The Silliness of Simon Heffer

What a strange creature the Daily Telegraph has become. Some of its economics and business coverage is truly excellent – nuanced, intelligent and knowledgeable. Jeremy Warner, Edmund Conway and Roger Bootle are must-reads.

Obviously, I am not including Ambrose Evans Pritchard in that line-up: his presentation of himself as some kind of media Cassandra becomes increasingly a bore. Nuanced is not a word that could be applied to Ambrose’s journalism — and that goes way back before his surprising re-incarnation as an international business writer after his far right coverage of the Clinton administrations. Why surprising? His Clinton coverage did the reputation of the Telegraph much harm in the States, although not with the “black helicopter” right-wing talk radio crowd.

There are only three things that Ambrose is wedded to: a pre-Bretton Woods belief in the gold standard, an insistence that Vince Foster was murdered and a conviction that Bill Clinton was recruited by the KGB while a Rhodes Scholar. If Ambrose were back in Washington DC, he would be filing copy no doubt “proving” that Barack Obama is a secret adherent to Islam and was never born in the States.

On the plus side, the Telegraph exclusives about the expenses abuses were brilliant and an example of fine investigative journalism – the kind that is alas becoming all too rare in the UK these days among the national daily newspapers.

But the political commentary coming from the paper is devaluing the exclusives the political reporters are securing. Much of that devaluing commentary comes from Simon Heffer.

I ought to introduce a personal note here. I know Simon: we were contemporaries at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and we overlapped at the Telegraph, where I had two stints at the Sunday Telegraph as a political correspondent and as an investigative writer. I have always liked Simon – although I don’t share his passion for Trollope but I do share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and T.E. Utley.

Despite all of that, I can muster no enthusiasm or respect for his commentary, which is jejune, immature, pompous, backward-looking, and often ill-informed when it comes to the facts and about the World beyond London Clubland. The Young Fogey has become an Old Bore. What was endearing back in the 1980s has become tiresome in this century.

Take three of his most recent columns – on President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and on the importance of updating Trident. The first has all the nuance of a sledge-hammer – it is all noise. Actually, that could be said for all three, come to think of it.

With Obama, Simon begins by registering his shock at how President Obama has become even more unpopular since his last visit to the States four months previously. He then goes on to suggest there is good reason for the falling esteem. Obama has done nothing recently apparently. “It is not clear what Mr. Obama actually does. He isn’t engaged with the economy; he certainly isn’t engaged with foreign policy; he has abandoned hope of a climate change bill this year (and probably for ever); he has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented; he is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration…”

And now, according to Simon, he just “appears to be reading the newspapers and the blogs and watching television.” Is that last point meant to be a serious comment from a supposedly serious commentator writing for a daily paper that believes it should be taken seriously?

Let’s look at the meat of the claim – at what Obama did or omitted to do before he became a shadow of his former self and resorted to just reading newspapers, etc.

  1. “He isn’t engaged with foreign policy”. Well, Simon, he seems pretty engaged with Afghanistan by shifting US policy from a counter-terrorist strategy to a counter-insurgency one, it strikes me, and his administration is trying out a bit of a détente with Moscow. Now, granted, I don’t believe the COIN approach to Afghanistan will work – neither will the CT strategy for that matter – and the détente with Moscow will fail, but he is engaged and a better and more mature column would have been to analyze Obama foreign policy, its strengths and weaknesses, the chances for success, the internal and external challenges the administration faces in forming and executing policy and whether the policy is right rather than claiming that the President is “not engaged with foreign policy.”
  2. “He isn’t engaged with the economy”. Simon undermines this claim himself by noting the massive stimulus package the President forced through in his first year in office, his push for an extension on unemployment benefits and his wanting to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. Again, I don’t agree with raising taxes. What is even more shocking, though, is Simon’s complete ignoring of the truly radical financial reform legislation that has been passed. Wasn’t that worth a mention? Or was our commentator unaware it had been passed or how significant it is?
  3. “He has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented.” Well, Simon, old boy, it was a huge accomplishment, whether you like it or not, to get major reform through on health care – it was something other Presidents would have liked to do, notably the last Democratic White House incumbent, but failed to do. And one of the reasons Americans are waiting news about implementation is that many of its major provisions don’t start immediately and come into effect over time. By the way, the delay in implementation has much to do with the lobbying by the insurance companies and brinkmanship by the Republicans.
  4. “He is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration.” There is nothing casual about the Obama Justice Department’s challenge to the new Arizona anti-immigrant law. And, overall, “casual” isn’t the word best applied to what Obama is not doing on the immigration front. He is not fighting for reform – the same reform that his GOP predecessor in the White House wanted to introduce but also decided that cowardice was better part of valour. Although that might be more preferable than Senator John McCain’s betrayal of immigration reform.

Among other silly points Simon makes in this column is the author’s belief that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the “serious Republican” who could beat Obama. “He is the sort of opponent Mr. Obama should fear, because he is experienced, an intellectual, and has widespread name recognition,” says Simon, who scolds silly “Democrats (including Howard Dean, the party chairman),” who are urging Gingrich to stand in 2012. According to Simon, they are only doing so “to ensure that the Republicans make some policies that the Democrats can attack.”

In fact, Dean and other Democrats are doing so because if Gingrich were the GOP candidate they could rest easy in their beds – oh, yes, the Tea Party members would turn out in droves to back the hero of the “Contract with America” – but the Democrats would not only see their own base energised by the presence of Gingrich on the ticket but they would see independents and the centre swing back to them, too.

What would have been a far more interesting column to write on a trip to America would be something along these lines: Obama has, in fact, achieved much – health care reform, financial services overhaul, a stimulus package that may have prevented the US recession becoming a Depression; in fact, his legislative record is more impressive than either Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s at equivalent stages in their first terms. Even so, Obama has failed to gain real credit from Americans for the legislative accomplishments and this raises the big question of why. Is it because American economic pain and uneasiness has clouded appreciation that may be forthcoming once the property market improves and unemployment decreases? Or were expectations too high for Obama? Were Americans voting for different kinds of change when they backed him? And will the Republican tactic pay off of offering nothing in the way of policy? That article is, of course, beyond Simon because he can only engage in polemical support of political allies or polemical damnation of opponents.

In Part Two I’ll look at Simon’s articles on Prime Minister Cameron and Trident.

The Cuts That Dare Not Speak Their Name

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is likely to announce tomorrow the long-awaited general election. But in the run-up none of the major parties are prepared to tell the truth about the scale of the cuts in public expenditure that will be needed to stave off national bankruptcy. All the parties are careful to avoid announcing any numbers – how much will have to be cut from public spending, how many jobs will have to be lost from Britain’s bloated public sector, how high taxes may have to be raised and what the balance should be between spending cuts and tax hikes, if Britain is going to secure the economic growth it needs to get out from under mounting debts.

Cutting public expenditure substantially is the only way forward. But where and by how much? Labour politicians on the whole avoid the word “cuts” and prefer to talk about public investment. Conservative leader David Cameron and Osborne have followed their Labour counterparts and promised to ring-fence health care, defense and Britain’s overseas aid budget. In fact, Labour goes even further and the Prime Minister has insisted that all “front-line” services – education, the National Health Service and the police – will be unaffected, if he is re-elected.

Read my full take on the British election and the economy at the Daily Caller.