Monday, 29 October 2012

James Bond and the politics of British identity

Wow, that was a very British James Bond that made a comeback to the screens on the weekend.

Without giving anything away, an austerity budget has forced the Sykfall producers to focus more on character and dialogue rather than the usual reliance on big set piece stunt action.

The result is a witty, grown-up script with brilliant nostalgic nods to the 50 years of Bond movies, and a little flavour of the original novels written a decade earlier. Don't worry, there is plenty of action, but like the gadgets, it is of a more back to basics variety.

Noticeably the CIA don't get a look in. There is no Uncle Sam to haul the little British cousin out of a tight spot. Istanbul and Shanghai appear, old Bond stamping grounds, but the most evocative locations are a wintry London and the wild grandeur of Glen Coe.

What struck me at the end is how homegrown it all felt. The Times film critic, Kate Muir, called a big British bulldog of a movie. And  it was - a china bulldog is even one of the motifs of the script.

Unconsciously, but probably not, director Sam Mendes tapped into that unexpected feelgood wave of Britishness that infused the damp Diamond Jubilee and coursed and sparked through the Olympics.

But Mendes hasn't let that mood die with the tattered bunting. He's taken the spirit of  the UK in 2012 and sewn it permanently and cleverly into popular film culture.

In an age of British  identity politics Skyfall  turns out to be very now - none more so than in a scene when Bond is being drilled by a M16 psychiatrist in a quickfire word association game. "Country?" the analyst asks him. "England," replies Bond.

But ten scenes later the spy's home turns out to be Scotland where a whole chapter of the film, and a lot of James Bond's backstory,  is played out. The film comes to a close, order restored, with a worldweary Bond back in London, atop the National Gallery*, looking south across Whitehall and a sea of British flags.

Bond, then, captures much of the multilayered sense of modern Britain - country, England; home,Scotland; flag British.

When I tweeted  that symbolism on Friday night cybernatspace hyperventilated with fury, which was pretty rich given how much the nationalist cause has dined out on the Sean Connery/Bond persona for the last four decades.

Fictional characters don't vote but culture does shape politics and Bond is back and he's big, but Braveheart he isn't.

It could almost be a conspiracy. Alistair Darling,  playing a platinum-haired master villain lurking in his Better Together bunker, couldn't have scripted a Bond story more sympathetic to his cause.

* I'm told that's not the National Portrait Gallery in the pic, its the roof of the Department of Energy and Climate Change in Whitehall Place. An old M16 haunt, apparently.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Not a bad day for the SNP government, not at all

Please don't anyone think that this was a bad day for the SNP government.

The resignation of two MSPs over NATO, the admission that thousands has been wasted on hiding non-existent advice on EU membership, the revelation that the second querstion consultation came out two to one - it does all amount to a "Meltdown Tuesday" in headlines.

But all this damage has been self-inflicted, no one laid a finger on the SNP today, although Labour MEP Catherine Stiler can crack open a bottle of something bubbly for asking the EU question in the first place. No, for the opposition today was  mostly a case of go for lunch and watch it all disintegrate.

Wait until the scrutiny really starts, wait until the concentrated firepower of every other party and every pro-UK politician and policymaker comes to bear on the case for independence in 2014.

There will be a lot worse days than this to come, when Ministers will have to start making a watertight case for independence or fold like cardboard coffee cups.

I was taken aback at how flimsy the economic argument for the £500 "independence dividend" was at last weekend's conference (and how senior party figures would rather run a mile than spend time discussing it). The figures were dismantled in a few minutes by the opposition, and even by more experienced journalists weary of their repetition.

But now Salmond's assertion that Scotland would be a full member of the EU, outwith the Euro currency and without Schengen border controls, has been fatally undermined. He doesn't know, he has no advice to back up his claims. So what about his claims on defence, on the Bank of England, and on every other worry he needs to ease before convincing a majority they'd be better off going it alone?

Propaganda has its place, both sides will employ stats to suit their purposes, but you can't make up policy  on something as important as the European Union on the back of an envelope and then hope you can bluster through to win the day.

We deserve better than this. If something stunning doesn't come out of the Scottish Government White Paper on independence next year (why do we have to wait that long?) then today will not be seen as bad day at all for the SNP government, not by a long chalk.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Breaking news from Oz: “McTernan is a ...”

They say that when the spindoctor becomes the story it is time for the spindoctor to move on. Pity the man then, whether it be Salmond or Cameron, when John McTernan comes storming back from Canberra.

Labour’s former Downing Street adviser, one of the sharpest stiletto hands in Scotland, has been doing for Australia’s Julia Gillard what Machiavelli did for the princes - in spades.
Her one-woman destruction of the oppositon leader’s mysoginy the other week is said to be inspired by him, though her delivery was all hers, and all awesome.

This is from the Weekend Australa, which profiles the, er, “punchy” Scotsman. Haste ye back John, it was more fun when you were around.

Weekend Australian, Page: 15B Tom Dusevic Saturday, 20 October 2012

IN the stomach-churning world of political advice, public mention of a backroom player’s name is customarily a little death for them.

Communications experts try to ensure their boss shines, their ideas capture voters’ minds and opponents implode before the public; as unelected agents working below deck, advisers hope they are heard but never seen, while yearning for those in the know to affirm their utter brilliance.

The fact John McTernan is now regularly mentioned in dispatches within the political class is a sign of several things, not least of which is that he has hurt his opponents and they would like to take him down.

The “punchy” Scotsman, who advised Tony Blair during his premiership, joined Julia Gillard’s staff last November on the urging of key Labor figures.

Take it or leave it, Labor’s short-term messaging is clearer, while its method is becoming a story in itself; the strategy’s brazenness, brutality, riskiness and effectiveness is, to a certain degree, embodied in the signature notes of a little-known foreigner in the Prime Minister’s office.

As Gillard’s director of communications, the 53-year-old McTernan operates in a rarefied realm; his job is to set a medium term messaging strategy, to instil marketing discipline across the government (for officials, media advisers and ministers) and to maintain quality control for the image of the whole messy show that is federal Labor as it sets itself for an election sometime in the coming 12 months.

In a saturated world of brands and seemingly nanosecond attention spans, McTernan is trying to craft enduring messages with edge. Sometimes those ideas are as subtle as a kick in the balls when the lights are out. That’s entertainment. His back catalogue of columns, blogs, speeches and musings is being trawled by the Coalition.

“If you get to senior positions, you have to be able to kill your opponents,” McTernan once wrote. “It is not pretty, it’s not pleasant, but if those at the top can’t kill, then those at the bottom certainly cannot. High politics demands very low political skills, too.”

Labor’s recovery, its relentless attack on Tony Abbott and the Prime Minister’s dictionary busting speech on misogyny last week are viewed as emblems of McTernan’s handiwork. The recent turnaround in Labor’s fortunes, as measured by the polls, is not attributed to one woman or man, because that’s not the Gillard ethos; Rudd Labor is a different beast.

Still, if you are casting for X factors, McTernan stands out as a key, new element. In an office that often has been occupied by capable people who are “like .22 calibre bullets in a .44 calibre gun”, as one government adviser puts it, McTernan is seen as a missile in the Prime Minister’s office.

“There is no one quite like him in either show with the firepower,” says the aide. “McTernan brings a unique mix of high intellect, self-confidence, a deep interest in policy and a breadth of experience that is unrivalled among advisers.” McTernan is a contemporary of the Gillard government’s mainstays. He’s older than 17 of Labor’s 30-strong frontbench; some advisers see him as an approachable wise owl, others are intimidated by his uber confidence and standing within the government as one who carries sway with the Prime Minister and a Scot who seems to relish a fight.

Inquirer spoke this week to many close observers of McTernan’s methods, including senior ministers, advisers, MPs, progressive activists and Labor identities. The man himself declined to speak on the record, arguing he is not a public figure, and therefore he is not quoted anywhere in this story. It’s a pity because he is an engaging man, given to mirth, the spouter of idioms rarely heard here.

Health Minister Tanya Plibersek says McTernan has brought maturity, calm and experience to the high-pressure environment of executive government. “John’5 approach is strategic, despite the hourly and daily battles in the media. He is able to draw together all the efforts of the government into a cohesive picture, never losing sight of Labor values.” One senior Labor figure says: “It may be harsh on people who gave their all for Labor, but we were all over the place in our communications,” adding that Abbott’s blunt, but highly effective, campaign against the carbon tax meant a perception grew that people had stopped listening to Gillard. “McTernan said, Stop nuancing. Simple, clear messages get through.’” McTernan is lauded and loathed within Labor, in part because of the Gillard-Rudd leadership issue.

“I can write your story in four words,” says a Labor MP. “McTernan is a c. t.” Even in the Slipper Age, in the blood house of Canberra now, it’s a bracing comment The Scot is viewed by the forsaken as having a role in Gillard’s ministerial reshuffles; his hand is seen in the almost deadly ferocity deployed by the Gillard loyalists against the former prime minister in last February’s leadership spill (the record of which will be used against Labor when it mailers).

As well, there is resentment towards McTernan over the Australia Day fracas, with some figures not of the Rudd camp saying privately that the media adviser who lost his job over the incident, Tony Hodges, was the fall guy and the communications director must take responsibility for his junior charge’s behaviour that day.

There are mutters that McTernan extends his reach into areas that are beyond the ken or responsibility of a media adviser.

Clearly, his brief goes beyond the quotidian and his influence is both overt and covert According to those best placed to know, McTernan essentially sticks to communications and Gillard’s style is to draw on the expertise of all her staff and ministers.

One of the characterisations that preceded McTernan is the fictional character Malcolm Tucker from the BBC series The Thick of It, which satirises Westminster. Tucker is a ludicrously profane Scot, chief Labour spin doctor and enforcer. The “Kill Tony” onslaught against the Coalition of the past few months has been therapeutic and galvanising for Labor, although some MPs believe the scale of the campaign, orchestrated by McTernan, has been overdone.

According to former attorney general Robert McClelland, a Rudd supporter who was dumped from the ministry after the leadership spill, “McTernan’s influence has been unhelpful to the government’s cause.” McClelland says: “He has brought a particular, combative media style from the UK that Australians are not comfortable with.” Others in the heart of the Gillard operation are worried that the negative campaign against Abbott, and the so-called “gender war”, is hurting the ability of Labor to talk about the economy, its range of successes and reforms and signature policy advantages in health, education, aged care and mental health. “It steals the airwaves,” says one senior adviser. “The negativity turns people off What if we knock off Abbott? What do we do then?” Those who know McTernan well describe him as a man of warmth, with a passion for music, books and argument. He’s apolitical killer and a great hater, too, and a man not shy of extolling his  mastery of what should be but never quite is the simple art of political communication.

Frankly, Australia has not seen his type: old-school dedication, tribal stickability, American-style professional vanity, pooled in the understated visage of a regional university don. David Hetherington, executive director of think tank Per Capita, has known McTernan for years and describes him as a substantial figure in progressive politics, a thinker several steps ahead of the pack on policy issues.

“His political brain is deeply rooted in British-Scottish Labour’s working class, so he is very good at the modern, contemporary interpretation of what Labor’s base thinks about an issue,” says Hetherington.

He is a Blairite, according to those with a deeper appreciation of these things, rather than a class warrior in the mould of hardline trade unionists who dominated the news decades ago.

By several accounts he does not cultivate the Canberra press gallery (some scribes see him as out of touch and aloof) but McTernan does seek out opinion makers outside the capital, especially those considered hostile to Labor. For a time in Britain he wrote for the high Tory Daily Telegraph.

McTernan has been coming to Australia regularly since 2001 and has established a network of Labor friends and contacts. His outsiderness is seen as a plus and minus; the Scot cannot possibly have the corporate memory Labor prizes and romanticises.

Yet, when it comes to plying his trade, the clear tendency in the engine room is to yield to the messaging expert.

In terms of the next election, Labor insiders believe the communications strategy is still being finessed, even though the long-term direction was set by those who worked with Gillard and her chief of staff, Ben Hubbard, before McTernan’s arrival.

“We haven’t nailed it yet, but we’re moving in the right direction,” a senior minister says of the coming election’s communications manifesto. “McTernan has played a big, big part in our revival.” There’s also no doubt that McTernan has given the frontline soldiers a stronger focus, greater confidence and a sense that they will be tested soon. And that he, a “grown-up”, with a cool head and a taste for blood, will be in their corner. Just out of the spotlight.

SNP bid goodbye to the Dylan generation

That’s all the political conferences done - from the TUC in Brighton to the SNP in Perth I’ve been on the road for almost six weeks and survived relatively unscathed. And now, now I’m stuck at Glasgow airport - Phileas Fogg-bound,

In that time I’ve heard Bob Crow thunder for a general strike and squirmed through Danny Alexander’s excruciating autocue. I was blinded by Ed Miliband’s “look ma, no hands” stageshow, and I rolled in the aisles while Boris called the British Prime Minister a broomstick.

Jaded, yes, but strangely enthused too, because the best was saved for last.

The undoubted highlight of the conference season was the SNP debate on Nato membership last Friday. It was genuine politics in the raw, long held principles at stake, impassioned debate and a knife edge vote as a movement wrestled with its conscience over principle and pragmatism.

This was electric soup for political pundits who thought the days of real party debates were a relic of the 20th century.

And leave the last century is what the SNP did. The party said goodbye to the Bob Dylan generation by voting, narrowly, to accept NATO membership as part of the price of their goal for an independent Scotland.

The leadership won by just 29 votes, leaving 365 delegates gnashing their teeth while Angus Robertson toasted himself with a “who dares wins” text from the court jester, Angus MacNeil.

Kenny MacAskill’s firebrand oratory undoubtedly saved the day for the pro-Nato motion. You can take a rebel boy out of Lewis, but he will never shake off the echo of its evangelical pulpits. But, ah Kenny, what doth it profit a man to gain the world...

Are there any great amount of votes to be levered from effectively sacrificing the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance, because that is where this logic ends up.

It ends, somewhere at the far side of an Angus Robertson rainbow, with an independent anti-nuclear Scotland accepting Trident on the Clyde as the price for EU membership. Forget foreign bases, Trident won’t be going to Brest or Georgia, Trident won't be going anywhere if Scotland is in NATO.

All that might be neverland, but the move on NATO was highly symbolic for the party. Alex Salmond said activists could take credit for the way the debate was conducted, and so they should.

He said this is how they would run an independent Scotland, but the spirit of that debate (some booing apart) is not evident in how Salmond himself presents the case for independence.

Everyone in Scotland should welcome a referendum campaign because it ought to flush out all the arguments for and against and end the national navel gazing, for once and for all. No sign of that from the SNP leadership though.

You can’t, as Salmond does, assert that you are unrelentingly positive and expect people to believe it when you just carry on with a list of girns against Great Britain.

You can’t twist the stats to try and show that every man woman and child would be better off if the figures can be shot down in one minute by the other side’s targeted gunfire. The economic case, the £500 “indy dividend” that Salmond promised, is threadbare and frankly unconvincing.

And you can’t risk an electoral backlash by rigging a referendum, as his opponents accused him of doing yesterday.

Because the conference ended on a note of drama too, with Nicola Sturgeon telegraphing that the SNP government would ignore the impartial advice of the Electoral Commission on referendum campaign spending.

It was chilling for the pro-UK parties to hear the SNP deputy leader, in an otherwise robust speech, try to sneak away from the advice of the elections referees. “Scotland’s future will not be bought and sold for anyone’s gold,” she said.

Well, that was rich coming from a party that has a Euro Lottery millionaire splashing cash on its campaign for the next year and half before the proposed limits on spending come in.

Of course this might be a kite-flying exercise by Nicola Sturgeon, seeing how far the envelope can be pushed before compromising, toeing the line and putting up a fair fight.

That is the way the SNP negotiated the referendum deal, all bluster about a second question until their all-Scotland consultation persuaded them there was no chance to make it fly. (By the way, where is my consultation response Mr Salmond, and that of thousands of others. I thought it was highly important to you and that no decisions could be made before you read it?)

Putting Sturgeon on manoeuvres yesterday was shabby politics by the SNP leadership after all the grand words in Edinburgh about moving onto a substantive debate.

In high stakes politics, in a once in a generation chance that Salmond has given the SNP for an independence vote, some might be tempted to think that the ends will always justify the means. It would be a dishonour to the electorate and they might not be forgiving.

Meanwhile the SNP still has a lot more questions to answer on defence, a lot of questions to answer on the currency, a lot of questions to answer on EU membership.

A great conference, yes, but a missed opportunity too. Two years out Alex Salmond still has a problem with numbers and letters. He won’t name the date and he hasn’t spelt out the case for independence.

Friday, 19 October 2012

SNP prepares to cross the nuclear line in Perth

To Perth for the last, the very last, conference of the season - the SNP.

It was only walking past the boarded-up Perth City Hall this morning that I remembered the first time I came to the city was to heckle Margaret Thatcher at the Scottish Conservative Conference way back in 1980shomething.

These were different days - the Tories were still a force in Scotland, and dominated UK politics. The SNP was a rump vote and the Labour Party,  yes the Labour party,  was anti-EU and had a  unilateralist defence policy.

The dubbing of 1983 forced Labour to cross that anti-nuclear rubicon which the SNP looks set to do today when it votes to reverse its opposition to NATO membership.

The party will remain anti-nuclear and that isn't really compatible with NATO membership rules as George Robertson, former NATO Secretary General, loves to remind them.

Nonetheless the SNP anti-nuclear campaigners think it is compromise too far but they look to be outnumbered by activists who will maintain the discipline and the focus on trying to win a referendum. It doesn't look like it will come to blows but expect a lively debate.

For the leadership, for Angus Robertson in particular, the shift is all about having a more coherent defence policy, although NATO or not, that is under considerable fire from the UK government this week. (See the MoD document on defence implications for an independent Scotland here )

Practically, on the ground, I'm not sure what the policy change will achieve. It feeds into the calm the horses, nothing will change, message of assurance that Salmond wants to send to the Scottish public. I'm not sure if it will swing that many voters to independence. But it costs the party activists on the ground, when you could argue it needs them most, and it creates unnecessary division in the party where previously non existed. No price to large for the final prize.

Speaking of prices, the SNP leaderships seems keen ot prove the  old propagandist's maxim that if you repeat something often enough it will be accepted as the truth.

The one stat that's been trundled out by speaker after speaker in the last two days is that Scotland contributes 9.6 per cent of UK taxes but receives only 9.3 per cent in return. John Swinney did it again this morning and he should know better.

It's not really an apples and apples comparison. In numerical terms that's £53.1bn in to the Treasury pot and £63.8bn back out, as spending is higher than the tax take, thanks to borrowing.

Similary the "Independence Dividend" of £500 for every man, woman and child  that Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond trumpeted yesterday is based on  one year, 2010-11, when Scotland's levels of indebtedness was lower than the rest of the UK.

The "Indy Divi" - and I loved The Sun turned it into a giveaway promotion "Free Offer" -  is just £500 less debt in one year, not £500 in your hand. Plenty more of that "nonsense" before the music ends in 2014. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

Poem for the day, read before you sign David.

Whitehall 1212 is stretching its legs after the conference season and has arrived in Edinburgh for the today's great signing deal between Alex Salmond and David Cameron.

Well, they've got a good day for it. St Andrews House, the Scottish government headquarters, is caught in a sharp rays of Autumn sunshine this morning.

Last night, when I arrived, all the windows in the building were a blaze of light, as if the civil servants were shuttling through the late hours in final preparation for the historic day. The scene reminded me of the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall, which was always lit up at night during the early stages of the Afghan invasion, and probably every other conflict that followed.

I was also reminded, while in Sandy Bells (where else?) of how David Cameron mis-quoted, or at least mis-pronounced, Robert Burns last January when he cornered Salmond into naming the date, or at least the season for the vote.

The SNP cabinet, you'll remember, announced 2014 by tweet at 6pm on a dark January Monday, a week ahead of the Burns Night announcement Salmond had planned. This was simply so that the SNP leader would steal the lead on the BBC News that evening. The bulletin was due to be dominated by the UK government's plans to create a Section 30 Order transferring legal powers for a vote on condition that it was a one question referendum within a set time frame.

And so it has come to pass. For all the bellow pumping we'll hear today about this being a great victory, you have to remember that we'd still all be guessing the date and whether it would be one question or two if the Westminster government had not put pressure on Salmond's windpipe.

At the time Cameron goaded the SNP leader from the Commons dispatch box as being a "wee sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie"; though he managed to mis-pronounce the next line, "O, what panic's in thy breastie!". Salmond offered him elocution lessons

At last orders in Sandy Bells my Edinburgh friend was able to recite the entire poem, a feat in itself.

But she did so to make a point with the last two verses where the poet considers how the future cannot be predicted; how the mouse, a simple animal, lives in the present while he, the poet, lives in a nostalgic past with no idea what the future will bring.

Burns is appropriate for any day. Both Alex and David should consider the lines as they prepare to sign:

"But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!"