Sunday, 12 November 2017

Ken Clarke, 'Kind of Blue'

An accomplished, and at times very interesting, political memoir from a politician who said he would never write a memoir. No surprises here, but why would there be, from one of the few politicians of any party who is instantly recognisable by the public, and whose views are well known by everyone – or so we the public think. There is a bit too much I Was Right All Along, but you always get that with political memoirs. Ken Clarke seems, it emerges from this book, to have been oddly distant from most of his family for most of his life. His marriage, he says, was a long and happy one. He mentions outings with his son during the latter’s boyhood, and says family holidays were always enjoyed, but nothing more. This is contrary to the public image Ken Clarke has always had, but then this is true for almost all politicians.

He is not perhaps a very complex political thinker, but complexity is not a virtue in a politician. He is not dull, and dullness is most certainly a vice in one. He is an admirer of Iain Macleod, who was Foreign Secretary at the end of Empire, and who was criticised, Clarke says, for giving the British Empire away, which he says had to be done “if we were to avoid the post-colonial wars in which the French had been immersed”. Well, I guess. But we did have them, in Malaya and Cyprus, and Burma wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, and there was that little matter of Partition in India, and – oh, please yourselves.

On Europe, of course, Ken’s position is clear and well known, and he has never wavered from it. (Not always a good sign in a potential political leader: ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jeremy Corbyn). Ken Clarke is the go-to pro-European Tory, and that being so it is perhaps surprising that he has been in Tory governments as much as he has. Here at least he has the benefit of clarity, and it is welcome: “People had been told that the Community was intended to be a free-trade area only, without any political commitments. This is wholly without foundation; a total fiction.” Thanks, Ken. That’s how I remember it too.

He can be patronising, especially to women: the In Place of Strife debate “did succeed in bringing the best out of Mrs Castle as a parliamentary performer”, which seems at best unfair to Barbara.

The title, ‘Kind of Blue’, is a splendid one for the memoir of a jazz-loving Tory who has often seemed semi-detached from the party. But of course he never was so. He was, and remains, a true Tory. Another reviewer has remarked that his memoir shows Clarke, surprisingly to the reviewer, to “lack empathy for the poor”. Well, of course he does. He’s a Tory, innit.

“The Thatcher government never cut public spending on any mainstream public service such as health, education or welfare”, he proudly asserts. If he says so, and in monetary terms I am quite sure that this is true. But it is not how it felt at the time.

He can be waspish. He appears to have got on rather well personally with Margaret Thatcher, despite their sometime differences and their avowed occasional stand-up rows. He says his losses of temper on those occasions were acting, as his temperament is too equable for them to have been real. And also that “Margaret Thatcher was always very lucky in her political opponents.”

On the NHS (after all he was Health Secretary for quite a long time), he says “there would be riots if we were plunged back now into an NHS that looked as it did in the 1980s”. Probably true. But that would also arguably be true of a lot of other aspects of society in the 1980s – when there were quite a lot of actual riots. But for myself, having lived outside the UK now for over 10 years and experienced a health service which is probably the best in the world (the French), I’m quite surprised nobody riots now at the abominable care they receive.

He points out, perhaps rather irritatedly, that his shoes are not Hush Puppies, but are hand made by Crockett  and Jones in Northamptonshire. Shoes are often an issue in politics (leaving aside the current prime minister) – I had some yellow Clarks suede desert boots I was rather fond of at one time when I was an MP, and used to wear them when out knocking doors as they were comfortable and took me many miles with never an itch or a rub or a blister, and was roundly castigated by the local LibDems for wearing them. I was never quite sure why. I always liked them. I wish I still had them now.

A word on Ken Clarke the politician – we were colleagues in the House, and although we never had anything much to do with each other he always knew my name when we passed in the corridor – and why should he know the name of a humble and obscure Labour (then in government) back-bencher? Well, because politics. Fibromyalgia is a health issue which is a very severe and debilitating one for those who suffer, and there are many local support groups for sufferers, usually membered by the sufferers themselves and their immediate families. I was often surprised by the energy and fortitude displayed by the fibromyalgia lobby, this being the case. The two strongest local fibromyalgia support groups in England were in Reading (which I represented) and in Nottingham (which Ken did). I therefore found myself chairing the group, and most of its meetings. True to form, the other Reading MP, Martin Salter, trumpeted in the Reading media that he was “spearheading” the lobby for fibromyalgia sufferers. However, Salter was so rarely in the House, choosing to spend most of his time in the Reading constituency that I and not he represented (the reasons for that are a matter for mental health practitioners rather than for politicians I fancy) that he did not actually attend any of the meetings. Ken Clarke also rarely attended, but he had better excuses, with front-bench and other responsibilities Mr Salter has never had. Whenever he could not attend he would put “on the board” (an actual pinboard at the time that MPs could use to send each other direct written communications) for me any communications from his constituents he thought relevant for the meeting, always with a handwritten compliment slip from Ken. Good politics, man. The other Nottingham MPs were similarly assiduous, but it was only from Ken that I got the “on-the-board” letters – and these are delivered personally to the Member addressed, by the House badge messengers, rather than going through the internal mail system office to office.

Of his time at the Ministry of Justice, which seems not to have been a very happy one, he notes that all three of his challengers on law and order matters, namely David Cameron’s erstwhile director of communications Andy Coulson, Michael Howard’s former special adviser at the Home Office Patrick Rock, and former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, have faced criminal charges: Of the three, only Brooks was acquitted: Coulson did time and Rock has been convicted on child pornography charges. I suspect a very sweet moment or moments for Ken.

He doesn’t have that much to say about the Brexit referendum, perhaps wisely. His position is well known, and has always been clear. Always an advantage for a politician. He does describe David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum, which he says he discovered by reading about it in the newspapers in January 2013, as “reckless and irresponsible”. Which, of course, it was.

Ken Clarke doesn’t have much to say about the illness and death from cancer (lymphoma) of his wife Gillian. Perhaps rightly. He does say that when she died, in July 2015, a few hours after a bedside gathering of himself, his son and daughter, and his granddaughter, “We were devastated by the loss but I think that I was made closer to my children and grandchild by our bereavement.” Not much of a loving tribute to Gillian, I churlishly surmise. And is it my nasty suspicious mind, but WHAT does he mean by this: “I had lost my lifelong companion and beloved wife who had been so important to me in her more active days.” Is there more to come? Does Ken suspect there is?

He ends, self-importantly, with the Hansard of his speech in the Brexit debate. But then again, why shouldn’t he?

Ken Clarke is a kind of National Treasure. He knows this, and has built himself up to it over the decades. I’m not sure if he meant to shore up that image with this memoir. Perhaps he doesn’t care. It’s an interesting read, and sometimes a very entertaining one. I am sure it will be cited, in years to come. I am not sure it will ever be a political science text or a sourcebook. But then, why should it?

Monday, 21 August 2017

Stanley Karnow, 'Vietnam, A History'

Here is my review of this commanding history of Vietnam by Stanley Karnow .Read on.

This is a comprehensive history of Vietnam by Stanley Karnow, a historian (died 2013) who is viewed as somewhat to the left of others such as Michael Lind (my reviews passim). This means fairly simply that he is not very pro-US, whatever the US might do.
Although the book takes us through Vietnam’s history from prehistoric times (the heroic Trung sisters, anyone?)
the Trung sisters, heroines of the Vietnamese revolution c 940 AD. Note the elephant.
it is perhaps most interesting on the lesser-known aspects of that country’s 20
th-century history. Such as the fact that the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, was in close touch with Ho Chi Minh, as were various American generals, as early as 1946. And that between 1945 and 1954 France got more finance for its military efforts to retain its Indochina possessions than it did in Marshall Aid for its shattered postwar economy. But at the same time the OSS was supplying the Vietminh (Vietnamese Communists) with weapons for their battles to drive out the French colonialists. So, US covert forces were colluding with Vietnamese communists to drive out the French, while its overt forces were helping France battle to hold on in Indochina. Or so it would seem. None of this worked, of course, and the Americans legged it out of Vietnam, not for the last time. And then – WHAT a story this is – the BRITISH were brought in to restore order, under a certain General Douglas Gracey. Predictably, things got worse.

 Also, like many Americans of all political stances, Karnow did not view Great Britain as heroic in World War II, as I was brought up to believe we were, fighting on alone (but for the mighty USSR) after France collapsed and the smaller European nations either were overrun or changed sides. On LBJ’s formative experiences which led him to oppose withdrawal from Vietnam, Karnow cites “the Munich pact, Britain’s capitulation to the Nazis”. This is not how Munich was seen in Britain at the time, nor, mostly, since, including by its opponents. But it appears here to be an uncontroversial statement. Karnow does not say whether LBJ actually held or expressed that view. Perhaps though if he did it was utterly unremarkable.
Karnow does not take issue with the assessment by Michael Lind that the 1960s escalation of US involvement in Vietnam was about US prestige and position in the world. Not one bit. So right and left are united on this point.
The advice given to LBJ in preparation for the debate on the South-East Asia Resolution, which, only arguably, rendered US actions in Vietnam constitutional, included this answer to a FAQ: “Does South-East Asia matter all that much? Yes – because of the rights of the people there…”. This would not be said now, and certainly not on the left. Brown-skin people in far-off countries are not judged as deserving of rights as white westerners, these days. Ernest Gruening of Alaska, a “veteran liberal” said in the debate “All Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy”. No change on the left there, then. Although, as indicated above, Karnow does not try to say the war was about anything other than American prestige, he does use emotive language on the subject: “dutifully recited the dogma of the domino theory”.

It’s interesting how utterly chaotic and corrupt the various governments installed in Saigon were, and not all of them were installed by the US. South Vietnam at this time was rapidly becoming a failed state, and while this wasn’t the fault of the US, they weren’t helping either.

Karnow is clear that “the Vietcong” (a South Vietnamese nickname intended to be derogatory) were not, as many in the West believed they were, an indigenous insurgent population. In fact they were a trained militia funded and directed from Hanoi, and via them from the USSR and China. But, Karnow notes, North Vietnam, after the start of the Rolling Thunder operation, did not have its cities carpet-bombed as Dresden and Tokyo were in World War II. You only have to visit Hanoi, as I did in April this year, to see that Hanoi still looks very much like the French colonial city it once was.

 “And the marines, as one of their commanders put it, will henceforth ‘start killing the Vietcong instead of just sitting on their ditty box’”, quoted without comment. This remark by the marine commander is of course absolutely correct. If you are going to go there, go there and get the job properly done. Otherwise those who die there will have died senselessly and in vain.
Karnow continues with the emotive language throughout: “the hopelessness of the American cause”. Well, we know how it turned out, of course. We also know, or think we do, that the domino theory was incorrect. Indonesia and Malaya did not go communist, despite various attempts and uprisings. And this was not just because the Chinese hordes did not pour across the border (figuratively speaking) – when they did pour across the actual border, in Korea in 1950, the end result was not a communist Korean peninsula, but a stalemate and an uneasy partition.

 Karnow ends the book in a curiously sentimental fashion, with Bui Tin, former Vietnamese army colonel and the man who took the surrender of the last South Vietnamese leader, Duong Van Minh, in 1975. Tin has been a dissident since the mid-1980s, and is an old man now, latterly living in France. Karnow, who knew Tin quite well personally, has him flinging himself elatedly on to the ground and gazing into the sunlit sky as North Vietnamese forces take Saigon. But this, as the coda, is the only real moment of weakness in this magisterial work: Karnow was too rigorous a historian to allow whatever personal and emotional fealty he might have had to the North Vietnamese cause to subvert the history.


Sunday, 30 July 2017

Michael Lind, 'Vietnam, The Necessary War': A Neocon Writes

This is a very interesting historical analysis of the Vietnam war from what might be called a neocon perspective - if you think not opposing all America's wars because they are America's makes you a neocon. To Lind the US adventures in Vietnam were not, or not especially, about anti-communism, but were especially about US credibility, not just in the region but in the wider world. He seems to say that, in terms of a military campaign, the job should have been done properly: "Kennedy and Johnson should not have allowed an unrealistic fear of Chinese intervention to prevent them from invading North Vietnam, or at least cutting it off from its Chinese and Soviet sponsors by measures such as mining North Vietnamese ports." After all, he says, the threat of Chinese invasion was real at the time. It had happened in Korea not that long before. A Chinese Party Central Committee document of 1965 declared that the top priority for the Chinese government was supporting North Vietnam against the United States." Therefore, Lind concludes, "the argument that Johnson could have brought the war to a quick end by invading North Vietnam has been completely discredited". Slightly contradictory, no?
Lind even tries to rehabilitate the reputation of LBJ by saying he was undermined by RFK and his associates, who went as far as to meet the KGB (this apparently was revealed in Soviet archives) to indicate to them that RFK was at one with JFK, unlike LBJ, and would be the USSR's friend if he became President.
Lind explains the change in the Democratic Party (away from interventionism and towards isolationism) by the core constituencies of the party ceasing to be much Southern or Catholic and becoming Greater New England Protestant, Jewish, and black. He makes comparisons, again and again, for example to the assassination of President Park of South Korea in 1979, which he says would have put a stop to then-active attempts at Korean reunification if it had happened in 1972. But it didn't, so it didn't. He especially compares, again and again, the situation facing LBJ in 1965-6 with that facing President Clinton in Yugoslavia in 1999. It's fair, but as a device gets a bit tedious after a while.
Far from stating that the US bombing of Cambodia, always intended to disrupt the passage of materiel through Cambodia from Sihanoukville, and the effective occupation of the ports of eastern Cambodia by the North Vietnamese, Lind says "the banning by the US Congress of further US air support for the Lon Nol regime ensured victory for Pol Pot and his followers." That, and Sihanouk immediately declaring for the Khmer Rouge and urging all Cambodians to join them. Also, "the Khmer Rouge owed their victory to the North Vietnamese military." He rejects the position of Cambodia scholars such as Ben Kiernan, namely that the US bombing of Cambodia somehow drove the Cambodian peasantry collectively insane and spawned the Khmer Rouge. He goes as far as to argue that Sihanouk, by allowing the passage of weapons and materiel through Cambodia to the North Vietnamese from the port of Sihanoukville "became a co-combatant" in the Vietnam War in the mid-60s.
"The only two presidents to have waged major wars in defiance of the US Constitution have been Harry S. Truman (in Korea) and Bill Clinton (Kosovo).
On the Clinton presidency's foreign policy and adventures, not a glorious episode in anyone's estimation, he goes further too. President Clinton's publicly ruling out the use of ground troops in Serbia to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was "the single greatest act of incompetence ever committed by an American commander-in-chief." He's probably right about that, though it all came right in the end (sort of). As he says: "fortunately; the capitulation of Serbia averted what might have been a disaster for the United States."
For some reason he quotes Churchill on Dunkirk "We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory." He uses this quote to introduce a section on history's verdict on Vietnam. Whatever, the old boy's quotes certainly have stood the test of time.
"The Vietnam War was neither a mistake nor a betrayal nor a crime. It was a military defeat." I now agree with him that it was not a mistake. But disastrous mistakes were made in the execution of it, and also of course in its presentation.
A non-conventional perspective on the war, and a highly commendable contribution to the history of that conflict, still very much in living memory.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

ah yes, I remember it well

sqwawkbox (never quite sure how to spell that thing) has been banging on about deselection of Labour MPs for being insufficiently loyal to JC. Some of this will of course happen. First they will come for the Jews and for the women, preferably both at once. And then - well, you know how it goes. But may I point out that it is perfectly possible to deselect a sitting Labour MP now, with no rule change, and that this has been done a number of times in fairly recent years. But it is seriously hard work, and in my case took seven years' campaigning and briefing. Most Labour members, even today, do not want to see their MP deselected, and it takes a long time to fill their ears with so much poison that they are prepared to vote against the MP, or not to vote for her, which usually amounts to much the same thing, because they have started to think "no smoke without fire". In the case of Reading East, after a failed deselection attempt in 2000 which resulted in the ouster of one party chair and the flight of another to Australia in fear of his kneecaps, the renewed efforts were still not working as well as the small group of "criminally insane" (says a very senior party organiser)  party members had hoped, following my re-election in 2001 with an increased majority. So they enlisted the help of the now disgraced former Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, a crabbed virago who acquired the parliamentary seat she held for many years by sheer nepotism, with no discernible merit or hard work on her part. She has recently been compared (by one who knows) with Nurse Ratched in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'  - but I fear the former was cleverer. Hills however was well schooled in psychological torture, and you don't have to be clever for that. Anyway, she surfaces in the revisiting of earlier deselection schemes, as well she might. The Telegraph piece from 2004 however mentions my name, and strongly implies that I was deselected for being some kind of Corbynite lefty, which I consider a slur and a calumny, and urge all concerned to withdraw the remarks. Sqwawkbox, it wasn't quite like that.

In other news, it was nice to get a mention in the House this week when the Labour MP for Reading
East, Matt Rodda, made his maiden speech. It was very sensible and mentioned Reading and housing a lot. Jolly good for him.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Donald Ray Pollock, 'The Heavenly Table'

Southern American hillbilly outlaw gothic. What's not to like? Some, actually. Too much fecal matter for my squeamish soul. And the death of Pearl's wife will stay with me for - well, too long. Set in 1917, but could have been set 50 years earlier or even 50 years later for its take on poverty in America. A new voice to me, and one that is likely to stay with me for probably too long. Anyway, very funny in places, which I did not expect. It's crying out for a film to be made; quite possibly with Daniel Day-Lewis.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Who is being undermined here?

On Thursday the Reading East constituency was retaken for Labour after being represented for 12 years by Rob Wilson in the Conservative interest. I was quick to congratulate Matt Rodda, the new Labour MP for Reading East, as I am the only person in the world who has ever previously known what it is to represent the Reading East constituency in the Labour interest, and to send him an open letter. That's more than Reading Labour Party did. Their tweets were all about Olivia Bailey, the defeated Labour candidate in Reading West "you should have won"; "all hands to Reading West next time" (hah! I bet!) and from the party only "What can we say? Matt Rodda MP!" clearly signalling the subtext "THAT wasn't supposed to happen". Well, matey boys, it has. Contrast Plymouth, where they also elected a Labour MP for one of the city's constituencies, and party officers and councillors were tweeting in delight and excitement about their new MP (Luke Pollard since you ask, a fine fellow in my limited acquaintance). I am sure they are doing the same in Ipswich and Canterbury, among other places. But in Reading, no.

So, Tony Page, a councillor for approximately 103 years, currently deputy leader of the council, was chosen to issue the customary counterblast to Labour victory in Reading East. He did this by attacking Rob Wilson. Well, I am not going to join him in that. If you get re-elected, twice in Wilson's case, when you just scrape in the first time because the voters are not sure about you, it means you have earned those votes by gaining the trust and confidence of the voters. Hey, Tony? Well, you wouldn't know. You were the Labour candidate in 2005, the compromise candidate who could get support from party members to deselect that pesky Jane Griffiths who keeps winning elections and NOT DOING AS SHE IS TOLD and NOT BEING THE CREATURE OF READING BOROUGH COUNCIL. Well, the Reading East electorate disagreed that year, and chose Rob Wilson. Who is, of course (says Tony Page), a bad person, because he too refused to be the creature of Reading Borough Council. You can read the "story" here. It is in the Reading Chronicle, so it must be true. See this:

THE DEPUTY leader of the borough council hailed last night's election result as a big leap forward for local government. (you what? this was a parliamentary not a borough council election Tone)
Councillor Tony Page, labour (sic - is John Howarth moonlighting as a sub?), was elated after candidate Matt Rodda pipped former MP Rob Wilson to the Reading East seat with an (sic) 3,749 majority.
Note the "pipped", as if 3,749 was not a respectable majority, especially in a seat which will always be marginal if held by Labour, and especially in a seat which had a candidate who was not the favourite of Tony Page, Jan Gavin, and their various henchpeople. Imagine the briefings. Here is Cllr Jan Gavin (Lab, Redlands, Reading East, former teacher, played a murky role in ousting the head teacher of the school she taught at, which happens to be the one my children attended) hearing the Reading East result: 

Pic Reading Evening Post  (so it must be true). Cllr Page continued: 

I have every confidence that Mr Rodda will work closely with the council and he has already made that clear."
 "Having an MP in Reading who will work with the council as opposed to undermining them is very important."

Is that a threat, Tony? It reads very much like one.

And where, in all this, is the delight and excitement at the election of a Labour MP - because after all it was the election of Labour MPs that denied Theresa May the mandate she hoped for in her snap election? You may well ask. The Observer does, in a big piece today, where they quote Cllrs Tony Jones (whom I do not wish to undermine at this stage) and, you guessed it, Jan Gavin - both of whom fail to enthuse about the election of Matt Rodda. You can read the piece here.

Well, Matt, you do not need them. Great news that you have been elected. A fresh new voice for "Reading, Woodley and Caversham". I wish you all the best, in every way. Step over the tired, corrupt clique of old people on Reading Borough Council and go forward to the future. The scores and scores of mostly young people who campaigned for you want you to do that, and I know you will. 

Friday, 9 June 2017

Open letter to Matt Rodda, Labour MP for Reading East

Open Letter to Matt Rodda, elected Labour MP for Reading East on 8th June 2017

Dear Matt

We don’t really know each other at all, but I wanted to write and say how delighted I am that you have been elected to represent Reading East for Labour. Until your election yesterday I was the only Labour MP the constituency had ever had, and I was very proud to hold that office from 1997 to 2005. I’m so glad that the people of Reading East again have a Labour voice to speak for them in Parliament.

I was once told “The House of Commons is a great megaphone: use it so your constituents can be heard.” Good advice, that was. Your place is on the green benches, speaking, petitioning, debating, giving the government a hard time if need be – at the time of writing we don’t know who is going to form a government, nor what its party composition will be. Your place is in the constituency too, and it isn’t either/or – being an MP is two jobs. Your constituents will expect to see you in person and hear from you regularly, and they will also want you to contribute to debates and speak in the House, and not just on the high-profile causes.

You are Labour, but you are no one’s creature. You will need to work cross-party from time to time, especially now that Reading’s two MPs are of different parties. Don’t tell anyone I told you, but sometimes it’s easier that way. You need good relations with both the councils whose areas you represent parts of, but you are the tool of neither, nor can you (as your constituents sometimes believe you can) overturn the decisions of either.

You are your constituents’ representative, and not their delegate. How else can you represent constituents who hold diametrically opposed views – and I promise you they do. You represent a relatively highly educated, fairly diverse, urban and suburban area, with quite large disparity of income and wealth. But all your constituents, whatever their situation, share the general human needs and concerns we all have. I was once remonstrated with by a former government minister for not tabling Agriculture questions (as it then was). When I said that was because I didn’t represent any farmers, she said quietly “Your constituents eat food, don’t they?”

Table questions. All the time. Get involved with causes which are precious to you, to your constituents, or both, through All-Party Groups and committees. If there isn’t an All-Party Group on something that matters to you, start one. It’s one of the ways a back-bencher can have some real influence over policy.

The House of Commons Library is better than Google, for almost everything.

Travel, on your own account and on parliamentary visits. Keep it to the recess, but don’t be hair-shirt about it. You will learn from it, and you will learn from the colleagues you travel with, and maybe they will learn from you. Be discreet (you know this) – a backbencher of another party (unnamed here) once passed out from unwary drinking of toasts next to me at a dinner on a parliamentary visit to (country name redacted). No media (this was before Twitter et al) found out about it through me. Make time to read, in the recess and in the evenings. This is advice I was given and should have followed but didn’t. You probably have a special skill or talent your colleagues don’t. Perhaps you are fluent in Basque, or play a mean harmonica, or win prizes for growing tomatoes. Whatever it is, use it. Show off a bit.

Woodley is one quarter of the constituency by population. Spend more than a quarter of your constituency time there. I promise you you won’t regret it. A little piece of my heart will always be there.

If you ever want a chat, pm me and I’ll be happy to. Best wishes and give my love to Reading East.

Jane Griffiths
9 June 2017

Phnom Penh, Cambodia