Bedknobs and broomsticks

Nick Robinson is doing a radio programme on the subject of the wider impact of the expenses crisis. (Catch it if you can – re-run at 8pm R4 Monday 29th, also online of course. It’s not Bedknobs and Broomsticks by the way. Try Moats, Mortgages and Mayhem.)

I’ve yet to listen to the programme, only heard the trailer. So I’m guessing what you’ll say, Nick, and it’s too late. You played along with the crowd, and lost credibility. It was clear what was happening to many of us from day one, but we didn’t have a mouthpiece.  (That is a crime in itself.)

You and other insiders would have known better than most about the integrity of the great majority of MPs, and about the damage this would do to them individually, their work as constituency MPs, the institution of parliament and the political process itself.

(Time out)

Well, now I’ve listened. I’ve heard Michael Howard quote the example of Ruth Kelly’s insurance claim, illegitimate according to the Telegraph, utterly proper in fact, I’ve heard the smug and greasy complacency of the guy I assume is the Telegraph’s editor, and I’ve heard Nick Robinson’s concern that every night of the story he’d go to bed worrying that he’d made the situation worse for a group of people he believed were for the most part in politics to do good. But ‘the facts drove the story’, he claimed. His definition of ‘facts’ in this case isn’t mine.

And I’ve heard his belief that if the story fuels an easy cynicism that politicians are all in it because they’re on the make, then it will have done damage. Lightly encoded we have Nick Robinson’s message. Damage has been done, and we know from the context that he believes it’s been done unfairly. What he doesn’t say is how extensive the damage is, which maybe we can look forward to in a sequel.

Nick Robinson’s an old boy of my school, OK some fifteen years younger than me I guess. So he’s a North Cheshire lad, and I rate him, and while he’s a relative innocent in this case (compared to some of the charlatans at work) I think he’s let us down.

I’ve written elsewhere on the subject of W.B. Yeats’ comment:

I hate journalists. There is nothing in them but tittering jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls the Great Refusal. The shallowest people on the ridge of the earth.

( It seems that Pope Celestine V resolved the papal schism by resigning and leaving the way clear for Boniface VIII, who Dante loathed. For his cowardice, his refusal to honour his obligations, Dante consigned Celestine to hell.)

Nick, you sat on the fence. You were part of that great refusal. And the same goes for most of your colleagues. Maybe you’ll be spared hell. Hot air only in your case, no flames. But be careful.

Mr Speaker part 2

Martin Bell is writing a book, the musings  of a journalist who decided writing up news stories was tedious, better to make the news himself, who took his Knutsford defeat of the Hamiltons on an anti-corruption platform as proof that he and his white suit were somehow the chosen ones. Twelve years waiting for another crisis and he’s in luck. He’s recognised ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity to revive our politics’. They were, Martin, as I see it, doing quite well, and don’t need reviving by moral crusaders.

The relationship between parliament and people is like any relationship, indeed like a marriage. There’s failure and there’s an ideal, and because what you have doesn’t quite approximate the ideal you shouldn’t assume failure.

I don’t believe for a moment that the marriage of people and parliament has broken down. Like any relationship though it can be influenced by outsiders. Whisper in any spouse’s ear that love can be more intense, sex better, loyalty stronger, and talk up a wayward look into infidelity and you’ll have a breakdown of something that might have been working well.

We all know where the talking-up has been coming from in the case of this marriage.

Not all’s been well in the relationship of course, creating a climate in which the public, suitably and self-servingly prompted, has been all too willing to believe the worst.  As so often happens mistrust feeds on itself, with a crisis the inevitable result.

Happily, now the pressure from the drip-drip of revelations is off them a little, MPs are coming out fighting. John Bercow is his address to the Commons asserted that ‘this House is neither corrupt or crooked, but what was meant to be a straightforward system of compensation has become immensely  complicated, mired in secrecy and short of accountability.’ We are all agreed that has to be put right. He wants to strengthen backbenchers and revive parliament, and that means controlling its own business, exercising effective scrutiny and ensuring that as representatives of the people the executive is accountable to parliament, and not to the media.

Funny this. The media argue for change, and a key part of that change would cut out the leaks on which they’ve thrived and reduce just a little the dominance they’ve enjoyed.

Bercow ends by arguing for a clean break, and I’d part company a little here. We want a clean break from the failings of recent years, and an escape from the taint of scandal, but we also want a reassertion of all that’s good in the best of parliaments, not best in the sense that the balance of powers we have is better or worse that the American, but best in the sense that the traditions of parliament are a better guarantee than any written constitution, or the pronouncements of any judiciary.

Having dismissed Bercow yesterday as a non-entity, having read that speech I’ll give him a chance. (Which is nice of me!)  In the context of his age, or rather lack of it, he quoted past Speakers, Speaker Addington among them, who took over as PM from Pitt the Younger. I believe him when he says he doesn’t want to be PM.  But that’s an aside. I like the sense of tradition he shows, and will bring to the post. He’s no old hack or grumbling grandee. Not only will I give him a chance, I will desist from writing any more on the subject of parliamentary reform until he’s set out his stall.

David Risner

We met, fifty old friends and family, up in Westminster, to remember David Risner, last Saturday lunchtime. He died twenty years ago this month. He was one of the best – husband, father, publisher, friend – but none of that captures it.  David had integrity, loyalty, a sense of fun, he was clever, clued in, and good company. We worked together for four years so or, and I’ve had no better friend in all my years in publishing. David, we miss you still, and honour your memory.

Mr Speaker

Shame about John Bercow. Here’s me trying to defend MPs as honourable gentlemen and ladies and in a few cases right honourable, and they go and vote in a non-entity for rotten reasons at an important time in British politics. From what I can see he ain’t much charisma and the Tories, whence he came, loathe him, and Labour have voted him in to needle the Tories.  I feel let down, I do.

Sir George Young (Sir is almost a Christian name in his case – he’s always been Sir George)  would have had a certain kind of Tory grandee shuffling old-school honesty about him, and he’d have got on jolly well with David, being from the same posh educational establishment, though George must be about twice David’s age. With Boris installed as mayor, we could have had the born-to-rule brigade actually ruling, and given that all three are Liberal Tories that would really have upset the Telegraph on the one side, and those unhappy souls who were peddling socialist mags outside Hammersmith station this evening on the other. (You’d have thought they’d have realised they were on to a loser by now.)

I like my politics old-style, capitalist against socialist, so maybe I should take up peddling socialist mags to even things up a bit. It’s also a good time to be an anarchist. Everyone hates MPs, ergo, we don’t want them, we don’t need them, and let’s set up Berlin-style anarchist communes instead. I think that was the gist of one radio interview I heard.

So what kind of reform will we get? Let’s hope for Whip-free election to select committees, and the house insisting that announcements are made to them first and overall the Whips being less able to corral votes.  We now know that Speakers can be made to resign, so I’d be worried for my job already if I was Mr Bercow. He hasn’t got it in him to personify parliament as Betty Boothroyd did, and if his authority slips at all PMs, Brown or Cameron, and MPs will ride roughshod over him.

Another scenario of course is that the people of London  march on parliament and force itself to vote itself out of existence. Communes take over, the monarchy is abolished, and a guillotine is set up at Tyburn.

Obama swats fly

For the Zen Politics blog this is a matter of real concern.

President Obama brought, with a well-timed swat, the life of this  (rather large, I admit) fly to an early end. The news-clip is dramatic. As an example of macho politics it was impressive. It was only sad that he wasn’t discussing North Korea or Iran or Sudan at the time, though some would have then argued it was staged, with the fly, maybe slightly doped, being introduced into the interview at a strategic moment.

Ahmadinejad …  swat!

Kim Jong-Il … swat! Though Jong-Il’s dad, Kim Il-Sung, has been elevated to ‘Eternal president’ by the Koreans , so it may take more than a swat.

But to return to the issue. … Well, no, I won’t. Ever the pragmatist, I think this fly HAD TO GO. You don’t mess with the Pres.

**

One further thought: what would our brave leaders do, when faced with a fly?

Brown wouldn’t see it, or maybe the fly would resign, solving the problem

Cameron would put the boot in, that being a favourite recent activity

Clegg (no flies on me, guv) would hit out and miss altogether…

Have we any politicians who could Obama-style successfully deal with a fly?

**

Iraq Enquiry – Public or Not?

Gordon Brown doesn’t want to apportion blame.

Nick Clegg wants to apportion blame, and apportion it now. He thinks he knows what the outcome of the enquiry will be.

David Cameron doesn’t mention blame. He has to be careful, given the Tories were supporters of the war.

Brown wants answers. Clegg wants retribution. Cameron isn’t quite certain what he wants, but whatever he wants he wants it in part in public, because that’s the way the wind is blowing.

*

Let’s imagine a public enquiry, with lawyers and affidavits, and public interrogations. If all the evidence was stacked one way, maybe there’d be a steamroller and the enquiry would be over quickly, the guilty would be disgraced, sink out of sight, never to be seen in public again. But the evidence won’t all be stacked all one way. Will Tony Blair or Geoff Hoon roll over quietly? Even Jack Straw would feel he has to fight for his reputation. They’d all have lawyers.  So too would the military men, because the enquiry will take in the way the war was fought, how effective it was, armament and transport, strategy and planning and tactics on the ground in Basra.

If the Bloody Sunday enquiry into one day can take years and cost hundreds of millions of pounds, how much will this cost?

And don’t tell me it need only last six months.

Hold it in public and everyone will be in protective mode. It will be argument and counter-argument, virulent attack, passionate defence. It might even be fun. It would be a media show. We’d all get wound up and talk about it. We’d leap to conclusions, probably based on our existing pre-conceptions. We’d talk about it lots. But would it help us finds the answers to what really happened, would it point up lessons for the future, would it heal wounds? No, it wouldn’t. It’s the worst possible way of doing it.

I’ve heard talk today of the healing a public enquiry would bring. I don’t believe it. Passions once roused would be hard to douse, on both sides. Watching others hit the self-destruct button is a good spectator sport, not too far from reality TV. But not if we’re the sport. Not too good if we want to have a positive influence in the world.

There’s a lot of talk about openness and accountability. The two don’t necessarily go together. Openness isn’t going to mean that those we would wish to be held to account will be held to account. Truth isn’t such a simple black-and-white beast. Like the Bloody Sunday enquiry we may be no clearer at the end than at the beginning, or we’ll find that we’re entrenched in the positions we started in.

No, Nick, it’s not simple, no-one’s going to roll over.

*

For my part, I loathed the war, and loathed Blair for taking us into it. I’d have had Blair impeached if that has been an option under our political system. For misleading the public and parliament, if he didn’t lie as such, for taking us into an ill-conceived war, and for sheer gullibility (not an impeachable offence, I admit) when faced with Bush and the neo-cons.

But I’d have had that done in parliament, not in a media-goaded bear pit. There are ways and means for getting at the truth. A public enquiry just isn’t one of them. The terms of reference of the enquiry as now proposed are what we should be focusing on, but these will have to wait for another time, or another post.

Stick to your guns, Gordon.

Moonlighting

The Times TV correspondent was doing his ironing watching The Apprentice. An interesting insight into who does TV reviewing these days. Young kids earning extra dosh at uni? I’ve often wondered how sanity survives in the reviewer’s job, and I can now see that moonlighting doing the ironing, or doing the ironing and moonlighting watching TV, is how they do it. With so much stuff sent out in advance by the TV companies, you can probably get by with half-watching. You can half-watch TV but dangerous to half-iron. Easy that way to become a decamisado, a shirtless one, whereas reviewing will always keep a shirt on your back… no matter what you turn out.