Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Frame that narrative!

Frame that narrative!

History is a powerful weapon, in politics as in other walks of life.  If you can frame the past in your own terms, it gives you a tremendous advantage in controlling the debates of the present.  Labour have been past masters of this – witness their continued early references to ‘18 terrible Tory years’ and continued harping on about Black Wednesday.  Repetition of a tendentious interpretation can, eventually, turn it into a widely believed ‘fact’.

Labour are trying it again at the moment, with their continued argument that the ‘do-nothing’ Tories opposed the bail-out of the banks and ‘called it wrong’ on the entire financial crisis.  It’s worth pointing out, says John Rentoul, that this is a gross distortion of reality:

But it is a bit rich to extrapolate from the fact that David Cameron and "Boy George", as Peter Mandelson insultingly called George Osborne, opposed the VAT cut that they made the "wrong call" on "the call of the century". They did not oppose recapitalising the banks or printing money, which were more important than the VAT cut. Had they been in government, they would have done pretty much the same as Brown and Alistair Darling did, with the only difference that the state of the public finances would not be quite as terrible as it now is.

But it’s a two-way street this.  He who controls the present controls the past.  Labour have been able to frame the historical narrative effectively for a decade.  It will be the Tories’ turn soon, and we can expect the entire Labour era to be summed up as ‘the decade of debt’.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bonkers then

Bonkers then

Well, that answers that question.  Gordon Brown is unquestionably certifiable.  He’s so far out of his tree that he’s left the forest altogether.  Anyone who thinks that, in making ‘the speech of his life™’ this is going to be the game changer is a danger to shipping.

And I do think it’s time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.

From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.

Hmm.  Worried about flagging popularity?  Why not try pledging to lock up teenagers and their babies in a large camp?  How did Looney Tunes used to end?  Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!

Is Brown really bonkers? Or just weird?

Is Brown really bonkers? Or just weird?

So, the question everyone is asking (again).  Is Gordon Brown mad?  Sunny over at Liberal Conspiracy has got into a bit of a tizzy over the question asked by Andrew Marr at the weekend.  Marr asked the PM whether he ‘was one of those people’ who ‘relied on ‘prescription painkillers and pills’ to get through the day.  Cue prolonged Labour fury on the grounds that this was legitimising bullying right wing bloggers, who have been running with the idea that Brown is bonkers for quite a while now.

And yet, is this really a meme from the blogosphere?  Further, is it really a despicable smear? 

There are really two separate things going on here.  The first is the theory propounded by John Ward that Gordon Brown is taking specific anti-depressant medication, the ‘evidence’ for which is that a civil servant apparently revealed that the PM is strictly off cheese, Chianti and avocados.  Besides making it impossible for Brown to attend 1970s dinner parties, this also is an indicator that Brown is taking Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors, MAOIs, which have extremely dangerous side-effects if taken in conjunction with certain foods.  MAOIs are pretty damned heavy-duty drugs, prescribed only if standard anti-depressants  aren’t working.

Ward had a further theory as to why Brown might be on MAOIs – he’d already been taking SSRIs and they weren’t working.  For evidence of this, he looked at Brown’s bruxism – a condition exacerbated by anti-depressant drugs.  That is where the evidence for the story rests – circumstantial and far from conclusive but interesting anyway, because there’s just enough there to be persuasive.  What the story isn’t is a Tory smear – or even a right wing blog smear.

The ‘smear’ element to it has a much longer pedigree.  Is Brown bonkers?  And who set that story running?  Here’s a hint – not the blogosphere.  Back in the old days we had psychological flaws, Charles Clarke has called Brown a deluded control freak with psychological issues, and Chris Mullin’s diaries are replete with Labour MPs calling him paranoid, megalomaniacal, mad and obsessive.  It’s not been restricted to Labour MPs either – here’s Matthew Parris back in April 2008:

The implosion, however, will be ugly. Mr Brown is unlikely to go quietly. He may be mad but he's quite used to being mad, he's been mad for a long time, he doesn't see it, and on some ghastly level the prognosis is stable.

Parris is far from the only one – the theory that Brown is barking mad has done the rounds of the broadsheet media for years.  And there are two reasons for this.  The first is that describing political opponents as mad is a classic tactic – whether or not there is any substance to the charge, the lingering impression that so-and-so is a bit odd remains.  Ask William ‘weird weird weird’ Hague – or remember how Mo Mowlam was made a bit funny by her brain tumour bless her.  The astute among you may notice the same original guiding hand behind the three examples of Brown, Mowlam and Hague…

The second reason that this charge has been flying around is that Gordon Brown is weird.  He shook his wife’s hand on the platform last year; that bizarre YouTube video on expenses; his near total emotional illiteracy – the man is odd.  That hardly makes him unique in the Commons, but pointing out this wincingly obvious fact doesn’t constitute a smear.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lib Dems - decision time?

Lib Dems - decision time?

Summoning up the will to write about the Liberal Democrats is always something of a struggle.  However, as they come off the back of their last conference before the election, and a pretty little boost in the polls, it’s probably worth taking a quick look at their prospects for the coming year.

In Nick Clegg’s ideal world, next year will see a partial Labour recovery that denies the Tories an overall majority, and leads to a hung Parliament.  For the first time since the 1970s, the Liberals will be relevant!  Yet the question of what the Lib Dems would do in a hung Parliament is toxic.  Clegg is desperate not to be put in the position of deciding, now, whether a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour, or whether it is a vote for the Conservatives – he wants it to be seen as a vote for the Liberal Democrats after all.

And yet the question, however toxic, points to a central problem for the Lib Dems – just what the hell are they?  Are they the acceptable opposition to the Conservatives for those who just can’t consider voting Labour, as they are in the South West?  Are they the sort of Labour Party your father might have voted for, before this new Thatcherite lot, as they seem to be in the North of England?  So far they have tried to pass this off at the national level by refusing to define themselves at all, other than as having been opposed to the Iraq war, and as having Vince Cable as their Treasury Spokesman.

But Iraq is fading in the collective memory, and St Vince’s halo seems to be getting a little tarnished.  What’s left?

For all the existential angst, this is potentially an extremely promising scenario for the Lib Dems.  Labour has almost governed itself out of existence – if there is room for only one party of the left in the UK, and experience suggests that is the case, why should it not be the Lib Dems?  There is a sense in which the Liberal Democrats are marking time until the next election, trying to hold on to what they have, before surveying the new political landscape after the election.  It may be that the decision, long deferred, of what they are actually for might then have an answer.  Or not.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Death and decay

Death and decay

Deep in the dog-days of John Major’s Government, after some new and humiliating climb-down, a minister was overheard saying ‘My God, now they’re stabbing him in the front!’  The news that Gordon Brown managed to corner Barack Obama in a kitchen for a couple of minutes (and how did that conversation go?  ‘Oh, er, hi…’) is just embarrassing.  To be honest, the hanging-around-the-cool-kid shtick got a bit old a while ago.  For the Prime Minister to be ‘frantic’ to get a little face time is just unworthy.  As has been said before, the smell of death clings to this Administration.

The news that Shriti Vadera might be about to be leaving the Government does nothing to detract from this impression.  Although she isn’t exactly a household name (she did make a few waves by asserting that she could see ‘green shoots’), she’s been one of Brown’s closest and most loyal allies.  Shriti the shriek has travelled from a key Treasury aide to a Government minister and, although I suspect that her departure will be greeted with cheers from the civil service, it’s a particularly damaging loss to Brown – not least because there’ll have to be at least a mini reshuffle, and where on earth is he going to find any ministers?  The choice of Bob Ainsworth revealed that the barrel has been scraped back to bare boards already.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Disproportionate Polly

Disproportionate Polly

What the hell is Polly Toynbee on?  It’s not a new question, but her continuing ability to ignore reality is just bizarre.  Take today’s little effort.  Tagged on to the end of an article which, helpfully, rebuts itself on whether Labour should introduce electoral reform before the next election (“Indeed a death-bed conversion by Labour after all these wasted years doesn't look good…It looks like a kind of gerrymandering, the last gasp of a dying party, say cabinet opponents. Yes, it smacks of panic that Labour never reformed parliament when it could…”).

But it’s the finale that leaves one wondering where she’s left her marbles:

Cameron, on current polls, is set to win a good majority in the Commons on the smallest proportion of votes cast since the last war. What's more, today's Hansard Society poll finds only 53% certain to vote, so he may win on the fewest votes ever.

On current polls David Cameron is set to win 43% of the vote (and you’d think Polly would have seen this – it’s in the Guardian).  Here is the list of Prime Ministers that have won elections since 1970:

Tony Blair 2005:                35.3%
Tony Blair 2001:                40.7%
Tony Blair 1997:                43.2%
John Major 1992:                41.9%
Margaret Thatcher 1987:         42.4%
Margaret Thatcher 1983: 43.9%
Margaret Thatcher 1979: 43.9%
Harold Wilson 1974 (2): 39.2%
Harold Wilson 1974 (1): 37.2%

So what the hell does Toynbee mean?  If current polling is accurate, David Cameron will win as large a proportion as Blair in 1997.  I think we’re back to the old Toynbee question – is she ignorant or lying?

Friday, September 18, 2009

The incredible vanishing Macintyre

The incredible vanishing Macintyre

Incidentally, that more than usually execrable piece by James Macintyre on Hannan that I looked at a minute ago has gone, vanished, been removed, is as if it had never been.  A message from m’learned friends?  A sudden attack of conscience about writing such astonishing drivel?  Who can say.  I await the apology with interest.

Did Keynes come back?

Did Keynes come back?

I’m not an economist, but one thing about the coverage of the financial crisis has confused me.  One thing that the left has seized on is the revenge of Keynesianism – the idea that old Thatcherite neo-liberal theories about what drives the economy had been supplanted by the idea that what really matters is maintaining or increasing public spending to stimulate demand.

But from a British perspective at any rate, the most significant economic interventions have been the slashing of interest rates, and the policy of quantitative easing.  In other words, policies designed to encourage the return of spending and borrowing by manipulating the cost of money.  Or, um, monetarism.  Hey ho.

Hurrah! More Macintyre

Hurrah! More Macintyre

What on earth is it about Daniel Hannan that drives lefties so frothingly insane?  Liberal Conspiracy has been devoted to tales of the bald crusader for weeks, and today our little friend James Macintyre joins the fray.

The target for the latest broadside is rather odd.  Odd because it is a blog post in which Dan, who supported Barack Obama for the US Presidency, says the following:

We should admit something frankly, we conservatives. As the amiableĀ Jimmy Carter says, there is an element of racism in some of the hostility to Obama. At the extreme end of the spectrum, it can lead to this. But, in a softer and perhaps less conscious form, it leads to some of the vicious personal attacks on him - the ones invariably picked up by Leftist media and presented as typical.

Barack Obama has an exotic background, and it would be odd if some people weren’t unsettled by it. During the campaign, he made a virtue of his unusual upbringing. He was at once from the middle of the country (Kansas) and from its remotest edge (Hawaii). He was both black and white. He was a Protestant brought up among Muslims. He seemed to have family on every continent. Like St Paul, he made a virtue of being all things to all men.

On one level, the strategy worked brilliantly. But it could hardly fail to leave a chunk of people feeling that Obama wasn’t exactly a regular guy. Hence, for example, the surprising number of Americans who question whether he was born in the US (see here).

But if conservatives should accept that some of the attacks on the forty-fourth president are discreditable, Lefties ought, by the same token, to concede that the overwhelming majority of the president’s opponents are not motivated by personal dislike. Rather, they have reached a considered view that he is making a series of expensive and lasting mistakes. They are alarmed - with reason - at the colossal debt he is running up (see here). They point out that he was elected on a promise of tax-cuts.

In other words, it would be silly to deny that some of the attacks on Obama are racist – and this is disgraceful.  However, most opponents to Obama are not racist, and Obama’s supporters should not try to close down debate by insisting that they are.

Rent-a-gob Parmjit Dhanda has a fair go at ‘most bare-faced misrepresentation of an argument’ in the Daily Mirror:

It’s excusing racism. He is implying if you have what he calls an ‘exotic’ background you can be treated differently.

When clearly it’s nothing of the sort.  But Jayson Blair wannabe Macintyre takes it a whole leap further.

I believe the Conservative Party is institutionally racist. I always have done. I have witnessed too many "jokes" or sideways looks when talking about immigration with Tories -- and done too much research into racism in the party over the years -- to think otherwise. But many would disagree.

I would ask those people to read Daniel Hannan's blog for the Telegraph (not some dodgy recording at a Monday Club meeting, but words written down by him), on the question, raised correctly by the former president Jimmy Carter, of whether the rows in the US over President Obama's health-care plans are fuelled by an unspoken racism (which they are).

Hannan neatly proves Carter's point by saying:

"Barack Obama has an exotic background and it would be odd if some people weren't unsettled by it."

"[Obama seems to] have family on every continent".

"[I]t could hardly fail to leave a chunk of people feeling that Obama wasn't exactly a regular guy."

First things first, Obama does have an exotic background.  Born in Hawaii, to a Kenyan father and mother from Kansas, he was brought up partly in Indonesia.  To almost anyone that would be an exotic background – let alone to how it plays in Peoria.  The idea – further articulated in the comments by Mehdi Hassan – that the phrase ‘exotic background’ is code for being a racist is particularly ridiculous.

Particularly and especially ridiculous because Barack Obama himself says that he has an exotic background.

''I have an unusual name and an exotic background, but my values are essentially American values,'' Mr. Obama said. ''I'm rooted in the African-American community, but I'm not limited by it. I think this election shows that.''

Second, and more importantly, writing a post strongly implying that Dan Hannan is a racist, and justifying that implication by selective quotation and misrepresentation is, what, defamatory, false, based on nothing but smear and innuendo and vaguely grubby.  Even if it’s not literally the case, you can see why Dan assumed Macintyre was a Labour spin doctor can’t you?  He’s got all the attributes.

Lies, damn lies and Gordon Brown

Lies, damn lies and Gordon Brown

Before I take a look at the Tories and the Lib Dems, the recent little row about Labour’s lies over spending illustrates perfectly why they are so monumentally screwed at the next election.

Labour spent the summer wittering on about how David Cameron was ‘Mr 10%’ over his plans to cut public spending by 10%.  Brilliantly, this line of attack is still up on the website, despite the revelation that the Labour Party plans to cut departmental spending by, um, 9.3%.  Fraser Nelson pointed out, repeatedly, that this figure was an extrapolation from Labour’s own budget, but, when asked about this in a press conference, Gordon Brown lied again, saying the figures were wrong and that spending was set to increase.

Caught out by the leaking of a Treasury document which showed precisely how much spending was to be cut by, Brown has been faced with a bit of a poser.  How can he wriggle off this hook?  Not like this.

"Under no circumstances have we done anything other than publish the documentation that was essential at the budget," Brown said. "We are prepared to discuss and debate the figures that have arisen from that."

What does this even mean?  How on earth have Labour landed themselves with a Prime Minister so utterly incapable of communication?  I mean, it’s bad enough having a liar as a leader, but an incompetent, inarticulate, emotionally illiterate liar?  That’s got to hurt.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

State of the parties: Labour

State of the parties: Labour

As we prepare to immerse ourselves anew in the last political conference season of the ancient regime it might be as well to have a look at the situation as it currently affects the three main parties.  Since the electoral campaigning season has effectively started, with all the main parties announcing their preliminary plans for cuts in spending (albeit after a long and tortuous dance on the edge for Labour) now can be seen as the starting gate: how’s the form of the runners and riders?  Lets give Labour, as the Government, the honour of going first – it’ll be the last time for a long time.

When Boris Yeltsin came to the UK on a state visit, John Major asked how things were in Russia.  Yeltsin asked whether he wanted a short answer or a long one.  The short one, Major said.  Good, said Yeltsin.  And the long answer?  Not good.  That’s a pretty good summary of where Labour is now.  Brown is, as he was always going to be, a disaster as Prime Minister.  He lacks the emotional intelligence to carry people with him, and has lost the control and the authority to drive them before him.  Who does Gordon have to go to the barricades?  Blair had John Reid, David Blunkett, John Prescott and others.  Who does Gordon have?  Mandelson, and that’s it.

Mike Smithson’s third law of politics is that whenever Gordon Brown has to make a political decision, he will dither interminably and then plump for whatever option does him personally the most damage.  That law has been amply demonstrated by the ludicrous shenanigans over when a cut is not a cut.  Having lost the argument that the next Government can increase spending, Labour are now reduced to arguing that whereas they would cut reluctantly, the Tories are foam-flecked ideologists, bent on killing every third nurse, and selling half our schools to Halliburton.  It might seem hard simultaneously to argue that the Tories are vacuous and woolly, without a single policy in their head’s bless them, and that they are rabid ideologues, hell bent on re-imposing Thatcherism at the point of a bayonet, but that’s where Labour have ended up.

The truth is that Labour have hit their own ideological buffers.  The essence of New Labour was that it was a boom-time ideology.  The idea that you can simultaneously delight your own supporters by pumping money into a basically unreformed public sector, while reassuring the middle classes by refraining from raising income taxes was only possible thanks to the glut of tax revenue from the financial sector and from  a booming property market.  Absent these two factors and the old fashioned choice between annoying the brothers by cutting public spending and enraging the middle classes by taxing the socks of them returns.  Which is, when you think about it, where we are now.

Labour have successfully avoided having to make this choice all through their administration, and it is out of a desire not to have to make it now that they are pushing the line that, although cuts are of course necessary, not now, please not now, not before the election.  Shorn of the thin ideological covering that even the Third Way once provided, Labour are being forced to crawl towards the end of their time in office with no real reason for their existence.

As for their prospects in that election, short an electoral miracle they are going to be beaten like a ginger step child.  Their last best hope was to dump Gordon Brown after the European elections.  They flunked it, and it is now surely too late.  All they have to look forward to is a back-stabbing, blood-letting leadership election followed by the ascent to power of Harriet Harman…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Milne

More Milne

I used to go to school with someone who claimed to be a communist.  He wore a ‘worker’s’ cap, didn’t wash very often and called everyone comrade.  I’d assumed this was just a phase and that he’d grow out of it.  A glance at Seumas Milne’s career ought to have disabused me of that notion.  He’s written another piece defending the Soviet Union, and attacking those who say that it was an aggressor in the Second World War.

In his introduction to this week's Guardian history of the war, the neoconservative historian Niall Ferguson declared that Stalin was "as much an aggressor as Hitler". Last month, the ostensibly more liberal Orlando Figes went further, insisting the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact was "the licence for the Holocaust".

Given that the Soviet Union played the decisive military role in Hitler's defeat at the cost of 25 million dead, it's scarcely surprising that Russians are outraged by such accusations. When the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev last week denounced attempts to draw parallels between the role of the Nazis and the Soviet Union as a "cynical lie", he wasn't just speaking for his government, but the whole country – and a good deal of the rest of the world besides.

Of course the Soviet Union was an aggressor in 1939.  After the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union invaded Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – retaining them within the Soviet Empire until the collapse of communism 50 years later, as well as invading Poland without a declaration of war and in conjunction with the Nazis.  The two sides even held a joint victory parade.  The USSR tried to invade Finland as well, but was repulsed.

There's no doubt that the pact of August 1939 was a shocking act of realpolitik by the state that had led the campaign against fascism since before the Spanish civil war. You can argue about how Stalin used it to buy time, his delusions about delaying the Nazi onslaught, or whether the Soviet occupation of the mainly Ukrainian and Byelorussian parts of Poland was, as Churchill maintained at the time, "necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace".

Balls.  You can’t argue that Stalin used it to buy time, because he showed no interest in doing so, instead believing that he had bought off Hitler and was thus free to act in the Baltic States.  And implying that the Soviet invasion and partition of Poland was legitimate because it included land that had previously been Russian is pretty grisly – especially given that it was the partitions of Poland in the 18th and 19th centuries that had made the territory Russian in the first place.  It was the cynical act of a blood-stained totalitarian monster.

But to claim that without the pact there would have been no war is simply absurd – and, in the words of the historian Mark Mazower, "too tainted by present day political concerns to be taken seriously". Hitler had given the order to attack and occupy Poland much earlier. As fellow historian Geoff Roberts puts it, the pact was an "instrument of defence, not aggression"

And no-one has claimed that.  Only that the Soviet Union was one of the four aggressor nations in the Second World War: in chronological order Japan, Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union.  Equally, it is not the pact with Germany that was the act of aggression, but the invasions of five European countries.  Does Milne really not believe that invading a country is not an aggressive act?

That was a good deal less true of the previous year's Munich agreement, in which British and French politicians dismembered Czechoslovakia at the Nazi dictator's pleasure. The one pact that could conceivably have prevented war, a collective security alliance with the Soviet Union, was in effect blocked by the appeaser Chamberlain and an authoritarian Polish government that refused to allow Soviet troops on Polish soil.

Yes, the Allies could conceivably have prevented the war at Munich.  But the fact that they didn’t was not because they were aggressively seeking their own territorial ends in Eastern Europe, it was that they were desperately trying to avoid war.  And I wonder why on earth the paranoid Poles didn’t want Soviet troops on Polish soil.  A fear that they might not leave for fifty years perhaps?

The Second World War in Europe was largely a fight to the death between two vile totalitarian ideologies.  Soviet Russia under Uncle Joe was every bit as blood-stained and hideous as Nazi Germany under Onkel Adi. Oh, and my communist friend?  He’s now a junior research fellow in Russian history, specializing in the history of the CCCP.  Once they get you, there’s no going back…

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The return...

The return...

Right, I’m back.

I suspect that my prolonged absence (hey, you try looking after a new baby and working – it’s not as easy as it looks…) will have killed off any lingering audience I might once have had, but what the hell.  I started off blogging as a way of talking to myself without people giving me funny looks, so that’s what I can return to.  If I start rambling and repeating myself, you’ll know what happened.