Friday, August 31, 2007

Diana: Thoughts and Reminiscences

Where was I when I first found out?

At my mum's house, in Hitchin, Herts. I'd gone there for the weekend to help her with the garden, but the news from Paris put paid to that. By 11am the following morning I was at my desk in the Commons helping my paper, the Newcastle Journal, put together its Diana coverage. I ended up writing a piece about how the marriage turned sour, though I'm not sure what qualified me, as political editor, to do that one.

What was my initial reaction?

I'm afraid to say my very first reaction was that MI5 must have bumped her off. Diana had become increasingly outspoken over the previous 12 months and was on the verge of becoming a political embarrassment. Of course only Richard Desmond and Mohammed al-Fayed still think this way today, but it seemed to me a logical conclusion to draw at the time.

Was it really Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell's finest hour?

Even as a Campbell-hater, I have to admit the man was awesome that week. He appeared in complete charge of the situation, to the point where he almost gave us lobby correspondents the impression that he had personally drawn up the funeral arrangements. A tour-de-force.

Did I think the Monarchy would be overthrown?

A lot of very influential people - notably Will Hutton, then the editor of the Observer - were trying to push that line, and the initial reporting of Charles Spencer's speech has to be seen in that light. But I always took the view that Diana was held in such public affection more because of her royal status than in spite of it.

Did Britain fall victim to an outbreak of mass hysteria?

It was more the case that public displays of grief became socially acceptable for the first time, though that must have seemed like hysteria to more conservative types.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Did Murdoch really save The Times?

Iain Dale visited here yesterday to leave a comment on an old post about the lack of cricket on terrestrial TV that referred en passant to the Murdoch takeover of Times Newspapers Limited in 1981. Iain's view is that the Dirty Digger saved the Times and the Sunday Times, mine is that he destroyed them. The full exchange can be read HERE.

Since the role of Murdoch in demeaning British journalism over the past 40 years is something of a pet subject of mine, I thought this was worthy of its own post. I would certainly be interested to hear others' views.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Tough on crime victims...

"Laura Norder" has leaped back to the top of the political agenda this week following the Learco Chindamo controversy and the Rhys Jones killing. Here's what I had to say in my weekend column published in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Telegraph this morning.


Every so often, an individual crime takes place in Britain that is seen as so horrendous and which provokes such a degree of public outrage that it actually shifts the political consensus.

The death of Liverpool toddler James Bulger in 1993 was one such instance. It produced some in us deep soul-searching as to what kind of country we had become, and a new emphasis on the need to mend our “broken society.”

It was shortly after this that the then Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, first displayed his infallible ability to capture the zeitgeist by coining his memorable soundbite "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."

It is arguable that the Bulger death played at least a part in Mr Blair being elected leader of the Labour Party the following year ahead of Gordon Brown, who up until then had been the senior of the two men.

A similarly seminal episode was the Dunblane Massacre, in 1995. It resulted in the Labour ban on handguns introduced after 1997 and, with the Tories having opposed the move, was a small but significant issue in the general election of that year.

Then there was the murder of the London teenager Stephen Lawrence, which led to the Macpherson Report into “institutional racism” in the Metropolitan Police and a huge change in the culture of UK policing.

Few crimes, though, have generated as much public debate and as many political repercussions as the 1995 murder of the London headteacher Philip Lawrence while trying to protect one of his young pupils.

This week, the case was dominating the political agenda again, following the judgement that Lawrence's killer, Learco Chindamo, should not be deported to Italy if, as expected, he is released on parole next year.

The Lawrence case was always one that pushed a lot of buttons. The extent of knife crime, the rise in gang culture, and the rights of victims were but three of the issues it threw up.

It gave rise to a knives amnesty at the time, and later helped lay the ground for the introduction of “victim statements” in which those most closely affected by individual crimes were allowed to address the court at the end of a trial.

But for all the Blair government’s oft-repeated hype about “putting the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system,” the system remains stacked against the victim as this week’s ruling showed.

It remains the prevailing legal view that the justice system is not about delivering the wishes of Mrs Frances Lawrence or any other victims, and that attempts to make it do so stem more from “tabloid hysteria” than ordinary common sense.

For what it’s worth, my own view of the case is that the focus on the row over the deportation of Chindamo has obscured an even more glaring injustice – the pitifully short sentence he has had to serve in view of the seriousness of the original crime.

This was also the case with Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger, who were set free under new identities several years ago.

But the fact that Chindamo has become eligible for parole after just 12 years only serves to emphasise the extent to which the deportation tribunal decision has failed Mrs Lawrence, who must now live with the thought that her husband’s killer is at large in the same city.

If life could not mean life, the system could at least have ensured that Chindamo was sent somewhere a long way away from the people whose lives he has ruined.

So much for my views – what of the law? Well, the initial blame for the ruling attached to the Human Rights Act passed by New Labour in 2000, which holds that Chindamo has a right to a family life.

His Filipino mother still lives in London, and although his father lives in Italy, he is currently in jail for throwing acid in a woman’s face and has not seen his son for many years.

But as the week has gone on, it has become clearer that the real legal culprit was not the Human Rights Act but the 2004 EU Free Movement Directive, which makes clear that Chindamo cannot be deported unless he is a serious threat to public security.

Politically, this is something of a heady cocktail, encompassing not just concerns about youth crime and gang culture but also Britain’s whole relationship with Europe at a time when the EU constitution referendum row is raising its head once again.

Little more than 48 hours after the Chindamo ruling came the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, a crime that carried more than a few overtones of the Bulger killing a few miles away on Merseyside.

It has also stirred similar emotions, with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith struggling to hold back the tears in a television interview yesterday after watching Rhys's parents talk about his murder.

Meanwhile, in a further shift away from traditional Tory concerns, David Cameron has insisted that the “broken society” would be a central theme of his party’s general election campaign.

Even before this week’s events, the youth crime issue was growing in importance as talk of that election continues to intensify. It is sure to be a key election battleground now.

It was one of Tony Blair's great political achievements in his 13 years as Labour leader to make crime a “Labour issue,” and it is still too soon to talk of it becoming a “Tory issue” again.

But simply by virtue of having been in power for ten years in which the problem of gun crime in particular has continued unabated, Labour is once again vulnerable on the issue.

The political impact of the James Bulger murder was to catapult youth crime to the top of the agenda and put Tony Blair in pole position to become Labour leader and later Prime Minister.

Fourteen years on, the combined political impact of the Chindamo ruling and the Ryan Jones killing might just be to put David Cameron back in the game.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The true story behind The Kipper and the Corpse

I have always been a huge fan of Fawlty Towers and The Kipper and the Corpse has always been one of my favourite episodes. But I never realised until I was subbing this tribute to Andrew Leeman on the national obituaries site I currently manage that the recently-deceased restaurateur was in fact the inspiration for the episode in question, and that John Cleese had named the "corpse" Leeman in his honour. You learn something new every day...

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Powell Lite

I raised a few hackles among readers of this blog a few weeks' back for daring to criticise Boris Johnson, so I was interested to read about the report by Compass on why the former Spectator editor is unfit to be Mayor of London.

Frankly, I think the Brownite think-tank was being a bit po-faced by quoting Boris's comments on driving a Ferrari against him - "the whole county of Hampshire was lying back and opening her well-bred legs to be ravished by the Italian stallion".

It may be tasteless, but most readers would probably take this comment in the light-hearted spirit in which it was meant. Racism, though, is a different matter - especially in a city as multiracial as London.

In its report, Compass described Johnson as "a type of Norman Tebbit in a clown's uniform." Perhaps a better comparison, though, would have been with Enoch Powell.

The Compass dossier, which delved back into Johnson's journalistic career as well as his more recent political utterances, reminds us that Johnson once wrote a piece in which he referred to black people as "piccaninnies with watermelon smiles."

The phrase "wide-grinning piccaninnies" was of course used by Powell in the notorious Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 which effectively ended his career in frontline politics. As such it is a word which all aspiring Tory politicians should surely avoid.

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Poor Frances Lawrence

I am coming very late in the day to this, I know, but having followed the original case quite closely back in 1995 I couldn't let the Learco Chindamo controversy pass without comment.

I don't care how much of a reformed character Chindamo has become - and as a Christian I'm a firm believer in the possibility of redemption - but the bottom line of all this is that Mrs Lawrence should not be expected to live with the thought that her husband's killer is somewhere "out there." If he could not be locked up for life as his appalling crime surely merited, then let him at least be sent somewhere a long way away from the people whose lives he has ruined.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Inheritance Tax: Tory gain

The reaction from the opposition has been predictable, but I'm afraid the Tories are right about this one. Inheritance Tax should go, or at least be radically reformed, not necessarily for all the reasons John Redwood says it should but because, thanks to the phenomenon of fiscal drag, it has basically become a regressive tax that penalises people who by no stretch of the imagination can be considered rich.

I would be amazed if David Cameron does not put today's proposal straight in the Tory election manifesto, but it makes such obvious political sense that I would also be mildly surprised if some form of it does not also end up being purloined by Labour.

At the very least, ministers ought to consider some of the alternative options to outright abolition, such as exempting the main family home from the tax, or levying it at 20p rather than 40pc, or raising the threshold to £1m, so that it reverted to its original purpose as a tax only on the very wealthy.

Chancellor Alistair Darling today said the Government was "keeping the situation under review." Expect that review to have been completed well before the next General Election.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hardly a ringing endorsement

The polls on this blog are not meant to be taken especially seriously - they are really there just to provide a bit of a talking point and to give users another way of interacting besides leaving comments. But the result of my recent survey on who should lead the Lib Dems into the next election makes interesting reading in my view.

The full result was as follows:

Sir Menzies Campbell 28%
Nick Clegg 22%
Charles Kennedy 21%
Chris Huhne 15%
None of these 11%

Given that a fair few of my readers are Tory and Labour supporters who might have voted for Sir Ming in the belief that a new Lib Dem leader might generate a recovery in the party's fortunes at their own parties' expense, this hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement. Neither does it demonstrate any clear consensus on who might replace Ming, with almost as many favouring a return to Charles Kennedy as backing leader-in-waiting Nick Clegg.

Still on the subject of the next election, a new poll is now running on when you think it will be held, within the available legal timeframe of autumn 2007 - spring 2010.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The death of TV cricket

This is the first summer since 1971 in which I have not watched a single ball being bowled live in an England Test series. It's left me feeling a bit bereft at times. In my bachelor days, sitting down with a couple of beers for a whole leisurely afternoon of ball-by-ball Test cricket was one of the great pleasures in life.

Sadly, this has not been possible since the foolish and completely counterproductive decision by the English Cricket Board to abandon terrestrial TV cricket coverage in favour of Murdoch's millions - all the more foolhardy since the decision was taken at the very moment when cricket had seemingly regained its rightful place in the national consciousness following the 2005 Ashes win.

Much as I miss watching the game, it's a price I'm prepared to pay for refusing to line the pockets of the man who has debased British culture and journalism more than any other single individual in the last 30 years.

Those now eulogising John Biffen should take note of this. For all his other many virtues, Biffen as Trade Secretary was the man who allowed Murdoch to buy The Times in 1981 and thereby emerge as the most powerful media figure in the UK.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

More Family Matters...

A few weeks back, The Guardian published this excellent retrospective looking back at 50 years of the womens' page. I have to say it puzzled me a bit at the time, as whoever put it together seemed to be under the impression that the womens' page was only 50 years old and that iconic feminist Mary Stott was the page's first editor.

In fact, as I have known since my own childhood, they were wrong on both counts. The Guardian womens page - then called Mainly Women - was started in the early 1920s and its first editor was my great aunt, Madeline Linford, who continued in the role until she was succeeded by Stott in 1953.

What was especially odd about this omission was that the Guardian had not read its own cuttings. In 1971, it published an interview with Madeline in which she was clearly identified as the founder of the page. The interview was carried out by none other than Mary Stott.

Thankfully, there is no need for me to write a letter to the Guardian pointing out its error as my redoubtable aunt, Sylvia Michaelides, has already done so. Gratifyingly, the paper's former editor, Peter Preston, has also since written a column restoring Madeline to her rightful place in the paper's history.

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Redwood and the Reverse Midas Touch

One of the very best books ever published about the decline and fall of the Tories between 1992 and 1997 was Guilty Men, written by Hywel Williams who was John Redwood's special adviser at the Welsh Office between 1993 and his resignation to challlenge for the Tory leadership in 1995.

Despite that previous working relationship, or perhaps even because of it, the book is not written from an especially pro- or anti-Redwood perspective. But what it does demonstrate is that most of the political enterprises with which the Wokingham MP has been associated have ended in failure.

I have met Redwood a few times, notably when I was doing the Lobby job for the South Wales Echo in the mid-90s, and while he is clearly an intensely intellectual person who finds it hard to descend to the level of ordinary mortals, the overall impression one comes away with is of a fairly decent human being.

But for all his decency and for all the genuineness of his convictions, Redwood has throughout his political career demonstrated the Reverse Midas Touch, ie everything he touches turns to shit.

Redwood's public reputation has never really recovered from that period in the early 1990s when he became the Tony Benn figure to John Major's Harold Wilson - an ideological maverick who behaved as if collective Cabinet responsibility did not apply to him, used left-leaning Wales as a test-bed for loony-right policies, and finally launched an opportunistic challenge for the leadership.

Call it being wise after the event, but I knew instinctively that Ken Clarke's 1997 leadership bid was doomed the minute he teamed up with Redwood in an attempt to block William Hague. Most Tory MPs thought it was more important to stop Redwood becoming Shadow Chancellor than to stop an untried and untested 36-year-old being handed the poisoned chalice of the Tory leadership at a time when Tony Blair was carrying all before him.

Hague, to his credit, realised that Redwood reminded the voters of the worst aspects of the Major years and sacked him from the Shadow Cabinet after a year, although his decision to replace him as Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary with the business guru turned failed politician Archie Norman was scarcely one of his most inspired appointments.

So, at a time when David Cameron as leader is trying to undo all the damage of that baleful period and reposition the Conservatives on the political centre ground, his decision to hand Redwoood the task of presiding over a policy review on business taxation and regulation policy has to go down as yet another strategic blunder.

There may be merit in some of his proposals. Much health and safety legislation, for instance, is as burdensome and annoying to the customer as it undoubtedly is for the businesses themselves.

On the other hand, making it easier for firms to make people redundant is absolutely the last thing we need in a country riven by job insecurity - the biggest single reason, in my view, why in spite of our increased prosperity, we are generally much less happy than we were 30 years ago when the British economy was regarded as a basket-case.

But that is not really the point. The point is that someone who is seen by the electorate as emblematic of Toryism's darkest hour and who was presumed politically dead and buried, has popped up wraith-like to remind them of exactly why they rejected the party in the first place.

The Tories will not like the comparison - but it is as if Neil Kinnock, at the start of his crusade to modernise the Labour Party in the mid-80s and wrest control from the loony left, had asked Benn to chair a review of party policy. The idea is as laughable as it is preposterous.

But the controversy over Redwood's tax cutting plans is symptomatic of a wider problem for Mr Cameron, in that, in contrast to New Labour during the 1994-97 period, the policy review process he has initiated is not under the control of the leadership.

This is the second one in succession, following Iain Duncan Smith's report on social policy which recommended restoring marriage to the heart of the tax system, which has presented the Tories as retreating into a right-wing comfort zone at a time when Gordon Brown is determined to drive them off the centre-ground.

Bizarrely, Cameron seems to view the job of chairing policy reviews as some sort of long-service reward for party grandees and figures from the past such as Redwood, IDS and Clarke rather than acting as central drivers of the party's modernisation programme.

He now needs to do two things. Firstly, ensure that all future such reviews come under the direct control of his office, and secondly, ensure that John Redwood and all other vestiges of the failed Major era are finally put out to grass.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Choose a Bright Morning, Clara

Yesterday dawned brilliantly bright and sunny up here in Derbyshire, a suitably auspicious day for the arrival of Clara Eloise Linford at 9.23am. She weighed 6lb 9oz - a little smaller than her brother George - and of course she is beautiful.

"Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart." Psalm 37, v4

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The great election conundrum

I've left a few comments here and there on other people's blogs with regard to the ongoing debate over whether Gordon Brown will call a snap autumn election, but not so far specifically blogged on it myself.

So what's my view? Well, at the risk of making an almighty arse of myself if El Gordo announces he's going to the country tomorrow, I don't think an election this year is in any way likely, for two main reasons.

First, Labour has a healthy majority of 66. Given that the polls are still reasonably close and the fact that boundary changes at the next election are likely to benefit the Tories by 20-30 seats, I cannot see why Gordon would want to hold an election which might cut that majority before one needed to held.

Even if he did achieve a mandate of his own, it would hardly look like a great victory if he was returned with a smaller majority than Tony Blair - or even worse, forced into a coalition deal with his pal Ming Campbell.

Secondly, and more fundamentally though, I believe that to succumb to the temptation to hold an election at this time could do irreparable damage to the "Brown brand."

In my view, his whole political appeal rests on him being seen by the public as a man of strong principle and serious purpose - not one who is merely looking to capitalise on what is almost certainly a temporary period of turmoil for David Cameron's Tories.

A snap election would also demonstrate a complete lack of faith in his own ability to sustain the "Brown bounce" - or at least the confidence and trust of the electorate - beyond some vaguely defined honeymoon period.

By next June, Brown will have had a year in which to demonstrate his seriousness of purpose, with hopefully some solid achievements behind him. That will be the time, in my view, to start putting his party in election mode.

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I'm truly humbled...

Mike Smithson is in my view the best and most influential political blogger in the land (see previous post.) So I was hugely honoured to receive this nomination for Mr Dale's poll.

It's particularly gratifying in view of the fact that I've found it hard to post as often as I would like over recent months due to other commitments. But like Paddy McAloon* I have tried to maintain some "quality control" and I'm genuinely humbled that someone of Mike's stature should recognise this.

Meanwhile...two narrow near-misses in the Witanagemot Club Political Blogging Awards voted for by bloggers who support the establishment of an English Parliament.

In an encouraging sign that this blog has so far managed to avoid pigeonholing, it was voted both the 2nd best Labour-supporting blog behind Kerron Cross, and the 2nd best centre-ground blog, behind (somewhat bizarrely) Iain Dale.

* The guy out of Prefab Sprout who wrote about four double-albums' worth of material in the 1990s and didn't release any of it because he thought it wasn't up to the standard of their previous work.

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