Part 2 – The Silliness of Simon Heffer

Part 2: The Silliness of Simon Heffer

On 30th July in a Daily Telegraph column ostensibly criticising Chancellor George Osborne for arguing that any Trident replacement should come out of Ministry of Defence funds we got these gems from Simon:

“We live in a world whose massive instability seems to have passed the Prime Minister by.”

“Dave (by this Simon means Prime Minister Cameron) so obsessed is he with image management that real issues of governance are pushed to the margins.”

“If there is the political will, the money can be found to maintain the defence of the realm. As I have argued before, end the overseas aid budget, which is a pointless, socialist waste of money at £7 billion a year.”

As I asked in an earlier blog posting on Simon, are these really the comments one expects from a serious commentator writing for a supposedly serious daily newspaper?

You may or may not agree with Cameron’s recent criticisms of Israel and Pakistan or think they should have been made so publicly (I for one think the Prime Minister was right in the content of what he said and how and where he made his remarks), but does anyone really believe that the Prime Minister is unaware that we live in a dangerous World – always have actually – and that instability from elsewhere threatens?

When commenting on the Coalition, Simon likes to press the idea that the Prime Minister is just a PR man focused on image solely. What he ignores is how radical this government is planning to be – and radical in a lot of Conservative/Libertarian ways. Nothing less than a radical reform of the state and the relationship between the state and the public is being aimed for, a point emphasized last week by the Economist, which noted that “it is shaping up to be an ambitious administration.”

According to Simon, the Prime Minister is not interested in “real issues of governance” but let’s look at the short record so far. The Coalition has introduced an austerity package aimed at ending the country’s fiscal deficit that could see most government departments facing cuts of up to 40 percent – it is a spending reduction package that shames other European governments who claim they too are intent on putting the public books in good order.

But the Coalition is not stopping there. Coalition ministers intend to seize the opportunity to reshape the State and are proposing truly radical changes to NHS management, the Welfare system, schools, and the relationship between the police and the public. The Coalition is already acting to push back on the astonishing civil rights encroachments of the Blair and Brown governments. As the Economist – hardly a lefty or Lib Dem publication – argued “the historic nature of the coalition government itself is now less interesting than its domestic politics.”

So much for the Simon claim that the Prime Minister is pushing to the margins real issues of governance!

Does Simon think that he is writing fine commentary when he sneers and insults and misrepresents and tries to make out that Cameron and his ministers are ignorant and immature. Is this how Heffer’s mentor T.E. Utley wrote? Utley was an ideological Conservative but in his columns he was not bombastic and stuck to the facts and he would never have demeaned a Prime Minister by referring to them in a condescending manner by their first name.

So what does Simon think he is doing? And why he is doing what he is? Well, his chums on the right of the Conservative Party no doubt are egging him on. They, of course, are unable to accept any compromises to their narrow Conservatism. As far as they are concerned Britain should have no mass immigration – European Union citizens included – and Conservatives should not share government power. They want an old Britain that stands alone, proud, free and brave, etc. That fits in well with the kind of Britain Simon would like – the England of Trollope, where the Celtic fringes and working class people knew their places.

And so to be brave and free and proud we need an independent nuclear deterrent and shouldn’t be wasting money on some natives overseas. And according to them the nuclear replacement should not come out of defence funds but the government reserve. Well, boys, I have news for you – there isn’t a government reserve, the coffers are empty!

Britain’s nuclear deterrent isn’t and never will be independent – the Americans would have to agree before we fired it! And which country are we going to shoot at? The Russians? We knock out a couple of their cities and they knock out Britain lock, stock and barrel. Terrorists who sneak in a suitcase bomb? Iran has a far more important target than the U.K. – Israel.

I can well understand why Reagan thought all the generals talking about MAD were mad.

Back to Simon, briefly. The days when Britain’s overseas budget went straight into the pockets of Third World dictators are kind of over, Simon. Aid is far more targeted and monitored – although more monitoring is needed – and aid is starting to get more results-oriented, something Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, is keen to increase.

Yes, money to India and China should cease now but a lot of good can come from that aid budget in Africa and less developed countries, helping to ease the instability Simon worries about so much and encouraging economic development and that helps to ease the immigration pressures on us. Simon, maybe you should read less Trollope and start reading more studies and books on economic development, aid mechanics and even brush-up on what is actually happening in Africa.

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.