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Jackie Ashley

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  1. Davos in Switzerland is where the great ones of the world gather to sniff each other's aftershave. There you find more ego-stroking, back-scratching and mutual grooming than in the average colony of jungle apes. So when politicians, editors and tycoons excitedly echo one another in hailing the new democracy of the internet, and promise that it is upending the old order, a little scepticism is required. If they really thought they were about to be overthrown by bloggers, would they sound quite so cheerful about it? Sitting next to Rupert Murdoch, whose global power depends on old-fashioned newspapers, television stations and cinema, Gordon Brown, whose power in Britain depends on old-fashioned voters, a party structure and parliamentarians, declared politics was now in the slow lane of the super-information highway, and would have to wise up. "A few years ago the debate was about whether the media controlled politicians or whether politicians controlled the media. Now it is about how we are all responding to the explosive power of citizens, consumers and bloggers. The new focus on the environment is the result of that. The Make Poverty History campaign was the result of that. Citizens are flexing their muscles," he said. Over in the US, the Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton is promising to campaign for the presidency largely on the internet. David Cameron gained huge coverage in the old-world newspaper and TV media for his weblog. Every serious newspaper has dived into the internet age, even though it is not yet clear how they will raise the revenue they need as their print existence shrivels. Much of this is merely practical, the result of a technological shift nobody can halt or resist. But it comes with a grand-sounding manifesto about bringing in a new age of democracy, and that's really what needs to be questioned. For instance, though it is true you can find out lots about global warming by Googling away, it not clear that our new environmental politics are much to do with the internet at all. They are clearly to do with hard work by serious scientists - and the campaigning of groups - which has persuaded politicians as it has been disseminated to the rest of us, including through films such as Al Gore's, books, and newspaper coverage for about a decade. Had the internet not existed, would we be worried about global warming, and would politics be responding to that? Of course. Make Poverty History was an alliance which brilliantly used the internet. But even it depended on the old-style glamour of rock stars, the old-fashioned force of mass demonstrations, and the behind-the-scene backing of old-world politicians such as Brown. The super-information highway helped, but the cause of Africa pre-dated it, as the original Live Aid campaign, and the BBC news films by Michael Buerk, demonstrated. The net helped. It didn't create. So what? Does it matter that politicians are getting a bit over-excited about the web? This is, after all, a wonderful new way of spreading ideas, information and argument. It has drawn plenty of people into political debate who would never have gone to a meeting, or even bothered to write a letter to a newspaper. It has allowed people who might never have visited a library to search out facts for themselves. Aren't citizens "flexing their muscles" as Brown says? Well, yes and no. Some are. But the first thing to remember is that a large slice of the population is completely missing from this brave new internet world. According to the latest official figures, just under 14m households have internet access, or around 57%. This means 43% don't. And we know who they are - generally speaking, the poor and the old. There is also a clear geographical bias, with the south-east of England having 66% household use of the web, against lower figures in the north, falling to just 48% in Scotland. That, though, is just the beginning. The vast majority of people using the internet are using it to communicate, look up friends, visit porn sites, play games or shop. The politically enfranchised, active internet community is very small indeed. If Guardian sites are any guide, bloggers tend to be disproportionately young, male, angry and rightwing. Busy parents, people working long hours and pensioners are rather less likely to be flexing their muscles by blogging or searching political sites. Again, you could protest: isn't that just like pre-internet politics? Labour party meetings were always dominated by people who happened to have the time to get to them and - because they had to be motivated too - by people who were more committed and angrier than the average voter. This is exactly the point. In the old days, nobody really thought Labour party meetings, or Tory constituency associations, were representative of the country at large. A party which wanted to win power had to search out and try to convert the others. The danger is that we forget that old lesson, and naively think of the internet and the bloggers as the only voice of the people. In practical terms, this could privilege the better-off and younger against the interests of working-class and older Britain. Old media - television, radio, newspapers and even meetings - all remain essential, and the old arguments about who controls the media remain as valid as ever. If Murdoch is lauding the internet it is because he is buying it up, trying to recreate digitally the monopolistic power he sought all his life in the paper, ink and broadcast world. There are other dangers too. We should be nervous when politicians start boasting, as they are, that the net allows them to bypass irritatingly persistent, difficult interviewers such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. Obviously, they need to be scrutinised and cross-questioned by well-briefed interrogators, secure enough in their jobs to push the point. Democracy demands it. Putting up your own website, conducting online question-and-answer sessions, is a doddle by comparison. They allow the politician to control the terms of the exchange and never face a public challenge on questions they don't want to answer. This is not a call to ignore the net or stop using the excellent research tools online. But we need to avoid easy hype. Most people are not cyber-citizens, they are living real, complicated lives in the real world. And that's where politicians should be too, rather than trying to surf off down the superhighway. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...2000911,00.html
  2. The cash-for-peerages story is turning toxic. Downing Street and the Metropolitan Police seem to be mud-wrestling about fair play and who's leaking what. We hear a blow-by-blow account of each and every stage of the investigation. The press is excited enough to have elevated "Yates of the Yard", the man leading the inquiry, into a national hero. Labour's national executive has been brimming with anger. And serious questions are being asked about the role of the attorney general. Behind all this is a political backstory that is murkier still. There's no doubt now that the Blair camp thinks John Reid can beat Gordon Brown for the leadership, and that Reid is making quiet preparations. There are still plenty of ministers, caught between their dislike of the chancellor and fear of him, to swing either way. Yet the Blairites think a Reid challenge is only plausible if the contest is delayed until the second half of next year. They need the Labour party to have its second thoughts before the leadership election. This means they need Tony Blair to stay in position until the summer, or even the early autumn. And cash for peerages threatens all that. The police are getting rather more help with their inquiries, it seems, than anyone had expected. The questioning of the cabinet and of Blair's closest staff about their knowledge of loans to the party that might have been followed with recommendations for peerages is unprecedented in modern times. There is a momentum here. Either Blair somehow manages to halt it, or it will overwhelm him. Some conclusions follow so obviously, it shouldn't be necessary to repeat them. After the Hutton report and all the accusations that followed, it is essential that this inquiry be seen to be entirely impartial and above board. There must be no hint of political involvement. Of course Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, should stand aside. He is a friend of the prime minister, and indeed owes his job to him. Goldsmith is no doubt a fine, honourable, independent-minded fellow. Surely he understands the perception problem, though. We know that Blair has not gained financially in any way, and that this is about a widespread political failure, touching all the parties. Politics has become hideously unpopular. In the struggle to pay for it without further infuriating taxpayers by legislating for state funding, the party leaders have had to go begging to businessmen. But the way New Labour has been run has made things worse for everyone involved, including Blair. Since the mid-90s, all Labour decisions have led straight to "TB" and his inner clique. All business - including funding, including honours recommendations - has been personal business. It isn't hard to imagine a different way of doing things. There should have been entirely separate party fundraising, with absolutely no connections to No 10. Donors would not therefore have had the personal touch from the most powerful man in Britain, and the fundraisers would have had a harder job. It would have forced them to reach down, below the fat cats, to party sympathisers and members. The galas, quiz nights, appeals, 0800 phone numbers and pestiferous mailshots used by charities would have been in play. Meanwhile, by now we should have had a properly reformed second chamber dependent on election, or at the very least an entirely independent nomination system, so that the issues of who legislates and who pays were kept properly separate. In his rush to legislate on hot-button issues identified by pollsters, such as law and order, Blair has always been impatient with the "processology" of constitutional reform and the wearisome bureaucracy of party management. Lord Levy and friends provided a short cut. We are only beginning to understand the full price being paid. Cash for peerages has helped feed a rancid cynicism and hopelessness about parliament. In recent selections for top Labour target seats, which once would have attracted 40 or 50 would-be candidates, there have been no more than three or four applicants. People are becoming wary of going into politics. Here is part of the new agenda for Gordon Brown to cope with. He too has been very keen to keep in with his favoured business people and newspaper tycoons. He should be careful: if he is to turn round opinion and beat David Cameron, he will need to obliterate the notion that patronage still plays a big part in politics and that money talks. It cannot simply be achieved by new rules. It needs a new example, too. Meanwhile, the biggest issue around the cash-for-honours scandal is weirdly under-discussed: the involvement of businesspeople in schools. It's the stockbrokers, property developers and entrepreneurs putting cash into academies who should provoke the real argument, particularly inside the Labour party. The motivation behind the academies is wholly good. There are far too many children stuck in failing schools in poor areas, and the statistics on the numbers of teenagers unable to read, write or perform basic maths are truly shameful. Radical action to try to turn round such schools is central to Labour's purpose. And you might well say that if it takes the involvement of the odd car salesman with Christian fundamentalist views, or a blue-chip financial company, or some millionaire who'd like to put something back into his area, then that's a small price to pay. But while most of those funding the new academies may well be doing so for the right motives, it certainly raises the possibility of more favours being sought or expected in return for such beneficence. We seem to be turning back the clock, while across the world countries have moved from relying on the whims of local benefactors to an age of tax-funded local accountability. If we are tossing all that to one side, is it not worth rather more of a debate? In the end I cannot help thinking that cash for peerages is the wrong issue for Blair to be skewered on. Yes, it shows up the deep flaws in his way of government. But look across the Atlantic. Bush has just been smacked across the face, at last, for the Great Disaster: Iraq. That has been a cleansing moment for America. And here? It's all loans for ermine and a deputy leadership contest, without a whiff of any great debate or change of direction. This autumn's cash-for-honours blockbuster is another symptom of political failure, not political renewal. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1946282,00.html
  3. John Reid was at it in yesterday's papers, warning against the "appeasement" of terrorism. He attacked John Reid was at it in yesterday's papers, warning against the "appeasement" of terrorism. He attacked Cameron for waiting to see which way the wind is blowing until he risks getting "blown away by the gale". And Gordon Brown has been harping on the importance of security, being pro-business and staying close to Washington. Meanwhile Cameron and his shadow chancellor, George Osborne, are doggedly determined to resist the calls of rightwingers for tax cuts and for new promises to claw back public spending. It isn't even as if the voices of the right are extreme by Conservative standards. They are asking if it would be, ahem, possible, please, for the Tory leader to mention the European superstate, inveigh against illegal immigrants and give them the chance of lower taxes. And they have a point: if the Conservatives aren't about those things, what are they for? It is only a year since the party conference where Cameron made his mark and considerably less than a year since he became leader, and yet he has transformed the political landscape. The Labour leadership has responded with jibes about his lack of experience, substance and policies, and his obsession with spin. Speech after speech at Manchester made the same hackneyed point that Cameron is all about image. Well, I wonder where he learned that from? So far Labour looks flat-footed and supercilious, underestimating Cameron as radically as Thatcher was underestimated by Jim Callaghan in the 70s. Cameron is at least as good a performer as Blair was in his early years and is following the New Labour war book page by page. He's untried, he doesn't have substance? He has several years to grow. He doesn't have policies? He has set up all those policy reviews, already turning out detailed ideas. Even if he rejects half of them, he will have plenty of policies by the time of the election. Even so, both Labour and Conservatives are taking huge risks by making politics more fluid than at any time since the Blair/Brown ascendancy began. New Labour was all about sidelining the traditional interests of the core vote, and wooing the middle classes, to the point where the party was left with hollowed-out inner city organisations, which began to fall to the Lib Dems. Now that they are losing the liberal-minded middle classes too, the situation is perilous. But there are equal risks for the Conservatives. The weekend polling that showed their lead over Labour falling away again was dismissed as a post-conference bounce (though it's hard to see why last week's conference, with all its divisions, would have boosted Labour support). More likely, the poll showed a growing Conservative unease about Cameron and what he stands for. Core Tories are now voicing their worry and irritation more openly, and there is clearly more to come. What may be happening is that Cameron is attracting liberal middle-class support from Labour, but losing traditional voters. It is worth just standing back and reflecting what this means for our democracy. On the one side, millions of disgruntled traditional Labour voters who feel they have no one speaking for them any more. On the other, an army of traditional Conservatives who feel the same thing. In the middle, a mobile, fickle group of mildly liberal middle-class voters being desperately scrabbled over. Whatever this is, it isn't representative democracy as we used to know it. And probably the process is just beginning. Labour is positioning itself so much as the party of security and the state that it has almost no option but to pitch openly for the Daily Mail vote and the neoconservative Murdoch press vote (the Lord help us all). Cameron's strategy of focusing relentlessly on urban marginals means he is committed to going further in rebranding his party as environmentalist, caring and liberal. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1885373,00.html
  4. Here is a scandal. It is all around us, silent and undiscussed, in every city and every village. It is a scandal in the shadows: the plight of older, poorer women who have been cut out of decent pensions, after lives of caring and hard work. It is a scandal hidden by boring-sounding language, by sufferers who are too proud to campaign, and by powerlessness. It is the scandal of the woman living alone, picking out the cut-price fruit in the hour before the supermarket closes. It is the scandal of women in old age and pain waiting in the heat for crowded buses. It is women left and women forgotten, who have wiped and fed, cleaned and tended, but who in all that time never built up the pensions they would have had from sitting in an office or driving a van. It is, finally, the woman in the care home, her life reduced to a cabinet of photos and a narrow bed. I can't avoid statistics. Here's one that ought to be known by everyone interested in public decency: over 92% of men retire with the full basic state pension in their own right. The figure for women? Just 16%. This is not a scandal that has been caused by malice or brutal economic necessity but by the failure of politics to keep up with change: changing lives and changing lifestyles. The first thing to remember is how much longer we are living: a quarter of women now alive will live to at least 93. Two-thirds of all pensioners are women; or to look at the same thing from the other side, half of all women over 65 are single, most of them widowed. Just imagine the impact on all that of a pension system designed for men. For the present pension system is indeed based on some very old assumptions. Once, an overwhelmingly male, full-time and married workforce could be relied on, more or less, to look after their spouses in retirement. Divorce was uncommon and the carers, overwhelmingly female, could expect to be cared for themselves, at least financially, towards the end of their lives. This was the world of the postwar welfare state. It produced the couple's basic state pension, in which the share of the dependant wife was an extra 60%. This world has gone. Women have now entered the labour market and are vigorously encouraged by politicians to do so. Yet they have rarely been callous enough to shrug off all their traditional caring roles, for children and elderly relatives, and so they tend to work shorter hours than men, and often for a mix of different employers, with catastrophic effects on their own pension entitlement. In fact, nearly half of all working women earn less than the level at which they would qualify for national insurance. As Baroness Hollis, the former work and pensions minister, put it in a key Lords speech last month, a woman in this position "is doing what we as a society want her to do, putting her family first in a manner that is decent. Then we punish her for that, for doing what we and she believe is right". Nor can such a woman expect, even if she wishes it, to be supported by a husband in old age. Half of marriages now end in divorce, and anyway the marriage rate is falling fast. According to Hollis, over the next 15 years, "nearly 40% of all women between 55 and 64 will not be married and therefore not protected by a husband's pension, as in the past". Single annuities die with the husbands; the widow will have no occupational pension and, if she has been divorced, no rights to a man's basic state pension. Hollis describes the duties of caring for children and the elderly and the breakdown of marriage as a triple hit for women's pension rights. There are plenty of women who know what this means, in daily scrimping and fear of the future - just a lower, thinner quality of life in the middle of buzzing, complacent consumer affluence. Far from feminism having won its key battles, the gap between men and women grows as we age, steadily yet dramatically. And this is the moment to act. Government ministers, in particular Gordon Brown and David Blunkett, are awaiting the final report on pensions from Adair Turner. In domestic policy, it has the potential to be the single most important moment in the life of the new government. On Tuesday there was a pensions summit at which it seemed to some observers that Mr Blunkett was veering towards retaining pension credits, rather than creating a new universal citizen's pension. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1512336,00.html
  5. What a lot we pile on to adolescents. Just as they are going through hormonal revolution, trying to understand the weird logic of adult life and struggling with endless exams, we load on to their shoulders many of our wider social anxieties. This week's argument about A-levels isn't just about tests. It is about what kind of country we think we are, and what kind of government Labour really aspires to be. If you were trying to invent an ideal person to rethink the exam system, you'd come up with Mike Tomlinson, or someone like him. The reverse of trendy, this lanky, bespectacled chemistry graduate from the Midlands was obsessed by links between schools and industry long before it was fashionable. The condition of children snootily ignored by an arts-based, Oxbridge, metropolitan elite has been close to his heart for most of his working life. And as an inspector of schools for 25 years, he knows the history of A-levels and GCSEs inside out. His report, the culmination of that life's work, did not disappoint. By integrating the vocational and the academic into a single, four-tier diploma system, he would have wiped away old divisions and subtly undermined decades of snobbery. Very different tests would be applied to, on the one hand, brilliant mathematicians or linguists and, on the other, people wanting to be painters or cooks - different levels of the diplomas would be easily recognised by employers, but everyone would be working in the same system, with the ability to move relatively easily from one tier to the next. It sounded practical and modern, helpful to employers, and yet with a strain of decent, progressive idealism. People who know the issues recognised all this, and liked it. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority greeted Tomlinson as an excellent package and advised the government to bring in the four-tier diplomas without watering them down. The Secondary Heads Association says it would be disappointed if the nub of Tomlinson was rejected. Polls did suggest teachers were split, though, for such a radical plan, the diplomas had a surprisingly wide level of support. But overall this was about as near as you get to three cheers from the educational establishment. So then what happened? There was an almost instant response from Tony Blair: come what may, he was going to keep the "gold standard" of A-levels. In which case, you may wonder, why bother to ask Sir Mike Tomlinson to do all that work in the first place? But the prime ministerial language was revealing: gold standards. A-levels represent tradition, nostalgia and a vestigial sense of elitism, despite the irritating habit so many children have today of obtaining three top grades. In Daily Mail England, there's still an aura of prefects, grammar school caps with gold piping and hearty rowing teams about A-levels. They are somehow for the officer class. The Tories, naturally, think the same way. There is much talk of starred A-levels, and double-starred A-levels. Ruth Kelly doesn't quite use that language, though she wants to stretch A-levels for the brightest, and put in more differentiation, not less. Certainly, the brightest need to be catered for. There is no reason why there shouldn't be some form of triple-starred platinum A-level with diamonds round the edge for the super-clever. But we're talking very small numbers: even now, with the so-called "dumbed down" A-levels, only 3% of pupils achieve three A grades. The politics of this is at least easy to understand. Thinking of middle England, naturally conservative and cautious, the government is reacting to concerns of grade inflation and the interests of the brightest children. This is all about reassurance, and speaking familiar language to key groups of voters, who backed Blair in 1997 and 2001 but are now restive. Yet there is an obvious, glaring problem: where does it leave the rest? The whole point of Tomlinson was to bind every pupil into a seamless system of vocational and academic exams. If the top end is creamed off, what about the millions of children who aren't up for A-levels with cherries on top? Here the reassurances start to sound frantic and unconvincing. There is a deluge of talk about valuing vocational training, ending the vocational/academic division. Everywhere in Ruth Kelly's rhetoric there is the sound of barriers being smashed. And the sound of ministers protesting too much. If they were really interested in all that, they would have been braver and accepted Tomlinson in full. If the top priority was ending the historic division between people who do things with their hands, who make things you sit on, eat, drive or wear, and people in offices, the answer was in front of them. It is important not to go over the top: there are good ideas in the Kelly response, and plenty of good intentions. Given what Whitehall knows about the past economic successes of Scandinavia and Germany, where the division was far less harsh than in England, it is unthinkable that more won't be done to help improve vocational education. Yet it is fundamentally depressing that Blair so quickly jumped to the defence of A-levels and that Kelly has so quickly followed. Other ministers say privately that despite David Miliband's impeccable loyalty in the TV studios, the former schools minister would have gone much further to bring vocational education in from the cold had he been promoted to education secretary a few months back. Tomlinson must feel gutted. The people who will ultimately lose out are children from millions of core Labour-voting families, children who will be excluded from the slightly more open, slightly more equal-feeling country Tomlinson glimpsed. More than that, we are seeing a classic New Labour fudge to avoid tough choices, which raises questions about the party's direction ahead of the manifesto. The prime minister seems to want a bit of elitism and nostalgia, but says he wants a progressive, inclusive agenda too. Sorry, not possible. He has spent years trying to win the affection of conservatives, while blowing kisses at radicals. It is, in the end, undignified. Blairites scratch their heads about the relative unpopularity of their man just at the moment. Iraq, they say, has gone better. He's back to his brilliant campaigning best, far better on telly than his opponents, brimful of energy ... and yet this week's Guardian poll and others tell a different story. Perhaps it is this absurd political greediness that is the explanation. You can be for gold standards first and foremost. Or you can be for ending the educational divide. As on so many issues, from Europe to fox hunting, Labour is sending out a contradictory message; what you can't be for is gold standards for everyone. No one needs an A-level in logic to understand that. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1423863,00.html
  6. Four more years: four more years of that smirking arrogance; four more years of the world being run through the prisms of American oil interests and Christian fundamentalism; four more years of inaction on climate change. If things are bad internationally, they will be worse than that for millions of Americans, as Bush continues his feed-the-rich policies on tax cuts and drives forward against welfare. He promises a conservative shift in the supreme court which will be grim news for science, particularly stem cell research, grim news for women's rights over their own bodies, grim news for homosexuals - in general, bad news for the enlightenment. Nor is that for only four more years: by appointing reactionary judges, Bush can cement a shift in US public culture that will be felt for decades to come. Hard though it is to turn up silver linings in this black cloud, there is at least one. The Bush victory clarifies the choice for Britain and for Blair. He may not have wanted Kerry, but Kerry would have provided him with an escape route of a kind, a return to social democratic leadership on climate change and Africa, and a plausible continuation of his foot-in-both-camps attitude to Europe and America. But the Americans have taken that escape route away. America may look, on the surface, a politically familiar country. British political anoraks adore The West Wing, devour books on US politics, and have imported Washington techniques, terminology and style. We have a kind of mimic-presidency in our prime ministership, and people talk of turning the Lords into a British senate. American campaigning is avidly studied and copied. Politicians learn from ideas dreamed up by Republican and Democrat thinkers. Compared to all this, the political culture of Brussels and Strasbourg still seems alien. But the Bush victory is a decisive one for the deeply conservative America that is pulling ever more clearly away from Europe. It is a victory for the Christian fundamentalists who believe their country has been chosen by God, and that Bush is the Creator's chosen instrument; and a victory for the neoconservatives striving to build an American imperium. Bush watchers believe his sense of providence and divine mission is strengthening, not lessening. He is a self-certain man who represents a political culture we have not seen in Europe for a long time. We have had modern and post modern; in politics we are getting pre-modern, too. The Americans have become more religious as we have become more secular. They are turning away from the modern welfare state in a way no European country would contemplate. They have revived the death penalty with an enthusiasm that makes us quail. They are turning away from many aspects of modern times: Ohio rose to prominence overnight, as Kerry's last hope. It so happens that two years ago, Ohio was the first state to compel science teachers to teach a critical analysis of evolution. Creationism, like anti-abortionism, is on the march there. Apart from the fact that they speak English and have two legs apiece, it is hard to think of anything American conservatives have in common with European liberals. Tony Blair pooh-poohs the idea that Britain faces a choice between America and Europe. Now, it will be evident to everyone, there is a very clear choice, and the choice has to be Europe. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uselections2004/...1342935,00.html
  7. The truth is that New Labour was not a new party, but an uneasy coalition, which has delivered very different things to different social groups. There is the rather rootless Tony Blair party, with some very loyal MPs (Peter Mandelson obviously being one), which has appealed to large numbers of middle-class, socially conservative voters. And there's the larger, but slightly less influential middle-ground Labour faction, supporting the chancellor's agenda, and focused on helping people at the bottom of the pile, largely through stealth taxes and public service investment. Over the past seven years, the Blair party and the Labour party have coexisted and the country has had a form of Thatcherism, softened, ameliorated and refashioned for a soppier age. The problem posed by the Iraq war was that the inner hypocrisy of this arrangement was embarrassingly exposed. Blair at war, bending the rules, aligning himself with Bush, ruthlessly using the Murdoch press against the BBC, was no longer a leader the centre-left could pretend was one of theirs. He was just too blatantly Thatcherite. This has created mayhem right across British politics. Michael Howard's problem is not just that he is opportunist - all opposition leaders are that. It's that he is facing a younger, more appealing and considerably more ruthless rightwing prime minister. No wonder the man is flailing and no wonder his party is a mess. To the left, and making up ground in the country, are the Liberal Democrats, who are becoming the home of all those progressives who can't stick Blair any more. If their steady rise in local elections and byelections translates into a further lurch ahead in the general election, this will be another unintended consequence of the Blair effect. All of this causes Blairite tacticians to grin and rub their hands. They don't take the Lib-Dem threat seriously, and they gloat at the befuddled chaos of the Tory party. Come on, they say, it works. Well, it works if you are happy to go with the flow of an ever more consumerist, rightwing, market-driven society, internationally allied to Republican Washington, and to do so on the back of a fragmented, unstable new politics in which traditional parties are morphing and dissolving. But many of us are not. There is no doubt that Tony Blair can now sack who he wants to and bring back who he wants, too. But as he seeks to further recast the government in his image, it feels uncomfortably like a dance on rotten floorboards. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1266304,00.html
  8. Damp squib or smoking gun? The conclusions from Lord Butler's report seem, at first sight, to provide the expected establishment support for the government. Lord Butler proves himself no patsy Hutton. He's shrewder than the judge, a real player. He makes several trenchant criticisms. But he decides, in the end, that no one's actually to blame. Everyone's acted honourably and in good faith, so we should all just work hard to make sure it doesn't happen again. So there it is. The intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was wildly wrong. Warnings about the unreliability of the evidence were not included in the dossier the government presented to parliament. We went to war against the wishes of the majority of the UN. At least 11,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. Islamist terrorists, who had no foothold in Iraq before, are more dangerous than ever. A bloody insurgency still burns in the country, punctuated by car-bombings and grisly videotaped beheadings. Yet the prime minister continues to insist that it was right to go to war. Never mind if the original reason - the legal reason - for doing so has been utterly discredited. Suddenly, he finds the real reason for sending in the troops was to topple a very nasty dictator and make the world a safer place. So far, so convenient. Now we can just move swiftly on, after two Commons inquiries and the reports from Lords Hutton and Butler. Let the line be drawn. But closer reading of the report presents us with one stunning and inescapable fact: the prime minister knew, from the evidence supplied to him and published yesterday by Lord Butler, that there were many doubts and uncertainties about the intelligence: to say it was dodgy is an understatement. Yet, in his forward to the September dossier, Tony Blair wrote: "What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt [my italics] is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme." Lord Butler describes as a "serious failing" the fact that the dossier did not contain warnings and caveats about intelligence known to the joint intelligence committee (JIC). If this does not add up to misleading parliament and the public, then I don't know what the word "mislead" means any more. Much has been made of the conclusion by Lord Butler and the insistence from Tony Blair himself that he acted in good faith. I'm sure he did. But whatever he believed about the merits of taking action against Saddam, there can be no doubt that he gave us all a misleading impression of the reasons for going to war. Thanks to Lord Butler, we have seen the original intelligence, and we know that the dossier was not a fair representation of it - it was sexed up. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/columnist/s...1261629,00.html
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