Saturday, 8 October 2011

Blog Archive: Review of John Major – The Autobiography - originally published on Young Political Bloggers 17/09/2011

In an age of 24 hour news coverage, where ministers and shadow ministers are always on the frenetic attack to seize the political opportunity of the day, it’s always necessary to dip back into the annals of parliamentary and political discourse that has shaped our politics and contributed to our ever-changing political life. One such piece of history is the John Major government of 1990 to 1997. Although due in part to his lack of charisma and sense of mission that had him uncomfortably squashed in between the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, John Major tends to be eschewed from history save when a work HAS to mention him for the sake of historical continuity – for example Simon Jenkins’ Thatcher and Sons and Michael Portillo’s Margaret Thatcher: The Lady’s Not for Spurning. However, John Major is arguably one of the nation’s most important Prime Ministers in the sense of achievement and culmination of social progress in the UK.

The thing that strikes one most about Major’s memoirs is his sense of honesty and earnest will to make better the lives of the fellow man in his country. The son of an elderly former trapeze artist who spent much of his early life in a council estate in Brixton, leaving school with only 3 O’ Levels, John Major’s story is one of triumph over adversity spurned by a genuine will to leave a better settlement for future generations to have better chances in life than that afforded to him.

His explanation for joining the Conservative Party is emblematic of why the Conservatives were so successful at courting the so-called lower and lower-middle income voter – they treated people as individuals with dreams and aspirations rather than people who owed others loyalty to their struggling fraternal ‘class’. It was this aspirational, compassionate Conservatism that he shared with Iain Macleod and Ted Heath that drove his ambition through working as a bank clerk through to local government in Lambeth council to being elected in the crucial 1979 election (one which symbolised swathes of former solid Labour voters voting Conservative for the first time), rising through the ranks of the Conservative Departments of Social Security and the Treasury, ultimately becoming Prime Minister in 1990. His becoming Prime Minister was the very sign of the everyman from a modest background with no baggage interest poking at him from behind, a self-reliant constituent who wants a better life for his offspring and access to bounds of opportunity, while maintaining a compassion for his fellow man.

His achievements during his premiership included the Maastricht Treaty that consolidated the European Community into a stronger Union (and crucially gained an opt out for Britain for economic and monetary union), the National Lottery (always a good source of revenue for the arts and good will competition amongst the nation’s participants), Grant Maintained Schools (a forerunner to Voluntary Aided schools, Academies and Free Schools) and taking decisive steps in secret negotiations with Sinn Fein, leaving a good foundation for Tony Blair to eventually complete peace talks in Northern Ireland. All these measures were forebears to the political developments which would characterise the Blair, Brown and now Cameron years, changing the debating ground over the politics of public service reform, Britain’s place in the world and maintaining the Union. However, in spite of all this, the reader feels the weariness with which Major was tainted by, amongst other things, assorted Eurosceptic ‘Bastards’ attempting to wreck his premiership, scandals over false morality and sleaze and a feeling of inevitable end after nearly two decades in office. It’s a shame that something as arbitrary and superficial as charisma and ego, which is often a driving part of the success of many politicians in the public eye was not blessed on Major, disallowing him a firm place in the annals of modern political history.

Major’s memoirs are very well written and shall be of great interest to anyone seeking to understand a crucial period of development in our modern political structure. In eschewing strong notions of the ‘ideal Conservative’, John Major the politician represents an embodiment of the everyman who the British politician strives to court into their political party or seeks the vote of at election time. He just happened to become a Conservative due to time and circumstance.

Blog Archive: The Social Democratic Moderniser takes hold of the Political Agenda - Originally Published on Young Political Bloggers 16/09/2011

The Social Democratic Moderniser takes hold of the Political Agenda: Ed Miliband at the TUC by James Gill

Is Ed Miliband in a mess following heckling at the TUC conference? While certainly being served a volatile start, I believe that Ed Miliband has emerged a stronger man after delivering his speech to the TUC. Out of the door went Red Ed, in came the genesis of a social-democratic leader of Great Britain. It was a speech which set the pace for a renovation of the trade union relationship with Labour and how Labour approaches its politics for the future generations and presented the British public the full circle of the cunningness of Ed Miliband, matched with a will to rebuild the Labour Party. A choice between being a one nation social-democratic party or one stuck in the romantic myth of persistent union and ‘working-class’ struggle.

Ironically, the Ed Miliband who won the Labour leadership a year ago was a man who, rhetorically at least, painted himself as a man of resurging ‘true Labour’ values who wanted to save the party from their ‘New Labour’ comfort zone, then personalised by his older brother David. At the TUC 2011 Conference, however, stood a man who praised the impact that academy schools had in his Doncaster constituency amidst boos and yells of “rubbish!!” from the shop steward floor.

Given the successes of New Labour had in terms of reaching new ground for the Labour Party after 18 years of opposition, I was sceptical of Ed Miliband when he claimed a year ago that what was needed was a return to those Labour values that had guided the party through the twentieth century. Instead, what I saw at this year’s TUC Conference was a man with a plan to build upon the successes in the modernising tradition of the Labour Party. Instead of sidestepping the unions, Ed Miliband made the bold decision to invite the unions to join him on this modernising journey.

After the best part of a year of simply reacting to the news happening around him, Ed Miliband made the news this time by boldly reinforcing the uncomfortable truth that the unions have for the best part of 20 years been increasingly seen as an irrelevance in this country, representing only three million workers of the entire thirty million employed workforce within the United Kingdom. At a time when all members of the public are feeling the squeeze on living standards from rising prices to inert living wages to slow, stagnant economic growth, the public, whilst acknowledging and sympathising with public sector squeezes are unlikely to support industrial action which will only harm the fragile conditions in which people are now living.

The unions will most likely strike come November, provoking the largest piece of industrial action since the 1926 General Strike, but I don’t think it will it harm the Labour Party or Ed Miliband. Ed Miliband in his speech reiterated his pride in the union link and the 3 million levy paying members, but acknowledge that there will be times for inevitable disagreement – such as these proposed strikes. As far as influence in political parties is concerned, the unions, who are thoroughly hostile to the Coalition government, have nowhere else to go except Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Bob Crow’s earlier suggestion for an alternative party of labour if Labour and Ed Miliband did not come down on the side of the unions would receive hardly any support from the wider public, a majority of whom are not union members; and would hardly be sustainable as the tight squeeze on union members living standards would prevent them from sustaining such a project.

The biggest question that Ed will face now is if this will hamper his attempt to eliminate the 50% union vote share over conference votes in favour of a more democratic one member-one vote policy for conference mandates. Judging by the traditional loyalty that is often shown to a Labour leader, such as to Tony Blair over the rewording of Clause 4 in 1995, and the fact that a large portion of the MPs and ordinary party members voted for the more clear cut moderniser, David Miliband last year, alongside the growth of the modernising group Progress and the Movement for Change community organising group (set up by brother David), suggests a party willing to accept the future is appealing to the wider British public than engaging in the insular maintenance of union vested interest in a party adapting to the changing face of the United Kingdom. The modern Labour party seems to be sharing Ed Miliband’s position that he showed at the TUC conference, cherishing union association, but willing to push through hard messages to make sure unions maintain their relevance in the contemporary Labour party and contemporary British society.

Ed Miliband’s body language at the TUC conference indicated that he understands how large a fight this could be. When he praised the Hutton report and encouraged cooperation of free schools and academies with other state schools, it was clear that he anticipated a volatile reaction from his audience, improvising quips such as ‘I knew you wouldn’t like this’ as he sought to open up a healthy debate with unions. In opening up a debate with the true nature of the future of trade unionism and the Labour party, he has avoided leading both organisations down a road to blind opposition to all coalition reforms, which would lead to inevitable disappointment at the behest of the British public.

Far from finding himself in a mess, Ed Miliband has set the foundations for real renewal for the Labour party.

Blog Archive: Manhunter (1986) Classic Review - Originaly published in 25/05/2010

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: William Petersen, Brian Cox, Tom Noonan
Runtime: 119 Mins
Rating: * * * * *

Manhunter is a real rough diamond of a film, one which feels like the decade it was produced in, with a cheesy soundtrack and some not-so-famous actors; but it’s also a real masterpiece of suspense and psychological horror. It may also surprise some readers to learn that Manhunter is the first Hannibal Lecter film, made five years before The Silence of the Lambs. It lives on with a cult following, thanks to Brian Cox’s understated, brilliant Lecter.

The film focuses on the mental turmoil facing former FBI agent Will Graham as he returns to his job from early retirement to help authorities catch a brutal serial killer, The Tooth Fairy/Great Red Dragon, before he kills again. However, in order to regain his edge in profiling murderers, Graham has to confront and seek the assistance of the very man he captured (and who provoked his retirement), Hannibal Lecter. The film showcases the exploits of its other serial killer as he chooses his next victim, while an unexpected romance throws him into a struggle between his passionate and murderous impulses.

Unlike The Silence of the Lambs, where a supernatural, all-knowing Lecter is on equal footing with Clarice Starling, Manhunter focuses on the fragile minds of the pursued and the pursuer, albeit with another cruel psychopath thrown in to manipulate them for his own enjoyment. Brian Cox’s Lecter is a risky, sinister chess player with pawns at his mercy as he shoves the pieces into play from the confines of his cage. His calm, unassuming manner masks an unquenchable evil, rivalling Anthony Hopkins’ flamboyant, hammer horror Hannibal.

Blog Archive: Do the Right Thing Classic Review - Originally Published in 10/11/2009

Film: Do the Right Thing (1989)
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Danny Aiello, Spike Lee
Rating: *****

2009 has been a year of constant anniversaries and commemorations. However, one anniversary overlooked is the 20th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.

Do The Right Thing is Spike Lee’s magnum opus on the topic of futile racism, bigotry and communal discontent which can so easily infest society from the smallest, trivial gnat of a matter, growing into a monster that invariably wrecks people’s lives.

Set on the hottest day of the summer in the melting racial pot of Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, the day starts off pretty ordinarily for the local community centred around the spot of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. However, when a rowdy, pseudo-black power activist starts to organise a ‘boycott’ of the pizzeria over a lack of black faces on the restaurants wall gallery, it sets into motion a string of encounters between the multi-ethnic community that ultimately ends in tragedy.

The film follows a multi-racial community featuring Afro-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Italians, who seem superficially at ease with each other, but with deep underlying tensions simmering under everyone’s skin that come to boiling point over the most ridiculous and unlikely of spats. Here no one is immune from the grasp of bigotry as it spills out left, right and centre, whether it be in protest over pictures on a wall, the hardships of being part of a minority or moaning about immigrants running a local shop.

As one watches the movie from its unassuming beginning right to its explosive ending, it’s sure to leave an alarming yet thoughtful taste in the viewer’s mouth.

Blog Archive: The need to avoid a new ‘Iron Curtain’ - Originally published in 10/03/2009

THE EU, once an economic haven of safe and principled private enterprise with workers rights, has come under renewed pressure in the recession. The most alarming casualties appear to be the Eastern European economies, previously seen as the bright stars of Europe. This in turn, could lead the rest of the EU on a slippery slope to financial purgatory.

While EU leaders commit to free trade values, segments of the European population riot, believing that those governments are still for the big business free traders who landed them in this mess. The latest episode in this quagmire is the consensus amongst EU leaders that bank bailouts and national industries should not hurt other EU members’ economies.

Ferenc Gyurcsany, Hungarian Prime Minister affirmed that “We should not allow a new ‘Iron Curtain’ to divide Europe. At the beginning of the Nineties we reunified Europe. Now it is another challenge – whether we can reunify in terms of finance.”

This statement, while well-meaning, begins to look increasingly bleak as the Eastern European countries, who received plentiful investment in their resources in their accession to the EU five years ago, including billions of loans from Western European banks, are now looking like continental basket cases.

In light of the recession, the IMF has had to bail out Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine. This economic struggle threatens to move westward with Austria, Greece, Italy and Ireland in the way, notably in the way due to their weakening public finances. Ireland, in common with countries like Bulgaria, has had its fair share of anti-government protests perceived towards the government’s role in the mismanagement of the economy – rage being about the government’s 3.5 billion euro injection into the Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks.

Meanwhile, other EU countries are heading in different policy directions: France is acting in an increasingly protectionist manner by saving its domestic car making factories and closing ones based in the Czech Republic; and the British, Spanish and Italians are stuck in government deficits.

The EU has got a big economic bill on its table and someone will have to pay up soon.

Blog Archive: Malcolm X – Classic Review - Originally published on 03/03/2009

Film: Malcolm X
Year: 1992
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Denzel Washington
Runtime: 195 minutes
Stars: *****

From the first residence of a home built on the labour of African slaves by George Washington to the present glass-ceiling breaking incumbency of Barack Obama, Afro-American history has been a trough of violence, struggle, despair, solidarity and, ultimately, victory. No film embodies the epoch-making point of this struggle more than Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

Released in 1992, the film begins by juxtaposing one of Brother Malcolm’s fiery speeches against white racism, a burning American flag and footage of the devastating Rodney King beatings. Although Malcolm X was murdered 27 years before, his message still rings with resonance in a country paralysed by pockets of racism.

During the three hour epic, Denzel Washington packs in a powerhouse performance as the principled, if initially slightly misguided, civil rights activist, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the icon himself. The film catalogues his turbulent childhood, years as a sleazy street hustler, subsequent incarceration, conversion into the Nation of Islam, continuing activism and ultimate assassination at the hands of the sect which nurtured him, and Washington acts with style, grace and honesty – although it doesn’t match Malcolm X’s own autobiography for graphic detail and emotional shockwaves.

Watching this film in the light of President Obama’s accession to office reminds us of how far America has come since those dark days of civil rights activism. Denzel’s Malcolm X is an emblem of African-American destitution, waywardness, rage, dissent and ultimate reconciliation. Eulogised by the late Ossie Davies’ narrative in the films final scenes, Malcolm has reconciled his faith, race and civil rights struggle with a sense of being not just African, but African-American. One cannot help but feel that Obama is carrying on this great legacy of the ‘Change-a-comin’ with breaking the boundaries to accept the keys to the White House.

Overall, Spike Lee’s picture is a pleasure to watch with compelling performances given by all involved. It adequately serves its purpose in demonstrating the relevance of history to our contemporary lives. See it by any means necessary.

Blog Archive: Raucous Refinery - Origianlly published in 10/02/2009

In a sharp turn reflecting the turbulence of the 1970s, the UK has been engulfed in illegal strikes in the past weeks which could have brought the country to an energy standstill and deepened Britain’s recession, as well as shadowing doubt over whether the workers have been prepared for this new international era of work.

Across the country, protesters are holding strikes against companies’ continued use of foreign labour from our neighbouring EU countries, namely at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, which hired 300 Italian workers with apparently overlooking the British demand for employment. Strikers are claiming that British labour is being systematically bypassed for continental alternatives.

In recent days, the strikes and protests have spread out across the UK ranging from 400 demonstrators protesting outside a former ICI complex at Wilton, Teeside, 1000 workers staging a walkout at South Hook Liquified Natural Gas terminal in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire and 140 contract workers (employed by Siemans) downing their tools at Marchwood Power Station. And just as snow pelted down on the UK, nuclear workers joined the strike efforts.

Eager to resolve the strikers’ ailments, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson assured the workers that they have the right to go to work in mainland Europe just as much as European workers have a right to enter employment over here.

In a complementary statement, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber says ‘Unions have fought hard for decent conditions for migrant workers and back the free movement of labour within the EU’. He went on to emphasise, however, that the anger should be directed at the employers, not the foreign workers, who have apparently attempted to ‘undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff’.

With the economy in such a fragile state and unemployment almost reaching the 2 million mark, the strikes, although the source of anger can be understood, could deepen the recession into a potential depression and create an energy shortage crisis. Union leaders went on to say while sympathising with the workers, because the strikes are unofficial, they cannot support the stoppages.

It also sheds light onto whether companies in the UK are playing by EU rules which dismiss any form of discrimination against workers of any nationality. The EU has a policy of free movement of labour allowing workers from all EU countries to work within any other European country. However with 1.1 million EU citizens from mainland Europe working in the UK compared to 290,000 Britons working in the EU, it gives cause to concern whether companies are abiding by the rules or whether the workers are willing, prepared and able to reap the benefits sown from EU membership.

The mediation service, ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Services), are continuing to mediate with both the managers and union leaders in order to resolve the potential crisis.