Whatever historians say of Cameron’s legacy, they must take account of his Irish policy

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James Willby

What will be the legacy of ‘Cameronism’? Some would suggest that after only three years of government – and then at the head of a coalition – one should not deign to give a name to the philosophy of the current occupant of 10 Downing Street. I disagree. By the time of the next general election, David Cameron will have led the Conservative Party for over a decade. When the history of this period is written, I have no doubt that focus of such narratives will dwell on themes including the economy, British interventions aboard and the relationship with Europe.

For me though, there is an untold story of Cameronism, something that has quietly developed during his time in office and which, in my opinion, might be his greatest legacy. That is, the evolving nature of the British-Irish relationship.

From the apology for the events of Bloody Sunday, to the first visit by a British Monarch to Ireland since the founding of the Republic, Cameron’s term of office has witnessed events that have seen a growth in British-Irish relationship that few could have predicted. The decision to allow the Olympic torch to pass through Dublin was one such occurrence.  Rather than see the symbol of the Olympic spirit being forced into a jarring volte-face at the border, it continued its journey through the Emerald Isle towards Dublin. It was carried by athletes who would compete against our own and cheered by their home crowd. It was a wonderful example of the changing nature of British-Irish relations. You needed only to hear the enormous roar that greeted the Irish entry to the Olympic stadium to realise just how important a place this nation occupies in our hearts. But this relationship is not built of pure symbolism. There’s meat on its figurative bones.

In late 2010, Ireland’s banks were on the verge of collapse. Despite all the efforts of the Irish government to stave off the financial crisis, it was forced to seek a bailout from the EU and IMF. At that time, Britain had resolutely refused to be part of any EU-led bailout program for Greece or other embattled euro zone economies. And yet in the case of Ireland an exception was made. In the days after the announcement of the EU bailout, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a £7 billion bilateral loan to the Irish Republic. When questioned later that day on the terms of the loan, Osborne explained that the UK was not looking to make a quick buck: this was about aiding a friend in need. This matched my sentiments entirely. When asked by a young Greek politician why the UK had been so ready to help Ireland but not other euro zone nations in need, the answer came readily and without effort. It was, I told him, because they’re family.

Before this can be misinterpreted, I am keenly aware of the different paths our nations have chosen over the last forty years. On Europe, for example, the positions could not be more different. Britain is edging towards the European periphery whilst the Republic, as part of the euro zone, heads towards the further integration of a banking union. We will both continue to develop along these lines in what we hope are the best interests of our respective peoples. But to deny a spirit of kinship would be foolhardy. Indeed, there is barely a family in Britain that does not contain some Irish heritage.

And there is so much more we can do together. If the President of the United States can attend cabinet on a one-off visit, why not the Irish Taoiseach on a more regular basis? Why is there no unified energy policy with the only other country with which we share a land border? Where are the joint infrastructure projects to both boost investment into the UK and kick-start the Irish economy? In these and other areas more cooperation is vital, but let us not forget that progress in such areas would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Cameronism may indeed end up giving us far less than it promised, but with regard to our relationship with Ireland it would be thoroughly churlish to ignore it’s achievements.

Follow James on Twitter.

It’s not unpatriotic to point out the NHS’ failings; it’s a moral duty

Ryan Gray

A year on from London 2012, I wonder if director Danny Boyle is feeling a bit silly after his Olympic opening ceremony heaped praise on the NHS. I love our healthcare system and wouldn’t argue we remove it. But surely after recent revelations we can finally accept that the NHS is not perfect?

The argument that if you criticise the NHS, you must want it eradicated is absurd, but for too long this rhetoric has dominated the healthcare debate in Britain. Attacks on the likes of Julie Bailey, who helped expose the Mid Staffordshire atrocities and paved the way to recent investigations, is horrifying. She should be praised for her bravery, not have her mother’s gave desecrated.

There are many reasons for the recent failures in the NHS. For example, the fact that little of its huge budget was spent on front-live services, but on exhorbitant wages instead.

For too long, fanatics have claimed the NHS is the envy of the world, but the reality is not even close.

In 2000, Britain’s healthcare system was ranked by the World Health Organisation as 15th in Europe and 18th in the world - figures which are unlikely to improve in their next publication with over a dozen NHS trusts failing. In 2005, a Citizens Advice Burea report stated that ‘lessons are not learned, much needed changes are not put in place’, which pretty much sums up the problem today.

Worshippers may ignore Liverpool Pathway, where food and water was denied to patients, but the world will not and nor should we. We need to look at what we can borrow from countries like France and Germany. Free healthcare in Britain will not survive until the end of this decade let alone live to celebrate a hundred years if changes are not made. The brutal truth is that it is a 20th Century institution in a 21st Century world.

Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Egremont’s putting his feet up

Nik Darlington 11.30am

In France, they have a marvellous word for that summertime coma that happens every August: la retraite. The retreat, or retirement.

Naturally, we all need a rest. And when we rest, we should do it properly. The French don’t know how to win many Olympic medals, but they do know how to shut a nation down for an entire month.

Egremont has barely had a rest since the launch in February 2011, during which time we’ve published hundreds of articles from an array of contributors. We scaled the heights of the Total Politics blog awards last September, and have even been quoted at PMQs.

It is now that time of year when news slows down, Parliament is not sitting and, quite frankly, after the most beautiful two weeks of sport we are ever likely to witness in our lifetimes, there are more enjoyable things to talk about at the moment than politics.

So follow our lead, put your feet up, and raise a glass of something to British success.

See you all again in September.

The School Sports Debacle - Who Is Really At Fault?

Giles Marshall 9.43am

It’s great that David Cameron has been attending the London Olympics, and even better that he has been sufficiently enthused by the tremendous success of British athletes to call for more competitive sport in schools.

But is Mr Cameron naïve to put the blame for a ‘lack of competitive ethos’ on to teachers?

Or is he simply the latest in a line of Prime Ministers since Margaret Thatcher to pay lip service to the idea of sports in state schools while simultaneously cutting the funding that makes it possible?

The problem, as ever, lies with both government and school leaders. Since the education revolution of the 1980s, government has been immensely successful in focussing attention on academic results. The annual publication of exam league tables has forced schools into an ever more intense cycle of relentless grade chasing.

Good, you might think, for the academic side of education. Not so good, however, for all the other aspects of school life. School leaders have certainly got to grips with the idea that they need to show year-on-year consistent examination success. Sadly too many of them have taken a rather one-paced, narrow perspective, making exams their focus at the expense of other, broader aspects of a decent liberal education. The most significant casualty has probably been school sports, with trips and visits not far behind.

It isn’t directly any government’s fault that too many schools’ senior management teams hide behind a ‘watch my back’ culture of more detailed, time-consuming and off-putting bureaucracy. Too few heads and deputies are willing to support their staff who run after-school sports, or arranging fixtures, putting lengthy forms in the way of keen teachers and taking weeks to pass even the simplest request to run an extra-curricular activity.

One friend - newly qualified and teaching in a state school - commented in despair at the fact that she had to fill in a lengthy risk assessment in order to take her PE class into the park for a class session. The park was opposite the school. Her risk-averse head took two weeks before he decided he could agree with her several page risk assessment, and demanded parental consents and health forms from every parent before the lesson could be conducted. Lesser teachers would have given up long before.

Plenty of heads, too, insist that their sports staff attend tedious after-school inset sessions over running school sports fixtures.  It is little wonder that teachers who might once have been enthusiastic over the idea of running extra-curricular sports give up in the face of the mountains of cowardly, pass the blame bureaucracy put in their paths by senior staff.

I should incidentally declare an interest. I am a rarity among teachers, working as I do for a head who positively encourages extra-curricular activities and ensures a can-do atmosphere in his school, happily taking the ultimate responsibility on himself and giving his staff a high degree of leeway to run things. Why? Quite simply he trusts their professionalism, and he understands that responsible leadership involves supporting rather than hindering them.

But behind this school problem is a government problem, and whatever he says now, Mr Cameron cannot honestly claim to have supported the revitalised sports culture he now wants to see in state schools. His Education Secretary, Michael Gove, cut the funding to the School Sports Partnership (then had to perform a hasty U-turn on it) and devised a Sixth Form funding formula for state schools that removed financing for extra-curricular sports. Only academic A-levels are deemed worthy of government funding in the state sector. As a way of hindering sport in schools, that was pretty good going. And, of course, if you are going to inculcate a blame culture for poor exam results, you can hardly act surprised if your head teachers choose to ignore the poor relation – sports.

The independent sector has a distinguished sporting record because its schools invest considerable sums in their sports provision. They pay for professional coaches, offer generous sports scholarships and possess state of the art facilities.  None of that is available for state schools and sports professionals who can command considerable salaries are not likely to respond to a ‘big society’ call to work free of charge.

If Mr Cameron’s commitment to long-term sports provision for the majority of British students is more than simply the passing enthusiasm of an Olympics fan, then he needs to encourage an ethos of support, accompanied by appropriate funding - first and foremost from the Department for Education.

Otherwise, he might be best advised to avoid the debate altogether.

Giles Marshall is head of politics in a London grammar school. Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Argentina and the Olympics sports equipment crisis

Alexander Pannett 10.30am

The point when cereal becomes too soggy to eat and all that can be done is to create sludgy mounds in a homage to a Steven Spielberg film.

That’s generally how I view the Argentine president’s persistent attempts to annoy with petty stunts about the Falkland Islands.

It is a predicament that cannot be helped and says more about the deleterious solidity of President Kirchner’s domestic policies than her success in being the toast of South American diplomacy.

Her latest gambit has been to smuggle the Argentine hockey captain, Fernando Zylerberg, on to the Falkland Islands and film him carrying out a Rocky-style training montage next to some of the island’s iconic sites, including performing step-ups on a war memorial.

I personally do not have a problem with foreign professional sports players using our country’s facilities to train for a sporting event that has often been used to make infantile political gestures.

My concern is that Mr Zylerberg conducted no training exercises with a hockey stick. Surely this is a vital piece of equipment to hone up with before a major hockey event?

The BBC bitesize website has an excellent training session for improving stick skills.  I am sure that we could send a delegation of celebrities to Argentina to carry out hockey drills with sticks around deserted Argentine landmarks to help out our Argentine fellow sporting aficionados before the Olympics proper. Ant and Dec could present it.

Then there is the statement that appears at the end of the video: “To compete on English soil, we train on Argentine soil.”

Is the Argentine government complaining about the training facilities available to their Olympics team in London? Do they only ever train on soil that has been imported from Argentina? Do other countries also insist on such strict training requirements? (The recent hilarity that is BBC’s Twenty Twelve might hold some clues.)

This could potentially be a massive disaster, overlooked by Lord Coe and LOCOG. We should immediately send a container ship on a world tour to gather soil from each participating country so that each can have a little bit of home turf in Britain on which to practise.

You have to wonder how the Falkland Islanders view all this. They are not even allowed to appear in the video, which has a strange 28 Days Later charm to it. I’m not suggesting that the clip may actually be a trailer for an Argentine Zombie B-movie but, if so, I wonder if the Falklanders will be cast as the antagonists or if the film will centre on flesh-eating penguins. Maybe William Hague could be revealed as the Zombie Lord in chief.

The attribute of this plot is that Zombies do not have a right to self determination under international law. Which will make it far easier to re-patriate the islands once the penguins are convinced of the merits due to the broadcasting of further Argentine training videos that display their athletic prowess (though evident equipment shortages).

The best part of this latest development from Argentina is that it reflects a re-interpretation of the “liberal intervention” doctrine. If only we had filmed the British & Irish Lions rugby union team doing push ups in the Afghan countryside, the Taliban would have clearly fled in awe of our athletic bluster. We should not be using drones armed with missiles but fitness robots, such as this Japanese one, which incidentally looks a bit like a cuddly Michelin Man (above image).

To complete the new fitness revolution in international relations, we just need a catchy soundbite to go with it.

Unfortunately, all I can think of is an instinctive British rural one.

“Get off my land”.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

It is simple: we cannot allow the offensive and malicious Ken Livingstone back into City Hall

Craig Barrett 11.39am

Polls polls polls! "Boris lead narrows!" "Ken less popular than his party!" "Boris more popular than Tories!" "Only 12% of people believe that Ken is honest!"

While opinion polling has become much more sophisticated, anyone who watched the 1992 general election coverage on Easter Monday would know that only one poll matters: when you enter your booth and wield your pencil (unless you live in Tower Hamlets, of course).

With just one week to go until the election for London’s mayor, the current polling serves only to allow campaigners to twist and spin to whatever advantage possible and to remind people (like me) that we should be doing more to help.

I feel a bit sorry in some ways for the London Labour party. They have had a candidate forced on them who seems to owe no loyalty to them barring the right to campaign under their banner and deploy their activists for his own ends.

Had Labour picked someone else, Mr Livingstone, who believes the mayoralty his divine right, would have run as an independent candidate as he did in 2000.

Mr Livingstone’s campaign is a goulash of undeliverable policies, bold but inaccurate pronouncements about his Tory opponent, and craft attempts to shift the media’s focus away from his own activities. It is not so much that Mr Livingstone is a stranger to the truth, it is more that lying and smoke-screens come easier to him.

To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that he has no power to restore the EMA, or that the TfL ‘cash mountain’ is intended for investment rather than fare giveaways. To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that the only experience he has to validate his comments on Boris Johnson’s tax affairs comes from his own hypocritical tax avoidance. To Mr Livingstone, it matters not that what spews from his mouth is offensive to one group of Londoners or another.

Mr Livingstone has given us no compelling reasons to vote for him; no policies on which any Londoner can be certain of his delivering. His crony-aplenty, wasteful record in City Hall speaks for itself.

Contrast that figure with Boris Johnson, who has actually delivered on his promises - whether policing, sustainable housing, tax freezes and others - and whose plans are both costed and practical.

But above all else, consider two vital points. First, I am not old enough to remember Mr Livingstone’s reign as leader of the Greater London Council but I know enough to understand it for what it was: a publicly funded one man crusade of self-justification, with money poured down the drain to embarrass Mrs Thatcher’s government or to challenge its actions in the courts.

The Mayor of London must speak for the city with an independent voice, but they must also be able to co-operate with central government to ensure the best for the city. For at least the first three years of the next mayor’s tenure there will be a Conservative politician in 10 Downing Street and while Mr Johnson and Mr Cameron may not be close personally, they do at least have a mutual understanding and interest.

Boris Johnson is a doughty fighter who has regularly exercised his inherent independence to seek the best for London. Mr Livingstone’s egomania and pathological hatred of the Tories will mean that were he to be elected next week, it would be the start of at least three years of pitched battles on meaningless fronts, all paid for by London’s rate payers.

Second, and perhaps most important, Mr Livingstone’s public utterances over the past few months demonstrate the type of man he is.

Whether suggesting that a councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham ought to “burn in hell…and…flesh be flayed for demons for all eternity”; whether suggesting that gay bankers in the Middle East could be mutilated; whether suggesting that London’s Jewish population is too rich to vote Labour; or whether simply another cheap insult at a critic, Mr Livingstone appears oblivious to the effect of his own words.

It is not good enough for the Labour party to say “Ken is just being Ken”, or words to that effect. Mr Livingstone is no Jed Bartlet, and the fact that many in the Labour party are doing their best to distance themselves from their own candidate shows the whole strategy is a farce.

In a few months, the eyes of the world will be on London and other cities around the country as Britain hosts the Olympic & Paralympic Games. Boris Johnson may be gaffe-prone but unlike Mr Livingstone his gaffes are rarely offensive and certainly not malicious. We in this great and historic capital city cannot afford to have as our mayor a man who appears to set his stall deliberately to offend others.

For this reason, above all others, I urge you to back Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

English wine is leading the way in more ways than one

Nik Darlington 11.53am

The Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, “what I like to drink most is wine that belongs to others”.

That was, in a sense, what we inhabitants of the British Isles were forced to do for hundreds of years.

Whatever might be said about the Romans and their vines along Hadrian’s Wall, for most of history if you wanted to drink wine on these shores then you had to import it and you had to pay a pretty price for it.

Things have changed. The English (and Welsh) domestic wine industry is in very good and ever-improving health, thanks to increasing interest, investment and climate change (yes, it has its silver lining). There are more than four hundred vineyards turning out red, white and sparkling wines, which though admittedly of varying quality, have in recent years hit dizzy heights.

And yesterday the Times (£) reported on what is expected to be a ‘vintage year’ for English wine, with the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics earmarked as opportunities to showcase the nation’s best. Indeed, the Olympics cycling road race is due to pass close to England’s largest single vineyard, Denbies, in the Surrey Hills.

But there was another wine-related story in yesterday’s Times (£) that is worth dwelling on.

The EU has plans to abolish vine plantation regulations, which stipulate where and how much wine can be cultivated throughout Europe, so as to limit production, control quality, and maintain prices. However, a number of leading wine-producers, including France, are opposed to any relaxation of the regulations.

Supporters of the reform say it will make Europe’s wine industry more competitive and better able to meet the challenge from New World producers. They accuse France, Spain and Italy and other wine nations of trying to preserve their dominance by preventing the spread of vineyards to other regions and countries.

In 2007, the EU voted to scrap vine plantation rights, which allowed new vineyards and the extension of existing ones. Although the French Government initially backed the reforms, it has since backtracked, in the face of rural fury. President Sarkozy has vowed to fight the move.

Dominique Janin, deputy general secretary of the Assembly of European Wine Growing Regions, told The Times that liberalisation would leave vineyards at the mercy of “hedge funds and multinationals”.

"They are going to plant hundreds or thousands of hectares of vines and we will move towards industrial production," said Mr Janin. "The consequences will be quite serious. Europe will become like Australia. When you have a plant that lasts 70 years you need rules and harmonious management."

First of all, it is a bit of a harsh judgement on the New World producers such as Australia. That country’s recent problems, for instance, have more to do with natural disaster (drought) than industrial production. And while the New World produces some frightful cheap plonk, many of its vineyards are have been matching the old masters of Europe for some years now.

But the main point is that the likes of the French are both right and wrong. They are wrong because one of the reasons why the New World is fast catching up with the old is because its vineyards are freer to experiment with grape varieties and production methods, and to expand into new and exciting terroirs.

They are, however, right in that irrespective of how much the New World ‘catches up’ (relatively or absolutely), the unique selling point of the Old World is its history, traditions and styles. They must be protected.

The proper solution would be for the EU to forge ahead with abolishing continental regulations, so allowing certain producers to follow their own path, but to allow individual member states to maintain domestic controls. This type of flexible thinking should not run contrary to any EU anti-competition laws, because the English wine industry is already outside the existing controls.

English winemakers are proving adept at applying the best of the old - such as the classic methods of Champagne to produce top drawer sparkling wine - and at the same time pushing the boundaries, even beginning production of 'English Malbec' from imported Argentine grapes (which the EU is absurdly prohibiting).

Much as it is doing so in the glass, English wine could be ahead of the pack in other ways too. Europe, take note.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Our politicians should not consider tourism a last resort

Tom Jones 6.45am

The taxpayer pays more each year to service the debt incurred by hosting the 1991 Sheffield World Student Games than it does on the national tourism agency, Visit Britain. However, the agency is facing 34% cuts to its budget at a time when the tourism industry is entering one of the most important periods in its history, and has a vital opportunity to further establish modern Britain as a tourist destination on the world stage.

According to the World Tourism Organization, the United Kingdom is ranked as the seventh most important tourist destination by tourism receipts, with more than 28 million tourists arriving in 2008/9, and spending an estimated £30.1bn. Despite this, politicians often dismiss the value of tourism fearing that too much reliance on the tourist pound will turn the country into a banana republic, with an economy overly reliant on finance and tourism.

So, whilst the total final budget for the Olympic Games looks set to stand at £9.298bn, Visit Britain will see its budget cut from £28.8m this year to £21.2m in 2014/15. There is just a year from the Games, but politicians continue to focus on selling the Olympics to the voters on its Legacy rather than selling modern Britain to tourists on the world stage.

The Government’s tourism strategy is just fifty short pages, and whilst the tourism boost is given a low billing in the Olympics literature, the combination of the Games and the Diamond Jubilee is expected to deliver an additional £2 billion in tourist spending, and create an additional 50,000 jobs over the next few years.

At a time when Government funding is tight, we all understand that cuts in public expenditure have to be made, but whilst some public money is spent on services and never seen again, spending money on tourist promotion helps to boost the economy, and bring money into the country from outside. At a time when our industry needs a boost, tourism is well placed to stimulate the economy and create jobs.  However, the subject is rarely touched upon in Ministerial speeches, and tourism is resigned to the depths of the DCMS website.

Cuts at Visit Britain at this time seem like a false economy and locally, Councils are shedding tourism funding – which is not a statutory obligation – in order to retain ‘essential services’ which are important at the ballot box.  But the figures suggest that capitalising on tourism over the period covering the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic Games would reap returns at the Treasury.

The next few years offer one of the country’s best opportunities to boost tourism, and Ministers should be doing all they can to ensure the country takes maximum advantage, rather than shying away from an industry which can help the economy to grow.

Tom Jones is the author of Tired of London, Tired of Life (www.tiredoflondontiredoflife.com), a website about things to do in London.

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