Friday 30 October 2015

A question of incompetence

Has there ever been a Cabinet minister more inept than Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons? He is a man who can be utterly relied upon to get things wrong, a man whose lack of judgement and staggering incompetence defy belief.

John Crace put it perfectly in Thursday's Guardian: "If there is an argument that cannot be lost, Chris Grayling has yet to find it. Ask him to prove the Earth revolves around the sun, and everyone will inevitably end up believing the exact opposite; as an intellect, he barely registers even at the lower end of the IQ scale. So it can only be an act of pure sadism on David Cameron’s part that the leader of the house is invariably left to deal with the problems the rest of the cabinet don’t have a clue how to solve."

Those words were written after Mr Grayling's botched response to the House of Lords rebellion against the government's proposed cuts to tax credits. First he announced that there would be a "rapid review" into the Lords vote, but then, without pausing to draw breath, he assured MPs that, oh no, hand on heart, it most certainly would not be rushed. So, "rapid" as in "not rushed".

There was worse to come. Barely 24 hours later, he was back on his feet in the Commons to complain that journalists have been misusing the Freedom of Information Act. They have, he said, been using it as "a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable."

It is necessary at this point to take a deep breath, count to ten, sit Mr Grayling down in a comfy chair, and try to explain. Freedom of information means -- how can I put this? -- that information should be freely available. That's "freely available" as in "freely available to everyone." As he himself said, presumably not comprehending the words he spoke: "It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how governments make decisions."

Now, why do we think that journalists might use the act to get hold of information? Might it, just possibly, be because they think that their readers, listeners and viewers "want to understand why and how governments make decisions"?

Might it be because journalists think their readers have a right to know, for example, how much MPs have been claiming in expenses, and for what? Because as even Mr Grayling must surely know, that information became available only because journalists claimed their right to see it under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.

(Brief reminder: in 2008, the High Court ruled in favour of a Freedom of Information Act application for the release of the details of MPs' expenses claims. The House of Commons authorities then announced that certain information deemed "sensitive" would be removed. In the event, an uncensored copy of the records was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, which published them.)

Or, to take another example, perhaps journalists thought that voters had a right to know that hundreds of thousands of calls to the 101 police non-emergency number are never answered. Or that according to a statistical evaluation by the Metropolitan Police, knife amnesties seem to have no long-term impact on the number of knife crimes committed. (These examples, and many more, are cited in a BBC analysis of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act published earlier this year.)

Mr Grayling has form for this kind of thing. In 2009, he landed himself in hot water by comparing Moss Side in Manchester to the city of Baltimore as depicted in the TV drama series The Wire. The Manchester Evening News reported: "His comments have sparked fury in Manchester - not least because all the evidence would suggest that cops and the community are winning the battle against the gangsters ... In fact, over the last two years, Greater Manchester Police have recorded the biggest reduction in gun crime of any force in the country."

In 2010, when he was shadow home secretary, the Conservative party claimed that violent crime was increasing throughout Britain. The chairman of the UK statistics authority, Sir Michael Scholar, was so angry about the misuse of the statistics that he complained to Mr Grayling by letter: "I must take issue with what you said about violent crime statistics, which seems to me likely to damage public trust in official statistics."

In office, as a grossly inept justice secretary, he introduced a widely condemned ban on books being sent to prisoners (the ban was overturned with indecent haste as soon as Michael Gove took over from him after the election last May). He also introduced a mandatory system of flat-fee court charges for defendants that the president of the Law Society described as a threat to fair trials.

His cuts to legal aid payments went down like a lead balloon  -- one high-profile fraud case was halted because of what the judge called the government's “failure to provide the necessary resources to permit a fair trial to take place”. Five of the defendants were represented by Alex Cameron QC, who offered his services free of charge. (His younger brother, by the way, is called David -- yes, that David.)

The decision to halt the trial was later overturned by the Court of Appeal, but even so, this is not a record of which any Cabinet minister should be proud. It is a shameful record of botched decision-making and woeful ignorance that should disqualify anyone from holding public office. In any other line of business, Mr Grayling would surely be dismissed for gross incompetence.

So if you have any thoughts about a job to which he might be better suited, I'd be happy to forward them to Number 10.

Friday 23 October 2015

China: a prosperity agenda?

I chose to mark the State visit of President Xi Jinping of China this week by spending some time at a wonderful art exhibition that somehow our honoured guest couldn't fit in to his crowded schedule.

Whether by coincidence or not, the Royal Academy in London is currently showing a deeply moving collection of works by China's best-known contemporary artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. It's a real shame that the Foreign Office couldn't find a way to inveigle the President in to see it.

He could have stopped to ponder the 90 tons of steel reinforcing rods, laid out on the floor like a deep carpet of rusted metal, each one meticulously straightened after having been retrieved from the mangled ruins of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 which killed more than 85,000 people. Many of those who died were victims of shoddily built structures erected by corrupt construction companies. Hence the symbolism of the steel rods.

Or perhaps the President could have spent a few moments squinting through the viewing apertures of Ai's half-lifesize prison cell dioramas, reconstructions of scenes from the artist's 81 days of incarceration in a secret prison in 2011. Inside each iron box are fibreglass figures, showing Ai being questioned, asleep, having a shower -- always with two green-unformed guards at his side. The installation is entitled S.A.C.R.E.D, the initital letters standing for supper, accusers, cleansing, ritual, entropy, and doubt, each describing a different diorama.

The Chinese authorities weren't involved in the planning of the exhibition, although earlier this year, the co-curator Tim Marlow was quoted as saying: “I think the authorities are totally aware of what’s going on. We’re aware, they’re aware. Ai Weiwei is probably aware that they’re aware that we’re aware that they’re aware.”

Which means, I imagine, that somewhere in President Xi's briefing pack, there may well have been a mention of the exhibition, just in case it came up in conversation during his time in the UK. Although, to be honest, I do find it quite hard to imagine that the Queen would have brought it up during their dinner at Buckingham Palace.

"Oh, by the way, Mr President, I do hope you have time to pop down to the Royal Academy while you're in town. They've got an absolutely fascinating show on at the moment -- I'm sure you'd find it most interesting."

Unlikely. Indeed, as far as I've been able to ascertain, not even the culture secretary John Whittingdale has been to see the exhibition, although I shouldn't really be surprised, given that British immigration officials were reluctant even to issue Ai with a full six-month visa to allow him to visit.

The word in Whitehall, apparently, is that in this new, officially-heralded golden era in relations between our two countries, UK government policy is to prioritise what is being called the "prosperity agenda" ahead of the "rights agenda". Which is another way of saying that because we can't afford to pay for our own essential infrastructure development (nuclear power stations, high-speed rail services), we'll invite China to come up with the cash instead. No other Western nation would dream of being so indiscriminate in its use of the begging bowl.

George Osborne and the Treasury are now firmly in charge, even though, according to an excellent programme on Radio 4 last Monday by the BBC's estimable China editor Carrie Gracie, this new approach does represent a strategic shift in foreign policy. And it comes just as there are growing concerns both about China's long-term economic prospects and its increasingly muscular approach towards its neighbours.

There have been times in the recent past when critics of Britain's foreign policy have complained that we have been much too close to the US -- specifically, of course, over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But soon we may start hearing similar complaints about our ties to Beijing: if Chinese state enterprises are to be responsible for some of our key transport links and power supplies, how likely is it that we will resist Beijing's attempts to assert its control in, for example, the South China Sea?

So as we watch Chinese enterprises prepare to build our new nuclear power stations, I shall try not to think too much about Ai Weiwei's steel rods in the Royal Academy, the 85,000 people who died in Sichuan on 12 May, 2008, or the human rights activists, lawyers and ethnic minorities who have been harassed, imprisoned and tortured. Repeat after me: prosperity agenda, not rights agenda.

Friday 16 October 2015

The new politics: Principles? I can change them

Have you noticed the new political fashion? Marxism is back -- Groucho, not Karl. "Those are my principles," goes the quote, "and if you don't like them ... well, I have others."

As with so many of the best quotations, no one seems sure that he actually said it, but for my purposes, it doesn't matter. The changing of minds is the order of the day, and it's happening on both sides of the House of Commons.

Is the UK government bidding for a lucrative "training needs analysis" contract with the prison service of Saudi Arabia? (If anyone knows what that is exactly, and why the Saudis might be prepared to pay nearly £6 million for it, please get in touch.) Yes, on Monday it was; but, oops, no, on Tuesday it wasn't.

Is George Osborne a fan of fiscal charters or fiscal responsibility bills? In 2010, when he was shadow chancellor, No, he wasn't.  Quote: “Fiscal responsiblity acts are instruments of the fiscally irresponsible to con the public." On Wednesday, he proposed just such a measure.

As for the man who is now shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, do I even need to remind you? Three weeks ago, it was: "We accept we are going to have to live within our means … we will support the charter."

On Wednesday night, it was, oops, No, we won't. "Embarrassing? Yes, of course it is, but a bit of humility amongst politicians never goes amiss."

Then came the education secretary, Nicky Morgan. A year ago, it was: "There aren’t going to be any more grammar schools under me … I am resistant to selective education." And then yesterday, for a grammar school in Kent, it was, oh well, if you insist.

And finally, at the end of a week of dizzying policy about-turns, the prime minister decided that, contrary to his previous plan, he will now provide the UK's EU partners with a written shopping list of reform demands ahead of his much-anticipated referendum.

It is 35 years since Margaret Thatcher had the party faithful cheering delightedly at the Tory party conference in Brighton: "You turn if you want to -- the lady's not for turning." She would not be much impressed by the -- what's the polite term: flexibility? -- of today's politicians. Groucho Marx, on the other hand, would thoroughly approve.

I'm with John Maynard Keynes on this kind of thing: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?" (Again, the quote may be apocryphal, but again, it doesn't really matter.) But I do have a problem with the current penchant for political costume-changing, because in all the cases cited above, it's not the facts that have changed but the political weather.

Politicians change their minds when they are persuaded that it is to their advantage to do so. Perfectly understandable, perhaps, but let's not pretend. Why don't more ministers have the honesty to admit, as did the then local government minister 10 years ago when he announced that the government was postponing council tax revaluations, that he had performed a "vaulting, 180 degrees, full U-turn"? (His name was David Miliband, by the way. Whatever happened to him?)

If you like this new political nimbleness -- and I have to admit that it does make life a lot more interesting -- you can thank Jeremy Corbyn. He's a great believer in mind-changing: on membership of the EU, renewal of Trident, membership of NATO, and, of course, the Osborne fiscal charter elephant trap.

He also deserves credit -- shared credit, to be fair, with Michael Gove -- for forcing the prime minister to drop the UK bid for that Saudi prisons contract. But although I'm pleased they dropped the bid, I have a question for them.

If it's wrong to bid for such contracts in Saudi Arabia, on the grounds that it is a country with a truly abysmal record on human rights, why is the government about to roll out the reddest and plushest of carpets next week for President Xi Jinping of China, who will be welcomed on a State visit with all the pomp and frippery that we're capable of? He will address parliament, be guest of honour at a State banquet at Buckingham Palace and ride in the royal carriage -- and the general message from his fawning hosts will be: "Mr President, if you see anything you like the look of, it's all for sale."

When George Osborne was in China last month, State media praised him as "the first Western official in recent years who focused on business potential rather than raising a magnifying glass to the 'human rights issue'." Somehow, that doesn't make me proud.

Although the number of executions carried out in China remains a State secret, according to Amnesty International it is estimated that there were more people executed in China last year than in the rest of the world put together. Yes, more than in Saudi Arabia, plus Iran, plus North Korea, plus the US and the rest of them.

Perhaps the Daily Telegraph analyst Con Coughlin was right when he wrote: "In the pragmatic world of realpolitik, strategic interests and human rights rarely make for a comfortable mix." But we have certainly come a long, long way since the newly appointed foreign secretary Robin Cook proclaimed after Labour's election victory in May 1997: "Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension."

Remember those words as you watch President Xi being fĂȘted in London next week.

Friday 9 October 2015

David Cameron: once a PR man, always a PR man

Here's a little riddle for you: which left-wing extremist said this: "Bin Laden should be put on trial … because a trial would be the profoundest and most eloquent statement of the difference between our values and his."

And who said this: "[There was] no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest [Bin Laden] and put him on trial … This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy."

Was it (a) the man lauded by David Cameron because "he’s served this country, he’s served this party", or (b) the one lambasted for his "security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology"?

You've guessed, haven't you? The first quote comes from the prime minister's fellow old Etonian and wannabe successor Boris Johnson, and the second from Jeremy Corbyn. And yet although both were saying pretty much exactly the same thing, Mr Cameron regards one as a valued colleague (or so he would have us believe) and the other as someone to be cast into oblivion as a terrorist sympathiser.

Which just goes to show, yet again, that what is said by party leaders on conference platforms should never, ever be taken at face value. Even so, the gulf that separated what Mr Cameron said on Wednesday and what his government is actually doing was so vast that it had me reaching for my dictionary.

The phrase that came to mind as I listened to him was "cognitive dissonance". Definition: "the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values."

For example: he says the housing crisis is "one big piece of unfinished business" and that he wants more families to be able to own a home of their own. At the same time, he adopts policies that push property prices up to yet more stratospheric levels and deplete yet further the stock of affordable homes.

He also says he intends to tackle Britain's deep social problems: the "scourge of poverty … the brick wall of blocked opportunity". But he says nothing about his proposed changes to tax credits (the words didn't appear once in his speech, by the way) that, according to the Resolution Foundation, chaired by former Tory minister David Willetts, will together with other planned cuts increase the number of working families living in poverty by 200,000 by 2020.

Yet despite this yawning gap between rhetoric and reality, the prime minister appears to be suffering from no mental stress or discomfort whatsoever. On the contrary: he gives the impression that he's enjoying himself immensely, basking in the warm glow of an unexpected election victory, and that he feels he now has a real chance to create what he called a "greater Britain, made of greater hope, greater chances, greater security."

There can be only one explanation: he knows exactly what he's doing, but thinks we won't notice. He thinks he's so good at the talking that we won't realise in which direction he's walking. He's so excited at the prospect of occupying the political ground that Labour has (temporarily?) vacated that he can see little else. When he looks out of the Downing Street window every morning, he sees a future that is only blue.

But let's borrow another concept from the lexicon of psychology: maybe he's in denial ("a refusal or unwillingness to accept reality"). Because I spotted another word that somehow failed to make a single appearance in his conference speech. It was the dog that didn't bark, the elephant in the room -- feel free to choose your own metaphor.

The word was … referendum. As in the EU in-out referendum, which hangs around the prime minister's neck like a lead weight. If Mr Cameron urges a Yes vote -- which he will -- and the country votes No -- which it might -- his career will end in chaos and ignominy. It is a prospect so terrible that on Wednesday he could not bring himself even to utter the word.

No wonder he prefers to imagine a wonderful world in which the least well-off miraculously find well-paid jobs and affordable homes and no longer need any help from their fellow tax-payers. It's a world in which ethnic, religious and gender discrimination has vanished and every British Muslim bakes prize-winning cakes.

It's not the real world, of course, nor a world that the rest of us recognise. It's the world of the PR man -- which he once was, and still is.

Friday 2 October 2015

Just what Syria needs: more bombs

It's obvious, isn't it: what Syria really, really wants, after four years of war, an estimated 250,000 deaths and 12 million people forced to flee from their homes, is more foreigners dropping bombs.

Well, lucky Syria -- because within the last few days, both France and Russia have joined in, which means that by my count, there are now warplanes from no fewer than nine nations engaged in the skies over Syria. (The others are the US, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey.)

And who knows? Soon the UK may be there as well, although, with no disrespect to the RAF, I cannot imagine what British bombs might achieve that isn't already being tried (other than killing more people, of course). The whole thing is utterly ludicrous.

It is also horribly dangerous, because President Putin seems not to be bombing the same people as the US-led coalition, nor does he have the same goals. The US and its allies say they're targeting the Islamic State group; but the Russians appear to be more interested in pummelling other rebel groups whom they regard as more of a threat to President Assad's survival.

Russia's first air strikes on Wednesday hit a rebel group that had been trained by the CIA, in an area where there are not believed to be any IS bases at all. I dread to think what could happen if a US-backed group were to shoot down a Russian plane -- or indeed, if Assad's troops, newly armed with modern Russian weaponry and aided by Russian "advisers", managed to shoot down a US plane. We are entering, to use an inappropriate metaphor, very dangerous waters.

So I suppose we should be duly grateful that the Americans and Russians are at least trying to work out a way to avoid their various warplanes getting in each other's way. They should, of course, be talking about much more, and this is where -- don't laugh -- the EU might have a useful role.

In the tortuous negotiations with Iran leading to the landmark nuclear agreement last July, the six other governments at the talks (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany) used the EU's then foreign policy chief, Cathy Ashton, as their lead coordinator and negotiator. Iran is President Assad's key regional backer -- so why not use the same formula again?

Cathy Ashton's successor in Brussels, the former Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini has already made a start. Last weekend she met the Iranian foreign minister in New York, and there's talk of trying to get UN-sponsored peace talks off the ground again, coupled with the formation of an international contact group including Iran.

Washington is reported to prefer a format that would exclude the Europeans, on the grounds that we are not "directly involved". Perhaps someone should remind them of the refugees who have been heading into Europe in such huge numbers over recent months -- and anyway, both Russia and Iran quite like the idea of having Europeans at the table.

It comes down to this: should the UK use what little international influence it still has to encourage the resumption of international peace talks -- and could David Cameron and Philip Hammond bring themselves to champion the cause of the EU as an essential part of the mix?

Or would they rather ask the House of Commons to approve RAF bombing raids in Syria, even though they must know full well that a few more bombs -- even if they carry "Made in Britain" markings -- are unlikely to make a blind bit of difference?

We may be suspicious of President Putin's motives in Syria -- clearly he's aiming to prop up his client Mr Assad, but just as important, I suspect, is his burning desire to persuade the Western powers to drop their policy of trying to isolate him because of his adventures in Ukraine (which, incidentally, has gone very quiet of late. Funny, that …).

Fine. Bring him in from the cold, while maintaining the Ukraine-related sanctions. And encourage Iran to use its influence on President Assad to stop his forces' indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks on civilian areas. According to Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times, Tehran has already had some limited successes: "Where convenient, Iran has … played a role in truce negotiations on the ground. The most significant ceasefire, covering some northern villages and a southern town, was reached days before Syria dominated the UN debates. Iran represented the regime and Turkey acted on behalf of the rebels."

That, surely, is a better way forward. Because if Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have taught us anything, it is that dropping bombs on people to remove their leaders tends not to have the desired effect. It's a lesson Mr Cameron should have learned by now.