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Michael Ignatieff: Fire and Ashes

Don’t be naive about politics, Michael Ignatieff writes, but don’t be cynical either.

Thus the Canadian academic-turned-politician-turned academic closes Fire and Ashesa riveting account of the six years Ignatieff spent in the bull pit of Canada’s ruthless democracy.

Ignatieff, an acclaimed Harvard teacher and writer with political pedigree, was tempted back to Canada in 2005 by political operatives who, in an inspired but questionable judgement, believed Ignatieff could renew Canada’s tired Liberal Party.

Instead, after winning the party leadership four years later, he led the Liberals, who governed Canada for the best part of the twentieth century, into third-party status following their worst ever defeat in 2011. He lost his seat and returned to academia shortly afterwards.

The genius of Fire and Ashes lies in the profile of its author. As both a political actor and spectator, Ignatieff wrote the short book – barely 200 pages – which combines a insider’s frank re-telling of those years with the insights of a political theorist.

The best chapter is ‘Standing’ in which Ignatieff explains how he was ‘swift-boated’ by the ruthless and well-funded opposition. Having spent most of his adult life outside Canada, attack advertisements from Stephen Harper’s Conservatives characterised Ignatieff as an out-of-touch elitist who was ‘just visiting‘.

Ignatieff says that the ads denied him ‘standing’ in the eyes of Canadians. “Once you’ve denied people’s standing, you no longer have to rebut what they say,” he writes. “You only have to tarnish who they are.” The Conservatives were able to execute that feat months before the general election campaign, thus alienating voters from the party before they’d even considered its platform.

The ‘swift boat’ reference derives, of course, from the infamous advertisements, funded by the shady ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth‘ 527 group, that helped sink John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004. Ignatieff appreciates why the attacks reduced Kerry to silence, he says, but it hurt him greatly as a result. “If you don’t defend yourself, people conclude either that you are guilty as charged or that you are too weak to stand and fight….This is how you lose standing with voters.”

In the spring of the 2008 campaign, by contrast, Barack Obama succeeded in turning his own campaign crisis, the Reverend Wright controversy, into a “teachable moment”. In his ‘A More Perfect Union‘ speech, Obama addressed the controversy and then pivoted, skilfully, into a discussion of race, that most anguished seam in the American story. “In doing so, he gave himself the standing to lead the American discussion on race and, in the process, gave himself the standing to become the president.”

Kerry failed to seize the Vietnam issue; but Ignatieff failed too, fighting in his speeches “for a generous, cosmopolitan ideas of citizenship against provincial small-mindedness”. A shortage of party funds and a media thrilled by the ‘just visiting’ narrative prevented the counter-attack cutting through. In that context the warning contained in the final chapter – “Don’t make the mistake of supposing you control your fate. That’s called hubris.” – makes sense. The book doesn’t shy away from the abstract or the cliched, but it roots them in an experience lived from the inside.

Another thought gleaned from that experience is a sort of revulsion or embarassment at the Canadian House of Commons functioned. In a critique that will be familiar to PMQ-watchers in the U.K., Ignatieff says that “Nothing lowers a citizen’s estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other.” It risks undermining “one of democracy’s crucial functions: to keep adversaries from becoming enemies.”

It seems to me that Ignatieff over-estimates the degree to which partisanship corrodes democratic values and institutions. In fact I’m rather of Jed Bartlet‘s view: partisan politics stops electorates from becoming flaccid and disengaged.

And a final passage that I’ll include without much comment. It recounts an interview Ignatieff gave in which he controversially answered his interlocutor in the affirmative when asked if Quebec was a nation.

Suffice to say that the parallels between the place of Quebec, which narrowly rejected separation in 1995, in Canada and that of Scotland in the United Kingdom shouldn’t be difficult to see.

We were not a country founded on e pluribus unum – out of many, one – but instead a complex quilt of overlapping identities. We had created a country in which you could be Quebecker and Canadian in whatever order you chose. What I rejected about separatism was not the pride in nationhood but the insistence on a state, the belief that Quebeckers must make an existential choice between Quebec and Canada….It was a kind of moral tyranny on the part of separatists to force them to choose between parts of their own selves. After much travail, I said, we had understood that countries must be built on freedom of belonging. From this followed our system of federalism. We could not centralize power in this country, I said, because we could not centralize identity.

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Roy Jenkins

I’ve just finished Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life. It’s a hefty tome but an easy read, provided you find the intricacies of post-war politics and Establishment culture interesting.

For a figure whose career stretched comfortably into the Blair years the most striking thought I am left with is how dated the era feels. The leisurely claret-sodden lunches, even at the height of Jenkins’ ministerial career; the litany of affairs accepted, without comment, by an obliging press; and Jenkins’ stark defence of elitism and Establishment values within a left-liberal movement that, today at least, is ostensibly hostile to them.

(In fact it sat uncomfortably with many of his contemporaries too; Jenkins’ soft left politics combined with the ‘aristocratic embrace’ in his social life led to accusations of ‘MacDonaldism’ throughout his career*)

Are we better off, today, with fewer libertines in public life? I doubt it.

For a theme that John Campbell, the author, is keen to remind the reader of is Jenkins’ remarkable capacity for work. Jenkins once remarked of “Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure.”**

The insight that Jenkins, who wrote 22 books, makes vis-a-vis Churchill, his last major biographical subject, rings with some truth. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is a sound mantra not simply because a varied life has value, but because a serious commitment to each vocation enhances the something-ness of both.

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the story of the SDP, which succeeded in briefly capturing the progressive imagination but also split the left in the 1980s. To avoid splitting the right, ushering in a generation of left-wing governments, UKIP sympathisers might do well to read up.

Though conflicts over tactics and personality only emerged later, the SDP, I learned, was divided on a fundamental question of strategy from the beginning.

On the one hand it could seek to usurp and replace the hard left Labour party. On the other – and this was the sort of movement Jenkins favoured – it could position itself as a progressive centre party, drawing support from across the political spectrum and cooperating closely, potentially to the point of amalgamation, with the resurgent Liberals under David Steel. In the end it succeeded in doing neither.

Campbell suggests that the Falklands conflict drew momentum away from the SDP in the crucial months leading up to the 1983 election. In fact there’s a good case to be made that political folklore is mistaken in identifying the Falklands as the decisive factor in 1983. In any case Britain’s FPTP electoral system prevented the SDP-Liberal Alliance from making the breakthrough that, given the share of the popular vote received, it deserved.

The most interesting question of all in this vein centres on whether the SDP ushered in, or delayed, New Labour. Certainly Blair’s politics were close to those of Jenkins, though the latter lived out his final years increasingly frustrated that Blair had failed to ‘make the political weather’ on electoral system reform and the common European currency. My view, for what it’s worth, is that New Labour’s rise can be traced to the SDP moment – but only through the oblique, destructive method of helping keep ‘old’ Labour out of office for so long.

*   Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 116
** Guildhall lecture, quoted in The Independent, 16.11.01. Cited by Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, 729.

Misunderstanding social mobility

More than half of top 100 media professionals attended private schools, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. (my contribution here is both late and following on from the intelligent commentary of others)

The comparable numbers for the civil service, Parliament and court system are little better (or even worse).

What can we do about that? Campaigners highlight some or all of the following: improve state education, strip private schools of their charitable status, abolish Oxbridge!

The most compelling critique of private schools and Oxbridge, I think, is that they endow alumni with an exclusive network of useful contacts. This elite uses the status and contacts from those elite institutions to take jobs that, in truth, others are more deserving of.

I think that’s half-right. Privately-educated Oxbridge types do benefit from an exclusive network, but in general it’s not one that they pick up at school or university. On the initial rungs of the career ladder family and neighbourhood connections count the most.

I have friends who’ve secured brilliant opportunities in leading newspapers, banks and political parties through a family member or family friend. Mostly, they did go to top private schools and universities, but had they not done so those connections would still have existed. The only difference, perhaps, is that the contact feels less embarrassed delivering the favour if the young person is clearly capable.

Conversely there are those who did attend expensive schools and elite universities but, for whatever reason, don’t have a team of well-connected professionals on stand-by to parachute them into a cushy job or internship.

The conflation arises, I think, because well-connected families in metropolitan neighbourhoods are more likely to send their children to private schools and Oxbridge. So there’s a big overlap between the well-connected and the exclusively-educated.

When David Cameron offered an internship to a neighbour’s child, in an important sense he was merely doing a good deed. Far better, for sure, than giving one to the child of a donor or an old school friend. But the material effect is much the same. And who knows whether that child was privately educated – his social connections mattered the most.

Why does this argument matter? The group we’re led to identify as unfairly privileged will be similar (though not the same) after all.

It matters because it suggests that public policy shouldn’t target institutions – schools and universities – but behaviour, specifically nepotism.

Private education and elite universities may contribute to inter-generational inequality in the long-run. But there are things we can do now to make a real difference. It could be as straightforward as simply outlawing any paid or volunteering position (exempting charities and small family companies, say) that wasn’t put out to competitive tender.

In some ways that would be messy and expensive, increasing the workload of HR departments obliged to consider many applicants for each position. But equality of opportunity isn’t just fairer – is that not reason enough to pursue it? – it should make organisations more effective as well.

There’s a good analogy I read once but can’t find the citation for now. It goes something like this: ‘we wouldn’t select today’s England football team from the children of those who played for England twenty years ago. So why would we accept precisely that for our political system, the media industry and the upper echelons of business?’  

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Bloomberg: who is inflation hurting the most?

I’m now approaching the end of a ten week internship at Bloomberg News in London. It’s been pretty great.

A couple of thoughts about a piece published under my byline today.

Families’ 5% Inflation Heaps Election Pressure on Cameron

The piece picks up a lot on the potent politics of the ‘Squeezed Middle’. I want to pick up a couple of bits about economics and methodology. 

In a sense there is nothing groundbreaking going on here. The ONS measures inflation for the average household according to a basket of goods. But the ‘average household’ is a statistician’s tool. Few households match the description. Some will spend a greater share of their income on food; others will be able to put aside more for restaurants and foreign travel. Different households therefore see prices rising at varying paces according to their socio-economic profile.

The top line of my piece points out that middle income families with children face higher rates of inflation than the headline 1.6% CPI figure for August suggests. Single households on low incomes, meanwhile, are seeing the price of their typical bundle of goods increase very slowly, by as little as 1% (largely because food prices are down).

The individual-specific inflation model I used was developed last year by Michael McMahon at Warwick University. The BBC’s ‘personal inflation calculator‘, which uses it too, brought it to my attention. The model can’t discern each individual’s inflation rate. But it can give us clues as to which sorts of people have seen the biggest squeeze in the past year.

A final point. Education drives the 5% figure because the increases in its price – chiefly due to the raising of the tuition fee cap – have been so steep.

One caveat when considering the effects of that price increase though. Save for the relatively few households who are paying up now, the increase will have a deferred impact on household expenditure because most students take out loans. Households with students will be paying more, for sure, but when we talk about increases in the inflation rate for those households, it’s possible that we’re making talking more about an accounting change than an immediate increase in the day-to-day cost of living. 

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London Renters Win in Billionaire Backyard as Prices Soar

London Renters Win in Billionaire Backyard as Prices Soar

In a way this makes no sense. Rent in London is high relative to other U.K. cities and many category peers in other countries.

Relative to London house prices however, which have rocketed since 2009-2010, rental values are low. That’s true elsewhere too: the U.K. house price to rental price ratio is 40 percent above its long-term average, the IMF says. There are well-stated reasons why that could be a new normal. Notably the supply of new housing has failed to keep pace with demand for a decade or more.

But it could be a new bubble. One reason why rents are a good comparator is that they tend to be constrained by income. Unless you make do with continually smaller living spaces and such what, rental values can’t increase much more than income growth, which in the U.K. has been pretty flat. That house prices have gone up by 40, 50 or even 60 percent in the capital in recent years suggests, to some degree, that property is over-valued.

In the meantime, some tenants have found themselves living in properties with a million pound+ paper value, paying rents commensurate with a valuation of only half or a third of that.

Ben Sullivan and student journalists

A quick break from Finals revision to jot a few thoughts about this piece, published last week on the website of The Cambridge Student newspaper. I’ve seen it shared a lot on social media but, unsurprisingly, I have a few problems with it.

Before that though, I do get where the author – Morwenna Jones – is coming from. To be accused of rape – one of the vilest crimes a human being can commit – is the sort of story student (and national) journalists should be careful to handle. We (I used to do a fair bit of student journalism myself) should always question whether we’ve framed and balanced stories in the right way.

Without a doubt, I think there is an argument to be had about what happens to all these news stories if and when Sullivan isn’t charged, or is charged and found not guilty*. The author is right to say that:

It’s hard to imagine him walking out of court and going straight into the research position he was hoping to with BP.  Instead, his life would be ruined.

That’s not right and, if and when the time comes, it’s worth considering how best to rehabilitate Sullivan. Now: I have a couple of problems – or rather, loaded questions – with respect to the piece. First, Jones writes:

[We should] revert back to focusing on the media and to ask ourselves, have we gone too far? Of course, reporting and identifying [alleged] criminals in the press can be an important stepping-stone in helping convictions.  But, how far are the motives that characterize this investigative journalism ethical?

Jones says here that reporting and identifying alleged crimes is important. Confusingly, in the next paragraph she questions whether such stories are “of any interest to the public”. If she does believe that reporting alleged crimes is important, then do the ‘ethics’ matter? Newspapers wish to sell newspapers, true, but if the story is reported accurately and legally what does it matter? Maybe it does matter, but Jones doesn’t say why. Second, Jones claims that the Sullivan coverage has been gratuitous:

The embarrassing and humiliating information that the Oxford student press had garnered about Union politics, Sullivan’s career prospects and work-experience, his home in Kensington, his early education, his involvement in debates on socialism, and absolutely everything and anything about him has been hurled headlong into the eyes of the world.

Ok. First off, his debates on socialism were uploaded by the Union to youtube – so it’s hardly surprising that they were discovered. Jones thinks that these and other details are “embarrassing and humiliating” and, along with Sullivan’s membership of the now-infamous ‘Banter Squadron’, amount to a “character assassination”.

Now I’ll concede that many of these details are irrelevant to the core details of the allegation. But as Jones puts it, “If it weren’t for the [rape] allegations, the [Banter Squadron] story may never have made national news and would’ve likely been forgotten more quickly.” It’s not unreasonable to expect that when a relative-unknown is put under the spotlight, biographical details will be included in the story – given that the ‘Banter Squadron’ story had been in the news just that week, I don’t think it’s unethical to have mentioned it. And this isn’t just the Daily Mail’s line; as Jones notes, the Independent, Huffington Post, and BBC ran similar stories.

So I think that though Jones raises issues that make us feel uncomfortable – as I noted at the start – she struggles to establish who in the press has behaved unethically here and how. She complains that such journalism is ‘gossip-driven’ and scoop-obsessional but can’t quite put a pin on what or who has been unethical. Instead Jones reminds us about the (indisputable) evils of News of the World. To put it kindly I don’t find this vague analogy informative or convincing.

When I saw the headline of this piece, I wanted to know specifically what the author considered the press – the student press in particular – should have done differently in covering the arrest. I’m open-minded about that question, but I don’t see that Jones has tried to answer it.

update (12.09.14): no charges were brought against Sullivan

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Contributions to The Times Diary

 

8th May, 2014: Ukip, a song and dance act

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10th December, 2013: Come clean, says Belle de Jour

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20th November, 2013: Michael Palin the woodsman

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15th November, 2013: Eric Pickles: ‘I wore white tie once. I looked like Oddjob’

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16th October, 2013: I contributed this item about George Galloway’s gorgeous (and lucrative) house sale.

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15th October, 2013: I contributed this item about the Eric Pickles road trip.

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September 18th, 2013A small piece in The Times Diary last week about, of all things, Tom Daley’s swimming trunks.

The auction was raising money for The Mercury Phoenix Trust, an HIV charity set up shortly after the death of Freddie Mercury of Queen. Smashing event; I even saw Al Murray do a short gig. Despite the predictability of his routine it always cracks me up.

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4th September, 2013: George Osborne’s fear of snow.

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