25 February 2013


NICK CLEGG: Danny, I’ve heard rumours that Chris Rennard has been a bit naughty! Will you have a word?

Later …
DANNY ALEXANDER: Chris, I’m told there are rumours you’ve been a bit naughty! Are they true?
CHRIS RENNARD: No, but I resign on grounds of ill health.
DANNY ALEXANDER: Splendid, Chris, I’ll pass that on!

Later still ... 
NICK CLEGG: Did you have a word with Chris?
DANNY ALEXANDER: Yes. He says there's no truth in the rumours and has resigned.
NICK CLEGG: Phew, that's a relief!

Some years later on TV …
MARGOT BONHAM CARTER (former Lib Dem candidate): That rotter Chris pinched my bottom! I told him off and then went home.
PAMELA ASQUITH (former aide to Nick Clegg): I felt his fingers fondly caressing my thigh as we discussed alternatives to the council tax after dinner at his flat. He was really creepy, so I immediately called a taxi back to Tooting.
MARIGOLD THORPE (Lib Dem leader of Pendon council): When he suggested we went upstairs for a 'pervy quickie' at the conference hotel, I burst into tears and ran off to my room.
ANONYMOUS (Lib Dem activist): I went over to his house to see his collection of Lib Dem Focus newsletters. But I thought he was revolting and left after a drink.

Back at Lib Dem HQ
NICK CLEGG: This is a crisis! We must make a statement! Danny, do you remember the rumours about Chris?
DANNY ALEXANDER: Rumours? I’m sure the first I heard was when Margot and Pamela went public on TV.
NICK CLEGG: Oh, I thought I heard something vaguely before and told you about it. Never mind! If we both tell everyone what we remember, I’m sure the truth will out!

24 February 2013


The threat Labour is posing to the libel reform bill is breathtakingly dumb and cynical.

It is a small piece of legislation that would curb some of the worst idiocies of our libel law – making it just a little more difficult for charlatans and foreign billionaires to suppress legitimate criticism – and was making its way through parliament with cross-party support.

Then up pop Labour Lords Puttnam and Falconer to amend the bill with a lot of proposals based on Lord Justice Leveson’s report on press regulation – which get the support of the Labour leadership. No matter that their proposals are utterly illiberal where they are not entirely irrelevant (they include the creation of a body that would vet material before publication, which is outrageous): they know that their action endangers the entire bill, because the government will withdraw support for it if amended. Indeed, the sole purpose of their intervention appears to be to embarrass David Cameron for wavering over Leveson.

There’s 24 hours for Labour to change tack and drop this opportunistic wrecking move: the Lords vote tomorrow. If Labour doesn’t withdraw, it will lose all credibility with journalists … and it wouldn’t want that, would it? Read Nick Cohen, John Kampfner and Tim Luckhurst.

21 February 2013


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 February

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote William Wordsworth of the French revolution. “But to be young was very heaven!” And to quite a lot of people, the same seems to apply to having gone to the giant London demonstration of 15 February 2003 against British participation in the war to topple Saddam Hussein.

 I’ve lost count of the pundits who have told us how it changed their lives and opened their eyes and nothing was ever quite the same again. Yes, it was massive, the biggest demo in London maybe ever – 1 million, 2 million? No one knows. We came from all over, all sorts of people. It was an extraordinary mobilisation, and it felt good to be part of a giant crowd.

But that was it. We came, we hung around in office-land, we eventually got to Hyde Park. A month later, Robin Cook resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet and there was a backbench Labour revolt in the House of Commons. Then Britain went to war.

In short, the demo failed. OK, it might have been more effective – a Tory MP on the platform, perhaps, or a bit of direct action? – but the brutal truth is that a lot of us turned out to say we didn’t want war, and the government, which had won a big majority in 2001, ignored us, as was its democratic right.

So why is everyone talking about it ten years after? It’s not just the convenience of anniversaries for editors. Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, framed by the day of the protest, captures the unease that made the Iraq war a watershed for liberals and leftists. Should we be opposing the overthrow of the most murderous tyrant of the late 20th century? Or should we be backing an imperialist adventure that has every prospect of failing? It was a defining moment, and the arguments continue to this day, filled with passionate intensity.

At the time, it seemed that the scale of opposition to war might prove fatal to Blair’s premiership. But it turned out to be only a nagging wound for New Labour. For all the sound and fury, Blair won another general election in 2005, and Iraq played only a small role in the manoeuvring by Gordon Brown that eventually ousted him.

The war did, however, prove critical for the confidence and credibility of the left in the Labour Party. It was riven over the war but also committed to maintaining Labour in power. Cook’s resignation speech won a standing ovation in the Commons, but most Labour MPs who agreed with him stuck with Blair. Individual Labour Party members opposed to war drifted out of the party, and the anti-war cause became the property of the Liberal Democrats, the Leninist far left (the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Britain and George Galloway), the mosques with whom the far left had allied, and the Greens.

None of them managed to capitalise on the political collapse of the Labour left. The Lib Dems won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, the biggest haul for a centre party since the 1920s but only 10 better than 2001, then jettisoned two leaders before turning to the free-market right. George Galloway won Bethnal Green for Respect after a campaign directed at traditionalist Muslims, but Respect soon split after a bust-up between Galloway and the SWP. Galloway resurrected his Bethnal Green strategy to win a by-election victory in Bradford last year, but it’s hard to see that as more than a one-off. The Greens retained the European Parliament seats they won in 1999 in 2004 and 2009 and won representation on local councils, though it wasn’t until 2010 that they got their first MP (and that had little to do with Iraq).

Meanwhile, Labour lost power in 2010 to the most reactionary government we’ve had since the 1930s. Iraq was not a major factor in the defeat – at least by comparison with the MPs’ expenses scandal, immigration and the press trashing of Brown and Labour’s record on economic policy. But it was a factor, and it was an issue in the leadership election that followed. Ed Miliband won in part because, conveniently, he’d not had anything to do with the decision to go to war.

The war marked the start of a dismal decade for the British left. Can we move on, please?

20 February 2013


The Amritsar massacre of 1919 is rightly remembered as one of the great outrages of the British empire in its twilight years. Brigadier Reginald Dyer, the local British army commander in the northern Indian city, nervous that the natives were restless and thinking they needed to be taught a lesson, ordered his troops to fire live rounds from rifles and machine guns into an exuberant but unthreatening crowd celebrating a Sikh festival. By the time Dyer’s men had exhausted their ammunition, at least 400 and perhaps as many as 1,000 of the revellers had been shot dead, with thousands seriously wounded.

It was not the only crime of empire or even the greatest – but it was the most brutal and public of the immediate post-first-world-war years, and the news of it, transmitted through the mass-circulation press, horrified Indian and most informed British opinion (to say nothing of the anti-imperialist Americans). Not so the British government, then a Conservative-Liberal coalition led by David Lloyd George, which procrastinated while inquiries and disciplinary procedures dragged on, eventually, more than a year afterwards, when it had no other option, putting up Winston Churchill, the most right-wing Liberal of the day, to explain in the Commons that it had decided that the massacre was a bad thing.

He did so reluctantly but well, against the protests of the Tories and their supporters in the press: it was the only time in the interwar years that Churchill did not take the most reactionary line available on India. The diehard Tory Morning Post, lately distinguished by publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as documentary evidence of the conspiracy behind Bolshevism, put the hat round after Dyer was disciplined to make sure he had a bounty when he got home, and Dyer remained a hero of the diehards until his death in 1927. Rudyard Kipling, who was of course much more than a diehard, said that Dyer had saved India.

In the circumstances, I think that anyone associated with the Tory party should be grovelling whenever they go to India. “I renounce my party’s despicable history, its tame press and the horrors of British imperialism” was not, however, the message that David Cameron gave when he sort-of apologised (by saying that it was rather awful but Churchill had said sorry already) this week.