I have just finished Kofi Annan’s fascinating memoir Interventions. Annan is clearly a man of great stature and influence, who strained every sinew to bring about peace and dialogue during his 10 years as UN Secretary-General but tragically often failed. For all kinds of reasons. But as one might expect (and indeed hope), he has great wisdom to share, even if he cannot claim a string of personal triumphs.
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
This is important. Bishop Zac Niringiye used to be my sort-of boss for the 4 years we worked in Uganda. He was the secretary of the trustees of the college I taught in and had actually been someone I consulted about life there before we moved in 2004. His advice to me was simple then. “Don’t try to be a Ugandan, Mark. You’re not. You’re a Brit.” Superb – of course cultural sensitivity is essential – but it is only works if it is accompanied by authenticity and integrity. Zac is a strong character with strong passions and a good mind (he was a Langham scholar, doing his theology PhD in Scotland). He’s not always easy! But he’s someone with real integrity and gospel concern. 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
One of power’s cruel ironies is that after craving it for years, its attainment brings a deeply bitter (if addictive) taste. At the heart of the problem is that deep sense of isolation that comes of sitting at the top of the tree. No one can truly understand what it feels like… apart from one’s predecessors. This is the subject of a gripping new take on the US Presidency, Gibbs and Duffy’s The Presidents Club (surely there needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere!?). There is an irritating proliferation of books about all 44 White House inhabitants, but this is a genuinely interesting addition. 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
Last week saw the final instalment of the little 1 Cor 1 series in the undercroft chapel in Westminster. Unfortunately, we had the slight inconvenience of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement happening on the same day, and as this had been brought forward to 12.30, there were few who were able to come. No worries though. We happy few had a happy time.
And how nice it was to have a Christmas tree in the centre of Westminster Hall. No thought of winterval here… yet. But give it time I suppose. Now, was it my imagination or does this tree look as though it is leaning to the right…? I’m sure that can’t be significant, can it?
Back in Parliament yesterday, and I unexpectedly arrived a little early – so found myself waiting for around 15 minutes in Westminster Hall. It was idyllic – the sun streaming through the great south windows. Perfect for reflections on the extraordinary events that occurred on this very spot: from monarchs and statesmen lying in state (the most recent, of course, being the Queen Mother), to grand inquisitions and historic orations (such as Mandela in 1996, the extraordinary moment of seeing a Pope address both Houses in 2010, and then Obama this year, the first US President to address both Houses from the Hall).
It came as a shock when this was first pointed out to me. Or rather, to be more accurate, it was a shock when I first realised how true it was of me. For a pastor friend was pointing out how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action to ourselves; and worse, how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action in specifically spiritual terms. Read more
During the 4 years we worked in Uganda, I would have this conversation with students all too often. They would despairingly deprecate African states for their oh-so predictable corruption, nepotism and despotism. It would be shrugged off and perhaps accompanied by a green-eyed comment about western political systems. And indeed, when chatting with friends back home, they would often enquire whether X or Y countries were doing ‘worse or better these days’ – shorthand for whether their respective rulers were now more, or less, openly corrupt and oppressive. Such is the caricature many outsiders have of Africa – and of course, there’s no smoke without fire, etc etc. Read more
It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue. Read more
If there is a point to Barack Obama becoming US President – and let’s face it, how can we ever reduce anyone’s life to having ‘a point’ – it is not his politics but his race. Race is what made his election seem so unthinkable, and yet, conversely, once he was the Democrat candidate, such a difficult opponent to beat in the 2008 election. And it is what will give him his enduring legacy (politics and 2nd term aside). Read more
Here are some further lessons from Yes Prime Minister. This time, mainly from Sir Humphrey, on the art of managing your department minister, however senior he or she might be. Read more
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
The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.
People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)
Came across this fascinating morsel in a short New Yorker article by David Remnick from the run up to the recent Mikhail Khordorkovsky trial in Moscow. This fallen oligarch, it seems, has taken on the mantle of the dissenter from the Soviet era – not least because he is being pursued by former KGB agents and sent to the gulag. And so some unexpected comparisons have been made with those who genuinely work dissenters. And an archetypal example was Josef Brodsky. The article makes for some pretty chilling reading
In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:
JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.
The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”
Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad.
What struck me most about this is the sheer incompatibility and even clash of their worldviews. The judge who can only see things in institutional or societal terms – ie to be a poet you must be taught or commissioned by the state etc; against this young Jewish poet sees that we are far more than biological machines (see previous post).
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