I believe it was Oscar Wilde who was once asked what he thought about Charles Dickens’ heart-rending description of the death of Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop; a literary sensation in its time.

“You would need a heart of stone”, intoned the great Irish wit, “not to get a laugh out of it.”

On Tuesday evening I was reminded of these words as I watched Gordon Brown’s final, and very moving, performance outside the door of Number 10 Downing Street, just before he headed for the Palace and the political wastelands beyond.

There is an innate tragedy in witnessing a big man being brought low by events. And there can be no doubt that Gordon Brown is a big man; in stature, in the vast cragginess of his features, and in the depth and resonance of his voice, if nothing else. So, when the last choked words passed his lips and he turned away, why was I grinning?

Almost exactly thirteen years ago Tony Blair, the joint author with Brown of the New Labour project, was welcomed to Downing Street by a roaring crowd of party activists who had been bussed in specially for the occasion, to make sure that it looked as though the whole nation was euphoric about his election victory. Standing in exactly the same place where Brown was now giving his tear-jerking performance, he fixed those rather troubling eyes firmly on the cameras and, after a dramatic pause, intoned his first message to the public as prime minister; ‘A new dawn has broken ….’.

I remember thinking at the time that he might have come up with something a bit better than that well-worn cliché, but then no one could have foreseen that we were witnessing the dawn of an age of cliché. In fact one might even suggest that clichés have been the hallmark of the thirteen years that followed; the ever dependable props of a government that rarely seemed able to think further ahead than the next morning’s headlines.

So when Gordon Brown finally turned away with the parting words, ‘Thank you, and goodbye’, it seemed altogether fitting that the age of New Labour should come to an end with one of the oldest, most mind numbing, and banal of all clichés.

It is now a week since the last ballot papers were counted, and we seem to be divided into those who are still trying to work out what the voters were trying to say, and those who are pretending that they know, in spite of there not being much evidence to go on. At this point, the Lib-Con coalition must still be regarded as an uncertain, and very risky, experiment. Continue reading »


Caroline Lucas’ narrow victory over Labour in Brighton Pavilion will no doubt be lauded by the BBC far beyond it’s significance. With a majority of 1252 (2.4%) on an 8.4% swing from Labour this is fragile enough, but having sat up watching results come in last night, the impression that I got is that elsewhere their candidates rarely if ever managed to save their deposits (see comment #1 below). According to various reports, the Brighton result owes much to the Greens putting the same amount of effort into taking this single seat as might have gone into a national campaign. With 200 activists phoning possible supporters as many as three times yesterday to offer them a lift to their polling station - by rickshaw or on someones back presumably - they certainly weren’t taking any chances.

It will be interesting to see how the Greens’ share of the popular vote stacks up against the BNP and UKIP when these figures are available. Caroline Lucas is a very experienced and competent politician who had the good sense to fight her campaign on local issues rather than traditional green ones. Perhaps the best analogy to draw is with George Galloway’s far left Respect Party’s successes in Bethnal Green and Bow in recent elections, although at the time of writing it seems likely that they will now lose this seat.

I watched BBC coverage of the election until after five o’clock this morning, without much relish, then took a glass of whiskey outside to look at the dawn, listen to the birds, and enjoy the heavy scent of bluebells wafting from the wood. I enjoy election nights. Usually there is real life drama and you can feel the political pulse or the nation beating in a way that is impossible at any other time. Some candidates are jubilant and clamouring to get at the future, while others know that, for them, it is all over, and try to smile through their tears. It is about the only time that politicians seem human.

But last night, for hour after hour there seemed to be only confusion and disappointment wherever one looked. Not one party was prepared to show any sign of real jubilation, right down to Plaid Cymru, who were ‘disappointed’, and Alex Salmon of the SNP saying, with a broad grin, that they had done very well really, except that they hadn’t got anywhere near their target number of seats. But Alex is like that.

How can you have an election where everyone is a loser? Well the analysts will probably be explaining that for months to come.

All this was played out against a background of occasional references to a dramatic escalation in the sovereign debt crisis on world financial markets, which I have not been able to catch up with yet. Surely this is no time for there to be doubt about who is running Britain.

Supposing that, over the next few days, the Conservatives manage to form a government, it is worth looking at what they have to say about Climate Change and Energy on their website. Even a cursory glance at this reveals that compliance with the requirements of EU carbon reduction policy is the main driving force. There are several things that this brings to mind.

Firstly, the Conservatives are divided on Europe. Secondly, even David Shukman was prepared to admit in a BBC report the other evening that a lot of conservative MPs are sceptical about climate change. Thirdly, any incoming government that is doing the job properly will have to take a very careful, cool and objective look at energy policy, because at the moment we don’t really have one that is credible. Bits of paper bearing fantasy figures for the contribution that immensely expensive wind power can make to keeping the lights on until 2020 just will no longer do at a time when the economy is in ruins and the coffers are empty. Lastly, if David Cameron manages to form a government, its hold on power is likely to be very tenuous indeed until there is another election.

Welcome to the brave new post-Blair’n'Brown world!


On the day when the long heralded UK general election was finally called, I posted up a thread so that people could begin to discuss what I expected to be a series of climate related issues that would emerge as campaigning got under way.  That is not to say that I expected AGW to be a major debating point between the parties, but I did expect that it would figure somewhere down the list of concerns that were likely to be of interest to voters. After all it is so often referred to as the greatest challenge of our times, not least by a failing government which has built a vast edifice of policies around that belief.

The reality of the election campaign has been very different. During the four and a half hours of TV debate that have provided the main platform for the party leaders, just one question was aimed at this subject. Although I didn’t time how long the discussion lasted, my impression was that this was less than for any other question during the whole series of debates. It seemed as though the speakers wanted to mouth the necessary platitudes and get-the-hell-out-of-it as quickly as possible. Not even Nick Clegg, whose Lib Dem Party has criticised the present administration for not doing enough to limit carbon emissions, seemed reticent. David Cameron, who will perhaps be our next prime minister, seemed only to have a home insulation scheme to offer, with due lip service to the ideal of more alternative energy, but no specifics. Gordon Brown effortlessly morphed the subject into the realms of economic recovery by claiming that 400,000 new jobs can be created in green technology.

And then everyone heaved a sigh of relief and moved on. In the final debate, which focused on our nations economic woes, the subject was touched on again, but only in the context of more vacuous hopes of deliverance from fiscal meltdown. No one, of course, was prepared to ask whether vastly increasing the cost of energy would be a smart contribution to rebuilding our shattered economy.

I have said more than once on this blog that I did not think that, in the aftermath of Climategate, Copenhagen and the IPCC scandals, political consensus and a headlong commitment to the crusade against climate change could survive a general election campaign in this country. In the light of this subject’s relegation to the outer fringes of the hustings it would seem that I was wrong about that; or was I?

Not only has climate change been a non-event so far as the campaign is concerned, but recently, for the first time in years, it seems to have virtually disappeared from the media too.

I am certainly not going to try to anticipate the outcome of this general election, but there is one thing that is quite certain. By the end of this week, the radical change in the political landscape that so many commentators have identified ever since Nick Clegg’s spectacular - if possibly transient - emergence as a major force on the current British political scene as a result of the first TV debate, is likely to be a reality. The electorate will have spoken, and their message is likely to rock the two major parties to their foundations. Continue reading »

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At last the phoney war is over, the election will be called tomorrow, and now the main parties will have to reveal their true strategies for winning power. Policies will be set in stone, or at least written up in party manifestos and justified or discredited in the face of questions and criticism.

This thread is for discussion of any matters in the forthcoming campaign that specifically apply to ‘climate, the countryside and landscapes’. My feeling at the moment is that the main parties, with the possible exception of the Lib Dems, will avoid the subject of AGW like the plague. In fact it would surprise me if even the Greens make a big issue of it other than to make the preposterous claim that moving to a low carbon economy will be a panacea for the present fiscal meltdown.

I hope that I am wrong about this, as it is high time for this whole subject to be dragged into the open and take its rightful place at the centre of the public debated on who will lead the country into the coming decade. The electorate should have an opportunity to make their feelings known to those who will form the next government, whoever that may be.

So if you spot anything that seems relevant among the torrent of electoral verbiage that is about to descend on us, please put a comment and a link here, not on the NS thread where it will quickly become lost and forgotten.  What the politicians - and others who can influence their policies - have to say over the next few weeks is likely to be the best guide we can find to how the recent convulsions in the climate debate are feeding through into changed attitudes to AGW among policy-makers.

If major controversies, or apparent changes in political thinking that are relevant to the subjects that Harmless Sky covers emerge during the campaign, then I will open other threads as and when appropriate. If you feel that a new thread covering a particular aspect of the campaign is needed, then please let me know.

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Related thread: Election fever

h/t Brute for link to image

Jan 272010

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William Hogarth  Election Celebration

This post is in response to a number of comments made by regular contributors to Harmless Sky on the Tory Environmentalism – is everybody listening? thread. Here, Here, Here, Here.

Geoff Chambers says, ‘There’s a fascinating debate to be had on the effect of the current global warming catastrophe on British politics and media coverage …’ And of course he’s right.

We’re approaching the first general election that is likely to bring about a change of government in over a decade, and the previously remorseless march of AGW alarmism is beginning to falter, so how could it be otherwise? It would be difficult to get a cigarette  paper between the three main party’s policies on this subject, but opinion polls constantly show that the politician’s apparent certainty is not shared by the electorate. Something has to give.

Geoff then goes on to consider the role of politics on this blog, assuming that this area of discussion is entirely off limits. That is not the case.

What the blog rules actually say is:

Politics:
It certainly isn’t possible to discuss climate, the countryside and landscapes without straying into this minefield, although I wish that this was not so. Please try to be reasonably moderate in your utterances and avoid party politics altogether. There are plenty of other blogs that deal with such matters.

This is an un-moderated blog, but when I do occasionally step in editorially, it is almost always because discussion of a political aspect of climate change has drifted on to other unrelated political issues, got heated, and ended up a long way from the subject matter that Harmless Sky is intended to cover.

I have particularly requested that contributors should avoid party politics as there are few people who can conduct a party-political debate objectively, and a rough-house that creates much heat and very little light usually ensues. This kind of thing may be fun for those directly involved, but it tends to be tedious if you have to read it, and I do have to read it.

For at least the next six months (assuming that the election takes place in May) I’m prepared, in fact eager, to see comments drawing attention to any differences that may emerge in the various parties’ policies relating to climate change, or any other environmental issues for that matter. However that does not mean that discussion of the Labour Party’s latest green initiative will be allowed to become a knock-down-drag-out fight over the relative economic competence of the main parties, or whether the prime minister is attempting to subvert democracy. And I am all too familiar with the trick of rounding off a five paragraph rant about foreign policy with a spurious reference to alternative energy. Such efforts are likely to be snipped in toto.

You have been warned.

That said, I would not be surprised if the coming election campaign provides the opportunity for the blogosphere to really come of age. Time strapped journalists rely more and more heavily on recycling press releases without proper investigation, or consideration of the motives of those who provide them. This is leaving huge gaps in the spectrum of news and opinion that the MSM covers, and the range of opinions that it considers. There is so much that concerns people that rarely, if ever, receives any attention. Sometimes I think that large parts of the press are now like disk jockey’s who have become used to just reaching out to a carousel for the next disc , but never wonder when the contents of the carousel was last updated. We seem to hear the same old tunes over and over again.

As a result, there is an emerging trend towards the new web-based media influencing the  news agenda. Just ask yourself whether Climategate could have happened without the blogosphere? Or whether the utter futility of the Copenhagen summit would have become apparent so quickly without there being an alternative to the deceptively up-beat spin flooding from governments and organisations that had most to lose as a result of its failure.

Geoff also says:

I’ve often felt the rough and tumble of blog discussions reproduces the long-lost art of political all-in wrestling, of the kind you see in Hogarth’s illustrations of 18th century election campaigns. The point wouldn’t be to score party political points, but to get some heat into the discussion …..

This conjures up an intriguing image, but I doubt whether he really thinks that political persuasion with the aid of a cudgel would reinvigorate political life. On the other hand, it does seem likely that this election will be very different from those since 1997, and there may be copious amounts of metaphorical Hogarthian blood on the carpet before the campaign is over.

There seem to have been two distinct types of election in recent history. Firstly, there are those where the electorate hardly seem to be interested in the outcome because they expect the status quo to be maintained regardless of who wins. Such elections are characterised by unremarkable political leaders and a desire to see no more than a minor touch on the helm of the ship of state.  Then there are elections that take place when the whole nation is galvanised by the possibility of a major change in the fundamental priorities that determine public policy. The elections of 1948, 1963, 1987, and 1997 are examples. It seems possible that, in due course, 2010 will join their ranks, but in this case there may be one very important difference: important issues that concern the public may not being addressed at all. Blogs can help to prevent this happening.

In another post, I mentioned an article by Matthew d’Ancona that castigated the political classes, and all parties, for arrogantly failing to engage with the public and acknowledge their views because they are inconvenient. The examples he chose were the MP’s expenses scandal and global warming. The days when  MP’s could afford to ignore what is discussed on blogs is over,  and the large proportion of new members that will be elected this year are far more likely to be aware of this than those who they will be replacing.

Just a year or two ago, bloggers endlessly discussed what was in the MSM, but had little impact on the news agenda. There was little or no sign that mainstream journalists and editors were interested in what bloggers said or did. As each month goes by the influence of the blogosphere is increasing because more and more of the public are seeking news and opinion on the internet rather than on paper, television or the radio. The MSM now have to compete for the audience not just among themselves, but with a whole new world of output.

In a blog post on the BBC website, Andrew Neil - as experienced a journalist as you can expect to find - has drawn attention to this point. His extremely hard hitting round-up of all the tribulations that have beset the once cosy and complacent world of mainstream climate science since the release of the CRU emails includes this obsevation:

The bloggers, too easily dismissed in the past, have set the pace with some real scoops — and some of the mainstream media is now rushing to catch up.

The Dam is Cracking

Wise editors understand what their readers want, either instinctively or by spending money on market research. Looking at where the heavy blog traffic is to be found can be much cheaper than commissioning opinion polls and focus groups.  In the case of climate change, the mere number of web sites that deal with this subject from a sceptical point of view, and the traffic they get, must tell them something. They will also be aware that when they publish articles about global warming on their own websites, a large proportion of the comments they receive are sceptical.

Opinion polls show that the UK public rank concern about global warming very low in their list of priorities, but when it comes to policies that will lead to higher fuel bills, increased taxation, despoliation of the countryside, restrictions on travel and massive payments to the developing nations that is a very different matter. The public are very interested in these issues.

It is unlikely, if Matthew d’Ancona is right and politicians are so immersed in their own bubble that they have become divorced from the electorate, that climate change will play any greater role in the UK general election campaign than it has in recent by-elections, council elections and European elections unless somethng happens to dispel their complacency. If there is an outcry in the MSM against expensive proposals that will supposedly avert climate change, that would be something the main political parties would be unable to ignore.

Geoff is probably right, a rumbustious and widely populist outcry on the net could have an effect, not directly, but as a result of the message that it would send to the MSM, and if they fall into line then there is no way that politicians will be able to duck these inconvenient issues.

If Geoff’s dream of a truly Hogarthian election campaign comes true, I would not want to be part of it, but relying on the same period in history, there is a very obvious parallel that can be drawn between the 18th century pamphleteers and bloggers. In both cases radical voices became audible because concerned individuals were able to mobilise cheap means of mass communications to spread their views. And there is another similarity. Their pamphleteers ideas only spread because their publications were passed hand-to-hand, in much the same way that information on the net goes viral and spreads by links from site to site.

Although the notion of a rumbustious, rough and tumble 18th century style election campaign might have its charms, it would be unwise to take this analogy too far. Radical politics in the 18th century culminated in the French Revolution.

Now, where’s that guillotine?

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