Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Painter’

Sunday review: “Populism in Europe and the Americas: threat or corrective for democracy?” by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser

25/11/2012, 08:00:25 AM

by Anthony Painter

Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, has granted himself sweeping new constitutional powers over the constitution, democracy and the legal system. Hugo Chavez did the same in Venezuela and suppressed political opposition and voices of dissent in the media. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has changed voting rules and given himself power over the judiciary and a wide range of protections against legislative change unfavourable to Orban – constitutionally enshrined.

Ideologically, Morsi, Orban, and Chavez could not be more dissimilar: a political Islamist, a socialist, and a radical conservative. Something does link them though: they are all, in different ways, populists. Straight away we enter the realm of confusion. Populism has become a dirty word, synonymous with impulse, emotion, charisma, authoritarianism, fundamental institutional change and destruction of minority rights. From Morsi, Orban and Chavez it can be seen as some if not many of these things but it’s something even deeper than that and where there is democracy then there is populism – yes, even in the case of the UK as we shall see.

Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser take a look at the impact and nature of populism in their important new work, Populism in Europe and the Americas. In this edited volume, experts look at Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Austria, Venezuela, Peru, and Slovakia. They might well have added the tea party in the US and euroscepticism in the UK for they define populism as a battle between “the pure people” and “corrupt elites.” In the case of the former, the “corrupt elite” is, of course, Washington and the Wall Street. For eurosceptics they are “eurocrats” or ECHR judges and all who conspire with them.


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The Sunday review: the US presidential election

11/11/2012, 08:00:19 AM

by Anthony Painter

Politics is part art, part science. The best campaigns combine artistry and method. US election 2012 was the one in which science won and art was overwhelmed. And what a disappointing election it turned out to be – albeit one with a good outcome.

In his victory speech, president Obama declared:

“You’ll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse who’s working the phones late at night to make sure that no one who fights for this country ever has to fight for a job, or a roof over their head when they come home.

That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small; it’s big. It’s important.”

What a pity that this voice was muffled throughout the campaign. The Washington Post blogger, Ezra Klein, explains why:

“The Obama campaign found that their key voters were turned off by soaring rhetoric and big plans. They’d lowered their expectations, and they responded better when Obama appeared to have lowered his expectations, too. And so he did. The candidate of hope and change became the candidate of modest plans and achievable goals.”

This campaign was driven by focus groups and polls – science. Only, this wasn’t a campaign of modest plans and achievable goals. It was a campaign of attack and vagueness. What on earth has changed? In The Audacity to Win, campaign leader David Plouffe’s take on the 2008 Obama campaign recounts:

“Focus groups … and feedback from the field were two of our most important assets…We did not use them to make policy decisions. We used them to gauge how the arguments in the campaign were being received and digested. It was about communications, no content.”


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The Sunday review: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O Wilson

28/10/2012, 08:00:57 AM

by Anthony Painter

A few months ago an almighty row broke out in the world of evolutionary biology. Unsurprisingly, on one side was Richard Dawkins. On the other was Edward O Wilson who had co-written a piece in the journal, Nature, rejecting a view of evolution advocated by Richard Dawkins. He followed it up with a book: The Social Conquest of Earth. The row broke out on the pages of Prospect. With characteristic reserve, Dawkins concluded (borrowing from Dorothy Parker): “this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

Edward O Wilson responded with two curt paragraphs. Dawkins had pointed to objections to the Nature piece from over 100 evolutionary biologists. Wilson replied: “If science depended on rhetoric and polls, we would still be burning objects with phlogiston and navigating with geocentric maps.”

This was full-on war; mud-wrestling rather than clinical dissection. Over at the Huffington Post, David Sloan Wilson (no relation to Edward O.), reprimanded them both. Their debate was almost half a century out of date. Not only that, but Dawkins was “unbecoming.” And you thought politics was bad.


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The Sunday review: conference season

14/10/2012, 08:00:33 AM

by Anthony Painter

The two main parties have raised their game. Admittedly, this wasn’t difficult after last year but it is the case nonetheless. Conference season 2012 has defined the 2015 fight and was, unusually, consequential. The Liberal Democrats sunk without a trace. We now have a traditional fight between a party of enterprise and individualism and a party of the people taking on unjust elites. There is real choice in politics again.

On their own terms both Ed Miliband and David Cameron delivered very good speeches. The script for Labour’s conference was that its leader would deliver another vague, unfocused, holier-than-thou address. He didn’t. It had a clear and appealing message and it re-defined him as a political voice with an ability to cut through.

Equally, the script for the Conservative conference was that, having failed to establish a convincing economic recovery, the party would simply shift back into 2001/2005 mode. In fairness, the party did shunt right with all the old classics on abortion, the right to shoot at will, human rights and fantasies about workers being traded as if they were grains of wheat. Its leader did something different: he articulated a centre-right vision of the mainstream; one that is recognisable from the Thatcher years. It was full of many of the same bogeymen: intellectuals, teaching unions, the work-shy, and so on. But its aspiration nation message is a mainstream one nonetheless.


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Advice for Ed: Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour party conference 2012

29/09/2012, 07:00:33 AM

Anthony Painter solves the traditional last minute scramble to finish the leader’s speech by providing a final draft, ready for delivery, four days early

Embargo:1415 02/10/12

Ed Miliband speech to Labour conference, Manchester 2012

*Check against delivery*

It is now half a decade since a financial storm lashed against these shores. A few spots of rain at first then became a torrent and flood. With quick action we limited the devastation but still the damage was still immense. No one was prepared but luckily we are resourceful. And yet, half decade on, we look on at the debris and desolation with a sense of regret: how did we end up here?

It is fine to look back and say what might have been, what should have been. And we all – across the parties – need the humility to admit that more should have been done to spot the weakness in our defences and ensure we were better prepared. Our financial system was not sustainable. Or economy was unbalanced.

Our opponents want to turn this into a party political blame game. I understand that impulse but we all must take responsibility.

And at just the time when trust in our representatives was at a premium, we let the British people down.

They should have been able to expect honesty from those who hold their futures in their hands. And yet, many were on the take. At a time of confusion, we should have been able to turn in trust to those who we expect not to perform miracles but to at least share our basic values. As the expenses scandal took hold that line of trust was broken.

So it is little wonder that people didn’t feel ready to grant any single party a majority in the last election. Trust was broken. The financial storm was vicious. Optimism was lost.

Two years on, and too little has changed. We still are surrounded by the after-effects of the storm. Politicians are held in contempt.  In some ways, it is worse: we now also know that certain elements of the media were failing to meet the standards we have a right to expect. I understand very clearly why people would turn away from politicians. And I understand why they think that none of us really have any answers.

Yet we have to move forward somehow. There’s a nation to rebuild. It’s now clear that the austerity-first approach has failed. I’m going to say something very unusual in politics: I think our opponents genuinely felt that they were pursuing the right course. But they got it wrong. Getting a judgment call wrong might be forgivable if you are honest about it and shift course. This they have failed to do.

So my real criticism is their failure to acknowledge their error and reach for an alternative. It was always a risk to cull youth jobs programmes before the recovery was properly established. The same goes for cuts to housing, infrastructure, new schools and other much need investment. It was a gamble. The coalition lost the bet on our behalf.

Again, the blame game is not enough. We must now move forward from here. My question for the British people is a simple one: faced with this challenge what would an ambitious nation do?

Sure, we can turn on one another, we can despair, we can throw the distrust that our politicians have too easily fostered back at the political system. But there is another way. We can understand that the choices are hard, the sacrifices are many, but we can emerge as stronger, more resilient, more optimistic nation once we have rebuilt after the storm. And that is something we simply have to do together- as a nation not as opposing tribes.

Optimism doesn’t require us to shy away from reality, however. In fact, it means we have to face it. That means accepting some hard truths. The deficit will dominate our politics for the remainder of this decade. There is much that we would like to do – cut taxes for the average family, expand social care, child care and invest more in public services – but this may all have to wait. If we find savings or we decide to ask the wealthy to pay more as they can afford more then it will be the deficit not new programmes that takes priority.


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The Sunday review: Education, education, education: reforming England’s schools by Andrew Adonis

16/09/2012, 07:00:06 AM

by Anthony Painter

There are many peculiarities in our politics. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of current political debates centres on education policy. The Conservatives, relying on a single international and heavily caveated measure of relative educational performance, seek to discredit Labour’s period in office. Simultaneously, they have basically adopted Labour’s approach to structural reform of secondary education. Academies and their close relative, free schools, university technical colleges (UTCs), studio schools, the Teach First initiative, are all initiatives supported by or initiated by the Labour government. It’s too easy to forget.

At the same time, Labour is almost embarrassed to be associated with this reform programme. While it ums and ahs, Michael Gove will take full credit for the improvements the academy movement is likely to bring. Shy reformers lose their voice. So Labour’s interventions in the education debate are suddenly sotto voce. Andrew Adonis, the architect of these reforms, is looking to raise the volume once more.

In Education, education, education – part memoir, part “how to do reform” manual, part education reform history, part ministerial diary, part manifesto – Adonis reminds us that Labour consistently drove reform in office. The end point of these reforms is inevitably “an academised system.” Quite why Labour should resist is perplexing.

Adonis is generous – rightly so – to Conservative reformers of the system and Lord Baker in particular. City Technology Colleges were the precursor of the academy programme as was local management of achools. The introduction of the GCSE is also identified as a key educational reform, opening pathways for the majority. Lord Baker is now the driving force behind the UTC movement. At the same time, a number of Labour figures are given a less than rosy assessment. Tony Crosland who set out on a mission to “destroy every fucking grammar school in England” is served particularly poorly by subsequent developments. As “secondary modern comprehensives” – Adonis’s phrase – resulted from educational reforms on the 1960s and 1970s, so the majority were ill-served. Margaret Thatcher, of course, went along with all this in the early 1970s.

So both parties have their heroes and villains. Adonis is clear about wanting to take the politics out of education so this is perhaps not surprising. If there is a default setting then the left has a tendency to support the status quo and producer interest over innovation and the consumer – kids and parents. The right too often sees educational advancement in a social Darwinian fashion – useful only for a minority beyond a certain level. Yet, despite the noise surrounding the debate, reform has been consistent for two decades or more now. There seems to be a critical mass of reformism; a radical centre of educational improvement.


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The Sunday review: Joe Hayman “British Voices: the UK in its own words” and Daniel Trilling “Bloody Nasty People. The rise of Britain’s far right”

02/09/2012, 07:00:46 AM

by Anthony Painter

In Rhyl, a working-class pleasure resort, they have erected a new development between the esplanade and sea. It is called “New Drift Park”. The connection between the town and the sea has now been intruded upon. Concrete now sits where once the view was unencumbered. This barrier serves as a metaphor for modern Britain. There’s some blockage that wasn’t there before. New Drift Park is modernity grafted onto tradition. It has left us untethered. We are drifting.

The genius of Joe Hayman’s British Voices is that it allows Britons to speak for themselves. Hayman travelled across the land – an epic journey from Romford in Essex to the south-west, Shetlands, Midlands and Northern Ireland taking in Wales and Rhyl along the way – speaking to over a thousand people in the process. It is a beautiful work. The author – or perhaps interlocutor is more apt – steps back, puts his own voice on fade and lets people speak for themselves. Their voices are resonant and recognisable.

Anyone who has spent any time looking at polls, speaking with people on the doorstep, listening at family weddings and the like will appreciate the authenticity of these voices. Hayman helps us to understand Britain’s modern predicament as a result- a nation of uncertainty, anxiety and, yes, drift.

Different political perspectives have different ways of interpreting and understanding this reality. The left tends to emphasise inequality and class division. The right looks to culture, morality and the decay of traditional values. Sometimes the narrative switches over as in blue Labour and red Tory but the starting point is the most instructive aspect of those philosophies. However, the only constant is change and this is experienced through the prisms of class, cultural identity, religious conviction, and community belonging.

Just say that tomorrow Canterbury cathedral vanished. What would be the consequence of that? As a nation we’d feel a sense of bewilderment and severance. A piece of who we are, our history would vanish. The loss would be cultural. For the people of Canterbury, their very understanding of their place in the world, a stability of identity and local pride would be forsaken. The local economy would suffer considerably as tourism to the town dried up. So it has been in communities such as Longbridge in Birmingham, Stoke in Staffordshire, Glasgow, Dagenham and Burnley. Their industrial prowess was their cathedral: the loss is economic and cultural. Both the right and the left have a point.

Change both empowers and disempowers. Hayman’s book tracks the upwardly mobile – the wired-up millennials, entrepreneurial immigrant communities, and the formerly downtrodden Catholic population of Northern Ireland. And he tracks the losers from change – the white working-class of Glasgow with almost a despair of life manifested in a life-decaying diet of saturated fat and alcohol, loyalist working-class communities in Belfast, and those for whom the 1960s was moral nightmare despite their relative affluence.

Often the voices plead victimhood. Compassion shines through everywhere nonetheless. So many desire an anchor to stop the drift. The less human and social capital at your disposal, the more likely you are to be swallowed by the ocean’s currents. In that sense class absolutely matters. But it’s much more complex than that: it’s about ethnicity, nationhood, religion, sexuality, urban, town, country, technological adaptability, community and values too. Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, is as change adverse as the trade unionist, Bob Crowe. Yet their class-consciousness could hardly be further apart.

And actually we can choose to find a way of coping with change and division – keeping calm and carrying on. Eric Noi, who runs a boxing and personal development centre in Oldham gets it about right:

“If we don’t understand something, we fear it; we’re hardwired that way from when we lived in caves. And that has been exploited by extremists on both sides.”

And when there is vacuum of leadership then extremists are able to exploit divides, separating people and communities even further. There’s always a charlatan ready to step into void – George Galloway with his populism of the outsider in one direction and Nick Griffin with his radicalisation of the alienated in the other.

Hayman spots the disdain in which mainstream politics is held. Daniel Trilling’s Bloody Nasty People looks at how Nick Griffin and the BNP were able to exploit disdain and anxiety – with violence silhouetting his every footstep.


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The Sunday review: Paul Ryan

19/08/2012, 07:00:56 AM

by Anthony Painter

What must it be like to be a guy who can only feel he’s succeeded in life if he becomes US President? It is difficult to look at Mitt Romney without posing this question. It is this basic fact that is making his campaign always feel edgy, nervy, gaffe-prone and slightly desperate. It was in sore need of a bit relaxation and that is what the choice of Paul Ryan constitutes – a therapeutic massage. It is a luxury that is unaffordable even for a man as well-heeled as Mitt Romney.

Scanning Mitt Romney’s biography, it is impossible not to be impressed unless one applies some perversely high standard. He was a successful – and moderate – governor of Massachusetts. His business career was, on its own terms, highly successful. He rescued the Salt Lake Olympics. Regardless of his undoubted advantages in life, this is a very impressive curriculum vitae. It earns him the right to considerable respect. For himself, it is nowhere near enough.

Mitt Romney, as is well established, is in the shadow of his father. George Romney, who was certainly seen as a possible contender for a presidential run himself, was a Rockefeller Republican. He walked out of the 1964 Republican Convention in protest at the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, who stood opposed to the Civil Rights Act.

This was the last election before the politics of race swiveled the geography of American electoral politics. Goldwater wanted to hold the south, governor Romney of Michigan, wanted to retain the moderate Republican presence in the industrial north. Goldwater Republicans won the party while being trounced in the election – in part, as a consequence of the division precipitated by Romney’s objection to Goldwater’s approach.

His father’s biography is a lot to live up to. The paradox, however, is that this enormous pressure seems to be taking its toll. In his quest to out-achieve an over-achieving father he seems to be making mistakes. The appointment of Paul Ryan as his running mate falls into this category.

Ryan is no Sarah Palin – far too bright and sophisticated a politician for that – but it is a Sarah Palin-esque decision. Seeking to “game change” more often than not backfires. The point of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book Game Change, however, is that when it comes to vice-presidential picks, the “game changing” option is more often in your opponent’s favour.


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The Sunday Review: Positive linking: how networks can revolutionise the world by Paul Ormerod

05/08/2012, 08:00:37 AM

by Anthony Painter

There is a strangely diffident sub-title to Paul Ormerod’s passionate and personality filled look at the state of modern economics. In it, he argues quite clearly not simply that networks can revolutionise but that they do. Not only is the force of networks felt in the field of economics but it is felt across society, politics and beyond into the physical and natural world. Network theory is profoundly important for understanding our world. The question is what this means for political economy.

At its heart, the book is the latest corrective to the hubris of economics and orthodox de-humanised economic theory with its dynamic stochastic general equilibrium theories and the like. Paul Ormerod is by no means the first person to venture onto this territory. Yet, since his provocative The death of economics in the early 1990s it is an argument he has consistently made. Neo-classical economic theory is deficient. Ormerod is no Jonny-come-lately.

This makes Positive Linking a very confident book but no unreasonably so. It is not about explaining the latest economic crisis – though he does precisely that in passing. It is about looking at a deep intellectual crisis in a single subject. The problem for us is that the subject – economics – has perhaps more influence on our lives than any other with the possible exception of the bio-medical sciences. This stuff matters.

The key to networks in the economic world is influence. Traditional economics relies on incentives. If Coke reduces its price then it will sell more units. But in a world of overflowing information, advertising trickery, where consumers and producers can interact in a myriad of ways to influence one another, and the “rational” strategy is copy others, the actual outcome becomes skewed away from a “normal distribution”.


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The Sunday review: The years of Lyndon Johnson: the passage of power by Robert A Caro

22/07/2012, 08:00:33 AM

by Anthony Painter

The latest volume of Robert A Caro’s genre re-defining biography of Lyndon Johnson is structured around the mortal battle of two political foes. This conflict comprises both dependence and an antipathy that will define their historical legacy. They can never rid themselves of one another. For all their qualities, their weaknesses are plain and revealed in their fraught interaction. Each would love to be free but their fates have become entwined. It consumes the final decades of both men’s lives. The men to which I refer are, of course, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Robert A Caro.

Whilst the real story lies beneath, the narrative of the book itself is centred on two main characters whose destinies swing around the pivot of John F Kennedy’s assassination. That is Johnson and Robert F Kennedy. Their mutual loathing is seemingly without bound. From the humiliation of the vice-presidency, Johnson emerges, in this volume at least, as a dominant President with a legislative agenda the like of which hadn’t been seen since the New Deal nor since. JFK’s domestic programme was log-jammed and going nowhere. Johnson, the re-emerging master that we saw in volume three, reprises his capacity for institutional transformation and turns the presidency in an active direction. He palpably fails to do the same whilst in vice-presidential office.

John Adams once referred to his position as Vice-President thus, “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.” This is the basic premise of the new Armando Iannucci created HBO drama, Veep. Moments of Johnson’s vice-presidency such as when he collapses in a heap while dancing with one of JFK’s mistresses at a socialite-laden Georgetown party might be comedic if they weren’t so painfully tragic. A dominant theme of Caro’s four volumes is the capacity for Johnson to find power in any situation – yet he fails to do this as Vice-President. He physically and emotionally crumbles as a result as he had a tendency to do from time to time.

Johnson’s plight is made all the worse on account of the social clash of cultures as the entitled Kennedys condescend and belittle the man from the Hill Country; JFK refers to him as a bumpkin-esque “Rufus Corpone”. In this, Johnson is frighteningly similar to Richard Nixon – forever burdened by a harsh upbringing, their fathers’ failures, with ferocious energy and drive filling the vacuum where status stood for the New England Harvard crowd. When Johnson and Bobby Kennedy have the opportunity deploy power against the other that is what they do without hesitation while all the time consumed by hate, contempt and fear. At the end of this volume, it is RFK who lies emotionally, physically and politically defeated, drenched in grief. We know he is to rise again – but not yet.

Caro seems clear where his allegiances lie – he’s a JFK man. While wanting to settle the odd historical score with President Kennedy’s biographer, Arthur Schlesinger, he basically appears to be bought into the Kennedy as lost great President narrative. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis later this year and we are likely to hear a great deal about Kennedy’s diplomatic genius. We certainly get a flood of it in the passage of power. Actually, it was Krushchev who achieved far more in strategic terms through the crisis – the protection of Cuba and the removal of Jupiter air missiles from Turkey.


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