Remembering Sir Gerald Kaufman MP

February 27th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I was saddened to hear the news today of the death of Gerald Kaufman, the Labour Member of Parliament who was the longest-serving member of the House of Commons, having clocked up an amazing 47 years when he died.

I joined the Labour Party in 1969 in the Manchester Ardwick constituency where Kaufman was first elected MP in the General Election of 1970. He was an outstanding constituency MP and an able Minister. I still have a copy of his 1980 book “How To Be A Minister” inscribed to me and signed by him.

His brother Leslie Lever was another man who served ably as a Labour MP and my step-mother was actually his constituency secretary for many years.

Of course, this was a different time for the Labour Party. The party won the General Elections of 1964 and 1966 and the two General Elections of 1974 (both of which I contested as a Labour candidate).

These days, the Labour Party is in a terrible mess and, following the disastrous result in Copeland last Thursday, the last thing that the party – and Jeremy Corbyn in particular – need just now is another by-election in a Labour-held seat. I think that Labour will hold it but, as with every by-election since Corbyn became leader, with a reduced share of the vote. Dark times for social democrats.

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US Senator Tim Kaine on the need for a new strategy for American foreign policy

February 25th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

This week, I made my first visit to London’s Chatham House – officially the Royal Institute of International Affairs – at the invitation of a friend who is a member and runs the website Make Me Aware. We were there to hear an address by Tim Kaine, a Democratic senator for Virginia, a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, and the Vice-Presidential running mate of Hillary Clinton. He gave a fluent and thoughtful speech, ranging widely both geographically and historically.

The title of his speech was “The Truman Doctrine At 70”. This so-called doctrine was first announced to the US Congress by the Democratic President Harry Truman on 12 March 1947 – almost exactly seven decades ago. It can be summarised as an assertion that the United States would provide political, military and economic assistance to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces.

Kaine explained that there were many criticisms to be made of the Truman Doctrine – notably the American conduct of the Vietnam War – but that at least it provided a strategic framework that guided US foreign policy and was understood by friend and foe alike. He contrasted that position with the stance of recent presidents, including and perhaps even especially Barack Obama,  since the collapse of the Soviet Union which has been simply “reactive” and “pragmatic” and therefore unpredictable and inconsistent.  For instance, why did the US intervene in Kosovo but not Rwanda? Why did it invade Iraq but stay out of Syria?

Kaine pointed out that Barack Obama did not like doctrine and promoted the mantra “Don’t do stupid stuff”. Some think that new President Donald Trump has a strategy in the words “America First”, but Kaine called that “a platitude” and not “a doctrine”.

Kaine sketched out what he would want from a new American foreign policy doctrine or strategy. It would have to be articulated by the president and have bipartisan support in Congress. It should recognise a diminution in the global dominance of the US and the rise of non-state actors such as terrorist organisations. It should seek to shore up democratic states, challenge authoritarian states, and defeat actors deploying violence.

Kaine further asserted that American policymakers should abandon the notion that the US is “indispensable” or “exceptional” and instead seek to promote the nation as “exemplary” – in its commitment to equality of peoples, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, promotion of entrepreneurship, and openness to self-criticism.

Finally he called for five characteristics of a new strategy:

  1. Put democracy first and spend more effort on promotion of democracy.
  2. Make the US military the security partner of choice.
  3. Not be an empire builder but a promoter of international rules.
  4. Hold on to the role of humanitarian leader in crisis situations.
  5. Correct the West/East bias of foreign policy and shift more to a North/South focus.

You can view Tim Kaine’s speech here.

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The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921

February 23rd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Yesterday evening, I was at the Georgian Embassy in London to hear a fascinating talk by my good friend Eric Lee. The subject of the address was the content of a book which he has written and will be published by Zed Books in September 2017.

He told us about a particular period in a particular country when and where there was a bold experiment in social democracy that is more or less unique in world history. This was not a humane version of capitalism like the Scandinavian nations of post Second World War Europe and it was not a totalitarian version of communism as seen in the Soviet Union after 1917. It was something special, something brief, something to be remembered.

Why does the Georgian experiment matter after all this time? As Eric concluded his address:

“Democracy is not one aspect of a socialist society; it is the very soul of that society. Karl Kautsky wrote a short book entitled The Dictatorship of the Proletariat in August 1918, just nine months after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. This was not yet the totalitarian regime of Stalin, and yet Kautsky’s criticism of the Bolsheviks was sharp and unforgiving. He wrote: “Socialism without democracy is unthinkable.”

The society the Georgian Social Democrats created was an inspiration to socialists at the time. But as the years passed, and as Soviet rule seemed to become permanent, fewer and fewer people took an interest in what the Georgian Social Democrats had achieved.

And yet the dream of a more equal society, a fairer one, in which people could also be free, persisted. That dream found its advocates in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and again in the Prague Spring of 1968. It took the leadership of ordinary working men and women in the shipyards of Gdansk to turn it into a reality in Poland in the 1980s. It is a dream that continues today as people look for alternatives to capitalism while rejecting the legacy of Stalinism.

The ideals of democratic socialism, of a fairer, more equal society, in which people remain free and in which human rights are respected, are still quite potent ones. But people still ask if such a society is possible. To them we can say, paraphrasing what Engels once said about the Paris Commune, do you want to know what democratic socialism looks like? Look at the Georgian experiment. That was democratic socialism.”

You can read Eric’s talk here.

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A review of the new film “The Great Wall”

February 22nd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Chinese director Zhang Yimou is a huge talent. I was enormously impressed by his films “House Of Flying Daggers” [my review here] and “Hero” [my review here] and, of course, this is the man who was responsible for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So expectations were high for “The Great Wall”. his first film in the English language and the biggest-ever US/China project with a budget of some £120M.

Sadly the result is a limited success. The best features for me were those which echoed Zhang’s earlier films: visually sumptuous shots, wonderful landscapes, bright colours, drum music, massed ranks of armoured men (and this time women), and great fighting sequences.

What I was not keen on was the emphasis on CGI-generated creatures – the mythical Tao-Tie monsters – and the concessions to a western audience: a weak script with ill-fitting attempts at humour and the inclusion of western stars who seem out of place (Matt Damon and Pedro Tovar who appear to be channeling Butch Cassidy and the Sudance Kid and Willem Dafoe whose character seems irrelevant to the plot).

It’s not a disaster, just a diasappointment.

As for the Great Wall of China itself – a structure I’ve visited at two sections – it ultimately failed to do what it was designed to do and President Donald Trump would do well to take note.

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What’s happening to our post office network?

February 21st, 2017 by Roger Darlington

You may have noticed changes in the look or operation or even location of your local post office. Why is this happening? It’s because fewer people are using post offices than in the past and many of the transactions conducted generate low income for Post Office Limited, but customers value having a local post office and the government is keen to maintain the current size – if not the exact shape – of the current network of outlets.

I have been interested in post offices since I joined the Post Office Engineering Union as a researcher in 1978 and worked through mergers creating the National Communications Union and the Communications Workers Union before I took early retirement in 2002. But my support for post offices did not stop: I continued to promote the network through my Board membership of Postwatch and Consumer Focus and through my chairing of the Post Offices Advisory Group which is now hosted by Citizens Advice, the consumer watchdog for post offices.

My Citizens Advice colleague Annabel Barnett has just produced an informative blog posting, explaining how the network is being transformed and examining research which assesses the impact on customers. You can check out her blog here and, if you look closely, you’ll see me in the chair in a photograph of the Post Offices Advisory Network in session.

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A review of the novel “Tightrope”

February 19th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

“The Girl Who Fell From The Sky” [my review here] was a very well-written work that introduced us to a fascinating character, newly-recruited wartime SOE agent Marian Sutro. The novel ended dramatically and the sequel “Tightrope” explains what happened to Marian and what she did next. It is an excellent work which I have reviewed here.

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A review of the film “Maggie’s Plan”

February 18th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I bet you missed this film which was released last year. It came in under the radar and disappeared too quickly for me to catch it at the cinema.

But now I’ve seen it on the small screen and I feel that, as well as being under-known, it’s under-rated. You can read my review here.

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American politics: now fact is stranger than fiction

February 17th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I’m a bit of a political junkie and I love political dramas in the movies or on television. “The West Wing” was my all-time favourite TV series – I watched all 155 episodes as they were broadcast and every episode again when it was out in a box set.

So, a while back,  I thought that I would give a go to a new political series on American television called “Madam Secretary” which is about a female Secretary of State played by Téa Leoni. It’s not “The West Wing”, but the acting is good and the scenarios are very contemporary.  I enjoyed series one and two and this week I started to view series three which has just begun broadcasting in the UK.

The whole project is focused on a calm and competent woman at the highest reaches of power in the United States. It makes you yearn for what might have happened three months ago. This week’s episode revolves around the issue of climate change and represents a scenario in which a previously sceptical President is persuaded by his Secretary of State to accept the science and act in the best interests of the nation and the world. How unlikely is that?

Well, probably not as unlikely as a week in which the National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is forced to resign after just three weeks in the role following inappropriate contacts with the Russian Embassy and lying about this to the Vice-President. Or in which Trump’s nominee for the post of Secretary of Labor Andrew Puzder pulls out even before his nomination hearing. Or in which the President, with no prior consultation or warning, decides to up-end fundamentally US foreign policy on the Arab/Israeli conflict by calling into question the case for a two-state solution.

Gosh, fact is now stranger than fiction and I much prefer the fiction.

Each weekday, I watch the American comedy programme “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah. Trump is dream material for satirists like Noah who have endless wonderful material to make us laugh – but often one just wants to cry. This week “The Daily Show” characterised the present US administration as “Lie Lie Land”. Sad.

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“Love Actually” revisited – love it!

February 16th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

We loved the characters in the the 2013 Christmas film classic “Love Actually”. But what has actually happened to them in the intervening 13 years?

Well, it seems that we are about to find out in a 10-minute special catch-up being produced to boost charity appeals in Britain and America.

Titled “Red Nose Day Actually”, it will be broadcast on BBC1 on Red Nose Day 24 March in the UK, and on NBC to coincide with the US equivalent on 25 May.

We can look forward to many of the film’s cast, including Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Lucia Moniz, Liam Neeson, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Olivia Olson, Bill Nighy, and Rowan Atkinson.

You can learn more about the programme here and you can read my review of the original film here.

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Bring back bottle deposits to stop plastic pollution in our oceans

February 15th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

In the UK, we use a staggering 38.5 million single-use plastic bottles and a further 58 million cans every day. Only half of these are recycled, so it’s no surprise that many of these end up on our beaches and in our oceans.

Plastic bottles take 450 years to break down, killing marine life, harming the coastal ecosystem, and ruining our beaches. Placing a small deposit on plastic bottles and cans would dramatically increase recycling and reduce marine plastic pollution.

Right now, the Government is finalising a plan to tackle Britain’s litter problem. But they’re wavering about a bottle deposit scheme, where 10p is added to the price of a drink and if you return the bottle you get the money back.

If you want to sign a petition supporting a deposit scheme – as I have done – you can access the 38 Degrees site here.

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