Toper Bush, Comrade Crick and China

Why Bush should have stayed on the booze.

The problem with George W Bush wasn't that he was once a toper, but that he gave up drink and found God. In his memoirs, Decision Points, he recalls that he renounced alcohol ­after a restaurant dinner on his 40th birthday. He and a friend went from table to table "telling the same stories over and over".

No doubt it was torture for the other diners, but it was hardly in the same class as waterboarding. At least they could leave, unlike the rest of us who had to listen to Bush telling stories "over and over" about WMDs and an axis of evil for eight years. Bush's response to any crisis during his presidency was to seek guidance from God. Given all that Old Testament stuff about smiting, punishing children for parental iniquities and taking an eye for an eye, he was likely to get only one answer. If he had still been a drinker, he would have reached for a stiff whiskey, and Afghans and Iraqis particularly would have been better off.

Chinese perils

Suppose David Cameron had gone to China and, instead of making coded comments to students about democracy, read the riot act about human rights. Suppose he had banged on about Tibet, several thousand executions a year, journalists in jail, internet censorship, forced confessions, the lack of independent trade unions, and so on. Suppose he had told Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao they are odious tyrants. What terrible consequences would have ensued?

We are told we cannot afford to imperil trade with the rising superpower. But our imports from China last year cost 4.5 times more than we earned in exports to them, and the gap is growing. Is there anything among their £24.3bn of exports that we couldn't buy elsewhere, make ourselves or just do without? It's not as if they send us oil, medicine or other essentials such as wine and cheese. Perhaps our children would miss Chinese toys at Christmas, but they usually fall apart by Boxing Day (the toys, that is).

What really concerns our politicians is that the Chinese might take their money away. When our leaders talk about "the financial markets losing confidence", they often mean the Chinese, who use our bonds as a kind of savings bank. Poor people in China - the majority of the population - need the money, but their government won't let them have it and lend it to us instead. So we Britons and Americans live way beyond our means, at direct cost to the Chinese masses. To maintain that situation, our leaders pretend it's OK to lock up Nobel Peace Prize winners. Perhaps Bush could ascertain God's opinion on this subject.

Strike against the bankers

Morgan Kelly, a Dublin economics professor, performs a great service (an unintended one, I suspect) by recalling the 19th-century Irish land revolt. Thousands of tenants went on rent strike against unfair rents and summary evictions, handing their money instead to the Land League, which negotiated discounts with landlords and organised resistance to eviction attempts. Ireland's deepening economic crisis, Kelly suggests in the Irish Times, may lead to a mortgage repayment strike. "If one family defaults on its mortgage," he writes, "they are pariahs: if 200,000 default they are a powerful political constituency."

Kelly seems to consider this a bad thing, arguing that, because Irish banks are broke, relief for mortgage holders would have to come from other taxpayers. That may be so in Ireland but, for this country, I detect the germ of a good idea. Couldn't an equivalent of the Land League hold mortgage repayments until bankers agree to stop paying each other ridiculous salaries and bonuses? Shouldn't somebody also be ready to organise rent strikes among those who have their housing allowances cut, particularly as the government says that landlords ought to be cutting rents anyway? David Cameron will surely welcome such actions as examples of the "big society" at work.

Biggest test of all

Michael Crick, political editor of BBC2's Newsnight, asked if he had heard Radio 4's Today programme during the two-day strike at the corporation, replied: "I regard listening to or watching the BBC as strike-breaking." This is what the Trots used to call "a correct analysis, comrade": one should not, as a friend put it, "cross an electronic picket line". But these troubled times present more testing dilemmas. I avoided BBC programmes with ease but confess to boarding a blackleg train during the latest London Tube strike. My excuse was that I was visiting a hospital patient.

We must all hope not to confront the biggest test of all. During a firefighters' strike, should one allow one's house to burn down rather than call a fire engine?

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I fear expectations about the England cricket team's chances in Australia are too high. I am reminded of 1958-59. England then held the Ashes, having beaten Australia in three consecutive series, overwhelmed the West Indies, whitewashed New Zealand and, over ten Tests home and away, narrowly got the better of South Africa. May, Cowdrey and Graveney were the main batsmen; Trueman, Tyson, Statham, Laker and Lock were the bowlers.

The Aussies, however, won the series 4-0, and none of the matches was even close. The English pleaded that the opposition bowlers illegally threw the ball, but that just added to our reputation as whingeing Poms. The tour was accident-prone from the start: during the voyage out, one batsman injured his knee rising from a deckchair. I hope James Anderson's rib injury, incurred while boxing against a fellow bowler during a pre-tour "bonding" session, wasn't a similar harbinger of disaster.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide