Tory Party Conference

Here are some of the better bits of Theresa May’s speech to the Tory Party conference earlier today. Every word is true, every promise credible, oh yes. (The whole thing is here, but you really shouldn’t bother.)

Some Tories have indulged themselves in petty feuding or personal sniping instead of getting behind a leader who is doing an enormous amount to change a party which has suffered two massive landslide defeats….And there are reasons for real optimism. The Conservative Party has made progress this year and has laid the foundation for sustainable progress ahead. The reason is clear. Iain Duncan Smith has had the courage to recognise the seriousness of our problems and the imagination to develop a programme for recovery…

And on Wednesday afternoon you won’t just have Oliver Letwin’s speech, you will have, in your hands, a campaign pack for you to take the message of this conference out onto the streets where the real battle is there to be fought…

Yes we’ve made progress.

But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a way to go before we can return to government.

There’s a lot we need to do in this Party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the nasty party.

I know that’s unfair. You know that’s unfair but it’s the people out there we need to convince – and we can only do that by avoiding behaviour and attitudes that play into the hands of our opponents. No more glib moralising, no more hypocritical finger wagging…

Yes, indeed. There’ll be no more glib moralising, finger-wagging, petty feuding or personal sniping. From now on it’s straight forward to victory with Iain Duncan Smith!

Dan writes [15.10.2002]: I thought you might appreciate this.


Over the last few days there has been even more nonsense in the British papers than usual, some of it entertaining. George Jones, writing in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, broke ranks by making a sensible observation:

… the emergence of the Currie diaries is a damaging blow for Iain Duncan Smith a little over a week before his party conference in Bournemouth. He has spent the past year trying to show that the Conservatives have learnt the lessons of the past and are concerned with issues such as public services and the vulnerable. Yet he and virtually all of his shadow cabinet are probably less well known to the average voter than either Mr Major or Mrs Currie.

The word “virtually” there is quite right — I would guess that Michael Howard is probably about as well known as Edwina Currie amongst the general public, but certainly none of the others — and Mrs Currie’s ministerial career ended almost fifteen years ago.

Fifth Anniversary

As the media gears up for an orgy of pointless comment on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the death of Diana — now dubbed, scandalously, the most significant date in twentieth-century British history, according to a poll conducted by the History Channel — it is more pleasant to travel back to a story from the previous week’s newspapers.

For on the August Bank Holiday Weekend of 1997, the young, thrusting, brand new Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague (pictured right), visited the Notting Hill Carnival with his partner Ffion Jenkins, in order to be photographed with a whistle around his neck, drinking from a coconut, and generally hanging out with the kids, in order to show a commitment to multicultural Britain and having fun, two things with which the Conservative Party wasn’t – and isn’t – generally associated. (Around the same time, Mr Hague was also photographed in a log flume wearing a baseball cap).

This particular incarnation of the People’s William was, of course, swiftly abandoned, in favour of a more thuggish persona, a shorter haircut and increasingly harsh policies on immigration, asylum, lauranorder and other issues, as both Government and Opposition strove to outflank one another on the right on most questions of social policy in the period from 1998 until finally (and predictably), Mr Hague was swallowed whole, thoroughly chewed up, and spat out onto the dustbin of history by New Labour at the General Election of 2001.

An interesting moment, though, in the political history of the present, and from whose vantage point, of course, the Notting Hill jaunt now falls exactly at the midpoint of the ten-year-long, continuing saga with no end in sight of the political impotence of the contemporary Conservative Party. For after virtual level-pegging between the two major parties in the opinion polls through the Summer of 1992, in the wake of the surprise victory for John Major in the General Election of that year, the Tories began their general collapse in September, amidst Michael Heseltine’s closure of the pits on the one hand and the pound falling out of the ERM on the other. (Between July 1990 and September 1992, the Tories were never below 34% in the Gallup poll; after that they were never above it for at least the next seven years, probably longer [the numbers I have in front of me only go up to December 1999], and the only time they have pulled ahead of Labour was during the freak politics of the fuel protests in 2000, and even then for one month only).

To end back where we started, at least for the moment: I thought everyone had heard this joke, but apparently they haven’t, and it does survive repetition: What’s the difference between Diana and Lot’s wife?

Diana turned into a pillar of concrete.

Drunk Politicians

The happy consequences of Jeremy Paxman’s focus on Charles Kennedy’s drinking habits last week is that the backlash is underway, and defences of drunk politicians are appearing in the mainstream media. New Labour’s puritanism is always ridiculous, never more so than a few years ago when (it was reported that) MPs had been ordered not to let themselves be photographed with drinks in their hands, and while it is, in general, a good thing that train drivers, emergency workers and certain others are sober during their working days, to extend this logic to throughout the public sector and across the political classes is absurd.

So we have had Tom Utley’s defence of the drunk politician in the Telegraph, which joins Alan Watkins’ column in last week’s Independent on Sunday (before this controversy broke) on the prodigious drinking feats of the older generation in general, and Tony Crosland in particular. And a browse of the archives brings the words of this song to light, reported by Matthew Engel in the Guardian in its 1999 coverage of the Lib Dem party conference:

Speed bonnie boat
Like a hack on the make
Back to his seat on Skye.
Carry the lad that was born to be king
Back to his seat on Skye

Where is the man?
Down in the bar,
Loudly the whips pro-clai-aim
Out on the town
Out of his head
Charlie is pissed again

And Radio 4’s Sunday morning Broadcasting House played the happy-making clip of Alan Clark’s remarks to the House of Commons in July 1983, which led to one of the immortal passages in his Diaries:

Fool, Clark. Fool, fool, fool… The fucking text! I’d barely looked at it… It seemed frightfully long. So long, indeed, that I would have to excise certain passages. But which? And yet this didn’t really seem very important as we ‘tasted’ first a bottle of ’61 Palmer, then ‘for comparison’ a bottle of ’75 Palmer then, switching back to ’61, a really delicious Pichon Longueville… A huge Havana was produced, and I puffed it deeply while struggling with my speech… The Chamber was unusually full for an after-ten event. … As I started, the odiousness of the text sank in. The purpose of the Order, to make it more likely (I would put it no stronger than that) that women should be paid the same rate for the same task, as men, was unchallengeable. In my view, in most instances, women deserve not less but more than the loutish, leering, cigaretting males who control most organisations at most levels But give a civil servant a good case and he’ll wreck it with clich�s, bad punctuation, double negatives and convoluted apology. Stir into this a directive from the EC, some contrived legal precedent and a few caveats from the ECJ and you have a text which is impossible to read – never mind read out.

I found myself dwelling on, implicitly, it could be said, sneering at, the more cumbrous and unintelligible passages. Elaine Kellett-Bowman, who has a very squeaky voice, squeaked, kept squeaking, at me, “Speed up”. Some of the House got the point, enjoyed what I was doing, but I sensed also a certain restlessness starting to run round the Chamber. I did speed up. I gabbled. Helter-skelter I galloped through the text. Sometimes I turned over two pages, sometimes three. What did it matter? There was no shape to it. No linkage from one proposition to another. They very antithesis of an Aristotelian pattern…

Then the inevitable. The one sure-fire way of breaking through a speaker who won’t give way. “Point of Order, Mr Deputy Speaker”. I sat down. A new Labour member, whom I had never seen before, called Clare Short, dark-haired and serious with a lovely Brummie accent, said something about she’d read that you couldn’t accuse a fellow member of being drunk, but she really believed I was incapable. “It is disrespectful to the House and to the office that he holds that he should come here in this condition”. Screams, yells, shouts of “Withdraw”, counter-shouts. General uproar…

One more brief kerfuffle, and the Division was called. Nobody spole to me much in the Aye lobby, although little garden gnome Peter Rost sidled up and said, “After a performance like that I almost considered voting against”. Poxy little runt, what’s he ever done?

Any rational human being would, in any case, require a great deal of booze to survive at Westminster in the company of the dreary idiots who populate the parliamentary benches today.

Nick wrote [22.7.2002]: FWIW, Alan Clark’s bits come roughly 38 minutes into the broadcast, for those who want to jump to the meat of the matter.

Eye-Catching Initiatives

The drip, drip of poisonous US social policy from the US to the UK has been one of the more depressing features of British politics over the better part of the last decade. Ever since the idiots in New Labour decided that Being Like Clinton was the key to getting elected and governing the country, we’ve been exposed to a string of what Tony Blair once carelessly referred to in a confidential memo as “eye-catching initiatives“, which grab the headlines for a day or two and then drift out of sight to do their destructive work on the lives of British citizens and British society. Not everything that the ministers have recommended, of course, has been enacted. Local authorities have been reluctant, for example, to implement the youth curfews of which Jack Straw was so enamoured once upon a time, and the traditional right to a jury trial seems to be intact, for the time being.

In general, however, it remains a safe assumption that the Straw – Blunkett – Blair axis will be inclined to smile favourably on any policy which was dreamt up by neoconservative sociologists (Banfield, Herrnstein, Wilson, Murray) in America in years past and then embraced by the US ruling class in the 1990s. A fondness for prison-based “solutions”, ideas of “zero tolerance”, mention of “broken windows”, flirting with “three strikes” rhetoric, and championing a general get-tough attitude against anti-social undesirables (“yob culture”, “street crime”, “mobile phone theft”, “leopard skin accessories”, and so on) — the transatlantic origins of the British Government’s attitude is palpable. And one of the many vital contributions of Nick Cohen to understanding the present, of course, has been his refusal to stop writing articles about the social authoritarianism and punitive instincts of our supposedly progressive lords and masters: his essay on “The Punishment Boom” in his collection, Cruel Britannia [pp.114-122] may be the highlight, but the lowlights are pretty good, too, and he remains far and away the best reason – perhaps even the only reason – for continuing to read the Sunday Observer.

Understanding the uses and disadvantages of US social policy, therefore, is an important task for those of us interested in the government of the UK. To this end we are now extremely fortunate to be able to benefit from the wisdom of Bernard E. Harcourt of the University of Arizona Law School, in his new essay “Policing Disorder” in the current issue of Joshua Cohen’s excellent publication, the Boston Review. “Zero tolerance” police tactics have become overwhelmingly popular on both sides of the American political “spectrum”, the falling violent crime rates in New York City providing all the justification an office-seeking politician could want for vindicating the tactics of the Giuliani NYPD. This excellent article combines a careful, critical survey of the empirical evidence which has been used to justify the so-called “Broken Windows” approach to policing, with a useful discussion of the shared philosophical assumptions which underpin both this approach to fighting crime and the mass incarceration policy the US has followed over the better part of the last 30 years, with the result that a phenomenal two million people are now in federal and local jails. It is a fine article, thorough and learned without being technical or unpleasantly social-scientific, and it is on the side of the angels.

Switching gears from the political to the personal, I should say that Bernard is an old colleague from my days in the graduate school at Harvard, where we both studied political philosophy in the Government Department there, and that this is, among other things, a plug for the work of a friend. The first time I came across his unique talent for combining theory and practice was the day in 1996 when he wasn’t able to turn up to make a presentation at a Harvard social theory seminar on Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. He had been appearing in a death penalty appeal case before the Tennessee Supreme Court earlier that day, and his flight back to Boston was delayed. Although he couldn’t be there in person, he faxed his notes for his presentation through to us for the course professor, Tom Ertman, to read aloud in his absence. It is still the best excuse I’ve ever heard for not turning up to a class, and I doubt it will ever be beaten.

It’s Your Region

I commented a few weeks ago on the extent to which age has not withered the excellent early 1990s Chris Morris radio show On The Hour in the slightest. A friend remarked to me the other day about the way in which today’s headlines (“Arafat Released From Three-Month Siege of Office”, that kind of thing) sound as if they have come straight out of OtH. But the best Morris moment came last week when John Prescott launched his daffy new schemes for regional government, at a press conference with a large slogan printed behind him, “It’s Your Region”. Do you remember the jingle to introduce the “regional news” segment of OtH?

“It’s your region, it’s your region, it’s your region
It’s your region, you know where it is and how to spell its name”.

For satire to remain topical is always impressive, but for politicians to construct heffalump traps for themselves that have been spotted and ridiculed ten years in advance is quite remarkable.Here in Oxford we are considered part of the South East. Except for legal affairs, when we used to be a part of the Oxford and Midlands circuit. And on maps of Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex”, Oxford (aka “Christminster”, Jude the Obscure, etc.) makes it into the top right-hand corner. For policing purposes we’re ensconced in the Thames Valley. Sometimes Oxford feels like an appendage to London, since the buses are fast, regular and cheap — but we never get to be considered part of the metropolis, on any of the Government’s blueprints. And for many people, of course, we’re off in a world of our own.

So much for our strong sense of regional identity. Still, if the people of Kent and Surrey and Sussex — areas with which we have almost nothing in common, but who may more understandably have a sense of belonging to “the South East” — want to gang up on us in a referendum, they will get to abolish Oxfordshire County Council and replace it with direct rule from Guildford or somesuch. And from the Government’s point of view this will count as replacing “bureaucracy” with “democracy” and “returning power to the people” as part of their ongoing programme of “devolution”. The idiots; the fools.

Martin wrote [15.5.2002]: My own view on Oxford is that it has missed a number of regional boats, and sits at the strange interstices of English life. It is the North-western-most bit of the ‘Home Counties’, the Eastern-most bit of the West Country, and the most Southern bit of the Midlands. Its car manufacturing past puts it in line with the Midlands, its preponderence of rich white folk lines it up with the Home Counties, and its natives’ accents make it sound like the West Country. I never quite managed to reach a satisfactory solution to this problem, and am glad to see that I’m not the only one.

Tom wrote [15.5.2002]: re. On The Hour‘s ability to predict the future, the most excellent Need To Know runs a semi-regular “Life Imitates Onion” feature. All of the links I can find now seem to be dead, apart from the matched pair of Christoper Walkens here and here. Not the finest…

White Paper

The Government has recently published its new White Paper on immigration, asylum, nationality and citizenship questions: Secure Borders, Safe Haven. There is much to be criticised in it, unsurprisingly enough, but also some things to be welcomed, such as the closure of the detention facility at Campsfield House here in Oxfordshire before the end of the year, the phasing out of the degrading voucher system, and the fact that asylum seekers are no longer being locked up in prisons any more.

Watch these spaces for further comments, once I’ve read my way through the document and ruminated a little on its contents. In the meantime, the following links might be helpful: the White Paper itself can be downloaded here; you can follow the discussion in Parliament after the statements by Home Office ministers David Blunkett in the Commons here and Jeff Rooker in the Lords here; the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has devoted a portion of its website to discussion of the White Paper, and The Guardian has a page of links to reports on asylum issues around the world here.


Tony Blair, according to today’s BBC, is about to take a stand:

Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to say that the government will not back down in its drive to modernise public services. He is likely to join other ministers in representing this as a battle between “reformers and wreckers”, in his speech at Labour’s spring conference in Cardiff on Sunday.

These seniments aren’t too distant from Stalin’s own attittudes to public sector reform, captured in this slogan of 1930:

“The Five Year Plan Will Not Be Derailed! Break the Paw of the Wrecker and the Interventionist!”

Forward with Uncle Tony!

Nick wrote [5.2.2002]: From today’s Grauniad letters page: “With the apparent schism in the party, are we likely to see mods and wreckers meeting at a seaside resort every October for a punch-up?” (Nick Hearn, Brighton).

Lords Reform

Thanks to Sarah, who has usefully extracted some choice remarks from the Government’s new white paper on House of Lords “reform” and appended some italicised observations:

“Just as the limited role, powers and functions of the House of Lords do not require its members to be elected to confer legitimacy on it, so also a second chamber constituted on the same elected basis as the first chamber would be superfluous and dangerous.”

“… the representation of the political parties should reflect the votes cast in the preceding General Election…”

“First, the overall size of our proposed House is somewhat larger than that envisaged by the Royal Commission (600 members rather than the Commission’s 550) and it is proposed to be significantly larger still (around 750 members) at the beginning of the transitional period.”

“The Government proposes that the regional members should be identified through elections in multi-member constituencies, identical to those for the European Parliament. The electoral method will be one of regional lists.” Go on, copy the European Parliament. A surefire way to popularity. And a considerable choice with predetermined lists.

“The Government fully supports the Royal Commission’s belief in the value that non-politically aligned members of the Lords can bring to the Parliamentary process. They bring a different perspective and expertise from that of members with party political affiliations, which is particularly valuable to a second chamber with the revising, scrutinising and deliberative role of the Lords.” Hmm, is he saying party affiliation and technical expertise are incompatible?

“Leaders of other denominations and faiths have a significant contribution to make to the second chamber”. I have no doubt Tony would love to let ‘leaders of other faiths’ make their grievances felt in parliament right now!

“Any Government’s ability to manipulate the membership of the House will be eliminated.” Don’t quite see how this follows from having the Lords reflect the composition of the Commons and and therefore be suggested for appointment by the Government of the day. Will this be an Appointments Commission like the one that let through Jeffrey Archer?

I like the way that the only image in the web version of the White Paper is the photograph of Tony Blair, which accompanies his learned thoughts in the Foreword. One hundred and fifty MPs have now signed the early day motion in support of the “democratic principle that any revised Second Chamber of Parliament should be wholly or substantially elected.” Does anyone, by the way, think that Robin Cook, who has been talking up these reforms in the Commons, think they are a good idea? Or is he a long time past caring?

Stephen writes [8.11.2001]: Disgusted with the Government’s White Paper on Lords Reform? Sign up to Charter 88’s constitutional reform agenda. Like me, you may not agree with all of the specific proposals – but it’s a decent package from a fairly influential lobby group.

Chris replies [8.11.2001]: I’ve never signed Charter 88. I agree with almost all of their demands — except the one for a written constitution, about which I feel extremely ambivalent, but which seems to be the Charter’s most important element. It’s also strange to have a constitutional reform agenda which professes to be agnostic about the question of the monarchy. I know Charter 88 have always maintained a prudent policy of not having a policy, but it’s a very striking silence for a group that poses as a radical, democratic constitutional reform campaign. (And yes, I do think we can get rid of the monarchy without having to write a new constitution: we did it in 1649; we can do it again now.)

Ed Vaizey

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that Mr Duncan Smith’s Shadow Cabinet were a pathetic bunch of losers, or something similar. So do go and look at Ed Vaizey’s effort in The Guardian to persuade us of the contrary opinion. Ed Vaizey thinks that Michael Howard “is the Rudy Giuliani of British politics. He has never been loved by the public, but he is someone the public instinctively turns to when it wants genuine action” Do you turn to Michael Howard when you want some genuine action?