Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I can see the newspaper comment article now: "Why are politicians all so obsessed with soundbites?"

It will point out that politicians have become a breed who all follow the same line, don't say anything that they have not been schooled to say by spin doctors and do not have an original thought between them. It will go on to bemoan the lack of characters in an anodyne House of Commons. They will refer to the great leaders of the past: Churchill, Lloyd George, Gladstone - "say what you like about their personal peccadillos they were at least not afraid to speak their mind" the article will thunder.

The article will appear in the Daily Telegraph. Probably in the next few months.

But am I alone in finding it wrong that its somehow acceptable to wire people up and send them in posing as constituents to have private conversations (for which the politician has a duty of confidentiality) with MPs? The recent case where the FA was embarassed following a private chat about refereeing procurement was a similarly questionable journalistic exercise. These are fishing expeditions mounted on the off-chance of catching something exciting.

And like any hunted beast politicians will respond by not saying anything thats not on-message. And our politics (and, by extension, country) will get weaker for it.

But everyone still needs to let steam out, to say what they really think. Just as well that there will still be somewhere where they can do so - off-the-record briefings to journalists. Like those of the Daily Telegraph.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Feeling Pinched

David Willetts is the closest the ranks of senior Tory politicians have to a bona fide intellectual - his nickname is "Two Brains".

His most recent book is The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future – And Why They Should Give It Back. The basic premise (touted amid much fanfare before the Election) is that the Baby Boomers had it pretty good - free education, rising house prices, a golden economy (not to mention all the fun and games of the Sixties). Their combination of large numbers (the Baby Boomers, born 1945-65, were originally the children sired by servicemen returning from World War 2), control of the key positions in society and a high propensity to vote has enabled them to fashion the political economy to their advantage.

But those of us coming along behind are having to pick up the pieces. Huge debt - both national and personal to pay for those houses - and the need to pay for the pensions and spiralling health bills mean that the younger generations are having to pay for cleaning up the Baby Boomers' party. House pricing is essentially an inter-generational wealth transfer (the Boomer sat in the house whose value multiplied many times over and then first time buyers have to raise, and finance, the mortgage to pay for it). Life for young people - combining high levels of debt, poorer employment prospects and faltering youth-facing public services - is getting tougher.

A very clear argument - and one that deserves more discussion.

Especially when the recent spending review essentially left pensioner benefits untouched, explicitly did not touch the NHS which is increasingly important as people get older, but massively increased student fees. The argument goes that student fees are essentially a middle class perk (and under the arrangements proposed those on lower salaries post-graduation will potentially be better off than under the current deal) and there is some truth to this. But surely even more so for wealthy retirees are non means-tested pensioner bus passes, heating allowances and free TV licences. So the priorities of the spending review (especially if you add back restoring the earnings link to pensions) have played to the political power of the greying generation (who, of course, have very high voter turnout).

One would have thought that David Willetts might have made a stand on this? Except that he is now the Minister of State for Universities and Science. In charge of the new student fees arrangement.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Climbing Mont Blanc (almost live blog)

Evening – Day 1
Well, we have made it to the first hut. All 500 metres of the way. Heroic.
Blizzard when we emerged from the top of the Aiguille de Midi, the double cable car up from the centre of Chamonix. Somehow coming down the thin wall of ice to get to the mountain in the fog and wind was better than doing it in balmy sunshine - you cannot see the thousand metre falls that you are reconnoitring without a handrail. Much thinner (and no handrail) than in winter with ski boots for the Vallee Blanche. At least you have crampons and no skis...
Then a short descent and climb up to the fuggy, mountain-macho hut - full of strong, mostly silent types contemplating their next abseil, and debating whether to use a rope or not. We feel suitably uncraggy and unweathered.
The storm comes and goes - breaking briefly as we arrive for a glorious evening view over the rolling clouds below. Then the wind and hail settles back in. We have delayed one day because of the weather - and were lucky to get new places in the hut the following night.
We’re at 3600 metres. There is a storm outside. Hail the size of airgun pellets rattles the windows. We discuss the Bellancourt scandal. The cramped dormitories begin to whiff damply as people circle each other’s mattresses warily, wearily. Dinner soon.
Life could be worse.

Morning - Day 2

Its quarter to one. In the morning.

The building is full of scurrying figures, preparing themselves for the day ahead - grabbing ropes, crampons, poles: strapping things on; emptying and refilling rucksacks - dashing in to the night with hearty embraces to their comrades. Last night everyone had the heavy air of a fully uncoiled spring. Now - on 3, 4 hours sleep - they are again alpha men (and occasional women). In the gloom a crowd forms outside the food hall as we eagerly await breakfast.

Gloom? All this is played out in the half dark - broken by the sparkle of headlamps that everyone has sprung in the night - some sort of virulent but vital technical veruca that we all picked up in the close proximity sleeping quarters. Perhaps the building lights work but who cares? That’s what our headlamps are for. Or maybe we are showing sensitivity to our sleeping neighbours and not shining lights in their eyes. They - poor fellows - have after all just been run over by the Alpine uber-elite.

And us, creeping towards breakfast and the mountain.


Its 1.30am and the stampede on the mountain begins. We strap on our gear - crampons, head torch, harness, rucksack with ice axe and rope - then start off down and across the plain towards the first peak. All around us the night is full of little glow-worms of torches as other groups move out. Already there is a chain stretching ahead and up the mountain - a pathway guiding us heaven-wards. It is chilly with an occasionally sharp wind, laced with sharp hail.

Masha (my wife) and I each have a guide - she is with Roland, our charming, chatty regular guide who has been training us all week and would find a friend in any given snowstorm in the Chamonix valley and I am with Christian - his quieter but solidly experienced friend. This was originally a cunning plan in case one of us (read: Tim) was hit by altitude sickness and there had to be a parting of the ways. But although - possibly because we have been chewing bucket loads of Diomox - this never happened, it still proved a good decision.

How much so was swiftly apparent as we began the assault on the first peak. The angle vectored brutally upwards, the snow and ice (there is no rock in this story until later, and no earth or grass at all) increasingly treacherous and there is relief in the knowledge that we had one man's entire attention should we put a foot wrong on an increasingly steep slope.

My entire focus was on the next step - both as a matter of balance and planning but also so as not to think about anything mundane like how much my legs might hurt. That way lies doom. Occasionally glancing up I'd see faint stars overhead and a clear path of lights up the mountain.

A few hairy moments: a ladder over a chasm (there were many crevices here and later) where we saw the first of the slightly pushy nature of these alpine men. Naked without their ropes, with the occasional carabineer necessary to protect their modesty, they are usually jovial, if quiet folk, but knowing that there are choke points up the mountain find their competitive (read French driving) habits coming to the fore. Roland had gone ahead and Masha was due up next now that he was braced in case she fell – the clear line of the rope being critical for this. But a young German pushed in between them saying: "I am on my own". Not hard to see why.

Two gruelling hours (made worse by the battered path, even Christian loses his footing occasionally) later we reach the top of the first climb - the actual peak is off to our left. Down the mountain - too far a fall to contemplate - the lights of Geneva can be seen.

A brief descent and then we begin the next push up what will prove the toughest hill. Icy, steep, I am on all fours at times and then slogging up a series of parallel paths. For this climb I have taken one of the two walking poles I usually walk with, put it in my rucksack, and replaced it with an ice axe. Here at the end of each parallel I swap them over - pole on downside, ice axe on the topside. This latter would be the best hope in the event of a fall - you would throw yourself on top of it to dig in and slow (and stop if you can hang on...) the rate of slide. Our guide has got us roped on - leash-like - and presumably knows what to do but the there are many scenarios, not all pretty. We are in our own tiny world - Christian and I. Its too dark to see others except when we pass them or they pass us - usually because someone is grabbing a quick break. Precious few pleasantries are exchanged - exercise and altitude renders breath too valuable a commodity to waste. I have not seen Masha for several hours.

Its as we near the top of the second leg-sapping climb that we catch sight of her ahead of us in the queue for what we can tell is a tough patch by the concentration of glow-worm lights (if its easy they are all spaced out). Its a bit of a wait and they have headed up as we pause and Christian tells me to put on my ice helmet. Good advice - I will soon catch a large chunk of ice on my head from a climber above - but it brings a terrible realisation. Light is breaking across the mountain tops - the sun has not yet risen but there is enough to make out the world around us. Shadows do crazy things along the side of ice pathways - and I realise how precarious is our hold on the side of the mountain. Until now the limited distance illuminated by the head lamps had let me lull myself in to a sense of relaxation (or only dim awareness) of this: no longer. Crampons are fabulous beasts - they hold you at crazy, icy angles - but if there is one thing that I have learnt this week it is that I have an overactive imagination around great heights. And it is a long way down.

Not a problem that seemed to afflict the Italian mountain guide who sauntered up to look at the ice climb ahead, through a couloir only one person could go up at a time. With his back to a 100 metre fall, his feet at a 30 degree angle to the gentler part of the slope he got his backpack out and started rummaging around in it, totally relaxed.

Quite a wait, enlivened by colourful French expostulations against those dropping ice on them from above and then in to the couloir we went. Ice axe in, make sure it holds then crampons up to the next toeholds. Climbing in crampons is a pleasure - you barely need to find your own toe holds: the wicked mandibles on the front of the hungry ants do that. But there are lots of wild, unguided, youths blundering around, chunks of ice tumble from climbers further up and I am still shaken by the height we are at (or more precisely could fall) and so I sprint up the mountain, pounding away. Not smart as I am quickly exhausted. But Christian has rigged us on to the top ropes with a carabineer system so its easier then to slowly make our way to the top. The climbing is fun but I am delighted and exhausted to collapse at the top.

And from there its basically a slog – one slope and then the last 300m up the mountain with the summit tantalisingly close, but the insects crawling up its face are still people a long way up. Twenty five minutes from the top Roland calls Christian to say that they are already there and now heading down to a refuge to await us. Its partly better queue placement, partly that I am carrying her tea and food but largely that mountain bred Masha is simply fleeter of foot on the way up than her lowland, riverside-bred husband. The sun is rising but its still not warm, the wind is biting and brief, welcome breaks are tortured by sudden hail shoots - there is no cover up here (or no cover you want to be close to in case of rock or ice fall).

Its short, slow steps. Managing the rhythm. Gasping for breath. Not looking up. Brief pause. Slow, steady steps. Then we reach the summit! False alert.

One last push - and we are on the top of the world. Breathing hard but afloat on exhiliration. Below us the clouds float, mountains pushing though them to peer up at us. The summit is a broad, beaten ridge where we can sit, eat, drink (although my camel back tube has frozen solid), take photos but probably not talk too much as breathing is hard. Its taken nearly seven hours - its just pushing towards 9am.

Then the hard part begins. The descent. We have taken the harder "technical" way up and will now complete the tour and take the longer way back down.

It starts easily, if hairily enough. Down thin ridges - an icy spine on which we balance our way. Christian has me on a tight leash. If I fall one way then he would leap the other so as to balance us out. Given its several hundred metres either way this sounds like the preferable (if sub-optimal) outcome. Slightly more hairy when others shuffle past us on the way up.

If the calf muscles hurt on the way up (and my injury was twinging to remind me that its only been a few months out of crutches - according to my physio mountain climbing to rebuild muscle mass is entirely the right approach) then its thighs that suffer on the way down. And they soon start burning. A hut has been pointed out me as where we'll meet Masha - getting there is hard and then I am mistaken: its the next hut another hour away. Urgh.

Before then we come across a group huddled in the mountain with a very sprightly gentleman racing around them. Its their guide and one of the climbers has lost his glasses and been struck by snow-blindness. He can see nothing and stumbling along these ridges fully sighted is already scary. His guide has clipped him to him to get him this far. Now the mountain rescue chopper swoops in - and then again. The gusting wind forces multiple passes before they come in sideways and the securiste descends, spider-like, on his cord. Christian (and Roland) are both former securistes so he's taking a professional interest and chatting away. The spider himself, dressed rather like a well-padded bicycle cop, albeit with harness and ice axe, in a natty dark blue costume is taut and professional. A few quick questions - then terse instructions in to his helmet mike to the circling pilot. The victim is attached to the chopper and winched away - watching him dangle below the helicopter as it powers aloft makes me wonder whether that's fun - or frightening; and better or worse when blind. He is swiftly deposited on a nearby flat mountain top and as we stumble on down the mountain the Eurocopter sweeps back to pull the rest of the party out as well (they having decided to go on down because the blinded man has got the car keys....).

The last bit to the Gouter refuge is excruciating - down, up, down and then a final approach along a ridge riddled with crevices and dangerous looking cracks. Cannot have been fun for people going up at 1.30am. My legs are dying - and I think even Christian is tiring - when we finally remove our crampons and leave our bags for dead outside the hut and stagger in to find the others.

Masha is elated - apart from the last bit its all been a breeze for my little mountain goat. Plus she has had the best part of an hour to have some food and sugared drink and recover from the wordless world of pain that I am in. Takes a while to get any food as in traditional French style the "20 minutes" lunch break is going strong an hour later.

We continue the descent - we have well over 2000 metres to go to exit. And now we realise why the guides will take any chance to crampon on snow and ice rather than clamber over rocks. Its a brutal descent, helped by steel wiring over craggy rocks. The climbing is fun - the risk of dropping stones on the heads of those below and the potential to tumble nastily or turn an ankle on tired legs not. We begin to pass increasing numbers of people heading up to the Gouter hut, their base for the following days push on Mont Blanc. We get down but - as we later discover when the rescue helicopter zeroes in again - someone shortly behind us doesn't. He falls in to a gully. He's fifteen.

At the bottom there's a gulley which you have to dash across as rocks are falling. Mostly they are small and at foot level, sliding shale. But occasionally they are football sized chunks bouncing haphazardly down the mountain - randomly coming in at head height or similar. Someone slightly melodramatically likened it to a sniper's alley where you have to watch, prey and dash. Several groups made it across with minor incident - we then followed. Masha was lightly hit (on helmet and rucksack) but made it fine (her husband probably suffered more watching than she did running) and I got across fine, with a slight twist to the ankle.
Adventure over - but long hard slog ahead still to be had. Down towards the tramway to take us off the mountain, still several hours away. Masha had hurt her knee and so was limping in at the end - even the rather tame chamois grazing as we passed could add little cheer.
So its done. The mountain and the write-up on the early morning trip back to London. I'm tired but the complete, desperate exhaustion of yesterday has been replaced by a quiet gratitude to the engineers who keep the Geneva airport and Heathrow escalators running so smoothly.

Not sure the kids are that impressed. They are a hard audience.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Parliamentary arithmetic

Part of the new electoral deal being proposed is to reduce the size of Parliament - to have fewer MPs.

"And why not?" runs the argument. They don't do proper jobs, they cost a fortune (mostly in illicit expense claims), "snouts in the trough", we've got too many politicians anyway etc etc

There are various tactical reasons why cutting the number of MPs will not be a good move. The increasing volume of casework will accelerate exponentially as constituencies get larger (either reducing the quality of the casework done or costing more in constituency staffing). Party-driven squabbles over electorally sensitive boundaries will reduce everyone's appetite for the hard work of genuine political reform - and further turn people away from democratic politics.

But most critically our Parliamentary system means that the House of Commons is our primary source of executive talent (such as it is) to run the country. OK - the House of Lords acts as a top-up but when non-politicians have been brought in to Government they have tended to flounder - think of distinguished businessmen like Lord Simon under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown's GOATs.

And if we cut the number of Parliamentarians then we cut the talent pool for the Cabinet (and the various traineeship positions to get there in the form of junior Ministerial positions). And - potentially as importantly - we risk weakening the independence of Parliament if all the available talent ends up on the Government payroll. This will also mean less people are available for manning the Select Committees that should be holding Government to account.

If we go down this route then we'll risk needing to evolve a form of separation of powers - whereby members of the Executive (Government) can be brought in from outside the Legislative (House of Commons). This might be a good idea anyway but it would be a fundamental shift in how we run the country.

And that surely should be based on something more important than winning a few "we're all in this together" bash the politician headlines. I struggle to believe that the cost savings will be serious (or sustainable - the pressure to raise MPs salaries and expand their office staff will grow); and would anyway be counter-balanced by the cost of the new Boundary review.

We have a mixed track record in Britain of deploying brilliant Ministers to lead the country - cutting the Parliamentary base of the pyramid simply means (mathematically) that there will be less good Ministers at the top.

So why not cut the number of  Ministers? Well that's a far better question...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What makes journalists tick

Very interesting take on the code of US journalism.

Its a bit different for the UK where the newspaper market is far more competitive - and hence the editorial offers far more differentiated - than the US. What were traditionally city monopolies in US newspapers (just thinks of the names of the key US papers: the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times...) required a more balanced (arguably read "dry") approach to the world.

But the underlying ethos of the US journalist (think Watergate) remains the ideal for many.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My ashes experience

I have a lot of sympathy for those who have been delighted that the skies have mysteriously been clear of planes. Except that I was in Stockholm when it happened - and had a 30-hour trip back. A mix of a train, a taxi, multiple ferries and a borrowed car: exhausting but curiously exhilarating as I got closer to home and family.

I have a lot less sympathy for the need to send the Royal Navy off to rescue people from the beaches of Europe. When I got to Calais at 2.30 on Saturday morning there was a massive queue at the P&O office -it was taking people up to four hours to buy a ticket from the one desk that was open. This was compounded by not allowing foot passengers on board - this despite the fact that most people who had got there by hire car were now forced to abandon their vehicles, giving the car park an earie "end of days" feel. Meanwhile ferries were sailing with empty slots because P&O could not get their basic operational act together.

P&O - exploiting the British national willingness to queue patiently for evacuation from the beaches around Dunkirk.
Gordon Brown - exploiting the British national media willingness to get excited about a PR stunt.

Those questions that won't go away

"I don't want to get in to a hypothetical on that" says a senior politician in response to questions about how they'll behave in the event of a hung Parliament.

Sounds familiar?

Except its Harriet Harman.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hanging out with mates more popular than looking things up in the library

Facebook has apparently just overtaken Google as the most popular website in the US.

The world returns to normal.

Modern male manners

When my wife was (recently) pregnant she was very aware of how rarely people offered her their seat on the Tube - even in the somewhat obvious final stages. Those who did tended to be women aged 25 and over.

We always assumed that this was largely because they could imagine being or had been in the same situation themselves. And men always had the slight excuse that some women might take it as a comment on their weight.


I am now hobbling around on a crutch with a ripped calf muscle (tedious). I am clearly not going to take insult about insinuations about my weight (at least in this context!).

But it is exactly the same women who offer their seats to me (usually I refuse with profuse and slightly apologetic thanks). The few men who have offered me their seats were (with one exception) clearly foreign.

British men - we used to take pride in our manners, now its in our ability to grab and keep "what's ours".

PS Before I am asked the obvious question I do offer my seat to women - pregnant or otherwise - but maybe not often enough. A lesson. Relearnt.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Out of the Woods

Struck by the new ads from Accenture, the consulting to outsourcing monster firm, which have replaced their "Be a Tiger" campaign.

The posters show an elephant dancing delicately and the strapline is "You're never too big to be nimble".

May I translate: "We're so big that we could afford to sponsor Tiger Woods [the billion-dollar sportsman] but nimble enough to drop him the moment he became embarassing".

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Its too quiet out there

The BBC has just run an article on its Magazine pages commenting on how moderate we have all been in the face of the recession. It argues that counter to the early press speculation of widespread strikes and social break down we have all been remarkably calm and well-tempered in the face of earnings declines and the falling economy. We are apparently the "heroes" of this recession.

But the point about this recession is that for many people they have not yet really felt it. I exclude obviously the communities that have lost major employers, and the swathe of people who find themselves out of work. For some individuals it has already been a bitter experience. But - on average - employment has so far held up better in this recession than expected and for those still in paid work the world looks far less bleak.


Interest rates.

Given that housing cost is typically the largest single item in the household budget the era of extraordinarily low interest rates means that many people on a tracker mortgage have far more money in their pockets than a couple of years earlier. And those who have lost their jobs can survive in their homes for longer despite the loss of income. Hence a housing market that continues to defy gravity.

All well and good - but unless the global economy speeds up and the low pound means that we can take advantage of this (tough given the state of our manufacturing economy but it will help the business services sector) then it makes the reckoning next year potentially fearsome.

I fear that an incoming Tory Government will want to get the pain of spending cuts and tax increases out of the way as early as possible in the electoral cycle (when it can still be blamed on Labour and giving them the chance of some years of growth prior to the next Election). At the same time Quantitative Easing will have to come to an end (free money cannot last forever). And suddenly all the various tax rises already planned will kick in (the return to the old level of VAT, the new 50p income tax band) and the property market will tank. Cue panic.

I am painting a dark scenario but the point is that its far too early for the BBC to be smugly congratulating us all on our good behaviour.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Gordon gets Majored

Have to say that Gordon Brown doesn't emerge that badly from the saga of the mis-spelled commiseration letter. He has terrible eyesight, and yet still struggles to handwrite a letter to the family of every serviceman who falls in the line of duty. Ok - so he probably mispelled a name, and should be more open to admitting to having made a mistake. He might even have got some sympathy.

But he is now where Major was shortly before the end. Whatever he did turned to dust - remember the underpants outside the trousers story? Probably never happened but an unforgiving media, and sharp Labour spin-doctoring, meant that he never lived it down.

Brown is now in the same place - and it cannot be a nice place to be. I have less sympathy though than for the failing eyesight. Or for the family that has lost a son.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Keep quiet Dave

I find myself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of hoping that Dave Cameron can hold the line with his own party.

If he is forced to say anything new on a Lisbon referendum before the Election then it will only be to the bad. Both Tory troop rallying, media pleasing and - to be fair - rousing the core Tory vote will cry out for him to take a tougher line on "Europe".

However, he is smart enough, and presumably well advised enough, to realise that this will create a complete mess at a time when there will be plenty of other challenges for a new Government. He is - I hope - a pragmatist before he is a Little Englander (for all Little Englanderdom is a pragmatic approach to take if you want to run the Tories).

And it will create a complete mess for this country if we spend the next decade squabbling with our European partners. So Dave - much as a return to Tory Euro-splits would make for amusing Sunday newspaper stories - hold that line!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Good choice

The lady at the Borders check-out counter smiled: "Thats a good choice."

I was buying a copy of the latest Neal Stephenson novel: Anathem. His previous novels include Cryptonomicon, a tying together of the code-crackers of WW2 with the rise of the Internet, and The Baroque Cycle, so mighty a trilogy that it has reportedly been republished as 8 books. This thunders through his unique take on the history of the late 17th / early 18th century, thrashing together the science and banking of Isaac Newton, thoughts on the rise of the modern world (and its financial, scientific, political and social institutions) with a thumping good adventure story. A writer who educates you on great science, makes you think - and creates worlds you can drown in. Brilliant.

"Yes - he's great isn't he!" So good that I'd even bought the hardback - something I usually only do when the book is a present. And delighted to have found a fellow fan.

"Er no - I meant that". She pointed at the second item I'd added (My excuse being that it was stacked enticingly next to the till).

A Cadbury's Creme Egg.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

What next?

As the world grumbles about bankers and swears "never again" the question we must answer is what next?

James Callaghan apparently said: "There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics". He was referring to the coming Thatcher revolution that transformed the nature of the relationship between capitalism and the state. New Labour added a human face to the Thatcherite economic concensus.

Now, 30 years later, the events of the past few months are very clearly showing that (at least) aspects of this are not sustainable. What is not so clear is what comes next - and the current debate is not showing much in the way of breakthrough thinking.

The state running the commanding heights of the economy is not going to happen - especially as this currently simply seems to mean spending as-yet uncounted sums of taxpayer money. Under a communist system the central planning team may have been suboptimal - but at least they did not consume the 10% of GDP that UK financial services has done. The role of the two is arguably similar - deciding where to deploy resources in the economy to maximise investment returns (albeit with slightly different end ambitions).

But the UK has to answer some critical questions:
  1. Should the UK attempt to reduce its dependence on financial services? Inevitably this will happen (already the City is well on the way to 30% + reduction in staffing) but what alternative economic sector does the UK really have to replace it? And does the coming wave of US regulation offer a real opportunity to strengthen London's position in the global financial system - if that system survives...
  2. What alternative economic sectors can we build out? How do we grow a significant green industry (at the same time as everyone else decides to go down the same road)?
  3. How we do face the coming pension and demographic crisis?
  4. How will the UK's business and social fabric survive what are going to be many long years of working through paying back our debt (rather than spending on anything else).

The answers to these questions (and there are others) will define the political meme of the next thirty years. That no one yet has the answers is one of the reasons why no one yet has the next election in the bag.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Plus ca change

Its been a while since I last blogged.

And not much has changed.

"Milliband should run - but won't" from April 2007.... now looks like he's ducked his chance for a second time in a row. Begins to look like a habit.

Meanwhile, the Evening Standard picked up on my comments on Party Treasurers "Unsung soldiers of democracy" and asked me to write this up for them. Letters page of the Evening Standard - its not yet Guido Fawkes on Newsnight but...

Politics is getting interesting again. The US election has been a shot of pure political adrenalin; the fall and return of McCain, the textbook Obama insurgency. The Republicans are now digging out their 2000/04 Election "kulturkampf" playsheet to counter the heroic Obama verbal onslaught. Its been a roller-coaster ride and its not over yet.

By contrast, the end of the Labour Government feels like its a simply a question of a few more dead-on-arrival relaunches. But things will get more interesting with a Prime Minister Cameron: he is no Blair, no Thatcher.

Time to be back.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Blair's heir finds his Campbell

So Andy Coulson, the former Editor of the News of the World is to be the new Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.

He is obviously supposed to be the Alastair Campbell to David Cameron's Tony Blair. He may well offer an approach that is every bit as brutally effective at savaging a tired NuLab administration as were Campbell's attacks on John Major (remember the "Y-fronts outside his trousers" image).

But one of the most powerful moments of the whole "end of Blair" saga was Michael Howard looking Campbell in the eye on Newsnight and telling him how much he had lowered the quality of British public life. (

So in making this choice (doubtless a smart operational one) Cameron cements his positions as a true heir to Blair.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Brown vs ?

At least Gordon's coronation avoids the ridiculous situation where the unions end up with a critical choice in who will be the next Prime Minister.

Now that Brown has no competition for the leadership a nation (OK, a tiny proportion) will turn its eyes to the Deputy leadership selection race. This looks like it might shape up to be the proxy for the national debate on Labour's future that the leadership race should have been.

And the debate might - if it somehow catches fire, and Cruddas is surely best placed to deliver that - become more interesting than all but the most eye-catching of Brown's pronouncements. Why? Because whizzy announcements from the top have become rather too much part of the Blairite background. Something genuinely exciting from the Deputy Leadership debate may wake things up - with 6 candidates playing it safe will not wash.

And who knows - we might even end up with a Deputy Leader with a far stronger mandate from the Party than Gordon Brown.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Milliband should run - but won't

All the recent speculation about whether or not Milliband will run rather miss the point. He should.

I start with the assumption that he wants to be Prime Minister. My evidence? He is a politician. The Pope is Catholic.

Given this - why should he not take the gamble and go for it? The scenario under which not running make sense is that Labour will lose the next election, then David Cameron loses the next Election - and we'll get Prime Minister Milliband.

This assumes several things:
  • That Labour will lose the next election. Given current opinion poll trends this would appear worth a bet.
  • That David Cameron will prove a shallow and unsuccesful PM and lose the following election. Possible.
  • That the Labour Party in opposition will maintain its discipline and hold together - meaning that the next Labour leader could bounce back to power after a brief interim in Opposition. Hmm.

All this would mean that David Milliband could pull off what William Hague could not. Step in to the leadership of a party that will have been exhausted by over a decade in power, and with some unfinished squabbles to settle. And go on to win.

I'm not sure what Milliband can lose by running. The various threats to his career are aggressively unsubtle - whether from Beckett or un-named Brownite sources. But if Brown wants to win a General Election he has to prove himself able to manage a big tent, and therefore casting out one of the few remaining talents in the Labour front ranks from spite would be seen as yet more proof of Stalinist tendencies.

Running a smart campaign would raise Milliband's profile, especially outside the Labour Party. He would be guaranteed good media coverage as the press are desperate for a battle; a new story after the years of Blair / Brown duopoly. He would go from a smart egghead to a real contender-in-waiting. Look how improved Chris Huhne's status was by his daring bid for the LibDem leadership.

And it would be good for the Labour Party. An open debate might actually help refresh the Labour Party - vital given the current intellectual exhuastion on display. It might even be good for Gordon Brown - he would be seen to have beaten a serious challenger. He would be forced to have a debate - and show that he can actually win an electoral contest.

For Milliband there is also the simple problem of timing: it is rare that you get a second opportunity. The alternative is to blink and not go for the race. When, with courage, he might have won. In short, Michael Portillo.

Portillo or Hague? Great choice. David Milliband - run!

PS If he did run, its likely that he would lose the internal party vote, but he might just win the popular outlook outside the Party. But of course he won't run. His articles and general comments suggest that he would so love to run. But can't quite bring himself to do so. Shame.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Blair's last grasp

Every time I speak to anyone working in Whitehall I hear the same thing: if a policy proposal or No. 10 diktat comes through then the civil servants receiving it ask themselves if Gordon Brown would like it, or want it to happen. If yes, it happens. If not, well there's always the slow tray...

We're in a pre-dawn world where Blair clings on to the last shadows of his rein, desperate to safeguard his destiny, still personally persuasive to the last (and Labour will soon realise how much they'll miss him). But he's frantically pulling on levers of power that no longer really connect to the front line of the civil service. All around him the No. 10 team are polishing their CVs and working out the colour of their parachutes.

Menawhile, Gordon Brown practices his smile in the mirror, as all the polls suggest mounting leads for David Cameron. And Government waits for the new dawn.

Rather than bemoan this lack of movement perhaps we should be grateful. The busier Blair's lot have been the more half-baked and incompetent legislation they have pushed through. A spell of quiet would do everyone a dose of good. Its only political hacks (and bloggers) who crave constant movement.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Market leadership

When Mirror journalists ramped shares they'd recently bought, and then sold them after they rose in response they ended up in jail. The 'City Slickers' affair nearly destroyed Piers Morgan's career many years before his Iraq pictures.

How handy then that the rise of new markets offer less risky ways for commentators to make money from their words. Guido Fawkes - widely read and closely followed by the political elite - recommended a bet on the Labour leadership market, then piled out shortly thereafter which you can do with spread betting. As he put it: "Even easier than investing in private equity..."

And an even better tax regime than private equity.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Triple-counting signatures

Much has been made of the 1.3m (and counting) signatures on the N.10 E-petition website against road charging. I'm not a techie, but one reason for this might just be that when you sign up for a petition (once) you get 3 replies from the website that you need to click to confirm - possibly triggering 3 signatures?

I was signing up to a petition against ID cards

Monday, February 05, 2007

Judging Number 10

Its not an obvious thought - and its one that I find hard to bring myself to say, but I will.

I hope, I really hope, that Tony Blair is not charged, let alone found guilty, of any wrong doing in the ongoing cash for honours scandal.

Let me explain.

Firstly, the last thing British politics needs is corruption at the highest level - so I am living in hope that he will not need to be hauled in front of the courts. This would be destructive for both the country but also our whole system of politics.

The hardest conversation I find on doorsteps when canvassing is persuading disinterested, often young, people to vote - not when I encounter someone with a strong set of views counter to my own. This would only get harder. On an international level it will make it harder for any British Givernment to wield any moral clout when criticising countries like Zimbabwe as they engage in truly corrupt mis-Government.

I also think that Tony Blair has done far more shocking things - like invading Iraq - and that is what he should have been punished for. But at the ballot box, not at the hands of the police.

Meanwhile, what sort of Government will we have if it is constantly in fear of judicial enquiry? Trust is the key to running any sort of organisation, and especially so in Government. Constant worries about deleting Emails and individuals coveribg themselves will not help Government work effectively.

Meanwhile, Governments of all colours have given honours to raise cash for politics. The answer is reform - of the Lords, of our political processes and of the role of money in our elections. Blaming it all on Blair will be to miss the structural issues at the expense of the crudely personal.

Don't get me wrong - if he has broken the law then he should be prosecuted. But I so hope that he hasn't.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Reid with embarassment

Another day, another wave of embarassment for John Reid.

He is not a man who is very easy to warm to but its hard not to feel a little bit sorry for him as yet another mine explodes under his feet. He has not yet been in the job so long that he could have turned the Home Office round. The problem is that he has not helped himself - by singing from the Daily Mail song book he can hardly complain as the tune gets nastier and nastier.

However, the woes of the Home Office go to the very heart of the failed Blair project.

Whilst "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" is now often seen as simply a piece of spin it remains one of the most powerful slogans of the New Labour avalanche. David Cameron was groping towards the same position with his "hug a hoodie" speech.

But, rising to power, New Labour was obsessed with the media. Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson decreed a media planning cycle that required quick Government responses to newspaper headlines, thus creating a blizzard of initiatives. Given the nature of tabloid journalism this affected the Home Office more than any other department (with Health following close behind).

'Tough on crime' was far easier to show than 'tough on the causes of crime' - projects which would inevitably take far longer to mature. Ironically, a decade in is when some of those latter types of projects might be beginning to make a real impact. But instead we have had a decade that added a criminal offence for almost every day that New Labour has been in power.

And because there was so much going on there was no time for doing the simple, boring things like getting processes and systems lined up and teams talking to each other. No time for management.

And so we have a sky-rocketing prison population, a disaffected judiciary delighted to have the opportunity to put the boot in as they very publicly release child abusers and a Home Office in crisis.

Not to worry though, Reid has the perfect answer: capture the headlines with a plan to split the Home Office in two. Problem solved! Until the next revelation...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Freedom of Information

Why is it that this Government seems intent on destroying even the good things they've done?

They are now set on limiting the Freedom of Information Act which has been used to such effect by campaigning MPs like Norman Baker and journalists in the serious press (especially the Guardian). The aim apparently is to limit the "serial requestors" - in other words the dogged investigators who keep digging for information.

But it will hopefully save the Government £10m... Hurrah - that's enough to begin saving for another war.

New Year blues

There is a lot of speculation about the supposed imminent collapse of the most successful multi-cultural and multi-ethnic state in modern history. No, not Iraq. The UK.

Strong polls for the SNP, and carefully-fanned English resentment of the higher levels of public spending in Scotland mean that political commentators are talking seriously about Scottish independence. Or as seriously as political commentators who have a regular deadline to fill with the latest breathless crisis can do.

But this is hugely irresponsible. For 300 years the Anglo-Scottish Union has created an immensely successful dynamic that has benefited both nations. This may not always have been put to the very best possible use - witness the race for Imperial domination. But it has created the modern world of liberal democracy, the importance of the rule of law, the Industrial Revolution and the global financial system. Now – at least partly because the Tory party wants to destabilise Gordon Brown and the press are happy to have a story – all this is being cast in to doubt.

There may be a coherent intellectual argument to make for splitting the Union – but it has to involve the belief that it will be through broader integration with the European Union that England and Scotland can regain the influence and scale that would be lost through partition. To be fair that is part of the SNP argument. But the very right-wing English commentators calling for a split are the same ones who turn puce at the very mention of the EU.

As you may be able to guess from my name I feel especially torn. My family roots are Scottish but I grew up in London. One grandfather slogged through the trenches of World War one with the London Scottish. I personally feel British before I feel either Scottish or English.

The current system is not perfect. It not fair or sustainable that our current Home Secretary can bring in laws that do not affect his constituents. But to jump from this to breaking up the Union shows a short-sightedness that can only be driven by the need to sell more newspapers tomorrow. Or rattle the Chancellor.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year

I saw in the New Year in a wind-blown house somewhere near Glasgow. The storm knocked out the electricity, meaning that we ended up eating (and drinking) in a room full of candles, listening to the rattling moan of the tempest outside. A nearby shed was shaking itself to bits in the wind and it was dangerous to venture outside as the night was full of flying tiles. It had all the makings of an Agatha Christie novel and I was waiting for the sudden news that our host had been found dead in the kitchen / sitting room / bedroom, slain by a kitchen knife / tile / rolled up newspaper. The coppers would have to be round in the morning to work out who'd done what.

A useful insight in to what it must be like in Downing Street as 2007 starts.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Crisis at Christmas

I am volunteering at Crisis at Christmas, the homeless charity, again this year.

An early start this morning so I won't write much now (its well past midnight) as I've another early start tomorrow but a few thoughts from today:
  • Volunteers do a variety of tasks. My first job was an outside job making sure that everything was orderly in Leadenhall square next to the shelter. On one side of the square is the Lloyd's building, dating from the City's last great boom in the 1980's. On the other is the 'Erotic Gherkin' Swiss re building squarely from the current boom. Quite a contrast to the makeshift shelter housed on two floors of what was an M&S mini-market and London branch of an Italian merchant bank until recently. The square was full of people bustling to work as the City awoke from its Christmas slumber - speaking the myriad languages that are the hallmark of one of the world's leading financial centres. Inside the shelter this is reflected in the thick set of pages at reception telling volunteers how to greet homeless guests in a dozen different languages. London's contrasts - linguistic, financial and personal - never cease to amaze, worry and inspire me.
  • Working at Crisis at Christmas always restores in me real faith in the fundamental quiet decency of so many of my fellow citizens - whether guest or volunteer. If you want to help Crisis (or better yet volunteer!) go to
  • Speaking to guests, and hearing their stories of how they ended up on the streets I always am struck that, but for the grace of God, there go I. The gap between living in a stable, secure home (often with family) and the life on the streets is scarily narrow.

Now to bed, much to do tomorrow.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Education and the Environment

The ongoing weakness of British scientific education - engineering, physics, mathematics and natural sciences - has been widely discussed. The seeming inability of Britain's businesses to harness the inventive power of the UK's scientists and engineers is also much lamented. These issues are usually seen in the context of the decline of Britain's long term international economic competitiveness.

However, they may be even more important than this.

The UK has long been a hub of scientific advance - the Industrial Revolution was born on these shores and the proportion of recent inventions is significantly higher than our population, or relative GDP would warrant. A recent BBC webpage lists the computer, the pill, the photo-copier, aspirin, television, the mobile phone, the jet engine and the flushing toilet...

It may well be that there is something in the British education system or character that means that - even though we struggle to organise the latest in cutting edge manufacturing processes - we have an inventive streak that few others can match.

If so, the decline of our science grad output may mean that the pool of inventors who might just help save the environment is getting smaller. Less scientific grads means less inventions means less chance for useful inventions for the environment. This alone obviously will not be enough to tackle climate change (indeed it sounds rather like a George Bush policy). The Liberal Democrats have the right set of tax policies to begin to move in the right direction, but break-through technology would surely help.

Then again, my first degree was in medieval history so what do I know?

Caroline, or Change

Had a lovely family outing to see 'Caroline, or Change' at the National Theatre Its a somewhat surreal opera - the opening scenes include bursts of song from a washing machine and a dryer - but one that powerfully evokes a time (and characters from); the South of the US in 1960s. It shows how fundamentally good people can be propelled to speak evil through no real fault of their own; and the challenge of how to live a life well.

And Tonya Pinkins who plays the title role can both act - and really belt it out!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reid back tracks on ID database

John Reid has just announced that they will not, after all, be building a giant computer database for storing all our ID card information:
They will still gather the information but it will be on a variety of existing databases.

So we go from an overarching, overweening white elphantine waste of money with significant implications for individuals' privacy to the mere wastage of moderate sums, marginal impact on our privacy and mundane inefficiency.

A typically 3rd rate fudge from a Government whose management abilities never cease to underwhelm.

If only I could believe that someone had had a twinge of conscience about the impact of their ID project - instead it will be a simple realisation that they were staring down a black hole, financially and technically. They will portray the amount not spent on the system as a "saving".

PS Not a bad day to bury the news as the Ipswich murders spring back to national headlines...

Oops, he did it again

Iain Dale, one of the godfathers of political blogging, has just posted about my General Election opponent in Rotherham in 2005, Denis MacShane under the title of "Denis MacShane Falls Foul of Mr Speaker". (

In asking Margaret Beckett the question:
"Next year, Britain will celebrate two great acts of union—that with Scotland and that within the European Union. May I invite my right hon. Friend to take off her sober Foreign Secretary garb and, now and then, return to Margaret the great campaigner and campaign against some of the rancid rabble on the Opposition Benches who reject both the EU and the Act of Union with Scotland?"
he apparently strayed off her Ministerial scope and in to the overtly political.

As a strong supporter of both the EU and the Act of Union I happen to agree with Denis. In questioning if we can ever have a "Scottish" Prime Minister the Tories are playing with fire for the sake of short term political gain against Gordon Brown. And their anti-Europe stance runs profoundly counter to the country's long term interests.

Denis' best point, but a pity for the country, is that he is probably the staunchest ally of the European Union in the Labour Party. It was a combination of Brown's irritation at this - and his repeated hunt for media airtime, sometimes at the cost of caution - that hastened his departure from the role of Europe Minister after the last General Election.

But its hard to keep him down - only Denis would treat the 9% swing I got against him at the last General Election as something to celebrate in his acceptance speech. The reason? For the first time since World War I the two "progressive parties" had put the Tories in to 3rd place.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sad Ending

Watching the closing days of the Blair regime I am torn between anger and sadness.

Anger at the squalid little scandals that are causing long term damage to the fabric of our democracy; cash for peerages, dodgy decisions on corrupt arms dealing probes, lies about Iraq, vast sums squandered on ID cards... The list is long.

Sadness because in 1997 Blair had a once in generation opportunity. A massive majority, an awesome political machine, a huge wave of popular and media goodwill, a discredited opposition - he could have done anything.

Anything. Rebuilt our education system, re-engineered Britain's relationship with Europe, created a thorough (and properly thought through) reform of our political set-up, delivered an NHS for the 21st Century...

The gamble he chose to take was Iraq.

And he could have done anything... How can you not be sad?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

How NuLab works

If you want to see how New Labour runs the country then switch on your telly now.

As the media focuses on the unfolding tragedy in Ipswich and flashes back to the death of Princess Di they have chosen today to slip out a whole bunch of news.

  • 2,500 post offices will face the axe.
  • There will be a third runway at Heathrow (doubtless the "very last" such development...).
  • The Serious Fraud Office probe in to British Aerospace's questionable sales relationship with the Saudi Royal family when they purchased Eurofighters will be closed down. (According to the BBC the SFO said "No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest.")
But then the bubble burst on them - and Inspector Yates' team had a chat with the PM so at least that will probably head the news.

Despite all this the story that heads the BBC website's most read list is rather more fishy:

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Obama fever

The emergence of Barack Hussein Obama brings hope to those depressed by American politics. This from the nation that gave the world George Bush.

The decline of American influence and prestige around the world is not ultiamately to the world's benefit, however much it has been abused by the current President. There are precious few world problems that America is not critical to help solve. I have monitored two elections in Kosovo (raw, inspirational, hectic affairs for ultimately disappointing electoral results); a province that Europe was not willing or able to intervene in alone. And the powers seeking to fill America's place in the world rarely inspire great confidence.

Bush's misguided pursuit of American unilateralism has simply revealed its inherent futility. America was key to the creation of the post-war multi-lateral UN for good reason. Now the US military has learnt the hard way that their overwhelming power, once used, is spent. And America's enemies have learnt to go nuclear as fst as they can - it is no accident that it is on Bush's watch that the number of nuclear nations has practically doubled.

And at home America is more divided than ever. The incompetence and indifference revealed during Hurricane Katrina was simply the thin end of the Bush wedge: massive tax cuts for the rich, a grotesquely unblanced budget and widespread corporate favouratism.

And lets not get started on his environmental record.

Obama might just be an over-hyped media flash-in-the-pan. But wouldn't it be nice if he wasn't?

PS Although the idea of a female President is incredibly attractive it is not clear that Hilary Clinton's current favourite status will carry her through. Besides a Presidential line up that has gone Bush - Clinton - Clinton - Bush - Bush and then Clinton - Clinton (by when George's brother Jeb will ready for another Bush - Bush?) has a certain nepotism to it. How grateful must we be that neither Carol Thatcher or James Major looks set to take up politics....