13 July 2011

Blair and Science (yet again)

In A Journey Tony Blair commented on his Chief Scientific Adviser’s contribution to the resolution of the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in 2001:
When l got back to Downing Street on Sunday I decided to grip the whole thing, and got my close advisers together. By some masterstroke - not mine, I hasten to add, but Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary's - our chief scientific adviser, Sir David King was invited to join the inner circle. If anyone tells you that scientists are impractical boffins, refer them to David. What he told me sounded a trifle wacky, but over the weeks to come it was to be of priceless value in defeating the disease. Essentially, by means of graphs and charts he set out how the disease would spread, how we could contain it if we took the right culling measures, and how over time we would eradicate it. The officials were extremely sceptical. So was I. How could he predict it like that, with so many unknowns? But almost faute de mieux, I followed his advice - and blow me, with uncanny, almost unnatural accuracy, the disease peaked, declined and went, almost to the week he had predicted.
The first post on this blog drew on this remark and others in A Journey to bewail the gulf between politicians and science, subsequently confirmed by Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, in his memoir of Number 10. Now, the third volume of diaries, Power and Responsibility 1999-2001, by another Blair consigliere, Alastair Campbell (Chief press secretary and the PM’s official spokesman), provides another account of the uses of top scientists during a time of pestilence:
… After Cabinet, Jeremy H{eywood PM’s principal private secretary} and I discussed whether David King [chief scientific adviser], who TB had taken to, and was affectionately calling ‘Dr Strangelove’, should do a media briefing showing various possible projections. … I met David King and we agreed to go for a detailed, heavy briefing Sunday for Monday. I felt that despite the risks of it being misinterpreted, he would do it well, and it was important we give a sense of being on the front foot, and stop the whole thing from being dominated by burning pyres and a politically driven agenda from elsewhere. … (p564-5, 29 March 2001)

… TB called and said Scotland felt better. We agreed to postpone Dr Strangelove’s briefing to Tuesday. … (p564 ,30 March)

We finally agreed David King would do his presentation to TB and Nick, so he could frame it at PMQs, and then King see the media after that. He was clearly a clever bloke, and very keen to help, but both Jeremy and I had concerns the media would stitch him up, or at the least exaggerate and take out of context what he was saying, or verbal him into an over-interpretation that would scare the hell out of people. I told him not to imagine he was about to engage in a rational conversation with rational, intelligent people. They are intelligent but in the main they are out for trouble, and he needs to be very careful. In the end he probably came over as a bit too optimistic, and we had to recalibrate a little … (p570 4 April)
which is probably valuable advice for anyone trying to put something complex and objective before an unsympathetic audience. Blair’s team seemed to take Churchill’s view of scientists almost literally:
… We agreed to get King up again to try to get the focus on the figures showing the cases coming down. … (p579 19 April) 
(Randolph Churchill is the source for his father’s often-quoted comment that ‘Scientists should be on tap, but not on top’).
Campbell, a vet’s son, is chairman of fundraising for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research.  @campbellclaret tweets about visits to cancer research labs when, presumably, he is coming across more scientists than at any time since leaving Cambridge. Perhaps he will get round to blogging about his perspectives on science when in government, and whether they’ve changed now.


This week The Times (£) has serialised The unfinished life. An odyssey of love and cancer by Philip Gould. Lord Gould, as he is now, had played a key role in establishing New Labour and in the elections which Tony Blair won in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In 2008 Gould was diagnosed with and treated for oesophageal cancer, but later realised that the disease had recurred:
In November I had dinner with Tony [Blair]. I was not so much low as lost; I could not see a way through. Why had it happened? The first diagnosis I understood: I got cancer as others did and I fought it, with as much determination as I could muster. I had taken every pill, undergone every treatment, done everything required of me, got through the crucial two-year mark and still it had returned. Why had it come back? He paused for a second and said slowly: “Because the cancer has not finished; it is simply not done with you, it wanted more. You may have changed but not by enough, now you have to go on to a higher spiritual level still. You have to use this recurrence to find your real purpose in life.” Tony was right, I had to find meaning in this recurrence, to finally come to terms with the purpose of the cancer.
… Tony came to see me, just as he had on the eve of my previous surgery. He said one of his most precious possessions was a 6th-century ring he had got from Mount Sinai. He gave it to me to give me luck. I was touched but anxious, certain that I would lose it, …
Much of Gould’s account of his illness is about the application of science-based medicine to his case, and he has donated his fee for the articles to cancer research. In so far as Gould found comfort and support from Blair’s words (and the ring) in a dark hour, the reader can only be pleased. But just what was Blair talking about? It’s odd that Blair didn’t get on a lot better with Prince Charles than seems to have been the case according to Campbell (eg p151-152 Vol 3). Charles’ views and Blair’s are not altogether dissimilar, to judge from this extract (kindly provided by Amazon) from the former’s Harmony A New Way of Looking at Our World:
The essential point here is, how far our empirical knowledge can go before it begins to encroach on territory it is not qualified to discuss. Let me be clear about it. Science can tell us how things work, but it is not equipped to tell us what they mean. That is the domain of philosophy and religion and spirituality.

12 July 2011

John Rentoul’s The Banned List

If you don’t know about John Rentoul’s heroic, but probably forlorn, attempt on the pages of the Independent and on Twitter (@johnrentoul #bannedlist) to eliminate clichés in all their forms – you should.

The top 100 to avoid are here, then numbers 101-150, 151-160, 161-170, 171-180, 181-190, and The Banned List seems unlikely to stop there.

Western Independent’s first contribution is in at 188:
'Not a good look' applied to a policy, or anything other than apparel.
For an example look in the Spectator on 25 June:
Taking it away [child benefit from families in the higher tax bracket] was a small thing, but it suggested that the Tories belong to the sort of class that wouldn’t really miss an extra ten or 20 quid a week: not a good look.

John Rentoul announced today that The Banned List will be available in book form in October. It sounds like a Christmas present book – one bought by people who don’t usually buy books for people who don’t usually read them.
Perhaps we will find out what has happened to “existential”; ”gold-plated”, except for a thin coating of precious metal; and “on an industrial scale” except for industrial processes – and certainly not phone-hacking.  In the circumstances, I can't see "crowdsourcing" being outlawed ... 

191-195 now revealed.


An appetite-wetter from John Rentoul and 196-200.


The Book is available on Amazon! JR has an article out today justifying its existence, and there is now a website, inevitably called www.bannedlist.co.uk. In fact, this just leads to all the master’s blog posts on his pet subject, including the latest. Or is it his pet subject? The answer to this question may be no …

11 July 2011

Times Newspapers

Hardly worth mentioning – but no one else seems to have.

On 21 June subscribers to The Times/Sunday Times received a letter informing us that Direct Debits after 4 July would no longer be paid to News International Newspapers Limited – The Times but instead to Times Newspapers Limited.

Into which one shouldn’t read anything, of course.

8 July 2011

Healey on Defence – and Carriers

Former Labour politician Denis Healey is nearly 94 and remains a lively observer of British politics, to judge from John Rentoul’s account of a talk at the Mile End Group in January. Healey is regarded as having one of the best intellects among post-WW2 politicians, and his autobiography, The Time of My Life, published in 1989 and still in print, remains worth reading.

Healey became Secretary of State for Defence nearly 50 years ago, but the chapter covering his time at MoD (1964-70) still provides intriguing perspectives on the present. One marked contrast is with the recent comment of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles regarding Afghanistan: ‘Politicians with little or no military experience were being pushed by a confident and enthusiastic military lobby into doing things against their better judgment.’ However, Healey had served in North Africa and Italy in WW2:
… my service in the wartime army had given me insights into military realities which cannot be acquired by any other means. The same was true not only of my service advisers, but of many of my civil servants too. Ours was the last generation at the Ministry of Defence to have shared the knowledge which can only come from experience in war.
But he makes a familiar complaint about the situation when he arrived:
… the preceding Conservative governments had left me a defence programme which it would have been financially impossible to carry out at the best of times. Moreover, our forces were overstretched and underequipped.
The underlying causes seem to be perpetual:
Ever since the war, defence had been under exceptional economic pressure since technology increased the cost of new equipment much faster than the increase in the nation's wealth. In the fifties and sixties the cost of naval frigates doubled, the cost of much army equipment quadrupled, and the cost of military aircraft increased tenfold. Costs are rising even faster nowadays, with the introduction of electronics into every area of warfare. Indeed the extrapolation of current trends could mean that within a century the number of modern weapons which a country like Britain could afford would have fallen to single figures - a prospect which NATO refers to as ‘structural disarmament'.
The Service Chiefs and the Chief of Defence Staff were a problem for politicians then as now:
The one issue on which Mountbatten and I were always at odds was his determination to get rid of the separate service Chiefs of Staff and establish single central organisations to carry out the administrative functions of the three services.

I suspected, too, that behind Mountbatten's obsession with integrating the services was the desire to establish central control of defence policy and operations under himself as Chief of Defence Staff. In my opinion, it was the Secretary of State's job to control defence policy, as an elected member of the British Cabinet, and I was determined to carry it out.
... But there were prima donnas in the services no less than in the acting profession. And the competition for money required the senior officers of all three services to develop all the skills of the politician and the trade unionist. I sometimes felt that I had learned nothing about politics until I met the Chiefs of Staff. Each felt his prime duty was to protect the interests and traditions of his own service.
Until recently, it seemed as though Healey would be the last politician obliged to cancel a British aircraft carrier programme, but perhaps not:
By far my most difficult equipment decision was to cancel CVA-01, the new strike carrier planned by the navy. A country like the United States, which wants to project its naval power world-wide and can afford to maintain a force of fifteen carriers, as the US Navy then did, may find them a valuable investment. But quite apart from the cost' the Royal Navy was too short of manpower to envisage manning more than three carriers in the seventies.
I commissioned innumerable studies to find out whether it was possible to perform the carrier's function with existing RAF aircraft. The answer was that, in most places which concerned us, we could support land operations more cheaply and effectively with land-based aircraft.
… no one suggested the only relevant situation which has actually arisen, namely the landing and supply of British forces in the Falklands against opposition from Argentina. Fortunately, on that occasion [1982] the navy still had the small through-deck cruiser, HMS Invincible, with Harriers aboard, both of which I had ordered fourteen years earlier.
In fact, HMS Invincible was not ordered until 1973, and the Sea Harrier FRS1s embarked on Invincible for the Falklands campaign were not ordered until 1975. The RAF Harrier GR3s embarked on HMS Hermes were better-engined versions of the GRS1 which had been ordered in 1967. The photograph is of the final Harrier GR9 flight from HMS Ark Royal (Invincible’s sister ship) in November 2010. 

Two of Healey’s remarks are of particular interest in retrospect:
When I left office, for the first time in its history, Britain was spending more on education than on defence.
This was to change again– just before the end of the Cold War defence expenditure was once more larger than education. By 2010, however, spending on education had reached £B88, about twice that on defence.

Healey ends his MoD chapter:
I imagine historians will best remember my six years at the Ministry of Defence for the liquidation of Britain's military role outside Europe, an anachronism which was essentially a legacy from our nineteenth-century empire.
Even the cleverest men can only guess what the future may bring – there are currently 9,500 members of HM Forces in Afghanistan, a presence which is currently expected to end in 2014.

7 July 2011

Tate in London: The Vorticists and Miró

During a ‘Lunch with the FT’ to mark the publication of his new novel, The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst remarked ‘I’m preoccupied, as everyone is, with the first world war …’. Well perhaps not everyone, but WW1 was certainly the biggest thing that happened to the Vorticists. Until 4 September, Tate Britain is providing a survey, The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, of this brief movement. Vorticism’s origins in early 1914 were a peculiarly British reaction to Cubism, Futurism and Post-Impressionism which had been imported and revealed to the London art scene shortly before. Its short existence was marked by the publication of the two Blast magazines and a couple of exhibitions. By 1917 there was rather more to complain about than the English weather.

Work of some of the leading lights in the Vorticist movement has been shown in London fairly recently. The National Portrait Gallery’s Wyndham Lewis Portraits in 2008 also displayed copies of Blast, and Wild Thing at the Royal Academy in 2009/10 featured Epstein’s Rock Drill and sculpture by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier-Brzeska died in action in 1915, so we can only speculate as to whether he would have overshadowed contemporaries like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, had he lived.

A short river trip away Tate Modern has a major exhibition, The Ladder of Escape, of work by Joan Miró, an artist whose career was not so marked by WW1 (he was 21 in 1914), but which was deeply affected by Spain’s turbulent 20th century history. The exhibition shows how Miró’s style evolved, the influences of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, his growing international recognition, and his monumental late works. Miró’s work is admired more by some than others, but even his supporters must accept that he was overshadowed by another long-lived Catalan artist, Picasso, 12 years his senior. Unlike Picasso, Miró lived to see the end of the Franco regime in Spain in 1975.

Tickets for The Vorticists are £14 and for Miró, £15.50 (there are concessions). The latter is better value for money, and ends on 4 September.

2 July 2011

Poor Jack and Harry

By the time David Cameron made his ‘you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking’ remark about the senior military at the PM's Press Conference on 21 June, he would almost certainly have given his approval to the recommendations in Lord Levene’s Defence Reform report published a few days later.

Descriptions of the proposals as the most far-reaching since Haldane’s reforms to the Army after the Second Boer War, and Fisher’s to the Royal Navy in the same period, are almost certainly overblown, but the changes probably amount to the biggest setback for the three single services since the removal in 1946 of their individual Secretaries of State from the Cabinet. In particular, Levene has recommended what is in effect the merger of the single Service Chief and respective Commander-in-Chief posts and their ‘rustication’, together with hangers-on, to service headquarters. Back in the MoD Head Office in London, a new Defence Board, answerable to the National Security Council, will consist of eight civilians and only the Chief of the Defence Staff to represent the views of the armed forces.

Something like this has been building up for a while. The cover of the Spectator on 11 June led with:
Who’s in command?
Sherard Cowper-Coles says politicians have let the top brass get too big for their boots

although his article was titled:
Breaking rank
Years of timidity from politicians have left our military commanders dangerously overconfident

and ‘too big for their boots’ was not an expression used by Sir Sherard (SC-C hereafter). SC-C was the UK’s senior diplomat in Afghanistan to 2010, and on the basis of his experience, he concludes:
A trend has set in where an overconfident and under-managed military machine fills a vacuum left by politicians, civil servants and diplomats unable or unwilling to provide firm strategic direction. The military is not just doing the fighting, but increasingly it is allowed to decide the overall direction of the campaign. Now that Barack Obama wishes to hasten the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with obvious implications for Britain, the military is protesting. In my view, this is a sign of a deep imbalance in the relationship between the military and the state. ...
Politicians with little or no military experience were being pushed by a confident and enthusiastic military lobby into doing things against their better judgment. War-winning armies need to be incurably optimistic, unquenchably enthusiastic, institutionally loyal, and — to some extent — susceptible to groupthink. The problem comes when the politicians, and the civil servants who advise them, don’t have the courage, knowledge or confidence to push back against pressure from one of the most effective special-interest lobbies of them all. ...
The civil servants in the MoD are clever and courageous, but have great difficulty asserting themselves over their professionally and personally confident colleagues in the uniform branch. The military now have much better academic qualifications than they did in the past. ...
Little wonder the British military are so assertive. They have the media and public on their side, they control the MoD and they are facing a political class that stands in bewildered awe of men in uniform. But with time and money running out, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are at last starting to take charge, and give the military the firm strategic direction they need — in their own interests — in a democracy.
In the article, SC-C paid tribute to the bravery and sacrifices of the UK’s armed forces in Afghanistan. Anyone who doubts his sincerity should read the Diplomatic Telegram, Tribute to the Fallen, recording the ‘ramp ceremony’ prior to the repatriation of Corporal Damien Lawrence of the Yorkshire Regiment in 2008, to be found at the start of his recent book, Cables from Kabul. The criticisms in the article were directed at the senior levels of the military, men in their late forties and fifties, who no longer have to engage in combat but have turned to fighting in the corridors of Whitehall.

The word military, either as an adjective or noun, is nowadays applied to all three forces (RN, Army, RAF) although historically it would have been applied to the Army, with the Senior Service being responsible for matters described as naval. While SC-C’s general point about weak political control of the armed forces is probably correct, arguably it is the British Army which should be bearing the brunt of his criticisms. A post here in April summarised the views of a well-placed insider on the relationship between the last government and the top of the Army, and a post in May gave a typical example of the adeptness with which retired senior Army officers lobby using the media. All this is with a greater confidence and assertiveness, to use the traits identified by SC-C, than has been shown in recent years by the other two services. Why should this be?

Obviously, since the end of the Cold War, land operations in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan have been the main preoccupation of the MoD. Also, the Army is larger in manpower terms, top to bottom, than the other two services – see below. But, as always in the UK, there is the issue of class. It has been said of the three services that the Army is led by gentlemen trying to be officers, the Navy by officers trying to be gentlemen, and the Air Force by neither trying to be both. This is unkind, but comes with an uncomfortable element of truth. Certain elements of the Army, the Guards regiments in particular, have always had a substantial intake of officers who come from the highest levels of society. That is not to say that the Navy and RAF are devoid of senior officers with an upper-class background, but not to the same extent. Substance for this assertion was provided by the Public Accounts Committee in 2007:
20. Of the 10 most senior staff in each Service, nine out of 10 Army officers, six out of 10 Royal Navy officers, and three out of 10 Royal Air Force officers were educated in independent schools. … The [MoD] sees the current officer intake to the Advanced Command and Staff Course as providing an indication of the likely composition of the future leadership of the Services: 58% of the intake of Army officers went to state schools; as did 70% of the Royal Navy officers; and 75% of the Royal Air Force officers.
It is hardly surprising that some Generals feel that they have a natural affinity with the Conservative party and correspondingly little identification with Labour. As most senior officers in their outlook are at least a decade behind the mainstream of British society, their vision of the Conservatives probably tends to be pre-Cameroon and non-detoxified, and of Labour, old rather than new. But they should have realised that, whatever their allegiance, Kipling’s observation on ‘The Ladies’, ‘For the Colonel's Lady an' Judy O'Grady, Are sisters under their skins’, could apply equally well to politicians. In the nature of their trade, they are never slow to spot a ‘useful idiot’ and make use of him in pursuit of office, but once in government will take any steps they can to prevent erosion of their own power.

Now, defence in general and the positions of all three services have been weakened because of the way the Army chose to make its case in recent years, though the Army will probably come out of it all in relatively better shape. As James Kirkup blogged in the Daily Telegraph on 28 June: ‘Sacking soldiers makes for bad headlines; the PM is said to be especially squeamish about taking the axe to the posher, shinier bits of the Army.’ Which may leave the other two services like Sassoon’s Harry and Jack, casualties of the General who ‘did for them both with his plan of attack’.

Under the new arrangements, the occupant of the CDS post will be the prime source of advice on behalf of all three services, but will have been drawn from only one of them. The charts below show how this has worked out in practice since the inception of the post in 1957.

The second chart shows the different patterns of occupancy during the Cold War and afterwards. The RN's predominance in the Cold War period is largely due to Mountbatten’s exceptionally long period of service as the second CDS. Since the end of the Cold War, the Army has provided the CDS for the majority of the time (the charts assume the present incumbent remains in post for 1000 days).

Following the Levene reforms, it might be expected that the MoD will attempt a more balanced rotation of the CDS post, as was the case in the later part of the Cold War. If so, as the next chart shows, the proposed Defence Board Appointments Committee will be faced with a marked imbalance in the backgrounds of the senior service officers from whom it will have to make its choices.

  (See Daily Telegraph for source data (April 2011) and explanation of *s and ranks)

In the corporate world, which will presumably be familiar to some of the Non Executive Directors on the Defence Board (one of whom will be chairing the Appointments Committee), it is now common practice to look for top talent internationally. While it seems inconceivable that an overseas national could become CDS, the prospect of a Canadian or Australian, let alone someone from the US Marine Corps, even being considered, might concentrate 'assertive' minds wonderfully.