Friday 27 March 2015

Clarity Beyond Peradventure

Yes. I had to look up the meaning of 'peradventure' too. The word was uttered by Mr Speaker as part of a verbose and muscular put-down toward the end of a rancorous debate about his tenure, yesterday. The occasion proved to be the greatest moment of political theatre this Parliament.

Since his appointment, Ministers' sentiment toward Mr Bercow have generally swayed between peeved and steaming. Their simmering frustration is entirely derived from his determination to inject greater democratic accountability into the Commons. Necessarily, this gives greater voice to the backbencher, at the corresponding cost to the Executive's pre-eminence. Whips have been stymied and Ministers rudely dragged from their Whitehall oubliettes to answer vulgar questions deemed Topical by the Chair.

Bercow has silenced the PM more than once and verbally knee-capped a former Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin. The current Chief, Michael Gove, was publicly spanked on his political arse when he decided to remain ignorant of procedure while announcing the closure of a massive schools building programme. All these actions by Bercow were entirely justified. But Gove has a long memory and with Leader of the House, William Hague plotted a brilliant wheeze to boot out Bercow on 'day one' of the next Parliament.

I find it a great source of reassurance that for an intensely intelligent man, Gove, is simultaneously and reliably dense. Perhaps he is not suited to his role in the Whips Office, certainly getting locked in the Gents on his first day was a fairly strong indicator.

Gove and Hague figured they could almost silently lay a Motion for the final day of Parliament while Labour member's clambered aboard their Euston trains bound for their northern constituencies and expecting no more substantive business. But these midget Machiavellians made a huge tactical error by not telling the key backbencher Charles Walker, who chairs the Procedural Committee responsible for these House changes. They shared drinks, giggles and gossip with dear Charles at Hague's leaving do and never said a word.

Come the following day, the Motion prompted unrelenting opprobrium to pour down on sorry Hague's glistening pate. All sides shook their heads sadly about Hague's career finishing on such an ignominious note. Strong party loyalists unleashed withering critiques and only kamikaze brown-nosers mounted any kind of stout support for the Leader of the House. Gregory Barker questioned whether it was actually appropriate for Bercow to be in the Chair for the debate, a suggestion which prompted sustained and voluminous scorn from all benches.

Next up, Charles Walker revealed how his colleagues and friends had humiliated him by their taciturn plotting. The Government thought they could still rely on the lobby fodder to win but they lost it during this exceptional and dignified address by Walker. "I have been played as a fool. When I go home tonight, I will look in the mirror and see an honourable fool looking back at me. I would much rather be an honourable fool, in this and any other matter, than a clever man."

Bercow's eyes reddened as the emotions tangibly rose. Labour members broke more than one convention by applauding.

The vote came and the Noes had it by about 20 and the Speaker struggled to suppress tears. He had just chaired the debate where his career hung in the balance but also pivotal were his achievements in wresting some power back to the House from the reactionary and unelected force of No.10 advisers.

Great theatre, it certainly was but beneath it was a collective bipartisan defence of a vital democratic institution. A rare day indeed, when Parliament remembered what it stood for.

Friday 7 March 2014

Justice Has Leaked Away

It was hard not to be struck by Neville Lawrence’s sickened weariness last night, as he justified for the thousandth time his family and pointed to the obvious denial of justice. Here in the Newsnight studio he faced yet again the face of police intransigence claiming that the Lawrence family were spied upon at the height of the criminal case to prevent “serious public disorder”.

The assumption from the Met that appears unbreakable is that a black London family cannot be entirely normal, hard-working, decent and honest. There is an ever present suspicion they must be in some way linked to criminality or extremism.

For those familiar with the detail of the Macpherson Inquiry published in 1998, there was always some missing gaps which were only likely to explained by corruption. Although the actions of the Special Demonstration Squad were deemed “out of control” they still liaised with the top of the shop at the Met even with a member of the Macpherson Inquiry Panel. The case was handled with such willful ineptitude, it would be practically impossible to explain it otherwise. The examples in the report are legion.

When the five had been named as killers of Stephen Lawrence by multiple witnesses, the Met had easily enough 'reasonable suspicion' to make arrests but did not. Instead, they belatedly set up an incompetent surveillance operation. There was no radio contact with other units and no back up. The police simply photographed the suspects disposing of plastic bags full of evidence. It seemed to me, by having a flawed surveillance operation, they wanted to allow themselves plausible deniability that they had acted while still ensuring no prosecution would be successful.

The Home Secretary may find the conclusions of Mark Ellison QC’s report, “profoundly shocking” but establishing another Inquiry is far from being heralded as the first one was, set up by Jack Straw after 97 election. Justice has leaked away. Men of dishonour have left the force, or the country and naturally some have died. Much of the documentation was shredded ten years ago.

By the conclusion of the next Inquiry there will be no prosecutions. The Lawrence family know that. And also that secrets will still remain buried. As Neville himself said, “while all this has been happening, our family has been destroyed.”

Monday 30 December 2013

Heads Full of Straw

There have been several announcements by various Departments around Christmas, which prove the spirit of Scrooge is far from dead.

First, Chris Grayling from Justice, stopped Christmas parcels for all prisoners just to show how tough/ambitious he is. Then Ian Duncan Smith, condemned the Church charity administering the nation’s food banks and accused them as ‘scaremongering’ and being ‘political’.  Also the unemployed will have to work 35 hours a week for any benefits and anyone appealing against an Atos assessment will lose all benefits for months eventhough Atos are wrong 40% of the time. Cameron has created a phoney war on a wave of Bulgarian and Romanian scroungers when there is no evidence to show they exist.

Today, we have a bullish stance in denying anyone who is non-EU free medical care at A&E departments. The Government has successfully introduced the catch phrase ‘health tourism’ in an attempt to portray foreigners as wilfully getting ill and injured in the UK just to rip off ‘hard-working taxpayers’.

The cumulative effect of these policies is to convince Middle England that the Conservatives are striking out against hordes of lazy, grasping foreigners and scroungers. It simultaneously diminishes us as a nation where Britishness used to imply humanity, generosity and tolerance. And as a country we were proud of that reputation. Now there is little protest to police randomly checking everyone’s immigration status at train stations.

Now rattled by the threat of sustained electoral support for UKIP and assisted by a largely small-minded and embittered press, Ministers feel free to be as mean and nasty as they wish, despite what the actual cost of these services are. All figures show a tiny amount of benefits being claimed by migrants and much more paid in tax proportionally than UK residents.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt’s estimate of a cost of £2Bn to the NHS from migrants turned out to be closer to £80m. Labour has mainly bottled it on these issues. Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "We are not against improving the recovery of costs from people with no entitlement to NHS treatment."

These headlines turn in reality into dishing out huge bills to elderly, vulnerable and poor people. It also means doctors asking to see your passport. But most of all it means another aspect of the NHS privatised. There is a reason for opposing this policy of imposing health costs: it is simply wrong and against the first principles of universal healthcare.

Friday 6 December 2013

"Now He Belongs to the Ages"

In the late 1970s, my old headmaster would lecture us on world affairs in his reactionary Home Counties manner. When it came to South Africa, he would always say tritely, “it can only end in a bloodbath.”

That view was commonly held in Britain then given its proximity to the police murder of Steve Biko and mass shootings of Soweto students. But it figured without the extra-ordinary leadership and political guts of Nelson Mandela. At the time he was a rather forgotten figure, about halfway through his prison sentence for sabotage and conspiracy: hard labour, two letters per year and one visit.

When he emerged from prison in 1990, South Africa was in deep flux and greybeards from the ANC sought direction and counsel from the great man. He told them the solution to a political future for South Africa was for, “both sides to compromise their fundamental beliefs.” They looked at him like his brain had gone soft in custody. But those apparently contradictory words proved to be visionary and saved his nation from what appeared to be inevitable carnage and conflict.

I heard Mandela speak from South Africa House in Trafalgar Square in 1996. The crowd was close to hysteria and erupted when he addressed them. It was an extra-ordinary and exhilarating speech. We are constantly disheartened listening to obviously disingenuous words of so many politicians. Here was finally one who meant what he said and had the courage and persuasive skills to achieve it. By that time those leaders who had described Mandela as a terrorist had long been sidelined to the wrong side of history.

Throughout the apartheid era, black South Africans were treated with brutality and violence and denied the rights of voting, to chose where to work, live and who to marry. People should always have the means to re-claim and defend those rights. Mandela resisted with unyielding determination that oppression his whole life and delivered freedom and peace to his country - South Africa's "greatest son."

Thursday 24 October 2013

Not Inconsiderably Disagreeable

Koyaanisqatsi is a Native American word, which means world out of sync, out of balance. It would seem an apt term for the state of capitalism, particularly the energy market, in Britain when former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, suggests windfall taxing the energy companies and using the money to help the poor with their bills.

Although Major as PM expressed his desire for, "a nation at ease with itself"the policies of his Government (1990-7) did little to heal the deep social divisions caused by unyielding Thatcherism. He may have held a vision of England of old ladies cycling to church, village cricket and friendly dark-beamed pubs selling warm brown beer. But during his tenure, the unfettered banking sector thrived as many areas saw major industries exterminated while social housing stock withered. He was never a proper 'One Nation' Tory neither did his contempt for Labour politics diminish after office. So it is all the more surprising that he is indicating a redistributive method to solve the issue of "excess" profits of energy companies.

There were many personal flaws of Major's leadership qualities which resulted in the slow strangulation of his administration but being privileged and remote wasn't ever one of them. Major grew up in Brixton in the 50s in abject poverty and despite their respective faults both his predecessors, Heath and Thatcher, rose from very modest backgrounds and understood from an early age the pressures of tight family budgets.

It is impossible to say exactly why Cameron resists every call to tell any industry that their super profits are "unjustified" but his class is under focus again. Norman Tebbitt put it succinctly on the traditional test of a leader's credibility: knowing the price of a pinta. "It's not so much that Cameron and [George] Osborne didn't know the price of milk, but that they didn't know emotionally that the price of milk was important to people," he said in a Guardian interview.

And the same could be said of energy bills. When the big six companies all announce rises around 10% almost every year, then to millions of consumer's the reaction is not simply tutting to themselves, "bloody typical". To many, up to their eyes in debt, there is an immediate mental calculation of what they will have to do without.  John Major recognised that in all too many cases it means an inenviable choice between, "keeping warm and eating." These companies' culture of disposal labour and corporate dominance make it possible that an employee can be given a powerpoint presentation in his hospital bed just five days after a heart attack and given his cards in front of the rest of the ward.

It is a perception problem 'for-whose-side-are-you-on' not just for the front bench but also the party. Gove showed his callousness for people reduced to relying on foodbanks by saying they were for thoe who did not have the skills to manage their money. Last week, the unsinkable Dennis Skinner was shouted down by Tory backbenchers as he relayed the pathetic tale of constituent David Coupe reduced to abject poverty by an Atos assessment. He died of cancer waiting for his appeal against loss of benefits after being deemed fit for work. The circumstances were bad enough but to be berated by the Government side showed them either lacking any self-awareness or compassion.

Ed Milliband's masterstroke in pledging a freeze on energy bills for 20 months has left Cameron in a blue funk. At PMQs, he wailed Ed was a "conman" and was slapped down by the Speaker for questioning his honesty. He then chucked his green credentials in the bin to shave a couple of quid of some bills and destabilise the Coalition further. He even used some useless adviser's suggestion to try and turn the blame of Millband for what he did as Energy Secretary five years ago. Even the Telegraph called it  a "dreadful performance."

The economy went into steep decline following the banks' crash: Cameron had the opportunity to ensure the sectors responsible paid their fair share and that cartels and monopolies were not allowed to succeed. His instinct is clearly against that and he claims the economic crisis was simply "Labour overspending". The economy is out of balance, and hard-pressed families are feeling deep stress about the unaffordable contribution they have to make. Cameron is not the man to re-adjust it because he has no idea what those pressures feel like. I mean, what's the problem?

Friday 4 October 2013

She's the Model

If you absorbed all you knew about Germany and its people from the British press then “relaxed” and “charming” would be very low on the list of likely adjectives. Yet this was the unanimous view of a group of us who visited Berlin last weekend. An immensely welcoming city identified by mutual respect and social tolerance.

The general election had been held the previous weekend and delivered another term of coalition Government for Chancellor Angela ‘Angie’ Merkel (pictured). The campaign was not, like UK, characterised by rancorous arguments and wholesale misrepresentation of policies, like we witnessed during the recent Conference season. The main parties in Germany argued over the practicalities of strengthening the economy. The basis of German industry and public services is co-operation between unions and bosses. The idea of a Secretary of State for Education describing teachers as ‘militants’ like Gove did this week, would be treated with the ridicule it deserves.

It appears to me that the Germans are simply more grown up than us, more unafraid of presenting themselves as an intelligent, self-aware, discerning people. The UK appears to be increasingly suffering the cultural cringe, which we used to mock Australians for.

Over the weekend, I also found it easy to deny myself the sometimes dubious pleasure of British newspapers for a few days. It was hugely dispiriting to read on the plane home the reprehensible and boorish articles by the Daily Mail about the Labour leader’s, Ed Milliband’s late father, Ralph. It was clear to me that it was not the realm of opinionated journalism but blatant propaganda.

The headline sought to establish a slogan that Ralph was a man “who hated Britain.” Not only was it a weak and personal attack on the integrity of the Milliband family but also contrary to the record of history which clearly shows Ralph raced to join the Royal Navy, served with distinction for three years and lived an exemplary peaceful life as an academic and family man.

But he was also a life-long socialist. The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, saw an infantile opportunity to attempt to portray Ed as a Communist himself with a hidden agenda. Dacre clearly views his readership as so gullible and malleable that they might be persuaded by that clearly preposterous assertion. But it is not as if the readers would be toying with the idea of voting Labour in any event. Ed’s deviousness, would, according to the Mail, include stifling press freedom. This entire pointless melodrama has so obviously been contrived to falsely show Ed as wishing to control the press ahead of the imminent Parliamentary decision on Leveson.

In a truly bizarre and trenchant editorial on Tuesday, Dacre accused the Leader of the Opposition of having, “driven a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation so many of us genuinely love.” It sounded like someone who was both very angry and drunk. Alistair Campbell captured the Mail most succinctly as having, “the worst of British values posing as the best.”

It is doubtful whether this newspaper would sell much in Germany. People would be surprised and dismayed to read the recurrent themes of Communist/Fascist conflict. Younger generations have put that behind them and the country thrives because it has a confident, outward looking aspect. While we in Britain have come expect, since Thatcher’s days of social division, that politics and media should be spiteful and wantonly divisive, Germany has quietly built a balanced society and from their derives its integrity and dignity as a nation.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Cost of Freedom

The revelation that DPM, Nick Clegg, approved the pointless destruction of a number of the Guardian’s hard drives shows how confused liberals have become over state security.  For a life long advocate of civil liberties to endorse intrusion into a newspaper’s officers by MI6 to suppress the news of widespread illegal spying by US and UK agencies, is perhaps Clegg’s most hypocritical stance yet.

But the Conservative Right on either side of the Atlantic, is no less contradictory. For too many years they have adhered religiously to the Bush/Cheney philosophy of fighting terrorism should supersede individual freedoms for the sake of domestic security.

The Edward Snowden revelations make them condemn the man not the outrageous disregard for privacy, by NSA and GCHQ, they have exposed. Placing security over rights to liberty, should only really apply when there is a clear and present danger and not for all time.

Some commentators and politicians have been citing incidents in Yemen and closing embassies as justifications for NSA’s intrusion into US citizens emails and phone calls. But this was all carried out in secret. These voices were not calling for enhanced powers against the public prior to the news that it was going on anyway.

In the UK, we have some safeguards through ECHR but rely heavily on a British ‘sense of fair play’, which is hardly bulletproof. Much depends on the liberal instincts of the Home Secretary and PM who invariably have been scared witless by spooks’ secrets and are pliable to almost any infringement of civil rights in the name of security from terrorism. If that means agreeing to detain, threaten and confiscate the possessions of a journalist’s partner at a UK airport under terrorism legislation, then so be it.

In the US, there is of course the Constitution. And although many Conservatives have got themselves in a blue funk about public protection, the document will always remain the cornerstone of US law. In the UK, all we have, in finding the right balance on freedom and security, is the fallibility of the Home Secretary and political weakness of the Prime Minister. 

The Home Sec was wrong to say she has no ability to question the operations of police and security services. It is the Home Office which makes the law so has an interest in how it is applied, in the case of David Miranda, wrongly. The Terrorism Act 2000 applies to “someone involved in committing preparing or instigating acts of terrorism.” It is simply not acceptable, nor legally sound, to broaden its scope to include holding information for publication which could, in the opinion of MI6, potentially be of use to terrorists.

The only people who are not confused are the top rank civil servants and senior spooks who are clear freedom of press and individual liberty is expendable when covering up illegal phone-tapping and intervention on emails. Every party appears to have their own version of patriotism. But the patriotism which upholds civil liberties first appears, since 9/11, to be denigrated by those who fear terrorism more. In fact they would, like the Home Office, advocate that questioning the legal excesses of the police amounts to "condoning" terrorism itself.