Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Provisional BBC

I’ve just discovered The Provisional BBC, purveyor of spoof news stories.

Such as: “Madonna is refusing to set out a timetable for returning baby David Banda to Malawi, saying he will only leave when the job is complete. The singer has attracted international criticism for adopting the baby under false pretences, but will not apologise. ‘I can apologise for the effects of the adoption, but I cannot in all honesty apologise for the adoption,’ she told Oprah yesterday, adding ‘God told me to do it.’”

And: “Britain is fast being swamped by waves of celebrities who refuse to work and expect the rest of us to prop up their extravagant lifestyles. Home Office officials would not confirm Celebrity Watch's figures, but admitted in private they were unsure Britain could cope with a sustained influx of celebrities.”

Share and enjoy.

Monday, October 30, 2006

You can’t buck the climate

Telegraph leader column: “The Daily Telegraph accepts that the planet is getting warmer, and that human activity is probably contributing to this.”

Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change: “The scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change presents very serious global risks, and it demands an urgent global response.”

Telegraph: “It is a pity that all three main parties have bought into the idea that state regulation is the answer. Market mechanisms have proved highly effective at delivering green goals.”

Stern: “Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.”

The Telegraph – which is, alas, not alone in its ‘I’m-not-a-racist-but’-type attitude to climate change – seems to believe that if the climate becomes a piece of collateral damage in the war against the nanny state, then that would be regrettable but acceptable. And by pretending that the free-rider problem of collective action doesn’t exist, it elides the connection between state compulsion and market mechanisms.

If everyone’s choices are voluntary, the incentive for any given market participant to make the short-term individual sacrifice needed for long-term collective gain will be minimal. This is why coordination by government (and, of course, among governments) is essential. In this case, a simple fear of future climate change – even if universally held – will not inspire adequate action by individual people and corporations.

The amount of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere is not the sort of thing that can be purchased by eco-conscious consumers, nor is it something that can be offered for sale by companies. Neither supply nor demand, in the standard economic sense, will coherently operate here. For market mechanisms to play an effective role, legislation has to create a market for emissions.

Stern argues that “international collective action will be critical in driving an effective, efficient and equitable response on the scale required. This response will require deeper international co-operation in many areas – most notably in creating price signals and markets for carbon, spurring technology research, development and deployment, and promoting adaptation, particularly for developing countries.”

And: “Putting an appropriate price on carbon – explicitly through tax or [emissions] trading, or implicitly through regulation – means that people are faced with the full social cost of their actions. This will lead individuals and businesses to switch away from high-carbon goods and services, and to invest in low-carbon alternatives.“

Market forces are tremendously powerful; they can outwit state regulation and drive the perpetual innovation that improves people’s lives. But without governments coming together to point the way, even Adam Smith’s invisible hand can’t buck the climate.

‘Is salvation a pledge or just an aspiration?’

John Humphrys will be interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and Tariq Ramadan over the next three weeks in a Radio 4 series, Humphrys in Search of God. The programmes will be broadcast tomorrow and the following two Tuesdays, at 9am and again at 9.30pm.

Depending on how much of his Today programme style he carries over, it could be interesting. Otherwise, it could be very cringeworthy indeed.

Friday, October 27, 2006

25 to 0 in 8 days

A Friday question: would it be better to describe the government’s attitude to religious schools as craven or pusillanimous?

It’s a toughie. They both have a good ring to them, and semantically they’re pretty close. I think craven conveys contemptibility better, but then pusillanimous probably has more connotations of being self-serving.

Either way, pah.

This area of policy isn’t the government’s most serious failure, but it is the one that pisses me off the most. Especially as it’s my bloody party! Well done Alan Johnson, you’ve managed to make Kenneth Baker look good.

Climate change and the Underpants Gnomes

There’s an episode of South Park in which the boys discover that a band of tiny gnomes are stealing people’s underpants. In the gnomes’ underground lair, they explain their cunning plan:

Cartman: “So what are you gonna do with all these underpants that you steal?’
Gnome: “Collecting underpants is just phase 1. Phase 1: collect underpants.”
Kyle: “Sooo, what's phase 2?”
Gnome: [has no response. Looks around, then calls out to the other gnomes on the underpants mound] “Hey, what's phase 2?”
Gnome 2: “Phase 1: we collect underpants.”
Gnome: “Yeah yeah yeah, but. What about phase 2?”
Gnome 2: [says nothing, then] “Well, phase 3 is profit. Get it?”
Stan: “I don't get it.”
Gnome 2: [walks up to a large chart] “You see, Phase 1: collect underpants. Phase 2: … Phase 3: Profit!”
Cartman: “Oh, I get it.”

There is much clamour at the moment for something called a ‘climate change bill’. The Independent wants one, and so do the Tories.

The latter have even published a proposal, pompously entitled ‘A Bill (as called for by the people of Britain) to control emissions of climate change gases in the United Kingdom’ – rather than the more accurate ‘A Press Release (as written by the Conservative Party) to make the government look bad’:

“The purpose of the Bill is to set the United Kingdom on a path to delivering a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 60 per cent by 2050, in line with the present recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; to establish a statutory duty to meet this target; to put in place mechanisms for setting annual targets leading towards the 2050 target; to establish a statutory duty to meet these annual targets; to put in place mechanisms whereby progress towards the 2050 target can be measured and reported upon annually; and to enable policy to be informed by, and adjusted according to, the latest authoritative, independent, scientific evidence.”

The whole text of the proposal – I do recommend that you read it all, it won’t take long – goes into more detail on the structure of the commission, the scheduling of the target reviews, the making of ministerial progress reports and the like. But on two matters it is utterly silent.

First of all, while it states that the targets should be “binding”, it contains no provision whatsoever for any way of enforcing the “statutory duty to meet these annual targets”. And it hints at no sanction that could be applied in the event of a missed target, nor to whom such a sanction might apply (the Environment Secretary/the Prime Minister/the Cabinet/the whole of Parliament/industry/the general public?).

David Cameron sneered at Tony Blair this week that any Labour proposals would doubtless be “watered down”. But the Tory proposal is all water to start with. It talks tough, but amounts to nothing without measures for either enforcement or punishment.

Secondly, and far more seriously, the Tory proposal contains absolutely no suggestions for how to reduce emissions by as much as a gnat’s fart. How are they going to do it: wind farms across Yorkshire? New nuclear power stations? Taxes on flights and gas-guzzlers? Banning energy-inefficient appliances? Subsidising loft insulation? Industry carbon rationing? EU emissions trading? Not a word.

This is wishing the end but not the means. It’s just not credible.

More broadly, I think that carbon emission targets for every single year, with real sanctions against ministers for missing them, would be stupid. These emissions are the result of far more than government policy, and to single anyone out as responsible for the actions of the whole country is absurd. Unless, of course, Cameron favours a total command economy?

Also, the threat of annual sanctions would, rather than concentrating the minds of government to make sustained efforts, be more likely to inspire a series of annual desperate wheezes by ministers concerned for their next paycheque, in the knowledge that within a couple of years they’ll probably be reshuffled elsewhere. A string of attempted quick fixes will fail before very long, and is no substitute for a long-term strategy. This scheme would provide no incentive at all to pursue measures that would have a big effect only five to ten years down the line.

What is needed is substantial, sustainable cuts in emissions, starting ASAP and continuing over decades (across the world, not just in the UK). That doesn’t entail that every single year must be an improvement on the last, as long as the trend is right. Any number of things could unexpectedly make emissions increase in the short term.

And compare other policy areas: nobody seriously imagines that the rules should dock the Home Secretary’s pay if the crime rate goes up in one particular year, or that the Chancellor should lose his job if the unemployment rate rises in any given quarter, or that the Health Secretary’s career should be wrecked by a single old lady waiting too long on a hospital trolley (actually, I think the Tories often have gone for that last one, but never mind).

The Tories claim that this is “taking the politics out of climate change” – but of course it isn’t any such thing. What it would do is motivate the shortest of short-termism, institutionalise a blame game and leave all the controversial policy decisions unmade. The annual targets idea sounds tough but is irrelevant and unworkable – and that’s even if you fill in the gaping emptiness at the heart of Cameron’s version.

Phase 1: Pass climate change bill.
Phase 2: …
Phase 3: Prevent climate change!

You can’t save the world by proclamation or by woolly good intentions. Pants to that.

But I am glad the Tories are now talking about climate change, however vaguely and implausibly. It creates some political space for the government to get its act together and make some of the unpleasant decisions that are necessary. Labour’s record on this hasn’t exactly been brilliant – largely because of its depressing fear of the depressing Tory attacks on fuel duty and the like.

The Stern Review next week will make interesting reading.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Today in Africa

Sudan 'is arming rebels' in Chad
Sudan's government is arming rebels in Chad, the government has alleged amid reports that rebels are moving towards the Chadian capital, N'Djamena. …
"These rebels entered Chad from Sudan and they could only have procured this type of military equipment within the sight of and with the knowledge of the Sudanese authorities. Sudan cannot deny it," Chadian Foreign Minister Ahmar Allami told AFP news agency.
Khartoum denies backing the rebels, and in turn accuses Chad of backing rebels in the war-torn Darfur region.

Ethiopia is 'technically at war'
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says that his country is "technically" at war with Somalia's Islamic courts. "The jihadist elements within the Islamic Court movement are spoiling for a fight," he told Reuters news agency. …
The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) has consolidated its control over much of southern Somalia after seizing the capital, Mogadishu, in June. …
The Islamists accuse Ethiopia of having troops inside the country as a fighting force backing the weak transitional government. …
Eritrea, which is deeply hostile to Ethiopia, is also alleged to have sent troops to Somalia to reinforce the UIC.

Niger's Arabs to fight expulsion
Leaders of around 150,000 Arabs in Niger say they will fight moves to expel them to Chad in the courts. Niger's government has ordered the Arabs, known as Mahamid, to leave the country accusing them of wrongdoing, including theft and rape. …
"The government has decided to return to its frontiers the Mahamid Arabs because of their difficult relations with indigenous rural populations," Niger's Interior Minister Mounkaila Modi told national television.
… many of the Arabs were nomads who fled neighbouring Chad to escape fighting there and have lived in Niger for up to 50 years.

People often talk about ‘failed states’ across Africa. But when you consistently see ‘civil’ conflicts and political disputes that spill across borders (the most horrific recent example being around the DR Congo), this phrase doesn’t quite capture it. A better view would be that the state system in Africa is (with some notable exceptions) a failure. The colonisers may have gone home long ago, but they left intact the colonial states with their ridiculous borders; in too many cases, a change of skin colour among the men at the top hasn’t led to stable nation-states.

It took a long time, and a lot of killing, for most borders in Europe to become reasonably well settled and for meaningful national identities to form. Which invites the question of whether the violence in much of Africa represents the death throes of the colonial system or the birth pangs of a legitimate order loosely based on that structure?

One enormous difference between Africa now and the Europe of centuries past is the international UN system, backed by far greater powers than exist in Africa. It means that changes to borders these days are comparatively few and far between, as the legal–political barriers against wars leading to legitimate border changes are much higher. As this acts as a disincentive for straightforward interstate wars, it’s also another reason why so much of the conflict in postcolonial Africa has been between states and nonstate groups. (This dynamic is also fed by the weakness of state institutions and the fact that the strongest political identities are often not based on formal nationality.)

However, the internationally guaranteed survival of the current state structure (give or take) doesn’t just mean that there’s less reason to attempt conquests. It also means that there’s less reason for rulers to build effective states to secure their territories, fully eliminating or coopting internal threats – rather than merely suppressing them, buying them off or forcing them out on an ad hoc basis. The asymmetric and often transborder violence isn’t likely to necessitate the strengthening and stabilisation of states; it could just rumble on and on sporadically, inconclusively.

These remarks only touch on the complexity of it. A solution is far, far beyond the likes of me, but given the disparity between popular identities and state borders, it would probably have to involve national leaders shifting some of the political focus upwards (which they seem to be doing some of, tentatively, through the African Union) and downwards to localities, allowing different groups to make policies in line with their own interests and shape institutions in line with their own values and traditions.

Obviously, this will be hellishly difficult. Colonisation can’t wholly be undone, but with time and skill and effort and luck, it may perhaps be transcended.

Indoctrination, indoctrination, indoctrination

Back at university, a couple of friends and I set a few cryptic crosswords for the student rag. One of my more awful clues was: God-fearing feline addict? (8)

Anyway, the chairman of the Catholic Education Service, Vincent Nichols, has come out fighting [free registration required] against the proposal for faith schools to have to give a quarter of places to children from other religions or none. (I’m sceptical of the idea myself, but for different reasons.)

Let me try to interpret the Archbishop’s argument as best I can, although I caution you that theological exegesis was never my strong point (I went to a brain-rotting secular comp, you see).

“The amendment is… deeply insulting of the reality and achievements of Catholic schools. … The intended amendment is based on the assumption that Catholic schools, as they stand, are socially divisive. The evidence is the opposite”

It’s not our fault. Any divisiveness must all be down to those other religions. Did you know that some of them aren’t even true? We obviously deserve special treatment.

“the coercive measures being proposed by the Government will not win co-operation.”

We will not tolerate the government telling us how to spend the taxpayers’ money it gives us. We will confront them over this.

“Confrontation will not build social cohesion.”

Ah. Um… But miiii-iiiiss, he started it…

“Those who understand Catholic education know very well that it is an integrated endeavour, centred on the person of Christ, whose Spirit informs the school and whose teaching is embraced and explored in every aspect of its life.”

Hello children. Let me tell you about Jesus – but I’ll do it through the medium of dance. And maths. And biology.

“The introduction of ‘admissions requirements’ is a Trojan horse, bringing into Catholic schools those who may not only reject its central vision but soon seek to oppose it.”

Fear the militant entryist heathens! They will sacrifice their own children’s education to destroy the ethos of my precious schools!

“Catholic schools, on average, already welcome 30 per cent of their pupils from other Churches, faiths or none.”

This in no way undermines the rest of my case.

“Is it really sensible to assume that a new Catholic school could be planned on the projected needs of the Catholic community – for that is what happens – only for a quarter of those places to be taken away from that group of parents?”

A school that only discriminates 75% in favour of Catholics would be discriminatory. Now, I understand there are some people who aren’t Catholics but think they still should be able to send their children to their local schools. What these people refuse to see is that Catholics are more important. Can we have some more money now?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The wrong target

Adam LeBor argues in the Times that Sudan should be stripped of its UN membership because of the atrocities its government is visiting on the civilians of Darfur.

His case isn’t helped by the subtitle to the article, which falsely states: “The new Secretary-General has the power to expel these arrogant, bloodthirsty tyrannies.” LeBor himself makes clear in the piece that this would be a matter for the Security Council and the General Assembly.

In some cases, suspension or even annulment of UN membership could be a useful stick to motivate ‘rogue states’ – although there’s often a risk that international isolation can actually strengthen dictatorships domestically. But as he rhetorically concludes his piece, LeBor makes a category error on a par with that of his sub-editor:

“it is realistic to demand that the United Nations takes action against member states that commit genocide… If the United Nations cannot, or will not, stop genocide, then what is the point of its existence?”

The ‘United Nations’ is not some distinct power that can dictate terms to member states. It’s a club of governments who police each other as they find convenient. The Secretariat does have some operational independence, but it doesn’t call the shots.

UN action to stop the Sudanese government – whether diplomatic, economic or military – is a matter for the members of the Security Council. It is these national governments who make the decisions and governments who supply whatever resources are needed. Bush and Blair, despite some bold talk, are disinclined to get too controversially tough. Chirac seems to care little. Putin and particularly Hu have major economic (oil) interests in Sudan, so have good incentive to block punitive action.

The inaction is down to the motives and capabilities of the governments making the decisions, not the structures of the organisation within which they sit. The UN has very many weaknesses, and UN-bashing is often good sport if you’re so inclined (if, for instance, you’ve written a book called Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide). But if you want it to act differently, then you have to target those who really run the show.

Fireworks, 2 a.m.

Never mind asbos - we used to hang, draw and quarter people for trying to start explosions.


Friday, October 20, 2006

A Short quiz

Clare Short has today resigned the Labour whip. Prominent among the complaints in her resignation letter is that “the Prime Minister engaged in a series of half-truths and deceits to get us to war in Iraq”.

So, for ten points: How many dishonest wars in Iraq has Tony Blair launched since Short last stood for parliament as a Labour candidate?

And, for a bonus five points: Had Tony Blair already launched any dishonest wars in Iraq when Short last stood for parliament as a Labour candidate?

The unique way the Labour Party is funded

Hayden Phillips’s interim report on party funding “sets out the main issues as they appear to me, and the choices which face the public and the political parties”. He discusses the issues raised by four broad scenarios (without, at this stage, a stated preference): minimal change, increased transparency plus spending controls, capping donations, and more state funding.

I want to engage with what he has to say about the donation cap option in relation to trade union funding of Labour (see Annex H). I assume that Labour wishes to keep its union links and to avoid the huge loss of funding that a cap might entail (far in excess of any losses to the Tories and Lib Dems combined, according to Phillips – see page 46). A cap would likely be at a far lower level than the large union affiliation payments, with major consequences for Labour’s finances; the number of £50,000 is being touted, most notably by the Tories.

Phillips notes that affiliation fees are treated as donations under current law, and therefore (page 52):

“If a cap on donations were introduced… and the existing definition of a ‘donation’ was used, then the Labour Party would have to change the basis for calculating affiliation fees where the affiliation fee worked out at more than the cap. Trade unions would not be able to pay an affiliation fee that was more than the cap in donations regardless of the number of members the trade union had.”

The tenor of Phillips’s remarks (on page 53) suggests that he is not impressed by arguments that such caps would unfairly force changes to the internal structures of the party as regards how it deals with affiliates:

“there is an alternative view that recognises that… the wider [union] relationship [with Labour] can continue even if regulatory measures such as a cap on donations mean the financial relationship changes. … The Labour Party could still determine the trade union’s influence according to the number of members contributing to the political fund. Trade union representation could still be determined on the same basis as at present. The only difference would be the amount the trade unions pay in affiliation fees.”

There’s a strong logic to this. The argument that union affiliation fees should be exempt from any cap simply because Labour does things this way and shouldn’t have to change has a mighty whiff of special pleading to it.

I think the only decent basis for arguing that such payments should be treated differently is that they are mere aggregates of many small donations made by individual members. (As Phillips says, “it would be open to argument whether the affiliation fee per member should be considered as the donation rather than the collective payment. The low level of the affiliation fee per member would not be affected by a cap on donations.”)

For this argument to have traction, the link between the individual’s making the payment and the Labour Party’s receiving it has to be as direct as possible. If this means procedural changes, then so be it.

How could this directness be enhanced? At present, union members contribute (if they wish) to a political fund, from which the union then pays its affiliation fee to Labour (and also pays for other political activities). The fee is calculated based on the size of the membership, and Labour then calculates things such as the union’s conference voting strength based on size. The key point is that the fee is paid by the union centrally, en bloc. This fact makes it harder to argue that it should be treated as a set of small individual fees.

A better set-up would be for individual members to make payments specifically for affiliation to Labour (if they choose to), via a union fund that exists purely to transfer small sums from individual members to Labour. Each payment would be the direct result of a named individual’s decision, which I think would make clear that the “donation” here is indeed “the affiliation fee per member”; the spectre of the union baron with the massive chequebook would be exorcised. The union could then run a separate fund for non-Labour political activities, on which it could make spending decisions centrally as it wishes.

Unison doesn’t quite do this, but operates on a principle that could be developed in this way: it has one general political fund, which is unaffiliated to any party and is used for campaigning activities generally, and one specific fund called Unison Labour Link, which handles the relationship with Labour. But as well as fencing off the Labour money, my proposal restricts the activity of the affiliation funds to transferring payments in the names of individual members.

Unions’ voting strengths within Labour could still easily enough be allocated based on the number of each union’s members who choose to affiliate and make payments under the union’s umbrella.

Phillips invites comments on the interim report by 20 November; his final report is due by the end of the year.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Losing faith in schools

The proposal that new faith schools should admit a quarter of pupils from outside the school’s official religion means that things might get worse less quickly. It depends on how firm the rules turn out to be: if they’re just aspirational guidelines, then nothing much will happen; but if they’re rigid quotas that must be met, then they could well act as an obstacle to the creation of new faith schools.

Or we might be treated to the spectacle of religious families pretending to be atheists in order to sneak little Jimmy or Jamal into the godless 25% for schools that are over-subscribed. (How would you do that? Walk around carrying the latest Richard Dawkins under your arm? Set up a 24-hour Sabbath webcam, showing you lounging on the sofa and definitely not going out to pray? Take a bacon sarnie/can of lager/half-empty pack of condoms in when you go to meet the head?)

Certainly, taxpayer-funded schools should not close their doors to children from families lacking the right religion; that’s a fundamentally unfair piece of discrimination. To say that such children cannot go to their local state schools on these grounds shreds the principle of freedom of religion. Imagine if our taxes supported (for lack of a better phrase) ‘faith healers’ out of the NHS budget, who could turn away patients not holding the appropriate dogma. Not a great idea.

So if faith schools are publicly funded, they must be open to the public. Here, though, another question arises that can’t be answered by 25% infidel quotas. These schools are championed for their ‘ethos’: a character, attitude and outlook that draws on a school’s religion. But how do children not of that religion fit in? How do they understand their place in a school community whose defining feature excludes them? Now, I daresay talented and considerate staff can sensitively handle these cases, and students from the religious majority can be encouraged to accept the others as equals. And this may work, to a degree.

The question goes deeper, though. If a child need not partake of religion to benefit from and contribute to the school’s ethos and community, then what role is religion really playing? Is it necessary for instilling the common basics of right and wrong, social solidarity, responsibility and respect? The many successful secular comps give us the answer: of course not. Ethos and good education don’t require supernaturalism.

The role of religion in faith schools is primarily to produce believers – more specifically, to produce distinct groups of different believers.

But a case for allowing impressionable young minds to have an open, unbiased education can generalise beyond religion: I’d oppose atheist schools or Labour Party schools. While such institutions might share my beliefs, it’s simply not the job of a school to promote particular social, political or religious ideologies to children over and above a basic citizen’s ethic of common decency. The importance of teaching such an ethic is overwhelmingly agreed, but straying from it in any direction means that you’re no longer preparing children for leading their adult lives; you’re steering them towards leading lives like yours.

And then there’s the segregation issue. Outside Northern Ireland, this has only raised its head recently, with particular reference to Islamic schools. This can suggest that somehow Islam is ‘the problem’ here. But this is just an awkward fact of demographic change. In a relatively homogeneous society, some faith schools here and there are unlikely to cause many divisions. But nowadays, Britain is much more diverse – and better for it, I’d say. However, the very large overlap between religion and ethnicity means that faith schools are much more likely to be de facto race schools.

It’s true that people tend to cluster together on these grounds anyway, alas, and many comprehensives have become disproportionately mono-racial. But there’s no reason for education policy to push even harder in this direction. And this segregation isn’t specifically the fault of Muslims: ‘voluntary apartheid’ is a tango that takes two (or more).

People understand, I think, that when you build up your group as an ‘us’, there’s a risk that you turn others into a ‘them’. But what’s far less remarked-upon is that creating an ‘us’ makes you a ‘them’ in the eyes of others. The relevance here is that faith schools may well take care to educate their students in the ways of other religions and cultures; they may well strive to produce liberal, tolerant, open-minded children; they may even take a minority of children from outside the religion, so that the students can live diversity rather than just being told about it. But however such an individual school is run, its existence automatically affects other schools nearby.

Say a Sikh school is set up in a town with a significant Sikh minority, most of whom then decide to send their children there. Now, the neighbouring schools suddenly become almost completely Sikh-free. How can the pupils at those schools help but feel segregated from these children who would otherwise have been their classmates? The town’s Sikh community will come to be viewed from the outside as just that: a different community, separated by choice. They’ll become treated more and more as outsiders – a form of treatment that human nature will tend to reciprocate.

I think faith schools (state or private) are a bad thing, full stop – even if they gently promote rather than forcefully indoctrinate, even if they keep biology lessons based on science, even if they encourage pupils to find out about and respect other religions.

The idea that religious schooling is the best way to build communal spirit and inculcate good behaviour is really quite saddening. It shows a fundamental lack of faith in humanity: in our ability to accept and value each other without theological props, to build bonds of trust and respect without forming sectarian groups, to be, if you like, good for goodness’ sake.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stable door firmly locked

Security Council resolution 1718 [PDF] has banned the supply to North Korea of “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems” and “items, materials, equipment, goods and technology… which could contribute to DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction related programmes”.

Only now?

Monday, October 16, 2006

12 junkie points for Tom!

I liked this: 20 telltale signs that you’re a political junkie, from Tygerland (hat tip: Patrick H).

Ones that I score on are in bold.

1. The first thing you do in the morning is check the BBC’s politics website, followed by the broadsheets
(I don’t actually have internet access at home – not even an old steam-powered dial-up…)

2. You can name 10 Lib Dem MPs
(I said yes to this and then wondered… let’s try: Ming and Charlie obv, Simon Hughes, Sarah Teather, Chris Huhne, Lembit Opik, Evan Harris, Mark Oaten… that’s eight – this is harder than I thought, um, Julia Goldsworthy, Ed Davey. Phew! I think.)

3. The Today programme is as much a morning routine as brushing your teeth and taking a piss

4. You know the URL’s for the Top Three political blogs from memory
(I’m assuming that I get to define which the top three are…)

5. In your briefcase is a copy of Private Eye, an iPod, and Alan Clarke’s biography

6. You read Boris every week, even if its only to disagree

7. You record Question Time via Series Link on your SKY + box or TiVo

8. You know the Huffington Post is not a newspaper from a town called Huffington

9. You know who Nicholas Sarkozy is

10. Your family never brings up politics in your presence
(They’re also political, so it doesn’t really apply.)

11. You have a complex opinion of Tony Blair
(All my opinions are complex, actually. I’m a pretty complex kinda guy. Plus a real looker and a great cook…)

12. You actually know where the politics section is at your local Waterstones

13. You always vote
(Once, in the 1998 local elections, I let myself get waylaid by a spur-of-the-moment trip to a pub on the other side of town. I still feel guilty.)

14. Your water cooler conversations usually revolve around a recent Westminster scandal, whether your colleagues like politics or not
(No, but probably only because they and I know that a ‘quick politics chat’ with me is an unlikely prospect. Between this and question 10, I reckon I deserve a point.)

15. You have given money to a political party, via either membership or a donation

16. Your dream is to appear on QT yourself
(Do nightmares count as dreams?)

17. You read political blogs during your lunch hour

18. You see more of Iain Dale than your children, sadly
(I have no children and I’ve never seen Iain Dale. Score draw?)

19. You can name the last four foreign secretaries
(Before Beckett we had Straw, Cook, Rifkind and Hurd.)

20. You have a ‘handle’ at Comment is Free
(Yes, but I never actually post there; I mean, the place is full of crazed political junkies…)

War and realpolitik in open societies

Martin Kettle made a good point in Saturday’s Guardian:

“Military action, especially by democratic states, requires new and more modern forms of legitimacy if it is to be politically sustainable. …most of our foreseeable wars are elective, just as Iraq was. They are fought on behalf of consumerist societies almost wholly unaffected by any form of direct engagement. They can no longer be fought or carried to completion without ongoing public education, debate and scrutiny. …
“Today's wars are won and lost on primetime, almost as if they are reality TV. Soldiers in the field now claim and exercise rights - to call up chatshows, and to phone, text and email home - that would have brought the campaigns on the western front to their knees within minutes. All of this makes military action much harder to launch and maintain than in the very different conflicts of bygone times.”

This reminds me of something Robert Cooper wrote [subscription-only], in a similar vein, in June’s Prospect magazine:

“The reason for attacking Iraq may have been an old fashioned piece of realpolitik but it is difficult to sell such policies to a wide audience, so policy tends to be cloaked in moral sentiments. …
“Realpolitik is both necessary in a world of power and unworkable in a world of democracy.”

I think this is the right idea voiced in the wrong way. Certainly democracy blurs the traditional picture of states interacting as unitary agents in a game of power politics (although this was always a simplification). But realpolitik continues, as policymakers pursue their definitions of their national interests; it’s just that the balance of power they act within includes more than just other governments.

It helps to keep in mind that the primary agents of realpolitik, those who make decisions about war and peace, are not states (a word often used interchangeably with ‘nations’) but governments. This small verbal shift makes it easier to see that policymakers must interact with and reckon with a wide variety of others, at home and abroad.

If a democratic government wants to go to war, it has to consider not only the reactions of other governments around the world but also those of its own people. The first objective of a government is almost always survival. In democracies, this is not just a selfish desire to hang on to the personal prestige and power of office, but more often a genuine belief that one’s own policies are in the national interest, and so one must remain in government for the sake of the country.

So you don’t pick a war that you’re likely to lose, or one that you could only win at the expense of international ostracism. But nor do you start a war that you could win and retain your world standing, only to be cast aside by an anti-war electorate in favour of a new government that would ruin all your good work.

In this understanding, the public is not a rival centre of power – that suggests far too much cohesiveness among public opinion and too much people–government hostility. Rather, the public can in a sense be thought of as a strategically essential political territory, a diverse source of power whose occupation depends entirely on consent and therefore persuasion. For an incumbent government, such consent will in the past have been sufficient for electoral success. But there are political rivals trying to persuade the public either to withdraw their consent or to demand more in return: most obviously opposition parties, but also indirectly media barons, religious groups, backbench dissidents, campaigning NGOs, corporate lobbyists and advertisers – and indeed foreign governments.

One of the key phenomena of globalisation is that the flow of power across national borders consists less of direct government-to-government relationships, particular when liberal, democratic countries are involved. This means that national governments don’t so much decline as experience new competition for political voice and allegiance (you could see the rise of individualistic consumerism or transnational religious activism in this light). But governments are still key players, and one option increasingly open to them is to influence each other indirectly, through contacts with foreign NGOs, businesses and the like – although these may often, for diplomacy’s sake, take place discreetly via proxies.

Immigration means that governments have to contend with parts of the electorate more likely to take a passionate, personal interest in how the country’s power is used abroad. The quick and easy availability of dissenting eyewitness reports and commentary from across the world means that the public more broadly will put less faith in the official line.

This sort of thing has always happened, but nowadays the scope is vastly increased. Globalisation doesn’t destroy the national state any more than democracy destroys the central government; but both dramatically shift the alignment of power within which policymakers operate. Military might is all well and good, but if its use leads to political reprisals through disaffected soldiers, alienated immigrant communities or well-informed global activist networks, then a battlefield victory may be a prelude to electoral defeat. This can be more of a deterrent than many armies are.

Carl von Clausewitz suggested in 1832 that wars are fought as “the continuation of politics by other means”. It’s perhaps not too cynical to also say that wars and elections may be fought as connected branches of power politics, as part of a government’s struggle for survival and advantage.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Divided by a common language

I think America’s great. To help maintain the special relationship between our two countries, here’s a handy guide to US lingo for Brits:

bullhorn – lies told by sexually aroused male
cellphone – be free from slavery
duplex – deceive a superhero’s arch-enemy
faucet – what to do to a tap when it’s stuck
freeway – manner of dress involving elasticated-waist trousers (q.v. beltway)
hobo – dual-purpose garden tool: can remove weeds and fire arrows
jello – a wobbly, out-of-tune string instrument
ladybug – electronic device for eavesdropping on high-society women
popsicle – exploding scythe substitute; a must-have for every busy modern grim reaper
sidewalk – crab-like motion
spigot – saliva produced by jockeys
teleprompter – family member who reminds you that their favourite programme is about to start on a different channel from the one you’re watching
turnpike – become fishy
wiener – foodstuff that coaxes you away from consuming liquids
zip code – secret method of undoing a dress in the dark

Any additions most welcome. Some suggestions: diaper, pacifier, spigot, realtor, caboose, downtown, station wagon…

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tiredness. Headache. Overwork.

Three not unrelated reasons why posting here is going to be pretty thin this week.

I'm sure you'll cope...

Monday, October 09, 2006

North Korea tests nuke

But why is there no discussion of the root causes of nuclear proliferation? We won’t make any progress without understanding the legitimate grievances of this peaceful yet besieged nation. Certainly, we might not condone certain alleged infringements of human rights in the People’s Democratic Republic, but it’s telling to see how this one country is bullied and derided as a ‘rogue state’. Is it such a crime for a government to seek to retain its sovereign independence rather than become another Western lackey? Why is it so hard for us to accept that the people of North Korea have their own system of government, their own economic and social policies, and the understandable wish to defend themselves against US-UK aggression?

You know, I think Kim Jong-il’s missing a trick by not converting to Islam. He could get a much better press.

Worsd I can’t type

My typing technique is to stare at the keyboard, bang away with my index and middle fingers at a decent rate, and then intermittently glance up at the screen to see what horrors I’ve inflicted on this beautiful language.

Some words, I find, are more consistently typos waiting to happen, especially when my mental state is below par.

reaserrhc reaseach reseachr resaearch


My fingers feel like sausages and every sentence I type is like a manual tongue-twister.

Hmm. There ought to be a phrase equivalent to tongue-twister for things that are hard to type. Finger-f***er would be ideal but I think its connotations may lie elsewhere. Finger-fiddler is, if anything, even worse. Finger-fooler is a bit lame. Oh, I don’t know – as I say, my brain isn’t working properly today. Any ideas?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Substance abuse: Cameron’s serious problem

There are two misconceptions doing the rounds, as regards criticisms of David Cameron’s Conservatives.

The first is that a killer line of attack is to say that they are thin on policy detail. This criticism has been voiced very widely (including by me), and indeed it’s perfectly legitimate: if somebody aspires to run the country, we’re entitled to demand some beef about what they’re planning to do. But as there’s no election in the near future, it’s also perfectly legitimate for Cameron to decline to give more detail just yet; how he schedules his three-year campaign is up to him. This has pros and cons as a strategy, but it’s basically a fair call. And more to the point, as most people don’t fill their heads with policy detail even in the heat of an election campaign, this complaint is only ever going to have limited traction.

The second misconception (based on a related misunderstanding of how Cameron is changing the Tory image) is that the government has decided to attack Cameron for being too left-wing. Jackie Ashley gives an example of this, fearing that it would make Labour more right-wing.

More tellingly, George Osborne shares this view, and revels in it:

“Look at the attacks that Tony Blair made on us at the party conference speech. I thought they were so telling. … It was all you’re too left-wing now. It’s, ooh, you are not tough enough on terrorists, you are not building nuclear power stations. Every single attack he made was from the Right. And if that is the case, if they are helping us define ourselves on the centre ground of British politics then thank you very much Tony Blair.”

(Why do people think that harnessing energy from nuclear fission is a left–right issue? Oh well, never mind.)

First, the Tories aren’t as such pitching to the left to avoid being seen as right-wing. What they’re doing is trying to look nice as opposed to nasty (which is understandable). But this involves focusing on ‘caring’ issues, such as health, the environment, ‘general wellbeing’ and, er, hugging hoodies. This might make them look less right-wing in some ways, but as Cameron’s regular denunciations of the state show, he’s really not aiming to either be or look left-wing.

Second, Cameron’s Tories are not in fact coming to be seen as centrist, let alone left-wing. Polls last month by Populus and YouGov found that, when asked to give ratings on a left–right scale, voters put Gordon Brown and Labour as a whole noticeably to the left of themselves, Tony Blair fractionally to the right, Cameron substantially to the right and the Tories as a whole a bit farther to the right. (According to Populus, the Tories’ image has moved slightly rightwards since a year ago.)

Third, the recent line of Labour attack isn’t about left vs right. This is the Blair criticism of Cameron that Osborne so relished:

“His foreign policy. Pander to anti-Americanism by stepping back from America. Pander to the Eurosceptics through isolation in Europe. Sacrificing British influence for Party expediency is not a policy worthy of a Prime Minister. His immigration policy. Says he'll sort out illegal immigration, but opposes Identity Cards, the one thing essential to do it. His energy policy. Nuclear power ‘only as a last resort’. It’s not a multiple choice quiz question, Mr Cameron. We need to decide now otherwise in 10 years time we will be importing expensive fossil fuels and Britain's economy will suffer. He wants tax cuts and more spending, with the same money. … And his policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should put her arm round him and give him a nice, big hug. Built to last? They haven’t even laid the foundation stone. If we can’t take this lot apart in the next few years we shouldn’t be in the business of politics at all. The Tories haven’t thought it through. They think it’s all about image.”

And John Reid:

“There are some issues so serious, so rooted in the very fibre of our national values, that we need to make the hard choices now. David Cameron may find that those who wait too long to see which way the wind is blowing, get blown away by the gale. And so the Tories end up talking tough, voting soft and hoping no one will notice. But the public has noticed what they have opposed: tougher sentences for murder, sexual offences, violent offences, dangerous driving, immigration, asylum. They voted against or abstained on all of them. Why? It’s all too difficult. Too controversial. Actually it’s because they are too lacking in leadership.”

Now, I certainly don’t agree with Blair and Reid on all the above issues, and I think there are a couple of false notes struck here, but I agree with the general line of attack – in terms of both factual accuracy and political efficacy. The criticisms they’re making all basically boil down to one thing: not that Cameron hasn’t given enough detail, and certainly not that the Tories are lurching off to the loony left, but that they are not up to taking tough, often unpopular decisions; they are more concerned with opportunistically pleasing people than with seriously getting to grips with the real challenges of government.

The ‘niceness’ issues that Cameron has been focusing on are all well and good (maybe chocolate oranges are being marketed too aggressively) but they’re not the major, serious concerns of security and prosperity that are what really make and break governments. A party can have popular health and education policies, but if it’s seen as not up to dealing with crime, the economy and (these days) terrorism, it’ll struggle to get anywhere.

In his speech, a strikingly direct homage to early Blair, Cameron showed that he is dragging his party into the 1990s. But times have changed. Since 9/11 and 7/7, the public mood is different, and the touchy-feely soft-focus approach of Blair and Bill Clinton in earlier days works far less well than it used to.

The substance critique is quite distinct from the points about lack of detail and about obsession with image – although both of those can feed into this. But this is the killer criticism, this is what ‘lack of substance’ really means: that they’re not serious about making difficult choices; they’re flaky, not strong leaders; they don’t want to get their hands dirty with the controversial lose–lose decisions that every government faces.

Cameron himself may partly understand this problem, and ‘addressed’ it thus: “Real substance is about… sticking to your guns. It’s about character, judgement, and consistency.” Moments later, he added that the “old policies” were “not coming back”. That would be the old policies from the party’s manifesto last year – which Cameron wrote. If he thinks he can call this consistency, then what does that say about his character and judgement? Merely stating that your weak spot doesn’t exist isn’t good enough. It’s just not credible.

The pre-spun highlight of Cameron’s speech was the NHS. He’ll be campaigning to stop the cuts, he says. But the cuts are being made by various local NHS trusts, because the recent shift to giving them responsibility for their own finances is proving hard to get used to. Now, if Cameron wants these cuts stopped, that amounts to politicians in Westminster taking power away from the front line – which utterly contradicts his often-peddled (vague) line that he wants to spread responsibility downwards.

It’s flaky opportunism, talking as if there are no tough choices. This might be fine for a protest movement but not for a serious contender for government.

This is why Cameron’s Tories lack substance. This is why they’re nowhere near being fit to run the country. This, if Labour can stop being mesmerised by showmanship, is how to take them down.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Time for some more political comment and satire in limerick form.

Said Cameron, with speech sublime:
“I’m confident this is our time;
We’ve the wind at our backs (but
Don’t mention the tax cuts,
Asylum, loans, Europe or crime).

“Some say that it’s all a great bluff –
I’m insubstantial, spin and fluff;
But I’ll jet anywhere
To show how much I care
About carbon emissions, and stuff.

“And as for those hooded young thugs,
I’ll combat their violence with hugs;
I’m a tough, tender leader
(Should we hug al-Qa’eda?
Run a poll). So vote Tory, you mugs!”

Monday, October 02, 2006

The hollow men

As the rebranded Conservatives gather for their conference, trying to spin an image of substance, you might want to bear a few quotes in mind. First up is Francis Maude, Party Chairman:

“We are, again, looking at the branding of the party. I have to say that this is a matter which is not occupying more than a fraction of any of our time. It is important to get it right but it’s one of those quite superficial things that is not the be-all and end-all of our lives. It is something we will do over time but it really isn’t a matter of huge importance.”

That puts me in my place – three times. Methinks the Chairman doth protest too much? But you can always rely on George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor, to blow the gaff:

“Just creating the positive image of David Cameron as a relaxed family chap who enjoys cycling has taken months of effort. You’d be amazed how much time has to be spent on creating simple images for the media and then the voting public.”

In a comment on my post a couple of days ago, Cassilis suggested that I was being cynical for accusing the Tories of being too focused on spin and PR. And it’s true that I do have a cynical streak, especially when it comes to certain subjects. But this gem from Osborne does rather prove my point – and better than I ever could.

Finally, for a little perspective, TS Eliot, a dead poet:

“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow Chancellor”

(I may have accidentally added a word there.)

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A nude erection?

The Tory conference slogan is ‘A new direction’. Try saying it quickly a few times.

Meanwhile, David Cameron is continuing his campaign to end personalised ‘Punch-and-Judy’ politics by telling the Sunday Telegraph that Gordon Brown is “weak”, “tragic” and “laughable”. He clarifies this bid to shed the ‘nasty party’ label, saying that he means Brown is being “pushed around” by image consultants.

Dave, of course, never gives a moment’s thought to his own image.

He also told BBC1’s Sunday AM this morning: “We’ve fought elections before on upfront, unfunded tax cuts. I’m not going to do that, I’m not going down that path.” Three questions leap to mind. First, does that means he’s going to go for unfunded tax cuts that are kept secret rather than declared up front? Second, why instead can’t he offer upfront tax cuts that are properly funded by spending cuts? And third, why has he come to reject so contemptuously the approach used in Michael Howard’s manifesto just last year (author: D Cameron)?

(He added: “You’ve got to stick to your guns.”)

But he had an interesting metaphor to explain his approach to preparing for government: “It’s like building a house. You’ve got to prepare the ground – that’s the centre ground. That’s ten months’ hard work. Then you’ve got to have your foundation – that’s the idea that links everything together, social responsibility. Then, brick by brick, you put in place the policy.”

Trouble is, when you just pile bricks on top of each other without having a detailed architect’s plan from the start, you end up with a ramshackle, “shaky and wobbly” building that can’t stand up to much pressure. Perhaps this incoherent, bare, unfurnished structure is the ‘nude erection’.

Well, you didn’t think it could mean something else, did you?