwe, and some more sympathetically regarding him as a decent man whose gloomy prognostications about Africa have been proved right.

If you're going to try and write a balanced appraisal, it's probably best to get the good stuff out of the way first. He was scrupulously personally honest, and never succumbed to the temptation to line his own nest while in office. His personal 'limousine' was a Peugeot 504 - rather oddly described here as 'redundant and decadent'. Judge for yourselves:


He was also personally brave: a decorated fighter pilot in World War 2, he escaped from Italy by climbing over the Alps, without proper climbing gear. He was honest, according to his lights, and hard working. He ran the economy of Rhodesia relatively well, adjusting to the strictures of sanctions and managing to maintain the value of the Rhodesian dollar to the extent that, on independence in 1980, it was worth approximately £1.50. He wasn't especially humorous, and his style of argument was one of repetition and rather clunky emotion. There was only one occasion that I can find of an Ian Smith joke: when the RAF were sent to bases in Southern Kenya, preparatory to a possible strike on Rhodesia in the late sixties, the mess wrote to Smith, asking if they could have a picture of him for their dartboard, as opportunities for fun were so limited. Smith replied by turn of post enclosing a signed photo, a drawing pin and a Rhodesian ten shilling note (the days before decimalisation...) with a note saying 'Have a drink on me boys...when they unfreeze our currency'. It's not Wilde, but hey.

But the negatives. The one that is most glaringly apparent today is that he was a racist. Obviously he was a racist. He talked of 'equal rights for all civilised men'; he believed that Africans were naturally less intelligent and not fit for self-government; he campaigned on a slogan, in 1964, for 'A brighter, Whiter Rhodesia'. He was a bigot. His only defence, itself not very good, is that most White Africans were. Many still are. Appraisals of the man that focus on his economic record, or the worse human rights record of his successor are missing the point - they are like a history of Mussolini through railway timetables.

But if his bigotry was, perhaps, a generational and geographical product (though there were many others, like Diana Mitchell, who were not remotely racist) there were many other failings. He was stubborn without being principled. His method of strategic positioning was to refuse to concede any point, no matter how trivial, until he was compelled by force of circumstance to submit to everything. He was perpetually politically unrealistic. He had no real sense of vision - White Rhodesia was blindly following Good ol' Smithy, when he had no idea of where to lead them. That he was a relatively competent, relatively decent African leader is much more of an indictment of African leadership than it is a credit to his regime. Some of the people in his cabinet were truly horrible. PK Van der Byl was supposed (according to Max Hastings) to have ridden on Army helicopters taking potshots at suspected guerrillas with a hunting rifle.

Not a nice piece of work
But where does that really leave us? A mixed answer, I suspect. Ian Smith was not the despotic ruler of an apartheid state - he lost votes and MPs to the Rhodesia Action Party through being too moderate and paternalistic. Rhodesian racism was qualitatively different to South African racism - it was about clumsy and bigoted paternalism rather than the more vicious kind of deliberate under-development in South Africa. But this is to distinguish the truly awful from the merely bad. Ian Smith was a reactionary, blinkered and disastrous leader. He missed perhaps the last opportunity for multi-racial rule in Africa, and condemned Rhodesians, black and white, to an unnecessarily protracted struggle.

One thing, however, that he did not say, and that he is continuously pilloried for having said, is that he 'didn't believe in Black majority rule - not in a thousand years'. This is routinely quoted as his version of the "Thousand Year Reich" speech. What he actually said was:

"I don't believe in Black Majority rule ever - not in a thousand years. I repeat that what I believe in is black and white working together. I believe that if one day we have white rule and the next black rule then we will have failed and that will be a disaster for Rhodesia."

The language is ill-chosen but the meaning is clear. This is a call for multi-racial politics and the statement of a belief that a majority rule that excluded the minority would be damaging. It's still, basically, wrong-headed but there's much better evidence of his racism than that. Like when said, in relation to the new constitution of 1971, "I am determined to give blacks a fair crack of the whip." There was a man worse at soundbites than Gordon Brown.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Westminster bubble

As a coda to that last post, I notice that Charlie Whelan has been brought out of mothballs to argue that all this is a meaningless kerfuffle and nobody outside of Westminster will even have noticed:

He also knows that there are two things that really matter. First, there is not one person in this country whose circumstances suffered in any way because there was no early election.
This was no Black Wednesday, after which millions of people really suffered as a result of Tory economic incompetence. In the current volatile political climate, the polls will go up and down regularly, but, when people go to put their cross on the ballot paper, what was essentially a Westminster story will not matter a jot. Not for the first time, the Westminster village will be seen to be completely out of touch with reality.
He's talking here about the early election that wasn't. And to an extent he's right - the only people who look likely to lose their jobs over that mishandling are Gordon Brown and the rest of the Government. But when Whelan talks about Black Wednesday causing suffering as a result of Tory incompetence (and lets ignore the fact that the Labour Party were more enthusiastic about the ERM than the Tories) he's talking about the failure of a policy. Over this data leak, we're talking about the catastrphic failure of a process. One of the reasons that the Labour Party haven't suffered a failure in economic policy is that they don't really have one.
That said, it's quite unfortunate for poor old Charlie that his article dismissing the non-election as a non-story comes out today, with every newspaper awash with the unfolding crisis of Northern Rock and the catastrophic balls up at HMRC. Now that's politics...

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Black Wednesday?

The eyebrows are the same, the looks of panic are the same, but is yesterday's astonishing balls-up really Labour's equivalent to Black Wednesday? Even when the continuing crisis over Northern Rock is taken into consideration, there hasn't, yet, been the killer moment that stands as shorthand for all that is useless about this Government. For all that, this is about as serious a crisis as there can be for this Government.
The problem they face is that, for all Gordon Brown's talk of his 'vision', there has been precious little of it on display. This has been a Government that has sought to portray itself as one devoted to competence - to performance. Once you remove a sense of vision and purpose, and replace it with an ambition to ministerial competence, there is no wriggle room left when that competence is challenged. For the Tories, this presents a golden opportunity to capitalise on Labour's discomfort. The attack of simply not being good enough at the job is a difficult one for Brown to endure, but endure it he will have to.
As far as Darling is concerned, this latest disaster really wasn't of his making. Collapse in the morale and efficiency of the Revenue has been building since the disastrous merger with Customs - and that was the brainchild of none other than the Primie Minister. However, Darling is an unlucky Chancellor, as well as an unimpressive one. First Northern Rock, then Inheritance Tax, now HMRC - it's hard to see how he can retain both his job and any credibility. Brown now has a lame duck Chancellor, to go with his lame duck Home Secretary. No wonder David Milliband was grinning like a coal scuttle in the Commons yesterday.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Channelling John Profumo

'Oh what have you done?' cried Christine
'You've wrecked the whole party machine!
To lie in the nude
May be frightfully rude,
But to lie in the House is obscene!'
The fallout over Northern Rock becomes more serious daily. Alastair Darling today had to make a statement clarifying the situation whereby the tax payer is standing as effective guarantor for Northern Rock - a commitment that is already equal to approximately £24bn, a figure that is rising inexorably as the value of Northern Rock diminishes. That's a lot of money, and MPs are understandably jumpy about the prospect of its being repaid. So Darling gave, on the floor of the House this unequivocal guarantee:
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Darling insisted that the government-backed loans given to the bank - currently worth about £24bn - must be repaid - and said that the lending was all guaranteed against "quality assets" including mortgages.
Which all looks OK. Although we're on the hook for a considerable amount of money, that loan is secured against Northern Rock's assets - which are hopefully sufficient to cover a loan of equivalent size to the Government's annual spending on primary schools. Except that it isn't true. One of the conditions for the Bank of England lending the money to Northern Rock in the first place - in a capacity according with its role as lender of last resort - was that it be lent at a 'punitive rate'. The Bank is not supposed to be a regular lender, and the 'moral hazard' argument requires that there be a powerful disincentive from using it as such.
But Northern Rock aren't able to pay this rate. So, apparently, a deal has been done whereby Bank rate is paid, and the punitive premium of 1.25% is nominally charged and accrued on an effective loan that is repayable in five years. According to Robert Peston, this debt is owed to the Treasury not to the Bank. Further, it is ranked as subordinated debt - very very low in the debt rankings in other words. And we're not talking peanuts either:
If, for example, the Northern Rock's loan from the Bank of England averaged £20bn over two years - which is a realistic scenario - the rolled up interest would total £500m.
That's getting close to being serious money. Barings Bank, for example, collapsed after making losses of £800m. And it's effectively unsecured debt - the next thing to equity. So when Alastair Darling said, in Parliament, that all the lending is secured against quality assets he wasn't telling the truth. It may be, charitably, that he is unaware of a five year Treasury commitment of up to half a billion pounds - although that's hardly a good thing in a Chancellor. If, on the other hand, he has kept up to speed with the most serious financial crisis in over a decade, then he has been lying to the House. At least John Profumo got a quality shag out of it.

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Turning a blind eye

Rod Liddle asks a dramatic rhetorical question of Charles Moore on fox-hunting:
In The Spectator, meanwhile, one of Britain’s most celebrated fox-stranglers, the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, worries that the police might soon “turn nasty” with regard to the hundreds of braying pink-jacketed aristowannabes who continue to flout the ban. By “turn nasty” he means uphold the law of the land. Charles and his ilk are at other times fervent admirers of law and order. I wonder how he would feel if he were to be burgled or mugged and the police resisted the temptation to “turn nasty” by pursuing the perpetrator, but turned a blind eye instead?
I have to say, when I was burgled two years ago, and had a bag snatched this year, that the police did indeed turn a blind eye. In fact, I'd be rather surprised if anyone in London who got mugged or burgled and reported it to the police ever got anything more than a crime number and an offer of victim counselling.

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Nice use of words

Tim Hames begins his article about the problems besetting Gordon Brown's Government in sympathetic style:
It must be irritating for a man who is blind in one eye and who has limited sight in the other to be told that he has a difficulty with “vision”. An absence of “vision”, the commenting classes intone, is what has handicapped Gordon Brown’s Government.
Indeed it must be, and so concerned is Hames not to harp on this affliction that he has titled this article
Get this in perspective, what’s needed is focus.
Marvel at the sensitivity...

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Next Mayor of London

There have been whisperings about Boris's lack of drive in recent weeks for the Mayoral elections. Hopefully, word of a new Boris biography will add a little pep to the affair.

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Hate Crimes: A Conservative guide

Unity has a pop here at Iain Dale's opposition to the proposed crime of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexuality. I'm not sure he's being entirely fair to Iain, but that's not the central point of this article. I'm going to try to articulate what I believe to be a properly Conservative attitude towards this rather inchoate crime of incitement to hatred on any basis.
The shortest answer to this is that it is a legislative absurdity. 'Hatred' was first introduced as a concept in English law, as Unity says, in the Public Order Act of 1986, which introduced a crime of inciting hatred on racial grounds. Unfortunately, for the cause of legislative certainty, 'Racial hatred' was defined as
'hatred against a group of persons [...] defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins'
That is, of course, a rather circular definition. Hatred itself is not defined, leaving the centre of the legislation shadowy and subjective. This leads to problems. Iain Dale says that he does not want a situation where calling someone a 'poof' is illegal. Unity retorts that it wouldn't be under the proposed legislation, and suggests someone saying 'Kill the poof' as an alternative. But saying 'Kill the poof' is already an offence - it's incitement to murder. If creating an offence of incitement to hatred is to mean anything, it must surely be something that is not already illegal - otherwise what on Earth is the point?
It isn't illegal to hate somebody - no matter how bizarre or bigoted your rationale for doing so. This is at least partly because there is no definition of hatred - no objective test for it. Making it an offence to incite someone to be in an entirely legal state seems odd. There is precedent I suppose: it is legal to commit suicide, but illegal to incite somebody to do so, but this does seem a bit different.
A Conservative critique then, says that this law is either a repetition of existing laws on inciting violence, or an entirely subjective and undefined offence. What is hatred? How do you incite it? Can you, as someone suggested, incite hatred of yourself by your actions? Would a cleric damning homosexuals as hell-bound be guilty under this law, and would someone condemning what they said be guilty of inciting religious hatred? The concept is ill-considered. I am not an absolutist on free speech. I agree with the concept of laws against incitement. I agree with the principle, if not the practice, of laws against defamation. But this proposed law is altogether too woolly: it is legislation as moral statement.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Slow News Day

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The problem for Jacqui Smith

Well, even before the recent difficulty over immigration Jacqui Smith wasn't particularly highly regarded. Her usurpation by Jack Straw made her look desperately weak, in a job that demands political strength perhaps more than any other cabinet post. John Reid's tactic was to say, after every such incident, 'Yes, this department's rubbish. I'm trying my best to sort it out, but Jesus!' It was surprisingly effective.
Jacqui Smith's tactic in this instance was to sit on information until a positive spin could be put on it or, even less creditably, until an Autumn election was safely out of the way and the news could be released in the hubbub of a new Parliament. But it's almost an understandable tactic. Charles Clarke, after all, tried the opposite approach. As soon as he was informed about a scandal involving Home Office incompetence and immigration (the release of foreign prisoners if I remember correctly) he held a press conference and then gave a statement to the House. It didn't work, the scandal never went away, and Clarke was 'resigned' by Tony Blair.
But if attempts at rapid rebuttal ended in ministerial dismissal, does wagon circling and obfuscation have a better chance? Probably not, in all honesty. The bluntness of the internal memos on finding the right line for the press office to take, and on how to make sure the story was not released as 'it would not be a positive one' are pretty damning. With Clarke the story was Home Office incompetence. With Smith the story is both Home Office incompetence and attempts at a cover up. Not a promising combination.

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Top Gear

I've been wanting to write something about Top Gear for a while now, and, as if by magic, we have two complementary pieces in today's papers. First Michael Gove praises it:
Thanks to Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond, the programme has become a celebration of individual freedom, capitalist excess and private-sector innovation. It is also laced with laddish distrust of political correctness, nannying and Ken Livingstone-style finger-wagging. Some viewers might find its sensibility just a bit too juvenile, even public-schoolish, with the presenters mobbing each other up and addressing each other by their surnames. But I find it totally absorbing.
Nowhere is more nonsense spoken about this issue than on the BBC. Its Top Gear series has become a sort of looking-glass Crimewatch in which the presenters enlist the public to help criminals foil the police. There are tips on how to avoid prosecution and endless suggestions that speed cameras are useless or counter-productive. The tone was set in 2002 when the team demonstrated that you could beat the cameras by driving past them at 170mph. Since Richard Hammond's crash last year it has had to temper the message a little - but only a little. How, while BBC editors are sacked for misnaming the Blue Peter cat, does Top Gear remain on air?
While noting that I can think of few things that would give the Top Gear team more pleasure than being slagged off by George Monbiot, the latter article unwittingly points to what it about Top Gear that makes it so much fun. It's basically a joke. There are, admittedly, elements where someone discusses why the limited slip differential makes the new BMW so much more stable on the road. But it's OK, because to prove it they drive the damn thing on an ice-rink or a salt pan.
To prove the echoing depths of my sadness, I'm going to compare Top Gear, a programme about cars, to Amiga Power, a magazine nominally about computer games that closed in about 1995. In both cases they were brilliant because they stopped being tied to their subject matter. In Amiga Power, forced admittedly by the death of the Amiga, they diverted into entirely random subject matter, leavened by incomprehensible in-jokes and a set of editorial features that have been widely adopted by grown-up magazines since. On Top Gear they convert Triumph Heralds into amphibious sailing dinghies, badly, and drive knackered old crocs across Botswana.
The reason more people watch it than read George Monbiot in the Guardian is that Top Gear is unashamedly about enjoying itself. It's far more about people doing fun things and talking rubbish than anything else, and the fact that it annoys George Monbiot is just another mark in its favour.

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Northern Rock and Farepak

Polly is, I think, missing the point here rather. She's also rather underestimating the problems that Northern Rock have lined up for the British economy. Lets look at the latter point first.
True, the Northern Rock £18bn rescue fund is not taxpayers' money lost: the government will almost certainly end up with a profit, not a loss, as the bank's mortgage debts are solid.
The government is thought to have put in up to £23 billion ($48 billion), and the sum is growing by £2 billion-3 billion a week as depositors continue to flee. At least £10 billion of the bank's £24 billion in retail savings has already been withdrawn, some say, and Northern Rock is having little luck persuading banks to lend it new money as its existing loans come due. State support for Northern Rock already exceeds Britain's transport budget and could soon surpass the £32 billion allocated to defence—a particular embarrassment for a government accused of under-equipping its soldiers in combat zones.
At the punitive rate Northern Rock pays the Bank of England today, it cannot make a profit on any new mortgages and is losing money on many of its old ones. Its new lending is thought to have slumped to a few hundred million pounds a month, less than a quarter of the volume in the first half of the year. The longer it takes to reach a deal, the less there will be left to buy. A restructuring and sale may save Northern Rock from a lingering death, but any recovery is likely to be slow and painful.
Northern Rock is proving to be an economic disaster, but its real significance is political. When Barings Bank collapsed, there was no question of public money being put up to rescue it. It was sold for £1 to ING, and has effectively disappeared altogether. But Barings didn't cater to the 'ordinary people', it didn't hold savings or mortgages. The political cost of its fall was limited. Northern Rock is a bank for Labour voters, and cannot be allowed to go under without at least an effort to save it. Ultimately, this is all about politics - which is why ultimate responsibility belongs in fact, as well as in theory, to the Chancellor.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Problems, Problems

Brown has a problem. His faltering performances at the Despatch Box are confirming an impression that he is nowhere as good as we were led to believe; that there is, after all, no 'there' there. But his greater problem lies in the paucity of heavyweight talent in the cabinet. This is, unbelievably, a cabinet in which Geoff Hoon is considered a safe pair of hands. The reason for this problem is that Gordon Brown spent the last decade meticulously removing from his path any Labour minister who looked like becoming a threat. There are those that have been removed from the political scene through force majeure, notably Robin Cook, but also people like David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson who are not dead, but merely seemingly permanently removed from Westminster politics. But there are also those whose political demises have Brown's fingerprints all over them. Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke, John Reid to name but three. All were deemed at one point to be a threat to Gordon, so he worked to remove them.
It worked, leaving Gordon free to fill his cabinet with his proteges. The problem with this is that even those, like Ed Balls, who have been trailed as political he-men are proving inept at being Ministers. Balls still looks as though he's just been slapped in the face by a haddock; David Miliband looks like Harry Potter with added itching powder; James Purnell? Andy Burnham? Not impressive. And in the Treasury we have the least impressive Chancellor since Selwyn Lloyd. The Home Secretary is dismissed and humiliated in the Chamber by Jack Straw, and left to twist in the wind by the Prime Minister over 56 day detention without trial.
The Prime Minister needs to be able to send Cabinet colleagues to do battle in the media. Currently there seems to be no one capable of doing so. Brown is left trying to do everything himself, and now that the goodwill has vanished, he's left looking less and less secure.

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Cameron and the politics of rape

David Cameron has spoken about the low conviction rate and the relatively high incidence of unreported rape, in the context of the 'broken society' line that seems to be making headway. However, I think he's in danger of over-simplifying the issue. The reason that the conviction rate is so low is that the definition of rape has broadened to the extent that it is now primarily so-called date rape. In these cases, the fact of sexual intercourse is not denied - what is at issue is whether there was consent.
In the majority of these cases, the only evidence is the word of the protagonists - 'he said, she said'. In order for more of these cases to get a conviction, either the burden of proof must be reversed, or the weight of proof must be lowered. Neither would be just. Cameron calls further for longer sentences for rapists, and there can be little opposition to this. Except that the current length of sentence - life imprisonment being available to the judge - is one of the factors that make it less likely that a 'date rapist' will be convicted at all. Either the Conservatives have to push for a division between 'stranger rape' and 'date rape' - and there isn't much philosophical merit in that, both are a violation and a breach of trust - or accept that in cases where there is no solid evidence, juries are unlikely to convict.
At least you can reply on Labour to maintain their high standards of argument.
Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of Labour, said that Theresa May, the Conservatives’ spokesman for women, had voted against the minimum wage, which has benefited many working women, and that the Tories failed to support increased maternity leave.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Libertarians of straw?

The blogosphere has been a little quiet of late - not so many enlivening feuds and spats as there used to be. So it's always nice to be able to watch one develop. It all started with a series of posts between Peter Risdon, the DK and Mr Eugenides on the nature of libertarianism versus conservatism. It was, in fact, a thoughtful exchange, given that the DK is very strong on being a libertarian in a minarchist way, and Mr Eugenides appears to view libertarianism as a tendency more than an ideology.
In any event, Paulie, of Never Trust a Hippy, wrote a piece that attacked what he described as 'bloggertarians' (the phrase originated, I think, with Pootergeek, who is not currently blogging) for, effectively their nihilistic approach towards Government in general - or at least for negativism. The DK took exception to this - with some justification in my opinion, as he has written numerous posts in which he sets out alternative policies, and is I think involved to some degree in policy formation with a political party. As might be expected, he was as forthright in his opinions on the merits of the piece as he usually is, and a lively little exchange took place in the comments. Interestingly, given that one of Paulie's principle objections was that the DK's use of swearwords lowers the level of debate, the DK is remarkably restrained.
Paulie has subsequently expounded on this theme on the Drink-Soaked Trots page. And I don't really agree with him. In his first post, for example, in a list of policies that these purely negative 'bloggertarians' don't try and propose an alternative for, he comes up with:
  • CCTV
  • ID Cards
  • DNA Databases
  • Police powers in general (though the distinction between bloggertarians and libertarians is that they only oppose police powers where they are endorsed by a Labour PM).

Well, if you are opposed to ID Cards, and the DNA Database that is its prerequisite, there's not much that needs to proposed as an alternative is there? Just don't proceed with ID cards. This is, obviously, a negative approach - but that isn't necessarily the same as a generally negativist approach. But it isn't the philosophical nature of this debate that irritates me - as a confessed Conservative, I don't really have a dog in this fight - it's more the tone of the debate.

I remember it first from Pootergeek - in this piece - and it's the sneery nature of the style that puts my back up.

Now that is an inspired rhetorical curlicue. How can I translate it and still embed a clever double meaning like the one Justin rightly draws our attention to in the original?

I wish I could say I hadn’t seen its like since I was an undergraduate, but, with the state of debate these days, I can’t. Read the rest as we bloggers say. It’s crushing stuff. Turning on his PC every day to face criticism like this—its wit, its rigour, its scholarship—must have been what drove Matthew Taylor to resign.

I have to say that this itself reads like undergraduate humour - the combination of heavy-handed sarcasm and pomposity was depressing then and it's depressing now - all the more so since I probably once wrote like this as well. Paulie isn't very different. The fastidious sneering is both wearisome and pretentious, and I don't like it. Well, bully for me, and I'm sure he'll be suitably stricken.

I would note, just briefly, that of the three bloggers Paulie cites as true libertarians one is a self-defined 'classical liberal' - which is rather different.

UPDATE: Incidentally, this looks like it might be something of a recurring theme...



I'll say this for the KGB, once they bought someone, they really managed to make it stick. Take Richard Gott. It's been 30 years or so since he started working for the KGB, and more than a decade since he was exposed as such, but he's still writing articles in praise of his beloved Soviet Union.
But then, Gott was clearly an enthusiastic traitor before even being approached.
By The Spectator’s account, Gott was so eager to work for the KGB in the late 1970s that he excited suspicion. Palmer wrote, “Some KGB officers thought he was a ‘dangle’ - KGB slang for an MI-6 plant. He was too good to be true. How could anyone be so eager to work for the KGB? It made no sense. But the majority view was that no one could fake Gott’s degree of sincerity or enthusiasm. So contacts started.”
But as an agent “Gott seems to have been a serious disappointment,” Palmer wrote. “He had no significant contacts within the British government, and no secret information to impart.” There was talk of him recruiting a relative, a civil servant, who might have secrets but nothing came of it. The Spectator reported, “Gott was useful to the KGB only in one respect. He passed on the names of other Guardian journalists he thought might be recruited by the organization.”
Makes you wonder how long that list was really, doesn't it?

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Thoroughly well said.

Listening to Jacqui Smith on the Today program yesterday, I was struck by the weakness of her argument in relation to why the Labour Government want 56 days detention without trial. The best she could offer was the 'just in case' argument, which really doesn't wash. The current 28 days is already the longest such period in the Western world, and there is no evidence whatsoever that any extension is needed. While our protection by the state is needed, so too is our protection from the state.
With that in mind, the speech by David Davis in Parliament yesterday was salutary in the extreme. The disarray of the current Government is highlighted by the astonishing mess the cabinet finds itself in, where Geoff Hoon is considered a safe pair of hands, where the Foreign Secretary gurns his way through the Queen's Speech debate, and where the Lord Chancellor is neither a member of the House of Lords nor a practising lawyer. This bizarre arrangement is why the Minister for Justice (gah) opened the debate, which is normally the prerogative of the Home Secretary.
In any event, Davis absolutely skewered the Labour front bench, finishing off with what is so rarely seen in the House - heart-felt anger.
Ms Smith, he noted, had never explained why she wanted to go beyond the current 28-day period. Indeed, she had told the Home Affairs Committee: “There has not been a circumstance in which it has been necessary up to this point to go beyond 28 days.” Ms Smith, on the front bench, muttered: “Thank goodness.”
This inflamed DD, who turned on her, teeth bared, like a dog with the hair standing up on the back of his neck. “She seems to have managed to pick this number out of the air!” he cried, referring to 28 days. “The highest number in the free world! The highest length of time for people to be held without charge in the free world! Hardly a matter of pride for her to pick on! So we’ll come back to her in a minute!”

“I look around the chamber and almost everybody here is wearing a poppy,” he noted. At this, MPs looked down at their poppies. The few without them looked alarmed.

“Those poppies symbolise an enormous sacrifice,” said DD. “Our freedom was bought at a very high price. We on this side will not give those freedoms away without very good reason.”

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Enoch, Enoch, Enoch

So it was a stopped clock after all. Heffer returns to form in his article in today's Telegraph in which he declares that the time is ripe to reclaim the heritage of Enoch Powell, that Powell was definitely not a racist, and that the Tories were stupid to have sought Nigel Hastilow's resignation over his statement, however ambiguous, that 'Enoch was right'.
There are, in fact, elements of sense within the article - although I remain unconvinced that Powell did not foresee the likely outcome of his speech. Powell was certainly academically brilliant, becoming a Fellow of All Souls. That this is not necessarily a qualification for political genius is amply demonstrated by the other recent MP to have achieved such status - John Redwood. But what Heffer misses is that, if one seeks, as he purport to do, a debate on immigration that actually has an outcome, the worst thing, literally the very worst thing, that one can do is to say 'Enoch was right'. For Enoch Powell is no longer the Conservative/Ulster Unionist MP of the middle of the century. He is rather a shorthand for the entire racial politics of the 1950s, the 'If you want a nigger for a neighbour' times. Despite his intellect, despite his charisma, despite his undoubted prescience in the field of monetarist economics, the best thing we can do with Enoch Powell for now is to forget him.
Perhaps, in another twenty years or so, there will be scope for a good revisionist biography that points out where he was right, where he was wrong, and where he was deliberately provocative. That time has not come, and his very name makes debate on immigration impossible. If Heffer doesn't see that, he is of course at liberty to fulminate that 'Enoch was right' as long as he likes. Let him see what sort of debate that produces.
UPDATE: Racist or not, Powell appears to have been a rather challenging dinner companion.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Party Funding...

So, lets just get this straight. Lord Ashcroft's spending on marginal constituencies is an affront to democracy, since it is a rich man buying votes. Accordingly, action will be taken to stop Lord Ashcroft from doing so. No action will, of course, be taken on Trade Union targeted funding, even though research has shown that the Trade Unions gave far more money in directly targeted donations than Lord Ashcroft - or indeed all Tory donors.
But an analysis by The Times revealed that while Lord Ashcroft gave almost £850,000 during the last Parliament to Tory seats, unions collectively gave £1.58 million directly to constituencies. Other wealthy Tory businessmen gave a further £470,000, meaning the Tories’ marginal seats received £1.38 million, broadly comparable with the unions’ constituency donations.
Further weakening the Labour Party argument is the story, broken in the Mail on Sunday, that Labour MPs, in this case Ruth Kelly, are using the new 'communication allowance' as a method of transmitting party political statements. This was explicitly denied when the Tories cited it as a defence for their increased targeted spending in marginal seats. If the Labour Party do indeed act to stop Lord Ashcroft from spending his money as he sees fit, while at the same time giving carte blanche to Trade Unions and to incumbent MPs to abuse their tax-funded allowances, it will look like a massive abuse of office.

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Toxic Argument

Nigel Hastilow, who I suspect will now return to the obscurity from which he had threatened briefly to emerge, has learned a lesson the painful way. His crime, which has brought down opprobrium from all sides, was to say the following:
"When you ask most people in the Black Country what the single biggest problem facing the country is, most say immigration. Many insist: 'Enoch Powell was right'. Enoch, once MP for Wolverhampton South-West, was sacked from the Conservative front bench and marginalised politically for his 1968 'rivers of blood' speech, warning that uncontrolled immigration would change our country irrevocably. He was right. It has changed dramatically."
There are two problems with this. The first is that saying 'Enoch was right' is tailor made to re-ignite the charge that for Tories to discuss immigration at all is racist. There are those who will say that Powell didn't have a racist bone in his body - that his speech, heavy with Virgilian allusion, was an academic exercise in premonition. I never saw Powell speak, though my father who did is certain that Powell was certainly a racist. In honesty, that doesn't really matter. 'Enoch was right' is about the most pointlessly damaging thing a Conservative can say. It allows people like Peter Hain to claim that the 'racist underbelly' of the Conservative Party has been exposed, and it allows people to continue looking at immigration through the prism of racism and bigotry - just at a time when David Cameron has succeeded in shifting the analysis.
So it's politically stupid - though it ought to be remembered that Hastilow has form on this. It was he who said during the 2001 General Election, when a candidate for Birmingham Edgbaston, that the Conservatives were "a lost cause". The miracle here is that he got a chance to stuff it up all over again. But, and here I disagree with Iain Dale, it was also important that Hastilow should go. Because the last thing that the Tories need is a candidate with either desperately poor judgement or sub-Powellite views on race. Candidates who say 'Enoch was right' and 'we should stop rolling out the red carpet for immigrants' are either terminally politically stupid, or worse.

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Friday, November 02, 2007


This isn't really an anonymous blog. It also doesn't (shame on you) have a particularly large number of comments, although this is partly because I don't tend to write pieces that especially call for them. When I comment on other blogs it's usually as 'Tim', for the rather obvious reason that that is my name. The whole thrust of the anonymity debate that recently gripped the British blogosphere was never particularly germane to this corner of it. However, Ben Macintyre's article in the Times today is helpful in the way it puts internet anonymity into a more general historical context.
Dizzy's argument here is that, essentially, the internet has always been an anonymous place - that it's your playground/kingdom and that if you don't like it, don't allow anonymous comments on your site, and don't visit sites that do. Even then of course - that chap calling himself Doctor Crippen (welcome back by the way), how do we know that he's really called that? He isn't of course, he's just as anonymous as a commenter called 'anonymous'. It's a feature of the internet, it's not possible to avoid and there's little point in trying.
That said, there can be little point in pretending that anonymity doesn't impact harmfully on manners. Comments on the internet are generally extremely rude. I'm, gasp, even guilty of this myself. If I were to discuss with Polly Toynbee the merits or otherwise of her articles, while I would make broadly the same points to her face as I do in blogging, I'm pretty sure that I would cut down drastically on the 'are you stupid or something, or what?' elements of it. Similarly, there was a commenter here a while ago who, while disagreeing with me and what I said, did so relatively politely - largely, I suspect because I replied. On his own site, which I can't remember now, I think he was rather ruder. One of the reasons why Comment is Free comment threads descend into the abyss so often is because there is so little response. The commenters are throwing their vitriol into an empty space.
So, ultimately, there's no point in worrying about anonymous commenters, or anonymous bloggers. If they write well, read them. If they don't, don't. It would be nice to think we could all be as nice on the page as we are off it, but it's not true in all cases, so if you particularly want to spread around opprobrious epithets, by all means do so - but remember that anonymous sniping was never a great badge of honour.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Spinning Around

On Sunday I commented on a Guardian piece about the intensely bad blood between Brown and Cameron, with one of the key areas that had caused ructions being their respective children:
His anger shows how relations between the two men are now beyond repair. Cameron meant his remarks to be a friendly word of support from one father to another (his own life was transformed by the birth of his profoundly disabled son in 2002). But Brown winced at the mention of Fraser on television because he barely mentions his son in public.
So it came as something of a surprise, looking back to those days before he had become Prime Minister and was courting the Press to discover that:
He has a near-permanent smile on his face, and has been ready and even eager to talk about his family life and personal tragedies, such as the loss of his first child - again referred to during his campaign launch.
So perhaps his iron privacy is a little less consistent that he might like us to believe?

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