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Undiscovered Cinema: Missing Pieces


Most of the time the depressing aspects of the film industry escape our attention. We are happy to simply be entertained and not think about the hard work behind the scenes, the promising projects that wither and die before a general release. If you really love films or you write about them, the downsides are clearer. You will see and fall for films the general public (or perhaps the suits responsible for getting it to them) don’t appreciate.

My point is that once in a while you have to say something and make a stand, however small, against the prevailing culture. History is written by people who challenged the status quo, refusing to accept that “it’s just the way things are”. Missing Pieces is a fantastic film, with a startling story cutting close to the core of a whole range of emotional truths. It is modern and gripping, clever and well executed. And even if others aren’t as enthused by it as me, the quality is evident and it deserves a general release, which it doesn’t currently have.

In a world where the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film and The Hangover: Part II are breaking box office records despite their overwhelming lack of orginality, genuinely original creations that are works of art as well as good filmmaking, slip through the cracks. My Missing Pieces review is below and can also be found here at Flickering Myth: http://flickeringmyth.blogspot.com/2011/06/movie-review-missing-pieces-2011.html

Read on if you’ve got two minutes spare and support it however you can. This film deserves to be discussed.

Originality is what I always strive for in a review. Why read my specific review if it’s just a regurgitation of what a more learned critic said? I always feel unsatisfied if there’s not something, a line of description or paragraph of praise, which feels like my signature. Sometimes though all you can do is record your reaction. A film might be so atrociously bad that all you can do is spend an hour pouring hateful words over it. Or it might be so amazingly and astoundingly good that you just gush in delight about it inadequately.

Missing Pieces is just such a hidden gem that reduces me to strings of clichés. It nails originality on the head. I was literally “blown away” and completely surprised by the way this film personally resonated with me. It is the most enjoyable and emotionally satisfying movie I have seen this year. I cannot remember the last time I identified so deeply with characters or felt so absorbed in a drama. At over two hours long it is not short but I did not want it to end.

It’s the story of David, played by Mark Boone Junior (Batman Begins), who has been in a car accident. His injuries from the crash left his mind all mixed up, as if someone had taken a puzzle box and shaken it until all the pieces are jumbled. We never really see the fragmentation of their relationship, meaning that we see things almost entirely from David’s perspective, but the love of his life leaves him. Played by Melora Walters (Magnolia/Cold Mountain/The Butterfly Effect) Delia appears now and then to collect her stuff, angrily shouting that she wants the real David back. This leaves him confused and hurting, determined to try every trick in the book (and more) to win her back.

Clearly David’s mental state has been altered. In one striking but baffling scene he calmly smashes some cargo in an empty children’s play area. In others he watches the comings and goings of two of his young neighbours. But this he does because of loneliness, not brain damage.

I don’t really want to spoil the key element of Missing Pieces as I found it such a joy to watch completely uninformed. SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH if you wish to avoid it, although I suspect Missing Pieces will not lose much of its power from what I am going to say, as its plot is impossible to summarise. David becomes gripped by a self help tape and is inspired by the artwork of his departed girlfriend. He concocts a strange and deluded plan to win Delia back; kidnap the boy and girl he watches and make them fall in love. He believes if he observes true love he can learn the intricacies of successful romance.

There is a teasingly sinister undertone running throughout the distorted narrative, which heightens the suspense and pulls you to the edge of your seat. Missing Pieces plays out in the wrong order; you’re not sure if plot strands are taking place before or after the central ordeal. Newcomers Daniel Hassel and Taylor Engel, as Daylen and Maggie, are superb, together and apart, as a young boy and girl with troubled families, on an odd journey from suspicion through friendship to love. They form an instant connection, vividly realised through the chemistry of the actors, but they never would have met but for being thrown together by a normally harrowing experience.

Missing Pieces is influenced by a myriad of modern movies and directors but pulls together ideas from numerous genres to tell a completely fresh story. There are strong echoes of Memento, which Boone Junior also starred in, along with components of modern horror, Paul Thomas Anderson, romantic comedies and the indie scene. It addresses themes of love, loss, sadness and happiness. It touches on far too many issues to mention but it always has something true to say. It captures a little of the human condition and the universal desire for purpose, meaning and intimacy. Most of all I was struck by its message of reaching out and ignoring the limitations of social convention to say how you feel before it’s too late.

Perhaps such a message warms the hearts of young people more easily. And what makes Missing Pieces even more remarkable is the youthful team behind it. It is the brainchild of Kenton Bartlett who decided to make a movie when his carefree student life suddenly ended. A 30 minute Making Of feature is enlightening, entertaining and moving, as Kenton struggles through the unexpected scale of the challenge. It’s evident the film went through multiple edits to become a staggering, coherent final product.

Words don’t do Missing Pieces justice. Discovering new talented filmmakers and musicians (the film also has wonderful songs/score) like those behind Missing Pieces is the most fulfilling part of writing about movies. Its unknown actors and crew deserve to do this for a living. And we deserve to see their novel and ambitious ideas realised.

Missing Pieces is still seeking distribution. It is high quality stuff and there’s no reason why it should be kept from a wider audience. Get the word out and find the missing piece in your collection of favourite films: www.FindYourMissingPieces.com

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Mrt’sblog First Anniversary Special: An ignorant review of The A-Team


A year ago this month I started this blog. I had always written and always wanted to write. I’d always imagined my life with some form of writing in it and hoped that I could do it for a living. And now thanks to this online archive of my work, I do live to write; about films, politics, football, books, television and more. I lack a particular speciality but so many things interest me that even if it hinders the expansion of my readership I cannot see myself settling on the one subject. And even with my scatter gun approach this blog has grown into something I couldn’t have envisioned a year ago.

I write regularly for a film website, Flickering Myth, that’s stuffed full of quality contributions. Recently it celebrated its own anniversary, a second birthday, not long after placing high in several online polls of movie sites. Occasionally I contribute to the national football blog, and epicentre of passionate debate, Caught Offside. My political pieces join those from other politically active and intelligent thinkers of the younger generation over at Demo Critic. Links to all these sites that are worthy of regular visits, can be found in my blog roll to the right.

I suppose I should update the “About” section for this blog, written over a year ago now. It’s very vague and as I’ve already said I still lack a specific focus; but I do now commit a great deal of time and hopefully productive energy to these articles and reviews. In the coming months I plan to attempt progressively more ambitious projects for the site. I’m aware that my blog is still perhaps only properly read by a few sympathetic friends and the odd one-off viewer. But for even one person to find my work and appreciate it means an awful lot. Perhaps someday the better pieces in this catalogue can provide a helpful showcase of my promise and interests.

I know this post is proving to be rather self-indulgent. It’s a bit of a drawn out and elaborate begging routine I suppose; a plea for anyone who likes anything at all they see here to come to stay at the virtual home of my mind again sometime.  It’s especially grovelling when I throw in that today I’ve attempted to connect the blog to Twitter, a social phenomenon I’m unfamiliar with, in order to spread the word. You can “follow” me, like the obsessive and drooling delusional stalker you are, by clicking this link: http://twitter.com/Mrtsblog#

For me, writing this post is also quite soppy and loaded with sentiment. Because a year on from the start of my blog, my life is very different and drastically altered. I have both changed and remained the same. My views and opinions have evolved, whilst some values remain steadfastly in place. Most pathetically of all, I am far happier than I was a year ago. To quote half an advertising slogan, “the future’s bright…”. Against seemingly gloomy odds I’ve found a chunk of satisfaction and a handful of essential ingredients I had always lacked to be happy. This blog was part of the undulating and youthful, but ultimately tame, journey of the past year for me. At one time I felt the need to vent on here as if it were a diary. Now I look back on that as naive and immature. That part of me has evaporated and I look to the future with a grateful smile on my face. Older and wiser with those that I’m close to.

“SHOOT ME NOW!” you cry with stinging tears of irritation burning your angry face. Unfortunately I still have a tendency to ramble on a bit. I apologise for that overemotional detour. But I assure you I’m getting to the point. In fact, I’m about to get this infant’s birthday party started (it’s ok because I’m the parent). If I have such a thing as a “regular reader”, they may have wondered, and continue to do so, why this blog is called “Mrt’sblog”. I know from the handy stats tool provided by Word Press that every now and then the odd fan of The A-Team or Mr T stumbles across the green expanse of my page , via Google or other equally able (but let’s face it less well known) search engines, probably only to leave rapidly with a sense of disappointment. You see I never watched the original TV series of The A-Team and I’m not even much of a fan of Mr T himself.

The incredibly snappy, but uninteresting story behind this blog’s name, that proves brevity is rarely a virtue, goes as follows: an old History teacher of mine, one I still have fond recollections of, started calling me “Mr T” at some point during lessons, purely on account of my surname beginning with that letter of the twenty-six strong crew that is the alphabet. There was lots of what a certain type of annoying person might call, “legendary banter”, in these lessons. I cultivated with unhealthy and unnatural pride a slight cult of celebrity around this Mr T persona at school, with those in my class fully aware of my hotshot funny man status, solidified by the teacher’s jokey approval. It’s a level of fame I miss. Yes reader I live a narrow and dull existence. But then when starting out in the mysterious entity of the blogosphere, stretching tentative tentacles in exploration, unsure of what exactly to do with my own blog, I recalled the nickname from school and adopted it on a whim. Anything was preferable to exposing my shy face as it is to the world.

As I’ve said then, there is no connection to The A-Team. The music of course is iconic. As are some of the catchphrases. But for people from my generation the tune is unavoidably accompanied by two moustachioed fun-runners singing “ONE-ONE-EIGHT! ONE-ONE-EIGHT!” in oddly booming voices, offering to solve rare and strange occurrences. Equally the more memorable one-liners and personalities that no doubt originate in their best and purest form from the TV series, have tended to only crop up for me in adverts. Such as Mr T urging me to “Get some nuts” and rush out to buy a Snickers from the turret of a tank. Unfortunately I don’t own a tank and I don’t think my arms would be long enough to reach down to the counter and pay from way up there, perched on the gun. So I declined his command. Also I don’t like nuts.

Knowing that my blog’s birthday was coming up though, I decided its present would be a short and ignorant view of the film The A-Team from last year. I promptly elevated the DVD to a top priority title on Love Film and hoped it would arrive before the end of the month. Luckily I just about scraped the deadline. Hopefully my blog won’t hate me too much for missing the precise date.

THE A-TEAM opens spectacularly and the action is pretty much non-stop throughout. The bigger action set pieces are heavily reliant on shameless CGI effects. Normally this would ruin a film for me, but the core characters that make up The A-Team are so likeable and funny, bouncing off each other and generally not taking things too seriously, that you can look past the blatant lack of realism or stunning visuals most of the time. There’s something inexplicably endearing about these men falling about inside a tank as it supposedly hurtles through the air. At times I swear my eyes just saw actors mucking about in front of a green screen, but that’s still funny right?

I think I’ve stressed quite enough I know nothing of the original A-Team, so I am judging this film purely on its own merits. For all I know it could be an absolute travesty for fans of The A-Team, but to me the casting of the key players and the dynamic between them worked well. Liam Neeson is always assured in my opinion and here we see a funnier side to him. The suitably named Quniton “Rampage” Jackson takes on the Mr T, B.A. Baracus role, and more than looks the part. Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley are excellent as the quirkier members of the foursome.

The highlight of The A-Team for me was a scene in which the loony Murdock, played by Copley, is broken out of an asylum by his fellow team members. Murdock is sent a film to watch with 3D glasses and the film plays with a jeep hurtling along a road, only for it to burst through the wall to the amazement and delight of the patients, sporting their retro 3D specs. Murdock promptly escapes, wearing his set of specs, exclaiming as the team are shot at that the bullets look so lifelike in 3D. In a film full of simple gags, here was some physical, action packed humour that also doubled up as cutting satire of the current 3D trend.

All of the action in The A-Team is fun, if not groundbreaking or gripping. A scene with abseiling, gun toting baddies on Frankfurt skyscrapers with lots of smashing glass is quite inventive and hard hitting though, whilst still having the laughs present throughout the story. The plot itself is fine but uninspiring, as the gang attempt to clear their name and reclaim some stolen plates for printing US dollars. Patrick Wilson as mysteriously named CIA agent Lynch is particularly wonderful and amusing. He gets many of the best lines and delivers them in the believable style of a man with the heart of an easily impressed teenager. Watching an explosion from a satellite view, he gasps “wasn’t that just like Call of Duty?”. I may have missed many A-Team in jokes, but there were lots like this one that were up to date enough for the modern generation. Generally Wilson plays a refreshingly cynical and hilarious shady villain.

The A-Team was a film that exceeded my expectations. It’s a perfect pick me up and two hours of harmless fun with even recurring jokes like burly Baracus’ reluctance to fly, still making me smile by the end.

Happy first Birthday blog! Finally a post relevant to your name.

The NHS “reforms” break an implicit election promise – and do not go nearly far enough


Cast your minds back to the days of the last election. All the talk was of cuts and the campaign was curiously short on optimism. Nick Clegg rocketed to popularity because of his outsider status and a rare ability to sound slightly hopeful about the odd issue. Cameron and Brown battled over grim details, tainted by all that had gone before. One of the few rays of hilarity to shine out of the darkness was the very British ridicule of one of our current Prime Minister’s key policies and publicity stunts.

I’m referring, of course, to Cameron’s notorious airbrushed poster campaign. The abnormally clean image of the old Etonian presented on billboards everywhere to the entire nation, took the Tory drive for renewal to the laughable extreme. Dave was not wealthy and out of touch, merely handsome and approachable. As funny as the image and tactics themselves were however, it’s the snappy quoted message alongside his shiny face coming back to haunt the Prime Minister now.

I certainly do not pretend to even partially comprehend the reforms to the NHS this Conservative led government is proposing. Indeed the lack of understanding from its own ministers seems to be a large part of the problem. And it’s no secret the Conservatives have long planned a shake-up, fuelled by the steadfast belief of their long serving top dog on health, Andrew Lansley. However whilst the faults and flaws of the plans that are becoming clear are extremely important, in terms of political capital and strategy for Number 10, they are in many ways besides the point when it comes to that infamous election promise.

“I’ll cut the deficit-not the NHS” translated for voters to “This is a new kind of Tory party that treasures the NHS above all else. We will not mess with it anyway.” Cameron will argue his promise did not say he wouldn’t change the NHS and that it needs modernisation for the better. But he knew the implication of his promise and the votes it would win him. His protestations about the benefits of his reforms will therefore mean little to those his promise swayed.

It’s also especially hollow given that the Prime Minister has since watered down and diluted that concrete pledge, which formed the symbolic heart of his campaign, again and again and again. First it became merely a safeguard for frontline services and then promised improvements, like an increase in the number of midwives, were scaled back and ultimately scrapped altogether, with even plans to maintain current numbers reversed. Fears about privatisation which the reasonable man might have attributed to overzealous, sensational leftist press, are now emerging to have hard evidence behind them. 50,000 jobs are set to be cut. How exactly is this not cutting the NHS?

If the workers within the system themselves were in favour Cameron would have a much stronger argument. But countless GPs have written to newspapers, as well as other types of professional, warning against the changes as unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister continually insists that locals have the right to opt in our out, but what are those that oppose and don’t sign up to the scheme meant to do? Even in my quiet rural area GPs feel overworked and many local people distrust the vested interests of certain doctors. Is handing over the biggest budget in the country to them really a good idea and what people want? It’s doubtful if the new system will even be able to produce what the public need.

Another argument constantly wheeled out by the Tories is the pressing need for modernisation and reform, which make it necessary. There is nothing necessary about these plans though. Whilst the health service has its flaws, the current system leads to a mostly positive service. There are undoubted challenges in health care such as an ageing population and emerging drugs, which often seem insurmountable. Government proposals do not do enough to ease the burden and according to many that know, they actually complicate the fight. For a leadership so keen on cutting the deficit, you would think that such costly, ideological plans could wait for better times.

 It would also do more good in the long run, and reduce the deficit substantially, to work out some realistic spending priorities centrally. Vital areas and treatments need to be protected nationally and things the NHS can’t afford to provide should be phased out. The private sector does have a role but it should grow independently of the NHS and take up the slack for treatments it shouldn’t be wasting resources on. Taxes and other initiatives should encourage healthier living. Devolving decisions to GPs is no magic pill, no silver bullet and it doesn’t even equip the NHS for the critical, worsening challenges it will face in the future. It would be a far more sensible decision for the government to begin a nationwide debate about what we expect, want and need from our NHS now. It would fit with the “new politics” of plural cooperation and potentially produce actual solutions.

Perhaps the main reason the government looks less likely to bow to pressure from the public on this issue is the Prime Minister’s ego and pride. He’s been happy to recognise the weaknesses of coalition and concede on issues like the forests and sport in schools. But the NHS plans are too inextricably linked to Cameron’s personal brainchild; the Big Society. Its philosophy of localism and choice in the community over centralised solutions marries nicely with Lansley’s ideas for health. The health reforms open the way for the sort of community cohesion and interaction, fuelled by voluntary, charity involvement, that Cameron wants to see. He genuinely believes it’s the path to a social recovery for Britain that’s sustainable and empowers government to do what it does best, as well as liberating people from the state. He’ll continue to be blind to all the irreversible wounds the “reforms” will inflict on the NHS itself and his popularity with the people as long as it remains tied to his vision. His recent attempt to re-launch the initiative demonstrates his huge commitment; it cannot afford to fail.

The real shame for the country and even the Conservative party, is that Cameron’s election pledge could have been a clever way of dumping a responsibility and challenge for maximum political gain. His implicit promise of not touching the NHS meant it could have been left as it was, a gargantuan issue for a future administration to tackle, ticking over just fine for the time being. There are after all, enough problems for the coalition to face. If this government had done mostly nothing on health, the public would have thanked them for it, the Conservatives especially. But Cameron is so determined to be radical and appear to be so, that he will press on, regardless of the consequences. It may prove to be the well meaning project that took his remodelling of the state too far.

Peaceful Protest or Manic March?


And of course, following on from my last post, those that died for our country died to preserve democracy, freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.

If you weren’t marching yesterday the impression you will have gained from the national media is one of troublemaking tearaways, descending on London with their purposeless, ignorant views, intent on causing damage and achieving thrilling highs with each frustration filled kick at the establishment, at unprepared police. If you were at the protest, as I was, you would have seen in excess of 50,000 perfectly peaceful but passionate people with a clearly shared general aim. I say “seen” but really you couldn’t see a lot beyond the immediate placards in front and behind you, but you could sense and feel the masses. My friend described it as a “sea of placards”. I went the whole day blissfully unaware that anything truly violent had taken place. The headline of The Times today reads “Thuggish and disgraceful”, in what I view to be a disgraceful piece of reporting. Of course for the media the story of the day was the eruption of rare violence but it is wrong to falsely brand such a vast swathe of respectful young people as “thuggish”. For one thing The Times headline takes out of context a quote from a police officer who had actually praised the majority of those attending the day, whilst condemning the minority his men were consequently surprised by.

Having said that I did not witness any violence all day, I did make it to Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, scene of the carnage, and the tense atmosphere in the air was chilling. Chilling in an exciting way. I was for the most part not fearful at all during my brief stay at Millbank. High-vis wearing organisers made half-hearted attempts to steer us away from the throng at Tory HQ, but having remembered what it was and just past the MI5 offices (which were apparently locked down at some point), I was keen to get a glimpse. I’d say we got about half way in but there was still a sizeable crowd between us and the doors, so later I could not say if glass had already been smashed or violence was already in progress. There was a fire going though, off to our left over more heads. It was fuelled by placards and the crude wooden sticks used to hold them aloft. Later I would see pictures of Cameron dunked into the flames in the papers, at the time I could only see the glimmer of orange reflected on the roof and smell the thick black fumes. Helicopters swirled past the towers overhead. Enthusiastic chanting, full of essentially harmless vitriol, went on with an endless intensity not noticeable elsewhere on the march. And as we left the sickening boom of an explosion close at hand foreshadowed the grisly scenes I would later learn about.

There was admittedly something exciting and inspiring about the atmosphere at Millbank, something I find slightly shameful having seen the damage caused there at some point during the day afterwards. There was an irresistible sense of something being done, of our indignation and righteousness being more adequately expressed. As someone I saw interviewed later on BBC News 24 said, the coalition now had Thatcher’s riots to go with her cuts. I do not in any way condone the violence, as it has undoubtedly smeared the message the ordinary marcher like myself was striving to hammer home, but there was a feeling amongst us that we ought to do something more than just walk and the added venom at Millbank was intoxicating. The country and the politicians needed to be sent a shocking signal, a wake-up call, which forced them to acknowledge the scale of the cuts was real and catastrophic, and as negative and transforming anything Thatcher or those before her dared to enact. But it’s almost certain the majority of the actual perpetrators were not even true to the cause but the moronic fanatics such large scale protests inevitably attract.

Prior to the seductive feel of the siege at Millbank, the march had been an impressive spectacle but an occasionally tedious and tame affair. The only glimpse of genuine revolutionary zeal before the flickering flames and fists pumping in the air at Millbank, was a red-hatted man with a megaphone in Parliament Square. This extraordinary speaker loitered in the area where protesting banners and signs permanently reside opposite Parliament; the sort proclaiming Iraq to be a war crime and Afghanistan a corporate expedition etc. Like a stand-up comedian he playfully bantered with the crowd, which had ground to a halt so that it was slowly trudging past Big Ben and the Commons at best. Groups were beginning a sit-down protest, with Nick Clegg probably still inside after taking over PMQ duty. Girls mounted traffic lights, litter swirled at our feet and drum beats pounded the air in the distance. He flattered us at first, saying what intelligent students we must be. Then he casually slipped in the conspiracy, urging us to use our intelligence and “connect the dots”. Just as I worried he was getting predictable, came his call to arms: “Think about it there aren’t enough police in this city to stop you all. Marching is good but won’t get it done, join me and occupy the city.” Or something to that effect, but more charismatically phrased. I was struck into excited laughter by the audacity of it. We hadn’t come to occupy London, Hitler and Napoleon had spent an awful lot of money and time and expertise trying to accomplish the same thing. Our spontaneous occupation, led by megaphone man, seemed unlikely to succeed therefore, but at the same time, glancing around me, the sheer numbers told me we would have a good go at it if we all stood together. The fantasy, that of a bygone age of socialist revolution, of people power and the possibilities of sudden change, truly motivated me.

Earlier at the march’s official start point on Horse Guards Avenue, speakers had tried to rally the troops. On the ground and in the thick of the towering placards however, the reality was that you could not hear the rhetoric, merely catching snatches of the speech. Each would unmistakeably end with the refrain “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS” though. At times I think it may have been just as well for me that I could not hear the speakers, as I heard a glimpse of something about Trident at one point and there was inevitably other overly idealistic or socialist rhetoric I didn’t necessarily support. The striking white buildings on the avenue, dotted with innumerable windows, looming over us on each side, channelled the wind and the noise so that it was both a loud and cold wait for the off. The time was filled with idle talk about the changes being made by the coalition, its worst effects and the need for an alternative to march in support of.

There is undoubtedly a need for a well thought through alternative if opponents of the government’s scheme are to be credible, but the leading article in The Times today is unfairly harsh about the ignorance of students. It claims that the government system is an improvement in some ways, with the rise to £21,000 salary threshold, and it is only fair graduates pay for their education. However it neglects the deterrent such greater debts will act as to ordinary students from ordinary families, it ignores the fact that £21,000 is still an average wage and will often be earned without the burden of debt by those who didn’t attend university and “benefit” from it and most critically of all The Times ignores the key chant of the protest. We were marching against the absurdity of the government cutting funding by 40% (as well as the vital EMA payment, which needed tightening reform, not abolition) and then raising fees to plug that gap, creating a system which the students effectively pay for themselves and which is no better in terms of quality than the current one. British universities will continue to slide in comparison to international competitors, the government’s key claim, that their plan is sustainable, falls flat on its face.

Having said this I did feel absurd at times, marching alongside some with overly optimistic demands. I also felt bad for the unrelenting criticism coming the way of Nick Clegg. Whilst Clegg clearly made a terrible political miscalculation pledging himself and his party against any rise in fees, I still stand by my view of him espoused on this blog as an essentially admirable politician. As head of the junior partner in the coalition this is clearly one of the decisions that is principally Tory in its motivation. If the Lib Dems had total parliamentary control (an almost impossible to imagine scenario) then the spending could have been structured elsewhere to honour a pledge to students. As it was Clegg opted for some influence rather than none and has to bow to Cameron’s party on the bigger issues. The fact that the violence erupted at Tory HQ suggests the demonstrators and activists know who the real villain of the plan is, but there is still understandable anger about the Lib Dem “betrayal”. Clegg also set himself up for a frighteningly fall with his constant talk of honesty and honour in politics. I’d like to think he would still back a progressive alternative should one be found (hurry up Labour!) and I’m sure he’ll hope to return to the issue, perhaps with different allies. As it is though I did feel uplifted to be marching in solidarity with others against cuts to education; that Clegg should not have accepted so lightly and should have done more about.

When we did finally set off it was at a shuffling, rather than marching, pace. Having built up a lot of enthusiasm standing stationary for long periods, I was keen to stride ahead, but had to be content with feeling part of a massive, snaking entity, writhing through London streets, demanding to be heard. The shuffling continued with the occasional more spacious period, past Downing Street and painfully slowly through Parliament Square, all the way to the drama of Millbank. I took far too much pleasure in muttering to myself that David Cameron was miles away in China, as ignorant students directed personally tailored chant after chant at his famous black doorway as we passed Number Ten. I wished for a widescreen HD overview of events, for an action replay as I always did at live football matches in packed stadiums. It would have been nice to truly comprehend the scale of events from beyond my tiny worker ant perspective; to know where best my many, multiple protesting talents were to deployed. Where did they need me I wondered?

Despite the blinkered vision it was wonderful to feel part of history, to feel part of something greater with meaning, even if in reality it would prove politically ineffective. And as usual I loved wandering around London, seeing the Thames from all angles, absorbing that skyline. I’m getting far too used to and seduced by it. On top of it all I managed to share it with friends, as opposed to my usual solitary travels, some of whom I had not seen in a while. I didn’t get long enough in their company and I didn’t plant my flag within the bowels of Parliament, but all in all me and the beard had a good day out on the march.

Canny Clegg is no closet Tory


A leading article in The Observer today, linked below, argues that Nick Clegg is not simply a Conservative in disguise, adopting Cameron’s austerity drive with relish, but a pragmatic visionary with the aim of transforming British politics. On this blog I have long argued that Clegg needed to have the resolve to make the Lib Dems a serious, credible party of goverment in order to smash the Red and Blue seesaw of power at Westminster. This article in the Observer wisely points out the risks the Lib Dems face, of abandoning the bulk of their idealistic, protest vote, but also point out the necessity of a better politics, in which coaltions are effective and commonplace and policies are not beset by tribal division and disagreement. This better politics requires the Lib Dems try and seek a new wave of support, and I can only hope the British people recognise the fairness in Clegg’s vision for a political system that isn’t simply a two-sided battleground and back his party at elections. As I’ve said before Clegg and Cameron’s partnership has not brought instant honesty and reliability to Westminster, but the presence of a third party in goverment does reperesnt revolutionary, progressive change that ought to halt the worst of right-wing Tory policy and be good for fairness in the future. Nick Clegg is a political pragmatist who deserves to be admired for setting about changing his party and the country in the most idealistic and liberal of ways; by breaking an established mould. Whether his economic gamble proves right or wrong Clegg has rightly gone for the bigger prize of political regeneration, that ought to ensure the country is governed more progressively and democratically in the future.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/19/observer-editorial-liberal-democrats-conference

Blair left legacy too late


I can remember the media storm then as we witness another now. In the dying weeks of Blair’s premiership before Brown finally took office, the longest ever serving Labour Prime Minister criss-crossed the country, controlled the airwaves, plastered the newspapers with his grey, weary image. It was all so desperate, so futile. A man who had done so much to secure his place in the history books but had also not achieved enough. A man who had done too much in some instances so that all his other work was overshadowed. I remember his helicopter landing at one of his much praised academy schools on the news, the crowds of children ordered to gather in bemusement at the fading celebrity anxious to go out with a bang, anxious not to be forgotten. All it all did was remind everyone what they disliked about him and enable Gordon Brown’s honeymoon period, in which the gruff Scott dealt with crisis after crisis, got on with the job, unconcerned by image.

Three years on so much has changed in British politics and Blair returns. How strange it seems to recall that Brown seemed the perfect antidote to years of Blair’s charm, that Cameron was perhaps weeks away from swift election defeat. Who could have predicted a Lib-Con pact that seems to have ushered in a new political era and at the very least left the Labour party isolated and leaderless? In one newspaper today the totality of media coverage achieved by the release of Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is compared to that of a budget and this is testament to how his legacy provokes a response from any British voter. It is impossible to be indifferent to Blair. Just as the average voter will passionately launch a diatribe against the Chancellor for raising fuel or cider duty, they will relish the opportunity to vent their feelings on Blair. Unfortunately for him and a man once so dependent on popularity his legacy is overshadowed by one thing: Iraq.

In many ways the issue of Iraq stands totally separate to all other aspects of Blair’s legacy but looms larger than everything else. So for example Blair can still be talked about as one of the top three post-war British Prime Ministers along with Atlee and Thatcher. He can still rightly be hailed as the architect of New Labour, a man whose visions and whims steered the course of history. Journalists and commentators still refer to him as the benchmark of the modern British leader, even the current Conservative Prime Minister does not shy from the title “heir to Blair”. Cameron’s reorganisation of his party in Blair’s style and the coalition’s continuation of Blairite reforms in areas like education, show just how successful Blair was in occupying the centre ground of politics so totally that it shifted to the left. His overwhelming electoral success redefined the British political landscape and leaves the Labour party with an enormous task in replacing him. And yet despite the continuing significance of his influence in the everyday struggle of British politics and indeed across the globe many believe he missed opportunities and even he now recognises this.

In his interview with Andrew Marr, Marr challenged Blair that he should have achieved more given the commanding nature of his majorities and the time he had in power. Blair’s direct response was a defence of what he did achieve but elsewhere in the interview true regrets and the motivation behind the title of A Journey for his memoir emerged. Blair admitted that he did not acquire a true vision until towards the end of his time in office, a vision about the structural reform of the state and modernising public services. In the beginning he had been “trying to please all of the people all of the time”. The most significant and influential strand of Blair’s legacy today relates directly to this in that people look to him for a master class in winning elections. In terms of policy Blair has only a handful of achievements he has now willing to enthusiastically champion as his successes and admits he left it too late to start initiating meaningful reform he took time to acquire a passion for. Prior to this costly, late revelation that occurred long after he had the surge of popular backing to properly carry it through, it seems he was content to leave matters of expenditure and policy largely to the Treasury, and to the statist agenda of Gordon Brown he so criticises.

Throughout his time in office though, Blair was enthusiastically active in areas of foreign policy. He embraced the doctrine of “liberal interventionism” and with the exception of Iraq was successful in both achieving results and convincing the British people of the necessity of action. Large chunks of his recent interview with Andrew Marr inevitably focused on Iraq and the morality of the decision to go to war, but Blair was also asked about Iran. He made it clear that if he were still Prime Minister he would not rule out military action to stop the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons and that to allow them to have such weapons would be unthinkable. Now of course the argument as to whether or not Britain should ever intervene militarily in Iran, especially given the lessons of Iraq, will be long and fierce. But Blair is not wrong to insist it should remain an option; Britain should have the capability. And yet at the moment a ballooning deficit and the extent of government overspend would mean an overstretched, slim line MOD mobilising to invade Iran at short notice.  

This then is perhaps one of the worst aspects of Blair’s legacy. I do not disagree with his passionate moral crusade in many areas of foreign policy and his preference for interventionism. Britain still has a role to play as a civilized, developed nation and a proud history of just conflict. However Blair’s inaction whilst in office when it came to the restructure of the state leaves Britain underprepared for the decisions he believes to be right now and may partly explain his guilty donation of the proceeds of his book to the British Legion. Blair appears to be aware he asked too much of the armed forces. He now claims he would have taken a different path than Gordon Brown out of recession, a “New Labour” path that modernised welfare through the combination of public and private and reduced statist spending. He says he wants to see more power in the hands of individuals. Controversially he appears to praise the coalition at the end of his book, but insists he wants neither a bigger or smaller but “reshaped” state. If this was truly the case during his tenure as Prime Minister, then surely Blair could have recognised that some areas of government can only have “big government” solutions, as I have said in previous articles. One of these areas would be defence and yet the armed forces felt cutbacks during the New Labour years, unlike most other departments. An area where more private involvement could have been encouraged was in health, but the NHS budget swelled to become the government’s biggest burden.

An Iran with nuclear weapons is a threat far more real than Saddam Hussein ever was. This time the evidence is undoubtedly there. Iran and Israel poised with their fingers on nuclear triggers is surely not a recipe for a peaceful Middle East, not a stable environment for a young Iraqi democracy, not a safe haven for energy companies in ever growing need of oil, not the right backdrop for the fight against terrorism and slow withdrawal in Afghanistan. Tony Blair rightly insists Britain should be involved if global consensus is reached and action is taken, but the choices he made or failed to make whilst in government shall make it hard for any Prime Minister to commit to a successful intervention in which the lives of our service men and women are best protected. Whether or not Blair was right or wrong about Iraq he failed to introduce seismic change in government on the same scale as he did in politics, paving the way for the coalition to tackle New Labour’s excess excessively. The challenge for Blair’s eventual Labour successor, after winning the party and the country over, will be to find a middle way that promotes sustainable growth and equality, whilst not turning off voters.

Public vs Private? A Lib Dem Dilemma


All hospitals look and feel essentially the same. They are the same mass of endless corridors, stretching on and on, filled with nurses and clipboards and trolleys but still somehow feeling like big, empty tubes brimming with nothing but still, sterile, clinical air that gnaws and chews at the nerves and wellbeing of patients before spitting them out from some unidentifiable artery drenched in anxiety. They have the same mockingly soft carpet, the same peeling paint from the same cold metal chairs, the same trundling squeaks from the laundry cart or doom laden whines of consultant’s doors. They are littered with the same old people riddled with ailments, the same proud photos of ill people remarkably overcoming their unlucky genetic hand, the same criss-crossing, numberless signage with countless departments. They are staffed by the same kindly but ordinary people, who for whatever reason work in the service of other people’s health and are without fail exposed, despite the reassuring professionalism or caring compassion behind the smiles, by the thick scent of disinfectant hanging in the air as the messengers of pain, discomfort and humiliation.

This hospital though was rather more particular than others. The walls had been whitewashed in an attempt to impose the familiar order but the age of the building meant that the corridors were endless but twisting and unpredictable, the windows suddenly large, the carpet non-existent, pipes peppering the wall like the workings of a rusty cruise liner. The floor abruptly sloped at times and the rooms were inconsistent in size. The reception area was a modern pod inserted into the post-war whole, plastered with the usual abundance of signage but beyond this all was quiet, free of clutter and business. My chest x-ray took all of thirty seconds and was carried out by a single nurse, the only member of staff in the entire corridor, who had rehearsed her lines perfectly from years of service. There was no whiff of doom in the air, merely the cold tinge of the metal plate and a slight chill from the corridor as I put my shirt back on. The results would filter through the NHS bureaucracy to my GP in a week, she said.

A relatively comfortable routine test then, that despite a handful of distinctive features at this hospital, ought to be as simple and painless across the country. In the run-up to the election David Cameron was desperate to make his party the party of the NHS, an institution he and others clearly now see as a fundamentally British ideal, not simply a Labour one. Since coming to power Cameron and his government have reaffirmed their commitment to “ring-fence” NHS spending and protect it from the comprehensive spending reviews due to steamroll through the budgets of other departments in the autumn. Presumably this is because Cameron, and it would seem the entire political class, rightly believe that healthcare should meet the same standards nationally and be available to all for free and that to provide such a service is a key indicator of a modern, civilized nation. Despite Cameron’s championing of the “Big Society” when it comes to health he has adopted a position he has often dubbed as “big government”.

Cameron’s emphasis on the “Big Society” and the masses of waste that inevitably stem from the contrary “big government” spending approach, mean that a dangerous debate is emerging that is set to compromise efficiency and fairness in the race to slash the budget deficit. Cameron has wrongly insisted that spending must be conducted in either a reckless way involving “big government” control or a devolved, fair, effective “Big Society” way. The reality is that government has an enormous role to play, often with taxes and spending injections but also that it must occasionally extend freedom to the private sector for jobs it would do better. The NHS is easily the biggest strain on government spending and Cameron has sought to impose his “Big Society” rhetoric on it in a way by encouraging local control and a purge of absurd bureaucracy. This purge would aim to increase efficiency and effectiveness by doing away with ludicrous regulations that prohibit nurses from giving injections but allow them to carry out blood tests for example, as well as cutting wasteful spending. Any attempt at streamlining efficiency is always welcome but ultimately as hollow as the Conservatives’ promises of “efficiency savings” during the election to deal with the deficit. The problem goes much deeper. If Cameron was serious and sensible about tackling “big government” spending he would address NHS spending as it accounts for such a large chunk of the state’s expenditure. He would prioritise treatment for those truly ill and scale back other projects such as IVF and cosmetic surgery currently available via the NHS. He would ease the tax burden on private hospitals and encourage those who could afford private treatment to use it, whilst increasing taxes on anything that adds to the NHS workload, for example alcohol, tobacco, particularly harmful fats and additives in food. To take these sensible steps that would lead to a higher quality NHS for those ill and injured through no fault of their own, genuinely deserving of treatment, Cameron’s government would have to make unpopular choices and introduce tax rises and it is far simpler to be hailed as moral crusaders for preserving the inalienable right of free health care above all other areas that are trivial in comparison.

By writing a blank cheque to the NHS Cameron makes the axe fall harder elsewhere in Whitehall departments. This is foolish given that certain things only the government can do and others government ought to do more with. For example the MOD is set to face massive cuts which could be even more devastating if the Chancellor wins his ministerial battle with Liam Fox, the defence secretary, to ensure the Trident replacement is paid for out of the MOD budget, not the Treasury’s. “Defence of the realm” Cameron insisted this week, “should always remain any government’s first priority”. And yet somewhere Britain’s capabilities shall suffer irreversibly, be it through the loss of a fleet of helicopters destined to safely ferry troops tasked with an ambitious withdrawal target around Afghan provinces or through the loss of jets, or troops or aircraft carriers. A Strategic Defence Review might lead to a much needed rethink in the direction of defence strategy but it will also herald the scaling back of Britain’s global influence, it is simply a question of how much prestige we shall concede.

In my opinion defence is not the only area that can only effectively be administered by government being hit hard by the proposed cuts. The energy department’s budget is under threat and Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has already stressed that the bulk of his budget is consumed by the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Britain could be well placed to avoid the worse of energy crisis and turmoil in the future if proper investment is given to renewable sources, particularly wind as we have 40% of the potential wind energy in Europe within our territory. However the coalition government’s ideological spending decisions mean that their only efforts will be the “encouragement” of private investment in these industries, at a time where swift and direct action must be taken to kick start a long term, essential process of diversification and development. Private investment is in any case bound to be slow as we emerge from recession and the industries are yet to be regarded as ripe for profit. This is all ignoring the fact that a country surely ought to have a great deal of direct control over its energy production for reasons of security, independence and stability in the long term and yet we are happy to surrender the keys to our daily lives to vulnerable, private, foreign companies?

Staying with climate change a “big government” solution to transport emissions and efficiency would also be preferable, but unthinkable without a major redistribution of government spending. At the moment government expenditure helps maintain the railways and yet private companies control prices and provide largely unattractive services. Government control would allow a fresher, greener, cheaper and more widely used transport network and would inevitably have to be offset by tax rises on the motorist. All of this talk of nationalisation style policy and tax rises is far too left wing for the coalition government, but the Liberal Democrats called for such revolutionary transport policy in their manifesto, to invigorate the economy and lead the way on emissions cuts. Instead the Lib Dems are being sucked into an alliance of slashing not just in spending but in government influence. It might be liberal to rein in the police and even to make sure benefits are only paid to those genuinely in need, but it can also be liberal for government to make transport cheap and appealing to all, ensure a consistent, cheap energy supply and take direct charge of basic education in schools. This divide between big state and small state liberals has long been a feature of the Liberal Democrats and may continue to be an issue.

Several contributors to DemoCritic have warned that the Lib Dems must be careful in coalition and I have urged them and us, the voters, repeatedly on my blog to ensure the Conservatives do not have unlimited use of orange and yellow human shields in Parliament. When it comes to Cameron’s “Big Society” agenda Nick Clegg has promised that it upholds liberal values. But during the election he dismissed the slogan as a gimmick designed to disguise rushed, ideological deficit reduction that threatens not only the economy but the efficiency and fairness of our state. Clegg and those in his party must endeavour to ensure what’s good about the “Big Society” goes ahead and the Labour party and the electorate must continue to call for what Cameron labels “big government” solutions when they are right and suitable.