Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dinner for One

As a special treat for my readers in Germany, and a revelation for many in the UK, here is the cult English language (apart from the short intro) sketch Dinner for One that the Germans repeatedly enjoy every year as part of the New Year's Eve celebrations, yet which is virtually unknown here in the UK:

And they say the Germans know nothing about humour!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The rudest scripted speech?

What is the rudest scripted thing you've ever heard a politician say? Not a sudden outburst, but a carefully planned line?

Here's a starter: Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (introduced by later PM Paul Martin) responds to a breach of confidence by would-be biographer Peter Newman:
I cannot imagine Thatcher or any other contemporary of Mulroney doing something similar!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

More election debates from around the world

With the announcement Brown to face three televised election debates (BBC News), here's a further glimpse at how other countries do their debates as a sequel to Election debates from around the world.

To start with, here's a debate from the 2007 Polish election featuring Donald Tusk (Civic Platform) and Jarosław Kaczyński (Law and Justice):
Next we have one from the 2008 Spanish election featuring José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Socialist Workers' Party) and Mariano Rajoy (People's Party):
Finally we have a debate from the 2009 German election, featuring Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Social Democratic Party):
I wonder which of these debates the first British one will most resemble?

Parliamentary comedy

In the season of goodwill, here's a hilarious exchange from Questions to Ministers in the New Zealand Parliament:

Now can anyone find a clip from the UK Parliament that's in such high spirits?

Hat-tip to Iain Dale: Questions to the Minister, Kiwi Style.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gordon Brown and his old cheques

I missed the story earlier this week that when Gordon Brown was a student his rent cheque once bounced. (Daily Telegraph: Gordon Brown's £3 rent cheque bounced at university halls of residence) Frankly this sort of thing has happened to many of us, particularly if (as in the case of Brown) you have more than one account and get muddled between them. I've had a few problems over the years when I've had direct debits and standing orders going out of the wrong account, taking them into the red or even bouncing.

Quite a few commentators are trying to seize on this as saying something about Brown's handling of the economy - e.g. the Telegraph byline "Gordon Brown has repeatedly declared that he is the man to lead Britain out of its financial crisis" or this blogpost Tory Outcast: Gordon Brown's financial incompetence spans 4 decades. But they're missing a key point in a hope to get a cheap dig. A lot of Chancellors and Prime Ministers have not treated their own finances with the most rigorous care. Amongst the more famous cases, Pitt the Younger left huge debts when he died whilst Norman Lamont was embarrassed by revelations about his credit card bill. Winston Churchill engaged in some highly creative personal accounting (as set out by Roy Jenkins) and Asquith was also careless. And this was all when they were in office. Compared to all this, a student once drawing a cheque on the wrong account is meaningless and no proof whatsoever of any incompetence on Brown's part.

(And there's plenty of real proof anyway.)

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The future of the monarchy

My final thoughts on last week's events in Australia relates to the issue down under that usually generates the most interest here - the republic debate. The new Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, is a firm monarchist, in contrast to his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, who is a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement. So people will be wondering whether this makes the monarchy any safer in Australia, and in turn whether this will have any knock-on effects in the other Commonwealth Realms including the UK.

Personally I think the current revolving door on the Liberal Party leadership is not going to have the slightest impact one way or the other. That's because I don't think a decisive move is going to happen any time soon for three reasons:
  1. It's only ten years since the Australian public rejected a republic at a referendum and many have a "been there, done that" attitude to the question.
  2. The present Queen is personally very popular and many Australian republicans have openly stated they don't believe the issue can be won in her lifetime.
  3. Republicans are split over what form of republic they want because of a realisation of the potential consequences.
It's the third that's the main problem, whether in Australia or elsewhere (although the problem is even worse in Australia than in the UK).

The problem is that under the system of government in both countries, the monarch (or their representative the Governor General) has HUGE powers but by convention they are almost never exercised except on the formal advice of the government of the day or in exceptional political crises where the monarch/Governor General has to step in to force a resolution. The main ones I'll focus on are:
  • The ability to dissolve Parliament.
  • The ability to appoint and dismiss ministers and whole governments.
  • The ability to withhold assent to legislation.
They don't seem much but that's because the monarchy has acted with restraint, precisely because of the fear that acting wrongly will bring down the institution.

But to simply replace the monarch with a President with no other changes to the system will mean that suddenly the powers are wielded by a person with a mandate. And depending on what mandate that is - a directly elected President could claim their very election to the post as a mandate; even a parliamentary appointed President could argue they have the same legitimacy as the government of the day - there is a real danger that the powers could be used.

Imagine, for an instance, that the government of the day is going through a period of midterm unpopularity of the type early all suffer, and the opposition wish that an election could happen right now as they would win a thumping victory. Now supposing the President was from the opposition party and exercised their powers to force a snap election - would that be right? But what is to stop them? The answer isn't convention. The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis saw several conventions broken for the sake of political expediency, with only lip service given to higher reasons for breaking such conventions, culminating in the opposition using their control of the Senate to force an early election. (Whether Australia had a monarch, Governor General or President in the role of umpire probably wouldn't have made any difference. One might argue a President would have to face the electorate for their decision, but then the opposition did and they gained/retained control of both houses.)

Or what is to stop a President intervening to sack individual ministers under fire? Or to veto legislation? The answer would be absolutely nothing.

There are two possible ways round this, but both have their pains. The first is to rigidly define the President's powers and either reallocate some of them or remove the problem altogether - for instance the power to appoint other ministers could be transferred completely to the Prime Minister. The second is to build in a mechanism that can in the first instance allow for political or popular overriding of the President's decision and in the second remove the President from office before the expiry of their term.

Both of these can be done, but most current republics have been republics since at least the adoption of their current constitution and have developed solutions at the outset. They haven't had to radically alter their constitution when everything else is functioning normally, or have to face the political fallout. And they haven't had to answer other questions - e.g. if the Parliament can immediately override a Presidential veto, why does it take so much longer for the lower house to override a veto in the upper house and shouldn't that also be changed?

(Australia has the yet further problem that constitutional amendments must pass at referendums with the double requirement of a majority of those voting plus a majority in each of at least four states. Only 8 of the 44 referendums have passed. In the UK whilst we would probably have a referendum on the basics of the monarchy vs the general sort of republic proposed, the detail would be thrashed out in Parliament.)

That's not to say this is impossible, but for a republic to come about it will need far more than just dislike of the royals - all the remarks of the Duke of Edinburgh or the foolishness of certain younger royals or silliness from hangers on like Princess Michael of Kent are not going to bring this about. It will require much discussion and agreement on the detail and real solutions found to the potential for abuse of power. The 1999 Australian referendum saw a divide between those republicans who supported the proposed parliamentary-appointed model and those who favoured direct election and so voted against the proposal on the table - one of the details attacked the most was the proposal for the Prime Minister to be able to sack the President.

Of course once such a model is found that can work within the political traditions and culture of the country then it could well be only a matter of time before change comes. And given the links between the various Commonwealth republican movements (see Common Cause) it is probable that the basic model that works for Australia will work for other Commonwealth countries and spread there. But it will take time. A lot of time.

Mohammad Asghar AM joins the Conservatives

Mohammad Asghar, Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales East, has today left Plaid Cymru and joined the Conservatives. (WalesOnline: Plaid Cymru AM joins the Conservatives) I'll leave it to others to do the inevitable round of cheers and boos whenever people switch parties.

Asghar was first elected in 2007 when Plaid narrowly gained a list seat from the Conservatives, ejecting Laura Anne Jones. (By a lot of accounts from Wales, this was actually a Conservative gain.) Can Asghar hold his seat in his new party colours?

This is a somewhat complicated question to answer because of the Additional Member System, where the list seats are very much the by-product of a party's results in the constituencies and thus hard to predict. We also have no real idea of how much a personal vote he has that might follow him to the Conservatives or, crucially, whether it will make a difference at constituency level. However as South Wales East is one of the more politically stable regions it's possible to make a few guesses.

The short answer is it's possible but if the Conservatives do too well then he will be unsuccessful. The long answer...

South Wales East has eight constituencies, which each return one member. These are:
  • Blaenau Gwent - Independent
  • Caerphilly - Labour
  • Islwyn - Labour
  • Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney - Labour
  • Monmouth - Conservative
  • Newport East - Labour
  • Newport West - Labour
  • Torfaen - Labour
Two of the seats have low majorities and could possibly change hands without a political earthquake at the next Assembly election:
  • Newport East - Labour are defending a majority of 875 over the Liberal Democrats.
  • Newport West - Labour are defending a majority of 1401 over the Conservatives.
(Trish Law's majority in Blaenau Gwent suggests she will hold on. In most calculations this makes no difference.)

The region has four list members and in 2007 the total list entitlement was as follows:
  • Labour: 6
  • Conservatives: 3
  • Plaid Cymru: 2
  • Liberal Democrats: 1
  • Trish Law: 0
  • Others: 0
Trish Law's constituency victory created an overhang, although if Labour won that seat they would also have it, meaning there were five claimants for only four top-up seats. Plaid narrowly pipped the Conservatives to take the final seat - there were less than 400 votes (after division) in it. (The full list allocation was two Plaid, one Conservative, one Liberal Democrat.)

Assuming little change in 2011 then it's possible that any personal vote Asghar has (I have no idea if he has any or not) could tip that final list seat back to the Conservatives. If William Graham is restanding then he will probably get the number one Conservative slot and Asghar would likely be number two and scrape in.

On the other hand his political base is in Newport where he was a councillor and Plaid's Newport East candidate in both the 2003 Assembly and 2005 general elections. Whether any personal vote he may have will transfer to his constituency running mates (dual candidacies are banned in Wales) is unclear as is how much there is. It could help tip West into the Conservative column and make Newport East a three way photo finish (the Conservatives are only 1000 behind the Lib Dems).

If the Conservatives gain Newport West then the Conservatives would still win one top-up seat, though it would be the fourth one allocated and Asghar will go down to defeat.

If the Conservatives don't gain Newport West and the Liberal Democrats gain Newport East then the Conservatives and Plaid will each take two list members and Asghar will be re-elected.

If the Conservatives gain Newport West and the Liberal Democrats gain Newport East then the list members will be two Plaid, one Labour and only one Conservative, with Asghar defeated.

Such are the uncertainties for anyone standing as a list member of the Assembly. Of course if there is a significant shift in the votes cast in 2011 then all predictions are off.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's even grimmer down under

I've just seen the news that the Liberal Party of Australia have elected as their new leader Tony Abbott. (ABC News: Shock win for Abbott in leadership vote)

This is the equivalent of if the UK Conservative Party in its darkest years had ever elected John Redwood as leader.

So anyone who ever thought that either the William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith years were so horrible and there was no lower that the Conservatives could have sunk, think again. There truly was a lower point possible.

And to Australian conservatives, I'm afraid this looks even worse than the Downer Months. You have my deepest sympathies.


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