Monday, February 09, 2015

The best laid plans....

I normally yield to no-one in my defence of MPs and their workload; the sense of public spirit that has led them into parliament; the fact that they are significantly under appreciated etc.  But tonight, such warm, positive feelings evaporated. They are a bunch of workshy charlatans who wouldn't know a hard day's work if it came and danced in the aisles of their under used committee rooms.

The reason for my onset of annoyed angst has nothing to do, of course, with a misplaced attempt to bring my students to the heart of the mother of parliaments to watch a twilight session of the Houses in operation.  Having checked the daily schedule s of both Houses it looked as if there might be enough to keep them going until the noted adjournment times of 10.30 pm.  Admittedly the last Commons debate, on the vexed topic of nut allergies on flights could, it might be argued, have yielded fewer lengthy considerations than some other important elements of the body politic, but with counter-terrorism and the HSBC scandal on the agenda of the Lords,  7.30 didn't thus seem to be a particularly risky time to arrive for at least one chamber to still be operating; surely our hard working representatives would be bringing their fine minds to bear on the important details of their country's legislative agenda for a little while yet? After all, it was only Monday.  Half days in public service normally don't crop up until at least Thursday do they?

Not a bit of it.  Our evening journey to Westminster had been in vain.  The pleasant officials on duty at the gate broke the news to us gently but firmly that there were no sittings still going on.  Business was done. Democracy was on hold.

Getting a bunch of teenagers to agree to extend their working day is never easy.  When it's proved to be in vain it is well nigh a disaster.  There was no explaining away this one.  My earlier  exhortations that they were in for some high level political debate looked as hollow as an Easter egg.  A lame group photo later, and our trip was done. 

MPs workloads? As mythical as Stephen Fry's God.

Lesson Resources

The first of the powerpoints (from the lessons) for AS students are now up and published here (Link also opposite for easy access).  I will keep adding to the resources on the "SGS Politics Extra" blog, including relevant resources to complement AS Unit 2 and A2 resources for Global Politics (3D) and the US (4C). 

Electoral Domesday - could the next government be the second and fourth placed parties?

It was conventional wisdom that the AV referendum in 2011 had effectively 'parked' the issue of electoral reform for a generation or so.  Just, of course, as it was conventional wisdom that the Scottish referendum would also 'park' the issue of Scottish independence.  Neither of these wisdoms look very secure now.  In the case of Scotland, the problem was that the referendum was never allowed to run its proper course as with a week to go David Cameron and his fellow English party leaders changed the issue to something that wasn't on the ballot paper - gerrymandering of a high order.  In the case of electoral reform, Professor John Curtice's interesting figures look as if they too could bring the issue of reform firmly back into the main stream - and, since they were published by the Electoral Reform society that's probably what they were intended to do.

Professor Curtice notes that the key factor for success in the First Past the Post system is the geographic concentration of votes, and he further adds that this is effectively undermining the national claim of the system to be a "winner takes all" one.  His findings (full report here; Electoral Reform summary here) suggest the possibility of a Labour Party which comes second in votes securing the highest number of seats, and being shoehorned into government by an SNP which may well have come only sixth in terms of UK-wide votes, but have enough seats to secure Labour a majority in a coalition.

Curtice looks at the relative prospects of the smaller parties, on whom much of the election outcome will depend, and finds that the SNPs geographic concentration of votes could well propel them into winning significantly higher numbers of seats than the more geographically spread UKIP, even if UKIP scores significantly more votes.  To add to the possible post-election chaos is, of course, the fact that not only will SNP MPs only hail from one part of the UK, but - since the notorious devolution 'vow' - it is part with barely any domestic issues actually decided at Westminster.

Curtice discussed his report on the 'Today' programme (scroll in to around 45.55 minutes) and it makes fascinating listening.  No longer is the issue of whether FPTP throws up another coalition the only point of discussion.  Just as crucial, given the SNP surge in support (largely at Labour's expense in Scotland) is the question of who the coalition might actually comprise.  Thus, to the disproportionality of FPTP is added the unresolved headache of an incomplete devolution settlement.

If this looks like an issue of unfairness to the main parties - and I suspect it is the Tories who would make the most ground on this - then they might like to reflect that their own leaders have led them to this potential impasse.  All three leaders were guilty of panicking att he sight of the Scottish referendum polling figures, and unforgivably altered the basis of the referendum with no thought to the consequences.  In addition, only Clegg campaigned for reform of the Westminster system when he argued for the AV option in the referendum, although his acceptance of a hopelessly skewed referendum question (which only posited AV as an alternative, rather than the principle of proportionality) showed, at best, considerable political naivety.  David Cameron and the rest of the Conservative Party, meanwhile, have consistently failed to consider the inequities of the FPTP system, and then fell foul of their coalition partners in the tit-for-tat of blocking Lords reform (the Conservatives) and constituency boundary changes (the Lib Dems).

Whatever mess emerges after the next election, it is an irony that the men responsible for its genesis will also be the ones charged with resolving it.


Thursday, February 05, 2015

So could Clegg be PM after the election?

Well yes, for a few days, is the broad theme of a Huffington Post "exclusive" today.  The piece is an interview with former Lib Dem Defence minister Nick Harvey, who speculates that if David Cameron decided to resign as Conservative leader following a poor showing in the election, a hung parliament could result in coalition negotiations taking place with Nick Clegg holding the fort as interim Prime Minister.  Far-fetched?  Absolutely.  And we still have three months or so of wild speculation making headlines as news 'fact'.

The problem for Clegg, anyway, seems to lie closer to home.  I've always maintained that if disillusioned Lib Dem voters voted Labour, as a protest against the Lib Dems' willingness to be in coalition with the Conservatives, then many of their seats would actually fall not to Labour but to the Conservatives, from whom the incumbent MPs took the setas in the first place.  Clegg's Sheffield Hallam seat is one example - once a Tory stronghold, he seized it from them in 2005.  However, a Survation poll of the seat, reported on Labourlist, puts Labour ahead of Clegg in that seat.  If there is a momentum towards the Labour candidate there, then it certainly seems likely that the anti-coalition vote might be able to coalesce around him to the extent that it takes the seat and deprives Clegg of any further involvement in negotiating new coalitions.  Nevertheless, it is still worth remembering that the seat is a prosperous, and actually quite rural one; certainly not natural Labour territory under a left-wing leader.  I wouldn't write off either Clegg or the Tories just yet.

CORRECTION: I have said in the post above that Nick Clegg won the Hallam seat in 2005 from the Tories.  In fact, he succeeded Liberal Democrat MP Richard Allan, who won it off the Tories in the meltdown of 1997.

Nick Clegg has also now gone on record to ridicule the Survation poll findings.

  

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Could Italian politics be moving in a new direction?

Short post this, really to highlight an interesting piece by Catherine Gegout on the Nottingham Uni politics blog about the new Italian president Sergio Mattarella.

For all those who thought Italian politics had no chance of ever not being mired in corruption - Gegout notes that Italy is the most corrupt state in the EU - the choice of Mattarella seems to mark a turning point.  His election as president by parliament also represents another piece of anti-Berlusconi manouevring by current prime minister, Matteo Renzi.  Well worth heading over to the article and getting a bit of quick immersement in Italian politics.   

Commons comedy, courtesy of the Speccie's sketchwriter

There is a long history - dating all the way back to the 1970s in its modern form - of Commons sketch writing, which is to say reporting the proceedings of the House of Commons and our noble representatives as they sit debating our best interests within it, and doing so in a humorous fashion.  Andrew Alexander possibly started it in the modern newspapers, Frank Johnson and Edward Pearce have been masters of the art, and Quentin Letts keeps the satirical bile flowing today, amongst others.  It's almost as if these collected writers believe that either the Commons isn't funny enough on its own merits, or that the ludicrous pomposity of the inhabitants we have sent there needs exposing on a regular basis.

There is no better forum for such scathing wit than the weekly Prime Minister's Questions.  I'm not sure whether this regular bun fight has ever provided much illumination, but it has certainly been operating several stages below the average playground brawl in the hands of the current incumbent and his opposite number.  And Cameron was the man who once piously announced he would do away with "Punch and Judy" politics.  Honestly.  Politicians and their promises.

Anyway, I mention all this, in a rather long-winded way, to flag up the Spectator's brilliant Lloyd Evans, whose report of today's seemingly dire PMQs is, frankly, a masterpiece of richly comic observation.

His description of Cameron as a man who is "slipperier than a jellyfish emerging from an oil-slick" has an almost Wodehousian quality to it, while he describes one Labour backbencher as "a floppy haired Scouser who looks like an angry Beatle".  His greatest description today, though, is of the SNP's Angus Robertson, of whom he says "the stars that twinkled at his birth allotted him a superhuman store of charmlessness".   There's every chance we come away from chortling over Evans' sketch rather more wise in the ways of PMQs than if we'd simply watched it.


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Tories remain in their laager, despite not shifting in the polls

Business leaders like Stuart Rose of Marks and Spencer have been leaping in to the political arena to attack Labour's policy proposals, but it doesn't look as if this is doing much to shift the Tory position.  It has been flat-lining at around 32% for a year now.  Admittedly, Labour too has failed to shift things, remaining a mere 1% ahead of the Conservatives in the first month of this year, despite the high-energy campaigning.

It is more than probable that despite the attention being focused on the election - still over three months away - in the Westminster village, few ordinary voters are taking much notice. The biggest electoral trend has been the increase of the SNP's position in Scotland, which is likely to act to the detriment of Labour, but could cause a significant problem for all of the English parties when it comes to getting English legislation through parliament (a difficulty highlighted today by William Hague's inability to unite the parliamentary party behind his English laws proposal).

The Conservatives can draw little comfort from Labour's position in Scotland.  They remain under threat from UKIP, but more importantly have failed to move their opinion poll position despite concerted efforts to do so and the running of a narrative that seeks to confer on Cameron the benefits of incumbency whilst targeting Miliband as unfit to be Prime Minister.

Adam Bienkov has a piece on Politics.co.uk today analysing the polling situation, and he has this cutting but on the nail comment about the Tory party:

After a year of strong economic recovery and declining trust in Labour and Miliband, any other governing party would expect to be sweeping up support by now. The fact that voters would still rather plump for almost any other party instead, suggests that the Tories have fundamental problems they are simply refusing to face up to.
There are occasionally signs of realisation. The party's continuing low support among the young, ethnic minorities, working class voters and indeed anyone outside the South East of England, have been repeatedly raised by some figures on the fringes of the party. Occasionally these concerns are listened to. Usually they are ignored.
In fact rather than face up to these problems they have instead retreated back to the same electoral comfort zone that has failed to win them a majority for over twenty years. Endlessly banging on about immigration, Europe and welfare have failed to win dividends for the party for decades and yet they continue to do it anyway.
They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. Well the Tories have been doing the same thing for almost a quarter of a century now and yet still they stand back in amazement when the opinion polls refuse to budge.

This absolutely encapsulates the Tory problem, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post.  Their failure to reach out to a wider electorate remains their Achilles heel, and yet they persistently look to the wrong answer - the belief that they just need to be more right-wing.  How many election defeats will it take for the moderate right to re-group and form a genuinely popular centre-right party?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Miliband not a weirdo shock, and a replacement for Merlin

My earlier post suggested that the Labour party had had a pretty dire week last week, so by way of balance here's some good news for the would-be Labour supporter.

First off is the report on Labourlist that the party has increased its membership.  Once you acknowledge Labourlist as a cheerleader for the party, it is nonetheless the case that they have produced figures that would give some cheer to Ed Miliband as he looks at a membership rise that appears to be beating the Tories (at 194,000 Labour members to just under 150,000 for the Tories).  Mind you, the Tories' Grant Shapps also claims a number of 224,000 if you include non-paying 'supporters', which seems like a very dubious calculation.  None of those figures, by the way, is particularly cheering for the parties, representing as they do somewhere around 1% of the electorate.

If that isn't enough to cheer the Labour leader, he might also want to gloat a little at the results of a Lord Ashcroft focus group poll, reported by Guido, that has most voters likening David Cameron to Dick Dastardly when asked to compare party leaders to cartoon characters.  Not that Miliband's cartoon alter ego - Elmer Fudd - is much more encouraging.

Miliband has also been doing a Q and A with younger voters, and while his answer about his life experience outside politics might have been wanting (he noted he had been a Treasury adviser and a lecturer at Harvard - lecturing about politics!), the Spectator's Isabel Hardman reports that he generally came across well.  All the more effective for being so regularly lampooned as a sub-human weirdo.

And then there are the people who "really, really, really" like Ed Miliband, which is good news for students like my school's mock election Labour candidate, who maintain that Ed Miliband is in reality a visionary and articulate leader who will wipe the floor with Cameron.  Well, it turns out Tom is not alone, as the Spectator's 'Steerpike' discovers the tweets that rave about Miliband's amazing quotes.

Finally, it seemed that Conservative Home had ventured into popular culture when I noticed the sub-heading "A replacement for Merlin - at last".  Could this be a reference to the BBC's tortuous road to finding another popular family fantasy programme, after the cancellation of "Atlantis" in only its second series?  Alas no - the Merlin in this story was a rather prosaic voter contact database, now being replaced by the less ambitiously named "Votesource".  The BBC's search presumably continues.


Saturday, January 31, 2015

Labour's election nightmare

You might have thought that the Syriza victory in Greece would have given Labour a bit of a lift.  After all, here was electoral proof that anti-austerity campaigning worked.  In one of the hardest hit countries of them all too.  Instead, it provoked a debate about Labour's political caution that then lapped over into their heartland topic of the NHS.

The Guardian's Zoe Williams used the syriza victory to ask why Labour wasn't taking a leaf out of their Greek counterparts' playbook and pursuing a more radical line in "standing up to the moneymen".  Must have been music to Ed Miliband's ears.  Or not, perhaps, for as the New Statesman's Anoosh Chakeelian noted, Mr. Miliband was slow and cautious in his own response to the triumph of the Greek left.

Then the NHS reared its head.  Labour have been playing this as a key election winner for them for ages.  Alas, when shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham appeared on Newsnight on Tuesday, it was  to give a disastrous and bad-tempered interview which saw him cornered by Kirsty Wark over the issue of just how much private provision might be acceptable in a Labour run NHS.  This caused the Telegraph's commentator on all things Labour, Dan Hodges, to predict a Cameron victory in May, not least because of Labour's inability to come up with a decent and consistent narrative on the NHS.

And the battle just keeps on raging.  After Alan Milburn attacked the Labour strategy on the NHS, the fight was joined by Roy Hattersely, defending Miliband against Milburn.  Even the Labour's most admired 'lost leader', Alan Johnson, is rumoured to be muttering about the party's dark mood.  Anyway, for a bit of light relief, here's that Burnham interview again, just in case you'd forgotten the clear, lucid and calm defence he offers which is clearly going to see the Tories into the electoral ditch.

Stephen Fry's Acolytes

Stephen Fry is an eloquent, sometimes amusing, and entertaining man.  He undoubtedly has a brain which can move effortlessly amongst a range of topics, but he's neither philosopher nor theologian.  I'm not sure he's ever claimed to be, in fairness.  So his emotional response to a question on an Irish television show about what he would say to God was just that - an emotional response from an atheist who hates the whole construct of God.  It was nothing new, nothing deep and nothing surprising, and it was said for the most part in a remarkably good-humoured fashion.

So what on earth do we make of the vast army of Fry acolytes who have taken to twitter and online media to proclaim his "outburst" the most eloquent thing ever!  The Huffington Post headlined their report "Atheist Stephen Fry Delivers Incredible Answer....", and that was mild compared to some of the facebook comments which proclaimed Fry the most brilliant responder ever to such a question.  Alas, poor lemmings.  Fry offers anger - in a similar vein to that which has been served up many times before - but no thought.  To hear his supporters you'd think he had single-handedly revealed to us the "Problem of Evil".  So bad luck Thomas Aquinas, Epicurus, Augustine of Hippo, Kant, Hume, C.S.Lewis and countless other Christian and non-Christian writers and thinkers alike who have sought to grapple with the problem.

That the problem of evil remains at the heart of much our spiritual thinking is tortuously apparent, but must we really contend with the problem of over-weaning celebrity elevation too?  As for attempts to respond to the God hatred that Fry espoused, I found this piece by Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft to be a clear one.
And this tweet from blogger Archbishop Cranmer be an appropriate one:


Friday, January 30, 2015

Tory Leadership Jostling - Again

They are far from having the next election in the bag, even with Ed Milliband as Labour leader, but that isn't stopping senior Tories spending more time on their possible leadership beauty contest.  Someone should remind them that leadership is a lot more satisfying in government, and they might like to keep half an eye on staying there.

It looks as if one over-exposed potential candidate - Boris of course - and one already over-exposed Cabinet minister - Sajid Javid - are both jostling for the all-important Euro-sceptic vote.  Javid's back story has already made him the darling of  Conservative MPs and the right-wing commentariat, and he's been beefing it up with reminders that he's basically a good Thatcherite ever since he hit the headlines. His 'House' magazine interview also ensures we all know - as if we hadn't already figured it out - that yes, he's a euro-sceptic too.  Boris is consistently all over the place, but he never intentionally misses a populist opportunity, and so has been telling 'Time' magazine that a British exit from Europe would be very manageable indeed - Guido gives the relevant quote here.

The pity about Javid is that he combines an interesting back story with pretty well the whole panoply of right-wing opinions that appeal so much to hard-core Tory members and the Conservative columnists, but so consistently fail to do much to elect Tory governments.  Since John Major, over the course of four Tory leaders, the only one to have been elected - and then on a minority basis - has been David Cameron, also the only one not to have embraced rightist notions in his pre-election period.  The other three, determined euro-sceptics and neo-Thatcherites all, got nowhere near (and one didn't make it to the election).

David Cameron remains far more popular than his party, but while his party is still pretty toxic with the voters, he is pretty toxic with Conservative MPs.  You do sometimes wonder whether Tory MPs and their cheerleaders are existing in some Kafka-esque universe where they will only be happy if they elect the most right-wing of leaders, only to watch him (or her) fail, so that they can begin the "actually he wasn't right-wing enough" post-mortem.   The Tory Party used to be focused on unity behind a leader, and pragmatic centrism towards the electorate.  The defenestration of Margaret Thatcher saw the abandonment of both, and they've never won a majority since.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How ignoring human rights has moulded today's world crises

There are times when I box "human rights" into a little, separate compartment of my overall fascination with global politics, seeing it as the well-meaning pursuit of a handful of liberals who are banging their noble heads against the brick wall of political realism.  Yes, it would be nice if everyone's rights were respected, but no they can hardly be expected to get in the way of the often unpleasant and dirty business of keeping afloat in the mucky world of international relations.  If I keep failing to make the link between an increasingly volatile, war-strewn world and a general western disinterest in human rights, then yes, go ahead and condemn my superficiality and short-sightedness.  But then reflect on the unhappy fact that it is shared - sometimes cynically so - by most of the western public and its duly elected leaders.

This keynote post by Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth on their World Report 2015 has been a real wake-up call, not least because he has so persuasively rooted the continuing abuse of human rights in the unfolding political tragedies around the world.  And its persuasive because, really, we know that the tragic equation he is articulating is right.  It isn't just blind fundamentalism which is driving ISIS's many followers - look at the world they are escaping from and fighting against.  People do usually act from rational motives, and what can be more rational than the desire to fight for your rights and your well-being against oppressive, murderous states.  Does it really surprise us that ISIS's principal theatre of operations, and success, is in two countries whose regimes have relentlessly and brutally suppressed the rights of their minorities?  That Boko Haram might just be a response to the corruption and abuses of the Nigerian government?  That maybe the pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine have legitimate grievances against abuses from the pro-western militias? 

Roth's article is a must-read for a better, more nuanced, and morally based understanding of world affairs.  And then, when you've done with that - and it's a long, wide-ranging read - have a look at another piece by an HRW operator, this time on the forgotten war that Russia is waging in Dagestan. 

Human rights becomes more than a decent liberal pursuit; it becomes a crucial prism through which to understand the turbulent 21st century world. 

Sullydish Bows Out

One of my favourite blogs has been Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish".  It's been running for years, mainly under the auspices of the different publications that Andrew Sullivan has written for - the Atlantic, the Daily Beast - and whichever publication has sponsored it it has always maintained a very individual approach.  And it was exhaustive.  Sullivan updated his thing many times a day; it was pretty exhausting keeping up if you wanted to be a regular reader, but he so often unearthed good stuff elsewhere on the web, or provided his own eloquent arguments and counter-arguments that he was a must-read, whether several times daily, daily, weekly, occasionally - never less than fascinating.

One of the early political bloggers to make a splash, he's finishing up now.  He's been running the Dish as an independent company for the past two years, and while the revenue's been healthy his "note to my readers" talks about the exhausting nature of blogging several times a day, responding, reading, staying abreast of everything......  Reading some of the professional blogger responses to his news,  they join with him in noting how all-consuming their immersion in the digital world has been. 

Is this important?  Well, if you read and rely on Sullivan's Dish then clearly yes.  If you've never come across it, obviously no.  But it has this.  Sullivan was an early pioneer of a digital conversation that grew to include huge numbers of people, who would never have been able to raise their voices in a public forum before and which in a way prefigured the enormous twittersphere and the advance of citizen media.  Sullivan was a journalist and professional writer, but his blog was produced in such a way as to give voice to many diverse readers who were not.  It also directed readers to a host of other articles and posts elsewhere on a rapidly expanding web.  Most of all it was a clear, distinctive voice in the national, and international conversation.

There was a point at which thousands of blogs were being set up daily, many unread except by their authors, many fading quickly into dis-use, because actually blogging requires discipline and commitment.  Many of us who blog do so largely for ourselves, pleased if we garner a handful of readers every so often, but adding more to the noise of the internet ether than to its elucidation and, whilst parading our of course centrally important viewpoints we are probably not extending them very far.  Sullivan's blog added to the noise, certainly, but it became a huge noise that drew people towards it and provoked myriad responses.  That was what blogging could be at its finest, a world which one commentator on the Dish's imminent demise (Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith as it happens) suggests is fast disappearing as new media alters and changes.

But as Sullivan, and several of his responders, notes, the digital life started to take over.  Ridiculously so.  And he has decided to head back into a real world of contemplative reading, responses that don't have to be instant, writing at length and over time, and relating to his human friends again.  In person.  Face to face sort of thing.

I've enjoyed Sullivan's blogging, really appreciated his brilliant and passionate advocacy of Obama's politics and presidency, enjoyed the many views from people's windows that he's published; but I'm looking forward to reading his next stuff, honed over time, and as I read his 'last post' I'm aware of just what a minnow an erratic and small-scale blog like this is (which is sort of humbling), but also how I could never have gone for it in the way he has.  But I'm glad he did.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Greece's Left Turn


It looks as if the Greek left party Syriza is heading for a big win in today's General Election, even if it is not yet clear whether the party headed by putative Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cna yet gain a majority.  What is clear is that Greek voters have decided to see if they can bluff the EU into easing up on their austerity conditions for the huge bail-out received in the wake of their economic crisis.

Greece's economic crisis was deeper than most other western countries because Greece's feather-bedding of its public servants was so much more generous.  Greek voters, it seems, have had enough of their dalliance with austerity, although in giving their support to Syriza it's difficult to see what they think the party is now going to be able to offer.  Greece remains in hoc to EU bail-out funds, backed by a Germany which is less bothered by the prospect of Greece leaving the eurozone than she once was.

Greek voters have sent a message that says they don't like tough economic measures and want an easier life.  It's hardly a revolutionary stance for an electorate, but it might end up leading to a revolutionary event - the Greek departure from the euro.  Then the lessons really do begin, for if such a departure sees Greece actually benefitting (Abbie Martin posits this possibility in a level-headed analysis of the Greek election result on the Spectator blog here) it could well encourage other resurgent left-wing parties in Europe, also indulging in anti-austerity populism, to believe they can achieve victory and hang the cost to Europe.

It's not often in modern times that election results in Greece are so eagerly pored over, but the consequences of Syriza's victory could be profound, and the European project significantly changed.



The separation of "British Values" from Christian ethos

Is Ofsted trying to wage a campaign against Christian schools, perhaps seeing them as distant cousins to the Islamic schools that have been causing controversy?  It certainly seems like it, if the decisions in the north-east are anything to go by.  One Christian free school has already had to close, while another - Grindon Hall - has been placed in special measures.  I know a little about Grindon Hall, having met teachers and pupils from there and hearing very positive reports from other friends who have visited the school.  It was doing well enough for parents to pay for their children to go there when it was independent, and not unreasonably the head took the opportunity of the free schools programme to offer his clearly popular education brand to a wider range of parents, free of charge.  Enter Ofsted.  With the new "British values" criteria grasped firmly in hand, they have graded the school inadequate, despite its apparent success in public exams.  The key thing about Grindon Hall, of course, is that it is a Christian school, promoting Christian values.

The Spectator's Damian Thompson is in no doubt that the Ofsted campaign can happen because Michael Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan (author of the "British values" document), but you don't have to be a fully paid up Gove-ite (I'm not) to believe that there is something rather strange about a good-performing Christian school being placed in special measures because it does not adhere to "British" values.

Sarah Palin's speech would be comic relief, only she wants to run for president




Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey used to do a great job spoofing Sarah Palin, although she realised that the best way of doing it was simply to use Palin's own words, unaltered and undoctored.

Well Sarah Palin, the extraordinary choice of John McCain as his running mate in 2008, is at it again.  She has hinted that she might be interested in running for president in 2016, so here she is at a Republican conference in Iowa setting out her stall as one of the star speakers. Apparently her teleprompter froze, so she had to talk from memory and her own intuitive political grasp.  It's a gem, particularly the bit about "a man can only ride you if your back is bent".  Wise words for everyone there I think. *

Oh, and the Democratic National Committee Chairman has issued a one word statement - "Thanks".

* - a kind tweeter brought to my attention the fact that Palin's phrase is actually taken from a Martin Luther King speech.  In her expert hands it has simply become a comedic mess.  She's mangled it a bit, and I think it's fair to say that her oratory falls short of King's, who was of course referring to the need for black Americans to stand tall, whereas Palin is referring to....well,  anyone's guess really.

Friday, January 23, 2015

King Salman's Rapid Succession Declarations

King Salman bin Abdulaziz may have only just become king of  Saudi Arabia, but the new - and seventh of his line - monarch is moving fast to ensure the succession is assured into the next generation.  Taking over from his half-brother, King Abdullah, who died yesterday, the 79 year old King Salman inherits a bulging inbox of problems, but it is clear that the continued smooth rule of the House of Saud is a top priority.  As the kingdom runs out of eligible sons of its founder, King Abdulaziz, to take the throne, there have been questions raised as to how Saudi Arabia might transition its ruling elite into the next generation.  There are something like 7,000 princes directly descended from King Abdulaziz, and it is little wonder that faction struggles feature highly on the list of likely problems to beset the crucial kingdom.

King Salman's crown prince was already known, as predecessor King Abdullah had unprecedentedly appointed a deputy crown prince a few years ago - another half-brother, Prince Muqrin.  Salman has not only confirmed Muqrin - ten years his junior - as the new crown prince, but also filled the deputy crown prince role with his nephew (by one of his full brothers, former Crown Prince Nayef who died before he could assume the throne, thus paving the way in fact for Salman) Mohammad bin Nayef, the hardline Interior Minister.  This would seem to assure the necessary smooth transition to the generation of Abdulaziz's grandsons, and while it might put Salman's own sons out of joint a little, it does interestingly keep the long-term succession in the hands of the so-called "Sudairi faction", the families of that group of seven brothers whose mother was Princess Hassa al-Sudairi.  The new king's own son, Mohammad bin Salman has in turn become defence minister, replacing his father.  Whether this does indeed narrow the future succession to the Sudairis remains to be seen, and there are rumours that that once tight faction is itself subject to some internecine struggling, but it is certainly clear that Crown Prince Muqrin will be the last of the immediate sons of King Abdulaziz to become king in succession to Salman.  Muqrin's own position was controversial, as his mother was a Yemeni concubine rather than a pure Saudi wife, but perhaps a Yemeni connection is no bad thing at a time when the southern arab country is causing so many headaches for Saudi Arabia.

Why does this matter?  Well, apart from the inherent fascination of an almost medieval tableaux of court politics that the kingdom provides, it remains one of the two key regional powers - along with its old enemy Iran - and is a key to American interests in the region.  Its ability to manipulate world oil prices is being seen at the moment as it maintains oil production at the same rate but lower prices without causing undue economic stress to itself.  It is a key ally against Isil, a counter-weight to Iran, and the stable home to two of Islam's holiest shrines.  That Saudi Arabia is in Isil's sights is apparent from a recent attack by that group on Saudi border guards.  Isil have already made it clear that they regard the Saudi control of Mecca and Medina as wholly wrong, and would love to wrest the cities away.  This may seem like a pipe dream but Saudi Arabia takes its border security seriously enough to have initiated the erection of an impressive 600-mile wall along its northern border with Iraq, similar to the 1000-mile one it already has across its southern border with Yemen.

King Salman - by all accounts a shrewd and respected leader, who even established a private jail for misbehaving Saudi princes - will already be familiar with the problems of a Yemeni government that has just fallen (to allegedly Iranian backed guerrillas, the Houthi); a continuing high risk strategy on oil prices and production contrary to the rest of Opec's wishes; the threats from Isil; and the policy to see Bashar al-Assad removed from Syria.  As he juggles these, he also needs to work out just how much reform - if any - the powerful Saudi religious establishment will take (and he appears not to be as personally committed as his older half-brother), as well as keep his increasingly fractious family in line.  He may not have much time either.  Whilst foreign visitors remark that he retains his sharpness in conversation, there are rumours of an onset of either dementia or Parkinson's.  Another reason, perhaps, for the seventh Saudi king to have quickly put the putative numbers 8 and 9 in place so quickly.

Further - Joshua Keating on Slate.com examines Salman's difficult inbox; Newsweek on Saudi border concerns; and the Washington Post on the generatiom shift in Saudi royal circles.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Lord Chancellor's Worldview

As we live in a parliamentary system, it strikes me as being important that we judge a party, or a government, not just on the merits and de-merits of its leader but also of its various ministers and shadow ministers.  After all, these men and women will be making and executing policy over a wide range of areas, and have a potentially huge impact.  If you consider the present administration, its Conservative character has certainly been partly formed by the attitudes of Michael Gove, Theresa May, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne.  And Chris Grayling.  Grayling has been a controversial figure at the helm of the Justice Department, the first non-lawyer in 400 years to hold the supreme legal post of Lord Chancellor.  His legal reforms have been widely execrated within the legal profession, and his prisoner book ban was held up as barbarous.  His comments on social issues too form part of the whole character of the Conservative element of the government.

Conservative Home's Andrew Gimson interviewed Grayling, and the lengthy but very readable piece is well worth going to.  He defends his position in his various controversies, and there are some interesting personal insights too.  I found it remarkable that a front-rank politician who studied history at Cambridge was not able to name any political heroes, or even political figures who inspired him.  His approach to politics seems somehow mechanical.  He comments on his brief dalliance with the SDP, and talks of his attitude to grammar schools - definitely pro, but wary of expanding them.

Gimson writes well and interjects a few counters to his subject, but of course the interview piece allows Grayling to state his positions largely unchallenged, so you might also care to go this article by Politics.co.uk's Ian Dunt, where he takes Grayling's defence of his legal reforms to pieces.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Obama's State of the Union - Quick Round-Up

More on President Obama's State of the Union later, but a quick round-up here of views from the more supportive commentators of what looks like a reinvigorated president, determined not to go out with a whimper, but to make sure everyone knows he's a liberal and wants to secure a liberal legacy.

British ex-pat Andrew Sullivan has always been a supporter, and his live-blogging of the State of the Union on his blog the Dish is well worth a read through; in particular his early comment here and his round up of other blog reaction here.  On Slate.com is the view from Jamelle Bouie that Obama is a "liberated Liberal", while John Dickerson on the same site describes the speech as one that was designed to steamroller the Republicans - a thoroughly partisan effort.  Fred Caplan applauds Obama's "wise" foreign policy aims but suggests his execution hasn't been quite so in tune with his aims.

The BBC at last has, in Jon Sopel, a North America editor who seems to understand what makes Obama tick and his view that the speech was an aspirational challenge to his Republican opponents is here.

I've noted before that Obama is not going to go quietly into the sunset of his political career, and his 2015 State of the Union shows what a president with fire in his belly can still do with the executive office, even when he's in his 'lame duck' years with a congress against him.    With his poll ratings rising too, Obama might even be able to dust off FDR's old phrase that "everyone's agin me, except the voters".  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Cameron - The Leader and his Party

Conventional wisdom is that David Cameron is more popular with the public than his party, but that he is a largely disliked figure amongst his own MPs.  Read the different blogs and comments and you find reasons ranging from the personal - they think he's haughty and condescending towards them, when he bothers noticing them at all - to the political - most think he has no principles, and those that do think he steers too much towards the left.

Such is the antipathy towards Cameron that there have not been wanting stories over the past weeks and months detailing how, if he fails to secure a majority for the Tories come May, he's toast.  One of the reasons behind the high-energy undeclared leadership campaign is just this - that the mountain for Cameron to climb to retain his position as leader is simply too high.  After all, plenty of Tory backbenchers still charge him with a failure to properly win last time, and with having rushed into a hated coalition with the Lib Dems.  Now we could spend a lot of time discussing the very tenuous threads that bind many of these backbench complainers with reality, but if the Spectator's Isabel Hardman is to be believed (writing in today's Evening Standard) they may just be marginally re-evaluating their "Cameron must go" attitude.

Hardman notes that Tory MPs generally still don't like Cameron, but they are waking up to the fact that he has more electoral pull than they do as a party.  Which is hardly surprising, given the generally centre-ground position of most voters, and the luminously right-wing position of most Tory MPs.

Giving further credence to the need for Tories to continue sheltering behind the pragmatic fig-leaf offered by Cameron's leadership might be some recent findings about the average Conservative voters' attitude towards immigration.  Here there is a lesson for the panicky out-UKIP UKIP moves being undertaken by Cameron himself too.  The centre-right think tank "Bright Blue" has commissioned a survey which seems to suggest that most Conservative voters (as opposed to activists and MPs) have a moderate approach to immigration, wanting control of illegal immigration but accepting a need to maintain immigration flows otherwise.  The New Statesman's Staggers blog reports on the survey here.

One problem for Cameron is that to appease his backbench bloodhounds he will need to fight the election on pretty right-wing territory, a factor given added impetus by the presence of Lynton Crosby as his campaign manager.  Mr. Crosby's last national campaign for the Tories was the ill-fated "Are you thinking what we're thinking" one for Michael Howard, which revealed that no, we weren't.  But if Cameron loses through having conceded the centre ground to Ed Milliband, no-one in the parliamentary party is going to thank him for running a right-wing campaign.  They'll just tell him it wasn't right-wing enough, and look for someone else.  Ironically, it looks as if his main chance of survival if he doesn't get the coveted majority might lie in another coalition with......the Lib Dems.