Monthly Archives: February 2007

Harumph from Malcolm

BBC Radio 4’s 9 a.m. news summary, after the extended Blair-Humphrys interview, caught Malcolm off balance. He had heard a lengthy sparring match, with Blair making many telling points despite Humphrys’ usual intrusive squibs. The news summary was then full of “Prime Minister refused …” and “did not apologise” and “would not deny” and numerous permutations thereof. This was not a fair précis of the programme Malcolm had just heard. It was, on the contrary, a draft for an opening paragraph of a Sunday Times smear-job. Here is Nick Assinger giving the “official” BBC summary:

More defiant, unapologetic and convinced of his rightness than ever, Tony Blair has insisted he takes no responsibility whatever for the violence in Iraq.

… he displayed no hint of any self-doubt or readiness to give an inch to his critics.

Time and again he refused to apologise for the current situation in Iraq or accept claims the war had made the world and the UK more dangerous places.

(Malcolm has already directed an elf to enquire whether the BBC have issued, or will issue a transcript of the interview. The contact to the BBC Press Office is here. Don’t expect to be served.)

This was Humphrys’ opening shot: The charge against him [Blair] is that he has made Iraq more dangerous, the Middle East more dangerous, and the world, including this country, more dangerous.

Humphrys is usually exact in his use of words. Indeed, he has penned a small treatise on the use and abuse of the English language. He must know the difference between “active” and “passive” as grammatical terms. How, then, would he defend his use of the word “dangerous”, (now endorsed by Assinger, and—inevitably, in tomorrow’s prints—) especially in respect of Britain’s posture in the world? Is Humphrys proposing, even for the sake of argument, that Britain is a “rogue state”? Or did he mean to say that Britain is now more “endangered” (which may well be a generally-accepted point-of-view)? If the latter, then he is largely conceding Blair’s whole point. That does not make good journalism. The BBC’s and Humphrys’ aim is not just to report the news, but to make it — which also amounts to proposing an oppositionist agenda.

Inevitably, some 18 minutes into the interview, Humphrys jibed on the issue of Iraq and WMD: Saddam was a brutal dictator, but the evidence shows he was not a threat because he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. This is the wisdom-after-the-event that is as adjacent as one can get to woolly-LibDemery and their Trot fellow-travellers. It is a view that rapidly seques into implying Saddam was misrepresented, and actually nearly as housetrained that that nice Mr Göring used to be. Malcolm urges any doubter to see the parallels: after all, the Ba’athist party was consciously modelled on Uncle Adolph’s prototype:

As a young man, Saddam Hussein admired Hitler’s system of government. His fondness for totalitarianism came from his maternal uncle, Khairullah Tilfah (1). Stalin and communism were subsequently Saddam’s exemplars. He tailored his system along Nazi and Stalinist lines, though it had a number of new features. In keeping with Nazi ideals, Iraq’s Ba’ath party had four main pillars: totalitarian ideology, single-party rule, a command economy (nominally socialist), and firm control over the media and the army.

The evidence on WMD (a good Humphrys word, there) is all to the contrary. Malcolm sternly advises resort to GWU’s National Security Archive for the historical bases, starting here.

Malcolm’s own reading is that Saddam was highly effective in a continuing bluff that Iraq had developed WMDs. The track-record was there:

  • missiles developed beyond the 88 SCUDs actually used in 1991 (which had a range of 1,100 miles);
  • the chemical agents and nerve gases employed throughout the 1980s; and, above all,
  • the Osiraq/Tammuz nuclear facility. In this case, when something is named alternatively for the Egyptian god of the dead, or the Ba’ath Party’s accession to power, that gets a message over pretty clearly.

It cannot be denied that, throughout 2002 and into 2003, it was commonly accepted that Iraq had access to such weaponry. So much so, that it was one of the main arguments against the Iraq invasion. The LibDem rewriting of history, as endorsed by Humphrys, is:

All now agree that there were no WMD in Iraq in 2003. The rationale for the March 2003 invasion was flawed and the invasion illegal. The Labour Government’s frequent argument since then that the invasion was justified by the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime contradicts its repeated statements before the invasion that it was the issue of WMD, not the character of the regime, that justified intervention.

This contrasts with the Lib Dem position (Charles Kennedy leading) in the Iraq debate of 18th March 2002, when they accepted the Iraqi WMDs:

… is it not better to pursue the course of disarmament on the ground in the presence of weapons inspectors? No matter how sophisticated modern technology, even compared with at the time of the last Gulf war, is it not more precise to have weapons dismantled in the presence of inspectors rather than so-called precision bombing trying to take them out?

Humphrys, quoting Sir Richard Dearlove, followed the LibDem line with the chestnut that “the intelligence and facts [were] being fixed around the policy”. This was Humphrys’ way into the Iran-issue, on the way instructing Blair that he was naïf in his belief that there was only one kind of democracy. This amounted to a claim that Iran was democratic (a claim Blair queried, but was quickly over-ridden).

All this leaves Malcolm wondering where the BBC/Humphrys are coming from, or going to. Obviously there are scores still to be settled, post-Gilligan. Try this, from the SIndy, for poison:

Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, stunned a literary festival audience when he chose an unfortunate turn of phrase, saying the Government “tried to kill” the reporter Andrew Gilligan.

Mr Dyke, who was forced out of his job at the BBC in January in the wake of the Hutton report, launched into a familiar tirade against the Government at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in Gloucestershire.

Mr Dyke said: “Andrew Gilligan was a guy of 32; like all those press guys … they’re all a bit odd. It’s the nature of the world they work in. He lives on his own and he’s not the most popular man in the world.

“The Government tried to kill him. Campbell hated him. They tried to get him. When he wouldn’t do the deed [a reference to Gilligan apologising], they basically said to us: ‘Right, we are going to throw the whole PR operation of the Government against you’. These are not nice people.

Humphrys is at the core of this feud: if anyone has forgotten the Tim Allan kerfuffle, try the account by David Elstein. Curious how these defenders of open debate react to the publication of their back-stage machinations.

This persistent sniping from Portland Place is dangerous in that it endangers the basics of British democracy, and the Beeb’s own impartiality. Or, is there a fifth column somewhere in the Corporation looking for a Tory government and a sell-off of radio to … Murdoch? “Triples all round”, © Private Eye. Then all the circles will be neatly squared.

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Reading Morse code

We all know that Malcolm is an election wonk, and he is actually relishing the prospect of a few days in Northern Ireland. He is fully aware that not many share this dementia, and that most mainlanders couldn’t care less about Northern Irish local elections.

He is even happier when somebody does the heavy-lifting. So we hear him loudly and at length recommending Sammy Morse’s continuing efforts to do a Prufrock on the eighteen constituencies for the Northern Irish Assembly election in a fortnight’s time:
Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats…

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

The rude electoral arithmetic of Northern Ireland is on the QUB’s Ark site, which is the continuing blood, sweat and tears of Nicholas Whyte, to whom much kudos. Sammy Morse is glossing this with astute observation of the street scene as it is today. So far he has knocked off half of his constituency reports. Together these two sources are exemplary, and show how it should be done readably, in depth and in detail.

For mainlanders, the first problem is STV (the single transferable vote) in multi-member constituencies. This is quite simple: instead of voting X, one votes 1,2,3 … down the list of one’s preferences. The “quota” to achieve election is the total of votes divided by the number of seats to be filled plus one. Any “surplus” is then distributed on the basis of that candidate’s “second preferences”. And so on. The Electoral Reform Society (who recommend this system) explain it all in detail. The system is used in the Irish Republic and Tasmania: the Irish electorate, Malcolm has heard claimed, is the most sophisticated in the world, able to calculate—almost instinctively—the implications of subsequent preferences. At least one “safe” candidate, by anecdote, was done down thereby, when, across his would-be constituency, pubs were invaded, late afternoon of election day, by strangers declaring: “Sure, ’tis sad about himself. Heart attack. Stone dead before the doctor arrived.”

Sammy Morse started his survey with East Belfast, which is when and why Malcolm started to become interested. The East Belfast is solid Proddery, the nauseating Peter Robinson’s Westminster patch, and last outing delivered 2DUP, 2UUP, 1PUP and 1 Alliance. Nationalists amount to only a twentieth of the total vote (so not likely to be in the prizes), and in an ideal world would transfer to the Alliance, buffering Naomi Long‘s prospects. The PUP seat was the late David Ervine‘s, and is now up for grabs. Morse is forecasting that the DUP can pick up this as a third seat, which is also the view of Whyte‘s site.

The other headliner in Belfast is South Belfast. The ethnology of this constituency is 42% Catholic and 52% declared Prod; but in 2005 the SDLP’s Dr Alasdair McDonnell squeezed through the DUP/UUP vendetta and took the Orangeman Rev Martin Smith‘ s Westminster seat. More interestingly, the Unionists may have slipped below the 50% mark. So Whyte is marking this one 2DUP, 2SDLP with Alex Maskey for SF and Anna Lo for Alliance scraping up the crumbs. Morse splits it 2DUP, 1UUP, 1SF, 1 SDLP and Anna Lo, but flagging that SF feel this is their most vulnerable seat. Both assessments may equally reflect some dewy-eyed romanticism over mould-breaking Lo.

Outside Belfast, there’s more gore yet to spill on the carpet in Lagan Valley (that’s Lisburn and Banbridge, and (hold-your-nose) Jeffrey Donaldson‘s Westminster seat. The story here continues to be mass defection from the UUP to the DUP: the DUP could hoover up four seats here, leaving one for the UUP and one for the non-unionists to fight over. Whyte admits to being doubtful at the split, and Morse has yet to utter on this one. Watch both sites, suggests Malcolm.

And does it all matter? And if so, what is Eliot’s bloody question? Yes, indeedy, says Malcolm. Any doubters should find an answer in Barry White’s recent Belfast Telegraph bodice-ripper.

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Another “rendition” for Shannon Airport?

Malcolm was amused to see the Guardian at it again:

Dermot Mannion, Aer Lingus chief executive, told the Guardian that the airline was seeking the implementation of a transition agreement between Ireland and the US that will reduce the number of stopovers at Shannon airport in Galway and open up three new US destinations to the airline, which already flies to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.

That, presumably, is a different Shannon Airport, which since the 1940s has been at Rineanna in the County Clare.

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Flash forward?

There’s another bee in Malcolm’s bonnet. Not to coin a phrase: e septrentrione Hiberiae nunquam aliquid novum.

So, what on earth are the Tories expecting from the forthcoming Assembly Election? And why, this Monday, was Dipsy Dave Cameron in Northern Ireland (as foreshadowed last week)?

to support Northern Ireland Assembly candidates.

To their eternal shame and damnation, most of the continuing problems of Northern Ireland can be traced back to the manipulation by English Tories of “Ulster” politics. Even Ruth Dudley Edwards’ partisan The Faithful Tribe comes clean on that:

Gladstone … announced (sincerely) his conversion to Home Rule and became prime minister for the third time at the end of January 1886. Orangemen and Ulster Conservatives began a frenzied anti-Home Rule campaign and organised huge demonstrations all over Ulster, the most famous of which was the February Ulster Hall meeting addressed by the maverick Lord Randolph Churchill. No lover of ‘foul Ulster Tories’, Churchill had taken a deliberate decision to attack Gladstone by playing ‘the Ulster card … Please God it may turn out the ace of trumps and not the two. It would be neither the first nor the last time that a mainland politician would cynically make use for his own ends of the fervent loyalty of the United Kingdom’s most faithful tribe.

In due course, the province repaid the Churchills by facilitating son, Winston, with his only General Election victory. This item rarely received the acknowledgement it deserves. The 1951 General Election gave the Tories 301 seats (and add 19 “National Liberals”). Labour had 295. There were two Irish Nationalists and West Belfast’s Irish Labour seat (that was Jack Beattie). Subtract the nine Ulster Unionist seats credited to the Tories, and Churchill’s majority in 1951 evaporates.

And we now have “Conservatives Northern Ireland New Politics for a New Northern Ireland” putting up nine candidates for the Assembly. Though,

For our upcoming election campaign we have decided to adopt the national tree rather our local Oak variant. We think Conservatives Northern Ireland is a bit of a mouthful and that something snappier might be in order. So we’d like to introduce you to our election branding. The national Conservative tree. Expect to see it on our election materials, our posters, and on the voting papers.

Conservative Party Logo

Because, you see, the Conservative Party is the only political party that contests elections in every part of the United Kingdom. So, for the elections, we’ll simply be Conservatives. That’ll do nicely.

Malcolm doubts that makes very much clearer, especially when he reads the small print:

As a pro-Union party it is likely that we will designate as Unionist if we are successful in winning seats.

Could it be, he asks, that we are seeing a trailer for the next Tory General Election campaign? If that is the case, we know the bare bones of a Cameron manifesto:

I want politics in Northern Ireland to be about the real things — schools, hospitals, tax … not about timetables, deadlines and institutional arrangements. And I want the Conservative Party to be a part of that new politics. We’re moving in a new direction. Leading the debate. Pulling ahead of a tired Government. Developing policies for the future. In doing so, one thing is certain. My Party’s commitment to Northern Ireland, and to all its people, will be whole hearted and unshakeable.

Unlike, perhaps Dipsy Dave’s grasp of grammar and rhetoric.

There is, to Malcolm’s mind, a fair account of the current NITory strategy, courtesy of Jonathan Isaby blogging on telegraph.co.uk:

Historically, of course, the Conservatives had links with the Ulster Unionists. However, political differences over the handling of Northern Ireland under Edward Heath’s premiership caused a split, and Margaret Thatcher’s signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 ensured those ties were broken for good.

In 1989 came the first signs of the Conservatives organising in Northern Ireland, and at the 1992 general election, the party came within several thousand votes of winning the North Down constituency. But thereafter, as the Tories struggled in mainland UK, John Major was more concerned about keeping the UUP sweet, since their votes were often crucial in knife-edge Commons divisions.

Similarly in Opposition, there have been informal links with the UUP, but those have become increasingly superfluous as the UUP’s star has waned – losing all but one of its Westminster seats in 2005, and only just managing to beat the SDLP into fourth place in terms of the popular vote. Former leader David Trimble was close to the Conservatives, but the one remaining UUP MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, is politically far closer to New Labour.

No-one is talking about the Tories breaking the mould of Ulster politics quite yet. At this Assembly election, the party is standing a single candidate in nine of the 18 constituencies, each of which elects six members under the single transferable vote system.

And of the nine seats the Tories are contesting, the party is only seriously targeting two: North Down, where former UUP Assembly member James Leslie donning the blue rosette, and Strangford, where their candidate is Bob Little, another former UUP man.

North Down is the best prospect of the Tories winning a seat, and that is where Cameron went this afternoon, to visit a doctor’s surgery and highlight matters relating to the NHS. It is the most middle class of the Ulster constituencies, and Bangor – with its own marina – could easily be mistaken for a prosperous seaside town in the south east of England.

What the Northern Irish Tories seem to be hoping for is that as politics in the province normalises, there will be a serious market for a non-sectarian, unionist party, which is rooted in the centre-Right of politics. Furthermore, they reckon that they have far more electoral potential with the new generation of voters who did not live through the worst of the Troubles.

Remember that: the UUP’s star has waned. The unanswered question is: will the DUP’s star continue to shine. Bear in mind that, in any recent past, the tendency has been for unionist politics, especially outside the chattering (small-l) “liberal” bourgeoisie of the Malone Road and County Down, to move further and further right.

Malcolm, about to do an in-and-out to the Black North, will be looking to see if the DUP can still hold a third of the total vote (and thereby a clear majority of the Prod vote) after the March 7th shake-out. The sub-text made by the DUP site is their real target is snaffling the declining UUP vote, for the DUP’s own figures flash up, Lib Dem style:

2003 Assembly: DUP 25%, UUP 22.2%;
2004 Euro Election: DUP 32%; UUP 16.6%
2005 Council elections: DUP 29.6%; UUP 18%
2005 Westminster Election: DUP 33.7%; UUP 17.5%

Another point is made by the DUP’s choice of pillar-box red, while giving the UUP a pale blue, notably that same hue as used by the Tory logo. Hmm …

And tomorrow, Wednesday 21st, the DUP publish their Assembly manifesto, but expect more of the same:

It is only the DUP who can stop Sinn Fein/IRA from becoming the largest political grouping in the Assembly. With the UUP a little more than half our level of support in recent elections it is only by voting DUP that Martin McGuinness will be stopped from becoming the First Minister … At Westminster, the European Parliament, Assembly or level it is the DUP who are taking then initiative and leading for unionism.

That’s the freshly-minted Lord Maurice Morrow, but comes straight from the song-sheet.

Malcolm’s guess is that Isaby has it right. The NITories may save their blushes in County Down, will not show in the city, and are never going to be the Law west of the Lagan.

So, let’s extrapolate.

The mainland Tories are planning for, at best, a close-run thing in 2008-9. For all the froth about health and education, those issues are not bankers (though don’t count on “grammar schools” not making a showing). Any immigration or Europe talk flatters the UKIPpers. Tory hopes in Scotland and Wales approximate to a plucky fourth-place, i.e. zilch. They hope that fox-hunting may be a runner in the shires (but don’t count on it having any vroom-vroom in the leafy suburbs, so that’s where the motoring issue will be played). “Civil liberties” (i.e. the cost of identity cards) is Lib Demmery. There will be no UUP Westminster seats by then; and the Leviticus-loving DUP are not going to play footsie with degenerates.

Perhaps it really is 1951 and two County Down seats all over again.

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References taken up

Malcolm has been cresting the wave this week. He found himself “in the money” at the celebrated Tuesday-evening Prince of Wales, Highgate, pub quiz; and has been singularly chuffed ever since. So, watch out for squalls.

Here comes a small one now…

Look at this, says Malcolm, and tell me what’s wrong:

Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged.
President Abraham Lincoln

It is, of course, unimaginable that the penalties proposed by one of our most admired presidents for the crime of dividing America in the face of the enemy would be contemplated — let alone applied — today.

That’s the Frank J. Gaffney Jr, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC. There’s more, much more, on Gaffney at Rightweb:

Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official who cut his teeth working under Richard Perle when the “prince of darkness” was an adviser to Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson in the 1970s, is one of the key heavy-lifters of the neoconservative-hawk policy institute world. From his perch at the Center for Security Policy (CSP), Gaffney routinely excoriates any and all arms control agreements, stridently defends U.S. intervention in places such as Iraq, and routinely defends the agenda of the right-wing Zionists in the United States and Israel.

So, say the assembled elves after suitable textual analysis and brain-bashing, what’s wrong with the Washington Times clip?

A lesser elf is nominated to bring forth the Oxford English Dictionary (in this respect, Malcolm still abides by the hard-copy). Only in the First Supplement can the words sabotage and saboteur be located. The citations for saboteur are a 1921 translation of Walter Rathenau and The Observer of 11th January 1931.

What’s afoot (implied pun there), Malcolm? Can Lincoln have been responsible for a nealogism? [The elf who thus suggests that the OED would need correction retreats with a severely-cauliflowered ear.]

Further investigation is undertaken. It quickly becomes apparent that the quotation is widely circulated and accepted by the US militant Right (try freerepublic for a taste). It has even been used by a Congressman:

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) cited the quote on the floor of the House on Thursday in the debate over the Iraq war “surge” … Rep. Young added, referring to Lincoln: “He had the same problem this President has, with an unpopular war. The same problem with people trying to redirect the commander in chief.”

By now most of the elves have, and now Malcolm’s readers will have worked out there is some dirty work going on at the crossroads.

In point of fact, the speciousness of the “quotation” was exposed as long ago as August 25, 2006, by the laudable factcheck.org:

Supporters of President Bush and the war in Iraq often quote Abraham Lincoln as saying members of Congress who act to damage military morale in wartime “are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged.”

Republican candidate Diana Irey used the “quote” recently in her campaign against Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, and it has appeared thousands of times on the Internet, in newspaper articles and letters to the editor, and in Republican speeches.

But Lincoln never said that. The conservative author who touched off the misquotation frenzy, J. Michael Waller, concedes that the words are his, not Lincoln’s. Waller says he never meant to put quote marks around them, and blames an editor for the mistake and the failure to correct it.

The ur-reference, then, is J. Michael Waller in an Insight article, Democrats Usher in An Age of Treason, 23rd December, 2003. By a coincidence that is hardly curious, Insight Magazine is a Conservative current events magazine (in 2003 printed, now only on-line) published by the Washington Times. And, the cherry on the cake is this:

Insight is owned by News World Communications, a property of the Unification Church headed by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a convicted felon and self-proclaimed “messiah”.

The true shame of all this, Malcolm maintains, is that neither Gaffney nor Congressman Young have fully renounced the use of the quotation. Young is supremely mealy-mouthed about it:

His spokeswoman, Meredith Kenny, says the congressman took the quote from an article he read in the Washington Times on Tuesday.

“Now that he’s been informed these are not the actual words of Lincoln, he will discontinue attributing the words to Lincoln. However, he continues to totally agree with the message of the statement,” Kenny said. “Americans, especially America’s elected leaders, should not take actions during a time of war that damage the morale of our soldiers and military — and that is exactly what this nonbinding resolution does.”

And no, Kenny said, Young was “not advocating the hanging of Democrats.”

And from Gaffney, wilful ignorance:

that hasn’t stopped the newspaper, and Gaffney, from refusing to correct the record — as of Friday morning — or remove the quote from the top of his column.

Indeed, today’s main editorial in the Washington Times repeats and extends the essential calumny:

In the wake of September 11, McGovernism — that is, the reflexive opposition to the use of force by the United States against foreign enemies that has dogged the Democratic Party since Richard Nixon’s time — became more of a liability than ever. At least, it appeared that way judging from the 2002 and 2004 election results. But in last year’s congressional elections, the Democrats came up with a shrewd, cynical new P.R. strategy that has until now served them well: saying lots of nice things about American soldiers fighting in Iraq while simultaneously advancing resolutions that denigrate their mission.

That is headlined as Murtha’s plan for defeat. Lest anyone now question that the Washington Times exists on the same planet as the rest of us, Malcolm advises taking heart from another of today’s op-ed pieces, Global warming is our friend.

So, what do we conclude from all this, Malcolm?

Malcolm would start from the prefatory quotation of his recent bedside book, All Governments Lie! the Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F.Stone:

All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.

And here’s the theme-tune for chapter 20: A Guerrilla Warrior During the Fifties Fetish:

Since the press is largely Republican and this is a Republican administration, there is little “market” for exposing the government … the average Washington correspondent is content to write what he is spoon-fed by the government’s press officers.

That chapter 20 seems like Back to the Future:

[Stone] had been preoccupied with the Cold War’s twin terrors: dangerous foreign policies and suppression of dissent at home … The basic philosophy of revolutionary America, including “the separation of Church and State and respect for individual belief and conscience” became witch-hunt casualties. Stone was disgusted with false piety: “politicians and generals were constantly invoking God” but “the young were taught to distrust ideas which had been the gospel of the Founding Fathers”.

[Thanks, John, for the pressy, adds Malcolm. You know who you are.]

Too much journalism amounts to “All the news that fits, we print”: nowhere more so than the neocon shriek-sheets like the Washington Times. And George Orwell, a parallel case to Izzy Stone, would have quoted Humbert Wolfe (or, possibly and seemingly erroneously, Hilaire Belloc):

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! the British journalist
But being what the man will do
Unbribed, there is no reason to.

And, at antiwar.com, Malcolm points to a certain symmetry of two successive quotations:

Military glory — that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood — that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy [Abraham Lincoln]
Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. [Hugo Black, Supreme Court Justice]




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Second Front (or double face) NOW!

Malcolm has, until now, studiously eschewed any notice of Diddy David Cameron. Then, an acquaintance insisted he wake up to the full horror.

[Murmurings of elves off: “No! Here we go. Oh, dear.”]

Wednesday evening, the Tories held their Black and White Ball at Vauxhall. This, presumably, was an attempt to recreate the frisson of media attention a similar function managed a year ago:

Politicians sometimes make sartorial statements about their intentions and this week David Cameron, the new leader of Britain’s opposition Conservatives, resolved to do just that with what was called the “Black and White Ball,” a supposedly hip event studded with velvet suits, open-neck shirts and celebrities in décolletage, held in place of the Tories’ traditional, tuxedoed Winter Ball.

and:

David Cameron’s promise to change the look of the Tories took a leap forward this week when the party came together for its Black and White Ball.

The event replaced the Conservatives’ annual Winter Ball, usually held at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. And with a chic young crowd, a dashing leader and a tangible buzz in the air, this year’s ball, held at Old Billingsgate, the site of the former fish market in the City, played brilliantly against the old perception of the Tory Party at play.

Mr Cameron, in a black velvet suit, open-necked white shirt and slicked-back hair, couldn’t have looked more different from his predecessors William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, both of whom wore black tie. He was dressed more like a visiting movie star than the traditional Tory leader.

That was a year ago. Wednesday night was … well, for want of a better word … Vauxhall [horrified taxi-driver’s voice off: “Sarf o’ tha river! Wotcha reckon, guv? This time a-night? No chance!”]:

It doesn’t look much from the outside. A recent paintjob has smartened up the walls but can’t alter the impression that this is the last pub standing, the only venue in the area not to be redeveloped or turned into a Starbucks.

But behind these doors lies a wealth of gay cultural history. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is London’s longest-surviving gay venue. It endured the Blitz, and the devastating impact of AIDS. It even survived the defection of its greatest star, Lily Savage, to the world of daytime television. And like all true survivors, the old girl is currently enjoying a bit of a comeback. Walk past any night of the week and you’ll hear music, laughter and possibly even the sound of a man in a wig singing ‘Maybe This Time’ by Liza Minnelli.

Oops, that’s the infamous Royal Vauxhall Tavern

Oh well, says, Malcolm. Same difference (particularly since the entertainment was flamboyantly camp).

The highlight of the Tories’ evening was an appearance by said Davy Boy. He made a speech. But first: the swimsuit round.

It seems our Dave turned up, open shirted, to harangue the troops. Now, let’s remember this is an Old Etonian, a descendant of the late (if unlamented) Sailor King—albeit, wrong side of the blanket, and (Malcolm finds this even far more impressive) a tutee of Vernon Bogdanor.

Now, Malcolm tends to be, well, small-c conservative. When he first began being useful, behind the bar of his parents’ pub, he was made abundantly aware by his father that the merest farm-labourer expected, and deserved a collar-and-tie with his evening pint. The Tories have dropped all their other standards, so this is just another debasement.

So, to Dave’s speech.

It came down to the Tories being for local government, but against regional and devolved authorities. This, presumably, is the substance of one of the few positive policies enunciated by the Tories:

David Cameron has unveiled new Conservative plans to “reduce the reach of Whitehall” and transfer powers from central government to local communities.

Publishing a new Sustainable Communities Bill, which has been drafted in conjunction with Local Works – the campaign for stronger local democracy – the Conservative Leader declared: “Councils should be the collective instrument of local people rather than the local outposts of central government.”

He said: “Conservatives will give greater powers to local councils, by reducing the reach of Whitehall, unelected quangos, and the new regional bodies.”

Hold on, says Malcolm, this feels like Kawasaki’s idea of a “new model”: gussy up last year’s, with added alloy. This is, of course, the commercial implementation of Santayana‘s principle: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And, says Malcolm, you can watch the alloy corrode as you ride it home from the show-room.

So, let’s reconsider the Tory record on local government.

Well, we don’t want to go back to the London Government Act 0f 1963, which got rid of all the excellent (and some less so) London boroughs and the historic County of Middlesex. Of course, the Tories were in part motivated by the assumption that grafting the leafy outer suburbs onto the LCC would give them hegemony across London. Pity about that.

Then, in 1972, Ted Heath’s Tories had another go. They went against the evidence of the Redcliffe-Maud Report, and imposed two-tier authorities. “Were you paying attention?” asks Malcolm: our Dave does not like such a separation of powers (see above).

Now we come to the ferrous female. Having imposed her diktat on the Falklands, she then turned to London, which had turned dissident:

The Conservatives regained control [of the GLC] in May 1977, winning 64 seats under their new Thatcherite leader Horace Cutler to a Labour total of just 28. Cutler headed a resolutely right-wing administration, cutting spending, selling council housing and attacking London Transport. In opposition the Labour party continued to fractionalise: Goodwin resigned suddenly in 1980 and in the following leadership contest the little-regarded left-winger Ken Livingstone was only just beaten in an intensely tactical campaign by the moderate Andrew McIntosh. However the Labour left were strong at constituency level and as the 1981 election approached they worked to ensure that their members were selected to stand and that their ideologies shaped the manifesto. The eventual manifesto topped out at over 50,000 words.

The May 1981 election was presented as a clash of ideologies by the Conservatives – Thatcherism against a ‘tax high, spend high’ Marxist Labour group, claiming that Andrew McIntosh would be deposed by Ken Livingstoneafter the election. McIntosh and Labour Party leader Michael Foot insisted this was untrue, and the Labour party won a very narrow victory with a majority of six. At a pre-arranged meeting of the new Councillors the day after the election, the Left faction won a complete victory over the less-organised Labour right. McIntosh lost with 20 votes to 30 for Ken Livingstone. Livingstone, dubbed ‘Red Ken’ by some newspapers, managed to gain the guarded support of the Labour deputy leader Illtyd Harrington and the party Chief Whip and set about his new administration.

Livingstone was able to push through the majority of his policies and became surprisingly popular (only 16% of Londoners wanted the GLC abolished). The increased spending of the council led the national government to reduce and eventually end the GLC’s central government grant as punishment.

It was the use of a hoarding that enumerated Thatcher’s fall-out, the London unemployed, that did it. We were given the crooked (Lady Tesco-Porter) blue-rinse of a White Paper, Streamlining the Cities: the coup-de-grâce was then swiftly administered. And the late, great Tony Banks ensured this disgraceful act remains incised in granite along the side of County Hall.

Nor, says Malcolm, should we forget the imposition on Scotland of “unitary authorities”. In 1996 John Major’s Government got rid of Heath’s two-tiers of 1975. [So consistent, these Tories, Malcolm observes.] So, you no longer hail from granite Aberdeen but, like the bonnie laird o’ Moray, from pasty “Grampian”. The red-wine-drinking king no longer sits in Dunfermline toun but in Fife. And word has gone to Mary Hamilton that she is now Mary Strathclyde.

And what about devolution to Scotland and Wales? (Or even, God help us, to Northern Ireland.)

Good question, suggests Malcolm, as he asks us to deconstruct this:

I do strongly believe that England should be treated fairly within the Union and that we need new democratic arrangements to deal with all the English issues that are currently being put to the United Kingdom parliament…

However, while I agree we need to do something to remedy the anomoly whereby MPs elected for English constituencies cannot vote on many matters affecting Scotland, and MPs elected to Scottish constituencies can vote on everyone else’s legislation but their own, I do not favour the establishment of a new English Parliament in a new building at enormous cost to the taxpayer away from Westminster.

What I would like to see is the return of the English Parliament to Westminster. Everything which is an English matter, including health, education, local Government, planning and law and order, should be considered only by English Members of the Westminster Parliament meeting as the English Parliament. This would give England the same devolved powers as enjoyed in Scotland, create a stronger sense of English identity around the traditional Parliament of England, and avoid any extra costs and hassles associated with devolution in Scotland and Wales.

My view is that all of us elected to the Westminster Parliament for English constituencies should perform a dual role. We should work with colleagues from Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland on Union matters for part of the week, and for the rest of the week, the Westminster Parliament itself should be the English Parliament, where we, English representatives, settle all the matters that are devolved … without the help or interference of our colleagues from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The English Parliament at Westminster would therefore create a much more fair and balanced United Kingdom.

So much for the “Conservative and Unionist Party”.

So, what is Cameron saying? Malcolm suggests this is the game-plan:

  1. There simply are few Tory gains to be made in Scotland, Wales or the further fringes. For which see Peter Ridell’s comentary on the poll in the Times this week.
  2. And that presumes the Tories regard the imminent Scottish Parliament Election as a dead loss. Since the “first preference” Tory vote is around 15%, that’s no surprise. Labour is about twice that: not spectacular, but not bad in a Proportional Representation situation, at this point in the electoral cycle.
  3. So. already, the Tories need to discount the Scottish situation, and look elsewhere…
  4. Which means the places where suburbia shades into aspirant working-class (i.e. “Essex Man”), where their main competition could easily be UKIP.
  5. Now, here’s the really curious thing: it seems as if (with one exception, for which see later) the Tory policy on local government is being written by UKIP. Here’s last year’s UKIP local government manifesto:
    • Create an English-only Parliament of English MPs sitting on English-only days at Westminster
    • Dismantle regional government and return powers to traditional county and borough councils
    • Return control over local matters from Whitehal to the Town Hall
    • Let local people call a binding local referendum on any major local issue
  • Well, now. What a surprise: don’t frighten the horses, and simple to the point of being the village idiot.

UKIP have one further (and, Malcolm thinks, not totally stupid) suggestion: restore the business rate and allocate it to local authorities. The younger element may need a quick update here:

  • Once upon a time local businesses and shops paid a local-authority rate, just as did residential hereditaments (Malcolm insisted on our using that term).
  • It was significantly higher then the rates paid by households, and was a substantial factor in the local authority’s income.
  • The argument against it was that it was “taxation without representation”; and Margaret Thatcher (the grocer’s daughter) saw it as an onerous imposition.
  • So, when the Poll Tax was introduced, the business rate was “nationalised”, fixed and collected by the Inland Renue, and then paid back to the local authority at the behest of the central authority.
  • The result of this change (and Michael Heseltine’s subsequent back-pedal) was that local authorities, who had been dependent on government grants for just 60-odd per cent of their income (the rest being rates-based) became 90-odd per cent dependent on national funding.

So, says Malcolm, do we await the next Cameron announcement that business rate will be restored? Or that historic councils (Middlesex?) and boundaries are restored?

Then we can expect a formal merger of Tories and UKIP at local level? (And what, after all, are their hard-and-fast differences over European policies?) Beyond that, the only difference would be whether the annual fund-raiser could equally accommodate the properly-dressed, and the louche lounge lizards.

Footnote:
Malcolm adds that, furry as Kawasaki alloy rapidly becomes, he has tremendous respect for the GT55o shaftie. Yes, rust gets the rear mudguard and (eventually) the tank. It has been around since Adam first cocked a leg. But that four-in-line powerplant could rev forever. And, heh, heh, the whole apparatus is long-legged (160 miles on a tank-full) and can (or could, pre-Gatso) shift. Malcolm took one through several years and some 70,000 miles. Lovely stuff.

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Not recommended

Malcolm, in rather better mood this morning, sips coffee and watches wet snow falling on North London. Inside double-glazing, beside a warm radiator, with no immediate need to venture forth, he can contemplate the world with equanimity.

News that flights into London airports are disrupted by the weather reminds him of a previous grief: the flying hell that is Ryanair. Despite upsets with other low-cost airlines (for example, why does Frontier Air not accept credit or debit cards from the UK?), Malcolm’s limited (and twice-is-enough) experience convinces him that Ryanair is uniquely awful. A sticky and uncooperative website leads to a grim and repetitive booking ritual. That is mere prologue to the actual booking-in and waiting régime, a scramble to find a seat (which will be at least grubby, and possibly even insanitary), persistent advertising (scratch-cards, even!) at full volume on the PA, bottles of tap-water at four times the UK price of petrol, and a baggage nightmare. For a further sample of horrors, try here.

The coincidence of separate news-stories assisted this meditation. Yesterday, the Times had a front-page story, by Ben Webster, on the pressure the company puts on its staff:

Ryanair is threatening to sack pilots after being criticised by air accident investigators over a series of dangerous approaches to airports. In the latest incident to emerge, an aircraft flew so low over rooftops that it triggered two warnings in the cockpit and sixteen complaints from alarmed residents.

It was the third serious incident in less than a year, and the fourth in two years, involving a Ryanair jet approaching an airport too fast or at the wrong height and being forced to abort landing.

All Ryanair staff are under pressure to meet turnaround times of only 25 minutes, the tightest in the industry, and pilot unions say that this can lead to mistakes.

Notice, no mention of the occasion of 29th March 2006 when an Eirjet/Ryanair flight managed to land six miles adrift at the wrong (and long disused) airfield!

The second, from Tuesday, by Joe Bolger and also in the Times, noted the quarterly profits report by the company:

The introduction of charges for passengers checking in their bags helped Ryanair to boost profits by 30 per cent in its third quarter, as greater revenues from passengers helped to offset higher fuel costs.

The Irish budget carrier said yesterday that net profits had risen to €47.7 million (£31.4 million) in the three months to December 31 as fuel surcharges levied by larger rivals allowed the group to nudge up fares.

Ryanair’s average fare rose by 7 per cent to £28, despite a warning last year that average fares could dip by a tenth in the year’s second half. Costs rose 14 per cent, largely on a 52 per cent increase in the cost of fuel.

The truth is that Ryanair’s headline prices, loudly touted by the crudest of advertising, are so inflated by barely-hidden extras that they exceed other airlines, even the fares of regular scheduled providers. And, for all of Chairman O’Leary’s plain-speaking, many of these charges amount to dodgy doo-dah. Anyone doubting that can refer to a piece by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph, last summer:

The low-cost carrier has been accused of systematically inflating charges added to ticket prices for flights from airports including Dublin, Treviso, Charleroi, Rome, Pisa and Alghero, a practice that may breach EU law…

Michael O’Leary
Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, which insists its high fees reflect the costs set by airports

At Brussels/Charleroi, Ryan-air charges a government tax of €7 (£4.85) and a passenger service charge of €2 on top of the ticket price plus a separate insurance and wheelchair levy of €5.24 that it adds to all routes. In fact, there is no government tax.

At Dublin airport, Ryanair imposes a “passenger service charge” of €15.40 (non-refundable), yet the official “passenger service charge” is €2.90. The airport does bill Ryanair a €3.90 fee for security to cover police costs, but Ireland has no government departure tax.

The Dublin authorities said there were other charges, such as runway, parking and airbridge fees, but described these as the basic costs of running an airline, which did not in any case add up to €15.40. “This is clear mislabelling. Ryanair is putting profit in its charges,” said an Irish official.

“Ho, hum”, says Malcolm, trying to work out how a “breach of EU law” and “clear mislabelling” differ from fraud. He suggests that capitalism of this kind amounts to institutionalised mugging; and Ryanair’s “customer care” does just that with a minimum of politesse.

The New York Times‘ offshoot about.com has Damian Corrigan (a re-import from Oz, but don’t hold that against him) doing a direct comparison between EasyJet and Ryanair. He focuses on the London-Barcelona route and shows that, in practice, Ryanair is a third more expensive. And, with Ryanair, one arrives about 60 miles away from Barcelona, at Reus, near Tarragona. Reus has only a single public transport link to Barcelona, a bus service specific to Ryanair flights, which takes about 90 minutes.

It can only be low thresholds of expectation that prevents the generality taking their custom elsewhere.

Malcolm knows that his opinion of Ryanair is not unique. Google “hate ryanair” and you find going on for a quarter of a million “hits”. Years ago, Malcolm used occasionally to frequent the Sir Richard Steele, that Victorian drinking hole in Haverstock Hill. It had a poster, suitably illustrated, with the slogan: A million flies can’t be wrong — Eat Shit. Agree with that, says Malcolm, and you’ll just lurve the Ryanair experience.

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