Friday, 24 April 2015

Dan Hodges, Ed Miliband and the pathology of self-righteousness

It's a sign of how politics and the media works that a political storm has erupted today (and it's only 9 a.m.) about a speech Ed Miliband hasn't even given.  Later on the campaign trail he's due to say, journalists have been briefed, that "The refugee crisis and tragic scenes in the Mediterranean are in part a direct result of failure of post conflict planning for Libya".  The Tories have seized on this as a criticism of their role in the bombing which helped remove Colonel Gaddafi from power.  There is much angry frothing of the mouth in the Tory campaign, some of it possibly even genuine.

Pre-leaking a speech gives the Labour leader the chance to amend it before actually making it.  The latest I can find is that Miliband will say "since the action, the failure of post conflict planning has become obvious.  David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya's political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own".

I'm not going to waste time deconstructing the differences, if any, between these two utterances, still less mulling over the wisdom or otherwise of the Libyan intervention or the effect it might have had on the thousands of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to a better life in Europe.  The thrust of the intervention is that David Cameron got it wrong, and that he abandoned the people of Libya to their fate.

Ed Miliband, on the other hand, is a man who in those circumstances would do the right thing.

This is where reality steps up and bashes you in the face in the manner of a carelessly discarded garden rake.  Ed Miliband?  A man who won't abandon the people of the Middle East when they are in trouble?  Does Miliband think no-one remembers the way Labour blocked the Government's plans to help the Syrian rebels against President Assad's regime in the summer of 2013? No post conflict planning was needed there because Miliband's action helped ensure that, nearly two years later, the conflict is still going on.  Hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, a vacuum of power into which ISIS has swaggered with its decapitations, burnings, defenestrations and cultural genocide.

It would be wrong of course to lay all this at the door of a man whose Hampstead liberalism is characterised much more by its utter ineffectualness rather than brutality.  But by preventing Britain from acting, Miliband helped to make it easier for Obama to step aside, and to create a political atmosphere across the western world in which it was possible for leaders afraid of commitment to draw back.

Ah, I hear you say, but Miliband's action was tough and principled.  He stopped Cameron doing anything because he knew the result would be to make things even worse in Syria.

Now this is clearly balls - how could things possibly get any worse than they eventually turned out to be? - but nevertheless some people will believe it and so, not surprisingly, does Miliband himself.

In fact Miliband is so proud of his blocking vote that he has been boasting about it on TV.  I know this because the (Labour-sympathising) journalist Dan Hodges wrote a terrific article about it in the Torygraph a month ago. You can read it here.

On Newsnight Miliband told Jeremy Paxman that he was tough enough to be British PM because he had "stood up to the leader of the free world" over Syria.  "I made up my mind, and we said no, right?  I think standing up to the leader of the free world shows a certain toughness I would say".

But even if you think Miliband made the right decision, Hodges shows in damning detail that it was not one made as a matter of principle. He accuses Miliband of lying.

Hodges - who is not, one imagines, on the Labour leader's Christmas card list - says Miliband told Cameron that he would be prepared to support military action, but the Labour party would need some persuading. He would need some concessions. The first of these was merely that Cameron would need to publish legal advice showing the action was legal.  Then he said that Cameron would need to publish the intelligence showing the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Then Cameron would need to show the action had UN approval. Then Miliband said a vote would have to await the publication of the UN weapons inspectors report into the attacks. Then he said there would have to be two Commons votes before action could be authorised.

These conditions were made over several days.  Cameron agreed to all of them.

Hodges claims contact with sources on both the Labour and Coalition sides to back up his story. Labour whips, he says, had been told there would be "a significant backbench rebellion" if Miliband supported military action. Miliband was being warned that he "risked a reaction from Labour supporters, in particular, former Lib Dems who had recently switched allegiance".  

Hodges concludes that "It was on that basis, and that basis alone, that Ed Miliband decided to vote against the Government.  It was not an act of principle.  It was not an act of strength.  It was an act of political calculation and opportunism born out of political weakness". Remember that at the time there was significant disquiet in Labour circles about the quality of Miliband's leadership. 

"Stand up to Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin?", Hodges asks cattily. "Ed Miliband wouldn't stand up to Diane Abbott".

I depart from Hodges in only one respect. I do think Ed Miliband is tough. You don't get to be Labour leader without being tough. But it depends what you mean by tough, and perhaps it might be better to describe Miliband as ruthless.

I see him as a ruthless man who will say or do anything to secure his own political advantage. That's why he will criticise David Cameron over Libya today. That's why he blocked Cameron's Syrian action, and that's why he lied about it on Newsnight. None of these things mean that Miliband would be a bad Prime Minister, or for that matter that he is markedly different from other politicians.

They do however make rather baffling the claim made by Labour supporters that Ed Miliband is a man of principle, a claim comprehensible only on the basis that the Left suffers from a pathology of self-righteousness and, being sure of occupying the moral high ground itself, cannot bear to imagine its luminaries in any other terms.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Tax, honesty and the General Election

The General Election is just over a fortnight away, excuse enough surely for a brief return to the political blogging that considerations of life's shortness brought to an end some time ago.

Last night I went to the hustings in a church where our local candidates were on display.  I managed an hour of it.  The Labour candidate was a fanatically intense dark-eyed Scot whose accent caused a perceptible chilling of the atmosphere (thanks to the SNP for this new development in Anglo-Scottish relationships).  An Independent had a Shoreditch beard and top knot, bringing hipster style to the suburbs; hats off to him for having a go, but his pitch - no cuts are necessary and we just need to tax the rich more - was predictably utopian and lazy.  It was still widely applauded, mind.  The Lib Dem incumbent was a mousy little man, bland of utterance until he was heckled from the floor about tuition fees.  His Tory challenger wore the defiant blue of a Thatcher twin-set and spoke perhaps more than was necessary about her business experience.  The UKIP man was surprisingly cuddly and nice, although totally inept: truly the quality of its candidates peaks at Mr Farage and then goes sharply downhill. Lastly another Independent with an anti European stance floundered through an opening statement but then proved surprisingly capable in argument.

I left early partly because I always feel uneasy in this Church.  The hustings were chaired by the vicar: if you're reading, Rob the Rector, welcoming electors with a snide remark about their non-attendance at other times of the year is not the way to fill pews.  But I was also struck by the futility of the exercise.  The candidates I liked most personally - the UKIP man and the Independent woman - were not remotely credible as MPs or as recipients of the discerning vote. But more bleakly, neither are the two main political parties.

This is the most dishonest general election I can remember.  Labour overspent during its glory years, telling us that it had put an end to boom and bust; it then decried the need for any cuts (remember "Labour investment versus Tory cuts"?) saying that there would never be any growth under Tory austerity; then when there was growth they said it was the wrong sort; then when this turned out to be wrong as well they said they would cut more slowly and fairly than the Tories; finally, abruptly, they now claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility. Shameless.

As for the Tories, when their lacklustre campaign based on the premise that the choice is between chaos and competence appears to be faltering, they promise £8 billion of uncosted extra health spending in a vain attempt to hijack Labour's pro-NHS reputation. Pathetic.

Voting on the basis of what the parties say they're going to do is pointless. You may think this particularly applies to the Lib Dems, after their volte face on tuition fees (although ironically, the system which replaced Labour's was fairer and has encouraged people from poorer families to go to university). Take a clothes peg in the ballot box, take a deep breath and vote for what you think the parties are actually going to do.

In this morning's Times the IFS's Paul Johnson complains of the "narrative that there is a magic money tree that we can pluck at will.  There isn't. . . Tax and welfare changes since the recession have left middle Britain largely unscathed, while hitting the rich hardest and taking benefits from the poorest.  This can't go on.  If we want to reduce the deficit, or maintain plublic services, we will have to pay.  Not someone else.  Or we'll pay in the end by both chasing away wealth creation and increasing poverty".

I think this is the debate we're going to end up having. It's just a shame that seven years after the crash we're still not grown up enough to have it.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Philip Glass, going through a red light and Geoffrey Boycott's granny

Many years ago I had a very distressing experience.  I was living in London and had formed the habit of going to the Coliseum to watch English National Opera.  This was in the glory days of Elder and Pountney, when there was a management team that knew what it was doing most of the time.  One of the productions I went to was Philip Glass's Akhnaten.  I think this ticket must have been free, because I have never much liked Glass.  At any rate, the curtain rose to show a stage filled with sand, which I guess must have represented the desert, and the violas began what I remember to have been an A minor arpeggio.

Akhnaten entered, naked except for a prosthetic penis (if I've done this blog before, apologies; I do get to a new bit in a minute).  The penis apparently cost several thousand pounds.  Anyway, 15 minutes later the arpeggio was still going on, and Akhnaten was still running round the stage trailing a long streamer of pink cloth.  In that era Andrex had a series of adverts in which a labrador puppy ran around trailing loo roll with the strapline, "soft, strong and very long". It was hard not to associate the two cultural phenomena.

I can't remember if there was any advance on A minor, but Glass's opera was boring beyond belief, and, in much the same way that when I am confronted with terrible wine I push it discreetly away reflecting that I am not going to waste my 21 units a week on such rubbish, I and my companion left at the first interval.  Life is very short.

I was reminded of this tonight by a friend who showed me some of Glass's piano pieces.  Of these more in a minute.  I told him about going to see Akhnaten, or at least some of it, and whilst trying to think of a way to explain how boring it was a memory suddenly sprang to mind of the time when I ran a red light and had subsequently to go on a naughty-boy driving course near Warrington.  The reason why the course was so much more effective than 3 points and 60 quid, which you soon forget, is that you had to suffer a whole morning's boredom.  This was the real punishment.  It was a lovely spring day, and a dozen of us laboured in some soulless hotel or office block conference suite for hour upon hour we would never get back.  That was the painful thing.  It was time unrecoverable.

That's how I felt watching Akhnaten.  You felt your life slipping away.  Unlike, for example, the first two and a half hours of Gotterdammerung, which seem to go by in about twenty minutes. And something perhaps even more awful to contemplate was the thought that somewhere some committee of well-paid, well-fed, well-educated people had sat round a table and one of them had said, "I know, why don't we do Akhhaten", and the others had said, "Yes, that sounds like a really good idea. Let's".

What on earth were they thinking of?  Couldn't one of them read a score?

Anyway, to the Glass piano pieces.  Did I like them?  No.  I thought they were quite extraordinarily bad and lazy.  There was an E minor arpeggio (can anyone spot the theme emerging here?) in the left hand and some soothing minims high in the right. Then four or five chords, the same in each hand. The chords descended into a pit of banality with a really wretchedly weedy fourth chord the apotheosis.  Then there was some more E minor nurdling. Presently there were not four but five chords, culminating in a wretched whole tone clinch. In despair I turned the page. Here were approximately the same musical gestures, but starting with an A minor arpeggio.  With a sudden awful vision of Akhnaten's wrinkly prosthetic penis, I shut the book.

OK, I kind of get what Glass is trying to do.  Familiar, banal musical objects are presented in a context different from the familiar one.  You hear them in a different way.  But oh Jesus, for a little invention. For some interesting objects presented in a context different from the familiar one instead of something that, to paraphrase Geoffrey Boycott, my granny could have made up (and would have been too embarrassed to present to the paying public).  This is one of the greatest living composers?

From now on, whenever I am feeling bad about my work I will muse upon Sonnet 30.  As Shakespeare nearly said, "But if the while I think on thee, Philip Glass / all losses are restor'd and sorrows end".

Monday, 12 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Mayor of Rotterdam.

Since so much rubbish has been written about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, here's some more.

Demonstrations don't accomplish anything. So what if one and a half million people demonstrated in Paris yesterday?  That won't stop the Islamists. And it won't give us a free press. When a Danish newspaper published anti-Islamist cartoons nearly a decade ago, no British newspaper saw fit to allow its readers to see what the fuss was about. In fact you can now view the cartoons online (just google Danish muslim cartoons). But when people burble "we can't let the Islamists win", they are averting their eyes from the truth. The Islamists have already won.

Free speech - already circumscribed by libel laws and public order legislation - has been further diminished by fear. Even those doughty tellers of truth to power, Private Eye, didn't publish the cartoons. They are afraid. Many a journalist came out with the self-exculpatory line about only publishing stuff which was newsworthy.  But what could be more newsworthy than protests in London calling for the beheading of cartoonists?

And I don't blame the hacks. I'd do the same if I were one of them. Perhaps however I might seek a profession in which hypocrisy wasn't quite so inherent. The Guardian's donation of £100,000 to Charlie Hebdo smacks of a guilty conscience. This is the newspaper, remember, that regularly silences comments it doesn't like on its website. For example, it censors references to its use of offshore companies to avoid tax, to Polly Toynbee's second home in Tuscany or to Alan Rusbridger's expensive grand pianos (even when comments are made by its own staff). Comment is not free at the Guardian, and hardly anywhere else either.

I said the Islamists have already won, but it might be more accurate to say they are already winning. There's a lot we can do to fight back. Firstly, Muslims across Europe who deplore the Paris attacks could do a great deal more to make public their revulsion. For details of how one has done so, see below.  They could also help more to expose people preaching hate, in mosques and on the internet. Secondly, being in a hole, we could stop digging.  Since the likes of the Kouachi brothers spring from amongst Muslims, and since Islamist terror is far and away the greatest internal threat to the UK, HMG could stop making matters worse by simply halting all immigration from Muslim countries. Why take the risk?

(A month after I wrote this post the BBC did a survey about British Muslim attitudes.  With characteristic reluctance to face the results squarely it was headlined "Most British Muslims 'oppose Mohammed cartoons reprisals'"; but lower down the story acknowledged that 27% "had some sympathy with the motives behind the attacks".  Extrapolated to the 2.7 million British Muslims, that's a total of rather more than 700,000.  When we already have in excess of half a million Muslims who feel like this, the argument for allowing any more in is not immediately obvious.)

Many Muslims say, "This is nothing to do with us, and nothing to do with Islam". It's certainly true that the killers of Lee Rigby were bad apples. But they were apples falling from a Muslim tree. They weren't stamp collectors, pigeon fanciers, Anglicans, Quakers or lovers of fine wine. They were Muslims.

That says something about Islam. In particular, it says that the religion is absolutist in terms of a division between the faithful and the unbelievers. It has not made the accommodation with relativism which other religions in the West have been doing for centuries. It regards law as God-made, not man-made. Its political history shows it to be impatient of democracy and it has little conception of the Enlightenment idea of free speech.

Outrage, resentment and violence - and the conspiracy theories that inform them - serve as palliatives for an Ummah (or global Muslim community) that reads little, writes even less, has not invented much in recent centuries, is economically less productive than comparable peoples and wields little political or military power in the contemporary world.

OK, I didn't write that last paragraph. Who did? Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.

In case you think this is over the top, and are minded to apply the "R" word (Muslims being a race, right?) the Times today reports two incidents.  In the first, a Saudi Arabian blogger has received 50 lashes in a public square today for a post in which he criticised the link between the Wahabist clerics and the government. Meanwhile in Egypt an engineering student has been sent to prison for three years after announcing that he is an atheist. This is the attitude to free speech which obtains when Islam dominates a country's mind-set. It is an attitude which successive UK governments have imported, despite the protests (some of them undoubtedly motivated by racism) of the generality of the population. As the numbers of Muslims grow, so will their - quite justifiable - demand for representation. In microcosm you can see it in the Trojan Horse schools scandal in Birmingham.

For many Muslims free speech, however qualified, merely means their right to practise their religion. It is, ironically, why many Muslims come to Britain. The wife of Djamel Begha, the jihadist mentor of the Paris killers, is currently living in Leicester. According to the Torygraph she brought her family to England so her children could be brought up "in an Islamic environment" (Incidentally she is living in a four bedroom house rent free and is entitled to about £1,500 per year in child benefit. Oh joy).

The Mayor of Rotterdam had it about right. Interviewed on Dutch TV, he said "It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom. But if you do not like freedom, in Heaven's name pack your bag and leave. There may be a place in the world where you can be yourself.  Be honest with yourself and do not go and kill innocent journalists. And if you do not like it here because humorists you do not like make a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off".

Amen to that. So I am not Charlie Hebdo. I am Ahmed Aboutaleb, the courageous (and Muslim) Mayor of Rotterdam.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

New Year's Eve post

As the end of year approaches, I wave goodbye to my birthday (56, since you ask), then Christmas, then New Year's Eve.  Hello 2015.  The knowledge that I'm almost certainly in the last third of my life requires a certain equanimity of spirit to face down.  I think I'm up to it, but you never know.  At least you can't have a mid-life crisis whilst in the foothills of old age.  It's a conceptual impossibility.

Resolutions for the New Year - spend more time fishing ("God does not deduct from man's allotted span time spent fishing", according to Chekov) and start writing an opera; one should keep challenging oneself after all.

I have spent the last couple of days climbing in Scotland with Prof Mitchell.  Evidently I still have the legs and lungs to do the height gain in six inches of fresh powder snow, and here are a couple of pictures to prove it.

My life situation would appear to be that whilst I can still run up and down stairs, I can't always remember why I'm doing it.  Happy New Year to all.


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Labour, the bankers and the Barnett Formula

There is a richly appropriateness to the mess in which Ed Miliband now finds himself.

Think of it this way.

In 2008 the Credit Crunch brought the giddy spending of the Blair / Brown years to an end.  Bankers had found increasingly exotic ways of justifying lending to people who couldn't repay their loans, telling their regulators that they were spreading the risk.  In fact they were spreading uncertainty, and when it emerged that some people really couldn't pay back, the banks drew in their horns like a snail catching the first whiff of salt.  Capital flows dried up and so did economic activity.  This problem, arising first in the US, swiftly spread over here and we saw queues outside Northern Rock.

The obvious conclusion from this - that had the bankers behaved properly the spending spree of the 2000s would have come to an end far sooner - was lost on the Left, which preferred to blame the bankers without asking what it was they had actually been doing (lending us all money).

A further conclusion - that a country which is borrowing £150 billion per year just to stay afloat needs to make some spending cuts - was also fiercely resisted.  It suited Labour to blame George Osborne for austerity (despite the fact that overall government spending was actually still going up) because to acknowledge he might have been right would have been to invite speculation about the future of social democracy itself.

After all, if your raison d'etre is to spend more money to solve society's problems, it is rather awkward if it looks as if you can't even afford the spending you're doing at the moment, let alone the spending you say you'll do once you get re-elected.  So Labour carried on banging away at Osborne, and it went quite well for them until it turned out we hadn't had a double dip recession after all, let alone a triple dip.  The fact that with the economy growing at 3% we are still running a deficit of about £2 bn every week rather bears out Osborne's view of things: even as the good times look like returning we are still running at a massive loss in the UK.

Labour's failure to explain the stark consequences of 2008 to its supporters (and even its most educated supporters can hardly bring themselves to look at the financial pages, feeling that businessmen are on the whole either City fatcats in red braces snorting cocaine, or tedious people with Birmingham accents involved in the manufacture of widgets), has nowhere been more evident than in the West of Scotland.  Finding after the first debate with Alastair Darling that Yes was still way behind in the polls, Alex Salmond tried a new tack - he linked the possibility of iScotland with the creation of a new, fairer progressive society.  This wasn't what Salmond himself wanted, and he knew full well that it wouldn't be affordable, but needs must when the devil drives and Salmond was in a fix.

To give credit to his shameless ingenuity it worked like a dream.  Labour voters in the party's post-industrial heartlands went over to Yes in droves, and the pro-Indepence faction ironically did better in Labour strongholds of the Clyde valley than it did in its own SNP heartlands (which, without exception, voted No).

But the revelation that the massed ranks of Labour supporters in Scotland's most densely populated areas were switching to Yes so panicked the No campaign that they mobilised the Great Clunking Fist of Gordon Brown, brought blinking into the light like a long-interred Golem, bearing his new promises of extra powers plus retention of the Barnett Formula.  And these promises in turn enabled David Cameron to make his own pledge of solving once and for all the West Lothian question, the issue of English votes for English laws.

Ed Miliband's opportunist criticism of George Osborne's economic policy together with his failure to educate his own supporters of the new realities of life post-2008 has in fact come round in a great arc and struck him on the head. It will now be a miracle if Labour can escape the consequences of its own short-termism.  What goes around comes around.


Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland says Nae

I must have cared deeply about the Scottish referendum, because I dreamed about it twice last night, each time thinking the result had been No, and each time waking to the disquieting realisation that a Yes vote was still possible.

But here we are in Glad Confident Morning and the Scots really have voted No.

Some observations at random.

1. The Nationalists will never have a better chance of winning.  They only needed 51% of votes, and they were led by a man who could sell snow to the Eskimos.  If there's another referendum - and there surely will be, the Scottish psyche being as it is - the UK prime minister would be perfectly justified in demanding a two-thirds majority for a change so fundamental. The next time Alex Salmond will be an old man, if the West of Scotland diet doesn't get him first.   If Salmond had led the No campaign, Yes would have suffered a humiliating defeat rather than a decisive one.

2. Geographical distribution of the votes shows that Yes voters were disproportionately young working class, and No voters disproportionately middle-aged or elderly middle-class.  The Yes voters, more likely to be badly educated, inexperienced and badly informed, voted for a case that was emotional, nationalistic and utterly threadbare intellectually.  The Noes voted for one which made pragmatic common sense. I heard a man say, "This was a cry for help from Scotland's disadvantaged".  More accurate to call it a cry for more generous - and unfunded - welfarism.

3. The pollsters overestimated the Yes vote and underestimated the No vote.  This ties in with the many stories of intimidation by the Yes campaign.  The Noes were nervous at speaking out, even to pollsters.

4.  Simpson's law applied.  This principle, first posited in the beige heat of the AV referendum, proposes that whichever side has the most artistic Luvvies is not only wrong but will lose.  So here, when most Scottish Luvvies supported independence.

5. This is a disastrous day for Labour in England. In the wake of promises by Westminster party leaders that Scotland must have more powers, the notion that England must also have more powers has gained what seems like irresistible traction (though this may of course fade). If, as is long overdue, Scottish Westminster MPs are barred somehow from voting on English matters, that should put an end to Labour government in England for a long time.

6. I've already heard several English Labour politicians temporising hilariously on the prospects of a solution to the West Lothian question. Translated, their obfuscation means, "Please let our Scots colleagues keep on voting.  If you don't we'll never be in a majority and enjoy ministerial office again".  Self-determination is apparently only the Celtic nations, not for the English.

7. There are enormous problems inherent in working out new constitutional and tax arrangements. It's going to be hard to combine a UK-wide distribution from central funds with the idea of locally variable tax rates.  How will English politicians explain to their electorate that their taxes should be used to prop up the (over-generous) Barnett Formula to Scotland when the Scots are sucking in investment by undercutting English taxes?  But if all four countries start raising all their own tax and stop getting a central Westminster grant, those differing tax rates will lead to flows of businesses and populations as it becomes apparent that not all four countries are equally prosperous.  Is that really what we want? Ultimately there will have to be some sort of carry over from the richer countries (ie England) to the others.

8. Timing is everything.  Cameron promised the Scots it would be done quickly, and he'll have to keep to that at the same time as keeping the English onside.  There'll be a general election next year, and you'd imagine he'd be able to present a plan to the English electorate which would get a ringing endorsement. In the constitutional deliberations which will follow in the next few months I expect Labour to peel off pretty quickly, realising that English votes on English matters will assuredly mean electoral doom. Cameron had better get it right, but it isn't impossible.  (I wrote this post a few hours after the No declaration; in fact Ed Miliband by tea-time the same day was already babbling about a Constitutional Commission and English regional assemblies; translation - in which direction is the long grass?)

Still and all, although I'm not a flag-waving jingoist I think that willingness to change just enough to prevent upheaval reflects a good deal of credit on Britain.  I'm glad Britain still exists this morning and tonight I'll be cracking open a bottle of Aldi champage to celebrate.

Neither may be Great, but they're still probably better than some of the alternatives.