George Osborne: the Rake’s Progress

Anyone who has seen a James Bond film will be familiar with the words that Ernst Stavro Blofeld used before dispatching minions who had displeased him: ‘ You know the penalty for failure.’  The penalty was always death, whether it came in the form of Rosa Klebb’s poisoned toe-knife or a pool of piranha fish.  For most of us the penalty for failure at work isn’t so dramatic, but penalties there certainly are.  If you’re a social worker say, and you make a mistake or error of judgement, you can expect to have your career and your reputation destroyed and you will be lucky to work again.

If you’re a ‘failing’ school, and you don’t meet the latest arbitrary targets that the government of the day has imposed upon you, you can expect to be put into the purgatory of ‘special measures’ and have your every single action ruthlessly scrutinised by Ofsted.  The same applies in many other professions, particularly in the public sector, where micromanaged target-setting has become the stick that governments and their appointees use to whip the system into line – and privatise when it doesn’t fall into line.

It’s a very different matter at the top end, when it comes to politicians who perform what we still quaintly – and increasingly absurdly – refer to as ‘public service’.  Even if you are generous enough to  say that Tony Blair made an honest error of judgement over the Iraq war – and I’m not generous enough to say this – it was one of the most catastrophic errors of judgement that any British prime minister has ever made.   At the very least, it cast doubt over Blair’s judgement, yet he went on from that disaster to make more money than any British prime minister has ever made, much of it in the same region where he had demonstrated his incompetence and lack of knowledge and ability.

I used to wonder what people were paying Blair these incredible sums of money for.  It was obvious he was being rewarded for something, thought it wasn’t always clear what the reward was for.  But what  could he be saying that was worth £100,000 or more for a single speech, given that what he actually says in public isn’t very novel or insightful, and is often really quite banal?   I assumed it must be something to do with access, that paying Blair these sums was a way to get to network and get know to someone else.

Now I’m beginning to see things differently, after trying to take in the incredible new that George Osborne is now editing the Evening Standard.  I should make clear that I don’t have any respect for the Standard at all.  It’s a trashy rightwing newspaper that I only read for free on the tube, because my mobile server is so useless that you can’t connect to it underground.

But the fact that Osborne got this job is not good news. This is a man who was rich before he even took office, who inflicted pointless and brutal social cruelty on thousands of men and women in the name of a deficit-reduction dogma that his own party have rejected, who left the country with an even greater debt than when he took office, not to mention the calamity of Brexit.

Yet like Blair, he has gone on from strength to strength.  Since last summer Osborne has received £800,000 from speeches.  In the same week he has just got a new job of one day a week with an annual income of £650,000.  And now he has been given the job of editing the Standard by a Russian oligarch who he was already pally with, even though he has barely written a word and has never worked as a journalist.  And on top of all this, he’s still an MP.

Weird, isn’t it?   Except that it clearly isn’t weird at all.  They prosper because they belong to an en elite that is not governed by the rules that govern the rest of us.  That elite exists only for itself, in order to enrich its members and reward those who serve it. What looks like failure to the rest of us doesn’t look like failure to them.  What looks immoral to us looks moral to them.  They don’t even care about competence, success or failure.  Once you’re in, you’re in, and unlike Spectre there is no penalty for failrue. You can just keep rising as high as your friends and contacts can lift you.

Some may shrug and shake their heads at the remarkable progress of a man who has once again risen far higher than his abilities merit,  as if it’s just another of those 21st century beyond-satire things that doesn’t concern them.  But it does concern us. Because it’s  partly because people behave like this that we get Trump and Brexit, and why we might get Le Pen.  Democracies cannot prosper when their elected representatives behave like pigs in a trough and seem to have no real purpose or goal except the trough.

If politicians act so brazenly in their own material interests and use public office to gain admission to the global kleptocracy while the rest of society is squeezed and cut to the bone, then why trust any of them?   Why not trust someone who isn’t a politician or seems to be a regular guy – like Trump or Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage?  Or why not vote for them even if you don’t trust them just to have a change?

Because if democracy becomes a mockery, don’t be surprised if people choose to mock it in unexpected and sometimes self-destructive ways, and George Osborne’s unlikely progress is another sign that British democracy is in very bad shape.

Of course Georgie and his mates don’t care about this. They only care about how they are doing, and right now, they’re doing very well indeed.

Tony Blair Says Sorry (again)

The Chilcot Inquiry report really does look as though it’s only weeks away from publication,  and Blair already out apologising for Iraq once again.  Blair last did this back in October last year,  when it also looked as though Chilcot was coming, and he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

‘I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime. But I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.’

This is an example of the ‘mistakes were made’ category of political apology, which the New York Times once described as a ‘classic Washington linguistic construct,  used by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, among many others. According to the Times: ‘The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.’

This kind of apology allows those who make it to lie without actually lying, or share responsibility so amorphously that no one is actually responsible.  It can also serve to make those who make it seem better than they actually are, so that their ‘mistakes’ seem to be the product of overzealousness and good intentions.

Few people do this more easily than Blair, who cannot conceive of himself as anything less than a great man doing great things – even when the things he does turn out to be not that great after all.   So no one can be surprised that he’s at it again, telling an audience at a Prospect event yesterday:

‘For sure we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and would take advantage of change once you topple the regime. That is the lesson. The lesson is not complicated. The lesson is simple. It is that when you remove a dictatorship out come these forces of destabilisation whether it is al-Qaida on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side.’

There are so many lies in this seemingly humble statement of contrition that it’s difficult to know where to begin.   Firstly there are the references to the dark forces of evil that messed up what would otherwise have been a perfect success and a jolly good cricket tour.  Then there is that use of the first person plural, which suggests that everyone, and therefore no one shared the misconceptions that Blair appears to be taking responsibility for.

In these circumstances,  it’s worth recalling that there were plenty of people who did not ‘underestimate’ what would happen in Iraq, and who tried desperately to warn Blair of what would happen.   In his history of the Iraq war, Jonathan Steele describes how six academic experts on Iraq, the Middle East and international security were invited to Downing Street to give their views to the man himself.    According to Professor Charles Tripp, the author of a major history of Iraq: ‘ We all pretty much said the same thing.  Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don’t imagine that you’ll be welcomed.’

Tripp later recalled how Blair responded with the less-than-insightful observation of Saddam Hussein ‘ But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’  Tripp later declared himself ‘ a bit nonplussed.  It didn’t seem to be very relevant’ and tried to explain to Blair that Saddam was ‘constrained by various factors.’

These arguments slid effortlessly off a man who Tripp described as ‘ a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour’ and who another academic described as ‘ someone with a very shallow mind, who’s not interested in issues other than the personalities ot the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc’.

Toby Dodge, another Iraq specialist, also remembered how he tried to challenge the ‘rhetoric from Washington’ which depicted Saddam’s regime as ‘separate from Iraqi society’.   Dodge later recalled: ‘ What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself in Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it.  We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds.’

Blair received the same warnings from other quarters.  In 2004 52 retired British diplomats, many of whom with years of experience in the Middle East,  took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Blair in 2004 condemning Britain’s failure to analyse what would happen to Iraq in the event of occupation, declaring:

‘All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case.   To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.’

So it is simply not true to claim that Blair ‘underestimated’ the ‘forces at work in the region’. The truth is that  he believed what he wanted to believe and only ever listened to advice that supported his own case.   To say that such behavior is not statesmanlike doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Blair acted like this because he was – and is – a dangerous and reckless ideologue who only listens to what powerful people tell him.   His apology is just another lie and an obfuscation of the truth.

Blair is not entirely wrong though.  He is not the only person responsible for the catastrophe of Iraq.   There were other ‘ideologues’ and ‘utterly ignorant’ people who Charles Tripp later condemned  the ‘ideologues’ for ‘playing out their games of democracy, diplomacy, of liberalisation’ in Iraq.  Tripp also lamented the UK’s ‘criminal part’ in the war and occupation, declaring ‘ We didn’t say how we would ensure the Iraqis’ security, how we would give these people jobs, these poor people who have been struggling under the weight of something we partly created and to whom we owe a responsibility.’

No we didn’t, and it remains to be seen whether the Chilcot report will address this ‘criminal part’ or whether it will be content with the ‘mistakes were made’ version of history that Blair is currently spinning.  But one thing is certain; Tony Blair will never acknowledge his role in an epic crime and historical tragedy whose consequences are still unfolding, and every apology that he ever gives will just be one more variant on the same lie.

 

Who’s afraid of Jeremy Corbyn?

With Jeremy Corbyn now the clear frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, the uneasy and incredulous mutterings that have been spreading through the Labour Party establishment and the commentariat in recent weeks have risen to an increasingly strident and hysterical chorus.   Tony Blair has crawled out from his gilded swamp to declare that he would prefer to lose an election than win on a ‘traditional leftist platform’ and told Labour supporters who say their heart is with Corbyn to ‘get a transplant.’

Alan Milburn – one of the most egregious Labour troughers who has profited so handsomely from the NHS ‘reforms’ that he promoted in office – has accused Corbyn supporters of a political ‘death wish.’  The entrepreneur John Mills, Labour’s richest donor and a contributor to Liz Kendall’s campaign, has warned that a Corbyn victory might trigger the formation of a new ‘SDP-type party’ if Labour becomes a ‘party of the far left.’   And now Labour MP John Mann, an Yvette Cooper supporter, has accused Corbyn of inaction over paedophile allegations in his Islington constituency in the 1970s and 80s.

Facing defeat, the other contenders are now talking about transforming the robotic Andy Burnham into a ‘Stop Corbyn candidate’.     It’s all getting rather nasty and unseemly, and it’s not just the politicians.  At the Telegraph, the gruesome Blairite Dan Hodges has described the Corbyn surge as an ’emotional spasm’ which might presage a ‘full-blown nervous breakdown.’ The liberal commentariat is equally scornful and dismissive.  Opinion pieces and news reports in the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent routinely refer to Corbyn as a ‘far left’ or ‘hard right’ dinosaur who has mysteriously broken into the political theme park.

None of these papers support him, and the language they use to condemn him says a great deal about the dismal rightwing bubble that British politics have been trapped in for such a long time. For one thing Corbyn is not on the ‘far left’ or the ‘hard left’ .  On the contrary, he is an MP on the leftwing of the Labour Party, and the endlessly snide Citizen Smith-type cracks about his beard and ‘Lenin cap’ ignore the fact that he is a social democrat not a Bolshevik or a Trotskyist.

His economic proposals are a Keynsian social democratic redistributive alternative to austerity, which contain many ideas that already have widespread public support.  But both the Labour Party and the majority of the British commentariat appear to regard even the concept of progressive taxation as a revolutionary gesture akin to the storming of the Winter Palace and the establishment of soviets.

Criticisms of Corbyn in the liberal press are sprinkled with Thatcherite warnings of the dangers of ‘tax-and-spend’ or the ‘big state’ and the dangers of turning away from ‘reform’, which only reveal how much even the supposedly left-of-centre media has come to take Tory nostrums for granted.

Consider this analysis of Yvette Cooper by Ian Dunt, the editor of Politics.co.uk.  Dunt has been an astute critic of Tory policies on prisons and immigration, among other things, and his piece is a lament at Cooper’s failure to bear out his own tendentious assertion that she is ‘the most intellectually impressive of the candidates.’

To bear out Cooper’s supposed intellectual prowess, Dunt cites her response to George Osborne’s plans to cut tax credits in a recent interview:

‘They are actually discouraging parents from working harder,” she said. This was exactly the right response. Cooper understood that the most effective argument against a Tory policy is based on Tory premises. Instead of talking solely about fairness, it was best to focus on the argument that a cut to tax credits would be a disincentive to getting people into work.’

Why should Labour adopt ‘Tory premises’ to refute a policy that is so blatantly unjust and vindictively targeted at the marginalized poor?   It is precisely because Labour has done this kind of thing for so long that it cannot articulate a genuinely progressive alternative to Tory economic brutalism.  It is the reason why Labour politicians sound so hollow, why their language is so convoluted and evasive and so pathetically designed to please all of the people all of the time.

Dunt accuses Cooper of selling herself short and offering nothing but a ‘string of platitudes’ in a recent interview, but this is what inevitably happens to politicians who ape their opponents and try to appropriate their language and concepts simply in order to win elections.   It’s what happens when you are determined to avoid saying anything controversial, challenging, or which might open you up to accusations from the tabloid press that you are ‘soft on immigration’, ‘soft on welfare’ or ‘anti-business’.

One of the reasons why Corbyn appears so fresh to his supporters and so shocking to the politicians and the commentariat is precisely because he doesn’t do this.   Unlike any Labour politician in years, he has offered an alternative to austerity which is attractive and appealing to a constituency that is not limited to the ‘far left.’   As the Guardian notes Corbyn’s ‘uncompromising anti-austerity stance seems to be particularly inspiring to the tens of thousands of recently joined Labour members and to trade unionists’.

Like the rightwing politicians who dominate the Labour establishment, the Guardian clearly doesn’t approve of this unwelcome development, and would rather a ‘modernizing’ candidate who is prepared to compromise with a government that ought to be fought on every single front, rather than appeased.

This week all the Labour leadership contenders except Corbyn abstained from a bill that they should and could have opposed,  while still claiming to oppose it.  They and their supporters would like to believe that this strategy represents mature, adult politics.

Others will interpret it as gutless opportunism, and conclude that these are not the politicians to lead the opposition to the massive cuts that are now looming, or fight the battles that must be fought in order to prevent the Tory dystopia from becoming even more nightmarish than it already is.

It is now clear that many Labour members who think this way are turning to Corbyn, and if the Labour leadership succeeds in destroying him and imposing yet another political hologram in his place,  it may find that they are the ones who are leading the party to political destruction.

 

Come in Mr Peace Envoy: your time is up

Rumours abound of the Right Dishonourable Anthony Blair’s imminent departure from his position as the Quartet’s Peace Envoy.   The Chosen One has occupied that position since the powers-that-be gave it to him in 2007, at the behest of his mate George W. Bush.  It’s highly unlikely that Bush did this because he believed Blair would bring peace, let alone justice, to the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, and there is little evidence that Blair has brought either over the last eight years.

We know that he persuaded Israel to open some checkpoints at one time another, a mighty achievement to be sure, which the Palestinians seem oddly unmoved by, but which hopefully will be noted when the Nobel Prize Committee next meets.  And if they don’t take notice, perhaps God will remember that the Chosen One’s move to Jerusalem coincided with his conversion to Catholicism, though it can’t really be said that Blair has followed in Jesus’ footsteps.

This is not a man to go soul-searching in the desert when he has clearly spent so much time looking at his reflection in the mirror.    Jesus may have had his moment of doubt and pain, but Blair has never had his – his ego and sense of destiny are much too powerful.   Nor is he the man to be chasing the moneylenders out of the temple, not when so many of them have been pouring vast sums into his offshore accounts.

If Blair’s peacemaking efforts leave something to be desired, no one can say that he’s been idle.  Ever since he installed himself at the American Colony hotel he has used his position as a strategic base for a moneygrabbing consultancy scam that has no precedent in modern politics.

The man has simply hoovered up lolly, and the fact that he has no ethical or moral constraints regarding who he lends his services to – and quite often no way of measuring what these services are or whether they are even worth the fees he charges – has meant that pretty much every day in the Promised Land has been a good day for him,and for his old cronies who have jumped aboard his train bound for glory.

So this is a man who will spend more time with Philistines than beggars or widows,  the richer and more well-connected the better, whether he’s hanging with them at Davos or jetsetting from one gilded tyrant to another.  But don’t you cynics go thinking that he has devoted his eight years in the Holy Land entirely to Mammon and the Golden Calf, while bombs were raining down on Gaza and Israeli settlers were sucking up Palestinian land.   Exaro News has just revealed that Blair lobbied Hillary Clinton and others to win the network contract for the Watiniya mobile-telephone operator in the Occupied Territories.

This is vaguely reminiscent of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s wellmeaning naif in the hollow BBC Middle East drama The Honourable Woman, except that there is nothing naive or well-meaning about Blair, and there is definitely no honour.   Wataniya is a client of the Qatar-owned company Qtel, and Blair has acted as go-between for Qatar in a number of business deals.  Qtel is also a client of JP Morgan, which was one of the first companies to throw cash – some £2 million a year according to some estimates – at the Chosen One to help him through the lean period after he stepped down as Prime Minister.

Blair naturally says he didn’t know this, when he sent Clinton a letter steeped in Blairspeak, warning that a failure for Wataniya would ‘send entirely the wrong signal for the transformative change agenda’ in the Occupied Territories.  But yea, it came to pass that the Quartet heard the Chosen One, and so did the Israeli government, and Wataniya Mobile won the contract, proving that rich men may not always be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, but rich men with the right contacts can certainly push through a transformative agenda.

For all these reasons it will be good to see him to go, because he is such an unbearable symbol of our age, with his sanctimonious humanitarian hypocrisy,his unbridled greed, his reckless warmongering and his uncritical Zionist cheerleading.

But his departure also raises the question of why the Quartet put him there in the first place and why it left him in post even when the conflict of interest could be spotted on a satellite camera from Mars.  It is somewhat pathetic to hear diplomats declaring only now that he was ‘not effective’ had become a ‘standing joke’ with ‘no credibility’ in Palestine or in the Middle East in general.   Many people knew that from the moment he got the job, but these weren’t powerful people so nobody paid any more attention to them than Blair does.   Yet now even John Prescott admits that Blair’s actions in Iraq contributed to the catastrophe that is still unfolding there.

So let us shed no tears for the Chosen One, but let’s not forget that the most powerful countries on the planet chose this man to bring ‘peace’ to the most searing and longlasting conflict in the Middle East, and then allowed him to use his position for no other purpose beyond his own enrichment.

Because whatever you think of Blair himself, that incredible decision does not suggest that the Quartet had any more interest in peace or justice than he did.