Tuesday, 2 October 2007
Wednesday, 7 March 2007
To put this into context, imagine a Radio 2 journalist being forced to resign for reporting on one of the anti-war marches.
Wednesday, 21 February 2007
Things Can Only Get Better charts the 19 torrid years in which the Tories ravaged Britain and Labour had no hope in hell of being elected. Trotting through this quagmire of moral decrepitude and economic self-interest is John O’Farrell, archetypal leftie, fanatical Labour activist and later super-funny satirist. One would presume such a book to be immensely depressing, and to be fair, it has many low moments. The loss of the 1992 election; annecdotes about Thatcher’s treatment of the miners, could all compete for the top spot. Actually, though, most of the years Thatcher was in office seem like one big knawing hangover. Without the humour Things Can only Get Better –particularly the bits dominated by Thatcher- would probably knock L’Etranger out of the top spot on my ‘most depressing book of all time list.’
Happily, though, O’Farrel’s caustic and often self-deprecting wit resounds throughout. Somehow it softens the blow of his 7 years in office to know that John Major ‘would have been over-promoted had he been the manager of a motorway service-station.’ Similarly, too hear O’Farrell’s fantasies of a beaten Thatcher crying at her loss is a nice piece of Schadenfreude that most of us could empathise with, and it almost makes up for the fact that it took so long in coming.
It is these depressing moments, clothed in the artifice of humour, which transmit the book’s most forceful implicit argument: that New Labour has, and must have, a mandate for its policies. As O’Farrell astutely notes: ‘the battle between socialist purity and electoral expediency is constantly being fought in the soul of every Labour supporter.’ And this runs throughout the book; O’Farrrell experiences dilema after dilema whilst the party’s history seems to roll by in the background.
The most impressive thing about the book, though, is O’Farrell’s weaving of political history and autobiography. Massive events and changes such as the election of Neil Kinnock or the 1987 mingle with O’Farrell’s own problems, allowing us to see him as an individual. His amusing inebriation slots nicely alongside the landslide victory in 1997, whilst More than that, it shows us that, however turbulent our own lives may be, we can always have a positive impact on politics.
Much has happened since Things Can Only Get Better, much of it good. It’s a sad reality that Labour, in order to stay elected must eschew some of the things which in a utopian state we would almost certainly introduce. But looking back I expect even an –at heart- purist like O’Farrell would be proud of our achievements. What I’d like to know is- when will O’Farrell be publishing the sequel: Things Have Got Better: Nine felicitious Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. I’m waiting.
Just over a year ago, after countless days of rumours, speculation, back room deals and shady compromises, Germany finally had a new government. The Social Democrats – roughly the equivalent of Labour - would form a government with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, a traditionally conservative party they had derided just weeks before as radical capitalists intent on destroying Germany's much loved social model. This wasn't like Tony Blair bedding down with David Cameron (probably the two most centrist men in our parties); though he German parties have converged to a certain extent there's still a much large gulf than there is in Britain. Luckily the two parties shed some of their more controversial figures, Schroder bid farewell to his Berlin office, and they began tinkering together to form a consensual legislative program.
Many were sceptical, but nevertheless it happened. Germany had its first female chancellor, and, what's more, she was a pastor's-daughter from the east. The right-wing press, peremptorily licking it's lips at the election of a woman some thought would be Germany's Thatcher, predicted that Germany would change for the better; even the Guardian said that Merkel probably deserved to win. George Bush was so happy that just days after her election he walked up to her at a summit, ape-like as ever, and clasped her on the back – only to be rebuffed by the surprised chancellor. But Merkel was never going to be a Thatcher, no matter how much the Mail, or indeed George Bush, liked to delude itself.
I was in Berlin just prior to the election and many Germans were a bit baffled by what was going on. Schroeder's unpopularity – much like Blair's in Britain – was caused, primarily, by his arrogance and apparent untrustworthiness. At the same time though, they weren't completely sure they wanted to boot out the man who'd kept them out of Iraq and instead usher in a politician who still hadn't accepted that Bush's adventure was an utter disaster. The Germans are a lot more fond of their welfare state than many Britons; and whilst Schroeder was a committed social democrat Merkel had shady plans for cutting taxes.
But how has Merkel actually faired in this climate of expectation, ambivalence and uncertainty? Not too badly it has to be said. Just days after coming to the helm Merkel paid George Bush a visit in the U.S. The Germans, like many of the British public, were horrified by Bush's pugnacious foreign policy – and Schroeder calmly rode this wave for quite some time. So Merkel started boldy – and to her credit she pulled it off. The U.S could expect Germany's support we were told, but Merkel would be no poodle. Indeed, one German newspaper joked that she would be a 'Leitwolf' (leader of the pack) rather than the 'Pudel' played by Blair. Amongst the issues which the pair discussed was Guantanamo Bay: Merkel demanded that it be closed immediately. Coupling criticism with friendly relations seems a much sounder approach to diplomatic relations than Schroeder's aggressive approach.
Just this month Merkel's position as an important world leader has once again been brought to the surface: Merkel didn't mince her words with Putin either. At a summit in Russia she informed Mr Putin that he needed to improve communication with Western Europe; events like the recent energy delivery crisis (Putin shut off oil to Belaurus) and Germany felt some effects.) Will such comments affect any change? Probably not, but they do show that Merkel -and indeed the German government- won't be steamrollered by Putin as they were under Schroeder (the pair set up a direct oil pipeline bypassing most of Eastern Europe in the process.) And they'll resurface soon: in March Merkel is set to release a plan for suring up energy supply to the E.U; doing this without stepping on Mr Putin's already hypersensitive toes will be a challenge of epic proportions.
So Merkel seems to have delivered on foreign policy, but how has she faired domestically? Despite flirting with plans such as a flat tax during her election campaign (and indeed being keen on forming a coalition with the F.D.P (right-wing Liberals) – a party who advocated cutting taxes for the rich and whose leader branded trade unions 'the real plague of Germany'), Merkel has raised taxes since coming to power. Those earning over 250,000 Euros per year must now pay an extra 3% tax – which takes their total income tax to 45%. This measure – one which will have a tiny effect on the incomes of the people it will effect is entirely to be admired. V.A.T has been increased too- a less socially just move. Expect to see some showdowns over how domestic spending is distributed – especially at a time when things such as subsidies for first time homebuyers are up for discussion.
Has this had any tangible effect as of yet? Possibly: it has enabled business tax to be relaxed slightly and thus encouraged economic investment. Unemployment has begun to fall and the economy shows signs of re-invigoration; but many Germans remain unconvinced and refer to a 'Merkel Effekt' (the idea that the economy has been stimulated by a fresh presence rather than any governmental measure) and are unwilling to come to any snappy conclusions. Merkel has now emerged from her initial honeymoon period, so expect some damning criticism to surface in the near future.
Merkel is still a fairly unknown entity; but this year affords an opportunity to find out what lies beneath. As president of the E.U Merkel faces the unenviable task of reviving the badly-bruised constitution, as well as trying to thrash out deals on global warming and energy. Her iffy stance on Turkish accession may cause problems; it may not. In June she is due to unveil plans aimed at revamping the failed consitutional treaty. The prominent leftwing blog www.stoppt.de has made some fairly apocalyptic predictions for Merkel's future. Thankfully for Germany the S.P.D harness has ensured that she will never be a Thatcher, but whatever happens this year will be a big one for Angela Merkel.
A strange event occurred last week. Well you'd think it strange if you knew me. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail for the last fifteen years, and, according to many commentators the sole emotional driving force behind that paper's political line, gave a rare speech. This speech made me smile. A lot. Normally Mr Dacre, or indeed any mention of the Daily Mail for that matter, has me foaming from the mouth. Speaking at the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture, Mr Dacre accused the B.B.C of "perverting political discourse.' Aunty, it seems, is :'a closed thought-system, operating a kind of Orwellian newspeak.' That would be enough for most people, but Dacre didn't stop there; he was only warming up the engine with those remarks. No, next in line for a whipping was David Cameron. The Tories' boy wonder, according to Mr Dacre, was obsessed with the corporation. Dacre et al might not even support the Tories at the next election.
It took me a while to translate these comments – much like the nuanced and frustratingly complex German passage I'd put off completing whilst looking at the website- but eventually I thought I understood what he meant. 'Peverting political discourse', means, I think: 'not pandering to racial or outdated prejudices on immigration.' The suprising poke at Cameron stems, it seems to me, from the fact that Cameron is apparently no longer writing Conservative policy based on the day before's Mail editorial line (he was, arguably, when he authored the Tory manifesto in early 2005.) But none of this self-indulgence really explains my joy at Mr Dacre's comments. The beauty in them is what they actually reveal about the thought processes of nasty old Mr Dacre.
Regardless of the veracity of these splutterings (complete and utter trash if you ask me), the comments augur well for British politics. Dacre, long complacent as the berator of governments and indeed opposition parties is now akin to the bitter little child throwing toys from his pram. The Tories' manifesto in 2005 read like a Dacre stream of consciousness narrative which thankfully contributed to their loss of that election. And it's not simply the Tories who've suffered as a result of the Daily Mail's power; it often pains me greatly, as a Labour Party member, to hear cabinet members talking about introducing 'tough' immigration members at the expense of promoting social justice.
Lets be clear about this, the Daily Mail is probably the most odioius mainstream newspaper this country has ever seen. In the 1930s, for example, the Mail extended its support, in turn, to Oswald Mosely (founder of the British Union of Fascists), and, until 1939, both Hitler and Mussolini (personal friends of Lord Rothermere, then the editor.) But the Mail's extremity didn't end in the thirties. Even in the (some would say) enlightened 21st century it still employs such bigots as Richard Littlejohn who
described the recent Ipswich murders as, 'no great loss,' and is, indeed, admired by none other than Nick Griffin, leader of the hideous British National Party.
But the Mail isn't the only culprit of this bigotry. Most of the tabloids are guilty of Mailesque thought brutality. The Sun, for example, runs a column each day entitled 'Sun Says.' This pernicious strip of invective invariably informs its readers (in bold, underlined type just in case they couldn't take the naked crassness of the language itself) of how the country should be run: 'Drugs are bad and anyone found with them should be put in prison,' 'taxes are too high' are the kind of things you might expect to see gracing said space. The Daily Express often runs similar articles, or as it entitles them itself 'crusades,' though its quasi-religious obsession with Princess Diana means that its regarded as hugely absurd by all but its most committed readers.
Don't get me wrong, I think the tabloids are absolutely necessary as a means of conveying information quickly to people with busy lives (alas not everyone can relax in their student house and read the Guardian for hours on end, however attractive it might seem) and I'm not sure whether people base their political views on these vignettes of bigotry, but if they do I'm worried. And a waning of this sort of influence should certainly be welcomed.
Dacre is small fry when juxtaposed with mammoth beasts such as Rupert Murdoch, but this little vignette of bitterness has shown that Dacre is concerned that his stranglehold on thought in British politics is beginning to loosen. We need discordant voices in the British media, but they should never exert as much influence as the Mail has done over the last 100 years.