Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sex, lies and perjury: the strange case of Tommy Sheridan

There are obvious differences between Vince Cable and Tommy Sheridan and the state they've got themselves into - the most obvious being that Cable at least had the sense to lie in an election campaign rather than under oath in a court of law. But they also have two similarities: both cases raise serious questions about the conduct of our media - and both cases leave me shaking my head in wonder, asking how it is possible for supposedly intelligent men to be that stupid?

It's difficult to identify the exact point of Tommy's downfall, but I don't think anyone would put it after the moment he arranged a liaison with a tabloid journalist in circumstances that have become excruciatingly familiar, apparently working on the assumption that he could count on her discretion!

Some people have suggested that the story breaking provided an opportunity for Sheridan to declare himself unbound by the constraints of bourgeois morality. This was never a very realistic strategy for a politician who was hitherto happy to portray himself as a paragon of this very morality when the tabloids - non-Murdoch ones, of course - required it from him. He would have been better advised to ignore it altogether. Instead he decided to sue for defamation. That he did so knowing that the allegations were in substance true is a foolishness that has been widely noted. That he did so in the knowledge that his comrades in the SSP did not see perjuring themselves as part of their revolutionary shift is indicative of a recklessness that can only be borne of sheer hubris.

Ego worked for the SSP as there can be no doubt that it reached the level of electoral success that it did largely out of the sheer force of Tommy's personality. But now only the deluded deny that his ego made a significant contribution to its nemesis. Pride cometh before this... There remains only to ask the inevitable question of what all this means for the broader left?

I don't know but I'm not sure that any lessons one might draw are particularly encouraging. One aspect of this case that has stood out is the marginal propensity of the far left to believe conspiracies as a default position. People lie in court all the time - why Sheridan? Dark forces at work, clearly...

But why not Sheridan? Most people don't get £200k as a consequence of their perjuring themselves. But I'm wondering if there isn't a more unpalatable truth that people find difficult to accept. Don't be paranoid: they might be out to get you, if it wasn't for the fact that you're just not that important. Well, not as a politician anyway. Celebrity is a different matter...

One keeps reading that the SSP at their high watermark of 6 MSPs made them the most successful hard left party in Europe. Apart from the fact that it's not exactly a strong field in which to compete, what did this actually mean in reality? About 5% of the seats in a provincial Parliament with no tax-raising powers. And Sheridan himself, despite standing in Pollok where he was raised, only gained his seat on the list vote. While I wouldn't rule out a conspiracy, or some kind of vendetta, one is inclined to assume that conspirators behave rationally and doing this raises the question: what would the conspirators hope to gain? Nothing much, as far as I can see. Maybe if people could dispense with the egoism that is an often unremarked but nevertheless essential ingredient in the conspiracy theory of society, they would be better placed to answer the question of why it is that the message of the SSP did so poorly at the ballot box, the rhetorical gifts of their leader not withstanding?

I've also been wondering if there is a wider message for Scotland. Gerry Hassan certainly thinks so:
"But Scotland made Tommy Sheridan. He springs from our political and public culture. He was only possible because of it and ultimately because of us. We the people of Scotland made Tommy Sheridan possible; we gave him power, potency and status.

And because of this today, as Tommy Sheridan faces the prospect of a life behind bars, while he seems incapable of self-reflection and self-knowledge, we should not go down the same route. We should instead pause and reflect on our own inadequacies and the flawed tribunes and demagogues who we choose to believe in."
I'm inclined to say, speak for yourself - especially given the evidence in the previous paragraph. Still, there's something in what he says. There is something quintessentially West of Scotland man about Sheridan - the machismo, the swagger, the uncompromising rhetoric, the sentimentality. People saw something they recognised. Beyond that, there was an apparent contradiction that Hassan also notes: although ostensibly radical, there was something strangely comforting about Sheridan's rhetoric. He gave them the old-time religion and people felt an affection for what is familiar.

While some insist his Olympian credentials are more or less intact, for many Sheridan has gone from hero to zero. Others who perhaps never held either opinion regret that our public life will be duller without him. While agreeing with this last point, I'm wondering what it is about us that needs to be entertained by our public life and whether this isn't part of the problem? What is certainly part of our problem is this need for heroes - although whether it can be dispensed with, I couldn't say.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weather and climate

George Monbiot in Jan 2010: Weather is not climate. "Is this really so hard to understand?"

George Monbiot in Dec 2010: Weather is climate. "The snow outside? That's what global warming looks like."

Knowing nothing about this subject myself, I'm quite prepared to go with the scientific wisdom of crowds. But the case needs a better spokesman than Monbiot, what with him being something of an asshole.

If you disagree with this, you are an asshole-denialist and almost certainly a Nazi.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

WikiLeaks and one from the archives

Like Paul I find myself changing my mind about all this. They are exactly the sort of documents that are of immense interest to the historian when the usual 30 year secrecy period has elapsed and some of the present ones being leaked out reminded me of the 2004 British government papers that revealed Nixon and Kissinger considered invading Saudi Arabia after the OPEC price hikes, which followed the Yom Kippur War.

Since they clearly thought better of it, I wondered what good would it have done for this to be known at the time? But as I was clicking around looking for links, I discovered that the Sunday Times had run with the story as early as 1975. This I did not know. I wouldn't know how much attention was given to the story at the time either, what with only being 9-years-old.

But perhaps with WikiLeaks we can say there is nothing new under the sun - it's just the sheer scale of the document dump that makes it different from previous leaks? Dunno - would be interested in your thoughts...

Friday, December 17, 2010

How 'stupid' is the 'war on drugs'?

I see Ed Miliband has 'rebuked' Bob Ainsworth for suggesting that the liberalisation of drugs should be considered as an alternative to the 'disastrous' policy of prohibition.

I'm more inclined to agree with Mr Ainsworth than his critics but I'm not comfortable with the way in which people who take my view seem to suggest that the argument for liberalisation is unarguable and that to insist on the continuation of prohibition is merely stupid.

The language of the 'war on drugs' was certainly a fairly silly semantic trap to fall into - involving as it does the declaration of hostilities on inanimate objects, and then being seen to lose.

But laying so much weight on unfortunate rhetoric is hardly taking on the policy of prohibition at its strongest point and it involves itself the formulation of arguments that are themselves rather weak. Amongst these I would include the following:

1) That the 'war on drugs' demonstrably 'hasn't worked'. No, obviously - but I think people are taking their cue from the rhetoric that they have already dismissed as nonsensical. It wouldn't make anymore sense to say that the 'wars' against rape and murder have been lost and should therefore be abandoned either. They wouldn't say this because they are making an implicit distinction of harm to self and harm to others. The argument against prohibition should rest on a more explicit formulation of this point.

2) The argument that prohibition empowers criminal gangs as they flourish as suppliers of a product that people want but are unable to obtain through legal means. I don't really disagree with this - I just think people should be a little more circumspect. Criminal gangs are also heavily involved in enterprises that are perfectly legal, such as nightclubs and private car hire firms, as well as illegally supplying legal products such as tobacco. Also, if a move away from prohibition is to be 'evidence-based' there should be some kind of assessment of how the harm caused by criminal gangs supplying drugs compares to the potential harm that might arise from new crimes. There is, after all, a colossal crime problem associated with the legal drug of alcohol. Do gangsters cause more misery than these?

3) The argument that prohibition doesn't limit supply. Here you often get bloggers and journalists waving their street-wise credentials. Drugs are easily available to them and people they associate with and since they obviously move in a very narrow circle, they universalise the experience. "Is there anyone who doesn't know where to get drugs?" Well, I think my mother, even if she were so inclined, would find it a bit tricky. But the point is, even when people don't, it is not just the lack of availability that limits demand. There is the (admittedly small) chance of detection, which people might not want to risk - and there's constraints imposed by the relative inconvenience of acquiring the product and the inability to guarantee the quality of the product, which deters potential customers.

The 'war on drugs' obviously 'doesn't work' according to its own definition but it doesn't follow from this that it doens't work in some other more realistic sense. Better to argue more straightforwardly that it isn't justified from a liberal point of view. The utilitarian case can be made also but I don't understand why people make it with such certainty, which brings me to the weakest point in the pro-liberalisation argument:

4) The argument for complete legalisation makes an assumption about a future that cannot be known from the pre-Misuse of Drugs Act days and is therefore by definition not 'evidence-based'. This is why liberalisation, were it to be attempted, should be done - and argued for - more carefully.

This is not to say I find the arguments for prohibition any more convincing than I did. They certainly aren't in the hands of James Brokenshire, the crime prevention minister:
"Legalisation fails to address the reasons people misuse drugs in the first place or the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community."
When looking for a 'cure' for behaviour they disapprove of, people often over-rate the importance of finding the motive. Even if you do discover them, they can often disappoint. I think it was Irvine Welsh who said, "People take drugs because they like them. Everything else is sociological window-dressing."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Other people's stuff

Time is pressing so just a wee pointer to a couple of excellent posts, in case you missed them.

There was a time when opposition to the inflated salaries of CEOs was anger at what it represented. You could take it off them and redistribute but you might end up with only enough to buy all the workers in the company a couple of pints. Emotionally satisfying but essentially symbolic.

With the bankers and their bonuses this is no longer the case. That they have fiscal implications is one of the points made here:
"The government currently under-writes one industry, which is about to pay £7bn in bonuses to individuals. Meanwhile, it is withdrawing less than half that sum from another 'industry' (on which our 'competitiveness' is, by the government's own estimation, no less important), and is prepared to endure the worst civil disorder in 60 years to do this. It's hard not to conclude that political excess, ultimately manifest in violence, is now a normal part of our governing logic, and not an exception."
The 'other industry' is of course higher education. The merits or otherwise of increasing fees is, I'm afraid to say, something I haven't paid a great deal of attention to but it increasingly looks to me like another example of how successfully this government has shifted, as Samuel Brittan put it in June this year, the debate from 'whether' to 'how'. The problem isn't an £850bn bailout that nationalises risk but privatizes profit, it's people cheating on social security; it's students expecting everyone else to pay for their education? Hang on. There may be debates to be had on any of these sort of issues but a little fiscal context is surely called for?

One implication of this that I really need to return to is that the issue of student fees has shown the devolutionary settlement in Scotland to be unsustainable. Having a lump of money and just moving it around - taking the credit when the Treasury is feeling flush and then blaming London when it isn't - is not a recipe for political accountability. The fees issue will bring this into sharp focus because Barnett means a corresponding reduction in funding for Scottish education. It is an overstatement to describe the present devolution settlement a dead-duck? Hmmmm...

On the issue of the student protests, you could do worse than have a look at Paul Sagar's space. The latest is here. Read it and tell me it doesn't feel like someone's opened a window in a really fusty room. That young man will go far, I tell you...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Winter miscellany

Sorry for dearth of posts. Been suffering from a) seasonal bout of crippling self-doubt, b) inhumanly cold fucking weather.

Schools were closed for children for three days but teachers were instructed to attend our nearest school. We were informed that failure to do otherwise would result in our pay being docked. Being unable to absorb any further loss of income, I attended our local primary school. The one with no children in it.

Mentally filed under: what's the fucking point?

Anyway... There's been a run on petrol stations here because people are worried that they'll run out of petrol. Then they do. Who would've have thunk? Honestly!

I have no sympathy for the SNP but I'm an old man and I have never, ever, seen such a large amount of snow fall out of the sky so fast at this time of year - yet there's people who are convinced that this is somehow someone's fault and heads must roll? They might want to consider the possibility that something completely out of the ordinary that is difficult to cope with might just happen to them, if and when they come to power...

WikiLeaks: Don't quite know what to make of this, to be honest. The issue has been overshadowed by the arrest and incarceration of Assange. On this, there's been a rather depressing cyber-spat that I won't link to between feminists who, despite protestations to the contrary, seem to take the traditional view that all men are potential rapists against fans of the conspiracy theory of history. Given that both of these take default positions that are essentially impervious to evidence, the 'debate' has been as unedifying as one might expect.

Refreshingly, Johann Hari suggests a combination that all reasonable people should at least be prepared to accept is logically possible; just because you think WikiLeaks is a good thing, it does not follow that Assange is personally innocent of what he's been accused of. Johann does think the latest WikiLeaks revelations are a good thing on the grounds that they make us safer. How he can possibly know this isn't something he explains - although maybe I'm missing something.

I really don't know what to make of them. They're the sort of things that a historian is very interested in when the usual statute of limitations on secrecy runs out so it seems churlish of me to turn my nose up at them now just because they're an early release, as it were. But I'm not sure. Everyone keeps going on about how they expose 'hypocrisy' - that politicians and diplomats say one thing in public and another in private.

But normal social intercourse, never mind diplomacy, requires this kind of 'hypocrisy' to function. There's a trade-off here: yes, information exposed allows governments to be held accountable - but on the other hand, the fact of the matter is that liberty also requires a little privacy because people need to be able to reveal themselves selectively - and I'm by no means convinced that this shouldn't apply to state officials as well as private citizens. Or to put it another way, one outcome of this might be that representatives of states will be less frank in their private dealings as well as in public. I don't know what the implications of this might be but at this stage I'd just want to record my scepticism that this is necessarily a positive development. It is surely at least possible that more freedom of information now may very well mean less in the future?

Student tuition fees: Another thing I should have strong opinions about, I dare say - but I don't. I am interested in the political implications for the Lib Dems, though - given the way they nailed their 'no tuition fees' to the electoral mast to gain support prior to the election. Over a third of Lib Dem MPs rebelled. I've seen it suggested that such a tight vote early on is indicative of a fractured coalition that is unlikely to last the five years. I'm not so sure. This was the divisive issue, yet the government won the day. If a majority of the Liberal Democrats can accommodate such a screeching U-turn as this, what further humiliation could they not endure?

I'm thinking it depends on how masochistic they actually are? All the available evidence suggests they are very masochistic - but it might not last if they get nothing in return. Certainly the electorate is unlikely to reward them, with successive opinion polls showing they, rather than the Tories, are taking the hit for all this austerity. Why this is shouldn't be a mystery. Historically people have voted Tory, not because they think they are nice people who support communities and cherish the NHS. They think, know, that the Tories are pretty much bastards but that they're bastards who at least know to run the economy. Liberal voters, on the other hand, didn't sign up for this - thinking as they did that the Lib Dems were really rather cuddly. How much shit they're going to take is an open question - as is how much shit the Liberals themselves are willing to endure. Time will tell. Meanwhile, here's one from the archives...

Significantly more embarrassing than the Who singing, "I hope I die before I get old", I reckon...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Show support for the striking workers

Whenever there's a strike, leftist bloggers adopt the default position and recommend that people support it. There has, in fact, never been a strike where a leftist blogger has said, "Hang on - maybe this isn't such a good idea".

Yet when an abused and unfairly maligned group of workers - that would be Scottish referrees - decide to go down tools, what do we get? Nothing, nadda, not a peep.

This despite the intolerable position they find themselves in. As if spoilt-brat, greetin' faced millionaire footballers diving all over the place and arguing the toss wasn't enough to endure - now the clubs, especially the bottomless sense of grievance that is Glasgow Celtic, have pitched in. This on top of fuckwit fans harassing refs in public and hassling them in their places of business.

Football needs rules and it needs someone to administer them on the field. If you disagree with this, you sup with the devil - who most recently has taken the form of The Lord Reid of Cardowan.

Up the workers!

Update: From the Guardian...
"[Y]esterday evening the Portuguese referees who had flown in performed a dramatic U-turn at Glasgow airport almost as soon as they landed, apparently not having been briefed on why they were required in Scotland. And it emerged last night that Israeli officials might also head home. The officials from Portugal headed straight for departures almost instantly on arriving at Glasgow airport..."

Shit meets fan.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Michael Gove and the concept of the 'failing school'

Hitherto to 'failing school' could be recognised as the one where less than 30% of pupils gain five GCSEs at A* to C. Now in a great leap forward it's going to be 35%. Those at 34.99% face regime change.

Good luck with that - but I have always wondered where this notion of the 'failing school' comes from and why so much importance is attached to it? The state of 'failing' is by definition transitory and applies only to a few schools. The way that people keep repeating this phrase is just another example of a public discourse that contains very little I recognise.

Here's a new category for those who want to acquaint themselves with reality. This is the failed school. Failed so long ago that when it was anything other is but a folk memory. Here 'management' is essentially an exercise in pretending that this hasn't happened. There's not that many of them, in my experience, but they're scary places for a number of reasons but chief amongst these is that there is very little space to breathe for those who decline to accept that tractor production is up.

With schools it breaks down like this:

1) Excellent

2) Very/pretty good

3) Ok

4) Institutionalised surrender

Between 3 and 4, for a short period in time, is the 'failing school'. Focus on them if you want but I've yet to hear or read anything in the general conversation about education that even acknowledges the existence of 4, never mind have any practical suggestions as to what to do about them.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Ireland and the case for Scottish independence

One wonders whether in the future small and medium-sized countries will begin to worry when commentators start using their economies as case-studies: whom the gods of economic history wish to destroy, first they make them examples from which wider lessons should be drawn?

Everyone remembers that this was the case with Ireland and its apparent economic miracle. For free-marketeers, Ireland showed the virtues of providing a business-friendly environment with its competitive cuts in corporation tax. Young George Osborne, for example, saw it as nothing less than a "shining example of the art of the possible in long-term policy-making".

He was less keen on the lesson drawn by European enthusiasts. For them, Irish growth rates had made the case for membership of the single-currency unanswerable.

The present travails have led people to draw rather different conclusions. It has become the misfortune of Ireland to now serve as a warning. For some it has vindicated the argument that European monetary union, in the absence of fiscal union, is incapable of absorbing 'asymmetric shocks' in the Eurozone countries. For Keynesians the current meltdown shows the folly of fiscal retrenchment in times of recession.

One can agree with both of these up to a point, although with the latter I wonder what Keynesian solution is open to Ireland with its debt reaching the prices it now has on the markets? A more important qualification is that these are both policy variables that have exacerbated, rather than caused, Ireland's present economic woes.

But if you'll forgive me for being parochial, the purpose of this post is to wonder what conclusions the Scottish nationalists are now drawing from all this? While Alex Salmond in particular would frequently use a variety of small European countries as exemplars, it is practically impossible to exaggerate the extent to which he linked the political aspirations of the Scottish nationalists to the economics of the 'Celtic Tiger'. For example, in his 2008 lecture, "Shaping Scotland's Future", no-one in the Dublin audience could have been left with any doubt over the future shape that Alex Salmond thought Scotland should take:
"Scotland looks out to an Arc of Prosperity around us. Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Denmark. All small independent nations. All stable, secure and prosperous.

Of all these nations, no example is more impressive and inspiring than Ireland. And none is more relevant to the decisions that Scotland faces today."
It is important to point out that Salmond and the SNP have consistently argued that not only would an independent Scotland be economically prosperous, it would be so because it was independent. Given that this is the case, it is entirely unsurprising that he should have taken particular interest in the Irish model. First politically independent from Britain, then economically through membership of the EU and later the Euro, for Salmond Ireland's growth rates served as an example of what was possible if the dead-weight of the British state could be removed from Scotland's shoulders.

The identification with the Irish model was practically absolute. Membership of the Euro was to form part of the 'Independence in Europe' policy - and even post-credit crunch he was inexplicably arguing that membership might prevent one in the future.

Scotland should also adopt the Irish policy of competitive cuts in corporation tax to attract inward investment, pointing out that the excruciating 'Braveheart' was partly filmed in Ireland. I think we were to take it that this was a bad thing.

Most crucially, as far as I am concerned, the former economist for the RBS was as uncritical as anyone else of the 'light hand on the tiller' approach to banking regulation and at no point gave the slightest indication that he was concerned about the weight of the financial sector in the Scottish economy:
"And of course we Scots are lucky enough to have the one of the best brands in the world - a global recognition and affection for our culture that money cannot buy.

Take financial services. With RBS and HBOS - two of the world's biggest banks - Scotland has global leaders today, tomorrow and for the long-term."
That Salmond and the SNP should have been a little more careful with their choice of comparators goes without saying. The Herald's Ian Bell was prescient enough to point this out over two years ago:
"[I]f a property market failure - with 270,000 construction jobs at stake - leads to negative equity and mass unemployment during a global recession, the Irish beast may seem a little less glamorous. Close study need not imply unthinking imitation, in any case, and nor should it, on the evidence. Yet you would not guess as much when Mr Salmond connects independence with the "arc of prosperity" across northern Europe, and when he holds up Ireland as an exemplar. Best stick to Norway, for now."
Salmond has belatedly followed this advice with Norway now serving the exemplar function. It is a clumsy shift in emphasis that only the amnesiac would find convincing. But I'm wondering what the political consequences of this will be for the SNP? It's too early to say but they might not be as profound as they could be or, as some of us would argue, should be.

Apart from the weakness of the Scottish opposition, there are two reasons for this:

1) From the outset of the banking crisis, I have been astonished at the impressive ability some people have to pretend that absolutely nothing that could even dent their world-view has happened at all. In public at least Salmond gives the impression of belonging to this group - although whether this is so privately, I couldn't say.

2) When economic disasters on this scale hit, they tend to shatter a consensus view that has been more widely-shared than some people care to remember. What has happened to Ireland is a species of the more general meltdown in the world banking system, affecting countries large and small, some who are part of the Eurozone and some who are not. Not even all of the opposition parties in Scotland can claim distinct policies on the Euro and Scottish independence and even those who did cannot claim to have many Jeremiahs in their ranks.

Nevertheless, nationalists have some difficult questions to answer. The experience of banks being 'too big to fail' is one that has not been unique to Ireland but the reality is that smaller nations are by definition more likely to experience this, as well as being less able to cope with it. Salmond is right to suggest that we have seen two of the biggest threats to the independence of small nations - territorial acquisition by larger states and lack of access to markets - effectively removed over the last twenty years or so but in his assumption that globalisation was an entirely benign development for small countries he failed to take account of this one.

I would imagine it is dawning on the more thoughtful supporters of Scottish independence already: while it is obviously possible for small countries to have both, prosperity is not the same thing as sovereignty, the latter does not guarantee the former and, most importantly, if we had followed the trajectory drawn by Alex Salmond and the SNP, it seems highly probable that Scotland today would have neither.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Political Innovation

I attended this event on Saturday in the freezing town of my birth. Lovely to meet for the first time bloggers whose writing I was familiar with - gentlemen such as David Farrer from Freedom and Whisky, Martin Kelly, Duncan Stephen aka Doctor Vee, and our gracious host, the Slugger himself - as well as one or two who had previously been unknown to me, from Better Nation, Bright Green, and journalist slash blogger, Joan MacAlpine.

I left this event feeling like I usually do on occasions like this; slightly exhausted by the effort it takes to avoid making a complete tit of myself. Self-assessment is pointless so I won't speculate as to whether I achieved even this rather lowly goal. A couple of impressions: the event was dominated by nationalists - and everyone seemed to agree that the nationalist line isn't given an airing in the MSM.

I would agree with this, but only up to a point. It is true that the case for outright independence isn't taken seriously in the Scottish press - but it does not follow that the position being taken here is 'deeply unionist', as our friends over at Bright Green would have us believe. Rather, the Scottish media has been pedaling nationalism with a small 'n' for as long as I can remember - along with the Scottish Labour party, when it thought it suited their interests - which is, I would argue, one of the reasons why we are where we are politically in Scotland today.

Furthermore, while it is indeed true that the case for full independence isn't given a fair hearing in the Scottish press, nationalists should be at least partly grateful that this so because otherwise people might be able to examine the wreckage that is the SNP's economic argument for independence.

Uncritical support for the preponderance of the financial sector in the Scottish economy, along with advocating membership of the Euro and the adoption of beggar-thy-neighbour cuts in corporation tax: Salmond billed this as a distinctively Scottish policy and it is only because the Scottish press are completely uninterested in the economics of independence that he has, astonishingly, got away with promoting the very policies that have brought Ireland to its knees.

I'd be interested to have a conversation with any nationalist who has a reasonable answer to these points - which brings me to another point that stood out for me at Saturday's event: how to avoid bloggers simply having conversations with people who agree with them? All the evidence would suggest that comments threads are not the forum on which to have rational discussion. Could I suggest that a possible solution would be an aggregated blog that is based on region, rather than ideology, might be the way forward? This is how newsprint journalism - in contrast to the more ideological stratification of papers in England - has traditionally been done up here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Arithmetic and unemployment

Clearly neither irony nor self-examination is Melanie Phillips' strong point as she has accused the left of 'foaming with rage' - adding that this has clouded our use of basic arithmetic when it comes to the problem of unemployment and the coalition's suggested medicine of workfare:
"[T]hey don’t even realise that their own claims don’t add up.


The fact is that much worklessness results from people calculating they are better off on benefits than in low-paid jobs. It’s that calculation that IDS is trying to reverse."
Much worklessness? How much? Mel doesn't say. The fact of the matter, according to the government's own figures, is that there are 5.2 people unemployed for every vacancy in the UK today. Perhaps I'm missing something but doesn't that mean that regardless of the morality of the unemployed, there simply are not at present jobs available for them all? I appreciate this is an average and doesn't reflect the imbalances in the labour market. Some sectors will still be struggling to fill vacancies in areas where specialist skills are required. But it would seem that the demand for ranting former-left journalists who prefer moral condemnation to empirical data is depressingly inelastic...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reports of the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence have been greatly exaggerated

Our Education Secretary Mike Russell claims the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence has confounded the critics and proved to be a resounding success:
""There were doubts that schools were ready and there were predictions, mainly from the opposition benches, of catastrophe," he said."
I would agree catastrophe has been avoided - but I'll let you into a secret: this new curriculum, billed as the greatest shake-up of Scottish education in a generation, has wrought a change so imperceptible that one could be forgiven for thinking it hadn't happened at all.

Standard Grade remains until 2014. It is still being taught and kids are still picking their options for this at the end of their second year of secondary school. We still haven't even the vaguest idea as to what its replacement will look like. But we're all guessing it'll look like son of Standard Grade. In the interregnum, we're merely tweaking our existing courses - knowing that we shouldn't expend too much energy doing much more than this because it is the exam structure that drives the content in the preceding years. And we are, of course, still waiting for an English translation of the crash of jargon that is the Curriculum for Excellence.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New booze rules

The Scottish Parliament passed a number of new restrictions on the sale of alcohol but stopped short of approving a minimum price.

It's a typically Parliamentary compromise - and one that's unlikely to satisfy anyone. What stood out for me was that they implicitly accepted that it is a legitimate function of government to limit alcohol consumption by rationing it through the price mechanism - hence the ban on discounted deals - but had not the courage to follow this to its logical conclusion.

This is not to say I'm in favour. I feel about alcohol prices in much the same way as I do about companies charging people for the use of plastic bags: producers are trying to pre-empt taxes by introducing price increases all on their own. A more honest way for society to raise the price of these 'bads' would be a simple increase - or in the case of plastic bags, an introduction - of taxation to choke off consumption.

Monday, November 08, 2010

IDS and the Road to Serfdom

A number of people have commented, summarised handily here, on the coalition's on-going progressive journey to the 19th century - this time with regards to the plan to force the unemployed to perform ritualistic acts of manual labour in order to retain their benefits.

Some people don't want to work? As a former welfare rights officer and employee of what is now called the DWP, I would respond - no shit, Sherlock. Followed by the question: so what? Even if all the unemployed had a strong work ethic - or a suitably docile attitude, depending on your view - there still wouldn't be work for them all.

It's a fairly easy matter to demonstrate that the relative generosity of a country's welfare system doesn't even correlate, still less prove causation, with unemployment levels. While estimates vary, America's current unemployment rate is higher than Britain's, which in turn is higher than Denmark's.

Unemployment is higher in times of deficient demand but it always exists in a capitalist system, simply because it lacks any mechanism to prevent it. In this sense, the unemployed are carriers of an inconvenient truth: capitalism might work after a fashion but it doesn't require everyone to work to do this. This is why the unemployed must be punished and made servants.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Against team sports

Mixed feelings about this story about a boy who shot his teacher because he hated rugby. Shooting people is wrong, I would agree - but PE teachers, despite their best efforts to pretend otherwise, are Nazis who enjoy humiliating fat people. And even if you're weren't fat, they made you participate in what seemed to me then, and still do today, completely insane competitive sports.

I'm not really a weegie; I was born in Edinburgh and went to a comprehensive, but it was one of those typically Edinburgh establishments that still liked to think it was a private school. So we played rugby and cricket. To this day I find both of these activities utterly incomprehensible. Picture this: it's winter 1978 and we're playing rugby in fucking shorts in sub-zero temperatures on perma-frost. But the PE teacher ain't wearing no shorts - he's got a tracksuit, jumper, gloves, scarf and hat on, barking instructions - prick that he was.

Shorts in the pitiless East Coast winter - but when the summer comes along, you play this sport called cricket where it is customary to wear long trousers and the option of a jumper is available. This makes sense how, exactly?

I know people imagine team sports are supposed to be character-building and all that but my own view is that if you internalise the logic behind this lunacy, you'll end up losing your goddamn mind. To this day, I hate competitive sports. It took me to my late thirties before I realised you could actually exercise and live healthily without participating in these deeply stupid activities.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Remembrance and the pity of war

It was Stanley Payne who coined the phrase 'semantic virus' for the way that the term 'fascism' has been spread, and thereby diluted, in the hands of those who use it as shorthand for anything they find oppressive.

It goes without saying that what people find 'oppressive' today are experiences that are by historical standards - or even contemporary ones - rather light and trivial. I can't think, for example, of a better example of Payne's point than the fact that people can actually imagine it is appropriate to use the epithet 'fascism' to describe the supposed pressure of conformity that people feel around this time when we look forward to Remembrance Day.

Especially when you live in a world where even this doesn't exist - which I do now.

This wasn't always the case. When I was at primary school, we we told what Poppy Day was all about, the token fee we were expected to donate and how you were expected to wear it. (On the lapel of your blazer.) Clearly some would find this - do find this - unbearably stifling of their individuality but then it was simply the done thing. Now there is only one's own thing - and I feel a little nostalgic for this act of collective conformity and a little sad that so many people find it difficult to participate.

From Edinburgh to Glasgow and to the present day. A couple of years ago I found myself in Glasgow's - Europe's, apparently - largest secondary school, which happens to be Roman Catholic. By wearing a poppy, I might have well worn a sign with 'protestant' around my neck. I appreciate those of Catholic Irish origin have no love for the British army but this is not what Remembrance is about. It is not the glorification of war or the military. The title of this post contains an allusion to a book by the (unfairly, in my view) maligned rightwing historian Niall Ferguson. How successful his 'counter-factual' approach to historical questions is beyond the purpose of this post. His contention is that what the allies achieved was not justified by the costs they incurred. There are many historians and students of history that have arrived, from rather different perspectives, to the same conclusion - and even those who don't, recognise the enormous tragedy of this war that set the 20th century in motion.

It is not to celebrate victory or 'militarism' but simply to remember the fallen that one wears a poppy. It is difficult to comment upon the experience of those who feel pressurized into wearing one because I live in a world where no such pressure exists but even so, it is comparing this experience to 'fascism', rather than not wearing one at all, that strikes me as being disrespectful.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The management of a household

Tories seem particularly keen on making comparisons between the economy as a whole and how a family might run their household - hence Thatcher's remark about how the British economy couldn't survive by 'taking each other's washing in', or Cameron's criticism that the previous Labour administration should have 'fixed the roof while the sun was shining', or more general stuff about 'belt-tightening' and most recently Gideon's remark about how this present administration would live within its means.

Now, every economist - or even anyone interested in economics - would immediately recognise the fallacy of composition that is being made here - the understanding of which lay behind the paradox of thrift, an idea popularised, but not invented, by Keynes.

But the word 'economy' has in its Greek roots the idea of the management of a household, after all - and it occurred to me that perhaps Labour needs to find some homey analogies of its own. Here the present make-up of this government could serve as a guide. On this, Johann Hari is in good form:
"It can't be coincidental that this is being done to us by three men – Cameron, Osborne, and Nick Clegg – who have never worried about a bill in their lives. On a basic level, they do not understand the effects of these decisions on real people."
I don't think it can be a coincidence either. Only people completely removed from the reality of life as it is lived by ordinary people could possibly imagine that borrowing per se is indicative of irresponsibility.

Here's an example from my own experience, which I'm frankly embarrassed about and wouldn't normally share with you, but it rather illustrates the point. I found myself a bit short recently so I had to borrow some money to put petrol in my car so I could go to work. It seemed a prudent thing to do since it has maximised my income in the long-run.

What would Gideon and the rest of these rich fuckers have me do instead? 'Living within my means' here would have involved not going to work, sitting in the house with no heating on and foregoing the income I have now earned. I understand Alan Johnson also has experience of how the shoe pinches - so perhaps he would do better to work some of this into his rhetoric, rather than stuff about 'ideological cuts', which while true doesn't necessarily resonate with people who were skint before these cuts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The CSR: prophesy more quietly, please.

I'm thinking outside the box here but what we really need is some new cliches. Or rather, we should dispense with them altogether because, drawing as they do from the past, the use of cliches have a tendency to fall into the trap of hyperbole. Like, for example, the tiresome way in which any public misdemeanour by politicians today comes reported with the suffix 'gate' - regardless of how trivial. ('Bigot-gate', indeed!)

I'm concerned that too many of us who are opponents of the Conservatives will fall into something like this trap when responding to this 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review. Where were you when the Osbourne Axe fell? asks Paul Sagar, with the suggestion that this spending review will, like 9/11, come to be seen as an epoch-changing event.

I think this is unlikely in the extreme. Budgets, never mind spending reviews, are rarely events of great political theatre. The so-called People's Budget was, but that was the precursor to a constitutional crisis. And even with this - did anyone remember where they were that day? This is a process with uncertain outcomes and while I share the view that they are unlikely to be good, it is unwise to hold hostages to fortune by being so emphatic about it - especially in language that evokes the ghost of Geddes. Whatever British society and economy looks like in the next five or ten years, it is not going to be a duplicate of the interwar period.

And if resting a political programme on a prediction about the shape of the British economy is unwise, how much more so is one based on assumptions about what people's reactions are going to be? Political Betting ask, will Johnson's 'ideological charge stick'? I wouldn't have thought so. A majority of people seem to have been convinced that the cuts are being made out of necessity and are therefore only likely to be influenced by how poor they feel as a result of them rather than what motivated them. Now, Polly Toynbee is already convinced that the "comfortable 70%" will care when the cuts bite. "You bet they will". No, you bet if you want to; I'm not gonna because here's a paradox: the extent to which this will be true depends on how evenly public spending reductions are felt - but from what we can gather so far, what the same critics insist on, is that they are not going to be spread evenly.

Mass public disquiet tends to be prompted by issues that effect almost everyone and here I'm concerned that this government's opponents haven't spotted how they've tried to avoid this. Services that most people use, like health and education, have come off relatively lightly. The rest are targeted, as far as we can tell, on groups whose disadvantage is unlikely to produce mass rebellion. Most people don't live in 'social housing'; people aren't going to riot because higher earners aren't getting child benefit anymore; and the influence that mass unemployment, and the poor treatment of said unemployed, has on political opinion is often exaggerated by people with hazy memories. The Thatcher regime survived years of mass unemployment with contemptuous ease; the poll tax, which affected everyone, was another matter.

In short, even if the most dire predictions of this government's fiscal strategy are vindicated by events, it is the fact that we are not 'all in this together' that should cause us to eschew the perils of making political prophecy.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bloggers' bad manners and other myths

Here's one or two critical comments in response to Andrew Marr's denigrating generalisations about bloggers and blogging.

But the question I was left with was not why does Marr think it's such a bad thing to be single, as Chris Dillow asks - but why does he seem to think bloggers represent a distinct sociological type at all? For he doesn't provide much in the way of evidence, if you think about it. Bloggers have pimples, stay with their mothers and they're bald? You were left wondering if he's met any at all. For where would he meet them? The socially-inadequate by definition tend not to attend social functions.

I suppose it depends what blogs you read but there doesn't seem to be any particular type to me. Academics and students are pretty well-presented - as are journalists, let's not forget. And then there's political activists and a few MPs. The sort of people who are interested in politics, in other words. I'd have to add that while I haven't met many bloggers and would have no way of knowing whether the ones I have are at all representative, none of them have been particularly young and all of them, without exception, have been a damn sight better-looking than Andrew Marr.

I'm trying to get at the notion that bloggers are a different species and I think something that illustrates the point I'm reaching for is this issue about manners and the tone in which conversation is conducted online. Marr says:
" Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. It is vituperative.

"Terrible things are said on line because they are anonymous. People say things on line that they wouldn't dream of saying in person."
Sure but so what? This isn't evidence that bloggers are either psychologically or sociologically different from anyone else. I'm afraid this is how people behave when they feel insulated - just like they do when they're in their cars. Two people get in each other's way in the street and they're the model of politeness - but in a traffic jam? How much more when people feel even more insulated and are talking about those things - politics and religion - that are most likely to stir strong emotion?

Andrew Marr: If I was meeting him in person, I would be the epitome of charm. But since I'm sitting in my flat in Glasgow, instead I'll say, "Hey fuck-face, where do you get off making remarks about the appearance of people you've never met? Do you actually own a mirror? If you do, I'd be surprised - it certainly makes your comments about baldness rather difficult to explain."

Saturday, October 09, 2010

John Lennon

I'm not the world's greatest Beatles fan but there were pretty damn good - before they degenerated into St Pepper self-indulgence, that is. Unquestionably the whole was greater than the sum of the parts because these taken individually were fairly dreadful - and none more so than John Lennon, who would have been seventy today, had he not got himself shot.

I wish he had lived because without his untimely passing, his woeful solo output would have disappeared into the obscurity it so richly deserves. All of it was utterly dismal but the song that deserves special mention is Imagine.

The melody is moronic, the facile lyrics make you weep for all the wrong reasons - plus it is badly-performed. Also, this great steaming turd of a song was at No. 1 for what seemed like an eternity when he died. All this prompts me to ask the question, hoping against hope that I am not alone: was there ever a more excruciating song in the English language than this appalling dirge?

To Miss With Love x

This was the title of an education blog by Miss Snuffy aka Katharine Birbalsingh, which she has now taken down following her speech to the Conservative Party conference and her subsequent (short-lived) suspension.

Having taken the view that she is, or was, being persecuted for simply telling the truth about the state of our schools - and coming out as a Tory - a number of bloggers have given her their unequivocal support.

Now, what she said about 'dumbing-down' and indiscipline I think most teachers would recognise - and the management of the school behaved in a rather heavy-handed fashion, so I'm happy to add my name in support - but unequivocally?

Mr Chalk writes that, "everything she says is completely true." Hardly the most critical commentary, I think you'll agree. I have to allow that the education system is different in England but leaving aside the general issue of standards and discipline, there was a fair amount of what she said, both in her speech and on her blog, that I simply don't recognise.

This stuff about Marxist/leftist teachers, for example. I have to say I rarely, if ever, meet any. I'll allow for the possibility that English schools may have more of them than Scotland but when one looks at the way things like voting preferences break down across this land, I would suggest that there is at least reason to be sceptical about this. Anyway, it wasn't exactly clear who Ms Birbalsingh thought was the problem - Marxists or liberals?

I can't say I recognised much of this stuff about the reluctance of 'we teachers' to allow kids to know how they compare to others - so 'leaving them in darkness' - either. Again, maybe it's an English thing but when she said this, I thought, "Who's this 'we'? Speak for yourself". Would I really find myself in a minority of one south of the border in thinking this?

But it was the analysis that was so disappointing. What, exactly, is the point of yet another diatribe against failing standards in schools that merely describes the problem without offering either a proper diagnosis or, in as far as you could identify one from what she said, a coherent cure? Here her new choice of friends is truly bizarre.

"League tables have teachers pursuing meaningless targets instead of teaching", said she to the conference of the party that brought in league tables.

So England should get rid of these, I would assume is what she proposes? She didn't actually say but I think she would be unwise to assume that Mr Gove's agreement on this point is guaranteed.

Quotas for exclusions are nonsensical too - so no disagreement there. But beyond this, there wasn't much concrete; just some vague notions about 'unshackling heads' and 'setting schools free'.

Let's back up here a minute. Much has been made by righwing bloggers of the 'Blairite' credentials of this particular headteacher. But unless anyone is seriously suggesting that Tory heads are incapable of behaving in an authoritarian manner, the bleedingly obvious point here is being missed: this was a head behaving in a rather 'unshackled' manner, was it not? Yet Katharine Birbalsingh chooses to throw her lot in with a party that wants to make heads more power...

Here I'd argue the 'faith' nature of the school is not irrelevant. A lot of garbage is written about these. The truth is that they only make a difference at the margin and in my view the number of things they make marginally worse outweighs the number they make marginally better. One of the common features of them that I don't like is that they tend to be more hierarchial with more authoritarian heads who expect more deference from staff. Even within the constraints set by local authorities, some of them already behave like little Caesars. Yet here's Ms Snuffy addressing the party that wants much more of this sort of thing?

I don't understand this. And I don't understand her attitude to unions either. Some commentators have linked to the remarks made by the NUT. Christine Blower, the General Secretary said:
"No teacher will want to damage relationships with the school community within which they work, but as the experts on educational issues teachers must be allowed to speak out about the impact of government policies and give their views on the education system.

"The NUT may not agree with a teacher's views but we will assert their their right to express opinions about the system within which they work."
It is unfortunate that Ms Birbalsingh has taken down her blog because on it you would have learned that while this is all very well and good, it is largely irrelevant as she is not, or at least wasn't*, a member of a trades union - along with comments written in direct response to me that part of the reason for this is she thinks the unions are 'too powerful' and are 'part of the problem'.

Powerful unions? Again, it's one of the many aspects of Ms Snuffy's view of the world I don't recognise. Certainly unions can be fairly conservative and occasionally obscurantist - but most of us don't join them for their views on education, but simply as an insurance policy. Feeling the weight of the bureaucracy coming down on you? This is exactly when they come in pretty damn handy. Thus endeth the lesson.

*Disclaimer: at the time I am referring to, Ms Birbalsingh was by her own account neither a Conservative nor a trades union member. Since one of these has obviously changed, I fully accept the other might no longer be the case either.

Update: This is funny.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Three reasons why books will survive

Norm's concerned that he finds himself unable to enthuse about Kindles:
"Because I not only don't want to have a Kindle. It's more active than that: I want not to have one. The thing is, when I think of my books, or at least those of them that I really care about, and then think of no longer having them but having their contents on a Kindle, I feel bereft. Already. Just imagining that. For each of them, I want the actual book, not just the words the book contains. Is this some kind of magical thinking?"
Nah. It's always the same when some new technology comes out and everyone predicts that the old format will be eliminated as a consequence; it's a failure to recognise that just because something is technologically possible, people will find it desirable. Not just this: exclusively desirable.

But this is not so. What usually happens is that people will continue with the old technology and the new. People have DVD collections and go to the cinema. Video did not kill the radio star. A generation that is accustomed to downloads seem to have taken to vinyl. People shop online but still want to get out and about - and pick their own fruit and veg, thank you very much.

Same with books. They'll survive for at least three reasons:

1) Enough people share Norm's delight at the aesthetics of a book - the touch and feel of it, the smell of it. The look of it when you have mixed it with your labour...

2) Practicality. Handy, no doubt, to have a wealth of great novels in one pazzy package but what happens if you drop your Kindle in the bath? Something pretty awful, I'd imagine.

3) Ignorance and relative poverty. I didn't know what a Kindle was so I looked it up. Turns out I can't afford it right now but when I can, and if I do get one, I'll still keep the books for the reasons outlined in 1) and 2).

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Stay-at-home mothers may get more support, says David Cameron

Read that and thought of this:

Apologies for the poor taste. But still - progressive? Was there ever a more elastic term in the modern political lexicon?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Child benefit: the middle classes are revolting

Has George Osbourne made a mistake with his proposal to scrap child benefit for higher earners? One argument has it that by doing this, he hopes to undermine support for the welfare state itself by depriving the relatively wealthy of any stake in it. The counter-argument is that he will succeed only in pissing off the kind of people who would have otherwise been expected to support, or at least go along, with his austerity fetishism.

If Cath Elliot's rant on Liberal Conspiracy is even slightly representative, the latter might seem more likely. Feel the outrage, people:
"George Osborne’s announcement today that from 2013 Child Benefit payments will be axed for any family with a parent earning enough to put them in the 40-50% income tax bracket is neither "fair" nor "right" as some commentators would have us believe: it’s actually an attack on the basic principles of the welfare state, and it’s an attack on women."
Uh huh? Now looky here. As someone who has worked both in welfare rights and in what was then called the Unemployment Benefit Office, I'm easily persuaded that means-testing is often ineffectual because it provides disincentives to work and to save; it requires the employment of people to carry out the means-testing; and the complexity of the administration often means the people entitled to the benefits don't actually get them. Then add to this my instinctive scepticism about anything this government, and in particular this Chancellor, does...

But I'll tell you a really crap argument against this proposal and it is that by introducing a means-test for frankly fairly comfortable people, it somehow represents some historic rupture in the universality of child benefit. There's a simple reason for this: child benefit is counted as income for people on income-based unemployment or in-work benefits. It is already means-tested, in other words. Now, I'll refrain from making mordant comments about not remembering the howls of outrage when this was introduced - partly because it was such a long time ago. But I would have to say that if you think means-testing child benefit is outrageous, you've left it rather late to raise your voice.

Update: Cath disagrees here arguing:
"No it’s not, it’s taken into account when other payments are means tested, but the amount of child benefit itself remains unchanged."
By this logic, Osbourne should have announced not the withdrawal of child benefit for high earners but the introduction of a new tax of exactly £20.30 a week for high earners with a child. This would be ok because what seems to matter is not the actual level of income received but what you call it.

Stop the Cuts Coalition?

Tim Gee suggests a few answers to his own question as to what the 'anti-cuts movement' could learn from the anti-war movement over at Liberal Conspiracy.

My own view would be that while there is technically enough space here, a comprehensive response to this would be too demanding of most people's attention. It's a terrible comparison in so many ways but I've been thinking about this quite a lot and since he mentioned it, I've got a couple of suggestions of my own:

1) Cutting spending is not the same as reducing the deficit. It's a fairly obvious point but it isn't being made clearly enough. This government hopes that the former will lead to the latter but neither they nor their supporters should be talking as if they were identical. There is good reason to think that fiscal retrenchment on the scale proposed by the British government will not have the effect they are assuming for reasons that have been well-rehearsed in various places but it is important to be circumspect here, which leads me to another suggestion...

2) No matter how likely a vindication of it might seem at the moment, opposition to the government's economic policy should not be based on a prediction. It's not just a question of allowing for the possibility that it might be wrong; I'm concerned that people aren't thinking about how difficult it will be to show it is right. Consider Ed Balls' 'like a hurricane' analysis, for example. His broad analysis, even if it turns out to be largely correct, won't seen to be so if the failure of this government's policy falls anything short of catastrophe.

It would be sensible to be more measured, which is one of the many reasons why the comparison with the antiwar protest movement is such a bad one. There was - for me, anyway - so much to disagree with the Stop the War Coalition on, but at least their basic position was straightforward: the alternative to war was not to go to war. But can it really be said that the alternative to the coalition's cuts is no cuts at all?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Labour leadership election - first impressions

You know these property shows where people buy a house with the express purpose of selling it on - and then they start to get all precious about it and do it up the way they would like, without giving proper consideration to the fact that they have to be able to sell it to people who aren't like them?

I've often thought the Labour Party is a bit like this - and today's leadership election result tends to reinforce this impression.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Vince Cable marketing strategy

Vince Cable's conference speech has attracted a fair amount of comment. Dave Osler dismisses his anti-banker rhetoric as populism, while Chris Dillow finds it incoherent. The Daily Telegraph responded pretty much as you might expect - and practically everyone agrees that in the absence of any concrete proposals for banking reform, Cable's speech was fairly meaningless.

I would agree with this but argue that the significance of the speech lies in the politics. Cable's rhetoric about the anti-competitive behaviour of capitalists provides a neat illustration of what he was doing. Firms can try and defeat their competition by under-cutting their rivals, providing a better product and/or lobbying government for some kind of protection, as Chris reminds us. But something else they do is to try and differentiate a product that might in reality be not much different from that of their rivals. This can become anti-competitive when big firms spend so much on advertising that it effectively acts as a barrier to entry for smaller producers.

Whether the media coverage that Vince gets is analogous to this latter feature of product differentiation, I couldn't say - but the first bit is, I think. What Cable was on about is secondary to why he was doing it. It was merely an attempt to pretend that two neo-liberal products with little to distinguish them, are in reality very different. Predictably the Lib Dem party faithful went for it; what is quite impressive is the extent to which the rightwing press have fallen for it too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The obligatory Pope's visit post

The Pope visited Bellahouston Park on the south side of Glasgow today. While not disagreeing with the reasoning behind it, I have found myself unable to lend my voice, or signature, or presence to the objections to this visit for historical reasons. When the last Pope visited Glasgow in the 1980s, the only people to make a significant noise about it were Pastor Jack Glass and his sash-wearing, flute-playing followers. The need to disassociate myself from the bowler hat wearing fraternity is something I feel very deeply, which is why you won't find my signature on any petition objecting to this present tour by the Pontiff of Rome.

But I'm beginning to wonder if this was a good enough reason. Probably not. I'm not going to rehearse the well-known objections to the present occupant of the Holy See but only remark on his latest anti-charisma offensive, which I found, well, deeply offensive. It's enough to make one come over all extremist in an atheistic sort of way, this gratuitously insulting references to Nazis.

We had criticism of the church's handling of priestly abuse of children being compared to anti-Semitism around about the same time that Holocaust-denying clerics were being rehabilitated. Now we have this: the head of an institution that was at best ambivalent towards the Nazi regime making ahistorical remarks about a country that was not.

I don't know if Ratzinger will ever visit Russia - but if he does, he would be well advised to mind his manners, as he should have done here. I think the Stalinist regime would be classed as 'aggressively secularist' by most people's definition but after the Hitler-Stalin Pact collapsed, the tombstones of dead Russians dispel any doubts as to whose side they were on. When it comes to the Vatican, the historical record is less clear, to say no more than that.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Against bibliolatry

Pastor Terry Jones has lost his bottle, or seen sense, depending on your interpretation of this absurd story. I don't see that it matters much. Whatever the motive, Pastor Jones has opted for the more rational path. But then again, it would have taken superhuman powers of obstinacy to do anything other - what with the President of the United States, his Attorney General and the Secretary of State - along with General Petraeus, Interpol, the Vatican in concert with every other expert in the supernatural you can think of, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the ACLU, Sarah Palin, Angelina Jolie and our very own sage on all matters political and spiritual, the former Prime Minister himself Mr Tony Blair, all sticking their oar in, imploring Mr Jones to refrain from his threatened desecration.

The history of religion teaches us that the notion of an invisible God endures, while the sociology of religion shows us that it has proved more often than not to be a burden too great for man to bear. People feel the need to reach out and touch the divinity - through the attendance at buildings, the performance of physical ritual, or through iconography of various kinds. Islam is like protestantism in that is has gone the furthest in eliminating this kind of thing but if this affair shows anything, it is that religion is unable to rid itself of this need to break into the physical world completely. Consider what is being held sacred here. Not just the message, which Muslims believe was dictated by God to Muhammad. It goes further than that to the stage where the divinity of the Logos bleeds into the physical object of the book itself.

As a protestant atheist, I would not halt to call this idolatry - but what matters is not what I think but what others hold sacred. On this point I would have no hesitation in adding my name to those who were attempting to persuade Pastor Jones to desist. I would no sooner burn a Koran than I would abuse the sacrament in a Catholic Mass - not because they mean anything to me but because I recognise that they do for others.

But that's all I am willing to concede to those who are nominally in my camp. The crass stupidity of this particular Pentecostal outfit is not in question but their affiliation to other gangs of religious morons or their motives for this attention-seeking nonsense are irrelevant to me. One or two commentators have linked this small band of fanatics and their behaviour to the famous saying coined by Heinrich Heine who said, "Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people." The rise of the Third Reich ensured the eternity of this aphorism and also made sure we are lazy about its use. The fact of the matter is that the burning of books, whilst indicative of a certain level of philistinism, does not necessarily, or even usually, lead to murder. Whereas history is replete with examples of those who skip the whole supposedly inevitable book-burning phase and jump straight to the wiping out of their fellow human beings in the sharp slide into murderous tyranny.

It's here a little perspective is called for. What Pastor Jones was intending to do was gratuitously offensive - but what made it potentially insane was the disregard for its consequences. What I find utterly depressing about this whole affair is the extent to which these were taken as a given - a fact of the world to which we have to adjust. In case anyone is unclear about what this is, let me spell it out: the burning of the Koran would have had disastrous consequences because everyone with any sense understands that there are not only people who consider a book to be more more sacred than the lives of their fellow human beings but who are both willing and able to use murderous violence in order to see the incarnation of this belief.

It is the routinization of this - the acceptance of this as a banal fact of life - that I find so absolutely depressing. It shows itself in the comments made by even people who are resolutely opposed to any of the claims made by politicized millienarians. Martin writes, "In their fundamentalism and intolerance, Pastor Jones and the Islamists are mirror images of each other." No, I don't think so. The reason that there was such an intervention over this matter is that everyone understood that if this group of fanatics had burned the Koran, people would have died. But Pastor Jones did not threaten to kill anyone. In contrast, death threats had already been made - not just against Mr Jones, which is in itself insane - but against Americans in general. Because merely being one of the some 330 million citizens of this nation is enough for you to deserve death because of your association with the behaviour of fifty embittered religious eccentrics. You can call for this and it will be unremarkable - as long as you don't mess with the Books.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

On the AV referendum: turkeys vote for Christmas?

The Labour party certainly thinks so:
"Research released by the Labour Party suggests that the redrawing of constituency boundaries to reduce the number of MPs could lead to the Liberal Democrats suffering disproportionately more than any other party, with the heavy swing against them magnifying the losses."
If so, this would be quite amusing. I find the case for voting reform unconvincing. AV is not PR but they are similar in that both systems are more likely to produce coalitions. It is already clear that one of the claims frequently made for coalitions - that it produces more moderate consensual government - ain't necessarily so. You could still argue that it is nevertheless more representative of the electorate but this case illustrates the problem with this suggestion. Coalitions invariably produce compromises that no-one voted for, which is the case here - for Conservative and Lib Dem voters anyway:
"Normally loyal Tories are expected to vote against the legislation, pointing out that neither party in the coalition promised AV in their election manifestos."
Something that people didn't vote for is nevertheless to be proposed to them in a referendum and if the vote is positive, we'll see in the future more government based on compromises chosen by the winning parties, rather than the electorate. I don't mean to sound too dismissive; you could still reasonably argue that it would produce more congenial government in the long-run. It's just difficult to see how this system would be so obviously more democratic than the present arrangement.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The conversation Labour and the left should be having

One shouldn't attempt to predict the future. This coalition government might be dead in the water in 18 months for all I know. But every time there's a story about Simon Hughes issuing warnings about what the rank and file will or won't tolerate or government ministers shouting at each other, I fear it is just wishful thinking to interpret these as harbingers of the government's incipient collapse. Certainly the honeymoon was over quickly but I'd predict that divorce is by no means certain and is certainly not imminent.

There's a few reasons for thinking this but I'm thinking of one in particular: opponents of the government are, for the most part, underestimating the extent to which ideological glue holds this coalition together. The simplicity of this shouldn't be underestimated either. Underneath everything this government says about anything - whether about health, education, family life or deficit reduction - you'll find just one thing; the notion that the 'good society' is one where the state is smaller - period.

The Lib Dems have traditionally stressed making the state smaller in relation to personal conduct, the Conservatives with the economic sphere, but with both - especially when you factor in the degree of overlap - the near universal presence of this central idea should be better appreciated. Is there anyone on the government benches that doesn't think the state should be shrunk in some way?

Now, simple ideas have a habit of breaking on the rocks of experience because the human situation always proves to be more complicated but for now the cohesive role it is playing should be tackled more directly. In other words, the opposition to the coalition needs to be clearer about what its attitude towards the state is. This isn't easy because to respond to a simple idea like this with an equally simple one runs the risk of sounding either conservative (keep it the way it is) - or a bit Soviet (make it bigger). Whereas a more complicated idea - while it would do more justice to the mess of actual life - can sound like obfuscation, if you're not careful.

The problem here is that I can't see Labour getting even close to agreeing a broad road on which to travel, never mind coming up with a line. For example, my own wish would be for those Labour members and supporters who were nonchalant about the expansion of the surveillance state under Blair to simply admit they were wrong - but it is never going to happen. The attitudes to the economic sphere are if anything even more problematic, which serves to illustrate the problem when opposing the coalition: people from the cuddly non-Orange Book wing of the Lib Dems might not like the budget and even be vaguely social democratic - but I don't think the coalition carries the sort of divisions between 'modernisers' who are in reality just economic liberals and some who advocate economic control on near Soviet proportions that you find in the Labour party.

I appreciate Paul's frustration at the search for a line that could impose unity on a party, which like all parties can never be united, but I'm concerned that Labour, and the left in general, is more deeply-divided on this issue than is usually acknowledged, which is one of the reasons why it should ask itself some very basic questions about the role of the state, what it can and should do - as well as the limits of its competence. Any conversation that produced a sensible answer would have something to say about changing the shape of the state.

Reflections on Labour's leadership election

I'm not doing much here except steering people towards a couple of other people's posts on the subject that I thought were rather splendid. Paul has an excellent piece here striking a pessimistic note over the whole process:
"We do need a leadership contest. We need the concept of leadership - as it is currently understood - to be contested and defeated. New Labour's approach to leadership was based upon a crude and self-serving notion of what was possible within the confines of a hostile media. It involved everybody conniving in the pretense that a single line that united the party could be pushed out to a credible media."
I also particularly enjoyed his dismissal of the pose that young Ed has been striking:
"And if anyone really imagines that Ed Milliband's pitch as 'the left candidate' is any more than a bit of short-term chessmanship, I hope they will have a stern word with themselves next time they look in the mirror."
Chris Dillow also argues that there is little in the way of real differences between the candidates to choose between, making this a 'low stakes' election. Here even the relatively small differences that one might identify in relation to the whole business of deficit reduction will be ironed out by events outside the candidates' control:
"The next Labour leader will - at best - only determine policy after 2015. And in this context, Balls’ words are less important. Let’s say he’s right, and that Osborne’s deficit fetishism does clobber the economy and - in doing so - leave a big deficit. It will then be clear to everyone that a change in policy is needed. Whoever the leader is will therefore adopt a Balls-style policy - because this will be the only option. Balls’ support now for such a policy will make him look perspicacious - though no more so than any other Keynesian - but it does not greatly affect the course of the next Labour government."
They are in substance both right, in my view. I can't recall there being a Labour election with so little at stake. Just one quibble though: while we could all agree that policy shouldn't be over-personalized and that there's little to distinguish these characters on policy anyway, it still matters. It can be expressed by putting Chris's first point in the negative: "What is the probability of Labour losing under your preferred candidate, relative to the probability under your second preference?" I appreciate this is depressingly negative but it still makes a substantial difference. There are some people you just cannot imagine winning under any circumstances. Brown (admittedly not under good circumstances) was like this. So was Michael Foot. I'd argue Kinnock was as well. For the Tories it was William Hague and even more disastrously with IDS.

What all of the above have in common is that they were very much creatures of their parties - and the worst of them the very incarnation of their deepest divisions, as was the case with IDS. Here I'm afraid Alex Massie is right: people are suspicious of party politics at the moment so you have to have a leader that can be distinguished from their party. Paul is right to find this shuffle at the top of a pyramid not only unsatisfactory but probably unsustainable in the long-run - but this is where were are now and in these circumstances any party that mistakes the selectorate for the electorate and chooses a candidate in their own image is going to lose. It's as simple as that.

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