Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The PM's Champion: Better a Tory, indeed this Tory

The currently ubiquitous Tory MEP Daniel Hannan has a distinctive intellect and eloquence, though he exercises them in causes and convictions that I disagree with more or less completely. Still, on his blog today he has written what seems to me the best, most passionate commentary we’ve yet had on Gordon Brown’s latest pillorying, an event (in the sense of 'media event') that has made me, for better or worse, angry and emotional, as it clearly has many others.
Here is Hannan’s most distinctive point, and the means by which he illustrates it:
“Now for a hard thing that needs saying. When people are in anguish, they deserve our respect and sympathy, but their opinions don’t become any more or less correct. If you lose a loved one to a dissident IRA bomb, it doesn’t make you an overnight authority on the Northern Ireland decommissioning timetable. Remember the episode of West Wing where Toby is prepping the President in advance of a campaign debate. How would you feel if someone raped your daughter? “I’d want the guy who did it tortured, executed – that’s why I shouldn’t be the guy who gets to decide”.”
This is the sort of tough-minded and fundamentally non-populist sentiment to which nobody holding high political office is allowed to give voice, if indeed they hold it. So Mr Hannan’s ‘iconoclast’ status has usefully served to put it out there into the atmosphere.
Just on a tangent, though – I never watched The West Wing and wouldn’t watch it now, though I never heard the end of its virtues from members of its vociferous fanbase. One thing I’ve never liked about the intersection of Hollywood and liberalism is its tendency to make drama in which presidents and prime ministers are idealised combinations of virtues, compounded partly from real political lives and partly from fairytales, thus reflecting the deep disappointment of diehard liberals in the Blairs and Clintons they actually end up with. Or even, per the scene cited by Hannan above, the Dukakises.
For this was one of the ways in which the Democrat candidate of 1988 came unstuck, wasn’t it? For the second televised debate, moderator Bernard Shaw opened up by asking the staunchly anti-capital-punishment Dukakis if he would favour the death penalty for an offender who had, let's say, raped and murdered his wife Kitty? Dukakis must have felt a tad violated himself, but he stuck to his pre-prepared, anodyne script. It seemed, though, that the public would have prepared him to exhibit a little more passion over Shaw’s scenario. Whereas the backstage Dem wonks would have loved him to answer in the way Martin Sheen (?) managed to answer ‘Toby’ in West Wing a decade or so into the future.
In any case, overnight Dukakis’s poll numbers took a bad hit – this great news for George Herbert Walker Bush, whose military service record was one Democrats could only dream of. Then again, Bill Clinton turned out not to need one of those come 1992, though the movie Independence Day would go ahead and invent a US president who looked like Clinton but flew a war-plane like Bush senior.
Flesh and blood, though, are our leaders, and just as flawed as the figures of drama. Quite often they have to speak their best in the heat of the moment just like the rest of us, rather than reading out the lines of Hollywood’s finest and best-paid scribes. I don’t think I’d want audiotapes of my most awkward telephone conversations put into public circulation and picked over by the ghouls of The Sun. Thankfully they’re not interested; but I do think a lot of us have found the mental exercise of putting ourselves into Brown’s shoes to be a worthwhile one, on this otherwise very regrettable occasion.
The Brown photo is (c) Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Esquire (December 2009) now on stands: beautiful girl on cover

Megan Fox, to be precise. The first time I saw Ms Fox on the front of a magazine (a novelty at the time, a quite familiar experience nowadays) was in autumn 2007, while staying overnight in a Sunderland hotel prior to a literary event (yes, a literary event) at the city's main football stadium the following day. The mag in question was Collective, a clearly advertising-led 'lifestyle' title covering the cultural beat of Sunderland and indeed the broader North East. Wor Megan has clearly done well for herself since those days.
I daresay her success confirms the degree to which Angelina Jolie has set the female standard of Hollywood beauty (lush-lipped, tattooed bodily, essentially dark) over the last decade - before which it was Nicole Kidman in whose honour the chicks were all getting cosmetic surgery, the better to resemble more closely. Megan Fox, I hasten to add, is clearly young enough to have had no need of surgical enhancement or correction. Maybe one day I'll get to see her in a movie, see what (else) all the fuss is about...
My film column this month is about A Serious Man by Joel and Ethan Coen, of which I say:
"A Coens movie with ‘Serious’ in the title filled me at first with the same misgivings as did the idea of Funny Games (1997) by the solemn Michael Haneke. In both cases one anticipates a thumping irony. Joel and Ethan Coen are super-smart guys and consummate filmmakers, but often their tendency to drollery has deprived the films of pathos. A Serious Man is every inch a Coens film, and by no means a tearjerker; yet it looks to me to mark both a departure and a great advance in their work."

Alan Johnson: With God on his side...

To be the Home Secretary of Her Majesty’s Government must rank among the loneliest jobs in the world, morally speaking. Just consider the number of hot-button public issues on which you are the nation’s chief and guiding voice – crime, the police, immigration, class-A drugs, the terrorist threat, inter alia. There's a distinct danger you could end up catching the blame for just about everything that's wrong with the nation at any given time.
Whether incumbents are actually fit to hold this post - or merely there because the government of which they are a part could appoint no-one better - is a different matter entirely. For instance, I remember Margaret Thatcher’s last H.S., David Waddington, as a would-be hang-'em-and-flog-'em martinet of such cardboard-cut-out ridiculousness that I always expected him to blow over in a stiff breeze. (Moreover, I don’t think that professional Yorkshireman David Blunkett ever deserved to be taken a fraction as seriously in the job as he took himself; and as for Jacqui Smith, one can, presumably, hold fire now inasmuch as she herself now seems to agree that she was a ‘disgrace.’)
It is tough, though, for an honest man in that job to act on his convictions and carry out policy in the spirit of the public good, without getting pelted by dead dogs. I recall the honourable Charles Clarke going on the BBC to debate his Tory shadow in front of a studio audience prior to the 2005 General Election. For all that no-one was warming to the Tory, Clarke was nonetheless sneered at roundly throughout, and never more than when he defended the need for extreme vigilance, expenditure, and emergency measures to counter the threat of domestic terrorism. Paxman (for he, of course, was our MC for the night) turned loftily to the audience and asked if any of them were feeling remotely threatened in that respect? Not one hand went up, the silence clearly signifying a mass disapproval of Clarke's police-state apologia. Three months later, after the London bombings of 07/07/2005, I’m sure the same mob would have said that Clarke should have bloody well gone to any lengths to avert the atrocity, even without the public’s backing or sympathy (and, anyway, it was all Nu-Labour/B-liar’s fault anyhow, etc etc.)
So, to Alan Johnson. Every once in a while you see a politician who strikes you as a recognisable human being – and an honest, sane, principled, witty and astute one at that. Johnson is the most affable contender in this line whom I can remember, and I wish his career every continuing success. I have watched his tenure at the Home Office meet with various choruses of disapproval, none of them meaningful (and some as ludicrous as the Daily Mail’s campaign to prevent the extradition of the computer hacker Gary MacKinnon, who, I’m afraid, made his bed once he started leaving abusive messages behind him on the Pentagon's systems.)
Currently Johnson is getting it in the neck over his decision to sack a chap called Professor Nutt, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) after Nutt went to great lengths to ensure the public knew that it was his view – if not the Government’s – that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis, that taking Ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse-riding, and that cannabis has upgraded to a class B drug for ‘political reasons.’
Here is the nub of the Home Secretary’s existential dilemma. How can drug policy be made subject to scientific finding when the use and abuse of drugs is a social issue, and the effects of same can’t be reproduced in any laboratory? Or as Alan Johnson phrased it in a letter to the Guardian last week:
“As for [Nutt’s] comments about horse riding being more dangerous than Ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.”
Yes, alcohol is our national drug and is indulged beyond belief in a culture where the (clear) benefits of cannabis as a form of pain relief for the seriously ill are still (pointlessly) subjected to debate. I would probably prefer it if, rather than this current useless quarrel, we could all have a serious one, about the legalisation of all drugs. But since the public and our politics won’t permit that, let’s deal with the supposedly deterrent measures at hand, i.e. how the Government frames its level of concern over the possible risks of certain drugs, a level at which the keen drug-user must then frame his or her response (i.e., caveat emptor.)
This blog is an unshamed fan of the occasional derangement of the senses, and always has been; and any man who - like this man - appreciates beer, wine and whiskey should therefore try not to make an enemy of the man who finds his contentment of an evening in cannabis. But these fairly like-minded enthusiasms also carry undeniable costs, personal and social, at differential levels; and so all enthusiasts must be ready to circle the wagons around certain agreed norms. A poster calling himself onestepback phrases it well at the Sky News link cited above: "Alcohol and tobacco are of course bad for us, and knowing this we should discourage the use of other substances of like kind. We can do the liberal thing and erode society by allowing everything, or we can apply common sense and limit things that are bad for us to a manageable proportion."
This, de facto, is the position where we find Alan Johnson, and it seems to me the right place for Her Majesty's Home Secretary to be. I hope he has longer to run in this job, and that a yet better job lies in wait for him.