Wednesday, December 30, 2015

An analysis of the Oliver Letwin "apology"

In his apology Oliver Letwin said as follows:
 "I want to make clear that some parts of a private memo I wrote nearly 30 years ago were both badly worded and wrong.
"I apologise unreservedly for any offence these comments have caused and I wish to make clear that none was intended" 
Let's just analyse this because it is in many ways a classic of its type.
Sentence one:
"Private memo"    Is very bad. The explicit presumption is that because the memo was "private" therefore it mattered less what was in it. So what you say in private is allowably different from what you say in public. This may be true - the whole idea of "on the record" and "off the record" relies on it. But consider whether Mr Letwin was more likely to say what he really believed in private or in public. See what I mean? Conclusion: these were (are?) his true opinions.
"I wrote nearly 30 years ago" - very bad again. The presumption here is that things said three decades ago were in a different time and therefore should not be judged by the standards of today. Bad in two ways. Firstly it denies the idea of core principle. His memo offends against a premise that such opinions are unacceptable anywhere any time. Also there is no statute of limitations on what you say. If you were offensive 30 years ago you are still offensive today. Indeed it matters not whether you said it decades ago or yesterday. When you said it is irrelevant.
"Badly worded and wrong". Very good. He could have just said "badly worded" which would have implied it was a drafting error. He didn't. He says what he wrote was "wrong" - good.
Sentence Two
"apologise unreservedly" is good. Unequivocal and clear.
"...for any offence these comments have caused." Oh dear! The apology breaks down at this point and the key word is "any". This gratuitous word suggests that there might be some doubt as to whether or not offence has been caused. Take out "any" and replace it with "the" and you have something that appears sincere. Letwin is apologising and he is doing this because he HAS caused offence. There is no doubt about this. But the "any" tries to suggest that there may be some doubt in the matter or that those who are offended are in the minority. Again this may be true, but it is cheap to suggest so. The "wrong" in the first sentence is good. The "any" in the second seeks to qualify this. It shouldn't .
"... wish to make clear that none was intended"  here Letwin falls off the rails entirely. Why would anyone, let alone a senior politician, seek to cause offence? Is anyone suggesting that Letwin's objective was to cause offence? Not that I've seen. It was, after all, a "private memo" which is hardly the medium you would choose if your intention was to cause offence ! So Letwin is here apologising (sort of) here for something nobody is accusing him of !
Apologising for mistakes is an honourable thing to do. But this "apology" is an ill-drafted mix of the good, the bad and the dismissive. Is it sincere in any way? I very much doubt it. 

Monday, December 07, 2015

We know the "way" - but do we have the "will" to invest this time ?

I love my country otherwise I wouldn't live here. I don't have to - there are plenty of other, warmer, less introspective and divisive and more efficient places to live. And most would cost a lot less too! But I am British and there are British things that I love and would miss (I know, I've lived abroad a lot and I missed them). The magnificent BBC. Our Arts scene generally. Our media for all its warts. Our politics (God help me). The countryside. The sport. Real Ale. (Sorry getting a bit John Major now...). 

But one thing about Britain that annoys me a lot is our indecision. Each generation has a duty to create infrastructure for its successor generations. We must do it right - but we MUST do it. In the 1950s a series of complacent ill-lead Conservative  Governments relegated Britain to an also-ran status in respect of our industrial infrastructure. Our oh so recent enemies Germany and Japan established the capacity and the brands to lead the world. Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, AEG, Canon. And later the Amercans also innovated whilst we did nothing. Apple, McDonalds, Microsoft. Even the French without indigenous energy invested in a sustainable power generation sector when we faffed about and largely squandered our North Sea Oil inheritance. 

And here we go again. London is a great asset. The Olympics were symbolic of its global capital status. Indeed London is at the heart of our economic present and our future. But it won't be if we don't invest in it. Air travel is the key to this - we must have more capacity. I would expand Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted AND City. But let's get off the fence and get on with Heathrow as soon as possible. 

An expanded Heathrow, linked by CrossRail to the City in the East, is essential. So is HS2 linking London to the rapidly developing Birmingham and the North West. None of this is easy but we know the way. Do we have the "will"? This time let's hope we do! 

Saturday, December 05, 2015

We should celebrate Britain's multicultural society not berate it.

The idea that multiculturalism, as Mr Altaf Ussain claims today on the Conservative Home website, has "guided so much of our policy for decades " is just plain wrong and there is not a scintilla of evidence for it. A multicultural society was never, ever a goal of any political Party or Government. Yes we have such a society and benefit hugely from it. But it is a consequence of a host of actions and circumstances never a goal.

I don't know whether Mr Hussain was around in Britain in the early 1950s but I was and a very dull place it was. Homogenous, unicultutal, introspective, ignorant, suspicious, antisemitic, xenophobic. It was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant world, There weren't many people of colour around so the WASP established order had to be rude about the Catholics, or the Jews or the Irish. There will always be someone to blame if you feel the need to. Now, for Mr Hussain, it's those of ethnic minority heritage who don't "integrate". Well I've news for him. It was ever thus. There are Jewish families living in London from the faith's orthodox outer reaches who haven't "integrated' for 100 years or more. And it hasn't mattered a bit. They obey the law. That is all we require them to do. How they live, worship, eat and which festivals they observe or what clothes they wear doesn't matter a fig, and never did.

The extent of our integration into the predominant Unicultural norms of the majority British culture is a matter of choice. When I lived in Hong Kong some of my friends called themselves "Bananas" - they looked Chinese but in fact they were as British as I was. They were yellow on the outside, but white inside. That was their choice (or had been that of their parents). Similarly I have met many West Indians who call themselves "Coconuts"! There is nothing offensive about these self-imposed descriptors, and nothing superior either. 

Mr Hussain is a "Melting Pot" man. He seems to want to make us all conform to some bland norm which has eliminated our differences. Well I've been there 60 plus years ago and I don't recommend it. There are more challenges living in a pluralist society - but it is far, far richer. I celebrate our differences, the variety of our  cites, the range of our cultures and people. I don't thnk my norm is better than anyone else's. It's mine and I'm not going to change it. And I'm not going to presume to ask anyone else to change theirs either. 

Deselection of MPs should be allowed - but only in very rare cases

I have been following the "debate" (if that's what it is) about deselection of Labour MPs by their Constituency parties from the City that once was Leningrad! Appropriate because there is a 1984 element to it all and Orwell's chilling satire was all about the need for conformity of thought. That, for 70 years was the Soviet way - to the Gulag (or worse) for those who disagree.

The idea that Members of Parliament should be accountable to their constituents is uncontroversial, and right. The notion that this means that local Parties should tell them how to vote and think is unconstitutional and wrong. Offensively so. If an MP is corrupt or incompetent there should be a process to deselect him or her. But if an MPs only "offence" is that they differ in their views of policy from the Party leadership then that is not a reason to remove them. (It is sad that this very obvious democratic principle needs restating, but it does).

MPs are not delegates mandated to do in Parliament exactly what they are told - by anybody! The whipping system is perhaps necessary to make democracy function - but to punish a Member for voting against a three-line-whip strikes me as very much a last resort. And to deselect them for being a serial rebel ? Well Jeremy Corbyn would long since have been booted out of the House if that had been the way!

Political opinions are disconnected at their core from Parties. Take Kate Hoey. She is a Eurosceptic in a Party that mostly isn't. Or Ken Clarke. He is a Europhile in a Party that mostly isn't. They both provide challenges to the mainstream and add value by doing so. There are hundreds of other examples. Some Tories spoke against the bombing of Syria, some Labour members supported the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Tax Credits. And so on. They were pursuing the long established (and very British) principle that nobody tells them what to think !

We the people elect our members of Parliament and if it turns out we've elected a crook we should be able to kick them out. But if an MPs views and voting behaviour are contrary to my views or to how I would vote is that grounds for concern? Not at all. At the next election I can put my cross against somebody else. But for now let's celebrate the awkward squad, the dissidents, the doubters, the sceptics and the rest. Democracies need them - indeed often they are the only Agents of change we have. 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Sorry Tim but its Europe and our place in it that matters, notthe "Special Relationship"

Political commentator, Eurosceptic and (mainly !) liberal Conservative Tim Montgomerie is spending a year living and studying and writing in the United States. His article in The Times today is premised on the idea that the Americans will be relieved that with the Syria bombing vote the UK is back in the fold. Tim finishes his article as above. 

A key element of conservative Eurosceptism of whatever Party is the idea that the "Special Relationship" (along with the bizarre notion of the existence of an "Anglosphere") will be there to comfort and protect us when we flee the warm embrace of the European Union. It's a nostalgic look back to a time around 70 years ago when arguably it was true - at least Churchill thought so. He said when he postulated the idea of a "United States of Europe" that Britain would not be part of it because of the Special Relationship and because of our Empire/Commonwealth. Well the latter has gone (as significant anyway) and the former is just a bit of nostalgia. We may be, as Tim says, "admired" and "loved" by our cousins across the pond but that is more "Downton Abbey" and Queen Elizabeth than any sort of basis for constructive political partnership.

America knows that what Dean Acheson said  back in 1962 that "Britain had lost an Empire  and not yet found a role" was true when he said it and it has been increasingly true since. The "decline" of Britain as a "Great Power" was inevitable and, many of us would thnk, desirable. The twentieth century saw power move from the old European Empires to the new ones based on political/military/economic strength (America, USSR/ Russia, China, Japan) or partnerships of nations (especially the European Union but also ASEAN and other pan-national groups). In this world none of the "old" powers can operate on its own - not even the economic powerhouse of Germany, and certainly not Britain.

Britain's relationship with the United States is not really bilateral anymore. We may have, as Tim puts it, "common enemies" but these are not peculiar to Britain. The fight against Islamic terrorism is not an Anglo-Saxon imperative but one shared by most nations, and certainly all European ones. So Britain's decision  now to bomb ISIS across the border in Syria rather than just in Iraq is of marginal significance militarily and politically. We were already part of the anti-ISIS military coalition. That it is now the R.A.F. which is (also) bombing targets in Syria is no big deal - if they weren't doing it one of our other partners would be. Britian's decision does not increase the effort against ISIS, it just refocuses it a bit.

I have no doubt that the Americans and our other partners in the ISIS fight are pleased to see us extending our commitment. But despite what the British media is saying we are not really significantly more "at war" than we already were - it is a marginal change at best. And the reality of Britain's place in the world is only as a major part of European alliances - the EU and NATO especially. Our relationship with America is through our participation within these alliances not as a bipartite partner is some nostalic special relationship.