Talking Politics
  • Fifteen years ago, bribery was a legitimate tool for businessmen in search of a contract. It was not only acceptable, it was tax deductible expenses.

    So ten years ago Labour MP Hugh Bayley, a minister in Tony Blair's first term, introduced an anti-corruption bill to parliament. Like most backbench MPs' bills, it didn't get far.

    It did pave the way for money laundering to help fund terrorism become an offence in the first batch of anti-terror legislation following 9/11, though. That prompted home secretary David Blunkett to include a provision making transnational bribery illegal. It took seven or eight years for the first cases to be brought forward: the BAE Systems' Tanzania and al-Yamamah cases were the result. The Tanzania case was settled with a £500,000 fine. The al-Yamamah case ended with BAE being convicted of failing to keep adequate financial records - nothing worse.

    Britain continued to perform poorly in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD)

    Read More »from Why the Bribery Act is only a small step forward
  • Eyewitness: Pension strike protest

    Policing a demonstration full of teachers is harder than it looks.

    Teachers contain two unique qualities which make them perilous in a protest: patience and the ability to crowd control. The police had underestimated how effective that particularly combination could be when they suddenly burst into the march on the Strand, grabbed a handful of children and whisked them away behind the bars of Charing Cross Station.

    It's always a little scary when that happens. As far as I could tell they hadn't done anything wrong and they were very young — about 14. But you don't know what the police saw before that moment, when the rest of us were enjoying the sun and the atmosphere.

    The vast majority of the demonstration was intensely good-natured, with families carrying their children on their shoulders, drummers doing the mandatory marching beat and a collection of predictable placards about Thatcher and the milk. The people I spoke to were universally intelligent and considered. Agree or

    Read More »from Eyewitness: Pension strike protest
  • He delivered the killer blow which Ed Miliband has been missing for months. The Speaker, not the leader of the opposition, is now David Cameron's number one parliamentary enemy.

    Ever since he stepped up to the despatch box, Miliband has lacked that knockout punch. He has no sense of theatrical timing, as we saw yet again today. The momentum was thoroughly behind him when he leapt up to passionately defend Labour's performance in government.

    "I'll tell him about our record on the NHS," he began, eyes gleaming. "More doctors and nurses than ever before!" he declared forcefully . Huge Labour cheers.

    "The lowest waiting lists ever!" This was less forceful, as if Miliband had just been downgraded from a typhoon to a tropical storm. Labour MPs offered another huge cheer, on autopilot.

    "... and the highest patient satisfaction ever," Miliband finished, fizzling out completely. So much for the killer blow. Judging by this failure of instinct, he will never come up with one.

    "Now," Miliband

    Read More »from The Speaker swats Cameron
  • Deserted schoolMillions of people affected by this Thursday's strikes should be under no illusions: there was never any chance of these talks resulting in a deal.

    Perhaps you're a parent, hoping to send your child to school as usual on Thursday. Perhaps your headteacher will be forced into the decision that, because so many of his or her staff are members of the National Union of Students (NUT) or the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), your school is going to have to close. Perhaps you're going to have to make horrendously last-minute childcare arrangements, whatever they might be. You won't be alone.

    The inconvenience of this situation would be much easier to bear, believe me, if you stop reading now.

    It would be much easier for you to continue hoping last-ditch talks will persuade the unions, or the government, to give enough ground to put off the strikes.

    It would be less distressing for you to be able to cling to the hope that David Cameron's speech later today might sway the union

    Read More »from Union talks really are a sham
  • The stakes are simply too high for diplomats to risk a confrontation with China over its human rights record.

    The British government is going to be very pleased with itself after today. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao is wrapping up his visit to the UK, signing off trade deals worth over £1 billion. British businesses are being given greater access to China's fast-growing regional cities, whose GDP has more than doubled in the last three years alone. As if that wasn't enough, Wen is even going to return safe in the knowledge that 800 breeding pigs will be following him. The handshake photo call on the steps of No 10 will be thoroughly appropriate: Britain and China are doing business.

    It will disgust the group of human rights protesters gathering outside Downing Street as I write. China's treatment of Tibetan demonstrators is well-documented, but the mass injustices don't get as much attention here as the fate of individual dissidents whose stand against the Chinese elite highlights what

    Read More »from Profits beat principles when it comes to China
  • Top Gear and the politics of comedy

    What's the difference between calling a Frenchman arrogant and a Mexican feckless? Precisely nothing, except that one sparks a patronising backlash and the other is considered so common as to be tedious.

    The use of national stereotypes is the latest subject of the BBC's ongoing drive to rid itself of anything humorous or enjoyable in its schedules. It is a new chapter in the encroaching victory of the Daily Mail over British comedy, which will be neutered until all we have left is Michael McIntyre commenting on how people never talk on the Tube. The BBC's editorial complaints unit found that Top Gear's laughs at the expense of the Mexico's cuisine, ambassador and national habits had the effect of "reinforcing rather than ridiculing" stereotypes about the country.

    Plainly it's not true that all Mexicans are feckless, any more so than it's true that all Englishmen are terrible lovers or that all Germans are over-organised robots. This obvious point has made generalisations socially

    Read More »from Top Gear and the politics of comedy
  • The Commons boils over

    Was this mess a piece of abstract art? The result of a toddler running amok? Neither — it was just an extremely chaotic prime minister's questions.

    At first David Cameron's exchanges with Ed Miliband were relatively civilised. After a return to form last week, the leader of the opposition appeared to be retreating back into statesman mode for his first set of three questions, on Libya. A far cry from the passionate histrionics of last week, true, but he appeared to have elicited a genuine slip from Cameron over a review of the defence review. It will take further reviews of the footage to establish whether this review is really a review worth reviewing in more depth.

    In the meantime, therefore, our focus is on Miliband's second set of questions. Again he repeated the tactic of last week, in which he picks a relatively obscure area of policy and doesn't let go. This time round it was the DNA of suspected rapists, and whether it's a good idea to delete them from police computers or not.

    Read More »from The Commons boils over
  • Ken Clarke's ability to "swivel", on policy and in person, is now beyond doubt. Did that really justify his comparison to a cruise ship?

    This little titbit came yesterday afternoon in the Commons, during one of the most ridiculous U-turn sessions in — well, days.

    Its surprise purveyor was none other than Speaker John Bercow. He was becoming frustrated with the justice secretary's reluctance at the despatch box to address the Commons as a whole.

    "Can I very gently and in a jocular fashion say to the secretary of state that he shouldn't be like a cruise ship in rotation," Bercow said politely, a tiny figure dwarfed by the enormous Speaker's chair.

    "The House wishes to hear him. He swivels throughout. It would be helpful if he could face the House."

    Clarke is far from being a svelte cruise liner. He is more like an icebreaker, ploughing through the parliamentary obstacles in front of him with the sheer weight of his momentum.

    The challenge, in these circumstances, is to get him to slow

    Read More »from Swivelling Clarke practices his U-turning
  • Russia is unlikely to shift its opposition to a resolution against Syria at the UN security council — however optimistic British diplomats may be.

    The western goal was put on the table — literally — 11 days ago in New York. Britain and France had jointly drafted a resolution against the Syrian government. They were motivated by developments within Syria, where Bashar al-Assad is following Libyan renegade leader Muammar Gaddafi's lead in brutally suppressing pro-democracy protests. Is the west going to respond in the same way? Not if Russia has anything to do with it.

    Moscow abstained during the crucial UN security council vote which permitted a no-fly zone over Libya. Even that was a close-run thing: Russia, like China, is deeply suspicious of any move which undermines the concept of national sovereignty. It responded tetchily to western antagonism over its own actions against Chechnya separatists.

    So persuading it to allow moves against Libya was a big ask. Britain and France spent

    Read More »from Russia is proving a tough nut to crack
  • The traffic continues to flow around Parliament Square, the tourists continue to bustle. But something is unmistakeably missing.

    Early on Saturday Brian Haw died of lung cancer. It was the end of a life whose last ten years had been among the most unusual in modern British history. He had devoted himself to a solitary protest against Britain's foreign policy, earning himself an unusual place in the history books. His dogged unshakeable stubbornness was as British as the red buses constantly passing by.

    Haw's message was all the more powerful because, somewhat paradoxically, he shunned attention. "I will not be a media whore," his website declared. His target was MPs, the men and women who had authorised the invasion of Iraq and the suffering it and its aftermath caused. The media, so often viewed as part of the establishment, were invariably treated with suspicion.

    I caught a glimpse of this during the heavy snowfalls of early 2009. Central London was brought to a standstill and many

    Read More »from Brian Haw: The ultimate protester

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