David Cameron’s oddballs

Perceptive observation by Martin Bright in the Spectator blog, arguing that David Cameron is the only half-normal person in the new Cabinet.

David Cameron is socially adept and genuinely charming. Whether it is an act or not, he does good normal. At a senior level the Labour Party knows Cameron is the government’s biggest asset and remain in slight awe of him, much as the Tories were in awe of Blair in opposition. But who are those strange oddballs he surrounds himself with? Does he not realise how these people seem outside Toryworld?

The two main beneficiaries of the reshuffle represent the twin poles of Tory unattractiveness. The smug grin of Jeremy Hunt has become emblematic of the government’s patrician core, while Chris Grayling (known to Lib Dem colleagues as Voldemort) fizzes with Thatcher-era thuggishness. The defeminisation of the Cabinet has the effect of giving it the feel of an all-boys’ school. As any school teacher will tell you, girls have a civilising effect on a classroom of adolescent boys. The same is true of senior politicians. The blogosphere (another arena suited to bullying boys) is full of stories of “hysterical” female ministers failing to take their sackings or demotions with equanimity. This is playground stuff. Bring back the grown-ups.

Why Cameron daren’t cast Murdoch adrift

Lovely Observer column by Nick Cohen.

The greatest fear is among the Conservatives. Murdoch’s decision to release emails that showed how Jeremy Hunt’s adviser was facilitating News Corporation’s takeover of BskyB was a taste of what may come. Not just Hunt, but Cameron and George Osborne were complicit in promising sweetheart deals to News Corporation. Coulson, Brooks, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch know it. What is more, the Tory leadership suspects they can prove it.

We are in the absurd position where the Conservatives dare not stop fawning over Murdoch now for fear that he will reveal how they fawned over him in the past.

Cameron could end the absurdity in a day. He might ally with Labour and the Liberal Democrats and take the best opportunity in years to establish the new system for regulating media monopolies Britain will need as Google and the other net giants grow. That he lacks the bravery to seize the moment tells you all you need to know about the littleness of the man.

The problem for the Posh Boys: they’re not actually much good at running the country

My Observer colleague Andrew Rawnsley has a very perceptive column about Cameron and Osborne in the paper this morning.

Once asked, while in opposition, why he wanted to become prime minister, David Cameron replied: “Because I think I would be quite good at it”, one of the most self-revealing remarks he has ever made. Shortly after he moved into Number 10, someone inquired whether anything about the job had come as a surprise to him. Not really, he insouciantly replied: “It is much as I expected.” In his early period in office, that self-confidence served him rather well. He certainly looked quite good at being prime minister. He seemed to fit the part and fill the role. Broadly speaking, he performed like a man who knew what he was doing. That is one reason why his personal ratings were strikingly positive for a man presiding over grinding austerity and an unprecedented programme of cuts.

So you can get away with being “arrogant” as long as the voters think you have something to be arrogant about. You can also get away with being “posh” in politics. To most of the public, anyone who wears a good suit and swanks about in government limousines looks “posh” whether their schooldays were spent at Eton or Bash Street Comprehensive. There may even be some voters who think – or at least once thought – that an expensive education has its advantages as a preparation for running the country. Though David Cameron and George Osborne have always been sensitive on the subject, poshness wasn’t a really serious problem for them so long as they could persuade the public that they were in politics to serve the interests of the whole country, not just of their own class.

Rawnsley’s right: one of the things that has become obvious in the last few months is how amateurish these lads are. Their self-esteem is inversely proportional to their ability — a classic problem for toffs.

Maybe this is really beginning to dawn on the electorate. Currently Labour has a huge lead over the Tories in the polls. And that’s despite having Miliband like a millstone round the party’s neck.

The Chipping Norton Set: Dave Boy’s fatal mistakes

Terrific Torygraph column by Peter Oborne.

In the careers of all prime ministers there comes a turning point. He or she makes a fatal mistake from which there is no ultimate recovery. With Tony Blair it was the Iraq war and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. With John Major it was Black Wednesday and sterling’s eviction from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. With Harold Wilson, the pound’s devaluation in 1967 wrecked his reputation.

Each time the pattern is strikingly similar. Before, there is a new leader with dynamism, integrity and carrying the faith of the nation. Afterwards, the prime minister can stagger on for years, but as increasingly damaged goods: never is it glad, confident morning again.

David Cameron, who has returned from Afghanistan as a profoundly damaged figure, now faces exactly such a crisis. The series of disgusting revelations concerning his friends and associates from Rupert Murdoch’s News International has permanently and irrevocably damaged his reputation.

Until now it has been easy to argue that Mr Cameron was properly grounded with a decent set of values. Unfortunately, it is impossible to make that assertion any longer. He has made not one, but a long succession of chronic personal misjudgments.

Copyright, copywrongs and Professor Hargreaves

Today’s Observer column.

Watching British politicians engage with technology companies is a bit like listening to maiden aunts wondering if they would look better in thongs. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, to name just two such aunts, fantasised that Microsoft was cool, and spent years trying to associate themselves (and New Labour) with Bill Gates – even going to the lengths of making the Microsoft boss an honorary knight. Then we had the equally ludicrous spectacle of Cameron and co believing that Google is cool, which is why its CEO, Eric Schmidt – who for these purposes is the Google Guys’ representative on Earth – was an honoured guest at Cameron’s first party conference as leader. Given that, it’s only a matter of time before Ed Miliband discovers that Facebook is the new cool. And so it will go on.

Cameron’s worship of Google did, however, have one tangible result. Mortified by the Google Guys' assertion that the UK’s intellectual property regime would have made it impossible to launch their company in the UK, he decided to commission an inquiry into said regime under the chairmanship of Professor Ian Hargreaves.

So why isn’t the UK providing consular support for Bradley Manning?

From openDemocracy.

The brutal treatment of the young soldier, who has not been convicted of any offence, has been described by Amnesty International as “unnecessarily severe”, “inhumane” and “repressive”. It is widely believed US authorities are treating him harshly to obtain a plea bargain that implicates WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Julian Assange as a co-conspirator. But there is a twist to this tale. Bradley Manning is a dual UK-US citizen under the right afforded to him by jus sanguinis. His mother is Welsh and his father American; he was born in Oklahoma though sat his GCSEs at a Welsh secondary school. He should therefore be entitled to consular assistance.

As according to a guide issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) called “Support for British Nationals”, the UK would not normally offer consular support to dual citizens unless the citizen is a minor, facing a capital sentence, or if “having looked at the circumstances of the case, we [the FCO] consider that there is a special humanitarian reason to do so.”

Manning is not a minor, and nor is he facing a capital sentence (though some prominent US politicians have called for a treason charge, which could result in the death penalty) but his situation is certainly of serious humanitarian concern. Given the severity of Amnesty International’s condemnation of Manning’s treatment, and the additional involvement of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, it seems clear that Manning has a “special humanitarian” case. A spokesperson for the FCO said that they could not comment on individual cases, however confirmed that “in instances of mistreatment, we would potentially look to intervene.”

The piece goes on to observe that

though the UK may wish to keep a distance from Bradley Manning for political reasons, UK authorities – whether they like it or not – were implicated in the investigation from the beginning. In July last year, shortly after Manning was charged, American ‘officials’ reported to be F.B.I agents made an unannounced visit to the Welsh home of Bradley Manning’s mother, Susan. Accompanied by a Detective Sergeant from Dyfed-Powys police force, they are believed to have searched Bradley’s old bedroom. Earlier this week Dyfed-Powys police would not confirm or deny this – saying only that they “facilitated a request from an American agency to accompany them as they conducted their investigation last year.”

It appears then that while UK authorities have been happy to comply with the Americans on UK soil as they seek evidence to prosecute Manning, they remain reluctant to get involved in an issue that has the potential to put serious strain on the notorious “special relationship.”

Forgetting the rest of the trick

Bill Keegan, the Observer‘s economics commentator, tells a nice story about how the Labour Leader, Michael Foot, lampooned Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s policy guru, in the early 1980s. Foot, says Keegan, gave

a virtuoso display in a speech which had both sides of the Commons in stitches. He was referring to Sir Keith Joseph, who had played the role of John the Baptist to Thatcher. Foot was speaking when, as now, the Conservatives were conducting a frontal assault on the fabric of British society. He had long tried to recall, said Foot, of whom the right honourable gentleman (Joseph) reminded him. It had suddenly come to him: in his youth, Foot had gone to the Palace Theatre in Plymouth on Saturday nights, where a “magician-conjuror” used to take a gold watch from a member of the audience, wrap it in a red handkerchief, and smash it “to smithereens”. Then, while the audience sat there in suspense, a puzzled look would come over his countenance, and he would say: “I’m very sorry – I’ve forgotten the rest of the trick.” Foot concluded: “That’s the situation of the government.”

Well, I suspect that is also the position of the present government. Thatcher at least had the excuse of fighting double-digit inflation. This government has invented an excuse – namely that the cuts are required to avoid the treatment that the bond markets have been meting out to Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink: markets are ok, really

One of the strangest things about the ConDem coalition is its claim to be pragmatic rather than ideological. In fact, it may turn out to be the most ideological administration we’ve seen since the middle period of Thatcher. Peter Wilby makes the point in a terrific column in today’s Guardian.

If we want a true picture of what Cameron’s government is about, we should look at another recent recruit to the tent: Richard Thaler, a Chicago University academic who is advising a ‘behavioural insight team’. This has been dressed up as another example of Tory de-Thatcherising, enlisting compassionate, interventionist approaches to social problems. Thaler claims to be what Americans call a ‘liberal’. Cass Sunstein, another Chicago man and Thaler’s co-author on a book called Nudge, which caused much excitement when it came out in 2008, works for President Obama. But Thaler is not quite what Cameron wants you to think he is.

Nudge provides Cameron with the academic cover that Anthony Giddens, the sociologist who wrote The Third Way, provided for Blair. It claims to set out ‘the real Third Way’, implying, conveniently for Cameron, that Labour chose a false path. Markets aren’t always right, the authors argue. Because humans don’t always make rational choices, markets sometimes operate inefficiently. From this (to anyone other than a Chicago professor) rather obvious premise, Nudge proceeds to outline a philosophy of “libertarian paternalism”. The state, without direct regulation or more than minimal costs to the advantaged, can gently persuade humans to act in their own and the wider community’s interests.

Wilby points out that this libertarian paternalism bears “the same theological relationship to Friedmanite economics (Milton Friedman was also a Chicago professor) as intelligent design does to creationism. It strips out the demonstrably false aspects of the doctrine and gives it a makeover.”

After the banking crisis, the belief that markets work perfectly was as unsustainable as the belief that God created the world in 4004BC. Nudge comes to the rescue, proposing ways to make markets work better without directly interfering with them, still less penalising those who grow rich from them. It discusses not the merits of privatising social security, but the best way of doing it. It considers why Americans aren’t saving more for their retirement, without mentioning that, for the majority, real wages haven’t risen in a decade. The premise is that if people act against their own best interests – by using drugs, eating junk, failing to save or taking out loans they can’t repay – it is because of their individual behavioural flaws, not because of poverty, inequality or lack of hope.

Nudge, though written before the worst effects of the credit crunch were evident, came at a convenient moment for free-market capitalism. It argues that there’s nothing wrong with markets, only with people, and the state’s role is to make people fit for markets, not the other way about.

Just to underscore the point, the Economist (from whose print cover the image above is taken) recently had a piece arguing that the ConDems are the most radical government in the Western world. ‘Radical’ in this sense means “hell-bent on shrinking the state”. That sounds pretty ideological to me.

Slasher Osborne and the belief that Austerity Is Good

“When I was young and naïve”, writes Paul Krugman, “I believed that important people took positions based on careful consideration of the options. Now I know better.”

Yep. Me too. Long ago I decided that the null hypothesis should be that — in public life and management at least — Nobody Knows Anything.

“Much of what Serious People believe”, Krugman goes on, “rests on prejudices, not analysis. And these prejudices are subject to fads and fashions.”

For the last few months, I and others have watched, with amazement and horror, the emergence of a consensus in policy circles in favor of immediate fiscal austerity. That is, somehow it has become conventional wisdom that now is the time to slash spending, despite the fact that the world’s major economies remain deeply depressed.

This conventional wisdom isn’t based on either evidence or careful analysis. Instead, it rests on what we might charitably call sheer speculation, and less charitably call figments of the policy elite’s imagination — specifically, on belief in what I’ve come to think of as the invisible bond vigilante and the confidence fairy.

Bond vigilantes are investors who pull the plug on governments they perceive as unable or unwilling to pay their debts.

Now there’s no question that countries can suffer crises of confidence (see Greece, debt of). But what the advocates of austerity claim is that (a) the bond vigilantes are about to attack America, and (b) spending anything more on stimulus will set them off.

Which brings us to Slasher Osborne and his fag, Danny Alexander. Time and again, their mantra is our old friend TINA (There Is No Alternative). If we don’t slash public expenditure then the Bond Vigilantes will come and get us. There is, of course, no evidence that the bond market would do to the UK what it threatens to do to Greece. Nor could there be. The essence of these kinds of markets — based on that intangible thing, “confidence” — is that there’s no knowing what they might do, and you can’t base national policy on considerations as irrational as that. Otherwise you wind up with the economic counterpart of the National Security State, which can devise any rationale — no matter how absurd — for curtailing freedoms on the grounds that Al Qaede could conceivably exploit the ‘loopholes’ that such freedoms provide. (As an example, think of the obsession with stopping photographers from photographing public buildings.)

It should be obvious to the meanest intelligence that slashing public spending when the economy is on a tentative recovery from recession is a sure way of triggering another, deeper, recession. And of course Slasher knows that, as do his counterparts in the US. But here another chimera comes to their aid, namely what Krugman calls the “Confidence Fairy”.

But don’t worry: spending cuts may hurt, but the confidence fairy will take away the pain. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, in a recent interview. Why? Because “confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery.”

What’s the evidence for the belief that fiscal contraction is actually expansionary, because it improves confidence? (By the way, this is precisely the doctrine expounded by Herbert Hoover in 1932.) Well, there have been historical cases of spending cuts and tax increases followed by economic growth. But as far as I can tell, every one of those examples proves, on closer examination, to be a case in which the negative effects of austerity were offset by other factors, factors not likely to be relevant today.”

Oh, and if you’re in any doubt about what really savage public spending cuts can do to an economy, then have a look at my own dear homeland, which was recently the subject of an illuminating piece in the New York Times.

Nearly two years ago, an economic collapse forced Ireland to cut public spending and raise taxes, the type of austerity measures that financial markets are now pressing on most advanced industrial nations.

“When our public finance situation blew wide open, the dominant consideration was ensuring that there was international investor confidence in Ireland so we could continue to borrow,” said Alan Barrett, chief economist at the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland. “A lot of the argument was, ‘Let’s get this over with quickly.’ ”

Rather than being rewarded for its actions, though, Ireland is being penalized. Its downturn has certainly been sharper than if the government had spent more to keep people working. Lacking stimulus money, the Irish economy shrank 7.1 percent last year and remains in recession.

Joblessness in this country of 4.5 million is above 13 percent, and the ranks of the long-term unemployed — those out of work for a year or more — have more than doubled, to 5.3 percent.

Now, the Irish are being warned of more pain to come.

More ‘pain’? (That word again.) Yep. Because of course the Bond Vigilantes aren’t satisfied yet.

The Quagmire

Hindsight, they say, is the only exact science. The trouble is that we need it now. The news that Obama had fired General McChrystal while keeping the policy that the general was trying to implement sent me scurrying to locate my copy of Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Why? Because it reviews the story of the US’s adventure in Vietnam with the benefit of hindsight, and in the process makes plain the futility and stupidity of the enterprise. And I’m thinking that US policy in Afghanistan has all the same hallmarks, and yet we’re locked into the doomed enterprise much as Lyndon Johnson was in the 1960s.

One comparison in particular strikes me. Tuchman points out that the more enfeebled, corrupt and incompetent the regime in South Vietnam became, the more influence it exerted on its superpower patron. Spool forward to Afghanistan and we have the Karzai administration — corrupt, incompetent and feeble — more or less holding the US government to ransom. Karzai stole the presidential election, and yet was endorsed by Obama and Gordon Brown. There are 100,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan fighting what they all recognise as a futile, unwinnable war. A steady stream of bodybags returns to the US and to RAF Brize Norton ever week (1,000 to the US, 300 to the UK) We have a fresh, new administration in Britain which is cheerily engaged in a root-and-branch examination of public spending, and yet there’s not a hint that an adventure that must be costing £100 million a week should be re-assessed. Instead David Cameron goes to Afghanistan, is photographed with Karzai and solemnly restates his administration’s resolute commitment to the whole doomed charade. And back in London almost nobody (except for the columnist Simon Jenkins) seems willing to ask the question that needs to be asked: what the f*** are we doing there?

But it was the same in the 1960s. There were a few voices in Washington who asked awkward questions, but in the main there was no public debate about the wisdom — never mind the ethics or the feasability — of the war in Southeast Asia. And so the killing continued until — eventually — the US bowed to the inevitable and scuttled.

Now Obama has fired a general but kept the war. Worse still, he has appointed a successor to McChrystal who, like General Westmoreland in Vietnam, is going to prolong the US commitment indefinitely. Andrew Sullivan has a wonderful column this week about the implications of appointing General Petraeus, “the real Pope of counter-insurgency”, to lead the war in Afghanistan. Here’s a sample:

Obama’s gamble on somehow turning the vast expanse of that ungovernable “nation” into a stable polity dedicated to fighting Jihadist terror is now as big as Bush’s in Iraq – and as quixotic. It is also, in my view, as irrational a deployment of resources and young lives that America cannot afford and that cannot succeed. It really is Vietnam – along with the crazier and crazier rationales for continuing it. But it is now re-starting in earnest ten years in, dwarfing Vietnam in scope and longevity.

One suspects there is simply no stopping this war machine, just as there is no stopping the entitlement and spending machine. Perhaps McChrystal would have tried to wind things up by next year – but his frustration was clearly fueled by the growing recognition that he could not do so unless he surrendered much of the country to the Taliban again. So now we have the real kool-aid drinker, Petraeus, who will refuse to concede the impossibility of success in Afghanistan just as he still retains the absurd notion that the surge in Iraq somehow worked in reconciling the sectarian divides that still prevent Iraq from having a working government. I find this doubling down in Afghanistan as Iraq itself threatens to spiral out of control the kind of reasoning that only Washington can approve of.

This much we also know: Obama will run for re-election with far more troops in Afghanistan than Bush ever had – and a war and occupation stretching for ever into the future, with no realistic chance of success. Make no mistake: this is an imperialism of self-defense, a commitment to civilize even the least tractable culture on earth because Americans are too afraid of the consequences of withdrawal. And its deepest irony is that continuing this struggle will actually increase and multiply the terror threats we face – as it becomes once again a recruitment tool for Jihadists the world over.

This is a war based on fear, premised on a contradiction, and doomed to carry on against reason and resources for the rest of our lives.

All of which seems to me to be spot on. We don’t need to wait for hindsight to realise the absurdity of what we’ve got ourselves into. The Americans will have to answer for themselves. But the UK is — theoretically — still a sovereign state: so why isn’t there a serious debate about it here? Now.