Sunday, 20 July 2008

Total Politics: that review in full

In a rash moment the other week, I bought a year's subscription to the new monthly magazine Total Politics. My copy of the first issue has now turned up, after a delay.

It's published by Tory activist and blogger Iain Dale, but it aims to be politically neutral. To guarantee this, it has an all-party/non-party editorial board including Paddy Ashdown, Chris Huhne, Denis MacShane, Shami Chakrabarti, Caroline Lucas and David Trimble. The editor is one Sarah MacKinlay, whose only previous claim to fame, as far as I can discover from Google, is that she is the daughter of a Labour MP.

The first thing to be said is that, in terms of design and presentation, the magazine certainly looks good. But so do lots of glossy mags, some of which look better than they actually are (think dentists' waiting-room fodder or in-flight airline mags). Does the content of Total Politics, on closer inspection, match up to the first impression?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. You could divide political journalism into perhaps four broad categories:

(1) Debate about policies themselves, or "policy wonkery": what are the issues, and what should be the policies to tackle them?

This is a pretty saturated area, and it's hard to see that there is any room in the market for more. For instance, all the posh dailies and Sundays have plenty of this kind of stuff, and if that's not enough there is the Staggers, the Speccie, Prospect, Progress, Tribune, the Economist, the LRB, etc. etc. There is no shortage of opinions about policy. In fact, in my view there is already far more of this than anyone can cope with. What's lacking is a consensus, on almost any subject you care to name. But we knew that already, and perhaps it was ever thus.

The main example in this issue is a head-to-head on the smoking ban, one year on. It's certainly good to look at past reforms and take stock of how they worked out in practice, and we could do with a lot more of that. I always think there is not enough learning from past experience. (Railway privatisation, anyone?) The protagonists in this (smoking ban) case are Madsen Pirie, long a leading member of the "revolving bow-tie" wing of the loony far right, and Polly Toynbee, high priestess of the social-democratic nanny state. These are two old pros, and Ms Toynbee's piece in particular is probably the best-written slab of text in the whole mag. No surprise there -- not for nothing is she the top columnist on a big newspaper.

The trouble is, there can hardly be anyone out there who can't guess exactly what both these writers are going to say, before they have even read a word. It would have been much more interesting to find somebody less predictable to comment on this issue. This piece could perfectly well have appeared in the Mail, and for all I know it probably has.

The other significant policy-wonk item is a rather partisan article by Labour MP Denis MacShane, arguing that the Tories currently lack a coherent foreign policy.

(2) "How to do politics", and discussions of the machinery and processes of parties and the political system.

This is potentially much more interesting and useful, and there is quite a lot of it. Some of this is the kind of thing Alan Watkins and Anthony Howard often write about, with a valuable historical perspective. (We need old men to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun.) But there is also stuff here you might not easily find elsewhere, which could be very handy, less perhaps to sitting MPs than to those who hope to be elected some time soon: Tory spin-doctor Lynton Crosby on how Boris won in London, how to handle negative campaigning, what to do about your internet presence, tips for making good speeches (though these could surely be found in any of dozens of self-help paperbacks in your local WH Smith), how to choose the right PR outfit, and more.

There is also a moderately interesting article about the armed forces and the little-considered question of their voting rights and voting behaviour.

(3) Psephology, in its broad sense.

Under this heading we have such items as Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher on the relationship between local and national elections; and Andrew Hawkins of pollsters ComRes on the parallels between 1997 and now. This is all good, interesting, workmanlike stuff, though again there is little here that one would be surprised to find in any of the broadsheets or the political weeklies.

(4) Who's up and who's down, gossip about personalities, the lifestyles of politicians, where are they now .....

TP contains a good deal of this much more superficial material, and most of it I can take or leave. There are the obligatory gobbets of unfunny "humour", mercifully confined to about three pages in total. There is a little bit of intriguing history: I never knew Sir Francis Drake was an MP. The diary page, by somebody called Clemency Burton-Hill, is actually quite sharply written, and ably captures the essence of the current mood in the Westminster bubble, except that one paragraph of it has got completely garbled, presumably at the production stage.

Most interesting to me, no doubt because this is a hobby-horse of mine, is an article by a David Seymour (who he? we are not told) arguing that the political world in this country has become far too fixated on youth, and that we ought to give older contenders more credit for their accumulated wisdom and experience. Amen to that, say I.

Two items I could very happily have done without are (a) how to buy a good suit, as if anyone would look to a political magazine for such advice -- for heaven's sake, do please leave out this dreary "lifestyle" crap: we are all drowning in it everywhere we turn -- and (b) two whole pages of vapid Clarksonesque guff about various politicians' favourite cars (why is it taken as read that everyone has a car, and who gives a toss anyway?). Incidentally, the article about suits includes Alan Duncan telling us to "wear braces only if you want to look like a twit" -- so presumably we can now expect a certain froideur between Duncan and his Tory front-bench colleague Eric Pickles, who has proved such a star recently, his braces notwithstanding.

= = = =

Not really fitting into any of the above four categories is the cover feature, an interview with Gordon Brown. I suppose if you ask for, and unexpectedly get, an interview with the Prime Minister, you are more or less obliged to make it your cover story. Unfortunately it turns out to be not very interesting. Brown tells us nothing we didn't already know. The mag tries to sell us the idea that it got a scoop when Brown makes what can be seen as a veiled criticism of Tony Blair's style. But he said something more or less identical to this the day he took office a year ago, and it was widely reported at the time.

There is a breathless, schoolgirlish sidebar by the editor in which she tells us how thrilled she was at being let into 10 Downing Street. Bit of a giveaway, that: plainly these people are not the experienced journalists one might expect a serious magazine to employ.

A couple of minor quibbles on layout and design: some of the articles look like advertisements, and I almost turned the page without reading them. Don't set the body text of editorial in a condensed sans-serif face. Don't use white text on a black background -- it's much too tiring to read.

Less minor quibbles of a general nature: this magazine urgently needs a decent subeditor who understands about syntax and punctuation, and especially how to use commas. I'm afraid the editor herself clearly doesn't. There are dozens of missing commas. To quote only one example:

"All the more surprising then that he arrives for the interview, flanked by his special press advisor in a relaxed frame of mind."

This means that (a) it was surprising that he arrived for the interview at all, and (b) his press advisor was in a relaxed frame of mind.

I also noticed, just in the first half of the magazine until I got tired of counting, at least ten phrases whose sense would have been helped by the insertion of a hyphen ("create a two way dialogue", "thought provoking articles", and so on).

Having got that out of the way, I come to my one BIG complaint. There is an enormous elephant in the room, and it is this: You would never guess from this magazine that Britain is a key part of the EU, and has been for 36 years. There are some 30-plus articles in this issue, and in only one of them could I find any mention of the European Parliament, even in passing. That comes in the aforementioned Denis MacShane article about Tory foreign policy, and one could hardly imagine MacShane writing anything that was not at least partly about the EU, given his background; but even there, it is not really the main point of his piece.

As someone who worked for years in Europe as well as at Westminster, I find this lapse quite astonishing. I can only suppose that it stems, unconsciously perhaps, from Iain Dale's blinkered Eurosceptic mindset. But to any of the thousands of Brits working in politics in Brussels, it will seem utterly bizarre.

I note that there is one MEP (Caroline Lucas) on the editorial board, and MacShane himself is on it too. I trust that they will bang the table about this.

The net effect is to make the magazine seem terribly parochial. There are a couple of items to do with "abroad" - but both of them are about America, from which we all hear far too much already. The recruitment of somebody like Timothy Garton Ash or John Palmer or Mark Leonard is urgently indicated.

Friday, 11 July 2008

42 days - latest

I said all along that I thought Nick Clegg had made an error in deciding that the Lib Dems would not stand in the Haltemprice by-election.

Jonathan Calder at Liberal England seems to be of the same view, pointing out today that the LDs appear to have gained nothing from the deal.

I seem not to have been alone in my view that the right thing to do in the circumstances was to vote Green. Their candidate came second, with over 7% of the vote, quite respectable in such a stolidly conservative and reactionary place.

As for the overall outcome, it doesn't seem to have moved us on very much. The "great debate" did not really materialise. The government's position is completely untenable, but it already was. It still looks to me as if Davis was probably playing some sort of internal positioning game within the Tory party.

Meanwhile, Lady Bullying-Manner has said that the 42-days plan is both wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. And she is the former head of MI5! Ha ha ha!

Coming on top of the fact that the measure was already opposed by the former Attorney-General, the former Lord Chancellor and the present Director of Public Prosecutions, Brown's astonishingly inept and useless-looking regime seems to have less and less of a leg to stand on, whichever way you look.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Tories ARE still the nasty party

We have been led to believe in recent times that the Conservative Party has ceased to be "the nasty party" (in the words of Tory MP Theresa May), and is now thoroughly nice.

This may or may not be true of the party leadership, but if anyone thinks it might be true of Tory party activists, just have a look at Vote Tory and bankrupt The Guardian on the ConservativeHome website.

See the true character of the Tories. Such unpleasant, intemperate spleen. Don't they realise that non-Tories can read their spiteful ramblings?

And how revealing it is that, when they already have most of the press on their side anyway, and always have had, they should be looking for ways of destroying one of the few bits of the media that is not on the far right. Freedom of speech? Forget it.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Farewell then, Charles Wheeler

I must pay tribute to Charles Wheeler, who died today aged 85. I always thought he was just about the best radio/TV reporter ever.

I saw him only a year or so ago in a library, still beavering away at some research.

My boyf worked with him at the BBC in the 1970s and says not only was he six times better than any other journalist around, he was also a jolly decent chap. They don't make them like that any more.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Carfree Times

Joel Crawford has a new issue of his occasional online mag Carfree Times.

In addition to the usual nice pictures of carfree cities (above: Lagos, Portugal), there is a report on the sad failure of a plan for road pricing in New York. In other and better news from the USA, higher fuel prices are putting the brakes on suburban sprawl: the property prices that are NOT falling, or not nearly so much, are those that aren't 40 miles from work.

There is also an interview with leading traffic scientist, Professor Hermann Knoflacher, entitled Cars Are Driving Us Nuts:

The car is like a virus that beds in your brain and totally subverts behaviour, values, and perception. A normal person would call our present living space completely insane. (.....)

Urban planning requires cars to be as close as possible to all of our social activities. That's how you destroy the natural habitat, public transit, local supply, and eventually the social network that humans have established in millennia.

However, the good news is that the looming energy crisis may come to our rescue.

Various interesting stuff

A quick round-up of some links found in recent days:

Matt Wardman has a wonderful video clip in which a German TV reporter ambushes various MEPs in the act of clocking in at the European Parliament at 7 in the morning, purely in order to claim their attendance allowances, before flying straight back home. Typically, the response of the Parliament authorities was not to tackle the abuse, but to eject the reporter from the building. This sort of thing gets the European institutions a bad name. (When I worked at the EP in the 1980s, everyone knew this went on, but I thought the authorities were supposed to have fixed it long since; clearly not.)

Richard Corbett MEP welcomes the High Court's rejection of an attempt by betting tycoon and Tory party donor Stuart Wheeler to get a ruling that there must be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. (Declaration of interest: 30 years ago, Richard interviewed me for a job, which I did not get.)

Harry Barnes wonders how on earth Tony Benn can possibly support David Davis in the "contrived" Haltemprice by-election.

Dave Cole, like me, would vote Green if he lived in Haltemprice. He thinks Tony Benn's position is "cuckoo".

Neil Harding draws our attention to another candidate in the by-election, rape victim Jill Saward, who is standing on a very authoritarian law'n'order platform.

Alan Watkins says "I told you so" over the incompetence of Gordon Brown.

Polly Toynbee dissects the pros and cons of ditching Gordon Brown now rather than later. Either way, she doesn't really think it is going to happen, and there is no point in it unless there is going to be a much clearer definition of Labour's purpose: "No one need bother urging any new leader to step up to the plate unless they have a better answer to this: what's Labour for and what is it definitely against?"

Mary Dejevsky considers the upside of the rise in motoring costs. People are going to have to change their lifestyles and become less car-dependent. This might include travelling less altogether, with less sprawl and more compact urban living: "Fuel costs present city authorities everywhere with what may be a unique chance to demonstrate the financial and lifestyle benefits that can accrue from economies of scale."

Michael Savage asks why Andrew Gilligan and the Evening Standard are still obsessing over Ken Livingstone, despite having succeeded in getting him removed from office.

Comments round-up, part I

Thanks to various readers who have kindly taken the trouble to comment on some of my posts, a selection of which follows:

-- Tim Roll-Pickering criticised several items in my piece about electoral systems, 14 reasons why only STV will do. I think he is mistaken, but did not immediately have time to respond to his points. Since it calls for a fair bit of anorak-ish detail, I will come back to this issue later in a new post.

-- Yaffle commented on my post Irritating women, suggesting that it looked as if I was irritated by women who held opinions, in which case it probably said more about me than about the women mentioned, in Yaffle's view.

I countered this by naming several women with opinions whom I do NOT find irritating.

-- Neil Harding commented on my post Roads vs. trains, in which I drew attention to Christian Wolmar's question, Why are roads favoured by the right and trains by socialists? Neil thinks that public transport is, by its nature, too egalitarian for the Right to swallow, and also they don't like it because it is one "product" which is not made more efficient by competition (I agree that is certainly true of local transport, less so of long-distance travel perhaps). He also noted the massive lobbying power of the car and oil industries, who have a huge vested interest in promoting private transport at the expense of public.

All very true, but the fact remains that, as Christian Wolmar suggested, we should be much more aggressive in highlighting the Right's lack of intellectual inconsistency in supporting public expenditure on roadbuilding while generally tending to be hostile towards government spending on railways or any other form of public transport. At the least, we should be demanding a "level playing field". If railways are expected to "pay their way" without subsidy, so should roads -- which means some form of charging for road use.

One could add that all hidden subsidies for air travel should stop, too, such as the fact that airlines pay no tax on their fuel.

-- John Band commented on my 8 reasons why the government must go. He said I was wrong to say that the government was building roads. I referred him to the Campaign for Better Transport, which shows how the current regime is pressing ahead with a massive roadbuilding programme, in complete contradiction to Gordon Brown's claimed environmental objectives.

-- In response to my post Gridlock and Road Rage, Lola defended the motorcar as the right answer for personal transport. He or she claimed that "The car enables everyone who has access to or owns one to make extremely flexible choices about their lives without waiting on the whim of a bureaucrat or other gauleiter - which is of course exactly why the left loonies hate them so much."

I pointed out in reply that, if you are going to insist on everyone hurtling around in their own personal tin box on wheels, you will have to abolish the whole concept of cities as we know them in Europe, which are the whole basis of our civilisation. (I suspect Lola might be an American.)

London, for instance, simply could not function but for the fact that the great majority of people travelling into its centre are NOT using their own individual vehicles.

To be continued .......

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Are they reading my blog?!

Would you believe it: only a matter of hours after my post about Afghanistan, in which I asked if enough attention was being paid to the war there, the subject gets raised in two separate questions in today's PMQs.

Old-school Labour lefty Jeremy Corbyn wondered, surprisingly politely, if the Prime Minister might like to set a date for withdrawal.

Old-school High Tory Sir Peter Tapsell was much ruder, asking if the PM was aware that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable -- a waste of money and lives, or words to that effect.

What an alliance!

Perhaps this is turning out to be one of those political topics where there is an all-party mainstream consensus, with the extremes meeting up with each other round the back, like Enoch Powell and the Communist Party sharing a platform against the EEC in 1975.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Afghanistan: A strange silence

There is surprisingly little discussion about the pros and cons of the war in Afghanistan, when you consider that British soldiers are getting killed there every week.

Two respected commentators have come out with maverick views on this subject in recent days.

Alan Watkins suspects that, unlike the war in Iraq, which the Lib Dems largely opposed, this one generates little controversy because all three main parties support it. Nick Clegg has actually been there lately, and came back full of enthusiasm for sticking at it, even though it may take decades, he says.

Another reason for the difference might be that the attack on Iraq was perceived to be contrary to international law, did not have a proper UN mandate, and was strongly opposed by some of our major allies, notably France and Germany. The action in Afghanistan, by contrast, is a genuinely multinational effort under NATO with, apparently, pan-European approval and, up to a point, involvement.

Still, Watkins sees the whole adventure as essentially a US initiative, and it is one he is highly sceptical about:

For some reason, enlightened opinion in this country has chosen to depict the war in Afghanistan as a good war – at any rate, a virtuous war –and the war in Iraq as bad. (.....)

Mr Tony Blair joined up as soon as Mr George Bush asked him. (.....) The odd thing was that the representatives of enlightened opinion – the prig press, as much as Mr Rupert Murdoch's newspapers – seemed to be equally keen on what the Victorians used to call a punitive expedition.

Watkins notes that the thing began as a supposed act of revenge for Osama bin Laden's attack on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. And yet bin Laden is actually from Saudi Arabia, as were most of his partners in that crime. Yet we have not invaded Saudi Arabia. He goes on:
In this country, the umpteenth Afghan war is being dressed up in the language of human rights, notably over the production of opium and the subjection of women. It is largely humbug. The United Kingdom became heavily involved in Afghanistan because Mr Bush asked us to become involved. That is the answer which Mr Brown, Mr Cameron or Mr Clegg should give when the curious voter asks: what are we doing in Afghanistan?

The other notable dissident on this subject recently has been Simon Jenkins. I do not, myself, always have quite as much time for him as I usually do for Alan Watkins. I often feel that I don't really know where I am with him. Nevertheless, he cannot be written off as a complete idiot.

Coming at it from a different angle from Watkins, Simon Jenkins's assertion is simply that, whatever our war aims in Afghanistan are supposed to be, they are not being achieved, and never will be, because the whole strategy is completely misconceived, in his view:

Victory would be at hand "if only" the Afghan army were better, if the poppy crop were suppressed, the Pakistan border sealed, the Taliban leadership assassinated, corruption eradicated, hearts and minds won over. None of this is going to happen. The generals know it but the politicians dare not admit it. (.....)

Nothing will improve without the support of the Afghan government, yet that support is waning by the month. Nothing will improve without the commitment of Pakistan. Yet two weeks ago Nato bombed Pakistani troops inside their own country, losing what lingering sympathy there is for America in an enraged Islamabad. (.....)

We forget that the objective of the Afghanistan incursion was not to build a new and democratic Afghanistan. It was to punish the Taliban for harbouring Osama Bin Laden and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for Al-Qaeda training camps. The former objective was achieved on day one; the latter would never be achieved by military occupation. (.....)

The Taliban's chief objective is not world domination but a share of power in Afghanistan. While they cannot defeat western troops, they can defeat Nato's war aim by continuing to build on their marriage of convenience with Al-Qaeda, which supplies them with a devastating arsenal of suicide bombers.

What is sure is that Al-Qaeda, as a (grossly overrated) "threat to the West", will not be suppressed without Taliban cooperation. This means reversing a policy that naively equates "defeating" the Taliban with "winning" the war on terror. Fighting in Afghanistan is as senseless as trying to suppress the poppy crop. It just costs lives and money.

There is much more, and I can only recommend reading the whole article. Even if all this is only half true, it seems to me pretty depressing and even somewhat alarming.

None of the main parties is completely united on this issue, I think. Some on the Labour left are unhappy: Diane Abbott MP, as one might expect, was making sceptical noises about it on telly the other day (she is a history graduate and was able to point out that we also made a mess of Afghanistan in the 19th century). Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw Kenneth Clarke MP not long ago saying that although he was open to persuasion that the game was worth the candle, he was not yet so persuaded. If he thinks that, it probably means that others in the Tory party are not entirely on board, either.

I have no knowledge or expertise in these matters, so I rely on those who do to tell me what to think. I am not a fullblown pacifist, and I could support the war if it was clearly the right thing to do. I think there ought to be a fuller and more open debate going on. I should be particularly interested to know what discussions, if any, are going on inside the Liberal Democrats.