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Posts from the ‘Prime Minister’ Category

25
Jan
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie embark on their final journey

The Uncertainties of Contingency: What if Franz Ferdinand didn’t die in 1914?

I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),

None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more »

3
Jun
George Orwell at the BBC

Let the meaning choose the word: Orwell on political language

It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more »

7
May
Image: Kofi Annan

Wisdom from the Palaver Tree: Kofi Annan’s impossible job cajoling the world

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.

But before a few gems, here’s my brief Amazon review (which you may want to find ‘helpful’?!): Read more »

2
Nov
churchill_1024.jpg

Friday Fun 29: Winston takes his stand on foreign place names

A real gem this week. It’s on display in the painting studio at Chartwell, Churchill’s much-loved home in Kent. I couldn’t resist getting down his points verbatim when we paid a return visit over the summer.

Read more »

10
Oct
Baxter & Whitaker Campaigns Inc

The Lie Factory and the destructive power of political ‘narrative’

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 »

11
May
John Smith

Memento Mori: Matthew Parris, The House of Commons and the 1994 Death of John Smith

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 »

22
Jul
Hackgate 2011

Friday Fun 9: Humbert Wolfe’s The British Journalist – #Hackgate The Poem

In the light of recent events, it seems only appropriate to bring this back to the forefront of public attention. You’ve seen the trailer for Hackgate The Movie – now read Hackgate The Poem. Written by Humbert Wolfe in the 1920s, it shows that little has changed over the last century or so… Read more »

18
Jul
corruption kills - kampala

Hackgate, Corruption and African perceptions of the West

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 »

1
Jul
Scarfe Yes PM

Friday Fun 7: PS What Whitehall Thinks of Canterbury

I said last week that I was offering the final instalment of Whitehall Wisdom. Well, I subsequently realised that I had omitted perhaps the most pertinent of the lot – the tangled web that has been weaved in the name of Church and State relations. This is primarily the result of that perfect CofE primer, the episode entitled The Bishop’s Gambit. Read more »

24
Jun
Scarfe Yes PM

Friday Fun 7: Final Lessons from Whitehall

We come at last to the final instalment of Whitehall Wisdom. It’s more a random string of pearls than a topical arrangement this time, but still worth its weight in gold. Read more »

17
Jun
Scarfe Yes PM

Friday Fun 6: Interpreting Civil Service Speak

One of the acute difficulties of British etiquette is the profound problem of meaning – there can be a huge disparity between the literal/surface meaning of words and the actual intended meaning as all visitors to these shores find to their confusion and even peril. For those wanting a general introduction to the phenomenon, you can do a lot worse than checking this excellent EU translation guide. Read more »

10
Jun
Scarfe Yes PM

Friday Fun 5: How to Manage your Government Minister

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 »

27
May
Scarfe Yes PM

Friday Fun 3: The political education of Bernard Woolley

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…

Read more »

20
May
Scarfe Yes PM

Friday Fun 2: The stumbling wisdom of Jim Hacker

This week we witness some moments where Jim Hacker, Minister and then Prime Minister, struggles to master the tricks of the Civil Service Trade…

Read more »

13
May
Scarfe Yes PM

Friday Fun: Some realpolitik from Sir Humphrey

Have decided to start a new regular slot: Friday Fun. Well, the weekend is just round the corner so why not?

This week we have some lessons from Sir Humphrey Appleby, that great mandarin of mandarins. Read more »

2
May
beer-vs-coffee-fptp-av

To A/V or Not to A/V

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 »

16
Apr

Canning’s Riddle

George Canningwas Foreign Secretary, and briefly Prime Minister. But he is also credited with this little work of genius (which is perhaps one of his most lasting legacies).

A Riddle

There is a word of plural number
A foe to peace and tranquil slumber.
Now any word you chance to take
By adding “S”, you plural make;
But if you add an “s” to this,
How strange the metamorphosis!
Plural is plural then no more
And sweet, what bitter was before.

What is the word?

Can you solve this without googling it?! Read more »

5
Apr

Truths behind the genius that is ‘Yes Minister’

Having been a long-term, obsessive devotee of Yes (Prime) Minister, I enjoyed picking up this little dip-in fan’s miscellany about the series, not least because of the Jay & Lynn introduction. Here are a few treats:

The fruits of authenticity

[The] quest for authenticity produced unexpected benefits. We discovered that truth was not just stranger than fiction, it was also funnier. We often found that if an episode wasn’t really working, the answer was to go back to our expert advisors and probe a bit further; time and again this would produce the idea that we needed.

There were three plot ideas in particular that we hit on in this way. There was a crisis meeting in the minister’s sleeping compartment in the overnight train to the party conference. There was the announcement on television of a Christmas benefit for pensioners after the civil service had refused on the grounds of administrative impossibility, and there was the teetotal reception in an Islamic country where the UK delegation set up an emergency communications tent full of bottles of Scotch to top up the chaste orange juice supplied by their hosts. They all happened, but we would never have thought of them ourselves. (p3) Read more »

16
Feb

A plague on both their houses? Carl Trueman’s polemic Republocrat

I think it’s fair to say that remaining neutral about anything Carl Trueman writes or says is impossible. And that’s no bad thing! He’s always provocative, stimulating and often (but not always!) right on the button. In his recent short book, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, he brings a trenchant and powerfully argued British/European perspective to the American political scene. More pertinently, after 10 years in the States, he writes as a Reformed theologian and church historian about the relationship between Christianity and American politics (especially, though not exclusively, about the Christian Right).

Mercutio strikes again?

In his discussion of the Republican and Democrat Parties, he actually does find himself, Mercutio-like, calling for ‘a plague on both your houses’. And it is easy to see why, after being propelled through his breathless polemic. Some would conclude from this that the only remaining course of action is to buy into a simplistic rejection of all things political, with a postmodern, shrugging updating of the 60s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

But Trueman is far too robust for such a course. And his appeal is a crucial one. For one of his concerns is that politics has become far too simplistic and Manichaean (ie dualism where everything is a matter of ‘us’ (the goodies) vs ‘them’ (the baddies)) – and that the church has significantly contributed to the problem. He is clear – life is much too complex for that.

I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p83)

Whose side is he on?

The scope of the book (despite the main text being only 100 pages) is vast. He manages to include a sympathetic potted history of Marxism, perceptive analyses of the prosperity gospel, US hot button issues like gay rights and abortion, Rupert Murdoch and the impact of automobiles on American culture – and that’s before we even consider his helpful, expert observations about history writing and objectivity. This is in part what makes his writing so enjoyable – he draws links that one never sees coming.

But this is primarily a book of political punditry. And so his politics matters and is explicit. He is what in Europe would be called left of centre (he openly confesses to be LibDem – though one wonders what difference the Coalition Government now would make to this) – which in the USA is regarded as practically communist. He is conservative theologically, and therefore conservative on some ethical issues – but definitely left on social issues like poverty. As the conservative Peter Lillback rightly notes in his foreword, this makes Carl more of the Old Left than new. This makes him an anomaly in his adopted country – he really doesn’t fit. He casts an outsider’s eye on contemporary US political realities; and so a real fear is that neither end of the political spectrum (Christian or otherwise) will listen to him – and therefore both will fail to heed what are some very important warnings.

So who’s side is he on? Well, he is someone who longs for truthfulness, integrity and genuine public service to mark public life (as illustrated by a powerful quotation from the amazing Vaclav Havel on the last page). And therefore all should take note.

The problems at both ends

Because he is no partisan, he is able to spot ironies and blind spots, and doesn’t pull punches in exposing them. Here is one fascinating example:

The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad. It is a mantra of the Left that the federal government needs to take a larger role at home, where, apparently it can and should be trusted; but in foreign policy, the Left’s wisdom is that it can do almost nothing of any moral probity. On the Right, however, there is deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context; but invade somebody else’s country, and any criticism of the government is decried as unpatriotic and un-American. How can these things be? One plausible explanation is that the logic of Left and Right is shaped more by some form of story, which does not conform to the normal rules of logical analysis, but which nonetheless carries power for the true believer. (p89)

This comes in the context of a really helpful, though chilling, analysis of how narrative informs political discourse, rather than pesky things like facts and realities. It is interesting that only today, Nick Robinson’s BBC blog described the task of Cameron’s new Strategy guy at No10 as bringing much needed ‘narrative coherence’ to the Coalition after a choppy few months – though note how Ed Miliband’s Labour is equally attempting to dominate with their own ‘re-contaminate the Tory brand’ narrative.

Of course, politics, not to mention governing, is SO complex that communicating realities in a democracy is very hard. A story is much easier to tell – especially if it resonates with people who are hurting, struggling or confused. Stories rally troops, motivate action … ignore inconveniences. Ideal, then, if you want people to vote for you. Not so good if you value truth and integrity. And Trueman’s point is that Left and Right both play the same game (as Nick Robinson highlights).

It’s secularism – but not as we have it

One of the most helpful and powerful sections was Trueman’s identification of how secularism in the States has a religious face. I’m sure this is right – and it helps to understand that despite not really doing God in European politics, the US has much more in common culturally than it might care to admit.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? And could this create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume? (p23)

Somebody asked me recently whether Osteen and Hinn (2 key prosperity gospel preachers) were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are in the USA. Why is that? came the follow-up to which I replied: They simply wouldn’t work in the UK, because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language the way many Americans do; thus, we have psychobabble self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity. (p27)

This makes perfect sense to me – and simply alerts us to the insidiousness of the secular mindset.

It’s what we’ve got – but that doesn’t make it perfect

Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line – but it is clearly a big deal in the USA. And while he is pretty sure that there is no real viable alternative in a globalised world (some will no doubt dispute that – I’m not really in a position to argue either way), his case for a more nuanced and discerning approach is undeniably strong. Capitalism simply does not lead inevitably to the characteristics commonly identified as Christian virtue. This is because it presents many underlying challenges to virtue – here is my potted summary of his list (in pp71-77):

  • Economic prosperity can never necessarily be identified with divine blessing.
  • Capitalism requires a lack of contentment and degree of disaffection with the world in order to make it work. It also breeds a form of idolatry: “ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power, and, we might add, that can be done to systems such as capitalism just as easily as possessions such as golf clubs” (p74). Personal selfishness and acquisitiveness actually then morphs into a social virtue because you are upholding society and the system through your wallet (or credit).
  • What we could call financial Pelagianism: “the problem is not simply the gospel of salvation by consumption that they preach; it is also the idea that I am in control of my own destiny, that I hold the answer to my problems, that this lies in the creaturely realm… It is a form of Pelagianism, built on the idea that I am my own god who can work the miracle of my own happiness by what I do with my cash” (p74)
  • The fixation on rights of all kinds that a consumer mentality breeds (and this can be found on both Left (eg abortion rights) and Right (eg gun owners’ rights)) – and this is something that we see manifesting in church as well as society.
  • The market inevitably determines values and virtues: “Where consumer is king, ultimately taste and profit margins will triumph” (p75)

In summary of this point, then, Trueman states:

Christians must realize that capitalism has brought great goods in its wake; but it is not an unmixed blessing, and some of the things about which Christians become most hot under the collar, from the reshaping of the family to the ease of access to abortion, are not unconnected to the system that they often admire with so little critical reflection. (p77)

Well said… It seems so obvious – but so rarely articulated – perhaps because we have too many vested interests…

American in focus, but British in relevance

I suspect many on this side of the Atlantic will assume this has little relevance. But I would argue that it is of profound relevance over here – it is a very helpful analysis of what is happening in postmodern political discourse. But there is also another reason: some in UK Christian circles are finding themselves drawn to a US Christian Right culture-war mentality (this was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the 2010 UK General Election).

And that is something that, quite frankly, I find very scary. If ever there was a thought-through, theologically aware, warning not to go down that road, this is it. I suspect few if any will find themselves agreeing with everything he says (for all kinds of reasons). But that is all the more reason that thoughtful Christians should read this book. As he says

we are called to be good citizens in this world, and in a democratic society, that involves having as many well-thought-out and informed opinions on the things that really matter as time allows. It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of view points. (p58)

21
Sep

Rawnsley’s End of the Party: New Labour under the spotlight

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.

Character Insights

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)

Genuine Successes

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 »

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