Guardian wrong on Chris Huhne – readers’ editor

The Guardian’s readers editor Chris Elliott today accepted the paper was wrong to allow Chris Huhne to use his weekly column to attack convicted judge Constance Briscoe’s part in his own conviction.

I blogged my disgust at Huhne’s column the day it appeared. I think the Guardian made a misjudgement giving Huhne a weekly column. But this crass piece was the final straw. Continue reading

Chris Huhne: The Guardian’s shame

Convicted criminal and Guardian columnist Chris Huhne

Chris Huhne, convicted criminal and columnist

I was horrified when The Guardian gave convicted criminal Chris Huhne a weekly column. It was a big misjudgement. But today’s column, in which the former cabinet minister wallowed in self pity about his conviction, marked a new low.

To recap. Chris Huhne is the liar who put lives at risk. As I blogged when he was convicted:

The act of deception that destroyed his career was intended to avoid a driving ban. Yet just weeks later he was banned anyway, for using his mobile phone while driving. The man is a menace. And any sympathy we may have for his former wife – Huhne walked out on their 26 year marriage – is tempered by the fact she put other people at risk through their reckless act of conspiracy.

This foolish and vain man says in his column today:

Although I was guilty, I justified my denial to myself by saying that it was a relatively minor offence committed by 300,000 other people.

That’s all right then. Lots of other drivers put lives at risk, so it doesn’t matter. The man has learned nothing. He cares only about himself. The conviction of Constance Briscoe is irrelevant: as he concedes in the column, his own conviction was justified. Yet this awful man compares his carriage of justice (we can’t call it a miscarriage as he admits he was guilty) with the Stafford NHS scandal, in which people died. The man is as dim as he is vain.

What possessed the Guardian to give so much valuable editorial space to this man? It’s not as if he has any valuable insight, or has achieved anything in his political career that made him a catch as a columnist. This grubby business is such a contrast with The Guardian’s Pullitzer prize for its NSA revelations.

I should add that I don’t object to newspapers employing convicted criminals as columnists. I supported The Guardian when it was attacked over its columnist Erwin James, a convicted murderer, who had worthwhile insights into the criminal justice system without any sense of brushing aside his crimes.

Let’s hope that the paper sees sense and axes this weekly insult to its readers.

Maria Miller: shameless not sorry

What a surprise. The culture secretary Maria Miller defrauded the taxpayer by dishonestly claiming expenses on a second home her parents live in. Had she been a benefit fraudster, she’d have been jailed. But she’s a cabinet minister, so she’ll be deciding on press regulation instead.

Five years after the Daily Telegraph exposed the industrial scale on which MPs were defrauding us by false expense claims, politicians are as shameless as ever.

No wonder Nigel Farage is a happy man. No matter how repellent his policies, the outsider is reaping the rewards from public disgust at the outrages of the political establishment. He must have been amazed at his luck when Nick Clegg agreed to debate Europe. Clegg, the former outsider, is now the ultimate insider: the cheerleader for the coalition, after breaking all his election promises. (And having made a good living from the EU gravy train.)

Back to Maria Miller. David Cameron has proved as false as Tony Blair in promising to clean up politics. This shameless politician asked the press to drop the matter today. Miller threatened the parliamentary watchdog in a bid to force the commissioner to drop action against her. And her adviser threatened the Telegraph. These people simply don’t care. They have contempt for the taxpayers who are forced to pay to keep the gravy train on the rails. Politicians’ promises are empty words, given cheaply unlike their expense claims.

PS: the Telegraph tonight published the chilling threatening call from Miller’s adviser. The adviser for the minister deciding press freedom.

Tony Benn: from firebrand to favourite uncle

Firebrands: Michael Foot and Tony Benn at Labour's 1980 conference

Firebrands: Michael Foot and Tony Benn at Labour’s 1980 conference. Photo: Don McPhee, Guardian

How strange that the right wing press has been lavishing praise on two men they previously vilified. The recent passing of Tony Benn and Bob Crow shows that death can change reputations overnight, turning sworn enemies into admirers. In the case of Tony Benn, the transformation was underway before the former cabinet minister died.

It’s a long time since Benn had any real influence on British politics. He had already acquired the status of national treasure, and one of the greatest political diarists. Yet thirty years ago, he was portrayed as the most dangerous man in Britain by his enemies.

Tony Benn was steeped in Labour politics. He met Gandhi, Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald at a very early age through his father, who was a minister in MacDonald’s Labour government. He witnessed the disastrous schism in the party when MacDonald formed a national government with the Tories. Benn senior lost his seat when he refused to follow MacDonald. It’s ironic that Benn junior shared the blame for Labour’s equally disastrous civil war in the 1980s.

Harold Wilson famously commented that Benn immatured with age. Judging from Dominic Sambrook’s account of Wilson’s last government in 1974-76 (a strong contender along with Heath’s administration for the title of our worst postwar government) Benn must have been an infuriating cabinet colleague. Britain was sliding towards bankruptcy, yet Benn refused to accept any need for spending cuts.

Benn was above all a romantic. Like many from patrician roots, he idolised the working class and also saw the unions as beyond criticism. He saw nothing wrong in the likes of the Militant Tendency, which tried to capture Labour in the 1980s. When Labour’s 1983 manifesto was rejected by the electorate (along with Benn, defeated in Bristol), he didn’t ask whether the policies were wrong. This was pure self indulgence – at the expense of the people who most depended on an electable Labour party.

As a teenage Labour supporter, I felt thoroughly depressed by the left’s capture of the party at the 1980 conference (on the day my niece was born) and at the 1981 special conference at Wembley.

Yet there was something noble about Benn’s love of parliament and rejection of royal prerogative. He fought for the right to renounce the hereditary peerage he inherited when his father died. He challenged British and American military adventurism. He questioned the assumption that we should join the EEC, years before the Tories discovered Euroscepticism. And he was a devoted family man – a politician with hinterland, as his rival Denis Healey would have put it.

Rest in peace, Tony.

Breaking Britain: Scotland’s choice


Above: Scotland’s Future launch. Photo: Scottish Government

Fifty years ago, the idea that Scotland would leave the United Kingdom would have been almost impossible to imagine. But this week the Scottish Government launched a white paper, Scotland’s Future, setting out the case for just that in next year’s independence referendum.

For a party proclaiming the case for divorce, the SNP seem curiously keen on many aspects of the United Kingdom. The Queen would still be head of state. The pound sterling would still be Scotland’s currency. And the white paper even reassures Scots that they’d still enjoy Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and CBeebies – even though the BBC would be replaced by a Scots equivalent. Heaven help us if Waybuloo is the only thing holding back the break up of Britain.

As many have said, it’s far from certain if the remaining UK countries would allow all this to happen. But it’s a clever ploy by Alex Salmond to suggest Scotland can have it all outside the union.

Scotland is, of course, right to decide its future. The fact the vote is even happening is an indictment of the failures of successive Westminster governments to govern for the whole of these islands. As I wrote a year ago, there are echoes here of the way British malevolence and incompetence led Ireland to independence rather than home rule.

I still hope that Scotland chooses to help us reshape Britain, rather than break it. Scotland has played a hugely important part in our nation’s history. It, like Wales, has shown that we can enjoy multiple identities: Scottish/Welsh and British. That diversity is a great model for life in these islands. It would be a great shame to diminish Celtic influence in Britain.

The Daily Mail’s shameful attack on Ralph Miliband

I’m not a great fan of  Ed Miliband. I’m even less of a fan of Marxism. But I was disgusted by the Daily Mail’s attack on the Labour leader’s late father Ralph Miliband, and its bizarre claim that Ralph hated Britain.

Miliband senior fought for Britain in the Royal Navy in the second world war after fleeing Nazi occupied Europe as a Jewish refugee. He went on to become a famous Marxist acedemic. He died 19 years ago.

The Mail today carried a reply from Ed Miliband. Yet the paper showed its true colours by repeating even more strongly its attack on Ed’s father, and using typically contemptuous language to mock Miliband’s right of reply: “He has stamped his feet and demanded a right of reply”. This is the behaviour of a school bully attacking a victim who dared fight back.

The Mail’s ludicrous attack suggests that the Mail is seriously scared that Miliband’s popular attack on the energy companies at Labour’s conference will kill the possibility of the Tory party winning the 2015 election. That would also hugely increase the possibility of statutory regulation of the press, as recommended by Lord Justice Leveson, and blocked by David Cameron. The Mail will do anything to prevent anyone taking away its ‘power without responsibility’, as Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin put it.

The Daily Mail has been a huge success since the late David English reinvented it as a tabloid 40 years ago. It’s routinely described as the voice of Middle England. Yet it is strangely out of tune with traditional British values. It ruthlessly attacks anyone who doesn’t share its world view. It lacks a sense of fair play. It has no sense of humour except in its brilliant cartoons. This week’s distasteful stories will prove a seriously misjudgement, boosting Ed Miliband’s reputation and diminishing the Mail’s.

Margaret Thatcher – the woman who changed Britain

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher made history. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister – a landmark that will live in history books long after the controversies of her premiership have faded. She defeated an Argentinian dictator and British union barons. She sold off most nationalised industries. And she helped end the Cold War.

When she became prime minister in May 1979, Britain was in a sorry state. The winter of discontent in 1978/79 made her victory inevitable. While many felt sympathy for low paid workers fighting for higher pay, millions decided enough was enough – ‘we can’t go on like this’ was a common feeling. People were sickened by unions that intimidated members into going on strike and used mobs to enforce their will. Two governments had been destroyed by the unions, in 1974 and 1979. Thatcher was determined it wouldn’t happen again.

Yet Thatcher was often more cautious in her early days than her legend suggests. She gave in to the miners’ demands in 1981 rather than risk defeat. The early union reforms were modest. And privatisation wasn’t even mentioned in the 1979 election manifesto.

She was lucky in her enemies. Winning the Falklands War against the Argentinian junta – a brutal dictatorship that murdered thousands of its own people – ended her vulnerable early days when the SDP/Liberal Alliance was threatening the Tories and Labour alike. Arthur Scargill stupidly bullied the miners into the 1984/85 strike when winter was ending and coal stocks were high.

In time, she became more reckless, more strident, most famously in the disastrous poll tax. John Campbell showed graphically in volume two of his biography of Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, how disfunctional her government became in its last years because of her behaviour. Her fall in November 1990 was no surprise.

She also began the long decline of local pride and enterprise, thanks to the emasculation of local government. For the daughter of an alderman, she was indifferent to local initiative  and hostile to the idea of an alternative power base, leading to the abolition of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council and the English metropolitan counties. Under her rule, Britain saw the rise of private wealth and public squalor, and a sense that selfishness was acceptable.

Labour isn't Working - most bitterly ironic Thatcher poster

Labour isn’t Working – Thatcher’s most cynical campaign poster, 1978

She was also callous in her indifference to the fate of communities devastated by the mass unemployment her government unleashed. The 1981 budget was one of the most brutal of the post war era, leading many to accuse her of using mass unemployment as a weapon to achieve her aims. (And in the doomed attempt to test the economic theory called monetarism.) Similarly, she deliberately shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the less well off in the move to indirect taxation. Her choice of St Francis’s prayer – “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – was cynical, as was the 1978 election poster condemning Labour for high unemployment, above. Under her rule, the jobless total reached three million for the first time since the 1930s.

Finally, Margaret Thatcher suffered the fate of someone who lived only for work. She had no hinterland, as Denis Healey put it. This made her a very bad member of the former prime ministers’ club, as her successor John Major found out to his cost.

On the day Margaret Thatcher died, it’s hard to imagine a time before her time in Downing Street. But my first Thatcher memory was her appearance as education secretary 40 years  on the BBC children’s programme Val Meets the VIPs. (Val was the Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton.) In October 1978, our family friends in Germany asked us what we thought of Mrs Thatcher. We explained we weren’t impressed by her stridency…

Tonight, Britain and the world is remembering Britain’s most remarkable postwar prime minister. Our country is the nation she created – for good and ill. None of her successors has matched her ability to explain their mission. And no man since 1979 has dared to suggest that a woman couldn’t be prime minister. That might be as great a legacy as any.

The Daily Mail, Mick Philpott and the welfare state

An evil man, Mick Philpott, was jailed this week for killing six of his children by setting fire to his house.  His actions were, it seems, a grotesque attempt to frame his former lover for arson. An extraordinary and unique story – hardly a parable for the decline of a nation.

Yet the Daily Mail immediately used the Philpott case as a weapon in its war against the welfare state in one of the most notorious front pages in recent years:

Hate crime: Daily Mail's Philpott front page

Hate crime: Daily Mail’s Philpott front page

No one should be surprised by the Mail’s cynical attempt to use the tragic deaths of six children to further its campaign against the welfare state. This is a paper that revels in spreading disharmony and fear. As Labour’s Dan Hodges points out in a Daily Telegraph blog:

In truth, it’s impossible to rationalise the logic of someone who pours petrol over their home, consigns six children to death, and then according to evidence presented in court “engaged in “horseplay” when he went to view his children’s bodies”. But one thing is certain, the man responsible for this act of barbarism is Mick Philpott, not William Beveridge.

The Mail’s Philpott front page is the latest move in a cynical campaign by the Conservative right wing and their media supporters to smear the poor and disadvantaged. At a time when thousands of families are struggling to make ends meet, the right is very deliberately attacking the postwar consensus that the state should help when hard times strike. At the same time, the coalition’s cabinet of millionaires is cutting benefits and imposing a bedroom tax, while cutting their own tax burden.

All that said, it’s entirely reasonable for the media and politicians to ask serious questions about how the welfare state operates. (In the same way that we should be able to talk about immigration openly and sensibly.) You don’t need to be a right winger to ask whether someone like Philpott should be paid over £54,000 a year by the state to father 17 children. As Dan Hodges said in his blog, the left can be just as cynical in exploiting the vulnerable for their own political purposes. But nothing quite matches the fact that the memory of six tragic children has been used by a newspaper that cares nothing about them, but everything about its hatred for Britain’s welfare state.

It’s not just papers like the Mail who exploited the Philpott story. Before the Derby killings,  Philpott appeared on so-called reality television shows. He became a minor celebrity. This violent and evil man became a figure of entertainment.

One final word. The Daily Mail would have us belief that benefits and allowances are easy to come by. But our family’s experience shows that the state can be callous. My mother is partially sighted. She is totally dependent on my father for support. They’re both in their eighties. They were totally entitled to attendance allowance. Yet she was turned down. The form was designed to ensure people’s applications failed, no matter how worthy their claim. Mum only got the money she deserved because her wonderful MP, Labour’s Alun Michael, took up her cause. (Alun is now  Police & Crime Commissioner for South Wales.) So much for the welfare state.

The state should be there for people when they need help. It often isn’t. But Britain’s millionaire cabinet and the Daily Mail’s calculating editor in chief Paul Dacre live in a different world. They will never comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the press is meant to. No wonder they’ve formed a cynical alliance to prevent regulation of the press. How telling that they’re more concerned to punish the poor than condemn the bankers, like HBOS bosses Crosby, Hornby and Stevenson, who trousered millions while leaving the state to spend unimaginable billions clearing up their mess.

Let us mourn six tragic children without using them for political purposes.

Pope Francis and the Falklands

The election of Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis has been seen by many as good news, as the world’s largest church chooses a non European leader for the first time in a millennium. But Bergoglio’s election has been met with misgivings in the Falkland Islands, as the new pope has supported Argentina’s claim to their homeland.

It’s not the first time the papacy has been entwined in the Falklands controversy. Back in 1982, Pope John Paul II’s impending visit to Britain coincided with Argentina’s invasion of the islands. As a result, the pope was forced to pay a ‘balancing’ visit to Argentina.

PS: read my post on the Falklands War, 30 years on.