Monday, March 31, 2008

Owen on Nkomo

As the world gears up for what are hopefully the very last few days of Mugabe's rule over Zimbabwe, it is just worth remembering that, in Africa, there are very few goodies, and lots of baddies in varying degrees. David Owen, who had a hand in at the creation of Zimbabwe, is a little bit disingenuous here for example.
I judged in 1978 that Joshua Nkomo, rather than Mugabe, would make a better first – interim – leader of Zimbabwe as it prepared for truly free elections. For a while I helped to pursue secret negotiations with Nkomo to bring this about, eventually concluding in a meeting between Nkomo and the then prime minister, Ian Smith, held in total secrecy in Lusaka. The meeting should have ended with Nkomo flying straight back to Rhodesia to be saluted as prime minister and bringing illegal independence to an end. It was not to be: another Lusaka meeting was planned, but before then the initiative became public and the meeting never reconvened.
The reason that there was so much public hostility in Rhodesia to the talks between Smith, Nkomo and Owen was that, while they were underway, Nkomo's ZIPRA guerrillas shot down a Rhodesian Airways Viscount, the Hunyani, and then machine-gunned the survivors, including women and children, in Gokwe TTL. Nkomo then boasted about the incident on the BBC, chuckling as he did so. It explains why the initiative never got anywhere - and it also renders questionable whether the tubby and seemingly affable Nkomo would have been any better than Mugabe.

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Ian Chappell has written in Cricinfo arguing that sledging should be abolished, and that captains and umpires should be the agents of that decision. Now, at first blush this looks extraordinary - it was Chappell's team of the 1970s, after all, that first won the soubriquet 'Ugly Australians' - but perhaps there might be something in it.
The ICC doesn't need to provide a definition. What they need to do is ask umpires to report any player guilty of abusing an opponent and then make sure the first offender receives a stiff penalty. Then they should demand that captains crack down on the amount of inane chatter indulged in by their players, and ensure that any batsman who takes the law into his own hands in quieting the fielding side is awarded a medal for doing the game a belated service, rather than be reported for a misdemeanour.
Chappell even provides an example of this:
In 1980 at the SCG, the Englishman Derek Randall's constant, "Well bowled, Deadly" from silly mid-off every time I played a Derek Underwood delivery with the middle of the bat, became rather tiresome. Consequently I politely pointed out to Randall that at the first opportunity I would cover-drive his head instead of the ball if he didn't shut up.
Hmm. It should be probably be put into the balance that it was under Chappell that the modern art of on-field chat really developed. That Lillee and Thomson routinely swore at opponents. Compared to that, saying 'well bowled' doesn't look so very bad.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Brownie alert!

In Gordon Brown's speech to the Scottish Labour conference, he claimed the following:
"What makes me proudest of all is that I am the first prime minister to represent a Scottish constituency - the constituency I grew up in, the constituency where I went to school."
Now, Brown's difficulties with the actualite have been well-documented by the Coffee House blog, and here is another example. Because what apparently makes him proudest of all is, to put it charitably, balls. Shall we have a little look?
William Gladstone (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886 and 1892–94): a slightly tricky one, as he was MP for all sorts of places, including Greenwich, University of Oxford and Newark, but he was Prime Minister from 1880 onwards as MP for Midlothian.
VERDICT: Scottish, Scottish constituency.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-1908): pretty clearcut actually. He was elected as MP for Stirling Burghs in 1868, and remained MP there until his death in 1908. He died in No.10 Downing Street, still the only PM to have done so.
VERDICT: Scottish, Scottish constituency.
Herbert Asquith (1908-1916): another straightforward one actually. Asquith was first elected as MP for East Fife in 1886, and it was as East Fife's MP that Asquith was Prime Minister. Even after the war, when he had to find a new seat, it was as MP for Paisley that he returned. Brown really has no excuse for not knowing this one - he's MP for Fife, the modern version of Asquith's old seat.
VERDICT: Scottish, Scottish constituency.
Andrew Bonar Law (1922-1923): Bonar Law was a Scots Canadian, and first entered Parliament in 1900 as MP for Glasgow Blackfriars. However, following the death of his wife in 1910, he temporarily left politics, and it was as MP for Bootle that he was Prime Minister.
VERDICT: pretty Scottish, English constituency.
Ramsay Macdonald (1924, 1931-35): Now, given that Macdonald was definitely Scottish, you might have thought he'd have stood in Scotland. But no, it was as MP for Aberavon in Wales that he was Prime Minister.
VERDICT: Scottish, but Welsh constituency.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1964): No real excuses here, as Lord Dunglass, as the Earl of Home and as Sir Alec Douglas-Home, this man was a typical Scottish aristocrat (educated at Eton, born in Mayfair, that sort of thing). He was first elected as MP for Lanark in 1931, and, when he renounced his earldom in 1963, it was the seat of Kinross & West Perthshire that he stood for.
VERDICT: Scottish, Scottish constituency.
So, when Gordon Brown said today that he was proud to be the first Prime Minister to represent a Scottish constituency, what he should have said was that he was proud to be the fifth Prime Minister to represent a Scottish constituency. The man's got a Phd in history as well...
UPDATE: Asquith is, of course a Yorkshireman, from Airedale I believe. Which I really ought to have known since I used to have an Airedale called Asquith...

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Too perfect

Mr Eugenides's favourite Scottish houri has been getting herself into a spot of bother over the past few months, what with illegal donations, and getting shoed by the SNP and all that sort of thing. One might think that what was needed was a touch of humility. Um.
During the web chat, driven by questions from BBC viewers, listeners and online users, she was asked to score herself out of 10 for her performance since being elected leader unopposed in September last year.
"Rising all the time, I think is the answer," said Ms Alexander, adding: "Ten out of 10, 10 out of 10."
Well, if we can't have any humility, could we try for a touch of self-awareness?
Ms Alexander also dismissed claims of arrogance against Labour politicians and said her party's fight back was under way.
She added: "Frankly, as I look across the other benches in the parliament, I don't think the arrogance is on our side"
Oh dear.

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No real surprise here

So, the Crusaders left a 'genetic legacy' in the Middle East? Colour me decidedly unsurprised. The Crusades weren't simply a string of military invasions: after the first crusade, the crusaders had made such territorial gains that a series of crusader states were established in the Levant. The longest-lived of these (Jerusalem) lasted until 1291. These were finally reconquered by the Arabs, but by no means were they extinguished. As with most of the Islamic conquests, the leadership was simply replaced and the people progressively converted.
So, given that there was a permanent crusader presence in the Levant for two hundred years, and that this presence was assimilated rather than extinguished, why shoiuld there by any surprise that their genetic heritage is still there? After all, when they found a pre-historic man in Somerset, his direct descendant was found to be living in the next door village.

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Class warfare

Sam Coates, at the excellent Red Box blog, wonders whether the class warfare approach to David Cameron is going to pay dividends. Hazel Blears, at the conference in Liverpool, gave it a shot:
But you know, I don’t think David Cameron really gets it. I don’t think he’s really in touch with the lives of hard-working people. He’s never worried about the mortgage. Or not been able to afford a holiday. He doesn’t even like football, whether red or blue. When David Cameron came up to Bury, he met a stall-holder on Bury market selling black pudding. He tasted a bit, and asked what the flavouring was. And then he asked ‘is it oregano?’
"Of course the stall-holder said ‘no’. Oregano? In black pudding? I’ve never had a black pudding with oregano in it. I think when the elections come on 1st May, voters across the northwest will make their views on David Cameron very clear…
The relentless demoticism of the Labour Government is of course tiresome, and really, not everyone likes football. But the important thing here is, of course, Blear's blinkered attitude towards black pudding. If only she wasn't so tediously parochial, she would realise that oregano is a perfectly acceptable seasoning for black pudding.

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Managerialism and Mugabe

Chris Dillow has written an excellent book on the folly of managerialism - put simply, the idea that 'the right man at the top' is all that is needed for success in either politics or business. I think that I can detect a similar error, or at least over-simplification, in much of the coverage surrounding the Presidential elections in Zimbabwe this weekend.
Received wisdom is that the collapse of Zimbabwe, from bread-basket to basket-case, has been the work of one man, Robert Mugabe. An article in the National Review puts that argument clearly: Zimbabwe's downfall is all the work of one man: Zimbabwe’s leader for the past 28 years, Robert Mugabe. With the possible exception of North Korea, no other place on earth owes such a debt of ingratitude to a single individual. And yet how true is this?
First lets look at the statistics, and pretty damning they are too. In 1980, after 14 years of sanctions, the Rhodesian dollar was worth about $1.50. In 2008 it takes literally millions of Zimbabwe dollars to purchase a greenback. Inflation is at 100,000%, unemployment at 80%, life expectancy is 36, the population has fallen by three million in five years. Zimbabwe is in freefall, there is no economic infrastructure left, no tax base, no government, no education and no health service. There is no petrol, no consumer goods, little food and less cooking oil.
The rot became apparent with the farm invasions of 2000, themselves sparked by the emergence of an opposition, the MDC, and the defeat of the constitutional amendment. Yet the sign of the collapse had been two years earlier, when Mugabe, under political pressure for the first time since the early 1980s, authorised an ex gratia payment of Z$50,000 to 'war veterans' of dubious credentials. To pay for this he ordered an increase in the money supply - and the slide of the currency began.
Many of the visible problems since then, the farm occupations, the harassment of the opposition, the squandering of public money on private mansions, can be laid directly at Mugabe's feet. Yet it is, I think, too simplistic, solely to blame Mugabe for Zimbabwe's collapse. There were difficult legacies of settler rule (colonialism is a slight misnomer here - Britain was the direct colonial power for a period of about six months in 1980, not before) though never as bad as has been claimed. There are inherent difficulties in any developing nation. African nationalism was, almost by its nature, revolutionary and quasi-Marxist in character - overcoming that sort of economic handicap proved too much for a slew of newly-independent African countries.
More worryingly, attempts to pin the blame squarely and solely on Comrade Bob risk allowing others, equally culpable, to slide off the hook. The propsects of Simba Makoni, the former finance minister for ZANU PF turned new challenger, have been boosted by the presence on his team of men like Dumiso Dabengwa, and behind the scenes the equivocal support of Emerson Mnangagwa and Solomon Mujuru. Nothing would suit them better than for Mugabe to take the rap for the last twenty years and have their sordid pasts expunged.
The danger is that, much as happened in Kenya, so much attention is focused on the personal failings of the big man at the top, that fundamental rottenness of the political system as a whole is ignored. Mugabeism without Mugabe would be no improvement.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Finest news story of the year so far

A New Zealand man who claimed he was raped by a wombat and that the experience left him speaking with an Australian accent has been found guilty of wasting police time.
Arthur Cradock, 48, from the South Island town of Motueka, called police last month to tell them he was being raped by the marsupial at his home and needed urgent assistance.

Cradock, an orchard worker, later called back to reassure the police operator that he was all right.

"I’ll retract the rape complaint from the wombat, because he’s pulled out. Apart from speaking Australian now, I’m pretty all right you know. I didn’t hurt my bum at all."

He pleaded guilty in Nelson District Court to using a phone for a fictitious purpose and was sentenced to 75 hours’ community work.

Police prosecutor Sergeant Chris Stringer told the court that alcohol played a large role in Cradock’s life.

Judge Richard Russell said he was not sure what had motivated Cradock to make the extraordinary claim.

In sentencing Cradock, he warned him not to do it again.
I suppose it's something of a change, as far as sexual relations between Kiwis and animals go, to see an animal on the aggressive end...

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The tragedy of a rigid ideology

David Mamet's Damascene conversion from 'brain dead liberalism' has caused a predictable furore among, um, brain dead liberals the world over. Perhaps the best, because least self-aware, reaction has been from, inevitably, the Guardian's Michael Billington. Nailing his colours firmly to the mast, Billington says that he's not upset for Mamet himself because of his new aversion to the tenets of liberal orthodoxy:
What worries me is the effect on his talent of locking himself into a rigid ideological position.
There's a lovely view into the mindset of a section of the left: adhere religiously to the 'increasingly impractical prejudices' of the left and you are a free-thinking man of depth. Challenge them and you are a fundamentalist incapable of seeing nuance.
Given his new-found conservatism, I doubt he could ever write a play riddled with such moral ambiguity.
Because conservatives are stupid, as we all know, and can see only in generalities. Mind you, I'm not certain how valuable Bilington's opinions are: compare and contrast the following two sentences:
Mamet's greatness as a dramatist has always depended on two things. One is his fantastic ear for everyday speech rhythms: in particular, the four-letter bluster with which men mask their insecurities.
"Mamet," I suggested to my friend, "is not anti-women. Only against a political orthodoxy that sometimes drives them, along with men, into false positions."
If that's the sort of everday speech rhythym for which Mamet had such a fantastic ear, maybe he's not so wonderful after all...

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lazy classification

Richard Murphy, of that crazy Tax Justice Network, displays a perfect example of lazy political classification here. In a response to DK, who points out reasonably enough that the neo-cons are quite different from libertarians (both of whom would in any case probably object to being classified as 'right-wing in any event), Murphy says:
But how wrong you are! The far right are the far right - and if they wish to argue with each others defintions of ‘rightness’, so be it. The world will still ignore them.
The dismissal as 'right wing' of people with whom you disagree is tiresome. I'm with the great PJ on this:
I am a little to the right of ... Why is the Attila comparison used? Fifth-century Hunnish depredations on the Roman Empire were the work of an overpowerful executive pursuing a policy of economic redistribution in an atmosphere of permissive social mores.
UPDATE: there's some lovely stuff in that article by the way:
Ann Coulter, on the cover of Treason, has the look of a soon-to-be-ex wife who has just finished shouting.
Approached by someone like Michael Moore, a conservative would drop a quarter in Moore's Starbucks cup and hurriedly walk away.
There's supposed to be a lot of liberal advocacy on TV. I looked for things that debased freedom, promoted license, ridiculed responsibility, and denigrated man and God—but that was all of TV. How do you tell the liberal parts from the car ads?

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The joys of advertising

It's still one of the nicer things about the BBC, that it isn't constantly interrupted by advert breaks. In the old days, when rules were more rigidly adhered to, it was forbidden even to mention brand names on air as this was perceived to be a form of advertising. This is obviously a rule in decline, as the opening paragraph from this news story makes clear:

But had you observed the name above the door on your way into the Ann Boal Inn in Killough, County Down, and promptly Googled it on your iPhone, you should now be piecing together information to support what you initially thought was a very tall tale

The joys of product placement eh?

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Another defunct political line

If the Labour Party are unable to use the 'Tory black hole' argument any more, that'll be pretty damaging - it's been their go-to line in elections for a decade and more. But there's one standard political line that's always used when a politician is challenged on something they've said, or something that has been said about them: don't judge me on what X has to say - look at my record and judge me on that.
For all the eloquence of Barack Obama's speech on race and identity, he is still vulnerable to being attacked on his relationship with Pastor 'God damn America' Wright. Where some politicans might be able to say - look at my record on race, I've brought in these measures etc. Obama can't - people have to judge him on what he says and what is said about him: he hasn't done anything yet.

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A phony line of attack

The budget may have been a tiresome non-event, but some of the figures that came out of it really ought to change the tenor of political discourse. The reason for the endless Tory havering about tax-cuts is that the last two elections were partly won on the premise that 'Tory cuts' would leave a sort of gaping black hole in the public finances and were therefore irresponsible. Michael White returns to this theme today.
By promising to stick to Labour's 2008-11 spending totals - including 2% real terms growth in public spending, half the recent rate - the Tories hoped to neutralise a fourth Brownite blitzkrieg about "black holes" and "Tory cuts" in public services.
But wait a cotton-picking minute here. Darling announced in that snooze-a-thon that public borrowing was now over £40bn a year. That's serious money - especially when one considers that neither PFI deals nor the Northern Rock liabilities are included. For the Government to call any projected Tory tax cuts reckless because they are 'unfunded' is hypocritical, and surely to warn about a 'black hole' of unfunded cuts is ludicrous. Borrowing is now so high that Labour should have lost the ability to play that card. They won't, of course.

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Uncomfortable choices

There's a fascinating article on Cricinfo at the moment about the problem England faces with its batting. Put simply it is that, although the top six of Cook, Vaughan, Strauss, Pieterson, Bell and Collingwood look good on paper - all averaging 40 and over - they lack muscle. Only Pieterson is a truly quick scorer, and he's been out of form and out of sorts for a while. As I mentioned a while ago, Cook and Strauss are very similar in style - square of the wicket nurdlers - and the same is really true of Bell and Collingwood. England look one-paced.
A couple of years ago, with Trescothick opening and Flintoff in the middle order, England were if anything a little too buccaneering. They now look rather under-powered. But it seems a little hard to drop a batsman in particular, especially if he's got a good average and has been batting reasonably well. England have invested in Ian Bell, who is beginning to come good, they had thought that Andrew Strauss was the captain in waiting, and Paul Collingwood is the one-day captain, not to mention a brilliant fielder and a useful change bowler. So who to drop?
If the attitude to the bowlers is anything to go by, the selectors aren't averse to wholesale changes, but the potential replacements (Shah, Ramprakash, Ed Smith and so on) aren't really big hitters either. The best teams feature a combination of enforcers, grafters and stroke-makers. Think Gooch, Atherton and Gower. England have their fair share of the latter two categories but, without Pieterson in form, look decidedly light on the first.


Polls and prophecies

It's looking like very good news indeed for the Conservatives at the moment. Whether you listen to the poll that puts them 16 points ahead, or the poll that puts them 13 points ahead, or the poll that puts Boris 12 points ahead in London, it's all pretty optimistic. But there's something funny about opinion polls - there's a question as to how much they are a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a poll shows a large Tory lead, the perception that the Tories are ahead seeps into every analysis - Labour become more defensive, the Tories become more confident, the media start to assume that the Tories will win the next election. This coverage makes the Conservatives look and sound like the party in the ascendancy - which is reflected by the next set of polls.
On a slightly different scale, and using a different medium, this is how Chris Huhne got so close to defeating Ming Campbell. By manipulating the betting markets, which were small enough for one determined punter to distort, someone who had an interest in Huhne doing well appeared to have effectively rigged the 'favourite' tag. Once it was reported that Huhne was 'the bookies' favourite' that tag gave his campaign more credence - and his eventual margin of defeat was vanishingly small for someone who had only entered parliament the year before.
The upshot of this meandering is that, for the Conservatives, a run of good polls has the capacity to be the beginning of a virtuous circle, where one of the principal reasons for their popularity is, in fact, their popularity. Similarly, for the Government, it is much harder to reverse a run of defeats than it is to maintain winning ways. Perhaps a tipping point has been reached...

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Taking matters to extremes

I'm a pretty lazy chap really, and I've also been known to spend a while in the lavatory - sometimes it's just the best place to catch up on reading - but there really are limits.
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Deputies say a woman in western Kansas became stuck on her boyfriend's toilet after sitting on it for two years.

Ness County Sheriff Bryan Whipple said it appeared the 35-year-old Ness City woman's skin had grown around the seat. She initially refused emergency medical services but was finally convinced by responders and her boyfriend that she needed to be checked out at a hospital.

"We pried the
toilet seat off with a pry bar and the seat went with her to the hospital," Whipple said. "The hospital removed it."
Now, you might think that, if your girlfriend had been sitting on the loo for two years (two years!) you'd get a bit concerned. And, fair play to him:
The boyfriend called police on Feb. 27 to report that "there was something wrong with his girlfriend," Whipple said, adding that he never explained why it took him two years to call.
Now that takes callousness to a whole new level...

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

The State is not your friend

People like me, brought up in the knowledge that we were on the side of law and order, could always trust a policeman and could rely absolutely on the golden thread of English justice that has stretched through the centuries since the Magna Carta, guarantor of liberty can find it hard to accept that in some ways the State can be, rather than a comforting presence, a malign force. Camilla Cavendish, writing in the Times, has been waging a lonely campaign against the iniquities of the child courts for some time now.
What she has reported is horrifying. The principle of secret courts, reporting of which is not permitted under pain of prosecution, is fundamentally contrary to justice, and in flagrant breach of the tide of English history and law. The almost untramelled power wielded by social workers and 'child protection officers' is profoundly offensive. In this case a man has been jailed for 16 months, and classified as a violent offender, because he drove his partner and her son to Calais. The son had been removed from his mother and put into care 'temporarily' though with seemingly no prospect either of being allowed back, or of being looked after by the mother's sister or mother, both of whom had offered to foster the child. Suffering horribly in state care, the boy ran away of his own volition, and in helping him, the mother's partner has been convicted of abduction. We aren't even allowed to say his name.
This is so fundamental an abuse of English law that it's hard to be entirely dispassionate. It's becoming clear, however, that the total block on reporting of the child courts is unsustainable. Social workers have an extraordinarily wide power over the lives of people in this country. This power is being abused - whether by ludicrous accusations of Satanic cults or by counter-productively over-zealous enforcement of care orders, or by callous abandonment of children in real danger.
The secret imprisonment of offenders is not a characteristic of a free society. Secret trials, in all but the most extreme cases involving national security, are the hallmark of illiberal and totalitarian regimes. It took civil war and the overthrow of a ruling order that believed itself above the law to rid England of the Star Chamber itself, what will it take to abolish star chamber justice today?

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A cut-price Budget

Remarkably, Alastair Darling managed to be as tedious in 50 minutes as most people manage in two hours. He wasn't helped, it is fair to say, by the fact that he had effectively nothing to announce on the spending front. This was witnessed by the staggering triviality of the announcements that he did make - £26m to 'make homes greener', a capital fund of £12.5m for women entrepreneurs. This is not even of the order of spare change in Government terms; if the Department of Work and Pensions had rummaged down their sofas they would have been able to find more money than this.
The newsworthy bits were always going to be the economic forecasts and the new tax rises. Well, the forecasts are downgraded and he's put up taxes on beer, wine, spirits, fags and fast cars. All things considered, not an inspiring budget, and the only discernable theme is puritanism and austerity - never an easy sell. Cameron's response was good, and he at least does have a tune that's easy to hum - that Labour have squandered money while times were good, and have left themselves with no room to manoeuvre when the water got choppy. If he can make sure that message hits home, this might even be Darling's last budget as well as his first.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Tory splits on Europe

Cameron has not inherited John Major's problem
Gordon Brown thinks that he's onto a winner over the European Constitution. So toxic has been the legacy of the Maastricht debates, where poor John Major's narrow majority was all but wiped out by the rebellion of a handful of euro-sceptic Tory MPs, that the perception has been implanted that the Tories are hopelessly split on Europe. This is why he is not too bothered by the fuss around the denial of the referendum promised in the main parties' manifestos - he thinks that the entire Europe issue is far more damaging to the Tories than to him.
He's wrong. Listen to his line of attack at PMQs yesterday:
Mr Cameron, he said, should be leading his backbenchers instead of following them, "standing up to the Eurosceptics instead of appeasing them, and moving to the centre of Europe instead of being left at the margins of Europe!"

In other words, Brown still believes that the Tory leadership are being compelled to appease the Euro-sceptic back-benchers in order to avoid John Major's fate. But the truth is that the Tory party are more united on the question of the European Union than any other party - the only difference of opinion is just how sceptic they are. The Tory split was mostly a generational issue, with the pro-Europeans being men like Clarke, Heseltine and John Gummer - important figures in the Major days, but peripheral and isolated now. The new blood that has come in since 1997 has been overwhelmingly Euro-sceptic, and that includes Cameron and Osborne. If this wasn't enough, by making the debate about whether there should be a referendum, Brown ensured that even those Tories that are friendlier towards the EU were onside.

What divisions there are, are now on the Labour benches, and even more so among the Lib Dems. Brown remembers the bitter infighting among the Tories in the 90s, but what he doesn't realise is that one side won.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Spending and tax

Danny Finkelstein, who is a founder member of the tortoise club, goes to the barricades today to say that any idea of immediate tax cuts under a new Tory Government is absurd and that what will be needed are spending increases. He echoes Andrew Lansley, who has got into lots of trouble over appearing to pledge that a Conservative Government would increase spending on the NHS to 11% of GDP.
Before Finkelstein and Lansley are drowned in a wave of foam-flecked invective, however, what they are actually saying ought to be listened to. Lansley, for example, was not committing the Tories to spending the money - he was predicting that more money will be spent on healthcare, It might be politically inconvenient, but it's also probably true - an aging population means higher healthcare spending. He didn't for example, say that all of this increase would be Government money.
Similarly, Finkelstein points out that sensible Tory policies on education and social welfare, although ultimately they will lead to a smaller role for Government and lower spending, will need money spent on them to initiate them. Britain's armed forces are drastically underfunded - should the Tories ignore them?
This is all very well, but it does run the risk of leaving the Tories as without a raison d'etre. Dogs bark, fish swim, Labour raises taxes. Fine, but what will the Tories do? DK's new Libertarian party has aroused comment by its policy of abolishing income tax. What is really interesting about that is the way it focuses on how massively Labour has increased spending in the last six years. Looking at a budget like these leaves one thinking that it must be possible to cut spending on non-frontline services - we spend £175bn on quangos for God's sake!
What the Tories are still struggling to do is to disassociate total Government spending with spending on 'core services' - the dreaded schools'n'ospitals. If they can successfully manage that, then the debate on tax and spend can grow up a little. At the moment, every pledge to cut tax is viewed as a way of culling nurses, and every spending pledge as a re-introduction of the Poll tax. Rational debate simply isn't possible in these circumstances.

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A run-of-the-mill Heffer error

So, even though the last post wasn't really about Simon Heffer, his comment in today's Telegraph is so spectacularly wrong-headed that it's worth a little post all to itself. Taking as its premise the idea that 20-20 and other one day cricket is ruining the game, and that English county cricket is dull and unwatched he suggests a permanent and irrevocable split between 20-20 players and first class players, with cricketers having to choose between the two codes.
Heffer puts the blame for this terrible state of affairs on the fact that what we used to call the Third World took over the reins of the game. Fortunately there is a solution:
There would be two discrete groups of players. One would play first-class cricket. The other would play Twenty20. There could be a negotiation about which, or whether indeed both, would play the 50-over game. There would be little money in the first-class game, except from certain Test series.

The clubs that still engaged in it would have separate commercial entities that played Twenty20, would be the sole shareholders in those enterprises and would use the dividends to support the traditional game. Grounds could be shared between the two competitions: cricket grounds are among the world's most under-used resources.

This plan would enable some players to be Twenty20 cricketers and others to be first-class and perhaps Test players, with no possibility of a clash of loyalties. Within a fixed time period - maybe two or three years - no player who had appeared in one code would be allowed to appear in another. That would bring stability.
He further proposes that there should, since there will be little money in first-class cricket, be a re-introduction of the amateur game and pines for the days when men would come from the City to Lord's in time to turn out for Middlesex in the afternoon. It's a lovely idea, but I think I know where he got it from, and it doesn't quite support his vision.
One objection to it might be that the modern city is now far too fast-paced to allow its employees to wander off to Lords for the day. Perhaps more compelling is that, even in the glory days of the amateur, it still wasn't possible. Mike Jackson, schoolboy cricketer extraordinaire, and the greatest of the cricketing Jackson brothers, for example, found this out when he worked for the New Asiatic Bank.
'Look here, Mike, are you busy at the bank just now?'
'Not at the moment. There's never anything much going on before eleven.'
'I mean, are you busy today? Could you possibly manage to get off and play for us against Middlesex?'
Mike nearly dropped the receiver.
'What?' he cried.
'There's been the dickens of a mix-up. We're one short, and you're our only hope. We can't possibly get another man in the time. We start in half an hour. Can you play?'
So Mike rushed off to Lords and, despite compiling a beautiful 148 before being caught-and-bowled, his employers were not as forgiving as Heffer appears to predict. As Psmith says:
'No official pronouncement has been made to me as yet on the subject, but I think I should advise you, if you are offered another job in the course of the day, to accept it. I cannot say that you are precisely the pet of the management just at present.'
I suspect that, if something is considered too good to be true in a PG Wodehouse novel, then relying on it as the cornerstone of a new approach to cricket today might be veering a little bit on the side of optimism. On second thoughts then, this is a Fundamental Heffer error: he wants it to be possible so much that he ignores mundane reality.

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A fundamental Heffer error

The quite brilliant description by Danny Finkelstein of a "Fundamental Heffer error" as being where the author of such an error confuses what he wishes were the case, with what actually is the case has allowed me finally to understand Labour's tactics in the London Mayoral race. News from Guido that Boris Johnson is now the bookie's choice as favourite goes to confirm the polling that Boris is now in the box seat.
Yet Livingstone's, and Labour's, tactics have been bizarre in the extreme. First it was decided that he should be portrayed as a bigoted racist outlier on the hard Tory right, and a cosy arrangement was made with Compass to that effect. But the problem with this approach was that it was risible. It is possible to demonise a politician like, say, John Redwood or Norman Tebbit as being extremist and 'on the hard right' because, however unfair, it is plausible. Characterising Boris as an extremist just looked silly, and they were reduced to such absurdities as claiming that an opposition to the minimum wage renders him an extremist, or that his support for nuclear power makes him a Thatcherite. Livingstone and the left ran so hard on the 'Boris is a bigot' theme that they were left stranded upstream when its failure became apparent.
So they switched to plan B - OK, so Boris wasn't a dangerous racist who would introduce segregated schools (though Polly Toynbee was terrified about what Boris as Mayor might mean for the Tour de France) but he was a buffoon and a liar and a Bertie Wooster type ignoramus whose fundamental lack of seriousness would be a catastrophe for London anyway. Boris's reaction to Toynbee was suitably deflating: he texted a journalist saying She's got a crush on me... It's the only explanation. And I've always had a slight thing about her... He's gone a long way to rebut the buffoon jibe as well, with thought-out policies on transport and crime.
So Labour have been forced to change tack again, as they seemed to in the recent Labour conference, to get stuck into class warfare. Boris was condemned by the ridiculous Hazel Blears as a nasty rightwing elitist with odious views and criminal friends like Conrad Black. Pausing only to note that for any member of this Government to be casting aspersions about criminal friendships is a bit much, what with the sheer number of criminal investigations floating about, I would add that for it to be suggested that 'pitch defiles' in this mayoral election, when Livingstone's closest aide has resigned over claims that he channelled £100,000 of taxpayers’ money to projects run by a woman he bombarded with sexually charged e-mails is to be quite astonishingly hypocritical.
But for the reason for all this confusion we have to go back to our friend Simon Heffer. Labour persuaded themselves very early that there could be absolutely no way anyone could seriously consider voting for Boris. They themselves believed so absolutely that he was a right-wing caricature that they felt all they had to do was broadcast this widely for it to be accepted. The subsequent shambles has been because they still haven't accepted that merely wishing something were true is not enough to make it true.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Strauss down the order

So, Andrew Strauss has returned to the England Test line up, but, the management obviously having read my criticisms of his and Cook's incompatibility, he isn't playing as an opener but as number 3. Despite the fact that he's hardly ever played there,I think this is a sensible move for two reasons. The first is that it allows the Vaughan/Cook partnership, which is both a left/right combination and a combination of a stroke-player and an accumulator. The second is that it allows Ian Bell to bat down the order at five - where he has always looked more comfortable.
Bell, despite his obvious class (his stats are almost identical to Michael Clarke's) has a problem in international cricket in imposing himself. He looks almost self-effacing at the crease - not a trait that opposition fast bowlers are likely to miss. This is doubly handicapping at number 3 - where the fast bowlers have their tails up and there's nowhere to hide. Bell at five or six is more likely to score runs. Strauss is worth having in the side for more reasons than that, however. He catches well at slip, a position that, without Flintoff and Trescothick, England have been weak. He is also a sensible chap - a good team player. That said, he needs to repay the selectors' faith quickly, or this could be a brief return to the colours.


Losing the will to carry on

There's just something about this Government, and its gurning Prime Minister above all, that seems to sap the enjoyment out of life and the interest out of everything it touches. Skilled in the art of never, never answering a question in a clear and straightforward way, their endless obfuscations and tedious circumlocutions drain the will. I suspect that that's rather the point - the world is, after all, fated to be ruled by those who can stay awake in committees - but gosh it's tiresome.
The tarnish has spread to every corner of the Government. Listening to Liam Byrne endlessly repeating 'the rate of change has been too fast in some areas' on the Today programme as if it were his personal route to Nirvana was bad enough. Having to plod through Gordon Brown's tiresome speeches and ghastly pronouncements on whatever the hell it is he's talking about is worse. When the history of this Labour Government is written it will be about how a party that debased the English language so thoroughly (admittedly in continuation of an existing trend) that they made governance through boredom their aim.

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