Cease and Dysist: why the Dylan worship has to stop

I was on the Underground the other day, clutching yet another sycophantic Dylan puff piece in a daily newspaper, and I felt compelled to scribble something down to describe my own feelings. I don’t usually write about music and probably won’t again.

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The government’s special advisers

I led a small team of reporters writing profiles of every government special adviser (spad). It was not an easy task: very early on, a senior spad informed me that he would be telling others not to co-operate, and some believed (erroneously) that providing information about themselves would breach the government code of special advisers. Yet we persisted because it’s vital that people understand who these advisers are, where they come from, and what expertise they have.

Very little outside the Westminster bubble, it turns out. After profiling many of them, I read through all of our biographies and tallied up the various backgrounds and experiences they had. An astonishing 89% have built their careers in the Westminster bubble. I contrasted this with the backgrounds of Labour’s special advisers (which were profiled in 2009). Only 37% of that cohort had worked for their party HQ, for an MP, or as a spad for another minister. A marked difference.

While they lack experience, spads are becoming more and more valued. Indeed, David Cameron is likely to break his self-imposed cap on the number of spads, and this won’t necessarily lead to opposition from the civil service either. I wrote an analysis piece about the use of special advisers in a coalition, and certainly it seems they are handy at keeping to cogs of government moving.

The full special report is available here.

A blast from the past

As a reminder of how markedly different the tone of Obama’s presidency is to Bush’s, here’s the announcement when Saddam Hussein was captured:

What’s most alarming about this, though, is the obsequiousness of the press.

A new direction?

How will the death of Osama Bin Laden affect US foreign policy, and therefore us? After all, Bin Laden’s death could be used by the United States to end military operations in Afghanistan sooner than expected, or more comprehensively than was previously aimed for.

A great piece in the New Yorker earlier this month highlighted that Obama does not want to expend resources and political capital on continuing US operations in Afghanistan in the long term, or indeed in the Middle East as a whole.

Instead, the President is much more concerned with refocusing US foreign policy towards the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and perhaps most importantly, China. For example, Obama was reluctant to engage in efforts to remove Colonel Gadaffi in Libya and insisted on continuing a longstanding visit to Brazil while the decision was being made – highlighting to the world his foreign policy priorities.

Yet this was a symbolic display, and in practice Obama has become entangled in the Middle East: in part because of Afghanistan but also because of the Arab uprisings earlier this year. In the last year, Obama has committed significant military resources and political capital both to Afghanistan and also to the Libyan uprising.

Bin Laden’s death now provides Obama with an opportunity to remove troops from Afghanistan sooner than expected, and refocus his resources elsewhere. Perhaps it will also affect his willingness to commit troops to other parts of the region. American popular opinion was against committing troops to Libya, and also appears to be in favour of bringing forces home from Afghanistan.

What does this mean for the United Kingdom? British troops are committed in Afghanistan, indeed, numbers increased there when Obama pushed for a troop surge. The death of Bin Laden may mean the ending of American involvement in Afghanistan, and that would surely mean the end of British involvement there too.

Further, it may also affect British assistance for Arab uprisings: following the Strategic Defence and Security Review, the UK is heavily reliant on the United States. As Libya has shown, we can only lead when the Americans agree to follow, and it is more likely that we ask them to lead instead.

One final thought: with the US presidential election just beginning, we may not have to wait long before President Obama sets out what he intends to do next.