Why is David Cameron so threatened by Ken Clarke?

It’s still hard for some of us not to think of Ken Clarke as the ‘leader that never was.’ And David Cameron knows it.

David Cameron is angry. Or so James Forsythe, writing in the Daily Mail, would have us believe. Ken Clarke wants to trust the intelligence of qualified, independent judges to decide on an appropriate sentence for a murderer. David Cameron thinks government, with all its quirks and inconsistencies, should continue to dictate minimum sentences. Ken Clarke wants to consider whether locking up as many people as we do is sensible and cost effective. David Cameron is credited with coining the phrase ‘prison works’ when he worked for Michael Howard. (Although he’s also credited with saying he wanted to hug a hoodie, which of course he never did.) Ken Clarke understands, as is the case with guns in America, that the myriad of reasons why people carry knives is a complex one. David Cameron wants them all to be instantly criminalised. In other words, Ken Clarke is a libertarian who trusts people and recognises that we are all individuals. David Cameron is not, and he doesn’t.

Ken Clarke, an original thinker and seasoned politician, and David Cameron, a politely confident PR man with an eye for a headline and a talented media relations team behind him, are both archetypal Conservatives, in their way, yet they each represent opposing ideas about what it means to be on the political right. The divide in conservative politics between the Clarkes and the Camerons isn’t between liberal and authoritarian, or left and right, so much as it is between those who geninely want more people to become wealthy, and those who don’t.

Tories like Ken Clarke, John Redwood, Margaret Thatcher and Michael Portillo believe in wealth creation. They want to liberate the markets and help the economy to boom, because they genuinely believe in the trickle down effect. Some of them take a tough love approach to the more disadvantaged groups in society, with a belief that it’s possible for everyone to ‘help themselves’, and some of them take a more nuanced approach to policy-making, but they all genuinely want the poor to get richer, and they all genuinely believe that wealth is something that you can create.

But a surprising number of Tories agree with the Marxist world view: they think wealth is a finite resource. They think the more the rich have, the less the poor have (or rather, the more the poor have, the less the rich will have), and they aren’t as interested in wealth creation as they are in the pure manipulation of capital. Cameron may well be one of those Tories – the kind who inherited their wealth, wouldn’t know how to create it if they’d ever had to, and are scared of those who do.

Ken Clarke’s approach to law and order is the only approach consistent with the Conservative party’s campaign message: that they will bring about a less authoritarian, more libertarian society, with a “common sense” approach to law enforcement. How can the anti-Clarke bandwagon of papers forget, when talking about incarceration and its alternatives, that Labour introduced 3,000 new laws, 1,000 of which carried a jail sentence? How can they forget how many of these laws they complained about at the time? How can they forget all their howls for judges’ hands not to be tied, for them to be allowed to practice “common sense”? (“Common sense” obviously meaning nothing more than that you agree with the person who defines “common sense” at any given time.) There are people in prison now for breaking laws that the Daily Mail believes shouldn’t have been passed in the first place, yet they don’t think these people should be allowed out.

David Cameron, if he was a strong leader, would have the courage to point this out. Why doesn’t he?

Ken Clarke is the leader that never was. He was rejected by the Tory party, largely for his views on Europe, but also because of his unpopularity during the Thatcher years. David Cameron may not be a heavyweight thinker, but he does understand PR, and he must he know he was chosen by his party as leader not because of his talents or brains, but because he looked young, because he wasn’t directly associated with Thatcher in people’s minds, and because he had positioned himself as the detoxification candidate.

Only he failed to secure a majority for his party, and senior figures like Norman Tebbit – not to mention those same right-wing newspapers that he’s pandering to on crime – lay that blame squarely at his door. People rejected Labour, but they did not buy into Cameron’s hallow rhetoric. He was too much like Tony Blair, only without the evidence of a sharp mind at work under the spin.

Clarke, on the other hand, is clever, charismatic, experienced, fairly popular with the public nowadays, despite being seen a bit of a maverick by the Conservative party, er, mavericks, and with his pro-Europe, tolerant, humane policies, would have been a much better detoxification candidate for leader than Cameron.

Cameron is scared of Clarke for the same reason he’s scared of Paul Dacre. He’s not a natural born leader. If he were, there would be no question of Clarke losing his job in a reshuffle, just for doing the job he’s paid to do.

2 MINUTE RANT: Don’t forget about Educational Maintenance Allowance

In all the excitement over tuition fees there’s been an alarming silence from the media about the policy of scrapping Educational Maintenance Allowance. It should be at the centre of the debate. If kids are forced to drop out of school at sixteen because their parents can’t support them for two years while they get A-levels, it matters very little what grants the new tuition fees scheme makes available to them at eighteen.

The EMA was introduced by Labour to do exactly what this coalition government say they want to do: help people to improve their own life chances through hard work and education.

The arguments in favour of scrapping it are depressingly ill-informed. George Osborne claims most payments are a “dead weight” and they go to children who would have stayed in education anyway. But since the introduction of EMA, participation in higher education has gone up by 6%. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argues that the availability of EMA has been a “significant factor” in the rise.

It’s not that every recipient of EMA spends every penny of the allowance on books, bread and water. It’s just that if teenagers are forced to choose between two more years of school, and having basic (and I use this next word hesitantly, because I’m talking about basic modes of communication and travel, not Gucci shoes and a miniature puppy) luxuries, they are, as the IFS has discovered, very likely to choose the latter. And that’s a decision which is not only to the detriment of their own life chances, but also a loss to the country itself. We should, surely, help make that choice just a little bit less grim if we can?

And we can. Or rather, we could, if we wanted to. It’s hardly a matter of not being able to afford the £500million that EMA costs, since the government’s alternative strategy for full participation in higher education is not only more expensive, it’s more expensive to the tune of £774million (the lowest figure quoted; some are much higher. Professor Alison Wolfe, who works for the government though is politically independent, estimates the cost of the funding full participation in education, which is the coalition’s approach to the problem, at around £1.5billion).

But the fact that the coalition’s policy is more expensive than Labour’s isn’t the real irony of the situation. The real irony is this. These new costs (the £774million-£1.5billion) are for centralised government spending, not for money going directly to the families or students themselves. The coalition wants us to believe that they are, above all else, concerned with encouraging personal responsibility, instead of government dependence. In keeping with that very sensible principle, surely it makes more sense to give a little extra to families who want to stay in education longer but can’t afford to, and let them spend it as needs must, rather than spend a lot more money on forcing everyone to stay in education longer, whether they want to not, and – more importantly – whether they can afford to or not?

Julian Assange and the privacy of the accused

Everyone seems to be getting a tiny bit obsessed by the guilt or innocence of Julian Assange (https://lefteyerighteye.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/free-speech-vs-right-to-privacy/) not to mention with the character, integrity, and motivation of his two ‘accusers.’ All eyes are on the Swedish justice system as the world tries to assemble a coherent charge from the jumbled up mish-mash of offending behaviours like consensual acts of sex without protection, and treason against countries he’s not a citizen of. (In there amongst the jumble must surely be some slightly more sensible, medium severity charge, somewhere between espionage and breaches of privacy? Or must everyone be either a hero, exempt from the law, or else a terrorist and rapist?

But just like with the leaked cables drama itself, there is a wider point: the right to privacy. (Yes, again.)

Earlier this year, the coalition government dangled their legs in the water over new laws to keep the identities of accused rapists private until a conviction is secured. The plans were widely opposed, and dropped. It was seen by many, understandably, as being at best a misguided approach to dealing with the issues surrounding rape and the law, insofar as it dealt exclusively with the protection of the accused, while offering no policies to help the victims of rape.

But this was never a logical conclusion to arrive at. Proper treatment of victims and the principle of innocence until proven guilty are two separate issues. In fact, in order to preserve both, they need to be separate. And although it would be even better to protect the privacy of anyone accused of any crime, the reason it makes sense to start by protecting the identities of accused rapists is because in rape cases, the accusers can keep their own identities private. This is not just a matter of treating the accused ‘fairly’ either: disclosing the name of the accused can identify, or help to identify, the victim. To say nothing of the fact that rape is a crime so emotive that it makes some of the most sensible members of the public turn into hang-em-and-flog-em types. If the identity of a suspected joy-rider or a suspected bank fraudster is made public when no guilt is ever proven, people will be likely to shrug their shoulders. If someone’s name gets mentioned in conjunction with rape or paedophilia, they don’t.

And this is where we come to the material point. As long as society has crimes which we all find so abhorrent that they command that gut-based animal anger from us all, those crimes will be used as a way of turning one citizen against another by simple accusation. It’s not melodramatic to say that witches, Catholics, and communists are all historical cases in point. Terrorists, paedophiles, and rapists are modern ones. Accuse someone of being a paedophile or a rapist, and suddenly, huge numbers of otherwise totally rational, liberal people don’t care about the principle of innocent until proven guilty anymore, because the crime the accused is being accused of is so disgusting that the benefit of the doubt is not worth the risk.

This is, without question, what is happening to Julian Assange. The morality – and legality – of his own actions regarding the leaked cables is a total irrelevance. Civil liberties need to remain unconditional; indeed, if anything, the less esteem we hold the accused in, the more imperative it should be to see the law applied correctly. Whatever little regard Assange holds for other people’s right to privacy, the way this case is being brought against him an excellent example of why accusations of this sort shouldn’t be made public: the state (or anyone else) can use accusation, and accusation alone, to smear anyone they don’t like. And perhaps the retaliatory smears against the two women who have made the accusations is an example of something similar, too.

So now, instead of having to put together a serious case against Assange, working out exactly how we – by which I mean the international community – want to enforce privacy laws, and deal with international breaches of it, the world’s leaders get to accuse, smear, and obfuscate. This lazy and confused approach to justice can’t be good for civil liberties all round – and it doesn’t exactly help the moral arguments against Assange’s own anti-establishment actions, and his lack of trust in the whole system, either.

It’s a wonderful coalition

A Christmas gift for Liberal Democrat voters.

Ah, the greatest of Christmas moments. James Stewart realises how much worse off the world would be without him and decides not to commit suicide. Clarence, the angel, takes him from the blackest of depressive episodes to euphoric joy at being alive. How? By showing him a world where he’d never been born.

Well, in the Christmas spirit, I wanted to do the equivalent for someone, so I thought to myself, who really could use cheering up right now? Who might be feeling, this Christmas, like just selling their souls to Mr Potter for a small, insignificant bit of gain, just to get it over with? Or perhaps there’s someone who feels like they already have?

Yes, the Liberal Democrats must be in serious need of some Christmas cheer. And, more importantly, so must their voters.

As Tim Farron has already pointed out, in every recent election, the Liberal Democrats have come out with absolutely none of their manifesto being implemented, yet their voters stood by them. Since the May 2010 election, 65% of the Liberal Democrat manifesto has been implemented. Yet most voters are talking of deserting them, because of the 35% not implemented.

Except actually, its not most of their voters. Lib Dem membership has gone up by 10% since the coalition formed. Diane Abbott sneeringly replied to Simon Hughes, “Aren’t most of them Tories, though?” when he pointed this out on Question Time. And yes, she might well be right.

A lot of people in Britain cannot forgive Labour for their intrusions into civil liberties, their crushing stealth taxation and unfair – yes, unfair – 50% tax rate for top earners. A lot of people have been forced into becoming reluctant Tory voters, despite the party’s history of homophobia, despite their lasse faire attitude to poverty, despite the apparent prizing of social class and status over meritocracy and aspiration, despite their tax breaks for married people and their support of an expensive last century style weapon instead of giving the money directly to our troops. Why didn’t these people just vote Lib Dem? Because the Liberal Democrats, the party of the rational, fair-minded, sensible centre, have been painted by the media as the loony left, largely because Labour have moved so far to the right. People didn’t trust them to be fiscally responsible, didn’t trust them to be up to the hard challenges of government, and – crucially – people didn’t believe it was actually possible, in the real world, to implement Lib Dem policies.

The coalition agreement has proved those floating voters wrong on all three counts. You might not agree with the scale of the cuts (I don’t) and you might not agree with everything the Tories are choosing to cut (I certainly don’t), but no-one can paint the Liberal Democrats as fiscally irresponsible now. Never again can politicians like David Cameron simply throw up their cheap shots at Lib Dem spending plans which they never had to expand on: “It’s a lovely idea Nick, but we can’t afford it.” (A cynical, hallow Cameronism from one of the TV debates, to which Clegg immediately explained exactly how they would fund the proposal in question.) The Lib Dems have shown that they are not lovers of big government. And it might surprise the Labour leadership; it might surprise a few ex-Labour rejects who flirted with the Lib Dems during the last election, but guess what? Neither are most of the public.

And while Clegg is hardly about to win any Statesman of the Year awards, the Liberal Democrats have shown themselves to be fairly formidable negotiators, whatever the press would have you believe. Remember that all the big newspapers back either Labour or the Tories (except the Guardian, who seem to be having a very healthy polyamorous relationship with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats): they are all opposed to the Liberal Democrats. But consider, the Lib Dems got 23% of the public vote. And yet they have managed to get 65% of their manifesto implemented. You want them to have more than that? Then more of you should vote for them.

So let’s have a look, in the spirit of George Bailey and Clarence the Angel, at what Britain’s government would look like without the Liberal Democrats.

First of all, there would have been cut in inheritance tax. That was one of the first things the Lib Dems demanded had to go. I do wonder what would a minority Tory government have cut from the budget to pay for it? Well, to pay for that, and their tax break for married couples, which they were also made to drop by the Lib Dems.

The cuts in higher education (which you’ve probably heard about, they’ve been given a tiny bit of press coverage over the past few weeks…) and cuts to schools would be happening without the pupil premium, which gives disadvantaged kids the help they need at the time they need it, not years later.

The elected police commissioners would not be held to account by anyone except their small electorate, which is fine, perhaps, if you live in Witney or Surrey, but not so comforting if you live in Barking and Dagenham. This alone is surely a reason to cheer. Once again, it might surprise the Labour party to hear it, and many in the Tory party, come to that, but many of us don’t want the police politicised, thank you very much. The Liberal Democrats flat out insisted upon ‘Police and Crime Panels’ to hold the police commissioners to account, a policy which Blair Gibbs of the Spectator describes as “a clear concession to the Liberal Democrats.”

Still not enough for you? The lowest paid would still be paying tax for the privilege of seeing their services hacked to bits. The Liberal Democrats have scrapped income tax for these individuals and families. A small joy, perhaps, but a real one.

Anything else? Well, Trident would, of course, be getting renewed without a review, using your taxes. Murdoch would be taking over BskyB without so much as a discussion. Britain would be selling murder drugs (or execution drugs, if you want to be less melodramatic), to the United States, even though we ‘officially’ deplore and denounce the death penalty.

Most importantly, the Tories would very likely have ended up calling a general election shortly after trying to form a minority government, and would very likely won a majority, giving them leave to do whatever they bleeding well liked.

So no, the Liberal Democrats are not running the country. It’s a democracy, and they didn’t win the election. They got less votes than the Tories. They got less votes than Labour. Why should they run the show? But before the Lib Dems go and jump in the river so that Labour can cash in on their life insurance (I sense I’m in danger of extending this Its a Wonderful Life analogy a bit too far…), take a breath. There are a lot of voters in this country who never vote Lib Dem for the third reason on that list: they believe Lib Dem policies, however wonderful they sound, can’t realistically be implemented in the real world. Surely the coalition is showing us that actually, at least 65% of them, and counting, can be?

Free speech vs right to privacy: a conflict of liberties

Is Julian Assange doing anything morally superior to News of the World when they tapped politicians’ phones, or Sky News when they ‘accidentally’ left a microphone on Gordon Brown? Or perhaps they are all defenders of free speech?

World War III hasn’t broken out yet over the leaked cables, thank goodness. It’s a relief, in the scheme of things, to know that Prince Andrew almost being rude to someone wasn’t enough to upset intelligent diplomats who probably understand that people sometimes say things in private that they would be too professional to actually say in public. China being ready to abandon North Korea, on the other hand, is a bit more serious, and it’s pretty obvious why that one is kept quiet. Any fool can see what the possible implications could be of broadcasting such a story. You’d think.

But national security and national embarrassment are not the real story here. This whole debacle is just the latest aspect of a troubling trend we are seeing in the media these days. I’m referring to the ugly notion that ‘the public’ have a right to know everything, about everyone, all the time, be it the unconventional past job of an X-Factor contestant’s grandmother, or the sexual activities of Max Mosley.

When we all found out the extent to which News of the World had been tapping phones, no-one seriously claimed national security could be damaged by overhearing John Prescott or Prince Harry’s private messages (although it’s not unarguable). National security, or even personal embarrassment was never really the point. The issue was the right to privacy. It doesn’t matter, argued the wise critics of NOTW’s phone tapping habits (voices like the Guardian, the Independent, and, in fact, most of the British political left) whether you like the people involved or not, or whether you consider the information disclosed to be important or trivial. The point is, it’s against the law to publish people’s private conversations without consent, especially conversations which you’ve obtained illegally.

And this is not, or should not be, negotiable. It’s a fundamental principle of a free society that people are allowed to say anything, do anything, and believe anything, in private, as long as they don’t break any laws. Where have those principles gone? The left have collective amnesia now that it’s a hero of the left (a self-identified free market capitalist libertarian, ironically, but nonetheless an adopted hero of the left!) publishing information that is supposed to embarrass America – even though it actually doesn’t, surely, in the minds of anyone sensible, since it makes just about every other leader look silly too, mostly consists of tabloid-level gossip, and shows diplomats just doing pretty much what they are paid to do, to say nothing of the fact that – crucially – the leaked cables do not show evidence of law-breaking (with the possible exception of spying on the UN leader, which presumably can be looked into the by courts to see if any international laws have been breached. And that’s something that could surely have been conducted in a more sensible way than over the internet, as indeed all matters of international law would hopefully be).

But it’s not just ‘the left’ who are being a little bit hypocritical over this issue. What about when Sky left a microphone on Gordon Brown and broadcast his privately expressed comments about Gillian Duffy? Where was the outrage from the Conservative press then about this invasion of the British Prime Minister’s privacy?

The truth is, we are all creeping into a frighteningly partial approach to civil liberties, and the tribal, biased response to Wikileaks, News of the World, and ‘Bigotgate’ are symptomatic of an attitude whereby we apply totally different legal and moral standards to our friends – to those we agree with politically – than to everybody else.

But civil liberties don’t work that way; that is the point of them. The only way I can be certain my emails won’t be read, my phone won’t be tapped, my diary won’t be snatched and published (should I ever say anything interesting enough to be published that is, which seems unlikely, although it is not impossible that, say, a loved one who I scribble about in my diary could become a successful politician one day, or something to that effect) is if everyone else’s emails, phones, and diaries are protected too.

If someone has broken the law – as might be the case in the UN spying story – there are legal means of redress. If there aren’t any suitable legal means available (in the case of Wikileaks’ Abu Graib revelations, for example), perhaps there is an argument to be made for public release of information. Significantly, following the Abu Graib leak, no-one wanted to arrest, assassinate or execute (!) Julian Assange. (Not that someone can be tried for treason by a country they’re not a citizen of, or else we could all be tried for treason by North Korea presumably, but the logic failures of daft media commentators is, alas, too expansive a topic to fit in to this particular blog). But if no laws have been broken, people’s right to private conference shouldn’t change depending on whether they work for the government or whether they work in a chip shop. The Guardian didn’t think it should change for John Prescott and Prince Harry, did they? If we want the individuals who run the world to be subject to the same laws as the rest of us, they also need to have the same rights. And that includes the right to privacy.

Yes, Julian Assange should have the right to speak his mind. No-one (or no-one sensible, by which I exclude Glenn Beck) is saying he should be banned from expressing his opinions on any public figures, or interviewing them, or taking them to task if they break the law. But the right to free speech stops when it becomes an illegal invasion of privacy, just like the right to freedom of expression stops at my right to video my neighbour across the street undressing and stick it on the internet.

Just as the government has been in danger of invoking the ‘cry wolf’ legend by claiming everything as a national security threat until we no longer take those words seriously anymore, we, by which I mean the civil liberties-conscious public as well as the media, also need to be responsible about how we use and apply our ‘right to know.’ If we think it’s okay to break the law in order to know what Barack Obama really thinks of Silvio Berlusconi (sentiments we could all have guessed), where does that leave us when Rupert Murdoch wants to know whether Simon Hughes is gay or not? Without a leg to stand on, that’s where.

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