Gale`s Westminster View – November 2011
November. It`s the democracy, stupid”. Around the globe electorates flock to vote but some governments are polls (sic) apart from others. The Chairman of The BBC Trust, Lord Patten, rightly believes that a free democracy needs a free Press but what price honesty, decency and legality? ( Gutter- dirt-cheap if you control many a British newspaper, it seems). At home open borders” takes on a whole new meaning. Her Maj visits Margate and the Duke of Cambridge flies into a storm. Chancellor George predicts bad times just around the corner. The Clunking Fist emerges, briefly, from his manse. A curiously named day of action” brings the poor bloody infantry out on futile and damaging strike while Union fat-cats continue to draw their own pay in the knowledge that pre-planned talks are ongoing. And EU zone if you want to but the UK is not for zoning.”
The United Kingdom Border Agency has lost one hundred and twenty four thousand immigrants. This emerges as the Home Affairs select committee learns that the aforesaid visitors have disappeared from controlled archives” that are rather less controlled than was thought to be the case. Following hot upon this mildly embarrassing news comes the rather more startling revelation that for a period of time during last summer border controls were relaxed to either prioritise checks upon high-risk visitors (if you accept the UKBA version of events) or to help to clear a backlog of visitors and to obviate long queues at passport control points if you buy into the less official explanation. Either way the Home Secretary, the hitherto fireproof Mrs. Theresa May, finds herself at the despatch box in the House of Commons having to admit that she has no idea” how many illegal immigrants may have popped into Britain during this pilot scheme”. Not surprisingly the head of the Border Agency, one Brodie Clark, finds himself taking a one-way trip through the exit door muttering dark claims about how he has been used as a fall-guy to cover the Ministerial posterior. Mr Clark`s assertion that the Home Secretary misled the House” when she stated that she was unaware that her senior executive had taken it upon himself to operate outside the agreed brief for the pilot scheme does not sound convincing when Mr. Clark gives evidence to the select committee. Nor does his observation that the Home Secretary had destroyed his reputation”. There are those who feel, perhaps unkindly, that that task needed little help from Mrs. May.. There is concern in East Kent that passengers arriving by coach through the Port of Dover were also waved through border controls unchecked. Reassuring, therefore, to discover that London will have ground-to-air missile cover throughout the 2012 Olympics.
Greek Meltdown – Markets Collapse”. UK Cash to support IMF Bailout”. A Two-Speed Europe with Britain in the Slow Lane”. And all of that in just in the first week of the month. Greek and Italian debt crises and the resulting and parlous state of the Eurozone have brought down – so far – two governments and dominated the news agenda throughout the Autumn. The prospect of Britain finding itself in an EU voting minority when confronted with a eurozone caucus” and the very idea that British taxpayers` cash could be used to prop up the failing economies of the weaker Eurozone countries reduces some to apoplexy and some to despair.
If the Greek problem dominates the first fortnight then the second half of November belongs to Italy. With five times the debt of Greece, at 1.6 trillion or 120% of that nation`s GDP, the prospect of Italian economic contagion looms large throughout Europe. That erstwhile Chancellor, Mr. Gordon Brown, breaks cover to observe that France may be the next to crumble” and suggests that a Eurozone collapse would send the Continent into depression”. Coming from a man who these days appears to be permanently depressed we have to assume that he knows what he is talking about and it is certainly a view shared by Chancellor George Osborne. He also voices the opinion that France could be the next Eurozone victim” while the President of the Republic, M.Sarkozy, is rumoured to be planning a breakaway Union within a union Eurozone”. At the Lord Mayor of London`s Banquet our Prime Minister speaks of clawing back powers” from Europe. St Nicholas of Clogg, in a helpful moment of coalition solidarity, immediately contradicts, saying that this is no time to speak of clawing back powers from the European Union” while simultaneously, in Berlin, Angela Merkel is advocating closer ties”.
Dark rumours of a German plot to derail any possible British referendum on the EU emerge. Frau Merkel may be at the wheel of the Eurozone Titanic but to suggest, as she does, that Europe is speaking German” makes some wonder when she hastily adds that we don`t want to colonise Europe” and does not sit easily with her belief that the UK cannot block a finance tax”. This proposed levy on financial transactions, of course, is an exocet aimed directly at the heart of the City of London as a major financial centre. It comes as no surprise when the man in Number Ten hints – in jest one has to assume – at a retaliatory French Cheese Tax”. Nevertheless, as the month ends the Eurozone is in dire trouble. Herman Van Rompuy may say that a Eurozone split would destroy the single market” and Angela Merkel may genuinely feel that Britain must help to rescue the Eurozone” but as the deckchairs are hastily rearranged on the deck of this stricken vessel there are many who believe that she is holed below the waterline and that the lifeboats may not be lowered in time to rescue some of the weaker passengers. Looking into an uncertain economic future The Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, says that he cannot even predict tomorrow”. The European Union” says David Cameron is in peril without reform”. And the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is putting together contingency plans both to prepare for possible riots triggered by a Euro-collapse and to assist British subjects who may become stranded and unable to access funds in Eurozone countries . None of that prevents The Legacy from voicing an unsolicited last word. Of Britain joining the Eurozone, ex-Prime Minister Blair volunteers the thought that we should keep our options open in the very long term”. Until hell freezes over, perhaps.
A roller-coaster of a month for the process of democracy. I am not quitting” says Berlusconi`s Facebook entry just a day before he tells us that he is contemplating standing down for the good of Italy”. He appears to sleep through much of the G20 summit. Four days later the Bunga Bunga party is over. The Senate passes a £51 billion austerity package, signalling the end for Berlusconi. Successor Mario Monti`s new Italian government contains not one elected politician. In Greece George Papandreou, described with careless embarrassment by M. Sarkozy as a madman” and having failed to secure domestic support for a referendum on a European bailout package , clings on for a few days through a national-interest coalition. He then surrenders power to another unelected technocrat-led government.
In the aftermath of elections in Tunisia there are disturbing rumblings of a ”sixth caliphate” as the Secretary General of the now dominant Ennardha party seeks to form an interim administration. Tunisia, it is argued, needs a second Republic, not a Muslim Empire-style caliphate with governance founded on Islamic law .
Morocco, and first elections pass off in relative peace and calm. The capture alive, in Libya, of Saif Al Islam Gaddafi, the last serious player of the dynasty still at large, brings an uneasy closure to one chapter of Libya`s history but a democratic future still seems a long way off. The International Criminal Court graciously concedes that provided proper arrangements can be made” Saif Gaddafi may be tried in Libya. Hard to see how they could indicate otherwise as the man is a Libyan accused of crimes in Libya and is being held in Libya, now a sovereign State. The ICC perhaps needs to beware of neo-colonialism.
Further South and West, in The Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya AJJ Jammeh”, who has been the Dictator – sorry, elected President” – since a coup in 1994 is returned” for a further term in office having won” three previous elections in what is, effectively, a one-party State. The Gambia is described as an ally” of the United States in the war against militants and drug trafficking”. Having observed one of Jammeh`s elections” in the past ( see footnote) I can only wonder why such decent people in such a tiny, beautiful and potentially wealthy country continue to deserve to be presided over by such an appalling leader”. Borat O`Bama take note: people are frequently judged by the company that they keep.
In Cairo the protestors descend once again on Tahrir Square. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the Military Council still ruling the country following the departure of Hosni Mubarak appear reluctant to hand over power to civilian rule. Bloodshed, violence and death follow but it is far from clear that the high-profile demonstrations emanating from the centre reflect opinion throughout the rest of Egypt. O`Bama`s call for the Generals to quit seems a little premature and, if taken literally, could precipitate a dangerous vacuum. What is certain, though, is that a once-vibrant economy is crumbling, investment and construction are at a standstill and the tourist industry is laying off employees in hundreds as visitors shun what is perceived to be a dangerous environment. The power of television is dramatic. Most of the country remains untouched by re-revolution but that does not stop tour-operators and the public from cancelling holidays. If the way to peace and prosperity and employment is through democracy then it has to be hoped that the resignation of the government, undertakings given by the military and the first round in many months of elections will restore some order. Out of unemployment and the poverty that follows in its wake can only come further insurrection for extremists to exploit.
In the Argentine Cristine Kirchner, of that dynasty, remains in office. That has not, though, diminished the sabre rattling over the Falklands – an issue that has much more to do with possible oil reserves in Antarctica than patriotic sovereignty. It was, therefore, inevitable that news of the posting to the Falkland Islands of Captain Harry Wales, following in the footsteps of a father who flew helicopter missions during the Falklands war, would be denounced as provocative”. By all accounts the Falklands are getting, albeit only briefly, an extremely adept Sea King pilot. HRH The Duke of Cambridge has quietly been helping to rescue mariners in distress from the briny for some time and most recently risked a very great deal to lift off from a hillside an injured climber in hugely dangerous and inclement conditions. We recently had the great pleasure of welcoming his Grandmother to Margate, the main metropolis in my own North Thanet constituency. Her Maj toured the Old Town before visiting the new Turner Contemporary gallery and meeting local girl, Tracy Emin. The newly appointed Lord High Admiral of the Royal Navy, the titular head of the Senior Service, who accompanied his wife, chatted happily to the enfant terrible of contemporary art throughout lunch. La Emin now admits to being a closet royalist.
At home, at the Palace of Westminster, James Murdoch responds to a summons to re-visit the DCMS select committee in order to clarify” some of his earlier evidence and tells assembled MPs that I would close The Sun if it broke the law”. That, however, is not enough to prevent his subsequent resignation from his UK directorships of News International`s Sun and Times newspapers.
Across the road, meanwhile, Lord Justice Leveson commences his enquiry, triggered by the Murdoch empire`s phone hacking exploits, into The Culture, Ethics and Practice of the Press. Leveson`s remit has led the Editors of many national newspapers to seek to get their retaliation in first and to protest at suggestions that Press freedom (to do what?) is under threat and that anything less than a perpetuation of their failed self-regulation will mark the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it. As they were wont to say of Members of Parliament during the expenses investigations, They just don`t get it, do they”? Too many people have dismal experience of a self-serving Press Complaints Commission and of the mealy-mouthed it`s in the public interest” defence to have much time for anything other than a radical overhaul. A queue of headline-makers that includes Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, Sheryl Gascoigne, JK Rowling, Alastair Campbell and Sienna Miller lines up to reveal to Lord Leveson some very intimate details of intrusion into their private lives. The experiences of the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and of Madeleine McCann`s Mother and Father, Kate and Gerry, are harrowing beyond belief. While Graham Foulkes, who lost his son in the 7/7 bombing at Edgware Station, understandably feels that the inquiry has been hijacked by celebrities the fact remains that their testimony has given the lie to any pretence that those responsible for what has been described as a cottage industry of phone hacking” have been and remain interested in anything other than selling more newspapers. Why, else, would The Sun have run a countdown clock as a fifteen year old schoolgirl, Charlotte Church, ,approached her sixteenth birthday and age of sexual consent? Revolting? Yes, I think that those responsible for practices that Glenn Mulcaire`s notes suggest include The Sun and The Mirror and which almost certainly include other daily and Sunday tabloids as well are unspeakable. This is a stable that reeks of manure and mucking out is very long overdue.
On the eve of the first general strike” since 1979 the Chancellor of the Exchequer offers the House of Commons his Autumn Statement made in the context of an Office of Budget Responsibility report that suggests a return to recession during the first six months of 2012 before the glimmerings of a recovery in the summer. The OBR also notes the need for a Plan B” if the crisis facing the single currency is not resolved in the immediate future. George Osborne does not mince his words. Full marks for telling it like it is but like it is” is not a pretty picture. Six More Years of Pain” screams the headline on the morning after the afternoon before. Public Sector workers looking for some emollient pre-strike comfort can look again. George Osborne offered them only further pay restraint and the abolition of nationally negotiated pay settlements. The fuel tax lobby has won a stay of the duty increase due in January and in theory at least rail commuters ought to face lower fares following the announcement that season tickets should rise by only” six rather than eight per cent. (I say in theory” because an e-mail today tells me that the munchkins that are trying to run Southeastern trains are in denial and appear to believe that the Chancellor`s announcement will make no difference to the exorbitant charges that they levy for their mediocre service). The aspiration to wipe out the Country`s structural deficit has been blown out of the water by the eurozone crisis and its knock-on effect upon our own economy. Unemployment will rise further, costing still more in benefits, and we shall go into the next general election in 2015 with an albatross of inherited debt still draped around our necks. But at least this Chancellor of the Exchequer has told the nation the truth. The Shadow Chancellor, by way of contrast, accuses the coalition of running up debt while extraordinarily indicating that, given the chance, his Treasury would borrow still more. And that, my friends, must surely be vintage Balls.
Interviewed by the BBC at the G20 summit, President Sarkozy says: you come from an island, so maybe you do not understand the subtleties of Europe”. This from the man who spent ten minutes pacing up and down and looking at his watch while awaiting the arrival of Chinese President Wen Jiabao. Perhaps M. Sarkozy does not understand the subtleties of Oriental diplomacy.
And speaking, as we must, of the BBC we learn that the Corporation is the proud constructor of no less that 4,500 job titles. That figure includes 2,000 managers” – one of whom, presumably, is the Head of Corporate Departmental Job Descriptions. If just a few of those managers were dispensed with Auntie might find it less necessary to cut the budgets of an already impoverished local radio network. BBC Radio Merseyside, for example, faces a cut in revenue that represents almost as much as half of Director General Mark Thompson`s £800k per annum pay package.
This would be the same impartial BBC that has found it necessary to apologise following its criticism of its coverage of the eviction of travellers from their illegal occupation of land at Dale Farm in Basildon in Essex. The broadcast, on the One Show, failed to mention that the occupied land was in the Green Belt but despite this minor oversight the Beeb felt that the programme had not knowingly misled the public”. So presumably misleading the public through sloppy journalism, poor research or ignorance is now considered to be acceptable.
In a survey conducted by the Bar Council two thirds of barristers questioned indicated that they would like courtrooms to be televised. These budding Perry Masons are, of course, supported by Sky Television who, in the public interest”, announced of the Michael Jackson Doctor trial in the United States that we shall of course be going over live to the courtroom when the verdict is announced”. Trial by media may, if our illustrious legal profession and the Lord Chancellor have their way, soon be superceded by Reality Law Courts. The aforesaid Lord Chancellor has, however, indicated in response to my parliamentary question that no taxpayer`s money” will be spent on the televising of the courts. The alternative, presumably, is commercial sponsorship. Bring on the Cockburn`s Old Bailey!
Come to think of it, the public might have welcomed the opportunity to watch as His Honour Judge Bean determined that, on the grounds that it was commonplace, swearing at the police is no longer a crime. Small comfort that it was subsequently revealed that the prisoner in the dock was already in gaol for robbery at knifepoint.. Cost to the taxpayer of this fiasco in the region of £30k. His Honour might have reacted differently, of course, if the prisoner had sworn at him rather than at the police. One law for the law enforcers and another for the law makers?
Viewers of our justice system might also have been intrigued to have watched as a 14 year old boy apprehended while carrying a gun and thirteen rounds of ammunition and with a previous conviction for carrying a knife was sent whistling merrily on his way from court with only a Youth Rehabilitation Order because the law deems him to not be a danger. A sixteen year old under similar circumstances would have faced three years in prison.
Then there was the burglar working at the Ministry of Justice on a rehabilitation scheme. He started a bomb hoax and, while the building was being evacuated, he stole a clutch of mobile phones. Happily he was also filmed on eight security cameras. A rather more successful outcome than the case of the thief who, required to send a letter of apology to his victim under a `remorse scheme` wrote that the robbery was their fault and that they were dumb” for leaving a window open in a high-risk area. The culprit was, he said not bothered or sorry”!
The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Clogg, delivering the Scarman Lecture, asserts that there are more young blacks in prison than at Russell Group universities. My late constituent Leslie Scarman might, I think, have pointed out that given the relatively few Russell Group university places available there are almost certainly more young white people in prison than there are at top universities but that, of course, would have spoiled the point that Mr. Clogg was trying to make.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is likely to dispense with all or any of traditional court dress including the wigs and gowns that have been in service since the 1680s. This accompanies Ken Clarke`s intention to boost diversity in the judiciary” by increasing the number of women and ethnic minority judges by giving them preference in appointment providing that they are equal in all other areas”.. That decision in itself may need a Solomon come to judgement.
In a similar fit of progress” Government Ministers are now swapping I-Pads for the contents of the time-honoured red despatch box. Liberal Democrat David Heath became the first to use an electronic device while speaking from the front bench. Upstairs in Committee Rooms Members are now happily twittering and tweeting and mailing out Press Releases while not following the progress of legislation through committees. This follows the Commons vote to modernise” by permitting the use of hand-held electronics in the Chamber and in Committee Rooms. At least one Committee Chairman has already indicated that those spotted blackberrying” during sessions may find it difficult to catch his eye.
Some more euro-balls. An MEP has described as stupidity writ large” an EU ban preventing manufacturers from claiming that water hydrates”. When the stupidity of this Commission intrusiveness was pointed out the European Food Standards Agency relented. It is now permissible to say that water is cool and healthy”. The Euro-labelling police have, though, insisted that henceforth jars of honey must carry the warning contains pollen.” And the European Parliamentary Education and Culture committee wants to see the European Union flag on Olympic Football, Rugby, and Cricket team shirts to illustrate the European Dimension in Sport”. How long before the Euroflag is hoisted and Ode to Joy” played every time any athlete from the United Republic of Europe wins a medal?
Commenting upon the decision to end male primogeniture and allow the firstborn child of any future British monarch to inherit the throne David Cameron, speaking in his best Strine, opined that this was good news for Sheilas everywhere”. To which the Aussie response was, apparently, and a bad day for accents”. And talking of cricket, which we almost were, Lymington Cricket Club in Hampshire has been instructed to spend £50k on a boundary net to protect the users of neighbouring tennis courts from injury. Since the founding of the club (whose professional Henry Jupp played alongside Grace) in 1807 nobody has ever been hit by a flying cricket ball but according to the Town Council some have landed inches from unsuspecting people”. We have fielders like that in the outfield in Kent on occasions too.
The six hundred thousand strong Girl Guide movement is to drop the girls` pledge to love God following complaints made by the secular society on behalf of two people. The Scouts, on the other hand, will continue to recognise their duty to God and the Queen as an integral part of their joining ceremony. If you love God, girls, then join the Scouts. Simples!
Ho.Ho.Ho. Volunteer parents doubling as Santa Claus in schools, while no longer subjected to CRB checks, are to be treated in the way that other visitors are managed”. They must not be left alone with children or allow kids to sit upon their knee. In festive recognition of the age of austerity they are probably required to ask the young people which particular item from Poundland they would like to find in their Christmas stocking as well.
Since he presented the first Newsround” in April 1972 my friend and former colleague at the BBC, John Craven, has managed to broadcast in news format, and for the benefit and information of the young and the young at heart, some of the most difficult and sensitive news stories – such as the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster – to hit the headlines. A particular pleasure, then, to see a 71-year old Craven, who hosted the bulletins until he moved to Countryfile in 1989, collect a special Children`s Bafta Award to mark the 40th Anniversary of the programme. Less well known is the claim that it was not ITN but John who created the catchphrase” And Finally……..”
*The Gambia`s system of voting is unique. When I last observed an election there I was told that the process was in fact invented by a Colonial civil servant who had probably experienced too much sun, or gin, or both. In a screened booth you will find a different coloured tin drum for each political party standing in the election. The bottom of the drum is liberally covered with sand. The lid contains a metal tube with an old-fashioned bicycle bell welded to the inside end. The voter chooses a drum and drops a marble into the top of the tube. The falling marble strikes the bicycle bell which tells the presiding officer that one vote only has been cast. The sand prevents the marble from shattering as it hits the bottom of the drum. At close of poll each drum is opened and the contents poured into a sieve to remove the sand. The marbles are then tipped into indented trays that hold, respectively, either one thousand or five hundred marbles. It sounds, and is, bizarre but for a largely illiterate population it is swift and efficient and curiously and effectively foolproof. President Jammeh may not have all of his marbles but, sadly, he still has most of the ones that matter in his drum.