Thoughts on this and (especially) that
Thoughts about the passing scene crowd in, none seeming worth a separate Ephems post. Here's what I've been jotting down.
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I suppose most of us Old Labour people have now given up in despair on Gordon Brown. When Blair was at last defenestrated there seemed a faint chance that Brown, once installed in No. 10, despite having been Blair's chief accessory to the betrayal of most of the Labour party's aims and values, might set a new course for the government, by abandoning some of Blair's more egregious follies (42 days detention without charge, Trident, aircraft carriers, keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, ID cards and the national data-base, ASBOs, more and more prisoners in ever more prisons, half-heartedness in the EU accompanied by slavish attention to Washington, the UK-US extradition treaty, control orders, kowtowing to the Saudis and covering up for BAe, privatising more and more of our schools and hospitals, PFIs, leaving the railways in incompetent private hands, forcing down the standard of living of public sector workers while refusing to raise taxes on obscene City and business salaries, bonuses and dividends, taking the government's cue from Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail, micro-managing everything in sight in a passion for over-centralisation, and all the rest of that Blairite stuff). When he first became prime minister, Brown put all the emphasis on change. But he has changed nothing. It's that failure to dump his inherited baggage, and the aspects of his character which apparently prevent him from working harmoniously with his colleagues, or delegating responsibility to them or to anyone else, or making timely decisions and sticking to them, or trusting and listening to his officials, that can now be seen to make him unfit to continue as prime minister. The irony is that his premiership will be destroyed mainly by an economic downturn for which he bears no responsibility whatever, and which he seems to be trying to cope with rather sensibly. Anyway, for whatever reason, he should go and go quickly — and whichever Miliband succeeds him, there should then be a very early general election fought on a brand-new, radical, egalitarian, small-l liberal Labour manifesto. If Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn, David Blunkett or any others of that discredited crowd manage to seize the crown, it will really be the end of the party as we used to know it.
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Yet more folly seems to be about to get shoe-horned into official Labour policy for the next election: a reduction in the voting age to 16. The Guardian's senior political commentator, the almost always reliable Michael White, got it absolutely right:
Even at 18, voting – like backpacking – can be risky. You may argue that, since a weekend poll revealed that one voter in three blames the government for higher petrol prices, it is risky at 36 or even 66. But at least the wrinklies have knocked around a bit and bother to go and vote at elections in respectable numbers. Among the young, the 18-to-24 cohort, the turnout was 39% in 2001 (the latest figures I can find), compared with 59% overall in that miserable year. What's more, the move comes at an odd time when the old folks are busy trying to stop young people taking on other responsibilities such as buying tobacco – now banned until 18 – or drinking (there is talk of raising the legal age to 21), both pretty self-defeating, I suspect.
(Michael White, "Allowing 16-year-olds to vote is neither wise nor sensible", Guardian, 29 July 08)
A letter advocating this change in the Guardian of 31 July 08 was co-signed by luminaries of the British Youth Council, Children's Rights Alliance for England, Electoral Reform Society, Funky Dragon, National Youth Agency, and the UK Youth Parliament. Says it all. No political party committed to giving the vote to children can expect to be taken seriously ever again (except by children).
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Today's Guardian announces the publication of what promises to be an excellent report by the admirable Dr Tony Wright's Public Administration Select Committee. This report concerns the government's attempts to prevent the publication of memoirs, and even comments in the media, by former diplomats and other public servants on matters with which they were concerned while in government service, without prior permission from the government. The committee rightly challenges the government's claim to the right to be the ultimate arbiter of what it's in the public interest to publish even if it may embarrass past or present ministers and officials by exposing their mistakes (and worse), pointing out that the principle that such decisions should be made by an independent body has already been firmly established by the Freedom of Information Act and the procedures it lays down. The heading of the Guardian's report ("MPs challenge gag on former diplomats") is a succinct summary. The committee's report is clearly a triumph for, especially, Sir Edward Clay, former British High Commissioner in Kenya, who has been waging a lively war with the Foreign Office over the right of retired diplomats to comment on international affairs in radio and television interviews and in articles in the press without getting prior permission from the government — provided of course that they don't give away information legitimately classified as confidential or secret in the process. His view is now strongly endorsed by Tony Wright and his committee. Whether the FCO will take any notice is, of course, another matter. If it does, perhaps we may at last be given permission by our ministers to read Jeremy Greenstock's memoir of what happened over Iraq while he was UK Permanent Representative at the UN and later as the government's special representative in Baghdad, a book long ago written by Greenstock but still banned by ministers. The government's response to Dr Wright's committee's report will be extremely interesting and revealing. Don't bet the farm on a sudden rush of liberalism to the ministerial head.
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And now yet another little folly rears up and bites us in the nether regions. The new high commissioner in Zambia is to be a married couple: one high commissioner, two diplomats. Apparently they will share the job, four months on and four months off. The one who's temporarily not the high commissioner will be the high commissioner's spouse, doing the menus and placement for the great man's (or woman's) dinner parties, looking after their small children, managing the Residence staff, keeping the entertainment allowance accounts, and mopping the high commissioner's fevered brow when he, or she, gets in from work. What the off-duty not-high commissioner won't presumably do is visit the inner sanctums of the high commission offices to read the classified telegrams, instructions and briefings on the high commissioner's computer screen, to prepare her/himself for the next 4-month stint. What will happen when the two half-high commissioners can't agree on their policy recommendations to London is far from clear: there'll be nobody there to arbitrate. On the face of it this is an unworkable, indeed rather silly, attempt at political correctness. What the hapless high commission staff, its leader changing over every few weeks, will make of it, goodness knows. The Zambian government will also find it hard to work out who really speaks to them on behalf of the UK. A whole new protocol to cope with it will need to be worked out. In the local diplomatic corps, spouses of other high commissioners and ambassadors in Lusaka may be a shade less than enchanted by the situation. Meanwhile the FCO's announcement of the new twin-headed appointment is remarkable, not only for its startling substance, but also for describing the potted biographies of the happy couple as their "curriculum vitaes". Vitaes? Nought out of ten for Latin, chaps. It wouldn't have happened in my day! Still, at least there'll be only two of them: what will really test the system is when a ménage à trois is appointed British ambassador in Washington. Oh, you may laugh…
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The Beijing (or, as I would prefer to say, Peking) Olympics are almost upon us, preceded by an appalling terrorist attack in north-west China and heralding an even more mind-blowingly lavish opening ceremony than anything we have seen at previous Games, since the steady 4-year expansion of these rituals is subject to the iron law of inflation. The justification for giving the Games to China seems to be that this massive exposure to the outside world will give a valuable push to the improvements in China's human rights record that we would all like to see (rather as the principal raison d'être of the European Union is now solemnly represented as being to encourage democracy and human rights in the countries that want to join it). What, then, was the justification for imposing the 2012 Olympics on London? Not, presumably, to jolt our government into improving its human rights performance, although that would certainly be a most welcome by-product. No: it seems that we need to spend several tens of billions of pounds on bigger and better sports facilities in and around London, and to reclaim hundreds of acres of wasteland east of the capital for affordable housing and other development, and despite our awareness of these urgent needs, we wouldn't do anything about them unless galvanised by the prospect of the Olympic visitation in four years' time. So billions of pounds of taxpayers' and Lottery money are being diverted from other worthy causes to the Olympic behemoth without any rational assessment of competing priorities, simply because we are stuck with the responsibility for putting on the circus and there's no way to change our minds now. We sink ever more deeply into economic recession, with savage cuts in other government expenditure, rising unemployment, attacks on public sector workers' living standards, and other such miseries; but spending on the Games remains inviolate and inviolable. On second thoughts, though, perhaps the justification for having the Games here in 2012 is an old-fashioned Keynesian remedy: instead of employing people to dig holes in the ground and fill them in again (so as to provide employment and stimulate demand), we're employing them to dig holes in the ground and then build giant stadiums in them, ready to be dismantled as soon as the runners and jumpers have finished their two weeks' running and jumping in four summers' time. You know it makes sense really.
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Why do our British commentators on American politics keep on referring to Senator McCain's "ailing" or "flagging" campaign for the Presidency, when the public opinion polls in the key states where the election will be decided show him and Senator Obama running almost neck and neck? Is it wishful thinking? Both candidates are seeking to overcome quite serious electoral disabilities: one is old and a member of the same party as George W Bush (but highly experienced in politics and war); the other is inexperienced, looks worryingly young, is black, liberal, half-African, an intellectual who uses long words and expresses complex ideas, behaves as if he has already won the White House, is adored by a crowd of 200,000 Germans and is very widely believed by numerous American voters to be a closet Muslim. Which set of disabilities seems to you the more formidable? Yes, I'm afraid so.