Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Oh, and while I'm here, my condolences to the people of Norway, a country I know well and love. Don't let one lone nutter get you down or beat you, thankfully a sentiment that seems to be almost universal. There are no more of him out there, they are just his sick fantasy. Don't let his 'manifesto' fool you. He is just another Dunblane, Hungerford and Raoul Moat type psycho with a gun and a chip on his shoulder trying to justify the unjustifiable by trying to pretend that it is political. It was absolutely right not to give him a platform.
Also RIP Amy Winehouse. I hope you find some peace now. Your music means you will never be forgotten.
Friday, 22 July 2011
Are Europe's leaders going to admit what their 'historic' deal will inevitably mean for those countries not currently mired in debt? Are they going to admit the historic loss of sovereignty that Greece and other indebted countries must now swallow in order to pay for their past profligacy and the survival of the Euro? Is Britain now firmly on the road to a second tier membership of this project and possibly an even more radical step that people like me only currently dream of?
The deal done yesterday may well paper over the cracks for a while longer but this is a default in all but name. The difference is that, unlike other defaulters, Greece is getting itself a special deal with ultra low interest rates and a second and third chance, all because the EU was foolish enough to let them into the Euro in the first place and go on a spending and borrowing binge. Since their exit from the Euro is apparently unthinkable, someone else must pick up the tab. That's the logic of Euro membership. It will soon mean that Greece becomes a region of a Euro superstate with lorry loads of cash subsidies sent from Berlin.
Don't expect EU leaders to tell you that and certainly don't expect them to bother to consult the people if they can possibly help it. The choice with Euro membership was always going to be failure or political and economic union. Yesterday European leaders came a little closer to tacitly admitting it. The markets are going to keep picking away at this because they can see the reality and sticking plasters will keep being applied until the dam breaks. It may take a few months yet but we're approaching an end game. The price Europe pays is going to be extortionate whichever solution prevails. For now though the politicians can congratulate themselves on an historic deal - it's effectively a kind of economic Versailles with the bill once again handed to Germany.
Thursday, 21 July 2011
When the history of the times we are currently living through comes to be written, whether fairly or unfairly, the end of the space shuttle program and the pause in America's space ambitions, along with their startling reliance on Russia to help get them into the final frontier may well be seen as the beginning of the decline of a superpower. Other coming superpowers have ambitions in space and the old enemy is now a partner, and the senior one too. Meantime the U.S lays off legions of cutting edge engineers and real rocket scientists when once it poached them. It's not exactly the right stuff is it?
The space shuttle will probably come to be seen as a kind of glorious failure. It was America's Concorde. It did what it was supposed to do, it was a reuseable space vehicle. But it was vastly expensive and flawed; although NASA would point out, not unreasonably, that it was a first attempt at this kind of technology and did achieve much of what was asked of it. The great flaw of the shuttle, quite apart from the tragedies that afflicted it, was that it was a utilitarian vehicle that was not utilititarian enough to make it viable or routine. Yet at the same time it never gripped the imagination the way previous missions did, partly because it was doing routine things like take up satellites and repairing flawed mirrors. Space walks look fantastic thanks to the ethereal backdrop, but they are somehow less exciting when the astronaut has a spanner in his hand.
Ultimately the shuttle program has been brought to an end for that most prosaic of reasons: cost. Each shuttle flight cost around $500 million. Yet at the same time America annually spends $600 billion plus on defence and $2 billion a week for no obvious purpose in Afghanistan.
The space shuttle may not have been glamorous but it did enhance our lives thanks to its contribution to the International Space Station and its maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope. The contributions of both to science are already huge and Hubble's has probably been immeasurable. The astonishing pictures we have all seen of the farthest regions of space will have been seen by millions. And Hubble, like the shuttle, was a pioneer, a heroic first attempt. We have refined the engineering since and learnt from our mistakes. Its successors will be better and will advance our understanding even more. In my lifetime we may answer questions that mankind has asked since we first started to walk upright. We may answer questions that have not yet even been posed as our understanding of the cosmos proceeds in leaps and bounds and the universe continues to surprise and confound our greatest thinkers.
But for that to happen we have to keep going out there and looking. New telescopes and other devices are already out there, studying the sun and our neighbours in the solar system, another probe has this week gone into orbit around one of the largest constituents of the asteroid belt. But perhaps the time has come for us to take the end of the space shuttle program as the end of national space programs. It may be time to make them truly international, to pool our resources, both financial and intellectual. Even back in the times of the Apollo program people complained of the cost and wondered what it was achieving. What it did achieve was that it showed us what we are capable of, and inspired a whole generation of children who became this generation's scientists, engineers and astronauts - people who can control an explosion and send a probe millions of kilometres into space only to be captured by the gravity of an extra terrestrial body so as to study it or to use it as a slingshot to go further where no man has gone before.
The end of the shuttle is a sad moment, an end of an era. But science and technology move on and we should too. We need our politicians to put aside their rivalries and vanities and pool our resources for the greater good. They do it in many fields of human endeavour, including the vastly expensive project at CERN. Financial necessity is now forcing them to do so in space.
When Neil Armstrong first trod on the Moon, he spoke of it being a giant step for mankind, when in reality it was a vastly expensive raised finger to America's bitterest rivals. Perhaps we should now go back there and take another step, a step that this time means what Armstrong said it did, and which will be the first step beyond the narrow confines of our planet's orbit abandoned today by the shuttle.
Wednesday, 20 July 2011
So today Dave was back and, as suggested here yesterday, he did admit that, with the benefit of hindsight, he probably wouldn't have appointed Andy Coulson. He also gave details of who will sit on Lord Leveson's inquiry including journalists like Elinor Goodman and George Jones and the almost de rigeur inclusion of Shami Charabarti. All hail Shami. We love Shami. If there were no Shami we would definitely have to create her.
This was the occasion when Dave at last grasped this festering issue by the horns and took control of it. He did so by being honest and open, apologising up to a point, defending the defensible and then attacking Forrest for his shallow opportunism. The relief on the Conservative benches was palpable. The disappointment on Labour benches was the same.
Forrest, who by common consent has had a good couple of weeks, was now overreaching himself as have Labour in general, especially when they leapt to conclusions over the role of Ed Llewellyn in protecting the PM as is his job. The media of course did the same but then their response to this whole scandal has been wildly disproportionate. Perhaps now we will all calm down.
Or perhaps not. The new question Cameron must answer, we are told, is whether, in all of those conversations with Murdoch, Brooks et al, the issue of the takeover of BSkyB was ever mentioned. Dave responded to various questions by saying that 'no inappropriate conversations' were ever had. Aha said Labour and media commentators so you did talk about it!
Well Duh! Why do they think that the likes of Rupert Murdoch want to see presidents and prime ministers? Is it to talk about the weather, or the England cricket team? Politicians are constantly being lobbied by vested interests. It's their job. When union leaders come calling do they talk about beer and football or do they press the interests of themselves and their members? When other business leaders buy expensive stalls at party conferences is it because they wish to discuss the latest developments in quantum mechanics and string theory or because they wish to have a word with ministers and press their case? The inappropriate conversations response is thus perfectly compatible with a prime minister who may well deal with subjects in a general way. Inappropriate would be if he gave them a nod and a wink and promised to sort it for them. Forrest tried to allege all kinds of conspiracies and double dealing but couldn't make it stick. He looked like a naive student politician with all kinds of principles and a black and white view of the world that life has not yet had the chance to disabuse him of. The statesman persona lasted less than a month. Today he looked like an adenoidal twerp who can only read scripts rather than think on his feet again
No, I think Dave has finally killed this story. Forrest overreached himself today and tried to keep his good fortnight going. He failed. We can all go off for the summer safe and sound and leave the police to do their job and the inquiries to get started. The most pressing issue that this crisis has revealed is that policing in this country is broken and needs radical reform to make it more accountable and professional. Perhaps now we can concentrate on more important things, like the imminent forcible removal of European politician's heads from the sand as the Euro nears collapse. Perhaps our MPs shouldn't go too far from Westminster just in case.
Those asking if Dave spoke with Rebekah Brooks about BSkyB are surely forgetting that she was CEO of News International. It was News Corp that was trying to buy the rest of Sky, Brooks had nothing to do with that deal.
Tuesday, 19 July 2011
As Hackergate rumbles on, the press and Labour MPs are running out of targets for their ire. They are turning, oddly, to David Cameron. Cameron, to his credit and after a slow start, has tried to seize the initiative, or at least limit the damage by agreeing to inquiries, rightly accepting police resignations and engaging in some degree of mea culpa. Not enough say his critics. He should apologise for appointing Andy Coulson. But apologise for what exactly? For giving someone a job which he was clearly qualified to do? For accepting his assurances that he had done nothing wrong at News International but had accepted responsibility for what happened when he was in charge? For giving someone a second chance? Surely that is a good and honourable thing to do? One might even call it progressive.
Not according to Labour however. The PM is guilty not just of an error of judgement but a catastrophic one. But what has been the catastrophe? A spin doctor who became the story rather than the man in the background? That's never happened before has it? But that is the worst we can accuse him of. Coulson is generally regarded as having done a good job until his past made his presence untenable. Cameron could perhaps tell us that, if he had his time over again, and with the benefit of hindsight he might not have appointed Coulson. But apologise? What for?
However, since the Labour Party is now so keen on political apologies for errors of judgement, perhaps they might revisit their own time in power and fess up about a few issues. Presumably we can look forward to their fulsome apologies about Gordon Brown's changes to banking regulation which contributed to the bust he said he had abolished (he's never apologised for saying that either); presumably this belief in the abolition of the economic cycle is why he sold our gold at a fifth of its current price, since the sort of safe havens to which investors are now flocking would never be needed again.
I imagine that Ed Balls is even now drafting an apology for his sacking of Sharon Shoesmith, ignoring the law and due process and thus saddling taxpayers with a hefty compensation bill just so that he could get some headlines and look tough.
John Prescott will no doubt wish to say sorry for the error of judgement which led to the creation of the pointless M4 bus lane, trying to foist English regional assemblies on a reluctant nation and shagging his secretary in his office with the door open. His wife, the long suffering Pauline gave him a second chance after that little episode. Was she wrong?
Or maybe the Labour Party could just save us all time and apologise for John Prescott and rescind the peerage he once, in an error of judgement, said he would never accept. Those of us who thought the nasty old hypocrite had retired and that we would be spared his sanctimony, breathless TV appearances and mangled syntax have had much cause to regret that error of judgement.
No doubt other issues are also weighing on Labour's collective conscience now that they have suddenly rediscovered the need for political regrets. Presumably they will wish to apologise for the 20p tax debacle; AS Levels; promising not to introduce tuition fees; the billions lost on tax credits, aircraft carriers for which we had no planes, I.D cards and numerous I.T projects. They no doubt now regret giving up part of our EU rebate so that Tony Blair could claim to be at the centre of Europe and not just being taken for a ride as usual. I'm sure they have sleepless nights over their destruction of private pensions with Gordon's taxes, losing control of immigration and the antics of Alastair Campbell and Damien McBride.
Oh, and since Labour are now so implacably of the opinion that giving people a second chance is an error of judgement, presumably they now wish to apologise for the second, third and fourth chances given to Peter Mandelson, one of which meant giving him a place in Europe on a mega salary and the latest a place in the House of Lords without having to worry about being elected by those of us who felt he had been given altogether too many chances. Presumably the second chance given to David Blunkett who then had to resign again is now a matter of regret too and we can safely assume that resigned and disgraced ministers from the last administration like Jacqui Smith are now persona non grata in the Labour Party.
Yes it's refreshing that Labour have suddenly become so principled and opposed to the old crony politics they used to practice with such relish.
Monday, 18 July 2011
Yet another resignation this afternoon, this time it is John Yates who has fallen on his sword, a move that was made all the more inevitable when his boss did the same yesterday and with considerably less justification. Next the ravenous hordes will start circling James Murdoch - and then? Well then this crisis may finally subside.
Labour are having a wonderful time, they are in full sanctimonious cry - demanding resignations, and for once actually getting them. They might reflect that actually their indignant rage has been if anything too successful; at this rate they will soon run out of heads to roll and nothing to be angry about. The storm will blow itself out. At this rate attention may turn to their own tie-ups with News International and the inconvenient fact that much of what they are now angry about took place when they were in power. And has anyone compared their record on resigning - on MPs expenses, loss of data, dodgy dossiers and so on - with their demands for others to do so?
If anything comes of this debacle it may well be that the British method of government is broken and in dire need of fixing. Our habit of putting power in the hands of the great and good, in unaccountable committees and quangos that are unelected, baubles to be handed out to cronies and failed politicians may at last be exposed as corrupt and corrupting.
The Metropolitan Police, ostensibly accountable to various politicians, nevertheless has been caught out playing politics, hiding behind its operational independence and failing to look in places where they might find issues that are awkward or inconvenient. That is a consequence of the way we run things in this country. Labour are as much to blame for that as any. Even now they are opposing elected sheriffs to run our police forces.
The way we run things in this country has to change or else scandals like this one will keep happening. Yet the greatest club of all, the unelected House of Lords, home of failed or retired politicians, judges and even ex policemen caught being with economical with the truth is still defended to the hilt, still justified because otherwise the House of Commons might be less powerful.
Labour will try to pin more blame on David Cameron as they try to make this more political, but it is hard to see how they can succeed given what we know and what they did when in government. Yes he made an error of judgement and was possibly naive or insufficiently ruthless when dealing with a friend. His learning curve in his comparatively new job has been steep and this scandal has made it precipitous. But he ought now to show leadership by drawing a line under it and getting on with other business such as his trip to Africa. He has set up independent inquiries, he has opened up his own schedule to public inspection and the most guilty parties - most of them nothing to do with him or his government - have now gone. Perhaps, for all the fun we have all been having, it is time to move on and let those inquiries and what is left of the Met do their jobs. Unless something really momentous emerges in the coming days, it really is time to move on.
Saturday, 16 July 2011
The last couple of weeks have not been auspicious ones for many parts of the British establishment, from our craven but now suddenly brave and fearless politicians in the face of our heartless media, to the media themselves and the police who have been doing dodgy deals with all of them.
We used to smugly congratulate ourselves on the lack of corruption here in Britain. Hackergate may well disabuse us of this romantic notion. What we have is a very special kind of British corruption, the sort done behind doors in private meetings, the you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours kind. It's the sort that can only exist in a city like London and a country like Britain whose democracy has evolved, often reluctantly, with the establishment clinging on when allowed to and using modern PR and political techniques to justify itself. Lots of people who went to the right schools, the right universities or now find themselves in power and seduced by the clubbiness, cosyness and chumminess of it all rule over us. And we have that very modern creation the political class, the sort who live and breathe politics from an early age, seldom get real jobs in the real world and become MPs in their 20s or 30s. Power begets power and some, for all of their bombastic pretensions, become more equal than the rest of us. This new elite are as out of touch with the real concerns of ordinary people as any grand 18th or 19th century aristocratic prime minister was, even or especially those who join the Labour Party having never done a day's hard work in their lives.
All of the political parties, the newspapers, the broadcast media and the police are now reacting with horror at what they all knew was going on. They are all scrambling for the high ground when in reality they are merely attempting to reach the top of their own very private dung hill. For make no mistake, regardless of the claims and the ludicrous posturing by everyone from Cameron to Miliband, Clegg to the suddenly vocal again Brown and the various characters from our increasingly keystone coppish Metropolitan Police, they were all complicit in it, they all played the game, they all joined the cosy club and paid the membership fees.
The only reason that something is now being done about this is because they have been exposed. The same thing happened with MPs expenses and the banks. Every time the same politicians fall over themselves to be outraged, some claim to have warned us in advance and they all claim to have the solutions. Along the way they may acknowledge that their behaviour has been less than satisfactory. But never will they have behaved less than nobly. Mistakes were made, errors of judgement, busy people overlooked things. They say the right things, make the right noises, meet up with the aggrieved little people and then eventually we all move on. That's why the banks are still screwing us all and paying themselves mega salaries for gambling with our money, and our MPs are even now finding new ways to avoid having to account for the sort of expenses that the rest of us have to pay out of our taxed salaries.
What would be real leadership is if they refused to follow the political herd, the sort that claims that their policies are 'green' or 'progressive.' What would be real leadership is if they were to sit back and consider government policies holistically, so that one department is not pulling one way with the others going in the opposite direction. If, just once in a while, someone decided to speak out, risk unpopularity and criticism from the bien pensant commentariat and warned that something is wrong before disaster strikes or a sordid secret emerges blinking into the public eye.
Here are a few issues just off the top of my head:
- The Euro is broken. It is taking us towards a disaster that could create international tensions of the sort that used to lead to world wars. An enterprise originally designed to unite Europe and prevent more wars is creating nationalism and the beginnings of jingoism in some places. This is happening because politicians refuse to accept economic reality and prefer instead to pursue grandiose dreams that nobody voted for. It's typical of all politicians and spectacularly expensive for taxpayers. But quite why our own British politicians toe this increasingly ridiculous line is hard to fathom. Why in god's name don't they speak out and refuse to commit another penny to bailouts and point out what we can all see that some countries need to leave the Euro? The one nation that has been allowed to default and has stayed outside the EU: Iceland is now prospering again.
- Thanks to the political consensus surrounding education in this country, the abolition of grammar schools and the child centred faddish education doled out in state schools as opposed to the private sector, poor kids stand less and less chance of getting to top universities. Worse than that, we have created a generation of underprivileged children who are so poorly educated and so demotivated that they are more or less unemployable and would refuse the very few jobs for which they are qualified. This is a situation that is being covered up by a dumbed down exams system and a teaching profession that refuses to acknowledge that its faddish theories of child centred learning and not pressuring the little cherubs is creating a disaster.
- The so called consensus surrounding climate change (another issue in which corruption has been there for all to see but which has been ignored for political reasons) has led our politicians to saddle this country with a fast approaching energy crisis. The lights are going to go out, either because they have not built enough reliable power stations thanks to being in thrall to the Green Meanies or because people will have to sit in the dark and cold rather than pay the bills for keeping George Monbiot happy and allowing politicians to boast about leading the world. It is one of the eternal mysteries of politics that the same people who talk about how scandalous it is that so many struggle to feed their children or send them on school trips which would make them more upwardly mobile, at the same time saddle the poor with debt to pay for their grandstanding.
- This already extortionately expensive country to live in is keeping millions unemployed whilst importing workers to do the jobs our schools, colleges and employers have left our own people unprepared for. It started as a deliberate policy to get people out of the unemployment statistics and is rapidly creating an underclass of people who have never worked, have no intention of working and would struggle to hold jobs even if obliged to do so. It has been a slow burn disaster created by politicians since the creation of the welfare state. The safety net has become a glass ceiling, one that has trapped people in poverty, ignorance, fecklessness and benefit dependency. It is why we have millions in poverty and engaged in various levels of benefit fraud. Those at the sharp end know it. Our politicians simply ignore it because they are incapable of talking about it or admitting that there is a problem
These are the coming crises. They may not make the juicy headlines of Hackergate but they are altogether more scandalous because we can all see the problems yet cannot talk about them thanks to political correctness and political cowardice. Many of them are thanks to the great law of politics, the law of unintended consequences or of a lack of joined up government. As we confront the fact that Britain is not so corruption free as long imagined, it is high time we confronted the fact that our system of government does not work either.
Friday, 15 July 2011
So, she's finally gone. Why did it take so long? Because it's part of a pattern, a pattern that will probably be taught at symposiums in future on how not to handle corporate crises. One of the most amazing aspects of Hackergate is the propensity of apparently intelligent people to behave so stupidly and arrogantly, although perhaps the latter is less surprising. Since this scandal emerged, or began to emerge, 4 years ago, News International's default response has been denial, damage limitation, throwing money at it, destroying evidence, throwing less well liked colleagues to the wolves, counter smears, threats, bluster, more denial, phoney contrition, closing down sacrificial lambs and finally resignation. Even if you believed the line from various politicians that they had always tried to keep their distance from News International and Rupert Murdoch - even when true it's only because he didn't want to know them - the way they have handled this crisis speaks volumes. They have handled the crisis the way that political parties and governments handle them. Each step along the way has only happened after they have been dragged there kicking and screaming and declaring their innocence. Today Rupert Murdoch is apparently meeting the family of Milly Dowler, whose phone his hacks hacked. Am I alone in being cynical about his motives for doing so? That's the thing with PR, we have all become accustomed to its low arts and deceits, yet its practitioners believe they can keep pulling the wool over our eyes.
Ultimately, the reason that Brooks has resigned is because she knows that, now that she has been forced to answer questions in Parliament, she is cornered and defenceless. Even if she pleads the right to silence to save incriminating herself as the police inquiry continues, that makes her position untenable. But it also makes any apologies and contrition less than believable. Since they are only now admitting that the problem is on the gigantic scale that is emerging and was for a long time denied, and are only now taking responsibility for it, their attempts to look contrite fail to convince.
This scandal is going to do British democracy a great deal of good, notwithstanding the special pleading of our fourth estate about the necessity for a free press. This scandal is proving that freedom without constraint and with abuse of power in the mix is a toxic combination. What has brought all of this out into the open has been good old fashioned, crusading journalism, the sort that nobody has any objection too.
This is why this episode may really spell change for our press, although it may also spell the beginning of the end of some newspapers and the vibrant cut throat industry which created the market for scandal and tittilation which brought the News of the World down. But the best aspect of all of this is that it may make the establishment think twice about trying to cover things up. Such behaviour only makes matters worse, especially in this connected age when we can all look things up in seconds and expose denials or bold claims to the facts. Some, like Gordon Brown this week, have not yet learned this lesson. Perhaps cooler, more sensible heads will.