Gale's View - Westminster November 2009
While "The Allies" dither over troop deployment, the death toll rises in Afghanistan. The Queen reads a short speech and Mr. Kelly rams another nail into the parliamentary coffin. Floods replace pestilence. The Constitution of Lisbon is ratified without a referendum in the United Kingdom and Europe chooses its new Napoleon. And in 2011 Sir John Chilcot will publish the report of his inquiry into the Iraq War.
As winter begins the Big Organ Grinder and his minions are to be found scurrying around Europe trying to secure the Presidency for Mr. Blair while as a sub-plot the Milipede is being promoted as "the front runner" for the Not The European Foreign Secretary's job as "High Minister". That latter, of course, is a title that the Lord Foy of That Persuasion would dearly love to add to his growing portfolio of self-importance, as will become apparent later in the month.
Lisbon is with us whether we like it or not and all the indications are that most of us, given half a chance to say so, would indicate that we do not. Ruing the day that he ever uttered the words "cast iron guarantee" Young David is forced to concede that with the constitution a done deal a referendum on that issue would be a political nonsense. His is a perfectly reasonable position intellectually but not one that strikes an emotional chord with those within his own party who feel sold short. David Davis, perhaps, indicates the way forward. The Old Knuckleduster knows Europe well having done time as European Minister. The constitution has, he points out, been ratified by an unelected Prime Minister without a mandate. While a referendum on the Treaty would be pointless we can most certainly hold a referendum on the negotiating mandate that the next British Government takes to the European Union. Armed with a clear statement of popular will a Prime Minister Cameron and a Foreign Secretary Hague would find their cause strengthened very considerably if we are, as promised, to begin the struggle to claw back powers from Brussels.
It appears that the Bank of England has quietly slipped a cheque for further billions to the High Street banks, taking the money committed to over £200 billion and the national debt to £1.2 trillion which is more that the country's total income for an entire year! This extra bung was offered clandestinely in order, so the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street tells us, not to cause alarm and disturb the markets. That's a handy excuse for all sorts of mischiefs but it does not disguise the fact that as well as personal debt every household in the land is mortgaged to the tune of an additional £35.000. Young David and Boy George are going to have their work cut out trying to plant a few seeds of recovery in the scorched earth that they may inherit: the next government, of whatever political persuasion, could become rather less than popular very fast.
"Nine/Eleven" (The eleventh of September in real money) is synonymous with terrorism. In the European calendar, though, the ninth day of the eleventh month was the day that the Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago and to mark the occasion German schoolchildren shoved over one thousand styrofoam dominoes. That wall is the reason that I became involved in politics and I have a piece of it, framed against a photograph of one of the gun towers, on the wall as a constant reminder of the fragility of liberty. Two hundred and thirty nine people died while trying to escape that symbol of the tyranny of communism. Almost as many British service personnel have died while fighting the battle against terrorism, on our behalf, in Afghanistan and that stark fact was, perhaps, epitomised by the dignity and courage of Mrs Christina Schmid as she watched while body of her husband passed by on his way home. Her husband, Olaf Schmid had, you will recall, defused 64 bombs before, on the last day of his tour of duty, succumbing to the explosive force of the 65th. Remembrance Sunday was, with good reason, well attended this year.
The loss of life in Afghanistan and the particularly brutal massacre of five soldiers killed by a man that they were training, has caused the whole purpose of the war to be called into question yet again. The Foreign Secretary did himself and our armed forces no favours at all by indicating that we are "not engaged in a fight to the death". That was, even by Milipede standards, a pretty silly thing to say. For two hundred and thirty serving men and women and their families it has already been a fight to the death and more will follow. If those deaths are not to have been in vain then this is a war against international terrorism that has to be won on the streets and in the countryside of Afghanistan and Pakistan and wherever else it rears its ugly head. I do not often agree with The Prime Minister but we have to ram home the message that if Al Qaeda and its fellow travellers are not pinned down and eliminated in their boltholes then they will be free to roam and devastate the major cities of the world and the effects of that will, as we have already seen in London, come very close to home. (Comforting to know that while all of this is going on those doing the "difficult and dangerous" job of driving desks inside the MoD are lined up for a total of £300 million in bonuses).
The Clunking Fist has held a clunking pen and written personally to the bereaved families of those who have died in war. Our Prime Minister's handwriting leaves a certain amount to be desired and his spelling is not all that it might be but surely some credit should be given for the effort? I can understand the distress caused to one grieving mother, Mrs. Janes, at the mis-spelling of her name but for the Sun newspaper to orchestrate and then publish a recording of the Prime Minister's subsequent telephone call of awkward and inadequate apology strikes me as taking standards of journalism to new depths even by Murdoch standards. Perhaps not surprisingly there is a backlash of sympathy for the Big Organ Grinder and the Conservative poll lead narrows to just six points. That leaves us in hung parliament territory, which is the last thing that this bankrupt nation needs. Much work still to be done.
The Queen opens what has to be the last session of this parliament. Mr. Straw, the Minister who wants inquests to be held in secret, posing as Lord Chancellor, makes a complete pigs ear of the presentation of the speech and Her Maj could be forgiven, having plodded through what was a mercifully short shopping list of pre-electoral aspirations that will never reach the statute book, for saying "a plague on both your houses" and rushing back to Buck House for a stiff drink.
A mixed month for aviation. BA and Iberia embark upon a £4billion merger that will lead to the shedding of 1000 jobs. The HQ of the "Fly The Flag" airline will be moving, one imagines, to a bullring in Madrid and anyone who has ever shared my own airborne experience of Iberian will from now on be opting for Air Zimbabwe as their carrier of choice. Willie Walsh may just have a hard time selling this latest move to Margaret "tailfin" Thatcher.
But all is not lost. Under the banner headline "Redhead Arrow" the tabloids announce that Flight Lieutenant Kirsty Moore will be joining the nation's elite flying display team. That should liven up the skies next summer.
The BBC is paying 107 of its senior executives a total in excess of £20 million out of license fee payers’ money. These posts include an Organisational and Change Director, a Future Media and Technology Controller, and the Head of BBC Outreach as well as a Reward Director who has clearly earned his crust for the distribution of awards. Auntie is also contriving to fly a team of thirty-five to cover the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen at an emissions cost greater than that generated by an African village in the whole of a year.
Elsewhere, the Students Loans Company is busy paying itself bonuses while one hundred and seventy five thousand students are still waiting for money due at the start of this academic year. Amazing, really, that there are that many young people qualifying for Higher Education when one in three schools, says OFSTED, experiences inadequate teaching and fifty per cent of academies are sub-standard - a point that the Shadow Education Secretary , Michael Gove, might wish to contemplate. Has nobody told Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert (aka Mrs. Tony McNulty) that New Labour's great success is education, education, education? Apparently not. Eight million Britons have no job and, euphemistically described as "economically inactive”, are not looking for employment.
"Blair Could Land Euro Job" says the headline. The Legacy's faltering Presidential campaign appears, momentarily, to flicker back into life before being extinguished at a dinner in Brussels. Mme. Carlo Bruni clearly does not wish to see Cherry Booth (as she used to be called when she fought North Thanet in 1983) as Europe's "First Lady", M. Sarkozy struts his vertically challenged stuff and the Belgian contender, Herman Van Rompuy emerges as the man that journalists now describe as "the Pigmy in charge of Europe". At the last minute the Big Organ Grinder withdrew his support for Blair and is rewarded, as a result of some swift backstage manoeuvring, with the appointment of someone called Baroness Ashton as Europe's Foreign Secretary or "High Minister". This will, no doubt, have irked the Right Honourable Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State and Secretary for business, innovation and skills and Honorary Freeman of the borough of Hartlepool. He, it emerges, may have been quietly doing some last-minute fast footwork to land the job for himself. Poor Peter.
Never mind. Cathy Ashton, known as the "Quango Queen" in Whitehall, is clearly well qualified to run a vast army of Eurocrats having served as the head of the Hertfordshire Health Authority. Number Ten describes her appointment as "a powerful voice for Britain". Others call it a shot in the foot. She has risen without trace.
The weather that the forecasters have trailed as The Worst Storm of the Year lives up to its predicted reputation as it hits the North West and eight inches of rain fall upon Cumbria in 24 hours. Kendal, Cockermouth and Keswick are devastated by floodwater. Hundreds are rendered homeless, businesses stocked for Christmas are wrecked and PC Bill Barker, a father of four young children and police officer with 25 years service behind him, dies as the bridge that he is standing on collapses while he is endeavouring to direct others away from the danger.
The long awaited Iraq War Inquiry opens at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre across Parliament Square from the Houses of Parliament. Under the chairmanship of Sir John Chilcot a queue of mandarins lines up to take their revenge upon The Legacy and all his works. Sir Michael Rose calls for Blair to face trial. The Chilcot Inquiry is not, of course, a court of law but Sir Jeremy Greenstock has already indicated that the invasion, while legal, was "of questionable legitimacy". When the inquiry finally completes its work in 2011 Sir John may reach conclusions but not the verdict and sentence that many feel that months of lies and deceit, and the misleading of parliament, warrant.
At the month's end a reminder from the First Sea Lord, Mark Stanhope, that Britain is still an island that needs a navy. (Eighty per cent of the goods on supermarket shelves arrive in the United Kingdom by sea). With spending cuts the order of the day for any future government you don't need to be a strategist to work out that "big ticket" items such as nuclear defence systems and aircraft carriers are likely to attract Treasury attention. And in present conflict, with all forces wearing camouflage battledress in the field, it is too easy to look at television reports and assume that it is only soldiers that are at war. In fact, of course, there are significant numbers of sailors and airmen deployed and risking and in some cases losing their lives in Afghanistan as they did in Iraq and recognition must be given where recognition is due. In that context, step forward Able Seaman Kate Nesbitt. AB Nesbitt, all five feet of her and serving as a medical assistant on the front line, risked her own life under heavy enemy fire to tend and save the life of another wounded serviceman. For that she has, rightly and proudly, been awarded the Military Cross. Not for the first time there have been those who have said with gratitude "the Navy is here". They are here and they are needed.
In the run up to Remembrance Sunday poppy sellers are warned not to shake their tins. This is regarded as "harassment" and aggressive and "it could constitute a public menace". It will, though, be of comfort to the relatives of the newly fallen to know that "chuggers" - those infuriating pavement sellers of charity pledges - can continue to ply their trade with impunity.
We still cannot achieve payment of Disability Living Allowance to a couple of thousand former UK taxpayers now retired and living within the EU but we are paying £20 million a year in tax credits on behalf of thirty seven thousand children of EU citizens working in the UK while their families are still resident abroad.
Plans are afoot to require political parties to declare publicly how many women, gay, ethnic minority and disabled candidates they reject and a cross-party review will no doubt have all of the answers as to how this will be achieved. Presumably if the candidate who is as mad as a box of frogs also happens to be a lesbian that matter will have to be recorded. Mr. Speaker Bercow, supporting these proposals, is reported as planning to apply for a license to conduct Civil Partnerships in Speaker's House. There is, we must assume, a shortage of other suitable and available venues.
The Association of Chief Police Officers has generated a 93-page guide to advise Mr. Plod how to ride a bicycle. The handbook usefully addresses such issues as "in-saddle comfort". And the DEFRA’s food police have descended on a Dorset hen-house to conduct a 6-hour inspection and form-filling detailing the establishment, country of origin and method of production in order to allow the owner to market three dozen surplus eggs a week through the village shop. "Traceability is important for human and animal health" says the Department. The fact that we daily import thousands of uninspected and potentially salmonella infected eggs from Spain and beyond appears to have passed the inspectors by.
In a Statement Mr. Balls announces that children aged five will be subjected to lessons about sex and drugs while parents who remove their 15-year old children from State Sex Indoctrination will face fines. And Balls has teamed up with the Man of Straw to proclaim that the Code for Prosecutors shall be amended to substitute "young persons" for "youth" on the grounds that the latter term is demeaning to 17 and 17 year old criminals and that "youth" has negative connotations. The Youth Justice Board, the name of which will now have to be changed, is concerned about "branding". Now there's an idea!
A Bishop suggests that the expression "Happy Christmas" could cause offence. This is not, for once, politically correct twaddle but a genuine concern. For those whose homes have been ruined in the floods, for the families of PC Bill Barker, and Bomb Disposal Officer Olaf Schmid and those far too many others whose lives have been mutilated or ended in conflict, this Christmas is unlikely to be a particularly happy or merry occasion.