Friday, December 31, 2010

Kate and Anna McGarrigle - Talk to me of Mendocino

Had this blog been active at the time I would have written about the sad death of Kate McGarrigle in January. Latterly, she seemed to be more famous as the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, but with her sister Anna, she produced a remarkable body of work that deserves to be better known. This, one of her best songs, has a wistfulnessthat it perhaps appropriate for the ending of a year and the start of a new one.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When Auberon Waugh backed the Liberal party

One of the New Statesman's halcyon periods was during the 1970s under the editorship of Anthony Howard, who sadly died just before Christmas. Among the more unlikely contributors Howard recruited was Auberon Waugh, who did some of his best writing for there , precisely because he was going against the grain of his readers' views.

Waugh died nearly ten years ago, but although he was probably the funniest journalist of his generation, newspaper and magazine scribblings have a short shelf-life and all the anthologies of his work published in his lifetime seem to be out of print. So it is good news that a new collection of his articles was published earlier this year, even those of us who own previous volumes and will no doubt find the same material repeated.

The reason Waugh was funny was because he didn't take politics and politicians seriously, which made him more successful at getting under the skin of leftists and liberals than if he had been a mere right-wing polemicist. He held Liberals and Lib Dems in particular disdain, leading the charge against Jeremy Thorpe in the 1970s and never forgiving Shirley Williams for her role in the comprehensivisation of secondary schools.

But in my meanderings through the historical archive of The Times I have found one occasion on which he specifically endorsed the Liberal party. Waugh was much exercised by the plight of the Biafrans in the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-70 during which both the Labour government and the Conservative opposition supported the Nigerian Federal government.

In protest, Waugh threatened to stand as an independent pro-Biafran candidate in the 1970 Bridgwater by-election, but in the end withdrew, explaining in a letter to The Times on 20 January:

May I use the hospitality of your columns to urge those voters in Bridgwater who expressed their support for my candidature... to support instead the Liberal candidate, as representing the only political party which carried itself with honour throughout this disgusting episode in our nation's history?

Sadly, Waugh's endorsement didn't do the Liberals much good. The Liberal vote fell by 5% and the candidate only narrowly saved his deposit.

Struggling with the Staggers

I hesitated earlier this year before deciding to renew my subscription to the New Statesman, and the Christmas issue, which I have just got round to reading, makes me wonder if I shouldn't have hesitated a little longer.

The Staggers is of course a Labour-supporting paper, and never likely to see eye to eye with the Lib Dems even when we are not in coalition with the Tories. But at its best, it is broadminded, has contributors with a range of different viewpoints and so is a good read even for those who don't agree with its politics.

So while I never expected it to welcome the coalition government, I hoped at least that it would recognise that Labour had outstayed its welcome in power, and offer constructive opposition to the new administration rather than a full frontal assault. Sadly, it has very quickly lapsed into a variant on the unthinking dogmatism that it adopted in the early 1980s, the last time Labour lost power, which made it unreadable to anyone outside the left of the Labour party. Whenever a Labour government loses power without having created a new Jerusalem, the cry of betrayal goes up from the left - normally it's the right of the Labour party that gets the blame, this time the Lib Dems are an even better scapegoat.

The Staggers' political editor, Mehdi Hasan, appears to have a visceral dislike of the Lib Dems that was on display even before the election - taking the view that any criticism of us should be accepted unquestioningly and any possible defence not even considered. So it is no surprise that in the Christmas issue his article is entitled 'Coalition? This is a Tory government'.

It's a measure of Hasan's intellectual standards that the closest he gets to rational analysis and logical argument is a playgrount taunt: describing Danny Alexander as 'George Osborne's red-headed, red-faced bag carrier at the treasury' - a sort of playground taunt. The rest of the article consists of ignoring the late Labour government's more right-wing tendencies (crime policy, civil liberties, tuition fees, setting up the Browne review to consider higher tuition fees); refusing to acknowledge the more liberal elements of the coalition programme (closing the family unit at Yarl's Wood; increasing capital gains tax etc., the levy on banks, making the Browne recommendations more progressive) or else crediting the Tories (prisons, pupil premium). It concludes with a historically misleading reference to supposed previous Conservative-Liberal coalitions. In fact the Liberal Unionists in 1886 and Liberal Nationals in 1931 were breakaway organisations that had seceded from the main Liberal party and entered into an electoral alliance with the Tories.

This sort of thing would doubtless go down well as a piece of rhetoric to an audience of Labour activists, but is hardly to be taken seriously as political analysis. One could do a similar fisking exercise on the magazine's editorial in the same issue, which continues to exonerate Labour and blame the Lib Dems entirely for the failure of the two parties to agree a coalition in May. I have a theory that there is a positive correlation between the readibility of the New Statesman and the electability of the Labour party. If so, then regardless of the fate of the Lib Dems, Labour could be in for a long spell in opposition!!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Vince Cable agrees with me!

Thank you to Niklas Smith whose comment on my earlier post draws my attention to Vince Cable's comments on his recent difficulties. As the Richmond and Twickenham Times reports:

The Business Secretary said the Daily Telegraph's tactics had "completely undermined" the work of local MPs and he would need to be “more guarded” in the future.

What is most worrying is Vince's comment that:

I did preface what I was saying by saying if they want to have a conversation about a political matter as well as a personal matter it is confidential, and you do expect people to behave in a trustworthy way, which these people from the Daily Telegraph didn’t.

If Vince is correct, then in future there can be no such thing as an off-the-record or informal conversation between politicians and journalists. If an MP or minister asks for something to be confidential then there can be no guarantee that journalists won't record or quote them anyway. And it is disappointing that those ministers who have been 'caught out' by the Telegraph have apologised and backed down rather than come out fighting.

I write this with some sadness. I grew up reading the Telegraph and continued reading it long after knowing I was out of sympathy with its politics, because there seemed to be integrity both to its reportage and editorial analysis. These days it is in the gutter and I wouldn't stoop to pick it up.

The Box of Delights - a case for child protection?

Once every few years I like to watch again the DVD of the classic 1984 BBC dramatisation of John Masefield's The box of delights. I am reassured to learn from Wikipedia that this is 'a nostalgic treat for followers of cult TV' rather than the equivalent of adults reading Harry Potter books.

If I understood rightly from the first episode, the main character, Kay Harker, who must be about ten years old, is allowed to walk back from town to his guardian's house which is out in the countryside after dark. The book was written in 1935 and appears to be set at that time too. These days I suppose there would be tabloid newspaper headlines and calls for intervention by social services.

Do you need to be interested in music to be a Radio 2 disc jockey?

I'm not proud of it, but last night I found myself watching ITV's Who wants to be a celebrity millionaire live. One of the contestants was Chris Evans, who despite being a famous Radio 2 disc jockey, was unable to answer a question about the lyrics to the Pogues' Fairytale of New York. As this is one of the best-known Christmas songs ever, it's a bit like Evans thinking that Bing Crosby dreamed of a purple Christmas.

It puts me in mind of the late John Peel writing of his shock at discovering that one of his fellow Radio 1 presenters did not actually own any records. Plus ├ža change and all that!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

So should elected representatives now assume that all conversations with members of the public may be recorded and used against us?

Vince Cable was foolish to speak to a relative stranger about a sensitive and quasi-judicial matter – the Murdoch/BskyB/Ofcom business. It’s hard to believe that he was so unwise – but then I am used to local government under Labour’s Standards Board reign of terror, where planning committee members had to guard against expressing views on planning applications before the matter was debated.

Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth has speculated on whether the Telegraph sting might have been illegal. There has been some hand-wringing in the media about the use of underhand methods, but media outlets have cheerfully recycled the Telegraph’s story.

Clearly elected representatives are never likely to earn much sympathy in crying foul about media unfairness, but in my view there is something destructive about the way the Telegraph obtained the story – an undermining of the basis on which politicians and their electors interact.

Perhaps the biggest frustration I have found over the years about being an elected representative is that, even as a lowly district councillor, one can no longer express purely personal opinions in public – blog postings, letters to newspapers etc. all have to be considered in the context of whether they might prove to be a faux pas that could be used against the party. And I imagine it’s the same only rather more so for parliamentarians and government ministers.

Yet one assumes there is some flexibility. As elected representatives when we speak on the record to journalists, or in formal public meetings, we know that our comments may be noted down, recorded or reported and quoted back at us, and we have to choose our words accordingly. By contrast in the privacy of home, or among close friends, we can perhaps sound off without fear of making a political gaffe.

Somewhere in the middle are conversations with constituents – on the street, over the telephone, canvassing on doorsteps, or as with Vince’s Telegraph encounter, at a surgery. When members of the public get in touch one wants to put them at their ease and converse with them informally – perhaps even to show that politicians too are human beings (well, almost). The conversation is not quite private, but not really public either. We may make off-the-cuff remarks or empathise with someone’s concerns and complaints without feeling that every comment we make is a formal statement of policy.

This is where the Telegraph story is destructive. The risk for anyone holding public office of being recorded by a journalist posing as a constituent may be low. But this episode establishes that the principle is all right. In which case, we are safest not to interact in a natural and informal way with members of the public who contact us. Instead, if we wish to avoid trouble, we are best off (to borrow a phrase from Queen Victorian’s description of Gladstone) speaking to constituents as if they are public meetings, answering questions only with carefully-thought-out, pre-prepared, on-message, formal statements, not the instinctive reactions of one human being talking to another.

Of course, the media being what it is, concerns about the integrity of the democratic process will hardly matter to journalists seeking a good story. But my fears might be valid just the same.