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Monday, 31 January 2011

First up against the wall when the revolution comes...

The father of the chapel (that being the term for the head of an NUJ branch, for reasons that are presumably lost in history - please don't write in, this isn't Round Britain Quiz) in an old office of mine was a genuine revolutionary of the purest SWP kind. He told me that, after the revolution, we wouldn't need debates, discussions or elections to decide what to do as a people, because it would be obvious what to do. Which always begged the question of what would happen to me if I disagreed with the people to whom it was obvious what to do? In any historical revolution, with the glorious exception of the American Revolution, it is entirely obvious what would have happened to me - I'd have been shot, probably on around Day Four of the new regime, some time after lunch. I despise revolutions. My family history, with a grandfather who lived through the 1918 German Revolution (remind me how that one panned out over the following thirty years), does not leave me very well-disposed to revolutions or to revolutionaries. So it comes as little surprise to see this disgusting video. Anyone who says that behaving like this is all part of growing up needs their head examined. I was never that stupid and I would never want to be. If you meet anyone in middle age who used to be part of things like this in their twenties, then be very wary of them - most people lack the capacity to behave like this, and there's a limit to how much most people really change. Anyone who, as an adult, ever thought this was good, is not someone whose advice I would ever want to take on anything that really matters.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Old and Sad election reflections

Older readers will remember that, for some years in the last century, the BBC broadcast an intermittently funny weekly satirical radio show called Weekending. After the Truro by-election, which everyone will remember was in 1987 (many people can still recall exactly where they were when they first heard the news of who had won the Truro by-election, which was to memorable by-elections what the attempted shootings of Gerald Ford were to memorable political assassinations - that is, not very) - anyway, after the Truro by-election, Weekending did a very funny sketch about it. The Returning Officer announces the results, but instead of reading out each candidate's number of votes, followed by a cheer from supporters in the crowd, he reads out each party's reaction to the result. So it's "Smith, Gerald Roger (Labour) - we came third, but our vote has still risen (cheers from crowd)", in that very slow and precise voice that Returning Officers use when reading out numbers of votes. And so on for each party. Which actually worked as a joke about Truro, as all three parties really could claim to have won and lost simultaneously: the Liberals had held the seat but without spectacularly increasing their majority, the Tories had not gained the seat but their vote had held up (in a sign that they were about to win a landslide victory at the General Election) and Labour had upped their vote a bit in a seat where they remained a poor third.

Anyway, as one of the three people in the entire country to have watched BBC News' overnight coverage of the Old and Sad by-election, a few thoughts struck me. One is that by-elections are not a barometer of the political scene - by their very nature, they rarely reflect the weather. They can affect the weather, if a third party wins a by-election, develops a bandwagon effect and goes ahead in the polls for a while, but that's not an indication of what the weather actually is - it's something else. I first joined the Liberal Party in 1986. Since then, we have, newsflash, not won a General Election. We have, however, won supposedly spectactular by-elections in Greenwich in 1987, Eastbourne in 1990, Ribble Valley and Kincardine & Deeside in 1991, Newbury and Christchurch in 1993, Eastleigh in 1994, Littleborough & Saddleworth in 1995, Romsey in 2000, Brent East in 2003, Leicester South in 2004, Dunfermline & West Fife in 2006 - in other words, winining these supposedly extraordinary by-elections has actually become the norm for my party. Some by-elections come and go and are not well-remembered; others - many others - are out of the ordinary. The only times they reflect what is happening nationally is on those surprisingly rare occasions on which one or other of the Conservatives or Labour achieves a swing from the other in a straight two-party situtation, e.g. in Crewe & Nantwich not so long ago, or that one in Norwich. Although even both of those wrongly implied that the Conservatives were heading for victory, rather than a hung Parliament, at last year's General Election.

Given that Labour (to their credit) have not fallen apart since their General Election defeat (and since there are no Labour big-hitters who dissent from the Blair/Brown orthodoxy, that is hardly surprising - this is not the early 1980s, when several major Shadow Cabinet members wanted Labour to move substantially to the Left and there was an argument about it), and given that their arguably under-performing leader has not (yet) been a complete disaster, they are, I would suggest, on cruise control. They know that we are probably years away from an election. They know that they don't yet know what their policies will be in 2015 (or even what those policies will be on - 9/11 was not forecast, so who knows what might be on the policy agenda in four years time?). They even presumably know that many of today's Shadow Ministers, including Alan Johnson, will bow out in favour of new talent before the next election. In contrast to Blair in 97, this government is not enjoying a honeymoon, so the Opposition, if it avoids being very incompetent, can slip into the lead or level-pegging with the Conservatives, as happened at this stage in 1980, after Mrs Thatcher had taken power in 1979.

What matters are the underlying trends. And, in terms of those trends, I can truthfully say, with all due deference to the ghost of Weekending, that for the Lib Dems to hold their 32% of the vote, and actually slightly increase it, is not a bad result. It reminds me of situations in which Conservative governments have lost a by-election, but have been able to see from the result that they'll quite possibly do well at the actual General Election. That it is the result, in part, of tactical voting by Conservatives doesn't matter - except as a sign of what to possibly expect in Labour/Lib Dem marginals at the next General Election. If I was a Labour MP who had narrowly beaten the Lib Dems in May, with the Conservatives third, I'd be distinctly unamused at the prospect of Conservatives voting tactically for the Lib Dems to beat Labour in seats like this.

The new Labour MP's speech - I won't comment on her delivery, as that would be ungracious, but it was very badly written (she was very clearly reading it and has not yet learnt how to lift her head up often enough to disguise the fact that she is reading from a piece of paper). Labour really is now the Boring Party again. Mario Cuomo said that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but this speech was one dreary prose-poem (of the sort that Labour would probably wish to encourage with an Arts Council grant). And I wish I could think of something original to say about that bizarre scene at the count where Labour people gave their candidate flowers long before the result had actually been announced and there were speeches and lengthy applause, while the votes were still being counted. I very much doubt that it will swing a single vote away from Labour elsewhere and most people won't notice or care, but it was still somewhat odd and mistaken. As was her reference to the Government having "let down voters", or words to that effect. I would never call people "voters" - they don't, first and foremost, exist in their capacity as voters, and voting is not most people's definining activity. They are "people" (we call them "residents" in local election campaigns, but doesn't that make us sound as if we are all living in one vast care home?). Also of tangential interest was that I heard nobody make any reference to Michael Meacher, who was visibly present at the count as a long-standing, prominent Oldham MP. "There's Michael Meacher," the commentators would once have said on TV, given what a power in the land he was, perhaps feeling the need to explain to viewers why such a political star was milling around in Oldham. I remember reading Peter Preston's account of a Washington party at which George McGovern stood ignored. Which is not to willingly compare Michael Meacher to George McGovern, but it still got me thinking.

So by-elections come and by-elections go. My only experience of being at a Lib Dem Parliamentary by-election HQ on the night was several years ago, when there was too much junk food, too much neon lighting and too much of a feeling that we'd won the by-election despite travelling in the wrong direction over all. Rather as if you were looking for the North Sea, saw the English Channel and thought that you must be driving in the right direction if you were looking for the sea and had, indeed, seen the sea. That by-election was taken as a sign of great things to come in various other elections then pending, none of which, shall we say, resulted in my party's sweeping all before it. I am far happier now, in Lib Dem terms, then I was then. I am desperately aware of the serious economic situation facing the country and the deep impact that it is having on millions of people, but I am very happy with my party's response to that situation. As Nick Clegg put it in September:
There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party. I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.
Well, I never was one of those people, nor was I very happy in politics at the time to which Nick Clegg alludes. I was waiting then for the Lib Dems to become more the sort of party that we are now - so this is a satisfying time for me politically. That is another reason that, for me, by-elections come and by-elections go, and my party remains in government after all those years in opposition - which is what matters, as our ministers are now finally able to implement many of our policies.

Another reason that I don't take them seriously as weather-vanes is that the only by-election that I was ever really involved in running was a council by-election that we won in 2005, and it proved a dismal indicator of what was going to happen next. Since the creation of the London Borough of Barnet in the 1960s, the Liberals and Lib Dems had never elected a single councillor in the constituency of Chipping Barnet. In 2005, just before Christmas (a notoriously difficult time to motivate people politically) we won a by-election in High Barnet, a ward that had previously been staunchly Conservative. We did it from third place, on a surprisingly high turnout, for a Christmas council by-election, of 30%, and we did it fairly comfortably (by the way, how many people in Oldham East & Saddleworth had already voted by post, long before the 'close, hand-to-hand combat' between Labour and the Lib Dems on polling day? I wonder). We had literally never won anything before in Chipping Barnet. This was only six months before the 2006 local elections and it happened in spite of a time of bad national publicity for the Lib Dems, shortly before Charles Kennedy resigned the leadership. Many people saw it as a harbinger of doom for the Conservatives in Barnet.

And then what happened in May? The Conservatives did not defend their vulnerable seats. No, they went on the offensive and gained other seats that they hadn't been defending (as well as holding the defensive ones). I was standing in High Barnet, and everyone kept telling me that they they didn't know who they were voting for, but they could tell me who they were not voting for, "and that's Tony Blair". In vain did I tell them that Mr Blair was not a candidate for the local council in High Barnet. Equally in vain did I tell them that the Tories had controlled the Council since 2002 and so were responsible for what the Council had been doing for four years. "No dear," said one High Barnet voter resident person, "It's not Conservative here. It's Andrew Dismore." He being the then Labour MP for Hendon, and nothing to do with Barnet Council.

Anyway, on a 50% turnout (higher than they got in Old and Sad - it's a shame if 48% is now considered a high turnout for a high-profile Parliamentary by-election), there was a roughly 50/50 split in votes between Tories and Lib Dems in High Barnet, with two Conservatives and one Lib Dem (Duncan Macdonald, the excellent councillor who'd won the by-election) getting in. This came at five in the morning after several hours in which we'd appeared to be ahead, with the two victorious Conservative candidates having gone home to drown what they wrongly thought were their sorrows - they had to be woken up and brought back to claim victory after all. I enjoyed all of this immensely despite being defeated (with 2,187 votes...), but it's a sign of how by-elections don't necessarily foretell the future.

One thing that annoyed me last night was Laura Kuennsberg constantly needling Labour about how they apparently hadn't focused enough on local issues in Old and Sad. But this was not a local election. It was an election to choose the constituency's representative in our national Parliament, which deals with national and international issues. Any candidate who claimed that, as an MP, they would have powers to solve local problems, is heading in the direction of implying something that is not true. Many years ago, one Parliamentary by-election was won by a candidate who claimed that, if elected as the local MP, priority number one would be to "sort out the council" (whatever that means). The candidate in question was not a local councillor; nor was the council even controlled by the same party as the candidate (I guess that was rather the point). Years later, the council concerned has yet to be transformed magically by a critical MP into a perfect provider of services - it's just nonsense, and it's part of what generates the cynicism that often surrounds politics.

So, congratulations to Debbie Abrahams on winning. When Dudley Fishburn won the Kensington by-election in 1988, he said that he was looking forward to henceforth disappearing into obscurity (he took memories of the by-election with him). He was told off for saying that, but what he meant, since he'd been an MP before, is that he'd been under the spotlight during the by-election campaign and now just wanted to get to work as an averagely unknown MP, with no interest in stardom. He chose obscurity, unlike the many by-election winners who arrive in the Commons and find that obscurity chooses them. I won't speculate as to Ms Abrahams' fate in this regard.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Sarah Palin and the blood libel

And who the heck is now writing for Sarah Palin? I just Googled Sarah Palin blood libel and it's already coming up as a predictive search item once you've typed the bl of blood. Mrs Palin has, one reads, issued a video statement accusing her political opponents of creating "a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn". This, you will understand, is in response to people having said, following the weekend's shootings in Arizona, that, as Bill Clinton put it, all in politics "cannot be unaware of the fact that - particularly with the Internet - there's this huge echo chamber out there". Some people, in other words, have ventured to suggest that politicians' inflamatory words might sometimes spark violent actions - how does this amount to Mrs Palin being the subject of a blood libel? Clearly, nobody would suggest that Mr Clinton might have been thinking, among other examples, of a website indicating which Congressmen Mrs Palin wanted to be defeated in November's mid-term elections, complete with an image of a rifle's crosshairs targeting Mrs Palin's hoped-for losers. I would not argue that, and nor would any libel lawyer of my possible acquaintance. Gabrielle Giffords herself apparently warned of the "consequences" of such imagery as that used on Mrs Palin's campaign material, but I would not dream of agreeing with Congresswoman Giffords that such imagery might remotely have contributed to the atmosphere in which somebody decided to shoot her. Perish the thought.

In The West Wing, they often said that political campaigners are always on either offence or defence, and Mrs Palin is certainly on offence tonight. Actually, her invocation of the blood libel does not truly offend me (although I understand why it is offensive), but it does strike me as being assinine and incredibly beside the point. Had I come up with something like that in a speech that I'd drafted, the speaker would have asked for his money back - even on those occasions on which I wrote for nothing, this material is so awful that the speaker would have asked for his money back. It beggars belief that she actually thinks that this is a sensible contribution to any debate that is worth having. One wonders when Mrs Palin first actually heard of a blood libel, and whether anyone has actually told her what a blood libel really is? The blood libel is the medieval conspiracy theory based on the belief that Jews murder Christian children so as to use their blood to bake unleavened bread for Passover. Assinine really is the only word.

Silent movies on the radio

It was either Simon Brett or John Lloyd, or was it Geoffey Perkins, whose blurb, on one of his books, mentioned his great success at having adapted silent movies for broadcast on the radio. A friend's grandmother was recently able to answer a question of mine about silent movies: did people talk during them? Given that there was no spoken dialogue, did members of the audience talk over the melodramatic tinkling piano music, or did people shush each other? She was able to confirm that it was the latter, in England, at any rate. Perhaps it was different abroad. I was prompted to think of this today by a programme that was just on Radio 4 that included nude scenes and more than one attempted seduction, all at a quarter to eight on a Wednesday evening. Which got me wondering what wireless watershed might or might not exist? It did then further occur to me that a man who is worrying about nudity on the radio is possibly a man who might benefit from getting out more.

But perhaps the radio will redeem itself at quarter to nine when there is due to be a fifteen-minute programme presented by Peter Hennessey called It Happened Here, which this week is about the Prime Minister's office in the House of Commons. Who, apart from BBC Radio 4, would make time for such a fifteen-minute interlude? It did indeed so redeem itself, as I broke off from writing this to listen to the programme, which has now been on and so is no longer due to be on, but is a thing of the past (not withstanding its possible appearance on the I-Player), meaning that I am at this point here creating a temporal anomaly by writing about its past future appearance. I was also moved by an episide of Archive on Four (surely that was The Archive Hour until they cut it to forty-five minutes - BBC cuts in action; next, Front Row will be replaced by a show called Queue for Returns) about the birth, thirty years ago, of the SDP. I'm not sure that anyone who was never in either the Labour Party or the Liberal Party could understand why this story is so enthralling.

It almost made up for a spectacularly awful Prime Minister's Questions, dominated by questions of the "Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating a group of my constituents who recently won the largest egg and spoon race ever run in Gloucestershire?" variety. No Liberal Democrat MP rose to ask a question; at least, if any of them did so rise, none of them was called by Mr Speaker. Perhaps they were all away campaigning in Oldham ahead of tomorrow's by-election, or perhaps they had misunderstood Nick Clegg's admirable Alarm Clock Britain campaign and had not yet woken up? Given that this is partly a Liberal Democrat government, I doubt that I am alone among Liberal Democrats in always appreciating it when some of our MPs stand up and ask something pertinent and positive about that government's record at Prime Minister's Questions, especially given that the Deputy Prime Minister is sat next to David Cameron throughout and deserves the maximum degree of comradeship from his backbench colleagues. If that makes me sound like a Tory, then so be it - loyalty used to be the Tories' secret weapon, and we Lib Dems should borrow it from them.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Burning money at Barnet's Pledgebank

Whilst wandering the streets of Barnet, I have been intrigued to see posters on bus stops advertising something called Pledgebank. One poster says that "I will clean up the snow if my neighbours help me" (which reminds me: "I will get the washing out of the machine after I have finished this blog posting, with or without the intervention of the neightbours"). These posters appear at the same time at which, one is told, Barnet Council is entirely cutting its grants for local museums, including the Barnet Museum and Church Farm House Museum. So, there is money for advertisements for Pledgebank, but not a penny for Barnet Museum?

Now, I have, admittedly, never actually been to Barnet Museum. But, as Sir Humphrey Appleby said about the arts programmes that Bernard does not watch on the BBC: "Neither do I - but it is still important to know that they are there." Given that Chipping Barnet was, prior to its 1960s absorption into Greater London suburbia, a Hertfordshire market town of many centuries' standing, is it so absurd for it to have a small museum of its local history, including the Battle of Barnet? And is such a museum, presumably much used by pupils at local schools, not exactly the sort of thing that one might willingly expect a bit of one's Council Tax to be spent on - if Council Tax is to be levied in the first place, that is. Even in a time of cutbacks, is it really necessary to cut the whole grant, rather than only part of it? If a grant made some sense last year, does it really make no sense this year? Does a 100%, immediate cut not deprive local museums of a chance to seek alternative funding before the axe falls? And, once these museums have gone, they are never coming back. If we want some sort of public realm in the local area, then it has to be paid for somehow - unless we are now deciding that we want no museums, libraries, parks or anything else at all apart from homes, shops and pubs?

At this point, local Tory politicians will demand to know what I would cut instead of cutting the museums grant. I would cut the Pledgebank and the department that would produce such a thing - the Council, at a time of austerity, does not have money to spend on such fripperies. Or, rather, it does have such money, but it came from the local people who pay Council Tax, and I think they'd rather keep Barnet Museum than have a Pledgebank website. Guff like Pledgebank sums up what is sometimes wrong with local government in this country. I don't care if some Liberal Democrat-controlled councils have done something similar elsewhere, or if I'm about to be told that Barnet's Lib Dem councillors have supported it in some way, shape or form - I still think it's nonsense.

Let's look at what it actually is. OK, when I read about it in the Hendon Times, I can start to see the point of it. It is not a total waste of time. But it still speaks volumes that a local authority would think that this sort of thing is a greater priority than keeping the local museums open. They'll say it costs no money, but it is clearly taking up council officers' paid time, and the mere fact that the Council has a department responsible for doing things like this suggests that they just don't get it. They just do not get it. The paper says:
The idea is part of a wider drive by the council to get more interaction with residents online in a bid to save money and make it easier for people to contact them.
Which is to put the cart before the horse and to overlook why we have a local council in the first place. The Council does not exist so that residents can interact with it or contact it. It does not exist for the purpose of saving money on its spending, as it would not be spending any money if it did not exist in the first place. No, it exists to provide certain services that can more effectively be provided by a local authority than by anybody else. That is why we have a council and that is why we pay Council Tax and business rates (yes, I know that councils pass business rates on to central government - but they earn interest on the rates before passing them on, and that is serious money for the council - that's where a lot of the money came from that Barnet lost when they invested it in Icelandic banks). And we all moan about paying these taxes, and we all question what it is spent on. And I still maintain that most people would regard having a local museum as a reasonable use of their local taxes, while being somewhat unsure about something like Pledgebank.

I have just visited the Pledgebank, to say: "I pledge to urge Barnet Council to close Pledgebank and spend the money on maintaining the Council's grant to local museums instead, and I'm sure that lots of local people will join me in doing so." When I first pressed the button to suggest that pledge, it crashed, so I did it again and it said: "I'm afraid that we rate limit the usage of the contact form to prevent abuse." Quite right too. Whether it has been received therefore remains one of life's little mysteries. Oh, I would love to have been at the sort of meeting at which this thing was devised and discussed in detail. What am I talking about - I have been at the sort of meeting at which this thing was devised and discussed in detail. While working for another London borough that we'll call Walford, there was a leaflet being designed that, instead of advising people to contact the Council, said: "Or you can Contact Walford". I said: "Look, I know you've spent a lot of money and time re-branding your call centre, website, front desk, etc, so that it's all called Contact Walford, but will the average person really know that Contact Walford means to ring the Council?". I swear people fainted with horror at my saying this. "But," came the response, "We've done market research which shows that 98% of people recognise the Contact Walford campaign."

Because, you see, they just don't get it. The cart is being placed before the horse and they just do not get it. And this is what you get from Barnet Council if you elect the Tories locally. You don't get resources focused on front-line services. You don't get a stern "no" to trendy ideas that waste money. What you get is Pledgebank. And there's this one as well. It is beyond parody!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Beware Belgian diamond thieves...

If you Google the words belgian man stole, the main thing that comes up is a story about a man stealing $28 million worth of diamonds from the Antwerp bank at which he was a trusted customer. Presumably, the next time that Jack Straw is on Newsnight, he will warn viewers that there is a "specific problem" in some areas and will call on the Belgian community to be "more open" about diamond theft? Doubtless he will be keen to tell us that:
Belgians, let's be clear, are not the only people who commit diamond robberies, and overwhelmingly the diamond thieves' wings of prisons are full of non-Belgian diamond thieves.
But there is a specific problem which involves Belgian heritage men...who target vulnerable banks. We need to get the Belgian community to think much more clearly about why this is going on and to be more open about the problems that are leading to a number of Belgian heritage men thinking it is OK to target banks in this way.
If he did say such a thing, would we not think that he has possibly gone bonkers? How many millions of British men are there of Pakistani ancestry? It is comfortably in the millions. It is plain daft to imagine that these individuals are living in regimented communities in which they take instruction from people called "elders". Who are these elders? What qualifies someone to be one of them? Would I, as a white guy who drinks beer and lives in New Barnet, be expected to take advice about drinking from such elders as the Mayor of Barnet? Or, given that I am Jewish and am often at meetings with communal leader types, am I an elder myself? Were Jewish people to riot on Brent Street, am I a community leader who would appeal for calm? I think that this belief that minority communities are led by "elders" is patronising drivel. For the BBC to cite Anne Cryer as saying that: "she tried to intercede with the community by asking a councillor to speak to Muslim elders, but they said it was not their affair" is ridiculous - what, just because a councillor is a Muslim, s/he is expected to be in touch with "Muslim elders" who can control the behaviour of some unrelated people? If there was a football riot involving young men from Anglican families, should I then contact a councillor who happens to be from a C of E family and ask him to get the local vicar to put a stop to it? This is simply nonsense.

The issue in this case in Derby is people who are relatively less vulnerable committing crimes of which the victims are relatively more vulnerable - it is as sad and simple as that, which is why some  people have now gone to prison. That has nothing to do with the perpetrators' ethnicity or religious faith - not that I have seen any evidence that the men concerned are religious anyway. Again, if you get trouble after the pubs chuck out on a Saturday night and most of those fighting are white men with parents who married in church - does anyone associate their behaviour with their Christian family history? Does anyone expect various elderly local worthies, such as councillors, vicars and supposed community leaders, to somehow stop this behaviour from being repeated? Many if not most people in this country aren't members of all these organised groups and committees that dominate so-called "community life" - they are just getting on with their lives as individuals, in their own families and among their friends and work colleagues. Actually, that's another thing - I do wish that politicians and others would stop saying "families" when they mean "people".

And this is nothing to do with Mr Straw's right to say what he says - subject to the law of the land, he has the same right to say it as he would have to say that Strictly Come Dancing is the main cause of numeracy problems in primary schools. If he said that, nobody would debate whether or not it was an acceptable thing to say, or whether he was allowed to say it, they'd just think that he was an idiot. Was it John Diamond years ago who wrote that whereas, previously, we'd become a nation that tries to avoid gratuitously offending people, because one of our social norms is that it's a good thing to avoid being rude and hurting people's feelings, the debate about "political correctness" had changed that? In normal conversation, if someone tells you that you've upset them, it's normal to apologise, sort it out, resolve differences and move on. But, in public discourse, it's become normal to say: "Ah well, you're only offended because what I've said is not politically correct", so dodging the fact that someone has said something that is either stupid or rude. Worse still is when people say: "I know that you agree with me really, but you won't say so because you don't want to be politically incorrect" - no, if I say that I disagree with you, it means that I disagree with you. It doesn't mean that you are wrong, but it does mean that I disagree with you.

I think that there are some people who actually imagine that there are others in Britain who are actively trying to be politically correct. Those people know nothing about what political correctness actually is (or was). I first heard about it in relation to American universities, around the time that David Mamet's relevant play Oleanna was first a hit, in the early 1990s. What one was hearing was that some students were not prepared to study, for example, John Milton because he was a "Dead White European Male" - it was in that context that "politcal correctness" first entered the language as an expression. Then it filtered over here as a term of abuse - a columnist would accuse someone of "simply trying to be politically correct"; but no-one ever here actually ever said that they were trying to be politically correct. Spitting Image had those women celebrating things that are "so refreshingly politically incorrect!", as if to make the point that this is nonsense - Hitler and Stalin were "refeshingly politically incorrect". How marvellous, these columnists and Spitting Image women seemed to be saying, that we no longer need to pretend to be polite to people we don't like; we can be rude to them, and then, when this is queried, we can say that we are merely "standing up to the tyranny of political correctness", so dignifying rudeness with the status of rebellion against a supposedly stifling liberal orthodoxy.

I remember, in 1993, one academic saying to me how awful it was that people were discussing the racism inherent in Philip Larkin's then recently published letters. She thought that it was awful that political correctness had prompted such a discussion. But nobody was saying that Philip Larkin's racism was a reason not to read his poetry; people were merely pointing out, as a matter of historical and biographical interest, that he had apparently written letters in which he had evinced a strong, generalised dislike of black people. I remember a stroppy discussion in one office that I worked in about whether or not Roald Dahl was an anti-Semite. Of course he was - everyone knows that he was. It is a matter of public record. It doesn't alter the fact that he was also a great author of children's books. It is a factor in discussions about Dahl's legacy and it is reasonable to discuss these things. It doesn't mean that Dahl is being condemned or anathematised; it just means that we are all being honest about the past.

Jack Straw probably knows already that, as the historian Anthony Julius puts it, in the England of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
It was alleged by anti-Semites that Jews played a leading, and not just a conspicuous, part in the prostitution rackets - trafficking in young women, operating brothels, and other kinds of commercial sexual vice. "No Jew", claimed the English anti-Semite Joseph Banister (1862-1953), "is more of a hero among his fellow tribesmen than the one who can boast of having accomplished the ruin of some friendless, unprotected Christian girl." This sexualization of the ritual murder charge imagined Gentile families, rather than Gentile males, as victims, and supposed their social death (sexual abuse, exclusion, ignominy)  rather than their physical death (torture, murder, unconsecrated burial). This 'white slavery' libel was frequently paired with the blood libel, to the acute distress of Jewish communal advocates, who feared that the element of truth in the former libel would make more plausible the utterly fantastic latter libel. ("Trials of the Diaspora, A History of Anti-Semitism in England", OUP, 2010)
The quote from Joseph Banister comes from his book England Under The Jews, published in London in 1907. Looking back from the perspective of 2010, it is impossible to imagine a mainstream British publisher choosing to issue such a nonsensical book today. I wonder what people will think of Mr Straw's comments from the perspective of 2110?