The poor old LibDems suffered from two rather embarrassing email incidents during their conference. The first was when a press officer sent their entire “Lines to Take” to the media instead of their MPs. MPs and ministers were given a checklist of five things to mention in every radio. “We are a party in confident mood” and “We are the only party which can bring about a strong economt and a fair society” were two of the less memorable mantras the politicos were supposed to spin to a supplicant media. Oh dear. I decided to get this out of the way early in my interview with the chirpy Tim Farron by just asking if he agreed with all of them. The second disaster to strike the LibDem press office was when an inexperienced press officer copied and pasted the wrong bit of a document into a press release, thereby setting a hare running that the LibDems regarded anyone earning more than £50,000 a year as wealthy, and that they would face big tax rises if the LibDems had their way. Cue media hysteria and another story which had to be extinguished as quickly as possible.
There are a couple of explanations for these cock-ups by the LibDem media team. Firstly, apart from the West Ham-supporting Head of Media Phil Reilly (naturally one of the good guys) not a single LibDem press officer has been working for the party for more than eight months. But I wonder if tiredness could be the issue. The entire LibDem front bench and team of special advisers were booked into rooms on the 15th floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel in Glasgow, but it appears they didn’t get much sleep. The exertions of a bonking couple in one of the rooms kept the entire floor awake for most of Monday night. They were apparently “at it” for several hours, and the identity of the couple caused much speculation the next morning. Your humble servant was lucky enough to be present (while waiting to interview the Cleggmeister) when a rather ashen-faced young man emerged from the room looking somewhat dishevelled. Discretion prevents me from identifying the poor bugger. But he did have a smile on his face. I’m afraid I ducked out of asking the Deputy Prime Minister whether he got a full eight hours. Of sleep, that is.
“Disgraceful.” “I’ve been totally misrepresented,” spluttered a clearly rather angry Paddy Ashdown about an Observer piece last Sunday. So it was with a degree of incredulity that while I was waiting to interview Nick Clegg I spied Ashdown emerging from a lift with The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley. Furthermore, the two of them were laughing and joking as they disappeared into Ashdown’s room. He’s clearly a forgiving sort. Half an hour earlier, I had been told he wasn’t doing any more media interviews. Rawnsley’s charms were clearly more alluring than my own!
The Confessions of Gordon Brown, Kevin Toolis's window into the seventh circle of the former Prime Minister's soul, has been well-reviewed - both in the sense of positively and thoroughly. I came to the play's run at the Trafalgar Studios with a preconception of it. Toolis is a man of the Left, or was when I knew him: I remember him telling journalists around a dinner table in Belfast that they should have a view on Northern Ireland's troubles, and not just an eye for the facts. (I rather sympathised with the point he was making, though my take on events was different from his.) He went on to study and write about terror more broadly. I imagined that his play would be at once unkind and sympathetic - suggesting that Brown was a great lost leader of the left, brought low by his own flaws and follies.
Welsh FM calls for end to devolution ‘tinkering’
I find Carwyn Jones, the Labour First Minister of Wales, completely maddening. He simply refuses to adopt, on the constitution at least, a set of positions that cohere with my likes and dislikes. He appears a staunch unionist, to a certain value of that term, whilst also a committed devolutionary who has precious little good to say of a role for London – i.e. Britain – in most Welsh affairs.
His latest intervention is a case in point. Jones believes that devolution has been implemented in a slapdash fashion and needs to be brought to a stable, sustainable conclusion – to be made ‘an event, not a process’, in a reversal of the old maxim. This is a position I hold myself, and outlined in March both here at ConHome and as part of ITV News’ ‘Wales in a Changing UK’ series. It’s a fine thing to see a senior politician, especially one from Labour, if not quite stepping outside the “more powers” camp then at least articulating a point at which he will do so.
The problem with this position lies in actually coming up with proposals for stabilising the constitution and moving politics and public expectations on from the era of fragmentation. One, mooted on ConHome, is the notion of a ‘new act of union’. Jones prefers a codified British constitution, which would carry a US-style presumption against central government in any case where the balance of power between London and Cardiff was in doubt.
Personally, I cannot for the life of me fathom why a codified constitution is preferable to what we have at the moment. Currently our constitution is constantly updated, with the power to do so vested in Members of Parliament elected by us. A codified constitution would be drawn up by people elected either at one point in time or not at all, and would be maintained thenceforth by judges attempting, with varying levels of sincerity, to scry the intentions of its ever-more remote drafters.
So it’s scarcely perfect. Nonetheless, with any luck Jones’ move will prompt other figures, both within Wales and without, to respond with their own proposed solutions. If enough people do so, we may alight on a good one. Stranger things have happened.
Northern Irish grammar schools speak out against abolition
Northern Irish grammar schools have come out fighting against proposals which they believe may see them forcibly merged with non-selective neighbours. The heads of four such schools met to discuss their deep concerns about area-based reforms proposed by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd. His predecessor, Caitríona Ruane (also of Sinn Fein, who appear always to get education), was also an opponent of selective education, which persists in the province on a level unseen in Britain outside Buckinghamshire and other such strongholds of selection. She abolished the ‘eleven plus’ transfer examination.
Unionists, traditionally allies of the grammar school system, have stepped up. Although Peter Robinson publicly defended the ‘Dickson Plan’, within which two popular grammars fear they’ll be forced to merge with comprehensives, he took pains to point out that if a proposal was unpopular with the community it would be open to challenge by the executive. Both and UUP and DUP appear to support such a right of appeal right across Northern Ireland, which would if implemented most likely place every grammar beyond harm’s reach.
Labour and SNP choose by-election candidates
The nationalists have an opportunity to shore up their majority in the Scottish parliament coming up, as both they and Labour announce their candidates for the upcoming Dunfermline by-election. The election is to replace outgoing nationalist MSP Bill Walker, who has eventually been forced to resign after being convicted of 23 domestic abuse charges.
He had previously been suspended and then expelled from the SNP, but refused to resign his seat, thus putting another dent into their parliamentary majority following their seizure of the speakership and the resignation of two backbenchers over a u-turn in nuclear policy.
After falling short at the Aberdeen Donside by-election in June, this is Labour’s second opportunity to take a nationalist seat – and whereas Donside had an SNP majority of over 7,000 after the 2011 election, Walker only beat his Labour opponent by 590 votes last time around.
US public largely considers Northern Ireland conflict ‘resolved’, according to diplomat
According to Dr Richard Haas, formerly American envoy to Northern Ireland and now chair of an all-party commission on parades and other ‘divisive issues’, claims that Americans were surprised when he was asked to do the job as most of them thought the conflict in the six counties was resolved.
Perhaps they’ve been looking at the polls – the latest, commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph, revealed that less than four per cent of Northern Irish citizens would vote for the immediate abolition of the border and union with the South, and only a further 22 per cent would vote for it ‘in twenty years’. Despite all of Ulster’s local parties being fixated on the constitutional question, there are small yet hopeful signs that their public is moving on without them – and may in time drag the politicians along in their wake.
Although a segment of the US population and political class – consisting mainly of Irish Americans – has historically taken a great interest in Northern Ireland (to the extent, in a tiny minority of past cases, of funding and equipping the Provisional IRA), according to Dr Haas the recent tensions in the province are not high on America’s priority list. Looked at one way, that’s a sign of progress in itself.
Grant Shapps is Chairman of the Conservative Party and MP for Welwyn Hatfield
Getting people involved remains one of the most important things for any politician to do. Our job is to bring individuals together to forward our common beliefs and goals. That’s something that’s been a proud tradition of this party and the country for centuries.
But today we’re witnessing some of the greatest advances in communication ever known. Personal technology is more affordable and accessible than ever before. We’re connected in ways never thought possible, even a generation ago. Through social media, growing numbers of people can speak for themselves.
With such enormous changes, it's easy to understand the concern that traditional party membership won’t survive. But I disagree. It’s just that it will change. Mass communication may have taken a digital turn, but it’s not the end for membership. In fact, quite the opposite.
All around us, new movements are bringing people together. The London Olympics Gamesmaker programme engaged thousands of volunteers from across the country using digital technology, and rewarding people for their dedication. This was a form of short-term membership.
Garvan Walshe was the Conservative Party's National and International Security Policy Adviser until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
It’s been 40 years since the Yom Kippur war, when Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack on Israel, which came close to threatening the state’s existence. Golda Meir’s government had received plenty of intelligence that an attack was coming. Like all intelligence, it was far from conclusive. The Israelis chose to discount it, and mobilised only hours before the Arab attack came.
At least in 1973 Israel had no reason to doubt Egypt’s strategic intentions. Jerusalem knew she might deter war through deft diplomacy and by keeping a keen watch on her borders but there was no doubt about Cairo’s hostility. Things are different now.
There may not have been dancing in the streets of Ashkelon as news of Mohammed Morsi’s ouster spread, but there was certainly relief, if not a certain amount of satisfaction, that the Muslim Brotherhood, begetter of Hamas, had been cut down to size. Thus a friend, whose views reflect the exact centre of informed Israeli public opinion so closely that she could serve as a one-woman focus group, punned to me on July 2nd, as tanks sealed off Cairo’s streets and security forces at last got a chance to put their ample stocks of tear gas to use: “He’s certainly proved he’s no sissy.”
Last Saturday, I was honoured to be the after-dinner speaker at the Conservative Renewal Conference in Windsor. What follows is based in part on what I said then, minus quite a few jokes.
"Ladies and Gentlemen:
It’s a great joy to speak at a conference devoted to ideas, and especially to conservative ideas. Ideas, not people, are what ultimately rule us. They are always in charge, for good or ill, whether we know it or not - this is what Keynes is hinting at in his famous line about today’s politicians being the slaves of some defunct economist. And ideas have real consequences. So it’s wise for us to reflect on them, and their limitations.
For some reason in recent months I seem to have acquired the reputation of being the Che Guevara of the modern Conservative Party. This is absurd, of course; I am the very opposite of a revolutionary. But it does mean that the press have started to scrutinise my public remarks with all the fervent enthusiasm of a group of Miley Cyrus fans at a twerking convention. Whatever “twerking” is.
It’s difficult to say much about the Nigel Evans case without prejudicing his trial, but one thing is for certain. Over the last few months he has found out who his real friends are. And that will be even more the case over the months leading up to his trial. I know several people involved in political scandals over the years and the common thread among them is their shock at how easily people they had regarded as lifelong friends cast them by the wayside at the first sign of gunfire. I well remember when my friends the Hamiltons were accused of raping a woman in Ilford and I took to the television studios to defend them. I was told by several people that I should stop doing so. "Why?" I asked. "Because it would not be good for your career". I gave a pretty dusty response and said somewhat forcefully that a friend is a friend is a friend, and that you wouldn’t be a very good friend if you abandoned a friend at their time of dire need. And that is what I and no doubt many of you will feel about Nigel Evans’s situation. Small messages of support can mean a huge amount to someone in his position. His world will have been rocked to its foundations. He has had to resign from the job he loved and is now facing calls to resign his seat too. He must resist them. The concept of being innocent until proven guilty must be adhered to, and it is for his friends to defend his right to remain Conservative MP for Ribble Valley pending the trial verdict. Nigel protests his innocence. I believe him. And before anyone suggests otherwise in the comments (because I am sure they are will), it has nothing to do with him being gay. It has nothing to do with him being accused of sex crimes. It’s that I don’t believe the Nigel Evans I know would hurt a fly. P.S: If you do comment on this below, please be aware of the laws of contempt of court.
Poor old Rachel Reeves. She’s been badly let down by the Labour Party’s media team. Quite what on earth they thought they were doing by demanding a full public apology from Ian Katz, Newsnight's Editor, for his tweet which described Reeves as "snoring boring" I just do not know. It made a drama out of a non-crisis. The best way to handle these things is to laugh them off, not ramp up the rhetoric. Sending a normal tweet as opposed to a direct message is a very easy thing to do and many of us have fallen prey to this over the years, me included. It happened to me recently. Luckily I retrieved my tweet within 20 seconds of sending it and no one seemed to have noticed. Sadly for Rachel Reeves, she will now become the Steve Davis of politics, and the word "boring" will forever be associated with her. The truth is she is nowhere near making any Top Ten List of boring politicians. She is very good company indeed, but when she goes on the media she is so on message that you wonder if she has been programmed by Peter Mandelson. When I interviewed her in February she managed to say the same thing 18 times in a five minute interview. If you’re in doubt, you can listen here. Once described as "having the face of an angel and the voice of Pat Butcher", Reeves has suffered from being promoted too early. She needed to learn her trade on the back benches and in junior shadow positions, but like Chuka Umunna she has been thrust into the limelight far too soon. One or two Conservative junior ministers, who are pushing for immediate promotion to the cabinet, might learn something from this. Be careful what you wish for.
Still no reshuffle, then.
I approach this weekend with some foreboding. I normally look forward to the conference season. It’s a time to meet old friends, indulge in some heavyweight political gossip sessions and rejoice in a gathering of likeminded political tribes. But this year the Liberal Democrats are in Glasgow. Don’t get me wrong, I have got nothing against Glasgow, having only been there once before...but Glasgow? For a party conference? Apparently, delegate numbers are way down on the norm and commercial exhibitors will also be far less prevalent than in the last couple of years. To put it bluntly, it’s a bloody long way to go. Even further than Blackpool was! I’m told that the LibDems will also be returning there next year for their pre-election conference, a decision which completely defies logic. But I am told all of the other venues they normally use were booked up. Further proof that the LibDems don’t really do long term planning.
I am well aware that my political interviewing style is closer to that of the late Sir David Frost rather than Jeremy Paxman, but just occasionally I surprise people by baring my teeth. It happened this week with Sajid Javid, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury who had come on to talk about George Osborne’s speech on the economy. All was going well until he queried my figures on the deficit. OK, I said, how much did it reduce last year, I asked, quite reasonably. "Well the important thing is that it’s falling," he said. Maybe, but that didn’t answer my question. It turned into a mini Paxman-Michael Howard moment. I don’t think it is unreasonable for a Treasury Minister to have those figures at his fingertips. I regard Sajid as a friend, but friendship has to go out of the window when you’re being paid to do a proper journalistic job, as Sajid no doubt realised. Credit to him, though. Unlike Rachel Reeves, he responded in exactly the right way and texted me making light of the whole thing. It’s never a good idea to fall out over something like this. You can hear the exchange here.
Of all the cities of antiquity, Pompeii is quite possibly the best known. “It was lost, and is now found; it was destroyed, and is now preserved.” Frozen in time, it provides a unique window on Roman cultural and intellectual life, and holds a mirror up to so many of our own attitudes, features, gestures and obsessions.
My fascination with the city and its catastrophic destruction goes back to childhood: I recall in my Latin textbook Ecce Romani pictures of a dog mosaic and a weird skeleton: ‘canis ferocissimus est.’ And frescos of Caecilius and his family: ‘Caecilius iterum clamavit.’ I was an avid collector of postcards, guidebooks and magazines on the topic. I had read Pliny’s harrowing account and Lord Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii by the age of 13: ‘Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere.’ Supping with Glaucus and gambling with Clodius are what all schoolchildren should be doing, instead of sexting their friends and surfing the internet in a cyber-life of meaningless meandering.
I eventually got to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum leading a GCSE Classics group there a few years ago, and was finally able to see and touch that famous Cave canem mosaic, walk through the exotic bathhouses, and buy my very own bronze statue of a dancing faun. I also visited the Naples Museum to satisfy my curiosity of all those naughty erotic pieces of statuary so carefully screened from innocent eyes (though Year 10 weren’t remotely fazed by any of it).
Greg Clark is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Tunbridge Wells. Follow Greg on Twitter.
The Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann has shown that most of the differences in income and wealth creation between nations can be attributed to how complex their economies are. Broadly speaking, poorer countries make simple things that everyone else can make, while richer countries make things that are complex that not everyone makes. According to one study, in the US, the average employee works with 100 other people to do their job, while in India the average employee works with four.
As Hausmann puts it: “for a complex society to exist, people who know about design, marketing, finance, technology, operations and trade law must be able to combine their knowledge to make products. Modern man is useless as an individual: making a computer is a team sport.” Adam Smith, of course, had the same insight two centuries earlier.
This is one of the reasons why, across the world, cities are emerging as the places where economic growth is strongest. The purpose of cities – their raison d’etre – is to bring people together to allow them to specialise in what they do best and to collaborate with each other. One of the reasons why London has been so successful is that you can find just about anything you want there – experts, specialists, products, services, finance and labour.
Maze peace centre ‘killed off’ by Castlederg republican rally
Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, has stated during a TV interview that it was the backlash against a rally held in memory to two IRA terrorists that led to his party withdrawing its support from plans to build a peace centre in what used to be HM Prison Maze, on the site of the former Long Kesh Detention Centre.
The rally has garnered headlines for a speech made by Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, who said of two Provisional IRA members slain by their own bomb:
“They were ordinary young men in the extraordinary circumstances of the early 1970s who rose to the challenge of the time. They had a vision of equality and freedom and they knew the risks they were taking to achieve it but they could not stand idly by or leave it to others.
“It is a harsh reality of resistance that we lose some of our best activists during armed conflict and Seamus and Gerard along with their other comrades whom we remember here today, paid with their lives.”
Kelly claims that people who oppose making this sort of speech about PIRA militants creates a ‘hierarchy of victims’ with ‘republicans and nationalists’ at the bottom, notwithstanding that most of his critics are objecting to his subjects’ terrorism rather than their nationalism and would, one hopes, place loyalist murderers alongside their republican counterparts at the very bottom of whatever ‘hierarchy of victims’ exists. Unionists have accused him of giving succour to dissident republican terror groups – a charge Kelly denies.
The cost of such rhetoric, on top of the pain it causes to the relatives of victims of terror and the damage it does to inter-communal relations, now includes (for the moment, at least) the Maze peace centre initiative. This should hardly come as a surprise to a politician of Kelly’s experience: for both the DUP and Sinn Fein, its more than their jobs are worth to be seen to be letting the other wide get the better of them.