Brown in Washington: A remarkable speech

March 4, 2009

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressed America in Washington in a speech urging American leadership towards global actions on economic and environmental fronts. He risked opposition at home to find persuasive words for his congressional audience

In its start, Prime Minister Brown avoided nuance. He expressed without equivocation a unity of purpose between two countries. This is the notion of a special relationship between Great Britain and the United States. Later he was to speak of a wider unity of values purpose between two continents, USA and Europe, ‘the most pro-American Europe in living memory …There is no old Europe, no new Europe, there is only your friend Europe.

A remarkable show of unity of values

One way in which the speech was remarkable was the manner in which it expressed shared values. This point was not weakened by qualifications, or acknowledgement of any possible sources of dispute. The admiration expressed omitted any reference to the revolution through which America escaped from its condition as a colony under British rule. The willingness to work for a global solution to the financial crisis avoided a hint of Mr Brown’s often expressed view at home of its origins in the United States. His called for an American lead for dealing with the grave dangers to the environment. He glossed over frustrations of what has been seen as the tardiness of recent American policy which at times appeared as a form of climate renewal to many in Europe.

A remarkable avoidance of political radicalism

In honouring the great leaders in America’s past, Mr Brown took care to balance references to democrats and republicans alike, citing Ronald Reagan several times as a kind of counterweight to his admiration of FDR and JFK. He even managed a similar strategy for acknowledging the positive contributions of the currently less-well appreciated George Bush. For this rhetoric to work, Prime Minister Brown had to avoid mention of a few inconvenient issues such as quaint acceptance in Europe in general, and in the United Kingdom in particular of a political philosophy that might frighten his hosts if mentioned in terms of its association with socialism and liberalism.

When courage and caution meet

The speech will have angered those who will have considered it a supine acceptance of America as superpower and leader of the free world and champion of democratic values.

A case can be made for this judgment of the speech. This view would also present Gordon Brown as a timid and cautious figure.

It is not so easy to build up the opposing case for Brown the self-appointed global hero. But it might just be possible to argue that it was a speech which combined caution with a stubborn kind of courage.

Brown would have been under no illusion that his words would infuriate a constituency back home. He will have considered this a necessary price to pay for making the points he really wanted to make. These required him to find words to nudge American opinion more towards avoiding strategies of protectionism and espousing more urgent strategic actions on a scale necessary to make a difference to the environmental challenges ahead.

There are no simple judgements to be made here.


It should be Team Scotland for London2012. Or should it be Team GB again?

August 26, 2008

Scotland honours its Olympic athletes, and the SNP raises more political questions. Alex Salmond argues for a Team Scotland for the London Olympics, and for an independent Scottish Football team at the Games

In the wake of the Beijing Olympics, Gordon Brown returns to the old story of a UK football team for London 2012. But the issue is complex. The story runs simultaneously with the wider story of whether team GB should be dismantled, so that the home nations can perform in their own identities, as happens in the Commonwealth Games.

The BBC reported [August 24th 2008] that

The Scottish Government has repeated its calls for Scotland to have its own, separate team at the Olympics. Ministers said it would be good for Scottish sport. The SNP wants to hold an independence referendum in 2010 – two years before the Games in London.

The case for a GB football team at the London Olympics is believed to put at risk the benefits of the national teams competing individually in other competitions, and particularly the World and European Cups. For Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, these internationals are pragmatically the sole rationale for their survival.

Gordon Brown sees the benefits to the 2012 games of an Olympics team GB, and of a football team GB as well. Rather audaciously, he would like to see Sir Alex Ferguson in charge of said team.

Alex Salmond sees it differently.
He tells the BBC

Mr Brown must be “seriously out of touch with Scotland”.
“The whole concept’s ridiculous and only could be put forward by somebody who’s seriously out of touch with Scotland,” he said.
There has been no British Olympic team since 1960, partly because of fears it could jeopardize individual sides.

The Prime Minister, who has suggested that Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson could manage the side, has been speaking with World Football’s governing body, Fifa, to reach an agreement on establishing British football teams. He said he would be surprised if there was not a team from the country which invented football competing on home turf in 2012.

Mr Salmond is remarkable shrewd in judging a popular cause. Maybe he continues to strengthen his political aspirations over this issue.

Maybe.

It is hard to assess the implications of his proposals. The rights of the four home countries to autonomy in world football is subject to the political machinations within Fifa, and the European football authority UEFA.

The concerns of the home nations are not without justification. That Prince among diplomats, Sepp Blatter offered one of his headline catching statements recently. His remarks hinted at a view that maybe indicated troubles ahead for the four home football unions:

Fifa president Sepp Blatter says a Great Britain football team at the 2012 Olympic Games should feature only English players.

“If you start to put together a combined team for the Olympic Games, the question will automatically come up that there are four different associations so how can they play in one team… If this is the case then why the hell do they have four associations and four votes and their own vice-presidency? “This will put into question all the privileges that the British associations have been given by the [Fifa] Congress in 1946.”

Unpopular but not without merit

My own views are those of someone of Welsh origins long domiciled in England. As in Scotland, the media in Wales have been keeping a proud count of the athletes of Welsh origin in team GB.

On balance, I rather like the idea of a supporting an Olympics Team GB. Despite reservations about obsessing over gold medal counts I was swept up into the counting game. I don’t feel that in 2012 I would have as much enjoyment keeping track of the overall Welsh medal tally.

That is a relatively trivial point but the feel-good factor this time around does seem a lot to do with the metrics showing Team GB had done better than might have been expected, and as an added bonus for some, outperformed that yardstick of sporting envy, The Australians.

But suppose Mr Salmond has to position his party as rejecting involvement in building on the achievements of Team GB in 2012, seeking an independent Team Scotland, foiling efforts at competing for football medals?

If so, Mr Salmond for once may be backing an idea that is likely to be unappealing to a proportion of his target electorate. Not too damaging of itself perhaps, but it may offer political opponents opportunities to cast doubt on Mr Salmond’s growing reputation as an agile and sure-footed leader.

In general, I found commentaries in the English press which largely supported the view that Alex has perhaps been less sure-footed than usual. A similar view could be found in Scotland on Sunday in which Kenny Farquharson described the First Minister’s position as churlish and petty.

On the other hand, the respondents to Farquharson were overwhelmingly on the side of Alex (Salmond not Ferguson). So who is to say whether Salmond has once again been able to deep-dive into regions where other politicians do not go?

Acknowledgement:

Image from emsee Bristol


HMS Westminster: A Tale of Two Control Ships

November 15, 2007

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Two years ago, Admiral West was in control of HMS Westminster directing the international fleet review for the bi-centennial celebrations commemorating the battle of Trafalgar. This week, as newly appointed security minister under the command of Gordon Brown, the former Sea-Lord was taking a little time to find his sea legs

‘I’m just a simple sailor’. The quote by Admiral Lord West on Wednesday November 14th 2007 will become part of contemporary British folk-lore.

The news story cropped up during a period of parliamentary struggles. Gordon Brown, having flourished in the first few months as Prime Minister, had found his Government falling behind in the opinion polls in renewed onslaughts from David Cameron’s conservatives.

The political battles increased in intensity after the summer break (almost as time-honoured as the military practice of a pause to get the harvest in). In the United Kingdom, Her majesty’s loyal government writes the speech which the monarch then reads to her representatives gathered at the Palace of Westminster. The speech is then ritually debated by said representatives.

One of the multiplicity of issues under scrutiny is a bid by the Government to increase the time in which suspects may be held in custody without charging. The debate involves deeply held concerns about liberty and the principle of habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus (ad subjiciendum) is Latin for “you may have the body” (subject to examination). It is a writ which requires a person detained by the authorities be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined … Sir William Blackstone, who wrote his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 18th Century, recorded the first use of habeas corpus in 1305. But other writs with the same effect were used in the 12th Century, so it appears to have preceded Magna Carta in 1215 … Michael Zander QC, Emeritus Professor of Law at the London School of Economics, says: “Habeas corpus has a mythical status in the country’s psyche.

Background

The specific circumstances which embroiled Lord West were those accompanying the security measures following the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. The Government under Tony Blair had failed to obtain further legal powers for the police to hold suspects without charge. Gordon Brown, on his appointment in the summer of 2007 attempts to revive and revise the proposals. As part of his idea of a Government of all the talents, Brown appoints Admiral West to a ministerial position, in August, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office.

The newly ennobled Lord West has been set a task to review security in public places. This includes the appointments of non-nationals to the Health Service. This brief was a swift response to one of the first challenges faced by the new Prime Minister. A foiled terrorist attack at Glasgow airport revealed involvement from a terrorist cell including medical specialists who had gained entry to the NHS with inadequate security screening.

The Queen’s Speech

This week the debate on the Queen’s speech drew to a close. Lord West was preparing his report, meeting with various committees, and fitting in a round of press interviews. Gordon Brown was facing a testing Prime Minister’s question time, which would include tricky attacks on his intended security legislation.

The BBC played its part in generating and sustaining the basic story line

Lord West told the BBC at 0820 he had yet to be convinced of the need to extend the 28 day limit, a view at odds to most recent ministerial comments. Just over an hour later, after a visit to Downing Street, he told the BBC that he was actually convinced of the case. He later insisted he had not changed his mind, saying as a “simple sailor” he had not chosen his words well.

The blogging community seizes on the story with enthusiasm.

Why the hell have we got a ‘simple sailor‘ in charge of our anti-terrorism strategy? Were all the complicated ones busy?

What’s going on?

This is a rather nice example of the dynamics of a modern political story. At face-value, the reader is left with the impression of bungling incompetence from people who should know better. Stereotypes are reinforced. Brown is a control freak who manipulates others into shows of puppet-like obedience. Lord West is expected to toe the party line at all times, like the other puppets.

Students of leadership are aware that beliefs tend to be grounded in ‘common-sense’ assumptions which can simplify the picture to an extent that we ignore aspects that are uncomfortable, or that do not fit in.

It tends to be worth looking beyond the story for those inconvenient facts. Bloggers are strong at unearthing facts others would prefer to leave buried. However, righteous indignation is often more of an influence than efforts to examine and critique a story. For righteous indigation and balance, you have to go back to respected sources. Even that’s a matter of judgement. The Guardian’s view is not everyone’s idea of a balanced analysis, but it did seem to reach another level of insight here.

During his naval and governmental career, security minister Lord West has repeatedly spoken out against government policy. Before he stood down as head of the navy last year, Lord West, who distinguished himself in the Falklands war when he was the last to leave the sinking HMS Ardent, warned that cuts to the service would leave it unable to protect Britain’s coastline.

The former first Sea Lord has condemned the decision by the Ministry of Defence to allow Royal Navy hostages held by Iran to sell their stories, has harboured serious doubts about the legality of the invasion of Iraq, and consulted lawyers over whether naval personnel could face war crimes charges.
Despite, or possibly because of, his criticism of Tony Blair’s administration, West was appointed parliamentary under-secretary of state for security and counter-terrorism in Gordon Brown’s “government of all the talents”. His remit included conducting a review Britain’s terror laws, which has led him – once again – to put himself at odds with the official government line ….

A case of herding cats?

In an earlier post we reported on an answer to a question on leadership in the House of Lords. It was put to another distinguished naval commander, Admiral Lord Michael Boyce. His reply was instructive:

Question: How does leadership work in The House of Lords?

Answer: The Conservative and labour Peers have a kind of ‘whip’ system [enforcement officers]. But managing cross-benchers … that’s like herding cats!

The additional talents recruited into Gordon Brown’s Government are a new species, with evidence of some of the characteristics of the cross-bench feral felines.

Leadership Lessons?

Where to begin? A cautionary tale, indeed for newly appointed Ministers, and maybe newly appointed Prime Ministers. But are there lessons for a wider range of students of leadership?

Might the case be worth studying by any military officer considering a new career in the political arena for indications of necessary changes in comunications and decision-making styles?

Or might there be lessons for any professional taking up a role a distance away from his or her previous career path?

Above all, what actions and by whom might have resulted in a different and more desirable outcome?


Leadership dreams, visions, and nightmares

October 23, 2007

mbeki-after-world-cup.jpgThe payoff from a vision dashed is a recurring nightmare. We examine recent sporting visions, dreams and nightmares during the Rugby Union world-cup

A glimpse of dashed dreams was transmitted around the world as the beaten English rugby team trudged up to receive their runners-up medals after defeat by South Africa. As if in a nightmare, the players trudged past the line of dignitaries, which included Presidents Sarcozy of France, the host nation, Brown of England (and Scotland and Wales), and Mbiki of South Africa. Weariness seemed to have damped-down despair and elation alike. The players just about managed perfunctory handshakes.

A few minutes later and joy overcame fatigue for the South Africans as they eventually got their hands on the trophy. The defining image was that of President Mbiki hald aloft not quite as securely as man of the match Victor Mayfield in the lineouts which he dominated throughout the game. Sorry, must make that clear: It was Mayfield who dominated the lineouts, Mbiki the political gestures, during the post-match celebrations.

The vision

The build-up to the final from had been a classical example of the way sport can tap into the deepest of group emotions. A popular upsurge in interest was captured and amplified through the obsessive reporting from Paris, where there seemed to be more former international players than members of the current squad.

The broad news story was that England would be a match for the Springboks. Most of the legion of elders suggested that England could win, if they played to their very best. Most reporters translated this as meaning that the match would be very close. Close? The South Africans had beaten England seriously in the earlier stages of the tournament.

The talisman

Yes, but that was before the team began its revival. Before its talisman Jonny Wilkinson returned to fitness. Before those nail-biting victories against Australia and then France.

The pre-match story began to make sense to me. There was something very important going in England culturally. This was one of those episodes which reveal how culture defines itself, and is itself defined. A vision is articulated.

We are the champions of the world in Rugby Union. We will remain champions for the next four years by beating South Africa.

How will it be achieved? Because we have the talisman. He who will not let us down. Jonny Wilkinson. He whose very presence will strike fear into our enemies. And so on.

Specifically there was a genuinely mimetic story to be heard. [Mimetics: The controversial of cultural transmission through ‘conceptual genes’ or memes.] It is consistent with a memetic approach that the story becomes become more consistent in its re-telling.

The replication process was helped by the intense appetite for ‘news’ from any-one. Celebrity Rugby has-beens were in demand. But so was the voice of the true supporter, the camp follower from the front-line. These were the voices from people close to the action. The real heroes were in silent preparation for the mighty battle ahead.

Someone articulated the achievement of the dream in a special way. It became the orthodoxy. It went something like this.

South Africa beat us, but that was when Jonny was injured.

They know Johnny is our match-winner and fear him.

Their fear will weaken their play and their resolve.

If we are only five or six behind with twenty minutes to go, their fear will play into our hands.

Although they will try to prevent it, the result is inevitable. Our mighty forwards will control the ball, battle forward, the ball will come out to Jonny.

Jonny will kick a drop goal.

That will confirm to the opponents that their fate is sealed.

And then we will score again and win.

The story has the power of all primitive atavistic expressions of fear and motivation. It is the verbal equivalent of the Hakas performed earlier in this and every tournament for over a hundred years by the New Zealand all-blacks. I have tried to report it accurately. Note how Wilkinson, undoubtedly the focal image within the story, changes the course of the game. But he doesn’t win it.

That’s one way in which the story has its power. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it has its powerful echoes. If the story just had the team winning by Jonny dropping a goal at the last minute, the story would lose power. ‘That’s just remembering what happened last time?’ someone might object, in the spirit of the lad shouting that the Emperor has no clothes. That was then. Here’s the new story of our destiny.

One moving, one clapping?

In the vision, fate decried only one outcome. But as someone pointed out, you may not be playing a game with one side moving and the other side clapping. Indeed, we might see all such battles as a contest between two stories, each of which has won over other stories in the run-up to battle. Eventually one vision triumphs, the other loses.

But the cultural loss is softened. There is always a way to find consolation. Victory denied, is also denial of defeat. We must have been robbed.

We was robbed

Yes. In those bitter and dark hours for English fans, there was the coda of being unfairly beaten. (How else?). In this case, it was the case of the disallowed try which would have brought the score into Jonney Wilkinson territory. The effort was disallowed by a fourth official. An Australian. Need I say more?

The other vision

There was another story developing. The South African dream went beyond winning a little golden cup. The symbolism was there for all to see. The nation had also had its earlier dream come true, as Nelson Mandela celebrated their earlier win. Then the President wore the gold and green shirt, which was previously a symbol associated with the earlier apartheid regime. This time the President wore a suit. But it was very convenient that the charismatic Mandela was ‘too ill to travel’.

The story, as was the one that England had dreamed of, was rooted in the past, but was also about the future. In South Africa, there is still a long road to travel, as Mandela would put it, to achieve the goals of one nation at peace with itself. The sporting win was recruited in the service of its cultural and political dream.

One clapping, one moving

I just remembered who used to talk about sport as a creative collaboration not a competition. It was Mark Izrailovich Dvoretsky, one of the greatest chess trainers of all time. I can’t find the reference, (yet) but he warned players against too much focus on one’s own strategy. Chess is not a game with ‘one player moving, and the other clapping’ he liked to say. That’s another quote in search of a definitive reference, as well as another example of chess as a source of strategic insights.


What can be learned from the ending of the Brown honeymoon?

October 14, 2007

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The Gordon Brown honeymoon is over. He has seen his party’s lead in the opinion polls whither away. His handling of the non-election has been branded cowardly and inept. His rival David Cameron scores overwhelmingly in parliamentary debate. What leadership lessons can be learned from the unfolding story?

This is the current situation. Gordon Brown is widely reported as having lost the initiative he held since his appointment as Prime Minister. The fall from grace can be located in time easily.

Prior to the labour party conference, the honeymoon period was continuing, and the main question was whether a snap election could destroy not just David Cameron, by maybe the Conservative party itself.

During the Labour conference, Mr Brown’s speech at worse did not seem to damage his or his party’s prospects. Yet the snap-election story continued to build momentum. At the start of the month [October 2007] it seemed to have been settled. There would be an election within a month or so.

Then the Conservative party conference, a well-received speech by David Cameron, and the news stories piled up full of bad news for Brown. The week following the election added to his woes in and out of Westminster.

You learn a lot from what surprises you

Over the last few months I have been frequently surprised by the ebb and flow of political events. So what were the surprises? What was the learning?

Remember the passing of Tony Blair from office? I was surprised at the time by suggestions that portrayed Gordon Brown as a person psychologically unfit to lead his party, or the country. The contrast with business leaders is quite stark. The literature of the dark side of leadership is mounting, and it is easier to find examples of leaders who do not manifest symptoms of narcissism, with a dash of other fancily-termed psychotic tendencies, than to find examples of well-balanced (‘abnormally normal’?) individuals.

Then I was surprised over aspects of the so-called Brown Bounce. That nice theory was made almost impossible to evaluate, because Gordon’s arrival coincided with a particularly turbulent time, during which the New Prime Minister acted in a competent and reassuring manner. [Remember the joke that had been told about him during his personal campaign to consolidate his election campaign? The trouble with Gordon, the ironic joke went, is that he is all substance. Ho, ho. ].

The honeymoon period is now over. One surprise is that no-one pointed to the curious contrast between the bounce, and the herd-mentality that had dubbed Brown a pathologically-flawed no-hoper for Labour, prior to election. The bounce transcended all those concerns expressed in the media?

Over the last two weeks, I have also been surprised by the speed at which opinions about Brown and Cameron have swung back. The ratings are now [14.10.2007] roughly where they were before Mr Cameron hit policy problems a few months ago. Now, Cameron is as a hot a favourite for destroying Brown politically, as Brown was for destroying Cameron, a few weaks ago.

I was further surprised at the damage politically the Gordon Brown has sustained over his assertion that his decision not to call an election had been nothing to do with opinion-polls in marginal seats. The statement has become taken as evidence that the Prime Minister is irretrievably untrustworthy.

The second event, the afore-mentioned pre-Budget speech by Darling, is similarly taken as a sign of Government duplicity, specifically over Magpie politics. Specifically, like thieving Magpies, the Government has stolen the shiny baubles plucked from the Conservative lips, including inheritance tax from non-doms.

There’s enough mud for everyone to play in

The speech from Alistair Darling infuriated the conservatives, and particularly the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. Alistair is in the Brown mould (measured and a bit, how can I put it, non-dom Scottish). Osborne is more of the smooth but menacing inclination, unafraid to take the fight to the muckier side of the farmyard. His immediate response to Darling’s pre-budget statement was a well-mounted piece of aggression at the calumny of his immediate opponent and the forces behind him, all the way up to King Gordon.

The next morning he had simmered down enough to articulate the view that the public would now be able to choose between the party of principled and honourable statesmanlike politicians, (the conservatives) and the cynical duplicitous lot on the other side (labour).

Overall he had had a good twenty-four hours, and is evidently on the way of becoming a dangerous opponent for the new Chancellor. Nice one George. Nice, in the sense of dangerously nasty.

The various outbusts of anger left me conscious of the farmyard metaphor, that there’s a lot of mud out there, likely to spread itself liberally on to all concerned. Voters may find it confirms their suspicions if they are repeatedly told that there are a lot of cynical duplicitous politicians (CDPs) out there.

On the other hand, drawing attention to this will not mean they will buy the proposition that all CDPs are to be found among the ranks of Gordon’s followers, thus enabling the conservatives convincingly to claim the high moral ground as The Principled Party.

Leadership lessons?

Some are immediately apparent. Gordon Brown contributed to the way in which this story developed. I rather think he moved back towards damage limitation in claiming responsibility for the election frenzy. (However tempting it might have been to bang on about the media).

There was another misjudgment when he insisted that he would not have been influenced by opinion polls in his decision, even if they indicated a majority of hundred after an immediate election.

The leadership principle is to retain some of that valuable commodity, wriggle room, whenever possible. Put another way, practice the art of the Delphic Oracle.

Find a creative way of dealing with the question at two levels.
Avoid yes or no answers when these are over-simplifications (which they almost always are).

No-one will get it right every time, but the frequency of poor moves, and the damage sustained, is likely to be reduced. At least, that’s if you believe leaders are made not born, and are strengthened through learning from their mistakes.


The date of the general election is fixed beyond doubt

October 4, 2007

The date of the next general election in the United Kingdom will be announced imminently. This is a belief now fixed beyond doubt in the mind of politicians and political commentators, who even believe that the day will be either the first or second Thursday of November 2007

As the Conservative Party Conference drew to a close, uncertainty over the next general election was virtually over. Professional gambling firms placed November as odd-on favourite. Commentators also shifted from ‘likely’ to ‘probable’. In the conference hall it was clear that the party activists had reached a curious and heightened state of excitement.

The story changes

At the start of the Conference season, a few weeks ago, there was little talk of a general election. Interest was mainly on whether poor old Ming Campbell was going to survive, (he did), and whether an heir apparent could be identified (Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne).

Then at the Labour party conference, the story was at first whether wooden Gordon would survive comparison with charismatic David. This notion was weakened as various opinion polls suggested that Gordon was increasingly rated as more capable in a crisis than David. At this point my own perception began to diverge from that of the emerging story, that that the new Prime Minister was preparing for a snap General Election.

What had Gordon Brown said to have left this impression? Not for the first time, I found myself reminded of the phenomena impression management and sense making. A story was developing to help those involved deal with their deeper psychological needs.

Lack of trust helps create a story

Taken out of context, Gordon Brown’s speech could be observed as a politician doing what politicians do, presenting himself and his party as favourably as possible. The reactions of the political observers and activists was quite different. Elsewhere I have written of how fear and suspicion can turn into conviction that something very bad is about to happen. The threat has become psychologically potent.

Coverage of the election by Press and Electronic media become more frenzied. To such an extent, that not saying there was not going to be an election was taken as evidence there would be one (hope you get my drift). The news becomes “Gordon Brown hasn’t ruled an election out” Or, “He hasn’t made up his mind but is thinking had about it”.

Then every statement and action of anyone offering a view is interpreted in these terms. The conference speech is demonstrated to be one designed to kick off an election campaign. For example, Gordon hardly mentioned the conservatives (or the other political parties). That’s blatant electioneering, pretending to be above such knockabout matters. He hardly mentioned Iraq. Later the conservatives quoted the puny number of words devoted to Iraq in the speech. So there, the point is scientifically buttressed.

More straws in the wind
Then, more straws in the wind. The Prime Minister’s diary is being rejigged. That clears the way for a General Election. Even if he doesn’t decide to go to the country in November, all these actions are about outmanoeuvring the conservatives, those bastards to be ground into the dust, in the typically restrained and considered words of Lord Kinnock, at a fringe meeting this week.

Why this all seems a bit hysterical

I just don’t get it. The views of political commentators have converged on the significance of a general election. Gordon Brown could have stopped such speculation if he had wanted to. Perhaps. If he could. If he had to. But not just because he could. Now, the media argue, if he decides not to hold an election, it will demonstrate he has bottled it.

The sort of mood around at present seems to me to be that of ritualized posturing that conceals nervousness. I’m reminded of herd behaviour. The combined galloping herd of media and political hacks are galloping about, instinctively sticking close together in a state of panic, seemingly unaware that ‘it’s not the election, stupid’.

If the Prime Minister now avoids an election he’s timid. Afraid he won’t win. If he does, it’s because he’s afraid that the economy will be in a worse state in a year or two. At least, that’s the analysis of former Chancellor Ken Clarke, remembering Clinton’s motto always that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.

In the disdainful words of Margaret Thatcher many years ago, he’s frit. Challenged that she might ‘cut and run’ she responded to questions by Michael Foot and some barracking by Dennis Healy.

The right hon. Gentleman is afraid of an election, is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit? Could not take it? Cannot stand it? If I were going to cut and run, I should have gone after the Falklands [when her political standing was at the highest it would ever be].

A political insight

Listening carefully to insiders interviewing insiders, I arrived at a political insight. The view heard, and the herd view is a genuine belief that Gordon Brown’s actions are all part of carefully prepared plan to gain short-term electoral advantage to reinforce the decision to call an election.

During the conference, we learn that Mr Brown is going to Iraq. More electioneering. On the brief visit he announces a troop reduction. Even more electioneering. Could his words be shown to be a form of stealth electioneering, this time taxing credulity?

The anger expressed by two former Conservative leaders, John Major and Ian Duncan Smith in interviews was intense and utterly convincing.

What David did next

David Cameron made a speech that was billed as significant for the very future of the conservative party. I will reconstruct my notes for a further blog. The test was now whether David’s assured style could prevail against Gordon’s weighty woodenness.

Suffice to say that the speech was reported as impressive in style. I take the BBC view, as that venerated agency still attempts to provide a balanced view of the political scene.

It was also a performance that fired up the party faithful.

He spoke without notes … warning the audience that it might be a bit “messy”. It wasn’t. It was a highly polished performance – and a lot more measured, serious and policy-heavy than we are used to from Mr Cameron. He once again tried to cast himself as the voice of optimism and sincerity – compared with the “cynical” Gordon Brown, who was trapped in the “old politics”.
Mr Cameron ended with a challenge to Gordon Brown to call an election.
Come on Gordon, make my day.
But it was exactly what the party faithful wanted to hear. He told them to “get out and fight” for the changes they want to make and they cheered him to the rafters.

Fear and threat had temporarily been abolished in the hall.


Paxman Patronized by Politician. Man bites dog?

September 26, 2007

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Foreign Secretary David Miliband is accused by BBC’s Jeremy Paxman of showing him insufficient respect. We ask whether such bullying behaviour is acceptable, and whether Gordon Brown should immediate relieve Milband of all formal duties, pending a full enquiry into the matter

Late last night, I witnessed an unprecedented and unprovoked verbal attack on a BBC employee. It took place in a near-deserted conference hall at Bournemouth. The aggressor was the young and newly-appointed Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. His victim was the aging public servant Jeremy Paxman, who has suffered similar attacks down the years, while carrying out his duties as a distinguished political interviewer. It was typical that Paxman was disgracefully portrayed as a gruesome and sneering figure in the infamous Spitting Image show.

Mr Paxman was at a grave disadvantage during the exchange. He had courageously left the relatively secure location on the Newsnight studio, and entered a dangerously open space for the interview.

The aggressive young politician, clearly looking for trouble, had taken up an arrogant and insouciant posture, on a plastic chair. His interviewer, handicapped by the various bits of equipment required for him to carry out his duties, had been placed in a relatively servile position. This would have been evident to any observer of Celebrity Big Brother body language.

At one stage, Miliband’s distainful manner got through to his innocent victim. ‘Don’t patronize me’, Mr Paxman cried in despair. But his plea for mercy was too late. Quite clearly, he had been bullied into submission.

Later in the interview he could be seen staring into space. Maybe, in his prime, his posture could be interpreted as part of a well-known strategy to unsettle an arrogant interviewee. But that was then. Yesterday it looked more as if there was not a lot going on between those glazed eyes. The brutal attack on him had scored a technical knockout. Outrageous. In future, will Jeremy be able to operate in quite the same much-admired fashion that had earned him such celebrity status?

Perhaps Mr Miliband was still over-adrenalized from the heady experience of making his speech to Conference. Clearly he was spoiling for a fight. [How far away, I thought, from the graceful and courteous way that Douglas Hurd would fulfil his duties as Foreign Secretary, in the long-gone days of Margaret Thatcher’s governance. However robustly he would be pressed on behalf of the people, Mr Hurd always respected the fact that the interviewer was only doing his or her duty].

How different, I further mused, from the graceful exchange between Mr Paxman in his younger days, when taking on the guileful Home Secretary Michael Howard. The polite and insistent repetition of the same question by Mr Paxman. The polite refusal to answer it by Mr Howard. The basic move repeated in a seemingly unending exchange. But that was also a long time ago.

We are living in times when politicians may even see political advantage in dissing public servants.

An apology is called for

This is of some interest to readers of this blog. I like to think of us as a community concerned about leadership behaviours. I suggest that the cruel behaviour of Mr Miliband requires a firm leadership response.

In the interests of the nation, Mr Brown should insist that Mr Miliband should apologize to Mr Paxman and the BBC and promise to reform his ways and treat much-loved national icons with appropriate respect.

More, I call for a public enquiry to see whether our much-loved national icons require additional protection against violent behaviours of interviewees.

Something must be done before careers come to a premature end. Foreign Secretaries come and go. But there’s only one Jeremy Paxman. Surely he can be permitted to continue in the sunset years of his career, without vicious bullying from the supporting cast of actors?


Waiting for Gordon

September 24, 2007

Unity ruled. Not the name of a Union, but the mood of unity enveloping the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth. The New Leader outlines his vision for the future. At times he retreated into the comfort-zone of his old role as Chancellor

The images from the first day of the Labour Party Conference offered some interesting surprises. At lunchtime, the faithful moving to the main auditorium wiating for Gordon’s speech were like fans heading for the Centre Court of Wimbledon when Tim Henman is playing. No, not quite. These were the faithful, queuing to get a good spot on Henman hill, clutching their thermos flasks and sandwiches.

The United Band of Hope

‘Where are the Blairites?’ asked Andrew Neill of the BBC’s Daily Politics show, in mock consternation. They were not to be found. The big-time defector Peter Mendelson had been one of the first of Brown’s political friends to betray him. Now he became one of the first of the Blairites to double-cross the frontline back to Brownite territory. He had announced his re-conversion in suitably confessional surroundings at a fringe meeting yesterday evening.

That was surprising. Then there was the even more surprising spectacle of another defector making an impassioned ‘come and join us speech. This was Quentin Davies, who had quit the conservatives last June [2007] as Gordon was becoming the party’s new leader.

Delegates struggled with the situation. Except for Dennis Skinner, who has a great taste for irony. Dennis Skinner sniggered. Mr Davies ended with a rallying cry. Come and join us, he called. A cheer-leader jumped up applauding enthusiastically. Brave fellow. A few others, stood up more reluctantly, applauded even more reluctantly. If they were looking for a lead from the senior party members present, they might still have been unclear what to do. Harriet Harman and the other platform leaders seemed rather unclear whether to applaud, and with what degree of enthusiasm.

Eventually there was a (sort of) standing, (sort of) ovation. Sadly I didn’t catch how Dennis was reacting. I don’t think it would have been ambiguous.

The main course

The anticipation of Gordon Brown’s speech was higher than I can remember. In some part, the first chance for those in the hall, and far beyond to see what he had to offer.

He started surprisingly by personalizing the events that had dominated his first hundred days. That was not the surprising bit, but by acknowledging a member of the audience, a fireman who had served with distinction in the thwarted attack on Glasgow airport. A more convincing standing ovation for this, than the one that had greeted Quentin Davies.

The new Prime Minister then returned to familiar ground. The impact of his father’s values on the young Gordon. His commitment as a conviction politician. Very worthy. Perhaps dutifully rather than enthusiastically received from time to time. New Labour as the party of aspirations, of expanding the middle ground.

He moved to equality of opportunity, and illustrated this with images of children and their education. The applause was far warmer. Curiously, some of his specific pledges seemed just a tad less well received than the rather platitudinous bits. But the bits well-received sounded to me too much like the Chancellor unfolding the sweeties in his budget plans.

Then, the offer of more sweeties. We (did he mean The Chancellor?) will renew the link between pensions and earnings. That was a surprise. (Unsurprisingly well-acclaimed). National minimum wage completely achieved. More new homes in environmentally and socially acceptable ways. Youth budgets in every community.

Yes it was a bit like his speeches as Chancellor. But it did not sound as a simple pitch for votes for a snap election. On the other hand, it wasn’t a simple anything. Rewards balanced with obligations. A Yes And speech for those in the Hall. One Member one vote; carbon omission legislation; All-elected House of Lords. (Phew).

Then a Yes And on being a good national leader and a good European and a good friend of The United States (phew, again.). And the debt owed by the nation to Tony Blair (lengthy applause, another surprise). Robust opposition to Al Qaeda. Humanitarian intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever (Yes And deepest commitment to the safety of our armed service people.

A National Health Service that is also a Personal Health Service. More specific examples. The speech had run for an hour. More Chancellor-like stuff on investing in medical research. Now more like the son of the Manse as he ended personally and patriotically.

No mention of the election.


With friend like these …Gordon and the Unions

September 8, 2007

welsh-battle.jpg The new Prime Minister faces the annual conference season. It will be a testing time for Gordon Brown during which we may learn a little more of his longer-term plans and short-term tactics related to industrial relations

This week, Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Union, brought his transport members out on a lightening strike, to the inconvenience of London’s commuters, and the fury of London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone.

‘Nobody loves us we don’t care’

I was reminded of Millwall’s football chant when I read that Bob Crow was a Millwall fan. According to a reliable source, the song can be read as postmodern irony associated with the defiance of Bermondsey’s dockland’s culture towards its detractors.

The song was a reaction to what the Millwall fans perceived to be sustained, exaggerated and unfair criticism of their behaviour by the press and the stereotypical image of all Millwall fans as hooligans, perpetuated by certain sections of the media in general.

I have heard it remarked that at Girton College before male students were admitted, the gals also had been known to chorus the Millwall anthem. Perhaps that was another postmodern gesture, indicating distain for the behaviors displayed towards Girton’s students by Oxford’s chauvinistic males.

But to return to our main story … This week, Bob’s actions brought his members out on strike, and dragged London Mayor Ken Livingstone into the dispute with a few far-from-brotherly remarks.

As the BBC put it

For Ken Livingstone, its decision was unfathomable.
“This must be the first time in history of a union going on strike when everyone has acceded to their demands,” he said.
Mr Livingstone added that he could not “explain the mindset” of the RMT

Bob Crow

To his many critics, Bob Crow is an unwanted throwback to the

worst excesses of 1970s union militancy… To his supporters, however, the 46-year-old leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union is simply a resolute defender of workers’ rights.

RMT members may hold Mr Crow in great esteem, but he is certainly not liked by the Labour government, which has historically branded him “a wrecker” … Back in 2004 his hostility to the Labour came to a head when the RMT broke its ties with the party – a link which dated back to 1899 – following a row over the RMT’s decision to allow local branches to affiliate with other parties.

Bob and the Treaty

Mr Crow has also been in the headlines for his support to the movement calling for a referendum over the new EU treaty. We have commented on this in an earlier post, as had The BBC

The RMT’s motion asks the TUC to campaign for a “no” vote, if a referendum is held on whether to adopt the treaty. Its general secretary, Bob Crow, told the BBC: “They [the government] went to the British people on the promise there would be a referendum … What we want him [Gordon Brown] to do is implement what his manifesto was.”

What’s going on?

The reported stories indicate that the RMT union is embroiled in an industrial dispute. Also it is becoming involved in the wider debate on Britain’s role in the EU. It joins a rainbow alliance ranged against the Government in calling for a referendum.

Without more information we have to speculate on whether the two stories are interconnected. The imminence of the so-called (political) conference season suggests they are.

Whatever the intentions of Mr. Crow, the intentions of Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron are clear. Both are seeking to hold on to their territory on Middle-earth, and perhaps expand it. But to do this, Mr. Brown was to reassure the inhabitants of Middle- earth that he is in no way in thrall to the dark forces, particularly those of the left. Mr. Cameron is also having to calm concerns that he is abandoning his allies from the right.

With these considerations in mind, neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Cameron wants to be too friendly to Mr. Crow.

So that old refrain may well be rather apt. Nobody loves me and I don’t care, and I can be very difficult when I get upset.

Outcome. Skirmishes. Casualties mainly to the front-line troops caught up in a rather complicated set of political moves. Troops watch on sympathetically from the ranks of the Post Office workers. They are caught in a similar difficult position to defend.

Acknowlegement

Image is from Google, citing Ben Becker’s armies of painted warriors as a representation of a battle beween the Celts and the Romans.


Tactics for a general election: The significance of Kerr’s Folly

August 28, 2007

The next General Election may be several years away. It is already shaping the thoughts and actions of the main political parties. While the new European Treaty may be of secondary importance to voters, it could play a vital part in the outcome of the election.

Conservatives and Labourites alike should be thinking beyond the obvious regarding the treatment of the New European Treaty. The issue is very much on the political agenda. The Government stands accused of breaking an election pledge. So how damaging might it be to Gordon Brown?

Background.

This week all the pressure seemed to be on Gordon Brown. Two unions, The GMB and RMT, are calling for a referendum by tabling motions for the TUC annual conference. This adds from the left to calls from the Conservatives and UKIP parties from the right. Presumably the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats would also welcome a referendum. This suggests that the government faces opposition from inside and outside its ranks to its decision to avoid a referendum.

Kerr’s Folly

A classic paper in the Academy of Management Journal in 1975 by Steven Kerr drew attention to ‘the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B’. The essential point made by the author is that the key to effective implementation of plans is understanding how reward systems work. Or, as Bill Starbuck memorably put it, ‘it’s the reward system, stupid’.

According to Kerr, numerous examples exist of reward systems that foul-up because the types of behavior rewarded are those that the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior desired is not being rewarded at all. He explores this in various social, economic, and political fields. The paper leads us to the notion that politicians are all too-aware of the process through which the electorate wishes to obtain one thing and might appear to be of rewarding the politicians by voting for them. However, experience has shown that the electorate may wish for one thing and punish the politican by voting in effect to deny the policies approved of. Specifically, in politics, policy is couched in a deliberately vague manner, lest the electorate punish the ‘honest’ politician for spelling our any unpleasant consequences of that policy.

The [American] citizenry supposedly wants its candidates for public office to set forth operative goals, making their proposed programs clear, and specifying sources and uses of funds. However, since operative goals are lower in acceptance, and since aspirants to public office need acceptance .. most politicians prefer to speak only of official goals, at least until after the election. … The [American] voter typically punishes (withholds support from) candidates who frankly discuss where the money will come from, rewards politicians who speak only of [policy] goals, but hopes that candidates (despite the reward system) will discuss the issues [revealing potential pain to the voter].

In other words, Kerr’s folly indicates how we get the political behaviors and elect the politicians we deserve

The Behaviors we Deserve

It becomes the received political wisdom for a political leader to find ways of presenting policy with avoidance of mention of its costs, leaving that to the opponents of the policy. This happens to be one of the strengths of an open society. For example, in the UK, Conservative policy for releasing citizens from the burdens of taxation have to be justified increasingly with specific explanations of funding for maintaining social institutions such as the Health Service.

The Treaty, The Election and Kerr’s Folly

A knowledge of the theory of Kerr’s Folly might not win an election. But it explains and perhaps helps predict political ‘moves’.
Let’s see how it might be working at present. Gordon Brown is pressed ‘to stick to an election commitment’. He is benefitting from being seen as a ‘Not like Blair’ statesman. He is thus vulnerable to accusations of behaving in a Blair-like way, involving a bit of ducking and weaving. Thus he risks the displeasure of a proportion of the electorate, demonstrated by a slump in opinion polls.

In its original form, Ferr’s Folly suggests that the electorate may want to punish a politican for avoiding any tricky behavior, spin, or obfuscation. But if so, the folly is that the self-same people appear to deprive themselves of evicting such politicians by discounting the undesired behaviors, and when it coms to the vital vote, cast it on different grounds. In other words, if the electorate thinks a referendum will not really make much difference presumably to self-interest, a slump in opinion polls interpreted as disapproval on general grounds moral grounds will ultimately not count for much.

So, should David Cameron choose to fight over the principle of Labour’s broken promise? Probably not. One of the reasons is that there is still considerable ‘wriggle-room’ for the Government. The finer details of the logical or even moral case are not so critical as the evidence of personal disadvantage of the issue to voters.

The Knight’s Move

But battles are rarely predictable. A sudden unexpected surprise, like a devious Knight’s Move in Chess, changes the entire game.
Suppose Mr Cameron does go big on this attack on Mr Brown and his failure to stick to the Manifesto of the last Election? This may present the Prime Minister with the opportunity to be ‘forced’ to accept a call for an early election. If so, be sure it will be at the time of his choosing. It is not unknown in the heat of battle to drive the enemy into a more favorable position.


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