Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Cardinal, abortion and the nationalists

From the Herald:
"Scotland's most senior Roman Catholic has urged the Scottish Executive to put pressure on Westminster to change the laws on abortion. Cardinal Keith O'Brien spoke out after delivering a sermon in which he claimed the existing legislation was founded on "lies and misinformation". He also warned Catholic politicians that they should not take Holy Communion if they support the Abortion Act, which was passed exactly 40 years ago."
For the SNP to blandly point out that abortion is a matter reserved for the Westminster Parliament simply won't do because they don't approve of the situation where certain matters are reserved for Westminster.

I don't remember Salmond making any similarly anodyne responses when the topic of Iraq was discussed during the election. The Scottish parliament does not have control over the military but that didn't stop the SNP selling their platform on the basis of how things would look if they did.

So I think we're entitled to know what they would like the legal situation with regards to abortion to be in an independent Scotland.

It would be even better if they could make it clear that they believe these matters should be decided by elected politicians voting according to their own consciences rather than unelected clerics attempting to impose theirs. But they won't, of course - either because they don't believe this or because they do, but are too feart to say so.

Update: From the Scotsman:
""I have no difficulty with the Catholic Church expressing a view. What I do have a difficulty with is saying if you do not support those views there is a penalty: in this case questioning the right of a politician and practising Catholic to attend Communion - that is taking us into unchartered territory. Abortion is just a side issue in the debate the cardinal has initiated. What is next? Trident? The Iraq war?"

- Jim Devine, MP for Livingston, is Catholic but supports women's right to choose."

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On Jacobins and theocrats: an open email to Christopher Hitchens

Via Will I see Christopher Hitchens is inviting questions relating to the essentially Marxist proposition that the criticism of religion precedes all criticism.

I've got a question: why is your criticism of religion so one-dimensional? I understand the point that you and Richard Dawkins, amongst others, make about religion. For what's it's worth, I share your dismay at the idea that faith is a virtue, that one can in these times insulate your views from criticism simply by saying before them, "This is what I believe".

But it forms part of a critique of membership of the faithful that is - whilst essentially true - too narrow for my liking, too cerebral. Protestants, of a certain disposition, more or less equate salvation with the mental assent (forget conduct) to a certain set of doctrines. This is the tradition we come from - secular unbelieving protestants the lot of us. But with others this is not so. I would say mental assent to doctrinal positions forms but a small part of some people's religion - but my experience would suggest that this would be too generous.

I recall conversations I had with a fifth form class in a Catholic school in Lanarkshire. I thought their religion was, in the protestant fashion, a matter of believing certain doctrines. How wrong I was. The Pope is infallible. He doesn't, as his predecessors didn't, approve of premarital sex, oral sex, anal sex, contraception, or abortion. My students didn't agree. You could go as far to say they didn't, if you'll forgive the profanity, give a fuck what the Pope thought about any of these issues. This they showed by their deeds. Yet they were Catholic - maybe not in a way that would impress their parish priest - but Catholic nonetheless. They still went to mass and took communion in the most - how can one put it? - religious fashion.

This is possible because their religion was a celebration of community, of identity - not of ideology. I'd argue, therefore, that the whole understanding of religion has to be broadened. It's not that I'm not with you. Forced to choose, I'm with the Jacobins rather than those who would couple their claims to cognitive infallibility with political power. But I don't appreciate the choice being imposed on me like this because I think y'all just don't get it. Take the present penchant for the hacking-off of heads. This is not a good thing, sane people agree. But a more rounded explanation has to be found than simply referring to the Koran. Yes it says if you meet your enemy on the battle-field, hack his goddam head off - or something like that. But the overwhelming majority of Muslims, even those who feel they have enemies, have historically managed to avoid the whole hacking off of heads thing.

This has nothing to do with wishy-washy fence-sitting liberalism, which I've been accused of in the past: it has to do with the certainty that the historical evidence suggests there's one or two other variables that you've failed to consider here.

The other problem I have is you could enlist some of the religious to our cause - so what's the point in being so rude to them? It is simply false to suggest that all religion is theocratic in nature. As Max Weber pointed out, there's three ways the religious can cope with the fact that, in their estimation, the world is evil: they can retreat from it monastically; they can engage with it ascetically; or try to take over it theocratically. Given it's only the last of these that is the problem, why bother pissing off the first two? Because with that attitude you're not going to win any converts - you're just preaching to the choir.

I hope none of this will be misunderstood. I'm essentially on your side. But while my control over the English language isn't as good as yours, I'm younger, better looking, and much nicer to people when I'm drunk than you are. You can't do much about the first two but with regards to the last I'm arrogant enough to think you could do worse than take a leaf out of my book.

Blair and Brown snub for the First Minister

I'm no fan of Alex Salmond but it's surely a bad day if you're made to look less gracious than Ian Paisley, as both Blair and Brown have been with their refusal to congratulate him on his election as First Minister:
"BBC Scotland yesterday established that Mr Brown had been quick to congratulate Rhodri Morgan after his appointment as First Minister in Wales last Friday, but had still made no contact with Mr Salmond.

Indeed the Chancellor took questions during a visit to a factory in Dunfermline, but then blanked a follow-up question about how he planned to deal with the Scottish First Minister, abruptly turning his back and getting into his limousine.

Tom McCabe, the former finance minister at Holyrood, defended the Prime Minister's stance, telling the BBC: "I don't think Tony Blair has a great deal of respect for Alex Salmond as First Minister.""
Well, I don't have much regard for Mr Salmond either but if I had the misfortune to be in either Blair or Brown's shoes, I think I could manage to pick up the phone and offer some kind of congratulations. Because this protocol isn't about respecting the winner, it's about respecting the process by which they won. Imperfect certainly - but it still had something to do with democracy, the will of the peepul - that sort of thing.

Is this a taste of what Brown's 'new kind of politics' is going to be like; much the same as the old except grumpier, even more childish, and more than a little contemptuous for the traditions of democracy he claims he wants to invigorate?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gordon Brown's God

As everyone knows, Gordon Brown is a son of the manse - to coin a cliche - his father having been a minister in the Church of Scotland. Johann Hari has been speculating what this means for someone who is an atheist on the left: given that his religion clearly is not like that of the American religious right - obsessed with sex and hard-faced towards the poor - is it a problem that he gets his alleged concern for the poor from his religious background?

Chris Dillow argues persuasively that it is. Amongst his concerns is that egalitarianism, if it is based on religion, becomes an extension of religious duty and the poor end up not being treated as ends in themselves:

"Redistributive policies then become merely a way of the Christian imposing his private beliefs onto others. Other people therefore become tools of his own will, rather than moral agents in their own standing, with beliefs of their own which we should address. This is an odd thing for an egalitarian to do."
I've got a couple of slightly different but related concerns. One is, regardless of where it comes from, Brown's supposed egalitarianism is unlikely to do the poor much good - or so the record thus far would tend to indicate. It is difficult, for example, to see how the words of Isaiah or Jerimiah fit in with his recent budget where he abolished the lowest rate of income tax and made our fiscal regime more regressive than it was already.

And while his religious egalitarianism doesn't appear to have made a huge impact on the gap between rich and poor, the fear is the presbyterian tradition's instrinsic authoritarianism will prove to be more effectual. Perhaps it is this that makes Brown famously unwilling to truck any dissent or disagreement - and was behind his various attempts to modify our behaviour through 'sin taxes' and tax credits.

But another concern of mine has to do with the political atmosphere we live in today. There is nothing that unusual about a Labour politician being a Christian. The Labour movement does, after all, owe a great deal of its character to the influence of Methodism - and in the West of Scotland the Catholic Church has also played a significant role. But religious politicians tended to be much quieter about it, the late John Smith being an exemplar of this tradition.

Not so today. Catherine Bennett suggests that Brown's book teaches us that we're about to have another pious Christian as Prime Minister. I think what it teaches us is that politicians today think their political principles somehow have greater legitimacy with the public if they claim they owe more to the writing of Micah rather than Marx, or some other atheist writer. I sincerely hope they're wrong about this but I'm not sure they are. The political culture in the United States is such that I can't imagine an avowed atheist ever winning a presidential election. We are nowhere near that here, thank goodness. But God forbid, if you'll pardon the expression, we ever arrive at a place where a politician's unbelief comes to be seen as an electoral liability.

Update: A subtle and interesting response from Jamie K here.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Grass thy neighbour

Not Sassure rightly describes the government's proposal that "Council workers, charity staff and doctors will be required to tip off police about anyone whom they believe could commit a violent crime" as "monstrous". The idea that we have some obligation to inform the authorities of our suspicions about what our nieghbours and co-workers have the potential to do is, I hope, obviously ridiculous.

But I'd go further: I find the whole idea that we have a automatic civic duty to grass - even when our neighbours actually do something illegal - creepy, offensive, and the very antithesis of civility.

As with this, I imagine the people who think it's appropriate to lecture us on our duty to grass benefit cheats, or shop someone breaking a hose-pipe ban, are the sort who can't understand that values sometimes collide. Everyone understands that the reason children could denounce their own parents in totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia is that the state could not allow any competing loyalties or affections, and that they had succeeded in brain-washing a significant proportion of the populace that this was right and proper.

But what should also be understood is that the inhumanity of this did not just lie in the fact that the 'crimes' they denounced would not be considered as such in a liberal polity. For there is something profoundly authoritarian about the notion that we always have a duty to inform on our neighbours, even when what they are doing is clearly illegal and immoral. Because to do this would destroy the social basis of trust, without which civil society cannot survive. I've no doubt that when there's a water-shortage, it is wrong to waste it on watering your magnolias. But if I see my neighbour doing this, I'm not going to grass because I have other obligations - to present myself as a potential friend, someone they can trust not to go behind their backs, someone who bears them no ill-will.

More controversially, I would not grass on them if they were selling illegal drugs, contrary to the state's insistence that it is my duty to do so. This is partly because it would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to do so, partly because I know, contrary to government propaganda, that the overwhelming majority of drug-dealers wouldn't dream of selling their product to children. On the other hand, if a drug-dealer was selling drugs to children, I'd feel differently about it and probably would inform the authorities - after considering the other duties I have for my own family and their safety.

I am not advocating omerta, for this is symptomatic of a society where the rule of law is but a faint rumour. But the other extreme is a society where the duty to the state over-rides all other social bonds and obligations. What they both have in common is the idea that loyalties and duties are absolute. A free society rejects both of these absolutist positions. You may feel differently about some of the examples I've used, which is fair enough, but my point is we can work out for ourselves where the balance of our duty lies without being lectured by a government who seem unable to grasp even the most simple and mundane of human dilemmas.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Homeopathy and open-mindedness

A number of doctors and scientists have written an open letter as part of their campaign to persuade the NHS to cease providing non-evidence-based, "alternative" medical treatments, including homeopathy.

Also on CiF there's a response from Peter Fisher, which accuses them of closed-mindedness.

I personally don't need persuading of the doctors' case. As one commentator noted below Fisher's article, some kind of testable hypothesis would be nice, maybe an explanation of how the principle of dilution works, because without these I don't see why anyone should feel obliged to take the advocates of this particular brand of 'alternative' medicine seriously.

But what interested me was the idea that 'open-mindedness' per se is a virtue. For this apparently liberal idea has suffered from a sort of concept-inflation. It's a bit like the way 'discrimination' is used nowadays; it is always and everywhere wrong to discriminate, and it is always appropriate to be 'open-minded'.

Any sort of context seems to have been lost. Looking for a partner? Then you better discriminate against the under-16s. Is the earth flat? We really aren't obliged to be 'open-minded' towards people who think this. Apart from anything else, open-mindedness like this must surely be rather inefficient.

Appropriate closed-mindedness allows doctors not to waste time on the possibilities that the patient before them is ill because they were abducted by aliens the previous evening, or they're possessed by a demon, or have been disabled by a witch-doctor or something. And mechanics can fix cars more quickly if they dismiss the suggestion that engine failure is down to fact that the driver's ying was out of sync with his yang.

And appropriate closed-mindedness allows us to dismiss homeopathy. Peter Fisher defends it on the grounds that it doesn't cost much and it's popular - two considerations irrelevant to the scientist. He also claims 'it works'. Not against cancer, it doesn't.

Gordon Brown for Britain

Is the title of a fairly scary site devoted to the election celebration of Brown's coronation.

It has a section called 'team blog' - except the only member of the team so far appears to be Oona King. You'll need a strong stomach for some of her entries:
"I was on a train with Gordon between Manchester and London when the momentous news that he had been nominated as Leader of the Labour Party came through. This was what we’d been waiting for. "We should celebrate," I said, "how about a drink?" Gordon ordered a bottle of water. He absolutely refuses to take anything for granted. "Well I’ll have a glass of red wine," I said. "I know we shouldn't be complacent, but I can't help being a tiny bit complacent now you're the only candidate."

So why isn't Gordon complacent? It's because he understands the challenge ahead. He knows that by giving him this overwhelming level of support, the Parliamentary Labour Party also gives him an overwhelming responsibility: to deliver progressive politics for a generation to come. This is a hugely important battle to be fought and won. If you believe it is a prize worth fighting for, I urge you – as Gordon urged you on Thursday – to join a renewed Labour Party.

I suppose we could blame Gordon for being in a league of his own, but I’d rather blame him for the demise of the Tory Party..."
Given the effort she's clearly devoted to it, Ms King could justly feel aggrieved if her sycophancy isn't rewarded with some kind of job or at least a parachute into a safe seat. But if she gets anything that has to do with education, I'm worried future generations of children will be reading about how Comrade Brown invented the helicopter and discovered penicillin.

Kaletsky on grammars

From the Times:
"It is true that selection at 11 was wrong, but not because selection was in itself evil. The big mistake was to make almost irreversible judgments about academic potential at the wrong age – 11 was simply too young, especially for boys. It is also true, on the other hand, that comprehensive education in Britain has been a failure. But this is not because we have segregated a small talented minority at the top. It is because we have refused to segregate an even smaller disruptive minority at the bottom."
What to do about this minority, he argues, is the challenge that dare not speak its name in a politically-correct age. Didn't agree with all of the piece but this is an article about education that makes a great deal of sense and is worth reading in full: a rare thing indeed in journo-land.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The war against bullshit

I was going to bring you shocking news that Glasgow City Council may have been on the right side of this conflict. Demos - specialists in the production of stupid ideas - are, as everyone knows, bullshitters par excellence and GCC have reacted rather angrily to their most recent report about Glasgow's regeneration:
"A final report, called The Dreaming City: Glasgow 2020 and the Power of Mass Imagination, contained some difficult language.

It recommended "assemblies of hope", networks of individuals who could get together to help shape the city's future and find space for everyone from "alchemists to imagineers".

A city spokesman said: "This report is nothing less than an insult to the many Glaswegians who gave up their time to take part. Bizarre would be a charitable way to describe some of the report's conclusions.

"What on earth is this meaningless nonsense such as 'assemblies of hope', 'alchemists' or 'mass imaginings'?""
However, I'm afraid on balance councillors can't claim to be on the side of the righteous for the following two reasons:

1) It may be written in some of the most painful sentences yet known to man (read it yourself pdf, if you dare), but under the crud Demos actually have the odd point or two. What they meant was Glasgow's regeneration was over-centralised and statist, which is fair criticism. Although obviously they didn't quite put it like that. Why use one word when you can use ten more obscure ones instead? This is the Demos credo.

2) GCC helped fund it, goddammit! What the hell did they expect? Nothing Demos produce is going to win a prize for plain English, now is it?

I conclude that Glasgow City Council is an unreliable ally in the war against bullshit. Prone to shooting themselves in the foot they are - as well as a fairly long history of batting for the other team.

Keeping the faith schools

Alice Miles in the Times:
"The argument over grammar schools is an argument about fairness, about equal access to education, and nothing could be more important than that. It is a row we do not have nearly as often or as loudly enough.

The grammar schools are the least of the problem. There are 164 of them in the country. Compare that with an astonishing 6,848 faith schools, about a third of all the schools in England. More than 6,000 of these are primary schools, overwhelmingly Church of England or Catholic, with a smattering of Jewish (37), Methodist (26), Muslim (8) and Sikh (2). And these are used ruthlessly by the middle classes as a barely covert form of social and academic selection. This is where the campaign for a fairer education system should be focusing."
Because the situation in Scotland's rather different, I've overlooked an obvious point Alice Miles makes in this piece. The proportion of faith schools far outweighs the number of people in England who are actually religious. This means an astonishingly high proportion of parents who send their children to faith schools are pretending to be religious.

Some things are just beyond my comprehension and this is one of them. Why would people do this to themselves? Attend church faithlessly, have their children baptised: have they no shame?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

David Cameron and grammars: the Tories' clause 4?

Peter Riddell thinks not. For one, he argues, it wasn't a premeditated confrontation with sections of the party that were perceived to represent unelectability in the way Blair's move to scrap clause 4 obviously was.

The other is that this is actually an issue of substance. Grammar schools actually exist - and many Tories would like to see more.

Clause 4, in contrast, was purely symbolic: only a fantasist could believe the party's retention of this arcane document meant a future Labour administration would be committed to the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

He's right about this, I think - as is Steve Richards, who points out that the advocates of grammars in the Tory party far outweigh those in the Labour party who ever seriously believed Clause 4 represented a template for a future government.

Yet it's more like Clause 4 than either of these allow. For while Cameron may not have deliberately chosen this as an issue on which to confront his party, this is what it has become nevertheless. And where the analogy holds is that while it may not be exactly essential, it would be nevertheless beneficial for Cameron to be seen to defeat the section within his own party that is rooted in the past.

The other reason is that while grammar schools do indeed exist, there are after all only 164 of them in the country: the idea that a future Tory government would extend the selection principle such as it operates in Buckinghamshire to the entire country really is a fantasy. Not one quite on the Arthur Scargill scale of delusion - but a fantasy nonetheless.

Goddam workplace notices

God I hate them! I can feel the life-force ebbing from me when I read them - which is every goddam day. I don't have a photo this time but there's one in the place I'm in just now that says:
"You don't stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing".
This is so obviously untrue, it makes me wanna cry. I think you'll find that 'playing', whateverthefuck that entails in this context, will fail to reverse the ageing process.

Furthermore, it's in the staffroom - so senior management can't, on this occasion, be blamed for this particular example of vacuity.

On this theme another one that really gets on my tits is, "You're as young as the woman you feel".

In my case this would be nice because it would make me several years younger than I actually am.

But it isn't - so shut up and stop being silly.

Maybe I'm too literally-minded. Anyway, liked the following example, courtesy of Will:

Health insurance

From the Scotsman:
"Recovering cancer patients face being questioned about their life expectancy or charged up to ten times more than healthy people when they try to buy travel insurance, charities claimed last night.

A new campaign by Macmillan Cancer Support is calling on British insurance companies to give people affected by cancer a better deal on travel insurance."
Mean - but the basic logic of any kind of insurance, surely? The insurance company gambles that on balance, you will use less than the amount you pay in your premium so the greater the risk to the insurer, the higher the cost of the policy. In health this just means those most likely to need it are going to be the least able to pay for it.

Radiation-proof pants

From the Metro:
"Men in Switzerland worried about their testicles getting zapped by mobile phone radiation can now buy radiation-proof boxer shorts.

Clothes manufacturer Andreas Sallmann is producing the heavy-duty underwear at his factory in Amriswil."
This would help if you carry your phone in your pocket. When actually using the phone, presumably you wear these on your head?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Against monism: the language of rights and its limitations

Rights are the language of justice and are, therefore, not only appropriate for political discourse but perhaps its highest form.

However, it's a mistake to believe that rights can form the basis of all morality, that all matters of human conduct can be collapsed into this way of thinking and explained in this way.

Let me give you a couple of examples, and I hope you don't think they're too weird.

1) Bestiality. I never do this and I really hope nobody reading this does. Now the point is, does the language of rights explain to us what is wrong with this? I can't see how. What is wrong with this can't be expressed in terms of animal rights, in terms of the rights others might have against us, or even in terms of our obligations to them. But it's still pretty fucked-up, I hope you'll agree.

I'm not even sure the religious have a satisfactory way of dealing with it. Catholics, for example, proscribe all sex that doesn't have the possibility of procreation. It is, I grant you, consistent. But it doesn't explain why they don't take the same attitude towards heterosexual sex with a condom and bestiality, which I assume they do. Or which I hope they do.

2) Jealousy. Which is, even to this day, spoken of in terms of property rights. The jealous are possessive. And possession is a Bad Thing, being as it is all about property, which with regards human beings isn't good. This analysis is, I think, largely hippy bullshit - but I say this without having to mount any defence of ownership with regards to personal relationships.

Rather it has to do with this: "What is jealousy", said Howard Jacobson, "but the discovery of your own insignificance?" It is possible to feel so captivated by another human being that you feel no desire for another - or at least you wouldn't risk satisfying your desire for another for fear you would lose what you presently have.

If you believe, or fear, the person you're with doesn't share this, then you'll feel jealous. If you've never experienced this, well, pity for you - but understand that jealousy is the dark side of love. Property rights, and the rationality these imply, have very little to do with it. It has, instead, to do with equality; the jealous feel they are in an unequal relationship - one that can be rationally comprehended but nevertheless can't be understood in terms of 'rights' because the aggressive defence of such supposed rights would destroy the very foundation of the relationship.

Which is why I worry from time to time that I'm a conservative. For what sensible thing do liberals or libertarians have to say on these subjects? And what reflex of the economic base makes people want to shag horses? Marxists, as far as I am aware, are silent on the subject.

Update: Norm's so polite:
"[Shuggy's] right, but I think there are more straightforward examples than the ones he chooses."
'Straightforward' as in 'less mental'. Note to self: go to bed earlier; drink less.

Grammars: the assumption of success?

The Tories' decision to abandon grammar schools has provoked a fair amount of comment, mostly from those who believe it to be a betrayal of conservative principles.

I don't have much to add to what I've said already, save a couple of observations:

Why are grammar schools co-opted into a framework that advocates parental choice when, as Oliver Kamm points out, grammar schools represent the opposite? It shouldn't be necessary to point this out, but obviously it is: with academic selection, it is the school that exercises the choice, not the parents.

I suspect the answer lies in the assumption of success - which is to say advocates of grammar schools assume their children would pass the 11-plus. Only inferior children from inferior families would have to send their children to inferior secondary moderns.

This is probably what is behind the 70% that Stephen Pollard claims answered in the affirmative to the question as to whether there should be more grammar schools established. I don't know but I doubt any of them answered with the understanding that their childrens' attendance at these schools was by no means guaranteed.

Like all opinion polls, it depends on how you frame the question. Perhaps they could try asking, "Would you like to see three secondary moderns established in every town?" and if this were coupled with the understanding that their children had a good chance of ending up in one of them - I suspect the results might be a little different.

Update: If this(pdf) is the poll Pollard was referring to, it is 70% of Tory voters that favour grammars, not - as he misleadingly suggested - the public as a whole.

Also from the beeb:
"David Cameron says it is "delusional" to talk about bringing in more grammar schools, as Conservative rebels are doing in calling for a policy U-turn.

He told a Westminster press conference there was a "fantasy element" to the debate, saying they had not built new grammars during 18 years in power."
He could have added that it was Thatcher who closed more grammar schools than Labour ever did. Ignoring the 1922 reactionaries: dunno if Cameron is doing this because he's clever or simply out of instinct but it's the right thing to do and Labour should be worried.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Political rhetoric annoyances #2

Another - new one, I think - is the current fashion for politicians to announce their humility. Gordon Brown declared himself to be 'humbled' at the scale of support he got from Labour MPs when he's spent the last two or three years at the very least grumping around because he has felt deprived of a job that he assumes is his right.

This can only mean he's being taking the support of the PLP for granted. This doesn't strike me as being particularly humble.

Neither does wanting to be Prime Minister, come to that.

Candidates for Deputy Leader are also coming over all humble - like Hilary Benn, for example:
""Let us set out the practical steps we can take together to make Britain a better, fairer country.

"No politician can create this society alone, as real leadership means having the humility to listen as well as the courage to act."
Listening again. He also said:
""Let the debate begin. Let us discuss ideas. Let us talk straightforwardly about the future we want."
Ooh, ooh - can I go? I'd like a future where you lot talk less shite, please.

Political rhetoric annoyances

Politicians are always announcing their intention to build stuff. Not houses or anything as boringly tangible as that; it's usually more abstract things like 'trust', or 'communities', or even, when they're feeling ambitious, 'a new society' or something.

Gordon Brown's the latest to be at it. He's promising to build, or rather re-build, people's trust in democracy:
""To those who feel that the political system doesn't listen and doesn't care, to those who somehow feel powerless and have lost faith ... I will strive to earn your trust," he said."
Now call me an old cynic if you must but could one of the reasons that people 'feel powerless' is because they are really rather powerless - with regards to basic democratic stuff like who governs them, for example?

Brown will take over and will presumably in due course appoint a new Cabinet moulded in his own image. The party will be the same but the priorities and personalities will have altered: a change of government by most people's definition, yet the electorate will not have been consulted.

It's not really about the political system not 'listening' to people or 'caring' about them; it doesn't, under these circumstances, allow them to participate. If Brown wants to 're-build' our trust, perhaps some practical ideas about how the system might be reformed would be better than this sub-Clintonoid crap about 'listening'.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Alex Salmond installed as first minister

From the Scotsman:
"It was a historic day in Scotland yesterday. Again. Some of you may yawn. These historic days are like buses, you may say. Nothing for 300 years, then they all come at once."
Alex Salmond, understanding that he isn't going to be able to get any legislation through by weight of parliamentary majority, went for the 'common weal' line. According to Robert McNeil, Labour MSPs - who generally loathe Salmond with an impressive intensity - responded as you might expect. Salmond, in his acceptance speech, said:
""We are not divided. We have a sense of ourselves, a sense of community and, above all, a sense of the common weal of Scotland." "In some ways," he said, "we are not even a divided parliament".

But on the faces of the Labour ranks, who'd sat stony-faced through the SNP leader's jokes, were written the words: "Oh yes, we are!""
He's got himself, as Jack McConnell said, a tough gig here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pure quality, by the way

Assuming the mars bar this wee guy's got on his coupon is real, here's some self-deprecating humour, Glasgow ned style. Hand-wringing liberal commentators take note.

Not work-safe

Churches, cults and paranoia

I didn't see John Sweeney's documentary about Scientology but my understanding of it is that the disagreement between him and the representatives of the Church of Scientology concerned the definition of what is and isn't a cult.

People usually use the word cult pejoratively to denote an organisation that uses manipulative psychological and social techniques - or 'brainwashing' - to gain and retain converts.

While there is a fair amount of disagreement within the discipline, the sociological definition is more neutral and usually denotes an organisation that is heterodox, highly exclusive and characterised by charismatic leadership.

Anyway you slice it, Scientology is a cult and their extreme hostility to being labelled in this way would tend to indicate that they desire the status of a denomination.

Yet because one of the characteristics of cults and sects is their high degree of tension with the rest of society, they tend to be rather paranoid and the behaviour of the Church of Scientology would indicate that, celebrity endorsements notwithstanding, they are very far from achieving the relative acceptability of denominations.

All this got me to thinking about two related points. Are some British Muslims more susceptible to radicalisation and the belief in outlandish conspiracy theories and so on because the gap between conventional Muslim piety and the membership of radical sects like Hizb ut-Tahrir is not as great as some people, including myself, have tended to assume?

Because there is no question that Islam is, sociologically speaking, an ecclesia; but in Britain, because of our Christian past and secular present, it shares more characteristics with a sect or cult. Among the possibilities this suggests is that the Blair regime's moves to give Islam the status of a denomination may not be as misguided as I had hitherto been accustomed to assuming.

However, there was another related thought prompted an article in the TES: are the religious intrinsically paranoid, even when they are members of denominations or ecclesias? Professor Haldane, for example, is worried about the future of Catholic education in Scotland:
"Catholic teachers must prepare for a battle against powerful forces that would "purge" the public sector of denominational schools, says a world-renowned philosopher.

John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrew’s University, made his dramatic claim at the annual conference of the Catholic Headteachers’ Association of Scotland last week. He said an increasing emphasis on secularism among intellectuals would "trickle" through society over the next 15 years.

"Some of the most powerful forces are really quite hostile to Catholic education," he said.

Professor Haldane argued that there was already a "quite determined effort to purge the public space" of Catholic education, because it was "incompatible with a new ideal of public virtue".

He added: "I am by no means optimistic about the future of Catholic education. One may see the battle of Catholic education becoming very, very messy.""
I suppose you have to be a "world-renowned philosopher" to be that out of touch with reality. Who are these "powerful forces"? The idea that these are represented in anything that appears in the Green Party's manifesto, as Professor Haldane suggests, is laughable - as is the notion that what "intellectuals", secular or otherwise, think about anything has any bearing on how education policy is formed in Scotland.

It's both easy and worthwhile to mock Professor Haldane but the point is, I really don't think his views are at all unrepresentative. Now, given the deeply-entrenched position of the Catholic Church in the Scottish education system, and the pusillanimity of most of our political class, one wonders how it is possible to feel that defensive? Does membership of a salvation religion mean someone can never quite shake the feeling that the rest of the world is out to get you?

I'm not sure. And I may, of course, be completely wrong. Hitherto I had felt quite sure that while a completely secular education system was desirable, priests, mullahs, rabbis and various other experts in the supernatural would continue to have an influence on our education system and the running of our schools. I'd be delighted if this prognosis were to be proved to be false.

Reality trumps dystopian sci-fi (again)

From the Guardian:
"Unborn babies judged to be at most risk of social exclusion and turning to criminality are to be targeted in a controversial new scheme to be promoted by Downing Street today."
A spokeswoman for the Family and Parenting Institute said, "Shut up and give me soma".

Ok, they didn't really.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

An argument for atheism

If Jerry Falwell's going to heaven, not sure I'd feel comfortable there.

Update: Jus' occured to me that younger readers might not know who Falwell was. To put you in the picture, he was a rabid mysogynistic, homophobic, religious bigot who was responsible as anyone for the politicization of the abortion issue in the US.

He also essentially shared the analysis of 9/11 with various other religious fanatics as he blamed America's tolerance of homosexuality or something for the attacks.

Also, like most TV evangelists, his Biblical literalism was conveniently selective, preferrring to believe that God had blessed him and his odious ilk with material blessings like a Hebrew patriarch; ignoring Jesus' injunction to give to the poor. There's a good article in CiF here.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Prohibition arguments

Hitch and Simon Hoggart line up on each side of the argument about smoking bans in today's G2. Hitchens wins easily, not (just) on the strength of his arguments but because Hoggart's are bafflingly bad.

Norm describes Hoggart's line as the 'usual counter-argument', which much of it is. I thought, though, he had something that really goes the extra paternalist mile. He argues, in effect, that not only is it permissible to treat smokers like children but that we secretly want to be treated like children:
"Smoking is not like drinking. Booze has its drawbacks, as a visit to any British town centre on a Friday night will demonstrate. But we drink wine and beer because we like it. People do not like smoking."
No, we do. He doesn't, obviously - but we do. Especially while we're drinking. And then there was this:
"Smokers do not regard the ban as an infringement of their ancient liberties. They think of it as a helpful way to help them help themselves."
It's ingenious at one level, I suppose: it's difficult to argue with someone who believes we really think what he thinks and ignores any evidence that might show many of us do not, in fact, think what he thinks at all.

Like, for example, when we say what we actually think.

Which is that most of us - whatever else we might think about the issue - really, unequivocally, certainly do not think of a smoking ban as a helpful way to help us help ourselves. Patronizing git.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Thought for today

From the Epistle of James:
"Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5) You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6) You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you."
I would like Glasgow City Council to take this on board. Okay, the last line may be a bit strong but you've neglected, for the second month in a row, to pay me my goddam wages on time. I mean, it's a pretty basic thing: I've given up any concept that anyone there, despite their protestations to the contrary, gives a shit about my 'continuing professional development' but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect to be paid. The worker is worthy of his hire, and all that. I find it helps with life's little luxuries - like paying the mortgage, for example. So give me my fucking money or surely the Lord will smite thee.

I doubt they're reading this - maybe I should just phone.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The truimph of the bullshit generation

Bit slow on this piece of lunacy I found via Jamie K.:
"Britain’s most expensive state school is being built without a playground because those running it believe that pupils should be treated like company employees and do not need unstructured play time."
How stupid do you have to be to come away with an idea like this? Pretty damn stupid, I'd have thought. Consider the Headteacher's reasoning, for example:
"We are not intending to have any play time," said Alan McMurdo, the head teacher. "Pupils won’t need to let off steam because they will not be bored."
Surely this must stir some doubt in the minds of even the most ardent enthusiast for the private-public partnership, or whatever it's called, in education? The system is already full of people who have only had children described to them; do we really need to enlist any more from the private sector?

Anyway, there's a couple of delicious examples of the low-grade management-speak that dominates our educational discourse today:
"McMurdo said refreshments, often taken in break periods at other schools, could be drunk during the school day. "[Pupils] will be able to hydrate during the learning experience," he said."
Translation: they can have a drink during lessons.

Or, in response to the fairly obvious criticism that locking a whole load of hormonally-crazed adolescents in an enclosed-space for the whole day without a break is a shit idea:
"Delap, who has run the academy project on behalf of its sponsor, Perkins Engines, and the Deacon school trust, said that playgrounds did not fit into the concept."
Translation: we haven't a fucking clue what we're doing.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blair's legacy

Plenty have speculated about this. Most are fairly predictable - although not necessarily wrong for that.

He will not, at least not by anyone acquainted with the actual record, be remembered as a Prime Minister that made Britain a more equal place.

And if anyone suggests he's made Britain on balance a more liberal place, I'm going to puke up my lunch.

However, there is perhaps something that he'll be remembered for, or should be remembered for, that even for a non-fan like myself is a positive thing: he is a Labour Prime Minister who forced the Conservatives to change. Paul Linford has a remorselessly negative take on the Blair years - and there's much I agree with in his assessment. Point 5, however, isn't quite right:
"Three Labour election victories. The first one a donkey could have won. The third would have been a bigger victory without him."
I doubt a donkey - or a non-donkey like the late John Smith - would have won the crushing landslide Blair did in 1997. And could anyone but Blair pulled off a third election victory under such difficult circumstances?

It is this that has made the Tories change. They have been forced to drop the idea that their backbenchers resemble the electorate: the idea that the latter are as obsessed with Europe as they are; or dislike single-parents and asylum seekers as much as they do; or hate the public sector as much as most of them obviously do.

Actually scrub that: this means the Tories might win next time, so forcing them to change isn't a positive thing at all. Blair - nothing good to say about him. Well, maybe I could but I feel the need to distinguish myself from assessments like this one. Pass the sick bag.

Teachers in 'web bullying' call

From the beeb:
"Scottish teachers have called for action to be taken to stop pupils "cyber bullying" of school staff.

Some websites encourage pupils to submit anonymous "reviews" of their teachers' performance. The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association said the sites often hosted insulting comments that were left in an attempt to humiliate staff."
Hmmm, if you read the rest of the article, some of this clearly isn't good. On the other hand, I reckon some of my colleagues are being a little sensitive and stretching the meaning of bullying somewhat.

If you check out RateMyTeachers.com, I think you'll agree most of it is pretty tame. (Ok, course I've checked; I'm not on it.) Some of the saddos in my last place used to check it weekly and I even heard of one who used to loggin himself and leave positive comments about this own teaching skills.

Sad indeed - the pathetic consequence of a trait that any teacher worth their salt will tell you is a fatal weakness: coming to your work and wanting to be liked. Imagine having such a degrading ambition - and then discovering you've failed to achieve it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Coalition talks

From the Herald:
"Alex Salmond announced last night that the SNP was now working on preparations to go it alone at Holyrood as a minority administration, with limited support from the Greens.

He emerged from coalition talks with the two Green MSPs, Robin Harper and Patrick Harvie, full of praise for the constructive way the meeting had gone.

Negotiations will resume today but any deal is likely to fall short of a full coalition with the Greens, who prefer a looser form of support known as "confidence and supply"."
Some people claim wisdom comes with age. I, on the other hand, refute this from my own experience: the older I get, the less I understand. This, for example. What difference does it make if the SNP and the Greens go into formal coalition or call their arrangement 'confidence and supply' or whatever? Why even waste the energy giving the agreement a name when even the most heavily-welded one could only constitute 49 votes in a Parliament of 129 members? What, in short, is the fucking point? Arithmetic was never my strongest suit but 49's less than half of 129, isn't it? Or am I missing something?



Talks between Alex Salmond and Robin Harper broke down when both of them realised the time spent talking about a coalition were hours of their lives they wouldn't get back.

Ballot confusion: for majoritarianism?

In case anyone was unaware, the quantity of spoilt ballots in the election to the Scottish Parliament was shockingly high. In one or two seats it was higher than the margin the candidates won by and was significant enough to make the turnout look much lower than it actually was. The Scotsman carries a piece that suggests it may have been wee Dougie Alexander's fault:
"Douglas Alexander, the Scottish Secretary, was warned months before the Holyrood election debacle that the design of the voting papers he chose to use was likely to confuse people and cause them to spoil their ballots.

Independent field tests found that using separate ballot papers for the list and constituency votes was "clearer" and easier for electors to understand than the combined paper Mr Alexander chose for last week's poll."
I have to confess, I paused myself when I went into the polling booth - and I've got a cardboard tube somewhere that says I'm supposed to know about this sort of stuff. In particular, putting the constituency candidates and the list candidates on the same piece of paper struck me as being a bit silly; we'd just got used to the notion that Scottish democracy meant one person, two votes - which in turn we associated with two pieces of paper. Politicians and pundits tend to be a bit snobbish about this, but they shouldn't be. 'Ordinary people', if I may use this term, usually - thankfully - have better things to do with their time than work out the details of different systems of proportional representation.

Anyway, all this reminded me of something else the blogosphere is full of, apart from libertarians: it is people who assume the case for PR is unanswerable. While I'm a bit agnostic on the issue, hence the question mark in the title, I really don't think this is the case. I'll refrain from outlining the pros and cons of each system in boring modies teacher fashion and confine myself to what I think are one or two bad arguments for PR.

1) PR increases voter participation.

What evidence is there that this is a significant variable? We are told PR means every vote counts. Not if you live in the West of Scotland it doesn't. Anyway, is there even correlation to support this hypothesis? Turnout has been higher in Westminster elections than in those for the Scottish Parliament and in the French presidential election, which runs on a majoritarian ballot system, turnout was higher than in ours - even if all the spoilt ballots had been counted.

2) PR produces governments that are more representative.

It's true that on average government coalitions on the Continent elected on PR usually represent around 60% of the electorate, whereas no postwar government in Britain has ever won more than 50% of the vote. But hang on a minute. Coalitions can often cobble together a programme that no-one voted for. Like the compromise that Labour and the Liberals came up with over tuition fees in Holyrood. This wasn't a question of parties getting bits of their manifesto through: this compromise, regardless of its other merits, was something that had never been presented to the electorate in any form.

3) PR produces consensus government.

Leaving aside the assumption that this is invariably a good thing, it only does this when parties go down the route of point 2. Ironically, it is the SNP and the Liberals' failure to abandon their manifesto positions that has led to a distinct lack of consensus in the aftermath of the Scottish election. It reflects reasonably well on them, I think. It would be fairly shabby of the Lib Dems to cave in to demands for a referendum now, since hitherto they've never gave any indication that they thought this was a good idea. In the same way, I think many SNP supporters would be rightly disgusted if the party abandoned their commitment to offering the Scottish people a referendum for the sake of forming a stable coalition, after all these years of banging on about it.

Which leaves us where, exactly? I'm no fan of Sarkozy - or of the French political system in general - but damn it all, at least it's clear who's won there.

Against referenda

Chris Dillow, as is so often the case, makes a perfectly reasonable point:
"It's perfectly coherent therefore to support a referendum on independence but oppose independence itself."
Absolutely. And in relation to the situation up here I can see the appeal of this point. All the evidence suggests that the SNP were more popular that the policy that is their reason for being and that what people in Scotland desired was a change in government, rather than the constitution.

Why not, then, hold a referendum to demonstrate to the nationalists once and for all that the majority of Scots, as is repeatedly demonstrated in opinion polls, do not want independence?

The answer is that this is not how referenda are understood by those who advocate them. Would the nationalists accept such a referendum as the final word on the subject?

I doubt it. The historical experience has been that politicians advocate referenda when they think they'll get the answer they want and oppose them when they think they won't.

As often as not, they are held when governments want to by-pass internal divisions in their own parties or even Cabinets, as we've seen in this country with the European issue - or to by-pass the legislature altogether, a common enough feature in democracies that have copied the American model of the separation of powers.

It has a somewhat sinister historical precedent with the experience of Bonapartism - and in more recent years we've witnessed governments holding referenda until they get the result they want.

Is there any reason to think this pattern would be any different in the Scottish case? I don't see why. By the measures we have, we already know that Scots don't want independence. Opinion polls tell us this - and the result of the election failed to produce a majority for pro-independence parties. Yet the nationalists still bang the drum for a referendum - what with them not having got the message they want yet.

Chris Dillow implies that Menzies Campbell's opposition to a referendum is down to the fact that he doesn't trust the people. I can't speak for our Ming but if I were in his position I'd take exactly the same view. Because it is not the people I don't trust; their view is already clear. It is the government - should we actually ever get one in Scotland - that I don't trust. I don't trust them to accept an answer they don't like. I don't trust them to stop asking essentially the same question in a different form. I don't trust them not to use all their resources at their disposal to artificially bolster their side of the argument and I don't trust them not to artificially polarise the debate.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Buckfast



I think you'll be amused by it's presumption. It's the sort of wine that grabs you by the lapels and says, "Accept me as your equal or I'll rearrange your face, ya bastard".

I have to confess I drank a bottle of this last night.

I have a sort of excuse but it's so preposterous, you won't believe it.

Losing gracelessly

Good grief!

Friday, May 04, 2007

Liveblogging the election

Mr Eugenides, along with one or two others, is doing it.

This small contribution, on the other hand, would perhaps be better described as half-dead blogging the election.

Here's how it looks to me so far:

Alex Salmond looks smug.

Perhaps he shouldn't because while there has, from what we can gather, a swing to the SNP - early indications are that it might not be as large as the polls predicted. About 65 in the seats counted so far. Is that enough for them to win? Dunno.

Jack McConnell, who's just retained his Motherwell and Wishaw seat, looks uncomfortable and tired - as if exhausted from having to put on one of those politician's rictus-like grins on all day.

Douglas Alexander looks like his sister.

Tommy Sheridan looks orange.

His prediction of the evening was that the [hard] left vote would be split between the SSP and Solidarity.

No shit, Nostradamus.

Actually, there may be signs that the former SSP vote is going to the SNP.

Pauline McNeil, despite holding Glasgow Kelvin for Labour, looks pissed the fuck off. She should lighten up, in my view.

The turnout so far looks pretty dismal - although this might be down to the high number of spoilt ballot papers.

The Greens look like doing well.

Henry McLeish is on the telly and he just looks exactly the same. What's with that hair?

Charlie Kennedy's on the telly. It may be my imagination but he looks a bit pissed.

Not that there's anything wrong with that; I'm a bit inebriated myself.

Looks like there's been a lot of spoilt ballot papers - nearly a ten-fold increase on last time - probably down to the fact that someone had the bright idea of running two different forms of PR at the same time, and for the same time.

Annabel Goldie, the leader of the Scottish Tories, looks cheerful and optimistic. For no good reason, as far as I can tell.

Bill Butler's held my own constituency, Glasgow Anniesland, for Labour. The swing to SNP is 4.4%. It's too early to say and I'm not good enough with the arithmetic but I'm not sure the nationalists have done enough. Has Salmond done a Kinnock? It'll need to wait 'til ra morra.

Update: Fuck! No he hasn't. Fish-boy's going to be First Minister.

I'll close with this from the comments:
the people get the government they deserve, but I don't remember kicking that many puppies.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Teaching happiness

From the Torygraph:
"All schoolchildren should have "happiness" lessons up to the age of 18 to combat growing levels of depression, according to a senior Government adviser.

Pupils should study subjects such as how to manage feelings, attitudes to work and money, channelling negative emotions and even how to take a critical view of the media, said Lord Richard Layard, a Labour peer and professor of economics at the London School of Economics."
I suppose you have to be a professor at the LSE to come up with such a perfectly stupid idea. Can you think of anything more anti-educational, completely pointless and illiberal as compulsory lessons on how to be happy?

You won't catch me taking any goddam 'happiness classes'. If they're doing grumpy classes, on the other hand, I think I'd be prepared to give those a whirl. Now say after me class, "What the fuck are you doing to yourself?"

Via: Martin

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

People losing their damn minds #20

George Galloway - again:
Galloway: "Anybody who believes there's a day of judgement; anybody believes that they must face their Maker one day to account for what they did and didn't do - and I'm one of those believers - I say to you this: there's no-one (who) can face their Maker and explain satisfactorily what they were doing when all this crime was being committed (if?) they were going to the ballot box and putting an X beside the name of New Labour...."
Don't take my word for it - see it below:



Now - while a number would issue the damn mind losing certificate to anyone who believes in a Final Reckoning, or who generally invokes God in a political context, this isn't my take. Rather it is the very idea that Mr George Galloway is in someway party to this judgment - that he knows the mind of God - that strikes me as being rather offensive. Indeed, if I were of a religious disposition, I think I'd find something vaguely blasphemous about this vainglorious tirade.

As it is, I just think he's went done gone lost his goddam mind.

Against the assumption of nationalism

I'm repeating myself somewhat here, so I've put this over here.

Holyrood election is moderately interesting shock

Because apart from anything else a new Scotsman/ICM poll has it too close to call.

See here for more details.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

For Unionism

Liked this one from Aaro - selling the Union like it should be sold.

Not prophesying catastrophe - merely expressing an affection for what is familiar.

He writes:
"I want [to] express two things: first how much I love Scotland and second how much I think the UK would be the poorer for its loss.

It is love, no matter how embarrassing it is to me to use the word."
Such a gorgeous piece. While I can't speak for my compatriots, I think I'll overlook all the pro-Blair pieces he's written and love him right back.

Don't want to shag him or anything, but still...

The end of the long goodbye

At last. Blair fans won't be happy but we can surely agree on this: like most dramas, the Tony and Gordon show has gone on well-past its sell-by date.

Three unconnected thoughts:

1) Do I want a directly elected president? I would have always been inclined to say no, yet on reading news of Gordon Brown's forthcoming coronation I instinctively felt the whole thing is decidedly undemocratic. Yet it is Parliament elects the Prime Minister and if the Labour party can't bring themselves to have a proper election, there's not a lot you can do about it. And expecting the internal workings of the Labour party - even if they'd decided to have a proper election - to act as a proxy for a proper election requires a stretch of the imagination, to say no more than that. I've always preferred parliamentary systems to presidential ones - but this sucks.

2) I'm not happy about the way Blair announced Brown's Scottishness as a selling-point:
"He made his prediction while campaigning in Scotland on the 10th anniversary of being elected to power.
[...]
He told party workers: "In all probability a Scot will become prime minister of the United Kingdom, someone who has built our economy into one of the strongest in the world, and who, as I have said many times before, would make a great prime minister for Britain.""
So what? This should keep us happy? We've had a Cabinet stuffed with Scots and we've had a Scottish Parliament with a Scottish Executive led by a Scottish First Minister who keeps going on about how Scotland is the best small country in the world. It isn't a shortage of Scots in power that is the problem; people are fed up with Labour - and while I think it would be a mistake to express this on Thursday by voting for any of the nationalist parties, it's not difficult to understand. And the economy thing. Chancellors don't 'build' economies!

3) Blair's legacy ten years on? Here the Guardianistas have had a go. Amongst the many problems I have with NuLabour is with the verbs.

Or the lack of them.

New Labour.

Forward - not back.

New - not old.

New, good.

Old, bad.

More bullshit.

Fewer verbs.

I miss the verbs.

Any politician that campaigns on a platform of more verbs and less bullshit has my vote, is all I'm saying.
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