Monthly Archives: February 2009

My name… is Victor*

Reading the latest issue of Tripwire this weekend, I spotted this little morsel in an interview with Paul “Human Nature” Cornell about his comic book series Captain Britain and MI-13:

Tripwire: Placing it in that context lead to a cameo appearance from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I heard that there was also going to be a cameo from Opposition leader David Cameron, but my understanding is that this isn’t happening now.

Paul Cornell: My plan was to portray him in a favourable light. Basically, he was going to be meeting with Dracula on the Moon and Dracula was going to say, ‘If you do this tiny thing for me, then I will use my influence in Britain to get you elected.’ And we’d have Cameron saying, ‘Yes, yes, I will think about your proposal. That sounds great.’ And then going home and immediately calling MI-13. But the lawyers said that even for a couple of pages the slightest possible hint that a real figure might be doing something bad wasn’t allowable. The only way that we could have Gordon Brown in there [in an early issue] was tyhat he was being thoroughly heroic. That applies to the use of all real figures in Marvel really.

All well and good, but I also picked up a copy of Captain Britain and MI-13 issue 10 today. In it, Count Dracula talks with another character about plotting to bring down the UK government. On the moon (this is clearly where all top level business meetings take place). And that character? The Fantastic Four’s arch nemesis Doctor Victor Von Doom.

Clearly Marvel Comics seem to think that Cameron and Doctor Doom are essentially interchangeable characters. The question is: what do they know that we don’t?

* And yes, I am deeply sad for quoting an obscure Prince (or rather, squiggle) album.

If you’re not cop, you’re little people.

With the Convention on Modern Liberty now less than a week away, the Sunday papers have been filled with revelations about MP’s making extraordinary claims on their Additional Costs Allowance. I can’t help but feel the two are inextricably linked.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole career defending politicians – first as a paid party organiser and, more recently, working for a cross-party pressure group. I still believe in representative democracy (although I’m aware it has its limitations), I still believe that political parties are necessary (ditto). I defend the right of MPs to draw out of pocket expenses (indeed many ‘expenses’ are in fact office costs); I would even defend ministers having access to the car pool. But I find it extraordinary at how the political class, as a whole, seems to go out of its way to render itself indefensible (and while there are plenty of honorable exceptions, it does appear to be the class as a whole – why else is it that when we hear about the latest scandals about a few bad apples, no action seems to get taken?). The key question is why?

The main problem appears to be a total disconnect with the public. Has this always been the case? I think it probably has, but as the age of deference has come to an end, politicians have only discovered the values in mouthing platitudes about being the servants of the people. Making the actual changes necessary to make it a reality still escapes them.

So it is that Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, can claim that painting his mansion is “an additional expense which wouldn’t normally occur” if he wasn’t an MP and keep a completely straight face (my other favourite line is ‘He said he was “very careful” and had always taken “satisfaction” in not claiming all his expenses.’ – as if it is okay to fiddle expenses so long as you do it slightly less than somebody else). So it is that Jacqui Smith can max out her expenses paying for her sisters home and be completely nonplussed over what everyone is so annoyed at her for.

The most outrageous thing about the ongoing scandals over Additional Costs Allowance is that the solution is not only simple, but largely government policy. We already operate a scheme whereby ‘key workers’ such as nurses can have a proportion of their new homes bought by the government so that they can afford to live in areas where they are needed but property prices are sky high. When they sell up, the taxpayer gets the equity back (and makes a tidy sum if the property doubles in value). There is nothing – absolutely nothing – to stop MPs from operating a simily equity scheme. Indeed it was actually suggested by a number of MPs as part of a review run by the Speaker last year. Yet the suggestion was rejected out of hand. What possible reason did they have for doing that, other than simple greed (if MPs think they should be better paid and that in lieu of that fiddling expenses is adequate compensation, then let them say so)?

When you are so disconnected from reality, when you have reached a point where all this sort of thing seems normal, is it really any wonder that they value civil liberties so cheaply? If you regard the public as proles who need to be protected for their own good and regard yourself as something else, then why wouldn’t you?

In short, we have reinvented feudalism while no-one was looking (the subservient role local government plays in relation to national government is another aspect of this). Part of the reason it has happened is rooted in our electoral system. Listening to MPs talk about the “constituency link” in semi-mystical terms is extremely reminiscent of how a squire might talk about his God-given stewardship of his fiefdom. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; a century ago, MPs generally regarded the constituency as, at best, an inconvenience. These days, MPs seem to be obsessed with casework, at the clear expense of performing their constitutional role as a member of the legislature. MPs then aren’t just condescending about their constituents; they end up with less time to actually scrutinse legislation.

The problem with all this is it isn’t sustainable. With the economy in the parlous state it is in, there is a faint whiff of revolution in the air which looks set to grow stronger as times goes on. Revolutions rarely end well for anyone, and most in reality get pre-empted before they actually happen, yet the political establishment appears to have losts the flexibility which it is famous for. We aren’t getting reform; we aren’t even being given the illusion of reform.

I went to see Mark Thomas live on Thursday. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but notice that after years of being a cuddly national institution, pulling crazy stunts for the entertainment of the chattering classes, he had a regained certain edge. I have a feeling this is what he was like in the eighties before Channel Four took him under its wing. At times, he simply descended into swearing tirades. Now, I seriously doubt that Mark Thomas will become a latter day Cromwell or Lenin, but it was notable at how indulgent the audience was of this.

As a professional campaigner, it is my job to whip up a bit of revolutionary zeal. I’m proud of the part I played in forcing Parliament to back down over its attempt to exempt its expenses from the Freedom of Information Act last month. But I’m aware that with such anger out there the chances of it resulting in actual riots (such as we saw in Greece at the end of last year) are starting to increase. The one thing violence on the streets is unlikely to result in is the a government u-turn on its anti-civil liberties agenda; quite the reverse. And the public; already whipped into a frenzy about crime, terrorism and immigration, will probably go along with that.

My big hope is that the Convention will wake people up to the wider agenda. If the agenda is purely negative – i.e. to stop the government attacking civil liberties and to scrap its existing agenda for a database state – then it will a) be less effective and b) fail to connect with this wider sense of dissatisfaction. We need to link the two, which means both talking about constitutional reform and a more engaged, proactive citizenry.

Only an idiot would ever agree with Daniel Kawczynski

Over on LabourList, Tom Guise cites five examples which suggest that my favourite Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski is a couple of strawberry creams short of a Quality Street selection box. He could have added Kawczynski’s bizarre attack on the BBC and the “liberal elite” for waging a propaganda war against Poles (but not the Daily Mail and its swan-eating nonsense, you understand, that was all fair comment).

But the most uncanny omission of Guise’s list is Kawczynski’s utterly moronic defence of the first past the post electoral system (Kawsczynski is the chair of the All Party First Past The Post Group). I mean, seriously, only a complete cretin would think such a dreadful system which sucks pluralism and diversity out of our political system is a good idea.

Given that is proof positive for Tom’s theory and LabourList’s love of bashing Tories, I wonder why he didn’t mention it?

Three things for your attention

Firstly, I just thought I would direct people to my piece defending the Convention on Modern Liberty and its “outrageous” decision to be cross-party.

It has had an interestingly muted response. The most fascinating one was from Sadie Smith whose paraphrase of my article was that I defined anyone who is boycotting the Convention “because of the miner’s strike” is a “ZANULIARBORE HATER OF THE LIBERTIES WE’VE ENOJYED SINCE THE MAGNERCARTER WHO IS MORE AUTHORITARIAN THAN HITLER AND STALIN ROLLED INTO ONE!!!!1!!!! LOLZ!” If self-obsessed lefties want to turn themselves into a parody of themselves, that suits me.

Secondly, and slightly more constructively, Paul Bergin asked me to take part in his bloggers’ interview series. My contribution can be found here.

Finally, the Social Liberal Forum’s Ideas Factory is starting to take off. At the moment, Tim Leunig’s “right to move” and Thomas Hemsley’s ratification of appointments are available for your perusal, comments and rating, with more to come.

If you want some of my pension Vince, you could just ask…

On Sunday, my gf finally forced me to sit down and fill in my pension form. For various reasons which I won’t go into, it has taken me a long time to do this and take advantage of my (teeny tiny) employer contribution.

Imagine my dismay therefore when I discover that no sooner have I put the form on the finance officer’s desk, that I get a twitter message announcing my own Treasury spokesman is demanding me to pay it back!

Vince Cable: Sir James Graham has a “moral obligation” to repay some of his £10m pension pot

Now, it isn’t clear, but it is just possible that Vince may have meant Sir James Crosby, who it has been discovered gets a cool £500,000 a year from the publicly owned HBOS (who also do my banking, albeit not for much longer) just for sitting on his arse after helping to cock up the global economy. But frankly I find it hard to see how the two of us can be confused as a) I am not bald, b) I am not a member of the wunch and c) I do not own any gold plated underpants (given Crosby’s dress sense I can only assume this must be what he spends his money on).

I will of course happily accept a grovelling apology from Vince. More than that however, I quite like the idea of a Knighthood (although that will make me even less popular with Republic), so anything he can do to wangle me one would be much appreciated.

Gethsemane: feel the fear (SPOILERS)

I went to see Gethsemane by David Hare at the National Theatre last night. Political drama is always hard to get right, and even harder to keep politicos content. Even so, I was particularly disappointed.

The basic plot (spoilers) revolves around the teenage daughter of the Home Secretary being gang raped by a group of men at a party, one of which turns out to be a high profile political sketch writer for a major national newspaper. Alienated from her mother the girl acts up, leading to the threat of expulsion from her prestigious public school. Fearing a scandal, the Labour party machine moves in, utilising a rather unethical fundraiser to essentially bribe the school into suppressing the incident. But this bribe backfires and the story gets into the press anyway. Meanwhile the teenage daughter goes into hiding with her former comprehensive school’s music teacher – who also happens to be an employee of the fundraiser (as well as a former civil servant in the Home Office).

So much for that; the plot is largely immaterial really. Rather, the play is a meditation on the state of politics today. “Gethsemane” is a reference to Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, his momentary loss of faith just before being captured by the Romans and, eventually, crucified (you can understand the bloke’s reluctance). In modern parlance this is known as “feel the fear but do it anyway.” The school teacher in the play, played by Nicola Walker, keeps referring to her decision to quit teaching being her “Gethsemane” – as the play makes plain at the end however, she didn’t really have one: she quit, Jesus didn’t. By contrast, the character who does have a Gethsemane is Tamsin Greig’s Home Secretary.

This is all very clever and literary, but is it really that revealing? The problem with this play is that it is neither allegorical or satirical, but instead wades about in a stodgy middle ground. Stanley Townsend’s engaging and flamboyant fundraiser isn’t Lord Levy, just a character with enough incidental characteristics to make it obvious who he is based on. The result, though entertaining, perhaps lingers too closely near an anti-semitic caricature – this is Levy-as-Fagin. Anthony Calf’s Prime Minister isn’t Tony Blair either, but again has many of the same superficial characteristics. This isn’t an attempt to understand either men, merely an opportunity to traduce both of them. All good fun but… so what?

The problem with having both these two characters so obviously sourced from reality is that the brain inevitably then starts making links with the other, more allegorical characters. The Home Secretary isn’t really Jacqui Smith, but with her corrupt husband she is plainly modeled in part on Tessa Jowell. Adam James’s sketch writer (from the newspaper which has a proprietor locked up for tax evasion) and former medieval historian (the PM at one point echoes Charles Clarke’s infamous contempt for medievalists) is remarkably similar to Quentin Letts; does Letts have a sleazy child rape past we don’t know about (to avoid being sued, I should add: I sincerely doubt it)? And then there is the daughter; clearly echoing Kathryn Blair.

The problem with all this real life intruding into something that Hare describes as “pure fiction” is that it becomes impossible to pretend that this play is a comment in individuals rather than a system. And that point is reinforced by the fact that despite its premiere taking place in 2008, it only deals with Blair-era politics. There is an attempt to wash over this when one of the characters asks “what happens when the money runs out?” but the clear inference is that those bastards were bad and it should all be different now.

The closest the play comes to any sort of insight is the implication that the ex-teacher – who we are to understand is an Everywoman – is essentially as culpable for What Has Gone Wrong as everyone else. She quit. If we don’t keep fighting, of course these bastards will end up in power. That is a perfectly legitimate point to make, but it isn’t really dwelt upon. The audience – for it is us who are the target of this message – is ultimately let off the hook.

For me, the real final denouement of the play is not this, but looking at the back page of the programme. This is where you find the real twist, because here you discover that this play about how nasty corporate interest infects and corrodes politics, is supported (presumably tax free) by J.P. Morgan. You literally could not make this up. We are told that “at J.P. Morgan we believe that the arts have the power to do many things: Inspire; Challenge; Stimulate; Question; Entertain; and Enlighten.” As part of the National Theatre’s “New Views” programme in association with J.P. Morgan, “students will undertake a challenge to change one thing in the world that gives them a sense of injustice. Their work will explore the power of critical, creative and polemical writing to promote change and their endeavours will culminate in a ‘Day of Protest’ to be held at the NT in December 2008.”

Did that Day of Protest pass you by? It did me. Notably, all reference to it has been expunged from the National Theatre’s website. Somehow I doubt it resulted in many windows getting smashed. Ultimately then, this play is as much a creature of the corporate machine as the system it is denouncing. I doubt David Hare had a “Gethsemane” himself.

I wanted insight and all I got was cynicism. If this is theatre doing its best to hold politics to account, it is failing abysmally.

UPDATE: Had an interesting chat with the gf and her mother this evening. She didn’t get the Everywoman thing at all (although she admitted I had a point), so either I’m wrong and the play didn’t have a discernable point at all, or I’m right and the message was too sotto voce.

When is a wunch not a wunch?

Courtesy of David Cameron this week, we now know there are two types of city financier.

The first, epitomised by Sir James Crosby, is the sort of shyster that only a Prime Minister with a serious lack of judgement would dream of putting in a senior role.

The second, epitomised by Sir David Freud, is “a hugely impressive figure” worthy of an insta-peerage (this is the new type of peerage introduced in 2006 where party leaders get to magically give people a lifetime seat in the legislature for doing something Important – such as accepting a job or defecting. If you struggle to recall when the public debate for this new type of appointment took place, forget it, it didn’t happen).

Of course, this is the same Sir David Freud who brags about the misselling of Eurotunnel shares as “successfully [selling] the market a pup.” Who went on to do it all over again over Railtrack.

Anyone else struggling to tell the difference?

What’s the big idea?

The first Social Liberal Forum project (technically the second one, as I will explain later) has now wheeled into view: The Ideas Factory.

We want your ideas for what should be in the Lib Dem manifesto. Your idea will be critiqued by our dragons advisory board and opened to further debate. Visitors to the SLF website will be able to give each idea marks and the whole lot will be submitted to the Lib Dem Manifesto Working Group.

To start things off, I’m going to write my own pitch this weekend. Want to do one as well? Email it (max 500 words) to manifesto *at* socialliberal.net.