Whatever happened to “I agree with Nick”?
What happened to the t-shirts churned out with that slogan and what happened to the most popular politician since Winston Chuchill?
David Cameron, the Conservatives, the Coalition and the cuts happened. And Nick Clegg’s identity as not only a politically savvy leader, likeable for remembering the names of questioners in the audience, but an ideologically well meaning man, was lost under all the public outcry. As the distinctive voice of his party became ever diluted by its partnership with the Conservatives, so did Clegg’s own progressive world view.
I’ve long championed Clegg on this blog. Frankly it’s been tempting to turn on Britain’s most hated man at times. But it would have been weak and naive to dismiss Clegg for compromising in government. He was absolutely right to enter into coalition. His choice of partner was unavoidable and fair. It was constitutionally correct and right for the British people. Not all of the policies of the Coalition necessarily are though. In fact some, many even, are damn right damaging.
More importantly from a Lib Dem point of view it’s been impossible to reconcile drastic deficit reduction with most of the progressive policies requiring investment in their manifesto. Finally though, today in Rotherham, Clegg delivered a speech daubed with innumerable fingerprints from that manifesto. And it’s the most convincing argument in favour of the government’s economic strategy so far.
Last year when David Cameron embarked on a foreign policy tour, I called on him to use sustainability and green growth as a unifying message to take around the world from Britain. Since then, and his failure to do anything of the sort despite promises of a “jobs mission”, President Obama has announced a focus on clean energy in his State of the Union address. And now Nick Clegg has made the ideological link between environmental and economic sustainability.
Nick Clegg’s speech has the potential to seriously worry Labour. It returns to the more inspirational language he used in the election. It makes a rational argument for a brand new economic model. Nowhere does Clegg make the mistake of saying it will end boom and bust, as Gordon Brown did, but that’s clearly the intention by creating a sustainable foundation for growth and diversifying Britain’s output. He makes it clear the government will plan for growth and eliminating the deficit is merely the means to an end of prolonged growth. The Conservatives, even Chancellor George Osborne, have made such a fetish of cutting that it seemed to be all this government stood for. Clegg reminds people of the future, of an optimistic vision. As with Climate Change, most have neglected to point out the opportunities created by the solution to a serious problem.
The speech will also reassure Lib Dems. To an extent, it reassures me. Clegg’s four pillars of growth are all sensible and recognisably linked to the key points on the front of his election manifesto. Investment over debt, regional balance, hard infrastructure (high speed rail, energy) and soft infrastructure (education and skills). For me the undertone of the speech was that were it not for the deficit and some conflicting priorities with Conservative colleagues, Clegg would be implementing an investment led, green economy alongside new measures for fairness. Fairer tax and better education. Green jobs and better transport.
Clegg ended his speech at the Carbon Capture plant speaking about Carbon Capture and Storage. The government appears to be committing to CCS. And about time to. For a long time the potential for exporting CCS technology, to emerging, gargantuan economies like China already packed with coal power stations, has been enormous. Britain could not only minimise upheaval and expenditure in converting her own energy supplies but make huge profits and create jobs by genuinely affecting the world’s carbon output through pioneering and exporting the technology. Clegg makes the economic case for CCS, but ties it to Climate Change for progressives. This is the way forward: realistic ways of getting emissions down.
However despite shifting the debate wisely to sustainability and articulating the reasons for government economic policy better than anyone so far, Clegg will remain under pressure from Labour. Firstly this speech shall probably wrongly achieve minimal publicity. Secondly, and more importantly, Clegg’s pillars of growth are undermined and contradicted by Coalition policy. They remain mostly on a wish list in the partly fulfilled Lib Dem manifesto. If there’s a commitment to education and “soft” infrastructure, despite the pupil premium it’s hard to justify cuts to universities. High Speed Rail makes slow progress, there’s no solid government money for green energy and jobs. The cuts hit traditionally poorer regions disproportionately hard. Labour should still be able to make the case that yes we want sustainable growth, but you needn’t cut as fast and deep, you needn’t delay all attempts to spark growth, despite a reasoned argument from Clegg about properly targeting spending. And you need growth in order to cut the deficit, sooner not later.
There are loads of good things in this speech I’ve wanted to see for a while. But the bottom line is they don’t go far enough and they’re outweighed by cuts, cultural devastation and unemployment. However if the Coalition pick up Clegg’s argument and Osborne’s Budget contains growth policies in keeping with a futuristic vision, Labour will find it harder to land blows on a plan of long term optimism. And whatever happens, Clegg’s proved his political credentials once more.
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It has been one of those weeks in politics. As well as dull but incredibly important legislative procedure on issues like voting reform and the EMA, there have been the scandalous, newsworthy, headline-grabbing stories which get everyone interested and have the potential to set the tone of debate for the foreseeable future. On Friday the big story was supposed to be the once charismatic, fallen and tainted PM Tony Blair giving evidence for a second time at a historic war inquiry. Instead both of the major parties faced employment crises that sent morale on an undulating, yo-yoing rollercoaster ride.
At the end of that ride it seems Labour, against the odds, have emerged with their heads held high and full of hope. The resignation of David Cameron’s long-term spin doctor Andy Coulson proves them right on a point they’ve been making in Opposition for months. With little policy of their own to use as ammunition against Coalition cuts, Labour have relished the niggling issue of Coulson’s shady past at the News of the World. By finally quitting Coulson has reinforced Labour’s attempts to expose the “new” politics of the coalition as the same old dishonest, elitist governance of old. Coulson may have tried to serve his employer well one last time with the timing of his announcement, shrouded as it was in theory by the gargantuan story of a Labour frontbench reshuffle so soon after the selection of the original line-up. But for the moment at least it’s Labour that are buoyed by events and the Tories feeling somewhat dejected.
Back in October I aired my views on this blog about the announcement of Ed Miliband’s first Shadow Cabinet. To me the appointment of Alan Johnson was a mistake, and far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but events have proved my initial musings correct. Johnson went from gaffe to gaffe, showing a worrying lack of knowledge for his brief. Labour continually failed to land palpable hits on economic issues, despite a plethora of targets laid bare by Con-Dem cuts. Meanwhile Ed Balls, after a dynamic and impressive leadership campaign, languished largely unnoticed as Shadow Home Secretary. No one seemed to be pro-active enough to take the fight to the Conservatives on damaging policies in a noticeable way. Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, also wasted away shadowing the foreign office brief, despite widespread backing in the party and the potential for public support. The only Labour frontbencher scoring economic points was Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, and even he has left glaring gaps in his arguments and been error prone.
Alan Johnson’s sudden resignation due to personal issues so soon into his new, vital job may be a blessing in disguise for Labour and everyone wishing to see credible Opposition to Coalition cuts. Despite the mistakes, Johnson has once again proved in his short tenure his capacity to be likeable and approachable to ordinary voters. The revelation that it was in fact his wife having an affair, not him, ensures the prospect of return to the Labour frontbench in a smaller, popular role in the future. With Johnson’s static, timid fiscal presence brushed aside though, Labour can at last forge a bold new and distinctive direction on all things economic.
I praised Ed Balls during his leadership campaign for going a long way to reshape his bullyboy image. More than any other candidate, Balls looked as if he’d give Labour a truly individual position on policy. Continually described as Labour’s “attack dog” Balls will now have much greater freedom to bite at the heels of the Coalition. As Shadow Chancellor he’ll have to respond to hot, topical issues like tuition fees and bankers’ bonuses; fresh and emotive in the public consciousness. He’ll also have to start winning the argument on growth and investment vs. spending cuts.
Already though he has shown signs of defending Labour’s past record more effectively, explaining his decision to now back the plan he once opposed to halve the deficit within four years, by citing better figures driven by Labour’s spending whilst in government. He’s also been wise to already criticise the government, not for risking a double-dip recession, which looks unlikely, but for wasting an opportunity for greater growth and wider prosperity because of ideological decisions. And growth, Balls will emphasise, is the swiftest, most sustainable route to deficit reduction.
There are still those warning against the potential problems of two Eds at the top though. The primary fear is a return to the Blair-Brown standoff that came to define and overshadow New Labour. This concern adds the extra interest of a helping of recent political history to the mix of this story. Will Labour repeat past mistakes, despite Miliband’s proclamation of a new generation? Even if the new team propels Labour back to government, the same old potentially lethal questions will hang ominously over the partnership between the leader and the treasury.
However I think the doubters are at the very least premature to suspect Balls of wanting to derail Miliband’s revival of the party. Despite the fact he ran for leader, it’s no secret that the job Balls has always wanted is Chancellor. Finally in a position to seize his goal, he is unlikely to turn his fire on his own party. Much more likely is that Balls will electrify the chamber, as one Labour source believes he will, and unleash an avalanche of devastating balls of criticism at the government. He’ll add much needed guts and yes, “Balls”, to Labour’s Opposition. He’s already proved his aptitude for Opposition politics during his leadership campaign.
Balls’ wife will also have greater opportunity to play a key role, replacing her husband as Shadow Home Secretary. She’ll no doubt start picking apart government policing plans. But once again Ed Miliband showed a disappointing lack of courage with his emergency reshuffle. Already he’s failed to take climate change seriously or offer serious backing to voting reform or a graduate tax. And by handing Balls Johnson’s old job, not his wife, he once again missed an opportunity to make his generation truly a new one.
Failing with his initial selection of a cabinet though meant he simply had to give the role to Balls. Who will, I believe, do a genuinely excellent job and accelerate Labour’s journey back to power. The two Eds plan to have adjacent offices and the fears of a Blair-Brown fallout seem unfounded to me. Nevertheless they will not disappear and had Miliband boldly plumped for the equally qualified Cooper, he would have avoided the shadow of New Labour he is so desperate to escape.
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The demise of President Barack Obama’s support in the USA, confirmed by this week’s Mid-Term election results, is a depressing triumph of pessimism over optimism. I found myself swept up in the wave of hope and positive expectation two years ago, as did millions of others across the globe. For me it was simply irresistible in a modern age in which nothing feels genuinely new and groundbreaking to be witness to true history unfolding. The first black President and one with a truly progressive agenda, felt like a huge step forward into a new era. Who knew what could be accomplished with an ordinary, sensible citizen at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation? Real change felt possible. Many will say that the capitulation of the fervour and enthusiasm that propelled Obama into office was inevitable though. They will point to the relative ease of Opposition compared to governance, the scale of the tasks Obama set himself and the harsh realities of politics. To a large extent they will be right: Obama simply could not fulfil such high expectations and his downfall acts as a warning to any politician elected on a platform of change for change’s sake, including Cameron’s coalition. But the President’s own actions and inaction has contributed to the dissipation of his popularity and can go some way still to restoring it in time for a second term.
All the talk now is of the necessity of Obama finding common ground with his newly powerful Republican foes. The advice is to consolidate the achievements of the first two years and work tirelessly on modest improvements the Republicans will support for the last two. Be a President who gets things done. However from across the pond the key disappointment of Obama’s time in office so far has been his withdrawal into work. Clearly he was conscious of the threat of his opponents labelling him as an empty orator, forever preaching but never getting his hands dirty. The danger of devoting himself completely to mammoth projects such as health care reform and securing an economic recovery though is that his enemies will have free rein on stage to belittle his accomplishments, as well as stalling them behind the scenes. And the fact is despite the huge change Obama’s health care reforms represent in the USA; they were never going to be politically profitable. Supporters of extended health care will look at the universal systems such as the NHS in this country and wish Obama had gone further, whilst conservatives view what he has already done as an act of socialism, needlessly and immorally pouring away gallons of public money at the expense of the treasured American private sector. Similarly too with his actions to prevent financial meltdown, it is difficult to prove how much worse things would have been without a giant fiscal stimulus and bailout and whether or not ordinary American workers actually benefited. There’s no doubt that America initially returned to unprecedented growth, but as this has petered out those still unemployed demand to know what is being done and the energised Republicans rant as all those on the right do globally about a ballooning budget deficit and the need for a smaller state.
Bizarrely, whilst it seemed the election of a black President had ended an era of extremism and intolerance it has actually served as a catalyst for the more outspoken Democratic opponents, mainly of course supporters of the Tea Party. It’s understandable why the President might feel paralysed and uncertain how best to fight back. In the eyes of many of the fanatics whatever he does will be wrong, and he has little evidence to hold up in defence of his first years in office. Even his supporters insist he has failed to communicate the enormity of what he has achieved already, but the problem is greater than just communication. Yes Obama must defend the good he has done but he must also spell out again the vision that energised his Presidential campaign. From here in the UK Obama’s transformation from inspirational orator with stirring rhetoric into a closeted figure focused on domestic matters, has been a massive disappointment. He had the opportunity to lead internationally on issues such as climate change, aid and terrorism, but has now spent the bulk of his political capital by becoming bogged down over health care. To restore his popularity in his own country Obama must surely begin to appear like a leader again and aim high. He must make it clear he intends to lead his nation for the long haul and that there are many challenges left to face. It may well be politically advisable to cooperate with the Republicans on some issues as he initially promised, but if this were at the expense of the idealism that catapulted him to power it would be a grave mistake. His opponents lack real backing and have merely benefited from the dissatisfaction of voters with Obama’s progress. Let’s hope that he can get back on the road and make up for a largely wasted start to the journey.
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Two Eds are better than one? Well perhaps not as Labour’s new leader opted not to make his namesake Ed Balls shadow chancellor, despite the weight of expertise, a strong leadership campaign and many votes in the shadow cabinet elections behind him. His wife Yvette Cooper then, who topped the poll of Labour MPs, would surely get the chance to carve Labour a new, distinctive position on the deficit in response to the Con-Dem’s cuts? No. 60 year old Alan Johnson, the earliest backer of Ed’s elder brother, was chosen by young Ed as his right hand man. Despite David’s choice to bow out from frontline politics, his shadows hangs heavy over his brother’s first team selection.
Of all the shadow cabinet roles assigned it was obviously that of shadow chancellor that carried the most importance and also Johnson’s appointment to that role which was the biggest shock. Ed Miliband has been either slammed for his caution or praised for his unifying skills and his courage to make the right choices regardless of popularity. I happen to think that making Johnson shadow chancellor is a missed opportunity for Labour’s new generation but there are some well selected roles in Ed’s team. Andy Burnham is a good match for the education brief, given his reasonably strong leadership campaign, working class background and accessible, relevant character traits such as his love of football. His ordinary accent will contrast well with Michael Gove’s nasal snobbery in the Commons. Likewise Jim Murphy seems a good choice to shadow the MOD and Liam Fox, with his dour Scots accent he shall be able to pour scorn on government defence cuts whilst emphasising the needs of the ordinary soldier and citizen. There is also no reason why Harriet Harman, Douglas Alexander and John Denham ought not to succeed in their new roles in International Development, Work and Pensions and Business respectively. Alexander and Denham in particular have their work cut out, with capable coalition opponents in Ian Duncan Smith and Vince Cable, but both are able ministers themselves.
However in my view Miliband has made a mistake in his handling of where exactly to place the popular and talented husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. Both are wasted at the Home and Foreign office. Those who support the leader’s decision say that it was unavoidable to maintain party unity and to avoid the mistakes of the Blair-Brown years. An economic policy handed to Balls, they say, would have conceded this ground to him permanently as Blair did for Brown, dividing the party again and sowing the seeds of future turmoil. My response to the argument of unity is that by appointing Balls Shadow Home Secretary Miliband has not necessarily pacified him. Balls will be gutted as it is to have missed out on his shot at the Treasury yet again; he made no secret of his desire for the job. To be so bluntly snubbed and given what many regard as the jinxed ministerial brief will not endear him to the younger Miliband. Besides there was no reason for Balls and Miliband to be enemies as Blair and Brown were, especially if Miliband had trusted Balls and rewarded with a job he had long coveted. If Miliband was uncomfortable handing his most important role to the volatile Balls though, he should have given it to his wife Cooper. Cooper won the shadow cabinet elections, and therefore had democratic legitimacy as well as the additional merits of youth (only 40 years old and part of the new generation), expertise (she was previously Work and Pensions secretary, a closely related role), intelligence (Harvard educated, a journalist at the Independent) and the fact that she is female. Appointing her to his top job would have sent exactly the right sort of modern, fair message but instead Miliband played it safe. Whilst being Foreign Secretary is an important, prestigious position, shadowing the area is less glamorous and less crucial to the argument defining British politics at the moment; how best to respond to the deficit.
With Johnson’s appointment Miliband signalled that he is planning to stick largely to Alistair Darling’s failed election pledge to halve the deficit in four years. This is disappointing as frankly Labour need a new idea to be championed by their new generation. Ed Miliband needs his equivalent of David Cameron’s “Big Society” and he has an enormous opportunity if he can find his big idea, because voters refuse to buy into the Prime Minister’s. Appointing Johnson though is unlikely to lead to a distinctive, radical or inspiring position on the deficit with credible, imaginative solutions. Yes Johnson is a capable minister, having held high profile jobs as Home Secretary and Health Secretary amongst others, but he has always taken a back seat and kept a low profile. He has shown the capacity to be popular with ordinary voters; with his working class charm often talked about, but lacked the desire or courage to use it. In the past he has passed up opportunities for advancement and you wonder if he is genuinely enthused by the task set him by his new leader and the opportunities to make a real difference to fairness he has, or whether he is merely grimly descending to his task for the sake of previously mentioned, holy party unity.
Forging a successful, coherent and credible economic policy that is also electable is THE challenge facing Labour. The coalition is struggling over issues like universal benefit, tuition fees and the spending reviews. Tension is set to rise, with the NUS leading students to the streets on the 10th November to highlight the backtracking of Lib Dems. The shadow chancellor should be the spearhead of Labour’s new generation, with new ideas gradually forming a fresh vision, one more accessible than Cameron’s “Big Society” and fairer too. He should be prepared to examine ideas like the Robin Hood tax, mansion tax and graduate tax, whilst also backing the more sensible reforms of the coalition, such as a standard benefit payment and lifting the income tax threshold, as long as they are carried out properly. Labour needs to propose ideas for a new sustainable economy that can support essential and modern public services, whilst always striving for growth. It should look at green taxes, green jobs and green industries and offer a new deal with concrete investment. It should be prepared to ring fence areas of spending the Conservatives are set to cripple, whilst being ready to remain credible and a force in the argument by suggesting alternative means of revenue. Labour has to offer the opportunities a modern day, liberal British society craves in a way that can be paid for and delivered on; not the idealistic, vague promises of Cameron’s individualistic rhetoric, which merely serves as a cover for a smaller state, no matter how well intentioned.
Unfortunately I fear that Miliband’s selections for his shadow cabinet and his chancellor in particular, will lead to half baked, over cautious policies that lack the passion for real change. Indeed an incoherent policy on the deficit will lead to policy clashes throughout the party that might give Labour’s new generation an identity crisis. Balls as shadow chancellor would have relished the chance to set out a genuine alternative to the coalition and Miliband would have had to rein him in at times when he was wrong. But ultimately I feel the dynamism glimpsed in the Labour leadership campaign would have been better channelled towards George Osborne than given a bitter, limited home in opposition to Theresa May. Balls is likely to propose tough, populist positions on crime, driven by his resentment at missing out, policies that could undermine his new leader’s courtship of liberal Britain. Cooper too could have been a far more effective weapon against Osborne than Johnson and shall be wasted in her standoff with Hague, on issues like Afghanistan where there is no real disagreement. She also could have been a far better symbol of the new party Miliband is trying to create. Ultimately I can only assume Miliband feared she would be the puppet of her husband and his appointment of an ensemble of women to less important ministerial positions shows that he may not be as pro-women as he likes to make out. His appointment of an unknown to his previous brief as Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary also shows a disappointing lack of regard for an issue he led supporters to believe was vital to him, but now may well have proved to be a mere rung on his career ladder. A high profile appointment to this area in his shadow cabinet could have been a signal of intent. Despite my criticisms though it’s possible that the team Ed has chosen, with its mix of his and his brother’s supporters, will offer a unified and passionate opposition. It is wrong to judge before they have set to work, after all the road to the election is a marathon not a sprint, it just might have been possible to set out at a faster pace.
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David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.
Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.
Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.
To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.
Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.
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Peter Morgan may or may not see his script for the 23rd James Bond film become a reality, and it may or not be a picture directed by acclaimed director Sam Mendes, but Morgan has certainly not struggled to make films about former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Equally serial impressionist Michael Sheen has not found it hard to play the charming leader, taking on the role in previous dramas The Deal, The Queen and now The Special Relationship. Sheen has made a living out of playing real people, from the chaotic camp of Kenneth Williams to the masculine self assurance of football manager Brian Clough and he has always fitted snugly into Blair’s recognisable suits and effortlessly donned his trademark grin. As with Morgan’s previous examinations of Blair The Special Relationship looks at a particular period of this remarkable man’s life through a narrow lens with a small cluster of essential characters. This is the story of Clinton and Blair; the President’s influence on the Prime Minister, the wives influence on the two men’s friendship and the advisers grappling with how best to make use of such ideological and personal bonds.
Blair’s devious tabloid spin doctor Alastair Campbell slammed Morgan’s latest drama before it premiered on BBC2 on Saturday night as a complete work of fiction bearing almost no relation to the facts and events as they happened. Now whilst it must be true that Morgan wielded creative license to craft a number of personal scenes between the two leaders and the leaders and their wives, as he cannot have known the content of such intimate chats besides glimpses from memoirs, Campbell’s utter rejection of the drama’s credibility may be down to his own less than flattering portrayal. The special media adviser appears to be a brash, sneering and crude presence throughout. He represents the dark side of Blair he had to embrace in order to haul Labour out of Opposition in a new media age, a dark side of tabloid manipulation and sinister back stabbing and sordid scandals. Campbell is less of a character in Morgan’s drama than a commentator providing rolling coverage of the headlines at the time, highlighting the worst of public bloodlust and opinion, slipping in details that both provide background and represent the scale of the struggle Blair faces to get things done, when faced with an indifferent public more motivated by the shape of a President’s penis than his foreign policy commitments.
In fact given the political nature of the subject matter it’s hard to get to know any of the characters in The Special Relationship, because we don’t know them and neither did Morgan writing the script. We recall the events of the time, remember the urgency they tried to convey in their speeches and are familiar with their managed images in front of the flash bulbs. But even when we see Dennis Quaid’s brooding Clinton, seemingly drained by scandal and the web of lies he has entangled himself in, it’s impossible to deduce the sentiment of the man, he’s presented as a blank, an enigma of a stress deliberating how best to handle the political fallout. Hillary is arguably the most lifelike character in this drama and she is sensitively played. The restrained emotion is there, visibly only just in check but her ambition and necessity trap her in her situation. She doggedly soldiers on.
The events, somewhat inevitably, are major characters in themselves in this historical drama. That’s not to say we don’t get insight into character; it’s clear early on that despite Clinton’s insistence that Blair owes him nothing he expects good old Tony to tow the line. Initially he does so, movingly and hesitantly sticking his neck out over the affair, but when Blair makes a stand on Kosovo Clinton is not prepared to be in Blair’s debt, he was always managing the upstart Brit whatever the praise. It’s when the plot gathers pace over the Kosovan crisis that this drama comes into its own, engaging far more than the early, plodding set up of the Clinton-Blair relationship. Blair refuses to be politically positioned like a pawn by Clinton and the stage is set for confrontation. Churchillian like speeches full of inspiration captured the mood of the new millennium, a mood of optimistic cooperation in which every nation with a moral compass could play its part and make a genuine difference, a mood banished by 9/11 and the subsequent retaliation. It’s odd to think that Clinton’s America, although led by an adulterer, was more trusted and respected around the world and that Blair was able to harness goodwill felt towards it.
Blair’s boldness wins over the American press, with gushing approval ratings calling for him to run for the Presidency. Throughout the piece however the more experienced Clinton urged Blair to consider his legacy, not just fickle opinion polls, and whilst it may seem triumph in Kosovo secured it for Blair we all knew it was to be eclipsed, and the drama ends ominously with his heart and mind in the right place, committed to a pragmatic, meaningful relationship with new Republican President George Bush, but ultimately to underestimate and be sucked into a damaging legacy he would never shake off. Popularity would pass by Tony Blair just as it passed for Bill Clinton and both men arguably spurned opportunities to make use of it. The Special Relationship of progressive centre left leaders, leading the world in a unified, positive banishment of right-wing politics to the dark ages never truly materialised. Morgan’s drama ends by asking topical questions raised by the release of Blair’s memoir; did Blair waste his legacy and was he ever the politician he claimed to be, given his current support for the coalition, or was he just a self-centred man grabbing his place in history with both hands, wherever he had to reach to? Whatever the answers, despite Clinton’s warning to Blair that rhetoric alone is not enough, both leaders had moments in this drama that demonstrated the enormous power of words in the hands of a politician and leader, the power to ignite, transform and inspire, but also sadly, to disappoint.
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