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Jonathan Freedland

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  1. The Internet and Politics

    So the Washington journalist who warned me 10 years ago that the internet was doomed, that it would collapse under the weight of all those pages, was wrong. The internet is here and changing everything, the way we work, shop, communicate, even fall in love. But what of society itself? The industrial revolution changed politics completely, leading to universal suffrage, as well as modern socialism, communism and fascism. What will the internet revolution do for the politics of our own age? Last week the revolutionaries were in town, as Google's high command came to London for a major think-in, led by the CEO, Eric Schmidt. He had to fend off accusations that Google poses a threat to society, storing up information on everyone who uses it. He was hardly reassuring when he said the company's ambition is to know so much about us all, it will be able to answer the question: "What should I do tomorrow?" He had yet gloomier news for politicians. First, they will have to be even more guarded than they are already. Thanks to Google-owned YouTube, any careless remark will now be caught on camera (probably built into a phone) and distributed round the world in minutes. That did for Republican senator George Allen last year, when he used a racial slur at a rally and promptly found himself an internet TV star. Nor is your past any longer the past. David Cameron and George Bush should give thanks they were students before the age of Facebook; otherwise the wild excesses of their youth would have been thoroughly documented, available for all to see years later. Thanks to the internet and easy search, we live in a permanent now, when any mistake, any reckless remark, even some past teenage ramblings on MySpace, are just a click away. The politician of the internet age has to admit all errors in full and early: they'll only emerge anyway. Factual slips are forbidden, too. Bloggers will find you out and, if they don't, Google hopes its own algorithms will soon be sophisticated enough to detect "falsehoods". No wonder Schmidt says, smiling: "Google's going to drive these politicians crazy." There's a bright side. Current technology gives politicians campaigning tools they never had before: witness the 62,000 Barack Obama supporters gathered on Facebook without the candidate lifting a finger. Meanwhile, a website offers a way to reach limitless numbers of voters with an unfiltered message at virtually no cost. What's more, the internet can provide detailed knowledge of the electorate. If Amazon can rank the top-selling books every hour, then why not the five most important issues on voters' minds, constantly updated? There is potential for people as well as politicians. Organising is swifter and easier: electronic mobilisation is said to have swung elections in Spain, South Korea and the Philippines. In the US, the Howard Dean presidential campaign of 2004 saw the birth of "netroots" activism, collecting enough donations from individuals to match the megabucks of big corporate givers and lobby groups. No less important, the internet has facilitated collective action locally - down to the residents' association able to communicate through a website rather than constant meetings - and globally, with campaigning organisations such as Avaaz or the Genocide Intervention Network, which focuses on Darfur and began with a student site. It's noticeable how far ahead the US is in all this, and how much British politics lags behind: WebCameron does not a revolution make. It's even more striking that much of this activity is about finding new ways of putting pressure on, or getting people elected to, old institutions. The technology is cool and fast, but it still tends to be about sending men to sit in wood-panelled parliaments and marble-floored senates. Does the internet really promise no greater change than that? Eric Schmidt says no; the old structures of representative democracy will endure. "They survived world war two and they will survive this." Besides, he says, no one wants mob rule, even if direct democracy was possible - say through regular electronic voting. I'm not convinced. I can't quite believe that the internet will transform the mechanics of politics but leave politics itself untouched. Something bigger is afoot here. At this week's Hay festival, Charles Leadbeater, currently writing a book on the internet's transformation of creativity, explained how we are moving from the passive consumers of the 20th century to the active participants of the 21st. That had to be good for democracy, he said, because it would give more people a voice, good for equality, because it lowers the barriers that once excluded all but the elite from taking part, and good for freedom because it allows people to express themselves. The result could be a much more dramatic shift in political culture than most anticipate. Governments speak of consultation, but these are usually top-down exercises whose outcomes are tightly managed. If Wikipedia can assemble nearly 6m entries in 100 languages with just five employees, why would it not be possible to draft "wikipolicy" through a similar process, one that would then be voted on by elected representatives? Technology could make the bypassing of traditional government institutions look very appealing. Witness the rapid action of MoveOn.org, which put together 30,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and 10,000 volunteers ready to give them a bed. Or check out Kiva.org, which matches people with cash in the rich world to entrepreneurs in developing countries who need a loan. What these groups illustrate is not only a frustration with traditional government, but a way the internet can bypass government altogether. I wonder too about the very units in which we now participate. Currently, geography matters a lot: we vote in the areas we physically inhabit. But if millions of people are linked by MySpace, why is that not a political community? I can foresee a future in which national diasporas, for example, operate the way territorial societies do now. If ever there is a peace agreement to ratify, perhaps the entire Palestinian people, dispersed across the world, would take part in a referendum. The current iron link between democracy and territoriality might grow weaker. Put pessimistically, the internet could be reducing the very idea of a collective society. The web connects people with shared interests, even very narrow ones. So those with an enthusiasm for, say, caravanning in Finland can now find kindred spirits. But that risks shattering what was once a collective mass into a thousand shards, not a society at all but a bunch of niches. That could undermine a crucial aspect of politics, the power of people to act as a counterweight to governments and big corporations. If we're all broken into small units - "parties of one," as a web guru puts it - we will lose that combined strength. In other words, the changes now in train could go either way, expanding democracy or contracting it. The same is true of the impact the internet is having on capitalism, handing mega-billion profits to the likes of Google and Microsoft even as open-source technology encourages highly un-capitalistic behaviour such as collaboration and the sharing of knowledge for free. Such a mixed blessing is hardly new either. Lest we forget, the industrial revolution gave us the steam engine - but also the dark satanic mill. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Colum...2090994,00.html
  2. Tony Blair and BAE Systems

    Despite mountains of documents suggesting enormous cash sums heading the Saudis' way, the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, told parliament the investigation was dropped for lack of evidence - and because MI5 and MI6 believed Britain's national security would be in danger if justice was pursued (though, interestingly, the heads of those agencies have refused to endorse that claim). In an incredible sentence, Goldsmith explained that the decision had been made in the wider public interest, which had to be "balanced against the rule of law". But the rule of law should not be balanced against anything. If it is, you descend down the slippery slope into dictatorship. In normal times, the SFO decision alone might have forced Blair's exit: to suspend the law because of threats from a foreign government is as serious as it gets. But the issue gained no traction, because there is nowhere for political outrage to go. How can you demand that Blair quit when he's quitting anyway? The result is an eerie lethargy in British politics, thanks to which the prime minister is unconstrained.
  3. The Corruption of New Labour: Britain’s Watergate?

    Blair is like an outgoing American president in the three months before the inauguration of his successor. Suddenly he can do what the hell he likes, floating into a zone somewhere above politics. His allies say that he's using this freedom constructively, pushing necessary moves like last week's climate change bill and the Freud review of welfare. But there is another, less rosy view of this period - one that the planners of the legacy tour will not like. It is that Blair has found himself beyond the reach of normal accountability, and is exploiting that freedom to distinctly shabby effect. Take last week's railroading of the decision on the renewal of Trident. The government promised it would consult on this momentous and costly move - but the consultation was a sham, a three-month pretence at listening when the minds that matter were made up long ago. Nearly a hundred Labour MPs rebelled, but Blair didn't care: he slipped their surly bonds long ago. But that doesn't match the abandonment in December of the Serious Fraud Office's corruption inquiry into a defence deal between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. Despite mountains of documents suggesting enormous cash sums heading the Saudis' way, the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, told parliament the investigation was dropped for lack of evidence - and because MI5 and MI6 believed Britain's national security would be in danger if justice was pursued (though, interestingly, the heads of those agencies have refused to endorse that claim). In an incredible sentence, Goldsmith explained that the decision had been made in the wider public interest, which had to be "balanced against the rule of law". But the rule of law should not be balanced against anything. If it is, you descend down the slippery slope into dictatorship. In normal times, the SFO decision alone might have forced Blair's exit: to suspend the law because of threats from a foreign government is as serious as it gets. But the issue gained no traction, because there is nowhere for political outrage to go. How can you demand that Blair quit when he's quitting anyway? The result is an eerie lethargy in British politics, thanks to which the prime minister is unconstrained.
  4. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

    When the biographers of the future come to record the life of Tony Blair, they should reserve a special footnote for Catherine Tate. The comedian was responsible for a few minutes of television last Friday which captured not only a key aspect of the man who has governed Britain for the past 10 years - but also illustrated the sheer strangeness of our current politics. It was a segment on Comic Relief and I watched it open-mouthed, in a combination of incredulity and admiration. Tate was in Downing Street as Lauren, the Asbo-heavy schoolgirl who asks perennially, "Am I bovvered?" Lauren was on work experience for the PM, who listened to her rant about Top Shop, trainers and pikeys before turning her shtick back on her. "Is my face bovvered?" Blair asked, his accent Laurenesque estuary. "Face? Bovvered?" If any other politician on the planet had attempted that, it would have been excruciating. But Blair was uncannily, arrestingly good. His timing was flawless; he had memorised the script and delivered it with confidence. In a night packed with A-listers such as Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen, Blair fitted in perfectly. Your mind went back to the PM's famous admission that he "always wanted to be an actor" - until you remembered that that line too was a fiction (delivered by the actor Michael Sheen as Blair in The Deal). To imagine Gordon Brown repeating the stunt is enough to make the toes curl. But the telegenic David Cameron would have looked gauche and forced too. Blair was so good, the Comic Relief sketch was exactly what the farewell tour - its plans leaked last September - was always meant to be, a reminder of the man voters fell for more than a decade ago. For a few moments you could put cash for honours, even Iraq, out of your mind and smile at the Tony Blair so in touch with British popular culture he can walk right inside a TV sketch. It was a sign that, despite everything, this strange spell, since September, when the PM announced he would go within a year - making Blair a constitutional novelty, an outgoing prime minister - is working for him quite nicely. Not drummed out of office, but leaving at a time of his choosing, he is out there, selling himself one last time to the public. At Tate Modern this month he had arts luminaries cheering his impact on culture. On board HMS Albion in January he stood surrounded by military hardware as he boasted of his war record. Issue by issue, constituency by constituency, he is ensuring the Blair premiership is rung out on a high note. Downing Street aides speak of these months as an Indian summer of the Blair era, the PM suddenly liberated from the need to win re-election and "off the leash". There is no precedent for this in British politics. Even second-term US presidents have to worry about midterm results. But Blair is like an outgoing American president in the three months before the inauguration of his successor. Suddenly he can do what the hell he likes, floating into a zone somewhere above politics. His allies say that he's using this freedom constructively, pushing necessary moves like last week's climate change bill and the Freud review of welfare. But there is another, less rosy view of this period - one that the planners of the legacy tour will not like. It is that Blair has found himself beyond the reach of normal accountability, and is exploiting that freedom to distinctly shabby effect. Take last week's railroading of the decision on the renewal of Trident. The government promised it would consult on this momentous and costly move - but the consultation was a sham, a three-month pretence at listening when the minds that matter were made up long ago. Nearly a hundred Labour MPs rebelled, but Blair didn't care: he slipped their surly bonds long ago. But that doesn't match the abandonment in December of the Serious Fraud Office's corruption inquiry into a defence deal between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. Despite mountains of documents suggesting enormous cash sums heading the Saudis' way, the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, told parliament the investigation was dropped for lack of evidence - and because MI5 and MI6 believed Britain's national security would be in danger if justice was pursued (though, interestingly, the heads of those agencies have refused to endorse that claim). In an incredible sentence, Goldsmith explained that the decision had been made in the wider public interest, which had to be "balanced against the rule of law". But the rule of law should not be balanced against anything. If it is, you descend down the slippery slope into dictatorship. In normal times, the SFO decision alone might have forced Blair's exit: to suspend the law because of threats from a foreign government is as serious as it gets. But the issue gained no traction, because there is nowhere for political outrage to go. How can you demand that Blair quit when he's quitting anyway? The result is an eerie lethargy in British politics, thanks to which the prime minister is unconstrained. That may be a comfortable position for Blair, but where does it leave his designated successor? Gordon Brown might have benefited from this spell, had Blair decided to use it to take some of the painful decisions that would otherwise come to hurt the next man in No 10. Driving through closures of assorted NHS wards fits that description, Tony taking the heat so that Gordon won't have to. (What's more, I'm told Downing Street staff joke that Blair has appointed himself Brown's campaign manager, so often is he on the phone to the chancellor offering advice.) For all that, the current state of limbo has been a disaster for Brown. He finds himself as Westminster's Prince of Wales, about to inherit, but denied the authority of the top job and obliged to stick to the Firm's line lest he reveal division in the ruling family. He has to save his big new ideas till he's actually on the throne; to unveil them now would be to throw them away. Ever since September, Brown has thus been paralysed and exposed, unable to go mano a mano against Cameron, yet required to absorb all the Tories' punches. There will be more today, when he gives his 11th budget. Cameron and George Osborne will hurl at Brown every Stalinist epithet they can find, now able to cite the former mandarin Andrew Turnbull as their authority. Brown will have to soak it up; until Blair is gone, he cannot fully join battle. So each week he has to read polls such as yesterday's ICM survey in the Guardian suggesting a 15-point lead for the Tories if he were in charge. Brownites remain sturdily optimistic, insisting that everything will change once it's a straight fight. But the deeper worry must be that politics, if left static for too long, has a habit of setting. The longer this period of limbo endures, the more likely it is that the current Tory lead will harden. A fixed view will form, of Cameron as a winner and Brown as a loser (an impression already bedded down by the über-Blairites). So this bizarre, unprecedented period is working fine for our current prime minister - but it is draining away the chances of the man, and the Labour government, who would succeed him. It would be nice to think that troubled Tony Blair. But I suspect he spoke the truth last Friday: he ain't bovvered. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...2038846,00.html
  5. The House of Commons will be debating, as if it were a matter of controversy, a principle which most other democracies accepted a long time ago - a principle which we send our armies half way across the globe to impose on others by force. It is the principle that people should elect those who govern them. Yes, remarkable as it may seem, that principle still does not fully apply in Britain, even though we like telling the world we all but invented democracy. In Westminster, the self-styled "mother of parliaments", half the business is done by a chamber in which not a single soul has been chosen by you, me or any other voter. In the House of Lords - one half, lest we forget, of our legislature - sit 92 hereditary peers placed there by their bloodline, and another 648 peers allocated their places by the prime minister. They have the power to change the laws of this land and yet none of us has any say in choosing them. What this looks like to the rest of the world, especially those parts of it on the receiving end of our armed lectures on democracy, is the least of it. It is a puzzle for us to explain to ourselves. We have debated it for a century, in what Robin Cook rightly called "the longest political indecision in our history". Even after 10 years of a reforming, Labour government the second chamber remains stubbornly impervious to the will of the people, unchanged bar the thinning out of most (but not all) of the hereditaries. And yet instead of a loud, united clamour from our politicians - all of them demanding that this body be dragged into the 20th century, if not the 21st - there is every chance that reform could slip out of reach next week, to languish undone for another generation. What should be a no-brainer, a tying up of an absurd loose end, is instead a battle. The man in charge, the leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, admits that when Tony Blair gave him the assignment last May, the prime minister declared it a "hospital pass". What Blair surely had in mind was the last time the Commons tried to act. In February 2003 MPs voted on seven different options for a reformed Lords, ranging from a fully elected chamber to a fully appointed one, with several hybrid versions in between. The MPs rejected each of them in turn, thereby leaving the status quo in place for another three years. Cook suggested they go home, sleep on it, and a month later he had resigned over the invasion of Iraq. Now Straw, another demoted foreign secretary, is having a crack at a problem which has confounded Labour since Keir Hardie. My own vote, if I had one, would be for a fully elected house: if the principle that those who govern us should be elected is sound, then it should apply across the board. What's more, maintain even a slice of prime ministerial appointment and you maintain the risk of corruption that has underpinned the cash-for-peerages affair. The only way to be sure a PM is not selling seats in the upper house is to strip him of the right to hand them out. Still, holding out for full election could mean no election. That's what happened last time, when too many pro-reform MPs let the best become the enemy of the better: they voted down some election in favour of more election, until they had nothing. (A fully elected house and an 80% elected house both fell by an agonising three votes.) MPs can remedy that next week by voting yes more than once, to all of the three options that would create a mainly elected upper house. They will have to be ready for the predictable counter-arguments, a foretaste of which was provided on these pages by David Steel. Once a committed reformer, he has grown used to the feel of ermine and now suggests the Lords remain pretty much as it is, a fully appointed body. How else to retain the expertise of all those wise old heads who would never put themselves up for anything so grubby as an election? To which the best answer is that no expert is an expert on everything. James Graham of the Unlock Democracy campaign says he would be happy to defer to Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, on asteroids, but sees no reason why Lord Rees of Ludlow has any specialist claim to pass laws on, say, gay adoption. By all means call Robert Winston as a witness to a committee hearing on fertility. But granting Lord Winston a seat for life to decide on everything from local government to criminal justice makes no sense. Besides, Steel and the others should be embarrassed to hear themselves making such arguments. Don't they realise that this was precisely the case made by those who stood nearly two centuries ago against extending the franchise? The reactionaries of the 19th century also feared the accrued wisdom of the ages would be lost if the vulgar mob were allowed a vote, believing that Britain was best governed by a class of experts. Theirs is not some dispute about procedure or constitutional mechanics. It is an argument against democracy itself. Opponents of change say that the Commons must remain the pre-eminent chamber and that that status would be imperilled if the Lords were equally legitimate. If this means we must deliberately reduce the legitimacy of one half of our law-making body, it seems a bizarre way to run a country. Still, there are easy solutions. First, we can ensure that in the division of powers, the Commons retains the stronger hand. Second, Straw's plan envisages that only a third of the upper house would be elected at each general election cycle, so leaving two-thirds with a less current mandate than the Commons. To those worried by such things, that would help keep the revising chamber in its place. For Labour MPs the challenge is especially pointed. How could they defend themselves before history if, after 10 years in power, they had failed to achieve this basic change? They managed, historians will say, to approve war in Iraq, and to devote hundreds of hours to the rights and wrongs of foxhunting, but this simple, obvious step eluded them. That will be a damning verdict indeed. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Colum...2022985,00.html
  6. Robert Gates

    It's a neat twist on democratic accountability. In last November's midterm elections, Americans sent a message as clearly as they could, short of hiring a plane to spell it out in skywriting above Pennsylvania Avenue: we want this war to end. Bush promised he had heard them - and is promptly doing the very opposite. One New York Times editorial wondered if he had even watched the 2006 election night results or whether he had just curled up in front of a videotaped repeat of the Republican victories of 2002. The Republicans have form in this area, of course. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected on a promise to end the war in Vietnam: instead, it intensified until another 55,000 US troops were dead, along with an estimated 2 million south-east Asians. But Bush's showing of his middle finger feels more brazen, if only because it is not only the American public he is ignoring, but people you would think he might respect. Only weeks have past since the Iraq Study Group, led by his father's consigliere, James Baker, recommended a face-saving extrication from Iraq. That plan is now binned. So too are the senior military leaders who counselled against sending more troops to fight a losing war. General George Casey will no longer be in charge, while General John Abizaid has been relieved of his post running Central Command, or Centcom. Both men opposed the "surge", calling instead for a gradual US withdrawal. The Arabic-speaking Abizaid had the audacity to say as much publicly: "The Baghdad situation requires more Iraqi troops," not more Americans, he said. So now we know what the much-vaunted new Bush strategy for Iraq amounts to: throw more gasoline on the fire. It's conceivable that Bush is, in fact, planning an eventual withdrawal, but hoping that one last push will give him something he can call victory as a finale. Psychologists spot similar behaviour in compulsive gamblers who, when in trouble, increase their bets, hoping for a win that will allow them to leave the table with dignity. They have a word for such thinking: delusional. And where do we Britons fit into this downward slide from purgatory into hell? Tony Blair is still on the old script. In an essay in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, he says we are not winning the war on terror "because we are not being bold enough ... in fighting for the values we believe in". Elsewhere, though, optimists see signs that we are gradually inching away from the calamity: they note Gordon Brown, our presumptive next prime minister, condemning the execution of Saddam Hussein as "deplorable." Perhaps that was a pointer to better things to come. But there is something lame about the current convention which allows our politicians to criticise discrete aspects of this war - the 2003 disbandment of the Iraqi army, the reconstruction effort, the conduct and filming of Saddam's death (though not the punishment itself) - while requiring them to stay silent on the crime of the invasion itself. I know, I know, what else could Brown say, given that he voted for the war and sat next to Blair through it all rather than resigning in protest? But once he's in No 10 he will have to do better than stating the obvious about the barbarism of life in today's Baghdad. He will have to make a clean break from this most terrible chapter in British and American foreign policy and set out a new, radical strategy for the war against jihadism, one that understands that you don't catch the terrorist fish by machine-gunning them from the sky, but by draining the sea of grievance in which they swim. That work will be long and slow and require enormous political brainpower. And it is the polar opposite of everything George Bush stands for. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1986719,00.html
  7. The Baker Report

    It's a neat twist on democratic accountability. In last November's midterm elections, Americans sent a message as clearly as they could, short of hiring a plane to spell it out in skywriting above Pennsylvania Avenue: we want this war to end. Bush promised he had heard them - and is promptly doing the very opposite. One New York Times editorial wondered if he had even watched the 2006 election night results or whether he had just curled up in front of a videotaped repeat of the Republican victories of 2002. The Republicans have form in this area, of course. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected on a promise to end the war in Vietnam: instead, it intensified until another 55,000 US troops were dead, along with an estimated 2 million south-east Asians. But Bush's showing of his middle finger feels more brazen, if only because it is not only the American public he is ignoring, but people you would think he might respect. Only weeks have past since the Iraq Study Group, led by his father's consigliere, James Baker, recommended a face-saving extrication from Iraq. That plan is now binned. So too are the senior military leaders who counselled against sending more troops to fight a losing war. General George Casey will no longer be in charge, while General John Abizaid has been relieved of his post running Central Command, or Centcom. Both men opposed the "surge", calling instead for a gradual US withdrawal. The Arabic-speaking Abizaid had the audacity to say as much publicly: "The Baghdad situation requires more Iraqi troops," not more Americans, he said. So now we know what the much-vaunted new Bush strategy for Iraq amounts to: throw more gasoline on the fire. It's conceivable that Bush is, in fact, planning an eventual withdrawal, but hoping that one last push will give him something he can call victory as a finale. Psychologists spot similar behaviour in compulsive gamblers who, when in trouble, increase their bets, hoping for a win that will allow them to leave the table with dignity. They have a word for such thinking: delusional. And where do we Britons fit into this downward slide from purgatory into hell? Tony Blair is still on the old script. In an essay in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, he says we are not winning the war on terror "because we are not being bold enough ... in fighting for the values we believe in". Elsewhere, though, optimists see signs that we are gradually inching away from the calamity: they note Gordon Brown, our presumptive next prime minister, condemning the execution of Saddam Hussein as "deplorable." Perhaps that was a pointer to better things to come. But there is something lame about the current convention which allows our politicians to criticise discrete aspects of this war - the 2003 disbandment of the Iraqi army, the reconstruction effort, the conduct and filming of Saddam's death (though not the punishment itself) - while requiring them to stay silent on the crime of the invasion itself. I know, I know, what else could Brown say, given that he voted for the war and sat next to Blair through it all rather than resigning in protest? But once he's in No 10 he will have to do better than stating the obvious about the barbarism of life in today's Baghdad. He will have to make a clean break from this most terrible chapter in British and American foreign policy and set out a new, radical strategy for the war against jihadism, one that understands that you don't catch the terrorist fish by machine-gunning them from the sky, but by draining the sea of grievance in which they swim. That work will be long and slow and require enormous political brainpower. And it is the polar opposite of everything George Bush stands for. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1986719,00.html
  8. 2006 US Elections

    First, let's lay down the mother of all caveats. The conventional wisdom says Democrats are about to win control of the House of Representatives and could well take the Senate too. But, and here's the mega-caveat, the conventional wisdom in Washington is often very, very wrong. Cast your mind back to election night 2004, when the US media anointed President John Kerry. The warning this time is that Republicans might be fewer in number, but more motivated and therefore likelier to turn out. Note, too, the reports that White House strategist Karl Rove, the election wizard famed as George Bush's brain, is in cocky mood. In the contests that matter, Rove reckons Republicans have the money and the machine to win. So Democrats and their friends should approach next Tuesday's congressional elections with low expectations: that way, they won't be disappointed. Then, in the appropriate frame of mind, they can ask the question that matters: what difference will a Democrat win make, not only to the United States but to the wider world? There are a handful of policy specifics, including a promise to raise the minimum wage, but the party's election programme is stunningly short on detail. It sets out six, general goals - Six for '06 is the not very snappy slogan - and runs to just a single page. But that's not the point. For a Democratic victory would change the terms of trade of American politics. The precedent is the year the Republicans swept the House, ousting the Democrats who had ruled there for an unbroken 40 years. The Republican landslide of 1994 did what landslides are meant to do: it re-made the terrain. From that point onwards, the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had to navigate around a landscape shaped by Newt Gingrich and his conservative revolutionaries. Gingrich set the agenda; Clinton could only react to it. He was reduced to protesting that he was still "relevant". The result was that the president had to drop forever what had been his signature ambition - the reform of America's hideously unjust system of healthcare - and slash the welfare system for those without work. Democratic success next week could mete out the same fate to George Bush. Since 2000, Republicans have been able to define the terms of debate. Bush, sitting at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, has been able to count on a reliable amen corner at the other. A Democratic House would force Bush onto the defensive; if the Senate were also to fall, he would be crippled. The Bush presidency is already in its final phase; double Democratic success next week would all but end it. Take two examples that matter most to those outside the United States. One is climate change. Democrats are not great on it, but they exhibit less of the wilful denial that characterises the Republicans. They would at least give the likes of Sir Nicholas Stern a hearing when he crosses the Atlantic to make his case for a cut in carbon emissions - even if they, like the Republicans, can't bring themselves to propose green taxes on anything. The second critical matter is Iraq. The Democrats' brief policy document, A New Direction for America, calls for "the responsible redeployment of US forces" with "Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country". Those are, admittedly, words that could be uttered by Bush or Donald Rumsfeld. They too say American troops will stand down as Iraqis stand up. But "responsible redeployment" at least hints at a different impulse: to get the hell out. Now it's true that Democrats have a double credibility problem in this area. Almost all of them voted to authorise the use of military force in Iraq: they feared what the Republican attack machine would do to them if they didn't. Second, House Democrats may huff and puff all they like about troop withdrawals but that is not a decision for them to take. The constitution gives that power almost exclusively to the commander-in-chief. If Bush insists on staying the course in Iraq, there is little the House of Representatives can formally do to stop him. But where the constitution ends, politics begins. For both houses of Congress wield a crucial power: the right to hold hearings into the conduct of the administration. For six years, Bush has been spared the ordeal of congressional investigation. While Clinton saw his every move subject to televised inquiry by hostile Republican committees, subpoenaing witnesses, demanding sensitive documents, Bush has operated with the lightest of scrutiny. As of January 2007, when the new Congress is sworn in, that could change. Suddenly, Democrats would chair the pivotal foreign affairs committees. They could instantly establish the kind of sustained inquiry opposition MPs vainly sought in Westminster yesterday, subjecting the likes of Rumsfeld and others to fierce, public cross-examination. It would require some careful positioning. Democrats would have to focus on the honesty of the initial case made for war, arguing that they were misled, that they would never have voted for invasion had they known the full truth. This is a debate Britain aired during the Hutton inquiry, but until now the US has lacked a formal outlet for such an examination. If the polls are right, Capitol Hill is about to be that outlet. And Democrats will press the issue for all it's worth. Surveys show that the war is one of the core questions of the current midterm campaign: one poll saw voters ranking Iraq a single percentage point behind the economy in their list of most important issues. (Troublingly, perhaps, for Democrats, that same UPI-Zogby poll found the number one determinant for voters was the "values, morals and character" of a candidate.) A win in an election billed as a referendum on Bush's foreign policy would embolden Democrats to keep up the pressure: it would have confirmed Iraq as a seam worth mining for political advantage. There would be high-grade allies too, now that several senior Republicans, among them John Warner, chair of the senate armed services committee, have joined the chorus lamenting the Iraq war. That process would have two long-term effects. First, a sustained assault could blunt at last the enduring Republican edge on national security. Since the cold war, the Republicans have been able to cast themselves as the party of strength in international affairs. That advantage, carefully nurtured and hardened by Rove and Bush, has cost the Democrats dear, helping to keep them out of the White House in all but three presidential elections over the last 40 years. If a new Congress puts the Republicans on the defensive over Iraq, and over the entire Bush approach to foreign policy, that would yield a major political dividend. Watch for Senator Hillary Clinton to follow the process with interest: she would like nothing more than the Republicans to be stripped of their traditional national security armour ahead of 2008. The more important effect will be on what Bush does next. He could still embark on another crazed venture abroad, even in the face of opposition from the House, but it would be harder. Political reality will force him to operate within new constraints. Next week's elections cannot, alas, remove George Bush from office. But they can hobble him badly. Those of us watching from afar can only hope that Americans seize their chance. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1936324,00.html
  9. Tony Blair and Iraq

    The Americans can't quite believe it. Getting rid of Tony Blair? Are you Brits crazy? Like Thatcher before him, Blair finds that the acclaim abroad lingers even when there is derision at home. Maggie was a legend in the States when she was shoved aside by the Tories, and the same is true of Blair. When he does his farewell tour - part Sinatra, part royal goodbye - he'd be a fool not to make a stop in America. There the ovations are guaranteed. And yet in the US, he might also reflect, is where his troubles began. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which radically altered the course of American foreign policy. Blair's great error, the one that historians will identify as the cause of his decline and eventual downfall, was to sign up for that new programme in full - even when it led to disaster. September 11, 2001, was the turning point. It's easy to forget now that in the election campaign of 2000, Governor George W Bush promised a more "humble" international role for America. Not for him the Balkan entanglements and reckless folly of "nation-building" of the Clinton years. Bush's America would step back. September 11 changed all that. The "realists" of the Bush administration, those cautious folk who believed in diplomacy and alliances, were banished in favour of the ideologues, those who sought to use US power to remake the world. So was born the Bush doctrine. It declared that America wouldn't wait for anybody's permission slip to act: if it detected a threat it would strike first, alone and pre-emptively if necessary. And, believing that repressive Arab governments were to blame for driving their frustrated youth to extremism, it would use American might to spread democracy in the Middle East and beyond. That was the new doctrine: unilateralism, pre-emption and coercive democratisation. And what has been the fate of this new faith? Judged from any and every point of view, it has proved the most spectacular failure. Take as one measure the three powers dumbly lumped together as the "axis of evil": Iran, Iraq and North Korea (dumb because two of them, Iran and Iraq, were enemies, not partners). Those three nations all pose a greater threat now than they did five years ago. Tehran is closer to a bomb, while Pyongyang has 400% more fissile material than it did, along with the long-range missiles to dispatch it. Iraq, meanwhile, is a nation in chaos, where scores of civilians are killed every day and where 2,600 US soldiers have lost their lives. It is the clearest case of a self-fulfilling prophecy outside Greek mythology. Bush took a country with next to no links to al-Qaida and made it a terrorist breeding ground. He took a country that posed no threat to the US and made it a graveyard for Americans. What's more, it's the catastrophe in Iraq that has heightened the danger in Iran and North Korea. Both countries have been able to advance their nuclear plans because they know that the US Gulliver, tied down in Baghdad, is powerless to stop them. With 10 of the 12 divisions of the US army either in or on their way to Iraq, the great hyperpower is reduced to impotence anywhere else. In this way, Iraq proved entirely self-defeating - making the world more safe, not less, for rogue states and nuclear proliferators. It also served as a vivid advertisement for the protective power of nukes: after all, Saddam could be invaded because he didn't have any. Iraq proved too to be a fatal distraction from the war that should have been declared on 9/11: the war against al-Qaida. There are former US special forces troops seething to this day that they had Osama bin Laden in their sights in Afghanistan - until they were pulled off and sent to Iraq. Strikingly, Bin Laden's name does not even appear in the new "national strategy for combating terrorism", which the administration published last week. The White House praises itself that the US has not been hit in the past five years and that it has disrupted al-Qaida. But it also claims to have done much "to undercut the perceived legitimacy of terrorism", and that is wildly wide of the mark. The horrific truth is that the application of the Bush doctrine has helped vindicate Bin Laden and his ilk in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world. Five years ago al-Qaida's claim that the West was engaged in a war against Islam ran into widespread scepticism. Yet Bush's words and deeds - from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the abuses at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib via the talk of a "crusade" against evil and the wilful refusal to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - have done violent Islamism's recruitment work for it. We know that all too well in Britain, where the "martyr" tapes of the July 7 bombers left no doubt that it was images of Muslim deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine that had won them over. Actions designed to put out the fire of terrorism only served to inflame it. As for the spread of democracy, that too has been a failure. Bush's chosen method has been force and intimidation, which only proved that when people are confronted with "democracy" imposed from the outside they don't embrace it, but are driven to nationalism instead. Elsewhere, the lazy equation of democracy with elections alone, rather than the long, painstaking work of institution building, left Bush vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences, lending radical groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah an electoral legitimacy they previously lacked. Genuinely spreading democracy is a noble goal, but Bush could not face the logic of his own position. Not only would it have meant allowing people to vote for parties the US does not like, it would also have seen them rid themselves of regimes the US has long backed. Rhetorically Bush swore he was ready for that, but his continued support for the dictatorships in Pakistan and Egypt, and his closeness to the House of Saud, show it was just talk. Moreover, if the peoples of the Muslim and Arab world were really allowed their say, one of their prime demands would be an end to US and western meddling in their affairs. But that would be a democratisation too far for Washington. After five long years, the American people are slowly beginning to see the reality of Bush's "war on terror". An AP poll last week found one-third of Americans believe it is a war the terrorists are winning. Where once 70% backed the Iraq adventure, now regular majorities tell pollsters it was a mistake. Democrats are billing November's midterm elections, campaigning for which began in earnest this week, as a referendum on all this - and they reckon they can win a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years. Accordingly, the Bushies are trying to soften their approach, resorting to diplomacy and alliances in dealing with Iran, for example. But that is chiefly because Iraq has deprived them of military options. "There's a change of course, but not a change of heart," one Senate Democrat told me. Either way, it's too late for Tony Blair. He signed up for the Bush project, even though it was doomed. His aides speak of legacy, but this is his legacy - to have glued himself to a reckless venture that has wreaked havoc the world over. Destroying the Blair premiership is the very least of it. http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianweekly/s...1871569,00.html
  10. The Corruption of New Labour: Britain’s Watergate?

    Until now, New Labour's political scandals have remained just that - political. Peter Mandelson's run-ins over his home loan or the Hindujas' passports may have cost him his job - twice - but they stayed within the sphere of politics. Battle was conducted in the Commons, on the front pages and in the TV studios - not in a police station. Once the word "arrest" is uttered, a scandal enters a new, and much graver, category. Yesterday's Guardian story revealing that Scotland Yard had embarked on a trawl for all deleted emails relating to gifts and loans to Labour will have come as a warning - an indication that the police were not about to let this go quietly. The fact that Levy was arrested - rather than merely questioned informally - is a similar sign. In the US these would be the hallmarks of an aggressive prosecutor, bent on securing convictions. As it is, the theatrics of an arrest suggest someone in the Met has taken a leaf out of the US book, which stipulates that even the highest and mightiest suspects should be treated as if they were lowlifes. Alleged white-collar criminals on Wall Street know they will always be led out in handcuffs; yesterday's events have something of that aura. For every Downing Street grimace there will be an opposition smile. Sleaze did for the Major government a decade ago; most Tories believed it would be spin or incompetence that would hang the Blair government. Now they must be crossing their fingers, hoping that allegations of corruption will work their destructive power for a second time. But, truth be told, there will be some muted cheering too. Michael Levy has no shortage of enemies within the Labour party. Some dislike his circumvention of the traditional fundraising routes; others see him as the embodiment of a change in Labour culture which they despise. In the media, there has been plenty of snobbery hurled at him by those who regard him as nothing more than a glorified accountant and dislike his larger-than-life, Hackney-boy-made-good persona. In the routine descriptions of him as a "flamboyant north London businessman" many in Britain's Jewish community have long detected old-fashioned prejudice. Levy can surely look after himself, but his critics should bear two things in mind. First, Levy has been a convenient personification of what is, in fact, a wider phenomenon: a New Labour weakness for corporate power. Whether it was the willingness to take Bernie Ecclestone's cash or the sweet deals granted in the name of the public finance initiative, this Labour government has displayed a wide-eyed eagerness to cosy up to big money that has no precedent. We've seen it again in John Prescott's desperation to make nice with the US casino tycoon Philip Anschutz. This is a defect of New Labour itself; it is lazy to make Levy the scapegoat for it. Similarly, if Labour has been in the wrong over loans-for-peerages, it is a delusion to think that the blame should rest solely with Levy. He has reportedly warned that he will not play the fall guy; if he is taken down, he will tell the truth of others' roles. Put succinctly, there is no way that Lord Levy could have been selling honours without the blessing of his boss, the prime minister. It is an old tradition in British politics, going back at least to Tudor times, to refrain from accusing the king, preferring to charge his "evil ministers" instead. Those close to the prime minister will hope that doctrine still holds. But it may not - and it should not. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1818988,00.html
  11. The Apprentice

    It would probably be tactless to suggest that Tony Blair start thinking about his place in history this week, just as history seems to be beckoning him a little more urgently. But if he is minded to wonder about a lasting monument to his achievements, a bequest that will convey to future generations exactly what Blair's Britain was like, I have a humble suggestion. He should dig a hole in the ground, lowering into it an airtight box - inside which would be a DVD boxed-set of the BBC2 hit of the season, The Apprentice. Forget all the knick-knacks that usually go inside a time capsule; the bubble gum and copies of the Times. The Britons of 2106 would need only gawp at the antics of Syed, Ruth and Paul Tulip, under the gimlet eye of Alan Sugar, and they would know all they needed to know about our national life at the start of the 21st century. First, they would discover something we now take for granted about television itself. They would see that the medium's favourite form is reality, training a camera on people who are not actors but regular folk placed in an extraordinary situation. Such TV was all but unknown 20 years ago; in the last decade it has come to dominate. Watching The Apprentice, now building towards its climax, you can see why. The show serves up plenty of reality TV's drug of choice: stand-up rows and full-throated conflict. The programme is all but designed for it. Each week the candidates to serve as Sugar's £100,000-a-year apprentice are split into teams, charged with a money-making task: they might have to design a calendar, rent out flats or take over part of Topshop. Whoever makes the most money, wins. The losing team is summoned to Sugar's boardroom, where they receive a dressing down from the boss before he lights on the weakest performer, jabs a finger and delivers the programme's signature phrase: You're fired! Locked in fierce competition, forced to live and work together for weeks on end, with only an occasional call home to friends or family, these are men and women on the boil. Hence the screaming matches, usually between a luckless "project manager", dubbed the PM, and a frustrated team-mate/rival. From those, the viewers of the future would learn something useful about the mores of the age. Four-letter swearing is now entirely routine; an hour of BBC television given over to an unending stream of it without a bleep to be heard. That too marks a change of sorts, one mirrored in workplaces across the land. No less significant is the diversity of the group on offer. Last year's final four were all from migrant backgrounds of one kind or another: Tim Campbell, a black Londoner, duked it out against Saira Khan, a gobby saleswoman from Birmingham, while Paul Torrisi and James Max boasted Italian and Jewish roots. This year, Saira's heir as the big personality has been Syed Ahmed, Bangladesh-born and raised in east London, a man whose belief in himself verges on the religious. Knocked out last week, his arrogance lit up the screen. This is one of the prouder traits of Blair's Britain, where a visible ethnic mix has become part of the cultural landscape. Not everywhere, of course, but certainly more than ever before. What's more, in keeping with the rhetoric of Britain's post-1997 politics, The Apprentice implicitly celebrates this ethnic variety. Both Syed and Saira presented their migrant heritage as a strength; it had taught them dynamism and resilience. Tim, who won last year and continues to work for Sugar's Amstrad company, also insisted that his hard-scrabble background had equipped him well. And it was quite true, last year at least, that the white, middle-class candidates seemed blander by comparison. In this sense, The Apprentice embodies what has been a favourite New Labour theme. It promises meritocracy, insisting that what matters is not your background but your talent and drive. Watch as the MBA graduates fall by the wayside, their places taken by those who rely on their wits and street savvy. So Mani foundered when he didn't let his group just get on and brainstorm ideas, but insisted on drawing up business school "criteria" first; once he got talking about "convergence" and "divergence" they were lost - and so was he. More striking still was the fate of Alexa, the Cambridge economics graduate who could not work out the correct change owing to a customer who had bought a slice of pizza - even after three attempts. Though that might illustrate a less welcome aspect of the Blair era, namely the weaknesses of our national education system. That's not the only gloomy light the programme sheds on today's Britain. The balance of the sexes is revealing too. Among the initial 14 candidates, there were equal numbers of men and women. But it tended to be the women who were eliminated earliest. Those who stayed were often marginalised or patronised by their male colleagues, forced to elbow their way into strategic discussions and barely respected when placed in charge. This too reflects a wider picture, the enduring gender inequality laid bare in February's women and work report, which found that women working full-time still earn 17% less than men. A truism of our age declares that this is the era when deference has been banished, yet The Apprentice shows that's not quite right. For the contestants, even when exhausted and hurling abuse at each other, only ever refer to their taskmaster and would-be boss one way: he is Sir Alan. Never "Sugar" or even "Alan Sugar", but Sir Alan. Not for him the modesty affected by other knights of the realm - "call me Alan, please" - his title has merged with his name into a single moniker: Surrallan. What this suggests is that deference is far from dead, it's just that now there is a new class to be deferred to - the aristocracy of wealth. And in this new nobility, Alan Sugar's blood is purest blue. The programme buys into that notion in a deeper way. For it rests on, and reinforces, the ideological assumption that has underpinned politics since the 1980s - that the only goal that really matters is profit. The tasks set by Surrallan may be varied, ranging from fashion shows on cruise ships to selling petrol cans, but they only ever have one objective. The rules are simple and unbending: whoever makes the most money wins. A decade ago, thinkers around New Labour were dreaming of a new bottom line. Instead of companies pursuing only short-term gains for their shareholders, what if they started considering the wider interests of their "stakeholders", including their workers, the larger community and even the environment? What if their success was not measured solely in pounds, shillings and pence, but in the social and environmental benefits they brought and costs they exacted? Wouldn't that be the true mark of a radical Labour government? The Apprentice is confirmation that that dream died, if it ever lived. Surrallan gives no points for being nice, to each other or to the planet. Only money talks. For in Blair's Britain, no less than Thatcher's, profit is to be worshipped: it is the only currency that counts. Make no mistake, the programme is great to watch; London, shown in loving aerial shots, never looked so good. It will be a fitting reminder of the Blair years. Perhaps that will be a comfort when the Labour party finally turns to its own PM and says: "You're fired." http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1766121,00.html
  12. The Corruption of New Labour: Britain’s Watergate?

    Now this is beginning to feel like a real scandal. There are police inquiries, the first arrest, talk of leads that go "all the way to the top". When you hear that detectives are mulling an interview with the prime minister himself, you know it's big. Every scandal worthy of the name has the involvement of the police. Otherwise it's merely a gaffe, an embarrassment or a row. David Mellor's infidelity was embarrassing; Jeffrey Archer's perjury was a scandal. Ronald Reagan's joke about bombing Russia was a gaffe; sending arms to the contras was a scandal. The allegation that a crime has been committed is the crucial ingredient. Now that the honours affair has it, it's become serious business. There's another important distinction in the taxonomy of scandal. Some are accidental: the revelation of a human lapse that could happen to anybody at any time. Such episodes carry no larger freight of meaning and, as such, tend to have little or no political impact. The former Welsh secretary, Ron Davies, and his "moment of madness" on Clapham Common in 1998 is the textbook example. But some scandals are no accident. These arise directly, almost organically, from the political milieu they strike. They bite because they reveal or, more often, confirm the true nature of the regime that gave them life. Watergate is the exemplar. The 1972 break-in at Democratic party headquarters and subsequent cover-up was only the most visible manifestation of Richard Nixon's long-established willingness both to crush his political enemies by brutal means and to trample on the law. Watergate was no accident. It grew organically out of the soil that was Nixonism. The swirl around loans, academies and honours is similarly no mere stumble, no lapse that might have occurred under any administration. This affair is the logical, even natural outgrowth of the style of government and political outlook that is Blairism. What is the origin of this mess? The simple answer is that Labour - along with the other political parties - has, in the last decade, found itself short of money: the cost of fighting elections has risen, just as party membership has fallen. That's left a funding gap, which Tony Blair filled by turning to "high-value donors", very rich individuals able to write a seven-figure cheque. Now, some Blair defenders describe this sequence of events as if it were a matter of pure, inevitable logic. No alternative course of action was possible: if you're short of cash, you get it from mega-bucks businessmen. But that was not the only option available. Blair could have turned, for one, to the trade unions and sought more money from them. Oh no, say the PM's allies: no Labour leader likes to be dependent on the unions. OK, he could have tried something else. He might have done what 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean did in the US, raising funds not a million at a time, but through thousands of small donations - $10 or $20 apiece - from individual supporters. That might have been a tall order in 2005, when fury over Iraq stood between plenty of Labourites and their chequebooks. But it could have been a runner in the first, heady days of New Labour. Yet it was hardly tried: Blair preferred to dip into the deep pockets of big businessmen. That's not a coincidence; it was encoded deep in the creed of Blairism. From the very beginning, from the day he became leader in 1994 if not before, Tony Blair made it clear that he accepted the Labour party on sufferance; he had no enthusiasm for it, let alone affection. He saw it as a problem to be got around, not part of any solution. One former aide candidly admits that "he's never seen the party or its members as a resource that might be valuable", the way John Prescott or Gordon Brown have. The Labour party was, at best, "an electoral machine, useful for knocking on doors". Of course Blair's first instinct was to look outside Labour for help, even keeping the party's own treasurer in the dark. He has dedicated much of his career either to fighting the Labour party or bypassing it, whether by neutering the annual conference or attempting to overrule members' democratic decisions and impose his own: remember Alun Michael in Wales and Frank Dobson in London. Seeking to win elections without Labour money was the logical destination of a road he had taken long ago. The same is true of his choice of benefactors. No one who followed Blair in the 1990s can be surprised that he chased the favours of plutocrats. The stories are legion of Blair's personal admiration, even awe, for men who have made serious money. Nearly 10 years have passed since I was first told that Blair tended to go "dewy-eyed" and starstruck when in the company of wealth. Ideologically, too, the fit was natural: Blairism holds that market mechanisms contain a solution for almost every problem. When he demands that a public service reform itself, it usually means he wants it to behave more like a private company. Which brings us to the latest wave of the honours affair: the charge that donations to city academies were lured by the promise of gongs and ermine. This too feels more organic than accidental. Once again, there is the enduring Blairite faith in the magic of the private sector. If a man has made a mint selling cars or carpets, he will automatically, says Blairism, be better at running a school than a local education authority. So much better, in fact, that in return for less than one thirteenth of the capital budget - a mere £2m compared to the £25m invested by the government - this business wizard gets control over the curriculum, the ethos and even the name of his chosen academy. Now, I'm all for philanthropists doing their bit for public institutions like schools. I also like the idea that not every common good has to be provided the same way: academies run by, say, a university or a charity have some appeal. But that's not, predominantly, what the government has in mind. When it says it wants to look beyond the traditional providers, it means business. The same logic applies in both the party funding and city academy cases. The Labour party, the public sector and the civic worthies of local education authorities are, in the eyes of Blairism, all of a piece. They are members of a single tribe, best pushed out of the way, since their various roles - whether funding election campaigns or running schools - are bound to be performed better by the geniuses of private enterprise. As for paying these benefactors in the currency of honours, that makes Blairite sense too. Unlike John Smith, or now Gordon Brown, Blair has never strongly seen the need to reform the constitution: he is not affronted by the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords. Instead he has seen it as a pool of patronage from which he can usefully draw. Now we can see that the elements were all there long ago: impatience with the Labour party, an awe for business, a readiness to abuse the deformations of our political system for his own ends. That they have come together now is no accident. The last few years have been the chronicle of a scandal foretold. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/st...1756376,00.html
  13. Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of Harold Wilson's resignation as prime minister. For most people under 40 that fact will mean little; many will struggle to place the name. And yet, at the time, Wilson's departure was a political earthquake, wholly unexpected and assumed to have reshaped the national landscape. For Wilson had been at or close to the top of British politics for 12 years, spending all but four of them in Downing Street. For a large chunk of the 60s and 70s, the words "prime minister" instantly evoked the face and flat Yorkshire vowels of Harold Wilson. Now, though, he is all but forgotten. He did not have long to play the elder statesman, pounding the lecture circuit or doing prestigious TV interviews: his galloping Alzheimer's disease, and the assault it made on his once-famed memory, put paid to that. He became a shambling, confused figure, spotted wandering on his own around the House of Lords, until his wife Mary finally took him off to his beloved Isles of Scilly. On an ITV1 documentary, whose first part aired last night, the journalist John Sweeney recalls seeing a familiar face on a Westminster park bench, sandwiched between two winos: it was the former PM, his eyes vacant. Yet we should not let Wilson slip so easily into oblivion. Both his career, and the manner of its ending, have some useful lessons for today - ones that Tony Blair would do well to heed. First, that resignation has never been fully explained. The ITV programme offers the personal, medical theory: Wilson could tell his brain was weakening, and rather than deny reality - as his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother had done - he resolved to quit while he was still on top. But that cause was almost certainly joined by another - one argued in tomorrow's BBC2 docudrama, The Plot Against Harold Wilson. As Peter Wright confirmed in his book Spycatcher, Wilson was the victim of a protracted, illegal campaign of destabilisation by a rogue element in the security services. Prompted by CIA fears that Wilson was a Soviet agent - put in place after the KGB had, the spooks believed, poisoned Hugh Gaitskell, the previous Labour leader - these MI5 men burgled the homes of the prime minister's aides, bugged their phones and spread black, anti-Wilson propaganda throughout the media. They tried to pin all kinds of nonsense on him: that his devoted political secretary, Marcia Williams, posed a threat to national security; that he was a closet IRA sympathiser. Such talk stoked up an establishment already trembling at what it saw as Britain's inexorable slide towards anarchy, if not communist rule. Institutions were collapsing, inflation was rising, tax was at a near-mythic top rate of 98%, and Britain was losing the last outposts of empire. Above all, the trade unions, riddled with leftists and Soviet sympathisers, seemed to have the nation under their thumb. "It was no longer a green and pleasant land, England," recalls retired Major Alexander Greenwood, Colonel Blimp made flesh. The great and the good feared that the country was out of control, and that Wilson lacked either the will or the desire to stand firm. Retired intelligence officers gathered with military brass and plotted a coup d'etat. They would seize Heathrow airport, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. Lord Mountbatten would be the strongman, acting as interim prime minister. The Queen would read a statement urging the public to support the armed forces, because the government was no longer able to keep order. It sounds fantastic, almost comic. But watch Greenwood talk of setting up his own private army in 1974-75. Listen to the former intelligence officer Brian Crozier admit his lobbying of the army, how they "seriously considered the possibility of a military takeover". Watch the archive footage of troop manoeuvres at Heathrow, billed as a routine exercise but about which Wilson was never informed - and which he interpreted as a show of strength, a warning, even a rehearsal for a coup. Listen to the voice of Wilson, who five weeks after resigning summoned two BBC journalists to tell them, secretly, of the plot. Much of this has been known for a while; many of those involved have admitted as much and do so again in the BBC film. Yet officially it never happened: a 1987 inquiry under Margaret Thatcher concluded the allegations were false, implying that the fading Wilson had descended into paranoia. This can't be allowed to stand. Not only does it do an injustice to Wilson, it also represents an enormous cover-up. For this was the British Watergate, a conspiracy designed to pervert the democratic choice of the people. The circumstances of that time - mighty unions and the cold war - were entirely different. But if we are to learn the lessons of the Wilson plot, to realise what Britain's hidden powers are truly capable of, then these events deserve a proper reckoning. Blair should do a final service to the last Labour leader before him to win an election - and establish an independent inquiry. In the process, he might realise how much the two have in common. The early Wilson, like the early Blair, was hailed as the harbinger of a new Britain, in touch with the mood, and the young people, of the age. Wilson gave MBEs to the Beatles, Blair gave tea to Noel Gallagher. Both were multiple election winners, skilful players of the media. Still, historians may spot other, less comfortable parallels. First, both took heat for backing the US in an unpopular war: Wilson and LBJ in Vietnam, Blair and Bush in Iraq. Second, their reputations were badly muddied by sleaze - specifically alleged abuse of the honours system by handing out gongs and peerages to undeserving cronies. Third, they will both stir admiration for the electoral sorcery that produced winning streaks for Labour, but will both face a question: what legacy of substance did they leave behind? If anything, these parallels are unfair to Wilson. He may have publicly backed LBJ, but privately he rejected the president's repeated request to lend even a symbolic British military presence to the war in Vietnam; Wilson refused to send so much as a marching band. Johnson punished him for it, but the PM held firm. The Lavender List was a bad error, rewarding some, like Lord Kagan, who were later revealed to be corrupt. But Wilson did not sell peerages for cash, as Blair's Labour has done. In his day there was no need: his Labour party was funded by the trade unions, so did not need to go cap-in-hand to millionaires. As for legacy, Wilson was mocked for citing the Open University as his greatest achievement: but that is an institution which has changed thousands of lives for the better. Along with facing down Ian Smith in Rhodesia, and steering Britain towards a Common Market yes vote in 1975, it's not such a bad record. Blair should reflect on it and pause: if his destiny is to be remembered for Iraq, he might prefer to suffer Wilson's recent fate - and be forgotten. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Colum...1731067,00.html
  14. David Cameron: New Tory Leader

    The honeymoon's over - or at least it should be. After all, we've had two months of it; ever since David Cameron wowed the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, the man has been carpet-bombed with love. First, the Tory faithful swooned for him when he delivered a speech without notes, then the media fell even harder. (Some suspect it was the other way round, with Conservatives only realising they had been swept off their feet when the TV correspondents told them they had.) Since then the bouquets and perfumed letters from the press have not stopped coming; the love-in has had no let-up. It's not hard to see why. After the baldheads and retreads that have preceded him in the post, Cameron is exciting. He speaks fluently, has Tony Blair's knack for expressing potentially boring, political points in loose, human language and is, as you will now have read a zillion times, fit and young. More importantly, he has understood the importance of shedding his party's culturally conservative baggage - the Norman Tebbit inheritance that made the Tories seem perennially nasty and out of touch. Yesterday he said all the right things, condemning the Conservatives' dominance by white males as "scandalous" and insisting that he loves this country "as it is, not as it was". In one of his best lines, used before, he faulted Labour's top-down habits while simultaneously taking on the great she-elephant herself, declaring: "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state." So there are plenty of reasons why Tories should be excited. Even Labourites can allow themselves a small smile of satisfaction. If the measure of Margaret Thatcher's success was the extent to which she changed the Labour party, then it is a tribute to Labour that the Tories feel they have to walk and talk like centrists to stand a chance of power. But that should be the limit of it. Progressives should start telling the media: enough of the infatuation - it's getting embarrassing. For a "compassionate conservative", as Cameron styles himself, is not a new creation. We have seen one before - and his name was George Bush. He too knew how to talk nice -"No child left behind" he promised in 2000, usually surrounded by plenty of telegenic black and female faces - but once he had installed himself in power, he was as ruthless a rightwinger as any Republican in history. Cameron is no chum of Bush - and the president is unlikely to alienate Blair by getting too cosy with him now - but the parallel is not entirely bogus. For one thing, Cameron too is surrounded by ideological neoconservatives, his campaign manager and shadow chancellor George Osborne chief among them. Cameron strongly backed the Iraq war while his allies, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey, last month founded the Henry Jackson Society, named after the late US senator who is the patron saint of neoconservatism. It's all of a piece with a new Tory leader who wants to look and sound kinder and gentler, but is actually truer and bluer. Europe hardly featured in the leadership contest, but one of Cameron's few specific promises was to pull his MEPs out of the European People's Party grouping in the European parliament - leaving them instead to rub along with a few ragtag nationalists and hardliners on the fringes. Even IDS rejected that move as too batty. But it is domestically where Cameron comes into clearest focus. Labour strategists are torn on whether to run against the new man as woefully inexperienced - or as a veteran of a discredited era. He was an aide to Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday and at Michael Howard's side in the dog days of the Major administration. That won't necessarily make much impact in itself - but it might, once Labour points out that Cameron remains true to the ideology of that unlamented age. In four years in the Commons he has voted against every extra investment in schools, hospitals and the police. He voted against the increase in national insurance that went on the NHS. He wants to abolish the New Deal and undo Britain's adherence to the European social chapter, the document that ensures a variety of rights and protections for British workers. Again and again, Cameron may talk left, but he remains a man of the right. The work-life balance is a favoured theme, constantly advertising his own hands-on involvement in family duties, yet in 2002 he voted against a battery of measures that would have extended maternity leave to 26 weeks, raised maternity pay and introduced two weeks' paid leave for fathers as well as leave for adoptive parents. Most striking, given his own circumstances, he voted against giving parents of young or disabled children the right to request flexible working. On schools, he has advocated a voucher system that would send resources to private schools at the expense of state comprehensives. On health, he has argued for a "patients' passport", which would enable individuals to jump the NHS queue, partly using public money to go private. It is on the economy, though, that the gloss should wear off fastest. Cameron talks of "sharing" the fruits of growth between investment and tax cuts. Sounds reasonable, everyone likes sharing. Trouble is, that diversion of funds to tax cuts would bite deep into planned spending: losing £12bn this year and £17bn next, according to Gordon Brown. That will allow the chancellor to use the same tactic against Cameron that destroyed each of his predecessors. Which services will be cut? Which school playground won't be renovated, which hospital ward will be shut? Brown is already taunting Cameron and Osborne, telling them they have invented a new golden rule, one that will deprive Britons of the public investments they have come to like. Perhaps the new leader will return to the idea he floated three months ago: the flat tax. Or maybe he will listen to one of his own MPs, Quentin Davies, who branded the scheme "pretty kooky". What it amounts to is a long list of contradictions, if not hypocrisies. Yesterday Cameron told the nation "everyone is invited" to his new Tory party. Yet he was the chief author of a manifesto that, just six months ago, played on fears of immigration and asylum in a way that could only make relations between the races more tense. He was "fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring". Yet the previous day his closest ally, Osborne, launched a wholly personal attack on Brown that called names, bit backs and scored points. Labour will have to decide how to deal with this, and soon. The next hundred days will be crucial; it is now that the public perception of Cameron will be formed. Within three months in 1997 William Hague was branded a baseball-cap-wearing loser; in the same period in 1994, Blair was deemed a JFK-style winner. Labour will have to decide its theme and stick to it. Brown signalled it yesterday: it is that Cameron is a rightwing wolf in compassionate sheep's clothing. He is the same old Tory, just rebranded and with a full head of hair. Will it work? That much is a test for the whole electorate. We will have to weigh Brown's record against Cameron's panache - and choose. What really matters most in politics, style or substance? We are about to find out. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1660457,00.html
  15. Civil Unrest in France

    Paris is in flames and it's more than a city which is burning. The presidency of Jacques Chirac, already battered, is being consumed before our eyes. The French political class, shaken by the No vote in May's referendum on the European constitution and the rejection of the Paris bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, is feeling the ground tremble. Not since 1968 has there been such a widespread and sustained challenge to the French state. But the greatest threat of all is to an idea, one that has held firm since the first days of the Republic. If that idea is now shrivelling in the flames of Lille and Toulouse, the heat will be felt far beyond France: it will reach even here. The riots themselves are not hard to fathom; several French commentators have said the only mystery is why they didn't break out 15 years earlier. If you corral hundreds of thousands of the poor and disadvantaged into sink estates and suburbs in a misery doughnut around the city, expose them to unemployment rates of up to 40%, and then subject them to daily racial discrimination at the hands of employers and the police, you can hardly expect peace and tranquillity. Cut public spending on social programmes by 20% and you will guarantee an explosion. All you have to do is light the fuse. And this fire has been building for decades. It was after the second world war that - just as health minister Enoch Powell went recruiting for NHS staff in the Caribbean - France went shopping among its foreign colonies for labourers and factory workers. It brought these mainly Arab migrants in, then dumped them on the outskirts of the big cities. It did the same to the Harkis - Algerians who had collaborated with the French colonial authorities - and the next waves of North African immigrants, warehousing them like an unwanted commodity in high-rise ghettoes on the périphérique, out of sight of the white folks of the city. And there they have stayed for a half century. Their anger could not stay pent-up forever. And the official reaction to the first outbreak of violence clearly inflamed it. Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy promised to "Karcherise" the "scum" who were burning cars and torching buildings: Karcher is the brand name for a kind of sand-blaster, the sort of machine one might use to remove bird droppings from a wall. According to former Libération columnist Doug Ireland, to speak of Karcherising the North African youth on the streets was "as close as one can get to hollering ethnic cleansing without actually saying so". The motives of the man they call Sarko are not hard to divine: he wants to run for president in 2007 and has clearly decided his constituency is the white right nurtured by Jean-Marie Le Pen. His hardman language during these last 10 days has been a nakedly Powellite bid for those National Front votes. Now his rival, prime minister Dominique de Villepin, has taken the initiative, reviving a 1955 curfew law which allows local authorities to impose a state of emergency. He may succeed where Sarkozy failed, restoring a semblance of calm. But the move itself has caused disquiet. For the 1955 law was passed to quell Algerian unrest at the height of the independence struggle. That the same legislation should now be used to put down the children and grandchildren of the Algerian rebels has prompted some glum reflection in France - as if that bitter war never really ended. It's this sentiment which gets close to what is really at stake. Yes, these riots are rooted in economic deprivation and urban decay. But they also have an ethnic, racial dimension. And France's key problem is that it cannot face that fact. That is a less polemical statement than it sounds. For it is a matter of bald fact that France does not officially recognise the concept of ethnic difference at all. It is literally illegal for anyone compiling an official census even to ask about someone's ethnic origins. There are no figures showing the rate of French-Algerian unemployment or school enrolment or hospital treatment. French official texts speak of integration as resting on the "refusal to distinguish citizens according to their origins and their particularities". In other words, there can be no Algerian French or French-Moroccans or any other such combination. There are only the French. This is a defining republican value. Tim King, who writes the excellent France Profonde column for Prospect magazine, says the idea is rigidly enforced. "When an immigrant comes to France, he must drop everything he has ever learned of his previous culture; he has to leave it in his baggage." The doctrine was doubtless perfectly well-intentioned. There shall be no categories of citizen in France, it declared. The law shall view everyone equally. The trouble is, it is not the law that decides every aspect of daily life: people do. And they do not always have the pure, colour-blind outlook presumed by the French notion of integration. On the contrary, racism of the overt, gross variety persists in France. One study last year found, for example, that a man with a classic French name applying for 100 jobs will get 75 interviews. A man with the same qualifications, but with an Algerian name, will get just 14. The trouble is, according to the law, that is a mere coincidence. After all, both Francois and Abdul are French citizens. France's refusal to see the ethnicity of some of its people as relevant translates into de facto racism. If human beings were free of prejudice, the French republican ideal would work beautifully. Because we are not, it allows racism a free hand. It is a classic example of what happens when an idea designed for one era remains unchanged for a later one. As Neil Kinnock might have put it, a once decent value becomes pickled into a dogma - enforcing the very opposite outcome of the one it intended. The French do not face this problem alone. The US has a model of integration which is the reverse of France's: it positively encourages new migrants to hold on to their first culture, happy to let them hyphenate as Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans. But that model is not perfect either. As we saw after Katrina, there are still plenty of Americans who feel excluded by their race. That's partly because the US model applies to immigrants, those who chose to make their life anew in America. It does not apply either to those who were already there or those who were dragged to the country in chains, in the holds of cargo ships. Which is why Native Americans and African-Americans both argue, with justification, that they are shut out of the American dream. Britain has an emerging model too, one we call multiculturalism. It did not arrive from nowhere, but partly came out of our own experience of race riots in the 1980s. Unlike France's, it recognises difference and has passed legislation to protect it. But it also yearns for some affirmation of common identity. It knows there are differences between us - but it wants there to be ties that bind. What those ties should be, what notion of Britishness might hold us all together, nobody seems quite sure. Indeed, the problem of racial cohesion in Britain is far from solved, as we saw last month in Lozells. But multiculturalism is still the best model we have. And, after the last 10 days, it may be the only one left. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Colum...1637189,00.html
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