Tag Archives: ideology

The Best & Worse of America

 

Watching the local TV here in Boston, I caught part of a trashy TV show that serves as the perfect vignette for the best and worst of America.

The show was ‘Minute to Win It’.  The premise isn’t that important, but in a nutshell two strangers are paired up to complete 10 one minute challenges to win a million dollars.  Think ‘Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Take-away’ meets ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  To emotionally connect with the contestants they throw in ‘X-Factor’ style interviews with their families explaining how the Million Dollar prize would transform their lives.

A particularly enthusiastic soul on the episode I watched explained in a matter-of-fact fashion how she used to work as an insurance agent, ‘a good job with an excellent healthcare plan’, but when the recession came along was made redundant.  They could make the mortgage payments on one salary but her younger son was on specialist treatment for Asthma, they didn’t want to stop it, without the health-plan the medical bills rolled in. They lost their house.

Just wow.  It hammered home to me that our society’s consensus that we treat our population free at the point of the delivery on the basis of need is golden.  I have no issue whatever with innovative plans put forward to meet that consensus more efficiently, nor any particular truck with whether the actual health delivery is by private, public or third sector (and so have no philosophical objection to anything Lansley proposes, only concerns about the detail) – but if ever there was a proposal that threatened that core ideal – and could result in stories like the above – well, you could find me at the front row of the protests, entirely up for subjection to a good ‘ol kettling.

But if that story was the downside of America – the upside was there to be seen in the same lady.  Behind the whooping and high-fiving, which continued even after she lost –  and all the other hoopla nonsense that makes our European toes curl – there was still that relentless optimism.  She had a belief to her core that with hard work, personal sacrifice, and just one little break it would all be OK.  Now, faith alone aint going to solve her problems.  But I have little doubt that the ‘can-do’ attitude that seeped from her every pore massively increases her chances of making herself that ‘one little break’.

That optimism seems hard-wired in the US DNA.  Yes, the recession has dulled it, but even now at the pit of the downturn the level of self-belief in ordinary hard-up Americans and that innate sense that they themselves have a stake in digging themselves out of it is something I find inspiring. On a macro level, those tens of millions of souls applying that attitude will be the real driver that picks the country up by its bootstraps and gets it back on-track.  If we could only somehow bottle that optimism and transfer it over here to the UK – we’d be a better nation for it.  Without it, we must count the blessings we have – and I’ll start that count with the NHS.

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Ed Balls: The Return of Brownite Economics

Let’s face it:  Ed Balls was to Gordon Brown as Laurel was to Hardy.  His return will no doubt lead to ‘another fine mess’.   This surprise reshuffle does change the calculus of Labour’s electability.   When Ed Milliband decided not to appoint Balls to the role in October it was a deliberate and calculated move.   It was possibly the only truly leader-like think young Ed has done since he got the gig.   The reasoning at the time was surely:

  • You would not want someone so intimately connected with the entire economic calamity facing this country back on point for economic policy
  • You could not want someone who has had an insider view (and leading role) in using the office of Chancellor to undermine and oust a previous leader, sitting there ready for another metaphoric stab.

Well, nothings changed.  Those reasons still stand.  Yet here Balls is.  He’s got the job he craved from the moment he realised he was out-of-the game for the last leadership shot, and young Ed will be feeling his breath on his neck from here-on-in.

To give him his due Balls is a bruiser.  A political big-beast.  From today George Osborne will be looking forward to his turns in Parliament with a tummy rumble.  Balls knows his stats and figures and will not be easy to trip up.  Worse, he’s more than capable of scoring some points through sheer statistical battery.   But that’s all just fluff in the Westminster village.   Balls fundamentally is the living, breathing embodiment of the leftish or centre-leftish vision of Big Government/Big State/Spend and Tax Labour.  As Shadow Chancellor he will push them more so.  Even with all the current national woes, when push comes to shove that positioning is simply electoral poison.   The ‘squeezed middle’ – the people who count – the very people who switched to Labour in 97 and switched away from them in 2010 – those floating voters just don’t drift in that direction.

And that is the reel rub for Labour.  The one man on the Labour front bench who could appeal to that ‘thinking middle’ was Alan Johnson.  He was simply impossible to dislike.  Even though he was struggling to catch-up with his brief, even though he talked rot – people, even me, warmed to him.   For a politician that curious ‘nice bloke’ charisma is the X-factor stuff.  It is priceless political alchemy.  Blair had it.  Johnson had it.  Brown didn’t.  Balls doesn’t.   And so the Labour party is a weaker party this evening.

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As I say, for reasons I cannot put my finger on I like Alan Johnson despite his politics.  I have no idea why he has stepped down.  I wish him well and sincerely hope that whatever the personal issues are they are the kind that can be put right and have a happy ending by making this move.

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Put the armour on. 2011 is going to Hurt

Happy New Year.   Or is it?  The reality is that 2011 is going to be pretty miserable for the whole country.   Any honeymoon period for the Coalition (if there was one) is up.  The reality of austerity measures are kicking-in.  Turning the economy is like turning an oil tanker.  Things will get worse before they get better.  We will see more public sector redundancies, we will see more cuts to other services,  the VAT rise will trickle to the till,  we wont see pay rises in the private sector, even the employed will feel  -and actually be in real terms – poorer this April than April two years ago.  Health and education reforms will spook the Unions.   Protest will spread.

The Government has to accept this and hold its nerve.   It cannot do what it needs to do and be popular in the immediate or short term.  It needs, in the national interest, to do the right thing rather than the popular thing.  With eyes wide-open it needs to understand that its popularity will fall this year and it needs to carry on regardless.  The instinct and philosophy of this government is the right one.  The challenge now is to be competent in delivery.   The quicker we get the pain over, the quicker we start the recovery.  If we start the recovery then the short-term unpopularity will dwindle and we have a fighting chance of re-election in 2015.  Dither and spread the pain over the whole five years and even if the objective of shoring up the economy is met it will just gift the country back to Labour to mess up again.

Labour will blame the Coalition for the pain. They’ll say: “They’re in Government.  We’re not.  It is their choices, it is their fault”  This is a bit like blaming a doctor for making you ill with chemo rather than the fags you only gave up six months earlier.  Nevertheless, while the pain is there the public will buy their argument.  The Coalition needs to see its program through and see it through quickly.

The lessons are there in History.  Those who remember the 1981 budget may spot certain parallels with today.  For the whole period between of 80 and 82  it was inconceivable that the Conservatives would be returned to power.  Nerve was held.  The budget worked.  Britain, after the pain, prospered.   Thatcher would have won even without the Falklands.   But we must also learn from that period.  Nobody would want to see the likes of the Brixton or Toxteth riots again.  That’s why it is so crucial that we don’t just deliver on the miserable austerity side of the program –  but also on the social side – IDS has made his case well for welfare reform – he needs to be allowed to now get on and deliver .  This is the year to get moving.   It’s also critical that we strike the right balance in the way we police inevitable protests.  Get that wrong and the Government could doom itself.

So on that dour note, I say again:  Happy New Year.  Put the armour on, 2011 is going to Hurt.

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The Worrying Rise of Lefty Internet Activism

Tim Montogomerie’s reflections on Iain’s Dale’s departure from the blog world got me thinking.   Tim says the right previously enjoyed being in front on web campaigning but now risk falling behind if they haven’t already.  He points particularly at  ‘Movement Activism’.  This surge in leftist web-based ‘movement activism’ is something I’ve only recently started to worry about.  The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts.  We don’t need, nor wish, to be led.  We don’t suffer fools gladly.   Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.  Collaboration therefore tends to be loose, short , sharp and  limited to specific issues.   The discipline to slavishly follow a party line simply isn’t there outside of the General Election.     Meanwhile the left are getting far better at that ‘discipline’ and all the while are starting to create  a sense of being part of a real  ‘movement’ for those who use the net to  engage with them.

Does this matter?  Up until very recently I would have argued it didn’t.  Let’s face it, the people in the blogosphere endlessly retweeting the same political articles to each other would always have been died-in-the-wool supporters of whichever party regardless.  The political blogosphere draws-in political anoraks like moths to a flame.  The floating voters who matter simply give it a wide berth.   My gut instinct was just to let the left get on with their ‘Slacktivism’.  Those banal campaigns consisting of “click on this to express your rage at the cuts” or whatever.  They’ve confused bleating into the ether with meaningful action.  They’ve kidded themselves they’re doing good with empty gestures.  My attitude has always been if it makes them feel worthy, they’re doing no harm so let them get on with it.  Meanwhile, as they are retweeting each other, us grown-ups can go out and take real action to make our schools and hospitals or whatever else around us better.

Recently though, they seem to have reached a critical mass and realised that they were achieving little.  They are finally making the giant leap to real ‘action’.  Suddenly it is quite scary.  We have a single line in Private Eye hinting in its usual mischievous style that ‘Vodaphone owe £6bn in tax’, and then via a web campaign this leads to real direct action on the streets.  Not ‘action’ in the sense of working through the norms of society (investigative fact checking, lobbying, getting legislation etc.) but ‘direct action’ in the 1960s/70s “let’s have fun causing trouble” sense.

Folk self-select their fact sources from the internet – as they do with newspapers – to confirm their prejudices.  People who read the Guardian will also tend to bookmark ‘Left Foot Forwards’, ‘UK Uncut’, ‘False Economy’, ‘The Other Taxpayers Alliance’ etc.  You could make a similar self-selecting list for those who lean to the right.  The thing is that those who lean to the left are, by nature, happier to run with the herd.   Once a leftist feels part of ‘a movement’ they can be far more disciplined at toeing the party line.   ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ have always been more crucial to the left than ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’.  Those who understand the power of all this seem to be gleefully manipulating it to edge the mainstream left even further left.  Once they’ve got their new foot-soldiers engaged – which they are doing well – they can wreak havoc.  That £6bn ‘tax-dodge’ figure for Vodaphone from Private Eye is a powerful example.   Clearly it is a dodgy figure based in little more than tittle-tattle – and yet it is accepted as an absolute fact by a whole ‘movement’ to the point that people are willing to commit criminal damage in outrage.   We have also seen the power of this ‘Movement Activism’ with the student protests.

I’m not sure what the proper response from the centre-right should be but  I do know what the wrong response would be:  The last thing we need is for the mainstream right to blindly drift further right as a anxious response to baiting.  My idea of how politics should be conducted remains through the normal channels and ballot box – not by violent confrontations with leftist thugs having a jolly day out at a demonstration/riot.   We are living in testing economic times.   Testing economic times have always created an environment to radicalise people.   New technology can be a real catalyst to that radicalisation process.  We need to watch it and keep level heads.


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Why George Osborne is an Optimist – and Why He Needs to Be

at Birmingham Uni

The knives are well and truly out for George Osborne.  The Observer reports that Labour are going to target him as the shadow teams ‘weakest link’.  The polling data (referenced in the Observer article) confirms that the public are averse to him – and I’ll add to the evidence with a less scientific straw-poll of my own ‘vote undecided’ mates all of whom see him as a liability.   To pick out the key words from their objections to him he apparently lacks ‘experience’, ‘credibility’ and ‘gravitas’.

It is maddening there is any doubt in the electorate’s mind  who is the safer pair of hands for the economy.  The economy should be an ‘Open Goal’ for the Tories but somehow they seem intent on blasting over-the-bar from close range.  Osborne is finally realising that he’s got to turn this public perception around.  There is no room on the front bench for someone who wants to be a back room strategist – if he wants one of the ‘Great Offices of State’ he has to get out there  and land his message in the minds of the public.    Is he really up to the task?

I like to judge politicians in the flesh so on Friday I went along to the University of Birmingham to listen to him deliver a speech there.   He spoke with only hand scribbled notes, not quite a sharp as Cameron who can manage these things without any reference material, but certainly better than most current politicians who wouldn’t dare step up to a lectern without a fully typed speech and/or autocue.

He spoke of three central themes the Tories wish to land:

  • That they have a credible plan for the deficit.  He delved into some of the detail making clear that it is the structural deficit he has to target and that we are in the bonkers position that the State is still spending £4 for every £3 it receives.  That we need to make the cuts ‘not on the backs of the poorest in society’.  He hinted any tax cuts would come from NI before he aimed at the 50% tax band – and indeed the NI cut seems to have been made official policy this morning.  He was more open about where he would cut income than where he would cut expenditure and I know that annoys people.  They do have to add this detail to the public domain soon.
  • That there are plans to ‘get business’ going again.    He gave some detail on the help to be given to small businesses.  As the owner of a small business myself there is real gold in these proposals.
  • To create a more balanced economy.  Again, he delved into a little detail on how Tory policies on education reform, welfare-to-work, energy policy and broadband infrastructure would pull together to achieve that end.

All the content of the speech was fine – he certainly pushed all the right buttons for me.   If there was a problem it wasn’t the content – it was the delivery.

It is hard to put your finger on what is ‘wrong’ with the delivery.    Some people are blessed with a presence , voice and stature that commands an audience to cling to every word .  They could frankly read out the dry text of a European Directive and keep an audience fully engaged.   George Osborne is not one of those people.  Politics should not be like that, it harms our democracy that it is.  To make the leap from manager to leader you need this X-factor.   I guess the point of the phrase ‘X-factor’ is that the ‘X’ is impossible to define.  Whatever it is: he hasn’t got it.

I guess the plan was always that he could cling onto Cameron’s coat tails to get the job then the missing ‘experience’, ‘credibility’ and ‘gravitas’ would grow by default as he made the job his own.  The calculation must have been that whilst he isn’t an electoral asset he wouldn’t be a liability and would be good at the job.  That ‘wouldn’t be a liability’ part of the assumption is now being tested.

We did get a five minute glimpse that it is within him on certain themes to strike the right chord.  In response to a question about the possibility of a double –dip recession he suddenly went a bit off-piste and talked about his personal optimism for Britain.

His point was that despite the global woe when you look at the global business cycle, and you look at the surge of economic activity in India, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, China and so on, as the manufacturing and service base they have created over the last few years settles down (which has been to a certain extent at our expense) so their new middle-class begins to embed middle-class spending habits.  When we look at the industries Britain still excels at – pharma, aerospace engineering, media, financial services, prestige brands, tourism etc – these are all things that this new global middle-class will push their new found wealth into.   We are poised to be big benefactors of that shift.  With the right policies to support our economy whilst the global cycle swings to this next stage – there can and should be great hope for the UK.

As he warmed to his optimistic theme he relaxed, his shoulders visibly dropped an inch, he smiled, his hands moved – there was passion there.  He had a compelling, well articulated narrative which he believed in.  In response the audience sat up straighter, leaned forward, listened closely – they were with him – they were engaged.  The moment ended as quickly as it had started when he then fielded a question about his role in managing both fiscal and monetary policy.  The spell was broken.

Cameron isn’t going to change horses this close to the finish line.   Osborne is the man and he has to drag himself out of this rut where he is being cast as a liability.  He needs to find something else on top of the depressing detail of what needs to be done to get us out of the economic hole – if you’re asking people for pain now, you have to have them believe that there will be less pain tomorrow.  The optimistic message is key – he should develop it and shout it from the rooftops.

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Cameron’s Vision of ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’

Today I attended a conference hosted by the grandly titled ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age Network’.  Forget the pompous sounding name, make no mistake – the ideas promoted by the PBA Network will rock our world for the better.  The keynote address was given by David Cameron.  One thing that was certainly  ‘post-bureaucratic’ was the venue – a freezing old brick warehouse in Shoreditch where we all shivered our way through the morning.

The ‘big idea’ is that if you open up Government data to the masses then inevitably better decision-making, better behaviour and thus better government will follow.  The more you think about it the more compelling this becomes.  Remember what happened when the expenses data reached the public domain?  Think about the change in behaviour from MPs that has driven.  Reflect how much better a job the public and press did at auditing that data than the civil service ever managed. The tragedy is that none of it would have been possible without an illegal leak.  The Government has always contrived to protect data from the taxpayer and the taxpayer has always been the poorer for it.

Openness of Government data changes the very nature of government.  It empowers the citizen.  It gives us the tools to make decisions locally based on facts rather than instinct.  Anyone who has worked at  senior level in business  will have been taught that, yes, good decisions can be made by people with no more than good judgement and good instincts but the very best decisions are most often made by people with good judgement  and a credible fact-base (i.e. data).   Inversely, poor decisions are made when you swap the word ‘good’ for ‘poor’ in any one of those three variables (judgement, instinct, data). Sharing the whole fact-base rather than a cherry-picked sub-set of it gives us transparency. Transparency removes the political elite’s monopoly of access to ‘good’ data.  This gives us the power to better assess politicians judgement and instinct. I’m sure that will terrify them.

For Cameron this new age isn’t just about technology or having ‘government data’ (really ‘taxpayer’s data’) available to us all on-line.  He was careful to link this ‘big idea’ to his wider theme that it is not the ‘state’ that should try to solve our problems – it’s ‘society’.  There is a big difference between the two.  We are all passive slaves to the ‘state’ – we are all empowered leaders (if we wish to be) in ‘society’.  His policies are aimed at allowing a renewed sense of ‘society’ to flourish after years of abrogation to the State.  In much the same way he wants groups of parents with a coherent plan to set up their own schools outside of Local Authority control he now plans employee co-operatives taking over various other local services such as libraries and job centres.  He also sees a revolution in planning law to let neighbourhoods have first call on their own development plans and greater use of technology to speed these processes up.

When you listen to these disparate policy threads being pulled together you realise that Cameron really does have a vision for Britain which has far more substance and genuine philosophy than his critics would dare admit.  This philosophy is attractive to me because it is so closely aligned to my own. Unfortunately, only the geeky dweebs like me intuitively ‘get’ this stuff.  The big problem is that Cameron hasn’t yet mastered the best language or killer phrases that lands the enormity of these ideas and this coming new age with the majority of the electorate.   Cameron is often charged with being sound-bite over substance.  The irony here is that he has real substance and he hasn’t yet found the sound-bite!

You cannot roll back technology.  Make no mistake these changes are coming. We will either get there quickly because of government or we will get their slowly despite government.   Change is difficult – you can embrace and adapt, or take the King Canute route.  David Cameron’s instinct is to adapt and embrace the times he lives in. Just one example of speeding us down the right path is his x-prize style competition.  Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has central control instincts to his core and he would continue to resist these forces and Britain would suffer for it.

The Conservatives  need to work harder to get these messages across.  Predictably, despite Cameron talking for 45 minutes on the subject today the only reportage of his appearance in the media I’ve seen is his reply to an off-topic question on the bullying PM.  The vision thing doesn’t seem sexy enough for for the main-stream media to cover – we need to change this.  This is ‘progressive’ politics in the purest sense of the word.  We are talking about fundamentally shifting power from the state back to the citizen – that is the very essence of liberation.   The new society we build can be an engine for solving many (not all) of the nation’s ills at very low cost to the taxpayer.  The same way technology has lowered the barriers of entry to, and cost of doing business – it can be just as transformative on government.  It is a new age, whilst our first steps into it may be ugly, painful and chaotic – on the other side it will be a golden age – but only if we have the bold leadership and the right policies to shepherd it in.

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View on Legality of Iraq War: 2002

Sometimes you find something fascinating in your personal archives.  Given Tony Blair’s evidence today I searched my hard drive for anything I had written on Iraq and found this 2002 letter to my then MP:

16th August 2002,  To:  Colin Challen MP

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Saddam Hussein is a butcher.  He is a madman.  He shows scant disregard for common humanity.  He has proved in attacking his own people in Halaja in 1988 that he is willing to use weapons of mass destruction.  He proved in his invasion of Kuwait he has no respect for the norms of international behaviour.  He has proved throughout his reign of internal repression he has no respect for international expectations on human rights.  On balance, Iraq and the world would far be better off without him.

I therefore have every sympathy with the Bush regime that the ‘ends’ of a regime change within Iraq is desirable.  My issue is with the ‘means’ of achieving that ‘ends’.

Since the end of the second world war international law has developed to allow the use of force in (broadly) only one of two circumstances: self-defence or with the support of the United Nations Security Council.  The world has been more secure for the development of these rules.  It was the international consensus on exactly these principles that originally gave such weight to the international effort to remove Saddam from Kuwait in 1991.

Before nations reached this understanding justification for resorting to state violence was broadly understood to lie with ‘Jus Bellum’ or ‘Just Cause’.  This dates pretty much to the Crusades.  The problem with this is that “Jus Bellum” has no arbitrator.  The victor will always declare a “Jus Bellum”.  Hitler certainly saw a “Jus Bellum” in taking on Poland for instance.   Yet it seems the US administration is hell bent on taking us backwards to this medieval concept.  They are convinced of the morality of their case and will push ahead regardless.

I reiterate that I agree that in isolation there is a strong moral case.  However, for the love of god, can they not think through the consequences of setting this precedent?  When the only remaining super-power abandons a ‘norm of international behaviour’ then that norm can no longer be considered to be part of the fabric of international law.

Once this genie is out the bottle, what if China sees a clear moral cause in stopping Taiwan?  What if India sees a just cause in taking out the Pakistan leadership?  Do we really have no joined-up thinking on this?

The Prime Minister has been a remarkable and brave ally to our American friends since that terrible day a year ago.  In observing his response throughout I was genuinely proud to be British.

Sometimes though, a friend needs guidance.  Sometimes, a friend needs restraint.  Sometimes speaking ones mind can be a greater show of true loyalty than blind obedience.  I pray all those who influence the Prime Minister will impress upon him the importance not to sleep walk into a war.  I pray that he will use the influence and trust he has with the US administration to put forward another way.  If the moral case for removing Saddam is so compelling then take it to the UN, get approval, and use all the might at our disposal to get the job done.  If the UN cannot be convinced then may I suggest that we take a step back.  The sum intelligence and consideration of all other nations is probably wiser than we give them credit in our western arrogance.  If there is not support for our ‘cast iron’ moral case then maybe the case isn’t as strong as it seems to us here and stateside still so angry about events last year to those who can remove emotion from their thinking.

The undoubted benefit and extra security brought by the US unilateral forced removal of Saddam to the globe, would in my opinion be dwarfed by the insecurity created by the abandonment of international law and a return to a ‘might is right’ nuclear era of international relations.”

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On the one hand I am amused at myself for thinking that a letter to a backbench MP was a constructive use of my time.  On the other I find this pretty strong reading.  Between my writing this letter and the start of the actual War – Tony Blair somehow managed to convince me that we ‘had to do it’ – and somehow his ‘trust me Tony’ chutzpah had me as a supporter by the eve of the War.  I’ll watch proceedings today with great interest and try and figure out how he managed to do that.

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