2017 – that was the year that wasn’t…

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Never predict anything, particularly in sport and politics. Back in January I had a go and got some stuff right, but a lot more stuff wrong. My original post is here.

Things I got right.

Merkel stays on – Merkel did hang on in Germany, although at the time of writing she’s going through some pretty tricky negotiations to stay in the job.

Crossings continue – Not so much fresh as continuing under the media radar. Thousands are still risking their lives crossing from North Africa to Europe, 3,000 have died since January in the Mediterranean. Recently migrants have been attempting to negotiate the Alps in midwinter in trainers.

Yellows in peril – I predicted the Lib Dems wouldn’t go anywhere, and it came to pass. The combination of a new leader and a strong anti-Brexit stance has not paid dividends in the polls. They appear to be treading water. For now, we are back to a two-party system in English politics.

Austerity stinks – the prediction I’m most proud of. Corbyn changed the game on this. The Conservatives lost the narrative and Corbyn showed there is a vocal and engaged portion of the electorate who endorse and champion higher public spending.

North Korea – Easy to forecast but it became more of a flashpoint throughout the year as the two leaders sabre-rattled dangerously. No-one could have predicted the name calling though. Rocket man?

Celtic tops – I got this right and wrong. The Hoops won the SPL by roughly 20 zillion points but this did not spark much introspection north of the border or any serious talk of them joining the Premier League.

Things I got wrong

Over and out for Fillon – The overwhelming favourite did not become President of France. A combination of a bright young challenger and his own finance scandals consigned him to the political dustbin. In fact, he ended the year by exiting from politics completely.

Italian instability – Only a few things are certain in life – death, taxes and a new Italian Government every year or so. However, I was wrong again. It’s been a quiet year by Italian political standards and the next election is scheduled for 2018. I won’t be predicting that one.

May in May – Well, that was a surprise. It turned out she did go for a poll, but in June not May, and it all went swimmingly…

Corbyn the untouchable – Contrary to what I predicted, Labour lost the Cumbrian seat of Copeland but it didn’t make any difference to Corbyn or his Teflon leadership. Events later in the year would cement his authority within the party.

Trumped by Trump – Mind-blowingly wrong. I predicted that Trump would tone it down on the international stage and might seek to roll back on domestic promises. The exact opposite happened.

And meanwhile, in sport – England’s women did reach the semi-final of the Women’s European Football Championships, but they were expected to do better. I also confidently predicted another Andy Murray major and in a tournament he hadn’t won before. Unfortunately, he got a hip injury and never competed at his best this year.

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A Very English Scandal

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There are several jaw dropping moments in A Very English Scandal, John Preston’s grimly addictive tale of the rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal leader put on trial for conspiracy to murder.

There’s the time Thorpe – an established public figure and leadership hopeful – takes new lover Norman Scott to meet his formidable mother, tells her the handsome young man is a television cameraman, and after a supper of boiled eggs, buggers him in the guest room.

There’s the moment in 1968 when Thorpe, now leader of the third party of British politics, is so tired of endless letters and demands for cash from his unstable ex-lover that he suggests ‘getting rid’ of Scott, comparing killing him to ‘shooting a sick dog’.

And there’s the bungled murder attempt itself, when Scott and his Great Dane are driven out to Dartmoor on a rainy night by the world’s worst hired assassin.

Somehow Thorpe and his associates managed to keep a lid on his affair with Scott for more than a decade, helped by a sympathetic British establishment and a party leadership that believed Thorpe’s lies.

The lengths Thorpe went to seem beyond comprehension now, but it is worth remembering that when his affair with Scott began in 1961 homosexuality was illegal. Thorpe would have been jailed and his political career ruined had anyone found out.

And this is a classic tale of how one lie can lead to many others. Thorpe ended up deceiving fellow Liberals, effectively paying the inept hit man through party funds, themselves supplied by wealthy foreign donors.

A Very English Scandal reads like a comic novel at times, but don’t laugh too much. It features serial bungling and bizarre deceptions carried out by a cast of characters that could have come straight from an Ealing Comedy, but it is also a tale of Thorpe’s sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult in a darker, less tolerant Britain.

A Very English Scandal, by John Preston, is published in paperback by Penguin.

The End of Politics?

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Remember ‘The End of History’ – Francis Fukuyama’s bold claim 25 years ago that the end of the Cold War meant ideology was over and history as we know it would effectively stop?

I wonder sometimes whether we’re reaching The End of Politics.

Certainly, we appear to be witnessing a breakdown in traditional party loyalty and discipline. Open internal warfare over everything from Brexit to sexual harassment now appears to be the norm. The traditional tribes of British and American politics have never been so disunited.

In every election from Austria to Australia it seems insurgents are on the rise, overturning traditional political orthodoxy.

But maybe politics and democracy is just the latest facet of human existence to find itself disrupted by technology and innovation.

After all, across the world, lots of other venerable institutions have seen their business models and ways of operating transformed over the last decade.

The news we read, the taxis we hail, the TV we watch, the work we do – all are changing at a dizzying pace. Industries that fail to adapt – newspapers being a classic example, almost 200 have closed in the UK since 2005 – struggle and then enter a swift decline.

And the pace of change appears to be accelerating. for example, telephone chatbots are already being trialed by the NHS to diagnose illness and by 2021 Ford has said it will be manufacturing and selling driverless vehicles.

Meanwhile, Westminster politicians sit surrounded by men in tights and wigs in a mock gothic building with labyrinthine rules completely out of touch with modern life.

Should we really be surprised if UK party politics and democratic institutions find themselves on the post millennial critical list?

The signs are already there. for example, the rise of En Marche from zero to political heavyweights in France within two years or the Russian clickbait farms that allegedly sowed enough discord to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

In the UK, Labour pours vast resource into a successful social media operation which is credited with helping it to win the youth vote at the last election and e-petitions have shown their potential to garner headlines and change policy.

The disruption is definitely happening, and parts of the body politic are starting to react and adapt.

However, as the current sexual harassment scandal demonstrates, other aspects of our political system are hopelessly out of step with modern life.

Will someone please tell me, for example, why MPs appear not to be subject to the workplace rules and guidance that govern every other workplace in the United Kingdom?

The truth is we probably are at the End of Politics as we know it. Like many other global institutions, it is changing and, sometimes, struggling to remain relevant.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

Reflections on Conservatives and ‘speechgate’

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What. A. Disaster

This wasn’t a car crash, but a six-lane pile up on the Autobahn. A calamitious, pity-inducing, toe-curling, never-to-be-forgotten political moment.

Theresa May managed to deliver not a speech, but a metaphor for her own political career and the state of her party.

At one point, while she struggled on, the stage actually started to fall apart behind her. This stuff is lightyears beyond current political satire.

And on top of that, between the coughing and the pranking, the content wasn’t up to much.  Housing is the great issue of our age, vital for the party’s long term survival and key to beating a grim demographic forecast, but all the PM could do was announce a bit more money that local authorities could bid for.  I mean, was that really the best they could come up with?

It all underlined the fact that there is a crippling crisis of confidence in this party.

Time and again I heard delegates calling for new ideas, a narrative, a direction. They decried the fact that the Conservatives were endlessly reacting to Labour not producing bold, innovative visions of where the country needed to be.

It was a good fringe, full of interesting ideas and debate – but that intellectual energy showed no sign of getting anywhere near conference stage where it was a case of the same old, same old.

Ruth Davidson had lost patience by day two, telling a fringe that the party needed to ‘man up’ and take the fight to the left. However, most of the delegates and ministers I met just looked a bit scared.

Even the young Conservatives, usually the epitome of self confidence, hesitated to move out of the secure zone and clustered together in groups for safety, intimated perhaps by a hostile Northern urban environment.

There was booze, there is always booze, but in the Midland at midnight on Tuesday looked like the last days of the Roman empire, not a party at ease with itself.

No-one, absolutely no-one I met seemed to have any belief in Vicar’s daughter and I left on Tuesday, before speech gate.

A new leader won’t improve Conservative fortunes. What’s really needed is some ideas and some fighting spirit, both glaringly absent in Manchester.

Postings from an alternative universe

manifesto20mainSomewhere in an alternative universe – far, far away – Labour has just swept to an historic victory in the 2017 General Election.

The UK has a true socialist Government and the bankers, bosses, landlords and journalists are running for the hills. JC has built Jerusalem and the political centre of gravity has forever shifted to the left.

Fantasy perhaps, but I briefly visited that universe this week in Brighton at Labour’s annual conference.

There really are some of the party faithful, indeed some of the shadow cabinet, who have chalked June’s contest down as a win, a success in the struggle for hearts and minds. One more push and Labour will prove the pundits wrong again.

And among the tribe, the mood is jubilant, they are within touching distance of political Nirvana. After decades on the outside, laughed at and ignored, they now call the shots.

On  Monday I saw an activist with a loudspeaker playing Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars at full volume,  wheeling it up and down in front of delegates outside a sun drenched Hilton Metropole.  This is the kind of thing that might seem odd anywhere else, but in Corbyn’s Labour it goes unnoticed.

Meanwhile, Jeremy – the man who represents so many of these hopes and dreams  -is adored every where he goes, his name chanted across fringe events, workshops and late night gatherings.

The sense of triumph was hard to escape in Brighton. The left has routed its internal opponents and some of those who once vehemently opposed Corbyn now mount the party stage to pay tribute with warm words.

The clock has been reset and it’s hard to believe that this was ever the party of Blair and Mandelson.

In fact, there was no physical trace of New Labour anwhere. Thet have not only lost the battle but left the field, climbed into ships and sailed off in search of neoliberal consensus elsewhere.

Perhaps some still wait in the wings, watching, hoping, to come back, but something about this conference felt decisive. The party has made its tectonic shift. There is no going back, only forwards, and on to inevitable, glorious, victory.

Watching Politics – American Style

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The other night I watched Get Me Roger Stone on Netflix – possibly the most depressing political documentary on US politics ever in a genre not known for its portrayals of the nicer side of the human spirit.

Frightening and hilarious by turns, it portrays Stone as an almost mythical chancer, a body building, alt-right Forrest Gump with the power to influence and create agendas who made millions lobbying and influencing politicians.

And, even more disturbingly, he looks a bit like an Armani-suited Jimmy Savile.

Roger, of course, revels in the attention, particularly the idea that he is the controlling voice at the court of the Trump White House. Although I’ll leave you to make your mind up on that one.

What really stands out from Get Me Roger Stone is the polarisation of US politics and how people like Stone will literally do and say almost anything to undermine a candidate or advance a cause.

Look at Stone’s Twitter account and you’ll find a timeline full of conspiracies and strange tales. There’s someone on there claiming to be Bill Clinton’s illegitimate son and a chance to buy a genuine ‘Lock Her Up’ Tee Shirt.

But don’t worry. If you can’t stomach Roger, there’s plenty of other docs on US politics on Netflix – and other places – to keep you going.

If it’s car crash, gut-wrenchingly awful, television you’re after, try Weiner (trailer here on YouTube), a fly on the wall account of Anthony Weiner’s attempt to become New York Mayor in 2013 against a backdrop of ‘sexting’ allegations. Weiner is as much a portrait of an abusive relationship than a study of a doomed campaign. It’s compulsive and uncomfortable viewing.

Netflix also has Mitt, a magnificent inside account of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. The access is remarkable and he comes out of it well. And, btw, the Storyville on Ronald Reagan is also worth seeing on YouTube.

Finally if you, like me, believe everything is political, then set aside the eight hours it’ll take to watch OJ: Made in America (DVD). Starting with the Watts Riots and ending with the former quarterback’s 2007 incarceration, this is really an epic story of race and identity. A long watch. Definitely worth it.

 

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

 

No money and little power – so why do people become politicians?

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With a new term about to begin, it’s time for a poser – why do people become politicians?

I don’t think it’s the money. After all, the vast majority of our nation’s elected officials aren’t exactly minted.  Remember, there are far more councillors than MPs, MSPs and and AMs and most of them are paid allowances that don’t even touch the average national wage for ‘normal people’ which £27,600.

The money only starts to get seriously good at the peak of Westminster politics – the political equivalent of the Premier League – but a mid-ranking cabinet minister still struggles to take home over £130,000 – peanuts in terms of other areas of public life. High profile ministers in other UK national parliaments aren’t on serious money either.

Remember, successive PMs should be on around £200,000 but choose to take less, because to claim their full allowance would be politically toxic. The fact is that wages for the top job have been artificially deflated over the years due to the ‘bad optics’.

There’s no doubt some national politicians do remarkably well – -particularly after leaving office – but for every George ‘five jobs’ Osborne there’s a parish councillor beavering away on a planning application earning the equivalent of the former Chancellor’s stationery budget.

And it’s not the most secure of professions either. At Westminster level there are safe seats, but they are hard to get and once larger majorities – particularly for the blue tribe- seem more vulnerable due to the Corbyn effect and boundary changes.

Remember, Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s political career almost came to a juddering halt back in June when she came within 400 votes of losing her seat.

And even if you do beat the odds, get a safe-ish seat, work all the hours God sends making it through to cabinet or shadow cabinet level, one single lapse of judgement can spell career Armageddon.

Sarah Champion found this recently, but there are other once household names who have fallen even further. Anyone remember, Simon Danczuk, Ron Davies and Neil Hamilton?

And along with the poor pay, the job insecurity and the terrible hours you can add in a whole range of other reasons not to do it, everything from the public probably won’t like you to the fact that –  particularly at a national level – you will be subject to serious scrutiny.

There’s obviously the allure of office, but many who embark on political careers get nowhere near the corridors of power. Instead they find themselves fielding hostile questions about the green belt in their local leisure centre on a Friday night.

But despite that there are no shortage of people wanting to be candidates. Recently 11 people -yes 11 – applied to be leader of UKIP. Surely, the political equivalent of rushing up to the bridge of a doomed Titanic and asking Captain Smith if you can have a go at getting the ship to New York.

I’m afraid it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most of our elected officials must do the job because they think they – and the parties they support – can make a difference.

Touchingly uncynical, I know, but there we go.

In the meantime, some careers advice. If you want money, power and fame, don’t even think about elected office.

 

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press