Reflections on another week
Some more random reflections prompted by events of the past week or so:
The commentators’ consensus on Gordon Brown’s apparently successful teasing of David Cameron at PMQs on Wednesday about his and other Cameroons’ Eton educations (“[Tory] inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton”) is that Labour has been reduced to playing the class war card, and that this is somehow deeply reprehensible. “We can join in condemning Brown for trying, with his demented smirk, to let slip the dogs of class war,” writes Minette Marrin in The Sunday Times. Surely a little bit OTT? Some media comments seem to have missed the point that the reference to Eton’s playing fields echoes the Duke of Wellington’s famous (but probably apocryphal) remark that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”, which was actually a compliment to Eton, or at any rate to its playing fields. Anyway, what’s wrong with accusing the toffs on the Tory front bench of having been brought up in a rarefied and privileged subsection of society — Eton, the Bullingdon club, and all that — which makes it difficult for them to empathise with the problems of ordinary people? No-one is saying that every Tory front bencher is a toff, or that there are no toffs in the Labour leadership. But the sad fact is that class pervades almost every part of life in Britain (or at any rate in England), although it’s considered a bit off to mention it in polite society; and it’s an indisputable fact of their fundamental founding principles and historical records that the Conservative party exists primarily to defend and promote the interests of the upper and upper middle classes — the landed gentry, the industrialists and financiers, the employers, the businessmen and entrepreneurs: in general, the rich; while the Labour Party, originating in and still perfectly properly linked to the trade union movement, is there to defend the interests of the working and lower middle classes — the employees and the unemployed, the public sector workers, the public services on which the have-nots depend, the most vulnerable and defenceless in society: in general, the poor and the less well-off. Why else do the Tories try to insist that the most urgent problem facing Britain is the enormous budget deficit and national debt, while Labour sees tackling unemployment and accelerating recovery from the recession as a much more pressing requirement? All right, New Labour has often forgotten, blurred or even betrayed that basic Labour mission, but the generalisation about the fundamental difference between the two parties remains valid. The squeamish and mealy-mouthed can bleat all they like about the wickedness of fighting the class war, especially if the fight is laced with humour as it was by Brown on Wednesday (who was his script-writer?). But it goes to the heart of our politics and there’s absolutely no reason not to say so.
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Like almost everyone else on this side of the Atlantic, I feel very sorry for Gary McKinnon, the autistic computer hacker who’s likely to face extradition to the United States, there to be tried (and if convicted, as seems likely since he admits most of the charges, imprisoned) for inflicting serious damage on the Pentagon’s computer security systems. However, anyone with an open mind reading the statement by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, in parliament on 1 December, and his comprehensive replies to questions on it, explaining in detail why he has simply been legally unable to intervene to prevent McKinnon’s extradition, is bound to conclude that the case against extraditing the man doesn’t really stand up. Johnson had cogent replies to all the doubts, complaints and worries constantly aired in the media as reasons for blocking the extradition. The issues have gone through exhaustive examination in court after court at every available level, always with the same result. There is still a possibility of judicial review and another appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU), and Johnson promises not to let extradition go ahead until both processes have been exhausted. But the final outcome looks bad for Gary.
One issue that surely calls for further debate is the apparent one-sidedness of the US-UK Extradition Treaty under which the Americans are applying for McKinnon’s extradition. The Tory front bencher Damian Green (yes, he of the home office mole and his leaks) confronted the home secretary with what looks on the face of it to have been a damaging admission by the lady who’s now the government’s chief legal adviser and was then a minister of state at the home office. According to Green, —
Baroness Scotland, the Government’s Attorney-General, said in 2003:
“when we make extradition requests to the United States we shall need to submit sufficient evidence to establish ‘probable cause’. That is a lower test than prima facie but a higher threshold than we ask of the United States”. [Official Report, House of Lords, 16 December 2003; Vol. 655, c. 1063.]
The question of the material difference, if any, between prima facie evidence and probable cause is legally intricate, and goes to the heart of the criticism of the treaty. But here too Alan Johnson spelled out what seemed to me a convincing case for rejecting the view that the treaty is unfairly tilted against the UK and in favour of the US. Altogether Johnson’s performance on all this was exemplary: calm, reasoned, patiently and conscientiously dealing with all the points raised. Only once did he seem to show irritation, when he complained of being “patronised” by “Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)”, an undoubted toff, and not just on the evidence of his famous moat. The home secretary, equally famously a former postman, is in no danger of being accused of toffery, which may explain why he objects to being patronised by those who are.
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Perhaps the biggest shock of the week, though, has been the unexpected sacking of no less a personage than Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s infamous press secretary in the brilliant BBC political series The Thick of It, written by Armando Ianucci. As one of the reviewers of the Sunday papers in the oddly-named Andrew Marr Show this morning (6 Dec 09), Ianucci accurately summed up what had happened to Tucker by saying that he had “been resigned”. Tucker is an undisputed monster, yet it was impossible not to feel just a little sorry for him watching his face contort as he saw on a television set in the minister’s office the “breaking news” strapline announcing that he had resigned (he hadn’t). Ianucci did however remind Andrew Marr that only the first part of a two-part episode of The Thick of It had so far been broadcast, hinting broadly that we might not have seen the last of the tyrannical, foul-mouthed press secretary. Tucker, we’re repeatedly assured, bears no resemblance whatever to any No. 10 press secretary past or present, alive or dead. You’d better believe it.
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In an aside during the Andrew Marr Show press review, Mr Ianucci made a casual remark to the effect that the evidence given so far to the Iraq Inquiry had confirmed the suspicion of firm decisions having been taken to use force against Saddam but repeatedly being denied until the eve of the war. I’m sure Ianucci is much too busy to sit for hours watching or listening to the Iraq Inquiry hearings, but he surely can’t be too busy to spend a few minutes reading my recent blog post that argues the opposite? The evidence given to the inquiry by Tony Blair’s principal foreign affairs adviser at the time of the run-up to the war did indeed provide a convincing defence against the charges that Blair had taken the firm decision to go to war with Iraq months before any such decision was announced, or that he had given George W Bush an unconditional undertaking that we would go to war alongside the Americans. But this was not evidence of a British diplomat’s slavish deference to his political master, nor obedient willingness to defend to the death everything Blair had said and done, as Ianucci seemed to assume: for the official concerned went on to tell the inquiry that in his view, and contrary to Blair’s, the UN inspectors should have been given more time to complete their work in Iraq before the decision was taken to invade: and, even more wounding for Blair, that Blair had had the option at the time, since all peaceful means of getting rid of Iraq’s supposed WMD had not yet been exhausted, of refusing to allow British forces to play any part in the American military action. Nothing slavish about that!