Current Affairs

Blair and us

William Keegan in last Sunday's Observer:

… my strong impression is that the public squabbling has done the Labour Party a lot of harm.

Confirmation of this came in Friday's Guardian:

The scale of the challenge facing Gordon Brown as Labour's likely next leader is revealed today by a Guardian/ICM poll showing that voters believe David Cameron would make a more effective prime minister and that Britain will be better off if Labour loses the next election. … its reputation for unity and direction has taken a battering, with the chancellor, accused by some of prompting the leadership crisis, appearing to receive much of the blame.

Martin Kettle: 'every step Labour takes towards the Brown succession is now also a step towards electoral defeat'.

*****

5.15am, 2 May, 1997, Tony Blair:

The British people have put their trust in us. A new dawn has broken.

2 May, 1997, Tony Blair, outside Downing Street:

… it will be a government that seeks to restore trust in politics in this country. That cleans it up, that decentralizes it, that gives people hope once again that politics is and always should be about the service of the public. And it shall be a government, too, that gives this country strength and confidence in leadership both at home and abroad, particularly in respect of Europe.

It shall be a government rooted in strong values, the values of justice and progress and community, the values that have guided me all my political life. But a government ready with the courage to embrace the new ideas necessary to make those values live again for today's world -- a government of practical measures in pursuit of noble causes. That is our objective for the people of Britain. 

Above all, we have secured a mandate to bring this nation together, to unite us -- one Britain, one nation in which our ambition for ourselves is matched by our sense of compassion and decency and duty towards other people. Simple values, but the right ones.

Dawn of Hope, indeed. Craig Brown: 'In fact, fear was one of the most successful growth industries of the Tony Years.'

*****

I was rifling books, trying to find where Freud (?) talks about how what a people forget in their History is as, or more, important than what they remember, when I stumbled over another quotation I'd also been trying to track down for a while. Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human,1878, Hollingdale translation, Penguin, 1977):

The point of honesty in deception. — With all great deceivers there is a noteworthy occurrence to which they owe their power. In the actual act of deception … they are overcome by belief in themselves: it is this which then speaks so miraculously and compellingly to those who surround them.

*****

Thank God for satirists. Their power may be limited (I guess everyone knows Peter Cook's remark about the Berlin satirical cabaret clubs of the 1930s which 'did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler'), yet it still exists. There was a world-weariness about Armando Iannucci's column in today's Observer ('I don't know whether to be cheered by the fact that things haven't got much worse, after all, or depressed by the knowledge that neither have they got any better'), but it was a great column:

I'm about to quote something someone actually said. I'm finding I'm doing this more and more. Normally, with the party conference season upon us, I look forward to making up the sort of weird, meaningless, verbless sentences politicians deploy in their speeches. 'Forward to an exciting burst of tomorrows' and that sort of thing.

But now I find quoting actual politician's sentences is even better. My favourites so far are David Cameron's: 'I think more young people should be forced to become volunteers', Tony Blair's warning to Iran that 'no country has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq', and George Bush's: 'The Iraqi insurgents are being defeated; that's why they're continuing to fight.'

*****

When all this is over, the question remains — what was our role in the Tony Years? (Craig Brown: 'Were we the tight-lipped ventriloquist, and he the all-talking, all-winking dummy? Or were the roles reversed?'.) I'm late in coming to J G Ballard (he's glaringly absent from the curriculum, the exception being the popular Empire of the Sun). Here he is, writing in the New Statesman earlier this month:

We will all miss Tony Blair
Autumn is almost here, and the new political season approaches in a half-hearted way, the last act of an overlong play that has begun to bore the audience. All the same, I suspect that we will miss Tony Blair when he is gone. The boyish charm is fraying but still intact. The exhaustion, the desperate need to convince everyone of the truth of his own delusions, the raw emotions worn as a kind of exoskeleton, all show one of the great actor-managers in heroic decline. Blair may be the last British prime minister able to trade openly on his emotions. He knows that we are secretly rather drawn to bad acting and are happy to collude in his exposure of his weaknesses.

He is the beaten husband, still in charge of the car keys and the TV remote, but aware that the rest of the household despises him and is impatient for him to bring down the curtain. He jokes and winces, and makes fun of his own despair. The longer he hangs on, the more he can steer us towards the steamy, emotional bath we were happy to help him prepare. Would he like to drown us? After all, we like being lied to, we like promises that will never be kept, we like being locked into his smiling neediness.

His successor is likely to give us a shock, especially if it is Gordon Brown, the greatest mystery in British politics for the past 50 years. High in intelligence and self-control, but zero for acting skills and emotional martyrdom. Will we be happy with him? I seriously doubt it. Perhaps only damaged actors can lead modern societies down the crooked paths that they prefer.

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Journalism and accuracy: Reuters and Adnan Hajj

From Journalism.co.uk:

  • Reuters has suspended a photojournalist covering the Israeli assault on Lebanon after an investigation by bloggers revealed an image had been digitally manipulated to increase the apparent severity of a bombing raid. 6 August
  • Reuters has dropped a long-serving Lebanese photojournalist covering the Israeli assault on the country after an investigation by bloggers revealed an image had been digitally manipulated to increase the apparent severity of a bombing raid. 7 August

  • A second allegation of altering war zone photos - made against a photojournalist by bloggers - has led to over 900 of his pictures being removed from Reuters' database. Adnan Hajj, who had contributed to Reuters on a freelance basis since 1993, was axed by the agency after an investigation by bloggers, last week, claimed an image showing bomb damage in Beirut had been digitally manipulated to increase the apparent severity of the raid.

    After right wing bloggers made further allegations of alterations to a second image - supposedly showing an Israeli F-16 firing missiles on Lebanon - Reuters withdrew all his photographs from its database.The two altered photographs were among 43 that Hajj had filed directly to the global pictures desk since the start of the conflict on July 12. Reuters said it had now put in place a tighter editing procedure for images of the Middle East conflict. "There is no graver breach of Reuters standards for our photographers than the deliberate manipulation of an image," said Tom Szlukovenyi, Reuters global picture editor. 7 August

Mitch Ratcliffe: 'Where Nicholas Lemann's critique of citizen journalism falls down is his lack of critical reflection on journalism itself.'

I've been pondering Nicholas Lemann's New Yorker article. More about that soon.

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Amartya Sen, again

Amartya Sen is a remarkable thinker. I blogged about him back in February. Now this, from the Daily Telegraph, via 3 Quarks Daily:

He praised Britain's multicultural society, from which he believed all of Europe, notably France and Germany, had much to learn. However, he felt that Tony Blair's government, for which he had voted, had unwittingly made two serious policy blunders - increasingly encouraging a society in which the ethnic minorities and especially Muslims were defined almost exclusively by their religion and endorsing the establishment of faith schools.

Prof Sen, who is addressing the Institute of Public Policy Research, the Asia Society, the Nehru Centre and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, explained to The Daily Telegraph: "It overlooks the way Christian schools have evolved and often provide a much more tolerant atmosphere than a purely religious school would. A lot of people in the Middle East or India or elsewhere have been educated in Christian schools."

He recalled: "A lot of my friends came from St Xavier's in Calcutta [a Jesuit-run public school] - I don't think they were indoctrinated particularly in Christianity. But the new generation of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools are not going to be like that."

Although he wanted mainstream British schools to broaden their curriculum to include more on the contribution of, say, Muslim mathematicians to science, he added that faith schools "are a pretty bad thing. Educationally, it's not good for the child. From the point of view of national unity, it's dreadful because, even before a child begins to think, it's being defined by its 'community', which is primarily religion. That also drowns out all other cultural things like language and literature. I am a believer in the importance of British identity."

But he wanted the definition to be framed in such a way that allowed the evolution of a "plural multi-cultural society", rather than a "mono-cultural" one in which different groups lived side by side with little interaction. "We have many different identities because we belong to many different groups," he said. "We are connected with our profession, occupation, class, gender, political views and language, literature, taste in music, involvement in social issues - and also religion. But just to separate out religion as one singularly important identity that has over-arching importance is a mistake. One of the problems of what is happening in Britain today is that one identity, the religious identity, has been taken to represent almost everything."

He argued: "Of course, this policy immediately has the effect of making some people extremely privileged - those who speak in the name of religion. There may be some moderate people but mostly they are extremists who appeal by saying, 'Forget everything else, you are a Muslim' ." Prof Sen, who has written a book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, added: "This is a point of view that Islamic terrorists share with western theorists who define human beings only in terms of their religion because both agree that if you are Muslim, then that is your primary identity. Religion has been inadvertently politicised by the UK Government in a way that is counter-productive. It makes the battle against terrorism so ham-fisted and clumsy."    

Sen's new book, Identity and Violence, is on my to-be-read-next list. There's an excerpt in the New Statesman, here.

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Guarding our data

BBC NEWS:

The mass of personal information on government databases must be protected or public trust will be damaged, ministers are being warned.  Information Commissioner Richard Thomas says getting details wrong or mixing them up has huge costs to the people concerned, government and businesses.  Details should not be shared just because technology allows it …

Experts estimate that information about the average working adult in the UK is stored on 700 databases. They include information about people's health records, credit checks and household details. "Never before has the threat of intrusion to people's privacy been such a risk," said Mr Thomas. He said many databases were being used to good effect - such as systems for renewing car tax online rather than waiting in Post Office queues. But there can be problems, such as when the Criminal Records' Bureau mistakenly labelled thousands of people as criminals. …

There were severe consequences for people if information on (a) database was out-of-date, inaccurate, or given to the wrong people, he said. He pointed to the case of a father investigated by social services after his young daughter said he had "bonked" her - it turned out he had hit her on the head with an inflatable hammer. While social services had closed the file, police and health authority records were not updated and said the man had been suspected of child abuse.

Information Commissioner's Office; Annual Report, 2005–6 (pdf).

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Stephen Colbert, satirist supreme

I remember Ian Hislop once saying how he had tried to take a satirical programme (a version of Spitting Image?) to the States, only to be met there with disbelief: 'You mean you want to make fun of the President?'. Which makes the performance of Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Dinner the more remarkable.

Thanks to Tom Coates (del.icio.us) for these links: a clip of some highlights (this may have been taken down; at least, it's not running right now — has CSPAN paid them a YouTube visit?); a BitTorrent link to a movie of the evening; an Editor & Publisher piece about the speech.

Botherer covered it well:

… what wasn’t reported in the UK and elsewhere, disturbingly including the USA, was the main speaker for the evening, Stephen Colbert. Currently riding high with the success of his excellent Daily Show spin-off, The Colbert Report (pronounced “Colbert Report”), the honour of giving the main speech at the dinner, which is intended to poke fun at the president, was his. From the reaction it seems no one was quite expecting what Colbert had to say.

In character, he addressed the audience from the perspective of his programme, ironically adopting a Fox News-like stance in order to make a mockery of it. Throughout, Bush was sat two chairs to his right.

“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Salon, too:

Make no mistake, Stephen Colbert is a dangerous man -- a bomb thrower, an assassin, a terrorist with boring hair and rimless glasses. It's a wonder the secret service let him so close to the President of the United States.

But there he was Saturday night, keynoting the year's most fawning celebration of the self-importance of the DC press corps, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Before he took the podium, the master of ceremonies ominously announced, "Tonight, no one is safe."

To my friends and colleagues teaching satire: teach this! There's a transcript of Colbert's speech at Daily Kos (excerpt below) and, in addition to the Torrent link above, you can download the full video at these links: Part 1, Part 2. It is compelling, very sharp and very funny.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world. …

And I just like the guy. He's a good Joe. Obviously loves his wife, calls her his better half. And polls show America agrees. She's a true lady and a wonderful woman. But I just have one beef, ma'am.

I'm sorry, but this reading initiative. I'm sorry, I've never been a fan of books. I don't trust them. They're all fact, no heart. I mean, they're elitist, telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say it was built in 1941, that's my right as an American! I'm with the President, let history decide what did or did not happen.

The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will. As excited as I am to be here with the President, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the President's side, and the Vice-President's side.

But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the President makes decisions. He's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the Press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

Because really, what incentive do these people have to answer your questions, after all? I mean, nothing satisfies you. Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, "Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

You can leave a thank-you-Stephen-Colbert message here. There's a good Flickr photo from the evening here. And if you use Firefox and haven't yet got the Video Downloader extension, it's here.

Update! Inside Google reports:

The Google Video blog posts on how they’ve come to an agreement with C-SPAN to show the content, and agreement YouTube apparently failed (or never tried) to make. You have three options: You can watch the entire 1 hour, 35 minute video of the dinner, or stick to an 11 minute excerpt of President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges, or go for the 25 minute excerpt of Steven Colbert’s speech. Of course, if you want to enjoy Colbert’s biting remarks, make sure you quit about 16:45 in, because the press conference/chase segment is as tragically unfunny as it gets.

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Ridicule, Machiavelli and political life

Sun_652006

How much derision can a national political figure take and remain a "viable political entity"? According to Michael Heseltine this morning (Today, Radio 4), John Prescott has gone beyond the point of no return.

The strong media and popular response to Blair letting Prescott keep the perks and salary of office without (most of) the responsibilities was not hard to foresee and the attacks came very soon after the news broke (my last post). Was retaining the pay and perks the price of ensuring Prescott's cooperation? Was there a deeper plot, in effect to put Prescott out to die in the amphitheatre of public opinion? Far too popular and important a figure within the Labour Party for Number 10 to decapitate completely, this halfway house might have seemed attractive yesterday to John Prescott but now (it must have dawned on him) makes him look at best contemptibly absurd, at worst indulged and rewarded beyond what any possible responsibility still remaining to him might justify. Prescott will emerge (at least for the all important short- to mid-term) as an utterly diminished figure.

Last month (30 April), Andrew Rawnsley wrote (Observer):

Even before we were treated to pictures of the Deputy Prime Minister pressing the flesh with his office squeeze, he was widely mocked as an absurd figure. Buffoonish though he might have appeared to many outside government, inside Number 10, he was still taken quite seriously as a potential menace to Tony Blair who could deliver the final, fatal blow to the Prime Minister. His allies were becoming increasingly nervous that Mr Prescott was intent on bringing on the reign of Gordon Brown, especially since he so flagrantly fanned the rebellion against the education reforms. It was in the power of Prescott to pull the trigger on the Prime Minister by making a public declaration demanding an early date from Mr Blair for his departure.

The one solace for the Prime Minister in a sea of troubles is that this threat has evaporated. The debagging of the Deputy Prime Minister contributes to the impression of a government that is simultaneously arrogant, ridiculous and reckless. But it does have this consolation for Number 10. John Prescott is now a much weakened figure whose residual credibility is threatened with more demolition from further revelation. Instead of John Prescott being in a position to tell Tony Blair how long he has left in Number 10, it is now John Prescott who is fighting to save his own job and what shreds remain of his dignity.

Prescott's Parliamentary job has gone in almost all but name. Now he's doomed to be roundly and totally derided.

There's a good BBC piece by Roger Preston on the implications of the Cabinet reshuffle in the context of Blair/Brown ambitions and "relations":

Tony Blair has no desire to quit any time soon. And when he does resign, it will be in his own time and his own way. Those were the conspicuous messages he sent out today in his sweeping reorganisation of the Cabinet.

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Whither Labour?

The BBC reports that 'John Prescott has sparked anger by keeping his job as deputy prime minister despite being stripped of his government responsibilities. Mr Prescott's local government brief will pass to Ruth Kelly. But Downing Street insisted Mr Prescott was not being demoted and would keep his salary and grace and favour homes.'

This is a great line of attack, whatever your political allegiance(s):

The Tories branded Mr Prescott a waste of public money and Labour's Kate Hoey said people would wonder "what on earth he's going to get paid for".  Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said: "John Prescott loses his department but keeps the trappings of office - including the car, the salary, and the two grace and favour homes.  "Add it all up, and the taxpayer is going to be paying more than a quarter of a million pounds a year. If you're looking for ways to cut waste in government, you can start with John Prescott."

There's a cut-out-and-keep guide to New Labour, 'a handy guide to the last nine days and the last nine years (an amalgamation of this
list
and this list plus a few choice bonus items)', over on Chicken Yoghurt. Designed for yesterday and the local council elections, it's not going to stop being apposite any time soon. A sample (I've cut some items and un-numbered the list — please go read it over on Chicken Yoghurt):

 
In the full post: 120 numbered items … Brilliant stuff.

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Goldstein and attention

I have been paying attention to Attention (eg, here). But not enough.

Talking with a colleague the other night, we both referred to Tuesday's Guardian report, Surveillance on drivers may be increased:

The case for cameras to be focused on people using mobiles as they drive is made by the independent adviser to the transport select committee, Robert Gifford, of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (Pacts). … He argues that automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology should be applied in new ways to help defray costs of cameras and to catch offenders. "One of the good things about ANPR is that people are often multiple offenders so it would provide useful intelligence," he said. "Those responsible for 7/7 got to Luton station by car."

Mr Gifford said expanding the use of technology for tracking the movements of cars could lead police to people who had committed other offences in the same way that Al Capone was eventually caught through his income tax evasion. He claimed that for greater safety and "the greater good of society", most people would be prepared to accept "a slight reduction of our liberty".

A slight reduction of our liberty … No-one will mind.

How many times of late have I heard, under this government, a Labour government, the case advanced for small reductions in our liberty, incremental reductions … adding up to something quite other than "slight"?

Think Goldstein, said my colleague. As in 1984.

But hang on, who's behind Root Markets (an attention engine)? Goldstein.

C-o-i-n-c-i-d-e-n-c-e. Of course. (Though apposite).

And the point remains. If you watch me, you may watch me for my benefit — but also to my potential detriment.

Where are we going?

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Amartya Sen : tryanny posing as tolerance

Absorbing interview with Amartya Sen in today's Guardian:

In the light of the recent furores over Islam and multiculturalism, Sen has written a new book, Identity and Violence, to be published in this country in July, which will take a trenchantly critical look at the British interpretation of multiculturalism. Sen sees it as his mission is to rescue what he sees as valuable in the idea of multiculturalism from the prevailing British idea of "plural monoculturalism", which he takes to be damaging and divisive.

What grates on Sen is the idea that individuals should be ushered like sheep into pens according to their religious faith, a mode of classification that too often trumps all others and ignores the fact that people are always complex, multi-faceted individuals who choose their identities from a wide range of economic, cultural and ideological alternatives. "Being defined by one group identity over all others," he says, "overlooking whether you're working class or capitalist, left or right, what your language group is and your literary tastes are, all that interferes with people's freedom to make their own choices." What begins by giving people room to express themselves, he argues, may force people into an identity chosen by the authorities. "That is what is happening now, here," he says, a little indignantly. "I think there is a real tyranny there. It doesn't look like tyranny - it looks like giving freedom and tolerance - but it ends up being a denial of individual freedom. The individual belongs to many different groups and it is up to him or her to decide which of those groups he or she would like to give priority."

Sen is also critical of the growing consultative power given to the religious organisations of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. It does, he believes, magnify the power and authority of religious leaders at the expense of a healthy democratic debate. "Suddenly the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim organisations are in charge of all Jews, Hindus and Muslims. Whether you are an extremist mullah or a moderate mullah, whether you're Blair's friend or Blair's enemy, you might relish the idea of being able to speak for all people with a Muslim background - no matter how religious they are - but this may be in direct competition with the role of Muslims in British civil society."

When it comes to a deeply political problem such as terrorism, for the authorities to advise "action within the community" is, he believes, a great mistake. Sen was in London on the day of the July 7 bombings, and heard the ensuing appeals on the part of the authorities for "the Muslim community" to get its act together. "That was an attempt to bring even more religion into politics, which is not needed," he says. "To classify Bangladeshis, for example, only as Muslims and overlook their Bangladeshi identity is seriously misleading. To drown all that into a vision of 'you are just a Muslim - please be moderate and likeable and replace all those extremist imams with moderate and likeable ones', that is simply wrong-headed." … It is not that he is hostile to religion, he says; it is simply a question of context. Gandhi was very much a religious man and a religious Hindu, he reminds me, but when it came to politics he was thoroughly secular.

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Blair & ID cards

With news that Blair is now set to miss today's vote on ID cards (see here), there's also this — from the Guardian:

A British Nato and defence specialist today undermines Tony Blair and Charles Clarke's claims that the new identity cards database for 60 million British citizens is safe and secure. … Brian Gladwin, from Worcester, now a security consultant to US government agencies, said Mr Blair and the home secretary had got it wrong when they accused critics of producing "a technically incompetent report" on ID cards. They had accused the report's main author, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, Simon Davies, of bias because he is also a director of Privacy International, a human rights group that opposes ID cards.  Now Dr Gladwin, who led research into protecting foreign spies from compromising the country's most secure communciations system, has written to Mr Blair saying he was the author of the sections of the report dealing with safety and security. He pointed out that the "technically incompetent" data was subject to review by the LSE before publication by two "independent information security experts, both of whom are internationally recognised for their expertise".  He warns the new database will "create safety and security risks for all those whose details are entered on the system".

In a damning blow to ministers' claims of bias, he tells Mr Blair "in case you think that I am an opponent of ID cards, I should point out that I support an irrevocably voluntary, self-funded ID card scheme". He reveals he would rather pay fines than join a compulsory scheme, saying "it is shameful that those who are less well-off will be forced to put themselves at serious risk for a system that serves no purpose that cannot be achieved in other, more effective and less costly ways".

Ministers had sought to undermine the report's findings because it has been a key issue in fuelling the rebellion among Labour MPs on ID cards, which halved the government's majority and led to a string of defeats in the Lords.

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