Politicians of the year…

‘Inspired’ by The Times nomination of Nigel Farage, here is my wholly biased, evidence-free and not exactly serious set of ‘politicians of the year.

Politician of the year: Caroline Lucas
Honourable mention: Dennis Skinner

For sticking to her principles (hell, for even having principles in the first place!) listening to debates and generally being a good human being – something far beyond the reach of most MPs, Caroline Lucas took this award with relative ease – though Dennis Skinner’s NHS speech towards the end of 2014 took the breath away.

Liar of the year: Iain Duncan Smith

Extensive research has yet to find anything that IDS said in 2014 that was actually true. Full reviews of Hansard as well as of all his official speeches have failed, but close friends believe he may have been honest when telling the time once in late October.

Villain of the year: Chris Grayling

For his sadly partially successful attempts to destroy our justice system, Chris Grayling is my villain of the year. Hardly any aspect of the system has not felt his malign touch – what he has done to legal aid is nothing short of criminal, whilst probation and the prisons have been hit horribly and his judicial review plans are hideous. He’s been beaten many times in the courts, but his viciousness lumbers forward all but unabated.

Disappointment of the year: Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper had a real opportunity to change the authoritarian direction Labour has been heading since Blair’s embrace of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, and make Labour once again a party that understands the importance of civil liberties. Sadly she’s done pretty much precisely the opposite, seeming to want to ‘out-tough’ Theresa May, to love the surveillance state and out-Farage Farage on border controls. Sad, and totally unnecessary.

Failure of the year: Michael Gove

From leadership contender and the Man Who Would Save Education, Mr Gove has suffered a sacking, been stuck in the Commons toilet and been revealed to be a thoroughly incompetent Chief Whip – losing votes he should have won, having MPs defect just after having lunch with him. The world’s smallest violin is playing the world’s saddest song…

Racist Dog-whistler of the year: Nigel Farage

There are many awards that Nigel Farage could win – ‘Best Actor’ for his impersonation of an anti-establishment figure, despite being as establishment a politician as they come, right down to the employment of his family and full-scale exploitation of expenses rules – but the racist dog-whistles are his real forte. ‘You know the difference’ he told James O’Brien once. Yes, Nigel, we know the difference. And we know exactly what you mean.

Tragic figure of the year: Julian Huppert

Julian Huppert was one of the heroes of the commons in the way he was pivotal in the defeat of the Communications Data Bill – the snooper’s charter – but he went from hero to zero in 2014 by allowing himself to be used by Theresa May to ‘legitimise’ the passing of DRIP. That episode – the act was passed in mere days – was one of the most shameful in parliament’s recent history, and Huppert didn’t just fail to prevent it, he helped make it happen. It didn’t need to, and Huppert’s role in it was simply tragic.

Authoritarian of the year: Theresa May
Dishonourable mentions: David Blunkett, Hazel Blears

For her desire to bring back the snooper’s charter, preferably with all its powers strengthened and made less accountable, for her love of secret courts, and for all-round authoritarianism – and I’m not making this up – Theresa May is a shoe-in for the Authoritarian of the Year award. David Blunkett is past his prime, but still brings back memories of 90-day detention – while Hazel Blears’ supine efforts on the Intelligence and Security Committee make her seem positively starry eyed in the face of authority. Still, neither are a match for Theresa May!

The Mary Whitehouse Award for Puritanical Nanny of the year: Claire Perry
Dishonourable mentions: David Cameron, Helen Goodman

Fairly stiff competition for this award, but Perry wins in for her championing of ineffective, over-blocking Internet filtering systems. Cameron came close by championing of Perry, and Goodman would have loved to have had the chance. Perry, Cameron and Goodman would also have been in the running for the ‘technologically incompetent politician of the year’ award if it were not for the fact that more than 95% of MPs reached world-championship levels of technological incompetence.

Curate’s Egg of the year: Simon Danczuk

Danczuk is a quintessential Curate’s Egg: brilliant in relation to child abuse, abysmal over welfare and even worse about immigration. Tirelessly seeking out the truth about child abuse – but accepting the worst and most damaging of myths over ‘scroungers’ and strangers.

Cock of the year: Penny Mordaunt
Dishonourable mention: Brooks Newmark

It was a close run thing between Penny’s speech and Brooks’ Paisley pyjamas, but Penny’s cock was calculated whilst Brooks’ was essentially a cock-up, so Penny has the edge. She is the cock, rather than just having one.

Peacock of the year: Keith Vaz

Want a quote? Ask Keith. Want a photo? Ask Keith. Want to meet a Romanian at Luton Airport? Ask Keith. You ask for it, Keith will do it, and shake his tail feathers too.

‘The wrong tie’ award for MPs representing the wrong party: Danny Alexander
Dishonourable mention: Tristram Hunt

Danny Alexander just pips the rest of the Lib Dems and pretty much the entire Labour Front Bench for this critical award. He’s a Tory’s Tory, and if it wasn’t for the fact that his constituency is in Scotland he would probably have defected years ago. Tristram Hunt attempts to emulate Alexander’s Tory imitation, mostly by channelling mid-period Michael Gove, but doesn’t have Alexander’s sheer shamelessness in following Tory policy to the finest detail. Nice try though.

The Bulldog Award for persistence: Tom Watson

Not content with taking on Murdoch, Tom Watson is still pursuing the historical sexual abuse cases with patience and persistence – let’s hope 2015 finally starts to see some results.

…and finally…

The Clegg Award for broken promises: George Osborne

Osborne has shown a knack for missing every target he sets himself. He hasn’t quite matched Clegg for direct promise-breaking, nor has he managed an apology, let alone an auto-tuned one, but his record for missing targets is nothing short of remarkable.

Welcome to ‘Great’ Britain?

I’ve just finished a visit to Burma – Myanmar – a place I last visited in 1991. That visit was one of the most important of my life – a truly cathartic experience, one from which I emerged in many ways transformed. Even now, more than twenty years later, it remains one of the most important times of my life.


Many things have changed in Burma since 1991: the rapid political and economic changes in the last few years have seen to that. There was nothing like the high-rise buildings that are sprouting all around the centre of Yangon back then – nor the almost overwhelming levels of traffic. The stultifying bureaucracy and feeling that almost anything would be blocked or forbidden has also mostly gone – arriving at Yangon airport was just like arriving at almost any other international airport.


Some things, thankfully, have not changed. The gorgeous light at dawn and dusk. That characteristic aroma, mixing spice and dried fish, salt and chilli. The shining golden pagodas poking up from between the buildings in town and the green forests and jungles in the countryside. The immense feeling of time – the lack of hurry, the lack of urgency. And, most importantly, the wonderful welcoming nature of the people. Even back in 1991, when Burma was in the grip of one of the most murderous and oppressive military dictatorships in the world, that was the thing that I noticed most about the country. Everywhere I went, people welcomed me with smiles and open, interested questions. With tea and tamarind, a seat and some shade. Not out of desperation, or a chance of relief from oppression – but a simple, honest, human welcome.


The same was true this time. The people were without exception great – we travelled a fair bit, staying in a variety of places, and met a lot of people. The same (British) friend who I visited back in 1991 was again my host – now married to a Burmese artist, and with a half-Burmese daughter – and we met a wide variety of people, from former political prisoners to Buddhist monks and a Catholic nun who runs an hospital for women and children living with HIV. We went to local restaurants and bough food from street stalls. We visited pagodas and other sites. We took taxis – and in every case the people were friendly, open, and smiling. The day before we left, one old tax driver asked us where we were from, and when I said England he smiled even wider, and said ‘great country’.

That set me thinking – was the old taxi driver right? Is our country great? When we prepared to leave Burma, and I read that The Times had named Nigel Farage ‘Briton of the Year’, I really started to wonder. Coming up to the end of 2014, I think The Times may be right – Nigel Farage may well be the ‘best’ representative of what Britain has become. His party, UKIP, shows quite how far we’ve fallen – and quite how sad and desperate a state we are in. Where the Burmese show welcome, openness and happiness we display the opposite: hostility, xenophobia and closed-mindedness.

And there’s no reason for it. Britain isn’t ‘full’. Immigrants have next-to-nothing to do with all the various problems we face. They didn’t cause the financial crisis. They don’t impose upon our creaking health service – quite the opposite, they’re what keeps it alive. It’s not immigrants who keep rents high and wages low – or even contribute to those high rents and low wages. The exploitative economy and dysfunctional housing market are nothing to do with them. They don’t make our benefits bill higher – again, quite the opposite, they’re contributors, not a burden. .And yet, as Farage and UKIP’s ‘rise’ shows, we do our very best not to make them welcome. The reverse. We blame them for things we shouldn’t. We believe the lies we’re told and assume and expect the worst – all Romanians are thieves, all Muslims either terrorists or terrorist sympathisers and so on. We elect an MP who openly advocates forced repatriation. Our ‘major’ political parties play the same xenophobic tune, effectively accepting that immigration is a ‘problem’ and failing to challenge the lies and misinformation that underpin that belief. Rather, there’s a race to the bottom – let’s see who can be the most xenophobic, the most unpleasant, the most full of viciousness and scapegoating.

Seeing Burma again, meeting Burmese people again, reminded me how much we’ve lost. How much humanity we’ve lost. How much grace, how much humility, how much openness we’ve lost. We’ve forgotten how to make people welcome. I hope that in 2015 we can start to remember again. Sadly I doubt it very much.


Photo of the author by Htein Lin.

50 at 50….

Today is my 50th birthday – and as you can imagine that has meant a lot of reflection, a lot of retrospection, and a fair amount of contemplation. Lots of interesting ideas came, themes, thoughts… but mostly, my feeling right now is one of general happiness and wonder. Life can be pretty hideous at times – but it can be wonderful too, and the thing that seems to make it wonderful to me is often random, seemingly unconnected stuff. The best things that have happened to me have very often – almost always – been unpredictable, chaotic, even sometimes dangerous.

A few things I do know. I know that you don’t have to lose your ideals as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to become more conservative as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to become more selfish as you grow older. I know that you don’t have to get grumpier as you get older. I know that you don’t have to get more afraid as you get older. I know that you don’t have to stop loving life, loving people, and loving things as you get older. I love things because I love them – not really for any rational reasons, but just because I love them. Yes, that means family and friends, but that’s not for here or for now. Here and now, I just want to set down a few things – well, 50 things, because I like numbers (!) – that make me smile, and that in some ways make me what I am.

Everything here matters to me in some way – and has some connection to what it feels to me to be 50, to be alive, to be here. This is not a carefully calculated list – making sure there are no omissions, or that everything is in balance – but mine has not been a carefully calculated life. Very much the opposite – successful long term plans have been very much the exception, not the rule. Anyway, in the unlikely event you’re interested, here they are, in no particular order – or rather, in the random order that they came to my mind.

1 Bacon

2 Studio Ghibli


3 Wolves


4 Wolves


5 Protests

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 15.19.19

6 Marmite


7 Romania


8 Snow Leopards


9 Cambridge


10 Fatherhood

11 Marvin Gaye


12 Socialism


13 Travelling


14 The Princess Bride


15 Twitter


16 Realising I’m wrong about something

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 07.51.35

17 Multiculturalism


18 Dumplings


19 The Clash


20 Train journeys


21 Law


22 Cold, clear days

cold clear day

23 Trees

24 Sushi


25 Bringing Up Baby


26 Computers

old mac

27 Children’s films


28 Parodies

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29 Regina Spektor


30 Mathematics


31 Indigo snakes

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

32 Boston Legal


33 Gene Wolfe


34 Poetry


35 Surprises


36 Dartmoor


37 Axolotls


38 Castles

Castle 2

39 Croquet


40 Judge Dredd


41 Social Justice


42 Bridge


43 Cooking


44 Tea


45 Roast dinners

Roast beef

46 Ancient history

47 Beethoven


48 Steve Bull

Steve Bull

49 Writing


50 Fairy Tales

Fairy tale


Well, that’s me for now. Congratulations for reaching this far – it’s been a bit of a trek. I hope I keep trekking a lot longer.

Labour and torture…

One of the immediate effects of reading some of the Torture Report last night was a feeling of deep anger. My memories of 2003 and protesting against the planned invasion of Iraq came flooding back – and my anger towards Tony Blair in particular and the Labour Party in general came flooding back. I tweeted about it a bit last night and this morning – and though most people seemed to agree with me, a number seemed to think I was being unfair. After Polly Toynbee’s suggestion yesterday that we should ‘ignore the flaws’ of the Labour Party, having this particularly huge flaw shoved in my face seemed a touch ironic. So am I unfair to be angry with Labour? The people suggesting so seem to have a three main complaints:

This wasn’t Tony Blair – or even the UK. This is about the CIA.

It’s certainly true that the Torture Report is about the CIA’s activities – but the UK is not unconnected. Firstly, the UK was involved in the CIA’s activities, helping with rendition at the very least, and turning a blind eye to other things. Secondly, anyone who imagines that the UK is totally innocent of similar actions seems to me to be deeply naïve – the fact that we don’t know for sure may well have as much to do with our secretive and seemingly ineffective forms of oversight. A report like the Torture Report is almost unheard of in the UK. We have the odd whitewash from time to time, but nothing more. What’s more, Blair made the UK complicit in the whole ‘war on terror’ – and the torture was part of that.

Tony Blair didn’t know what was happening

For that to be true, he would have to be a complete fool – and that’s one thing I would never accuse him of. What’s more, over a million of us warned him.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 15.19.19

I was on that march – and we weren’t just saying ‘don’t invade Iraq’, we were saying ‘don’t go into bed with the most reactionary and objectionable US president in living memory.’ We may not have known the details – details confirmed by the Torture Report – but we knew who and what Bush was, and what joining him implied. Blair must also have known – and if he didn’t make the obvious inference about things like torture, then as I wrote before, he would have to be a fool. And he isn’t a fool.

Tony Blair isn’t the Labour Party

No he isn’t – but he led the Labour Party, and a very significant number of the current crop of MPs voted for Blair and Bush’s war, effectively voting for this torture. Some of the ‘big figures’ who actively supported the war are still very much part of the party – names like David Blunkett and Jack Straw spring to mind, but there are others. More importantly, the current Labour Party seem to be very much carrying on Blair’s agenda. Yvette Cooper seems to be almost as much an authoritarian as the rest of them!


So yes, I do blame Labour. And yes, I think that’s fair – and until Labour makes a proper break from the past, and shows that it understands what went wrong, or even that it was wrong, I will continue to blame Labour.


Two seemingly very different stories have been dominating the left-wing UK political scene on Twitter over the last week or two. The first is the remarkable success of the #CameronMustGo hashtag, the second the Trumpton UKIP saga. They’re very, very different things – and on the surface seem not to have very much in common – but there are strong connections between the two, connections that suggest some interesting things about how social media, and Twitter in particular, can work.

The #CameronMustGo hashtag is still trending (as I type this) after two weeks and more than a million tweets, in the face of a whole series of derogatory articles in the mainstream media (as I discussed here), and reactions from disdain to rage. To get a hashtag to trend isn’t easy at the best of times, and to get it to trend for this long is nothing short of remarkable – indeed, the disappointment last night when (seemingly briefly) the hashtag dropped off the trending list almost made me laugh, but had a serious point. Getting the hashtag to trend has given groups of people a sense of power – a sense that they can have at least some impact, albeit only in the virtual world of Twitter, when they otherwise feel so powerless in the face of a seemingly overwhelming establishment.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 07.38.14

The UKIP Trumpton phenomenon seems very different. The initial UKIP Trumpton account was a parody account, one of many such accounts on Twitter – I run a parody account myself, @KipperNick – but until a few days ago it had just a small following. It was funny, particularly for people of a certain generation (including myself) who grew up watching programmes like Trumpton, Camberwick Green and so forth – but it wasn’t earth-shattering, until it started to be attacked by UKIP MEP David Coburn for being ‘fake’. That started a twitter storm, one that has raged ever since. @Trumpton_UKIP now has 18.9 thousand followers, more than twice David Coburn’s number, and has spawned a whole range of related Trumpton accounts, as well as a wide range of attacks from UKIP supporters, some suggesting that it shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘UKIP’ in its name, others invoking (more than a touch dubiously) intellectual property law. The more the attacks come, the more the parody thrives – and the more attention it gets, from the mainstream press, and even from TV and radio.

So what’s the connection between the two, apart from being attacks on right wing politicians? Well, first of all, they both emerged from small, humble roots – the people behind the initial #CameronMustGo hashtag and the @Trumpton_UKIP account are ordinary Twitter users, not part of political parties or backed by the mainstream media. Both took root through the grassroots of twitter – yes, the #CameronMustGo hashtag was taken up by official Labour Party people, but the mainstay was (and remains) much more ordinary twitter users. Both thrive in the face of (at least partial) mainstream attacks – indeed, the attacks seem to make them stronger. Both use humour – even a brief look at the #CameronMustGo stream shows that a fair proportion of the tweets either are or use jokes as their basis, while the Trumpton accounts are based almost entirely on humour. And they’re funny. Very funny at times.

Both, too, seem to have caught the ‘establishment’ on the hop – and for all its protestations, UKIP is very much part of the establishment. Whether it’s UKIP or the Tories, the BBC or the mainstream press, the social media is something that they can’t quite get on top of. It’s not as controllable as they want it to be – and it challenges their control over the ‘message’. The Labour Party shouldn’t get complacent either – the wrath of Twitter is as likely to turn upon them as it has on the Tories and UKIP. If they try to use the people of Twitter as their political tools, they can expect a backlash. If there’s one thing #CameronMustGo and Trumpton has shown, it’s that it’s the people that count, not the parties. And long may that last.



The Nige Before Christmas

Farage Santa Ill

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the House

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The Kippers were watching the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nigel so soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

With no chance of sex ed in their little heads.

And Mark in his ‘kerchief, and Doug in his cap,

Had settled their brains for a long winter’s nap.

Mark and Doug

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutter, and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow

Gave the lustre of midday to objects below,

When, what in the world should I suddenly find,

But a man on a tank, who was out of his mind.

Farage tank

With a fag in one hand, in the other a beer

St Nige looked around with some kind of a leer

He looked this way and that as though searching around

For something he wanted, some thing to be found

St Nige doesn’t care if you’re naughty or nice

He cares if you cook with too much foreign spice

If your daddy or mummy came from the wrong place

If your accent is strange, or you have the wrong face

He has gifts for rich Brits, but for migrants the boot

And for everyone else just more hardship and soot

He’ll travel the land checking homes all around

If he sees a strange face, or hears a strange sound

Then it’s time to repatriate, quick as a flash

To send them all ‘home’, with a dash, dash, dash, dash

No matter how nice, no matter how good

There’s no place for them in his neighbourhood

St Nige has no sleigh, and no fine reindeer

But he does have his tank, and his fag and his beer

And behind him are mobs, all filled up with hype

He dog-whistles loudly and calls them by type:

“Come bigots, come racists

Come Englanders Little

Join our people’s army

Be ready for battle

Come lost and afraid

We’ve got someone to blame

It’s the immigrants’ fault

Let’s show them our flame.”

The BNP, EDL and Britain First

Oh, all Britain’s racists, they gather, the worst

To support the great Nigel, their hero and saint

You’d better watch out, their hearts are not faint

 EDL etc

Saint Nigel looked up and he flashed me a smile

A smile more befitting a dread crocodile

He winked and he grinned and I knew what he meant

A message it was, a message he sent.

“Happy Christmas to all – if you’re British and rich

And for everyone else, well life is a bitch.”

Farage Santa Ill