This is not a particularly profound post (which, incidentally, is not to claim that regular posts on Q are either), but having just finished Sarah Lyall’s rather delightful (if affectionately acerbic) The Anglo-Files: A Field Guide to the British, I came across this amusing story from the Blair landslide of 1997 at which a record number of women (very patronisingly described at the time as Blair’s babes) were elected to Parliament. Read more
I guess this book will initially appeal only to politics junkies and West Wing devotees (which is probably why I read it). But I suspect many others may well enjoy it despite that – it’s pacey, readable and insightful. And actually, surprisingly relevant to all kinds of other walks of life.
A politics professor and former Democrat party campaign consultant (from McGovern through to Gore), Samuel Popkin has sought to expose the arcane and often dark arts of US presidential campaigning in The Candidate. The results are fascinating. Here are just a few windows into this bizarre parallel world. Read more
The presenting issue behind the article was the hysteria whipped up against Obama’s healthcare proposals in the US – something which those of us with ‘socialised’, crypto-communist medicine in the UK find hard to understand. I do realise that many on the US right are no fools, that the British NHS is far from perfect, and that there may well be many good grounds for the position(s) they took. But that’s not my point here. My main concern is how politics (left and right) throughout the West now (has to) operates. This was the object of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker investigation a couple of weeks ago, The Lie Factory. Read more
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
Just read a spine-chiller in the latest New Yorker about PACs, SuperPACs and the growth industry that is behind political attack ads. Jane Mayer’s Attack Dog - The creator of the Willie Horton ad is going all out for Mitt Romney is depressing stuff. For the uninitiated, and unless you follow US politics closely, there’s no reason at all why you should be initiated, PACs are Political Action Committees. Read more
This week we follow Bernard as he comes to terms with some of the realities of political life, usually as a result of the instructions from his mentor and overlord, Sir Humphrey…
I’m certainly no psephologist (though I do totally and absolutely love the word). But as we approach this referendum on Thursday, I’ve been feeling torn. I think I’ve worked out what I think but am not completely settled yet. And even if I was, I don’t think I would tell you. What I say now is probably (certainly) full of psephological flaws… Read more
There has been an unseemly rush amongst our former political masters to get their memoirs onto the shelves. But having read Rawnsley’s first book on New Labour some years ago (Servants of the People), I was very keen to get my hands on his follow-up – which continues the story until a few months before their loss of power in 2010.
You may have noticed that I’m now reading Blair’s effort, for a small reading group I’m in to discuss in a month or two. So as not to get the two confused, I feel the need to write up Rawnsley quickly. 100 pages in to Blair’s journey, I can definitely say which one I prefer. Rawnsley’s prose style is readable, concise and even gripping. He’s talked to everyone – or rather everyone seems to have talked to him over the years. So he knows much of what has been said by whom to whom, and why. He’s had the inside story on all the Brown-Blair tensions, the relations with Bush’s White House as well as many others. [A new extended edition is apparently just coming out in paperback bringing the story up to date with the 2010 General Election.]
Above all, he is incredibly lucid, often about very complex things. For example, I felt I began to grasp for the first time what was actually going on to cause the Credit Crunch and how different people responded. (As an endorsement of that, a good friend who is a banker read the relevant chapters, and was very impressed despite his scepticism at a political journalist being able to pull that off). So this is an excellent read and rich in political nous as well as information that at times verges on the gossipy. As a rank amateur, I would have thought that this was the ideal primer for any seeking to understand British politics of the last decade. So it is worth an extended post, not least because I’m in Albania for the next few days.
There are many things to pick out. But inevitably, here are a few. Here’s a moment worthy of satire, from early on in the Brown-Blair feud:
One negotiation [in 1994 around Granita] took place on the evening of John Smith’s funeral in the Edinburgh home of Nick Ryden, a friend of Blair since their schooldays at Fettes. When they turned up, Ryden could see how bad things were between them. ‘Don’t kill each other. You;’ve both got a lot to offer the country’ was his parting advice before he took himself off to the pub. Their arguing was interrupted at one point when Brown disappeared to use the lavatory. When time passed and he didn’t come back, Blair assumed that the other man had stormed off in one of his rages. Then he heard the phone ringing and a familiar Scottish voice growling into Ryden’s answering machine. Brown was calling on his mobile from the lavatory. The door handle had come off, imprisoning him in the loo. Blair picked up the phone: ‘Ill let you out Gordon, but only if you give me certain assurances about the leadership. (p59)
So much ink has been spilt about this relationship. And the grim news is that, according to Rawnsley (who canvassed politicians, party members, and even top civil servants), it was far worse than we ever knew. It’s extraordinary that Blair despite seeming to know what Brown would be like in power, out of guilt or whatever, he felt he couldn’t stop a coronation by insisting on an election for his successor. But those close knew exactly what was be coming.
This is a revealing paragraph about the side of Blair that has only become more noticeable in his post-Downing St years. He always had a concern to grasp the centre ground of politics, and this seems to revolve around his instinctive realisation that in order to gain power, Labour needed to understand middle class aspiration. For he certainly did – and both Blairs knew first hand what it was like to grow up with genuine money worries. It was no wonder that this affected him in later years.
As Prime Minister, he felt impecunious when in the company of the billionocracy. I once asked one of his intimates what lay at the root of the Blairs’ blind spot over money. ‘They spend too much time in the company of very rich people,’ she replied bluntly…
His sojourns with the rich and sometimes infamous did not make Blair happier. He would return from breaks in wealthy men’s villas to moan to his intimates about how it made him feel poor. Here he was, someone with all the responsibilities of leading a G8 nation, and yet he had little money compared with these billionaire businessmen and rock stars. The aides who were exposed to this whinging had a declining tolerance for it, not least because they, like most people, had to pay in full for their holidays. Braver members of his staff like Sally Morgan would respond to these outbursts of self-pity by reminding the Prime Minister that he was better off than most Britons and had gone into politics for public service, not to get rich enough to buy Caribbean hideaways, Tuscan villas and super-yachts. (p127)
As for his successor, life in Downing St under his regime became increasingly strained. The rumours of flying items of office furniture appear to be based on reality…
… Brown was so power-hugging. Geoff Hoon summarises it well: ‘one of the great ironies of Tony and Gordon is that both of them didn’t have any time for ministers. The difference is that Tony broadly let you get on with it. He wasn’t much interested unless something went wrong. In contrast, Gordon wants to interfere with everything. He’s temperamentally incapable of delegating responsibility. So he drives himself demented.’ (p523)
Rawnsley is far too careful a journalist to lambast and rant. And he is quite prepared to give credit where it’s due. To Brown, there is praise for some of the key decisions he took early on during the credit crunch (although there is resounding criticism for some of the things he did later on in the crisis). If that was GB’s high point, Northern Ireland seems to have been TB’s. There are a few interesting comments along the way, but I was very struck by this one: Read more
- Having mentioned last month that a chapter from Don Carson’s new book The God Who Is There is available online, it now transpires that you can download the 14 original talks on which the book is based (each is an hour – accompanied by a 10 min video preview).
- I’ve loved the recent BBC series REV. – and here’s a great, all too brief, interview with James Wood, co-creator with Tom Hollander of the series, on Ship of Fools.
- Paxman issues national appeal: Read the classics and the bible!
- The lengths to go to translate the bible! A very old friend of ours is an MAF pilot in Uganda – check out this Sudanese ‘international airport’ that he had to land at the other day.
- I’d not spotted this until the other day – the Telegraph has produced an interactive timeline of the House of Commons from 1885 to the present day. Really interesting – especially to see how many Irish Nationalist/Sinn Fein members there were in the years before Irish partition.
- The power of philanthropic billionaires in The Giving Pledge. Remarkable (HT Simple Pastor)
- Now I want one of these… draw a straight line every time.
- Well, here’s a thing. In the west, for every text sent by adults, teenage boys send 3 and teenage girls send 10! So no surprises there, I guess
- I’ve no intention of seeing the movie – but i quite enjoyed this:
- Good tips on preparing to preach from Piper via Kendall.
- Tim Keller has some really helpful pointers for a healthy devotional life. (HT SimplePastor)
- Some interesting takes on the recent Labour leadership hustings held by Christian Socialist Movement – from Ekklesia, New Statesman, and Church Times. (HT Stephen Beer)
- The question is: how long can you last through this winner of the 197x worst worship song)? (HT Janet O’B)
- Read an excerpt from Don Carson’s new book, The God Who Is There
- Do legislators on either side of the Atlantic ever actually read the bills they vote on? One might well wonder after reading this…
- Nick Robinson offers a very interesting article about trust in politics in the new coalition government.
- How a $45 investment in some old photographic negatives could reap $200 million…
- How to transform a tiny flat into an eco-wonder with 24 rooms!
- Spot the deliberate (?) mistake (right)…
- Wonder Woman is not what she once was – a sign of more egalitarian times perhaps
- The Twittering Classes of London. I guess this means I’m almost living in the storm’s eye…
- Why German World Cup victory was guaranteed… apparently…
- Oh to work in an office like one of these…
- Do fonts/typefaces matter?
- Some more great errata from the New York Times…
- For those involved in being creative, check this out…
- Hmm… workmen paint street lines around dead badger because it was someone else’s job to remove dead carcasses…
- Bet you don’t know what this is (click to find out)…
- The Tories are a threat to our economy; the LibDems are a threat to our security.
- The Tories will seriously damage our relationship with Europe; the LibDems will seriously damage our relationship with the United States.
It was total rhetorical exaggeration, of course. But the question now, I suppose, is if there is a Lib/Con pact, what will be the combined effect?
- The Destruction option: TOTAL wipeout on our economy AND our security, offending EVERYONE from Brussels to Washington
- The Salvation option: Saved economy and security and UK remains friends with everyone forever
It would be lovely to have the latter – my deep suspicion is we could have the former.
In which case, the UK would probably just cease to exist…
Having been up for much of Election night, i feel rather deflated at the outcome. My quote of the night came in the fairly early hours on the BBC from one of my favourite modern historians, Peter Hennessy (right)- his book The Prime Minister (the office and its holders since 1945) is a brilliant read. He called this the
Mick Jagger election: no satisfaction for anyone.
And in honour of that, I was musing on what to post. Then I remembered this an little rhyme, and feel that it does the job perfectly.
The Frog (by Anonymous)
What a wonderful bird the frog are
When he stand he sit almost;
When he hop he fly almost.
He ain’t got no sense hardly;
He ain’t got no tail hardly either.
When he sit, he sit on what he ain’t got almost.
In a crisis, I find that Steve Turner can usually be relied upon to come up with something useful or constructive. And in this week full of talk of the spectres of hung parliaments and tactical voting, this poem seemed just the ticket. Hope it helps if you’re stuck…
Left right Left right
Left right Left right
I was getting worried
Couldn’t sleep at night
‘Cos I didn’t quite know
If I was left or right
So feel my leanings
Test my views
Check my reactions
to the Ten o’Clock News
Should I buy the Mirror
Or should I buy the Sun
The Times Literary
Or the Guardian
Will I be a fascist
If I use the police
Or will I be a commie
If I march for peace?
Who is it I follow
If I’m down on pron
Begin a Foetus Lib
For the not yet born?
So feel my leanings
Test my views
Check my reactions
to the Ten o’Clock News
Am I middle class
Or am I alright
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Send me all the questions
Mail me all the forms
Fix me up a blood test
Tell me all the rules
I’ve got to know now
Put my mind at rest
Am I of the right
Or am I communist?
Please make me something
I’ve been nothing too long
I need to find out
If I’m left or wrong.
Watch my language
Hear my views
Check my reactions
To the Six o’Clock News
Am I working class
And am I alright
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
The mace (left) is the symbol of the Sovereign’s power – and in Parliament, it represents her delegated authority. When the Commons is in session, it sits on the table just in front of the Government and Opposition despatch boxes. Without its presence, parliamentary activity is invalid and even illegal. For any Government in this country will always only be (while the monarchy remains) His or Her Majesty’s Government.
But these are of course just constitutional niceties. As everyone knows, power (real and moral) lies in the hands of elected representatives. The presence of the mace could therefore symbolise the power delegated by voters in a way, which means that the government of the day has a mandate legislate and govern. And I do actually believe that politicians can make a difference for good or ill, and that they are not universally on the make or entirely self-serving (despite what has happened in the last, so-called ‘Rotten Parliament‘).
Yet we mustn’t be naïve or unrealistic. Who knows exactly what the situation will be come Friday. Hung Parliament most likely – though there are still so many undecideds in the marginals that there could possibly be a slim Tory majority. Who knows? Whatever happens, the situation will be different from how it has been for the last 5 years.
But it has been depressing to see how vitriolic and vindictive many have been, whether about a Tory return to power or about the record of Labour’s last 13 years… and I’m actually talking about Christians here (in their tweets, blogs and conversations). I certainly have my views on that, and they are reasonably strong. But I just wonder what the sense of desperation by some on all sides says about us.
It reminded me of some of the things Tim Keller wrote in his superb Counterfeit Gods about the idolatry of political power – and it is worth quoting at length (bearing in mind that he is obviously talking about the US situation).
One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!”
This may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admin how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.
Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election [i.e. 2008 election which Obama won], my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?
Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizaes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of soemthing that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:
The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior.
This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.
(Counterfeit Gods, pp98-101)
Now I’m by no means qualified to assess whether or not the philosophical precis given in the quotation from Wolters are valid – but the key point surely still stands up. And we would all do well to remember this on Friday morning…
- Mark Ashton writes powerfully and movingly about his battle with terminal cancer. Part 1 here.
- Not normally a total devotee (as some are in the habit of being!) but Mark Driscoll is at his most trenchant when talking here about ministry idolatry.
- Anglican Mainstream have helpfully listed the numbers of Anglicans around the world – of whom 80% now live in the ‘global south’.
- BBC History Magazine has a great article in last month’s edition about the times when Britain has called a National Day of Prayer.
- Love this idea: 66 books of the bible each summed up by one of its verses. I would quibble with one or two – but take my hat off to the attempt. (HT Beth)
- A fascinating American perspective on the UK Leadership debates from Hendrik Hertzberg.
- What war can do: a comparison between Kabul in 1970 and 2010:
- There’s been a whole load of kerfuffle (lost in the General Election storm) about the recent Digital Economy Bill (one of the very last acts of the previous parliament). Lots of potentially foolish and even frightening stuff in it. Tom Watson, PPC for West Bromwich East, has some very sensible Digital Pledges. There’s also this, rather more ‘direct’ response!
- And while we’re on th topic of technology affecting our lives, Wired has a salutary investigation about the effectiveness (or not) of CCTV cameras in the UK. Did you know that Shetland Islands Council has more CCTV cameras than San Francisco?
- A 6-year old gets a polling card – this is how he’d vote.
- Obama dancing with heads of state: a timelapse compilation from the Washington Nuclear Summit
- How China mourns an earthquake: websites go black and white (HT 22 Words)
- The new unit of measurement in UK life: “THE TESCO“
- Check out the British Library’s coming Magnificent Maps exhibition. Some amazing ones on the website
- A wonderful slideshow celebrating the 20 years’ achievements of the Hubble Space Telescope
- Oops – not a great start to a driving career.
- What should you do with spare bits of lego? You can do a LOT worse than what this guy’s done…
- Beware the small print – you might sign away your own soul. Literally.
- This is pretty amazing: a CG version of Stockholm library… a fabulous library that dreams are made of!