Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 9 June 2017

Another fine mess ...

To choose one party leader who makes a catastrophic error of judgement may be regarded, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, as a misfortune; but to choose two in quick succession looks like carelessness.

First David Cameron gambled and lost with the Brexit referendum. Now Theresa May has done the same by calling a wholly unnecessary general election. What is it with these people? Do the words hubris and nemesis mean nothing to them?

Thank you, young voters, who seem to have woken from their Brexit nightmare and flocked to the polling stations. (According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-election survey, two-thirds of voters aged 18-24 voted Labour.)

Thank you, fellow Remainers, who seem to have decided, despite the confused message from party leaders, that Labour was their best chance of softening the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU. (According to Ashcroft, more than half Remain voters went for Labour.)

Thank you, voters in Scotland, who gave the SNP a bloody nose, kicked a second independence referendum out of sight and thereby saved the Union for the foreseeable future. (Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson both defeated? Wow …)

And thank you, voters everywhere, who ignored the pundits (yes, including me), who said Jeremy Corbyn could never be an election winner, and ignored the right-wing tabloids who spewed their usual poison all over the body politic. Last night, it most definitely was neither The Sun nor the Daily Mail what won it.

It is at times like this that I cherish democracy and the determination of voters to make up their own minds, for their own reasons, how to cast their votes.

Back in April, when Mrs May announced the snap election, I recalled the fate of Edward Heath in 1974, when he called an election to answer the question ‘Who governs Britain?’ and received, much to his surprise, the answer ‘Not you, matey.’ Mrs May may think that she can hang on as a busted flush PM (does she really think that her harping on about the need for ‘stability’ convinces anyone at all?), but she must know that her days are numbered.

The election result was an unusually personal defeat for the prime minister: the Tory campaign was built around her, and her alone, to a ridiculous degree. The Tory manifesto offered nothing of note save the unlamented ‘dementia tax’, and the party’s messaging barely included even the party’s name.

Contrary-wise, the result was a personal triumph for Jeremy Corbyn. He stuck to his guns, remained true to himself, and allowed himself to be steered into a commanding position at the head of an impressively effective campaign. (According to Ashcroft, more than half of Labour’s voters made up their minds after the campaign had started. So goodbye to the notion that campaigns make no difference to the outcome.)

But once the Labour cheers have died down (after all, they still didn’t win), and the Tory tears have dried, one huge black cloud remains casting a pall over Westminster. What happens now to Brexit?

Theresa May wanted a strong Brexit mandate. Instead, she has emerged weakened and humiliated. Jeremy Corbyn wanted … well, to this day, I’m still not sure what he wanted. In theory, formal negotiations begin in less than two weeks’ time. Good luck with that, to whoever has to pretend to be representing Britain.

It is not entirely fanciful to see the election result, at least in part, as the Revenge of the Remainers. If all those young voters yesterday had turned out for the referendum, things would be looking very different.

So: before long, a new Conservative party leader. A rethought approach to Brexit. Perhaps even a cross-party negotiating committee? And an entirely new political landscape.

Back to a two-party system. A re-energised youth vote. A much diminished nationalism in both Scotland and the UKIP heartlands of England.

Don’t anyone dare tell me that politics is boring.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I have already applied to join the International Federation of Hat-Eaters, but I’m told there is a huge waiting list. In the circumstances, it's hardly surprising.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Confronting terrorism: the challenge

Discussing an appropriate response to terrorism just a few days before a general election is far from ideal. Perhaps that’s why so much of what has been said and written since Manchester – and even more so since the London Bridge attack – has been of so little value.

So here’s an attempt to contribute to the debate as if there were no election on the horizon.

In my view, there are two essential elements to any successful counter-terrorism strategy: first, to identify and monitor those who are likely to plan and launch terrorist attacks, and if necessary to arrest them before they execute their plans; and second, to do everything possible to minimise the number of potential terrorists who are tempted to plan and execute attacks in the future.

This approach, incidentally, applies equally to terrorists motivated by jihadi zeal, or by Irish republicanism, or by extreme nativism and nationalism (eg Thomas Mair, who murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox in west Yorkshire, or Jeremy Christian, who is alleged to have killed two men who intervened to stop him screaming anti-Muslim abuse at two teenage girls in Portland, Oregon).

The identification and monitoring of those likely to launch terrorist attacks is the job of the security services and the police. It is also, of course, the responsibility of relatives, friends and neighbours whose suspicions are raised. (In both the Manchester and London Bridge cases, it appears that family members and neighbours had done exactly that – and we need to know much more about why their suspicions were not acted on.)

If more resources are to be made available to confront the terrorism threat, surely it makes more sense to use the extra cash to recruit more intelligence analysts and more specialist anti-terrorism police officers, who can sift through the mountain of material already available and make better-informed decisions about where the main threats lie.
So far, I have seen nothing to suggest that more armed police on the streets would do anything to prevent more attacks – and the responses to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks suggest that the armed police we do have are already extraordinarily good at their jobs.

Nor do I believe that they need extra powers. The problem is not that they aren’t able to find the potential terrorists, but that they don’t have the resources to analyse the information that they have to act effectively and in time.

As for reducing the numbers of new terrorists, surely the priority must be to work much more imaginatively – in schools, in prisons and in social service provision – to counter the alienation and anger felt mainly by a tiny minority of second generation immigrants who are lured by the siren call of jihadi recruiters.

It should not be forgotten that the deluded young men who become mass murderers are also committing suicide – so we need to understand much more about why they are so angry and devoid of hope that they are prepared to die while killing as many others as they can.

It is complex and difficult and will take time. But somehow, Western liberal democracies will have to learn how to encourage vulnerable young men to value their lives – and ours -- more than their, and our, deaths.  

Friday, 19 May 2017

Theresa May: a new kind of Tory?

I have a little election quiz for you. See if you can work out which of the three main political parties made each of the following statements:

'Government can and should be a force for good ... and its power should be put squarely at the service of this country’s working people.'

'We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals.'

'Paying your fair share of tax is the price of living in a civilised democracy.'

'We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.'

'Immigration to Britain is still too high. It is our objective to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, by which we mean annual net migration in the tens of thousands.'

OK, the last one was easy. But the other ones? Here's a clue. Each statement comes from the same party manifesto -- and it's the one in which the words 'strong and stable' appear no fewer than thirteen times.

That sound you hear is Margaret Thatcher spinning in her grave -- because Theresa May is using the cover of Brexit to rip up Thatcherism and recast her party as the Friend of the Workers. She has cast herself as The Queen of State Intervention and The Believer in Society. She is a cross between Boudicca and Elizabeth I. The Mother of the Nation.

Did you vote UKIP in 2015 and Leave in the referendum? Brexit means Brexit: Theresa's your woman.

Do you care about inequality and obscene fat cat salaries? Guess what, so does Theresa.

Did you vote Remain, but now just want to get the whole Brexit business over with so that we can get on with our lives? Yup, Theresa does too.

Oh, and if you think it's only reasonable that older people in need of expensive social care should be required to pay for some of it out of the absurdly inflated value of their family homes, so does Theresa. (The home I bought 35 years ago is now valued at 25 times as much as I paid for it. Why shouldn't some of that wholly undeserved wealth go towards paying for my care in my dotage?)

All things to all voters? Why not? Mrs May is a canny enough politician to seize the golden opportunity that she has been offered: if she wins the kind of majority that is being predicted for her on 8 June, the manifesto will entitle her to claim that 'the people have spoken' (where have we heard that before?) and endorsed her vision of the future.

How many Tory MPs and activists share that vision is an interesting question. And whether the impending Brexit storms will leave her with any breathing room in which to make that vision a reality is an equally interesting question.

I shouldn't think Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage would find that they have much in common were they to sit down for a ruminative chat, but on one thing they would agree: We wuz robbed. Mrs May has taken the Miliband vision of caring capitalism and the Farage vision of a Brexited, low immigration UK and made them both her own. Just as Tony Blair did two decades ago, she has planted her flag defiantly in the centre ground (which happens to be where most voters see themselves) and dares anyone to challenge her right of occupation.

What a shame that she and Emmanuel Macron of France will soon be spitting at each other (figuratively) across the Brexit negotiating table. They have a lot in common, both having cast themselves as big tent centrists, Macron by forming a brand new party, and May by reinventing the one she leads.

What was the main May message in Halifax on Thursday as she launched her manifesto? 'Come with me as I lead Britain.' Me, me, me ...

Sebastian Payne put it well in the Financial Times: 'This is a Conservative party document in name, but it is very much a product of the prime minister and her team. There is a notable focus on principles and ideas, arguing that there is such a thing as society, government can do good and collectivism and individualism need to work side by side.'

I admit that it is usually a mistake to read too much into manifestos. I still bear the scars from when I made a series of radio programmes ahead of the 1992 general election, in which we attempted to submit each of the main parties' manifestos to forensic and expert examination. One by one, they fell apart in our hands, their grandiose prose crumbling into meaningless guff.

Voters vote for many different reasons, but the detailed proposals set out in election manifestos are rarely a decisive factor in the decision they make. Trust in party leaders, on the other hand, is a major factor, which is why Tory election propaganda features the words 'Theresa May' wherever you look. It is also why the letter I got from my local Labour party candidate this week didn't include the words 'Jeremy Corbyn' once.

Not once.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The utter incompetence of the Trump White House

I want you to read the following words very, very carefully. They were spoken on Thursday by the White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders.

'We want this [the FBI's investigation into possible Russian interference in last year's presidential campaign] to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.'

Do I need to translate? The White House hopes that by firing the director of the FBI, James Comey, President Trump will have managed to shut down an investigation that threatens the very survival of his administration. Not since Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 has a president acted so blatantly to protect himself against possible impeachment.

(A few hours after Ms Sanders's statement, the president flatly contradicted her, and said that far from bringing the Russia investigation to a conclusion, his decision to fire Comey might actually lengthen it. Hmm ...)

Compare Ms Sanders's admirably frank admission with the utterly incredible version originally offered by the White House. On Tuesday, when the firing of the FBI director was announced to universal astonishment, the White House said President Trump had acted on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, that following Comey's mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email saga, 'the FBI is unlikely to regain public and Congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.'

Given that Comey's 'mistakes' are generally believed to have had a significant influence on Mr Trump's election victory, this always seemed to stretch credulity to breaking point. And now, thanks to Ms Sanders, we know it was total tosh.

We also have it direct from the horse's mouth. In an interview with NBC News, Mr Trump said: 'I was going to fire Comey -- my decision. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation ... In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia, is a made up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'

Russia. Not Clinton. Odd. Or perhaps not odd at all. And, in the eyes of some, perilously close to being an admission of obstruction of justice. As Mr Trump himself might say: Terrible.

There was more. '[Comey's] a showboat, he's a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn't recovered from that.'

But that's not true either, says the man who has taken over as the FBI's acting director. Andrew McCabe told the Senate intelligence committee that Comey enjoyed 'broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.' And he added: 'The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees, enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey.'

This isn't a common or garden case of mixed messages. This is clear, incontrovertible evidence of an administration that is making it up hour by hour. It is evidence of an administration that is so culpably incompetent that it lets an official Russian photographer into the White House to snap merrily away as Mr Trump glad hands the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, having first banned all American media from recording the encounter.

So not only did the Russians get their pictures all over the American media, they also revealed -- oops, sorry about that -- that the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, who happens to be the man at the centre of all the Russia-Trump campaign allegations, was also present. Somehow, the White House had forgotten to mention that he would be there too.

Now, apparently, White House officials are complaining that the Russians 'tricked' them and never mentioned that they intended to publish their photographs. It just fills one with confidence about the sophistication and professionalism of the White House operation, doesn't it?

And then there's the president himself. A man who gives interviews virtually on a daily basis and whose utterances are so incomprehensible that media outlets have taken to publishing them verbatim for us to enjoy in all their glory. This, for example, is Mr Trump telling TIME magazine what it's like being president.

'I find the job very natural for me. I find -- it’s a very big job obviously, there’s no job big like this. No job is important like this. But I think some of the -- I just think it’s something that works for me, it feels very natural to me. And all I said, the job, it is, it’s a difficult job but it’s a job that I find to be -- I love doing it. I love helping people. Mike [Pence] is doing a fantastic job. He fits it so well. I mean we have a great team, he and I guess, they say we’re somewhat opposite and that works to be a very good combination.'

And this is what he said about his foreign policy achievements: 'You know what’s interesting, I’m getting very good marks in foreign policy. People would not think of me in that light. I’m just saying, and you read the same things I read. I’m getting As and A+s on foreign policy. And nobody thought about it.'

This is borderline gibberish. Correction: delete the word 'borderline'. It is pure, unadulterated gibberish. This is the president of the United States who can construct neither an intelligible sentence nor a coherent thought.

Watergate? Impeachment? Fat chance. Richard Nixon was done for by a Democrat-controlled Congress. Donald Trump bathes in the shameful acquiescence of Congressional Republicans, none of whom -- for now -- are prepared to play the role of the truth-telling child in The Emperor's New Clothes: 'But he hasn't got anything on.'

Mr Trump's unfitness for high office, clothed or unclothed, is plain for everyone to see. Is there no senior Republican, not one, who is prepared to state the obvious and start whatever process is required to remove him from the White House?

I cannot believe that there is not a single honourable Republican in Congress who knows what has to be done and has the political courage to do it. Or am I being hopelessly naïve?