Monday, October 29, 2007


It’s poppy time again. Spot the parliamentarian, business executive or home-based television presenter, especially in news and current affairs, who isn’t already wearing the symbol of the fallen soldier in his lapel or on her blouse. Oh, right, there isn’t one. And now that Mr Blair is out of the spotlight, who was the first public figure to be spotted poppying this year? Oh, I think it was the Wootton Bassett council spokesman talking to reporters about the local people who drowned off the Portuguese coast when their children (subsequently saved) got into difficulties. Gordon Brown was a day or two later.

They’re all wrong of course, as is anyone sporting a poppy before Friday. The poppy’s run should be from All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) until Remembrance Sunday (which this year happens to fall on the 11th). Proper people who respect tradition know that and keep to it. I’ll bet Her Majesty didn’t wear a poppy to Matins yesterday, nor any of the royal household. Politicians of course have their electorate to impress and it’s a rash backbencher who doesn’t grab a poppy at the earliest opportunity (one Labour chap was the other day accused of saving his emblem from last year so that he could be first in the House). Braver still would be the (as yet unseen) MP who forswears the poppy or – worse yet, though widely misunderstood – counters with a white poppy. The Women’s Cooperative Guild devised the white poppy in the 1930s to memorialise the non-combatants who died in the First World War and to stand as a symbol of peace. Red poppyists are apt to blackguard the white poppy as a symbol of cowardice, appeasement, pacificism and every other unspeakable sin attributable to commies, lefties and subversives. Harrumph. It’s academic anyway. Where could you buy one?

You don’t see many poppy-wearers in the street these days because, quite frankly, you don’t see many poppy-sellers in the street. No doubt if you popped into a branch of the British Legion, you’d be able to pick one up. In my childhood, as October turned to November, there’d be a poppy-seller on every street corner, vying with the penny-for-the-guy kids, but both figures have melted away. Bonfire Night, Firework Night or Guy Fawkes Night (as November 5th was variously known) has been displaced by Halloween, an American device imperfectly grasped by British children. Those who fought in the Second World War are too old to stand on draughty street corners and their children and grandchildren aren’t interested in Remembrance. So wearing the poppy has become a phenomenon that you see on television, something public figures do.

The BBC always protests that poppy-wearing is voluntary among newsreaders, weather forecasters and other studio-visiting pundits but it seems most unlikely that anybody fronting for the Beeb who declined to pin on the symbol would hold onto their job for long. Some pretext would be found for the change but it would be for defying what is clearly an unwritten house rule. The BBC regards the poppy as politically neutral, which of course it isn’t. No reporter or presenter would be allowed to wear a breast cancer ribbon or a gay pride badge. These symbols would be thought to compromise the BBC’s neutrality. But the BBC is not neutral about national remembrance.

I have several objections to the poppy. First, I dislike ostentatious displays of charitable donation. I think a sandwich board that shouts “I gave” is vulgar and self-serving and that is what the poppy is, even if BBC people or MPs are “issued” with poppies without any actual donation being made. The fact that I don’t wear a poppy doesn’t mean that I don’t make a donation to the British Legion. You don’t need to know whether I do or not. It’s my business.

Second, I don’t see why one has to conform to someone else’s timetable. When I was a student, I bought a poppy in November, put it away and then got it out again and wore it in April. I told those who enquired that if the fallen were worth remembering in November, they were just as worth remembering in April. People got surprisingly cross. They thought I was taking the piss. Perhaps I was, I don’t remember. Mostly, I think I was making a valid point.

Thirdly, there isn’t just a poppy. There’s a single poppy, a poppy with leaf trim, a poppy with double leaf trim, a double poppy with double leaf trim and, doubtless, a poppy corsage. This brings in an element of competition, particularly among MPs, over who appears more generous or supportive or ingratiating or pretentious. So the poppy is not an affectless gesture, a simple show of respect, as BBC managers would have us believe. It is a surprisingly complex symbol of establishmentarianism. It identifies the wearers as part of a tribe, the tribe that, had it been of age then, would have been proud to join up and fight the Kaiser and the Hun or the Führer and the Nazis, even without all the benefits that hindsight brings.

If it weren’t for the fact that all factions of the Commons sports the poppy, from the unreconstructed Thatcherites and Paisleyites to those Liberal Democrats who opposed the invasion of Iraq even before it happened, we could accuse MPs of, in their own quaint expression, “playing politics” with the war dead. As it is, we are faced with a solid wall of convention, the poppy-wearing class. It is odd that such a tiny proportion of the general public now identifies with that class by the most direct and simple means, themselves wearing a poppy. Perhaps there are the beginnings here of a genuine, popular, anti-establishment movement.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


“For when the One Great Scorer comes/To write against your name,/He marks – not that you won or lost,/But – how you played the game” (Grantland Rice, Alumnus Football).

I cannot but wonder why anyone follows – let alone pursues – sport. Save for a very, very few practitioners and punters, sport means recurrent disappointment or (in media histrionics) heartbreak, tears, tragedy, a shattered dream, the end of the world, etc. Even for Tiger Woods, even for Roger Federer, there is occasional “defeat” to weather along with the regular “victories” to be savoured. Dominating sportsmen like these inevitably begin to aim higher and then, if they do not manage to surpass some ancient record of achievement, they feel obscurely that they too have failed. Oh please. Take up gardening.

This weekend, apparently, Christine Hamilton (whose talent I have evidently underestimated) failed at the last to win some driving contest, having led the race all season. (I hadn’t known one race could go on so long). I guess she’s still a shoo-in for BBC Sports Personality of the Year, a title that I have always thought to be the most extreme contradiction of the multimedia age. Good grief, it’s been won in the past by a woman wholly devoid of personality, Princess Anne’s numbskull daughter, who proudly boasts that she’s never picked up a book in her life. (Sports Bore of the Year would be a much more close-run contest).

Before Christine’s shame, some bunch of rugger buggers was seen off in Paris by a team from a nation that surely needed the psychological boost of victory more than England did. I read that the English players had been so written off at the contest’s outset that, had they won, many bookmakers would have been bankrupted (aha, one tangible reason to have wished the English team good fortune). To have done as well as they did was apparently a remarkable achievement and “they can hold their heads up high” unless, like me, you think they should have grown out of such a schoolboy activity long ago. (I saw the English rugby captain on a news bulletin. He sports one of those so-called cauliflower ears that boxers always had in the comics of my childhood. Not attractive).

To pursue or follow any sport is to elect to spend almost all of your time sunk in dismay. After all, “there can only be one winner” (sport is of course rife with cliché). This means that trailing behind the winner is a crowded field of losers and also-rans, all of them disheartened, self-disgusted or proclaiming forlornly “we wuz robbed”. Most of them anyway are on steroids and other performance-enhancing (i.e. cheating) drugs. Why would any sentient human being want to subject his leisure hours – or worse, his (inevitably short-lived) career – to recurrent frustration?

I suppose the only comparable field is politics. J Enoch Powell, a shrewder observer than he was political operator, once declared that “all political careers end in failure” and with very few exceptions he must be deemed right on the money. Most politicians want to get their hands on one or two of the levers of power and, once having done so, begin to fancy their chances in the top job, be it president, prime minister or dictator-for-life. Consequently, almost all of them fail as the number that reaches what is sometimes called “the top of the greasy pole” is of course a vanishingly small proportion of those who think they might like a shot at it. Of those who do get to perform the top job, even fewer leave office with enhanced reputation and the enduring love of the people. There are barely any winners in politics, only better or worse losers.

Sport is not dissimilar. Even those who rise to be champions again and again inevitably continue to compete when their skills are waning and so at last fall to younger, fitter, hungrier contestants who want to become even more famous champions than those they supplant.

The arts offer so much more satisfying a field of endeavour. Of course there are meretricious awards and lists of supposed “greats” so that the media and, to a lesser extent, followers and consumers of the arts can feel that they have tamed the artists by providing a framework of competition and struggle and so a spurious sense of triumph and loss. That shrewd old bird, the Irish playwright Brian Friel, graciously accepting an Olivier award for his magical play Dancing at Lughnasa in 1991, declared to the assembled dignitaries: “Success is merely the postponement of failure”.

But happily the arts are not measured by the mechanistic standards of sport: score lines, worth totted up in points. In art, in self-expression, “success” and “failure” are far more complex and subtle notions than the winning of a tennis game “to love” or a golf match “four and three” or a cricket match “by an innings and 17 runs” or a wrestling bout by "two falls, two submissions or a knockout". Accordingly, books and paintings, movies and musical compositions, verses and dances, plays and programmes have a more lasting and mature relationship with their audiences than a sports event ever can. Of course sports fans mistily recall a George Best dribble, a Len Hutton cover drive, an Arnold Palmer sand chip, a Muhammad Ali upper cut and in such images lies the poetry – all the poetry – of sporting prowess. But who would prefer a whole season of flat racing to a single bar of Bach or a stanza of Shelley? Plenty of people, you reply, and I counter: “but they’re all STUPID people”.

And of course there are far more stupid people than the other kind, so sport is perceived to be more popular and newsworthy than the arts and therefore Doris Lessing, Nobel literature laureate (not in competition with anybody for that award), gets considerably less media coverage than the aforementioned Christine Hamilton. It seems to me, however, that Lessing brings far more credit to this country for the recognition of her extensive body of work over many years than does the failure of various journeymen in the objectively judged struggles of this week's sporting event. No motorcade to Trafalgar Square for Lessing. No special stamp issue. I hope there was a message from the Queen and a statement by the Prime Minister but I heard tell of neither. Lessing at least has this consolation: if there are humans still extant a hundred years from now, her work will still be read when all trace of Johnny Wilkinson – is that his name? – is forgotten.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Five minutes ago, David Cameron’s position as leader of the Conservative Party was under some pressure. Now Gordon Brown’s in the Labour Party is reportedly being questioned by so-called Blairites (I suppose we should be calling them counter-counter-revisionists). And always, always, the press is out for the head of Sir Menzies Campbell served up on a silver charger.

I am not a Liberal Democrat. I was never a Liberal when the party was called The Liberal Party and I wasn’t a supporter of the short-lived breakaway from the Labour Party that called itself The Social Democratic Party and that went on to merge with the Liberals to form the present Liberal Democrats. The critics of Sir Ming who have actually put their heads over the parapet – apart from the ever perverse Simon Hughes – are former Social Democrats like William Rodgers who, in his dotage as Lord Rodgers, has come facially to evoke Ken Dodd, a resemblance that doesn’t assist his (never very deep) credibility.

I voted Liberal Democrat in the general elections of 2001 and 2005, however. As I have written before, there were particular reasons in 2001 to vote against the Blair government and against its representative who was our MP at the time. By 2005, we were domiciled in a constituency that is represented by a Conservative – one who has become personally controversial since the last election and who certainly will lose some of his base when the next election comes – but that is never going to elect a Labour MP. The best hope of unseating the sitting tenant is to vote Lib Dem which is what I did last time and, no doubt, what I shall do next time. Ideology tempered by practicality seems to me the most civically responsible as well as the most efficacious spirit in which to cast one’s ballot. In any case, I feel I can vote Lib Dem in good conscious as a democratic socialist. On almost every issue in recent years, the Lib Dems have been well to the left of New Labour. Come to that, so has David Cameron. If you had told Nye Bevan that there would one day be a Labour government that was actually the most right wing grouping in the Commons, he would have said … well, he would probably have said “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, boyo, but don’t ask me to support it”.

How should Ming Campbell deal with the continuous undermining of his leadership in the media? It is, as I have observed before, a measure of how shallow and trivial the media has become but, as Orson Welles used to declare, it’s no good moaning about the unfairness of the system, you have to play the hand you’re dealt.

I think, if I were Sir Ming, I would make a speech specifically aimed at his own party. I should make the point I just made, that the media is crap but you have to get used to it. I should add, however, that the most pernicious collaborator in this crap is the MP who gives off-the-record briefings. It may be – indeed, in these base and unprincipled times, it is a certainty – that political correspondents are often making it up when they claim that they have been told “privately” that this or that is happening or should happen. Because it’s an unattributed claim, it can’t be verified or tested. How convenient. On the other hand, Westminster is a seething nest of gossip and speculation and it would be unthinkable that all backbenchers – or even ministers and shadow ministers – could resist the temptation to spread some occasional mischief and thereby imagine that they are influencing events in a way that their official status does not permit.

Campbell should point out that the opinion polls, taken between elections when attention on third parties is characteristically confined to reports of supposed trouble, do not reflect the support the party actually wins in by-elections at either parliamentary or council level. He should denounce anyone who briefs anonymously, calling them cowards and fools who are undermining not just his leadership but the credibility of and prospects for the whole party, and propose that they should make their comments openly or hold their tongues or stand down and resign the whip. He should further note that the pot-stirrers who conduct a whispering campaign (if there actually are any such) make a number of rash assumptions: that he, Ming, will voluntarily step aside; that the gossip in Westminster and Fleet Street accurately reflects sentiment among the party’s grassroots and indeed among the wider electorate; that a change of leadership, either by his stepping down or by some kind of coup, will automatically improve the party’s standing; that any likely successor has sufficient recognition among the public to raise the party’s profile, the named candidates being obscure and not exactly charismatic (he could well risk such a jibe); that a leadership election will not precipitate a policy argument, even an ideological struggle; that a week in politics is not a long time. Ming could say that he doesn’t know, any more than anyone does, whether any of those assumptions is correct, save for the first and last. And he can tell them the answer to the first one: he isn’t going to step down.

Politics is a tough trade. Public opinion is volatile and shallow: if the England rugby players win whatever the tournament is that is presently going on and, shortly thereafter, the England football players qualify (or whatever it is they have to do) to play in whatever the next big thing is in their sport, the resultant euphoria among volatile and shallow people might boost Gordon Brown’s standing back to its summer level. That in turn might make Ming look stronger in contrast to Cameron. Stranger things have happened. An MP could die, precipitating a by-election at which the Lib Dems do much better than their opinion poll rating suggests. That would ease the pressure on Sir Ming, at least for a while. A week is still a long time in politics.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


As sensible people expected, there will be no general election in 2007. It may come as a surprise to those who spend their lives turning over stones in Westminster but I can confidently inform them that the vast majority of people who do not go picking through the entrails of “sources” did not give a rat’s arse whether the Prime Minister called a “snap” election or not. Only journos, backbenchers, political wonks and men with very small willies worried their silly little heads about this matter.

Unfortunately that same cast of ne’er-do-wells has a disproportionate influence on what the chattering classes chatter about and what is imagined by those chattering classes to be News (with a capital ‘N’). Consequently, the last three weeks – what is known in the trade as “the conference season” – have been hijacked by endless, empty speculation about The Election That Never Was.

The claim that this was all an exercise in what politicians like to call, in their lofty way, “playing politics” would have some merit if the media didn’t so energetically and obediently pick up the ball and run with it repeatedly to the same corner of the field. Thus every news bulletin during the Liberal Democrats’ conference focussed on whether the party might dump Sir Menzies Campbell and every bulletin during the successive Labour and Tory conferences was concerned primarily with whether there would be an election on an imminent date, gradually narrowing to November 1st. Consequently, it was something of a triumph on the Tories’ part – and one rapidly reflected in the way-too-influential public opinion soundings – that within the hubbub they managed to get heard the notion that they would slash inheritance tax if elected.

A most revealing account of this media madness was offered on the Radio 4 programme Feedback yesterday by the producer in charge of BBC Radio’s coverage of the conferences – though, as his name was given as Jamie Donald, he sounded more likely to have been in charge of entertaining the tots in the conference crèches. Jimjams, as I think of him, was quizzed well and persistently by Roger Bolton (who happily is not credited as Rog) and his answers (with my annotations) to the extensive grumbles conveyed from Feedback listeners who, like me, wanted some substance and less froth in the news from the conference halls are worth quoting at length:

“It may well be that the listeners and viewers aren’t looking at the totality of what the BBC offers …” (oh, right, so it’s our own fault then, we shouldn’t expect, say, The News to tell us the news, we need to distil the news from a 24-hour watch on the whole output, bearing in mind that Farming Today, The Archers and The Most Annoying TV Moments might all be germane) “… I do accept that as part of our coverage we have looked in detail at issues like the election, the presentation, the branding and the leadership …” (well, excuse me but “the election” wasn’t an actual issue because no election had been called, so it was merely a subject of gossip. As for “the presentation, the branding”, did you know that these were “issues” because I certainly didn’t? Does Jimjams come from a career in Marketing by any chance?)

On the subject of news bulletins, Jimjams got himself into something of a pickle “… you have to remember that they have 15/20 minutes to cover the world … When you’ve got crises like Northern Rock, Burma and other things going on, are you seriously saying that they should chuck out international and major national stories to cover policy in detail when other parts of the BBC … are covering that policy in detail? …” (No, but we are saying that repetitive and pointless speculation about Ming’s chances of survival and Gordon’s election strategy is even less appropriate and more time-wasting on the news than detailed policy discussion. In any case, nobody expects the bulletins to “cover the world” and if we did we’d be sorely disappointed),

“An election is one of the most important moments in our political life. This idea that we might have an election has burst upon us over the last two or three weeks. It’s a time when the entire country needs to be mobilised to understand that this is the high point of our democratic system. If it turns out on Monday that’s what the country will have to do, our last three weeks will be extremely well spent”.

This, in its turn, is the high point of Jimjams’ delusion so I propose to look at it in some detail. As it turned out, we didn’t even get to Monday before we knew that that was not what the country would have to do, so Jimjams’ messianic fervour was not only misplaced but misplaced by a whole weekend. In the absence of an election, does he still think that the BBC’s last three weeks were well spent? What is he planning to do to prevent the country’s excited state of mobilisation – orchestrated (he would claim) by the BBC’s news coverage – turning into the kind of behaviour that occasions the mass issuing of ASBOs? Does he really think that we are so stupid, so overawed by the so much more significant doings of Paris Hilton, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, Jade Goody, the Beckhams and the rest of the sideshow freaks that we don’t understand what an election means? And how does it get to be the job of BBC News to remind us? Just give us the facts, ma’am, we’ll interpret them for ourselves. Moreover, this idea “bursting” over us: wasn’t it the BBC and the other news media that pricked the balloon that unleashed the fine spray of blather over us all the last two or three weeks?

Jimjams now returns to the Lib Dem conference, seeming so long ago already (do remember, as Gordon Brown certainly does this weekend, the truest thing – perhaps the only wholly true thing – that Harold Wilson ever said: “a week is a long time in politics”): “Ming Campbell’s age isn’t the issue but to suggest for example that there wasn’t a great deal of discussion behind the scenes, that members of his party weren’t discussing among themselves and briefing journalists privately about the issue of the leadership would be to misunderstand the nature of that conference. We have a duty to report both what the parties want us to and what’s really going on there …”

This raises the matter of “private briefing”, a source of great irritation to viewers of and listeners to news bulletins, whether the news editors like it or not. Phrases like “sources indicate”, “a frontbencher let it be known to the BBC privately” and “off-the-record, I was told that” make the viewer feel excluded from some masonic process and, more significantly, undermine everything that is said publicly and for attributable consumption. Moreover, while the correspondents doubtless believe themselves to be sophisticates who wholly comprehend “what’s really going on” in the Machiavellian game of power politics, you do wonder about the motives of anyone in the political battle who briefs anonymously. How can the correspondent be sure he himself is not being played for a sucker? It’s incredibly likely that, if a cabinet minister or shadow spokesperson lowered his voice and told you, out of the corner of his mouth, that “I shouldn’t be telling you this and it must never be known that it came from me but …”, you’d feel a tad flattered and “important” and you’d want to share with your viewers this conviction that you’re at the cutting edge. Indeed, you’d need to be a very canny old hack indeed to put it through your internal shit-detector and come up with the foolproof conclusion that your secret-teller is just using you as a conduit through which to fly a kite. That of course is what most of the unattributable stuff is surely about, however.

What’s more, the story is changed by the reporters themselves as the days roll by. I saw the snatch of interview on the news with Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat MP who is unsurprisingly spoken of as potentially the next leader of his party – after all, he did stand for the leadership last time when Ming Campbell won it. Huhne was asked about his present intentions and answered, reasonably and straightforwardly enough, that it was “premature” to talk in such terms. There was no reason to believe that he had heard Nick Clegg, another MP spoken of as a potential leader, answer to a similar question – in an equally reasonable and straightforward way, if differently but why would it be a significant difference? – that he would indeed stand “if there was a vacancy”.

This innocent, straight-bat stuff is parlayed in today’s Daily Telegraph into “a thinly-veiled swipe at Mr Clegg” on the part of Mr Huhne. Until the day comes when MPs answer every media question with the formula “no comment” – and it would go hard against the grain for a profession that lives to talk at length – it will be an unusually twinkled-toed politician who can ensure that no passing remark he makes is ever left unexamined for resonance, subtext, insincerity and spin or, if free of all four, is not then misreported by some enemy newspaper or, unlike the Queen’s invented huff with Annie Leibovitz, not moved to some timeframe that makes it seem rather more hurtful than it naturally is.

Insofar as Gordon Brown’s team was, as many reporters indicate, slipping out nods and winks; insofar as there was tangible evidence of the option of a November election being kept open (the government let it be known that certain hirings and arrangements were being put in place); and insofar as Brown could have talked more openly about the exercise he was undertaking with his advisors if only his every sinew wasn’t bursting to do David Cameron a piece of no good, the PM could be said to have done himself and his party some harm – probably not lasting harm – over the last weeks. Brown does know what the media’s interest is like and his people clearly do go in for playing trusted reporters off against less trusted editors. By not stamping on the rising tide of hysterical excitement, he has allowed the Tories (in particular among opposition parties) to panic themselves into pulling the party together and settling for the leader that they’ve got rather than some mythical alternative no more capable, in practice, of offering credible opposition to Labour. By electing to wait until 2008 or 2009, Brown has given himself time to build an irresistible electoral juggernaut. Of course, he has given his rivals the same amount of time. If a week is a long time in politics, eighteen months is an aeon.

Meanwhile, we could hardly have hoped for a more eloquent argument for fixed-term parliaments than that provided by this cheesy episode. I would advocate a 54-month term so that general elections alternate between, say, the third Sunday in March and the third Sunday in September four-and-a-half years later. That way, whatever advantages or disadvantages are imagined to lie in the spring are balanced by the counter-arguments concerning the autumn. The earliest Easter Sunday ever falls is March 23rd – it does so next year in fact – and that is the fourth Sunday of the month. The clocks would still be on Greenwich Mean Time but the lengthening of the days is very evident by mid-March. By the third week of September, schools are back but not universities and that might make a difference in college constituencies. But at least knowing the date of the election would allow for the kind of planning – by electoral officers, MPs and voters alike – not now possible.

It is often said that determining the date of the general election is one of the most powerful advantages in a prime minister’s armoury but, as Gordon Brown has found, it needs to be deployed with masterly subtlety, otherwise that power becomes a stick with which your opponents may beat you. He would leave an important legacy if he were to be the premier who changed electoral law and, as Ming Campbell has consistently argued, gives us fixed-term government.