Friday, July 30, 2010

'Free-schools' and the Dawkins delusion

How do salvation religions respond to the fact that the world is evil, asked Max Weber? His answer was that they can either: 1) retreat from it quietistically, 2) engage with it ascetically or 3) try and take it over theocratically.

Some might argue that the whole business of 'faith-schools' should be slotted under 3 but this is a misunderstanding. 'Theocratic' is slowly becoming one of those words like 'fascism' in that it is being emptied of meaning - its overuse spreading like a semantic virus.

The quest for state-funding for religious segregation and indoctrination in education is unjustified - but it does not represent a theocratic take-over. It should be slotted under 1 and 2 - both of these essentially being about the religious attempting to carve out a space for themselves in this world where they can keep their garments unstained by the spirit of the age.

The extent to which this is pursued depends on the intensity of the belief. Someone of a religious disposition may, for example, send their children to a supposedly secular school but insist that their children are withdrawn from activities such as sex education, music classes or swimming.

But if the religious convictions are held with any depth at all, generally an educational space that provides institutional withdrawal from theologically disagreeable pursuits is often preferred.

Those of us who think this is undesirable - and who particularly don't appreciate being compelled to finance services that exclude our children - are inclined, therefore, to be very sceptical about Mr Gove's educational reforms since everyone, opponents and advocates alike, agree that they will facilitate more of this kind of thing.

It is on this front that Richard Dawkins has done the cause of secular education an enormous disservice with his suggestion that he would like to set up an atheist 'free-school'. His groupies have completely missed the point by rushing to his defence and saying he said 'free-thinking' and not atheist. Nevermind that anyone with an ounce of historical sense should understand what this term has served as shorthand for in the past. Dawkins has implicitly given his support for government policy and inadvertently reinforced the impression - one he rightly takes issue with - that secularism is just one of a number of 'worldviews' that customers should be invited to buy in some postmodern supermarket of ideas.

Instead of trying to build an escape hatch within the system - a retreat from this world - he should be challenging this felt need to have an atheist school at all. And if he wants to refute the lie that secularism is just a form of religion-like ideology like any other, it might help if he didn't behave like a Seventh Day Adventist himself.

On centralization

Despite all the talk of 'new politics' it seems that some of the trends that we have seen in British politics for at least thirty years are set to continue. We saw it under Thatcher and I wouldn't dispute for a moment that the Blair years represented a continuation of the accumulation of power to central government at the expense of local.

The trick of the establishment has always been to dress this up in the language of 'choice' and 'empowerment' so that centralizing moves are presented as the exact opposite.

In education this has been attempted in the form of grant-maintained opt outs and now with the academies plan. I'm wondering if Michael Gove will come to realise what his predecessors did - that the oversight of local democracy in education remains irritatingly popular.

Now with this notion that council tax rises should be subjected to local referendums, we have yet another power grab by central government being presented as local democracy in action. It contains all the features loathed by Paul Evans - populist nonsense that undermines proper deliberative democratic control over the provision of local services. The Communities Secretary Mr Pickles said that he was "in favour of local people making local decisions" but even a cursory analysis of these proposals reveals that he is in favour of nothing of the sort. For what 'choice' are local voters to be given in these referendums? To veto council tax rises if they exceed levels set by central government. What business does central government have setting a ceiling on local taxation? Their scope is already limited by the relatively small share of finance that is actually raised locally - now it is to be constrained further.

We already have a mechanism by which local people can exercise control over local taxation. It's called representative democracy. You don't like the level of services and the price at which you are being charged for them? Vote for someone else then.

I used the term British advisedly because we've seen this in Scotland too. Council tax has been frozen for two years - but at least here central government had no power to impose it and was dependent on the cooperation of local councils. The English proposal, on the other hand, is a classic populist technique for circumventing decisions made at a local level that are uncongenial to a central government with a state-shrinking agenda. In British politics it seems there is nothing new under the sun - but you can be sure that this won't deter this shower presenting this as a 'radical' move. Emptying words of meaning - another tiresome trend that goes on and on...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Back from ma hols

If you're like me, you'll glaze over after more than a few holiday pics so here's jus one or four...

Here's a mosaic from the world's largest collection of mosaics in Tunisia.

Here's an amphitheatre...

Just put them to pretend I spent my time taking in culture, which of course I didn't. Spent most of the time drinking and getting some sorely-missed vitamin D.

The locals kept asking me if I was English or Irish. No offence to any English or Irish readers but I'd much rather be mistaken for a Scandinavian - but when you see these blond giraffes with their sickeningly even tans, it isn't really difficult to see why no-one made that mistake.

Our friendly driver whose 'tut-tut' could carry six people - or four Germans - to the beach...

And finally...

Here's how you know at least some of the people on the Glasgow flight ended up at the same hotel as you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Away ma hols now...

Coalition blues (again, briefly - sorry)

"Why is our government so accident-prone?", asked Sunder at LC a while back. But it is confidence, not being accident-prone, that strikes me as the outstanding characteristic of this government. Astonishing confidence - zeal, you could even say. Why is an interesting question but for now one feature of this deserves more attention than it has hitherto been given. This is a coalition government but as Paul Sagar says today, "you'd be hard-pressed to recognise this as a coalition government at all".

Given that the text-book treatment of coalitions always has it that they tend to produce more moderate and less hyper-active governments built on compromise, the question as to why this isn't the case with this one?

On the subject of how to treat the Lib Dems, Jamie made the following suggestion:
"[T]hey should be treated as if they no longer exist. This is, after all, how Nick Clegg is treating them, and he should know."
I thought this was rather good - Paul didn't agree. But with the audacious budget, the proposed reforms to the NHS and now with educational reform presently hurtling through the legislature, I think Jamie's thesis deserves more serious consideration. In Paul's comments MatGB took great exception to this. If power was all Laws and Huhne were interested in, why didn't they defect when asked? Big pond, small fish would be a simple answer. Every A-level politics student knows, or should know, that coalitions give leverage to smaller parties - it makes small fish bigger.

This might be unfair but frankly I struggle to see a more plausible explanation. And I am certainly struggling to see what, exactly, is the moderating effect that the Liberals are supposed to be having?

Finally, I would have to say that the Liberals' constitutional piety means absolutely nothing to me at all if controversial legislation of this nature can be stream-rolled through Parliament in a manner which would make a Thatcher or a Blair green with envy. Both of these had whopping majorities - Cameron doesn't have one at all. Or maybe he does...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Politics and personalities

Chris Dillow suggests that Mandelson's reheated gossip about Blair and Brown is like celebrity gossip - only more malign:
"The difference is that readers of this guff can sanctimoniously deceive themselves that they are taking an interest in affairs of state whilst looking down on readers of Heat magazine or viewers of Big Brother.

But the reality is that the two have much in common - they're pressing their face against a window, hoping for a glimpse into more glamorous lives.

Except for one thing. It could be that Mandelson-style gossip has nastier consequences. It displaces substantive discussion of politics - about policy - from the media. And it turns people away from politics, thinking it is mere tittle-tattle about dullards."
He's right to say that taking an interest in political gossip is not the same thing as taking an interest in politics - but I don't think it is right to suggest that it always serves as an alternative. It isn't always, or even usually, a zero-sum game. Generally people listen to gossip when it concerns things they are interested in. People will tell you stories about footballers because they're interested in football. I couldn't tell you any. I could, on the other hand, tell you something about the lives of musicians I like - even though I take the view that their personalities have very little bearing on how they perform as artists.

Anyway, while Chris rightly points out that no-one has actually identified a policy area that suffered as a result of this particular poisonous pairing of Blair and Brown, it does seem to have a bearing on the conduct of the election, which brings me to this piece by Andrew Rawnsley:
"It is time for Labour to talk about Gordon. He was not the sole reason for their defeat, but he was an absolutely fundamental one. Until they face up to that, and to the collective misjudgment that made him their leader and then kept him there, they will still be telling themselves the same lies that landed them where they are now."
To this I have one big and a couple of small observations. I've written before about the problem of Brown's Scottishness, which was a way of getting at the idea that the culture of the Labour party is simply not democratic enough. Brown was not elected but received a coronation - partly, it seems, because of some pact that him and Blair are supposed to have made in a pasta restaurant? Some have commented in the past that Blair was under no obligation to stick to this but it is surely an outrageous way to conduct the affairs of a political party in the first place?

One would hope Labour are unlikely to repeat this mistake again but they could do with dealing with the more deep-seated ambivalence to democracy that lurks around in the shadows of the Labour movement. I would suggest this is, for example, behind their resistance to things like reform of the House of Lords and electoral reform. I'm skeptical about the latter but I don't think there would be many realists who would disagree that Labour's resistance to this has quite a lot to do with the calculation of electoral advantage. In general there has always been a strand in the Labour party that has been resistant to democratic and liberal limits to the power of the state because they fear their programme of social reform will be stymied by these constitutional restraints.

The other more minor points are something of a repetition too. Labour picked Brown because they confused being grumpy and Scottish for being a social democrat. It was a peculiar misunderstanding of the Scottish background in this case; a Church of Scotland minister isn't the social equivalent of a miner. But even if Brown had been the son of a miner, so what? It would not have followed from this that he was therefore either a good leader or that he would have adopted policies that would have benefited the working class. To argue otherwise is to mistake culture and background for class and competence. Labour does this quite a lot - probably because it has lost touch with its origins and thus mistakes sentimentality for class interests. Not sure exactly how they should go about sorting this out but acknowledging it's a problem might be a start.

Finally, it should be recognised that the problem didn't start with Brown. Everyone used to go on about how Blair and Brown didn't really disagree about the major issues. They did. They disagreed about who should be Prime Minister - and Brown's behaviour over this was a disgrace. Blair should have sacked him - but he was afraid to because he feared his own position within the party wasn't strong enough. Any autopsy, then, also has to address this question too: was Blair simply weak or did he correctly perceive that large swathes of the parliamentary party didn't like him very much? Which is back to the whole question of internal democracy and how the party picks its leaders...

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Nick Clegg must hang...

Sorry, meant to write a title that reflected the contents of this post, which is about AV, but that kept floating through my mind.

Anyway, AV referendum, eh?

Not quite as hardcore but I'm more or less with Paulie on the subject of referendums.

With Nick Cohen when he argues that AV is this orphaned child that actually no-one wants - as if there wasn't enough reason not to have some stupid referendum on the subject.

Not with Sunny at all with this short-term strategic bollocks about how it would look 'unprincipled' for Labour to oppose it. This from someone who advocated a vote for the Lib Dems and is now striking a pose as the voice of opposition? Gimme a fucking break...

With various people who think it is a stupid idea to have it the same date as the Scottish elections but not with those who use this form of words:
"Scottish ministers reacted with fury this morning after it emerged that the UK Government intends to hold a referendum on proportional representation on 5 May next year – the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections."
The government is not planning to hold a referendum on PR because AV is a majoritarian and not a proportional system. Honestly. If I can be arsed, I'll vote 'no'. More probably spoil my ballot paper by scrawling the words, 'Nick Clegg must hang' across it.

Rebranding the Conservatives

Some in the party think this is necessary - in Scotland, that is:
", which has strong links to the upper echelons of the UK party, suggested new names to change the Tories' image such as the Scottish Unionist Party, the name until 1965; the Scottish Freedom Party and the Scottish Reform Party."
I wish them luck with that. Actually, I don't. The Conservatives do seem to have a particular problem in Scotland, over and above what you might expect from the make-up of Scotland's electorate in terms of the proportion of our population that work in manufacturing industry and the public sector and live in 'social housing' and so on.

The solution isn't a return to the previous name of Scottish Unionist because it is in this peculiar history lies one of their big problems. The 'Unionist' part of the Conservatives full name has nothing to do with the union between Scotland and England. It originated from - Liberals take note - the absorption of the Liberal Unionist faction that split and joined the Tories over Gladstone's Home Rule policy.

In Scotland, the Conservatives traditionally got the Orange vote while Catholics voted overwhelmingly for Labour. One of the reasons for the long term secular decline of the Conservatives in Scotland is that this issue simply is no longer important to Scots, regardless of their confesional disposition - party because it is no longer partisan in the way it was when Labour favoured a 'united Ireland by consent' and partly because religion in general is a greatly diminished force in Scotland's social and political life.

The fate of the Conservatives has been as a result quite interesting: they are a more genuinely conservative party in Scotland than in the rest of the UK in that they are more firmly identified with the past. This is why they have been left behind. Any hope of their revival lies in recognising this fact. I for one hope they maintain their refusal to see this reality.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Money and liberty

We're used to money - or the love of it - being understood as the root of all evil or people being degraded by the 'cash nexus' and all that but there's another more liberating side to the invention of money.

Under feudalism, payment in kind was a mechanism for control as it limited the peasant farmer's production to certain activities. The growing acceptance of money allowed for a wider range of productive activity: they showed less interest in how the farmer raised the money provided they received their rent.

This is not to suggest that it fundamentally altered the power relationship based on ownership - only that within this structure the use of money, because it is universally accepted in exchange for goods and services, is relatively liberating.

During the industrial revolution this was well understood by mine-owners, which is why it was common for them during the early days of deep-cast mining to pay their workers in tokens that could only be spent in one shop. The shop they happened to own, of course.

This is how the latest suggestion that dole recipients should be given food vouchers should be understood. The obvious solution to poverty, which is simply to give the poor more money, is unacceptable to our new 'progressive' coalition overlords. They understand that money gives people choices and in the case of the poor, this would never do because they would just make the 'wrong' choices. All the talk of the need for economy, that deficits have to be cut, that we have to be 'realistic', should be understood against this background of selective libertarianism. We have today a government already showing the hardest face towards the poor in living memory. It takes a special kind of brassneck to describe this as 'new politics'.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Thinking about Christopher

Sad news that Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with cancer. As Ophelia Benson remarks, the vultures have indeed started to circle. Cristina Odone announces that she is going to pray for him. Actually, while this intention is in the title of her post, she seems a little ambivalent:
"I would like to get on my knees and say the “Our Father” for someone for whom I have a sneaking admiration. But is it right to pray for someone who claims to find prayer hateful?"
Cristina - not sure if I'm really the kind of person you would appreciate advice from but understand this: Jesus said you've already received your reward in full. Since you claim to take him as something of an authority, perhaps this might help you make up your mind?

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