What is the point of the foreign secretary?

So Boris Johnson is the foreign secretary. Heir to the mantle of such as Castlereagh, Palmerston and Halifax. Christ. It hasn’t taken long for the new PM to stiletto expectations. If there was one by-blow of Brexit that could command general approbation, it was surely the toppling of Johnson, a clown with a plank who belatedly discovered the plank could do some damage, before getting a pratfall from his straight man. Now Theresa May’s spoiled even that. More »

Sisi’s New Prisons

I hadn’t seen Alaa for two years. Two years since we stood at his father’s funeral on the marble stairs of Omar Makram mosque. Two years since he was muscled by plainclothes police into an unmarked car back to prison. My cousin has been in prison for almost as long as Sisi has ruled Egypt. He was sentenced to five years for organising a protest. This month I was allowed to visit him. More »

When a War Goes Wrong

When a war goes wrong, a longstanding British political habit is to establish an official inquiry. They take many forms. Florence Nightingale used the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army (1858-62) to promulgate her views after Crimea. The Second Boer War engendered nearly as many fat volumes as Chilcot. Several covered ‘The Military Preparations … the supply of Men, Ammunition, Equipment and Transport … and Military Operations’, others ‘The Care and Treatment of the Sick and Wounded’. The Elgin Commission took evidence from the military commanders, and the secretary of state for war set up an expert commission to investigate dysentery and enteric fever. More »

Vicars’ Children

Melanie McDonagh wrote in the Spectator on Saturday that she wanted Theresa May to be prime minister ‘because she’s a vicar’s daughter’. The Mail made a similar point in its Gove-crushing endorsement a week earlier: ‘A vicar’s daughter, she is not a member of the privileged classes, but had to make her own way in the world.’ Publications in Germany and the United States have been quick to point out that this is something May has in common with Angela Merkel – while a few closer to home have wondered whether Gordon Brown, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, is the more relevant comparison.

I’m a vicar’s son. More »

Wishful Thinking

Reactions to the Chilcot Report suggest that the only remaining argument for the Iraq War is that criticism rests on hindsight. Tony Blair explained that he invaded the country ‘in good faith’, as if that somehow excuses the catastrophe that followed. General Sir Mike Jackson shrugged off responsibility for British soldiers blown up in inadequately armoured vehicles by observing that their fate was unforeseeable: ‘we’ll never know,’ he said, if any died unnecessarily. Listening to the deflections of blame, I was reminded of a scholar whose work Tony Blair has long admired. Philip Bobbitt warned in 2004 that the war’s critics were making a basic philosophical error. He called it ‘Parmenides’ Fallacy’: the mistaken attempt to assess a situation ‘by measuring it against the past, as opposed to comparing it to other possible present states of affairs’.

The argument sounded clever when I first read it, but not for long. More »

How much will the NHS lose?

In the run up to the EU referendum, the Leave campaign promised that a funding bonanza for the NHS would be one of the many benefits of leaving the EU. Official Leave campaign posters notoriously pledged that £350 million a week would be used to fund the NHS instead of being sent to Brussels. Now it seems that Brexit will deliver the opposite of what was promised: instead of gaining £350 million a week, the NHS will be making a loss of £365 million a week by 2030, according to a new Health Foundation report. And that’s the optimistic outlook, based on an assumption that the UK will be allowed to join the European Economic Area. If it’s excluded from the EEA, the NHS in 2030 may be running a deficit of £540 million a week. More »

Maternalism

Did the politics of motherhood destroy Andrea Leadsom’s bid to be Britain’s next prime minister? Only last week, some Tory diehards were describing her as a new Margaret Thatcher, a figure to restore the soul of Conservatism and secure the nation’s future outside the European Union. Then, on Saturday, she told the Times that being a mother gave her a ‘stake in the future’ which her childless opponent, Theresa May, lacked. Roundly criticised by party colleagues as well as enemies, Leadsom backpedalled, first declaring she had been misquoted and demanding a retraction from the newspaper, then admitting she had ‘misspoken’ and issuing a sorrowful apology to May. She made no mention of the affair when she announced her withdrawal from the race today, but it seems inconceivable that Leadsom would have dropped out had she never made those comments.

Talking about the way motherhood shapes political sensibilities used to be simpler. More »

Not a Feminist Victory

Theresa May looks set to be Britain’s second female prime minister, now that Andrea Leadsom has quit the Tory leadership race. It would be wrong to hail this as a victory for feminism. May’s record as home secretary suggests that her government would be especially punitive for women at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum, or with precarious migration status. More »

Folk Memories

In the end Portugal did to France at Euro 2016 what Greece had done to Portugal at Euro 2004: they scraped a 1-0 win against the home favourites in the final. France played like a team who believed the hard work had already been done in getting there. That’s what made them vulnerable to an upset, especially against a side like Portugal, who had a recent folk memory of getting stung in their own backyard. It means that no host nation has won the European championships since France in 1984, just as no host nation has won the World Cup since France in 1998. Home advantage isn’t what it used to be. More »

In the Air Cadets

In early 2003, as the Iraq war loomed, I was 14 and a member of the Royal Air Force Air Cadets. I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Two nights a week, I would take the bus from the Southside of Edinburgh to a Territorial Army barracks where the cadets had a few rooms in the basement. Down the stone steps were a locker room, office, classroom, store cupboard and a drill hall we shared with the army. The rules and regulations were pinned on felt noticeboards on the walls, along with sign-up sheets for weekend exercises and pictures of the squadron out in the woods or standing next to aeroplanes. More »

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