Down with special advisers!

From Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, a sad tale:

“They needed a room with proper ventilation so that the security guards could make bacon sandwiches without the whole place smelling of bacon. I was in the only one they had, so I had to move.”

My friend, not long appointed a special adviser to one of John Major’s Cabinet ministers, looked sheepish. He was explaining to me why his office next door to the Secretary of State had become one that was up two flights of stairs and along a corridor. As he told me the tale, he slowly realised that he’d been had. The Civil Service had found his “special advice” inconvenient. In future, they decided, there would be no more bumping into the minister. My friend would have to call up and arrange a meeting.

I felt sympathetic. But really all I could do was laugh. The inventiveness of the Civil Service, as they dreamt up ways to hobble special advisers, was always so impressive. The lightness of touch was what I enjoyed most. These people knew how to beat someone up without leaving a mark on their body that they could show to Amnesty International.

Ah yes, they certainly do. When I became a special adviser at DFID in 2003 and was first shown my office, I realised that it was a looong corridor length away from the Secretary of State’s private office.

A year later, I returned from leave to discover that my office had halved in size: the wall had been moved six feet.  To create a new meeting room for the Permanent Secretary on the other side.

As Finkelstein rightly observes, all you could do was laugh…

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Blue Helmets, Brown Leaves

I recently blogged about UN peacekeepers’ efforts to save the world by planting trees in places like Darfur and the Congo (I even featured on the New York Times website discussing this “new vogue of environmental priorities”).  Now an eagle-eyed reader sends these, well, gritty photos of two of the 30,000 trees planted so far – in this case, by top members of the UN mission in Timor-Leste.



The other 29,998 trees are doing just fine, I’m sure…

On the web: Bernanke’s reappointment, al-Megrahi’s release, foreign policy realism, the “perfect storm”, and more…

- With the news that President Obama has nominated Ben Bernanke for a second term, over at the New Republic Noam Scheiber assesses the merits of continuity at the Fed. Stephen Roach, meanwhile, examines the case against the incumbent chairman, arguing that Obama’s decision should open a “broader debate over the conduct and role of US monetary policy”.

- Taking us back to the depths of last September’s financial meltdown, Faisal Islam has some interesting insights into the collapse of Lehman Brothers as viewed from British shores.

- Elsewhere, debate continues apace about the rights and wrongs of releasing the Lockerbie bomber. Suggesting that “cock-up offers as convincing an explanation as conspiracy for the handling of Mr Megrahi’s release”, Philip Stephens argues that the decision highlights the “price of realism” in foreign policy.

- Speaking of which, in the latest edition of FP Magazine none other than Paul Wolfowitz assesses the realist credentials of President Obama; providing at once a telling insight into the mindset of a man at the heart of foreign policy making during the Bush years.

- Mark Easton’s BBC blog, meanwhile, takes a look at how the British government is looking to influence public behaviour in light of the Chief Scientist’s warning of a “perfect storm” of energy, food and water scarcity by 2030.

- Finally, as President Obama holidays on Martha’s Vineyard, the White House announces what he’ll be reading on the beach. Slate offers its take here.

Megrahi’s release: select your conspiracy theory now

As Abdelbaset al-Megrahi makes his way to the airport after his release from prison on compassionate grounds, you have a choice of two conspiracy theories about why he was allowed out.

Option 1: it was all about oil. Interesting fact: while Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, Libya has the largest reserves.  You might therefore conclude that there’s plenty of exploration / production fun to be had there.  You might also observe that the Libyan Investment Corporation’s partner in this activity is, er, BP (see their annual review, p. 26).  Add in the reports that Peter Mandelson just happened to run into Colonel Gadaffi’s son in (where else) Corfu, and presto! Your conspiracy theory is ready to serve.

Option 2: Richard Ingrams, on the other hand, has an altogether different theory - and it goes like this:

The Justice Minister Jack Straw is old enough to know that we have a long and shameful tradition, where terrorism is concerned, of imprisoning the wrong people. And the notorious Irish cases in the 1970s and 80s wreaked havoc with the reputation of the police, the intelligence services and the judges.

The offence of which Megrahi was – almost certainly wrongly – convicted after a trial lasting six months before three distinguished Scottish judges was far more serious than anything the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six were accused of doing. Resulting in the deaths of 280 innocent people, it was far and away the most serious act of terrorism in our history. So, what if Megrahi’s appeal succeeded and it was shown that yet again the security forces and the judges had got it wrong – and this at a time when the Government is trying to introduce more and more draconian measures to deal with the supposed threat of terrorism?

Opposition to giving the police yet more powers would inevitably be boosted and the awkward question would be raised – if not Megrahi then who did it? The official hope, now that Megrahi has applied to drop his appeal, is that we can finally draw a line under Lockerbie and move on.

Take your pick…

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