Archive for May, 2009

Well, you never know

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

I really am surprisingly rubbish at politics. I learnt to read using newspapers, I ran committee rooms for Margaret Thatcher’s first Minister of Health when I was 16, I wrote filler pieces for the Young Conservative newsletter before I’d even left school, before I got out a bit more into the wider world and began to reassess my political standpoint. You might think that under these circumstances I’d worked it out a bit but no. Circumstances, conviction and loyalty meant that I even went with the doomed rump of the SDP, the party I joined, as a Founder member and where I spent 10 years of my life. I was at the bedside when the life support was turned off and it died at Woolwich town hall in 1992.

I used my mastery of politics to bet that Gordon Brown would never be Prime Minister. I decided in 1997, when it was suggested that Tony had promised Gordon that he could have the next go, that is was nonsense. The idea that the Prime Ministership was somehow in the gift of the incumbent and Tony and Gordon could just arrange it between them was, to me, literally unbelievable. It also seemed (and still does to some degree) just as unbelievable that a PM would willingly stand down and say that it was “someone else’s turn” or that there would be no ambitious, smart (and not so smart) members who wouldn’t use the opportunity to take what would possibly be their only chance to be leader of their party and PM too. Luck is a huge element in politics and the chances for the top job don’t come about that often. In the event, we know that I was wrong. Apparently there was no-one else who felt either the desire or capability to stand for the post. No members strong enough or brave enough to challenge Brown. That the Labour members allowed this to happen is, in my opinion, to their discredit and has done Gordon Brown no favours.

Three weeks ago I decided that there would be no PR for the Westminster Parliament in my lifetime. Obviously I’d be ill advised to predict my lifetime so I don’t but look, here is a resurgent movement for change (which of course I signed up to this morning).

I can only hope that my legendary political instincts are working as well as always, in which case be prepared for PR by the next election!

A sense of proportion

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

It is a matter of sadness to me that I am unlikely to see any system of proportional representation come about for Westminster elections in my lifetime. It seems a long time since I was heavily committed to campaigns to change our voting system – hell, it is a long time since the early 80s and we still have the first past the post system which has brought us “strong” government and, in my opinion, an electorate who are reluctant to vote if they see, rationally, that their vote is not going to change anything, as in the British equivalents of American “Yellow Dog States” where it is said, a yellow dog with the right rosette gets voted in. British constituencies where, we used to say, they weigh the votes rather than count them.

One the particular aspects of the current MPs expenses scandal – and I think it is a scandal – is that it is offends just about everyone who isn’t an MP (and it offends quite a few of those who are decent and understand the word Honourable). Those who are working in jobs with low salaries and no possible claims of expenses just don’t understand how people earning twice the national average salary are able to use this device to act effectively as property developers People who do have to claim expenses wonder why the MPs don’t have to present proof of every purchase and justify it, unemployed people wonder why they are pursued through the courts if they make a genuine mistake in their benefits claims and anyone paying tax marvels at the way the legislators managed to exempt themselves from stamp duty and other taxes related to house sales.

Beyond that, those who have always thought that MPs were money-grubbing, power hungry semi-crooked characters feel vindicated (although they should not – we know the names of a few good guys). Those, like me and people who know or have known MPs and have defended them against often silly critics. We think it reasonable that people who represent a constituency way out of London should have some place to sleep when they are working in the capital and we also think our MPs should be paid a good professional wage. The alternative is leaving politics to the wealthy who can afford expensive hobbies. But we have been completely shocked by the level of the chiselling and also made to feel fools. I have heard people who passionately defend democracy and the responsibility of voting (and that includes me) say that for the first time in their adult life they will not vote.

One possibility that comes from this (although frankly I don’t think it will happen in any meaningful way) is that independent candidates emerge. A friend pointed out how successful the MP for Wyre Valley, Dr Richard Taylor who was voted in to stand against the closure of his local hospital has been. He was voted in for a second term which is unusual for single issue MPs, except he isn’t single issue any more. Indeed, as Marina Hyde pointed out, he has been trying to shine some light on the expenses issue. One of the inhibitions on people like Dr Taylor is that the electoral system just doesn’t give them a chance unless there are very special circumstances.

Well these are special circumstances. I think it’s time for a full and proper reform of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, just as long ago Tony Blair pledged to do. And a system that would be fairer and would mean that votes count and that a far wider more diverse group of people were elected, who when they were in Parliament would have to be much better negotiatiors and representatives rather than just being lobby fodder should be part of it. I’ve had enought of strong government with long periods of one-party rule and the complacency and contempt of the voters that too often comes with it.

..lude sing cuckoo

Monday, May 4th, 2009
May morning Oxford

May morning Oxford

A young colleague of mine arrived at work on May morning and told me that she’d just been assaulted by a Morris dancer! I think she was more surprised than upset at having been slapped on the bottom by a man with flowers in his hat, bells on at his knees and smile on his face

If you live long enough in a place it gets to be normal. I’ve lived nearly 15 years in Oxford and accept all sorts of strange things which in the real world might be considered very abnormal.

May 1 is a very particular day. The Magdalen choir sing from the top of their tower and, having spent several years getting up at 4.00 am on Mayday to escort a chorister to his important day, I’ve grown very fond of this somewhat eccentric but certainly charming ritual. They sing the Hymnus Eurcharisticus and Summer is icumen in with the line, I have been informed by my choir expert, lude sing cuckoo. Perhaps it should have been lewdly..

I’ve heard the choir sing to blue skies in warm breezes and also battle against winds on the swaying tower against slate skies. On that particular year we’d been invited to watch and hear from one of the other College towers. The experience must have been a bit like that of a Spartan son, exposed to the elements to toughen up.

And the Morris men, and women. On May 1 in Oxford the full English country folk tradition is on show. There are the Morris troupes, known as sides and the men (I think they’re men) dressed as trees. I arrived at work to find a congregation of groups gathering outside the next door College.

I’m not going to reference the well-known quote about incest and Morris dancing. I’m going to suggest looking at this trailer for a film with a wonderful cast which can’t get mainstream distribution – it’s been going around the church halls. I think it may have managed to combine several English traditions – Morris dancing, a certain knee-jerk embarrassment for our own traditions, and an English way of managing such things – through self-deprecating humour. It might also mean we look at Morris men in a different light – just like my work colleague probably will.