But Martin hath said he was ambitious, and Martin is an honourable man


Well, isn’t this a turn-up for the books? It’s all unofficial at this point, of course, but I will be fascinated to see the spin that’s put on it. The IBs should be more than usually interesting at any rate.

Actually, as I understand things, it’s not that Rees has been sacked as such. The situation is that, at the annual conference, the outgoing Central Committee puts forward a slate for the new CC. Usually there is only the one slate, although in theory anyone can put forward an alternative line-up, and usually it is passed unanimously or as near as makes no difference. The thing is that Rees has been left off the slate for the new CC. Which, bearing in mind the remarkable stability of the CC for the last 20 years or so, is significant in itself.

The question is, why and why now. I mean to say, a Central Committee that includes Mike Bradley is not so obviously awash with talent that someone like John Rees can be easily dropped, especially when (it seems) Lindsey remains within the big tent. Here’s my take on things. Firstly, you have to go back to the last major CC reshuffle of a few years ago, when John and Lindsey stepped down from having specific responsibilities within the SWP in favour of secondment to Stop the War and Respect. As long as both of those initiatives were flying high, this was the basis for their pre-eminence. But the decline of the antiwar movement – and nobody can seriously claim it’s operating on the level of 2003 – together with the split in Respect have left them seriously exposed. At the same time, the SWP’s own organisation has atrophied, which has bolstered the criticisms of the more purist wing who were never enthusiastic about Respect in the first place, and in many cases quietly boycotted it. It took a while, but the purists eventually found an echo in the apparat.

As I’ve said before, while it’s hard to avoid a little schadenfreude, there’s an element of tragedy involved. The old sell-the-paper-and-recruit method was well suited to holding together an organisation in the hard times of the downturn. In the 1990s, with most of the rest of the left having gone awol, an energetic application of the old methods could lead to serious gains in numerical terms. This led, I think, to delusions of grandeur, most damagingly from Cliff. (The old man was far from the worst, but he set the tone for others who lacked his abilities.) The problem in the longer term was that the old methods were sufficient for building a largish sect, but were a barrier to building anything beyond that.

So along came a number of opportunities, with the emergence of the global justice movement, the mass antiwar movement, and the electoral interventions via the Socialist Alliance and then Respect. You didn’t have to be a died-in-the-wool sectarian to have some concerns about these movements. Nonetheless, it was probably necessary to jump in to the first two, and have a constructive orientation to the others. But here’s where you found barriers popping up. There was a fetishisation of “doing stuff” that led to a perspective that was under-theorised to say the least, and often incoherent even in its own terms. I am convinced that there was a real fear in the SWP leadership of the unpredictable consequences of joining anything broader, particularly in terms of the membership going off message, competing with the fear of being passed by. And there were innumerable bad habits stemming from twenty years of not having worked with anybody.

So here you had a situation where the organisation was throwing itself into broad initiatives with a stress on pure activism, often effacing its own politics or importing politics of the reformist, anarchist or pacifist variety into its own ranks. At the same time, you still had a very broad streak of sectist control freakery that managed to piss off just about every potential ally. (But which, and this is important, was at least as much directed towards the rank and file of the SWP as towards the non-SWP component of the various “united fronts”.) Personal qualities also came into it, when you think of Rees’ inability to maintain working relationships in Respect. Or, to take another tack, think of Stop the War. If you think of individuals like George Galloway or Tariq Ali, I’ve never hidden my reservations about them, but they do have advantages as popular leaders. They bring to the party a certain flair, a certain class, a certain je ne sais quoi. Old IMG heads can tell you lots of stories about Tariq’s uselessness in various roles, but still acknowledge his attractiveness as a mass leader. There’s a certain amount of hubris involved in thinking that Lindsey, purely because of her position in the StW hierarchy, could be a readymade popular mass leader.

And so here we are, with a de facto (if untheorised) turn back towards the old practices by the SWP leadership. Partly, yes, it has to do with objective conditions, or rather the party’s inability to respond to changes in the objective conditions. There is also the issue, as one SU commenter put it, that

If they’ve kicked out the people who wanted to stay in Respect, and kicked out the guy who led the walkout from Respect, who the hell is left? The people who never wanted to be in Respect in the first place?

Step forward, Chris Harman. Actually, this is the tragic thing, in that those most closely identified with the push outwards – Rees, German, Nineham – are now distrusted by those who took the outward turn seriously (which is not just those SWPers who jumped ship in the Respect split, but also many more Respectophile comrades who stayed in through a sense of discipline) but also on the outs with the purist wing. Poor old John, having had the legs cut out from under him by the Respect split and Left List debacle, looks like being the people’s choice as fall guy. He’s been removed from the leadership of Left Alternative, the party’s moribund electoral front. He’s been sent on a speaking tour of the provinces, which says something in itself. (He might not mind the occasional trip to Liverpool, but having to spend night after night speaking to tiny meetings in the Midlands or Yorkshire is the CC’s equivalent of exile to Magnitogorsk. And more than a little galling for someone who not long ago fancied himself not merely a national but an international leader of our movement.) And now he’s being busted down to the ranks, although it’s likely he’ll be offered some kind of parachute.

All this, it’s worth pointing out, is taking place with a minimum of discussion, let alone self-criticism. Professor Portnoy, to take one example, is still touting about the Rees version of the SWP-Respect split, spiced up with stuff about “Muslim notables” taken off the shelf from the AWL. One assumes the line will be that John made a few errors (though these are very very small set alongside the machinations of Galloway) and had become a bit of a block to moving on. And moving on to what? Well, more concentration on SWSS, an attempt to revitalise anti-fascist work, a bit of agitprop around the financial crisis, whatever seems like a good idea at the time. The Pomintern is at sixes and sevens – although the Irish and Canadians are as ultra-loyal as ever, some others are distinctly out of step with London. And my old friend Charlie Kimber, whose industrial experience consists of being an NUJ member, doesn’t appear to know what an industrial strategy is.

You know what, I’m for open discussion and self-criticism all round. This applies equally to Respect – while I was impressed with the serious, modest and businesslike atmosphere at last month’s conference, there are still unresolved arguments, plus not a few people who used to be Rees’ little helpers and who could benefit from a period of reflection. But now, heading towards January’s conference, would be a good time for SWP comrades to think about where they’re going, and whether it’s a good idea to move from the John Rees regime to the Martin Smith regime without pausing to draw breath, let alone reflect. One of the biggest barriers to that has been the cult of CC infallibility, for which blame must be shared between Cliff’s organisational prescriptions and the CC’s practice of keeping discussion internal to itself. Ructions within the CC make that more difficult to sustain.

My view is, let a hundred flowers bloom. There will be people who come up with bad ideas or even completely daft ideas. There will be all sorts of deviations and unorthodoxies. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a period of open discussion, things would start to flow, surprising connections would be made and – who knows? – people on opposite sides of polarised debates might find areas of agreement. A mature Marxist leadership shouldn’t fear a discussion where the outcome isn’t pre-determined, it should welcome one.

Here endeth the lesson.

The Thai revolution is not taking place


You know, I looked at the events in Thailand and I thought of Ukraine.

I’m thinking in particular of Andrew Wilson’s book Virtual Politics, which is an interesting overview of the concept of managed democracy in the post-Soviet states and well worth a look if only to get clued up on the sort of skulduggery that goes on out there. Wilson, who’s a Ukrainian expert, is very sharp at telling the difference between what is and what seems, in particular the existence of political parties that exist merely as Kremlin sock puppets or as fronts for particular groups of oligarchs. He knows his stuff and gives you plenty of useful facts.

But there’s quite a striking mote and beam alert here. Although Wilson is good as far as he goes – that is, he’s good at assailing Putin and Lukashenka – he’s an outspoken enthusiast for colour revolutions, which are a virtuality unto themselves. He also tends to allow rather too much slack to politicians who’ll strike a pose as “pro-Western”, a group that includes a rather high proportion of spivs hoping that the Empire will help them into power.

The template, I suppose, is the October 2000 coup in Serbia, an event that could have slotted neatly into Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. At street level, yeah, you had popular discontent. As I can testify from personal experience, the Serbian populace is almost certainly the most boisterous and unruly in the region when confronted with official abuse of power, which by itself should give the lie to the racist stereotypes still bandied about on the Anglo-American liberal left. That’s your raw material, because you can’t have a colour revolution without a stage army, and it’s what convinced people who should have known better that the Oktobarska Evolucija was a genuine revolutionary upsurge.

But it’s when we depart from the street level to the level of high politics that we get Baudrillardian. In essence, you’re talking about a pseudo-revolution where the pseudo-socialists were ousted by pseudo-democrats. One clue should have been the swift sidelining of the more bolshy and unpredictable types like Vojislav Koštunica or Velja Ilić in favour of retreads from the old Serbian League of Communists now resident (and dominant) in the Democratic Party. To be more precise, the conservative Stalinist faction who’d been defeated in 1987 by Milošević’s perestroika faction, and who in the meantime had ditched whatever socialism they once had, indeed had no programme except for normalnost defined in Euro-Atlantic terms, but still had quite a broad Stalinist streak. The neo-Jacobin dictatorship instituted after the Djindjić assassination, with the full approval of Brussels and Washington, demonstrated vividly the limits of colour revolution democracy.

And so it has played out as the brand has been exported, complete with identikit democratic media, identikit human rights NGOs, identikit revolutionary youth movements and the same subbing from the NED, the Soros foundation and the various EU slush funds. In Ukraine you have state power being contested by different subsets of corrupt oligarchs, with the “pro-Western” or “pro-Russian” labels functioning as brands to attract the broad masses. In Georgia the hapless Shevy makes way for the disastrous Saakashvili. Even if we leave out the geopolitics – and in the last analysis it’s all about the geopolitics – the punters don’t seem to gain very much from a process that’s supposed to be for their benefit.

That’s why Thailand is so refreshing. You know the way, when the Tories used to cut benefits, they’d be hard-nosed and say it was all for the good of business? What really winds me up about New Labour is that James Purnell will assault the poor and then claim it’s for their own good. And what you have in Thailand is not some popular happening designed to have the Grauniad left in raptures, but an explicitly anti-democratic colour revolution. You have the well-heeled sectors of Bangkok society attempting to bring down a government that’s too responsive to the demands of the plebs, and restore the country’s traditional monarchy-and-military order of power. Basically, Bangkok’s answer to the Countryside Alliance.

There are a lot of people knocking around academia and the high end of the punditocracy who’ve made a lot out of democracy promotion since Berlin. I’d love to hear what they make of this, if they can tear themselves away from agitating for regime change in Venezuela.

Rud eile: I notice Brussels is once again treating Bulgaria as a coconut colony. Sergei, my man, when will you learn that the only way to go is to be as combative as the Czechs? Old Václav Klaus wouldn’t have let himself get into this humiliating position.

Gail Walker Watch


Gail sez:

It’s been a bad few days for free speech. First, we had the sacking of TalkSport DJ Jon Gaunt for calling a Tory councillor a “Nazi” and an “ignorant pig” during a discussion on a ban on smokers fostering children.

The second reverse was the hysteria whipped up by the illicit release of the names and addresses of members of the British National Party. And with it, nasty McCarthyite-style witch-huntery.

Both stories, in various ways, illustrate that the spectrum of acceptable opinion is narrowing dramatically.

Trouble is, I don’t think Gail’s examples illustrate her point, and I think she may realise this. One senses that the column she’d like to write is one about how decent rightwingers are being persecuted by the politically correct elite, but it’s not exactly easy to defend a bunch of neo-Nazi thugs, so she waffles around that question – had she actually come out and defended the BNP, it wouldn’t have made her popular, but it might have made for a more interesting argument. And while I agree that Gaunty’s sacking was over the top, I fail to see what it has to do with political correctness or a narrowing of acceptable opinion. He was sacked for being abusive to a guest, which is something different.

Elsewhere, Gail does Strictly, and jumps on the “sack the judges” bandwagon. I noticed unemployed Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy speaking out along similar lines, and, while I expect nothing better of the Murphy excrescence, I’m a little disappointed in Gail. She accuses the judges of having damaged the show’s credibility by doing what they were paid to do and giving their professional verdicts on the dancing. This confuses me a little – the Sarge’s defenders had one good argument in that the show was just light entertainment and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, so it seems odd to bring credibility into this.

By the way, Gail, who doesn’t like the Strictly judges being nasty to the contestants, still manages to get in a dig about “C-list celebs” and in particular “desperate-to-win Rachel Stevens”. What has the inoffensive Rachel done to provoke her ire? I suspect it’s that, unless she’s doing one of her occasional columns bigging up a feminist icon (Madonna, Sarah Palin, Jade Goody), Gail likes nothing better than sticking the boot into a female celebrity. Since there are three women left in Strictly and one of them, local girl Christine, is immune from slagging, the only question would be whether it was little Rachel or the big Snowdon girl who would get it. You may as well toss a coin.

And we have a rare turn-up for the books as Gail attacks the Tories while decrying commercialism on TV. No, she hasn’t suddenly become a defender of the BBC, but she does object to Ed Vaizey’s proposal for product placement on Corrie. You know, Coronation Street as sponsored by Harveys furniture. You can’t let the forces of commerce into Weatherfield.

Physician, heal thyself


Sometimes you do get presented with an open goal. Last night on Nolan Live, Angry Steve was discussing the credit crunch and made some remark about us all tightening our belts. The texters were mighty tickled at the image of the portly host tightening his belt.

And here’s Norman Geras:

What I think it’s at least partly about is having a ‘costless’ conscience. Over Afghanistan – as, for many of them, over Iraq – they do not count the costs of the policies they favour, only of the policies they oppose. The former costs have nothing at all to do with them. If what they recommend goes badly in some way, it’s just the way of the world; but if what they oppose goes badly then it has everything to do with those who supported it. It’s a fool’s method of political calculation: recognizing no hard choices, everything obvious and easy.

This is Norm’s response to peaceniks calling for the withdrawal of Nato troops from Afghanistan, whom Norm taxes with failure to take moral responsibility for the possible humanitarian disaster that might ensue.

One might ask whether this means the Decent Left are going to take moral responsibility for the actually existing humanitarian disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq, which do have an immediate connection with the wars that Norm has supported. But one would be mistaken. A basic tenet of Normism is that, if you’re Decent, the purity of your motives effaces the consequences of things you support. Which is nice. On the other hand, Indecent leftists like your humble host can quite easily be berated for things they didn’t support. Which is often quite aggravating if you’re on the receiving end.

It’s like judo. If you’ve ever thought that Norm’s strictures on international relations could be used to criticise Israeli actions, you very quickly learn that such an argument can be blown out of the water by accusing the UCU of being awash with anti-Semitism, or insinuating that present-day Venezuela is comparable to Stalin’s Russia, or some similar dodge.

Isn’t it cheering to see that Norm’s grasp of the dialectic remains as sound as ever?

Steeleye Span on BBC4

Well, that was a good night in yesterday, with BBC4 running a Steeleye Span night. Having spent more years than I care to mention listening to stuff like Steeleye Span, Fairport, Pentangle or Jethro Tull – who, after all, were never really anything but a particularly loud folk band – this was right up my alley.

First up was a repeat of the Folk Britannia programme tracing the emergence of a distinctive British style of folk-rock in the 1960s. In a pleasingly wide-ranging programme, we got treated to all the different elements that went into the melting-pot. There was of course the old-timey British folk scene, dominated by Ewan MacColl and in the 1950s heavily influenced by the Communist Party, although the specific CP colouring of the scene faded with time. There was also the American influence, in the first instance of Woody Guthrie and later of Dylan. The Scotto-Irish influence didn’t, I feel, get as much play as it might have, but that was clearly in the background.

All this, of course, has to be set against the developments of the times. As was shown, the civil rights movement in America provided the opportunity for the young Dylan to emerge as a protest singer, although he soon went beyond the role allotted to him by the folk left. Kerouac and the beats had been a particular literary influence at an early stage. And then you had the sixties drug culture… it all added up to a fusion that really upset the folk purists, with Pentangle in particular being Ewan MacColl’s worst nightmare. This was no bad thing – one respects the purists as those who kept traditions alive in lean times, but when more propitious times came along they actually became something of a reactionary force. When Martin Carthy went electric – more shocking in its way than Dylan going electric – you knew things had changed.

By the way, a genuinely stellar line-up of interviewees. Martin Carthy, Roy Harper, John Martyn, Shirley Collins, Davy Graham, Anne Briggs and lots of others who have probably slipped my mind at this moment. Even Donovan! You remember Donovan, the guy in the brocade coat who used to sing to you about Atlantis. Intelligent commentary from folk scene veterans plus lots of old footage made for unbeatable entertainment.

This was followed up by a musical double bill. Firstly, Maddy Prior at this year’s Electric Proms, with a mix of new material and old favourites. Nice to see her still in fine voice, and it looks like a great night was had by all. And to round things off, a vintage Steeleye Span performance from the 1970s. In a great mediaeval hall, and with Morris dancing, too! All it needed was a giant blazing wicker man…

All this, and Charlie Brooker too. It’s nights like these that make me feel BBC4 is worth the licence fee by itself.

Dancing with demagogy


What would James Madison have made of Strictly Come Dancing? The question is whimsical, I’ll admit, but it’s not altogether surreal.

If you go back to the Federalist Papers, which is always worthwhile anyway, you’ll notice that Madison and Hamilton spend an awful lot of their time wrestling with the question of whether democracy invariably leads to dictatorship. It’s an old concern of classical political philosophy – you’ll recall that the Roman republicans opposed Caesar not only because of his dictatorial proclivities but because he was the candidate of the plebs. In fact, the two facets of Caesar were seen as complementary. By contrast, Madison and Hamilton tried to prove that there was no necessary connection between democracy and dictatorship, and therefore placed themselves squarely in opposition to the British tradition of political philosophy which has usually sought to limit the power of the masses.

This comes down to the age-old problem of whether a good system necessarily means good outcomes. And that’s why you find a lot of liberals or leftists who are all in favour of democracy in theory, until the great unwashed turn around and support positions (capital punishment, immigration controls) or people (Ian Paisley, Jörg Haider) who they find distasteful. Then they rail against democracy big time, only they call it “populism”.

And so we return to the John Sergeant Show, formerly known as Strictly Come Dancing. Firstly, let me say that I didn’t like the way the Sarge went yesterday. I thought he should have gone, but I would have preferred him to be eliminated fair and square. But the resignation and press conference allows him to retire undefeated while keeping himself at the centre of the story, which is how the Sarge likes a story to be. On the other hand, and I think I agree with Malachi on this, the Beeb has really been hoist by its own pseudo-democratic petard. You can’t have a talent show without an audience vote these days. And such is the backlash from last year’s vote-rigging scandals that what the punters want, the punters must have.

It’s built into the format of the show, which is why half of the vote goes to the judges and half to the public. There’s been a certain know-nothingism in this debate, with punters on the message boards demanding to know who the judges think they are giving their, er, judgements on contestants. Do they think they know better than us? Well, actually, they do. All four are heavyweights in their field, well respected by their peers, and are being paid to give their professional opinion. The inbuilt tension is that what the judges think and what the public think don’t always coincide. The judges are marking on the technical aspects. The public tend to vote on who’s the most appealing character. As Arlene Phillips says, we’ve been here before. In the first season you had wee Chris from EastEnders, who was a pretty bad dancer but got all the way to the final on the strength of women finding him cute. He could easily have won, and lots of people wanted him to win. Last year you had Kate Garraway being returned week after week, not because of her dancing ability but because of her warm and likeable personality, while the more talented Gabby Logan went out early because the public found her abrasive and super-competitive. Worth remarking, too, that last year the dance-off and judges’ final say on eliminations was introduced due to the public vote having been just a bit too capricious for comfort.

But it’s still there. They always shuffle a few jokers into the pack, just because it excites interest in the early weeks. And they know about the tension between the judges’ scoring and the public vote – when even Brucie is twitting the judges, you know that that’s being consciously played up to. The difference is that this year the joker has threatened to take over.

There have been certain aspects of this that have worked to the Sarge’s advantage. Firstly, there’s the voting system. You don’t vote to eliminate as on Big Brother. (Which might explain why on BB the most interesting contestants are usually the first to go.) You vote for your favourite. The Sarge hasn’t needed a majority on his side, he’s just needed enough support to stay out of the bottom two. It helps, too, that some of the more technically accomplished contestants, naming no names, have been a bit dull.

As for the public vote, you can’t do a scientific analysis, but the Strictly message boards provide some anecdotal evidence as to motivations. There’s a certain element there who just find it funny to watch an elderly man walk up and down for 90 seconds. But there are other aspects as well. I think there’s an identification with the perceived underdog, in the way that a lot of Brits think “competitive” is a dirty word and prefer their entertainers or sportsmen to be endearingly crap. How this goes down with those contestants who’ve been practicing seven hours a day but aren’t possessed of twinkly grins is another matter.

There’s also the big play that’s been made of the judges’ comments. I have limited sympathy for this. The judges, as I’ve said, are employed to give their professional opinions. If Rachel Stevens, say, put a few steps wrong in an otherwise good performance, you expect them to say so. I don’t see why they should not be critical of much worse performances just because it’s the Sarge – he’s not the Queen Mother or something. But they seem to have fallen foul of this victim culture that paints any criticism, however justified, as “bullying”. As if a hard-bitten journalist is going to feel victimised that easily.

Perhaps more interesting is the sympathy for what appears to be the naughty boy in the class who’s cocking a snook at the teachers. Talk to any dance teacher and you’ll hear stories of how hard it is to get the kids to listen to them, especially with parents who want little Jimmy wrapped in cotton wool. This explains as well as anything why the judges, who have spent decades as dance teachers and choreographers, have been so extremely pissed off – they wouldn’t have minded half as much if it was a contestant, like some bad contestants in the past, who listened to them and showed some signs of improvement.

So we’ve seen all the makings of this fiasco before, just not on this scale. The internet-based campaign to raise votes for the Sarge has been significant. The press attention has been preposterous. And the irate responses from people like myself who want to be entertained by good dancing has only stoked the row, which has built up the ratings and the press even further. I can’t ever remember the judges having to go to the media and campaign for their position – that’s a significant change. And the Sarge has played on all these factors like the political pro he is.

And now he’s gone. Yes, I know, there’s that cruise engagement, but I also think his personal conservatism has played a factor here. The Sarge is, at the end of the day, an establishment figure who doesn’t want to discredit the whole system. A little demagogy is one thing, but I’m not sure he would feel comfortable at the head of a mob, which is what it was starting to look like.

I suppose the Madisonian response would be to hope that the public will eventually reward quality, while recognising philosophically that if the public want crap, then they deserve crap.

But it is interesting, is it not, that we keep hearing about all the great democratic potential of new communications technology, but it’s the entertainment industry that’s leading the way. Some of that potential has begun to filter into American politics, with the early viral campaign for O’Bama, which is how he defeated the Clintonite Democratic machine, and on a smaller scale with Ron Paul’s pitch for the Republican nomination. But it hasn’t shown much sign of crossing the Atlantic.

On the other hand, you might say that we should simply co-opt politics into the entertainment industry. The House on the Hill is a case in point. Restoring Stormont could be justified on purely entertainment grounds. The SDLP’s Alban Maginness has just shaved off his trademark moustache for Children in Need. We’ve now got the Assembly cookbook, wherein Stormont MLAs share their recipes for chocolate salty balls and such like. Is there any chance we could draft in the real Chuckle Brothers?

Rud eile: Here’s another little gem of populism. Remember last year, when 13,000 Santas crammed Derry city centre to set a world record for the number of Santas in one place? Yesterday some irate bloke from Derry was on Talk Back giving off that the record wasn’t in this year’s Guinness Book of Records. Guinness gave out that they had 60,000 records on file but could only fit 4000 in the book, but our Derryman wasn’t satisfied. This was a cross-community event, he said, and if the Derry Santas got a mention the book would sell an additional 120,000 copies in Norn Iron. Even by the standards of Derry civic boosterism, that strikes me as on the optimistic side.

Rud eile fós: It’s practically beyond comment, but I couldn’t resist flagging up the nude portrait of Nell McCafferty. And apparently the artist wants other local folks to volunteer! Are you listening, Sammy? Sammy?

Brothers Grim to return to work


Here’s how it is. Following the latest fudge deal, the Procrastination Committee at Stormont is back in business after a four-month break. In fact, our leaders reckon the Executive is going to have weekly meetings to get its backlog red up. This will of course come as a great relief to the pundits who have been calling for the Executive to be restored so it can deal with the economic crisis, although what Stormont can do in this global situation is unclear. Perhaps they can look into the threatened job cuts at UTV, as the proletariat risks being deprived of Logie, Frank and Tina Arena.

Honestly, it’s not like we really missed them that much. Apart from Conor Murphy and Michael McGimpsey merrily running around spending money they don’t have, most ministers have been more or less invisible.

So, what’s the deal? Well, the important point is the devolution of policing and justice. The DUP have agreed that this will happen at some point in the unspecified future. And the minister will possibly be Alliance, or maybe SDLP if Alliance can’t be wooed. Plus, the joint presidency are minded to appoint an Attorney General. Wahey!

There’s also been some movement on the Irish language. The DUP haven’t dropped their opposition to Gerry’s beloved Acht Gaeilge – nor has Gerry told us yet what the Act would actually do – but there’s a vague promise of more “minority language” provision. I guess this means another handout to the Ulster-Scots lobby, although even now the Boord o’ Ulster-Scotch can’t spend the money it already has.

There is also the promise that the Brothers Grim, accompanied by Nigel Dodds (just to lighten the mood) will lobby Gordon Brown for an economic stimulus package. Robbo also reckons he’s going to settle the civil service equal pay claim, assuming the Brits agree to pony up the cash.

But has this changed the underlying situation? Basically, there were two reasons for the political stalemate:

a) Robbo is scared of Jim Allister. Admittedly, the Prodiban are organisationally weak, and have attracted more than their fair share of wingnuts. But Robbo knows that there are enough wingnuts out there to damage the DUP electorally, and he has his eye on next year’s Euro-election. In that situation, Mullah Jim will be the incumbent, and while he’s not what you’d call charismatic, he is a formidable campaigner. More to the point, he knows exactly where the DUP’s bodies are buried.

b) Grizzly reckons that Robbo is playing silly buggers with the peace process. Moreover, although he doesn’t have much to fear from the likes of Éirígí or the IRSP, he is a great believer in protecting his flank, and he reckons the best way of keeping nationalist punters happy is to keep devolution rolling on.

You will have noticed that both of these conditions still obtain. What are the odds of another breakdown before June, just in time to help Robbo in the Euro-election?

By George, I think he’s got it!


Let’s kick off today with an old chestnut from the late John Pepper. It involves a rural child addressing its mother.

Child: Ma, the yo has lambed.

Mother: It’s not yo, it’s ewe.

Child: No, it’s not me, ma, it’s the yo.

It used to be here, in the not too distant past, that a certain kind of upwardly mobile parent, usually the mother, would place great importance in packing the kids off to an elocutionist to learn how to talk proper, and in particular to efface the Norn Iron accent. Only ten years back I used to work alongside perfectly ordinary women who would happily subject their daughters to the Professor Higgins treatment. So fashionable was it that I imagined there being somewhere, possibly in Holywood, a twilight home for distressed elocutionists, who had been driven out of their wits by years of listening to Belfast kids reciting High Nigh Brine Cie.

I started thinking on these lines some time ago, when I happened to notice some wench reading the BBC news. She looked vaguely familiar, and I seemed to detect a faint trace of a Belfast accent. Suddenly a caption flashed up, informing the broad masses that this was Annita McVeigh. Jesus, I thought, she didn’t sound like that when she was on Radio Ulster. A shortish sojourn in London, and the accent has almost vanished. Mind you, not a few of our local personalities have gone some way to shedding theirs.

Sometimes you can see the process caught midway. Christine Bleakley is still recognisably Norn Iron in her speech, but the vowels are quite a bit rounder than they used to be. This, I suppose, is why I like Zoë Salmon – because she talks like me, and because despite years on the telly she hasn’t knocked off the rough edges or shown much sign of trying to. (Is this a Blue Peter thing, I wonder? The late Caron Keating had wonderful enunciation.)

Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to George Osborne, whose class mobility has been wondrous to behold. He may be the son of a seventeenth baronet, but to a particular type of toff the salient factor remains that his family made their money in wallpaper, and can therefore be classed as “trade”. No wonder his nickname at the Bullingdon was “Oiky”. One gets the feeling Evelyn Waugh wouldn’t have seen him as epitomising the aristocratic virtues.

And yet, he does have this habit of cultivating oikiness. It is of course well known that at the precocious age of thirteen he adopted the more blokish George in place of his given name of Gideon, apparently because even then he harboured political ambitions and was canny enough to realise that his progress could be scuppered by his bearing too close a resemblance to a minor Wodehouse character. And, right enough, despite his deplorable lack of spats he does have that air of having just stepped out of the Drones Club’s smoking room.

That’s why, although I was tickled, I wasn’t particularly surprised by this story, about Osborne going to a voice coach in order to sound less posh. And he does have precedent on his side, in that Mrs Thatcher famously did the same. You can see the logic, too, with the Tory Party effectively being run by Lord Snooty and his chums, with a dozen or more Etonians in the Shadow Cabinet. Remember those far-off days of 1990 when the genuinely distinguished Douglas Hurd was reckoned a non-runner for the Tory leadership because he’d been to Eton, while John Major (evidently in his Marxist-Leninist phase) was promising a classless society? It all seems so long ago, doesn’t it? And now, what we’ve got is lightweight Etonians pretending to be ordinary men on the street. You wouldn’t have thought the real John Major was such a stellar leader that we’d feel the need for a lot of synthetic John Majors.

And Christopher Robin goes hoppity hoppity hop


As ever at this time of year, my attention is taken up with Strictly, which is why I’ve been taken slightly by surprise by the outburst around X Factor. I have no strong feelings about whether or not Laura should have gone, and I do understand that people will feel aggrieved when their favourite goes, but get a grip! This has never been about the music, it’s about finding acts who will make money for Simon Cowell. This is why I think the wee lad from here will do well – he’s not the strongest singer, but he’s extremely marketable. And what have we had the past week? A lot of buck eejits who reckon they can get an elimination overturned if they shout loud enough. Not to mention Andy Burnham and George Osborne, both of whom surely have better things to do, sticking their oar in. I suppose we must be thankful that Mr Tony Blair has left office, or he surely would have had something to say on the matter.

So, back to Strictly, and I have to say the quality this year is excellent, and made a little more exciting by there being no obvious favourite. Of course I have to support local girl Christine Bleakley, who used to live just up the road from me, but I’m actually quite taken with Lisa Snowdon, who’s quite funny and seems very down to earth. But that isn’t what everybody’s talking about. What everybody’s talking about is the Sarge.

Every year something like this happens. Every year there’s a contestant who’s a hopeless dancer, but the public like them and keep voting them back in. The nastier the judges get, the more the public rally to their favourite. And that just pisses the judges off even more. Last year it was Kate Garraway; this year it’s John Sergeant.

Usually it doesn’t matter, because in the early weeks we’re clearing out the dead wood and by about week five common sense sets in. And yet, we’re now in the last half of the contest and the Sarge is still there. This is thanks to all those people who think it’s funny to keep him in there, and there’s been quite a bit of populist outrage on the message boards. It’s an entertainment show, we hear, and the Sarge entertains us. And who are these judges, anyway, to tell us to vote out the bad dancers?

Thing is, you can get away with this in the early stages. Actually it’s become a bit of a tradition on the show. But we’re past that now. We’ve reached the point where Len Goodman, who never scores below a five, is breaking out the fours. There is a real danger that the Help the Aged vote, combined with the ironic students’ vote, will combine to put out a really good dancer. Seriously, last week Rachel Stevens puts in a belting performance, gets a score of 35 and still finds herself in the bottom two. I know it’s only light entertainment, but come on. Do you want to make a mockery of the entire proceedings?

By the way, and to end on a less negative note, I’m impressed with the Sarge’s partner Kristina, who’s put a very brave face on things. This had better stand her in good stead when they’re allocating the partners next year.

Let the North take on the Taliban!


I tell you what, George Galloway must be scundered. He’s been all happy since his mate Barack O’Bama won the US presidency, and now what? Barack wants an extra 2000 British troops for Afghanistan.

Well, at least he can’t say he wasn’t warned. We’d be talking here in terms of selective vision. It’s the same way that O’Bama won the Democratic nomination largely because of his opposition to the Iraq war, while at the same time promising anyone who’d listen that he’d escalate the war in Afghanistan. A lot of folks ignored that on the basis that he was electable in a way that the genuinely antiwar Dennis Kucinich wasn’t. But it was plain to see for anyone who looked.

How he’s going to do this is a different matter. Afghanistan is a classically unwinnable war. The Afghan state only exists in theory, to the point where the supposed president, Karzai, has to have American bodyguards. And, although Gordon Brown has used the spectre of the Taliban to try and make the Afghan war popular, most of your insurgents are village-based and aren’t particularly fundamentalist – in other words, they aren’t the Taliban.

And where are these troops going to come from? The US military is at the point where it’s sending detachments of National Guard and border guards on tours of Iraq. The Brits are in an even worse state. When you have serving generals talking about overstretch, you know things are bad. Recruitment is low, and every time some crusty conservative talks about conscription, the brass react with horror at the prospect of their professional army being flooded with hoodies.

Here’s a modest suggestion. On the basis of the popularity of the recent RIR homecoming parade in Belfast, why not recruit amongst Ulster loyalists, who are dead keen to prove how British they are? You could have a populist campaign in the News Letter. You could rerun those “Your country needs you” posters, with Peter Robinson in the place of Lord Kitchener. Orange lodges could run recruitment fairs, and Protestant grammar schools groom potential officers. You know how much the good folk of North Down love someone with a military rank.

You know, it couldn’t possibly fail. I can’t imagine the Norn Iron populace being unwilling to put their money where their mouth is. Can you?

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