Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Brown's Labour conference speech: first draft

And so today, in the midst of events that are transforming our world, we meet united (apart from those idiots Purnell and Blears, obviously) and determined to fight for the future.

Our country confronts the biggest choice for a generation. It’s a choice between two parties, yes. But more importantly a choice between two directions for our country. (You can tell I was a crap Chancellor, as I can't count beyond two).

In the last eighteen months we have had to confront the biggest economic choices the world has faced since the 1930s, as a result of my stunning incompetence in regulating the financial system and failure to stop the unsustainable debt-led boom.

And times of great challenge mean choices of great consequence, so let me share with you a little about the choices we are making. Our first choice is to blame anyone but ourselves for the economic chaos. And our second choice is to splurge even more dosh on our ballooning deficit between now and the election, to really screw things up for the next government. And our third choice is to make ineffective gestures which might get a headline or two, such as our VAT cut last year. We also made the choice to introduce a mortgage rescue scheme which has benefited only a
handful of homeowners.

And although we're hopeless, the Tories would be even worse. Did you know they eat babies and indulge in Satanic rituals under the guise of Bullingdon Club drinking sessions?

As for the bankers, I guarantee that they will all be whipped three times daily and survive in future on a of bread and a glass of water. The fact that I have no real ability to enforce this is irrelevant, as is my own failure to regulate the banking system properly.

Now it's time for some buzzwords about fairness, ignoring the fact that the gap between rich and poor has widened under 12 years of Labour rule. The word values should also be used a lot.

I grew up in an ordinary family in an ordinary town (unlike those toffs Cameron and Osborne). Like most families on middle and modest incomes we believed in making the most of our talents.
But we knew that no matter how hard we worked free education was our only pathway to being the best we could be, but despite that I'm proud of saddling students with tuition fees and record levels of debt.

And I come from a family which, independent and self reliant as it was, could not have kept going without the compassion and caring of the NHS which has not been a sixty year mistake but a sixty year liberation. Take that, you swivel-eyed loon Hannan.

And it has been those experiences, and that background, that has taught me that yes, too much government can make people powerless, but that won't stop me from leading the bossiest and most authoritarian government of modern times, which wants to make 11 million people prove they are not paedophiles before taking the neighbours' kids to swimming lessons.

We will not allow those on middle and modest incomes to be buffeted about in a storm not of their making. We'll just create the most complicated tax system anywhere in the western world, so that people won't realise that when we give them a minimum wage and tax credits (pause for cheers), we're just going to take it back by other means.

And so this is our choice – to make rules about how to toughen the rules on those who break the rules, as the more rules we have, the better. That's why we'll introduce new rules on bankers’ bonuses (pause for boos). And any director of any of our banks who is negligent will be disqualified from holding any such post, although such rules won't apply to Prime Ministers or former Chancellors of the Exchequers, obviously.

In the uncharted waters we sail, the challenge of change demands nothing less than a new model for our economy, a new model for a more responsible society and a new model for a more accountable politics. Do you think if I say the word 'new' enough, people will forget we've been in power for 12 years?

Staying with the status quo is not an option. The issue is not whether to change, but how, although there can't possibly be any change which involves me leaving Downing Street.

It's now time for some guff about the economic principles which underlie my approach, although obviously I don't want people to remember any of my previous principles like the 'Golden Rule' on borrowing. I probably also ought to mention the Post Office somewhere in here, despite my government's record of closing thousands of post offices. And I also ought to say some green buzzwords as well.

Next I'm going to announce all sorts of spending pledges on education, jobs and care for the elderly, even though we won't be able to afford a single one of them due to the government deficit. But I'm absolutely not going to announce any spending cuts anywhere to pay for them.

However, I do have to say something about the deficit, so I'll pretend that by passing a new law, the problem can somehow be tackled. It's nonsense, but I'm hoping no-one will notice that. I'll also mention a rise in National Insurance to help tackle the deficit, even though it's a tax on jobs.

By the way, did I mention the Tories want to burn down every hospital and school in the country? In contrast, under Labour the UK is a land of milk and honey (insert all the buzzwords here about the minimum wage etc to get the delegates cheering).

Now it's time for some more authoritarian stuff. I think teenage mums should be locked up. We also need to boss parents around a bit more. And all our teenagers are drunken yobs who must be given ASBOs. We're also going to backtrack on 24-hour drinking which was introduced by the evil previous government (Tony Blair's, obviously).

I'm also going to continue the fear-mongering over terrorism and immigration. Bloody foreigners must continue to have ID cards, but I'm not going to make them compulsory for British citizens, even though we're going to keep the massive ID database which underlies them.

I love Britain, I do.

Time for a name-check for President Obama, in the hope that people will think I'm just like him. I probably also ought to mention some guff about all the problems the world faces, even though I don't have a clue how to deal with most of them. Overseas aid (pause for cheers).

Did I mention I love the NHS and will guarantee unlimited funding for it, so that we can get rid of all diseases? Unlike the Tories, who want to leave everyone to die horribly on a hospital trolley.

But a fair and responsible Britain must be an accountable Britain. Tory MPs who fiddled their expenses should be drowned in their moats. I'm aware that some Labour MPs were also on the take (yes, Blears and Morley and Moran, I'm looking at you).

And so where there is proven financial corruption by an MP and in cases where wrong-doing has been demonstrated but Parliament fails to act we will give constituents the right to recall their Member of Parliament. But we're not going to legislate on this before the election, even though we could.

I'm also going to announce a referendum on the unproportional Alternative Vote system, even though we promised a referendum on electoral reform in 1997 and never delivered. I'm also going to end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, even though I've had 12 years to do something about it and not done it. Who knows, both these pledges could be enough to get one or two Lib Dems into voting for us, the fools.

I’ve been honest with you about where we’ve got it right, which is actually not very much, if I were actually being honest. And where we’ve fallen short and have to do more, which is in just about every area.

Did I mention the Tories are evil toffs?

And so I say to the British people the election to come will not be about my future, as we all know I'm doomed.

And I say to you now: Insert peroration here, not that anyone will actually believe a word I've said.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Lib Dem Federal Conference: Vince Cable

The Sage of Twickenham, Vince Cable, also addressed conference yesterday and it was as usual very good stuff. It's absolutely no reflection on Vince that following his speech I took to my sickbed for the rest of the day.

You can see his speech here.

Lib Dem Federal Conference: Tim Farron

Tim Farron, the excellent MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, gave a terrific and passionate speech to the conference yesterday.

Annoyingly, I can't actually find a video of it to put up, but you can read his speech here.

Lib Dem Federal Conference: Real Women

My amendment on Real Women was accepted for debate on Saturday afternoon.

I knew even before starting that it was a battle I was never likely to win, and so it proved. Speaker after speaker lined up to oppose me and the result was that the policy was passed without my amendment.

This means that we now have policy on airbrushing of images which I think is essentially unworkable, but I can't say I'm too downhearted. It was good to have the debate and it would have been an amazingly dull session without my amendment being discussed.

One point that was made during the debate which I meant to address, but forgot to do so in my summing up. A parallel had been drawn with the laws on drink driving, saying that these had preceded a cultural change in the way we now see drink driving as unacceptable. However, I'd point out that the cultural change started to happen long before the drink driving laws were toughened up. I'd also point out that you can easily define a certain level of alcohol in the bloodstream which is unacceptable and that it's far more difficult to define what is and isn't an unrealistic portrayal of women (and men for that matter).

But that's now in the past and I was delighted that the rest of the Real Women proposals were passed.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

A complete history of England

Ancient Britons felt blue. Romans came, saw and conquered, built a wall and left. Alfred burned some cakes. 1066 and all that. Magna Carta died in vain. Agincourt and Crecy*. Henry VIII had six mothers-in-law. Frankie and Betty bowled out the Armada. Charles I lost his head. George III went mad and lost America. Nelson was armless. At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender. Victoria invents sponge cakes and waterfalls and Prince Albert invents the Prince Albert. Two World Wars and one World Cup. Extra-time with the Argies.

Is that all OK for the officially recognised patriotic version, Melanie?

* But don't mention who actually won the Hundred Years' War, natch.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Will we myth history if it's left in the past?

I saw Stephen's posting the other day about the way history is taught in schools and thought about posting a response then.

But I'm glad I didn't, as today I read another couple of articles which touch on this debate, from the appalling Melanie Philips and the mercurial Yasmin Alibhai-Brown respectively. Both bemoan the lack of historical knowledge among so many young people today, as shown by a survey that showed some people think Winston Churchill was the first man on the moon or that the vast majority of people couldn't name a single 19th century British Prime Minister. But they do so from radically different standpoints: Philips because a lack of historical knowledge undermines patriotism and Alibhai-Brown because it undermines our ability to think critically about our society.

These two articles highlight the two contrasting approaches to teaching the subject that Stephen highlighted: history as myth and history as a means of examing the truth about our society.

Like Stephen, I wasn't educated in Scotland, so I can't comment directly on the way history is taught here. But like him, I would be surprised if field trips to Culloden or Bannockburn just promoted a narrow nationalistic outlook. I recall my own schooldays when we had trips up to the Imperial War Museum in London: they didn't turn me into a raving Teutonophobe or a flag-waving British patriot; if anything just the reverse. That's why I think Alibhai-Brown's approach is rather more rooted in reality than Melanie Philips.

But there is one sense in which Philips is correct, which is that any society does have to have some idea of where it has come from if it is to have shared values that keep people from being constantly at one another's throats. Whether we think of ourselves as Scottish, British, English, Jamaican, British Asian or whatever, there does have to be some understanding of what that means and where that identity comes from.

However, one question I do wish to ask is whether the English have an unusual lack of interest in their own history. In Scotland, the vast majority of people will have at least some awareness of the Highland Clearances, and almost every TV programme on Scotland's history will say something about it - as Peter Capaldi's excellent A Portrait Of Scotland did last week. But in England, knowledge of the Enclosure Acts - which had similar aims of creating larger agricultural units and had the effect of driving a lot of people away from land they had previously claimed ownership of - is more or less confined to specialist academic historians.

Now, maybe this doesn't matter too much. Perhaps Scotland is held back by focusing too much on its history and England benefits from its amnesia about its past. And to take a more extreme example, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been fuelled by a striking obsession with past wrongs, with both sides commemorating ancient battles and rivalries which are perhaps better left to decay gently within the pages of dusty history books.

But history IS important. Maybe it doesn't matter too much if students don't know who Lord Liverpool or Lord Rosebery were. Maybe it doesn't particularly matter that the English tend to think of an anti-Semitic rapist and probable murderer who barely visited his kingdom and bled it dry to fund his military adventures in the Middle East as a 'good king' (Richard I). Or that a well-regarded military commander, able administrator and literate Renaissance prince is popularly viewed as a deformed hunchbacked tyrannical monster who committed infanticide (Richard III).

However, a lack of historical understanding of our society and how we got to where we are now will affect us. Alibhai-Brown is absolutely correct that understanding our history is a key part of thinking about where we're going as a society. Our colonial past does have an impact on the sort of society we are now, for instance. And to take one important recent example, Tony Blair's lack of historical understanding certainly contributed to getting us entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, as Philips shows, if we don't have a critical understanding of how our past affects the way we are now, there are all too many people willing to fill the gap with myths. Philips seems to want to cultivate an uncritical patriotism which somehow blames 'multiculturalism' for the lack of understanding of our past. That's the same sort of myth-making territory that people like the BNP occupy with their dream of a country which is exclusively white and Christian, rather than recognising that Britain has been shaped by and benefited from successive waves of immigration.

The same myth-making tradition is also present among some strands of Scottish nationalism. To listen to some people, you might get the impression that the next significant date in Scottish history after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 (in my view a necessary defeat for the Jacobite dreams of a revived absolutist monarchy) was 1967, when Scotland's football team beat England 3-2 to become 'World Champions'. I exaggerate, but not by much. It's the same myth-making which has resulted in Braveheart becoming such a popular film among nationalists, despite it being a complete historical travesty.

So, where does all this leave us now? Well, one thing I can definitely say is that Henry Ford got it completely wrong: history is NOT more or less bunk. Sure, historical parallels are never exact and history is always written by the victors (the popular view of Richard III referred to above was largely created by Tudor writers seeking to justify the victory of the usurper known to history as Henry VII). But without it, we will be prey to being dominated more by myths than reality - and that could lead us to some very nasty places indeed. It's in our own interests to ensure that hsitory has a future.

I agree with Brendan Barber

Brendan Barber is absolutely right.

I'm so glad we've moved on from the days when the governing party's economic incompetence led to recession which left 3 million people on the dole.

I'm delighted we no longer have a government which attacks some of the poorest people in scoiety, taking away their benefits and even turning them out of their homes if they can't work.

It makes a refreshing change not to have a government which blindly supports right-wing Republican presidents in their military escapades.

It's terrific not to have a government which panders to the right-wing tabloid press on issues like immigration.

And I'm sure I'm not alone in welcoming the fact that we no longer have a government which doesn't care about the gap between rich and poor.

Yep, Brendan Barber's totally correct. If we had all those things happening, there would undoubtedly be riots in the streets.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Delight for Michael Shields

Having blogged a while back about Jack Straw's disgraceful decision to deny a pardon for jailed Liverpool fan Michael Shields, I'm delighted that Straw has now reversed that stance and released Mr Shields.

While this is a very welcome decision, we should not forget that Mr Shields spent four years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. And Straw unnecessarily prolonged that hell by first of all denying he had the right to issue a pardon and then refusing to accept the clear evidence that anyone with even the slightest awareness of this case could see: that Michael Shields was innocent. I don't see what new evidence could have appeared in the last couple of months which Straw would not have been aware of when he made his original decision.

But having said that, today is more about celebrating that Mr Shields is a free and innocent man once more.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

This is what health fascism looks like

The British Medical Association is a threat to to our freedom.

That's the only conclusion I can come to with the news today that they're seeking a total ban on alcohol advertising. This is an outrageously over the top response to the problems we have in the UK with regard to booze abuse.

Let's be clear about this: the doctors want to ban the promotion of a perfectly legal product, enjoyed by millions every day, on the grounds that doing so will somehow reduce the problems of binge drinking and the health problems which result. This is nonsense.

If such a ban were introduced, I doubt it would make any real difference to the levels of binge drinking in this country. People don't over-indulge in booze because they've seen an ad on the telly promoting a particular brand of wine or beer - they get drunk because they want to, because of problems in their lives, because they don't know their limits, because they're having too much fun to stop, because of peer pressure, because of 100 different reasons. Indeed, I don't recall seeing too many ads for Buckfast on the telly, but that doesn't stop it being a favourite tipple among teen binge drinkers.

As well as being ineffective, such a ban would also be wrong in principle. This isn't the same as banning tobacco advertising. That's a product which has absolutely positive side, whereas there are numerous health benefits claimed for moderate consumption of alcohol. So we've got the strange situation that doctors' leaders are wanting to ban the promotion of a product which, in moderation, can have significant health benefits - crazy or what?

And a booze ad ban would also have other effects. It's estimated it would cost the media industry somewhere in the region of £180m in advertising revenue, at a time when many companies are suffering significantly as a result of the recession. And according to this story in The Times, drink companies are the second biggest sponsors (behind the financial services sector) of sport in this country, supplying a total of £487 million last year. I wonder how the BMA would propose to fill that £1.4 billion gap between now and the London Olympics if alcohol sponsorship were withdrawn tomorrow?

It's time to stop this health fascism nonsense in its tracks. The mad medical zealots can't be allowed to erode our freedom any further.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Farewell to Keith Waterhouse 1929-2009

Today is a sad day for all of us who care about the English language, as Keith Waterhouse has died.

Most of the tributes to him are likely to focus on Billy Liar and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, which is fair enough, as both are modern classics.

But as someone who works as a journalist, I wish to highlight Waterhouse's contribution in that area. His book Waterhouse on Newspaper Style should be required reading for all journalists as it is a lively and thought-provoking look at the way we use language. I would also recommend it to non-journalists who have a passion for using words correctly and with flair.

Waterhouse's columns for the Daily Mirror and latterly the Daily Mail were among the best bits in both papers. I rarely read the Mail, but if I did and it had one of Waterhouse's columns in, I would savour every word, as there would always be some turn of phrase which surprised or delighted. He always wrote with elegance and wit, so you could appreciate what he was saying even if you disagreed with every word.

And Waterhouse will always be a hero for his relentless campaign to improve standards of English in this country. I support the aims of his Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe. He also delighted in pricking official jargon and pomposity.

I hope you will all join me in raising a glass to one of the finest writers of his generation.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

In (partial) defence of Lembit Opik

I don't normally read Lembit Opik's column in the Daily Sport - it's not really my preferred sort of reading.

But when someone (in this case Jane Watkinson - hello again Jane!) uses one of his articles to make a call for him to be chucked out the party, I'll make it my business to have a look at what he's written to decide if he deserves the suggested punishment.

And in this case, not in a million years. I'm not Lembit's biggest fan - I didn't vote for him in either party presidential election - but there is nothing there that would justify a charge of bringing the party into disrepute or withdrawing the party whip from him. Yes, he does sometimes make slightly risque and somewhat sexist jokes in his column, but he also uses it to make some good political points in a way his readership can engage with. Although I'm not keen on the occasional sexism, is it enough to justify chucking him out the party?

Even though his column appears in the porn-heavy Daily Sport, I don't think that is sufficient justification for chucking him out either. Let's face it, Nick Clegg has written for the Mail and the Sun, but that doesn't mean he shares those papers' views towards foreigners. Appearing in a paper does not equal approving of everything in that paper.

I've known Lembit for several years - I seem to recall getting some public speaking training from him at a youth and student conference at least 15 years ago - and he is somebody who is usually charming and able to engage with people on their own level.

I would also say his views are liberal. Although I would disagree with Lembit on the detail of quite a few policies, I am in no doubt that his views are derived from a liberal viewpoint.

I also think that the sort of individuality, even eccentricity, that Lembit displays is exactly what our party should be about. Chucking him out the party would send a signal that we're a pretty humourless bunch who want everyone to act and think exactly the same. Is that really the image you want people to have of the party, Jane?

That's not to say that everything that Jane says is wrong or over the top. With the talents Lembit has, he should have been challenging for the party leadership by now. Jane is correct to talk about Lembit's fundamental lack of seriousness, which I believe has held him back from achieving all he could have done in politics. Instead, he seems content to revel in the world of being a C-list celebrity.

Lembit's done nothing sufficiently bad to justify throwing him out of the party. But this little spat is indicative of his failure as a politician. He's allowed an element of frivolity to become the dominant part of his public persona. If he wants to be thought of as a serious politician rather than just a celeb, he will have to become more serious. I wonder if he's capable of that?

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