Wednesday, November 24, 2010


“A majority of the British public believes Prince William would make a better king than the Prince of Wales,” announced The Sunday Times at the weekend. “Most people also think Prince Charles should stand aside for his son”.

Charles' christening during the previous reign: with his mum, grandad and great-grandmama

This is a prime example of what the Irish call “the higher bollix”. Just think of all the questions begged here. What, for starters, is “a better king”? The monarch, after all, is a figurehead, nothing more. We don’t require a king who interferes in the business of state or who expresses opinions that might embarrass any (let alone all) of his subjects. All we want is someone who can read the government’s clunking prose at the State Opening of Parliament without a palpable tone of disdain, get through a garden party without asking someone in a motorised wheelchair if they’ve “come far”, and play host at a state banquet with the head of some god-forsaken state somewhere a long way away without keeling over into the crème brûlée or goosing any of the HOSGFSSALWA’s wives. These are all cogent reasons why neither Russell Brand nor Boris Johnson would be first choice for head of state in a republican UK.

The heir to the throne with an unlikely rival as head of state

Prince Charles is of course in many ways a dismaying testament to in-breeding and private education, but he has gamely survived as Prince of Wales – than which there is no more resonant “number two” designation in the history of the world – for more than half a century, having been handed his title a decade before his formal investiture at Caernarfon Castle in 1969. Princes of Wales have, from time immemorial, behaved as licensed fools and Charles has been accorded an inordinate amount of time in which to do this – on April 21st next year, he will have waited longer than any previous heir apparent, overtaking his great-great-grandfather who eventually became Edward VII.

HM Queen Elizabeth II is not going to abdicate, you can bet your boots, just to give her eldest son a good run at it. If she lives to 105, which seems perfectly feasible, she will have been the longest-reigning queen in the history of the world by more than fifteen years and her successor will be 82 or 83, a good age for a new career. It seems unlikely that Her Majesty will exceed the longest accredited male reign, however. That hard-to-beat record belongs to King Sobhuza II of Swaziland who retired to join his ancestors in 1982, having reigned since the last December of the previous century.

The intended William Waleses

More questions arising: Prince Charles has been a public figure for sixty years and, for good or ill, he has a fairly well-defined public profile. No doubt like anyone else in the public eye, his actual persona is very different in many crucial ways from the public perception. I do not know him personally, so I cannot say. (I stood in for his mother once, but that’s a matter for another day).

Charles has many firm views, not all of them completely batty, and he has had the temerity to express them. I should have thought that on balance his public expression of notions has probably done a bit more good than harm. I am also quite sure that he knows enough to know that, if and when he does ever become king, he will need to keep his views to himself thenceforward.

Prince Charles wears Canadian aboriginal ceremonial robes (as you do)

Prince William, on the contrary, is pretty much a closed book to most of us, I would suggest. Can you think of five adjectives to describe what you perceive to be his character? Neither can I. He seems a somewhat immature boy for 28, the age at which both Tim Buckley and Heath Ledger, who seemed rather older, died. His fiancée, who is a little his senior, might well have a beneficial influence on him. After all, he should still have time to grow into his role, which is doubtless to become our baldest king since the days when they wore wigs as a matter of course.

According to the Sunday Times survey, 44 percent of respondents agreed with the proposition that the Prince of Wales should “make way for William to become king when Elizabeth II dies”. Of course, this was what is known as a prompted response. What we cannot know from the report is the exact wording of the question that prompted the response. It seems to me that there are only two intelligent replies to such a notion: “no” or “it depends”. Does the survey distinguish between Prince Charles “making way” immediately after his mother’s death and his making it clear right now that he renounces his claim on the succession? Obviously not. In any case, his mother would never sanction the latter course.

The Duke & Duchess of Cornwall – always in the market for Goonish gags about knees

And did any of the respondents consider the constitutional mechanics of Prince Charles renouncing his claim? A number of those whom you might expect to find in the line of succession – or at least the first hundred in that line – are excluded from any claim by dint of joining the Roman church or by marrying Catholics. The most senior of these are the children of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who would be respectively 28th, 29th and 30th in line but that they followed their mother into the Roman church and consequently carry out no royal duties – indeed Lord Nicholas Windsor, the youngest, was married in Vatican City, the first member of a British royal house ever to be so.

But for the heir to the throne himself to step aside would be unprecedented and would undoubtedly spark a controversy around the future of the House of Windsor quite as far-reaching as that of Edward VIII’s abdication. I expect the diligent market researchers carefully explained that when they asked their question.

Wills with not Kate (actually Christina Aguilera)

The trouble is, of course, that most members of the public are what are known formally in the opinion-forming trade as “fuckwits” and their opinions on everything from Michael Gove’s policies for primary schools to the state of their own armpits are not worth having. Points West, the news magazine broadcast on BBC1 in the west country directly after the evening bulletins, ran various vox pop reactions on the day Prince William’s engagement to Miss Middleton was announced. “Oh yus” said a bloke in a cloth cap “I think it’s really good that they’ve got married”. It was probably just as well that they didn’t ask him something harder – like “what is your name?” – but why do such boneheads appear on the screen at all?

Prince Harry early earned a playboy image

Returning to the matter of the succession, Prince William currently ranks second after his father, followed by his brother Prince Henry (known to all as Harry). Third is probably the highest that Harry will ever reach, especially now that William is to marry. But if Prince William and the future Princess Catherine were to produce no children, Harry would be first in line once William became king. And his own children, if he produced any (legitimate ones), would lead the new line.

Now there is a persistent question over Prince Harry’s paternity. It arises because his physical resemblance to the Windsors is much less notable than is his brother’s and because his mother was thought to have taken lovers by the time of his conception. If Harry’s natural father were indeed one of Princess Diana’s men friends, a line wholly lacking a drop of blood royal would have leapfrogged to the top of the succession. This could be readily determined by a DNA test and perhaps such a test has already been applied. But consider the implications. It would all be very fine were such a test to confirm the paternity of Prince Charles. But what if it proved that Charles had no paternal link to Harry? Could Buckingham Palace contrive a credible scenario for severing Harry’s claim? Wouldn’t the real reason get disclosed or be widely guessed at? And what would Harry be told? And how would he react?

James Hewitt and Prince Harry or perhaps vice versa

Would it not perhaps be better for all concerned to ignore the whole issue and let nature take its course? It probably would. But it would only need Harry’s Uncle Andrew, perhaps the most notorious royal philanderer since Edward VII, to notice that his own line would rise to the top if Harry were excluded. The Duke of York – whose title Prince Harry would be certain to take upon Andrew’s death – might well insist that Harry’s paternity be put beyond question.

Stranger things have happened. Who knows, perhaps the next monarch but two will turn out to be Queen Beatrice.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I come belatedly to the matter of the anti-tuition-fee demonstration, having passed a very busy and rather fraught ten days absorbed in other matters. Expressions of common sense, I maintain, know no sell-by date, however. How depressingly familiar was the reaction to the generally rather heartening expression of defiance that was the raison d’être of this march. All the politicians and pundits immediately weighed in with a sustained bleat about “the violence”. What violence? There was some damage but that’s not the same thing as violence.

On a typical Friday or Saturday night in many a British city, as much damage is routinely meted out to blameless town centres by drunks. Football derbies usually spark comparable damage and bloody internecine fights as well. Pop stars and other culturally important figures regularly turn over hotel suites without honourable members getting up on their hind legs and high horses.

You might scorn the language of the modern student, but I have a slide, taken after a 1968 demo, of a slogan spray-painted onto a public monument: "Fuck the Fuzz"

When fisticuffs break out at demos, the police certainly give as good as they get, as may be gauged by respective casualty figures. I would suggest that, over the last (say) half century, more civilians than police have lost their lives during street mêlées in Britain.

“The violence” is a convenient means by which the government can divert attention from what the demonstration was about. The suggestion is made that somehow the cause is rendered null by the “deplorable” behaviour of the marchers. The government found a second line of counter-attack with which to shrug off criticism in its scorn of Labour’s supposed lack of a coherent policy on financing higher education. It’s true that Ed Miliband – still away on paternity leave – has yet to reconcile a variety of views in the shadow cabinet but if there were any placards on the march aimed at Labour’s prevarications and procrastinations, I didn’t see them.

Demonstrators on the Millbank roof, from where the fire extinguisher was thrown

It’s doubly dreary but wholly par for the course that Labour spokespeople should obediently do the government’s work for it by just as loudly deploring “the violence”. If the Labour party sees any merit in identifying itself with the cause of universities that encourage the best brains to enrol and benefit all of society rather than supporting a system that beggars bright kids for years into the future and denies society the opportunity to make the best of its best talent, it should deploy more constructive arguments. Of course no sensible person advocates “violence” – and no legislator or would-be legislator can afford to do so – but the damage done to Tory HQ at Millbank was reparable and has doubtless been repaired by now. The damage that government is doing to the education system will take years to put right and is irreparable for the generations of students directly affected.

A triumphant demonstrator breaches the Tories' Millbank HQ

And what do Labour and the pundits – especially the latter – say to the argument that if a march passes off without incident, it fails to generate what Margaret Thatcher famously called “the oxygen of publicity”? Having a coherent argument, being earnest about it and carrying placards with pithy slogans doesn’t get you onto the television news or into the headlines. Trashing buildings does. It’s always a fine judgment whether breaking windows will achieve more gain in overall publicity for the cause than loss in alienation from the “violence”. What would Labour advise?

The idiot who chucked a fire extinguisher from the roof of Millbank onto police below is not the yardstick for measuring the merit of the demonstration. He’s lucky no one below was killed. But there was a highly pertinent letter about him in today’s Guardian: “The masked thug seen dropping a fire extinguisher from a rooftop near police below need not worry – surely, after investigations lasting more than a year, the CPS will go on to rule that there is no realistic prospect of a conviction. Or have I misunderstood the way these things work?”

Michael Gove and David Willetts: the government clearly equates education policy with good looks

Adjacent to this beautifully turned letter is another on a related topic: “So the policeman who injured a woman in a cell wins an appeal. It seems the door was to blame as usual”. This refers to the Melksham station sergeant who dragged a drunken woman across the floor of the station reception area and flung her into the cells. The appeal court judge said that he was satisfied that the cop “did not intend” to throw her into the cell. But the world has seen the incident on CCTV and can doubtless watch it time after time on YouTube; we know for sure that he intended to throw her into the cell. It wasn’t in any way inadvertent.

Tariq Ali was a star of civil disobedience in the days before celebrity culture

That the courts favour the police is not news. But it’s useful to be reminded occasionally that they favour the police so blatantly. I have been pondering the possibility of standing myself for election in one of these police commissioner roles that the government has decreed will come into being and be locally elected. I think I might be a good person to do such a job: I’d be both the force’s and the government’s worst nightmare, relentlessly unforgiving of police malfeasance and the investigation of it by favourable commissions and judges but equally unforgiving of governmental starvation of funds for the policing functions to be effectively carried through. The Melksham police, were I to be elected, would – lord help them – come under my purview. I would want that station sergeant publicly flogged.

Grosvenor Square 1968: they tried to control us with horses then but we came armed with marbles to roll under their hooves

During his recent trip to China. David Cameron revealingly suggested to local students that those of them aspiring to pursue their studies at British universities might find themselves financially penalised not quite as brutally as native students. It was instructive to see that his and his team’s constant wearing of Remembrance Day poppies while visiting a nation whose relationship with opium is, to put it delicately, complex was not the only heedless step that the PM took into a bear trap. Now that Cameron is safely home, the Home Office has revealed that a large part of its crude policy to cut the rate of immigration into Britain will be achieved by hugely stemming the rate of student visas issued to suitably qualified students from overseas. The coalition government is gathering a reputation across the world for speaking with a forked tongue. The young, who are the most concerned with the matters aired here, are the least likely to forgive such foolhardiness.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I find it hard to squeeze out many tears for the fate of Phil Woolas. The erstwhile MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth has been barred from elective public office for three years at a court hearing and banished to political outer darkness for rather longer than three years by the Labour leadership.

Woolas has always struck me as a chancer, not someone whom I would admit to my confidence. His offence during the election was, the court found, to have promulgated in his election literature an untruth about the campaign of his nearest rival, Elwyn Watkins, the Liberal Democrat candidate. Given that the Lib Dem was beaten by only 103 votes (there must have been a few recounts), it’s hardly surprising that Watkins should seek to overturn the result by other means.

Phil Woolas: if I pull my right ear, it means I'm fibbing

The complaint is that Woolas accused Watkins of “wooing Islamist extremists” in the constituency. As immigration minister in the outgoing government, Woolas ought to have been able to be relied upon to raise such an issue with authority and sensitivity. He cannot have helped his case at the election court by conceding that the disputed leaflet “sailed very close to the wind”.

What the leaflet (reproduced below) actually says is this: “Extremists are trying to hijack this election. They want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil for being strong on immigration. The Lib Dems plan to give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants the right to stay. It is up to you. Do you want the extremists to win?”

The leaflet that did for Phil

It rather depends on where you are coming from whether you find this archetypally robust knock-about of the kind that occurs in elections or in one way or another unacceptable. The case has certainly raised a number of issues. The first is that of Islamophobia. Two days before the general election, the Lib Dem leader of Oldham Council lodged a complaint before the Equality and Human Rights Commission against the leaflet: “I believe that this type of inflammatory literature is incredibly detrimental to community relations and promoting equality” he wrote.

The Oldham Labour party’s conflation of immigration and extremism was certainly inflammatory and it seemed to yank a perfectly understandable nervousness in the community towards radical Islam into a much less sympathetic pitch – “strong on immigration” – that hardly differs from that of the BNP. But whether that constitutes an offence under the Representation of the People Act seems to me to be highly moot.

It’s perfectly legitimate to debate Islam and its acceptability or otherwise as a force in British society. Political leaders generally have allowed themselves to be persuaded that such discussion is somehow off-limits, both because it might suggest that one might be racist and because the Muslim vote is critical in several constituencies, usually Labour ones. In my view, politicians need to be a bit more grown-up and a bit braver in stating what they think. After all, Muslims living in Britain are considerably freer to pursue their superstitions than are non-Muslims in countries where Islam furnishes the government.

An earlier moment of Woolas fame, when bearded by Joanna Lumley (that look!) over the Gurkhas

Islamophobia – if that is indeed what is involved in this particular matter – does not derive from the same kind of perception as xenophobia. To put it in a nutshell, I would suggest that xenophobia is a response a priori and Islamophobia a posteriori. In the last week, a fanatical Islamist woman has been sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to knife to death her constituency MP, Stephen Timms, like Woolas a minister in the outgoing government. Her rationale was that Timms had voted for the invasion of Iraq. So did hundreds of other MPs. Many more vote frequently on social and other issues in ways that would put them at odds with radical Islam. There is cause for concern here in a way quite different from generalised xenophobic rantings against an imagined “flood” of immigrants.

At the same time, it was widely commented during the election campaign that all the major parties were running away from immigration as an issue and refusing to debate it. As part of the post mortem discussions in all the parties – and especially in Labour – there was wide acknowledgment that the issue ought to have been addressed more thoroughly. Woolas might not have been actually discussing it in his literature but he certainly wasn’t ignoring it.

The Labour leadership has taken an impulsive and heedless line on Woolas, one that suggests a number of knee-jerk reactions based on fear: fear of being thought Islamophobic; fear of being thought soft on party transgressors; fear of a run of abuse from the media. By the Labour leadership, I mean just now Harriet Harman, who is acting leader in Ed Miliband’s absence on paternity leave (though she will doubtless have cleared her line with him). Her line, in short, is that Woolas has been hung out to dry.

Harriet Harman tells Andrew Marr what a good egg Phil Woolas is (not)

The parliamentary party gave Harman a rough ride at its meeting on Monday night. She was accused of pre-empting the final outcome of the case – Woolas is attempting to appeal the court’s decision and must raise £50,000 to pay his legal fees because Labour will no longer support him – and pandering to supposed public opinion which is probably misinformed. What’s more, beyond the Labour party, thoughtful members on the government benches have publicly wondered what restrictions are now likely to be deemed necessary in election literature and whether this doesn’t set a damagingly restrictive precedent.

As it happens, no party has been more often accused of conducting dirty campaigns than the Liberal Democrats. At the May 6th general election, I decided not to vote for our local Lib Dem candidate because he had made a wholly mendacious and unjustified charge against the Tory candidate and refused to withdraw; instead I cast my vote (vain in this Lib Dem/Tory marginal constituency) for the Labour candidate.

Politicians libel each other all the time; it’s part of the game. But the Woolas case has changed the rules. He is the first MP since 1911 to be barred from the Commons by court order. MPs across the house say that it should be for the electorate, not the courts to decide who sits in parliament. They have a point.

Furthermore, there is a dark suspicion that the Labour leadership feel confident about a by-election in a Labour marginal just now, especially one where the challenger is a Lib Dem. They reckon that aggrieved Mr Watkins will end up as toast, after having had to defend the policy reversals that his party have made since the election against a Labour favourite parachuted in for the occasion. (You may stake folding money on it that Oldham East and Saddleworth Labour Party will not get to select a candidate without firm direction from Central Office).

La Lumley reflects sadly on her little friend's fate in her own special way

The Lib Dems have certainly handed Labour a good case, what with comprehensively reneging on their highly trumpeted pledge to oppose any rise in university tuition fees and their broad support for a manifestly unfair assault on the unemployed and those claiming sickness benefit. What is the point of Lib Dems being in the coalition if they cannot effect as rigorous a squeeze on the tax-shy as their Tory partners are applying to the alleged “work-shy”?

The other ingredient in Harman’s position reiterates the spineless stance that all the parties have continually taken over the matter of MPs’ expenses. There is little doubt that the rules were confused and poorly enforced. MPs clearly ought to have sought to uphold the spirit as well as the letter of the regulations.

But the media embraces many much larger snouts that are forever in the trough and ministers and shadow ministers ought to have had the gumption to point this out. Fiddling exes and taking backhanders is no less egregious just because it occurs in the private rather than the public sector. On the contrary, successive Tory and Labour leaderships have bent over backwards and forwards to do the bidding of billionaire media owners, Rupert Murdoch in particular. Harman probably feared that The Times, The Sun and the Daily Mail would have kept up a daily barrage, had she waited to see whether Woolas won his court case. Well, sometimes leadership means stiffening your resolve against the daily slings and arrows in pursuit of the more just cause, even if the upshot takes time. The Woolas case, unattractive though its protagonist might be, is one of those occasions.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


“America can rise up and surmount [its] problems,” cried Rand Paul, newly elected Senator for Kentucky, “if we just get government out of our way”. And there you have the battle lines of American politics – and indeed of British politics – in a nutshell.

Rand Paul is the son of Ron Paul who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Don’t discount Paul Jr – who, I imagine, was named for Ayn Rand – doing the same in 2016 if not 2012. He thinks he’s good. What’s more, so does the Tea Party.

Rand Paul: perhaps his appeal will pall

As the smoke clears from the US mid-term elections, it seems that the Tea Party didn’t do quite so well as they had hoped and everyone else feared. None of the jackasses whose pictures I included in my posting of September 17th (No Pipe of Peace for the Tea P) actually got elected, though to be sure Sarah Palin, the godmother of the movement, wasn’t standing. It’s bracing to imagine how much influence my little blog must have had on American voting patterns. And it’s curiously comforting to note that California was indifferent to Meg Whitman’s billions, just as New York State shunned Carl Paladino’s threats.

Sharron from an unflattering angle

Neither was it entirely the big night predicted for Palin’s ‘Mama Grizzlies’. All bets were on Sharron Angle unseating the Democrat leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, in Nevada, but the disturbing (and possibly disturbed) Ms Angle, who evidently believes that Hispanics are Muslim, was pretty comfortably seen off. In fact, Harry Reid’s son Rory had dropped his surname from ads in his campaign to become state governor and maybe sufficient of the voters thought this unfilial enough to tip the vote against him.

Harry Reid: not a broken reed after all

Also in the west, Carly Fiorina failed to unseat the long-serving Barbara Boxer from her California Senate berth, giving the Democrats a heartening double-whammy in the state, with the retread Jerry Brown triumphing over Whitman as governor. Fiorina used to be CEO of Hewlett-Packard, in which post she was hailed by the Condé Nast Portfolio website as among “the twenty worst American CEOs of all time”. And of course the plum loco Christine O’Donnell, whom even Republican greybeards warned was unelectable when she defeated a mainstream candidate in nominations for the Delaware Senate seat, proved indeed to be unelectable. We’ve surely heard the last of her.

Carly Fiorina: just one out of twenty

But Republicans took the House and Barack Obama will have to play a canny game with the new hand he is dealt. In my view, he and his party have done themselves no favour by cleaving to the time-honoured Democrat stance of declining to carry the fight to the enemy. The Tea Party have been making the political running long enough that the Democrat strategists have no excuse for failing to put together a telling response. It’s not as if the new force in Washington has been at all subtle or tried to keep the White House guessing. You don’t have to look at Fox News for more than a minute or two to get a purchase on where these people are coming from.

Jerry Brown: running in 1975

The American right has been vocal for a long time and it’s time the left got in on the act. There are two aspects that constrain it from doing so decisively. The first is that thoughtful, liberal people do tend to offer their insights with a certain degree of tentativeness and apology. Even when they’re entertainers at the top of their game, they cannot resist exploring the weaknesses and fallacies of their allies as well as their enemies: see passim Jon Stewart. The second is that, for all the long-standing lies about the “liberal bias” of the media promulgated by Republicans, that media is almost entirely owned by right-wing capitalists. No media outlet and no reporter or columnist therein is allowed to conduct themselves in an equivalent manner to that which Rupert Murdoch has decreed shall be standard on Fox News. The outlandish, unsupported ravings of the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck would never be tolerated if they espoused left-of-centre or even centrist views.

Charles & David Koch: the means to buy power

The same is true in Britain. Simon Heffer, Jeremy Clarkson, Melanie Phillips, Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn and the legions of their fellow pub bores may write what they like, no matter whether any of it can be remotely justified. But the very few columnists who may be taken to be of the left – Seamus Milne, say, or George Monbiot – clearly are obliged to step with care. Nothing that isn’t cogently argued and copiously illustrated is allowed to sully their pieces.

So the right gets its rallying cries heard and the resurgent Republicans will pour into Washington determined to force Obama to change course. Their supporters know just what needs to be done. Just get the government out of the way: it sounds so simple and that’s why so many simple people have marched behind that rallying cry. But hey, wasn’t the recession the fault of the banks and the lending houses? And wasn’t it a consensus among all but the anarchist fringe and the supranational squillionaires that the problem with the banks and the lending houses arose because those institutions were under-regulated? Regulation – along with taxes – is just what the post-Tea Party Republicans want to sweep away. They reckon making big bucks is “entrepreneurial”, however illegal the means of making them and however much you keep those bucks to yourself. The Koch brothers who largely fund the Tea Party are among the very richest entrepreneurs in the US. Few enterprises defend more lawsuits than does Koch Industries. The Tea Party followers believe they’re fighting for their own liberty but, much more significantly, they’re in practice fighting for capitalism to be above the law.

Clint Didier: weak argument

Democrats (like the Labour Party in Britain) are more concerned, philosophically and historically, with trying to look after the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of Emma Lazarus’ poem storied on the Statue of Liberty. That means a degree of government action, what many American voters who clearly don’t know the meaning of the term denounce in the Obama administration as “Socialism”. What’s the alternative? Here’s how failed Tea Party candidate for the Republican nomination as Washington state senator Clint Didier framed it: “We’ve got to get rid of this protecting the weak” [his emphasis]. Throw ‘em in the sea, I say.

There will be two more years of Obama before we learn whether he can gain a second term, whether the Republican hierarchy will have held its nose and pitched Sarah Palin against him and if so to what effect. As the Chinese proverb threatens: we are fated to live through interesting times.