According to a report in the Guardian of 16 April, ‘Gordon Brown apologised for any disruption caused by the eruption [of the Icelandic volcano] but said, “safety is the first and predominant consideration.”‘ A spokesman for David Cameron immediately welcomed this admission by the prime minister of his responsibility for the eruption of the volcano but said his apology was completely inadequate: “Since Gordon Brown has acknowledged that he is to blame for causing the greatest disaster in European aviation history, he should resign forthwith instead of keeping us all waiting until the 6th of May. He should let Dave take over immediately — only Dave has the skills and imagination required to suppress the eruption of the volcano and to change the direction of the winds to blow away Labour’s ash clouds over Britain.” A Conservative government would act within a week of taking office to get our planes flying again.
Sources close to Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, were saying last night that the closure of all British airports and the uncertainty over when they would reopen demonstrated the failure over the last 65 years of both the tired old parties that had been taking it in turns to govern the country. “Neither Conservative nor Labour governments bothered to do anything to prevent this disaster and it will now be up to a new, fresh, Liberal Democratic government headed by Nick to sort out the mess.” Nick The sources added that Nick Clegg had been the clear winner in the leaders’ debate and looked forward to his invitation from the Queen to form a LibDem majority government. St Vincent Cabling, the LibDem shadow Chancellor, told Jeremy Paxman last night on Newsnight that he had predicted the volcanic eruption as long ago as 1942 and had warned then that the prevailing winds would blow the ash over our airports, forcing them to close, unless we moved the airports to northern Spain while there was still time. Unfortunately his warning had been ignored by the government of the day, as usually happened with his premonitions of assorted impending disasters.
In the same Newsnight programme last night, the Conservative shadow aviation minister, Henry ‘Jumbo’ Bumbleberry pointed out that when Labour came to power in 1997, they had inherited from the Tories a situation in which every single UK airport was open and functioning normally. Now, after 13 years of Labour government, not a single plane was flying in or out of a British airport. For 10 of those years Mr Brown had been responsible for the economy as Chancellor, yet in all that time he had done nothing to prepare the country for the crisis that had hit us last Wednesday. He could not escape responsibility for the sufferings of British familes stranded in dangerous foreign countries such as the US or Australia, or whose binge holidays on the Costa Bravo had been ruined. Who was to blame for “Labour’s ash-cloud” if not the Labour leader? In reply, the prime minister pointed out that for years he had been trying to persuade the G20 to take collective action against Icelandic volcanoes but unfortunately the greedy investment bankers had refused to provide the credit to European governments that would have been needed for firm resolute action to be taken. Mr Brown had himself been firm and resolute and had indeed been recognised as the world’s leader in the struggle against volcanic eruptions, but the rest of the world had lacked both the courage and the credits needed to follow him. However, he had accepted his responsibility for what had happened and had apologised to the nation.
This morning a Liberal Democratic Party spokesperson issued a statement claiming that Nick Clegg had been the winner of the leaders’ television debate. She added that “my Nick’s ready to be prime minister whenever that Gordon realises that with the airports all closed the game’s up and he will have to resign. Gordon was right to apologise, though.”
A spokesman for UKIP blamed the EU for ordering Britain to close its airports so that other European countries could steal business from British airlines. “Britain should get out of this cowardly European Union and order our aeroplanes to start flying again immediately. Our brave British pilots aren’t afraid of a bit of harmless dust even if the faint-hearts across the Channel are.” The BNP said immigration was out of control and that this was to blame for the airport crisis. It was Nature’s wonderful way of preventing yet more immigrants flying in to take away jobs from Englishmen.
In a new up-date at 2am this morning, the Civil Aviation Authority announced that in view of the Met Office’s latest forecasts, all flights in and out of UK airports would remain suspended until 4am on 31 January 2011 at the earliest. A further statement would be issued in the middle of the night on 25 December 2010.
In the latest MeGov opinion poll in the Son newspaper, the LibDems were on 95%, the Tories on 4% and Labour on 1. Experts predicted that if this was still the position on polling day, Labour would be the biggest party in a hung parliament.
[Note: The first sentence above is true.]
On 4 March 2010 I described in a blog post how a misleading radio programme, broadcast that day in the BBC World Service, and the BBC’s even more misleading advance publicity for it, had predictably been almost universally misunderstood by the world’s media as evidence that a huge proportion — 95 per cent was even mentioned — of the relief aid given for famine victims in Ethiopia in the 1980s had been diverted for buying arms and ammunition for a Tigrayan rebel army then fighting the Ethiopian government in the north of the country. (In fact the allegations reported in the radio programme referred only to the aid channelled into a small area of Tigray then controlled by the rebels, and not to the huge international relief operation in the rest of Ethiopia.) In my blog post I expressed incomprehension of the BBC’s failure to issue an immediate and authoritative clarification as soon as it became clear that the programme and the BBC’s publicty for it was being generally portrayed as discrediting and denigrating the entire international relief effort in Ethiopia which in reality had saved many millions of lives, and which was anyway not the target of the allegations reported in the BBC programme.
Since then the controversy has continued to rage, with Bob Geldof angrily rebutting any suggestion that money raised by Band Aid and Live Aid for Ethiopia had been diverted in the way being reported all over the media (as a result of the impression given by the BBC, although no such allegation against Band Aid had been made in the original programme). A couple of half-hearted clarifications were issued by the BBC, at least one of them almost as misleading as the original programme and its publicity. But these were barely noticed in the media storm.
I have now tried to bring the story up to date in a new web page, here. I have included a number of quotations to illustrate the way the wrong impression conveyed by the BBC’s original material, never effectively clarified or corrected, spiralled out of control, the world’s media repeating their own misconceptions with further misinterpretations added at every stage, until it’s being confidently asserted in print, on radio and television, and in the blogosphere, that hardly any of the money given in response to Bob Geldof’s historic campaigns, and by numerous governments and other relief organisations for famine relief, ever reached the starving people whom it was meant for.
It’s probably too late now to set the record straight, or to rescue the good name of one of the most successful and effective international disaster relief operations ever mounted. The misconceptions are now in the clippings files of a thousand news desks around the world, and will be trotted out again whenever Ethiopian famine is mentioned. But it seems worth while to make a record of what really happened, how limited in scope and questionable in substance the allegations reported by the BBC really are, and how a seriously misleading story, backed by the good name of the BBC, became what is by now little better than fiction. So I hope that Googlers of the future will notice and have a look at
– or just click this: http://bit.ly/bR2Xq8.
Ephems will shortly be intermittently AFK* for a variety of reasons so please don’t expect any blog posts or responses to comments for a while.
Meanwhile we sit and shiver in sub-zero London and wonder whether our daughter in snow-bound New York is going to make it onto her flight to Heathrow. Global warming? Pah, humbug. Lord Lawson must know something that we don’t.
Many thanks to all those of you who have contributed to lively debates on this blog during the year, and especially those who have challenged my more opinionated and partisan posts. No-one has so far convinced me that our peculiarly British form of preventive detention (Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection or IPPs) can be justified under any civilised system of justice; or that Tony Blair didn’t mean it when he appeared to say that if he had known that there were no WMD he would have had to think of a different, equally bogus, reason for attacking Iraq; or that we’re doing more good than harm in Afghanistan or that if we withdrew all British forces tomorrow, the Pakistan régime would collapse, handing over its hydrogen bombs to al-Qaeda (I don’t see the Americans pulling out just because the British did); or that if we all try hard enough we can prevent the planet warming up to more than 2 deg.C; or that Tony Blair is a middle east peace envoy when he very obviously isn’t; or that Labour promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty (or, even if it did, that any government of sound mind would have dared to hold one); or that when government spending is keeping the economy alive (just) pending the long awaited renaissance of demand and supply in the private sector, cutting government spending is a jolly wizard idea — don’t they teach them economics at Eton?; or that Britain will sink beneath the waves if we don’t pay off our national debt within three weeks of the next election; or that al-Megrahi should have been left to rot in his Scottish prison until he died — or that there’s no room for doubt about his share of guilt for the Lockerbie bombing; or that Tony Blair — why do I keep coming back to the old rogue? — would have made an absolutely spiffing President of Europe, even if such a job existed, which it doesn’t; or that if we keep on fighting the War on Drugs, we’ll eventually win it, any more than we did in Iraq or will in Afghanistan; or that everyone in the country watches a programme called, weirdly, “Strictly”, or that anyone I know watches ‘the X Factor’. But on all these great matters, Ephems’s meat and drink in the past year, I readily acknowledge that I could be wrong, and on some of them I hope I am.
So I wish a happy Christmas to those visitors to this site who are of a religious disposition and members of the appropriate sect, and jolly holidays to the rest: and to everyone, my best wishes for a much better year in almost every respect than 2009 has been. It’s a relief to say goodbye to this low dishonest decade (no, I know 2010, not 2009, will officially be the end of the decade, but at least 2009 marks the end of the Noughties. Good riddance to it!).
*AFK: Away from Keyboard (but you knew that really).
27 October 2009: Me to Guardian Letters: submitted for publication
I enjoyed George Monbiot’s proposals for Tony Blair’s future (Making this ruthless liar EU president is a crazy plan. But I’ll be backing Blair, October 27), but was sorry that Monbiot joined the many commentators who erroneously describe Blair as the “Middle East peace envoy”. According to the statement of June 27, 2007 by the Quartet — the US, Russia, the EU, and the UN — on Blair’s appointment, “As Quartet Representative, he will:
- Mobilize international assistance to the Palestinians, working closely with donors and existing coordination bodies;
- Help to identify, and secure appropriate international support in addressing, the institutional governance needs of the Palestinian state, focusing as a matter of urgency on the rule of law;
- Develop plans to promote Palestinian economic development, including private sector partnerships, building on previously agreed frameworks, especially concerning access and movement; and
- Liaise with other countries as appropriate in support of the agreed Quartet objectives.”
How much if any success Mr Blair has achieved in these challenging but specific tasks since June 2007 I don’t know, but as the Americans stressed publicly at the time, it’s a strictly limited mandate almost entirely unconnected with the peace process — just as it’s a bit of an exaggeration to describe as “President of Europe” an appointment as President (or more accurately in English, Chair or Chairperson) of the EU Council of Ministers, whoever gets the job.
28 Oct 09: Me to Guardian letters
THIS MESSAGE IS NOT FOR PUBLICATION
FOR THE GUARDIAN LETTERS EDITOR FROM SIR BRIAN BARDER
Yesterday I submitted to you a letter for publication (copy below) pointing out that George Monbiot, in his article in yesterday’s Guardian, had wrongly described Tony Blair as the “Middle East peace envoy” whereas the Quartet’s statement of his appointment, which I quoted, showed that his mandate was to encourage foreign investment in Palestine and related matters — nothing to do with the ‘peace’ process.
You haven’t published my letter in today’s Guardian, as of course is your right, and I don’t complain about that. But instead you have published a letter from a Jonathan Smith which describes Mr Blair as “UN envoy in the Middle East” and accuses him of not understanding “that the basic requirement for a mediator is a transparent neutrality…”, etc. Had you published my own letter, it would have been clear that Mr Blair is the envoy of the Quartet, not of the UN, and that he is not in any sense a ‘mediator’. Thus a large part of Mr Jonathan Smith’s letter is beside the point, being based on mistaken assumptions about Tony Blair’s role. I am baffled by your choice of such an obviously flawed letter for publication, especially as you had the origin and exact text of Blair’s terms of reference in front of you in the letter which I had submitted, but which you chose not to publish. (Perhaps you chose not to read it, either?)
I hope that you or the Readers’ Editor, to whom I am copying this, will now publish in the Corrections and Clarifications column corrections to George Monbiot’s reference yesterday to Tony Blair as a ‘peace envoy’ and to Jonathan Smith’s letter’s references to him as a ‘UN envoy’ and a ‘mediator’, since all three descriptions are wrong and misleading. The fact that the ‘peace envoy’ error is so common right across the media surely makes a correction all the more desirable, especially as it has a bearing on current discussion of Mr Blair’s candidature for President of the EU Council of Ministers?
I may put a copy of this message on my blog for the amusement of its readers, but I’ll defer doing so until either I have your response, or else the errors concerned are corrected in the Guardian’s Corrections column, in which case I’ll acknowledge that in my blog.
8 Nov 2009: me to Guardian letters and the Guardian readers’ Editor
Dear Guardian Letters and Readers’ Editors,
With reference to my message below, to which I have had no reply, and the relevant corrections not (I think) having been published, please now see http://www.barder.com/2180.
If you didn’t copy my original message to George Monbiot when you received it, I would be obliged if you would forward this one to him now.
But I still remain inexplicably loyal to the Guardian!
11 November 2009: Guardian Readers’ Editor’s office’s researcher to me
to Brian Barder
date 11 November 2009 17:22
subject Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy
Dear Sir Brian,
Many thanks for your email and your request for correction.
The announcement by the Quartet of the appointment of Tony Blair as Middle East envoy placed his role directly in the context of “advancing the search for peace in the Middle East”. His remit does not include negotiation between the parties, but it is intended to move the region toward peace in line with the Quartet’s aims: “As representative, Tony Blair will bring continuity and intensity of focus to the work of the Quartet in support of the Palestinians, within the broader framework of the Quartet’s efforts to promote an end to the conflict in conformity with the roadmap.” The means are described in the passages you quote, but the ultimate aim is (explicitly) broader. Therefore I do not think the reference to Blair as “peace envoy” in George Monbiot’s column requires correction.
On your second point, Tony Blair is not “UN envoy” and I will pursue a correction on that point.
With best wishes,
Researcher, readers’ editor’s office
12 November 2009: me to researcher, Readers’ Editor’s office
For Ms Charlotte Dewar, Readers’ Editor’s office, from Sir Brian Barder
Thank you for your ingenious defence, in your email of yesterday (below), of George Monbiot’s description of Tony Blair as a, or the, “Middle East peace envoy”. I’m afraid, however, that I don’t buy it. Of course the appointment, like any appointment by the Quartet, was by definition “in the context of” or “within the broader framework of” the Quartet’s overall objective of bringing peace to the region: but to say that this makes Blair a ‘peace envoy’ is a bit like saying that when my butcher sells me a leg of lamb “in the context of” the preparations for a dinner party tomorrow, that makes the butcher my cook, or, even more improbably, my wife. In any case, it’s unnecessary to engage in minute textual analysis and interpretation of the Quartet’s announcement of the appointment when its scope has been publicly (and brutally) defined by the leading member of the Quartet with the explicit agreement of at least two of the other three members:
MR. MCCORMACK: …The urgency of recent events has reinforced the need for the international community, bearing in mind the obligations of the parties, to help the Palestinians as they build institutions and economy of a viable state in Gaza and the West Bank, able to take its place as a peaceful and prosperous partner to Israel and its other neighbors.
To facilitate efforts to these ends, following discussions among the Principals, today the Quartet announces the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet Representative. Mr. Blair, who is stepping down from office this week, has long demonstrated his commitment on these issues.
As Quartet Representative, he will mobilize international assistance to the Palestinians, working closely with donors and existing coordination bodies; help to identify and secure appropriate international support in addressing the institutional governance needs of the Palestinian state, focusing as a matter of urgency on the rule of law; develop plans to promote Palestinian economic development, including private sector partnerships, building on previously agreed frameworks, especially concerning access and movement; and liaise with other countries, as appropriate, in support of the agreed Quartet objectives.
As representative, Tony Blair will bring continuity and intensity of focus to the work of the Quartet in support of the Palestinians within the broader framework of the Quartet’s efforts to promote an end to the conflict in conformity with the Roadmap. He will spend a significant time in the region working with the parties and others to help create viable and lasting government institutions representing all Palestinians, a robust economy and a climate of law and order for the Palestinian people. Tony Blair will be supported in this work by a small team of experts based in Jerusalem to be seconded by partner countries and institutions. The Quartet representative will report to and consult regularly with the Quartet and be guided by it, as necessary….
QUESTION: Tony Blair’s mandate is apparently limited to this institution building. Does he have any authority to do actual political negotiating for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, Mr. Blair’s focus will be on building those Palestinian institutions which will form the basis of a Palestinian state. And I would say that without those institutions and without those institutions being developed, you’re not going to have a Palestinian state. So the idea of the political negotiations and the building of the institutions within the Palestinian state are really of almost equal importance as you’re not going to have a Palestinian state in the absence of one of those two, success in one of those two areas.
So Secretary Rice and President Bush are going to focus on the political negotiations, as they have, and Mr. Blair is going to focus his considerable talents and his efforts on building those Palestinian institutions. I daresay that that is going to be a — take as much time as he is ready to devote to the issue, and I know that he is ready to devote a considerable amount of time to building those institutions.
So I would expect that you can — you would continue to see the same basic breakdown or division of labor in trying to bring about a more peaceful Middle East, bring about a Palestinian state. And Secretary Rice will focus intensely and President Bush will focus intensely on those political negotiations, advancing the Israeli-Palestinian track, advancing the Israeli-Arab track in those negotiations. I’m sure that Secretary Rice and Mr. Blair are going to talk. Of course, they’re going to need to communicate very closely not only though the formal mechanism of the Quartet, but I would also expect on a more informal basis as well.
[State Department press briefing, Sean McCormack, Spokesman, June 27, 2007[ (Emphasis added)
US to keep Blair out of Middle East
By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem Daily Telegraph: 12:01AM BST 20 Jul 2007
Tony Blair was told by the United States yesterday that he had no authority to tackle political negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians as he spent his first full day as special envoy to the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, insisted that America would retain leadership of the "political track" while Mr Blair would work on raising funds for the Palestinians, as well as building their economy and infrastructure.
It was the clearest account yet of the former prime minister's role in the Middle East on behalf of the international Quartet - the European Union, United Nations, the United States and Russia. He will be more an envoy to the Palestinians than a peace envoy.
"I think his mandate was made clear by the Quartet when they issued the statement," said Miss Rice. "There is also a political track that for a variety of reasons the United States is committed to lead in co-ordination with the Quartet."
Mr Blair's role "is something that is completely complementary and if we all work together, and there is plenty to do, perhaps we can finally deliver," she said.
While she couched her comments amid lavish praise for Mr Blair, it amounted to a diplomatic snub after his representatives had earlier made clear he wanted to play a key role in peace negotiations.
Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who is understood to have been put out by Mr Blair's appointment, backed Miss Rice, saying Mr Blair's mandate is to "build the Palestinian institutions".
Miss Rice was speaking before Mr Blair attended his first full meeting of the Quartet in Lisbon. "I know that Tony Blair is an experienced, capable, historic figure and he's going to bring an energy to the international commitment to a Palestinian state that is capable for its own people," she told Sky News. "There is a very good sense that his dedication now to helping the Palestinians build the institutions of statehood, to move forward on economic development and to press forward on helping to create a strong Palestinian partner is very well timed as we try to move forward toward the establishment of a state." (Emphasis added)
The same remarks are reported similarly at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-469639/Rice-Im-charge-Middle-East-peace-Blair.html.
[Former Russian prime minister] Mr Primakov’s remarks added to the controversy over Mr Blair’s new job which has turned out to be a lot less ambitious than first forecast. Instead of a Middle East envoy empowered to negotiate peace terms between Israelis and Palestinians, the mandate was trimmed to one in which the former prime minister would be the Quartet’s representative to help to build the economy and institutions of the Palestinians. At the time of the appointment last month, Mr Blair’s people made clear he was itching to extend the scope of the mandate to include peace building. But following his first meetings this week with officials from the Quartet, as well as Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Blair now appears to have accepted the mandate in spite of its limitations. “Mr Blair is happy with the mandate as it will allow him to do the job that he wants to do,” a spokesman for his office said. (Emphasis added.)
[Daily Telegraph, 12 Jul 2007]
It’s superfluous, after quoting such unambiguous textual evidence, for me to recall watching on CNN television a press conference on the middle east at the UN at which Condoleezza Rice, then US Secretary of State, presided at a long table on the platform, flanked on both sides by about 14 or 15 officials of various kinds, each a specialist in some specific aspect of the negotiations. Tony Blair was at the far end of the table on Ms Rice’s right. Various reporters tried to ask Blair questions relating to the peace process but in every case Condoleezza Rice deflected the question to herself and answered it. It was more than half an hour into the press conference before someone at last asked a question about institution-building in Palestine and Ms Rice finally allowed Mr Blair to answer it — the first time Blair had been permitted to utter a single word. Throughout this time Tony Blair’s face, occasionally shown in close-up, looked unmistakeably grim.
You’ll know that the new US administration, having inherited the lead role in the Quartet with responsibility for the middle east peace process, has actually appointed a “peace envoy” for the middle east, in the person of former Senator George Mitchell. It’s not easy to explain how this could have been done without an obvious conflict with Tony Blair’s role if Blair was already the Quartet’s “peace envoy”. Indeed, in September when President Obama met the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas, and then held his first trilateral meeting with the two leaders, he was “joined by Secretary Clinton, General Jones, Tom Donilon, and [George Mitchell]. For the trilateral meeting, the President was joined by Secretary Clinton, General Jones, and [George Mitchell]. In their meetings, Prime Minister Netanyahu was joined by Foreign Minister Lieberman, Defense Minister Barak, and National Security Advisor Arad. President Abbas was joined by Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo, Negotiations Affairs Department Director Saeb Erekat, and Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki.” If it had been the case that Tony Blair was the Quartet’s “peace envoy”, how could he have been excluded from these key meetings? Clearly he’s not, and never has been. I’m astonished that the Guardian, with all the expertise on the middle east that’s available to it, should have even considered contesting the point.
In the light of all this irrefutable evidence, would the Guardian now care to reconsider its decision not to publish a correction of Mr Monbiot’s reference to Tony Blair as a “peace envoy”? In view of the direct bearing that all this has on the choice of a President (Chairperson) of the EU Council of Ministers, it would seem obviously desirable to publish that correction without further delay. When you’re in a hole….
Until I hear further from you, I shall postpone putting an addendum to http://www.barder.com/2180 on my website to take account of your email of yesterday and this reply.
12 November 2009
Corrections and clarifications: Corrections editor
The Guardian, Wednesday 25 November 2009
A letter (Outraged by the Blair pitch project, 28 October, page 33) said that Tony Blair had been proclaimed United Nations envoy in the Middle East. Mr Blair acts on behalf of the “Quartet” comprising the UN, the United States, Russia and the European Union.
12 November 2009: me to Guardian Readers’ Editor
from Brian Barder
to Siobhain Butterworth <email@example.com>
date 12 November 2009 12:47
subject Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy
12 Nov 2009
Dear Siobhain Butterworth,
My reply (below) to Charlotte Dewar, addressed to the email address given in her message (Readers.Editor@guardian.co.uk), has been returned as undeliverable (“Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain. We recommend contacting the other email provider for further information about the cause of this error. The error that the other server returned was: 550 550 No such user“).
Might I ask you to pass the message on to Charlotte — or, better still, deal with it yourself?
12 November 2009
23 November 2009: me to Guardian Readers’ Editor
from Brian Barder
to Siobhain Butterworth <firstname.lastname@example.org>
date 23 November 2009 18:04 subject Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy
From Sir Brian Barder for the Guardian Readers’ Editor
Dear Siobhain Butterworth,
Please refer to my exchange of emails with your colleague Charlotte Dewar, and my messages addressed to yourself, reproduced below.
As I have still had no reply to either of my messages of 12 November, and since to the best of my knowledge you have still not corrected the Guardian’s erroneous descriptions of Tony Blair’s middle east role to which I have alerted you, with extensive supporting evidence, I now propose to place the document attached to this message, comprising copies of the principal messages to and (in one case) from your office, on my website (http://www.barder.com/). I shall also make a suitable comment on our exchanges with a link to the texts of our emails in my blog, as a follow-up to my blog post at http://www.barder.com/2180.
If there is any further comment you would like me to include in addition to the text of Ms Dewar’s brief email of 11 November, I shall of course be glad to add it. In that case, I would appreciate an early reply with any text you want me to add. If I hear nothing from you by, say, the start of working hours on Friday, 27 November, I shall take it that you have nothing further to say and I’ll then go ahead and put the attachment to this on my website.
Whether you choose to reply or not, I assure you that I have no intention of stopping either my subscription to the Guardian or my flow of letters submitted, with fluctuating degrees of success, for publication in it!
23 Nov 2009
23 November 2009: Do Not Reply at Guardian.co.uk to me
to Brian Barder
date 23 November 2009 18:04
subject Thank you for your email:
Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy
Thank you for emailing the office of the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Siobhain Butterworth. We can’t reply to every email but we do read them all.
Please excuse the automated response but we want to let you know what happens when we hear from you.
Corrections: it is the Guardian’s policy to correct significant errors as soon as possible, other errors may be corrected at our discretion. It helps us work quickly if you identify the article by providing the date, headline and page number or a link to it. If you have emailed us with a request for a correction we will not usually send you a response unless the article directly affects you. Corrections generally appear in the paper’s daily Corrections and clarifications column and/or online within a few days. A full archive of corrections printed in the paper is available online:
Complaints: if you have written with a complaint or comment about the Guardian’s journalism I will reply to you if I intend to review it or plan to write about it in my weekly column.
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Please note that this mailbox is open to all Guardian journalists.
Readers’ editor The Guardian
T +44 (0)20 7713 4736
This email has been automatically generated. Please do not reply to this email
All right, Ms Butterworth. I can take a hint.
A new post on LabourList provides a useful summary of the various alternatives to our current system of First Past the Post (FPTP) for elections to the house of commons currently being hawked around in much of the vaguely left-of-centre press, especially in the Guardian and the Observer. Polly Toynbee in particular seems quite unable to write a column without including a commercial for Proportional Representation. However, the advantages and drawbacks of each of the systems discussed in LabourList seem to me (and to at least one other reader of LabourList who has commented on it) to be somewhat skewed in favour of a change in the electoral system, over-stating some of the arguments in favour and omitting some of those against.
I have appended the following rather lengthy comment to the LabourList post in an effort, probably doomed, to help correct any imbalance. This can usefully be read, if anyone’s interested, in conjunction with what I have written previously on the subject:
This otherwise useful summary of the various options omits any mention of a (to my mind) crippling defect in all the systems which involve transferring votes: in AV, the only votes that get to be transferred are the second preferences of those whose first preference went to a candidate who has been eliminated (because he/she has come bottom of the list at the first or subsequent recount). In many (most?) cases, the candidates who come bottom of the poll and are eliminated in the early counts are frivolous egotists and exhibitionists, other weirdos, or candidates of far-out extremist parties or causes. It’s not clear why those who give such no-hoper candidates their first preference votes should have their second preferences given so much more weight in the eventual result than those who gave their first preference votes to mainstream candidates, and whose second preferences will never even be counted if their candidate is never eliminated. Votes cast are thus treated unequally, those for eliminated candidates given more weight (by virtue of the redistribution of their second preferences) than those cast for candidates not eliminated. This hardly qualifies as ‘fair’. The same unequal weight objection applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Single Transferable Vote system.
There are in addition serious drawbacks to having more than one MP for each constituency (as STV would entail), notably that it breaks the invaluable convention that a single MP, once elected, represents the interests of all his constituents, not just those who voted for him (or her).
There is also the obvious illogicality in all preference vote redistribution systems of pretending that first and second (or even third) preference votes are of equal weight, simply in order to be able to claim that the winning candidate has had the ‘support’ of the majority of the votes cast, whereas (unless he or she won more than 50% of the votes at the first count, in which case no second preferences need to be redistributed other than to the other candidates in multi-member constituencies) it’s obvious that on the first preference count, which is the only one that accurately reflects voter choice, a majority of the votes were actually cast against the eventual winner. The fact is that nationally, and in most individual constituencies, no single party ever commands the support of 50% or more of the electorate, and this is inevitably reflected in votes cast at elections. Fiddling around with redistributions of votes from one candidate to another can’t magically transform this reality into an apparent overall majority for a particular candidate. A voter who has cast a first preference vote for candidate A can’t meaningfully be said to have voted ‘for’ candidate B, even if B is eventually given his second preference vote when preferences are redistributed. Thus the principal argument generally advanced in favour of redistribution systems such as AV and STV, namely that they ensure that every MP has had the support of a majority of the votes cast in the relevant constituency, is bogus.
The objections to any party list system, an essential element in the horrendous proposals by Roy Jenkins and his Commission, are obvious. They put even more power into the hands of the party apparatchiks than they already have, enabling them alone to decide which politicians are included in the list and which are excluded from it. Guess which independent-minded, maverick members of each party’s awkward squad are going to make it onto the list! The electorate has no say in the matter, even if the list is an ‘open’ one in which voters are allowed to express preferences as between the various names on the party list. This objectionable system is one of the many reasons for the abysmal turnout at elections in the UK to the European parliament, conducted inexplicably under the party list system. The last thing we should want is to introduce it as part of the system for electing members of the house of commons, and thus for electing governments.
But above all the objections to any system that will always deliver coalition governments (as true PR always will) are surely decisive. It will always empower a party which has won fewer seats and votes than either of the two main parties to decide which of those two main parties is to get the keys to No. 10 Downing Street. Both the parties which come in first and second will have to bargain, after the voting has finished, with the minor parties in order to negotiate changes or additions to their election manifestos sufficient to guarantee enough support from one or more of the minority parties to secure a majority for the coalition (whether formal or informal) in the house of commons. Thus the government taking office will have a programme that has been drawn up or finalised only after the election has taken place and for which not a single voter can have voted. The majority partner in the resulting coalition is then permanently at the mercy of its minority partner(s), who can bring the government down at any time, on a whim or following a personality clash, and put the other main party into office instead, without a single voter having any say in the change of government. It’s no good saying this doesn’t happen in practice: it has happened at least once in Germany since the war and is a permanent feature of the system in Israel, where moderate centrist governments are constantly held to ransom by right-wing extremist minority parties on whom they depend for their continuing majority support in parliament.
Finally, a change in the present electoral system (tendentiously referred to as ‘electoral reform’!) is far too momentous a constitutional change to be introduced, or even to be submitted to a national referendum, without the broad agreement of all the main parties across the political spectrum. It certainly should not be imposed by one party on the rest without their agreement, for the temporary political advantage of the party in power. If a referendum is to be held, it should be preceded by a lengthy period of consultation and information in which the pros and cons, especially the cons, of each of the options can be extensively debated and publicised. Simply to ask if one is in favour of electoral ‘reform’ is almost to guarantee a Yes vote, and that’s liable to land us in an even worse mess than we’re in already.
It’s easy to pick holes in First Past the Post, but few commentators in the current febrile atmosphere seem to be willing to point out the even bigger holes in every one of the alternatives. As Churchill said of democracy, FPTP is a terrible system; it’s just that all the others are even worse.
Apologies for the length of this.
J and I are still reeling from the effects of the film Katyn, the latest product of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and indisputably a masterpiece. Watching it is a gruelling experience, but a hugely rewarding one. Although theoretically on general release in the UK, it’s not easy to track down any of the few cinemas currently showing it; some Googling may be required for British movie-goers.
The film follows the impact on four fictional Polish families of the all-too-real tragedy in the Katyn forest in Russia of the –
mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers, policemen, intellectuals and civilian prisoners of war by Soviet NKVD, based on a proposal from Lavrentiy Beria to execute all members of the Polish Officer Corps. Dated March 5, 1940, this official document was then approved (signed) by the entire Soviet Politburo including Joseph Stalin and Beria. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000, the most commonly cited number being 21,768. [Wikipedia]
For years during and after the second world war the official Soviet (and therefore also the Polish Communist party) line was that the massacre had been perpetrated in 1941 by the German SS when the Katyn forest area was under German occupation. It was however widely known in Poland and in the west that in fact this had been a Soviet NKVD crime, committed in 1940 when the Katyn area of Russia was still under Soviet control. During the war western governments refrained from placing the blame for the massacre where it belonged, on their war-time ally the Soviet Union, for fear of the consequences for the war-time alliance against Hitler in which the Russians were playing such a vital part. After the war, with Poland under effective Soviet domination, the fiction was maintained for a long time, and in communist-governed Poland it was a serious, potentially capital, offence to allege that the murder of the flower of the Polish intelligentsia and its officer corps at Katyn had been the work of the Russians, not the Germans. During my own time in Poland (1986-88, just before the collapse of Soviet communism in Europe) we would visit the Warsaw cemetery to see the officially-erected Katyn memorial where the reference engraved on the memorial to the Hitlerite fascists as the perpetrators of the massacre was constantly defaced or gouged out by Polish patriots and the correct (and damning) date ’1940′ inscribed or painted in its place, thus indicting the Russians. On All Souls Day the Poles would gather at the memorial and hold a candle-light vigil, softly singing patriotic Polish songs and hymns; they probably still do:
In 1981, [the] Polish trade union Solidarity erected a memorial with the simple inscription “Katyn, 1940″ but it was confiscated by the police, to be replaced with an official monument “To the Polish soldiers – victims of Hitlerite fascism – reposing in the soil of Katyn”. Nevertheless, every year on Zaduszki, similar memorial crosses were erected at Powazki cemetery and numerous other places in Poland, only to be dismantled by the police overnight. Katyn remained a political taboo in communist Poland until the fall of the Eastern bloc in 1989. [Wikipedia]
The name Katyn thus has a terrible resonance in the minds of all Poles.
Wajda’s intensely moving film won’t always be easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the Katyn story or with Polish geography, requiring especially a rough understanding of the areas of Poland occupied in the early part of the war by the Germans and the Russians respectively. There are of course many accounts of the Katyn massacre on the web and I would recommend refreshing one’s memory of the principal facts and dates before seeing the film by reading one or other of them, unless you’re already fully au fait with them. The Wikipedia account is probably as good as any. But on no account miss this moving and gripping movie by one of the great masters of the cinema. (Watch out for sign-posts in the film to some of its tragic themes: the theatre to which a young woman sells her hair for use in a stage wig, in order to pay for a memorial stone honouring her Katyn victim brother, is staging ‘Antigone‘, as we learn from a poster glimpsed in the foyer: the young woman, we suddenly realise, is re-enacting Antigone’s tragic role but in real life.)
Wajda is now 83, so there may not be too many more masterpieces from him.
Bloggers who entrust their political views and comments to the blogosphere must expect to be misrepresented, misquoted, misunderstood by-mistake-on-purpose, quoted out of context and otherwise have their case distorted by other bloggers of a different political persuasion. So there’s no point in complaining when it happens. But there’s currently an interesting example of distortion by omission and misquotation, in a blog by an obscure Conservative Councillor who is also ‘commercial director’ at the Conservative Party’s campaign HQ. You can read his blog post here.
You will see that the Councillor purports to reproduce, and attributes to me by name, my own blog post in Labour List of yesterday (also available on my own blog) in which I joined the growing chorus of criticism of the Labour leadership’s “Tory cuts, Labour invests” line as being fundamentally misleading and defying belief, thus damaging the government and the party — but in which I also set out a suggested four-point alternative Labour line that would highlight the government’s effective actions and policies for dealing with the recession while exposing the dangers and follies of the Conservative party’s corresponding economic and fiscal policies. Predictably, the Tory Councillor’s version of this on his own blog reproduces in full my criticisms of the current Labour leadership line but completely omits my positive and constructive suggestions for an alternative pro-Labour line, including my condemnation of Tory policy for dealing with the recession. Thus the basic thrust of my own post is effectively reversed by the Tory blogger. You’d need to have eagle eyes to spot the three faint dots which alone indicate the very substantial omission, and a rare political insight to guess what it contained. Not only is the central core of what I wrote slyly omitted: our Tory Councillor has also unobtrusively re-named it ‘A Labour Member for 50 Years Writes About Labour’s “Simple Minded Dishonesty” Lies…’, although the words ‘lie’ and ‘lies’ don’t appear anywhere in my post (except as part of the words ‘families‘ and ‘earlier’). That’s misquotation with a vengeance, especially as the mangled version of the text purports to be by me — so it would be natural to assume that the title is by me as well.
There are several interesting things about our Tory Councillor and his blog, including its title (“CllrSSD’s Blog“) and the fact that nowhere in it does the Councillor’s name appear — even in the section headed “About Me and My Blog“.
There are various clues here and there, including the initials SSD; even a contact e-mail address (email@example.com), but no name. Rather odd, you might think, for an elected Councillor. In fact our man is one Scott Seaman-Digby, who engagingly if slightly mysteriously describes himself (and reveals his name) in his potted autobiography on his Twitter page as “Local Councillor, CCHQ staffer, generally nice guy, having fun online and keeping in touch with family, friends and resident [sic]“. CCHQ evidently stands for Conservative Campaign Headquarters. Elsewhere we learn that “Scott was elected Chairman of the London Borough of Hillingdon Conservative group in 1999 and in the same year he joined the Parliamentary Candidates list as an approved national candidate.” He’ll surely make a grand MP.
I have submitted the following comment on Mr Seaman-Digby’s blog post — the one that’s represented as being by me:
Selective extracts from my blog post, designed to expose the dangerous folly of Conservative policy for dealing with the recession, have been reproduced here without my prior agreement. I note that the section of what I wrote setting out the merits of the Labour party’s actions and policies, compared with the glaring defects in Tory policy, has been completely omitted. This kind of distortion by omission is very poor practice, but comes as no surprise.
This comment is presumably still awaiting the Councillor’s approval; at any rate, it hasn’t yet appeared below his, or my, post on his blog. But since by his own account he’s a “generally nice guy”, I expect he’ll approve my comment in due course and put it on his blog. And if you find that later today (Tuesday 7 July) it still isn’t there, you can always send him an e-mail asking what’s happened to it: firstname.lastname@example.org should find him. He quotes that e-mail address himself on his blog, and since he has no qualms about selectively reproducing my blog post (with the heart of it cut out), he can hardly object to my reproducing just an e-mail address from his. [Update: My comment has now appeared on Cllr. Seaman-Digby's blog, together with his own conciliatory reply and (soon, anyway) my further response: please see http://www.barder.com/ephems/1846#comment-87163 immediately below.]
The indefatigable Guido Fawkes had earlier spotted my Labour List post and commented on it in reasonably balanced if pungent terms, including brief quotations from it to illustrate both the criticisms and the constructive suggestions. Perhaps that’s where Mr Seaman-Digby came across it in the first place, unless he’s a loyal reader of Labour List and saw the original there.
But then, as I said before, bloggers have to expect what they write to be distorted by selective (mis)quotation, quotation out of context, and other tricks of the trade of the practitioners of the dark political arts. So I’m not complaining — just recording an amusing and instructive example. No doubt there’ll be many more before the mainstream media and the Tory bloggers get bored with (or ‘of’?) the subject.
PS: For an example of another impeccably fair and balanced comment on my post in Labour List, written by (of all things) a Daily Telegraph blogger, James Kirkup, look at this (including “particularly telling is his (accurate) observations on how some fancy footwork by the Tories turned Andrew Lansley’s original “10 per cent” mis-step into a tactical victory.”)
Some disconnected thoughts on the present discontents:
David Cameron’s merciless, if tiresomely and unnecessarily repetitive, dismembering of the prime minister in Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) over the latter’s obstinate refusal to admit to Labour’s plans for stiff future cuts in government capital spending has been widely remarked on. Gordon Brown’s apparent fixation with his favourite slogan, “Labour investment versus Tory cuts” has long ago ceased to cut any ice. Everyone knows that whichever government is in office when Britain begins to come out of recession will have to act to reduce the huge volume of debt incurred as a result of the measures taken to deal with the financial and economic crisis. Obviously even a gradual start to paying off this unprecedented and unsustainable amount of government debt will entail higher taxes and big reductions in government spending. Why Brown should have persisted for so long in his claim that government capital spending under Labour would actually increase in the next three years, when the government’s own published figures show that it will fall, is a mystery. Another recklessly conceded own goal! Is there no-one in the prime minister’s entourage with the guts to tell him to stop telling porkies — if not in obedience to his much vaunted ‘moral compass’ as a ‘son of the manse’, then at the very least because of the utter certainty that he will be instantly found out? Hasn’t Peter Mandelson warned him of these elementary truths? Perhaps he has, but the prime minister can only hoist in advice that he wants to hear. A sure recipe for the kind of humiliating disaster that struck him on Wednesday.
* * * * *
It’s doubly regrettable from Labour’s point of view that Gordon Brown should have handed the Tories such a weapon of mass destruction when he could easily have deployed an effective and truthful attack, pointing out that the Tories sneered from the sidelines at the radical measures taken by the government at an early stage of the crisis, both to prevent the collapse of the banking system and to provide a sharp fiscal stimulus to prevent the economy descending from recession into slump; and that the government’s measures have been widely praised as correct and courageous by international economists and governments. Cameron and Osborne have throughout been loudly calling for immediate cuts in government spending, while the country is still in recession, which could only make the recession deeper and more prolonged. The recession itself forces any government to spend more (on social security for the increased number of unemployed and homeless) while seeing its tax revenues sharply reduced (because of the falls in profits, earnings and spending), thus increasing the deficit in a double whammy — the so-called ‘automatic stabilisers’, unintentionally ironical term. Large-scale borrowing has thus been necessary and right if total calamity was to be avoided. Labour can credibly claim that that under a Labour government, when the time comes for cuts in spending, the most vulnerable and most heavily dependent on basic public services will be protected as far as possible, with the well-heeled bearing the heaviest burden in higher taxes. The Tories, by contrast, are already committed to embarking on expenditure cuts far too soon, even before we have begun to emerge from the recession, and to applying them in a recklessly indiscriminate way, with flat rate cuts apparently to be imposed on almost all public services except the NHS and overseas aid. But it’s probably too late now to launch that kind of offensive: the prime minister’s credibility has been shot to pieces.
* * * * *
Coming back (reluctantly) to Wednesday’s PMQs, I found it impossible to watch and listen to the proceedings without squirming in shame and embarrassment at the tribal baying, the pathetic planted questions (memorably called ‘Dorothy Dixers‘ by the caustic Australians) and their pre-paid replies, the feeble attempts at point-scoring, the ludicrously over-acted audience reactions — raucous laughter, theatrical groans, squeals of approval, frantic nodding like those toy dogs in the back windows of cars — and the almost universally contemptible level of the debate, if one can call it that. This was the display of tantrums of the nursery, not even the quarrels of the primary school playground. Will the new Speaker be able to do anything to restore PMQs to its place as a forum for MPs of all parties to seek information (including potentially embarrassing or revealing information as appropriate) from the head of the government? By my calculation PMQs were more than half-way through before the first such question was asked.
There were a few encouraging signs: Speaker Bercow delivered one especially memorable appeal to an over-excited Member: “Order. Mr. Fabricant, you must calm yourself. It is not good for your health. I call Paul Farrelly.” He interrupted one interminable intervention in mid-flow and invited the PM to reply, even though no question had at that point been asked; and he reminded another questioner that it was out of order to ask the prime minister questions about Conservative policies. Perhaps in due course he will stop the practice of MPs delivering long speeches converted at the last moment into questions by the addition of “Does the prime minister agree?”. He might even stop the prime minister answering every other question by lambasting the Opposition, reminding him that he is there to provide information about the government’s actions and policies, not anyone else’s. Cameron is principally to blame for these weekly displays of bear-baiting, but Brown is almost as much to blame for unfailingly taking the bait; and almost all MPs on both sides of the House are certainly to blame for the childish baying and general tribalism. The expenses scandal isn’t the only reason for sensible people of all political persuasions to despair of both politics as currently practised, and all too many of the present crop of politicians. And, like poor Mr Fabricant’s excitement, this disillusionment with politics and politicians isn’t good for our collective health. It’s quite a short step from this to some form of populist fascism.
* * * * *
One dimly encouraging sign is the new Speaker’s appearance in the Chair in an ordinary business suit and tie, in ordinary shoes, his special status marked only by a black academic-type gown of the kind worn by American judges. OK, it might make him look like a rather diminutive schoolmaster, but better that than the absurd pantomime costume affected by his predecessors. Some of the fake-medieval flummery attending his ritual procession through the lobby at the start of each day’s proceedings could helpfully be dispensed with, including his train-bearer, hardly necessary now that there’s no train to bear. The exotic language used by MPs in debate to refer to each other could usefully be brought up to date. Is it really necessary for every utterance to have to pretend to be addressed to the Chair? Why on earth do members have to waste hours of everyone’s time by trooping through the lobbies to vote when quite simple electronic voting systems are used in most comparable assemblies and have been available for years? Why is the order paper unintelligible to anyone who hasn’t studied the arcane mysteries of Commons procedures for at least ten years? Why are the parliamentary ushers, who show visitors to their seats and shush them when they make a noise, dressed like warders on loan from the Tower of London, or possibly toast-masters? Even more radically, what’s the benefit of a layout in the House of Commons that accentuates the adversarial element in our politics and actually encourages the sort of infantile tribal behaviour seen at its worst in PMQs? Why not a horse-shoe-shaped seating arrangement that would reflect the nuances of members’ political positions instead of a Manichean in-versus-out, us-versus-them dichotomy? There’s plenty to be done, Mr Speaker.
* * * * *
Even the choice of John Bercow as the new Speaker was basically an act of political tribalism, estimable though he might be — certainly preferable to the majority of the other candidates. But there’s no disguising the fact that although he is, or was until elected Speaker, a Conservative MP, the great majority of his fellow-Conservatives cordially dislike him (mainly apparently because his political views have shifted from far right to slightly left-of-centre since he very sensibly married a socialist). Virtually the whole of his support, in an unprecedented secret ballot, came from Labour MPs who still of course have a comfortable majority (for the time being, anyway). Were those hundreds of Labour votes cast for Bercow based on a sober assessment of his Speaker-like qualities of patience, courtesy, gravitas and natural authority, long experience in the House, and acceptability to a wide range of opinion on both sides? One would like to think so, and that Bercow voters were behaving like grown-ups. Or was this one last chance to cock a snook at anti-Bercow Tories, using their majority to impose him on his unwilling party colleagues before the Labour majority disappears from under them some time within the next eleven months? If so, how will a likely Tory majority in the next parliament be tempted to get its revenge? Business as usual, sadly: all the brave talk of the need for change and reform was strictly for the birds, all along.
Last autumn our most debased and shameless tabloid newspaper, Murdoch’s Sun, denounced with its usual fake indignation a ‘comedy workshop’ at an English prison, attended by a convicted Muslim terrorist and other assorted evil-doers. Did the minister responsible, the so-called ‘Justice Secretary’ patiently explain to The Sun the reasons for restoring prisoners’ self-respect by teaching them valued skills that would reduce the chances of their re-offending after their release? Here’s a clue: the Justice Secretary is one Jack Straw, former Home Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, and half a dozen other exes. Now read on:
By JOHN KAY, Chief Reporter
Published: 21 Nov 2008
AN al-Qaeda terrorist involved in a plot to bomb London was taught how to be a stand-up COMIC at his top-security prison, The Sun can reveal. Evil Zia Ul Haq was enrolled on an eight-day “comedy workshop” at Whitemoor jail, along with murderers and rapists.
An inquiry was launched today by the director of high security prisons to consider whether further action was needed, the Ministry of Justice said. A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test in relation to prison classes.” Once they “graduated” they were due to get a certificate and display their new talents with a comedy show for fellow lags and guards.
Last night Justice Secretary Jack Straw canned the “totally unacceptable” course after The Sun alerted him. He also vetoed a plan by the Category A Cambridgeshire prison to set up its own comedy club.
[The Sun, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]
The Daily Telegraph helpfully expanded on the Justice Secretary’s prompt remedial action:
…[J]ustice secretary Jack Straw stepped in and closed the course after three days, The Sun reported. “As soon as I heard about it, I instructed it must be immediately cancelled,” he said. “It is totally unacceptable.” Senior managers in the Prison Service, who were also unaware of it, take the same view. “Prisons should be places of punishment and reform. Providing educational and constructive pursuits is essential but the types of courses and the manner in which they are delivered must be appropriate.” … A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test [in relation to prison classes].”
[Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]
This was too much even for Mr Murdoch’s down-market Times, whose columnist Libby Purves wrote:
A month ago … I recorded the dismay spreading through the UK Prison Service as a result of Jack Straw’s banning of a well-established comedy course at Whitemoor Prison. Some nasty little toe-rag outed it to indignant tabloids looking for something to get cross about.
The result, you may recall, was the Justice Secretary’s ruling that comedy in prison is “totally unacceptable”, “not a constructive pursuit”, and that all inmate activities – even if not funded by taxpayers – “must be justified to the community”. Comedy sounded too much like fun…
A PSI – Prison Service instruction – followed this, laying down formally that all activities must now be judged not only by whether they do any good but by how they “might be perceived by the public”. Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and patron of several prison arts projects, robustly described the PSI as “lunacy”. Organisations that take arts into prison … were scared, disheartened and in some cases had projects abruptly cancelled by understandably nervous governors. Nobody, after all, has defined the parameters of a “public acceptability test”… Even obviously humane projects bringing together prisoners and families found themselves threatened. It has been a difficult time. It still is. And it shouldn’t be. Prisons should be free to do whatever contributes to rehabilitation, purpose and human connection. The “public acceptability test” still needs harpooning. [The Times, March 2, 2009 (emphasis added)]
Ms Purves’s column went on to praise, in moving terms, a production of the great musical West Side Story by a mixture of prisoners, prison officers and a few professional actors from Pimlico Opera, in Wandsworth prison, the biggest in the country. The production, said Ms Purves, sent two vital messages. The first and most obvious one was about the futility and cruelty of street gang violence:
That second message is about work: co-operation, learning, taking direction and how it takes the sweated patience of theatre to create, in a live moment, a magical emotional unity between audience and performers.
Similar praise for what was evidently an outstanding and deeply moving production came from Fiona Maddocks in The Observer on 15 March:
Rejoice in these jailhouse blues
Jack Straw is clamping down on arts inside prisons. If he’d been at HMP Wandsworth last week, he might just change his mind …
Between his Wagner performances at the Royal Opera House last week Bryn Terfel slipped into Wandsworth prison in south-west London. He had a free afternoon and responded to an impromptu invitation. After visiting a few cells, the world’s most famous bass-baritone volunteered to join a group of inmates in a song…
Together they sang “Somewhere”, the yearning ballad from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. For anyone incarcerated in one of the largest prisons in western Europe together with 1,643 other male offenders, the lyrics have unbearable poignancy: “Peace and quiet and open air/ Wait for us/ Somewhere…/We’ll find a new way of living/ We’ll find a way of forgiving/ Somewhere.“
Even the austere Financial Times was moved, Peter Aspden writing:
We were, of course, all expecting the barnstorming “Officer Krupke” to be rich in dramatic irony (“Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get. We ain’t no delinquents, We’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!”) and so it proved, especially when the last verse was sung extra-lustily to the prison project’s patron, former cabinet minister Michael Portillo, smiling sheepishly in the stalls.
There was still more poignancy in store when the entire male chorus, inmates every one, sang the lyrics of West Side Story’s loveliest melody: “Some day, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living…” It can’t be often that the mise-en-scène of this particular musical is as moving as its substance, but that was certainly the case here, where its theme of redemption passed for much more than mere romantic conceit. [FT, 6 March 2009]
A friend who works as a volunteer at Wandsworth prison was also there:
[L]ike Libby Purves, I was at the opening night of this amazing show last Friday … Those of us who work as volunteers (monitoring day-to-day conditions and events in prisoners’ lives in HMP Wandsworth), know … about the inestimable value of drama and the other arts in prisons … And [Libby Purves is] absolutely right too about the quality of the production — the audience wouldn’t stop applauding at times — and what it must be doing for the prisoners taking part. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry much of the time — so, like many other people, I did both. Just imagine prisoners singing: Gee Officer Krupke….We never had the love every child oughta get…We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood.. Deep down inside us there is good…! And: He don’t need a judge he needs an analyst’s care…It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed… He’s psychologic’ly disturbed…! And so on. Hilarious stuff. But I wondered about the men singing it. Did they sense the irony? What did they feel? Learn?
I’ll try to find out from some of them in the near future when reality re-imposes itself.
Jack Straw’s ignorant, cowardly fiat, surrendering instantly to The Sun’s bullying, very nearly caused the abandonment of this hugely worth-while project. He didn’t, you’ll notice, attempt to defend the ban on ‘inappropriate’ courses such as training in comedian’s skills in prisons, nor to deny their potential value as rehabilitation tools, boosters of morale and self-respect, bonding and community spirit. His sole concern is whether any activity is publicly “acceptable” — acceptability, it seems, defined not by what is acceptable to Lord Ramsbotham or to others who understand that the punishment of being sent to prison is the withdrawal of liberty, not ill-treatment and mindless deprivations while behind bars: acceptability defined purely, or impurely, by what is acceptable to The Sun newspaper. How low can a minister entrusted with ‘justice’ sink?
But what should we expect of Mr Straw, Justice Secretary — indeed also Lord Chancellor in his spare time? He was the Foreign Secretary at the time of the Blair government’s illegal attack on Iraq, the senior minister whose own department’s legal advisers had warned him in writing that an attack on Iraq would constitute the crime of aggression, but who apparently had not had the courage to relay that warning to his Cabinet colleagues (we would have heard about it by now if he had) nor to resign when it was brushed impatiently aside by Mr Blair. He was the home secretary who, as recorded by Wikipedia, “brought forward the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, increased police powers against terrorism and proposed a reduction in the right to trial by jury. These policies won praise from Margaret Thatcher who once declared ‘I trust Jack Straw. He is a very fair man.’ They were deemed excessively authoritarian by his former students’ union, which in 2000 banned him from the building…” He was was responsible for allowing General Augusto Pinochet to return to Chile. In 2000 he turned down an asylum request from a man fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime, saying “we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concerns if you haven’t done anything wrong.” Only Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Jack Straw have served continuously in every Labour cabinet since Labour’s triumph in 1997. We have accumulated ample evidence by now of what kind of politician the Justice Secretary is. Nothing that he does should surprise us.