Cameron faces Clones syndrome

March 11, 2007

Polls remain promising for opposition leader David Cameron. Despite a political wobble this week, he seems to be succeeding in weakening the Conservative reputation as the nasty party. His shifts towards ground previously occupied by New Labour appear to have been shrewdly chosen. But they may yet have the unavoidable consequence of reminding the electorate of Tony Blair and his charismatic early days in power. Cameron may yet become a victim of Clones syndrome.

This week David Cameron acted swiftly to dismiss Shadow homeland security spokesman Patrick Mercer after remarks about ethnic minority soldiers. Patrick Mercer’s career as a serving officer was put under scrutiny. It was revealed as exemplary. Black soldiers who served under him came forward to reject any accusations of the officer having displayed racist behaviors.

David Cameron came as much under the spotlight as did Patrick Mercer. Political allies insisted that Cameron had no option but (‘regretfully’) to dismiss Mr Mercer. According to the BBC, Mercer had been reported as saying that

he had met “a lot” of “idle and useless” ethnic minority soldiers who used racism as a “cover”. The former officer also told the Times that being called a “black bastard” was a normal part of Army life .. Mr Cameron had made his position clear: “The comments made by Patrick Mercer are completely unacceptable and I regret that they were made … We should not tolerate racism in the Army or in any walk of life …I was completely shocked when I read the remarks of Patrick Mercer.”

The dismissal polarized opinion within the Conservative party. Some echoed the popularist sentiment that it was another example of political correctness gone mad. Others accepted that their leader had no choice. However honorable his record, the remarks, if left uncensored, could too easily suggest to the electorate that the Conservatives remained the nasty party.

This is subtle stuff indeed

This is subtle stuff indeed. I’m not sure that Cameron was forced to act in the way he did. If so, he is already a victim of ‘events, dear boy, events’. More significant is the sense made of the situation among political commentators. By and large they agree that he has to deal with leadership dilemmas by careful attention to their second-level consequences. I have no problem with this line of reasoning.

Another point made this week also seems pertinent to the dilemmas of David Cameron in the specific context of Tony Blair’s departure from power. I have called it Clones syndrome.

Clones syndrome

Among those second-level consequences are some which have been expressed from time to time. That David Cameron has studied, learned from, and rather admired Tony Blair’s transformation of old labour. Just as Blair studied, learned from, and rather admired Margaret Thatcher.

Whenever David Cameron acts in ways similar to those espoused by Tony Blair, he will be open to the accusation of copying him. Opponents will be quick to label him no more than a Blair clone. It will not matter that the actions are similar because there are a limited number of non-stupid actions to take.

Actions that can be interpreted as good for the media will be presumed to be taken for that reason alone. My Cameron appears to be strongly commited to moving the party to a greener position. Demonstrating it through hugging a Husky will never be a complete PR success.

I’m not sure of all the implications of this. It will be interesting to see how they emerge in the months to come.


Northern Ireland: Will a Battle a Day keeps the Bloodshed Away?

March 5, 2007

This week, Northern Ireland votes for its representatives, with the deadline looming for a reconstituted assembly. Politicians agree on one thing – that the approaching devolved government will be a battle a day. Is there any cause to look beyond fatalism and hold fast to the ‘audacity of hope’?

A deadline approaches for the reformation of a National Assembly in Northern Ireland. The timescale of this particular story can be told as events in the period since the cessation of the operations of the formal Assembly, when its rival parties became mired in the repercussions of a spying scandal.

This week, as voting begins, politicians there have stated that the one thing they can agree about is that even if the Assembly is formed, it would involve a battle a day. These were the pessimistic words recently of Peter Robinson, deputy to Dr Ian Paisley of the majority Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The Good Friday agreement

Widening the story, we might consider the period since the time of the peace-seeking Good Friday agreement of 1988, and beyond that to “the troubles” of the two decades previously which the agreement attempted to put out of reach

At its core, the agreement aimed to achieve a constitutional future for Northern Ireland determined by the majority vote of its citizens, through the commitment by all parties to “exclusively peaceful and democratic means”. The achievement of an equitable democratic way of life for all citizens, equitably achieved has progressed in a series of zig-zag moves on the ground. At present, the zigging is towards the re-formation of a constitutional assembly for Northern Ireland, lost in an earlier zag.

A historical digression

Students of history will be all too aware of the centuries-long struggles between the westernmost islands off the European mainland. The history has been one of invasions, military campaigns, rebellions in the name of imperial conquests, religious and nationalistic freedoms. In earlier days this was the history of Roman and Norman colonizers from the East, and Viking adventurers from the North. The general movement was to drive indigenous tribes westward. The westernmost of the islands, Eire, or Ireland, suffered particularly in the process.

To its east, the largest of Europe’s offshore islands, Britannia, established an uneasy truce among its tribes, but in Ireland the ancient battles remain unresolved. The northern province of Ulster or Northern Ireland after a complex history, remains an integral part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the rationale of its majority political parties is the primacy of the Union. However, equally vehemently, a minority within Northern Ireland subscribe to the dream of a united republic of Ireland. One well-known simplification is along religious lines. In the vocabulary of Northern Ireland politics, nationalists and republicans are variants of catholic opposition to the dominant and protestant Unionist parties.

The zigs and zags towards peace

Outsiders looking in (such as myself) can point to the progress in the quality of daily life since the pre-agreement days of bombings, bloodshed, hunger-strikers, military and para-military conflicts. Recently there has been increasing willingness by the Irish and British parliamentary leaders to seek a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, and generally to implement the Good Friday Agreement.

The political process internally has been marked by remarkable twists and turns. One critical aspect is the status of Sinn Fein, which has emerged as the party with the majority of seats representing the republican voice in the Assembly, as the military activities of the IRA have diminished. Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have appeared to be restricted in what they can achieve. They have to be aware of opposition coming from within the republican movement where many remain unconvinced by any any deal that has the blessing of the British Government (arguably even one approved of by the Irish Government).

Furthermore, the aging but implacable leader of the DUP, Dr Ian Paisley, remains suspicious of fudges, and has steadfastly opposed the Good Friday Agreement. Yet it now falls to Dr Paisley and Sinn fein to find a way forward . He has vehemently insisted that Sinn Fein remains indistinguishable from what he sees as the continuing terrorist threat of the IRA. Now some ‘wriggle-room’ has to be found in a situation which requires him to deal with other leaders with whom he has literally refused to sit down. He exemplifies the characteristics of a fundamentalist leader who is deeply suspicious of fudges and compromises.

Beyond Fatalism: The Audacity of Hope

The peace process, before and since then, has remained a matter of immense importance to those communities directly influenced. The key question is ‘can anything be done, by anyone, to make an improvement to the prospects of the communities involved?’.

The progress of Sinn Fein at the expense of the SDLP, and that of DUP over the Ulster Unionists since the signing of the agreement, indicates that voters have moved to what might be seen as polarized positions, leaving a weakness in the political centre ground. If so, the process is quite the opposite to what is happening on mainland Britain, as New Labour, and then Cameron’s New Conservatives moved to the centre ground with increasing tendency for cross-dressing (stealing each others political clothes).

I began this post with the one point stated as uniting the parties recently, namely that any Assembly would be temporary, and would involve constant battles. This seems pretty much business as usual.

The leaders remain unable to achieve some transformational step that will win widespread support. More obviously than in many political struggles, the opposition to change comes from within their respective constituencies. Voters are choosing the leaders they prefer (I hesitate to use my more repeated term, the leaders they deserve).

I found myself turning to Barack Obama and his striking testamental expression of the audacity of hope. When he was asked recently whether it were possible to work with people across ideological lines, this was his reply:

It is possible. There are a lot of well-meaning people in both political parties. Unfortunately, the political culture tends to emphasize conflict, the media emphasizes conflict, and the structure of our campaigns rewards the negative… When you focus on solving problems instead of scoring political points, and emphasize common sense over ideology, you’d be surprised what can be accomplished. It also helps if you’re willing to give other people credit – something politicians have a hard time doing sometimes.

So?

Perhaps the leaders will continue their zig-zagging way towards a peaceful and stable future in Northern Ireland. We should applaud them when, as suggested by Obama, they reduce the point-scoring and increase the efforts at problem-solving. When more and more people become dissatisfied with politicians who seem to place ideology over common sense, and are unable to see the merits in any suggestion from anyone of an opposing view. And eventually we may get the leaders we deserve.


Gun crisis: Disentangling the political rhetoric

February 18, 2007

Three teenagers were shot to death this week in London. Politicians have pronounced on the violence and apparent pointlessness of their fate, an emerging gun-culture, alienation, and single parenting, laced with more than a hint of racialism against young black culture. To what extent can we disentangle the calculated and contrived from the compassionate?

Under these circumstances, Politicians find it all to easy to express a view, although fully aware of the minefield they are treading. Proposals will be labelled as primarily gesture politics. Grand visions will have to be backed-up with evidence of thought-through first-steps.

The case illustrates the dilemmas of political leadership. Politicians in power are in the position of being able to announce those specific new and promising first steps. Although this is the case for Tony Blair, anything radically new in what he suggests will be challenged by many in the media with the automatic reaction – why did it take his Government so long to get there?

David Cameron, in contrast, does not have to deal with that particular form of cyncial challenge to new ideas. He may even be able to offer novelty which as long as it has plausibility, will not be tested in the near future. He can justify why the ideas have not been previously policy for his party. He is still (just about) in a leadership honeymoon period (weighing up his overall treatment from the media). However, he still faces dilemmas. There is still the objection that he is operating from the luxury of not having to put his ideas to the test. And he has been careful not to commit his party too closely to specific policy statements, avoiding political hostages to fortune.

What did the leaders do, how did they do?

The early front-runner was David Cameron. His analysis was unusual for a traditional Conservative politician. However, Mr Cameron has been diligent in demonstrating that he is no traditional Tory. His reaction focussed on cultural deprivation as a deep-rooted and significant factor that needed to be addressed. The position would have been ‘nothing new there, then’ if offered by a traditional labour (or contemporary Liberal democratic politician).

John Reid as Home Secretary was at first more occupied with advancing the progress towards the provision of two new prisons. He turned his attention to the teenage deaths after David Cameron. His remedy, suitably tough was to reveal Government plans offering a review of gun laws and toughening them where necessary.

Tony Blair was curiously slower in response, but toward the weekend seemed to have reclaimed Dr Reid’s story for himself, in a TV interview, and a story that had been trailed to appear in The Sunday Times newspaper.

In ‘response’ to the yet-to-be-published statement, Sir Menzies Campbell broadly warned that there could be no quick-fix (sounding disdainful of rhetorical gestures on such a matter), but offering no ideas of long term alternative.

The political cross-dressing continues

Tony Blair has been consistent in his repositioning of New Labour on tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It is now commonplace to attribute the phrasing as a gift to Tony from Gordon when they were somewhat closer buddies. His approach is thus incremental (tougher laws for younger people). Dr Reid, in that respect is also close to this aspect of New Labour orthodoxy temperamentally. David Cameron is also consistent in repositioning New Torydom with considerable invasions of regions of social policies held firmly by Old Labour. Overall, both Blair and Cameron were consistent in their enthusiasm for political cross-dressing, shocking some of their previous supporters in the interests of change. Which leaves Sir Menzies Campbell with the unenviable task of pointing only to the truism that quickfixes do not work.

Winners and losers?

I’m not sure I can find any winners from the political offerings discussed. The proposals remain less than convincing that swift and effective changes are about to begin in the interests of vulnerable groups of young people in the inner cities of London, Mmanchester and elsewhere. The leaders we elected are delivering the leadership the rest of us deserve. Perhaps, as a message from Tim suggested in response to an earlier Blog, Gordon Brown might have some personal conslation in keeping out of the battle.


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