Wednesday, July 23, 2008 

The clunking fist.

When Gordon Brown finally ascended to the job he had so coveted just over twelve months ago, I suspect that most of us, or at least those of us who had regarded Tony Blair for his last few years in office with the same sort of respect as we do a dead skunk, didn't possibly think that things could get worse, or indeed, that the odds were good that such forgotten little things as honesty and accountability would improve, with there was also likely to be less pompous and sanctimonious grandstanding.

For the first couple of months, over Brown's so-called honeymoon period, this actually seemed to be happening. Announcements were being made to the Commons rather than to the press; the cabinet was meeting regularly and debate within it was actually encouraged; and even if a little underwhelming, with some finding it rather sad, Brown's pledge to "do his utmost" as he stood in Downing Street surrounded by cameras felt authentic, compared to all the flannel that we had been used to from Blair.

All of this evaporated in one ill-fated, ignorant decision: not to call off the election after Brown had Grand Old Duke of York style marched his troops to the top of the hill, but to instead go and visit the actual troops in Basra during the Tory party conference, and also to pledge that some of them would be shortly returning home. This understandably on the part of the Conservatives caused widespread anger; not just to be upstaging them, which could be forgiven, but to be playing politics with the armed forces and their loved ones back home for short-term possible gain. Ever since then Brown has floundered.

If this had happened to Blair it would have been forgotten swiftly. Blair could do almost anything, whether it be his overall responsibility for the death of Dr David Kelly because his spin doctor, knowing that the BBC potentially had information which could critically damage both him and his boss, went completely over-the-top in his quest to prove the allegations of sexing up were untrue, or being interviewed by the police over the loans for peerages scandal on the same day on which his press and ministerial team were doing their best to bury it, as his ever loyal attorney general walked over to the House of Lords and announced that the SFO were abandoning the corruption inquiry to the Al-Yamanah weapons deal between BAE and the Saudis, and despite being covered in the proverbial, he still emerged smelling of roses. I suspect that Blair would never have inspired such visceral loathing if he had ever betrayed signs of vulnerability, admitted that he had got something wrong or even if anyone ever laid a real glove on him in a political sense; but they didn't.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, as others have mentioned, seems to have at the moment the reverse Midas touch. Everything he goes near doesn't turn into gold; it turns into excrement. Take yesterday, in the Commons on the last day of the parliamentary year, where you'd expect both he and the opposition to be de-mob happy. What's more, he had some sort of good news to report. Having just visited Basra again, this time, thanks mainly to the continuing ceasefire of Sadr's Mahdi army after a brief uprising earlier in the year, the city's security has vastly improved, meaning that even though the remaining British troops there are on "overwatch", training the Iraqi army, all troops might now be out, or all but a very minor force, by 2010, with the majority out early next year. We can quibble that we should have never gone in in the first place, that they ought to have been out long ago, and that all Brown is doing is in reality waiting until we find out who the next US president is going to be and what his plans are, but it's possibly the beginning of the end rather than the end of the beginning.

Cameron though, understandably, stands up and raises the point that Brown's posturing last autumn wasn't really fit behaviour from a prime minister. Mark Lancaster, who's served with the TA, went so far as to ask for an apology. Brown's response? He accused the Conservatives of playing politics with the armed forces.

Doubtless, Blair would have done pretty much the same thing in Brown's position. He however would have done it nimbly; Brown's problem is that he has the same sense of subtlety as Jodie Marsh has in the clothes department. Blair called him the clunking fist, and he is, there's no doubt about that. But it's in the truly literal sense, in that you can see him making his move a mile off, and he does in it such a blundering, clumsy manner that it doesn't just offend for a moment before it's forgotten, it sticks in the memory. Tony Blair had chutzpah in spades, but always got away with it. Brown's chutzpah leaves him not looking vulnerable, but looking like both a knave and a fool.

Again, you could perhaps even forgive this if Brown had kept his promises on honesty and accountability, but as the problems have mounted up, this too has been quickly forgotten. You can put a certain amount of blame on the media hysteria over knife crime, but last week's fiasco with Jacqui Smith going round the studios announcing that youths were to be taken into hospitals to see victims, only to deny this was the case a day later when they suddenly realised it wasn't a very good idea and that the presentation in any case was hopeless, was a case in point. That however compared to yesterday's rushing out of 30 end-of-term statements, which can only be described as burying them as even when the newspapers aren't busy they hardly bother to report the happenings at Westminster. Of those rushed out, 10 were prime ministerial statements, a direct breach of the ministerial code, which just incidentally, is enforced by... the prime minister.

Even allowing for the fact that some things are forgotten and may not have genuinely been ready to be announced until yesterday, this is surely cynicism of the highest order. It's not also if this has only occurred this year; last term there were 27 statements on the last day of parliament. The number in Blair's final full year of office? 17.

While this is clearly not on the same level as Blair's attempt to bury his meeting with Inspector Knacker, it was that we had come to expect it from the king of spin. From Brown, some of us naively thought that things would be different. Perhaps again though the biggest failure is that Brown's spin, when he's attempted it, has been dire. Alastair Campbell may have deeply distorted and helped bring politics down to its current level of contempt and cynicism, but at least he was good at it. You would never have seen Blair sitting next to a gun in a helicopter, just to begin with. Brown's real failure is not to have led his party to its lowest ratings in a generation; it's that he's failed to be honest with himself, and in doing so, he's left the door wide open for David Cameron, just as agile as Blair, to skulk in.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Share |

Saturday, June 28, 2008 

One year on: the verdict.

Predictably, the week's press has been full of various articles commenting on Gordon Brown's anniversary in power, so there seems little point in writing a long narrative along similar lines (although, as usual, it seems that's what I've ended up doing) when you can go with either of these two instead.

It is however worth looking back, if it isn't too narcissistic, at what I wrote when Gordon ascended and what would hopefully be changed or altered. As you might have guessed, it doesn't make for good reading:

It's probably worth a slight cheer that the dross is getting cleaned out, although we won't have the full details of Brown's new cabinet until tomorrow. Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Beckett, united in being completely out of their depth in their respective jobs, are at least finally put out of their misery. John "not a single shot" Reid has already announced his departure, as has Lord Goldsmith and another Blairite apparatchik, Hilary Armstrong. If Hazel Blears, Tessa Jowell, Lord Falconer, Lord Drayson and Liam Byrne follow suit then Brown might just mean a certain amount of what he says.

Hazel Blears is now communities minister, and as useless as ever. Tessa Jowell is still Olympics minister, because you may as well keep one complete failure at the post rather than taint someone else with such a poisoned chalice. Lord Falconer has gone, and since taken to criticising Brown over 42 days and the constitutional changes, even though if he were still in government he'd doubtless be defending the same things to the hilt. Lord Drayson resigned to spend more time racing, and Liam Byrne is still at the Home Office. Adding to the dross that Brown has brought in, "Wacky" Jacqui Smith is just as bad a home secretary as we've come to expect from New Labour, Tony McNulty, is still polluting the airwaves with his absolute loyalty to the Supreme Leader and every bad policy which has ever been conjured up, Andy Burnham is now culture secretary, the execrable Blairite James Purnell is at work and pensions, and the supremely talented Digby Jones was last week celebrating the brilliance of the British arms industry as trade minister. With a team like that, how can it be possible that Labour's doing so badly?

He should be similarly judged on just how far his familiar talk of a new politics is. It needs to involve a full, independent inquiry into the Iraq war - involving both how the intelligence was presented by the government in the build up to war, how apparently the planning for after the invasion was either ripped up and ignored or how there was none in the first place, and as Lord Goldsmith has already suggested, how the mistreatment and torture of detainees came to be both accepted and even encouraged, with predictable results. A similar inquiry into the 7/7 attacks wouldn't go amiss either.

Back in March the government argued successfully again that the "time wasn't right" for an inquiry into the war. There is also no chance whatsoever of an independent inquiry into 7/7.

Next Brown needs to set out just how soon the troops in Iraq are to be brought back - they are, as General Dannatt said, simply making the security situation in the south worse. Enough blood has been spilt, both Iraqi and British. Handover in the other provinces formerly controlled by the British has already taken place with only minor problems. The majority of troops could be back home within 3 months, with a complete withdrawal within a year easily being achievable.

Since then, the withdrawal to Basra airport has taken place and there have been no casualties in Iraq for some time. One of Brown's biggest mistakes was his trip to Basra during the Conservative party conference last October, quickly seized upon as him trying to make political capital out of bringing troops home while deflecting attention from the Tories. The opposition also quickly noticed that Brown's announcement was another New Labour classic strategy of re-announcing something already made public. The troops are still stuck in Iraq, serving absolutely no purpose whatsoever except making things easier for the Republicans in an electoral year. That Brown and Bush were far more chummy when he came to visit two weeks' back than at the initial meeting, where Brown was deliberately stand-offish to give the impression that the special relationship between Blair and Bush was not going to be continued showed where the real power lies.

Reid and Brown have already hinted at a new attempt at reaching cross-party consensus over anti-terror legislation. The introduction of intercept evidence, rejected so far, needs to be reconsidered, despite the concerns of the security services. The disappearance of those being held under control orders has only proved what the critics said they would be: both illiberal and ineffective. Rather than derogating from the article 5 of the ECHR, those being held under them should be either prosecuted or set free, it's that simple. Brown is meant to support up to 90 days detention without trial: he could signal a new approach to civil liberties by deciding that 28 days is in fact more than enough, especially combined with offences not yet used that make it illegal to withhold encryption keys. Putting into action the leak at the weekend of the possibility of the lifting of the protest ban within a mile of parliament should also be one of his first acts in office. Scrapping ID cards and reexamining the need for both the children's database and "the Spine" medical records database, indeed the whole National Programme for IT would also be more than welcome.

Starting with the good, Brown is indeed scrapping the ban on protests within a mile of parliament without permission. That he last week claimed this was a freedom that Labour had created when it was one that they had initially taken somewhat blotted the goodwill the gesture originally espoused. As for the rest, I think we all know what happened over 42 days, without needing to go into it yet again. Intercept evidence is still rejected; control orders are still in place; ID cards the same; the children's database and the Spine are still coming; and the National Programme for IT is still the wasteful disaster it was at the time of writing.

Columnists have talked of Brown wanting to make considerable constitutional changes, even as potentially radical as either a bill of rights or an actual constitution. If we're to have either, then the bollocks about "rights and responsibilities" has to be dropped. We have rights: we don't need to be reminded of our responsibilities while exercising them, especially in any document, which is the way the ludicrous debate has been going. Potential electoral reform, also hinted at, would also be welcome. Almost every other election going is now under a form of proportional representation, whether it be for the European parliament or the Scottish/Welsh votes, so let's at the very least have the alternative vote system at Westminster, if not full PR.

Far from the bollocks about "rights and responsibilities" being dropped, it's instead at the very heart of the mostly miserable constitutional changes planned. Electoral reform was briefly alluded to, with the alternative vote mooted, but again it seems to have now been forgotten.

This is without even going into the NHS or further education reform, on which Brown's ideas/plans have also not looked particularly promising. If he means what he says, then full consultation, rather than top-down enforced for the sake of it change must be the order of the day. There's next to no chance that he'll reconsider the huge wastefulness of his pet PFI projects, especially considering how they've helped keep him from breaking his so-called "golden rule" by keeping the costs off the public balance sheet, but it's a scandal waiting to happen, and he ought to act first.

On schools, we've seen the academy system being ever further hyped up, ignoring the inherent problems they have with the sponsors, the more subtle forms of selection, and the throwing of the "troublesome" children onto the other schools. Ed Balls, who despite the brickbats aimed at him by the right is one of the most promising ministers mainly because he stills seems to have an ounce of humanity left in him, recently announced that over 270 schools were for the chop if they didn't improve within 2 years. That a large proportion of these schools aren't failing in the specific sense doesn't seem to matter; we must have permanent revolution in education or we have nothing. On health, while Alan Johnson has mostly been an effective minister, the planned polyclinics are rightly attracting huge amounts of criticism and concern about the patient-GP relationship being broken down. Health is probably the government's biggest success since Brown's takeover: the losses have been turned into surpluses, waiting times are down across the board, but no one really seems to have noticed.

There's much much more, on criminal justice, immigration and the environment which could be discussed, but this ought to be a more than adequate basis on which his promises to be different should be eventually considered. An election sooner rather than later would also be a welcome step, if he's to firmly cement his mandate which not even Labour party members were called on to confirm. A year should be more than enough time to consider whether he's been true to his word. If so, rejoicing then might be in order. I'm not holding my breath.

The only really appreciable change over criminal justice policy was that quietly the reliance on ASBOs has been dropped, with Ed Balls again being fingered as the person responsible, with him wanting a return to a more welfare based approach. That is to be welcomed, but when your entire policy revolves around responding to whichever tabloid demands this or that on crime this week, it's constantly being undermined. The reclassification of cannabis to Class B is the prime example - a move that will simply criminalise yet more young people and those who have been smoking for years, distract the police from dealing with more serious crimes, and will have no effect whatsoever on those who'll carry on using the drug regardless, all because of one of the most hysterical and misinformed tabloid campaigns on "skunk" in years. Again, we all know what happened on the election front, and ever since we've been treated to constant, tedious allusions and remarks about "bottler" Brown.

When Brown became prime minister, I suspect many of us on the left hoped that Brown, while never likely or even able in the circumstances to reach the standard we'd like to set, would at least offer something different to Blair. In a way, he has. The spin has calmed down, we haven't had any outrages on the level of that day in December 06 when Blair was questioned by police while everything possible to distract from it was enacted, or the shameful response to the Israel/Hizbullah/Lebanon war. Brown is infinitely more of a real person that the messianic Blair, but yet it seems the public themselves don't want someone more cerebral, less natural in front of a camera, less charismatic. You look across at David Cameron, and it seems that is what a significant majority now seem to want from their leader: folksy, personable, the common touch while not being the slightest bit common. Brown of course doesn't help by the way he responds to the ribbing of Cameron at every prime minister's questions, the prime minister resembling the proverbial bear with a sore head, who roars at every jab while never landing a blow. In that, Vince Cable was wrong: Brown is Stalin, but he's only feared by his own people, in this case the Labour party itself. Everyone outside of it just pokes endless fun at him.

This difference though doesn't make up for the complete lack of change for those of us who are sympathetic, while it's disastrous for him and Labour among those who aren't. The overwhelming reason why Labour is 20 points behind in the polls isn't for any of the above reasons however, but because the economy has finally turned, and the cupboards are bare. The 10p tax debacle just reinforced that even the two things Brown was meant to be for, the end of child poverty and stealthy redistribution to the poorest, were dispensable when an opportunity to get one over on the Tories presented itself. So it was over 42 days.

The most damning verdict on Brown's first year in power has been given most forcibly not by any commentator or blogger, but by the voters in the Henley by-election. Labour was never going to win, but to come fifth behind both the BNP and the Greens and to lose your deposit could not be a bigger indictment. The hilarious solution to this from Hopi Sen is to donate money to the party, which contains the same amount of logic as putting your money on a horse with three legs. Most of all though, Brown has not just betrayed those who hoped for better things, he's betrayed himself. Blair never had any principles to jettison, and it was clear from the beginning he would say or do anything to get into power. The same is apparent with David Cameron. We thought differently with Gordon Brown, but we were wrong. There's no point changing leader, as no one can stop the ship from sinking. All that's left is to count the days until these bastards are finally out of power and the next set of likely worse bastards are voted in.

Labels: , , , , ,

Share |


  • This is septicisle


Powered by Blogger
and Blogger Templates