Sunday, September 28, 2008

One Party Britain

From today's Observer:

Senior Blairites could be offered jobs under a David Cameron government in the 'national interest', a leading Tory shadow cabinet minister reveals today, in a bid to poach some of Labour's brightest talents and split the party.
Michael Gove (pictured above), the shadow children's secretary, singled out Schools Minister Lord Adonis, but also warmly praised current cabinet ministers James Purnell and the 'outstanding' Hazel Blears.

'I have yet to find a speech of Andrew's outlining policies that I disagree with,' Gove said, adding that, even when Adonis issues press releases attacking him, 'I have the grim feeling I am reading something that has been written for him'.
He also identified common ground with Purnell: 'He, like me, is a strong believer in an interventionist foreign policy: not even everyone within New Labour and certainly not everyone in the Conservative camp [is].' Blears, he said, was unfairly underrated by her own side - 'the fact that she came bottom [for deputy leadership] tells you all you need to know about the Labour party'.

So there we have it- vote Conservative at the next general election, because you're sick to death of Hazel Blears, James Purnell and the other Blairites- and you could still get them anyway. Isn't our democracy wonderful!

As I wrote in the American Conservative back in November:

Britain's two main parties- the only two who, thanks to our first past the post electoral system, have a realistic chance of winning a general election, have converged to such an extent that their policies on the major issues of the day are virtually indistinguishable.

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with consensus politics, if the consensus genuinely represents the view of the majority. But as the Guardian's Seumas Milne has observed, what is described as the 'centre ground' today in fact reflects not the dominant views not of the people, but of the political, media and corporate establishment. What percentage of the public support a neo-conservative foreign policy? How many people believe that allowing 'market forces' to govern every aspect of our lives, represents the best way to order our society?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The American Revolution

"There is a French revolutionary air in America these days, with bankers playing the part of the aristocracy. Turn on the radio or open a newspaper and the bile comes out. Michael Daly, a columnist for the New York Daily News, yesterday wrote about 'Wall Street subslime'. Congressmen say calls to their offices are opposed to any bail-out of bankers by a factor of 100-1. Even Warren Buffett, the wise old man of American capitalism, is coming under suspicion from ordinary American voters. They point out that he seized on the chaos to make investments, notably $5bn in Goldman Sachs, which now depend for their very success on a massive bail-out". writes Philip Delves Broughton, in the Daily Mail.

America certainly is at a turning point in its history. It is an obscenity that a $700bn bail out of the greedy bankers is even being proposed- and it will be even more of an obscenity to ordinary, hard-working American taxpayers if the Bush plan does go through.

It's time for American to heed the words of one of their greatest Presidents- Thomas Jefferson:

I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale.

Do we put the interests of greedy, amoral capitalists, before the interests of ordinary hard-working American taxpayers? Its 1% of the population against 99% and if the 1% do prevail, we can't call it democracy.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Belgium faces historic break up- so will Britain be next?

Here's my article on the political crisis in Belgium- and why it could have wider repercussions-from The Mail on Sunday.

Crisis, what crisis? As I sip coffee in a Brussels cafe, it's difficult to imagine that I am in the capital of a country facing the worst political crisis in its 169-year history.

For eight weeks, Belgium has been without a government after Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned.

The latest impasse comes just four months after Belgium ended a nine-month period without a government, following an inconclusive general election result in June 2007.

Despite many negotiations, and the intervention of King Albert himself, Belgium's political parties have found it impossible to agree on the formation of a new administration.

Now it seems the future of Belgium is at stake. An increasingly vociferous Flemish nationalist movement is calling for the country to separate.

Opinion polls show an increasing number of Belgians believe separation is the only way the political stalemate will end.

If Belgium does separate, it is a move that will have repercussions not only for the country's 10.5million people, but for the rest of Europe, including Britain.

Belgium is a country divided by language: the Flemish, which make up 58 per cent of the population, have Dutch (or Flemish) as their native tongue, while the Walloons speak French. There is also a small minority of German speakers in the far east of the country.

Historically, the French-speakers in Wallonia, in the south of the country, have held the upper hand. For the first 60 years of the country's existence, French was the official language and Wallonia, the centre of Belgium's mining industry, was by far the most prosperous part of the country.

But that all changed when recession hit Wallonia in the Eighties. While the region is stagnating, Flemish-speaking Flanders is booming - tourists flock to its wonderfully preserved cities such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, and the area is home to many multinationals.

Greater economic prosperity has fuelled Flemish demands for greater autonomy - and even separation. In 1980, the Belgian constitution was redrawn, giving more autonomy to the Flemish north, the Walloon south and the bilingual capital, Brussels.
But the devolution of power, far from assuaging separatist demands, has only increased them - a lesson clearly not learnt by New Labour which pushed ahead with devolution for Scotland and Wales, believing it would strengthen Britain.

The Right-wing, anti-immigration and pro-separatist Flemish Party Vlaams Belang, denounced as fascist by opponents, has increased its share of the vote in every election since 1987. In 2007 it won 17 out of the 150 seats in the Belgian parliament.

Although Vlaams Belang's hardline stance is not shared by a majority of the population in Flanders, there is nevertheless widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

'If there are 1,050 speed cameras in Belgium, then there are 1,000 in Flanders and 50in Walloon. And the money from the penalties is split up 50/50. OK, that's a bit exaggerated, but not far from the truth,' says Ben Thys, a Flemish businessman.
Flemish subsidies to the south are more than 3.3 billion euros a year. 'We are paying for the Walloons not to work,' says cafe owner Guy Wauters. 'Taxes are high because of this. The situation is simply not fair.'

More than 60 per cent of people in Flanders say they would like to see Belgium stay together - but only if the Walloons make concessions. And as the disagreements intensify, a growing number of Walloons think Belgium's days are numbered.

Rivalry between Flemish and French-speaking communities have always existed.
Only one per cent of marriages cross the linguistic divide. Two years ago a scandal erupted when Sophie Pecriaux, an MP from Wallonia, was found to be having an affair with Hendrik Daems, a Flemish politician.

If Belgium does separate, the consequences will be felt across Europe. If Flanders and Wallonia can be independent countries, why not Scotland and Wales? The SNP, the ruling party in the Scottish Assembly, has pledged that Scots will have the chance to vote in a 2010 referendum on whether to break away from the UK.

The disappearance of Belgium would also be a body blow to the EU and its dream of closer integration.

Brussels is the headquarters of the EU, and Belgium has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of monetary and political union. Yet many would say the EU has also contributed to the political crisis in Belgium.

The fact that newly independent countries can find a ready-made home in the EU makes independence much more attractive than might otherwise be the case.

Many people sneer about Belgium (usually along the line of 'name a famous Belgian'), but the country has much to be proud of - its ultra-reliable public transport system puts Britain's to shame, and the health service is highly regarded.

In the event of a divorce, what to do with these excellent services? And how would Brussels be carved up between the rival groups?

This issue could be why Belgium may yet pull through. 'I think we will stay together but in a new confederation, with Flanders and Wallonia having more control over their own economies,' says Ben Thys.

The question is: can people from different linguistic and cultural groups live together in one country? If not, then will Europe, including the UK, break up into succession of ethnically-based micro-states?

'I never could see the point of Belgium,' the wit Clement Freud once said. But the 'point of Belgium' will be most apparent if it goes.

Thank You, George W. Bush

Not a line I thought I'd ever write.

And I'm sure Jonathan Steele didn't think he'd ever write it either.

But in these circumstances, I think its justified.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Corrupting Influence

Somalia is 180th out of 180. Iraq is second from bottom. Haiti fourth from bottom. And Afghanistan lies in 176th place.

No, it’s not the FIFA world rankings- but the 2008 Corruption Perception Index, published by the Berlin-based Transparency International.All the countries above have one thing in common: they’ve all experienced ‘interventions’ in one way or another, in recent years by the US. Surely something for supporters of US interventions in the affairs of other sovereign states to ponder.

The other revealing thing about the survey is the countries at the top. Among the top fifteen least corrupt nations in the world are Norway, Austria, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden- and- at number one- Denmark. All are countries with a relatively small gap between rich and poor- in fact Denmark and Norway are among the most egalitarian societies on this planet. The message is clear: if you operate a mixed economy with progressive taxation and a welfare state you are much less likely to have a corrupt society.

As to Britain- well - turbo-capitalism is taking its toll. We’ve fallen four places in the ratings, to 16th, with Transparency International reporting “The weakening performance of some wealthy countries… casts a further critical light on government commitment to rein in the questionable methods of their companies in acquiring and managing overseas business”. The more openly capitalistic Britain has become, the more corrupt we have become too. If we do want to climb in the top ten, and reduce corruption, then have to return to the sort of progressive economic policies we followed back in the 1960s and 70s.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dirk Bogarde: The Dark Side of Britain's First Screen Heart-Throb

This article of mine on the late British actor Dirk Bogarde (pictured above) appears in the Daily Express.

With his good looks, easy charm and clean-cut image, he was the archetypal leading man of Fifties British cinema but off-screen Dirk Bogarde was a very different man from the characters he invariably portrayed.

While in films, the actor known as ‘The Matinee Idol of the Odeon’ played the romantic lead, in real life Bogarde was a homosexual, who concealed his true sexuality from his adoring female public, even after homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence.

When his acting career declining in the 1970s, Bogarde re-invented himself as a successful writer- penning award winning autobiographical volumes, novels and book reviews. But again, all was not what it first appeared. His books helped foster the image of a well-mannered, cultivated and likeable man. The real Bogarde however was waspish, foul-mouthed and incredibly snobbish.

Bogarde resented the rise of working class actors such as Michael Caine and Albert Finney in the 1960s. He said of Caine: “he has to have the ugliest voice in the business… and pop eyes.” He railed against the “lower orders” and what he saw as their increasing influence. “I watch that filthy Telly to get into the feel of things. And the only feel I get is one of frustration and futility; and hatred against the lower orders who demand mediocraty (sic) and get it.” Fellow actor John Fraser recalls Bogarde telling him how, when he was a lonely young actor in London, he would invite studios assistants round to his flat for a meal. “One day I looked round at all these insignificant people with whom I was sharing my precious, precious leisure- and I thought’ If you’re going to be a Film Star, ducky, you better start behaving like one .Get yourself some proper friends”.

As his private correspondence, published in a new book, testifies, the misanthropic Bogarde rarely had a good word to say about anybody, or anything. The Cannes Film Festival was “a sort of nightmare as usual. A record crowd of foul people”. Holland, where he filmed ‘A Bridge too Far’, was “hell”. “Apart from the van Gogh’s, Rembrandts and the Vermeers, it is all a lot of crappy horror”. In a letter to the writer Penelope Mortimer he boasted how he had ditched his old friends. “I have dropped them all, Deliberately and without giving them any real reason. Don’t want ‘em. Useless. They drain me“.

But there was one person whom Bogarde did have a lot of time for: himself. “I am very fond of me” he wrote. “I get on with me. I make me laugh”.

This extremely complex and difficult man was born in 1921 in London of mixed Flemish, Dutch and Scottish descent. His father, Ulric van den Bogaerde, was the art editor of the Times, and his mother was a former actress. In 1941 Bogarde cut short his fledging acting career and joined the Army, and rose to the rank of Major in World War Two. In April 1945, he claimed he was one of the first Allied officers to reach the notorious Belsen concentration camp, an experience he found it difficult to speak about for many years afterwards.

Bogarde’s wartime experiences also made him a strong supporter of euthanasia. "My views were formulated as a 24-year-old officer in Normandy“ he wrote. During the war I saw more wounded men being 'taken care of' than I saw being rescued. they were pumping blood or whatever; they were in such a wreck, the only thing to do was to shoot them”.

After the war, Bogarde soon found success as a film actor, contracted to the powerful ‘Rank Organisation’. In 1947, Sketch magazine named him as one of Britain’s four ‘young men of mark’- and it wasn’t long before Bogarde was playing leading roles in films such as The Blue Lamp, So Long at the Fair and Appointment in London. In the 1950s Bogarde was firmly established as Britain’s most popular film star. His runaway hit ‘Doctor in the House’ was the top moneymaker of 1954. The influential Picturegoer magazine presented him with its Annual Award for ‘best actor’ three years in a row, while more than 4000 cinema managers chose him as ‘the World’s Greatest Money-Drawing Star’.

Bogarde was romantically linked to a succession of beautiful young actresses. But unbeknown to his adoring public, Bogarde’s sexual attentions were elsewhere. Bogarde had first met fellow actor Anthony Forwood in 1940. In the 1950s, Forwood divorced his wife, the actress Glynis Johns, with whom he had a son, to move in with Bogarde and become his ‘manager’. The pair were to be inseparable until Forwood’s death from cancer in 1988. In seven volumes of autobiography, Bogarde never once acknowledged that his relationship with the man he always referred to as ’Forwood’ was other than a business arrangement. But others knew differently. “They were closer than most married couples” recalls John Fraser. “It was abundantly clear that their relationship was deep and strong, but there never the slightest inappropriate gesture between them- no brush of a hand, no touch of a shoulder. Even their conversation was guarded”. In the 1950s, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, Bogarde and Forwood had good reason to be reticent about their relationship. Many homosexuals of the time were blackmailed, and Bogarde’s ‘outing’ would undoubtedly have meant the end of his career.

Ironically in the ground-breaking film ‘Victim’ in 1961 Bogarde played a prominent London barrister who is blackmailed for being gay. The film was influential in helping change attitudes towards homosexuality- and eventually led to the reform of the homosexality laws in in 1967. But even after the threat of imprisonment was gone, Bogarde still refused to admit his the nature of his relationship with Forwood. Instead he claimed in interviews to be a heterosexual and to have had affairs with the French actress Capucine, and the American singer Judy Garland- claims denounced as ‘ludicrous’ by John Fraser.

By the Seventies Bogarde and Forwood had left Britain and settled in the South of France. In 1977 his first volume of autobiography ‘A Postillion Struck by Lightning’ was published and received excellent reviews. Further books followed, but in 1987, Bogarde had to leave his idyllic house and gardens in Provence to what he called the ‘filthy UK’ on account of Forwood’s grave illness.

There was no mellowing of Bogarde with age. “The girl beside me in the cinema offered me her Malteaser“ he wrote in a 1988 letter “ Wasn’t that pleasing? I scowled at her of course. I always do. Terror lurks not very far beneath this apparently cool fa├žade”.
Bogarde also ridiculed the requests of British autograph hunters. “Could you sign this? Not for me, for my neice (sic), grandmother, wife, son, sister, baby-sitter, cousin Agnes, Eileen, with two ‘es’ please, Anne with an ‘e’. No one, ever, in France behaved like this. Not even in Paris, unless they were British”.

How can we account for his extraordinary bitterness?

John Fraser believes it was down to two factors: his failure to achieve the international success enjoyed by the likes of Michael Caine, Richard Burton and Sean Connery- and also the result of a lifetime spent revealing his true sexuality.

Others believe that it was his experiences of war- and witnessing at first hand man’s inhumanity to man- which made Bogarde into such a misanthrope. Perhaps the clues lie in his unhappy childhood. He once told the film writer Alexander Walker of an incident that shaped his way of life. “He was aged about seven” Walker recalled “when a pet tortoise that had gone missing one summer turned up trapped inside a hole in the meadow: at least, its shell turned up. Ants had eaten out the soft meat of its unprotected belly. The lesson it taught the impressionable child was: don't ever expose yourself. Don't stick you head out of your carapace. Don't let the world see your innards: if you do, it will eat you alive.”

Bogarde, who was knighted in 1992, was a man who above all, valued his privacy. “You haven’t cracked me yet” he once snapped at probing television interviewer Russell Harty. If the price of this prickliness was being left alone, then that was a price well worth paying. “If the tide runs out for me and I am left bereft in chair, then that’ll be fine”.

He died in 1999 at the age of 78.

With his memorable performances in classic films such as ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Death in Venice’ Bogarde was undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest film stars but perhaps the greatest act he played was the one he played off-screen.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Happy Birthday, Batman!

A very happy 80th birthday to Batman- or rather to actor Adam West, who played the Caped Crusader in the wonderful 1960s television series. There’s been plenty of dark, ultra pretentious and very violent remakes since then- but none are in the same league as the 1960s version. Quite simply, Batman, with its great comic villains, its deadpan humour and its inspired and intelligent direction was one of the funniest, most stylish and most enjoyable television series ever made. (And the theme tune wasn’t bad either).

Hand me the shark-repellent bat spray, Robin!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Turbo Capitalism's 1989

I am a fairly optimistic person by nature, but if you had told me earlier this year when I co-founded the Campaign For Public Ownership, that just a few months later, George Bush's neo-conservative administration in the U.S. would be following the CPO's pro-nationalisation agenda, I really wouldn't have believed it. As Simon English, writing in The Evening Standard puts it, "Large chunks of Wall Street, supposedly the home of capitalism, are now under government control". We've had Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now AIG, passing into state ownership. The 'free-market', anti-public ownership fanatics, normally so loud on the blogosphere, have gone strangely quiet. Little wonder.

We are now back in 1989- but the system that is collapsing before our very eyes is not Soviet communism, but Anglo-Saxon turbo-capitalism. In the end, this most rapacious of economic models was destroyed by its own greed. It's time for everyone who believes that people should always come before profit- and that a mixed economy is far preferable to a turbo-capitalist 'free market' one, to pop the champagne corks.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


A good friend of mine has just sent me the following text:

"Neil. I am collecting donations for the bankers. Please give anything you can. They are desperate. They might have to sack the gardener in their 5th Cotswold house".

I've asked him to put me down for 10p. Perhaps Bob Geldof will organise a concert for the poor things?

The neocons behind Palin

The DT reports:

Comments by the governor of Alaska in her first television interview, in which she said Nato may have to go to war with Russia and took a tough line on Iran's nuclear programme, were the result of two weeks of briefings by neoconservatives.

Sources in the McCain camp, the Republican Party and Washington think tanks say Mrs Palin was identified as a potential future leader of the neoconservative cause in June 2007. That was when the annual summer cruise organised by the right-of-centre Weekly Standard magazine docked in Juneau, the Alaskan state capital, and the pundits on board took tea with Governor Palin.

Her case as John McCain's running mate was later advanced vociferously by William Kristol, the magazine's editor, who is widely seen as one of the founding fathers of American neoconservative thought - including the robust approach to foreign policy which spurred American intervention in Iraq.

The McCain-Palin ticket is being promoted as the ticket for 'Change'. In fact, its the 'No Change' ticket, offering a continuation of the disastrous policies of Cheney and Bush. If you really do want more neocon wars of aggression, you know who to vote for.

PS. I think it's time that Michael Palin dropped the drag routine, don't you? It was funny at the Republican convention, but now its wearing a bit thin.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Wally of the Week: Nick Clegg

You really couldn’t make it up.

Free market capitalism is more unpopular- and more discredited - than at any time since the 1930s. Even the right-wing neo-conservative adminstration in the US is intervening in the economy and nationalising mortgage providers. Yet it is at this very moment - when the US and British stock markets are in freefall after the collapse of Lehman Bros, the shock sale of Merrill Lynch, and the revelation that the world’s largest insurance company may have to raise $40bn- the Liberal Democrat leader wants his party to ditch social democracy and embrace 'the free market'.

At the last election, the Lib Dems fought on the progressive economic policies of of renationalising the railways and reintroducing a top rate of income tax on high earners. These policies, despite being very popular with the electorate, have now been dropped. Instead, Clegg, the son of a banker and Orange Book-er (memorably- and accurately- labelled ‘Nick Cleggeron’ by Charlie Marks) talks the language of neo-Thatcherism: of the need of the state to 'back off', the necessity of radical public service reforms, of swingeing cuts in public spending and getting government out of peoples lives.

It's not only poor policy- it's also poor politics. The Lib Dems could have reaped the electoral benefit by putting forward pro-mixed economy, social democratic policies-which neither the Labour Party or the Conservatives- both in hock to big business and global capital seem incapable of doing.

There are some good, principled people in the Liberal Democrats. They deserve much better than their current wallyish leader.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mbeki's quiet diplomacy bears fruit in Zimbabwe

Cast your mind back a few months to the first round of the Presidential elections in Zimbabwe. There were calls, from the usual suspects, for western military 'intervention' to topple Robert Mugabe. At the same time, South African President Thabo Mbeki was denounced as an 'appeaser' for attempting to use whatever leverage he had to broker a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis. Well, South Africa's much-derided president has managed to mediate a ground-breaking power-sharing deal between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition MDC.

I was an admirer of the thoughtful, pipe-smoking South African President long before he very generously quoted from an article I had written for The Guardian, in one of his regular 'Letters From the President'. Thabo Mbeki is not a man to rant and rave, but someone who gets things done in his own quiet, understated way. Had those who were calling for military intervention in Zimbabwe got their way, thousands of people would have been killed and the country would have been engulfed in a bloody civil war. As it is, thanks to the efforts of the South African President, there is now a real chance that Zimbabwe can move forward into a new and brighter era.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It's Not the Yanks who are dumb

Back in September 2001, I wasn't blogging and so there was no 'Wally of the Week Award'. But had there been, I've no doubt I would have awarded it to a certain 'Thomas Smith' from Bristol.

These extracts from an article of mine from The Spectator, written to mark the first anniversary of the Twin Tower attacks in September 2002, explain why.

'I am 25, a graduate who has travelled extensively after university and a Labour voter. To people of my type, across Europe and the English-speaking world, Americans are a laughing-stock, known mainly for their vacuous culture and profound ignorance. We all have a “dumb Yank” story on our travels. This is why Americans are so hated by us on the Left, however much we condemn the outrages.'

Such were the thoughts of Thomas Smith of Bristol, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph not long after the events of 11 September.

I am 35 - ten years older than Smith. I am also a graduate, and I, too, have travelled 'extensively' - to more than 30 countries at the latest count. I, too, consider myself to be 'on the Left', although, unlike Thomas Smith, I actually stopped voting Labour when, in 1995, it ditched Clause Four and thereby ceased to be a party of the Left. Why, then, when our backgrounds and viewpoints appear so similar, did I feel such anger and indignation on reading Smith's letter?

It would be nice to think that Smith's views are just the unrepresentative opinions of a rather arrogant and puffed-up young man. Yet sadly, he is probably right when he talks about how people of his 'type' see Americans.

Although Smith's assertions, thankfully, did not go unchallenged by American readers of the Telegraph, one can only wonder what greater commotion would have been caused had our young Bristolian used the term 'dumb' to describe, for example, Nigerians or Pakistanis instead of Americans. If he had done so, he would probably have been visited by officers of the Commission for Racial Equality, and all prospects of a glittering postgraduate career would have been nipped in the bud.

Moving on to the dreary 'Dumb Yanks' jibe, I write as one who has taught both American and British students for more than ten years. While it is true that knowledge of European geography is not usually the American student's strong point, once again, one can't really press this too hard when only 8 per cent of our own schoolchildren have heard of Winston Churchill and 12 per cent believe Tony Blair to be a football player. And while we castigate Americans for their ignorance of Europe, how many Britons can name the capital of Nebraska, or know which states border Iowa?

All in all, unthinking attacks by the Left on Americans are not only nasty but they don't add up.

Does that mean, then, that we all have to love Uncle Sam? Not a bit of it. I have written thousands of words condemning US foreign policy, most of which were considered too strong to be published in mainstream publications. I have organised petitions for the indictment of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright as war criminals for their role in the illegal bombing of Yugoslavia, and have taken part in vigils and demonstrations outside US embassies at home and abroad. I have resolutely opposed President Bush's never-ending 'war against terrorism' since day one, and am appalled at the prospect of forthcoming US military strikes against Iraq.

Yet I have never personalised the strong feelings I have regarding US foreign policy into attacks on individual Americans or Americans in general. Refraining from doing so does not constitute a cop out or appeasement of the enemy. Slobodan Milosevic, a man who has more cause than most to feel bitter about Uncle Sam, shows that he understands this nuance perfectly when, after a long, arduous day at his US-financed show trial, he unwinds each evening with his collection of Hemingway's works and his Frank Sinatra CDs. Similarly, no more scathing critiques of American society have been written than Brave New World and After Many a Summer, yet their author, Aldous Huxley, liked America and Americans so much that he spent the last 30 years of his life living in California. By the same token, there have been few more devastating critics of US foreign policy than Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Ramsey Clark, American citizens all.

It is important for all of us who share that distinguished triumvirate's world view to continue to break bread with individual Americans, for it is not with individual Americans, or indeed with America in general, that our argument lies. If we do otherwise, and start to label whole nationalities as 'dumb' and 'ignorant', we are already one small step away from the undeniably racist mindset of those who perpetrated the atrocities in Manhattan 12 months ago. By all means refer to US foreign policy as 'dumb', Mr Smith, but please not its people.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

How Jim Callaghan changed the world

Thirty years ago this week, British Prime Minister James Callaghan (above) changed the world. Here's my Guardian piece from twelve months ago on how Callaghan's failure to call a General Election in September 1978 had global ramifications.

Twenty nine years ago this month, a decision was made by a Labour party leader whose consequences still reverberate around the world today. Prime Minister James Callaghan stunned the nation by announcing that he was not going to call an autumn election. Instead, he announced he would carry on until the following year. It was to prove a catastrophic misjudgement.

Suppose Callaghan had called an election in September 1978 and won- as most opinion polls said he would. How might things have been different?

Callaghan has been blamed for introducing monetarism to Britain, but the cutbacks in public spending his government introduced after taking out the IMF loan in 1976, were mild fare compared to the ideologically-driven "rolling back of the state" which Mrs Thatcher had in store.

Although Callaghan's second government is likely to have included rightwing figures as David Owen and Shirley Williams, the presence of socialists such as Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Judith Hart and Stan Orme would have ensured that the party did not stray too far from a progressive agenda.

In 1978 the economy was rapidly improving. Inflation was down to single figures and unemployment was on the way down too. The great Thatcherite myth that late 1970s Britain was the "Sick Man of Europe" is not borne out by the facts. "The outlook for Britain is better than at any time in the postwar years," was the verdict not of a Labour party propagandist, but of Chase Manhattan bank's chief European economist, Geoffrey Maynard.

Under Labour, North Sea oil revenues would not have been squandered on paying people not to work, but spent on industrial regeneration. To ensure that the benefits accrued to the nation, energy secretary Tony Benn had set up the state-owned British National Oil Corporation. Another country in Europe followed a similar statist approach to its oil industry: Norway, now one of the richest countries in the world.

In terms of the Labour party's electoral fortunes, victory in 1978 would have meant the party staying together, avoiding the damaging Gang of Four/SDP breakaway, which by splitting the anti-Tory vote helped keep the party out of power for the whole of the 1980s.

The presence of a strong parliamentary left would have prevented the government adopting too hawkish a foreign policy stance: it's inconceivable that Callaghan would have formed the same relationship with Ronald Reagan as his successor did. Without the Iron Lady's neo-con aggression, it's more likely the cold war would have ended differently, not with the triumph of one system over another, but with the gradual coming together of east and west, within a peaceful, democratic socialist framework. It was not a forlorn, utopian hope - at the time western european countries were becoming progressively more socialist, while communist countries - most notably Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union itself, after the death of Brezhnev in 1982, were becoming less authoritarian.

A Labour government in the 1980s would have carried on the mixed economy model- and probably would have extended public ownership still further: even the 'right-wing' Callaghan had nationalised ship building in 1977. The mines would have stayed open, and large scale de-industrialisation would have been avoided. Yosser Hughes would have found a job and Sheffield steel workers would not have had to become striptease artists.

Defeat for the Tories in 1978 would undoubtedly have meant the political death of Margaret Thatcher. The party's lurch to the right in 1975 had already alarmed many Tory grandees - after an election defeat in 1978 the party is likely to have moved back to the one nation centre, under a more consensual leader such as Jim Prior, William Whitelaw, or Sir Ian Gilmour. Had the party returned to power in 1982/3, it's most unlikely they would have done so on a programme as radically neo-liberal as in 1979.

Of course it's easy to exaggerate the significance of general elections. But Labour's defeat in 1979 really was a watershed: marking the end of the collectivist, mixed economy consensus and its replacement with privatising, pro-big business neo-liberalism. The neoliberal road has led not just to social disintegration and an ever widening gap between rich and poor, but to war: if Callaghan had called an election in the autumn of 1978, it is unlikely that British troops would now be fighting in Iraq.

The victory of Margaret Thatcher - and the triumph of the ideals she represented transformed not only Britain, but the world. The former communist countries of eastern Europe do not follow the progressive, mixed economy model which brought the fastest rise in living standards for ordinary working people in the history of the world, but the rapacious, socially destructive capitalism which Thatcher championed. And when Labour did eventually come to power 18 years later, it did so with a neoliberal programme that owed more to Thatcher than it ever did to any previous Labour party leader.

It's a sobering thought that had Jim Callaghan simply done what everyone expected him to do on that fateful September day 29 years ago, "Thatcherism" is a word the world would never have heard of.

Happy 85th Birthday to Jimmy Perry- the King of Comedy

A very happy 85th birthday to Jimmy Perry, Britain's King of TV Comedy, creator and co-writer (along with David Croft), of Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Hi De Hi and You Rang M'Lord.

Jimmy Perry not only created Dad's Army, but also wrote the series' wonderful signature tune 'Who Do You Think You are Kidding Mr Hitler?', performed so memorably by Bud Flanagan. Not bad for someone who left school with no qualifications, and whose Dad, when hearing of his son's ambition to become either a world famous actor or a world famous comedian replied 'You Stupid Boy'!

Regular readers will know I'm no supporter of the honours system, but if we are to have one, why do we give knighthoods to self-obsessed bores like Salman Rushdie, writer of pretentious and unreadable books, but ignore those like Jimmy Perry (and David Croft), who have brought laughter and happiness to millions of Britons? Oops sorry, I forgot, Rushdie, unlike Jimmy Perry, is a neo-con pin-up boy.

To remind us once again of Perry's genius- above is a clip of a special BBC1 tribute programme to Dad's Army. Enjoy!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Wisdom Teeth

This article of mine on the state of NHS dentistry appears in the New Statesman.

patient: How much to have this tooth pulled?
dentist: £180.
patient: £180 for just a few minutes' work?
dentist: I can extract it very slowly if you like.

Jokes about going to the dentist used to be about the pain of tooth extraction, but in 21st-century Britain they're more likely to be about the pain to our wallets. An estimated one in five people in Britain is deterred from going to the dentist because of the cost; eight million of us have refused a course of treatment because it was too expensive. The seemingly inexorable decline of affordable National Health Service dentistry, and the growth of private practice (the most expensive in Europe), have certainly hurt our pockets.

But could it be that, after years of decline, the tide is turning? You wouldn't think so, judging by newspaper headlines reacting to newly published figures showing that more than one million patients in England have lost access to free dentistry since the introduction of the government's new NHS dental contract in April 2006.

The figures, according to Susie Sanderson, chair of the British Dental Association's executive board, were "further evidence of the persisting problems with the 2006 NHS dental reforms". But look a little closer. There were 655 more dentists doing NHS work in 2007-2008 than there were in the previous year, an increase of 3.2 per cent. NHS dental treatments also rose last year by nearly one million, to 36 million. And while Sanderson and her organisation attack the government for introducing a "crude, target-driven system", there is growing evidence that the BDA's members don't share this disdain.

The government's chief dental officer, Dr Barry Cockcroft, cites the example of Cornwall Primary Care Trust, which, when asking for tenders for four new NHS practices, received more than 80 applicants. "When primary care trusts ask for tenders for new services, dentists are falling over themselves to bid for them," he says.

It seems that some dentists are deciding that the NHS contracts, which provide dentists with a guaranteed salary of roughly £80,000 a year for three years and a 5 per cent reduction in their workload, are not such a bad deal after all. The economic slowdown could also be helping the return of dentists to the fold. Dr Mark Harris was among 2,000 to resign from the NHS prior to the introduction of the new contracts. Now he has applied to Devon Primary Care Trust to provide NHS care for adults at his Totnes practice. "I think when there isn't much money about, the best arrangement is a mixture of NHS and private work," he admits.

The dramatic decline of NHS dentistry can be traced to the decision of John Major's government to cut the fees payable to NHS dentists in the early 1990s - something to remember during the current wave of nostalgia for the former Conservative prime minister. The decision led to an exodus of dentists from the NHS into private practice. In 1990, before the cuts, only 5 per cent of dentists' earnings came from the private sector; today it accounts for more than half. And as private practice has grown, so the overriding commitment of the dental profession and its governing body to the NHS has weakened.

Throughout the 1990s, one could not question the fervency of the BDA's support for the NHS, but today the emphasis appears to have changed. In her speech to the BDA's May conference in Manchester, Sanderson enthused over the merits of private dentistry. "For many [here], private dentistry has given you the opportunity to work the way you want to, without any sense of compromise," she said. "It has given you freedom." She went on to express scepticism as to whether the NHS could ever meet the "expectations of patients and users".

It is hard not to detect a certain air of defeatism - Sanderson claimed last year that the future of NHS dentistry was "increasingly fragile" - and the BDA's disenchantment with NHS reforms has been seized upon by those opposed to the very idea of NHS care. In its own words, Nurses for Reform, a pro-privatisation pressure group, wants "to see NHS dentistry totally collapse".
"We want customers to be angry at how little they are getting for their taxation, and we want them to defect to a burgeoning private dental sector," writes the group's director, Dr Helen Evans, whose anti-NHS polemic Who Cares for the NHS? was published by the Institute of Economic Affairs earlier this year. "Already, in many [politicians'] minds, the NHS is dead," Evans claimed, having previously described the service as a "Stalinist embarrassment".

Open wide (your wallet)

The favoured gambit of the private dentistry lobby is to make NHS dentistry seem like a lost cause and the complete privatisation of dental care inevitable. If this all sounds familiar, then cast your mind back to the early 1990s when the same "the system's so broke it can't be mended" arguments were made by free-market think tanks lobbying for British Rail's denationalisation.

But nothing is inevitable until it happens - and there is nothing inevitable about the demise of NHS dentistry. The return of dentists to the NHS fold is a fact that fits neither Nurses for Reform nor the BDA's doom-laden prognosis. The increased number of places for training NHS dentists also gives grounds for optimism, as does the government's decision to increase funding for NHS dentistry by 11 per cent next year. And all three main parties remain formally committed to increasing provision.

In the final analysis, the future of NHS dentistry will be guaranteed only if voters raise their voices to urge that more resources be spent on improving access to the service. And the importance of expanding NHS dentistry cannot be overestimated if we care about both our teeth and our wallets: the decline in NHS provision over the past two decades has led to a major deterioration in the nation's oral health. In some parts of the country, tooth decay rose by 50 per cent between 1993 and 2003; mouth cancer has risen by around 25 per cent, with more than 4,700 new cases being diagnosed in the UK each year. The replacement of NHS dentistry with a wholly private system, as free-market pressure groups desire, would prove as catastrophic as the privatisation of the railways has been.

If we want to know what a Britain without any NHS dentistry would be like, we need only look to the United States, where more than 100 million people are without dental insurance and 27 per cent of children and 29 per cent of adults have cavities that go untreated. Last year, a child in Mississippi and another in Maryland died from infections caused by decayed teeth.

When the NHS was formed, exactly 60 years ago this summer, it promised to provide "all medical, dental and nursing care". Free NHS dental care may only have lasted until 1951 - the first year that NHS charges were introduced - but for more than 40 years the NHS provided Britons with access to good-quality and affordable dental treatment. The question that needs to be asked of the free-market ideologues who are already gleefully writing its epitaph is a simple one: if Britain could afford - and operate - a comprehensive NHS dental system in the austerity years of the 1940s and the recession-hit 1970s, why on earth can't we do the same today?

We'll know for sure that we've stopped the rot when dentist jokes are once again about extracting teeth, and not extracting money.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Peter Hitchens on Belarus

By contrast with every other ex-Communist capital, Minsk has not in general surrendered to the cult of Western brands. There are only two branches of McDonald’s. There are no billboards for Western cosmetics or clothes, no Starbucks. The gangsterism and boomtown raffishness of Russia are also absent.

In the ornate restaurant of the Hotel Minsk, stately, unruffled staff ponderously serve ice cream and coffee, sometimes long after customers have forgotten what they ordered. In this refreshing shelter from speed and urgency, a trio of musicians plays popular classical works in a continuing effort to raise the cultural standards of the masses. Workers in the banks will helpfully tell you (as they did in Soviet times) to go elsewhere to get a better exchange rate. Work is constantly ceasing for statutory breaks or audits (as it did in Soviet times). The terrifying gales of market capitalism have yet to come roaring down these placid streets. In the central bookshop, regiments of staff, whose equivalents would be unemployed in the West, stand about waiting for custom.

.......there is no personality cult, rather an air of distance and mystery. There are no biographies of Lukashenko to be found anywhere, not even sycophantic ones, and he has yet to pen any grandiose theoretical volume.

In the picturesque countryside, where storks still nest in chimneys, there are neatly modernized small towns—–the fruits of a serious effort to keep people on the land.

The strongest impression here is of having slightly sidestepped normal time.

Belarus, thanks to the constitutional accident that granted it independence, managed to avoid the dreadful mafia years of Boris Yeltsin. By re-selling cheap gas and oil from Russia at a generous profit—an arrangement that will soon end—it has paid for an old-fashioned subsidized economy and offers a sort of refuge from the frantic globalism that has swallowed everywhere else from the Atlantic to the Urals.

You can read the whole of Peter Hitchens' American Conservative essay on Belarus here. As you will see Peter has some critical words to say about Belarus too, but it's still one of the most nuanced pieces I have read in the western media about the European country that the neocons most love to hate.

And on the subject of the Eastern European country that didn't follow the IMF/World Bank/NATO neoliberal path, I can heartily recommend Stewart Parker's excellent book on Belarus, published last autumn.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Why renationalisation- not a windfall tax is the answer to energy profiteering

From The Campaign for Public Ownership:

Calls for a 'windfall tax' are sure to increase following the news that the 'Big Six' energy companies hiked their shareholder dividends payouts by 19% according to new research. The suppliers paid £1.64bn in dividends in 2007, £257m more than in the year before, a study commissioned by the Local Government Association found.

While calls for a windfall tax are understandable, the Campaign for Public Ownership believes that the only long-term solution to the problem of energy company profiteering is to restore the energy companies to public ownership.

The problem lies in the ownership structure of the energy companies. All of them are Public Limited Companies, whose overriding aim is to maximise profits for shareholders. That's what PLCs do. Instead of reacting with horror to the entirely predictable news that PLCs are putting the interests of shareholders before Britain's long-suffering energy consumers, we should instead be calling for the government to take the one step that will lead to lower energy prices in the long term. Restoring the energy companies to public ownership will mean that prices can be lowered, as there will be no shareholder dividends to pay.

Martin Meenagh has more on why we need public ownership of our energy companies- and not a windfall tax, here.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Python in the White House?

The US Presidential race just gets wackier and wackier. Now it transpires that Republican hopeful John McCain has selected former Monty Python star Michael Palin (above) as his running mate. When I first saw the newspaper headlines: 'McCain opts for Palin', I was somewhat surprised. I didn't know that Palin even possessed an American passport (I suppose he must have picked one up during his around the world travels). But on reflection, I suppose the choice makes perfect sense. McCain has clearly chosen Palin for four reasons: 1. he's trying desperately to get the all-important lumberjack vote; 2. he's after the support of die-hard Monty Python fans, 3. Palin is an expert on 'New Europe' haven't recently travelled there for his new BBC series. He'll be able to explain to McCain the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia and where Latvia is. 4. McCain is showing that he deplores, unequivocally, the Spanish Inquisition.

Against that, Palin's role in the controversial film 'Life of Brian', may lose McCain the support of some Christian voters, while Palin's support of Sheffield Wednesday FC will obviously alienate Republican-leaning Sheffield United fans (all six of them).

If McCain does defeat Barack Obama in November, then Palin will be only a heart-beat away from the White House. And given McCain's advanced age, we could well witness the first ever Python to become President of the United States of America. John Cleese must be going green with envy. Well, I suppose a glittering career in American politics could have been his too if he hadn't gone away to run a hotel in Torquay......

The news headlines inform us that 'Palin is to make a speech at the Republican Convention tonight'. How many times do you think he'll mention lumberjacks?

FURTHER UPDATE: I've just watched a video of Palin's speech at the Republican Convention. It seems that he is now taken to dressing up as a woman. I thought that was Terry Jones territory, but there you go. I must say I enjoyed Palin's joke about 'hockey moms' and lipstick, but was disappointed that he didn't mention lumberjacks once.....

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Russophobes Threaten...... Eurovision!

You really couldn't make this up.

The DT reports:

Baltic nations Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia may pull out of the annual Eurovision Song Contest, to be held next year in Moscow.
A poll in Estonia has already backed the boycott, while pressure is also rising for a Polish withdrawal.
Estonia's culture minister Laine Janes, said: "Solidarity must exist with Lithuania and Latvia to show consolidated support for Georgia".

Wow, I bet Messrs Putin and Medvedev won't be able to sleep tonight about the prospect of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland boycotting the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.

Over the last few weeks we've heard all manner of hysterical threats against Russia. Russia should be expelled from the G8. Sanctions should be placed on Russia. Russia should be isolated. Yet of course, nothing has happened, because quite simply, the west needs Russia (or more particuarly Russian energy) more than Russia needs anything the west has to offer. So what are we left with? A boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest. How utterly laughable.

Anyway, the extremely wallyish intervention of Estonia's Cultural Minister (now installed as 8-11 favourite to win the next Wally of the Week Award), gives us a great excuse to show once more the wonderful winner of the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest. Take it away Gettie!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Wally of the Week........ Is Not Mike Ashley

Contrary to press reports throughout this afternoon, it appears that Kevin Keegan has not been sacked as Newcastle manager.

A statement from Newcastle released shortly before 7pm included a denial that the board had axed Keegan:
"Newcastle United can confirm that meetings between members of the board and manager Kevin Keegan were held both yesterday and today.
"Kevin has raised a number of issues and those have been discussed with him.
"The club wants to keep progressing with its long-term strategy and would like to stress that Kevin is extremely important, both now and in the future.
"Newcastle United values the effort and commitment shown by Kevin since his return to St James' Park and wants him to continue to play an instrumental role as manager of the club.
"For the avoidance of doubt, the club has not sacked Kevin Keegan as manager."

So, the award of Wally of the Week to Newcastle chairman Mike Ashley is hereby withdrawn! That can only be bad news for David Miliband........


Back in January, I wrote in The Guardian:

Sometimes you hear news that makes you want to jump for joy. The release from jail of Nelson Mandela. The news that Tony Blair, after the longest farewell tour since Frank Sinatra, had finally vacated Downing Street. England regaining the Ashes.
Yesterday's announcement that Kevin Keegan was returning to English football to manage Newcastle United was another such occasion.

Today, just eight months on, Kevin Keegan was sacked by Newcastle chairman Mike Ashley (above). Instead of giving Keegan, a man with a proven track record, 100% backing, Ashley undermined him- appointing Dennis Not-So-Wise as Director of Football with responsibility for transfers. Ashley also allowed James Milner to go to Villa, despite Keegan's opposition. Kevin Keegan can leave Newcastle with his head held high, having done the best he possible could in such a short period of time. But one thing is for sure after today's news: the club will never make a challenge for honours so long as they have a wally like Mike Ashley at the helm.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Mystery of Flight KAL007

This article of mine appears in The First Post.

The EU leaders gathering in Brussels today to discuss the growing tensions with Russia have chosen an ominous day on which to meet. It is exactly 25 years since Soviet fighter planes shot down a Korean Airlines Boeing 747, with the loss of life of all 269 passengers and crew.

It marked the nadir in East-West relations in the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan called it "a crime against humanity (that) must never be forgotten". And even a quarter of a century later, important questions regarding the incident remain unanswered.

Flight KAL007 was en route from New York to Seoul when, 10 minutes after a refuelling stop in Alaska, it started to deviate from its course and head north towards Russian airspace. The plane continued some 200 miles from its planned flight path. Off the Soviet island of Sakhalin, home to several Soviet military installations, it was shot down by Russian fighters armed with air-to-air missiles.

The Kremlin maintained that the plane had twice violated their airspace. They insisted the airliner had been on a spying mission and their fighter pilots had fired warning shots, but the Korean Airlines pilot did not respond.

Amid international outcry at the Soviet action, it was suggested that a mistake must have been made when programming the plane's inertial navigation system. But if the pilot was genuinely unaware that he was over Soviet airspace, why did he not respond to the Soviet warning shots?

Other mysteries remain: not least, whatever happened to the bodies of the flight's passengers and crew? There was a total absence of human remains - or luggage and
other belongings - on the surface of the sea in the 225 square miles of probable impact area, and when divers eventually located the wreckage of the aircraft weeks later, the remains of only 10 passengers were found.

The 'decompression theory' - that passengers had been sucked out of the plane and scattered over a wider area - appeared the most feasible explanation for the absence of bodies, until the black box recording revealed that the rupture caused by the Russian missile would have been too small for anyone to be sucked out.

It seems that both the Soviets and the US had good cause to keep the background to the tragedy shrouded in mystery. On the very same day that Flight KA007 was shot down, it transpired that the Soviets were secretly test-launching their new SS25 missile, in violation of the SALT2 arms treaty. The missile was launched from northwest Russia and was due to come down in a target range on the peninsula of Kamchatka, over which Flight KAL007 had strayed.

At the same time, a US spy plane was in the area - just 75 miles away from Flight KAL007's route - with a mission to capture the telemetry of the SS-25. In short, if KAL007's deviation into Soviet airspace was a genuine navigational error, it could not have picked a worse day for it.

The incident proved a turning point in the Cold War. The US broke off its arms treaty negotiations and the widespread disgust at the Soviet action paved the way for the deployment of a new round of US Pershing missiles in Europe. By shooting down Flight KAL007, the USSR provided its enemies with a huge propaganda coup - and helped bring into action a chain of events which contributed to its own demise.