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Andy McSmith

Andy McSmith is a senior reporter at The Independent. He has vast experience in political journalism and has also appeared on documentaries for BBC Radio 4.

Property and Theft

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Thursday, 3 June 2010 at 11:52 am

Why don't Marxists drink Earl Grey?
Because proper tea is theft.

Not my gag, but an old one retold by Lembit Opik, the former Liberal Democrat MP now contemplating a career as a stand up comic.

It is a good joke, so if you are going to tell it, you may as well get it right. "Property is theft" is a quotation from a book called What is Property? written in 1840 by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon was not a Marxist. He was an anarchist. 

Ergo, the joke should go "Why don't anarchists drink Earl Grey?..."

Opik also claims (on page 9 of today's printed version of The Independent, but not in the online version) that his name is an anagram of "I like to be MP"

No it isn't. There is only one 'e' in Lembit Opik. His name is actually an anagram of "I like bot MP", which could explain what drew him to a Cheeky Girl.  Ba bom

Treisman: And the moral is?

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Tuesday, 18 May 2010 at 10:32 am
The affair of the Triesman tapes rumbles on. I don't know Triesman well, but I do know his wife of old. She has never aspired to be a public figure and has not done anything to invite publicity, but yesterday her home was under seige. So the wife is humiliated; the erring husband is ruined; while the woman who boasts of having slept with a married man seems to have prospered. She has glamour shots in the press, money, revenge.
How the public interest, or the interests of football, is served by all this escapes me - unless Triesman was right, and there is a bigger scandal to be uncovered.

The Cabinet: Old Foes Meet

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 12:21 pm
Downing Street has just issued the seating plan for today's Cabinet meeting. I cannot help but notice that they have put Kenneth Clarke next to Iain Duncan Smith, the man who defeated him in the 2001 Conservative Party leadership election and in whose front bench team he refused to serve. Duncan Smith was the most resolute of the anti-EU rebels in the months when John Major was struggling to get the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament. In those days, the man running the Britain in Europe campaign was Danny Alexander, who was sitting just two places away from Duncan Smith. There must have been tension in the air.

Proportional Representation - the down side

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Monday, 10 May 2010 at 11:51 am

The website 'Fight Past the Post' has done the exercise of dividing the total votes cast for each of the parties represented in the new Commons by the number of MPs elected, thus creating a graphic illustration of the unfairness of  the 'First Past the Post' voting system.
The key statistics are that Labour has one MP for every 33,250 votes cast for Labour, the Conservatives one MP per 34,949 votes, but it takes an average of 119,788 Liberal Democrat votes to squeeze one Lib Dem MP into the Commons.

Findings such as this provoke understandable indignation in anyone who has voted Liberal Democrat, or indeed anyone who agrees that the system is unfair. It probably does not help to say so, but the Lb Dems are less unfiarly served than they used to be. In 1983 election, it took 32,777 votes to elect a Conservative MP, while the poor old Liberal/SDP Alliance had to be content with one MP for every 338,286 votes.

(I know, because I have just handed into the publishers the m/s of a history of Britian in the 1980s. It is called No Such Thing as Society and will be published in September, by Constable & Robinson, since you ask).

Another sign of changing times is that the Lib Dems are no longer the party worst served by the system. Of all the parties in the present Parliament, the Greens have had the worst deal, having received 268,024 votes to get just one MP. And, incidentally, the Labour Party is not the biggest beneficiary. That title goes to the DUP, with one MP for every  21,027 votes received.

What the table omits is that there were other parties even worse served by the system. The BNP collected nearly twice as many votes as the Greens, yet have no MP. Worst served of all is the UK Independence Party, with almost a million votes, and no MP. The full figures are here.

In a fully proportionate system, by my calculation, the Lib Dems would now have 150 MPs, instead of 57, UKIP 20, BNP 11, and the Green Party 6.

Arithmetic like this would make sure that the UK was forever ruled by coalition governments, in which the Prime Minister comes from one of the two main parties, as before, but with the difference that the Lib Dems would always be in office, no matter what. And on the opposition benches there would be a merry score of eccentrics led by Nigel Farage, and a dozen or so hard rock racists led by Nick Griffin.

Some people should beware of getting what they wish for.

Labour and the Soviet influence

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Thursday, 5 November 2009 at 11:42 am

Reading extracts from the diaries of the Soviet apparatachik Anatoly Chernyaev in the Spectator reminds me how long I have been on this earth. I remember Alec Kitson and Jenny Little, who feature so prominently in the diaries, from when I was a Labour Party officer in the mid 1980s. It was no secret back then that Kitson was very fond of booze,  Jenny Little, and the Soviet Union - not necessarily in that order.  It is also true the TGWU block vote was used to make unilateral nuclear disarmament Labour Party policy, and to ward off attempts to change that policy, throughout the 1980s, which was attributable partly, but not wholly, to communist influence inside the union.

Where the article veers from fact to wild conjecture is towards the end when it says:

Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, Margaret Beckett, Harriet Harman, John Reid — to name just a few — were all T&G people who made their Labour party careers thanks to the union’s backing. And at that time, of course, T&G political backing was within the gift of Alec Kitson.

This implies that all those named may have been creatures of a machine controlled by the soviet sympathising Alec Kitson. This is untrue, and misinterprets the nature of the TGWU, which was not a monolith, but a chaotic organisation within which, for instance, regional secretaries ran their territories in their way without much reference to the centre. It was the regional TGWU secretaries who could help place wannabe Labour politicians into safe seats. Tony Blair received a certain amount of help on the road to Sedgefield from Joe Mills, the North East regional secretary. Mills had faults, but was certainly not a soviet fellow traveller. Neil Kinnock was beholden for different reasons to Moss Evans, who beat Alec Kitson in  the election to succeed Jack Jones as head of the TGWU in 1978, but Kinnock never owed anything to Kitson. Nor did Harman or Beckett.

The one part of the UK  where Kitson could influence political careers was Scotland, his home turf. He may have exerted some influence in aid of John Reid, who had been a communist, and secured a safe Scottish seat a few months before Kitson retired. Given that when Reid was Defence Secretary, he declared that the UK should retain nuclear weapons for as long as any other nation anywhere in the world held them, I am not sure what the gain was here for the USSR, or the cause of unilateral nuclear disarament. 

Richard Desmond

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Friday, 24 July 2009 at 10:34 am

How much does it matter that Richard Desmond, the mega rich owner of the Express newspapers, has lost a libel action that might have bankrupted the biographer, Tom Bower, had the verdict gone the other way?
Not much, to judge by the prominence the story has been given in some of today's press. The Daily Telegraph, whose ex-proprietor Conrad Black featured rather prominently in the case,  thought it worth a relatively brief report on page 13. The Daily Mirror reported it on page 22. The Times gave it six paragraphs at the bottom of a page. The Daily Mail, which has three pages today on the internal affairs of the BBC, allotted Desmond four inches at the bottom of page 33, and The Sun did not mention it at all. In the Independent and the Guardian, by contrast, it story filled two pages.
The case revolved around an allegation that a proprietor had interfered in the editorial line of his newspapers for reasons that had nothing to do with good journalism. Perhaps we should conclude that some newspaper readers are interested in this particular aspect of a free society, and some are not. It is of no concern to anyone who buys a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, for example.
The Daily Express, by the way, cannot be faulted for the amount of column space given to the trial. The information given is accurate, but somewhat selective. Yesterday, you had to read to the final sentence of a long report to learn that Richard Desmond had, in fact, lost the case - which is more than you can learn from their website.

Bernie Ecclestone and Hitler

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Tuesday, 7 July 2009 at 02:44 pm

It has taken Bernie Ecclestone two days to apologise for remarks he made praising Hitler as a man who could "get things done." That is probably quick by his standards. It probably was a struggle for him to sya the word 'sprry' at all, because this is a man accustomed to getting his way.
But the wording of the apology, while less offensive than the original, is still insensitive. He says that his remarks "upset a number of people in the Jewish community, Germany and elsewhere", as if Hitler is a sort of cultural taboo peculiar to certain national or religious groups. 
I happen to know that his remarks profoundly upset a friend of my mother who, as it happens, is not Jewish, German, or elsewhere, but she is old enough to have married her sweetheart before he went to war. He never came back. Nor did others of her relatives. She spent part of Saturday trying to ring The Times on the telephone to tell them how angry she was that they had published Eccleston'es remarks, but could not get through.
What is disturbing about Ecclestone's mindset, apart from the offense he caused, is that is an example of the increasingly fashionable view that democracy is a broken down system that has failed the British public. It simply is not true. Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of history or of world affairs will see that the general rule is that the most proposerous and efficienlty governed societies are democracies, and our democracy is one of the better ones. Dictatorship is wasteful as well as repressive. While Mugabe "gets thinsg done", Zimbabweans starve. But the British are like people who are born rich who have no sense of the value of money: We have enjoyed the freedom to vote and to speak for so long that we have forgottne how precious they are.


Bill the taxpayer

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Friday, 29 May 2009 at 03:15 pm
An excerpt from the Commons debate on the Finance Bill three weeks ago catches my eye:

"William Cash (Stone): Not only is the Government's failure even to carry through their manifesto promise on tax yet another example of how the Prime Minister and the Government are continuously losing authority and of how everything that he touches turns to dust, but it shows the range of their broken promises.... "

Nice to know that somebody with 'authority' is in there speaking up for the poor old taxpayer. This man is such a scourge of wasteful public spending that we should call him "Bill the Taxpayer". Or should that be "Taxpayers' Cash"?

Julie Kirkbride and 'the power of recall'

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Thursday, 28 May 2009 at 01:47 pm
Of all the ideas about constitutional reform swirling around at the moment, the one that is most topical today is the notion of 'the power of recall'. It is suggested that the voters should have the power to sack individual MPs in mid-Parliament if they have become mired in scandal. In Bromsgrove, the spontaneous 'Julie Must Go' campaign has collected 4,000 signatures calling on Julie Kirkbride, their Tory MP, to stand down. They are holding a public meeting on Sunday. She is not going to the meeting, and even if they collect 40,000 signatures, they have no power to force her out before a general election.

In Old Bexley and Sidcup, the sitting MP Derek Conway was exposed last year for having dispensed thousands of pounds from his parliamentary allowance to members of his family. The Conservative Party has disowned him, but the voters of Old Bexley and Sidcup are stuck with him still.

Another case is Quentin Davies, who has not been implicated in scandal, but switched parties from Conservative to Labour, with the result that the voters of Grantham and Stamford have a Labour MP, who would never won the seat if he had stood on the Labour ticket.

Objectors to the idea of instant recall - such as Michael Howard, in today's Independent - argue that once you have given the voters this power, there is no telling how they will use it. MPs might be challenged for reasons that have nothing to do with sleaze. You can imagine that if this power had been in place during the Iraq war, there might have been a series of by elections in which individual MPs were forced to defend the stand they had taken on the war, for or against.

But why is that a bad thing? Many, many years ago, when the Labour Party opposed entry to the EU, a pro-EU MP named Dick Taverne resigned his seat, forcing a by-election on the narrow question of whether the voters of Lincoln were for or against British membership. He won. That did democracy no harm. A few by-elections fought over the Iraq war would have been a good barometer of public opinion. It is an insult to the voters that an MP can switch parties soon after a general election, in defiance of those who voted for him, or that someone like Conway, disgraced and shunned by his own party carries on for years as an MP. I think if sufficient numbers of people who are on the electoral register in one constituency call for a by election, it should happen, and the sitting MP should, of course, have the right to stand

Publisher's "bury bad news" day

Posted by Andy McSmith
  • Thursday, 26 February 2009 at 10:28 am

Public relations people get more competitive by the day. No more the lazy days when they earned their keep by sending press releases through the post and waiting for the telephone to ring. The keenest now keep a constant eye on the news, looking out for events that can be used as a peg to promote a product.

A publicist working for Halliday Books, an Aylesbury based firm specialising in children's literature, is obviously one of the keenest. Or perhaps I should say 'was', because today the person is suspended. The news that David Cameron's son Ivan had died had not been out long before she spotted a marketing opportunity, and out went an email to everyone on her company's mailing list, saying this:

"We’ve all been touched by the tragic news of the death of David and Samantha Cameron’s ‘beautiful boy.

"Halliday Books publish The Lonely Tree, the best selling picture book for children about child bereavement. We’ve already sent a signed and dedicated copy to the Cameron’s this morning but would like to introduce you to this charming title in case you don’t already know it. It would be a perfect soft tie-in to this news story.

"It carries a cover quote from Stephen Fry which reads 'Utterly, completely and splendidly charming, originally illustrated and delightfully told.' Even Cherrie Blare bought a copy and sent the author a personal letter of praise after reading it.

"The author Nick Halliday is familiar with TV and Radio and will be happy to be interviewed about the book at any time in the studio or by other means."

Two and a half hours later, this message was followed by another, from Nicholas Halliday in person, apologising unreservedly, and saying that this distasteful publicity stunt had been carried out without reference to him or anyone else on staff.

Most of us remember the cautionary tale of Jo Moore, the Labour Party special adviser who saw the news bulletins on 11 September 2001 and did what she was trained to do, without thinking through the impact of what she was saying.

The public relations industry can now draw another lesson, that there are occasions when thinking to yourself that 'this is a good day to promote good days' is also crassly insensitive.

And, by the way, the wife of the former Prime Minister does not spell her name "Cherrie Blare"

* Since this blog appeared I have heard from Nicholas Halliday. He makes two points. The first is that in the original version of this blog, I identified the company employee whose name is on the first email publicising his book. Though the message was sent from her email address and identified her as its author, I am told that it was written and sent by another publicist in her name, without her knowledge.

Secondly, though Mr Halliday is profusely embarrassed and apologetic about this episode, he balks at the comparison with 'burying bad news' , which is something which you shouldn't do on any day, whereas he believes that encouraging children to read his book, especially if they have suffered recent bereavement is something you should do, though obviously not  in the way it was done yesterday.

He might have added that this company have done all they could, as quickly as they could, to repair the original damage, whereas in Jo Moore's case, the government exacerbated the problem by refusing to admit that there was one.

Even so, the parallel is there. What you have in each case is someone involved in that line of work that includes PR and political lobbying, who applies such a one-track to the main task, whether it be to protect a minister or to sell a book, that she cannot see how insensitive her behaviour looks to everyone else. It is - I repeat - a cautionary tale that should be told to others in the profession.


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