Friday 30 March 2007

30 March 2007

In just over four weeks from now, voters in Scotland look likely to slam a big clunking fist on to the nose of the Labour party. All the signs are that the party which has dominated Scottish politics for the past half century is in something close to melt-down.

Are you bovvered? (Note to readers overseas: it’s a catch-phrase from a popular comedy TV show in which an amateur actor named Tony Blair recently made a well-received guest appearance.) Well, here are a couple of reasons why you should be interested, even if you live far from Scotland’s borders.

First, if the Scottish National Party emerges after the Scottish parliamentary elections on 3 May as the largest single party, some mighty interesting constitutional issues could arise. The SNP says it will hold a referendum on whether Scotland should break away from the United Kingdom and become a separate, sovereign nation again. That could keep constitutional lawyers happily in business for many years.

Second, if the Labour vote does collapse in Scotland, what does that do to Gordon Brown, Labour’s most senior Scotsman and the man most likely to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? Can’t even win in his own backyard? What kind of electoral asset is he? I can already hear the Blairite ultras whispering from behind the Westminster curtain.

But just hold on a minute. Suppose the SNP do win in May. They won’t have enough seats to govern on their own, so they’ll need some partners to form a coalition. And if they insist on retaining their referendum pledge, that could be tricky.

Even if they get over that little hurdle, all the opinion polls suggest that something like three-quarters of Scottish voters would vote against independence. Which would leave us pretty much exactly where we are, except that Labour would have a very sore nose.

But why don’t you make up your own mind? The reason I’m here in Edinburgh is to chair a debate between members of the Scottish parliament on the motion: “That Scotland would face a brighter future independent of the United Kingdom”. You can hear it tonight (Friday 30th), or if you’ve missed it, it’s still available via the Listen Again facility on the website.

Oh, and if you’re worrying about my carbon footprint, don’t. I came here by train.

Friday 23 March 2007

23 March 2007

If you’ve been reading these newsletters for more than a year (and thank you for your loyalty if you have been), you may remember that this time last year I made a shameful personal admission.

This is what I wrote: “I hate Budget Days. Always have. Always will. I hate the endless drone of the Chancellor’s voice. I hate the long lists of meaningless figures; 10 billion here, 20 billion there. Inflation this, growth that. I hate the fake excitement of a fake ritual. I hate having to pretend that the whole farrago of Westminster wind-baggery actually means something.”

Twelve months later, having sat through the 11th (ye Gods, the 11th?) Gordon Brown budget speech, do I still feel the same? Guilty, your honour. Yes, it’s true, he smiled a couple of times. And he cracked a couple of jokes. And he pulled a 2p-size white rabbit out of his hat with impressive panache. Look at this, he said, T Blair isn’t the only showman in town.

But go to the handy ready reckoner on the BBC News website , and you’ll almost certainly discover that at the end of it all, you’re no more than a few pounds better or worse off than before the chancellor rose to his feet. So what was the point?

Ah, but politics is also theatre, is it not? It’s about performance, and intellectual agility, and the art of leadership. When I saw the evening paper billboards (“Brown cuts tax rate”), I knew that the chancellor would sleep that night (eight-month-old baby son permitting) with a beatific smile on his face.

And it was interesting, wasn’t it, how on the Today programme yesterday morning, he no longer protested at the suggestion that he would soon be Prime Minister. The pretence, the false modesty ("aw, shucks, me? Prime Minister? But John, I’m just thrilled to have been number 2 to Tony for the past decade") has been dropped. Now he talks openly about why he’s convinced he can do the job. The transition is already well under way. And my hunch is that this week’s Budget makes it even less likely that he’ll face a heavyweight challenger. (Mind you, a modest wager on Charles Clarke might be fun.)

Meanwhile, dust down your political lexicon and look up “executive privilege”. Across the pond, in Washington, the US Congress and the White House are squaring up for a juicy little constitutional battle over whether some of President Bush’s top aides should be forced to testify at Congressional hearings into why eight federal prosecutors were fired. We’ve been here before of course: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky. But those mid-term elections last November, when the Democrats won control of Congress, have certainly changed the political weather in Washington.

All US presidents jealously guard their “executive privilege” – the theory that the separation of powers embodied in the US constitution implies that each of the three branches of government (executive, legislature, judiciary) should operate with some degree of freedom from the control or supervision of the others. But even if Mr Bush successfully resists the demands from Congress, the battle does look likely to weaken him further.

It’s now 11 days since our colleague Alan Johnston disappeared in Gaza and there is still no word of his whereabouts. Please keep him in your thoughts – and do read this moving open letter to him by Bassam Nasser of the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.

Friday 16 March 2007

16 March 2007

So there I was, yesterday morning, scanning the newspapers as is my custom, and there were three major stories: the vote in the House of Commons on whether to renew the Trident nuclear missile programme; events in Zimbabwe; and David Cameron’s decision to change the way he parts his hair.

Trident, tick: we’d covered that. Zimbabwe, tick: we’d covered that too. But Mr Cameron’s tonsorial revolution: how could we have missed it? How come not one of our legions of busy beaver political correspondents had warned us that something of major significance had occurred in the barber’s chair?

When I was at school in the 60s, nuclear weapons and Rhodesia (as it then was) were two of the biggest political issues of the day. (There was also, of course, the war in Vietnam.) Every Easter, tens of thousands of CND-ers used to march from the weapons factory at Aldermaston to London (or from London to Aldermaston in alternate years), and I also remember protesters demonstrating against the white Rhodesians’ unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 with chants of “One Man, One Vote”.

Forty years on, guess what: we’re still talking about those same two issues. But where are the thousands of demonstrators? Most of them seem to have moved on. I was thinking the other day of a global phone-in programme I did with Tony Blair shortly before the Iraq war. Most of the calls, as you’d expect, were about Iraq and terrorism, but there was one from Zimbabwe: Mr Blair, said the caller, please don’t forget about us.

Has he forgotten? Have we forgotten? Well, I can’t answer for Mr Blair, but as for us, we’re not allowed to operate in Zimbabwe – there are no resident foreign correspondents there any more – so it’s exceedingly difficult to report on a regular basis what’s really going on. And of course there’s Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Iran, and North Korea – so many other crises, so many other debates. Oh yes, and there’s Mr Cameron’s new hair-do too.

But no, as far as The World Tonight is concerned, we haven’t forgotten about Zimbabwe, or about the very real debate over Britain’s future role as a nuclear power. We have covered, and we will continue to cover, both issues on the programme whenever we can. (If you missed our interview with the senior Zimbabwean opposition MP Tendai Biti, who spoke to us on Tuesday from his hospital bed after being beaten up by the police, it’s still available via the Listen Again button.)

I’ve left the biggest story of the week till last. Blue Peter faked the result of a competition. I’m still in shock: it was like hearing that there’s no Father Christmas. But perhaps the legendary former Blue Peter editor Biddy Baxter was right when she told us on Wednesday’s programme that there could be a silver lining: at some point, children do need to learn that things aren’t always what they seem. Maybe so, but please, not on Blue Peter …

Oh, and I hope you’ll spare a thought for our friend and colleague Alan Johnston, who at the time of writing is still missing in the Gaza Strip. He has spent nearly three years living and working there, in often difficult and dangerous circumstances. We hope to see him back home very soon.

Friday 9 March 2007

9 March 2007

It’s question time, I think, so let’s start with an easy one: what do the following people have in common? Jade Goody, Toni Comer, and Patrick Mercer?

Yes, they’ve all been in the headlines – but the right answer is that they’ve all been in the headlines for the same reason: race. Jade Goody became UK Hate Figure No.1 because of her perceived racist bullying of the saintly Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty; Toni Comer is the 20-year-old (black) woman who was caught on security cameras being apparently beaten by (white) police in a Sheffield car park; Patrick Mercer is the Conservative MP who told a reporter that when he was a colonel in the British army he “came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours.”

There are, of course, many more examples of recent media stories that have involved race. Gun crime in south London; last week’s government report suggesting that some teachers are “unwittingly racist”; the non-promotion of senior Scotland Yard officer Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei.

So here’s the more difficult question: do the media over-report race issues? Is there, as the Daily Mail suggested this morning, “something almost McCarthyite in the way the liberal establishment responds to every suggestion of [racism]?” Or is it, as others suggest, one of the most pervasive and damaging features of the society in which we live, which needs to be constantly exposed and analysed?

Fortunately, I don’t have to answer these questions: my job is to ask them. (I have always closely identified with the former editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, who when he was asked after the end of the Second World War if he would be prepared to stand for parliament, replied: “Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I only know the questions, not the answers.”)

A Guardian columnist wrote this morning: “Many British institutions are struggling to adapt to the new realities of multiethnic, multicultural Britain” (yes, including the BBC, described so memorably by our former director-general Greg Dyke as “hideously white”). But there are others who argue that in fact, compared to many other countries, the UK hasn’t done too badly. I heard the other day about a group of Somalis who have come to live here from Sweden because they found Britain to be a less racist society.

So does relentlessly reporting and analysing racism and racist behaviour risk exacerbating it? Do resentments and misunderstandings grow in the glare of the headlines? I’ve been reporting, on and off, on these matters for the best part of 30 years – from the rise of the National Front in the late 1970s (in 1978, Margaret Thatcher spoke of people’s “fear that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”), the riots in Bristol, Toxteth, Brixton in the 1980s and then the debate over the growing Asian and Muslim minorities through the 1990s and into the current decade. And of course for much of that time, parallel debates have been under way in many other European countries.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. One final, unrelated thought from me, in the aftermath of the vote on reforming the House of Lords (I imagine it had you on the edge of your seat for much of Wednesday evening): when some MPs vote in favour of something because in fact they vigorously oppose it, which apparently is what happened on Wednesday, is it really a surprise that we reporters sometimes fail to treat them with the respect they insist they deserve? And if you really want to make your head hurt, try answering this question for the benefit of a visitor from Mars: who exactly sits in the House of Lords under the current system?

As I said, thank goodness I only have to ask the questions.

Friday 2 March 2007

2 March 2007

I confess I’ve never quite understood the complaints we sometimes receive from listeners who think we spend too much time reporting on American politics. True, the US is a long way from our shores; France and Germany, for example, are considerably closer. But for goodness sake, who has more influence on the world we live in: President Bush or President Chirac?

I ask because of another extraordinary development this week in US foreign policy. As you may remember, I was struck when Mr Bush delivered his State of the Union address in January by how his tone on climate change seemed to have changed significantly. Then more recently, I commented on the deal he’s struck with North Korea over their nuclear bomb. And now – well now he says (or rather Condoleezza Rice says) he’s going to start talking to the Syrians and Iranians about how to reduce the violence in Iraq.

So the question, in the words of the New York Times, is simply this: Has the Bush administration gone soft on its foes? And the answer, I think, is no, but it is now prepared to talk to them in a way that wasn’t the case a few short months ago. (Much to the dismay, incidentally, of the Washington hawks like ex-Pentagon official Frank Gaffney, who was on the programme last Tuesday.)

And the explanation? There are two reasons, I would suggest: first, the Iraq imbroglio. The administration hard-liners who were convinced that all would go well are now in retreat: Donald Rumsfeld has gone; the former ambassador at the UN, John Bolton, has gone – Vice-President Dick Cheney is still there, but he’s looking mighty lonely. The foreign policy wallahs at the State Department are in the ascendancy.

And the second reason, not unconnected to the first: last November’s mid-term elections. Mr Bush can read election results as well as anyone else (remember his reaction? “We got thumped”), and I’ve never subscribed to the view that he’s stupid. He knows he has to last another two years, and that means finding some way to work with a Congress that’s dominated by his opponents in the Democratic Party.

So what’s happening in Washington, in my book at least, is both interesting and important. Definitely worth reporting on, discussing and analysing. Ditto the prospects of the various candidates who hope to be moving in to the White House in January 2009. Yes, I know, I know, it’s nearly two years away – and I promise we won’t go overboard with every twist and turn of the pre-pre-election campaign. But we’ve already got a woman candidate, a black candidate and a Mormon candidate, and I’m confident there’ll be plenty more excitement before it’s over. Of course, it’s all over-blown, and of course it goes on for far too long … but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

But fear not: despite my remark above about M. Chirac, we’ll also be reporting on the French presidential elections in April, and I’m already making plans to be in Nigeria, one of the most influential African nations, for their presidential poll at around the same time. We like to call it The World Tonight’s global vision.

And while we’re on the subject of visions: was it just an unfortunate coincidence, do you think, that the new Alan Milburn/Charles Clarke website, designed to stop Gordon Brown, oops, sorry, encourage a debate in the Labour party, is called The 2020 Vision, when everyone at Westminster knows that Mr Brown is blind in one eye? They surely wouldn’t have done it on purpose, would they?