Monday, May 18, 2015

The "nah" factor

Why am I living under another Tory government in my little corner of these Isles that has apparently decided to become a one-party state?  This is no attempt at a comprehensive analysis of the situation but merely to reiterate what I've said before (sort of, in a different way): if Labour is to salvage anything from its crushing electoral defeat, it needs to tune into the 'nah' factor.

Here's what it is: it's when you see someone opening a shop where the people who have launched this enterprise have it filled with the sort of things they like, without giving much thought to what people in the neighbourhood might actually want to buy.  Y'know, like a juice bar in a part of Glasgow that is like Beirut or something.  It may be that the people in this area should buy your product because they really need more vitamin C and fibre in their diet and suchlike - but they don't want it, they're not going to buy it, so your business is fucked.  This is the factor I'm talking about - you look at it and say, "Nah, man - this one ain't gonna fly".

Labour leaders are a bit like this.  In my lifetime, there was Foot and then Kinnock.  Who knows how Smith would have done if he had lived but by the time Blair came along, the Labour party eventually tired of opposition and opted for him.  One gets the impression that large swathes of the party faithful have never quite forgiven him for winning three elections.

The Tory party has made a habit of mistaking their 'grassroots' for the electorate far less often.  They chose IDS and then thought, "Nah, man - this one ain't gonna to fly" and got someone less mental to win elections for them.  This instinct surely forms at least part of the reason why they have been the most successful Western European election-winning machine in the 20th - and now the 21st century?

By picking Ed Miliband, Labour reverted to type, almost as if in an act of penitence for winning three elections in a row.  You just know when the party faithful talk about how decent and clever their guy is, you're totally fucked electorally.  I argued this in 2011 and I'm gonna do it again: the reasons for Labour's electoral defeat are complex and they are, in my view, more serious than the problems the party had in 1983.  Then the path to electability was more straightforward, which was to stop treating General Elections as if they were running for a student union.  There's lots of things that Labour might do or should do but one thing they absolutely have to stop doing as a matter of urgency is treating their party members as if they were in some way representative of the electorate.  Is Andy Burnham too left-wing, right wing, moderniser, old Labour, Northern or whatever?  Stop it, stop it!  He's got the 'nah' factor.  He's a loser and that is that.  If you like being in opposition, he's your man.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Against 'full-fiscal autonomy'

During one of the Scottish 'leaders' debates' Nicola Sturgeon reiterated her party's commitment to 'full-fiscal autonomy' for Scotland, something she hopes to extract from whatever government is formed in Westminster after May's General Election.  The so-called 'black hole' of over £7 billion that Scotland would have to fill either with tax rises and, or spending cuts is not my primary concern, not because it is unimportant but because I think there are two very good reasons to oppose fiscal autonomy even if it was a measure that was fiscally neutral.

1) It is not an economically stable solution to the national question within the UK.  People who are suggesting it - and they are not all nationalists - rather give the impression that the Eurozone crisis never happened.  The fact that the Eurozone has a single monetary policy but not a single fiscal policy is part of the reason why EU countries have found the recession so difficult to cope with.  For a currency union to work, you need cross-border transfers.  Given this is broadly the consensus with regards to Europe it seems very odd to suggest that within the UK we should ignore this and go for fiscal dis-integration.  This is just repeating what I said here but it might be worth elaborating a little.  As pre-referendum Alex Salmond used to like pointing out, Scotland has often ended up with an inappropriate monetary policy because said policy was formed primarily to cool an overheating economy in London and the south.  True enough but within the fiscal union, the effects of this were ameliorated with transfers in the form of welfare benefits that could be paid in Scotland without having to rely on exclusively Scottish tax revenues.  There's no reason that this situation wouldn't happen again but next time it would be without these automatic stabilisers.

2)  It is not a politically stable solution to the national question within the UK.  One wonders if this is a policy that anyone really wants?  The Nationalists may say that they do but I'm not convinced.  One of the defining characteristics of the SNP is their refusal to take responsibility for anything.  Nothing that happens in Scotland is ever their fault, even though they've been in power since 2007.  Local government cuts because the council tax has been frozen for years?  Or because they refused to even think about using Holyrood's tax-varying powers?  Don't be silly.  All ills can be attributed to the fact that we're locked in a constitutional prison with cold-hearted neo-liberals who don't like children or kittens.  The Nationalists, on the other hand, would love to help the children and kittens but they can't because they don't have enough 'powers'.  Why the ones outlined in the Smith Commission aren't enough they haven't bothered to explain.

There is no reason to think this would not continue in the future because whatever powers are given, any short of independence will never ever be enough.  Moreover, the powers that would be left reserved to Westminster would be those that rank pretty high in Nationalist demonology.  For them, particularly evil is defence spending - for lots of reasons but primarily because this involves having nukes.  Now having these is not something I'm too keen on myself but they form but a part of spending which accounts for less than 2% of GDP.  It is around the world average and slightly below that which NATO considers a minimum requirement but the notion persists that the UK devotes an abnormally high share of public spending to defence.  For the Nationalists, there is no limit to the spending that could be devoted to 'bairns', were it not for the fact that we had 'bombs'.

That would leave other aspects of foreign policy and immigration.  Here I think the Nationalists are kidding themselves a bit that we're a nation of Euro-philes who would like to see more immigration but I happen to agree with them about both EU membership and the need for a more relaxed immigration policy. In fact, I'm kind of left wondering what would be the point of remaining part of the UK in a situation like this?  I'm sure that thought has occurred to them as well, which is presumably why they're suggesting this.  I don't believe they are sincere in wanting to pay a subscription to those policy areas of the British state that they disapprove of the most.  They don't want to be part of the British state and they are clearly not reconciled to the fact that a majority of Scots do not share their view.  I don't think fiscal autonomy would work and I don't believe the Nationalists want it to work - as good reasons as any for opposing this daft idea.

Monday, April 06, 2015

An introduction to nationalist realpolitik for dummies

Wife accuses her unfaithful husband of cheating.  If he wasn't a total dawg, he'd be calmer, more reassuring.  "Don't be silly, there's no-one else..."  But what fires his indignation is that on this occasion he really was working late.  "The very idea!  How dare you!"

Nicola Sturgeon's response to the Telegraph story that she expressed a preference for a Tory victory in May's election strikes me as being exactly like that.  I doubt very much that she would have said what she was reported to have said and one of the key reasons for thinking this is the reason she gave just doesn't ring true.  She may have said she doesn't think Miliband is Prime Ministerial material - but as a reason why she wants Cameron to win?  Nah.  For why should she care if Milband isn't Prime Ministerial material?  A Labour PM who isn't up to the job would suit her just fine, although not as much as a Tory PM, whether he's up to the job or not.  Why?  Well, I hate to break it to the likes of Owen Jones and Zoe Williams but because she's a Nationalist and Nationalists are not the least bit interested in forming part of a 'progressive centre-left coalition' that will govern Britain.  Why, if they thought such a thing was possible, they might even give up Nationalism but clearly they haven't, which is why of course the SNP want a Tory victory.  Anyone who thinks otherwise just hasn't been paying attention.  Nationalism needs enemies.

It's depressing to have to spell this out.  The SNP want independence.  To get this they have to undermine support for the Union in Scotland.  Does anyone really think they are more likely to achieve this under a Labour government than a Conservative one?  Get the latter and you get a few more years of being told this is a government we haven't voted for, as if 'we' voted as a homogeneous bloc.  

And for the Conservatives, there's an obvious attraction, which I assume is the reason why the Tories, post 'Leaders' debate, have been anxious to talk up the performance of Nicola Sturgeon at every occasion, as well as being why Cameron didn't confront her properly during the debate itself.  The SNP are for the Conservatives the last hope they have of ever winning a majority in Westminster ever again.  It tends to be forgotten that they haven't won a Parliamentary  majority for over twenty years are are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future - unless Scotland leaves, or get 'Home Rule', which would presumably mean scrapping the Barnett formula, a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs and/or EVEL.  If you're an English Tory, "what's not to like?" is a question I'd imagine fewer and fewer have a convincing answer to.  

This is why we are were we are.  Did Sturgeon say what she was reported to have said?  I personally doubt it but this shouldn't distract from the unspoken Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that now exists between the Scottish Nationalists and some (many, most?) English Conservatives.  I'm not at all confident that the Union can survive this contemporary political class that puts the need for electoral advantage quite so blatantly above country.  It matters to me for reasons I've already elaborated but I also think many others will miss the Union when it's gone.  If it does fall, I think there'll be many other people who realise that "anything's better than this" is one of the most over-used phrases in the English language.  Or any other language, for that matter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Taking offence

The debate about free speech following the Charlie Hebdo murders has followed a now familiar rights vs obligations narrative.  "Yes, of course people have the right to express themselves but is it wise for them to do so?"   I don't find the 'of course' in some people's usage entirely convincing but I've been wondering if the question might be posed in a different way: is it either possible or desirable to have a legal framework that protects people from offence, and specifically from that sense of hurt derived from others desecrating what they hold to be sacred?  The answer is no, for two reasons:

1) Taking offence is a far too subjective experience to be worked into any rational legal system.  Some found Charlie Hebdo's cartoons deeply offensive whereas I have found the fact that some people couldn't even wait for the artists to be buried before they smeared them as racists obscene.  I don't want to do a sermon about this.  Peter Ryley summed up what I think as well as anyone.  France has a long tradition of leftwing politics with a strong anticlerical strand.  It was in this tradition Charlie Hebdo stood.  We just don't have that in Britain - and boy doesn't it show? 

2) A legal fence can't be built to protect what others consider sacred because that enclosure would be so wide as to suffocate free thought.  Do we really need to demonstrate this?  It's not just about cartoons, or, as others have pointed out, any representation of Mohammed but whole fields of intellectual enquiry.  I was glad Nick Cohen mentioned the dearth of form criticism in Koranic studies in his article at the weekend because it's a point that should be made more often.  Form criticism is basically lit crit techniques applied to the Bible, an field of theological study pioneered - like so many - in Germany.  Wikipedia will inform you that this technique is 'in its infancy' when it comes to the field of Koranic studies.  It is in its infancy because it is extremely dangerous, as Professor Nasr Abu Zaid discovered to his cost.

Whipping out the inverted commas to put round free-speech doesn't make closing down fields of intellectual enquiry, whether it be academic research, writing books or drawing cartoons anything other than intolerable.  And neither do the charges of hypocrisy, as if those of us appalled at this atrocity are in some way supportive of the various restrictions imposed by the governments represented at the Paris march.  The obvious solution to the hypocrisy of the uneven application of free expression is to have more of it, not less.  Anyway, what is hypocrisy but the tribute vice feels obliged to pay to virtue?   Perhaps we should fear more if our corrupt rulers didn't even feel the need to do this?

Finally, there's the question of whether seeing the origin of all this in the audacity of free speech does justice to the situation.  As well as the attack on Charlie Hebdo there was the assault on the kosher supermarket.  God preserve us from anyone attempting to discern what offence the victims had caused since it should be plain it was their very existence.  I'm not going to ask the rhetorical question, what does it take for people to realise what they are being confronted with?  The answer is something other than a fascist gang with automatic weapons killing unarmed journalists and Jews, obviously - and that is deeply depressing.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A guide to modern management

Have an issue at work?  Understand that the modern manager is like a guitar-player that only knows a few riffs.  Here's two of the most common:

a) "We hear what you're saying but instead of the issue you raise, let's focus on your failure to observe the approved bureaucratic protocol".  This means in practice that you probably didn't inform the correct people in the hierarchy in the officially-sanctioned order.  This is always and everywhere a more serious matter than the one you originally raised.

b) "We hear what you're saying.  Let's work out why any problems you're having with this are actually all your fault".

Translation: "We have power and you don't - what are you going to do about it?"  This is why trades unions are on balance a jolly good thing.
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