Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Independent Group: New wine, new wineskins

This is the first blog post I have written since the end of 2016. There was a damned good reason for this hiatus, and a similarly good reason for breaking it.

Over the past two and half years, I have become so profoundly disillusioned with the state of British politics that I came to the view that I had no longer had anything useful to say about it, beyond expressing a generalised sense of despair at the direction in which both main parties were leading us.

The kind of One Nation, social democratic politics which I have believed in all my adult life - belief in a market economy allied to social responsibility and care for the less well-off - seemed to go so out of fashion that those of us who espoused such views felt, at times, as though we were speaking to a brick wall.

So while I am not so naive as to imagine that yesterday's launch of The Independent Group will solve everything, it is both a necessary and a brave move if we are to rescue our broken politics and provide new hope for the millions of voters left politically homeless by the toxic combination of Corbynism and Rees-Moggery that appears to dominate the current UK political scene.

Falling out of love with political writing and blogging was not something I ever thought would happen to me. I had always wanted to be a political journalist, and for a decade I had a ringside seat at Westminster covering the Major and Blair governments, a period in British political life which, for all the critical analysis we subjected it to at the time, now seems like a veritable golden age.

Even when I decided to leave Westminster for a different kind of village life in 2004, I continued to write about political developments on this blog and in various newspapers until my weekly Newcastle Journal column finally ended in the autumn of 2015, the week after Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader.

That column came to an end as a result of the necessary budget cuts that have affected all regional newspapers as they grapple to come to terms with the digital age, but to be absolutely honest the timing was entirely serendipitous, because if The Journal had not made that decision for me, I would have had to have made it myself.

So thank you, former Journal editor-in-chief Darren Thwaites (whose decision it was) for sparing me the ordeal of having to write weekly column after weekly column about the self-inflicted catastrophe that is Brexit, and the self-indulgent farrago of arrant nonsense that is Corbynism.

There is a single underlying reason why neither main party is now capable of representing the sensible, silent majority of the British public. It is because both main parties are now controlled by memberships which bear absolutely no relationship to society as a whole.

It is, after all, the reason why we have Brexit.  If Boris Johnson had not calculated that the largely Eurosceptic Tory membership would never elect him as Conservative leader unless he joined the Leave campaign, he would never have joined it, and Remain would, in all likelihood, have won the 2016 referendum.

Okay, so Leave won, and for the past two and a half years Theresa May has tried valiantly to steer a course which gives effect to that outcome without wrecking the British economy or destroying the precious Union which since 1707 has made Britain a country that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

But she has been consistently thwarted throughout that time by a combination of Brexit Ultras for whom nothing less than a complete severing of all ties with the European Union - whatever the cost to the British economy - will be enough, and a games-playing opposition leader determined to exploit the situation for party-political advantage, again irrespective of the cost to economic prosperity and in particular that of his own party's natural supporters.

At the end of the day, I expect nothing from the Conservative Party.  It exists to defend the status quo and in our society that means defending the uneven distribution of wealth and privilege which seems to characterise Britain far more than other European nations.

I do however expect something from the Labour Party.  I expect it to stand up above all for the interests of the people for which it was founded - those least able to stand up for themselves.

In his handling of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn has failed to do that.  He has been content to play parliamentary poker with Mrs May in the vain hope of either precipitating a general election (he won't) or somehow persuading the Prime Minister to back an outcome that would split her own party (she won't).

In so doing, he has led us perilously close to the disaster of a no-deal Brexit, an outcome which even Corbyn must know will hit his own people the hardest.

I do not share the view of Chuka Umunna and others in The Independent Group that the best way out of this morass is a second referendum.  It would simply exacerbate the bitter divisions over Brexit and - unless the result were of the order of a 65-35 majority for Remain - would not actually settle the argument.

No, I think we now need to get Brexit over and done with and build a new pro-European movement from the bottom up in the hope that a future, more enlightened generation realise that it is where Britain's destiny ultimately lies.

But I agree 100pc with the group's analysis of the state of the Labour Party as currently led. It is self-evident that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to be Prime Minister, and in saying that openly yesterday, the group was merely verbalising what most Labour MPs already know.

Although Labour under his leadership has espoused some laudable policies, notably on tuition fees and rail renationalisation, he cannot be trusted with either the nation's defences or its finances and that is reason enough to disqualify him from occupying Number 10.

The obvious lesson of the past two and half years in British politics is that the party system is broken, probably beyond recall.  One Nation Tories and the social democrats in Labour's ranks now have far more in common with eachother than with the lunatic fringes that have taken over their respective parties.

A realignment of British politics which reflects these changed circumstances is now long overdue. As the Bible puts it, new wine is not poured into old wineskins, but into new wineskins.

For this reason, I hope that The Independent Group can quickly grow beyond its origins as a Labour breakaway to embrace like-minded people from other parties, and none.

For those of us of a centrist persuasion, politics may just be about to get exciting again.  And hopefully, I might now have something more useful to say about it.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Debts of gratitude

In a year which has seen the departures of so many iconic figures, it's hard to single people out for special mention, but as 2016 draws towards its close, I wanted to express my own debt of gratitude to the ten who have had the biggest impact on my life and that of my family.

So thank you:
  • David Bowie, for providing part of the soundtrack to my teenage years and for two songs in particular - Life on Mars and Starman - whose spins on the turntable were the musical highpoint of every sixth form party.
  • Abe Vigoda, forever Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather, the greatest movie ever made and that will ever be made. 'Can you get me off the hook, Tom, for old times' sake?' 'Can't do it, Sally.'
  • Maurice White, leader of Earth, Wind and Fire, whose dynamic funk tunes in the late 70s and early 80s laid the foundations for my lasting love affair with dance music.
  • Tony Warren, creator of Coronation Street, which, in its original incarnation as a gritty portrayal of Northern working-class life as opposed to a vehicle for ever-more ridiculous and sensational storylines, was for a while the best thing on telly.
  • Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, two thirds of Emerson Lake and Palmer, whose weird albums pushed the boundaries of prog rock in the 70s and inspired numerous others, including Genesis, to do the same.
  • Johan Cruyff, whose exploits for Holland and Ajax thrilled this football-mad youngster in the 70s and whose invention of 'total football' showed the world how the beautiful game really should be played.
  • Muhammad Ali, whose dramatic recapture of the world heavyweight title from George Foreman in 1974 was, along with Boycott's 100th hundred and Viren's double Olympic distance double, the sporting highlight of my childhood.
  • Gene Wilder, whose magical portrayal of Willy Wonka in the original and best film version of Roald Dahl's tale opened up a world of pure imagination that not only had my son George captivated from an early age, but his dad too.
  • Richard Adams, whose creation of Watership Down opened up another magical world for my boy and me to enjoy together. 'We go by the will of the Black Rabbit. When he calls you, you have to go.'
RIP all.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bye bye Dave, hello Theresa. Some reshuffle reflections

Originally posted on my Facebook page on the day after David Cameron stepped down as PM and Theresa May took the carving knife to his Cabinet.

1. David Cameron remains a class act. Of course, he had no alternative but to step down after accidentally leading us out of the EU, but nothing in his six-year tenure of the office of Prime Minister became him like the leaving of it. I never voted for the man, and probably never would have done, but he even had me in tears during his leaving speech outside Number Ten, with his references to his family followed by the group hug on the doorstep. It was a reminder that behind all the political drama of recent weeks was a very human story about a family suddenly forced to leave their "lovely" home - in little Florence's case, the only one she had ever known.

2. It is good to see that, despite the post-factual, "we've had enough of experts" spasm of the Brexit vote, experience remains a prized commodity in British politics and that the most experienced candidate for the Conservative leadership eventually won the day. Three of the last four Prime Ministers acceded to the top job in their 40s. Theresa May is 59 and I, for one, find it oddly reassuring that once again we have a Prime Minister and Chancellor who are both older than I am.

3. George Osborne and Michael Gove finally have their just reward for their years of plotting and backstabbing. Theirs is a deeply unpleasant little clique and it is completely understandable that Mrs May saw no place for it in her government. I just hope she doesn't come to regret her failure to abide by Michael Corleone's famous dictum - "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." Gove and Osborne will be dangerous enemies in the years to come.

4. In terms of other Cabinet departures, I am particularly pleased to see the back of John Whittingdale and Nicky Morgan. Whittingdale's constant efforts to undermine the BBC and attempts to privatise Channel 4 posed an existential threat to two great journalistic and cultural institutions. Similarly Morgan's attempt to force academisation on schools would have wrecked primary education in this country and will hopefully now be consigned to that bit of St James' Park where they can't quite get the mower.

5. Although there have been some well-deserved promotions - Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, James Brokenshire - Mrs May has at times today appeared to value loyalty over ability. There is probably a reason why Damian Green and David Lidington reached the age of 60 without previously achieving Cabinet office. Similarly the appointment of her former Home Office junior Karen Bradley to the culture gig had a whiff of the old chumocracy about it.

6. There are some obvious hospital passes for the Brexiteers Mrs May has promoted. Andrea Leadsom at DEFRA gets the job of explaining to the farmers that Brexit won't leave them better off and that the UK won't be able to pick up all the EU farm subsidies they have enjoyed for so many years. Priti Patel at International Development gets to run a department which, three years ago, she suggested should be abolished.

7. In any reshuffle there is always one bit that doesn't go to plan and this year it concerned Jeremy Hunt. It seems clear he was on his way out of the Department of Health only for rumours of his demise to prove greatly exaggerated. My guess is that Mrs May had someone else in mind for the job and that someone turned it down. Either way an opportunity has been missed to detoxify the junior doctors' dispute by moving a man who has become a hate figure.

8. In terms of reorganising Whitehall departments, Mrs May has made a good start but should have gone further. The Cabinet is far too big and ideally needs to be slimmed down to about 12-15 members. Liam Fox's new international trade role and Priti Patel's international development role should ultimately be combined, as Ms Patel has herself previously suggested. Separate Cabinet ministers for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local government are a hangover from the days when everything was run from Whitehall, and should surely be replaced by a single Department for Devolution - although I could understand if Mrs May decided that was one for another day.

9. Looking at the bigger picture, the May government's success or failure will ultimately depend on how it responds to the three key post-Brexit challenges: stablising the economy, refashoning Britain's role in Europe and the world, and preserving the Union. In terms of the first, Philip Hammond is exactly the kind of solid, dependable figure who will reassure the markets and has already announced a welcome shift away from Osbornomics by postponing the deficit reduction target indefinitely. In terms of the second, David Davis is absolutely the right person to negotiate our departure from the EU, and if anyone can refashion Britain's role in the wider world, Boris can.

10. Finally, the Union. Those who know me well know that my principal reason for voting Remain on 23 June was the fear that a Leave vote would break up the UK, and if Mrs May's words outside Number Ten on Wednesday and her decision to visit Scotland today are anything to go by, she shares that concern. The Union is indeed a precious, precious bond, but one which has been stretched to breaking point over the course of the Cameron years. If Mrs May can repair those bonds, and manage not to go down in history as the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I think that will be quite some achievement.