Saturday, July 17, 2004

Long gone
Hurrah!  I'm off on holiday for two weeks tomorrow.  Which won't affect anyone really, since I suspect both my readers already know that.
I'll be at a friend's wedding in Vancouver  - where I'll be an usher; a step up from mere guest, but not yet the heady heights of best man.  Maybe next time eh?

Friday, July 16, 2004

Getting the best
Last week I received the papers for the upcoming Lib Dem conference in September.  But they had missed out sending me some of the relevant documents.  Pleased to see the errant few arrived yesterday.  I imagine the lack of staff in Cowley Street probably had something to do with it.
One of the documents is the sport working group's paper , Personal Best, which will be voted on.  I was on the group for its first six months until an I took a breather from the hectic and existing world of Parliament last October.  While there are sections I recognise from my time on it, including the decision to regionalise governance, I'm a little disappointed by the apparent lack of vision.
Although it has the basics right, by trying to encourage more people to take up sport (with the idea that more people should mean more getting through the ranks to the top), it would have been nice to see more attention given over to achieving sporting excellence at the top.  Instead of adopting the approach which the Australians took 15-20 years ago, by deciding to invest to achieve success (and thereby making sport one of the country's key export commodities), the paper is a lot less daring.
By all means focus on getting more people in sport.  But let's not forget that top sportsmen are great role models for getting kids interested.

An alternative take on the by-elections
As a Lib Dem I suppose I have to make a token comment on yesterday's electoral results (even if I've managed to keep silent on Butler).
I think it was a bit cheeky to ask for a recount in Birmingham, especially if we were more than 400 votes behind.  I suspect there was a bit of gamesmanship going on.  But really, how could 400 votes be misplaced or uncounted?  Oh wait, I forgot Florida.  Whoops...
All in all, good results, though a double whammy would have been great.  And as I keep ribbing my Tory colleague at work (a PPC for somewhere which shall remain nameless), when are they going to wake up and realise that there's only one man who can lead them out of the darkness and into the light.  Yes, it's another plug for the only non-Tory's Tory, the scruffy, stumbling, mumbling editor of the Spectator.  Yes, I can hear it now: Bo-ris, Bo-ris, Bo-ris!
Of course the Tories don't get it and won't go for him.  But I do wonder whether the party has any more fun in store for us.  After all, they do leadership coups so well.

Brotherly disunity
It took Labour several years into its term of office before the British trade unions started to protest.  The novelty of supposed left-wing government for the first time in a generation was more than enough to keep them quiet.
Not so in Brazil.  There's to be a big protest against the Lula government's economic policies by CUT, the equivalent of the TUC.  What makes this more depressing for the Workers Party (PT) will be the fact that CUT and the PT were both forged in the same battles in the 1970s, many of its activists slipping between the two with ease.
To steal - and reverse - a phrase from Andrew Marr, is this the low water mark for Lula?  Or will there be losses in October's polls, after which things will improve?
Unholy alliances #2
It's not only in Rio state that the Workers Party (PT) and the neoliberal Liberal Front Party (PFL) are getting into bed.  In Codo, Maranhao, the two parties are joining the Brazilian Social Democrat Party (PSDB) in an alliance against the Green Party candidate, who has links to the former president, Jose Sarney (he a former sympathiser of the military regime).  The same set-up is in place in Altamira do Maranhão, also in the same state, and Medianeira in Parana.
According to the Folha de Sao Paulo, PT alliances need to be based on support for Lula's government and an 'ethical' code (whatever that may mean).  As a result a proposed PT-PFL alliance was scrapped in Cachoerinha in Rio Grande do Sul after sections of the local PT protested.  By contrast the president of the PT in Maranhao, claims that "Currently, in the interior... parties are labels.  They don't have an ideological profile like that in Brasilia."
Tell that to the party's founders, some of whom must be spinning in their grave.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Selling out?

Perhaps Luciana did have a point on Monday when she argued the Workers Party (PT) 'has never been socialist'.

While I think her claim might be pushing it, left-wing observers are likely to wonder what the hell is going on in Niteroi and Nova Iguacu, two cities in Rio state where the PT has entered an electoral alliance with the right-wing Liberal Front Party (PFL).

Until 2002 the PFL was in coalition with the social democrat (PSDB) government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. FHC, as he is universally know, was trashed by the opposition, including the PT, for having sold out and adopted a neo-liberal economic line.

As an irate communist says in this Folha article, "The PT has some explaining to do."
Clear as mud

On it rumbles. The Folha de Sao Paulo investigation into how many cities run by the PT benefited from loans from the state development bank (BNDES) continues. The relevant director of the bank, Marcio Henrique Monteiro de Castro, was wheeled out to claim that the reason the PT had received more funding was because they tend to be more organised than other administrations. He continues to insist there was no political interference.

He also claims the PT benefited from more loans made to it than any other party during the term of the previous government as well, but Folha notes he fails to name which cities benefited. He also disputes the cities on Folha's list, which the newspaper says came from the bank's own press office earlier this month.

Where will it all lead, I wonder?
New article

After Monday's event with the former Workers Party deputy, Luciana Genro, I've put an article together looking at the prospects faced by the left in Brazil. It's posted up at Brazzil magazine.
Chic shack?

Arrived in my email inbox this morning from Urban Junkies (that source of useful, hip stuff what's going down in London and which I somehow never make use of), details of a new Brazilian place in town.

Shame I'm going to be away next week and the week after, but this one I will definitely try and make a visit - and review it for my two self-confessed readers too. Of course, it goes without saying that if either of them gets there before me, they will be required to fill me in:

Fancy a trip to the beach?

Before you rush to book an Easyjet seat to somewhere - anywhere - hotter than London this summer, check out 'Made in Brasil'.

MIB is a new concept bar and eaterie in NW1 which makes our usual watering dens look as dull as a rainy afternoon in Skegness.

With its beach shack-style bar selling Brazilian cocktails, light-filling floor to ceiling windows leading out to a sun-trap garden with al-fresco dining, MIB aims to capture 'the spirit of a Brazilian beach party'; just without the sand and the bikini clad chicas.

The bar will stock one of the biggest selections of burning, mind-altering cachaça anywhere in the UK - with 72 varieties previously unavailable. That's a lot of new shots to tempt our taste buds and spice up the night. The cocktail list will also include ten different Caipirinhas including Chili, Raspberry and Pomodoro Tomato as well as traditional Brazilian favourites Batidas and Capetas (translation: 'The Devil').

The restaurant will be headed by the Juarez Santana Ferreira (love the name) who will rustle up meat and fish dishes barbeque style as well as whole baked fish and Cassava prawns, light salads with palm hearts and endless trad Brazilian fodder.

And, of course, where there's Brazil there's rhythm and dancing and love and romancin'... MIB will also host live Brazilian music nights and house Capoeira lessons (that amazing Brazilian dance-inspired martial art).

Sound as hot as a scorching summer in Rio?

Made In Brasil
12 Inverness Street, NW1 - 020 7482 0777
Presidential campaign update

My two readers may recall my attempt to gatecrash the EU as its new President of the Commission last week (as opposed to torching it,as certain perma-tanned members of UKIP would suggest).

I received a letter from the General Secretariat of the EU last night. But unfortunately I can't seem to post it up on the blog. Instead, you'll have to trust me when I tell you what it said:

Brussels, 8 July 2004

Re: Your letter of 28 June 2004 "Vacancy for President of the European Commission"

Dear Sir,

We have received your letter of 28 June 2004.

For your information, as foreseen in the Treaty provisions with regard to the nomination of the new President of the European Commission, the President of the European Commission is chosen by the European Council (the European Council is a meeting of the heads of state or government of the European Union, and the President of the European Commission), a choice which must be approved by the European Parliament (the parliamentary body of the European Union directly elected by the people and has legislative power.

On Tuesday 29 June 2004, the European Council nominated Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso as new President of the European Commission.

If the Parliament approves his nomination at its July sitting, Mr Durao Barroso will commence his five-year term as President of the European Commission from the 1st November 2004 to the 31st October 2009.

Thank you for your interest in the work of the European Union.

Yours faithfully,

Information to the public unit

There then follows pages of press releases and the relevant Treaty articles relating to the selection procedure.

I will admit to feeling a bit gutted. Quite apart from the £600,000 salary, I rather looked forward to helping improve the lives of Europe's people. But look, there's still hope: if I can persuade enough MEPs to not support the Portuguese PM and canvass each of the 25 heads of government to turn it my way... I reckon 13 governments could swing it. I wonder if I can persuade the Italians on account of my granny living there, the Czechs because I drink their beer, the Germans because the English should be allowed to sin something finally and the Poles because my cousin's new wife comes from there. Well, it's a start, isn't it?

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Remembering Brad

Last night when I came in I got to watch that 'classic', Rocky II. Perhaps I missed something, but it looked suspiciously like the first one, but with Stallone looking even more bloody by the end of it.

Fifteen rounds, almost all of which Sly's face was used as a punch bag. And yet he still remains the last man standing. Truly, he is the Brad Gilbert of screen boxing fame (Gilbert being a mediocre tennis player who stayed at the top of the game for several years by tailoring his game to that of his opponents and winning 'ugly').

A shame then, to find that my Brazilian football team, can't even manage that. Losing 2-0, Flamengo are now rooted at the bottom of the league table. Oh, the shame, the ignomy! But I haven't yet read the rules yet and there may be some convoluted way to avoid relegation, which usually happens each time a large club fails to deliver.

As I noted the other day, the BNDES (the state development bank) is up against it, justifying the loans it's been awarding to cities run by the PT compared to other parties. Of the 29 loans granted in May and June, 13 were to cities run by the PT; the second party to receive the most loans was the PPS with 4; the PSB and PFL got 3 each, while other parties got 2 or less.

According to the Folha, the relevant director at the bank, Márcio Henrique Monteiro de Castro, claims it has nothing to do with politics (but of course!). Instead the reason is more straight-forward: medium and larger cities are more likely to receive such loans, because they are more able to pay them back. "And the PT tends to run medium-sized and larger cities," he says.


Could this be the same bank, which says on its home page that "its objective is to support loans which contribute to the development of the country. From these actions the Brazilian economy's competitiveness will improve and enhance its population's quality of life"?

Unless - of course - you live in a small city.
Keeping schtum

No surprise there then. The Folha de Sao Paulo carries a story today where the PT has stopped saying how many cities they'll have after the October elections.

Just like Labour, which has become alarmingly reticent ahead of election day in recent years, it's the PT which has all to lose. With Lula's slide in the polls also provoking grumblings about media prejudice and the party's most high-profile mayor, Marta Suplicy in Sao Paulo, facing a rejection level of 42%, perhaps it's probably best to say nothing for the moment.

Although back in November some of the PT's leading lights were thinking they could win between 600 and 800 cities. This compares to the 187 they won the last time these mid-term elections took place, in 2000.

As they say: silence is golden.
Studying in the future

Last night I attended a Centre for Reform lecture, on the international future for UK universities. The renowned political scientist and chairman of an HE lobby group, Ivor Crewe, was giving the lecture.

The thrust of his argument was that British universities are doing well, being second only to those from the US in the vast majority of cases. But the decline in funding has only been partially off-set by Monday's spending review and national science strategy. Tuition fees and charges to foreign students may help rectify that - but not completely.

He was concerned with the government's apparent decision to direct most research funding to centres of excellence, and in effect, create two-tier HE sector, with those at the top focusing on research and others concentrating on teaching. Not only would this create problems domestically, but without looking over our shoulder, other universities in the US and elsewhere may well muscle in.

There is less incentive to enter the academic world for British researchers; many are taking the money and going to the States. And just as British unis are creating franchises in other parts of the world, globalisation means that foreign HE institutions may well do the same here.

Then there's also the challenge presented by the 1999 Bologna declaration, which aims to create a cross-European framework for HE by 2010, with a set standard which can be used to compare different countries' degree qualifications. But the UK doesn't seem to have effectively grappled with this yet, with no co-ordinated response at the European meetings held to discuss progress towards this goal.

He finally outlined what he thought should happen if the UK was to remain a key player in the international HE realm: a more co-ordinated approach to meeting competition from abroad (he cited Australia as an example where this had happened and where its universities are seen as a key export commodity) is needed, along with recognition of Britain's high quality but fragile HE system, engagement with the EU on the convergence process and an assurance that steady growth in funding is maintained.

Finally, I think I should mention that after the previous night's run in with the Trots, yesterday evening's event was a more pleasant affair. Granted, there were a number of woolly liberals (complete with corduroy trousers and check shirts) in the audience, but at least the general sense was of grappling with real-world problems, rather than dreaming of utopia.

One minus though: they poured the wine out during the lecture, so by the time we made our way to the refreshments bar, the white had all become too warm.
What would you have done?

Pointed comments by Bill Clinton on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, I thought.

He seemed very keen to stress that intelligence underscored his decisions as president and highlighted three occasions when he decided against attacking al-Qaeda, because the intelligence wasn't deemed robust enough.

A little point scoring off his successor? You bet!

He also seemed keen to soften any blows which the Butler report will deliver on Mr Tony later today, by arguing he was caught between an America bent on action and an intransigent Europe in the UN Security Council. Indeed, he painted the French and Germans in a particularly bad light.

Given that I sometimes looks back to the Clinton years as a period of light compared to the darkness presented by Bush, it was instructive to hear his comments on what he would have done against Osama bin Laden. He had contracts with certain Afghan groups to capture of kill him, and was even considering sending in special forces. How he would have explained that away had the operation come to light in the pre-September 11 era would have been interesting.

Ultimately, his administration's covert planning came to an end when General Musharaf seized power in the Pakistani coup in 1999.

And now we consider him an ally.

Little surprises me these days anymore.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Brazil snippets

It may have been painful spending an evening with the SWP and what passes for the hard left in Brazil last night, but I did gain some interesting insights (although for all I know, it may well be common knowledge already).

Could it be that Sao Paulo's current mayor, Marta Suplicy, may be lined up for the ambassador's job in Paris if the October elections aren't too kind to her? If so that would be a result for her and probably more in keeping with her lifestyle, I would imagine.

Also, I was told that compared to Britain, Brazil's cultural infrastructure is not as developed. That may be no great secret. But I did ask my conversant what measures are being taken to both develop and modernise the existing system? And would it make much sense for Brazil's cultural authorities to follow the British model?

During the year I spent as adviser on cultural matters for the Lib Dems in Parliament I was struck by how frustrated many 'cultural entrepreneurs' were with the government for.

Form-filling, applying for grants and having to meet set targets managed to squeeze the creativity out of what is supposed to be an unbound and expressive sector. In the end only large galleries, museums and theatres have the individuals able to support these requirements, meaning that smaller 'cultural entrepreneurs' get shafted.

And trying to legitimise public spending on culture by ignoring the aesthetic side in favour of the benefits through health and education deaden the process somewhat.

So we haven't got it entirely right yet, even in this country. But as my interlocutor seemed to suggest, Brazilian cultural policy doesn't seem likely to change for now. At least it won't until the present minister, Gilberto Gil, decides whether he's a minister or a musician.
An evening with Trots

Last night I attended a meeting at the Latin American Bureau, where the former PT deputy, Luciana Genro, was arguing in favour of her new left-wing party, the PSOL.

Luciana was taking time out from her meetings at the Marxism 2004 events which are taking place around London this week. Luciana, for those who don't know, is one of those disaffected with the current PT government in Brazil.

She claimed that the PT had sacrificed its principles and got into bed with the business, the bourgeoisie and the free market, at the expense of ordinary people. When several of her colleagues, including Heloisa Helena, were kicked out last year, they began to set up their own party, the PSOL, with its clear commitment to a socialist agenda.

Actually, it was rather like being at an SWP meeting. In fact, it probably was, since several English people were there from that party, including one chap writing for Workers Liberty.

So how did someone like me - a Lib Dem who had been burnt by the SWP/Respect lot lost month - end up in the LAB's library with 25 others listening to a bunch of Trots and unreconstructed socialists? Well, I have the vague idea of writing something about the left in Brazil, now that Brizola is dead and the PT is hiving off in different directions. Sometimes you have to suffer for your work!

If I sound jaded, then it's not without just reason. Personally, I find it hard to accept statements that the PT 'was never socialist', as Luciana suggested, or that there isn't sufficient democracy or pluralism in the PT. Indeed, you could argue that there is too much, which makes it hard for the part to govern. Still, each to their own; and hopefully it will make (what I hope will be) an interesting article.

Just a few final observations: why is it that SWP, Workers Liberty and other assorted Trots go around calling each other 'comrade', offering 'comradely greetings' and 'saluting each other' (perhaps a Galloway affectation)? Why are the men so deadly dull when it comes to conversation (I went to the pub to recover), always speaking in what I can only describe as sub-Habermas gibberish and always failing to buy their round? And finally, why are Trot women so hairy?

Monday, July 12, 2004

Delving into the psyche

Time for another book commentary. Finished Kate Fox's Watching the English, which is an anthropological guide to English characteristics and mannerisms designed for the lay reader.

Hugely enjoyable, although it didn't get to the causes of why the English are the way they are: reserved and socially inhibited, keen for personal privacy and space. While she seemed to nail the features of Englishness quite well, and uncovered a 'grammer' or set of rules through which English people behave (prevalent humour in all social interactions, the use of alcohol to shed inhibitions - and which encourages our loutish side - our acute class consciousness and the importance of the pub), I did feel a little cheated. I wanted to know why we are this way. But even Fox admitted defeat on this one.

Nevertheless, I was struck by how many of the mannerisms and behaviour outlined in the book I am guilty of doing. It was like being asked to take a step back and observe yourself and the people around you. Very un-nerving, although I can sense a degree of satisfaction in knowing why I behave in the way I do - and like Ms Fox, I am sure I will never look at a queue in quite the same way again.

Even though Kate Fox's style veers between the almost-but-not-quite-academic (which could present problems for family members I intend to buy copies for) and being written for an ordinary person, she does suffice it with humour throughout - and her comments on the use of participant-observation based research would be easy to grasp by any reader.

While I read it from cover to cover, I suspect that many readers will be more inclined to dip in and out of the book. And given the failure to provide any reasons why the English are the way they are, this does seem to make sense. Reading about the rules of the pub, round-buying and male arguing are subjects which can be explained and analysed for what they represent, even if not entirely understood as to why they originated.

Nevertheless, compared to other, recent books on the English character, most notably, Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, and Jeremy Paxman's The English, Kate Fox's is by far the best for explaining away our peculiarities. Bryson's is more a travelogue around the British Isles, while Paxman, who set out to find out what makes the Englishman tick, was most disappointing. He gave us the stereotype, but didn't dig deeply enough (but then isn't that the way with Paxman? His most recent book, The Political Animal, also left me with a sense that there was something 'missing' in his analysis and conclusions too).

One final, parting point, which can in no way be blamed on Kate Fox (whose other books I will now be seeking out with interest): I would have read and reviewed this book far earlier, had it not bee for the publishers, who failed to answer my phone calls and requests for a copy. Eventually when I got through, they seemed to raise doubt over the value of writing a review for a publication like the Liberator and never sent a copy. So I had to go out and shell £20 of my own money for what is a hardback (but I hope will be a paperback by Christmas).

Consequently, this review will sit here with my two readers, rather than in the Liberator, with its several thousand subscribers.
How much would you like?

Continuing with my vein of cynicism this morning (I suspect it being Monday morning may have something to do with it), I see this article in the Folha de Sao Paulo this morning. Apparently the state development bank in Brazil has been shelling out lashings of cash to cities run by the PT in the first half of this year.

How nice. And how convenient, given it's en election year in the cities in October! No wonder some mayors from other parties feel a little disgruntled.

Maybe I'll come back to this story at a later stage.
Coming or going?

I had an interesting interview with a lawyer on Brazilian immigration and entry issues in the UK this weekend. Looks like it could form the basis of an article. I only mention it here because having done so, I'll feel obliged to get down to writing it!
Clearing up a spot of bother

I really am getting cynical. Why did the news that the concrete blocks outside Parliament two years ago - to prevent a terrorist attack - could now actually benefit such an attack, come out today?

Hmm, let's see. What's on this week? Oh, today's the Chancellor's Comprehensive Spending Review, when he'll set out his stall to be the next PM. And then there's the slightly delicate matter of the Butler Report which will be published on Wednesday (but was leaked all over the weekend) and will criticise key officials and perhaps even Ministers, and the small matter of two by-elections on Thursday.

But with one story like this you neutralise the Chancellor's biggest day of the year (bar the Budget), deflect attention from the weak intelligence at the heart of the Iraq conflict and present the government as effectively tackling terrorism before an election.

Never mind that Ministers stressed the importance of these concrete blocks when they first went up. Does this bear any resemblance to the decision to send tanks to Heathrow in the weeks before we went to war last year for an unspecified threat?

And if Big Ben really could fall and crush the House of Commons, then why don't anti-terrorist chiefs do the most sensible thing, and close off the airspace above Parliament?

I wonder what will come next. Perhaps we'll find the glass screen in Strangers Gallery poses a risk if it shatters, forcing splinters into projectiles and skewering our elected representatives in the Chamber below. But sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. That will probably be used next year when there's another 'sticky' moment.

I don't usually go to the cinema for films on first release; I tend to wait until they come out on the second run in the Prince Charles, where the price is a fraction less.

But I made an exception on Saturday, with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which has been receiving favourable press and condemnation in equal measure.

The trick is in the editing. Moore cleverly splices phrases and public statements made by leading Republicans and Bush at key moments, usually just after the film-maker has made an observation, sending up the President and his cronies.

Meanwhile, he also follows a woman from his hometown who encouraged her children to enlist in the army, only to come to terms with his death and her doubt about the war in Iraq. I don't think I was the only one in the (packed-out) theatre to feel uneasy as the camera continued to roll on with her grief visible for all to see.

I haven't yet seen Moore's Bowling for Columbine, but I remember his TV Nation series. They used to be rather like the Mark Thomas Comedy Product, with the politicians and their utterances held up for ridicule. But this film had less of the stunts (e.g. encouraging congressmen to sign their kids up in the army, or reading the Patriot Act to them through an ice cream van) and much more bitterness at its heart.

And that almost does for the film. Moore is angry - and it shows. At times it almost veers into a rant. As for the conspiracy theories which he's constantly pilloried for by the right-wing media, I kept a close on his comments. Sure, he raises questions linking the Bushes with the bin Ladens and elements of the Taliban (including through Bush's father and his business associates), but does it all add up to a conspiracy? I doubt it; it's most likely a case of looking after number one.

The film's desired to make you leave the theatre in a rage - and it certainly did with me. But I knew I was being manipulated, thanks to some very clever editing. It will not necessarily convert waverers in the upcoming election, but it does preach to the converted and may well encourage Bush-haters to really get out there and make sure that he and his lot are kicked out.

In fact, I'm sure that some of the film's profits will go to the Democrat cause. Since I can't help in any other way I may go see the film again (someone wants to see it with me) to help raise my contribution (and bring a torch and book to read during it).

As if Moore's film wasn't enough, I wake up this morning to hear that there's talk (albeit it extreme) of delaying the US election on account of an as yet unidentified terrorist threat. Moore ends his film on what some right-wingers may well find offensive - a reading from George Orwell's Big Brother, where the point of war is not to win over the external enemy, but to keep the domestic populace docile and maintain the present social system - but this morning's news more than ever shows the lengths to which this administration will go.

Sometimes I wish Hollywood stopped making films of the Second World War and examined one of its main origins: the rise of Hitler. While I wouldn't suggest that Bush is in the mould of a Hitler (or even a Mussolini), it's worth remembering that the Nazis came to power on the basis of having won the most seats in a democratically elected Parliament, following an economic crisis which paralysed Germany and the wider world.

He was offered the Chancellorship with the Nazis as one party in a coalition. They thought they could contain him. But a month later the first decree rolled off the lines, suspending certain civil liberties.

I remember being taught all this at GCSE level; it must never happen again. Yet what do we do? Over the last three years the American (and British) governments have stressed the need for certain sacrifices - to give up liberties, to imprison people without charge - and now maybe even defer the public's democratic right to elect representatives for the people.

Friday, July 09, 2004

And you do, what, exactly?

Could anyone tell me, when exactly was the last piece of art that 'artist' Tracey Emin last produced?

I suspect it was so long ago that we may have to take to calling her 'socialite' Trace Emin. After all, what does she actually do at present? And can we expect her on 'I'm a Celebrity...' sometime soon?
What am I reading?

Wow, the Liberator's all-singing, all-dancing new website is finally up. And I'm pleased to see it only took 3 days for the latest copy to land on the proverbial doormat.

This month I've got two book reviews in there: one on Dan Trelfer's enjoyable first novel, Vodka and Chocolate Chasers, and the second on Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil.

Shame the edition isn't yet up on the website. But keep an eye on it for when it does come out. At least they have a copy of the February edition, which was my last book review for them, on Peter Stothard's Thirty Days. I have to admit to feeling particularly angry when I wrote it; it was around the time of the Hutton report.

And I see that I only have just under two weeks to get my copy in for the next edition. Yikes!

Have a look at the contributors' guidelines. You can almost imagine the collective must despair of Lib Dems' and liberals' grammar if they have to resort to such rules!

This morning I attended the Wider, Deeper, Stronger conference.

And no, before you start thinking what that might be, let me tell you: it was on the EU and its reform.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

The top in Europe - for other reasons

I was looking through the National Statistics' most recent newsletter the other day and was struck by the road deaths totals. Portugal and Greece top the list while the UK sits at the bottom.

Of course there's no link between traffic accidents and footballing ability, but it is of passing trivial interest to note that those teams which disappointed - England, Holland, Denmark and Sweden - are all at the bottom, while the underachievers, Germany and Italy, sit in the middle.

If there was a correlation then surely Luxembourg and Belgium would be better performers at international tournaments?
Things we forgot #1

Whatever happened to 'The Progressive Century'? For those who don't know, the 21st century was going to the period when the 'progressives' (i.e. Lib Dems and Labour) would bury their differences, come together and oust the Tories from the self-appointed role as custodians of British democracy.

There was even a book of the same name, which came out a month before the 2001 election. I remember taking it away on my holiday and reading through it that summer. But it's an indicator of how much things have changed that only a few months later, with the destruction in New York and the Pentagon, that this optimistic outlook has been shattered - and the idea that Lib Dems and Labour are natural allies only held back only by tribal affiliation.

This Parliament will be remembered, not for the proposed changes to public services which are currently being discussed, but for Britain's role in the world and our resulting foreign policy. With Blair and the Tories being almost as one in the crisis preceding the Iraq war and then the year subsequent to it, only the Lib Dems appeared to offer a counterpoint in Parliament (forget the other, marginal groups like Respect with no representation). In other words on the most pressing issue of this Parliament, it wasn't Labour and the Lib Dems that buried their differences, but Labour and the Tories, leaving the Lib Dems on the outside. Thus the end of 'The Project', that Ashdown-Blair goal to unite the two parties.

Within the Lib Dems there's a section which cheered this development. It was the part of the party which sees Labour not as allies, but rivals, being generally based in the inner cities and coming from the old liberal wing where their champion is Simon Hughes. Their hate figures are former social democrats like Vince Cable and Mark Oaten, who occupy the Treasury and Home Affairs spokesmanships in the party. The fact that these two arrived in those positions after the last reshuffle may find their pleasure at the apparently abrupt end to 'The Project' tempered somewhat.

But those in the anti-Cable, anti-Oaten camp overlook an important point: both MPs voted along with the rest of the Parliamentary party against war in Iraq. In other words, on the defining issue of this Parliament, belief in our principles was far more important than any late 1990s scheme between the Lib Dems' former leader and an increasingly out-of-touch PM.

Nevertheless, with an election expected in the early part of next year, the party's campaigning strategy will no doubt be discussed at conference in September. The results of next week's by-elections in Birmingham and Leicester will also be followed closely to try and make sense of the electorate's feelings, just as happened in Brent East last year.

What already seems clear is that the party certainly won't be re-visiting the idea of 'The Project' anytime soon. What will replace it, I really don't know. But what I do know is that my copy of The Progressive Century, rather than heralding a golden new era for left-of-centre politics, seems like a last hurrah; indeed, a hubristic call to arms, for a purpose which now only gathers dust on the bookshelf.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Thinking about Tony

Been busy today, so only getting around to the blog now.

Only really two things, both Mr Tony-related.

First, was it just me or did anyone else do a double-take when opening the Independent newspaper this morning. I could have sworn I was looking at a picture of a younger-looking Blair before realising it was Kerry's new running mate for 'veep', John Edwards.

If Blair's trajectory offers any hint of what Edwards might become, then the future will be rather grim.

Second, who else spluttered at the PM's words about WMD? After failing to turn them up anywhere, he now expects us to believe that "[Saddam] may have removed or hidden or even destroyed those weapons. We don't know." Having mocked people before the war for saying that, now he buys into the same line of argument.

But then I look at what's happening elsewhere - Milosevic and Saddam in court - and I think maybe Mr Tony's time will come too. Maybe when he's left office.

Please don't think I am a raving militant like the Galloway lot. But given our PM's constant slipping and sliding over the justification for war and its dubious legality, perhaps it's about time he realised that if two unpleasant leaders (nearly three if you count Pinochet) can land in the dock, the same can go for our own too.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

More of the same?

Ibope's latest poll would seem to indicate that the Workers Party's (PT) candidate in Porto Alegre, Raul Pont, should have an easier time of re-election than his colleague in Sao Paulo, Marta Suplicy.

As the current mayor, he not only benefits from being the most well-known of the candidates. Ibope asked the public two variations on the same question. Reminding them of elections in October, they were asked who they would vote for from the following list of candidates; Pont topped the poll with 12%, 8 points ahead of his nearest rival. A second, similar question was asked, dispensing with the October reminder and asking who the public would vote for if the elections were today; again, Pont won, with 28%, compared to 17% for Jose Fogaca.

Pont also has the advantage of being the latest to be in charge of a long line of PT administrations in the city, going back to 1989. But the poll indicates that despite this, Pont would face a run-off, most likely against Fogaca. And here the findings make for interesting reading.

Overall Pont would edge Fogaca out, by 42% to 40%. But Fogaca wins out among male voters, young and old voters (16-24 and over 50), those with only primary education and middle school and the wealthy (i.e. incomes equal to more than 10 minimum salaries). Pont and the PT will therefore not only have to rouse their core supporters - those on low incomes - but also those in other social sectors. But given the overwhelming preoccupation of voters with health and education, this may well be the card the PT can play in their defence.

Yet in contrast to the past, there hangs a question mark above this particular election; never before has the PT defended Porto Alegre while it has been in power in Brasilia. And with the media pumping out news about the government's ongoing struggles and challenges far away, how will that play out and affect Pont's chances?

Then again, it may have no impact. Olivio Dutra, a former mayor and subsequent governor of the state, Rio Grande do Sul, lost in 2002 - at the same time that Lula won the presidency. But the reasons for his defeat had less to do with the way gauchos saw the PT and more to do with his failure to ensure jobs in the state (following a well-reported episode in 1999 when Ford decided to relocate to Bahia).

Monday, July 05, 2004

Delivering on time

I watched the final down at my now-regular Portuguese establishment, the Costa do Estoril on Lavender Hill.

A rather subdued atmosphere in the cafe was contrasted with the cheering (or was it jeering?) in the pub opposite when Greece scored. A little taunting after last week's exploits over the English?

But it was during half-time that one of the commercials on the Portuguese broadcaster, RTP, caught my eye. A bunch of Portuguese postmen, all running around, delivering the post, jumping in mock celebration when they put one through the door; another keenly jogging up and down outside the post office, waiting to be touched by one 'coming off' from his round.

Maybe the Royal Mail around Bethnal Green might learn something from these boys?
'Nuff said

So they started as 80-1 outsiders, beat the reigning champions in the quarters, the form team in the semis and the host nation twice, including when it mattered, in the final.

Could that be something our over-paid, over-hyped, under-achieving prima donnas could learn from? Don't blow your own trumpet ("We were unlucky to lose", "We didn't deserve that") until you've delivered.

The only worry though is that the Greek celebrations may overrun and halt the preparations for the Olympic stadium!

Friday, July 02, 2004

Geoff Boycott v. The Fens

English interest in Euro 2004 may have ended last week, but there's no reason why we can't inject a little national fervour into the proceedings.

Greece's economy of £81bn and Portugal's £68bn (once you've calculated the figures from dollars into pounds) place them at number 28 and 34 in the world respectively.

Which makes Greece's economy about the size of East Anglia and Portugal that of Yorkshire and Humberside according to the brains that work these things out.

Could be a way of cheering one each side - and instilling a bit of regional pride?
And a big thanks to...

Last night I was in City Hall, for an awards ceremony. The fact that the event was taking place on the top floor and only open to those receiving their thanks and a handshake from Ken wasn't too sorely felt; those of us who had been invited were being plied with food and drink (nice to see something for the council tax precept I pay!).

And before anyone asks, I was there fore work. Supposedly. With no-one name badge revealing anything other than the person's name, it was hard to know what everyone was there fore. One girl I spoke to was accompanying her boyfriend, whose job I never learned.

All the staff were dressed up, in Charlie Chaplin costumes or togas - until I realised they were meant to be Greeks. Not because of the Portugal-Czech Republic later that evening, but to link London with the Olympics.

There was a live film feed at the back of one of the rooms as the ceremony unfolded. Capital FM's Margherita Taylor was MC-ing the event. But the best moment of the evening for me was at the end; as she rattled through the names of sponsors, she got to the last one, only for the microphone to reverb, sending a piercing noise and cutting out.

Leaving Magherita and Ken looking like two mime artists on a silent screen. And the sponsors fuming at the loss of a plug.

Alicia Keys was performing in the park nearby as I came out. Must be a sign of the time that I had to ask one of the security men who she was. Ten years ago that would never have happened...
Disgruntled of the world unite

"Are you disappointed in the achievements of Lula's government?

Are you interested in hearing about a new party set up by a breakaway faction of the PT? Or do you want to defend the case for staying within the PT?"

I didn't know I was down as a petista - I'm sure the Lib Dems might have something to say about that! Still, being on the London PT's email list has its uses.

But it goes on:

"Whatever your views, come and hear


A federal deputy, she is one of the founding members of P-SOL, the new party set up by disaffected petistas"

Aha, she's one of the group which was booted out of the party last December for disagreeing, speaking out and voting against the government.

Sectarianism, it seems, continues to rear its head in the Brazilian left. But whether there's space for what seems like an already saturated market and where influence is only gained by entering into electoral alliances (and thereby diluting one's ideological purity) is one which I think Luciana should answer.

So where is this taking place?

"Monday 12th July, 6.30pm at Latin America Bureau, 1 Amwell Street, London EC1R IUL"

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Making friends and influencing people

I come into work this morning, turn on the computer, read through my emails, get to the following briefing from ePolitix. And stop.

"Conservative peer Lord Tebbit, Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik and Sir Andrew Green of campaign group MigrationWatch are among the speakers at an Institute for Economic Affairs event on immigration, public policy and economic welfare."

What in God's name is Lembit doing? One of our most publicity-hungry MPs, how does he think this will endear him to activists in the upcoming presidential battle with Simon Hughes?!
Power to the people

Last week I remarked on the apparent poetry coming out of the interplay between Bush's press officer and the Washington journalists.

Now I've thought about it a bit more, it might be quite fun to take it out onto the street as a bit of experimental street theatre - bringing democracy to the people so to speak.

We could treat them to the inane utterances that come out of spin doctors' mouths.

And perhaps if we put out a cap, we might get enough to buy a pint by the end of it.

Anyone up for it? Surely one of my two self-declared readers is up for it?
Saying sorry

Did I hear Evan Davis's tongue wedged firmly in one cheek on Today this morning? After complaints about his use of the term 'pence' to describe a one penny piece in yesterday's programme, this morning dragged on to apologise. One or two phrases seemed suspiciously close to the statements read out post-Hutton.

When will the Beeb end its mea cupla?!