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Sunday 7 September 2014

Review: Charles Clarke, The "Too Difficult" Box

I bought this book with a heavy heart. Yes, I got £5 off but pretty soon it will be £20 off in every charity shop. It's a book which will fall dead born from the press.

Charles Clarke is a former British Labour politician who has made a new career as a Visiting Professor. In that role at the University of East Anglia he invited 25 people to come and talk about difficult issues in British politics, nearly all of them Establishment insiders: thirteen are members of the House of Lords and most of the rest could be and some certainly will be.

Now the House of Lords is part of the problem and not the place to look for solutions. It's a comfortable London club of 770 members with house rules so lax as to positively encourage what in ordinary life would be corruption (Google "Baroness Uddin" for example and search out Keir Starmer's reasons for not prosecuting her). Unsurprisingly, no one in this book suggests its abolition - a cost-saving and very effective solution to the problem it creates for the credibility of  "British democracy".

Other parts of the problem do not merit chapters in this book: there is nothing on the baleful influence of the Treasury, the Monarchy or the Established Church (whose Bishops automatically sit in the House of Lords). There is a chapter on the Scottish parliament  - by a member of the House of Lords - but no suggestion anywhere that England might deserve one. There is no mention of Northern Ireland or Wales - the former subsidised from England at around £5000 per local inhabitant and the latter at £4 000. There is no discussion of the jingoism which has us cling to Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands (the latter subsidised at around £50 000 per local inhabitant).

These are matters "too difficult" for Charles Clarke's Establishment. They are committed to thinking inside the box.

Most of them have probably been asked to "talk to students" before and few of them try very hard. Lord Falconer contributes a very tightly argued piece in support of Assisted Dying, arguing for the adoption of the US state of Oregon's model and this is probably the sharpest piece in the box. . At the other extreme, Lord Shephard's piece is merely whimsical and Mary Honeyball's reads like the transcript of a confused but nonetheless self-congratulatory talk on How I Got the EU to Adopt the Swedish Model (criminalising men who pay for sex). Trevor Phillips and David Blunkett also offer unstructured chats.

Very few contributors are angry with the System - Lord Filkin (on an ageing population) is - and that adds to the interest of his piece. The outsiders - Anatole Kaletsky on the Banks and Adam Boulton on the BBC - also show exasperation, though of course neither Boulton or anyone else suggests that public funding of the awful BBC should be withdrawn - cost-saving and effective and no loss.

A couple of pieces are lively presentations of issues by people with deep inside experience - Baroness Hollis on pensions and Margaret Hodge on waste in public spending contribute interesting pieces, and so do Lord Howarth (on drugs) and Tim Loughton (on child protection).

But overall this is not the place to go either for sharp analysis of the nature of a problem or defence of decisive solutions. Overall, it heads towards a Lower Second - about par for modern British political life.

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