Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Is Homer still relevant?

Lance Knobel's appreciation for I F Stone made me think more about the importance of Classical studies. I'm no classicist, but I do love reading Classics, and to this extent I differ greatly with Charles Clarke MP.

But can we learn anything from Homer today? Well, here's an attempt to supply an answer.

It is the dawn of recorded history. The Americans are camped in the strange land of Iraq beside the toppled statues of Tikrit. They call a grand assembly to consider whether now to attack another country. One common man, by the name of Howard Dean, stands up and makes a commotion...

“Son of George, with what art thou now again discontent, or what lack is thine? Filled is thy house with power, and many donations are in thy coffers, chosen spoils that Business gives thee first of all, whensoe'er you take a citadel. Or dost thou still want oil also, which some man of the Bradley riding Yankees shall bring thee out of Iraq as a ransom for your taxcuts, which I haply have reviled? Or is it some young girl for thee to know in love, whom thou wilt keep apart for thyself (though that was more your predecessors style, in fairness)?

Nay, it beseemeth not one that is their captain to bring to ill the sons of the revolution. Soft fools! base things of shame, ye women of America, men no more, homeward let us go with our ships, and leave this fellow here in the land of I-raq to digest his prizes, that so he may learn whether in us too there is aught of aid for him or no--for him that hath now done dishonour to Tony Blair, a man better far than he; for he is taking away, and keeping his prizes by his own arrogant act. Of a surety there is naught of wrath in the heart of Tony Blair; nay, he heedeth not at all; else, son of George , wouldest thou now work insolence for the last time.”

So spake Howard Dean, railing at Bush, shepherd of the host. But quickly to his side came goodly Rove, and with an angry glance from beneath his brows, chid him with harsh words, saying:“Dean of reckless speech, clear-voiced talker though thou art, refrain thee, and be not minded to strive singly against kings. For I deem that there is no viler mortal than thou amongst all those that would o’erthrow the son of George . "

Wherefore 'twere well thou shouldst not take the name of Bush in thy mouth as thou protest, to cast reproaches upon him, and to call for home-going. In no wise do we know what is a known known, a known unknown or a unknown unknown, whether it be for good or ill that we sons of the revolution shall return. Wherefore dost thou now continually utter revilings against George's son, Bush, shepherd of the host, for Business give him gifts full many; whereas thou pratest on with railings. "

But I will speak out to thee, and this word shall verily be brought to pass: if I find thee again playing the fool, even as now thou dost, then may the head of Rove abide no more in the West Wing, nor may I any more be called the son of Attwater, if I take thee not, and strip off thy raiment, thy cloak, and thy tunic that cover thy nakedness, and for thyself send thee wailing to Vermont, beaten forth from the place of gathering with shameful blows. So spake Rove, and with his RNC staff smote Dean’s back and shoulders”

(original translation of the Iliad gobbet in question to be found here...)

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Read Harry Hatchet today.

Harry has an article from John Lloyd (who resigned from the New Statesman over it's anti-war coverage) which originally only appeared in Italy. Somehow, he managed to get permission to publish the article on his site. A wise decision, as I think it is about the most masterful summation of the Left-Liberal pro-intervention position I have read. it is not easy reading fdor any of us, for it doesn't shrink from examining consequences, but I believe it is a truly important article and deserves to be read by any left of centre person wondering why all this has happened and what should happen next. Damn, I wish I'd seen it first!

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Why is the Daily Telegraph plugging Oliver Letwin?

Today's Daily Telegraph contains an interesting op-ed peice by Daniel Johnson plugging Oliver Letwin.

The core of the piece goes as follows.

"Yet Letwin is a true British Conservative: he values our constitution, Christian through and through, because it has preserved our liberties for centuries. Not only the liberties of Christians, either: Jews, Muslims and others, too, prefer the status quo."

Mr Johnson has noted in the previous paragraph that Oliver Letwin is a Jewish atheist.

Now why would such an article appear in April?

I may be entering the wilder shores of conspiracy here, but I am beginning to suspect that the Daily Telegraph (The paper that made IDS's leadership bid by deciding to tear Portillo to pieces) is preparing itself for the end of the quiet man.

Thak this rather odd article today. it starts off musing about baghdad, then takes and abrupt right turn to the prospects for the local elections and thence to a paen to Mr Letwin.

"Government sources try to discount what will probably be a modest Tory success in next month's council elections, while Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo contrive to pour cold water on their party's recovery by letting it be known that they are, once again, an item. Normal disservice, in other words, has been resumed.

How refreshing, therefore, to be able to mention one political thinker who is capable of reflecting on what the present crisis means for our country. "

Notably, not Mr Smith.

If, and as with everything I seem to write predictively, it is a big if, The Tories get less than 300 gains in May, loses seats in Scotland and Wales, and by general consent appear to be flatlining, the Tories will fall into a renewed bout of faction fighting. Portillo will not be a candidate. Clarke is anathema, The Tories surely can't pick another bastion of the Troy right. So who would the Telegraph want to puff if it were to decide that IDS was a busted flush? Letwin?

It's an intriguing possibility. If the Telegraph, in magisterial mode, were to call on IDS to resign in the light of electoral failure, that would almost certainly trigger the no-confidence motion. The Clarke, Portillo and Davis factions would undoubtedly get the required 50% (IDS never had 50% support amongst MP's to begin with, remember) and if an election was trggered, Letwin, the thoughtful, loyal shadow minister, freed from his reluctance to stand by the magnitude of the crisis, might just pick up enough loyalists, pragmatists and Portilloites to win the parliamentary election.

But, what I hear you cry, about the members election? Well, lets say it's Letwin against Clarke, or less likely Letwin against Davis. Letwin gets good media (the commentariat luuuuurve him), some polls saying he's voter friendly, and the boosting of the Daily Telegraph, well, I think he could nick it.

If it never happens, mere harmless speculation. If it does, I am a seer and a visionary and demand credit.

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The GMB has a new leader..

The results of the GMB General Secretary election are out today. (Note for foriegners and those ignorant of Union politics- the GMB is one of Britains largest trade unions and is one of the Labour party's key funders, sources of candidates and has a big role in policy development.Kevin Curran has been elected to succeed John Edmonds. Curran is regional secretary of the GMB in the North-East and is regarded as the more moderate of the two contenders. Having said that, he secured his place in the leadership election by promising to "review" political links. However, I suspect that the review will conclude that there is an important role for funding the Labour Party (but perhaps with a few caveats about siphoning a share for the GMB's own causes). I suspect that No 10 is happier with this result than if Paul Kenney had won. Tony Blair went out of his way to praise Kevin Curran at his last visit to the GMB conference, Curran is tied into to the North-East Labour Party incredibly tightly, and is a smooth political operator.

Having said all that, frankly, as far as the Labour leadership is concerned, anything will be a relief after the Edmonds years.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

The Big Read vote…

I know I’m late on this, but think of my late arrival on the Blogger’s favourite books bandwagon as a tribute to William Hague. and I think it is on topic. I am trying to influence the direction of an election for my own gratification.

So I went to the BBC site, and apparently I am supposed to choose my “best-loved book”. Not that I regard “best loved” as anti-intellectual tosh which means that the short-list will be full of semi-literate orcs and trolls, painfully laboured metaphors for the Christian God and characters with far too many consonants for their own good.

On the other hand, I am something of a bookworm, and nothing appeals to a bookworm more than the opportunity to show off your intellectual brilliance. Oh, you pitiful fools, our choices say. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair (look. I’m not going to be the only commentator in the world to quote Ozymandias, you know).

So In order to get maximum bragging rights ut of this competition, rather than nominate merely one book, I shall take my cue from the Bafta’s and divide my nominations into categories

Best Childrens/Teens Introduction to politics: A tough category, this, as politics in children’s form tends to be about ishoos. Indeed it sometimes seems that one cannot be a child without confronting the political implications of racism/sexism/not making the football team/ having only one parent/ getting your period. All very laudable, but not likely to appeal to the modern day William Hague, reduced to looking up Hansard late at night on the interwebworldthing.

So my nomination goes to Terry Pratchett’s Lord Vetinari, and the Discworld series generally. Lord Vetinari is a combination of Machiavelli, Borgia, Roosevelt and Mayor Daley. In a world full of magic, dragons, and elephants on turtles, the one character no-one wants to cross is a politicians.. and he’s kind of a good guy too. For example, here is Vetinari on the Great Game.

“Boggis: "Why are our people going out [to the island]?"
Vetinari: "Because they are showing a brisk pioneering spirit and seeking wealth and ... additional wealth in a new land."
Downey: "What's in it for the Klatchians?"
Vetinari: "Oh, they've gone out there because they are a bunch of unprincipled opportunists always ready to grab something for nothing."
Burleigh: "A masterful summation, if I may say so, my lord."
Vetinari: "Oh, I do beg your pardon. I seem to have read those last two sentences in the wrong order”

Best Foreign Political Novel: All the Kings Men: Robert Penn Warren . The book that inspired Primary Colours. It tells the story of a Southern Governor in the great depression. It is the story of the conflict between pragmatism and idealism and how one can corrupt the other. A combination of Julius Caesar, Bertold Brecht, Benito Mussolini and Huey Long biopic it is a masterful novel, an in depth portrait of the struggles even ignoble politicians face and a meditation on the price of politics.

Best British Political Novel: The way we live now; Anthony Trollope. Call it the John Major tribute award. This beats out North and South, the Ragged Trousered philanthropists and a host of other Victorian state of the nation novels. It's the angriest, the most vicious, the most sweeping and the least dogmantic. so it wins. Also, I didn't all my books to be about left wing politics. I'm trying to show a degree of intellectual flexibility here. Also, what’s gone wrong with British political fiction? I mean, when I was drawing up my lists, The only really outstanding British political novel I could think of from the post –war period were A Very British Coup ansd C P snow's Corridors of Power. (I enjoyed House of Cards as much as the next man, but it was not a great novel, really, was it?)

Best Foreign Political Biography/History: Robert A Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson. It’s over 2500 pages long, We’re not even up to the Vice-Presidency. It’s too hard on its subject. (Read Robert A Dallek’s seminal work as a corrective), but Lyndon Johnson appears magnified and human in this engrossing political biography, which is as much an education in American Politics as biography. reportedly the favourite books of William Hague and Gordon Brown- which shows both how much they love politics and why they are not Prime Minister. Tony Blair Chose Ivanhoe for Desert Island discs, which indicates why he is.

Best British Political History/Biography: Aneurin Bevan: Unashamedly a hagiography, a vindication. It needs to be seen as such. A wonderful book though, that brings the life and passion of politics into relief. One of the books that made me fall in love with the practice, as well as the purpose of politics.

Lifetime Achievment award bestowed just because I like it so much: I F Stone. The Trial of Socrates. The Backstory first. Longtime campaigning journalist retires from his personal weekly newsmagaizing (an ur-blog?) at the age of 70. Decides to write about liberty and free speech in America. Decides can't understand American constitution without understanding the ancient Athenians. Learns Greek. Become enamoured by ancient Athens. cannot reconcile their love of debate with Trial and execution of Socrates. Write book in attempt to understand the Athenian rationale for killing the great philosopher. Produces wonderful, mesmerising work on how Socrates may have appeared to the Athenians. Still feels the Athenians did a terrible thing, but can at least see the rationale for it. Should be read by all would be philosopher-kings, and by all of us who tend to trust what our sources tell us without thinking too carefully about the context they operate in.

There you go. I doubt one of them will make the top ten (actually Pratchett undoubtedly will, where he will be joined by potter et al, and a generation ago, would be nestling alongside Just William, Bunter et al). Anyway. Strike a blow for politics. Go and read one, and try and imagine that we live in aa world where the judgements of political anoraks are listened to as much in leterature as they are in politics itself.

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Of polls and predictions

The polling industry is producing a welter of polls at the moment. It's hard for a chap to keep up.

Let us digest. We already know that an ICM poll for the No campaign puts "No" at 68% of the vote. Yesterday, we discussed the Baghdad Bounce poll of the weekend, which put Labour on 40% and the Tories down 5 on 29%. Now another Poll in the Times today puts Labour on 41% , Tories on 29%.

However, as you clever folks no doubt realise, national claimed vote share is an almost meaningless indicator for results. Some lazy voters will not bother to vote on May the 1st, Simply put, opposition voters are generally more motivated to vote (or government suppoters too dissatisfied). The Times poll does some statistical hocus pocus to try and replicate that impact, but frankly, they're just making it up. Any attempt to estimate abstentions is a guesstimate. For what it's worth, your humble correspondant thinks the Tories should just edge out the national vote share by 2 or 3% and will propbably gain enough seats for IDS to declare victory (I define the lower limit here as 200) depending on your point of view, this will be a) a clear sign that the Tories are flatlining and radical change is needed, or b) A clear signal that what is needed is unity, discipline and no more loose talk after this resounding endorsement.

As interestingly, Labour appears to have recovered in Scotland as much as in the rest of the UK. This poll shows Labour holding a clear lead over the SNP, with Liberal and SSP support dropping. It appears to be part of a trend, rather than a rogue poll, as a Sunday Mail poll pointed in the same direction. The drive behind Labour's recovery seems be a combination of two factors. Labour running a strong, if negative campaign on the dangers of "divorce", a warning given credibility by the inevitable focus on SNP policy after their recent surge, combined with an element of the post war political shift.

This poll (and how those words must be emphasised) would mean that Labour and the SNP both gain seats, with the Tories and the LD's lose out. A Labour/LD coaliton would have a working majority.

However, Scottish Labour campaigners should not be celbrating just yet. Politics is getting faster and faster. There are two weeks to go before the elections. what a Baghdad Bounce gives, a Syrian wobble could yet take away.

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Monday, April 14, 2003

The Sun and the Euro....

Trevor Kavanagh is the political editor of the Sun. As such he is one of the most powerful journailsts in British politics. Not only this, but he is widely regarded as one of the most astute political journalists in Britain. When you combine this with the salient facts about the Sun (that it is Britains biggest Newspaper, and resolutely some might say hysterically Anti-Euro) it is clear that the Sun's splash today, that Blair is ready to go for broke on the Euro is highly significant. Kavanagh is unlikely to go for an unsourced punt on a story like this. Indeed the last time I can recall the Sun running a story like this, with no quotes, no sources, nothing, was when it exclusively revealed that the Election would be held on May 1st 2001. It was subsequently a commonplace in political circles that Number 10 had leaked the story (and is one of the many reasons that Piers Morgan at the Mirror, loathes Blair).

The story is not definite. It uses Peter Mandelson as a cover for the story, quoting his weekend work on the importance of going into the Euro as a leaping off point for a broader assertion that "TONY Blair will use his huge popularity in the months after Gulf War II in a bid to axe the Pound and join the euro. He is even prepared to SACK Chancellor Gordon Brown if he obstructs the move."

So how to read this. First off, I simply don;t believe that a journalist of the caliber of Kavanagh would go so hard on a story like this on the basis of a briefing from Peter Mandelson, unless there was a corrobaration from someone in Number 10.

Now, that isn't to say that the story is correct. We have to look at it through the prism on the wrestling deadlock between the es and No groups i government (or more accurately, between the Yes and the Not Yet groups).

For a while now, the conventional wisdom has been that the Not Yet forces, bolstered by the continuing hints from Brown that he is about to deliver a "No" verdict. What is interesting about the story is that it does not try to suggest that any of the threats bandied about would be put into effect if Brown said No in June. Indeed, the relevant paragraphs are "Now Mr Blair has decided he wants a vote before the next election, it is a matter of when, not if, a poll is staged. The Chancellor is not anti-euro but does not want to hand the UK economy to Brussels until the European Central Bank is reformed." and a quote from Mandelson in which he says “Most economic analysts believe we will be ready to go into the single currency in about two years if we take the decision some time over the next 12 months.”

Let's assume that Gordon Brown delivers a not yet verdict in May/June as the Sunday Telegraph confidently asserted yesterday. One of the likely consequences would be an implosion in the yes campaign camp. The Yes campaign has been funded, staffed, organised and built around a Yes, sometime this parliament. Funders have frequently warned about their on-going commitment to this cause if the government appears to be less than wholehearted in it's desire for entry. Secondly, it would appear a huge political defeat for those ministers most supportive of Euro entry.

So, you can begin to see some incentive for the "Yes" forces to try and manage the perspective in which we see a "not yet" verdict. If we see it as an acceptance that there will be no referendum this parliament, the political repurcussions are huge. However, if we see it merely as a slight delay on the road to an inevitable referendum, then it becomes a little easier for the Yes forces to keep their troops, funders and supporters motivated and ready to go.

To my (overly cynical) mind at least, this story is all about making a May/June "Not Yet" manageable. It asserts the PM;s desire for a referendum "this parliament". It indicates that he is willing to take political risks for the cause and it also enusres that it puts the PM at the head of the "yes" forces, rather than as a semi-neutral arbiter. As such, perhaps a smart move.

However, this strategy has it's risks also. I can;t imagine Gordon Brown and his friends read this stroy with pleasure and amusement. To them, it must have seemed like someone close to No 10 piling on their man as a convienient target. Even the hints about the leadership will annoy, because it makes the Prime Ministership, which some say Brown feels entitled to, a bauble to be granted for good behaviour.

The No 10 reaction to the stroy is interesting too. In the Lobby briefing today, the Prime Ministers official spokesman (PMOS- Tom Kelly or Godric Smith- not Alistair Campbell) said

"These stories were obviously fed by the people who fed them, not the people who knew what was going on or who were involved in the detailed discussions. Asked if he was implying that Peter Mandelson did not know what was going on, the PMOS said that he was referring to the speculative reports published in this morning's papers, not to interviews"

Which doesn't exactly deny that somebody fed them. I think this story is intended to do two things- first, manage the reaction to any Not Yet verdict, and second, to put pressure on Brown to say yes as soon as possible after that.

Which just leaves two interesting questions. Why now, and why to the Sun?

Well, the Why now question is all based on the polls. The Times reports today on a Baghdad bounce. (and you think that a poll for News international wouldn;t be known to the Sun and No 10 yesterday?). Now this "bounce" is really only a slightly exageratted return to the staus quo ante. Which for Labour, can;t be too delighting, as the post Baghdad slump will probably take them back to slightly below where they were before- but I;m quibling. It;s much worse for the Tories, still marooned on 29.). So, if there was going to be any briefing on capitalising about success, it has to happen now. Second, another poll, by ICM for the No-Euro campaign, confirms what most of us suspected, that opinion is hardening against the Euro with 68% saying they would vote No today.(hardening is probably the wrong word- I'm not sure that opinion is hard). So the pro-Euro forces deserately need momentum.

Why the Sun? Simple. If you want to send a subtle message, use a Broadsheet. If you want to make a big bold, screaming headlines statement, use the biggest newpaper in the country. Using the Sun is all about sending a statment of intent.

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Et tu, Yasmin?

You can always ely on a news commentator to apply a classical reference to support their case. For example Yasmin Alibhai-Brown invoke Julius Caesar to support her doubts over the welcome Iraqi's were giving US and UK forces:

"In 1970, I was on the streets of Kampala with hundreds of thousands of others screaming and dancing for joy the day Idi Amin came into power, placed there by the US, the UK and Israel. Mobs are not dependable nor good at foresight when momentous changes take place. Go re-read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar"

Well quite. For example, an Independent journalist with the initials YAB demonstrated how out of control the mob can get when she said:

"I am burning with fury; I cannot watch any of the coverage; I refused appearances on two broadcasts discussing the campaign. I didn't go on the London march at the weekend because I might easily have thrown stones or placards or myself on to the road."

PS: I have a lot of stuff to write about today's Sun/Euro coverage, but it shall have to wait until the evening...

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