Tuesday, December 21, 2004

New Year Predictions

Taken this one down - along with the Christmas tree.

Btw, how bad is it being back at work?

a) pants

b) big pants

c) big nylon pants

d) big nylon pants that have gone all bobbly

e) as d) with unmentionable stains

ID cards and the Tories

The government won the vote to secure a second reading of the ID cards scheme by 385 votes to 93. The Liberal Democrats were opposed and 19 Labour MPs - mostly leftwingers also voted for the rebel amendment. I think the Tory response is further evidence of the state the Conservatives have got themselves into: while only 10 actually voted against the government, this number included members of the Shadow Cabinet with John Redwood and Peter Lilley explicitly rejecting Michael Howard's two-line whip. Also, a further 70 Tories went Christmas shopping, rather than support their beleaguered leader.

Further evidence for someone like myself who subscribes to the view that the Tories cannot take their survival for granted. The ID card issue - one would have thought - would be a perfect opportunity for them to embarrass the government by siding with their left wing critics on the backbenches, and could do so by dressing it up in lots of Burkean language about the ancient liberties of freeborn Englishmen. But Michael Howard, as he has done on so many other issues, has demonstrated his unfailing ability to pick up the wrong end of whatever stick happens to be lying about.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The reassurance of Newspeak

I've been a tad worried about the state of British liberty of late - prompted, I thought, by recent departures by this government from established legal liberal principles such as the right to trial by jury, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, and now the proposed introduction of ID cards. I needn't have worried: freedom is slavery and those who advocate "woolly liberal thinking" are the real enemy, as Melanie Phillips and Charles Clarke have helpfully explained. Take this, for example, from today's Times:

I claim that the ID Cards Bill that I am introducing today is a profoundly civil libertarian measure because it promotes the most fundamental civil liberty in our society, which is the right to live free from crime and fear. Both in practice and in principle ID cards are right. I hope that they will gain wide support throughout our society, and the sooner the better.

So giving citizens the obligation to pay to be monitored by the state is "civil libertarian"? What a relief; had I known this, I would have supported them earlier. But I was still worried by the detention of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh Prison where, I understand, they have been detained without charge, trial or access to legal representation. Given this mindset, I was inclined to agree with the Law Lords who ruled 8 to 1 that these detentions violated all known principles of human rights. Fortunately, Melanie Phillips is on hand to explain that liberal societies, when under threat are entitled to cease to be liberal, thus preserving freedom - and it's anyone who disagrees with this erudite reasoning that is the real enemy:

The human rights culture is actually a mortal enemy of life, liberty and democracy. The Law Lords' judgment is but the latest example.

Phew, these meddling judges really are a menace! Hitherto, I'd imagined that it was countries such as ours with a "human rights culture" that enjoyed the most liberty. Now I've seen the light: freedom has been most advanced in countries unburdened with this insidious legal sophistry. Only I'm still a bit confused because one historical example would be the Soviet Union, where the state was protected from its enemies in much the same way - but inexplicably, Ms. Phillips doesn't like the comparison. Can't think why...

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Blunkett's resignation

David Blunkett made an emotional farewell last night, having finally been brought down by the persistent stories concerning his affair with Kimberly Quinn and the related issue of her nanny's visa application.

Polly Toynbee, no fan of Blunkett's authoritarianism herself, is one of a number of liberal journalists who see Blunkett as a victim of a scheming socialite:

"So everyone wonders what on earth this working-class minister, driven by a genuine passion for social justice for those who came from backgrounds like his, was doing with a Spectator society lady? Sleeping with the enemy, he fell among the most frivolous rightwing effete scoundrels of the Westminster political scene. That is part of the tragedy in the downfall too - seduction of a simple man by someone from a world he rightly despised.

Then, the final coup de grace. What was he doing slagging off his colleagues one by one to rightwing Stephen Pollard, who should never have been his official biographer anyway? When such an astute and experienced politician makes an error like that, it begins to look as if his marbles are rattling around. Even his dog might have barked out a warning."

This, and the fact that Blunkett took the novel step of trying to prove paternity of a child born as a result of an affair, have created a level of sympathy that otherwise probably wouldn't be there for this most rightwing of Home Secretaries.

But at the risk of striking a sour note, his personal problems notwithstanding, his departure is entirely welcome to most people of a liberal disposition. He has been an extravagantly authoritarian Home Secretary, with the detention of terrorist suspects without trial in Belmarsh prison, the attempts to withdraw the right of appeal for asylum seekers and to limit jury trial, and the misconceived plan to introduce ID cards. Furthermore, prior to that he was education secretary and was responsible, in my view, for pushing the Blairite agenda in education - amounting to little more than the revival of the Thatcherite approach, which hitherto had showed some welcome signs of waning under the Major government.

That this would be considered a woolly liberalism of the "chattering classes" by Blunkett and his supporters was and is something that I've become increasingly annoyed with, not least because I have a wee bit of sympathy for the "tough on crime" argument: it is, for example, a perfectly valid point to make that the people who suffer most from crime are the working classes in the same way that they are also most likely to suffer from substandard education. It is not, however, valid to dismiss all criticism on the grounds that one is "taking the side of the criminal"; a distinction has to be made between the suspect and the criminal - and it is the function of the judicial system to determine whether the former is indeed the latter, a process hardly helped by undermining the rights of the accused.

I'm also not sure that Blunkett's demise can be attributed solely to a media feeding frenzy, driven by a prurient interest in aspects of his private life that are nobody's business. After all, the rightwing press, clearly recognising one of their own, were largely supportive of his war on British liberty. He had the support of the Prime Minister and probably, at first, a majority of his Parliamentary colleagues were sympathetic to his personal predicament. The key ingredient to his downfall, I would suggest, was the loss of support in the Labour Party. Many backbenchers were already alienated by his rightwingery - and his arrogant and stupid remarks to Stephen Pollard lost him even more support, not least in the Cabinet itself.

Among the wider implications are that Blair is, of course, damaged by this - having lost one of his key allies in the Cabinet. Another possibility is that in future it will become more difficult for ministers to claim "a big civil servant did it and ran away", which would be welcome. Charles Clarke, predictably, has already declared himself unwilling to rethink ID cards - but has, at least, adopted a more conciliatory tone than his pugnacious predecessor. Whether Blunkett's departure will have any implications for the proposed legislation on incitement to religious hatred remains to be seen. I plan to deal with this more fully in a future post but meanwhile, Lenin has made some interesting points on the subject here and here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Skool discipline

I've been struck lately by the number of non-stories in the newspapers recently. You know, articles of the Pope is a Catholic; bear shits in the woods; doctor writes prescription, variety. One that caught my eye in the Guardian a few days ago was Butler saying "Blair obsessed with control".

Today's non-story is this one in the Herald: "Problem pupils are wrecking discipline, say teachers". It includes the breath-taking revelation that the policy of "social inclusion" - which means plonking every pupil, regardless of need, disability, psychological and/or behavioural difficulty, into main-stream classes - is not necessarily consistent with the other lofty goal set for us by our leaders in the Scottish Executive, "raising attainment" - education-speak for the quaint notion that schools are supposed to be places where pupils learn stuff:

In a readers' survey about social affairs by The Herald Society supplement, nearly nine out of 10 of those working in education said the inclusion of children with behavioural problems in mainstream classes was causing discipline problems.
While 82.1% of all responses said this was the case, this rose to 88.9% when responses from those in education were singled out. Only 6.3% of educationists defended the policy.

The choice of words is significant; "educationists", in this context, being those people for whom teaching a class is a distant memory, if at all - and say profoundly stupid things about disruptive pupils who have a precocious interest in violence and sadism like, "well he's alright with me" - to which I invariably respond, "that's because when he's with you, he doesn't have another 29 of his peers as an audience - idiot!"

Teachers' unions welcomed the findings. Lindsay Roy, president of the Headteachers Association Scotland (HAS), said many teachers supported inclusion in principle but there was a lack of support for teachers to help them cope with difficult pupils.

For "lack of support", insert "lack of light, hand-held weaponry" to understand how most teachers feel (what are they doing asking a Headteacher anyway?).

Solution? Remember Rosie Kane of the SSP, arguing that the use of the word "ned" should be banned? As ever, nowhere near radical enough: a more effective measure would be to ban neds altogether - problem solved.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Spectator: Butler Interview

For those doing "Decision-making in central government", there was an interesting interview with Butler (of WMD enquiry fame) in the current edition of the Spectator. On one level, it's a fairly standard overweening executive, what happened to cabinet government line. Standard because much the same was said of Wilson and Thatcher - but in the comparison with Thatcher, Butler has a couple of interesting observations:

‘I would be critical of the present government in that there is too much emphasis on selling, there is too much central control and there is too little of what I would describe as reasoned deliberation which brings in all the arguments.’

If you were Blair what would you do about that?

‘I think I would restore open debate in government at all levels up to the Cabinet. The Cabinet now — and I don’t think there is any secret about this — doesn’t make decisions.’

But wasn’t that also the case under Mrs Thatcher? ‘She was much more formal about this than her reputation is. She certainly wanted to get her own way, and she was very dominant, but she certainly took the view, as Harold Wilson did, that important decisions should be taken by Cabinet.

‘I think what tends to happen now is that the government reaches conclusions in rather small groups of people who are not necessarily representative of all the groups of interests in government, and there is insufficient opportunity for other people to debate, dissent and modify.’

Does he think that on the whole the country is well governed?

‘Well, I think we are a country where we suffer very badly from Parliament not having sufficient control over the executive and that is a very grave flaw. We should be breaking away from the party whip. The executive is much too free to bring in a huge number of extremely bad Bills, a huge amount of regulation and to do whatever it likes — and whatever it likes is what will get the best headlines tomorrow. All that is part of what is bad government in this country.

Butler's remarks are significant when we bear in mind that his enquiry - wrongly dismissed in some quarters as a "whitewash" - identified "collective failure" in the bureaucracy with regards to the non-discovery of WMD in Iraq.

In the same issue, scary case of agreeing with Bruce Anderson, that rarest of creatures; a Scottish Tory.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

George Galloway's libel victory

Before Galloway became a celebrity south of the border, he was already well-known as a divider, as anyone in the Kelvin constituency Labour Party would tell you. Now he's having that effect elsewhere, although more purely to do with his position vis-a-vis Iraq, rather than his personalisimo political style.

Young Johann Hari of the Independent has got himself very worked up about Galloway, as you can see here. Bat, on the other hand, has a slightly different take on the man, to say the least. In his piece on Galloway's libel victory, Bat - who was writing for the Telegraph at the time - raises the question as to whether the "disgust at the conduct of this war – and in particular, at the warmongers' contemptuous attitude to legality, civil rights and truthfulness – has penetrated deeply into the heart of the legal establishment itself."

Marcus, at Harry's Place uses this occasion to cast doubt on whether Bat worked for the Torygraph at all - working on the assumption, presumably, that newspaper journalists are of a political homogeneity that reflects the editorial position of the newspaper.

At the same place you'll see that Oliver Kamm pitches in to the fray in the comments boxes with the suggestion that because Bat made a wee grammatical error in his post, this is reason to doubt that Bat has worked as a journalist at all (obviously never read the Guardian, then). For those of you who don't know who Oliver Kamm is, neither did I until comparatively recently. I'm still not sure but if I told you he appears to make a living from writing columns in the Times, defining words that no-one ever uses, you'd probably raise a skeptical eyebrow - but buy a copy on Saturday and that does seem to be precisely what he does. Anyway, the dispute goes on, with Lenin taking Harry and Kamm to task for their remarks. (Personally, I think Kamm's jealous because Bat's blog looks so much better than his).

To a number of us north of the border, the idea that Galloway can so neatly divide people into prowar and antiwar camps comes as a surprise, to say the least. I've had the dubious pleasure of having Galloway as my MP for most of my adult life and personally I can't be doing with him; I'd repeat some of the stories I heard from members and former members of the Kelvin constituency party but I don't have £150 000, so I better not.

My already low opinion of him sunk further on seeing him caught on camera, groveling before Saddam Hussein. His subsequent explanation of this - that he was saluting the Iraqi people, is unsatisfying and unconvincing, as is one of his other defences - that Rumsfeld too shook hands with the Iraqi dictator, which is entirely true, as shown in the picture below, but a strange line for someone to take if you're trying to convince people that what you did was reasonable behaviour.


Now, a number of the charges leveled against Galloway by Hari et al are, I think, rather unreasonable. It is, for example, apparently de rigour to cast up someone's support for the Soviet Union in the past and use it against them. Hari is too young to remember the expressions like "you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs", which some used to account for the Stalinist purges. Ignorant and reprehensible perhaps (I confess I may have used something like that when I was 17, will that be used against me sometime in the future?) - but not a million miles away from the justifications he himself uses for the (in my opinion) entirely unnecessary assault on Fallujah. There is also Galloway's alleged support for Musharraf. I've no idea if that's true or not and don't really care but given that this is also Bush and Blair's position, he might want to save some criticism for them too.

But it remains the case that it is unequivocally not just supporters of the war that'll be glad to see the back of Galloway as he heads south to take on Oona King in Bethnel Green. Now, Oona King - with her support for the invasion of Iraq - undoubtedly has her coat on a shaky nail in a constituency with a large number of voters who strongly opposed this war, but I still reckon it's likely that George will find out what he definitely would have found out had he stood for the newly-drawn constituency of Glasgow Central; that the only reason he became an MP in the first place was because he was wearing a red-rosette.

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Scottish Enlightenment

Interesting post at Harry's Place about Scotland before the Enlightenment. Scotland was - and sometimes still feels on a bad day - the most Calvinistic country on the face of the planet and prior to the Enlightenment, we have - as Marcus reminds us - the infamous case of young Thomas Aikenhead who was put to death for atheism as late as 1697. Yet in the next 50 years or so, the intolerant power of the Church of Scotland had waned so much that by the time David Hume had published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the church took no action against him on the grounds that they were powerless to do so, since he wasn't a member.

Marcus then goes on to draw a parallel between Scotland's relatively rapid transition to modernity and the situation in the Arab world today. Now, I agree up to a point with this: I've been thinking for some time that the Scottish example should be a good refutation for "Islamophobia"; I imagine that if you took the Calvinists' claim to epistemological infallibility, add some hot weather and the proliferation of small arms, you'd get on the streets of Glasgow scenes similar to those seen in Beruit, Bahgdad, or Jerusalem.

But there's much else to disagree with - and I do so on the basis that, contrary to received opinion, religious fundamentalism is always and everywhere a modern phenomenon. The Pope declared himself to be infallible in the 19th century around about the same time that Protestant Evangelicals produced the doctrine of the verbal inerrancy of the scriptures. Both of these doctrines claimed a cloak of antiquity but were in fact innovations - produced, I would suggest, as a defence against the onslaught of modernity.

The situation with Islamic fundamentalism is similar to this, I think. The Iranian theocracy, for example, while claiming an ancient precedence, is a model of a state which is no older than the 1970s, as Eric Hobsbawn has pointed out. Other barbarisms, such as the stoning of adulterers, are often thought to represent a backward attachment to a pre-modern scripturalism, which will be dispelled in due course as the "Enlightenment" gains ground in the Middle East. But, like the Iranian theocracy, this too is a practice which is not sanctioned by the Koran (it states that adulterers should receive a thousand lashes); it is the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) that has stoning as the punishment for adultery.

In other words, if I'm right and fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, the experience of it will not dissolve like Scottish Calvinism as it withered in the winds of philosophical enquiry and technological change. Rather, like other types of fundamentalism, it is a product of modernity - rather than some kind of pre-industrial hang-over that can be just shaken off. Moreover, as well as being a reaction to ideas as in the Christian example - Islamicism is also a reaction to the disorientating impact of rapid industrialisation and all that brings; displacement, confusion, huge income inequalities and political oppression.

Hitherto, the primary repository for anti-capitalist discontent has been communism - but the collapse of the Soviet Union has left the secular opposition to capitalism largely in disarray, leaving radical Islamicism as the only alternative in many parts of the world. So, any lasting solution to this problem will take, I would argue, more than just fighting opposition where it appears; it will also have to address the reasons why so many people rush to the opposition in the first place. In other words, the Middle East doesn't just need political democracy, it needs social democracy as well. Problem is, I don't know if the Americans do that...

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Bush, Iraq and the implications for the Modern Studies syllabus

Updated: bit went missing in original post, sorry...

I’m planning to do a piece on the implications of the Bush presidency in general and the Iraq war in particular for the Modern Studies syllabus and I would welcome any other teachers’ comments on this, which you could e-mail to me and I could shamelessly rip off. No, only joking – although you could remain anonymous if you wish. (Although, the readings from my site meter would suggest that most people visiting the site are not modies teachers, but never mind). I would be particularly interested to hear from those who teach areas of the syllabus that I don’t but which might be relevant.

Anyway, here’s some preliminary scribblings of my own:

UK PoliticsDecision-making in central government

Obviously a rich seam, which I won’t attempt to explore in any detail just now but I thought the information coming out of the Hutton and Butler enquiries provided particularly vivid and dramatic examples that refreshed an otherwise rather dry section of the course, namely the section on the civil service.

There’s also the example of the demonstration against the war, which I thought could scarcely be a better example of what I try and get across in the pressure groups section: my customary technique is to get a class to name any pressure group that they can think of. 100% of the time I get “cause” groups rather than “interest groups” and from here I go on to make the point that the dramatic demonstrations of groups Greenpeace and now the Stop the War Coalition are indicative of a lack of power and then go on to contrast them with those interest groups, such as the BMA and the CBI who don’t need to take to the streets for fairly obvious reasons.

Ethnic Minorities in the USA

I did a wee breakdown of some of the election stats, which you can find here. There’s also the appointment of Condeleeza Rice, which I mentioned here. I thought Florida – both in 2000 and in 2004 – was a very dramatic illustration of the importance of the Hispanic vote, which hitherto had tended to be dismissed as relatively unimportant. The interesting thing about the Hispanic vote, it seems to me, is that it’s importance has a lot to do with the fact that the parties have something to compete for, in contrast to the black vote, which is more solidly Democrat than ever.

There was a very interesting piece about the experience of Arab-Americans in the Guardian. Unfortunately, I ditched my paper copy, assuming that the article would be in the online version – only to discover that it wasn’t. It was about Detroit, which has a fairly large Arab community and not a few of them were Shias from Southern Iraq. Prior to the war, this section of the community was divided roughly in half over the proposed invasion. However, since then – what with the postwar difficulties and with some rather negative experiences at the wrong end of the Patriot Act - a majority of them now oppose Bush. I’d be grateful if anyone has any info. on this…

Conspiracy theories

I don’t know if you’ll agree with this but increasingly I’m finding that the propensity to believe these - most recently with the various 9/11 conspiracies and the (to me completely inexplicable) popularity of Michael Moore – is a barrier to learning that has to be overcome. Last year in particular, a majority of my class appeared to be adherents to a philosophy that perhaps could be best described as vulgar Marxism meets the X-files. I’m getting increasingly exasperated with students whose self-image is one of worldly cynicism but who in reality appear to be willing to believe literally anything. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has had similar experiences.

Ok, that’s all for now; I’ll do a proper piece in due course.

There's an e-mail link on the side bar...

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

New website (to me, that is)

I found this excellent site - by fellow Glaswegian, Richard Kimber - absolutely bursting with useful links on all things political. In particular, there is a groovy page on British politics; also see the pages on China, South Africa, and the USA.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Stress "may speed up cell ageing"

Found this today on the BBC's website. The University of California is obviously one of those that commissions research into the bleeding obvious.

However, for any skeptics out there, can I furnish you with some conclusive evidence of my own? Before teaching = 17 grey hairs; after seven years teaching = approximately 12 457 and counting (I swear I felt another couple sprouting up after second year this afternoon).

I rest my case...

ID cards

Opposed to ID cards? Then take a look at this...

Monday, November 29, 2004


I've got a horrible feeling that the Ukrainian poll crisis is shaping up to be the next international issue that the various factions in the broad church of the centre-left will tear itself apart over. The most recent arena for this has, of course, been the Iraq war where both antiwar and prowar commentators have been firing the epithet "fascist" at each other across the blogsphere, amongst other places.

The reason, it seems, is revenge for Fallujah - or to be more precise, revenge for the jibes directed at the prowar left from their antiwar comrades for their relative silence during the recent American assault there. Now, the prowar left clearly sees in the Ukrainian crisis an example of what they've been accusing their counterparts of over Iraq : failing to support a democratic movement simply because it is backed by the Americans. At Harry's Place, for example, someone in the comments boxes (sorry, can't provide a link) suggested that we should all wear orange scarves as a show of solidarity - coupled with some jibes about the antiwar left's relative silence over this issue. (I wouldn't be doing this, I explained, because I'm from Glasgow and things like orange scarves tend to be misinterpreted here).

Now, as far as I understand the situation, there isn't much doubt that this election was "pure shady" in the extreme - and even if it wasn't, the fact that about half the country and now a majority of the Ukrainian parliament think it was means that enforcing the result as it stands wouldn't bode well for the future of constitutional democracy in that country. And even if this dispute can be reduced to a simple American vs. Russian imperialism - I know who I'd rather be colonized by.

But despite putting my sympathies largely with the pro-US and pro-EU opposition, I don't think matters are quite so simple, as David Aaronovitch reminds us in Sunday's Observer. For one thing, the Ukraine has had a history of being divided between the Hapsburg Empire and Russia - and this has left a legacy which includes differences in language, religion and, most importantly, allegiance.

In these circumstances, a support for democracy shouldn't blind one to the fact that "winner-takes-all" elections are not really the best model for divided societies (assuming you don't want them to pull apart, that is) and one would hope that out of this, a more "consociational" model might develop.

Also, there is the Russian problem. I'm not suggesting that a fixed election should be ignored simply to placate Russian feelings of insecurity - but on the other hand, break open a history book and then tell me that Russian insecurity - especially when it regards her neighbours - is nothing to worry about.

In short, I'm arguing this should be handled sensitively.

And we can rely on Bush and Putin to do that, can't we?

Thursday, November 25, 2004

British Liberty R.I.P.

If it isn't dead already, British liberty is certainly one sickly patient and in the Queen's speech are proposals to give its injured body another good kicking.

Once upon a time, conservative Home Secretaries had an amusing tendency to become more liberal as they were "mugged by the reality" of working with the British penal system. Then came Michael Howard - shackler of pregnant women; scourge of immigrants fleeing persecution. His "prison works" speech at the Tory Party conference cemented his reputation as the most right-wing Home Secretary in living memory.

That was before the advent of the New Labour Guardians who have brought us charming legal revivals such as the detention of terrorist suspects without charge or trial and have overseen a legal situation where evidence from torture is admissible in a British courtroom - provided the torture isn't done by us, of course.

If this wasn't bad enough, consider what has now been proposed, in the Queen's speech and elsewhere: a defendant's prior convictions are to be heard in court prior to the determination of guilt; drugs tests for those accused of other crimes; a national police force (to combat terrorism, what other reason could there possibly be?); and every British subject is to have a barcode tattooed on their arse before they can buy or sell...

Ok, the last one's a bit of an exaggeration; I mean the proposed introduction of ID cards. That Jack Straw, himself an ex-Home Secretary with impeccable authoritarian credentials, was reported to have civil liberty concerns about the scheme should cause anyone who doesn't use "liberal" as a swear word to pause for thought.

ID cards are not, as some argue, a simple rationalization of our routine need to identify ourselves in various situations with bank cards, driving licenses, birth certificates and the like. All these are context-bound: I show I have the right to drive with my license; to travel abroad with my passport; my right to residency with my tenancy agreement. What is sinister about a national ID card is that it goes beyond any of this; it is to show those in authority that I have the right to be.

While there is not at present any proposal to oblige people to carry it at all times, I can't imagine this government forking out an estimated £3bn without introducing this at later date - to combat terrorism, no doubt we'll be told.

And we all know which sections of our community will be disproportionately required to verify their non-terrorist, non-bogus asylum-seeker status, don't we?

Meanwhile, don't forget to do your bit for National Efficiency: eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day; do at least two-and-a-half hours of healthy exercise a week; don't drink more than twenty-eight units of alcohol per week; and, of course, don't smoke - especially in the presence of food.

Make you live longer?

Dunno - but it'll certainly feel like it.

Update: Found this fun site linked at Dead Men Left - have a looksee...

Thursday, November 18, 2004

China - Websites

Is anyone doing the China topic in International Issues? If so, check out the excellent Fabian's Hammer. (if not, that probably means you're still doing South Africa - why?)

The posts have a wealth of information that you should find useful - particularly in relation to the "Human Rights" section of the course. (Also, I've found the Amnesty site very useful - like this, which would also link in for the brave few that are doing the EU as well.) More specifically, you might want to have a swatch at Democracy Lite: Powell's parting thoughts on China - which includes sections from two interviews with the out-going secretary of state.

Also, there's Simon World - which you can reach through Fabian's side bar or by clicking here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Fratricide in the SSP?

It won't have escaped your attention that Tommy Sheridan, the charismatic leader of the SSP, has stepped down as party leader - the ostensible reason being that his wife is expecting their first child.

Now, nothing raises skeptical eye-brows more quickly than when a politician declares that he (almost always he) wants to "spend more time with his family" and in Mr. Sheridan's case, this routine response appears to be justified. Lurid stories concerning Tommy's private life appeared in the vile News of the World (I haven't read them - and I'm not providing a link; you read them if you want to). The SSP were, apparently, not too happy - not about the allegations per se - but with the manner in which Tommy Sheridan dealt with them (yeah, right!)

Exactly what is going on is far from clear: a number of stories are circulating about the other party members being unhappy at the SSP's "one-man band" image, and also about Sheridan's recent emphasis on nationalism, which some feel has compromised the party's uncompromising socialist stance. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the SSP are not happy campers, as anyone who saw the piece on Newsnight Scotland would testify.

You don't have to be a SSP supporter - or even a socialist - to be rooting for Tommy Sheridan in his legal action against the News of the World, one of the more putrid emmissions from the Rupert Murdoch stable (and it's a strong field in which to compete). Yet the show of solidarity with Tommy from his SSP comrades was distinctly under-whelming. The SSP has opted, for the time being, to have a collective leadership, so the party that had six MSPs and one leader now has five. One of the new leaders, as the Herald reports it, gave this heart-warming support for her embattled comrade:

"Ms Leckie said there was no official party backing behind any legal challenge and when asked whether she personally supported Mr Sheridan, she replied: 'I don't know what it is you are asking me.'"


Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Just in: Rice to replace Powell

According to ABC, Condeleezza Rice - Bush's National Security Advisor - is to replace the out-going Colin Powell as secretary of state. The latter's departure, although entirely predictable, has caused concern amongst US foreign policy watchers who still believe in old-fashioned values - like diplomacy.

Anyway, as it relates to Ethnic Minorities in the USA, surely the notion that African-Americans are reluctant to register to vote because of the lack of ethnic minority representation has to be abandoned? Bush has the most ethnically-diverse cabinet in US history, yet - as the piece below outlines - African-American support for the Democrats, already well-established, has actually hardened in this election.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Election 2004 in figures

This is based on CNN's figures, which you can find here.

Gender: Men voted for Bush by a margin of 11 points, whilst women voted for Kerry by a margin of 3 points.

Race: Amongst whites, Bush had a lead of 17%; Kerry had a whopping 77% lead amongst African-Americans, 9 points amongst Hispanics, and 12 points amongst APIs.

Age: Only 18-29 year-olds were more likely to vote Kerry (9 points); anyone over 30 showed, on average, a 6% disposition towards Bush.

Income: Those earning less than $15 000 were almost twice as likely to vote for Kerry; at the top end of the income scale, the picture is almost completely reversed, with those earning more than $200 000 almost twice as likely to have voted for Bush.

Education: Surprisingly, this appears to make no consistent impact on voting behaviour: only those with some post-graduate study and those who haven’t completed high school were more likely to vote for Kerry.

Religion: Protestants were 19 points more likely to vote for Bush. Kerry’s Catholicism doesn’t appear to have helped him much; Catholics were 5% more likely to have voted for Bush – perhaps reflecting the relative popularity of the Bush campaign’s anti-abortion stance.

Within Protestantism, white Evangelicals were 57% more likely to vote Bush; a considerable margin, although not as homogenous as many commentators thought. This picture is reinforced by the stats measuring religious devotion: while those attending church at least once a week were much more likely to vote Bush, the margin is not as high as some of the more lazy commentaries would have you believe. Jews were 49% more likely to support Kerry – in keeping with previous elections, although the Democrats appear to have slipped amongst this constituency by around 9 points.

Marital/Family status: Married people 15% more likely to vote Bush – rising to 19 if they have children as well, although it is perhaps significant that this falls to an 8 point lead if these children are under 18 (perhaps those who have children who have left home are enthusiastic about “family value” as a concept). While Kerry predictably leads amongst gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals, (54 points) a surprising 23% voted for Bush.

Iraq: The statistics here show what a difficult issue this was – for Kerry that is: those who approved of the war have 6 points over those who did not; surprisingly, slightly more people thought Kerry’s attacks on Bush in the campaign were unfair than Bush’s attacks on Kerry; and 55% thought the invasion of Iraq was about the War on Terror as opposed to 42% that did not.

Terrorism: This was also a very difficult issue for Kerry. 71% of the electorate described themselves “worried about terrorism” and on this, Bush had an 18-point lead. This, despite the fact that a majority thought the invasion of Iraq had made terrorism worse.

The economy: Like terrorism and Iraq, this illustrates Kerry’s weaknesses. Despite the fact that 52% thought the economy was “not good or poor”, and despite the fact that 51% had no confidence in Bush’s ability to improve the situation, voters had even less (53%) confidence in Kerry.

Only amongst African-Americans did Kerry solidify and expand his voter base; amongst Hispanics Bush has gained slightly, as he has with Jewish voters. “Moral values” came top of the list of voter priorities, with 22% stating this to be the most important issue – but 20% had the economy/jobs as the most important. When this is combined with the other “bread-and-butter” issues, such as taxes and health care, the scale of the Kerry campaign's failure becomes clearer: despite the fact that the Bush administration has presided over an enormously rapid fiscal deterioration, Kerry hasn’t been able to persuade voters that Bush's tax-cuts for the rich have harmed the economy. Neither, for example, did the Kerry campaign tap into the colossal 93% of voters who were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the availability and cost of health care.

It’s still the economy, stupid…

Monday, November 08, 2004

Election 2004: Dumb and dumber?

In the aftermath of the Presidential election, much of the analysis has focused, inevitably, on why Kerry couldn’t defeat a President who has brought America into one of the most divisive wars since Vietnam; presided over the biggest haemorrhage of jobs since the 1930s; combined tax cuts for the rich with what the Economist described as the “fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history” – along with a mangled syntax and delivery which must surely cause even his most ardent supporters to cringe?

Fairly typical was this piece from Simon Schama in the Guardian. The gist for those who understandably feel they have better things to do with their time is that “Godly America” is bigger than “Worldly America” and the former are red-necked, isolationist, homophobic, sexist, gun-toting, Muslim-bating – and, above all – stupid. And it was these, who are so tragically less civilised than himself, Schama thinks, that won the election for Bush.

As someone who wanted Kerry to win, this is a happy and convenient world-view: the reason my preferred candidate didn’t prevail, I have to understand, is simply that the primitive mid-Westerners are all suffering from false-consciousness through watching too much Fox News, and/or have been indoctrinated by Evangelical pastors because they’re too stupid to listen to the likes of Richard - if I were chocolate, I’d eat myself - Dawkins who joined in the Guardian’s understandably deeply unsuccessful attempt to tell American voters what was in their best interests.

But this view is, I would argue, is largely false and if Democrats persist in this self-satisfied “analysis”, they’ll keep losing. The truth of the matter is that Kerry supporters broke one of the central tenets of political combat: never “misunderestimate” your enemy.

One of the fatal assumptions of the Kerry campaign was to believe their own rhetoric about crazed fundamentalist Christians taking over the Republicans and pushing for an extreme anti-abortion position. But fundamentalists only account for 25% of Bush supporters – making them around 12-13% of voters. Moreover, it is simply inaccurate to assume that all fundamentalists want abortion criminalized. (It's pure speculation but I also suspect that even some of the hard-core pro-lifers would flinch at making all abortion illegal, once the implications of this position have sunk in.) In other words, most Americans and most Republicans favour a women’s right to chose, so if the Democrats are so clever why didn’t they realise that this is an issue that they could afford to tackle head-on? It was frustrating watching Kerry failing to do over this issue what you have to do in American politics: emote and personalise. Why didn’t he bang the metaphorical table and challenge Bush by saying something like: "How would you feel if your daughter died in a back-street botched abortion, a**hole?”

Or the economy: some have argued that working class Bush supporters have been brain-washed by evangelicals into supporting economic policies that are to their detriment. Nothing to do with the fact that Kerry wasn’t offering an alternative to neo-liberalism, then? As I mentioned briefly, Bush’s economic policies have been something of a disaster – but what was Kerry offering? Tweaks around the edges; a bit more protectionism here, a mild increase in taxation there. Shouldn’t they consider the possibility that the dumb proles actually know perfectly well that a change in Administration ain’t gonna change their circumstances one iota? Could they not be bothered to harness a critique of the economy to “family values” – perhaps by making the point that rampant, free-markets are bad for family life?

Or the war: what can one say except next time it might be an idea if they pick a candidate who actually has a position on these sorts of issues? And why did any Democrat allow themselves to be associated even a wee bit with Michael Moore’s appalling Fahrenheit 9/11? It comes over like The Hardy Boys Discover Capitalism, and is the most ahistorical documentary I have ever seen. Yet a number of Kerry supporters were drooling over this bilge, which is as stupid and insular as anything that spews out from the Christian Right, even claiming that this would swing the election for Kerry.

I could go on but I’m getting depressed. In some ways, the news of Election 2004 isn’t all bad, in that I don’t believe that America has lurched to the right: over-weening corporate power is treated with suspicion, the majority support a woman’s right to chose, a majority want better access to health-care and so on.

The bad news is that, with this being true, a Bush victory could have been avoided – had the Democrats not run a campaign that was incohate, lazy, patronising, and, above all, stupid.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Max Weber, bureaucracy and PFI

A key theme that runs through the work of Max Weber is the idea that the means to a given end can start off being rational but become irrational when those means become an end in themselves. This was true, for example, in the Protestant Ethic Thesis, which argued that the pursuit of a given end - in this case salvation (or to be more accurate - the need to certificate one's salvation) - gave rise to a peculiar phenomenon, the idea work per se as a virtue. Once disconnected from the end, one is left, he said, with the idea of work as a "calling" which "prowls around in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs". The key point is that this "inner-worldly" and ascetic attitude to work is now completely irrational from the point of individual utility.

The same concept runs through his theory of bureaucracy : this form of administration was more efficient than it's predecessors because it is more "rational" in that tasks are divided in a hierarchal chain of command; access to posts based on legal-rational certification etc. But problems arise when, as with the notion of work as a calling, the means become ends in themselves. The net effect for Weber, is that in the modern industrialists world, we inexorably move towards imprisonment in an "iron cage" of bureaucracy. Weber - gloomy chap that he was - tended to be longer on diagnosis rather than cure but in as far as he offered one, he favoured a society where charismatic individuals are given the liberty to hold back the forces of routinization that all forms of administration tend to succumb to. In the economic sphere, these "charismatics" are entrepreneurs and this is why he favoured free-markets, rather than economic planning because the latter would, in the long-run, simply lead to more bureaucracy.

From this, one could make the obvious point that, in education, we arrived at the point where the pursuit of means (e.g. assessment) has become irrational years ago - and I think anyone working in the public sector would probably agree. Rather, what I've been thinking lately is that while Weber was probably right about the Soviet model, he was wrong about free-markets because he couldn't have seen the way in which the marketization of our public services has succeeded in creating more bureaucracy. I would argue that this isn't the product of incompetence or poor planning but is instead the inevitable result of creating a market where none existed.

While there is obviously disagreement about the role of the state amongst economists, practically all agree that there is a need for state-intervention in cases of "market failure". This concept holds that there are certain public goods that would never arise out of the interaction of rational, self-interested individuals in the market place. I won't bore you with examples; suffice to say Thatcher's favourite Scottish economist Adam Smith considered mass education to fall into that category. Now, it's not that Mrs. Thatcher and her successors didn't accept this exactly - but they seem to think that these "public goods" benefit from the bracing winds of market competition. I think this - apart from its other effects - does not enhance "efficiency" but does, in fact, actually create more bureaucracy for the following reasons. Outscoring services, such as catering, maintenance, building, etc. means competition - which is supposed to drive down costs, thereby producing more efficiency, right? Except it's wrong. Anyone who surveys the paperwork they have at home will notice that probably at least 90% of this has to do with economic transactions; bank statements, P60s, insurance documents, registration documents for cars to prove you own it etc. The same principles apply to institutions : all these contracts that have risen out creating a market where there wasn't one produces a whole extra layer of paperwork - and paperwork that has to be managed. In this way, I'm arguing, marketization becomes self-defeating by the very same criterion by which it is advocated.

And it doesn't stop there because we all know that, in the name of "accountability", everyone in employment - as well as doing the job - has to fill in numerous forms in which, basically, you have to say what you're going to do, do it, and then write down what you've just done. If the institution you work for is really sad, at some point you'll have filled in a box entitled "what did you learn?", to which you might be tempted to respond : "something to do with the futility of my existence", or something. And then all this paperwork has to be managed and monitored by some hapless line manager.

In summary : Max Weber - smart guy but didn't reckon on vapid, low-grade management-speak taking over the world, did he?

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Labour's Election Prospects

In last Sunday's Observer, Nick Cohen challenges the conventional wisdom that the Conservatives, on present trajectory, haven't a prayer of winning the next election - assumed to be held at some point in the spring of 2005.

Cohen argues that the "anti-Tory coalition is falling apart", by which he means that the Iraq war has divided the centre-left with the Lib Dems nominally opposed to the foreign policy direction of the Blair government. He makes the point that, whereas in 1997 and 2001 Labour supporters were prepared to vote Lib Dem to defeat the Tories, this won't hold the other way: anti-war Liberals won't be prepared to reciprocate this time round.

He also argues that the Tories are in better shape than they seem (or as he puts it: "they aren't as "ugly, boring or stupid as they look"). To support this he points to the fact that they're more united and mobilised behind issues such as Europe, fox-hunting and asylum than they were in previous elections; he also notes the strange trend - found in at least the last four or five elections - for pollsters to consistently underestimate the level of Tory support in the country.

He then - before pointing to evidence that Gordon Brown would be more popular with the electorate - re-inforces the point that the "luvvies-for-Labour" phenomenon that we saw in the last two elections is likely to be absent this time.

Now, while being mindful that nothing is certain in politics (events, dear boy, events...), and being aware it might just be wishful thinking on my part, twenty quid says Nick Cohen is wrong for the following reasons:

Cohen refers to an "anti-Tory" coalition - but one could just as easily speak of an anti-Labour coalition and this is surely a more disparate and divided group? The Tories - having supported the war have attempted to back-track, with Michael Howard quoted as saying "if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have voted for the war". This, it should go without saying, is hardly a coherent position - given that the Tories only know what they know now because of the invasion of Iraq. But the most important point here is that it isn't just me that thinks so: the story of the by-elections so far is not so much why is the Governenment doing badly but why aren't the Tories doing better? To form a government at the next election, the Tories really should be able to capitalise on Labour's difficulties. But they haven't, which leaves the Liberals...

Personally, I don't think the Lib Dems have a coherent position on the war either (they opposed it on the principle of UN-based legalism, which is fair enough - except they supported the Kosovo campaign, which didn't have UN cover either) but unlike with the Tories, it apparently is only me that thinks so; they have, without question, benefited electorally from their opposition to the war. However, there is good reason to think that this will not translate into their most ardently wished-for fantasy: to replace the Tories as the main opposition. For one thing, the Liberals can't quite decide whether they are a party of the centre-left of centre-right. This reflects the division within the party between social democrats and assorted hippies of various kinds and libertarian free-marketeers. To overcome this ambiguity, the Libs are fond of saying that they are beyond the conventional division between left and right in politics. But the left and right division does exist - and simply pretending that it doesn't isn't going to make it go away.

The other problem with Cohen's analysis is that it fails to take account of how voting preferences tend to change in the run-up to elections: whilst in mid-term, people tend to think in terms of "us", i.e. the "people" - and "them", i.e. "the government"; whereas when campaigning begins in earnest, the electorate see the parties much more in terms of representing a choice. In previous elections, this usually has translated into more support for the incumbents as people begin to think about the alternatives more.

Finally, on this point, I would argue that Cohen is over-estimated the impact of Iraq on the electorate. He has personal reasons for doing so, being one of the few left-wingers to give strong support for regime-change. But he should realise that foreign policy falls way down on the list of voters' priorities - behind the economy, crime, health-care and education, even in such a divisive war as this one has been.

And it is this understanding that makes me think he's wrong about the Tories as well; they may well be united on the issues of Europe and asylum (on the former, I'd disagree anyway) but the hapless Mr. Hague discovered that this is not enough to win the electorate over. It's doubly problematic for the Tories because it's not that people don't agree with the Tories on this issue; all the polls suggest they do - it's just that these issues aren't nearly as important as taxes, the economy, health and education: on all of these, Labour is ahead.

My money's still on a Labour victory, with a reduced majority. The basis of my argument is that people, if anything, have under-estimated the depths to which Tory fortunes have sunk. They have an ageing membership; their by-election results have been poor; they are still divided on Europe (this, combined with the percieved threat from Ukip, may push them into banging on about an issue that most voters don't really care about); and - above all - they have never regained their reputation for economic competence since the ERM debacle. Who was it that said: "it's the economy, stupid"?

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