November 2009

Nick Clegg rarely gets much coverage on his questions in the immediate aftermath of PMQs. Last week’s edition was no exception, but his question about the protocol which limits release of information by the Iraq Inquiry is starting to look like an ominous slow-burner.

Clegg’s charge, if you recall, was that the document contained nine separate reasons which could be used by the government to justify preventing the Inquiry from publishing information, not all of which had to do with national security. Moreover, Clegg said, Whitehall departments had an absolute veto over publication. Brown flatly contradicted Clegg as to the first point, saying his understanding was that only national security issues were laid out in the protocol. He did not detectably respond to Clegg’s second point.

Thanks to some helpful chap in the thread at Nick Robinson’s blog, I didn’t even have to google to find the text of the protocol Clegg brandished. Two things are clear from it – (1) Brown did indeed mislead the House in saying the protocol dealt only with national security objections and (2) the Iraq Inquiry is a toothless and pointless exercise. Spot the killer clause:

Publication of information

7. The Inquiry may release into the public domain, or make public reference to, information provided to it by HMG where the Inquiry and HMG have followed the procedures set out in paragraphs 8-13 below. These procedures are intended to avoid the release of any information the disclosure of which would, or would be likely to:

a. cause harm or damage to the public interest, guided by the normal and established principles under which the balance of the public interest is determined on grounds of Public Interest Immunity in proceedings in England and Wales including, but not limited to:

  • national security, defence interests or international relations;
  • the economic interests of the UK or any part of the UK;

b. endanger the life of an individual or otherwise risk serious harm to an individual;

c. make public commercially sensitive information;

d. breach the principle of legal professional privilege (LPP);

e. prejudice, in the case of legal advice (following any voluntary waiver of LPP) rather than material facts, the position of HMG in relation to ongoing legal proceedings;

f. breach the rules of law which would apply in proceedings in England and Wales under the provisions of Section 17 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000;

g. breach the rules of law applicable to disclosure of information by the Security Service, SIS or GCHQ, the third party rule governing non-disclosure of intelligence material, or other commitments or understandings governing the release of sensitive information;

h. breach the Data Protection Act 1988; or

i. prejudice the course or outcome of any ongoing statutory or criminal enquiry into matters relating to the information proposed for release.

It’s pretty clear that list reaches beyond national security. Economic interests and legal interests, as well as harm to individuals fall within its remit. Of course, a strong case could be made for the necessity of some of these clauses, but that’s not the point – the point is, the Prime Minister claimed in the House that none of them existed apart from the ones relating to national security, that is points (a)(first bullet point only) and arguably (g).

So, misleading the House aside, did you spot the razor blade buried in the candy floss, the bit which renders the Inquiry totally at the mercy of the government for all practical purposes? You’d hardly notice it, buried away at the end of point (g), would you – “breach… other commitments or understandings governing the release of sensitive information.” So that covers just about everything, up to and including “keep that email in which I decided to lie to the nation secret and  I’ll buy you a pint.”

Of course, that clause could be read differently. It could be read as  “breach the rules of law applicable to… other commitments or understandings governing the release of sensitive information.” Oh, rules of law. Well, that’s ok then, isn’t it? That doesn’t cover dodgy backscratching agreements.  But – sigh - if only we knew for certain that was how the clause was to be interpreted. It’s a list of items, see. So how do we know when the opening clause stops, and the list starts? Is it after “breach” that the list begins or is it after “breach the rules of law applicable to”?

Pity no-one on the drafting committee thought to make that crystal clear, really, isn’t it. Very odd, for such clever chaps.

Here’s a thought that has always tickled the Head of State in the car-free People’s Republic. I was reminded of it this morning by an exchange of Twitter fire between James Graham and Guido Fawkes.

guidofawkes: 15 minute journey takes hour. Not like this in Wexford.

jamesgraham: A truly free market road system would charge a fortune at peak. Presume would agree and want to scrap Stalinist ‘planning’?

guidofawkes: Privatising the roads it isn’t that high on agenda. Like Mandlsons said this morning “it is an aspiration”.

This is standard stuff, if I may characterise: lefty on the side of state-run roads, libertarian on the side of privatised roads as a matter of low priority. I’d tend to the latter position for the predictable classical liberal reasons. But I think roads are actually a little different from the things lefties and libertarians usually argue about. Follow up the implications of privatisation and you may get some surprising results.

Roads started out in the modern period as a set of self-funding enterprises. I refer you to the website of some bloke who seems to know a lot about it:

This road system was not planning [sic] centrally but resulted from local enterprise, regulated through Acts of Parliament. Bodies of local trustees were given powers to levy tolls on the users of a specified stretch of road, generally around 20 miles in length. Using money secured against this toll income, a trust arranged to improve and maintain a particular stretch of turnpike road. Although the powers under an Act were limited to a period of 21 years, in practise, Acts for continuation of the trusts meant that they remained responsible for most English trunk roads until the 1870s.

I know one should question the internet and all that, but I think we’re on safe ground trusting in the knowledge of someone who owns the domain name “”.

Interestingly (to a given definition), I find that a smaller scale system along the same lines operated in the medieval era, when communities could be granted the right to collect a tax specially aimed at maintaining a road. And when medieval people said community (“commonalty”), they meant community, i.e. people who were important in the town and lived there, as opposed to the Community Regeneration and Urban Envisioning Agency.

But that’s another rant. The point is that roads started out as self-supporting private initiatives. It was not considered feasible or useful for government to maintain road networks. I presume that the reasons it became considered feasible and useful post-1870s are (a) that the combustion engine has been invented, so roads are actually useful, (b) the population has exploded and (c) it has become enriched, thereby generating enough tax revenue to fling at things like a road network. So far this is market evolution; the state took over a private area because it could afford to and it looked like a goer. The trouble is that that’s where the market stops because the state won’t naturally let go of anything, even if it is no longer economically viable.

So what would happen if we did wrest the road network from the state’s grasp and return to the Turnpike model? I suggest three consequences:

(a) many little-used rural road networks would quickly become unviably expensive.
(b) big arteries like motorways would be fine, and would be able to charge a premium for their speed and efficiency.
(c) most roads would fall between those two extremes – and we would see a tendency towards higher charges for the convenience of driving cars for the simple reason that roads have no natural competitors in their class.

The outcome of all this would be that more people would use the railways wherever possible. Fareboxes would get heavier, more money would be available for investment, and critically, new lines would be created (I’m assuming here that all other manner of liberal goods would be effected by this point, including reform to the planning laws).

Now, I could be making all kinds of errors of both assumption and fact here, but surely railways are going to turn out to be more efficient than road travel, aren’t they? Rail travel is efficient because everyone suffers a minor inconvenience (having to get to a station, having their travel times set in stone) which adds up to a substantial efficiency advantage, substantial enough to offset the cost of both rail network and rolling stock. The enormous, unwieldy road network stands no chance. Once the whole lot is privatised and railways start feeling the benefit of the customers who can’t afford the roads, it’s very, very hard to see how that balance can be tipped back the other way without some truly drastic price-cutting on the roads.

The innate efficiency of railways was brought home to me in conversation with my mother (like so many things) when we were inventing a new on-demand super-transport system to replace cars, which was based on the idea of roads being turned into conveyor belts you hopped on and off (I don’t know how many sherries we’d had at this point). We acknowledged that the belt system would have to be limited to certain routes and couldn’t be universal, and you’d have to walk to your nearest belt… then we realised old people and people with buggies wouldn’t be able to step on to a moving belt easily, so the belts would have to stop… but only that particular section of the belt… and there’d have to be pre-arranged stopping times… and then of course, we realised we’d invented railways. It really is one of those systems that, if you designed it from scratch, would look pretty much like it does now.

All this is exactly what a lefty should want. A communitarian effort to get people from A to B which by dint of its communal status is demonstrably more efficient than scattergun individualistic methods. Roads and the cars that run on them are entirely individualistic and allow total freedom of choice. That’s probably why many libertarians love them. Why the left wants to keep subsidising libertarians’ personal choices is anybody’s guess. I, on the other hand, don’t have a car, I hate cars, I pay to go on trains, that’s a choice. Unfortunately I don’t get a choice about the portion of my tax bill that goes towards supporting the road network.  Seems to me that a privatised road network used by people who are prepared to pay for the privilege and a massively well-subscribed public transport system is win all round.

…because you already watch The Thick Of It, you political dawg you. But reviews of TV shows that have already been seen by everyone who could conceivably be reading must work, or how would we account for the continuing success of the great Charlie Brooker?

So, three episodes in, we in the People’s Republic are developing a cautious optimism about the series, after a frankly shaky start. I think my criticism of eps 1 and 2 comes down to this: the previous series (plural of series, anyone? Serieses? Series’? Don’t give a Malcolm’s?) have been marked by beautifully sparing character development and incredibly fast direction. They didn’t have the luxury of an eight-episode contract to introduce characters, spin out storylines or set up long plots. Everything had to be here’s Hugh, he’s like this, bish bash Malcolm bosh here’s Glenn, he’s like this, Malcolm Malcolm boom cha boom, here’s Ollie, he’s like this, dum de dum de dum Malcolm argh it’s Malcolm, and we hope you took all that in because here comes this week’s disaster!

All the drama and character, and quite a lot of the comedy, was achieved with sometimes the most fleeting glimpses of expressions and reactions. Plus the half-heard ad libbing was brilliant. I wouldn’t mind betting that a lot of the ad libs in those first two series was based on material the writers wanted to get across but couldn’t run in the formal script because it would take too long. I still seize up with mirth just thinking about Ollie’s offhand one-liner about blue sky consultant Julius – “it’ll be one of his great ideas like inflatable churches for rural communities”. And then Julius comes in and you realise, yeah, that’s exactly the kind of idea this guy would have. It’s brilliantly observed and it’s just one tiny, tiny two seconds of dialogue with another character talking over it – it’s things like that that make the comedy feel so rich, and force you to watch with rapt attention in case you miss a gem.

In short (she says,  three hundred words later and counting), brevity did a lot to make the show what it was. With the first two episodes in the new series, a lot of that quick-fire spirit seemed to disappear. The direction was long and ponderous and might as well have come with big subtitles reading “HERE IS A PICTURE OF NICOLA LOOKING PISSED OFF” and “HERE IS THE NEWSPAPER EDITOR LOOKING SURPRISED AT WHAT NICOLA IS SAYING”. Even Malcolm failed to carry some of his long shots because his rants weren’t punctuated with enough plot development – he has to be swearing for a reason. Just swearing at people because they’ve pissed him off makes him lose that fearful edge.

The ad libbing didn’t seem to have any substance either, all variations on the theme of “We’re in the shit, and it’s not MY fault”, which is probably quite funny if you’ve never seen the show or had a satirical thought about the Labour government cross your mind, but is a bit of a let-down if you’ve been weaned on inflatable churches. It also seems to me that there has been some slimming down on the plot front, perhaps due to the same instinct as the one responsible for building up the characters by focussing…. on…. their…. expressions…. and…. reactions…. for…. an…. achingly…. long…. time… Only one disaster per episode? Not enough, I say! When everyone is essentially in the same scene, worrying about Nicola’s meeting with the Guardian for ten minutes, and then worrying about the aftermath for the next ten minutes, all sense of surprise is lost.

Furthermore, in the words of Sir John Gielgud (probably), where is the motivation, darling? We all knew what Hugh wanted in series one and two. He was a time-serving Labour smugster who, with occasional moments of self-doubt, basically wanted to look as good as possible with minimum effort. He knew there was a game to be played, keeping in with the right ministers, avoiding obvious fuck-ups and serving his time, in the hope that he, followed by the trusty Glenn, might eventually be given a proper department to run. And however awful, self-centred and hypocritical he was, we were still rooting for him.

We may yet end up rooting for Nicola Murray. But she gives us precious little clue about what she wants. What happened to the equality agenda vaguely mentioned at the beginning of episode 1? I think it might be fun to have a minister who actually wants to get something done and has to get round Malcolm to do it – but at the moment the Nicola Murray character is almost completely reactive to events and seems to have neither aims nor a deliberate lack of them.

Most of all, though, we wondered at the setting. These are the dying days of a government being depicted. A satire has got to be current. Where’s the sense that the opposition are breathing down the characters’ necks and that everyone is sooner or later going to have to scramble for position? The first two episodes didn’t seem to have moved on from the old scenario – here is an absurd government obsessed with spin, now laugh if you will. There is so much new material – expenses, civil liberties, protests – out on the ether, and its lack is incongruous in a show whose dialogue is usually so ruthlessly up to the minute.

Saturday’s third episode seemed to break out of a lot of these needless self-constraints. First, it was a scenario that we haven’t seen on TTOI before, a party conference and a brilliantly observed one at that. I was in real cringy tears of recognition before the dialogue started, right at the opening shot of Ollie sitting on his hotel bed in a suit and tie with his laptop. And the John Duggan character, oh my lord, he is painfully good. He is an aggregate send-up of pretty much everyone I have ever met or known of who has worked at Cowley Street (you know who you are), right down to the scraggy little North London beard. The actor deserves a BAFTA on the strength of that episode alone as far as I’m concerned.

The plotting was also a bit more complex, what with Terri scuttling about Eastbourne in a cagoul and Teh Dreaded Bloggers making their first shadowy appearance in a pivotal role. The action seemed a lot faster, with more reversals of fortune and moments where Malcolm’s swearing actually felt contextual rather than bolted on. And, incidentally, I suspect our own Mr Sanders can take the credit for inspiring Punchgate.

But most of all, I felt there were many, many more moments of “Yes! That is what the government is like”. Like when Nicola bemoans the content of her speech as nanny statish and characterises it thusly: “”Death by chocolate” is not just a light-hearted name for a pudding, it’s a serious health issue.” Ha-ha! Oh yes, we’ve heard the like of  that.

It all gives me hope that, now that the characters are established to a fault, we might see more of the pace and cleverness of the old TTOI. Maybe Nicola’s equality agenda will come back into it. The Conservatives certainly will, as we know from the trailer; them parking their tanks on the lawn of power is going to send a lot of interesting rockets up the government characters. And I think Malcolm’s already got the measure of the bloggers – we in the People’s Republic look forward to watching him exploit them just like he does the press.


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