Exit Nice Politics – with an iPad

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The Paris attacks spread division and violence…in the Labour Party…

A week ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris atrocity, the Pope declared that he was hearing the opening shots of World War III and Professor Niall Ferguson, a spiritual leader albeit on a smaller scale, spoke of the parallels with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Luckily, it only took a few days for western liberal democracy to fight back. Andrew Neil, presenting the This Week political programme on Thursday evening , declared that Paris, like the Third Reich to which it was once briefly subservient, will last for a thousand years and will survive long after “loser jihadists” have been ground into the dust. The gist of his argument was that a country that had produced such a list of famous Frenchmen as he could recite (and only a couple of French women – feminists feel free to write in) could not be brought down by men (women are notoriously under-represented in ISIL’s front-of-house – feminists etc), whose idea of enlightenment was to use double-sided Scotch tape to strap on their suicide vests.

Neil’s roll-call of famous Frenchies was impressive in its depth and antiquity: half a dozen each of writers and composers, four painters, three philosophers, a scientist and a only a couple of others of more contemporary vintage. All but two of these celebrities are dead. It was not, though, the music of Berlioz or Saint-Saens that the concert-goers were listening to when the gunmen opened up; in the bars they were likely not weighing up the respective merits as philosophers of Descartes, Rousseau and Sartre before the place was ripped apart. And in the Stade de France they would have looked at Neil’s list and wondered where was Thierry Henry, where Eric Cantona, where Laurent Blanc? (They may also have been looking at “Daft Punk” and wondering whether he wasn’t that centre-back who used to play for Nimes.)  Jeremy Corbyn’s narrative that unfolded in harum-scarum fashion across the week, that western militarism was to blame for the attacks, got it completely wrong: it is western decadence that really hacks these blighters off. It is a long way from observing that France seems to have slid down the scale of intellectual achievement from its glory days, to answering that disparity with Kalashnikovs and high explosive, but Neil’s list pointed up the gulf between the ideal of the west, and its reality. Presumably that was not his intention. Nevertheless, it is a gulf that literally inspires terror.

Conveying the superiority of western values to those who would otherwise want to kill us in the name of their own is one of the stock responses to jihadist terror, and by the end of the week various right wing politicians and commentators had ensured that we were running out of stock. Never mind that those values might seem as oblique and as obscure to the victims of terror as to the perpetrators. The equivalent standard issue response from the liberal left was to urge solidarity and the deployment of our superior use of technology against aggression. The particular use of technology they meant was to ensure that those who wished to signal their virtue could easily affix an image of the Tricolour to their Facebook profiles.

We must not allow the attackers to divide us, said the left, or provoke violent responses of our own. So far as the Labour Party was concerned these pleas were hopeless: the Party finished the week as divided and as violent as it has ever been. Mr Corbyn’s antipathy towards the policy of shoot-to-kill is probably informed by the understanding that the number of Labour MPs who would like to shoot-to-kill him is probably now heading towards triple figures.

On Monday, the Labour leader was reportedly “savaged” by his Parliamentary party for his remarks about shoot-to-kill and for his general display of fundamentalist pacifism in the face of the enemy. Naturally, he looked to his key allies to protect him. The shadow chancellor John McDonnell was nowhere to be seen – not for nothing is he McAvity Osborne’s shadow – and Diane Abbott, though in the same room where the savagery was taking place, was writing Christmas cards. Perhaps she was sending them to ISIL: Ms Abbott’s Christmas cards we can be sure will be rigorously secular and shorn of any relationship, other than temporal, to Christmas.

A third ally, Ken Livingstone, was fighting battles of his own. Waking up with a sore chest on Tuesday morning (this circumstance was part of his defence), he denounced a Labour MP Kevan Jones, as a man in need of psychiatric help. Now, as it happens, Mr Jones has spoken openly in the past about suffering from mental health problems – a fact Mr Livingstone claimed not to have known – but the former London mayor’s diagnosis of mental trouble stemmed from the insane proposition that he, Jones, disagreed with Mr Livingstone. Even Mr Corbyn thought that his acolyte should apologise, something that Mr Livingstone came as close to  doing as England did to winning the rugby world cup. “Jeremy is incredibly concerned that people with mental health problems shouldn’t be stigmatised”, said Corbyn’s spokesman. This too is approximately his position towards people with terrorist problems. Mr Livingstone defends Mr Corbyn as someone who has been traduced by the media and betrayed by the disloyalty of Labour MPs: when the pair of them were being happily disloyal to previous Labour leaders, he pointed out, their attacks were only ever about policy and never personal. Kevan Jones should take note of this.

All in all, it was not a good week “nice politics”, or for forging a new relationship with the world, these being, according to John McDonnell, who surfaced later in the week to say this, two of the three pillars’ of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. That therefore left only the third pillar, which the shadow chancellor called – presumably with unintended reference to Tony Blair – the “new economics”.  Mr McDonnell gave a speech on the subject, so that the new economics turned out to sound a lot like the old economics, albeit with some inspirational ideas for new bureaucracy imported from Finland. To give Mr McDonnell his due, there was no hesitation in describing his approach as “socialism”, though he then went on to ruin the effect by branding it as “socialism with an iPad”. What on earth could this mean, other than that the shadow chancellor needs to find himself a new speechwriter? We must already have cycled through communism with a computer and Marxism with a Mac before alighting upon this prescription, which didn’t even have any alliterative merit.

While this was going on, the real Chancellor was having a pig of a week. He was confronted with the worst October borrowing figures for six years and a poll that showed him slipping to third place in the Tory leadership stakes. For all their journey towards trying to identify with the common people, the Conservatives remain hampered by the fact that they can still think of only two people they would rather have as leader than George Osborne. Next week, Mr Osborne will unfurl his autumn statement, confronting socialism with an iPad with market economics with an axe. He may yet be trumped by a prime minister who has screwed up enough courage to tell Parliament that it is time we started bombing Syria. Tory MPs observing all this busied themselves by blocking legislation that would make it compulsory for children to be taught first aid in schools. This may well be socialism with gauze and cleansing wipes, but on another day the prime minister might want to portray a nation of children poised to carry out mouth-to-mouth as a key component of our strategic response to terror.

Bowing to Convention

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Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition get in a tangle over military affairs….

In a week when the skies above Britain crackle with colourful ordnance, a young prime minister’s fancy turns to thoughts of bombing Syria. Mr Cameron has been here before. In 2013 he was keen to let the British military loose against the government in Damascus only to have his explosive urges curbed by Parliament. Now he would quite like to rain fire down on the government’s enemies – the government in Damascus that is – and is looking hopefully in Westminster’s direction for it to say oh go on then.  It is not entirely clear whether it is the idea of actual military action that attracts the Prime Minister, or the buzz that would come from his being able to persuade Parliament to agree to it. Two years ago, Mr Cameron’s ambitions were thwarted by Ed Miliband, which is rather like the political equivalent of being knocked out of the FA Cup by Macclesfield Town. At the time he accused the then Labour leader of “buggering about”. The PM is thus engaged in an anti-buggering about strategy.

Sadly for him, there seems to be little sign of Parliament being any more amenable than it was two years ago – such that rumours started to come out of Downing Street earlier in the week that Mr Cameron may have been turning cool on combat. Then the Foreign Affairs Committee, a dangerously pacifist organisation led by the Conservative MP for Reigate, a notorious centre of appeasement, joined the buggering about tendency. Having noticed the Prime Minister’s promiscuity towards the choice of which side in Syria’s civil war to support, the Committee advised that it might be better to work out what you were trying to do before sending the RAF off to do it. To that it might be answered that what the Prime Minister is trying to do is to stop so many refugees from the conflict trying to come to Britain. Bombimg their country may be an odd way to achieve this aim,  but then again not everyone has had the benefit of an education in PPE from Oxford University. In any event, the PM seems to have retreated for the moment, confining his military strategy to the creation of no-fly zones. This was achieved by insisting that no one fly to or from the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh. This may well have been justified given the apparent bombing of a Russian airliner and the appalling loss of life that resulted, though for the PM it had the added advantage of being something he could do without asking Parliament’s permission first.

Sending in the military is not, in any case, such a great card to play these days, now that the British army can be moved about in the same minibus used to transport the Liberal Democrats to the House of Commons and without asking the MPs to get out first. At least, however, Mr Cameron has a clear view that the army should be used to take sides, even if the side itself is less than clear. This is in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn who holds that Britain’s military should be a strictly neutral force. He is particularly anxious that it remain neutral towards the Labour Party – issuing a warning to that effect after the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Nicholas Houghton attacked the Labour leader’s position on nuclear weapons.

Right-minded (or rather left-minded) liberal types were outraged that a public servant should appear to take political sides, in a way that they are never say when someone from the NHS or the BBC accuses the Tories of wanting to grind either or both of those institutions into the dust. Hypocrisy remains the left’s strongest and most enduring value. Liberals reply that the army should be especially careful to butt out of domestic politics because they have guns. True, but in all honesty, following the defence cuts the average district general hospital probably now has more killing potential.

In Mr Corbyn’s world, the only war worth fighting is the class war. This would be a difficult one for the privately-educated, Oxford man Nicholas Houghton to join in, though maybe he could be parachuted behind enemy lines as a spy. The Labour leader has an adviser, Andrew Fisher, who supports not only class war but Class War, an organisation that fielded candidates at the last election. He sent a tweet during the recent campaign urging people in South Croydon to support the Class War candidate down there. However, not only did the Labour Party have its own candidate in South Croydon, she was a descendent of Anthony Wedgwood Benn and therefore had inherited experience of lining up in the class war on all it sides. Mr Fisher argued ingeniously that urging people to vote for the Class War candidate  did not constitute support for that candidate,  but nevertheless the Labour Party took a dim view and suspended him.

One would suspect that being banned from the Labour Party might disqualify Mr Fisher from advising the Party’s leader, but apparently this is not so. Mr Corbyn has a flamboyant taste for advisers: his policy man supports another political party while his media adviser works for another equally subversive organisation, that is the Guardian. By this token, there is no reason whatsoever why Mr Corbyn should not appoint Sir Nicholas Houghton to be his military aide de camp. He already has a shadow defence spokeswoman who disagrees him on defence policy so another adviser opposed to his own position would hardly notice. It would be another example of how Mr Corbyn bows to convention much as he bows towards veterans near the Cenotaph – that is in a somewhat perfunctory but equally rather endearing fashion.

 

The Wild Duck

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David Cameron cold-shouldered the Chancellor by going to Iceland….

Sir John Chilcot announced that his report into the Iraq war will be published in June of next year. Or possibly July. Let’s not push our luck. Anyway, this news has set up a race to see if Chilcot gets there before David Cameron reveals his conditions for supporting Britain remaining in the European Union. Chilcot is bogged down in a process known as “Maxwellisation”, which roughly means checking that no one is going to be offended by what he has to say before he says it. The Prime Minister is engaged in “Maxwallisation”. This entails checking that no one is going to think he is too much of a comedian from what he is asking for, before he asks it.

In his ceaseless – and, so far, largely fruitless – search for allies, Mr Cameron travelled this week to the far north. Being a lad from Chipping Norton, what sounded like a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, turned in to the need all the way to Reykavik to find another group of leaders whom he could infuriate by not saying precisely what it is that he wants. The PM’s dance of the seven hundred veils continues.

The event he went for was something called the Northern Future Forum – not on this occasion one of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s press releases – but a powerful gathering of countries clustered around the Arctic Circle, who like to get together at this time of year in order to say goodbye to the sun. It used to be called the Nordic-Baltic Summit until it became clear that Britain wanted to join in. The Chinese President may get away with claiming that Britain and China are on the same continent, but in Whitehall although geography is one of the lesser humanities, they do not like to see it ransacked entirely.

After exhaustive seconds of internet research, I can reveal that it is not the first time that David Cameron has rocked up at this gig. In 2011, the Arctic axis located itself in London and listened to a speech by Mr Cameron that began with one of those stories along the lines of what it would be like to live in a world where the French did the cooking, the Italians made the clothes and the Germans forged the emissions tests. The “good life”, claimed their host, lay in bringing together all sorts of Nordo-Baltic characteristics, including Lithuanian levels of internet access, female participation in Iceland and the Norwegian understanding of energy storage. No doubt this had them nodding along and it did the trick because the PM got invited back. Even so the Icelandic prime minister, cunning fellow, took precautions against too much speechifying by giving everyone some Lego to play with and telling them to make a duck. Mr Cameron’s duck, we are told, came out looking like a dog, suggesting that he might have lost the pub sign artists’ vote next time round. At least it, however, it was some sort of tangible outcome. One is bound to wonder too whether the Congress of Vienna wouldn’t have had a happier long-term legacy if only it had been presided over by Iceland’s premier.

No closer to being able to say exactly what it is Britain wants from its renegotiated relationship with the European Union, the Prime Minister at least told us what he doesn’t want. In a word:  Norway. Notwithstanding the deep insights they have developed into batteries, the Norwegians, according to Mr Cameron, have got themselves a bum deal as far as the EU is concerned. They are a slave to the rules, yet deprived of the privilege of being in the room making ducks from bricks while unintelligible men from Brussels set out what the rules are going to be. This was interpreted as a rebuke to those of Mr Cameron’s Parliamentary party who rather fancy having a bit of what Norway has got. They have a romantic view of the place, all Vikings, Greig and non-Icelandic levels of female participation; the reality, the Prime Minister explained, is rather more taut and tortured, like a play by Ibsen.

Another reason for going to Reykavik was for the Prime Minister to put a lot of distance between himself and his Chancellor. Mr Osborne had one of those weeks that caused the political commentators that flutter around him to execute a sharp but shameless handbrake turn. The clumsy reverse that the Chancellor is about to perform so as to back out of his tax credit hole, is as nothing compared to the volte face that the pundits have been making in their estimation of Mr Osborne’s capabilities and prospects. It helps when they do this that political hacks possess the memory recall of goldfish. When, earlier in the year, they were heralding Mr Osborne’s certain ascent to the premiership, and lauding his mastery of the Westminster village, they conveniently forgot that only two years ago they were writing him off as the pasty tax numpty. Now, once again, everyone is wondering how it is that such a political master strategist could make such a mess. It never seems to occur to the goldfish that perhaps he is not quite the master political strategist even they can remember saying that he is.  The Chancellor himself simply flails on. He overcame the Omnishambles Budget by losing weight and buying trousers that were endearingly a little too short for his legs. It is unclear what he can do to recover this time round, especially since in Jeremy Hunt’s NHS the surgical removal of smirks is strictly rationed.

The vote by the House of Lords to delay the implementation of the Osborne tax credits policy provoked, according to the most splenetic commentators, a constitutional crisis. The crisis is that the Conservatives do not have a majority in the House of Lords. This, according to the reactionary faction, sins against the unwritten constitution. Downing Street ordered a review, amid mutterings that the answer may be to flood the Lords with enough new Tory peers so as to return the situation to The Way Things Have Always Been. The problem with this approach is that you can never tell where it will end. Already unusual in the world in possessing an unelected legislative chamber, Britain could soon stake a claim for true uniqueness by having the only Parliament where there are more people sitting in its upper house than outside it. That could only end badly.  There will come a time when we will have to order a cull, and start harvesting their lordships for their ermine.