Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Jack Straw: the accidental diplomat

Is shaking hands with someone you disagree with unethical?

This question was posed after UK foreign secretary Jack Straw pressed the flesh with Zimbabwe's prime minister Robert Mugabe in New York yesterday. Straw said it was an accident. 'I was sort of being pushed towards shaking hands with somebody as a matter of courtesy, and then it transpired it was President Mugabe. But the fact that there is serious disagreement between Zimbabwe and the UK does not mean we should be discourteous or rude.'

Yet the incident was seized upon by Straw's Tory opposite number, Michael Ancram. 'Whether this was by clumsy accident or ill-judged design, he has sent a powerful message of support to Mugabe, which will have shocked all those who seek the restoration of democracy and the rule of law to Zimbabwe', said Ancram.

In fact the handshake represents nothing, except perhaps an unusual outbreak of diplomacy. In recent years, international affairs have been dominated by petulant outbursts rather than sophisticated manoevuring. The track record of Straw, and his predecessor Robin Cook, has been one of intemperate comments and cack-handed errors. As for shaking hands with a 'tyrant' - well, that's what diplomats are supposed to do. 'Diplomacy is the art of letting someone have your own way', noted the Italian diplomat and author Danielle Vare. Britain had little difficulty dealing with Hitler prior to the Second World War, and representatives of the 'free world' have had no problem doing the same with regimes of all persuasions before and since.

How ironic that when politics is slated for being little more than spin and photo opportunities, so much weight has been given to a handshake with no such intended connotations. Surely there are more pressing problems with Britain's foreign policy for us to get a grip on and criticise?

Straw justifies Mugabe handshake, BBC News, 28 September 2004

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Gone but not forgotten

A story on BBC News highlights the perverse modern cult of the victim.

It's a report on a new 60-volume book, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which profiles 55,000 people who have changed our lives in Britain but are now dead. The BBC picks out five as examples: Stephen Lawrence, Jill Dando, Robert Maxwell, Jamie Bulger, and Philip Lawrence.

Four of them make it for one reason only - they were murdered. Jill Dando, it is true, was a well-known TV presenter, but looking quite nice on travel programmes and Crimewatch hardly qualifies as making a significant impact. Being murdered in cold blood on your doorstep shouldn't, either, but this illustrates just what an impact being a victim makes upon the national psyche today. In a society that seems out of control, the innocent victim is the embodiment of our helplessness and is also morally pure.

The thing about dead victims is that they are not around to ruin their saintly image with their human reality, nor to complain about what is done in their name. So the murder of Stephen Lawrence, probably by a group of racist thugs, has been used to reorganise police and public services around the assumption that everyone is racist, even if their intentions are otherwise. Jamie Bulger's death helped establish the notion that children are always at risk, intensifying parental paranoia - and also that kids are dangerous, and can even be tried for murder at the age of 10.

Meanwhile, the actions of the living are inevitably seen as corrupt and self-serving. Yet the dead change nothing. Only in life can we really change the world for the better.

The deaths that changed our lives, BBC News, 23 September 2004

Monday, September 20, 2004

Blair gets the finger from Dyke

Hell hath no fury like a BBC director-general scorned.

Greg Dyke was forced to resign after the Hutton report criticised the BBC's editorial standards. Dyke has since complained that he was stitched-up by Blair. But all we seem to hear from Dyke is 'me, me, me': an hour of prime-time television, a personal appearance at the Royal Festival Hall, and innumerable newspaper interviews, all concerned about how he was wronged by his erstwhile friends.

'I feel betrayed. We were taken to war on a false premise,' says Dyke in the documentary, apparently confusing his own fate than that of Iraq. In fact, he admits in the Guardian today that cultivating the Cult of Greg was pretty important to him. When he started at the Beeb, he spent time visiting all the local studios. 'I mean, no one had been to Norwich for 20 years...[t]hat's how you buy credibility. Sometimes it can be quite calculated.'

It all paid off when Greg cleared his desk and left the BBC to cheers and tears, making him feel like a 'mixture between a politician and Madonna'. No wonder BBC journalists were left open to accusations of self-importance over their reporting of Iraq - they got their cue from the top.

Loud and proud, Guardian, 20 September 2004

BBC: cut the crap, by Jennie Bristow

Friday, September 17, 2004

Buried under buzzwords

It's tough being a junior minister in the New Labour government. But when in doubt, you can always fall back on a buzzword.

But even that is becoming more difficult, because there are so many of them - and they tend to contradict each other. Take poor Estelle Morris (please, someone, take Estelle Morris). The government has been promoting the idea of 'choice': choice in education, health, local democracy etc. Morris complained this week that such choice only helps the middle classes who know how to play the system. 'The people who lose out from choice are the good hard-working families who we are in politics to represent,' she said. There's no point having a choice about which hospital to go to if you can't get into it for months. So 'access' to services is important, too. Unable to choose 'choice' over 'access', Morris came up with this: 'choice with access'. 'That's what marks us out from the Conservatives', she argued.

But why stop there? The spirit of New Labour surely demands choice with access that is inclusive, diverse, tolerant, sustainable and patient-centred. This politics-by-thesaurus is driven by the utter absence of ideas. Lacking any long-term vision, ministers appeal to us as managers - so it's hardly surprising that they end sounding like managers. Morris has found ministerial life rather tough going and is stepping down at the next election. So, she's made her choice - to bale out of politics altogether.

Morris criticises 'choice' agenda, BBC News, 17 September 2004

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Hunting bans and trivial pursuits

As the UK parliament debates a hunting ban, everyone seems to be chasing their own agenda.

Fox hunting has become the issue that the government would like to go away. It has become a totem issue for both rural voters and Labour backbenchers. For countryside campaigners, fox-hunting is the focus for an inchoate sense of grievance against a government with little interest in rural issues. A Countryside Alliance leaflet about the new bill says, 'This is an outright assault on us all which goes way beyond hunting and as such marks the beginning of the next phase of our campaign to combat prejudice and discrimination.' Countryfolk are apparently an oppressed minority fighting their domination by townies.

For backbenchers, it's a case of asking the government to throw them a bone. They have little or no say on policy anymore, but at least if they could get a hunting ban it would preserve the pretence of having some influence. Banning hunting is a petty and illiberal measure - but one that suits both the backbenchers and the government. Blair, desperate for a quiet life, will force the ban through using the most extreme parliamentary procedure, but delay the implementation as long as possible to try to appease the rural vote. Indecisive as ever, he wants both a quick kill, and a lingering death.

Who gives a fox about hunting now?, by Mick Hume

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

An empty chamber

The Scottish Parliament building finally opened for business yesterday - the lights are on, but there's nobody home.

Three years later, and £400million more than originally planned, it does at least look good. 'I don't think even the building's harshest critics could fail to be awed', said Robin Harper, leader of the parliament's Green Party. However, there were still teething troubles. The microphones worked intermittently during the day and failed altogether in the final debate, bringing a swift close to proceedings. The building isn't finished, even now. 'One of the public entrances stubbornly refused to open yesterday, an entire banister came off in the hands of a journalist in the press gallery, and a basement office was flooded in last week's torrential rain', reported the Daily Telegraph.

The controversy about the building's cost is such that both prime minister Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown will be giving the official opening a wide berth. But the biggest problem is not building the parliament but filling it. There is a vacuum where political debate should be. As Dolan Cummings points out on Spiked, the parliament has limited powers and even more limited ambitions. No wonder the new leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, will be hanging on to his Westminster seat. He clearly knows where the real power lies. The wonder of yesterday's opening is that, when the microphones failed, anyone noticed.

It's show time in the £431m hot house, Daily Telegraph, 8 September 2004

A hole in Holyrood, by Dolan Cummings