Beware of Politics

Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on poverty, has looked at how the UK operates and says that it’s a disgrace, callous and mean-spirited. Amber Rudd, restored to the cabinet and in charge of DWP, is eager to demonstrate her loyalty and brands Alston’s report “political”. Maybe she means “moral” - because that’s the main basis for his disapproval. than again, Rudd could be right. Because the really deadly thing Alston did was to listen, very carefully, to people at the sharp end. You can see snatches of news reports where he’s doing it. He’s not grandstanding or interrupting, he’s encouraging people to talk. What was their experience? How had they been treated? He puts that together with the figures, and comes up with a pretty damning picture. Rudd insists that she’s not dogmatic, is perfectly willing o listen to expert critics who phrase their criticisms in a way she approves - but what she won’t do is pay serious attention to the people on the receiving end. that’s the beauty and the power of Alston;’s approach, which is why this government sees it as such a threat.

Money Can't Buy You Love

Today’s Guardian reports that the Saudis have paid the Natural History Museum £23,700 to host an event, days after the Khasoggi killing. Phrased like that, it sounds brutal and calculating, but it probably is. There was another instance earlier, when a member of the Saudi court expressed dismay at the disloyalty of the Turkish government in releasing details of the killing. “We’d given them a lot of money”, he said, as though that really was the only hing that mattered. It clearly is to Trump, but that’s one of the reasons many of us find him repulsive. Killing off a journalist because what he’s writing is embarrassing isn’t OK, no matter who you are or how much money you’ve got. So all we need are some politicians who grasp that, and are prepared to act on it. Don’t hold your breath.

So Near and Yet So Far

Phew! We got within a point of beating the world champions. Closer than that, we scored a brilliant try which was disallowed after the TMO overruled the ref, but the TMO’s not supposed to do that unless there’s a clear…blah blah blah. On the other hand, if you have a 15-0 lead against the All Blacks and you let it slip, maybe you don’t deserve to win. and we did get a one-point win against the Springboks, on the basis of a very flukey TMO decision, so maybe that’s quits. We had chances, we made mistakes, the line-out was a shambles, and the All Blacks are very resilient. and maybe if the weather had been dry and more conducive to really good rugby, they’d have thrashed us. but it was exciting, and much more cheering than the slough into which the vaunted England team has slipped over the last year. so maybe a bit of the Eddie Jones magic still survives. It was certainly worth watching.

Unity and Peace

Oh dear. It would be almost funny if it wasn’t serious. Donald Trump is slowing the pace right down, looking even more self-important than usual, and asking his citizens to come together. Yeah, right. If you say that someone who bodyslams a report is “My kind of guy”, then it’ not totally surprising that another of your supporters thinks it’s a good idea to post a pipe-bomb to CNN. Which makes it slightly tricky if you then want to do the wise leadership thing of asking your countrymen and women to join together in unity and peace.

Making connections, planning consequences, is not something he’s ever had to do, because he’s bought his way out of it, or pretended that the messy results don’t matter. But the running the country stuff really is quite complicated, and you need to think about what you do and say in advance. There may still be enough intelligent adults left in the administration who know this, and could explain it, but somehow I don’t think they’ll get the chance. Trump doesn’t want to listen to anyone except his chanting fan base, and to them he’s bragging about how well he’s behaving, because he and they know this is just a short charade before he goes on the rant again. But we all hold our breath,wondering if the mid-term elections will make any kind of a difference. Experience warns that we shouldn’t be too hopeful. There are, it seems, plenty of Americans who really think this is the best they can manage.

House of Assad

A series of three documentaries, about the recent history of Syria. But with a strong emphasios, and for good reason, on Basher’s family. He’s not meant to be running the country; older brother is being groomed for that, but older brother dies in a car crach. Basher, the shy eye surgeon with the liberated, modern wife, suddenly has to fit in the mould that’s waiting for him - heir to the hawkish, defiant Dad. Ruthless suppressor of criticism or dissent, which actually means he will end up opposed to all the things that he and his wife originally intended to support. Through a series of crises and accidents he blunders his way into destroying large parts of his country, killing his subjects, driving them out of their homes - and all thetime he sounds like an amateur actor who hasn’t learnt the script. There were moments when it could have been different, when advisors with more vision offered him alternatives, but no. He chose to keep his mum happy, to fit into the mould, to make the lying speeches claiming he was defending the country from terrorism, while driving it relentlessly towards oblivion. Heartbreaking, but also fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

Bad Boys of Brexit

That’s the title of Arron Banks account of the campaign, and it catches his self-image perfectly - the cheeky rebel who sticks it to the posh guys who think they know more than he does. It has its down sides. People who work for and with him are frequently exasperated, but he cheerily waves that aside as one of the perks of the job - theirs, presumably.

There is, though, interesting stuff on the details. There’s a mass killing in Orlando, by a Muslim fanatic. Banks and Co surge into gear, offering this as a warning against uncontrolled immigration - though the guy responsible was born and bred American. Farage produced his Breaking Point poster, but has reservations - Banks says it’s fine. It just states the facts. (Really?) Jo Cox is shot. Banks tells Farage he needs to go on radio and apologise for the poster - which has been misinterpreted.

It’s all ruthlessly calculated. don’t say what’s true, say what will get the topic on the agenda. People being horrified is great - it extends the coverage. Banks insists he’s personally charming, not a racist bone in his body, Russian wife etc etc but the impact of what he does and what he spends is massively divisive.

Arsenal Poetry

We have, it must be said, paid our dues. Arsenal fans have put up with a load of rubbish and heartbreak over the past few years, so it’s good to have something to warm the cockles of our hearts. Our third goal (from a 5-`1 demolition of Fulham, admittedly) was a thing of beauty - the ball caressed from one player to the next with a series of deft, outrageous touches which somehow transported it from one end of the pitch to the other, enabling Ramsey to guide it into the net with a sublime conjuror’s flick. OK, we haven’t beaten anyone good yet, and the defence very much remains a work in progress, but emery works and he cares, and he’s got the team looking a lot more lively than they have for years. We’ll settle for what we can get, and count ourselves lucky.

Russian spies

That’s right, you can’t escape them. They’re always on the news. But seldom as graphically as today, with tons of footage of them plotting surveillance in the Netherlands, and being tracked every step of the way. Receipts for Russian taxis, compromising documents and equipment - if you were setting out to frame them you couldn’t do it better.

They are, of course, shameless. they will deny everything, scoff and obfuscate, and part of the point of doing it is to show that they can get away with it and they don’t care, but there must nonetheless be some murmurs of discontent swirling around. and there’s news of Putin’s failing popularity - nothing to do with spying on the West, or spending a fortune propping up Assad - he’s not looking after the people at home, and they’ve finally begun to notice. Whether anything will come of this we can only guess - or hope - but it’s cheering to see a few cracks develop in that forbidding edifice. On the other hand, there’s no way that he’ll go quietly or calmly - contriving an end to his supremely profitable control is not going to be easy.

Ryder Cup

Yeah, all right. There’s always a pleasant little frisson in Europe beating the USA at anything, but particularly at golf, and this year, when everything on paper seemed to point to an American win. and this year there’s the added poignancy that we apparently care less about Europe than ever, thanks to this daft vote bequeathed to us by the lovely David Cameron - and the one benefit of Brexit, So far as I’m concerned, is that it rid us of Cameron and Osborne. But back to the golf…

It seems to have been a total triumph for Thomas Bjorn. the simple prooof of that is the number of points gathered by the “captain’s picks” - golfers who wouldn’’t automatically expect to be there on their current record, but players whom the captain backs to come up with the goods on the day. And the points score for captain’s picks goes “Europe 9 and a half, USA 2 and a half.” Which is seven points difference, almost exactly the difference between the two teams.

Furyk picks Woods and Mickelson, which doesn’t seem like a bad idea - but he doesn’t have the warm, intelligent planning for teamwork which Bjorn has obviously put in, and is passionately appreciated by everyone in the team. All of them contributed, even if they weren’t all used all the time - and keeping those restless egos happy can’t be easy. A stunning triumph of leadership.

Brexit

OK, it may not be the end, but it could well be the beginning of the end. Theresa May’s beloved Chequers deal, enthusiastically supported by hardly anyone in the UK, is no more attractive to anyone in the EU. They’ve been constructive and polite, but they are finally deciding that time is short and the UK government needs to face reality. Ministers, meanwhile, are chasing around like eager school boys, trying to do solo deals behind the EU’s back - such a cunning plan, that. It has been a total embarrassment, and it’s not surprising that Labour have been happy to stand back and let them make very public fools of themselves, but we really are getting closer and closer to some kind of crash. As I indicate in my current poem, The Brexit Bus (see Poems from the News, elsewhere on this website), where for once I find a suitable central image to convey what I want to get across. It’s not cheering, but it is convenient.

The Never Ending Story

And on it goes, seemingly or ever. Will Labour sign up to the "internationally agreed" definition, with all its examples? Was Corbyn's comment about irony as bad, or worse, as Powell's speech in 1968? Frothy nonsense, so far as I'm concerned. If there's serious anti-semitism in the Labour party then it needs dealing wih, specifically and rationally, but neither of these sideshows help a scrap. that always say "internationally accepted" - but it;'s never "universally accepted." Why? Because some quite sensible people - numerous lawyers, the Home Affairs select committee, have serious reservations about it. 

Ooh, look. In 2013 Corbyn made a clumsy comment in defence of a Palestinian's art work, criticised by some Israelis. Does Oliver shacks seriously think that's on a par with Enoch Powell? Was Corbyn making a national appeal for people to live in fear of an entire racial group? I don't think so.  

Meanwhile, there's some serious news happening. Israel is calling itself a Jewish state more narrowly and aggressively than ever before. Trump is cancelling desperately needed aid to Palestinians, to persuade them to agree to whatever arrangement Israel plans to impose. Any of that worth putting on the news?  

Vandalism of Art

Are we worse than we used to be? Are we worse than the others? I know I'm getting old and jaundiced, but right now, so far as the UK is concerned, my answers to both the above would be "Yes". The occasion of this is the art project, The List, which has been exhibited in Liverpool , and vandalised - twice.

The List features the names of over 34,000 migrants who died trying to reach Europe. It has been displayed in Berlin, Istanbul, Basel and Athens. Only in Liverpool has it been torn down, and then when it was replaced it was torn down again. Somebody really doesn't want to have this stuff displayed. The organisers will leave it up as it is, with a  notice explaining what's happened, and that may be the best response. All the same, I can't help thinking that tells us once again what a nasty, divided place the UK has become.   

Diplomacy a la Donald Trump

Gradually a pattern emerges. Donald tweets, gets the headline, says why he's the greatest. Over the following days, gradual rumours leak out about what's actually happened. So, this week there's a dust-up between Trump and Erdogan, resulting in massive sanctions which will seriously hit the Turkish economy, and from which many of Erdogan's citizens will suffer far more than he will. 

And now we get the background, from sources in Ankara. Yes, it is about the American bishop, held by the Turks, who Trump wants to be freed. He and Erdogan had discussed this, thought they had come to an agreement, but now Trump thinks that Erdogan has broken that agreement - so he's really hard-pedalling the sanctions. With conventional diplomacy you'd go back tot he record, the minutes, which would tell what had been agreed. But this is the great deal-maker, who can do it on his own, so pen-pushers would only get in the way...So far as the Turkish economy is concerned, it's a really expensive way to do business. 

(But also another quiet little vindication of The Guardian, those remorseless peddlers of fake news, who actually provide us with the information we eed.)  

Johnson for PM?

No question. These are different times, and we have to adapt. I had thought that Boris Johnson's recent antics must disqualify him from any serious involvement in a future leadership campaign. He mutters about polishing a turd, then goes along to Chequers, goes along with the deal, proposes a toast to Theresa May (whatever's going, he has to have a leading role). No, he says, he won't be resigning. Then David Davis resigns. Blimey - has he made a mistake? He sits at home, pondering, He should be at a Foreign Office function, receiving foreign guests. Doesn't tell them he's not coming, sits writing his resignation letter - but also gets his favourite photographer in to record what is, let's face it, a moment of Churchillian destiny. 

For vanity, inconsistency and bad planning that would be hard to beat. And yet, it seems that in the betting odds this little pantomime takes him from No. 4 in the running up to No.1. The fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg and donald Trump think he's excellent PM material only makes it worse.

So now it's serious. His Telegraph article makes apparently light-hearted comments about veiled Muslim women resembling postboxes and/or bankrobbers. Will he apologise? Certainly not, because he's put out a marker that he wants the racist vote, and he can't let them down. Will more Muslim women be insulted and abused as a result of this? Almost certainly. does he care about anything other than his own advancement? You decide.  

Magnetic Footage

It's a while since I watched a cricket match with any interest, but the highlights of the last day of this year;s first test against India were totally compulsive. It wasn't perfect cricket. Both sides made mistakes, and it could easily have gone the other way - but it's those tight margins which make it riveting. It's at moments like that that the star performers stand out - and I can't be the only person of my age of thereabouts for whom Ben Stokes is a reminder of Botham in his prime: all that hunger effort and determination.

 

Which brings us all back down to earth when see the footage of the night-club attack for which he must be facing a prison sentence - and yes, there's the same determination and hunger, the refusal to be diverted into wiser, safer alternatives. It's a highly combustible material is male aggression, with huge potential both ways.   

Government Breakdown

We are in serious trouble. We've always half apologised for the ancient traditions on which Westminster relies - it's just history, not really harmful, a little bit of tradition...But one of those got shredded this week, with the revelation that a Tory whip was systematically trying to persuade MPs to break their pairing agreements. Never mind what you said, never mind about future trust, just ditch the deal and that way we win tonight's vote. Short-term cynicism rules, and stuff any notion of a national interest.

 

Add to that Dominic Cummings' chirpy refusal to attend a select committee's invitation to explain his consistent deceit over the nature of the Brexit campaign, and you have to ask who's in charge of the asylum. Are there rules? Are there consequences if they're broken? Does anything matter, or is it just hanging on to as much power as you can, for as long as you can, before the wheels fall off and somebody else takes over? I read a brilliant book a few years back called "the Blunders of our Governments", analysing the short-term nature of decisions by governments (of both main parties). Nothing's been learnt. We're heading in the opposite direction, at increasing speed.  

Nicaragua

Add up the trouble spots, and things are bleak. Yemen, Syria, Iran, Israel/Occupied Territories, Zimbabwe, Turkey - let alone the varied horrors of Trump and Brexit. But for me there's a further heartbreak, occasioned by my daughter's links with Nicaragua. Way back in the last century she opted to write about Nicaragua as an A level History topic, and she's been absorbed in it ever since. she's been there numerous times, read about it, written about it, worked there - and now she's watching helplessly as it tears itself apart.

Yet again it's the students who are at the centre of it - young people demonstrating for their freedom and their future, in the face of repression by police, army and various gangs of government-sponsored militia. And against them is Ortega, the current dictator and autocrat - but also the charismatic Sandinista leader who forty years ago was on the other side, doing what they're doing. He's got used to power, his ditched his ideals for deals - some of them really sordid - and he doesn't plan to budge an inch.  community leaders and the church are trying to broker some kind of peace, but it's really hard to see how this might have a happy ending, and external powers who might have intervened in the past are far too busy elsewhere.   

Shake It All About

"You put your right leg in, you take your right leg out..." so the Boris Johnson hokey cokey continues, as arbitrary as ever. First he's proposing a toast to Theresa May, celebrating the chequers deal that they all agree on. and no, he won't be resigning. but hang on a minute. David Davis is resigning. (Only because he's Brexit minister, and he can't conscientiously implement this. He's not criticising May, or objecting to the agreement).  So suddenly Johnson looks as if he's missed and opportunity, so he discovers a deep conscientious objection  - "can't sing this song with conviction"  and resigns.

And what a palaver he makes of it. He simply fails to turn up at a Foreign Office functions he's supposed to be chairing - no explanation, no apology. He's sat at home composing his letter of resignation in splendid isolation - unless you count the pet photographer who's been invited to record this Churchillian occasion. You couldn't make it up.

It's an entirely predictable climax to the erratic, vain procession which has been Johnon's career over the last three years. What makes it chilling is that apparently this immediately takes him to the favourite position in the betting about who succeeds May. OK, so Trump and Rees-Mogg both think Johnson is Prime Minister material. Who else could possible agree with them? which MPs seriously look forward to the prospect of sitting in the House of commons with this charlatan as their leader?     

Reporting Trump's First Year

The New York Times, way back at the start of 2017, makes this brave decision that they'll let a TV documentary crew film what goes on inside their offices, as they work out how to respond to the tsunami of news coverage that's implicit in the Trump presidency. In four one-hour episodes we get the fruit of that - a wonderful, lively portrait of intelligent professionals at work, getting the stories but also working out just exactly how the rules have changed. and then there's the impact of Google, and loss of revenue, the need for the paper to reorganise - the only way they can hire the extra investigative reporters they need is to cut down on the editorial staff they used to need when digital was a dream. Lots of people on opposite sides of the fence, both being totally rational. And then there's the buzz of Twitter, to which many reporters are openly addicted. They're smart, they're fast, they're popular - but it isn't always the cleverest way for the paper to be seen...Lots of tough decisions there. It's a wonderful series. Maybe the most chilling moment is watching a Trump rally, where he's directing the crowd's attention to the lying scum of the press - tantamount to urging on a lynch mob. We see the reporters, familiar faces by now, nervously packing up their gear, because this might be the moment when they get attacked. Dangerous times.      

Putin's Kleptocracy

No, not a title that leaps into your mind. I only found it by chance, in the obituary columns, where they were paying tribute to the painstaking work of its author, Karen Dawisha. An Ohio professor of political philosophy, she's mad it her job to track the roots and history of Putin's rise to power. the results are devastating. Not brilliantly readable, to be honest, and certainly not lively, but careful and detailed. she makes a convincing case that Putin has always been about his own power and aggrandisement - and that early on he was very much at risk of prosecution, until he got to the point where he could use his power to make that decreasingly likely. the concern for Russia's status and dignity is all carefully calculated, as is the promotion of friends and former colleagues into a network designed to secure control and wealth in their hands. It's very hard to see how this might change. Four hundred and forty pages, endless notes and footnotes, a monumanet to courage, intelligence and hard work.