Monthly Archives: November 2009

There is music in the midst of desolation

The best moment of today’s press is hidden in an opinion piece for the Times.

Michael Binyon is retiring “after 38 years”, finishing as the Times diplomatic editor, and after writing (as he claims) 2,559 leading articles.

Once upon a time Binyon’s was one of those by-lines one looked for on foreign correspondent postings: his posts from Moscow in the Brezhnev era deserve a national monument, here or in Russia, or even both — a sadly out-of-print book, Life in Russia, was his synopsis of those years. Then he covered West Germany from Bonn (after 1982), pontificated from Washington (from 1985, and the latter Reagan years), and from Brussels in 1989. One never had to agree with him — he always left room for mature judgment: one always had to admire his equanimity and professionalism:

Life as a foreign correspondent for 15 years was enormous fun. Washington, Moscow, Bonn and Brussels took me from the start of the Carter-Ford campaign to the Delors report on monetary union. There were vivid moments: the arrest of Sakharov, the Moscow Olympics, the Greens in the Bundestag, the Reykjavik summit, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Often I felt that history was happening all around me — as I watched Gorbachev shake hands with Reagan at all those summits, or scrambled atop the Berlin Wall to join the rejoicing, or witnessed a wounded but steely Thatcher take her place at the Versailles banquet in 1990, threatened by the insurrection in her party back home.

The whole piece, My final despatch after 38 years. Copy ends is delightful. It is perfectly crafted, even to the headline and the dodgy picture of the young Binyon with his check shirt and ill-matched near-kipper tie.

He may have left the Times, but he is not likely to be suppressed. He will burnish a well-deserved pension with further wise and witty contributions. Let us hope.

In the course of this piece of memoir, Binyon reflects on the days when the Times:

was seen as a pillar of the Establishment.

It is hard not to see Binyon having a gentle hack at the ankles of the present Murdoch dispensation:

The Times was wonderfully relaxed in the old days. There was no backbiting, little cut-throat competition and it felt a bit like jumping into a feather bed each evening.

Then comes the gem:

A colleague on the very late shift reported once that the phone had rung unexpectedly at 2am. “News desk,” he barked. “Is that The Times?” asked a quavering voice. “This is Lord Worthington’s butler. My master wishes to inform you that he does not expect to survive the night.”

He didn’t. I still think of his dying command: “Tell The Times!”

He then narrates a brief recollection of the Hitler diaries fiasco. The full version is in Binyon’s colleague, Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler.

[For those who do not recognise Malcolm’s allusive headline, it is from Laurence Binyon.]

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Cameron waives the rules, again

Yesterday Malcolm pointed the finger at Michael White’s unfortunate typo. That by-passed the wholly valid conclusion of White’s original piece (to which we shall return shortly).

Cameron got it wrong with his attempt to smear a couple of local authorities and the government with a scare about nursery schools linked to terrorism. Most of us knew or guessed that was a wrong’un at the time. Hizb ut-Tahrir were identified for a ban after the London atrocities. A Christmas Eve, 2005, Observer article, with a Gaby Hinscliff by-line, described why that didn’t happen:

Plans to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, the radical Islamic group, have been dropped in the past few days following intense discussions between Number 10 and legal advisers. Counter-terrorism sources said Tony Blair had been warned that banning the group, which campaigns for Britain to become a caliphate – a country subject to Islamic law – would serve only as a recruiting agent if the group appealed against the move.

The sub-text there is that Hizb ut-Tahrir and all its works are on a very tight string to the securocrats. Yet Cameron blundered on.

Scapegoat time!

Which makes it Michael Gove’s turn to be fed to the reptiles. As he duly was in today’s Times:

Mr Gove unwittingly fed his leader a stinker. Mr Cameron had asked his trusted ally to help him to flesh out an attack on Labour’s failure to tackle extremist Muslim groups.

Seeing that two schools linked to Hizb ut Tahrir had received cash from the Early Years Pathfinder scheme which funds free nursery places, Mr Gove had mistakenly thought that it was part of the Preventing Violent Extremism pathfinder project that is supposed to tackle indoctrination. In fact the two schemes are entirely separate. The error meant that Mr Cameron was simply wrong to declare that the schools were receiving cash from an “anti-extremist” fund when he faced Mr Brown across the dispatch box.

The gaffe was all the more painful for the Tory leader because he had overruled a suggestion that all the key information be double-checked.

Flash Dave

Now that’s the same point Michael White considered the previous day:

Dave and Mike did something careless for which Tony Blair would have put them through the verbal mincer…

You can hear Blair silkily observing that “I don’t need any lessons from the right honourable gentleman about associating with extremist groups who get public funds,” can’t you? He’d have then got stuck into those dodgy Poles and Balts whom Skinhead Billy rounded up to form Dave’s new group of not-federalist-not-nice-either MEPs at Strasbourg.

Does it matter? Not a lot. But it’s a reminder that, repeated on a general election platform, with public emotions running high, a bad mistake is an amplified mistake. Being manifestly unfair to any particular group – except perhaps those brazen bankers – runs the risk of offending fair-minded people.

White winds up, extrapolating this Cameron line into:

you can’t help noticing a smell familiar to older readers: red-baiting.

Cameron in debate is remarkably sloppy (he proudly spent his time with the Bullingdon, not in the Union). Brown, by comparison, sticks far too closely to Citrine and Standing Orders. Because Cameron is allowed to get away with this fast-and-loose stuff, he pushes the limits further each time.

This was Cameron’s final sally in PMQs on 11th November:

Mr. Cameron: This Prime Minister told us, “No more boom and bust”, yet he presided over the biggest boom and the biggest bust; he told us that we were the best prepared for the recession, yet, unlike others, we are still in recession. He has given us the fastest rising unemployment and the biggest bust. Take the official figures for public spending, take off what you are planning to spend on unemployment benefit and on debt, and departmental spending is being cut by 0.7 per cent. The Prime Minister asks about policy; we have said what we would do about public sector pay and pensions. We have the courage of our convictions; the Prime Minister has neither courage nor convictions.

Grammarians and debaters will note that was supposed to be a “question”. One looks in vain for the question mark, or even the question indirect. Instead, the Speaker allowed Cameron to get away with a statement.

Watch this space

This is overweening pride, riding for a fall. Remember: you got fair warning of that from Michael White … and Malcolm Redfellow.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., David Cameron, equality, Guardian, Times, Tories.

A near-homophone, and reds-in-the-bed

It’s Michael White (normally a sane and reliable voice in the maelstrom of political opinion) who drops today’s bollock. Find it on Mike’s Guardian Politics Blog:

Ed Balls – not always a man to trust up a dark ally

What makes it worse is the context:

yesterday … I watched Dave [Cameron, but you didn’t need telling that, did you?] – pieties about the Iraq war dead and the Cumbrian floods put to one side – tearing into Brown over Hizb ut-Tahrir. Oh no, not those tiresome Islamist puritans again, I hear you murmur. Agreed, but Dave started it, not me.

And under the telling title:

Election season smears are back – watch out Muslims, Jews and Red Kate

“Red Kate”, believe it or not, is the recently-discovered “most powerful woman in the world“, Cathy Ashton. So, step aside, Hillary.

“Recently-discovered” as a result of the British media’s total abstinence from the realities of EU affairs. That’s also another reason for regular resort to the Irish Times and other immigrant periodicals.

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Filed under Britain, British Left, David Cameron, Guardian, Irish Times

“I Crossed the Minch”

That previous post maundered on a trifle. It finally bumped its shin on Louis MacNeice’s 1938 effort, I Crossed the Minch.

MacNeice remains a fascinating paradox, full of too many self-contradictions. A public schoolboy (Sherborne and Marlborough), a Classics scholar at Oxford (Merton), he faced a rude awakening when he took his first teaching job at Birmingham. A Belfast boy, who hankered for his father’s roots in Galway, found himself deracinated in England, never able to reconcile the two aspects of being Anglo-Irish. The son of the vicarage, he lost his faith, flirted with but never embraced the stifling Marxism of the 1930s, then looked for a new rationalism. The poet of the “Pylon School”, he studied and practised metrics and strict prosody: pursuing form and content (an example to follow).

By this stage, the mid- and late-1930s, he was undergoing a profound personal turmoil. His wife of five years deserted him and their young son for an American graduate student. He left Birmingham for London. Although, as his autobiography claims,

‘I suddenly realized I was under no more obligations to be respectable’

he could never escape his innate Ulster rectitude.

He travelled to Spain (with Anthony Blunt) shortly before the Falangist rising. He went to Iceland with Auden. The, in 1937, he undertook a visit (apparently Longmans advanced £75) to the Hebrides. He was accompanied by his current crush, Nancy Sharp (she had recently left her husband, William Coldstream), who illustrated the subsequent book. She, too, would soon break with MacNeice, mainly over his obsessive possessiveness.

MacNeice expected a facsimile of the West of Ireland; and was severely disappointed. The result was a peculiar scrapbook, I Crossed the Minch. MacNeice himself bad-mouthed the result:

a tripper’s book written by someone who was disappointed and tantalised by the islands and seduced by them only to be reminded that on that soil he will always be an outsider.

Admittedly, it includes two essentials of MacNeice’s opus:

  • Leaving Barra, thirteen quatrains of exquisite progression, each building from the keyword terminating its predecessor, until it recourses to its starting point. It gives us essential motifs which recur throughout MacNeice: the sea as a metaphor for life; the crowing cock which is jointly the wake-up call to sleeping England (yes,England) and the nag of conscience.

One might search in some difficulty to find the full poem, so here it is:

The dazzle on the sea, my darling,
Leads from the western channel
A carpet of brilliance taking
My leave for ever of the island.

I never shall visit that island
Again with its easy tempo—
The seal sunbathing, the circuit
Of gulls on the wing for garbage.

I go to a different garbage
And scuffle for scraps of notice,
Pretend to ignore the stigma
That stains my life and my leisure.

For fretful even in leisure
I fidget for different values,
Restless as a gull and haunted
By a hankering after Atlantis.

I do not know that Atlantis
Unseen and uncomprehended,
Dimly divined but keenly
Felt with a phantom hunger.

If only I could crush the hunger
If only I could lay the phantom
Then I should no doubt be happy
Like a fool or a dog or a buddha.

O the self-abnegation of Buddha
The belief that is disbelieving
The denial of chiaroscuro
Not giving a damn for existence!

But I would cherish existence
Loving the beast and the bubble
Loving the rain and the rainbow,
Considering philosophy alien.

For all the religions are alien
That allege that life is a fiction,
And when we agree in denial
The cock crows in the morning.

If only I could wake in the morning
And find I had learned the solution,
Wake with the lack of knowledge
Who as yet have only an inkling.

Though some facts foster the inkling—
The beauty of the moon and music,
The routine courage of the worker,
The gay endurance of women,

And you who to me among women
Stand for so much that I wish for,
I thank you, my dear, for the example
Of living like a fugue and moving.

For few are able to keep moving,
They drag and flag in the traffic;
While you are alive beyond question
Like the dazzle on the sea, my darling.

  • Bagpipe Music. Now this one is well circulated. Were Malcolm pinned to a wall, and told his life depended on a precise, grammatical repetition of this poem, from memory, he would likely escape unscathed, all the way to:

It’s no go my honey love, it’s no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.

That apart, I Crossed the Minch is no great shakes. It is an uneasy mix of travelogue, invented narrative, jerky recollections of MacNeice’s own youth, letters (especially to Auden), attempts at snippets of autobiography, and whingeing complaints. MacNeice remains the outsider in the Hebrides, unable to converse with the Gaelic-speakers, repulsed by aspects of the local culture, locked into his own problems and personality. His problem was a lack of self-recognition, his failed romantic and self-deceiving expectation that:

the Celt in me would be drawn to the surface by the magnetism of his fellows.

This was a sentimental and futile hope. As we have seen in the previous post, in one precise context, MacNeice’s disillusion supplies the ironic, bitter tone for his use of the phrase “the Celtic fringe”.

Apart from marking the centenary of MacNeice’s birth, it is difficult to find a new enthusiasm for the book’s republication after seven decades of neglect. Even then, it was a small Scottish publisher, Polygon of Edinburgh, who did the deed; and an editor, Tom Herron, who has to put out a bit of heroic sweat, to justify it. Anthony Thwaite suggests a different take:

Disappointment and ignorance, laced with mordant observation, are more familiar ingredients of travel books today (witness Bill Bryson) than they were in the mid-1930s. MacNeice’s dyspeptic temper is entertaining.

More to the point, in Malcolm’s view, the merit of I Crossed the Minch is that it is a trial-run, a clearing-of-the-throat, a stretch of the intellect, a run-up to Autumn Journal, which occupied MacNeice through the latter part of 1938.

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“The Celtic fringe”

First the obligatory Malcolmian anecdote:

It fell to Richard Crossman, Minister for Housing in Harold Wilson’s 1964 Government, to open the Ideal Home Exhibition. As he was chivvied round, he fell in with a Canadian exhibitor. Crossman noticed that the exhibit, for all its splendour, lacked one important element. The exhibitor responded that a shower (which was included) was far more hygienic and economical than a full bath. Crossman exploded:

Good grief! An Englishman doesn’t take a bath to get clean! He has a bath to think!

Nevertheless, Malcolm took his shower, and thereunder he meditated.

What was on his mind was a term he had used in that previous post: “The Celtic fringe”. He had done so a trifle tongue-in-cheek, recognising that it is possible to find pejorative (itself a late Victorian import) implications in its usage.

Even so, it is a useful shorthand:

  • It describes those part of the Archipelago where the writ of Tory Central Office hardly applies, where warm bodies will vote any way except half-blindly for a Tory (unless the Tory adopts a parallel existence as an “independent” or whatever).
  • It also reminds us that these islands may once have been the Saxon empire. Now Celts (both Brythonic and Goedelic), Angles, the people of Danelaw and other breeds without the dóm of the Westseaxna rīce properly seek their own place in the sun.

Yet, Malcolm’s niggle was this:

Where and when did the term originate?

So, a quick resort, predictably, to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Celtic fringe (or edge): (the land of) the Scots, Welsh, Irish and Cornish, regarded as occupying the fringe or outlying edge of the British Isles (freq. derogatory); Celtic twilight: W. B. Yeats’s name for his collection of stories, etc., based on Irish folk-tales; hence gen., (sometimes disparagingly) the atmosphere of, or artistic tendencies associated with, the folklore and legends of Celtic Britain, esp. of Ireland.

Malcolm, as quick as never, spotted the negative connotations implicit in both terms. Similarly, the idyllic “American dream” became somewhat soiled and sullied by the later Twentieth Century, especially when it had serially been done over by Sinclair Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Hunter Thompson …

It seems from the OED‘s citations that the Marquis of Salisbury is the progenitor of the Celtic fringe. There he was, in 1890, deploring Parnellism (source right):

The great defect of our present representation is that the Celtic edges of the country on both islands are represented enormously out of proportion to the rest of the Anglo-Saxon population.

A typical Tory: if the underclass and peasants won’t do as they are told, that’s their mistake.

Salisbury provoked various responses, most pertinently Grant Allen in Chapter 18 of his 1894 Post-prandial Philosophy (which is conveniently on line):

We Celts henceforth will rule the roost in Britain… opportune or inopportune, Lord Salisbury says we are a Celtic fringe. I beg to retort, we are the British people…

One inevitable result of the widening of the electorate has been the transfer of power from the Teutonic to the Celtic half of Britain: at the polls, in Parliament, we are the British people. Lord Salisbury may fail to perceive that fact, or, as I hold more probable, may affect to ignore it.

An intriguing thought from that: what if Home Rule had failed, been aborted, never happened? Ireland consistently delivering five million naationalist votes, consistently against the Tory Unionists? The “Conservative century” could never have happened. There’s a good one for Dominic Sandbrook to fantasise over.

In any event, by 1907 A.S.T. Griffith-Boscawen could reminisce on Fourteen Years in Parliament (which, fortuitously, has also been scanned to the Web) Despite a surname which hyphenated two Celtic origins, he described his outlook as:

a Churchman, a Conservative, and a Tariff Reformer.

Griffith-Boscawen attributes the term “Celtic fringe” in its finished form to Arthur Balfour (Salisbury’s nephew, and, hence “Bob’s your uncle!” when in 1887 Salisbury appointed Balfour Chief Secretary for Ireland):

THE General Election of 1892 was probably the hardest fought contest since the Reform Act of 1832… In the end the Liberals had a majority of 40, counting the Nationalists on their side, so that while Unionist continuance in office was impossible, their opponents were completely at the mercy of the Irish Party. The composition of their majority was also remarkable. It came entirely from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, or, as Mr Balfour aptly said, ” the Celtic fringe”, while in England there was a Unionist majority of 71. Wales really bore the palm for Liberalism, the Unionist representatives being reduced to two, so that it was remarked that the entire Welsh Unionist Party could come to Westminster on a double bicycle, a form of locomotion which the members forming the party the Hon. G. T. Kenyon and Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones would probably not have enjoyed!

One discrimination that went the way, circa 1914-18, of the Royal House of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha was that neat division of the Archipelago into “Teutonic” and “Celtic”. The OED certainly has it in a citation from Augustus Henry Keane, Man, Past and Present (1899):

The ‘Keltic fringe’, that is, the strips of territory on the skirts of the Teutonic and Neo-Latin domains in the extreme west.

Let us notice in passing how that, oh-so-conveniently, both literally and metaphorically, marginalises any difficulty. Keane, a Corkman, forswore an intended Catholic vocation, to become Professor of Hindustani at University College, London. His other peripheral contribution may have been to inspire references in Sherlock Holmes’s investigations.

There is one final reference which deserves a mention.

Louis MacNeice (a regular study of Malcolm’s, as may have been noticed) used the phrase in a particular context. I Crossed the Minch derives from his visits to the Western Isles.  As he implies at the outset, he was expecting the Hebrides to be similar to the West of Ireland, where he went looking for:

That natural … culture which … is only found on the Celtic or backward fringes.

“Backward fringes”? Oh dear! Not a fit place for an Englishman in search of a restful, thought-enducing, civilised wallow in a bath-tub, perhaps.

Perhaps it would be better to move on quickly and explore that book a bit further in a separate post.

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Filed under Ireland, Literature, Quotations, reading, Scotland

Wait and see, Salmond!

Trust in St Andrew, and keep your powder dry.

  • Assumption 1: The self-basting Salmond is not Malcolm’s desert-island companion of choice.
  • Assumption 2: Devolution (and its inevitable conclusion) is a “good thing” for Scotland, Wales … and a unified, if de-facto federal, island of Ireland.
  • Assumption 3: There needs to be supra-national machineries, inside the EU and below the EU level, to moderate local interests for the development of the whole Archipelago.

Thus Malcolm, clearing his throat.

Then he comes across the — somewhat-odd — YouGov poll that appeared overnight on the Telegraph site, and raised nary a wrinkle of interest south of the Border. Under a banner:

Independence and SNP support down

the detail is intriguing. Inevitably, the Torygraph pre-occupies itself with the “Referendum on Independence” issue, as if this is the be-all and end-all of the North British Problem, the sole issue in that Ultima Thule. This unwinds as:

  • No: 57%
  • Yes: 29%
  • Dunno/Don’t care: 15%.

Not entirely earth-shattering stuff, even if the 101% total suggests that Scottish graveyards still vote. The party-preference vote for Westminster is more interesting:

  • Labour: 39% (up 10 percentage points in the last year, and back to 2005 General Election levels);
  • SNP: 24% (down substantially over the year, but 6% ahead of the 2005 General Election);
  • Conservatives: 18% (2 percentage points up from 2005, and unchanged over the last year).
  • LibDems down badly: 12% now, half of the 2005 achievement.

That looks like a stand-still on 2005, with the SNP at best taking one further seat. The Tories pin hopes on Dumfries and Galloway (Labour majority just under 3,000), which depends on this southerly Scottish constituency having enough Anglophile swing-voters. That would put Scots Tory constituencies into double figures (i.e. just the two of them).

Now, factor in the voting preferences for a Scottish Assembly election:

  • Labour: 33% (up a pip since the last Assembly election, and up 8 points in the year);
  • SNP: 32% (down that same single pip, but 12 points down over the year);
  • Tories: 15% (up two points since 2007);
  • LibDems: 14%, unchanged.

Again, one is tempted to see no great change, except it could return Labour as the largest party, looking to run a minority administration: obviously Labour’s position there strengthens with each down-tick in SNP support.

The Telegraph analysis …

… is predictable:

  • In a double blow for the First Minister, the YouGov survey appears to dash his hopes of making Westminster “hang by a Scottish rope” after the general election…
  • The poll suggests the SNP’s falling support at Holyrood is thanks to growing disillusionment among voters about Mr Salmond’s record in power.
  • The poll suggests that the surest way for Mr Salmond to revive his party’s fortunes would be to “defend and promote Scotland’s interests” but abandon his support for independence.

Yet, is that so cut-and-dried?

Consider this scenario:

  • A Cameron government, with a bare majority (or no majority at all), desperate to hold on to the levers of power long enough to manipulate a second General Election;
  • A new Labour leadership, with the Party and any dissidents disciplined by that same second-Election expectation;
  • Those Tory cuts. These are essential we are assured, if only to keep the Tory right-wing on side. Labour would nominally oppose, but secretly regard them as greasing-up affronted public service unions.
  • In any case, we can easily see the cuts falling heaviest on the Celtic fringes where Tory votes are as rare as hen’s teeth. Remember, too, there would be no substantial Tory representation in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, a prime target for cuts, a resentful DUP is already sniping at the UCUNF nonsensicals for splitting the vote (which raises another thought: could Cameron ditch the UUP if DUP votes could keep him afloat?).

All that leaves Salmond basking in his own eternal self-regard, able to damn and double-damn all Westminster parties for betraying Scotland.

Which is precisely where he wants to be.

Addendum (4:40 pm):

Anthony Wells (UK Polling Report) has now put up a professional analysis of this poll:

Comparing this to the last General election, Labour’s vote is unchanged, the Conservatives up just 2 points. The SNP are up by 6, the Lib Dems down by a crushing 11. On a uniform swing at a general election, that would result in the SNP gaining Ochil & South Perthshire from Labour, and Labour gaining Dunbartonshire East and Inverness,etc from the Lib Dems. The Conservatives wouldn’t gain anything.

That amplifies the odd detail of Malcolm’s original response, above. In the circumstances, it looks as if Labour has the most reason to be cheered by this. But the game, in the middle term, could still be Salmond’s.


Filed under Elections, leftist politics., Northern Ireland, Scotland, Scottish Parliament, Tories.

Ceci n’est pas une bonne idée, Monsieur Cameron

Late morning, Malcolm’s Dear Old Dad would regularly conclude his back-to-front dissection of his habitual Express. To the end of a long life, when he thought no-one was looking, he could be caught catching a crafty look at Malcolm’s Guardian or Observer: same technique, start with the football and cricket.

The pipe was then de-coked, re-fuelled. and puffed up. The view from the window was next long reviewed and considered.

Eventually came the word of wisdom: perhaps on the lines of “Sometimes I sits and thinks; and sometimes I just sits”. This, or one of the other stand-bys, was probably a hand-me-down from Grandfather Tommy, born 1865.

Now it is Malcolm’s turn, but Ceci n’est pas une pipe. It’s a cup of tea.

What has been niggling Malcolm these last twenty-four hours is David Cameron’s profound statement of economic policy:

  • A restatement of the Osborne intent to reverse the National Insurance contributions for employers. Admittedly, this commitment is a bit slippery: every time it re-appears the wording and conditions are subtly changed. As yet, it cannot have the status of a “cast-iron” promise. Despite the backing and filling, the various trimmings, it remains an expensive commitment.
  • A commitment to take Corporation Tax down to 25p and, for “small businesses” (re-definition expected) to 20p (see below).


  • There is also a commitment to reduce borrowing

Which implies increased taxes.

But these cannot be long-term taxes on consumption, because

  • it’s go-for-growth time again (a mantra of every Tory Chancellor since 1922).

So, yesterday Cameron endorsed ginormous handouts to business. Each penny off the Corporation Tax represents nearly £4 billion of commitments (rising to nearer £5 billion in a full financial year). Curiously, the Tories have been reticent about costing those proposals.

Then there are those promised “cuts”. As of Monday mid-day, some of those “cuts” were “quantified” (in Cameron’s statement to the CBI) as a third of the cost of running central government. Again, there’s a statement than needs definition: what amount (in hard cash) does it involve? Whose jobs go?

This is is proving to be one hell of a fox in the hen coop.

Cue Tony Haygarth! Who he, you may ask.

OK: Who he?

The voice of Mr Tweedy in Nick Parks’s seminal Chicken Run. He is given the marvellous line:

The chickens are revolting!

Indeed they are: the notion of being done over by Mrs Tweedy’s horrendous pie-making machine has them taking stock. [Worst pun yet. Sorry!]

Well, the foxy chaps and vixenish chapesses, of the vulpine British press, those harbingers of more general panic, are getting distinctly edgy about Cameron’s patent porky-pie machine.

The realisation is growing that the Cameron-Osborne manifesto is a few too many feathers in the wind, too many eggs counted before they hatch.

How else does one explain these?

What people are looking for, above all, is a politician they can trust because he is consistent and transparent and they feel they know where they are with him.

Instead, Cameron has left himself open to the charge that he is a PR man in search of the better soundbite, tailoring his message to whatever the last focus group has told him.

That, for heaven’s sake, is Mel Phillips in the Daily Mail!
Or, as mild-mannered as ever, Benedict Brogan for the Telegraph:

… politics is the means by which we can start a debate about a programme for rebuilding Britain. Only the Conservatives can lead it. Privately, they say that all will become clear and inspiring when the election is called and their campaign is unveiled. But it is more urgent than that. Voters may be fed up, even jaded, but they are not uninterested in the question of what happens next in our island story. They will want to hear far more from Mr Cameron about this work of renewal before he gets to ask the Queen to read his speech.

Out on the lunatic fringe, Lilico of Policy Exchange is prepared to:

run an average deficit of about £40bn. … So, still £100bn to find. … We could raise the basic rate of income tax to 45p.  Or we could raise the VAT rate to 37.5%.  Or perhaps we could try a bit of each — raise income tax to “just” 35p and the VAT rate to “just” 33%.

So, it’s cuts, cuts, cuts. All based on the specious nonsense that the current rate of expenditure needs to be sustained, and ignoring those large elements of the current expenditure package which are self-correcting.

Five minutes googling will find many, many more “reliable” Tory commentators harrumphing about Cameron’s inability to come clean. Lefties, like Malcolm, can further warm themselves in the reflected coals of damnation heaped on Cameron’s head by virtually every contribution to any of those chat-pages: the once-and-for-all answer is invariably pulling out of Europe with or without a referendum to bring that about. Whatever happens next Spring, being Leader of the Tory Party will be a very rough ride.

So, Cameron is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. Deservedly so. For far too long, the Tory recipe has been displacement therapy: every time a problem about past utterances pops up, move swiftly to another pledge, another commitment, another “cast-iron” promise. This exercise in surreality is turning out not to be une vonne idée.

Cameron’s problem now is he cannot shut up. He cannot sit and think. He cannot just sit.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., David Cameron, George Osborne, Tories.

“The innate worth and dignity of every individual” [Michael Gove]

There is a point of view that a hypothetical Tory government would be a public schoolboy government:

  • with a potential Prime Minister whose extra-parliamentary experience amounts to a brief time in PR-puffery for a failing TV station


  • a Selfridges’ shop-boy advanced to the national exchequer.

Ah!, we are then told, but look at the next tier of talent. Example, please? Well, Michael Gove is, allegedly, ferociously bright, a Scotsman, “who comes on holiday with 5,000 pages about the rise of the Third Reich“.

So, here is some of his elegant and elevated contribution to yesterday’s Education debate:

the Secretary of State has absolutely no credibility left on the issue. He is the Katie Price of public spending – the Jordan of this Government. All that he is interested in is being on the front pages, so he has massively inflated what he has to offer. The past few months have left him dangerously overexposed; that means that he is in desperate need of support before it all goes south, but given his record of loyalty, it is a very brave man who would get into bed with him.

My, my: half a dozen boob jokes in as many dozen words. Is this a record?

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., education, sleaze., Tories., Uncategorized

1963 and all that

Those who have not been catching Dominic Sandbrook’s What if … alternative histories for the New Statesman immediately should. Previous pieces have gently mused on topics such as:


The series continues to be superficial, provocative, but — above all — fun. That’s not a notion casually linked to the New Statesman of recent years.

This week’s effort, What if … Hugh Gaitskell had lived, though, does not strike Malcolm as one of Sandbrook’s stronger efforts.

Sandbrook’s essential problem is that he is a historian, born a decade and more after 1963. Malcolm, and those of Malcolm’s generation, lived that period. We are history. Indeed.

19th January 1963

This was one of those days fixed in the memory, when one recalls exactly where one was.

Malcolm was in the house of the Copleys, Uncle Ernest and Aunt Kit, at Worksop Road, Netherthorpe, Aston, Sheffield. Don’t go looking for the house: it’s long gone. A lorry loaded with detergent took it out, prompting the headline Tide comes in at Aston. The loss of his beloved garden promptly killed Cop. Today, sandstone foundations may lie under the grass roadside embankment. Ernest Copley was a Labour man: he had been President of the Waleswood NUM Miners’ Lodge, and had fronted the stay-down strike of 1948. For no accountable reason, Cop’s morning newspaper was the Daily Mail (this had not greatly worried the infantile Malcolm, because he could read the Teddy Tail comic strip).

Now, that morning Malcolm was about to continue his ride back to Dublin, TCD, and the Hilary term. His aged but worthy Lambretta 150LD had brought him to Aston the previous freezing day of that bitter winter. Then ensued a heavy night, among the dominoes school in the Yellow Lion. So Malcolm, a trifle the worse for wear, was further taken aback by Saturday’s headline that Gaitskell was, suddenly, unpredictably, dead.

Until that moment Gaitskell had been something of a bogeyman for Malcolm: the Clause IV debates and the anti-CND rhetoric mattered then. Yet: de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Among the real Labour men of South Yorkshire waiting for the bus for the Wednesday or United game (whoever was at home and if the pitch had thawed out), there was a feeling of sorrow and regret, and — as Sandbrook would appreciate — of what might have been. Clause IV, among the pitmen, was a shibboleth, but — for heaven’s sake, nobody of any sense or reason could contemplate de-nationalising the mines, or the railways: good grief, look the mess that was steel!

The 1964 Election

In one respect, Sandbrook correctly reads the runes. The Tory Government, in power since 1951, was doomed to defeat in 1963-4. Despite the Sandbrook tabloid of history, that was not just because of the sexual shenanigans of the Profumo affair. The peasants, we ordinary folk, had no illusions about the doings and morals of them as wuz above us. No: it was the economic climate, and the mood which had changed, a wind of change that would blow hard for the next three decades. And only then briefly relent.

It took two General Elections to complete the deed, to be rid of the Tories for the moment. Like all vermin, they keep coming back. The other side take the same view: Malcolm remembers the Daily Telegraph promising the faithful, on 10th October 1959, that Labour in defeat was finished for a decade — if not a generation. That, in itself, convinced Malcolm that next time round would be different. Similar prophecies were made in 1970, 1979, 1983, 1992 and — heaven help us — may be in 2010. So: watch this space.

Probably with Gaitskell the 1964 campaign, Thirteen wasted years, would not greatly have differed in theme. We might even have more easily believed the white-hot heart of technological change. Whoever the leader and new Prime Minister, the new stars in the political firmament would have been, as Sandbrook suggests,  Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland and Anthony Wedgwood-Benn. To which Malcolm would add Barbara Castle and Douglas Jay and Denis Healey and George Brown and Richard Marsh …

Where Sandbrook’s fantasy goes wrong is the assumption that the Profumo event could have been re-enacted in the context of “swinging London” (© Time, April 1966 — see right):

…in 1967 came the final blow. Amid the hoopla surrounding You Only Live Twice, the new James Bond film, Private Eye dropped the bombshell that the prime minister had been sleeping with the wife of Bond’s creator for the last decade.

Sandbrook’s misconstruction there is to be a Beatles, rather than a Stones man.

Yes, in Britain, in 1967, Let’s Spend the Night Together was acceptable for prime-time family television. Only on the US networks, and for the Ed Sullivan Show, was bowdlerising needed.

Sandbrook, though, is correct in his essential conceit: Gaitskell could not have survived the 1960s. He would, presumably (after his principled stand on Suez), have been as reluctant to get involved in the Vietnam mess as Wilson was. That, in itself, required an expert balancing act (not often celebrated) by the Foreign Office, keeping the Atlanticists, the graduates of the CIA schools of patronage, in play but not in the driving seats.

Where things would have gone sadly adrift is the terminal failure of Butskellism. The economic consensus of the 1950s was past any sell-by date. Macmillan, with or without that 1959 mis-quotation, had stoked up a consumer demand which the state of the economy could not afford. British metal-bashing industry was totally out-classed in the new dispensation. The right-wing of the Tories was going rogue: witness the proto-monetarism that emerged at the 1970 Selsdon conference. Heath could not resist the inevitable, which was then presented to the British electorate as wolf-dressed-as-lamb.

What would have been different is that Gaitskell (in, say, the aftermath of a 1966 landslide) would have been supplanted by a leftist, more socialist Labour administration. Doubtless Harold Wilson, cannily positioned in the left-centre, would have emerged. That would have left the “loyalists” to be bought or to go into the wilderness. In 1970 the British electors could have have a more positive choice. None of which would have prevented the dire, drear sterility of the 1970s.

  • With the situation in Northern Ireland ripe for explosion.
  • With the European debate still to be had.

Which leaves just two thoughts

  1. Malcolm has been here before. When one passes up Church Row in Hampstead, one passes the  grave and memorial of Hugh (“Fortitude and integrity”) and Dora Gaitskell. It’s a nudge to do what Sandbrook does: to consider the numerous “might-have-beens”
  2. Malcolm’s Pert Young Piece was one of Sandbrook’s pupils at Sheffield. It would seem that Sandbrook left the History Department at Sheffield in a puff of sulphuric smoke. He had been offered a contract for a populist history, a development frowned on by his superiors. He merely shrugged his shoulders, cited the money, made no apology, and left..

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Filed under British Left, Daily Mail, Hampstead, Harold Wilson, History, Labour Party, New Statesman, socialism.

All Truss-ed up?

Out there in the wider world, the last word on Ms Truss and the “Turnip Taliban” has come via the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. With Iain Dale lobbing in grenades, prepared by Tory HQ, from the side-lines.

Much more to the point, and closer to the ground, would be the Eastern Daily Press and Nic Starling, the LibDem Norfolk Blogger.

Go there. Get it from the fountain-heads.

As Malcolm has already posted to Norfolk Blogger, he feels that the essential point is being missed.

There is one factual statistic, which has to come from official Tory sources: Ms Truss was endorsed by 132-37.

So: after the most extraordinary few days in recent SW Norfolk Tory history, there were just 169 paid-up votes.

Not surprisingly, those who think in terms of political machines hit on the tension between centralizing power (in this case, Tory Central Office) and local activism (here, the “Turnip Taliban”). Malcolm remembers the reach and grasp of the Norfolk squirearchy half-a-century gone: so, he suggests that far more significant is the dynamised Tory membership in SW Norfolk being reduced to a couple of double-decker bus-loads.

Furthermore, we can reasonably extrapolate from that Association vote. A fifth of the core SW Norfolk Tories feel roughed up, put upon, and are sufficiently pissed off not to be too vigorous in supporting their “official” candidate. UKIP doubled their vote last time: next Spring they could erode another 3-5,000 Tories who have nowhere else to go (that could be half the notional majority).

Conclusion: SW Norfolk will need a substantial tranche of “Lord” Ashcroft’s dosh: after all, having imposed their chosen one, Central Office must regard this constituency as a “dare-not-lose” marginal. For any Labour or LibDem candidate, exposed to the inevitable metropolitan media glare, this one — win, or more likely, lose — is a real opportunity.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., Daily Mail, leftist politics., Lib Dems, Norfolk, Tories.