Sunday, October 31, 2010


… life delights in life” declared William Blake in America. A little more than 200 years after he wrote those words, the only seriously holy item on earth is profit. Dozens of the orders of creature that lived holily on the planet in Blake’s day no longer exist. The dodo was the proverbial extinct bird in my childhood, but by now the dodo is just one of many casualties of the greed of man.

At the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan these last few days, delegates were advised that one fifth of all animal and plant species are now classed as endangered. The CBD decided to adopt some targets. They agreed to halve the rate of loss of habitat, including forest, by 2020. Note that there is no notion of making up the loss already sustained. Halving the rate of loss merely extends the period during which habitat may be destroyed and be assured that the destruction will continue.

Going ... the orangutan ...

The British coalition government, with that cynical sense of timing that has become its habitual method of making announcements, has just now revealed that it will put Britain’s national forests up for sale. Expect Epping Forest – renamed Tesco ‘Every-Little-Helps’ Woods – to be cleared for potato cultivation so that the supermarket chain can grow its “own-brand oven-ready chips” at a knockdown price, thus making the loss of the forest well worthwhile.

... going ... the cheetah ...

Also agreed at Nagoya was that by 2020 “at least 17 percent” of “terrestrial water bodies” and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas will be protected as biodiversity zones, under a measure known as the Aichi Targets. Given the nature of most everything in water – including water itself – to move freely, unaware of zonal restrictions, it’s difficult to see how the protection will be of much use. As soon as a minke whale swims out of protected water, some Japanese profiteer will harpoon it. The only (theoretical) beneficiaries of the protection will be those organisms that are anchored within the zones – coral reefs, for instance – but as such organisms are characteristically destroyed by pollutants and as the drift of pollutants will not be inclined to recognize the parameters of protection zones, it seems doubtful that such decreed protection will actually protect anything for very long.

... going ... the white pelican ...

It was the Brazilian delegation, representing one of the most enlightened and progressive governments currently in office, that pressed hardest for this measure. Such crumbs are the best that enlightenment can secure. The convention was told that the goal on biodiversity loss sustainable by this year, agreed at an earlier CBD summit, had not been met by a country mile. On the contrary, biodiversity loss has increased more sharply than all predictions had anticipated. It just fills you with confidence, doesn’t it?

... going ... the black lemur of Madagascar ...

Does it matter if the creatures that innocently share the planet with us die out? You tell me. I would argue that it is not a moral issue. For half a century, I have cleaved to the view – and argued the case whenever I was granted the platform on which to do so – that “moral issues” are really nothing of the kind. A moral argument, I venture, is just an aesthetic response tempered by a judgment concerning practicality. Take abortion for instance. The mountain of morality that is built upon this matter consists largely of a confrontation between those who are repelled by the idea of “a life” being sacrificed (viz the anti-abortion lobby calling itself “Pro-Life”) and those who favour a woman being permitted to control her own destiny. It’s a pretty straightforward confrontation between an assertion concerning what is tasteful in polite (and particularly religious) society and what human beings can – and therefore “should” be able to – determine about their own condition.

... going ... the high brown fritillary of Great Britain.

The supposed morality – as to whether disposing of a foetus is “right” or “wrong” – is, I would contend, wholly beside the point. Anybody of any sort of sensibility might be repelled by a newly pregnant woman determining that, even supported by a wholly responsible and sensitive partner, she cannot, in a phrase, “be bothered” to “go through the hassle” of carrying a child to term – quite how many impregnated woman promulgate such a rationale for abortion I cannot guess. But at the other end of the spectrum there are individuals standing for public office in the US as I write who would not allow the victim of a gang-rape by HIV-positive, drug-addled psychopaths to terminate a resultant pregnancy. Neither of these extremes deserves to be subsumed under any notion so elevated as “morality”.

Gone in the last five years ... the golden toad to the effects of global warming ...

Does it “matter” if the tiger, say, or the mountain gorilla or the honeybee or the seahorse ceases to be? I think it may be argued urgently that it matters terribly if it may be demonstrated persuasively that the loss of such creatures imperils the survival of all of life on earth by skewing the balance of natural forces. The climate change deniers will no doubt argue that, as long as the car industry doesn’t take any kind of hit as a result, the polar bear may happily go the way of the passenger pigeon. But I maintain that, in a perfectly coherent and comprehensible sense, the world and we humans in it are “the poorer” for the loss of those creatures with whom we share the habitat and who depend on our benignity to be permitted to survive.

... gone ... the black-faced honeybird or poo-uli of Hawaii to starvation and disease ...

It may be merely sentimental to fear that succeeding generations – if indeed they are any such – will abominate ours for having the carelessness to allow the black-footed albatross and the sea otter to die out. But what we cannot know – and the tragedy would be to know it when it is too late to retrieve the damage – is the long-term impact of the loss of any species or sub-species. “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil” as the title of Edward Lorenz’ famous paper on chaos theory demanded to know “set off a tornado in Texas?” The demise of the Indian elephant would, I venture, set off a far more far-reaching ripple effect that the flap of a butterfly’s wing.

...gone ... the black rhino of west Africa to poaching and loss of habitat ...

Science will endeavour to preserve the DNA of species so that, if and when (big if, big when) the time is propitious, a lost species might be restored. But the carnage individual by individual is vile, quite as much as the falling of whole orders. I know that creatures in the wild live severely circumscribed existences, even without man’s interventions. Wild creatures do not die of old age. They do not live to suffer the indignities of longevity – heart disease, cancer, dementia, organ failure – as pets do. The great majority of wild creatures, left alone by man, yet perish by starvation, extreme weather or being eaten alive. Man’s baleful additions to these fates embrace hunting, “pest control”, poisoning both deliberate and incidental, habitat destruction, food denial and the inadvertent results of unchecked global warming. If millions of people are killed, maimed, disease-ridden and starved by “natural disasters” – flooding in Pakistan and China, earthquakes in Haiti and China, wildfires in Greece and Australia, drought in East Africa and China – imagine the numberless, unregarded creatures that perish also. No one attempts to rescue any of them.

... gone ... the Madeiran large white to pollution and loss of habitat ...

Capitalism, the home of climate change denial, cares nothing for wildlife as long as there remain the tastier flesh providers and the more satisfying “sport” victims (huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ “bags”). But the indifference to animal catastrophe extends to human disaster too, provided the victims are of no account. The accidents at Chernobyl and Bhopal show that ordinary people unfortunate enough to be affected by industrial or nuclear spillage have little hope of proper recompense. Even in powerful and enlightened countries, authorities are tardy in helping to put back together the lives of those in the path of disaster: consider the insensitivity of Washington towards the city of New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina and the weak reaction of the Hungarian government when tons of toxic sludge poured free of a metals plant at Kolontar earlier this month.

... but not forgotten: the dodo

The media generally finds such diversion as the soap opera of Wayne Rooney more compelling than the fate of the planet. Those who aspire to stay considerably wealthier even than that pudden-headed ball-kicker hope that the day is far off when people with whom they identify and particularly people with powerful lawyers find their lives overwhelmed by the accumulating disasters of global warming. Meanwhile, the mute creatures die out order by order, leaving an increasingly gaping void in the beauty of what was once a natural paradise.


When Showtime's Dexter began transmission on FX in Britain, I was intrigued by it but found most of the characters wholly unsympathetic. Some of the habitual aggression has been toned down – Keith Carradine's elegant (and sadly curtailed) participation helped with this – but the compelling imagination of the writing has gradually raised the series to a pretty high level. Michael C Hall's central performance has become infinitely subtle – I always liked his work in Six Feet Under – and perhaps his game has been raised by the quality of the actors called in to play the successive serial killers: Jimmy Smits in the third series, John Lithgow in the fourth just ended here. The sequence in which Lithgow, coolly feigning innocent curiosity, strolled into Miami Police HQ and confirmed Dexter's identity was a masterpiece of controlled cunning in its execution. The resonances rippled in multiple directions and the tension was screwed up wholly psychologically and without any action-movie tricks. Brilliant.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Now at last we know what the government intends for us and what its philosophy is: we’re all in it together but those already least likely to vote for the coalition are a whole lot deeper in it than the rest. George Osborne’s unleashing of toxic sludge into Britain’s hitherto relatively secure communities has been cunningly contrived. He and his fellow ministers, Tories and Lib Dems alike, have been assiduously softening up the ground by repeatedly attacking supposed benefit scroungers, blaming Labour for “the mess” and trotting out Margaret Thatcher’s trusty TINA mantra (“there is no alternative”). So far, the softening up appears to have achieved the desired effect. Public opinion polls – of which I am ever sceptical – suggest that these spins have been widely believed. Whether a majority will swallow the toxic sludge remains to be seen.

I earlier wrote at length about Osborne’s attack on those who, in his phrase, make “a life-style choice” of living on benefit (‘Lifestyles of the Poor and Infamous’ September 11th below). The Labour blame-game is readily scotched: this has been a global recession (remember?) and. while Gordon Brown was arguably a tad premature in claiming to have “saved the world” (rather than, as he clearly meant, “the pound”), the Labour government led the way in addressing the global recession (oh yes, read the far-seeing American economists Paul Klugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both Nobel laureates).

As for there being no alterative, some excellent analyses lately have put the lie to that: see and
I would add that it’s critical to bear in mind that there are always alternatives, that politics is about what Rab Butler called “the art of the possible” but that possibilities are virtually endless. Economic policy is never about what is baldly affordable and always about what the government intends to do. Economic policy is never about inescapability. It is about free choice. To dress up choice as unavoidable is to tell bare-faced lies.

Another cynical but crafty stroke has been to contrive it that agencies other than the Treasury are obliged to wield the axe and so – in theory, at least – take the blame. The headline on a piece in today’s Guardian puts it admirably succinctly: “Outsourced: town halls must do Osborne’s dirty work”. Local councils across the land have been told they must make spending cuts of 26 percent before the next general election. Those of us who remember living through rate caps, the poll tax and the general decline of local services following Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979 will know that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. 100,000 jobs in the gift of local authorities – one in ten of the work force – are expected to be lost. Neighbourhood services, already indiscernible in many areas, are to be squeezed further.

The poor rely on local provision proportionately much more heavily than do the comfortably off. The same is true of public transport. Rail fares will rise by 5.8 percent in January but will have risen by fully 30 percent by January 2015. Over the same period, a 20 percent cut in bus fuel subsidy will force up fares well above inflation. London tube fares, partially announced yesterday by Mayor Boris Johnson with a fine disregard for candour, will rise, it emerged today, by as much as 16 percent. Since Tony Blair came to power in 1997, bus and coach fares have risen 24 percent above inflation, whereas overall motoring costs have fallen 14 percent in real terms. Ministers in their chauffeur-driven cars – which they still enjoy despite loose talk of such provision being surrendered shortly after the general election – have no sense of what travelling by bus, tube or even train is like, nor of how punishing those who depend on such transport find the fares and the daily travelling conditions.

In savaging the welfare state, on top of the squeezing of local authorities, public transport, legal aid, police protection and social housing, the government has very deliberately targeted those least able to fight back. Those areas where social deprivation is most widespread are not in Tory-held or even in Lib Dem-held constituencies. There is no recent tradition of the poor and vulnerable marching in protest and even if vast crowds of the disabled and the elderly take to the streets (and I hope they will, if only to enjoy the feeling that they have made their anger clear), the government will grit its teeth through the shaming spectacle. If trade unionists and students march, Cameron will easily shrug it off as “rent-a-crowd trouble-makers”. After all, the Blair government didn’t turn a hair at the rallies against the invasion of Iraq and in favour of fox-hunting.

Meanwhile, it’s striking that those traditionally termed “the Tories’ friends in the City” were broadly supportive of the spending review. Well, of course they were. Their enormous pay packets and even more outrageous bonuses will continue. Osborne’s weasel words on this matter are that he is going to “extract the maximum sustainable tax revenues from financial services”. This is spin-speak for his intention to do nothing that might discourage the spivs and shysters from staying in town. While they can make a fancy living at the expense of everyone else, they will stay. Once the attractions of some other centre where the gap between rich and poor is even more grotesque – Hong Kong, for instance – become irresistible, they will be off. Obviously Osborne would rather lose the 40,000 teachers and the 6,500 currently employed through the Home Office (including police and customs officials) who will shortly be applying for job-seeker’s allowance than any of his dinner table giests.

Osborne’s flourished “bank levy” will raise, by his account, £2.5bn. It sounds a lot but let’s just see it in the larger picture. It’s approximately three percent of the total spending cuts. And it’s less than 0.1 percent of bank profits. So, not too hard a knock, then. There’ll be the odd arbitrageur who will momentarily consider moth-balling the smaller private helicopter (the one the wife uses) but then decide anyway to tough it out till the gloom lifts. Poor sod.

There has been one more aspect of the government’s treacherous manipulation of policy disclosure: the contrivance of sudden switches of tack disguised as panic and/or incompetence and/or supposedly admirable reaction to public opinion but in reality a back-door method of forcing its intention through while people are looking the other way.

A fine example was the outrageous and vindictive eleventh-hour slashing of the BBC's budget by 16 percent. In the cold light of day, this vicious assault should be met by an equally combative response from the Corporation. I propose that it should both follow the logic of the government's philosophy on public provision and neatly reflect the cut's equivalence of the cost of the national radio stations. The BBC should announce that it will withdraw entirely its provision of radio services.

This makes good economic sense. The wireless is provided without charge. It generates negligible income. In the present climate, the BBC needs to maintain those of its enterprises that are capable of making money. And given that the government has reneged on its expressed commitment to avoid top-slicing – it has newly imposed the cost of the World Service and the funding of S4C onto the BBC's budget, but denied the BBC any editorial say in the Welsh service's output – it cannot be doubted that other public service burdens will be off-loaded onto the Corporation in future.

It will be a long time before commercial radio is able to offer any sort of replacement for what the BBC has built up over almost ninety years. Ministers would find themselves contemplating the loss of Today, The World at One and other platforms with dismay. And BBC Radio's constituency is fierce and loyal. It would rise up in fury. This is the kind of issue that decides significant numbers of voting intentions. The government would be forced to reopen negotiations.

It might be objected that the BBC is obliged by its founding charter to provide a full national service of wireless transmissions. In fact, the BBC’s charter is a surprisingly unprescriptive document, its provisions hung about with the reiterated proviso “for the time being”. In any case, ITV was also set up by charter – a much more rigorous set of provisions than those that obtained for the BBC – but it will be noted that the original infrastructure of a federation of locally-based franchises has been entirely overthrown without any executive order, legislative enactment or other kind of government intervention.

The BBC, the Labour Party and everyone else hit by these cuts – in other words, almost everyone aside from the superrich – need to gird up and fight this vindictive, ideological government. There are plenty of alternatives. Even unthinkable ones may come into play.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


When I was a boy, the world was full of dictators. Joseph Stalin died in 1953 after having run the Soviet Union under his iron fist for thirty years following Lenin’s stroke in 1922. His successor (after a protracted power struggle) was the comedy character Nikita Khrushchev who was never taken seriously enough by the west to be seen as a dictator, save during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he ultimately bungled. For the last decade of Stalin’s rule until a dozen years after Khrushchev’s overthrow by Brezhnev and Kosygin on the same day that Harold Wilson first came to power in London in 1964, China was ruled by Chairman Mao. Mao Tse-tung (as we called Mao Zedong in those days) applied the same techniques of control as Stalin and all other traditional despots. He decreed a single-party, militarily-overseen state, he purged all opposition and dissent, he sat back while millions perished through famine and poverty and he surrounded himself with a cult of personality (which is pretty hard to achieve when you are in possession of no detectable personality of your own).

Kindly Uncle Joe

In the 1970s, ignorant of the real condition of life in China, some of us allowed ourselves to believe that Mao might be a force for good in the world, much as an earlier generation had bought into the myths about Russian state Communism. In those days in London, I was friendly with Ella Winter, the widow of the famed “muckraking” journalist Lincoln Steffens. Returning from an assignment in Moscow in 1921, Steffens remarked “I have been over into the future and it works”. It was Ella who rewrote that quote into the more memorable – and indeed oft cited – “I have seen the future and it works”. How progressive and liberal that must have seemed to thoughtful people when he said it, how blinkered and naïve it comes up now.

Chairman Miao the Pussy-Cat

Into the 1970s, there were still dictatorships on continental Europe as well as in the east. Francisco Franco, the bête noir of the left in Britain as well as in Spain for the three years before the outbreak of World War II, held power in Spain until his protracted death in 1975. Franco was the leader of the campaign from 1936 to bring down the left coalition government known as the Popular Front, first by coup d’état then, when that failed, by waging civil war. Many British youngsters volunteered to fight for the Popular Front against the Falangistas (among them, Jack Jones, George Orwell, Stephen Spender, James Robertson Justice and Esmond Romilly) and some lost their lives (mostly famously from Britain, John Cornford and David Guest).

The only man I ever knew who fought in the Spanish Civil War was Bernard Davies. I did a stint as television reviewer for the trade magazine Broadcast in the early ‘80s and Bernard was my long-serving predecessor. I felt it rather a privilege to know someone who had joined one of the most romantic crusades of twentieth-century history. But shortly before he died, it emerged that, to everyone’s acute embarrassment, Bernard had fought not in the International Brigade but for Franco.

Ranky-tanky little Franco

The salubrious Salazar

Besides the Generalissimo, there was António Salazar, absolute ruler of neighbouring Portugal for the thirty-six years to 1968. The party he founded, Estado Novo, held onto power until 1974, four years after Salazar’s death. Meanwhile, in 1967, a military coup in Greece pre-empted parliamentary elections – at which, so the pretext had it, there was a danger of Communists coming to power – and led to seven years of dictatorship by a military junta known as The Colonels. Under this, as under the Spanish and Portuguese tyrannies, there were not the millions of murders that characterised the reigns of Stalin and Mao. But dissenters were tortured and thrown into jail, where many of them died, freedom of the media was curtailed, economic policies were pursued to benefit the security of the regime rather than the people and all the usual police state methods were unleashed on society so that no one ever knew whom to trust.

Beware Greeks bearing arms

Many of the nations of Africa went the same way in the years following independence and, inspired by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics, regimes across the globe implemented social and political change that required repression in order to achieve what they intended (for a hair-raising account of these events, read Naomi Klein’s brilliant book The Shock Doctrine).

Today we watch at a safe (we hope) distance as regime change (or rather personnel change) begins to be contemplated in the world’s last mid-twentieth-century-style autocracy, North Korea. Recent footage released of the traditional endless military parade in Pyongyang has included one or shots of Kim Jong-un, the third son of the “dear leader”, Kim Jong-il. The boss has also let it be known that this unprepossessing young man is his anointed successor.


Kim II

It does rather matter to all of us to have a sense that there is a coherent and encouraging answer to the question: is this man ready to lead a supposedly self-sufficient nuclear nation that, formally, is still in a state of war with its neighbour to the south? Contemplating his likeness, I can only think of what my late father would have remarked: “he looks half sharp”. But then Kim Jong-il is hardly Mr Dynamo radiating intelligence and guile either. His own late father, Kim Il-sung (who had the look of a jolly shopkeeper), was so beloved of his people (officially, at any rate) that he is referred to as the Eternal President. What he or his son have achieved – aside from beggaring millions of his people, extinguishing independent thought and establishing a society and culture of mind-destroying uniformity – is difficult to determine. Perhaps it is just as well that these dictators do not require electoral legitimacy. They might just get booted out of office.

Kim I


It’s common enough that the evening news makes me cry, rare that the emotion engendered is so welcome. The freeing of the miners trapped for two months underground in Chile has been a wondrous story and has provided a rare spectacle of joy in what is usually a picture of a planet galloping to its doom. The images of the Phoenix pod releasing one miner after another into the makeshift camp on the surface will come to invoke this particular year, alongside those of that little boy throwing his arms in the air as he is pulled from the rubble unthinkably many days after the Haitian earthquake.

Two other thoughts on this story: I loved the waiting wife who said of her trapped husband: “He seems to have changed a lot down there. He’s more humble now. I hope it lasts”. And thank heaven the Chilean president, to whom it fell to give his country’s roar, was the urbane and genial Sebastián Piñera (a sort of John Huston without the undertone of menace) and not the cruellest of South American dictators, Margaret Thatcher’s great friend Augusto Pinochet. He would have had the mine sealed so that the world did not know that catastrophes could occur under a dictatorship.

Saturday, October 09, 2010


Alan Johnson as shadow Chancellor: hands up those who saw that coming. Not Johnson himself, evidently. He has no departmental background in economics, only (as many have been quick to point out) in spending. His genial joke – that his first move would be to “pick up a primer, Economics for Beginners” – was a heedless error that will come back to haunt the opposition as coalition members twit him with it at every opportunity.

Alan Johnson is confident with one ...

What was Ed Miliband thinking? Too much, I venture. In making Johnson his choice (the positive part of the decision), he was certainly seeking to offer a contrast with the present Chancellor. This working class meritocrat has, at 60, seen some of the real world first hand and proved himself steady under fire in the latter years of Labour government. Some of his hitherto apparent niceness got rubbed off in his last government post as Home Secretary, where his stance on security, surveillance, police and drugs put him in the anti-progressive line of David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid. But along with his abiding amiability and self-deprecation, his ordinary-Joe image will draw attention to the 39 year-old George Osborne’s moneyed self-confidence and complete lack of any common touch. Johnson was also the first former minister to declare in favour of the leadership bid of David Miliband. In appointing him, leader Ed could hardly do more to appear properly conciliatory and collegiate.

... can get to two ...

The negative part of the decision was to exclude Mr & Mrs E Balls, not just from shadowing the Treasury but from any position the primary focus of which is economic. This indicates two threads: that Miliband intends to avoid any possibility of replicating the long war of attrition between Tony Blair as PM and Gordon Brown as Chancellor (a war now enshrined in legend whatever the truth of it) by handing economic policy to an ambitious factionalist and proven rival; and that he has no wish to pursue the Ballsian line of rewriting Alistair Darling’s economic policy.

... but three defeats him

It is intriguing that the three candidates who topped the shadow cabinet poll were, in order: Yvette Cooper, John Healey, the former housing minister, and Balls. All three were keen Ballsites in the leadership campaign. Miliband has made Healey shadow health secretary, safely away from economic policy. Cooper has the high-profile non-job (see earlier posting) of shadow Foreign Secretary. Balls will make a good fist of shadowing the Home Office and you can bet that Theresa May will not be sleeping easy this weekend.

Time will tell how far Miliband’s choice on economic policy is a missed opportunity. But with each day deepening the impression that Osborne and David Cameron – let alone the coalition government as a whole – have not wholly thought through the policies to address the deficit, Labour could have set to work to craft a distinctive and credible economic policy. Ed Balls – and by inference Yvette Cooper too, his wife also being an economist who long worked in the Treasury – had already begun the process of repositioning Darling’s approach as the centrepiece of his own leadership bid. There is a real danger now that the coalition will find itself forced to admit defeat in its attempt to eradicate the deficit before the next general election and that Labour will have accepted so many of the government’s measures that it will deprive itself of the widest ground on which to oppose Cameron’s re-election. Its position will be analogous to that of the Tories on the war against Iraq. I suspect that events are going to make Ed Balls’ proposals look more and more on-the-nose and Labour less and less smart in not pursuing them.

The government is running into trouble. How could they not have anticipated the nature and degree of the outrage that the announcement about child benefit provoked? Or if, as one or two commentators have suggested, Osborne did indeed see that reaction coming, why did he invite it ahead of the spending review rather than burying it among all the bad news that the big announcement will undoubtedly bring? The impression Cameron promptly gave of rowing back from the commitment and improvising ways of restoring some of the lost benefit looked merely amateurish.

And then how could they have imagined that ruthlessly culling quangos and other public bodies would simply be a clean and brutally efficient operation, inflicting pain only on the staffs of those organisations? Did it occur to no one that the functions performed by these bodies might be highly desirable and, in some cases, indispensable and that laying off well-remunerated people can be a costly business in at least the short term?

There are increasing indications that one or two ministers will not be able in all conscience to offer the demanded 25 percent cut in costs; Jeremy Hunt is not the only conscience-free member of the government, but he may not be in a large majority. One or two voices – Chris Huhne’s is the latest – have suggested gently that a goalpost or two might turn out to be moveable.

If Cameron is obliged to eat at least a side order of his words, it will not only be the Labour Party that is crowing. And ministerial contradictions and miscalculations are welcome in another way. They cannot credibly be blamed on the Labour government. An urgent task for Alan Johnson is to nail the history rewrite – in danger of being established by the coalition as generally accepted history – that the global recession was caused by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling’s policies over the last thirteen years and nothing at all to do with the policies of the banks, the greed of the private sector or the sub-prime mortgage disaster. Tory supporters already appear to believe that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were Labour cabinet ministers who lost their seats at the general election.

The shadow cabinet certainly has an unfamiliar look. The obligation on Labour MPs to elect a minimum of six women candidates has propelled into the front line a number of women whose names mean nothing outside Westminster and the lobby. Indeed, Wikipedia is, at the time of writing, in the process of bringing its pages up to speed on the new women and only the last named of these new shadow cabinet members – Mary Creagh, Maria Eagle, Anne McKechin and Meg Hillier – has a facial likeness posted there. Maria Eagle is rather less well known than her twin Angela, partly because the latter has served longer in front line politics, partly because she was the first out lesbian in the house. The four newbies take as their respective portfolios rural affairs, transport, Scotland and energy. Angela Eagle takes over as shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury from Liam Byrne who, having come last of those elected, is demoted to shadow the cabinet office.

Mary Creagh

Maria, the less blonde Eagle twin

Anne McKechin

and Meg Hillier

Should we deprecate the tokenism – if that is what it is – that elevates women at the expense of men of known talent: Stephen Twigg, David Lammy, Chris Bryant, Stephen Timms, Vernon Coaker, Chris Leslie, Gareth Thomas? Is it really of importance that women achieve some semblance of parity with men in the conduct of government? And is it useful and just to try to achieve it by manipulating eligibility for election? Some argue that no right ever won is as sure and satisfying if conceded by a benevolent dictatorship as when extracted by sustained guerrilla warfare. Anyway, who is to say that women are drawn to politicking and legislating and managing public affairs in such numbers as are men? And if they are not, is it because men and women broadly have distinct instincts and priorities or perhaps is it simply because the ascendancy of men has made the heights of politics an uncomfortable place for women to operate? I’m sure that the likes of Lady Astor, Margaret Bondfield and Ellen Wilkinson would have scoffed at quotas and all-women shortlists. But at the same time, all of them were constantly being undermined by male members and found that their sex was a daily issue.

Looking at the alphabetical list of those elected on Friday, before Miliband had dispensed their roles, I was struck by the fact that all the surnames came from the top half of the alphabet. Someone had a Guardian letter published about this today. My suspicion was that there are so many new members entitled to vote who know nothing of most of the candidates that they ticked names largely at random and ran out of votes before getting into the latter half of the ballot paper. In fact, however, it was a curious fluke of the field that only six of the 49 candidates possessed surnames beginning with a letter later than M. From among them, Miliband has preferred the unelected Shaun Woodward for his old portfolio of Northern Ireland, along with the also defeated Peter Hain shadowing his former role as Welsh Secretary. The only member of the late cabinet left with no front bench role is Ben Bradshaw. Rather sadly, Diane Abbott failed to get elected too. It remains to be seen whether Ed Miliband offers her a desirable second-rank post.

Will Miliband’s be a team to fight and frighten the coalition? I hope so because it’s vitally necessary. But I feel less than sanguine so far.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


My partner and I watch almost no sport on television – none at all in situ – and he takes no interest whatever in print coverage of it, whereas I do look at results (mostly where they pertain to teams within the county in which I was raised) and sometimes read about the characters in sport – insofar as there are any characters – who find themselves in positions that can be psychologically compelling … which largely means in practice managers of football teams. As people, players of any sport are deadly dull, only ever interviewed concerning their own performances and rarely showing any insight into their own psyches.

But we make an exception for golf. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s been said that sport played on a green surface is very restful on the eyes, but if that were the cause we would be watching lawn tennis, croquet, snooker and crown bowls too, let alone soccer, rugger and cricket.

Graeme McDowell celebrates the Ryder Cup win and shows what he's made of

My late mother was devoted to playing golf and involved herself deeply in the local club, serving as ladies’ secretary for a quarter of a century. I can remember how she fretted about preparing her first annual report (not that I was much help, a budding scribbler of around ten, though I’m sure I told her she would be fine) and how assured she had grown by the time she delivered her last report. My father never played the game, resented (sometimes openly) her “other life”, but enjoyed being a social member of the club. This was typical of him, never initiating anything himself and taking advantage of those who did, while grumbling about how inconvenienced he imagined – or more likely pretended – he was by the making of the arrangements, even though he didn’t object to enjoying himself in the upshot.

In my early teens, Mum attempted to get me interested in playing golf and I had a lesson or two. Looking back, I suspect that I submitted to this because the club professional, one of whose main tasks was giving lessons, was an absolute dreamboat in his 20s. But I didn’t have much aptitude or application for driving, chipping and putting and it didn’t last. The young pro sadly died in a car accident, one of the first fatalities to be actually caused by one of the then new-fangled seatbelts, the buckle of which pierced his liver.

Ryder Cup WAGs on parade

I sometimes watched golf on television with Mum, as much to enjoy her enthusiasm as to generate any of my own. That certainly wasn’t because of the alleged restfulness of green, for we were watching in black and white. What’s more, the outside broadcast cameras had only a certain range, it being impractical to cable them across thousands of yards at a public event, so the players would in turn disappear from the coverage between, say, the seventh and the thirteenth holes. The greatest consolation was the ripe and cultivated commentary of fruity old Henry Longhurst.

These days, the BBC only has rights to coverage of the Open and highlights of the Masters and the Ryder Cup among the major tournaments. We’re certainly not going to pay for a general sports satellite package just to get a chance to watch the US Open and the PGA, the other majors in men’s golf. And we didn’t watch all of what was available of the Ryder Cup. Being a sport viewer is incredibly time-consuming. Even a game of darts lasts long enough to remind you that you could be reading Proust instead.

Mr & Mrs Corey Pavin show their colours

But what we did see was enthralling enough, or it would have been if the news hadn’t already revealed the results before each day’s highlights began. Yesterday, The Guardian asked its sports section readers if Graeme McDowell should be BBC Sports Personality of the Year and an amazing 88 percent voted ‘yes’ according to today’s result. It fell to McDowell (with his playing partner, fellow Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy) to win the match that clinched the Ryder Cup but, in truth, it might have fallen to any member of the team. Ian Poulter and Luke Donald both accumulated higher match-winning scores than did McDowell – The Guardian named Donald ‘Man of the Match’ – and Lee Westwood was generally deemed to have been the team leader on the course. Most of all, the victory was credited to the non-playing captain, Colin Montgomerie, who put his own demons aside and managed his team with tremendous aplomb. Monty is certainly the most intriguingly complicated character in British golf and more often the victim rather than the begetter of lurid headlines about his private affairs (cf a certain T Woods). I don’t see why a backroom boy shouldn’t be hailed as Personality of the Year but perhaps the rules insist that only players of sports are eligible.

Tiger and Elin before the storm

McDowell of course did win the US Open in June, the first European player to do so in forty years. Even with that win, he is placed only 13th (behind Westwood, Donald and McIlroy) in the current world rankings. Paul Casey, who didn’t automatically qualify for the European Ryder Cup team and wasn’t one of the captain’s three personal picks either, is the third Englishman currently in the world top ten. Yanks make up half the top tier and Woods is still number 1 despite his continuing indifferent form.

American golfers in particular make me wonder why I am remotely interested in the sport. I’m sure that, were I to find myself stuck in a lift with any two of them, I would have opened a vein long before we were rescued. Almost without exception, all professional American golfers are Christian fundamentalist Republicans, though at least, as far as I know, none of them thanks god when he wins, as the German Bernhard Langer was wont to do. But their preferred pastimes are killing animals for ‘sport’ and being gung-ho about the military. The American Ryder Cup captain, Corey Pavin, even called in some US military man to give his team an – in every sense, no doubt – over-the-top pep talk. Pavin used to sport a cloney moustache and we thought he was gay. His independently-minded wife clearly contradicts us. She is Vietnamese, a refugee from the fall of Saigon. Though she may not quite fit the profile of US golf WAGs – virtually all looking like Playboy centrefolds and inclined to the blonde – she has done her share of “glamour” posing.

Craig Stadler, one of the big players of the past ...

This class of air-hostessy, air-headed, cheesecake girls are programmed to gold-dig and golfing pros are a good catch. There will not have been anyone playing in the Ryder Cup who isn’t a millionaire, most of them several times over. Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, is the template for golfing wives (and evidently the possessor of an image that draws much interest, for the presence of her name earlier on this blog has brought it more visitors than any other single search criterion). From what we have glimpsed of the club hostesses, cocktail waitresses and “glamour” models with whom Tiger amused himself during his marriage, his taste in sexual partners is no more sophisticated and no less blowsily obvious than that of his fellow American pros.

... and John Daley, never "in regulation"

Golfers may be a catch financially but few of them are any sort of catch by any other standard. It is a curiosity of golf that fitness is not a given. Indeed, golf is a game that men are apt to take up when they retire. To call some famous golfers “out of shape” would be to treat them kindly. You also certainly don’t need to be good-looking – golf is not a sport that attracts groupies, as far as I am aware (unlike football and tennis). Probably the main reason for Woods’ dominance of the game for so long is that he is one of the very few players actually built like an athlete.

That rare creature, a golfer who looks like a pop star: this is Camilo Villegas

Golfing prowess is down to having accurate vision, the ability to develop and adapt the way you swing the various clubs, the particular strength to hit a ball a long way, the knack of applying spin to a shot and the judgment (and experience) to know which particular club to use in each given circumstance. These gifts are what propel the likes of McIlroy and Rickie Fowler into professional golf at a young age and then into a quick acceptance on the lucrative American tour. Woods – like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer before him – clearly had these gifts in particular abundance. Those gifts can desert you and your career can go into free fall, especially when you've won a major: think of Ian Baker-Finch, Lee Janzen, David Duval and indeed Corey Pavin. But one hell of a lot of golf playing depends upon luck which is why, once a special player like Woods has lost his dominance, anyone in the field might win a major and why no seeding system is ever going to make sense in golf. The luck comes in many forms – luck with the wind, the bounce, the lie, the camber of any particular part of the green, the knap and condition of the grass, the time of day that you tee off, the relative intrusion of extraneous noise and movement while you address the ball.

Villegas lines up a putt: don't even think about it

It’s a curious world indeed, with all its mysterious jargon: addressing the ball, having the honour, winning 4 and 2, eagle 2, 3 iron, back 9, laying up, holing out, pin high, matchplay, lofted club, plugged, hooked, chip and run, free drop, in regulation, the turn. And a passing glance might suggest that it is played only by old men in bad clothes with equally old men in worse clothes carrying their bags for them. But it’s a game that can turn on a sixpence and which guarantees nothing. Who could forget Nick Faldo winning the 1996 Masters after Greg 'The Great White Shark' Norman gradually squandered a six-stroke lead? Or Tom Watson, rising 60 and always a popular favourite, almost winning a sixth Open championship last year and suddenly losing his way at the last? It’s a very strange game and I find it no less strange that someone like me can be captivated by it.