- RIP Candida Royalle September 11, 2015
So sad to hear of the death of my friend Candace Vadala, who under the name Candida Royalle (her website is here) was a pioneering maker of erotic films for women and a feminist fighter for free expression, having been a pornographic film actress in the 1970s. For the last few years she’d been working on a documentary called “While You Were Gone” about her abandonment as a child and her search for her birth mother. She was a very brave woman with a wonderful sense of humor, and so full of life it’s hard to believe she’s gone.
- Strange Days – On the UK election May 11, 2015
It’s refreshing to experience a general election in which the polls and the pundits are proved massively wrong.
It’s especially invigorating when the stakes are as high as they were on thursday. After all, a different result could have had huge domestic and international ramifications in fairly short order, beginning with a collapse of the pound and perhaps culminating, in theory, in the UK’s nuclear disarmament and departure from the UN Security Council.
But the unexpectedness of the final result also makes you wonder how disconnected from the electorate the political and media classes really are. The whole computer-assisted modern apparatus of marketing, polling and focus grouping seems not to work as well as advertised when the country is in the midst of a tectonic political shift.
Among other things, the election proved that the celebrated “detoxification” of the Tory brand was not, in fact all that successful. But it indicated at the same time that that Tory “toxicity” may not really matter, at least in the current economic and political climate. After all, tens of thousands of people apparently lied to pollsters and journalists about their intention to vote conservative, and then went ahead and ticked the Tory box…
That said, one great danger for the new government is that Cameron may believe that the resulting Tory victory was attributable to his own qualities and actions rather then the unattractiveness of the Labour alternative combined with the surge of Scottish nationalism.
It seems likely that millions of people in England and Wales were simply unwilling to gamble Britain’s relative prosperity and low unemployment on a return to the old-fashioned socialism believed in by Ed Miliband. Others weren’t willing to gamble on a socialist project if it was to be led by such a smug and untrustworthy-seeming young man.
In the old industrial cities of England, a significant number of traditional working class Labour voters who might have supported Miliband’s economic policies were probably alienated by the way the Labour leader personified the domination of the party by upper-middle-class metropolitans like himself.
The fact that Miliband’s personal toxicity was not fully reflected in the polls or journalistic coverage suggests that both operated with some kind of pre-existing bias in favour of the Labour party.
In Scotland, the problem with Labour was different: a population steeped in 1970s-style socialism was no longer willing to vote for a local Labour party that had become offensively complacent, lazy and corrupt after years of unchallenged dominance.
Indeed one of the underlying themes of the 2015 election, and one that Cameron and other party leaders will ignore at their peril, is the deepening alienation of many working class voters from both the “London-centric” political and media elite, and from established party machines in the big cities
It is an alienation that simultaneously manifests itself in UKIP votes in England – more than three million of them, and in 1.5 million SNP votes in Scotland, 50% of the total cast there. It’s easier to overlook the former than the latter because of the weird distorting effect of Britain’s “First Past the Post” system as currently constituted: with the SNP getting 58 seats for 1.5 million votes, and UKIP getting one seat for almost 4 million votes.
The fact that UKIP won fewer seats than expected and that its leader Nigel Farage failed to get in and had to resign, should not distract observers from the fact that UKIP proved itself to be a truly national party, gaining significant votes all over England and Wales, and often coming in third or even second place. There’s also little question that many UKIPers, especially in the South, voted tactically, their desire to keep out a Labour-led coalition overcoming their disillusion with or dislike of David Cameron’s Tories.
It now seems possible that Labour could go into catastrophic decline in much the same way that the Liberal Party did in the years after World War I, despite having played a dominant role in British politics for more than half a century. Certainly the results from London suggest that Labour may become more and more reliant on the votes of immigrant communities and racial minorities.
At the same time, if UKIP survives Farage’s resignation or if another alternative party should emerge that can appeal to white working class voters who are tribally allergic to the Tories, then Labour’s vote may well shrink much further in the midlands and industrial North.
As for the LibDems, their extraordinary rout felt like karmic punishment for their hypocritical and dishonest refusal to support customary redistricting of electoral boundaries while in the Coalition with the Tories. The actual mechanism of their defeat though, seems to have been partly a matter of tactical voting by a British public that had a taste of coalition government and doesn’t like it. But it may also have had a lot to do with the disillusionment of those voters who foolishly believed before the formation of the Coalition that the LibDems were principled outsiders, unsullied by and immune to the compromise and corruption that comes with political office.
Some of the lessons offered by the election are contradictory. In large parts of the Kingdom, many voters seem to have made a cool calculation that their material interests would be served by the continuation of relatively responsible, cautious and competent economic management, an option which was offered by only one main party. But elsewhere, and especially in Scotland, large numbers of people were motivated by intense political emotion and by concerns about identity and national pride. All of the latter were noticeably absent from the campaigns by the Westminster leaders. But then none of the three are as obviously talented and appealing as the SNP’s Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.
But the big reveals are yet to come. For instance, will a David Cameron unrestrained by coalition partners behave differently now that he has an actual majority? Critics within the Tory party have long worried that he lacks a vision for the country, that the only thing he believes in is own suitability for the top job. Arguably he has never had to demonstrate political courage by leading public opinion or standing up for a potentially unpopular person or policy, all of which may be necessary if he is steer a country rattled by a massive electoral shifts.
It is possible that Cameron will decide that the collapse of Labour and the Lib Dems vindicates his “essay crisis” style of leadership, his faith in “branding”, his lack of interest in foreign affairs, his downgrading of the armed forces, and his insistence on a lavish foreign aid budget at a time of austerity elsewhere.
But now that there are no LibDems to blame for broken promises, humiliating compromises or the shambolic execution of government policy, Cameron will find himself under much more pressure from Conservative MPs whom he prefers to be quietly deferential and whose opinions he has shown little respect for.
At the same time he will have to confront a new SNP bloc that is considerably further to the left than the Labour party, and which because of its youth, inexperience and Anglophobia, (not to mention its desire to break up the Union, not necessarily shared by all SNP voters) may turn out to be a disruptive force in Parliament.
More important, Cameron and his team are going to have deal with national challenges that make questions of NHS funding and mansion taxes seem insignificant. Not least the constitutional reforms that may be needed to keep the country together. But there are also other important issues that went all but unmentioned by everyone during the campaign: foreign alliances, immigration, defence, freedom of speech, foreign aid, the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, social cohesion, and the special relationship with the United States, all of which demand a vision of the country the UK is going to be and the role it will play in the world.
- In Honour of General Election Day…. May 7, 2015
A brace of pieces I did for James Delingpole’s Breitbart London site in the run-up to today’s General Election.
The first is about the Resistible Rise and Fortunate Fall of Lutfur Rahman, former mayor of Tower Hamlets and Britain’s answer to Boss Tweed, the founder of New York’ Tammany Hall machine. It’s real subject is the arrival in the UK of South Asian-style electoral fraud, the naive vulnerability of the British election system to such fraud, and the remarkable inadequacy of the police response to voter intimidation. It’s here or here:
- Secretiveness and Dishonesty in the Aid Sector, Ch. 35 August 31, 2014
In the aid world you hear a lot of rhetoric about “transparency” and “accountability”, but both are in troublingly short supply. This is especially the case at some of the powerful mega-charities. So it was good to see this OpEd piece in the London Times by Stephen Pollard calling for more openness in the UK charitable sector.
For those unable to access the piece behind the Times paywall, one key passage reads:
If an organisation is going to enjoy the benefits that society grants to charities, including exemption from inheritance and other taxes, then the rest of us are entitled to at least an inkling of how it spends our money.
Pollard’s starting point is a new reform proposed by the Charity Commission that would require charities to be open about how much money they spend on political campaigning.
It is not surprising that such an innocuous-seeming, public spirited reform might provoke hysterical opposition – as it already has – in the NGO sector.
Transparency would mean that Oxfam and others would have to be honest about where public contributions are really going: they would have to tell Granny that her fiver isn’t actually going to feed the hungry or provide shelter for the homeless; it’s going to be spent, er, addressing the “root causes” of hunger and homelessness, by campaigning against the Coalition government or against free trade or for higher taxes for large corporations….
Those who run the charitable sector in the UK have enjoyed minimal oversight over the years. They have therefore become accustomed to operating in an environment in which secretiveness and even dishonesty has no downside. To some degree the shady behavior that has ensued, and the amazingly self-interested and smug attitudes of charity executives and lobbyists is not their fault. It is also the fault of a political class and a general public that are foolishly and ignorantly dazzled into myopia by the moral glamour of “charity”.
Both charities and those they are trying to help deserve better.
- Remembering on Memorial Day May 26, 2014
When I was living in New York in the 90s I always liked Memorial Day Weekend. It marked the beginning of Summer of course. And if I was out at the beach I would make sure to visit one of the little war memorials that all the Long Island villages have, and pause in front of the flags and flowers. It moved me but in what I now see was a abstract, generalized way.
These days when Memorial Day comes I remember two fine men, two soldiers whom I had the privilege of knowing just over a decade ago. Both of them looked out for me in Baghdad in Spring 2003 during what the military calls OIF1. At the time both men were in the 4-64 AR – the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, which was then part of the 3rd Infantry Division but has since been disbanded.
Their names were Sgt Matthew Deckard and SSG Clint (William) Moore.
Clint was in the Scout platoon and for a while I rode in his Humvee. Matt Deckard drove an M1 Abrams but I rode with him in an Bradley fighting vehicle on the unit’s first “presence patrol” in Baghdad (which was when the photo above was taken).
Matthew Deckard, who was 29, was killed on September 16, 2005 when an IED destroyed his tank in Baghdad. He left behind a wife and three children.
Clint Moore was killed on April 23rd 2007 in Baquba Iraq, while serving with the 5-73 Cavalry (82nd Airborne Division), when his patrol base was came under attack. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for his courage under fire and for rescuing his fellow paratroopers even when mortally wounded. (The citation is here).
Memorial Day is different for me now. It’s a day on which I cannot help but think of those two men and mourn them.
And inevitably I think of all the other people out there who are remembering and mourning – many of them remembering the sacrifice of close friends and comrades, of brothers, or fathers or sons. There are thousands of them, spread out across the country and the world, but all linked by memory and loss.
The grief is painful, but I am sure that it is a good thing that we have this day when we deliberately, formally, collectively bring to mind and honor the men and women we lost in war.
A cynic might point out that remembering the fallen cannot do them any good, or do anything for the families they left behind, that it is just sentimentality. I don’t agree. Remembrance may not be much. It may be the very least we could do for a fallen soldier and his family, but it does count for something. It is part of a wider, bigger social force that gives their lives – and deaths – meaning. Yes the dead may not know that they are remembered, they may not even have cared in life about being remembered after death, though most people do. But surely we all want to live in a world in which sacrifices for the common good are valued. As a society and as individuals we have a profound emotional need to remember the fallen, and not only is there nothing wrong with that, it is one of the things that makes us human in the best sense. You could even argue that it is an act that makes us better citizens and better people.
In any case, they deserve it and their families deserve it – whether or not they know about it. And though it makes me sad I am glad to do it.
- BBC R4 “The Regimental Future” (or lack thereof) March 17, 2014
Rare (and well-done) BBC R4 programme on the shrinking British Army regimental system. Very much worth checking out.
- A Sinister Threat to the Kalasha of Chitral February 12, 2014
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper today carries a disturbing report of a Pakistan Taliban video telling the Kalash people – the 3500-strong pagan tribe who live in three remote valleys of the North West Frontier (and about whom I wrote here ) that they must convert to Islam or face death.
The survival of the Kalash — whose paganism is the reason why the area is called Kafiristan or “land of infidels” — thus far is a kind of miracle.
Their cousins across the mountains in Afghanistan were all converted by force at the end of the nineteenth century – which is why Afghan Kafiristan was renamed Nuristan, the “land of light”.
In more recent years the Kalasha culture was threatened by the arrival of roads into their remote valleys, then by tourism, and after the tourists stopped coming after 9/11 by missionaries, moneylenders, timber smugglers and migrants from the Punjab and other parts of Pakistan. Maureen Lines an originally British, now Pakistani author who has long lived in the Kalash valleys, and the Hindu Kush Conservation Association, have played a key role in protecting them, with the help of successive Pakistani governments keen to show that minorities can live safely in the country.
It is to be hoped that the Pakistani authorities have the will and ability to protect the Kalash from this new threat.
- Valete — Those we lost in 2013 December 31, 2013
Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Seamas Heaney, Hugo Chavez, David Frost and James Gandolfini probably had the most obituaries this year.
Here’s my own goodbye list:
Richard Beeston – Foreign Editor of the London Times and the great foreign correspondent of his generation. Rick was only 50.
Roger Ebert – A great film critic, the first film reviewer to win a Pulitzer, and a very nice man. (my piece on him here)
Peter Kaplan – Great editor, lovely man. (obit)
Norman Geras – Professor, pioneer blogger and Eustonian. (tel obit)
Elmore Leonard – the Great.
Tom Clancy – the man who predicted the use of civilian airliners as a weapon
Vince Flynn – shocked by his early death.
James Herbert (his “The Rats” terrified me as a kid
Tom Sharpe (comic genius see Porterhouse Blue etc.)
Oscar Hijuelos (loved Mambo Kings….)
Patrice Chereau – director of La Reine Margot and Intimacy; Gen Montcalm in Last of the Mohicans
Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin
Paul Walker – underrated actor
Dennis Farina – Chicago cop turned actor
Karen Black – cult actress
Michael Winner – director, amusing restaurant reviewer, philanthropist, bon viveur
Bryan Forbes – actor/writer/director
Mel Smith – Comedian, the heart of Not the Nine O’Clock News
Ken Norton – marine, boxer, actor
Lewis Collins – Bodie
Ray Manzarak – as he said, the piano in Riders of the Storm was ‘genius’
Mikhail Kalashnikov – rifle inventor
Syd Field – screenwriting guru
Ray Dolby – Sound pioneer
Amar Bose – Sound pioneer
General Vo Nguyen Giap – North Vietnamese victor
Marcella Hazan – author of the famous Italian cookbook
Alan Whicker – TV journalism pioneer
Al Goldstein – New York in the 80s and 90s wouldn’t have been the same without him, Screw magazine and Channel 35
- A Stumble by the MOD Squad December 16, 2013
It is probably a good thing that the UK government’s plans to privatize defence procurement (part of what is euphemistically called the “Defence Reform Bill”) have been dropped, at least for now.
The idea had been to replace the Defence Equipment and Support Agency with a “government owned, contractor-operated” body.
There is no question that the UK Ministry of Defence is very, very bad at procurement. Almost every major contract it issues turns out to be both a financial and military disaster. Invariably the ships, planes and weapons systems it orders are delivered late and over budget, with the taxpayer rather than the supplier paying the penalty.
All too often these products – whether they be destroyers, early warning aircraft, naval helicopters or rifles turn out to be inferior to as well as more expensive than off the peg equipment that could have been bought from the USA.
And if that weren’t bad enough the MoD is apparently incapable of managing the purchase of basic supplies without wasting hundreds of millions of pounds.
On the other hand, the last great MOD privatization was something of a disaster from the point of view of British national security and the armed forces, though the officials who arranged the deal made spectacular fortunes.
That was QinetiQ – a private company formed out of three quarters of the staff and facilities of the UK’s Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA). (The latter was an amalgamation of organizations like the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment, the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment and the Defence Test and Evaluation Organization which over the decades had been responsible for developing some extraordinary, often secret, military and espionage technology.) The government kept control of nuclear biological and chemical facilities but all the rest was sold off at a knock down price. To the surprise of the naive senior civil servants who approved the deal (described in a subsequent report as “an innocent at table of card sharps“) , the top managers of the spun-off company became multimillionaires. As the chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee put it it: “The senior public servants sold the idea to the Mo of privatizing the business without explaining to benefit, a serious conflict of interest.”
Although the sleaziness of those public servants, in particular the chairman Sir John Chisholm and CEO Graham Love, was remarkable even by the low standards of the day, the real lesson of that story is the financial incompetence of the MoD’s top bosses and their political masters.
(It’s also worth noting that, as Lewis Page has pointed out, some of Qinetiq’s immense profitability was thanks to secret know-how it had been supplied by the MOD’s US government partners. Suddenly stealth and telecommunications technology shared only to America’s closest ally was now for sale by Qinetiq to the highest bidder.)
As this piece in Standpoint magazine explained, the Ministry of Defence is unfit for purpose on many ways, partly because it attracts the least competent and enthusiastic civil servants in the entire system.
But it is hard to believe that a quick and careless semi-privatization of the kind the government proposed would result in a better procurement process of the armed forces.
- The Moral Maze and Aid November 14, 2013
I was a “witness” on BBC Radio 4’s “The Moral Maze” debate show last night (13.11.13). The link is here. A good debate but it was remarkable that the issue of corruption and waste in emergency aid delivery did not even come up….