Politics


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crystal

 

I am unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.

Man is a curious brute — he pets his fancies —
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, tho’ law be clear as crystal,
Tho’ all men plan to live in harmony.

Come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.

 

Vachel Lindsay, Why I Voted the Socialist Ticket

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Disraeli, or The Two Lives

Douglas Hurd and Edward Young
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013 £20

Friends will know of my mild obsession with post second world ward political biographies and autobiographies. They are a strange and mildly unsatisfying genre with few jewels on the shelves. It is difficult to write a life that is completely honest and that seems especially to be the case with politicians.

 

I have long been an admirer of Hurd who adds another volume to his list ( his memoirs are interesting but a little high handed about some events – but his biography of Peel is a great book).

 

Amazon offered me this volume at a reasonable price and it was a good read on holiday. Hurd turns his attention to the myths that have grown up around Disraeli – a politician who achieved fame for what he said, not for what he did.

 

You may have had the experience of meeting someone in public life and wondering how on earth they have managed to achieve so much. This is the underlying thesis in this book. For example, Disraeli has been credited with passing the Second Reform Act of 1867, giving the vote to the working man in the boroughs, because he believed in “Tory Democracy”. Not so, write the authors. He never used the phrase, nor did he think democracy was a good thing. It is often said that Disraeli was the author of Tory social reform, but this too turns out to be a myth. Social legislation was introduced on his watch as Prime Minister, but he took little interest, falling asleep in Cabinet when matters such as working-class housing were discussed.

The legend of Disraeli was created largely by the Conservative party, which needed a hero on whom to pin its ideas about making the party electable in a democracy. The process began with the Primrose League, a party organisation which was created in Disraeli’s memory after Queen Victoria sent a bunch of primroses to his funeral inscribed “his favourite flower” (the wording was ambivalent – some thought she was referring to Albert and not to Disraeli at all).

 

There is some understandable admiration for the man and his achievements.For Disraeli to have climbed to the top of the greasy pole was an extraordinary feat. The son of a wealthy Jewish man of letters, Disraeli was baptised aged 12 when his father broke with the synagogue. As a young man, Disraeli played the dandy, wearing outlandish clothes and dyed black curls, running up vast debts and claiming that the Jews were the master race.

The transition came in his forties. “I get duller every day,” sighed Disraeli. He ceased to write fiction. Instead, he poured his creativity into politics. This is not to say that he wanted to make the world a better place through reforming legislation, as Peel or Gladstone did. He was not a man of compassion. Disraeli, ever the social climber, filled his notebooks with lists of the famous people he had met.

The key to Disraeli’s politics was a genius with words. This is what he meant when he described himself as a man of imagination. Words, as the authors explain, are not the same as ideas. Disraeli possessed a stock of ideas, many of them preposterous, on matters such as neo-feudalism and religion. But he used them like silver, bringing them out on special occasions for display; not as a working political creed. Epigrams, wit and oratory were his weapons.

When Disraeli won his first (and only) general election in 1874 and became Prime Minister at the age of 69, his colleagues were dismayed to discover that he had absolutely nothing in the way of a plan. This was partly because he was old, tired and gouty. But there was something else too. For him, just being Prime Minister was enough. Power was an end in itself.

Part biography, part polemic, this is an engaging and enjoyable book. One of the questions they investigate is: what, if anything, can we learn today from Disraeli? Surprisingly, the answer is quite a lot. Disraeli brought qualities to politics which are conspicuously absent among Westminster’s dull clones of 2013: wit and, above all, extraordinary political courage. We need a bit more difference and risk and eccentricity to all aspects of our lives – and not least the Church!

 

a He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Rowan Williams (The Poems of Rowan Williams, Perpetua Press 2002)

The autobiography of Jack Straw – an MP for thirty-three years and at the heart of government throughout the longest-serving Labour administration in history

As a small boy in Epping Forest, Jack Straw could never have imagined that one day he would become Britain’s Lord Chancellor. As one of five children of divorced parents, he was bright enough to get a scholarship to a direct-grant school, but spent his holidays as a plumbers’ mate for his uncles to bring in some much-needed extra income. And where did he end up ? He spent 13 years and 11 days in government, including long and influential spells as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary. This is the story of how he got there.

It was  Barbara Castle who appointed  Jack Straw as her special adviser at the social services department in 1974, she said she wanted him for his “guile and low cunning”.  Straw went on to be a Labour frontbencher – in either the cabinet or shadow cabinet – for 23 consecutive years. In all that time, he resisted categorisation into any of the party’s many strands of opinion and faction.  Remarkably thirteen years later, he managed Tony Blair’s leadership campaign. Thirteen years after that, he managed Gordon Brown’s.

He was privy to most of the serious plotting against Brown and even emerged as the favourite not only to succeed the failing leader but to deliver the bad news to him. To dismiss Straw as an unprincipled and narrowly ambitious politician is to miss the point. Straw is tribal Labour; his maternal grandfather was a Transport and General Workers’ Union shop steward, his mother a Labour councillor. At 13, he decided, while delivering leaflets in pouring rain during the 1959 election campaign, that he’d like to be an MP. The abiding principle of Straw’s life is that Labour should be in power. 

The big philosophical issues of politics – the role of the state, the limits of markets, the merits of egalitarianism – are scarcely on Straw’s radar. Big pictures and big ideas are not for him. His habit is to amble along in roughly the same direction as everyone else. Still an MP, Straw voted for David Miliband as Labour leader, as most Labour MPs did, but now, like most Labour MPs, thinks Ed has “shown himself to be decisive and … made some difficult moves well”.

These memoirs are better written than most. There is ample gossip and genuinely funny stories, for example, when the Labour government won a Commons division on top-up university fees by just five votes, Straw warned Blair not to push his luck too far. “‘Jack,’ he replied, with blue eyes blazing, ‘I’m always lucky.'”

The most absorbing part of the book concerns his traumatic childhood and early adulthood. He recalls, without self-pity, how his parents quarrelled bitterly and eventually parted; how, aged nine, he saw a maternal uncle beat up his father and, next day, found his father attempting suicide; how he was initially so unhappy at boarding school (to which he won a free scholarship) that he ran away three times in one week. Later, Straw’s first wife developed anorexia and their child died at six days old. Straw himself suffered chronic tinnitus after an ear infection. Depression led him to consult a psychoanalyst whom he still sees occasionally.

The secret of what makes Straw tick may lie in his school holidays, when he worked for his uncle as a plumber’s mate. He learned “to cut, bend and solder pipes, and much else”. That was how he approached government and policy-making: he aimed to keep the water flowing and the boiler flues clear. He was New Labour’s safe pair of hands, its trusty plumber, a much more competent than average minister.  But it isn’t a plumber’s job to worry about the architecture.

Now – isnt that part of our problem too as individuals and groups?

If anyone has any doubt about the sheer complexity and difficulty of the work of a modern-day Prime Minister then this book and all 730 pages of it should dispel any lingering lack of understanding! It takes us into the heart of the work of government, the handling of the press, the management of a political party and the holding together of complex personalities and egos of politicians, their ambitions and their fantasies.

It is the fourth in a series of books completing this particular stage of Campbell’s work. It begins with the harrowing circumstances around 9/11 and ends with Campbell’s resignation. It is properly entitled ‘The Burden of Power’ and the reader can see the way 10 years of holding the office of Prime Minister has aged Mr Blair. Whatever you think of his politics then you will come out of this journey through the days and weeks of political struggle with some greater sympathy of the huge pressure that comes with responsibility.

The relationship with Brown is splashed out across the pages and little is spared – speculation, argument, disappointment, anger and even despair – it is surprisingly that government worked as well as it did considering the dysfunction between number 10 and number 11 Downing Street! Campbell is not of course an unbiased commentator and we await other narratives that might provide perhaps a more balanced perspective on this relationship, including, of course that of Mr Brown.

Campbell is reflective about himself, his depression and the pressures that working in 10 Downing Street put upon his relationship with his partner and his children. Despite the extraordinary aggressive and unrelenting style of Campbell there is a rather endearing vulnerability, self doubt, and redemptive self-knowledge about his strengths and weaknesses.

Campbell is sour about the media and these pages will make unpleasant   reading for many journalists – some of whom he dismisses with brutal and sneering disregard.

Any historian of the conflict over Iraq will certainly need to examine the course of events as described in some detail here. No doubt strategists working for the Labour Party will look at some of what Campbell says in relation to evaluating the success of new Labour and the prospects of what may lie ahead of the present Conservative and Liberal coalition.

It was certainly a long read but hugely worthwhile. When I get some time I shall have too cross reference some what Campbell says with Mr Blair’s memoir – in the meantime the grisly business of politics  continues and we need to ask ourselves what kind of political culture best supports our living and aspirations as individuals, families and communities.

We have not heard the last of Mr Campbell – there’s another story waiting to be told. A good read and worth persevering with as the nights draw in.

It’s a classic job interview question: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

At the top of the business world, people seem to have taken to heart the advice to admit no negative traits, just positives in disguise, says Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times. Every week for the past year and a half, the Financial Times has asked business leaders 20 questions including: “What are your three worst features?” Here are the findings:

 CEO Sins

They are:

Control freaks

Vain

Ditherers

Bad at listening Bullies

Afraid of conflict

 No good at small talk

The three worst traits of chief executives are a lack of self-knowledge, a lack of self-knowledge and a quite extraordinary willingness to give themselves the benefit of the doubt.

When it comes to describing their dark sides, 58 out of 60 leaders felt bound by the same rule – any weakness is perfectly admissible, so long as it is really a strength. They almost all cite impatience, perfectionism and being too demanding – all of which turn out to be things that it’s rather good for a CEO to be.

What is particularly interesting about this mass outpouring of faux weaknesses is that there is no difference between men and women, and no difference between Americans and Europeans. All are as bad as each other. Psychobabble Anyone who has ever spent five minutes talking to a CEO can tell you that they have more faults than the next person, because they are extreme versions of humanity. 

Given that most of the 60 interview candidates were probably guilty of at least one of the above, why did none of them own up? The first possibility is that they didn’t dare. But I suspect the real problem is worse: they don’t know what their faults are. A decade of psychobabble, coaching and 360-degree feedback has made no difference.

It has not changed the most basic truth – people never speak truth to power.

Honesty prize This denial of flaws is a pity. We like people better when they wear their blemishes openly. It makes them seem more human. There is only one senior leader I know who has no obvious faults at all. His lack of weaknesses does not make me think him the most brilliant executive I’ve ever met. Instead it makes me think him flimsy and slightly untrustworthy.

Marcus Wareing owned up to one of the most common yet unmentionable sins – he doesn’t listen. But then he’s a chef, and chefs aren’t meant to be listening. They are meant to be making sure the iles flottantes are taken to table six – now!

My prize for honesty goes to Jon Moulton, the private equity tycoon, who has made enough money to be able to say what he likes. His declared weakness is absolutely taboo, yet goes with the territory. Indeed, it is a weakness the other 59 leaders demonstrated through the self-serving answers they gave. His stated fault – “excess of ego”.

As someone who has always admired and liked Sarah Brown – for the dignity she showed through the death of a child and her self-respect whilst her husband was under attack from just about everybody on an almost daily basis – I was looking forward to reading this book.

The title was fascinating. What was this tome going to tell me? Scandalous gossip? Cloak-and-dagger political revelations? Sadly, neither.

What it did give me was an insight into a role that few of us would relish. A role where if you put one foot wrong you are likely to be castigated for life; a role where if you express your own opinion, especially as a woman – think Cherie Blair – you’ll be pilloried. You have to be the constant adoring wife with no views of your own, well at least in front of the camera. And, it’s a role hardly anybody will thank you for doing.

This is not a political blockbuster, nor is it the girly book some people were expecting, but is probably halfway between the two.

There were some light hearted moments, some loving family moments, and you get to find out that politicians talk about the same things “ordinary” people do and are fascinated by the same people many of us are – Nelson Mandela, to name but one.

What I think it lacks is what she really thinks of those people who conspired against her husband. What she really thinks of the media for their hounding of him. I get the impression that she wants to say much more than she has. It’s sad that she didn’t, because it leaves you with the feeling that something is missing from the book.

An interseting read from a good woman with insight, courage and morals.

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