Monthly Archives: March 2006

Comfortable Mythology

So farewell then, Michael Howard. Credit where its due, Howard did prevent the Conservative Party from entirely self destructing. Under Iain Duncan Smith, the story beginning to emerge really was that the party was on its last legs. That is no longer the case.

But let’s not get carried away here. The Tory strategy in 2005 was simple: consolidation. If a strong leader had been in place since 2001, they would have been in with a shot. Howard’s brief was to embrace his core support with open arms and hope that Labour were so unpopular that a few moderates would be prepared to come back under the fold despite the most right wing manifesto in the party’s history. It was a shrewd and calculated move, it even worked better than I suspect they had initially though, but it wasn’t an election-winning strategy and Howard knew it.

I have to laugh when I read comments like this:

That is a shame, hopefully the man England elected to be Prime Minister at the last General Election will reconsider and stick around for another term next time round.

This is balls on so many levels I don’t know where to begin.

Firstly, it is another example of how “Conservative and Unionist Party” is becoming an increasingly inaccurate description of the party: the Tories are the least unionist of the main parties these days. The second the Welsh and the Scots were given a bit of autonomy, they dropped hundreds of years of support for the UK like a stone and are slowly reinventing themselves as an English Nationalist party.

Secondly, Howard may have one a plurality in terms of popular vote in England, but that is irrelevant because of the electoral system that the Tories support. You can’t whinge about being robbed on the one hand, and then support the very thing that screwed you over with the next. And no, you can’t simply blame the inbuilt bias on boundaries: simply stated, the Tories have their support spread too thin across the country and nothing will change that.

Thirdly, even if we had used a proportional system AND we had evicted the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish from the Commons, Howard still wouldn’t have been Prime Minister because his manifesto was so toxic. The Lib Dems would have had a moral duty to form a coalition with Labour, not out of any enthusiasm, but because allowing the Conservatives ministerial posts with that dangerous mandate – which was only supported by a third of the electorate – would have been irresponsible.

Michael Howard was the Tories’ fall guy. He had deliberately avoided forming a workable programme for government in favour of enthusing the swivel-eyed loon brigade. He knew it. Don’t kid yourself that he was Prime Ministerial material – instead, celebrate the fact that he bought you a second chance.


Iain Dale’s bizarre equivalence of English Apples and Californian Oranges gives me an excuse to yet again plug constructaregion.

In relative terms, California is more akin to Scotland than England – a sizeable minority rather than an overwhelming majority. Indeed, looking at the US rather makes the point about why an English Parliament is a bad idea and “patchworking” England is a good idea. Even the smallest US state has huge powers of autonomy and yet in many ways the US is culturally more homogenous than the UK. You can have regional government AND retain an English, even British, identity.

On the other hand, the US does have significant faultlines, mainly between North and South, Bible Belt and Metropolitan Coast. Would those factions tolerate a single state dominating the US? As it is, there are growing tensions that may yet turn out to cause a major crisis. We almost certainly DON’T want a system with such a huge difference in size between the largest state (California, 350m) and the smallest (Wyoming, 500,000) – in the Senate both these states have equal representation, creating an inbuilt Republican bias.

Comment is Gallifrey

Is it me or does the banner the Guardian are using to advertise Comment Is Free resemble one of those cheesy montages of all the Doctor Whos.

A thought strikes: maybe all the Guardian columnists are actually the same Time Lord regenerating again and again? In that case, which one is the Valeyard? My money’s on Marina Snyde.

God I’m sad for blogging about the fucking Valeyard. I’m not even that much of a Who fan.

Honest Jim

Paul Davies reminds me to recount a story from my dim and distant student days.

Back when I was a stude, Jim “trust me!” Murphy was NUS President. At the time, we’re talking 1996 here, there was a lot of talk about the Dearing Commission and the Tories’ threat to introduce tuition fees.

Jim came to my student union (Manchester Uni) to speak at a debate on whether or not to drop the union’s campaign for restoring grants, which Ken Clarke had announced were to be phased out. Jim’s argument was that we had to drop this policy as the entire student movement had to concentrate on its campaign to oppose the dreaded fees.

You know the rest – Tony Blair fights the 1997 campaign pledging to not introduce fees, and then makes creating them one of his first acts. The irony being of course that Dearing also recommended restoring grants to the poorest students. Which didn’t happen.

And our boy Jim got to be a brand spanking new MP, happily championing the very policies he had built his student career in opposing.

So, when he turns up, 10 years later, and Saddam-Hussain-in-South-Park-like says “relax feller!” over his Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill you will forgive my unnease.

Boy George unnerves Merv

The annoying talking donkey hasn’t just been getting up Gordo’s nose:

In a policy document handed to the Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank, in January and published yesterday, Mr Osborne raised the idea of removing the majority that the Bank’s staff currently hold on the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC).

However, the Bank was annoyed by a newspaper report that said the shadow Chancellor was “in constant dialogue with the Bank at every level”.

In an unusual move, the Bank issued a statement saying: “The Governor has never met George Osborne and has not had discussions with him on any of these ideas”.

Mr Osborne’s advisers sought to play down the significance of the gaffe, saying the shadow Chancellor had not used the words that were used in the newspaper.

As for the policy itself, I’m unclear at the moment whether this is an attempt to make the Bank even more independent or to bring it back under government control by stealth. Given that the extra nominees appear to be government, rather than parliamentary, ones, I would suspect the latter. Only Old School Ties need apply, eh George?

Fisking Foster

Don Foster‘s press release on the BBC today caught my eye:

Ahead of Tuesday’s anticipated publication of the BBC White Paper, Don Foster MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary today warned the Government against a TV licence fee ‘smash and grab’.

Don Foster MP said:

“The White Paper must rule out a TV licence fee ‘smash and grab’.

“Government (i.e. tax payers) – not TV licence fee payers (i.e. tax payers) – should pay for Labour’s policy of a switch to digital TV (does this mean the Lib Dems oppose a switch to digital TV?!), and if Government introduces ‘spectrum charging’ for broadcasters, licence fee payers shouldn’t foot the bill.

“Together these charges would be nothing short of a £600m stealth tax.

On the move to Manchester:

“The Government must ensure that the regeneration benefits from the BBC’s move to Manchester are paid for by regional authorities (What regional authorities? Local authorities or RDAs? Which?) not TV viewers nationwide. (I thought the move was about saving money by moving out of London? If this policy leads to a long term easing of pressure on the license fee, then surely it is reasonable that the short term costs come out of it as well?)

On governance:

“The White Paper must also make good Government promises that the regulation and oversight of the BBC be separated.

“In an ever more competitive broadcasting market it is crucial that the regulators of the BBC are not also the flag-wavers for the BBC.” (Fair enough, but 1 out of 3 ain’t good enough)

The real meaning of 42

Julia Goldsworthy seems to be omnipresent at the moment. A particularly poor interview in the Independent today which contains 0% insight and fully a third of the article is filled with interviewer Andy McSmith asking questions about inane trivia:

“At what level of income does a person start paying 40 per cent tax ?” she was asked. “In the mid thirties,” she replied. “That’s right isn’t it? I will have to refresh that kind of thing in time for the Budget.” Well, the exact answer is £32,400 per year – so she was close. Next came a question that stumped Stephen Byers when he was minister for Schools. “What are eight sevens?”

“Forty-two,” she answered with confidence. Er, sorry, Julia. Forty-two is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You could call it the ultimate Liberal Democrat manifesto. But whatever planet you’re on, eight sevens are fifty-six. The colour rose up her neck. “Fifty-six!” she cried. “You’re right. Gosh that’s terrible!” Here she broke into a defensive laugh as she reflected on what the party’s “shadow” Chancellor, Vincent Cable, would have to say. “Maybe Vince will be taking me in for an arithmetic test. The press office is no good at arithmetic either. They got my age wrong!”

There’s no getting away from the fact that saying 7×8 = 42 is a schoolboy error (although she does appear to correct herself without prompting), but then, it is a schoolboy question. Worse, the level of income that the 40p rate kicks in is £37,295, meaning that Julia was actually more accurate on the hoof than the journalist was with the luxury of being able to look it up.

The sad thing about this article is that this is about as good as it gets. However embarrassing Julia’s gaffe is, I’m afraid this article says a lot more about the quality of British journalism these days.

The Ticket

Saw the first episode of the seventh season of West Wing on Sunday. Could be good. I was particularly struck by Santos saying to Leo McGarry “you’d have to stage another heart attack in order to pull out now.” It’s sad how those words now take on prophetic meaning.

Back in the real world, it occurs to me that John McCain is currently looking a shoo-in for 2008. I can’t see Hillary cutting it somehow. Who can beat him?

It looks as if there may be an answer however. Cthulhu keeps threatening to make an impact, but the lazy old bugger won’t get out of bed – frankly, he is the Ross Perot of intergalactic evil overlords. He could make an ideal running mate however.

That pesky F-word

Why is it that when people in UK politics refer to “federalism” in the context of Europe they mean it to imply the creation of a homogenous EU Super State, while in the context of the UK, they suggest it would lead to a break up of the Union? As it happens, I think Falconer is right that an English Parliament would break up the UK, but the f-word has little to do with it.

The problem with an English Parliament wouldn’t be that it would lead to a federal UK, but that it would lead to an extremely asymmetrical federal UK, which wouldn’t be in anyone’s interests, not least of all the English. In what way would it bring decision making closer to the people?

It is bizarre and appalling that the most fervent supporters of an English Parliament are also fervent opponents of decentralisation, and choose to dress their arguments up in flag-waving nationalist nonsense. My favourite example is the Campaign for an English Parliament’s website which has a pastiche of the WWII “what did you do in the war daddy?” cartoon, with a little girl on her father’s knee asking “Dad, what did you do to secure England’s future?“. Subtext: the Scots and Welsh are the equivalent of Nazis who want to destroy our way of lives and rape our women! Godwin’s Law in effect before the argument has even begun!

And the CEP is the “respectable” face of English Nationalism. It’s even madder and badder elsewhere.

Politicians need to tackle the English Question, and quickly. An English Parliament is the threat we may end up with if all goes wrong, not the solution. The ideal in my view would be a federal structure with a patchwork of metropolitan areas, larger counties and regions with significant powers and possibly and indirectly-elected English Council to decide on things with an English significant (flags and songs, basically). That will take a long whie to happen though, so in the meantime we need to be doing the following:

  1. Scrap the Barnet Formula and reform the funding mechanism. Most “English only” Bills do, in fact, affect Scotland and Wales because they have an impact on spending levels, however indirectly. We need a system that doesn’t lead to a vote on, say, English schools, effecting the Scottish block grant. In part, that probably means fiscal federalism for Scotland as it would require the Scottish Parliament to take responsibility for what it spends.
  2. In lieu of a written constitution, some kind of convention to govern when Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs sit out certain votes. I don’t like conventions, but they do allow for a bit of safe space for something more sustainable to emerge.
  3. Proportional representation. It doesn’t solve the English Question but it does lesson it and render it largely academic. If non-Labour parties had adequate representation in Scotland and Wales, their ability to have a decisive impact on legislation that affects England would be greatly lessoned.
  4. Radical localisation. We shouldn’t merely be concerned about Scottish politicians deciding English policy, we should be concerned about London politicians deciding Manchester policy. Every decision that gets taken out of the hands of Whitehall and Westminster is a decision that doesn’t pose a problem.

I could end by noting the irony of this debate coming up at the same time as the death of Slobodan Milosevic (former president of another lopsided federation), but that would be to trivialise it. But it is sad that so many people’s idea of the Union never amounted to much more than a sense of Greater English Nationalism. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly has challenged that to the point that many are now all too quick to predict the death of the Union. The Union can survive, but only if we remember that Englishness is, at its heart, pragmatic. Don’t let the jelly bellied flag flappers ruin it.