Wednesday, October 10, 2007

From a distance...

I've just finished watching PMQ's in a crowded and noisy canteen at work - I didn't catch every word of every exchange chart US Dollar - Canadian Dollar but I did take in the mood and tone and kept an eye on the people around me who were paying even less attention than I was. At this distance the Tories looked like they were loving it - all smiles and laughing, relaxed postures and confident demeanours. What I caught of Cameron's delivery he was relaxed & fluent, firm where he needed to be and jovial where he could afford to be.

The overriding impression from the Labour benches was one of anger and fear. Little smiling or laughing and what there was was forced and insincere. Brown's advisers really need to caution him over that contemptuous sneer he has when Cameron is talking - Labour tribalists might love it but the apolitical masses will judge him harshly on it. The hatred he has of the Tories reeks off him and it's potentially the best asset the Conservative party has. When he speaks it's the same - we see anger & contempt not vision and statesmanship.

Listening to the remarks of people around me this seems to be the general view of the encounter and for most that's all they'll see of it - not for them the anticipation of Newsnight tonight with a cup of tea and a wet rag to bite down on chart USD/JPY! So is this general sense of tone and style important? I think it is because more often than not the policy minutiae that interests bloggers and political obsessives isn't of any real interest to the general public - it certainly isn't a significant influence on how they vote. They are far more likely to form opinions based on their fleeting exposure to events like this. In that sense and given the reaction around me today not to mention the events of the weekend, we may be witnessing the political tide turning.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Gordon's team may be found wanting too...

I didn't actually post on the whole 'will-he-won't-he' debate - not because I didn't have a view but because I didn't have the time. For the record I was in the 'he will' camp so there's a yardstick for you should I be rash enough to predict anything else! Nonetheless, had Gordon decided to go ahead with a poll next month I think we'd probably have seen the most presidential election in UK politics yet, and for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the 'Gordon v's David' theme has preoccupied the media for almost two years now (long before one of them was even in the job) and it was still the defining narrative as the conference season opened. The timing of Brown's ascension and the parliamentary recess meant we haven't actually seen a tremendous amount of direct face-to-face time between the two men and so the allure of how they'll square off remains strong for the media and the public US Dollar/Swiss Franc in general. Whether or not this factor will hold true when there actually is a poll (possibly two years away) depends on the other reason why I think an immediate poll would've been very presidential - the relative weakness of the government front bench.

Disregarding policy issues or personal differences I think most people would accept Blair's cabinets were quite substantial in terms of intellectual weight and public profile - names such as Reid, Clarke, Blunkett, Cook, Mowlam and of course Brown himself were all national figures whose standing, if not their performance, matched the job description. Surely nobody but the most myopic party loyalist would contend that Darling, Miliband, Smith, Browne or Johnson is a list with anything like the same cachet - at least not yet? The irony of course is that this is Brown's own fault because his supporters continually talked up his superiority over every other member of the Cabinet before he became leader (with the aim of making that outcome all the more certain of course). The result is that Gordon and his supporters spent the 18-months or so before he became PM talking down the quality and substance of the very people he nows forms a cabinet with.

This presents an opportunity for the Conservatives - the fact that most of Gordon's team lack any real weight or standing in the public eye should cheer a shadow cabinet that can count the likes of William Hague and David Davis as members. In the case of those last two there's a clear gulf between them and the relative newbies they shadow (Miliband and Smith). I think a similar gulf in quality exists between Johnson and Lansley at Health, Hutton and Duncan at Business & Enterprise and Browne and Fox at defence (particularly given recent events!)

That said it's important they don't get too cocky following last week's events because the volatility of the polls is well documented and no longer being seen as a joke isn't the same thing as being seen as a government in waiting - the key thing is just to recognise that unlike 6/7 years ago they're not facing a formidable 'first XI' anymore so it shouldn't just be Brown the Tory election machine targets...

**Update** Via Iain Dale a video (see right) that demonstrates just how poor some on the Labour front bench are - Ed Balls making a bit of an idoit of himself and being taken apart by IDS.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Why everyone should read Alan Bennett...

From his 1994 anthology of prose writing, screenplays and diaries, a glorious anecdote from Alan Bennett:
"I am reminded of a couple, friends of Russell Harty's, who had a son of twelve or so who they were worried might be growing up gay. However, they were greatly heartened when the boy said that what he wanted for Christmas was a Mecanno set. Delighted by what they saw as an access of butchness, they bought him the biggest set they could find; it was a huge success, and he took it to his room and played with it for hours. The day came when the boy asked to show them what he had been making, and they were made to wait with their backs turned while he manoeuvred it into the room. When they turned round, the boy stood there shyly peeping at them from behind a vast Mecanno fan."

Friday, October 05, 2007

A lick of paint...

A few long in the planning changes for Cassilis which (I hope!) you've noticed. It's always been my intention to broaden the focus and not remain totally political on this so I wanted a strapline that reflected this - the Robertson Davies quote sums it up perfectly.

I've also added a video box on the right which will give me an opportunity to share some of the things that delight, entertain, infuriate, interest or just plain confuse me - will endeavour to update it regularly and hopefully there should be something new there at least every couple of days. When I figure out how I'll add an archive as well. First up? - the wonderful Django Reinhardt and one of the few people I'm happy to attach the 'hero' tag too, enjoy. And in case anyone thinks I've completely forsaken the political, if we have an election in the next few weeks the video box will be useful to flag those YouTube moments when Brown/Cameron/Ming are caught on camera picking their nose/wearing a top hat or riding a stair lift (I'll let you tie the name to the likely incident!)

More soon...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Timothy Garton Ash, the Tories and the EU...

In this mornings Guardian Timothy Garton Ash suggests David Cameron's call for the UK to better exert it's influence around the world is at odds with the Party's natural euro-scepticism. He misunderstands how that influence works as well as the party's actual position on the EU.

Tim claims "there will often be no other way to achieve the goals [the Tories] proclaim" other than via the EU but that begs a very obvious question - why couldn't a Conservative government play a full part in any EU pressure on Zimbabwe, China, Iran or whomever? Tim doesn't actually offer any explanation here - he just keep saying it which isn't the same thing as a decent argument. The Conservatives recognise and have acknowledged many times that where pan-European action is appropriate they'll support it.

The point is the Tories aren't advocating complete withdrawal but challenging some aspects of the current settlement (e.g. HRA, social chapter) and then adding checks and balances on further integration. He acknowledges that the EU often punches below it's weight internationally (and the UK punches above its) but this almost amounts to a rebuttal of the very point he's trying to make - surely deeper integration of effective body into the less effective one isn't the only way to advance those shared goals? This 'with us or against us' logic is as flawed in the mouth of a liberal pro-European as it is in the mouth of a US neocon. The notion that EU's international standing and moral weight is dependent on unanimity over weighing a bag of spuds or even harmonised labour laws is laughable and for someone who's just launched an EU-focused think tank Tim should know better.

David Cameron's speech...

For someone with a more active interest in politics than most, big political events like David Cameron's speech yesterday, or Brown's last week, tend to leave me cold in terms of reacting directly to them on the blog. This isn't a judgement on the quality of the speeches or the importance of the event - it's recognition of the fact that there's more than enough commentary and analysis elsewhere and I'm very unlikely to be adding anything new. All that leaves is the overtly tribal reaction you get on most political blogs and that doesn't interest me either.

Consequently I often find myself 'reacting to the reaction', particularly the media response. Most psephologists acknowledge the disproportionate importance of a relatively small and apolitical group of floating voters in deciding the outcome of elections. So, at a time when modern politics are so stubbornly centrist it's interesting to note how declared political opponents react to set piece speeches or key policy announcements. Brown's speech in Bournemouth last week attracted a predictably partisan leader in the following days Telegraph, even if the hostility wasn't as marked as you might expect - talk of "a political pitch with which Daily Telegraph readers could feel comfortable" is a nod to the cross-dressing so common in today's politics.

The reaction in this morning's Guardian to Cameron's Blackpool speech is, to their credit, remarkably unpartisan but that may just be a consequence of the fact that the Guardian's sympathies lie with the governing party so they can afford a little condescension. Whatever the underlying reasons I'm sure Cameron's team will be cheered by a reasonably positive reaction from an adversary.

Anyway, for what it's worth my reaction to yesterday's speech with best endeavours on an honest assessment and no tribalism:

  • In sheer performance terms an undoubted success. Speaking unscripted for over an hour given the recent hostility inside and outside the party took real guts and indicates a degree of intellectual clarity that his critics have sought to deny him.
  • In terms of the balance between positive vision stuff and attacking the government I think he got it more or less right - he avoided the temptation I highlighted below to launch a full-on personal attack on Brown and that was wise.
  • As for policy it's more of a mixed bag but that's because I'm firmly on the 'wet wing' (even in DC's party!) The 'tax breaks on marriage' thing is misguided gesture politics which Alice Miles destroyed in yesterday's times - that should go. The autonomy for head teachers, compassionate but firm approach on immigration, scraping ID cards, US-style welfare reform etc. all land well with me.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Brown, Blackpool & Basra...

The fairly meek reaction in Labour circles to the Tory charge of electioneering over yesterday's troop announcement in Iraq tells you the charge has some weight. I don't think any of the main commentators or leader columns have attempted to defend him and on the basis of a quick glance around the main Labour blogs the silence is deafening.

This was a mistake and evidence that Brown's deep contempt for the Tories and desire to score cheap points may actually be something that works to their rather than his advantage. In basic terms he went back on a clear and unambiguous promise - to make any significant announcements on troop movements to parliament first. OK - it wasn't announced on Richard & Judy but it still contradicted the high standards he set himself and will be seen to do so by most people, supporters of otherwise. What's more - it seems 200 of the 1,000 referred to actually arrived home at the weekend and 500 were part of a previous announcement anyway. An understandable desire to mess with heads in Blackpool has essentially backfired and tarnished the statesman-like, consensual image he's been trying to cultivate since taking office.

Monday, October 01, 2007

My Politics: Part 2...

During the miners strike in 1984/85 a couple of miners were found guilty of attempted murder after dropping a paving slab from a motorway bridge on a taxi carrying a strike breaker to work - I can't source the story but I think the miner actually lived but the taxi driver was killed. When this story aired I remember some Conservative politician attacking the accused miners and implying (probably a little too readily) that the incident somehow spoke to the moral illegitimacy of the strike action as a whole and anyone on the left who supported it. What shocked me most though was my father's ambivalence towards the fate of the victims and his readiness to almost (not quite) excuse the behaviour of the striking miners.

I was 13 during the Miners strike and although I can't pretend to have followed every twist & turn in the story, it was the first significant political event I recall. It was also my first exposure to the relativism that often accompanies deeply held political views. In the eyes of my father the men accused of murder were 'striking against Maggie' and that fact must in some way mitigate their actions (just as their intended victim was somehow less deserving of our sympathy because he was breaking the strike). This was mirrored on the right with the notion that striking miners were somehow lazy thugs rather than men looking to feed their families. I remember being appalled at this relativism and disgusted at the readiness of both sides to exploit the dispute to tarnish their political opponents. As I said I didn't understand all the 'ins and outs' of the story nor the first thing about labour law or industrial action but the idea that men wanting to go to work to feed their family could contradict any political creed or belief system seemed awful to me. Those events coupled with my fathers relativism towards them perhaps had something to do with my drift to the right.

In the late eighties my interest in politics began to grow and this is probably a consequence of the febrile political atmosphere at the time. Thatcher's government was exceptionally divisive and for the first time in my life popular culture seemed to become overtly political - Ben Elton, Red Wedge, Alexi Sayle, Spitting Image etc. At this time my Dad also found himself serially unemployed largely as a direct consequence of government action and so hostility to 'Maggie' at home increased even further. These two things combined to make any support for or tolerance of the Conservative Party seem like total heresy. And if I'm honest I can't dissent from that now - I'll revisit this in later posts in this series but the idea that Thatcher's time in office was an unalloyed good is complete nonsense and the party's inability to put her time in office in some sort of perspective continues to damage the party today.

This is the third in a series of posts - see 'Introduction' and 'Part 1'....

Friday, September 28, 2007

What Cameron should and SHOULDN'T say next week...

This is a follow up to the post below on how the Conservatives should respond to Brown's speech this week and an expanded version of a comment I left over on Iain Dale's piece from today's telegraph on the same theme.

Given the possibility of an autumn election party unity is key for the Tories in Blackpool next week and I really hope anyone tempted to have a pop at Cameron heeds Iain's advice and holds their tongue. As to Iain's other suggestion that the Conservatives should launch a full on attack on Brown he couldn't be more wrong.

Unity IS key but you can only build that around a positive campaign - one built on a clear vision of what Britain under the Conservatives would look like. It's almost certainly impossible to build it around the sort of negative or critical campaign many Conservatives are urging (see ConHome's Wrong man campaign etc). The reason this won't work is that no matter how gifted your communications team or your speechwriters the public tend to associate you with one broad theme or defining characteristic - either you're a positive alternative, full of ideas and refreshing policies and the embodiment of change or you're a player, a politician whose first instinct is to rubbish their opponents and squabble over who's best. This is why Brown didn't even mention the Conservatives or Cameron at the start of the week - it's a deliberate move to pitch him as above the fray and disdainful of party politics.

As I mentioned below David can't really get through his speech next week without referencing the last 10 years because he's an opposition leader. But that doesn't mean you run a campaign built around what you're not and attacking Gordon Brown. The public needs to know what you are and how things would change under a Conservative government. I would dearly love to see David speak for 90mins next week without mentioning Brown by name once. The Labour party yes, and regular references to their failings over the last decade but each one immediately followed by a positive reference to what the Conservatives would do differently. If Cameron stands up next week and delivers lengthy passages on Brown's failings and character flaws, laced with jokes to please the floor, the Telegraph and right-wing blogs, there may be a superficial bounce and some soothing noises from his recent critics but comes Christmas the polls will be right back where they are today.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

My Politics: Part one...

Politicians and commentators like to suggest that class social background are no longer the determinants they once were when it comes to political alignment. From a personal point of view my background did play a part even if it was only to provide me with something against which to rebel.

My mother was born in Donegal in the Irish Republic in 1949 and raised there until she moved to Glasgow with her parents in the late 1950s in search of work. My father was born in Glasgow to an Ulster Catholic woman with vivid memories of the treatment her family suffered at the hands of the ‘Black & Tans’ in Derry as a child – memories which didn’t seem to diminish despite spending most of her life in Glasgow. I never got the opportunity to discuss politics with any of my grandparents although I’ve been told my maternal grandfather was a committed socialist. Beyond that I suspect their politics were exactly as you’d expect given that sort of social background – not overtly political but solidly on the left and loyal Labour voters.

Having met at the local Roman Catholic secondary school my parents fell in love in the housing estates of Glasgow in the 1960’s. They were married in September 1970 and I arrived in August the following year. In 1974 they moved down to Ayrshire not long before I was due to start school. The nearest Catholic school however was 10 miles away on a bus and my mum decided to send me to the local non-denominational school a few hundred yards away. This arrangement persisted until I was due to enter Primary 7 – having met other Catholic parents my mum was now comfortable with me going on the bus and so I told my (largely protestant) classmates that for the final year of primary I’d be going to Catholic school. They took this news in their stride, wished me luck and all signed a piece of paper that I still have somewhere. The following August during my first week at the Catholic school my classmates spent most of each lunchtime punching and kicking me and taunting me for having went to ‘proddy school’.

I don’t want to overstate the bullying – my parents visited the school a couple of times and after a few weeks everything settled down. However, in terms of social identity the dominant theme of my childhood was Catholicism. That’s not to suggest my parents were particularly devout, it’s just that long before I became aware of any class distinction I was aware that our Irish Catholic background set us apart slightly. Again, not in any significant way – the West Coast of Scotland in the 70’s / 80’s had plenty of families with such a background and attendance at Mass each Sunday made sure you didn’t feel like an outsider. Also the first awareness I had about anything political was my dad’s interest in Irish Republican politics.

I guess it's a mixture of age and political events that determine when someone finally becomes politically aware. Beyond that awareness of my Dad's interest in Irish affairs (frequently on the news in the late 70's / early 80's) my personal interest in politics probably dates from the miners strike and that's where I'll pick up in the next post.

(introductory post in this series here)