Society


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The Mail on Sunday took the unusual step of sharing its front page story with other Sunday papers today, ensuring Geoff Hoon’s ‘three homes’ scandal was splashed around generously. Hoon was outed for living rent-free in Admiralty House for three and a half years – apparently due to security reasons as he was defence minister at the time – while claiming expenses on his home in Derby and renting out his London townhouse.

The general impression of MPs rolling around in public money like pigs in litter isn’t helped by the shabby excuses they put out when Paul Dacre and friends inevitably track them down. Hoon told the Mail:

I only claimed whatever the rules allowed for. The [Commons] fees office was aware what was happening. Indeed, I was told to move to Admiralty House on security advice. I was told unless I went into secure premises I would have to have round-the-clock police protection at my home in London and that would cost the taxpayer a great deal more.

As more revelations showed Jacqui Smith claimed £304 for a barbecue – they must have been pretty amazing burgers – the home secretary took the the blue airwaves of the Telegraph to defend herself. “I thought that was the wrong thing to do [to claim for her husband’s porn films] and that’s why what we immediately did was apologise and pay the money back,” Smith told the newspaper, using that cunning New Labour formulation that looks like an admission of error but is actually just an excuse.

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Amid all the expense hounding, one story in the Telegraph made me laugh. Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering, is loathe to claw back expenses from the taxpayer and is apparently keen to get his annual claim even lower. “I’ve got a board [with my name and contact details on it] at Kettering Town football club and that’s £15,” he told the paper. “I could stop that.” I think we can all allow him that little bit of hedonism.

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Twitter feeds, live podcasts and video are pumping out reports of the G20 riots in the City with breathless excitement. The #G20 tag on Twitter is brimming over with posts. As Tweeter robcthegeek just pointed out, journalists are rather enjoying channeling the mayhem.

Amid frenetic news of RBS’ windows being smashed, office equipment being thrown out and even an armoured car being stopped by police, a bit of comedy has been peeping through. A few nice Tweets I’ve picked out:

andrewnorfolk: “HAH, #G20 protesters smash RBS windows, it’s nationalised you morons!”

 

davidteather: “It is like apocalypse now, but with decent food”

 

rachelwilliams2: “‘This is the worst festival i’ve ever been to’ quips one man as we are squeezed round a corner by a police line”

 

madduane: “Saw a sign in the G20 protest coverage that said “Capitalism Isn’t Working.” I couldn’t help but wonder what a pro banner like that costs.”

 

JasonGregory“Can someone tell the man smashing the RBS windows that he (presuming he is a taxpayer) will have to pay for that. #G20”

 

tuileries: “The thing is, the British and their protests, it’s all just anoraks & rucksacks. If we were French the water cannons wld be out by now.”

 

In the background on the Sky News radio feed, you can hear Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ being murdered by a handful of unwashed students with a guitar.

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Hot on the heels of brainless Government plans to teach Wikipedia and Twitter in primary schools, Birmingham City University has upped the ante and launched a £4,000 MA in social networking.

Described as “very relevant and very scholarly” by convenor Jon Hickman, the course offers field-trips – perhaps to internet cafes – along with seminars and “research workshops”. The blurb says:

Birmingham has a thriving social media scene and this scene is fast becoming an industry. It is therefore wholly appropriate that this programme should be based within Birmingham School of Media, where students will have access to a peer group and active community of social media practitioners.

£4,000 sounds rather a steep price to be introduced to a roomfull of people who have MySpace. I’m also not sure how much scholarship you can fit into 140 characters on Twitter. The only consolation is that anyone gormless enough to pay probably is in real need of “access to a peer group”.

 

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These occasional encounters between Harriet Harman and William Hague at PMQs make you wish Gordon Brown would go on holiday more often. It’s like watching a brainless sitcom in the middle of endless news bulletins, or seeing the clowns wander in halfway through a Shakespearean tragedy.

Reliably, today’s joust was high on comedy factor and low on substance. William enjoyed himself; Harriet was cross. This unchanging formula is the basis of every episode. While – like Men Behaving Badly – it starts to get rather worn after a while, you can always be guaranteed a few juvenile laughs.

Things picked up where they left off last time, with Hague asking about the Working Capital Scheme. The scheme is essentially a bit of PR tat which was kicked out by the Labour spin machine last year and forgotten about, making it a useful thorn for the Tories to wiggle once in a while. Harman doggedly refused to answer the question, reeling out the textbook ‘do-nothing party’ riposte with such passion you get the impression she actually believes it’s a useful response.

As usual Hague landed a couple of funny blows, at one point painting a picture of Gordon Brown unpacking his Speedos on a South American beach and pointing out that “inheritance must preoccupy the niece of the Countess of Longford” when Harman brought up tax. You just know there are plenty of Labour backbenchers tittering along with these kinds of jibes.

The fact that these exchanges of puerility are such a welcome break from the usual Brown/Cameron drudgery does say something about the level of national debate, though. When Chuka Ummuna came to talk to our City class a month ago he was all for scrapping PMQs and replacing it with something more likely to fire useful discussion. At the time I dismissed this as nonsense. But in the long term there has to be a more constructive way than this.

Inspired by my interview with up-and-coming author Joe Dunthorne this week, I decided to make an audio slideshow layering his comments over some images of Village Underground where he works. He talks about writing Submarine, his first novel, and why he doesn’t draw much literary inspiration from Shoreditch.

This week I met Joe Dunthorne, the hotly tipped young author whose debut novel Submarine has been nominated for multiple awards. He talks about Shoreditch, Shakespeare and why he likes working on top of a massage parlour.

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Joe Dunthorne has just got back from a tour of Somerset’s hippy communes. Sitting in the converted London Underground train that serves as his workshop high above Great Eastern Street, he tucks his blond hair behind his ears and laughs.

 

“I went to one that was just amazing,” he enthuses. “They had their own orchard, their own cider press, their own steam powered log cutter for chopping wood. There was a group of kids running about making mud pies, wearing beautiful flouncy dresses. It was idyllic.”

 

Dunthorne’s own working environment is no less remarkable. Bolted to the roof of a Shoreditch massage parlour, his carriage forms one of five trains that have been brightly painted and renovated as artists’ studios. In the next car along a team of tailors cut and stitch clothes destined for Hoxton’s expensive boutiques. Further down the carriage, a couple of actors quietly pore over stage directions for tomorrow night’s performance.

 

Tales of apple bobbing with tie-dyed west country folk are Dunthorne’s way of explaining, with characteristic modesty, that he is researching material for his second novel. At the age of 27 he is already an award-winning author – his first book, Submarine, won the University of East Anglia Curtis Brown Prize – and with his forthcoming opus taking shape and an anthology of poems in the pipeline he is quickly becoming Hackney’s hottest literary property.

 

When asked how it feels to be showered with plaudits and compared to JD Salinger by the Observer, Dunthorne smiles and raises his eyebrows in slight bemusement.

 

joe-2“It feels great,” he begins. “It’s very exciting, but it’s incredibly… not strange, exactly – it’s just that everything seems a surprise. When I was starting out all I wanted to be able to do was to write for a living in any format. It just so happens that I managed to do the exact thing I most wanted to do, and I feel blessed and lucky about it all.”

 

Submarine was written while Dunthorne was finishing a masters in creative writing at UEA. It traces the fortunes of Oliver Tait, “a typically sex-obsessed 15-year-old-boy who lives in his own world”, as he goes a mission to save his parents’ marriage and lose his virginity. The ensuing cocktail of adulterous capoeira instructors and pimply coming-

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of-age humour caught the attention of an agent, who swiftly bagged Dunthorne a book deal.

 

“I wish I’d had a bit more of a struggle, to add texture to my writing journey,” Dunthorne says. “But it all happened very quickly so it involved very little hermitage or anything like that, and very little impoverishment – although I was impoverished when I was writing the book as a student, so I suppose I can say that.”

 

The deal rescued Dunthorne from a job “in the world’s most depressing call centre in Norwich” and tugged him into the heart of London’s writing scene. Despite his initial reluctance to settle down in the capital, within weeks he found himself living on one of the loudest streets in Hackney.

 

“My main concern about moving to London was I didn’t want to go through the process of finding a house,” Dunthorne remembers. “I was really scared of it. I just thought, ‘God, I can’t handle this huge city with all its possible places to live and all its traps.

 

“And then my mate rang me up and said ‘We’ve got this room, it’s £400 a month, it’s in Shoreditch’. So I turned up and lived there for two years.”

 

In those years Dunthorne has clearly become a fizzing dynamo of activity. Last week he performed a stand-up poetry skit at the trendy South of the Border bar to celebrate the discovery of Shakespeare’s first playhouse. His brief was to remix a Shakespeare play with a Hackney twist, resulting in the unforgettable image of King Lear howling drunkenly on his hands and knees outside the Brick Lane bagel shop at three in the morning. Dunthorne also runs his own monthly night, Homework, at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club with a few other likeminded bards.

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Among his other escapades he has managed to get half his new book finished. As-yet untitled, the novel centres around a Welsh family who start up a commune.

 

“Basically, the other has a visitation from a voice on high and believes the world’s going to end,” Dunthorne grins. “It’s about how they deal with that.”

 

Is it going to be have the same Adrian Mole laughs as Submarine?

 

“It’s not as funny, no. If I can put a joke in I’ll put a joke in because I always think ‘Why would I not put a joke in’, but the voice doesn’t carry jokes in the way Submarine did. I’d say this one is a bit more witty than funny. It’s a bit toned down.”

 

At the end of the carriage the actors are still puzzling over their lines. Dunthorne nods to them. The sense of community aboard the tube helps keep his morale up when his workload gets heavy, he remarks.

 

“You get to speak to people, you get to say good morning and drink tea in the sunshine and chat and stuff, which I think is really important.” he says. “I’m not convinced how well I would flourish in the shed at the bottom of the garden.”

I met David Kingsley, the advertising guru who helped transform the Labour party in the 1960s. Here he talks about working for Harold Wilson, how it feels to be compared to Alastair Campbell, and whether he thinks Gordon Brown can beat David Cameron at the next election.

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A small box sits on the mantelpiece in the study, a slogan playfully scrawled across its side in marker pen.

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‘Fidel Castro gave this cigar to Harold Wilson,’ it records. ‘H.W. then gave it to D.K. at a meeting on the evening of his son Andrew’s birthday.’

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Next to the cigar case is a black and white photograph. It shows three men flanking Wilson, the tough-talking Labour prime minister whose mercurial personality dominated the politics of the 1960s. They appear to be smiling in modest celebration.

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“Won two, lost one,” David Kingsley chuckles, nodding at the picture. Now approaching his 80th birthday, he allows himself the indulgence of raising a bushy eyebrow. He is talking, of course, about general elections. Kingsley’s natural aversion to boastfulness must be one of the reasons his story has remained one of the untold tales of modern politics, until now.

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Before Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson refashioned the Labour party into an election winning machine, before ‘spin’ entered the daily lexicon of British newspapers, even before Margaret Thatcher paid two brothers from Baghdad to design her first election poster, a team of elite executives became the first professionals from the world of marketing to help a politician break into Number 10.

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‘Let’s Go With Labour’ and ‘You Know Labour Works’ were the motifs that powered Harold Wilson’s Labour party to two consecutive general election victories in 1964 and 1966, accompanied by innovative TV broadcasts. They sprang from the fertile mind of a young media guru who felt his socialist leanings tugging more urgently than his wallet.

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At the age of 33, David Kingsley was already a veteran marketeer with his own business and experience of working in New York for Proctor & Gamble, the founders of modern advertising. He was “something of a man-about-town”, he remembers with a laugh, a dynamic figure who made regular TV appearances and knew the power players in London’s blossoming advertising scene. Like Alastair Campbell, Kingsley was – and still is – a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter.

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Excitement was buzzing in the air when Harold Wilson shaped up to fight the ageing Harold Macmillan in 1964. Here was an energetic challenger, fresh and full of self-belief, who promised to forge a new Britain in “the white-hot heat of technology”.

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So when a mutual friend told him the prospective prime minister was considering radically changing the Labour party’s election strategy, Kingsley jumped at the chance to help.

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“I had a feeling that politicians weren’t very good at communicating with the people, and the people found it very difficult to understand what the politicians were doing,” Kingsley says.

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“The Labour party didn’t know how to communicate with words. If you look back, none of the parties really did.

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“I became very interested in how one could use the latest marketing techniques to understand how you needed to get through to people, instead of just throwing out headlines.”

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After Labour won the 1964 election with a slender majority, Kingsley persuaded Wilson to let him bring in two more high-flyers from the advertising realm, Peter Lovell-Davis and Denis Lyons. Together they became known – only partly in jest – as the prime minister’s Three Wise Men. The first golden age of Labour PR had truly begun.

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“We quickly became very involved,” recalls Kingsley. “Every second Tuesday we’d go to Number 10 and chat over what was happening. Sometimes we’d find ourselves in the embarrassing situation of carrying messages from Number 10 to the party because they didn’t always see eye to eye. It was an extremely interesting period.”

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Political folklore has it that the trio of Mandelson, Campbell and Blair were the first senior figures within the party to really hook themselves to the addictive potion of opinion polling, the gauge of public favour widely seen to be responsible for forming many of New Labour’s early policies.

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But Kingsley insists it was the Three Wise Men – together with their friend Bob Worcester, who later went on to found the hugely successful research company Mori – who started using regular opinion polls to guide party strategy. It was they, years ahead of Tony Blair’s watershed moment, who identified the potential appeal of ditching the Labour party’s manifesto commitment to nationalisation. At the time, even raising the idea would have been like uttering a blasphemy. It was quickly shelved.

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“They weren’t doing proper [opinion poll] research when we arrived,” Kingsley explains. “What they liked was to show their ratings once in a while, but they weren’t digging deeper to find out why people had views on things.

“So the research part of it was very important. In fact to my mind, introducing the Labour party to proper opinion poll research was one of the most important things we did.”

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For a moment he looks slightly rueful.

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“Bob [Worcester] was very good. If they’d used him more we needn’t have lost the 1970 election. I know everyone always looks back, but he was tracking very clearly what was happening and what the problems were in a way the Labour party had never experienced before.”

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It’s clear the art of spin, now so associated with vicious briefings and irresponsible hype, was governed by a certain gentlemen’s code in the 1960s. Kingsley describes Wilson as “a marvellous chap” who would bring his wife and children to parties and would charm friends and foes with his bluff northern manner. He takes pains to point out that even at the peak of the Wise Men’s activities, advertising was seen as a precursor to real discussion.

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“The most notorious slogan we ran against the Conservatives was ‘Yesterday’s Men’,” Kingsley says, referring to the controversial campaign that portrayed Ted Heath’s team as puppets languishing in the dustbin of history.

“But that was actually planned as a preliminary to clarifying our position. It was a preliminary to talking. I always believed you should talk about your policies and your principles, because those are the key ingredients which other people tend to feel good about or not.

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“Things go wrong in politics when people think they know it all, when they aren’t actually closely in touch with what’s going on around them or what people feel like. But everything goes so quickly these days. We used to have time to think about these things. Now you have to think on the spot for 24-hour news.”

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Kingsley parted amicably from the Wise Men and the Labour party when Ted Heath’s Tories scraped to power in 1970. He says he has never been tempted to return to the heart of British politics, preferring to split his time between charity work and advising a number of African governments.

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He still takes an interest in the Labour party’s fate, though. What are his thoughts on Gordon Brown’s chances at the next ballot box? There is a long, meditative pause as Kingsley rubs his hands together.

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“Well,” he offers, “when the first troubles came to the Labour party, and MPs were beginning to say ‘We must get rid of Brown’, I wasn’t of that ilk. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but I thought he’d come through very well at the right moment, and…”

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Again Kingsley hesitates, weighing his words carefully.

“And, I think he has. It doesn’t mean he’s done everything right or everything wrong. But I still think he is the right person for this time. You can’t just go by what the newspapers say.

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“There’s still a lot going to happen in the next 18 months or so until there’s an election. I think it’ll swing back to Labour, more than anything because Cameron and his crew seem to be so bad at doing things.”

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At this point Kingsley raises his hands in mock incredulity.

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“They don’t ever seem to get anything right. I’d love to advise them how to do things because it would be very easy. What is amazing is the Conservative party hasn’t yet managed to modernise itself in the sense of being a party that cares for the whole country – they just haven’t done it.”

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Asked whether he sees the likes of Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson as his progeny, Kingsley is more evasive. He is grateful to Peter Mandelson for breathing life back into the Labour party in the 1980s, he says, and he recognises a certain parallel between the professionalism the Three Wise Men brought Harold Wilson and the professionalism New Labour’s modernisers brought to the party 30 years later. How about Blair himself?

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“I will always praise Tony Blair for getting the party into the frame of mind where it realised it needed to win something,” Kingsley says slowly. “Of course, many of us lost faith with the Iraq war and… it deteriorated after that.”

Silence settles for a few seconds. An email pings softly on the laptop behind him.

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“He did a very good job for the party,” Kingsley finally pronounces. “But he was a bit of a disappointment. As a person.”

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As the conversation draws to a close, Kingsley lets slip a surprising revelation: he didn’t draw a penny in salary from the government in all his time as its communications maestro. Offering his services for free gave him a feeling of distance from the political machine, he says, and the freedom to do as he liked. His only remuneration came in the form of a Havana cigar, itself a gift from Fidel Castro to Harold Wilson.

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“I’ve promised to give it to one of my sons, but it’s probably falling to pieces,” he explains, gesturing towards the box on the mantelpiece. “I know the exact date Wilson gave it to me because my first son was born earlier in the evening, so I arrived at Number 10 late from the hospital.

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“He had it ready for me, and I said, ‘I don’t smoke’. He said, ‘David, you don’t have to smoke this, but do have it as a celebration of your son’.”

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Kingsley smiles at the memory. “I keep meaning to give it to Andrew, but I think perhaps we ought to frame it or something.”

In a shameless attempt to boost my search engine rankings, here’s an insight into some of the weird online meanderings that have led people to my blog over the past few months.

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‘Gordon Brown’s eye’ has to be the most bizarre search, which led people to my very first blog post on Gordo’s glass eye and increasing blindness in his functioning eye. It was inspired by a Telegraph story claiming the PM needs things printed in 36 point font.

‘Daily Mail bigots’ was the next quirkiest one – I’m saying nothing – closely related to searches for golliwog-related material.

Another popular search was ‘Hackney gangs’, which took readers to an article I did ages ago.

Overwhelmingly though, Labour rising star Chuka Ummuna was the most searched for guy. It says a lot about his appeal that, despite not even being a politician at the moment – he’s a lawyer, about to stand for Streatham at the next election – people are already going crazy for him online. It’s another element to his early story that’s bound to prompt more irritating comparisons to Barack Obama. He’s coming in to chat to our politics class at City next week, so watch out for a longer Chuka-related focus piece then.

I can’t wait to see the outcome of a Daily Mail poll that accompanied a Carol Thatcher-friendly story on the web today.

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It seems slightly irrelevant to debate outlawing something which has been so successfully supressed by social taboo for so long. It’s more than 20 years since Enid Blyton’s publisher stripped out references to Mr Golly, the swarthy skinned proprietor of the Toytown garage who was replaced by a less ethnically challenging character.

To my knowledge Boris Johnson’s former seat, Henley-on-Thames, is one of the few places left where a carefree bigot can splash out on a golliwog doll these days. Last time I walked past Bagatelle Toys on Bell Street, several gollies were staring unashamedly from the shop window. But there are doubtless plenty of Daily Mail readers knocking around that neck of the woods. Maybe we’ll see a triumphant victory at the Mail poll for golliwog lovers everywhere.

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I was speaking to an old Labour communications maestro this week, who said something to the effect that the Tory party under David Cameron still hasn’t managed to modernise itself properly. I generally disagree – I’m fairly sure Dave and George Facebook and Twitter each other at ever opportunity – but William Hague certainly let the side down a bit on today’s Andrew Marr Show.

He had a distinctly uncomfortable moment. Scheduled to meet the Chinese PM Wen Jiabao after appearing on the show, Hague was asked whether it was tough raising the question of human rights in Tibet with Chinese leaders as well as working with them on economic and nuclear issues. He said consistency was the key, adding:

Eastern leaders, if I can lump them all together in one bracket, appreciate consistency.

As opposed to Etonian leaders, who prefer vacillation and indecision? I hope Wen hasn’t been reading any Edward Said recently. A slight look of panic crossed Hague’s face as he seemed to realise he’d made some of the world’s most powerful leaders sound like kids with behavioural problems, and he looked glad when Marr moved the chat on. Incidentally, anti-Tibet protestors clashed violently with police ahead of Wen Jiabao’s visist at the Chinese Embassy in London, but they appeared to be miffed about human rights rather than Hague’s moment of Orientalist madness.

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Civil strife seems to be the theme of the week. The most incisive comment reaction to the wildcat strikes that have erupted around the country over contracts for foreign workers at Total’s Lindsey refinery came from Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. In autumn 2000, truckers and farmers enraged at soaring oil prices blockaded refineries around the UK. At first, Blair’s government treated the situation as a bit of a joke – but it ended up bringing the country to the verge of disaster. Underestimating the strikers this time around could come at a high price. Left-wing Labour MP Frank Field was worried enough to write in today’s Mail:

Labour risks a wipeout at the next General Election unless it gets a real grip of its immigration policy. Failure to do so allows fingers to be wrongly pointed at foreign workers who have added much to our country. Anger should be solely directed at the Government.

Make no mistake. The men and women on the picket lines are not just fighting for their jobs, they are also asserting their national identity.

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Field misses the point that Brown’s original pledge of “British jobs for British workers”, made at last year’s party conference, was an artless grab for the jingo vote and an unrealistic promise. Commentators across the spectrum, from Carol Thatcher on today’s Andrew Marr Show to Andrew Grice in the Independent, pointed out that Brown has given quite a few hostages to fortune over the years, most of whom have been bloodily executed over the past 12 months.

Finally, to the House of Lords scandal, which has already earned itself the tedious tag of “Ermingate”. In today’s Sunday Times Jack Straw promised an overhaul, although given the Commons vetoed a partially elected chamber last year it’s going to be slow progress. Amidst the mudslinging – apparently Conrad Black and Jeffrey Archer will be booted out alongside the Sunday Times Four under emergency rules – one person has come out of it all looking rather good.

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Baroness Royall is, according to The Sunday Times:

The foxy Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, who swept in to read the riot act. Flame-haired, cool-eyed, with sexy long black boots, the Labour leader of the disgraced upper house looks more likely to crack a whip than pass the port.

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