Jottings after an absence
A few mainly disconnected thoughts on return from a couple of weeks at sea and a week at home to catch up:
Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Party conference seemed to me a bit banal. We had heard all the personal stuff before, several times, and the rhetorical bits ("So this is my pledge to the British people: I will not let you down. I will stand up for our schools and our hospitals. I will stand up for British values. I will stand up for a strong Britain. And I will always stand up for you") were merely embarrassing. The list of specific policy promises was long but so pathologically detailed — deep-cleaning hospital wards and letting matrons demand more cleaning, for example — as to reinforce the impression of a control freak. No coherent philosophy could be distilled from the speech apart from a heavy emphasis on equality of opportunity for all, itself an inherently platitudinous, indeed Tory, concept: a party of the left should be concentrating on the greatest possible equality of outcomes, on which the Labour leader was eerily silent. He even called at one point for "a genuinely meritocratic Britain, a Britain of all the talents", suggesting that he and other luminaries of New Labour need to read or re-read —
"Michael Young's 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy, which is set in a dystopian future in which one's social place is determined by IQ plus effort. In the book, this social system ultimately leads to a social revolution in which the masses overthrow the elite, who have become arrogant and disconnected from the feelings of the public"
— as Wikipedia puts it.
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However, Mr Brown's speech seems to have done the trick in attracting vast amounts of new support, mainly from women voters, even giving Labour an improbable 11-point lead in one poll. Predictably this has further encouraged the boring media obsession with speculating fruitlessly about whether there's going to be an election in the autumn, or if not this autumn then next spring (apparently you can't have elections in the winter because voters are scared to go out to the polling stations in the dark). Banging on in interview after interview about this jejune question in the certain knowledge that neither Brown nor any other Labour politician either knows the answer to it or, if he did, would dream of providing it to the media, saves our political commentators the trouble of doing a little research on genuine political issues and seeking to elicit enlightenment from our political leaders about their attitudes to them.
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Insomniacs might have watched in last night's Newsnight a discussion recorded in the fringes of the Labour Party conference, led by the increasingly world-weary Jeremy Paxman, on the rights and wrongs of the US-UK attack on Iraq, with spokespersons leading and summing up for both sides. This confirmed the impression that defenders of the war have now taken up their positions behind the argument that it was right to attack and occupy Iraq and to topple the evil Saddam Hussein, and that it was only after this had been achieved that mistakes began to be made (by the feather-brained Americans, of course, having no experience of ruling colonies). This fatuous proposition needs to be ruthlessly exposed whenever it shows its head. The key fact is that the attack was illegal, because it was in breach of the fundamental legal obligation under the UN Charter not to use force in international affairs (other than in self-defence) without the prior approval of the Security Council, approval which despite intensive efforts we never managed to obtain. Blair promised publicly not to go to war without UN approval unless approval was frustrated by "an unreasonable veto" (in itself a reservation with no legal basis). There was no veto, reasonable or otherwise, and contrary to the myth assiduously propagated by our ministers at the time, no veto was even threatened. But we went to war anyway.
Blair had also accepted publicly that overthrowing Saddam could not be a legitimate objective for the use of force, yet he was happy to support Bush in his criminal enterprise when Bush was proclaiming that his objective was régime change. The reliability of the 'evidence' for Saddam's possession of WMD was deliberately and knowingly misrepresented to persuade parliament and the public to accept the case for war. On every count the attack itself was a criminal blunder of the first magnitude, involving lies and misrepresentation at every turn. You don't need to look for mistakes made subsequently in order to recognise that the decision to go to war in the first place was itself indefensible. In the Newsnight debate, Bob Marshall Andrews made all these points with lethal economy. We'll miss him in the next parliament.
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Talking of Tony Blair (which by the way hardly anyone at the Labour conference has been doing), I'm struck by how many commentators have been describing his new job as "the Quartet's envoy charged with bringing peace to the middle east", whereas in fact his brief falls well short of this, as the BBC reported at the time:
Observers point out that Mr Blair's mission, as defined by the "Quartet" of international mediators which appointed him, is narrow. His brief includes Palestinian governance, economics and security rather than the wider conflict between Israel and Palestinians – at least initially. Mr Blair replaces the Quartet's previous envoy, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn who last year resigned in frustration at the lack of progress.
Obsessive watchers of BBC News 24 (of whom I am one) might have caught a glimpse of our former charismatic leader appearing in his new, current role, at a news conference held at the UN, alongside the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and a couple of other unrecognisable luminaries. For the first half an hour or so all the questions from the international press were directed at Dr Rice or Mr Ban Ki-moon, who answered them in impressively detailed terms. At last someone directed a question in narrow terms to Mr Blair, whose face lit up with evident relief. He launched into a long generalised waffle about the conditions required for middle east peace, clearly going well beyond his limited mandate. A cut-away shot showed Condi Rice glaring at him.
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We owe an extraordinary and so far unremarked revelation in the New Statesman of 6 September, headed "The gagging of the Mandarins", to Sir Edward Clay, formerly British High Commissioner in Kenya where he was famous for his hard-hitting public denunciations of corruption at the highest level in that now sad country ("the evidence of corruption in Kenya amounts to vomit, not just on the shoes of donors but also all over the shoes of Kenyans and the feet of those who can't afford shoes"). Clay, now retired, has exposed a new example of corruption in high places: the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, for which he (and I) used to work, has now gagged its diplomats to prevent them from publicly expressing their personal views on political and international issues, not only while they are still in the public service (which is perfectly reasonable), but even after their retirement, for the rest of their lives! In Clay's words,
[The FCO has] enlarged the scope of rules inhibiting serving diplomats from speaking, writing, or otherwise expressing any view, without prior clearance. Retiring mandarins are now warned that the rules bind them for life.
If enforced, this new prohibition will deprive public debate on international issues of the benefit of the input of, eventually, hundreds of former diplomats with unrivalled collective experience of international affairs and the ways of government in conducting them. There will be no more fascinating insights on Iraq from the successors to the always judicious Sir Jeremy Greenstock; no more open letters to the prime minister critically analysing government policy in the middle east from 52 former ambassadors or their equivalents, of the kind that rattled the bars of the government's cage in April 2004 to salutary effect. (I declare an interest as one of the signatories.) If the new gag had been introduced before I retired, I would have been unable to make many of the comments on public affairs that I have contributed, for whatever they have been worth, in articles, interviews and letters in the press and indeed on my website and this blog (of course some might well say that this would have entailed no great loss).
It's hard to see any conceivable justification for this attack on the freedom of expression of people with potentially so much to contribute to political debate. Its only possible objective is to spare ministers and their officials embarrassment: no threat to national security or the proper conduct of public business can be said to arise. I wonder if it would survive a challenge under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention? It would surely be unconstitutional in the US.
It's reminiscent, incidentally, of the FCO's equally indefensible recent ban on ambassadors and high commissioners writing 'valedictory despatches' immediately before leaving a post, and especially just before retirement, such despatches having often been the occasion for swingeing criticisms of the way the Diplomatic Service is run and major decisions of foreign policy are taken. (Admittedly such despatches have sometimes had a funny way of getting into the public print.) Instead of taking these documents seriously as constructive analysis, based on experience, of the way the FCO operates, with potentially useful indicators of desirable reforms, the Office has chosen instead to ban them altogether. Our diplomats are now reduced to establishing a samizdat system for the dissemination of their views in defiance of the censors of King Charles Street. Unbelievable!