Friday, February 27, 2009

Out! Out! Out!

Bill Jones gives a good review (in both senses) of last night’s ‘Margaret’, starring the excellent Lindsay Duncan as Thatcher in late 1990.

The supporting cast were also wonderful. I agree with Bill that John Sessions as Geoffrey Howe was the best character portrayal there, and Bill lists a few others deserving of credit – I’d add Nicholas le Provost’s Douglas Hurd, Nicholas Rowe’s Malcolm Rifkind and Nigel le Vaillant’s gloriously plummy Ted Heath cameo as pretty much spot on. Oliver Cotton’s Michael Heseltine had something of the pantomime villain about him, but very entertainingly so.

I wasn’t that taken with Michael Maloney’s John Major – the voice wasn’t there, although obviously it’s hard to do that without veering into Rory Bremner territory. And Major’s personality seemed curiously absent from the portrayal. But then again, maybe that’s not far off…

These are local referendums for local people: we’ll have no trouble here!

The Tories have put out a policy document about ‘returning power to local communities’ (yes, I know, I’m a week behind with the news).

It warns that voters face “a yawning gap between the changes they want to see and those they can directly affect”, and argues that “by making local government more accountable and bringing people closer to the levers of power we can start to restore the trust that’s been lost in our political system”.

Proposals include:

  • give local residents the power to veto high council tax rises via local referendum
  • give people the power to instigate referendums on local issues
  • let local people choose the organisational structures of their local councils

Some would argue, as Paul Evans quite ferociously does, that “these measures provide a veneer of accountability while removing the deliberative policy making processes”.

There’s truth in that: not all good governmental decisions are popular ones, and these proposals would threaten decent policies that incurred the short-term wrath of any number of interest groups, as well as intimidating councils into seeking the easy life.

If local authorities were truly given more powers, chances are we’d see higher turnout for council elections, which would mean stronger public engagement and accountability. The ‘instigate referendums’ policy would hobble councils, making them slaves to populism.

Ask yourself this: if these proposals really would improve the quality of our democracy and government, then why aren’t the Tories proposing plebiscitary checks on national government, and which by its nature is remoter and mightier than local government? It’s because they want to be able to govern effectively.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

British births for British citizens

In an argument between Sunder Katwala, of the Fabian Society, and Paul Dacre, of the Daily Mail, I can generally expect to find myself much nearer Sunder’s side. So it is with this case.

Sunder’s written an open letter to Dacre:

I was disappointed to read reported in today’s Daily Mail that the newspaper regards it as a mistake to consider that the children or grandchildren of immigrants are British, but rather would classify us as “second or third generation immigrants”.

I hope that your proposed reclassification of Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry as not British, as second and third generation immigrants descended from the foreign-born Phillip, will not distress them too much.
But it does seem most ungrateful, when Winston Churchill was voted ‘greatest Briton’, to now strip him of that status because he had an American mother. …
Perhaps you could let us know who the Daily Mail thinks is truly British. I can see you probably think it is too late for my children - as “third generation immigrants”, currently aged under 3 - but perhaps there might be a tip or two they could pass on to their descendants.

Nice, but I think Dacre a fairly obvious comeback: that if you have one British parent you get to count yourself as British. Thus Winston and the princes are in the clear. Phew! Dacre could probably be really classy about it and work the word ‘interbreeding’ in there.

The answer, which I have no doubt Sunder would actually agree with, is ‘British births for British citizens’ (not necessarily as the only way of becoming British, but certainly as one infallible means).

But that hardly makes for a really witty blog post.

Follow the money (all over the place, if it’s in euros)

Jeremy Warner on the idea of unifying financial regulation at the EU level:

so long as individual sovereign nations remain financially liable for underwriting their own banking systems, you are never going to see taxpayers ceding regulatory responsibility to a non-sovereign organisation. Until there is a centralised European treasury function with the capacity to bail out failed banks, it's just not practical.

He’s right – although it’s also true that, as finance is one of the most thoroughly globalised and systemically vital sectors of the economy, there’s a good case for better-coordinated international regulation.

One of the tricky aspects of the European Economic and Monetary Union is that its name is wrong: it’s certainly a monetary union, but it’s well short of being an economic one.

The interactions between the UK Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority are less than ideal. But the institutional jumble that is the European Central Bank, the European Commission, the 16 national governments and their respective regulatory agencies makes decisive and coherent economic policymaking pretty hard.

The kind of central fiscal authority that Warner mentions seems a very distant possibility. So the advice to Woodward and Bernstein – “follow the money” – will keep leading those interested in eurozone governance all over the place.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


What can you possibly say that’s any use about Ivan Cameron’s death at the age of six?

It may not be a staggering surprise, given Ivan’s condition, but it’s still the worst thing that parents can suffer.

The Browns know how it feels, and it’ll surely send a chill down the Cleggs’ spines: their third son was born just on Monday.

Let’s ease off the party politics for a bit.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Crisis of Credit Visualized

If Martin Wolf’s video was a bit too serious for you, you might fancy Jonathan Jarvis’s.

Or, if the phrase ‘entertaining 11-minute animation about the credit crunch’ seems a tad oxymoronic, you might not.

I liked it, though (hat tip to Sunny).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Nixon goes to Texas

John Rentoul thinks that the Conservatives are likely to win the next election, and that the state of the public finances will make life very difficult for David Cameron:

He would have to put up taxes, and not just by stealthy goose-pluckings here and there. He would have to put taxes up by enough to wipe out any growth in voters’ disposable incomes for every year of his first term and probably for every planning year into the future.

Could be.

Rentoul then offers two possible consolations for the Tories, only one of which I think makes sense:

Most people know that whoever wins the election will have to put up taxes, and most of them would rather the tax-phobic Tories did it than “active state” Labour. Most people also know that public spending will have to be restrained for years to come, and most of them will have more faith in the Tories to do that than Labour.

I get the first part: it’s standard ‘Nixon-goes-to-China’ logic. If something unpleasant has to be done, best give the job to someone ideologically opposed to it, because they won’t go too far. (This logic isn’t perfect, though: there’s always the chance that they won’t go far enough.)

But the second part flips this reasoning 180 degrees: if public spending has to come down, isn’t it actually quite risky to get a party with a deep distrust of the state to make the cuts rather than a party that defines itself largely by its support for public services? There are plenty of Tories quite cheerfully dusting off their wish lists of cuts.

Of course, my argument on this second point is as fallible as Rentoul’s on the first; I only note the inconsistency.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Perspective shift

I’m not a sub-editor at the Daily Telegraph. But if I were, I might have rephrased the start of its lead story today:

Children allocated school places on 'roll of a dice'
Schools in a quarter of council areas are allocating places by lottery or "fair banding" – in which the school uses test results to deliberately select a proportion of pupils of poor ability.
The move could cause difficulties for affluent families who have dominated successful schools by buying houses within their catchment areas, often paying a premium of tens of thousands of pounds.

I would have put it this way:

Children allocated school places on ability to pay
A majority of schools are still not allocating places by lottery or "fair banding", preferring to stick with the system whereby affluent parents can buy their way into good catchment areas.
The lack of movement could continue to cause difficulties for poorer families who have been crowded out of successful schools by their inability to pay a premium of tens of thousands of pounds.

Then again, I guess the nice people at the Telegraph know their readership better than I do.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A day of national celebration

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear Gordon
Happy birthday to you!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The ‘secular bigotry’ con

The Moral Maze last night was the usual mostly pointless blend of point-scoring and bluster, on the relationship between morality and religion (available to listen to for a week). A few things that Melanie Phillips said to Evan Harris as she was cross-examining him leapt out:

You say that religion should not dictate the law, but why do you think that secularism should dictate the law?

You think that the law should be entirely and solely influenced by secular values, don’t you?

You seem to be implying that secularism kind of occupies a neutral space, that it kind of holds a completely objective, neutral ring, whereas religion is particular, has particular values that are divisive. I want to ask you whether there is such a thing as secular bigotry.

Harris held his ground passably well, but this rubbish is laughably dishonest. Hard to know why anyone, except the Daily Mail types whose prejudices she’s paid to stoke, takes Phillips seriously.

On the first question: secularism is the system whereby no particular religion gets to dictate the law; it’s opposed to theocracy, not religion per se. On the second: the law (in a democracy) should be influenced by the values that people hold; some of these will be religious and some won’t. Secularism means that the latter type aren’t treated as less important.

On the third point: there is and always has been religious disagreement, which often contributes to social and political disagreement. If we don’t want a dictatorship of one side or another, then we’ll have to try to carve out a neutral space, where no one gets advantaged or disadvantaged because they do or don’t adhere to whatever religion. Secularism is the name for this. “Secular bigotry” is the name for a straw man, raged against by those who want to slant the playing field in their own side’s favour.

Secularism is the public compromise between one religion and another, and between religion generally and the lack of it. The implication that the fair compromise would be between secularism and religion is a con; a shoddy con, but a dangerous one all the same.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What’s it all about, Wolfie?

I do recommend a pair of videos by Martin Wolf of the FT (you may need to scroll down to find them). ‘The long road to ruin’ (Feb 16) explains how we got here, and ‘The slow path to recovery’ (Feb 17) explains where we go next.

Unsurprisingly, the latter is more speculative, but both videos (about 6 minutes each) are very lucid, explaining the economic situation intelligently without jargon or gimmicks. ‘The long road to ruin’ is possibly even better (tongue firmly in cheek) than my own ‘The global credit crunch explained in words of one syllable’ - which certainly avoids jargon as well, but is by its nature somewhat gimmicky.

VAT and the public finances

I have some good news about the temporary VAT cut. It won’t be as expensive as we thought.

The original cost estimate, £12.4 billion, was based on economic assumptions that turned out to be too rosy. The economy will sorely underperform the Treasury’s predictions from back in November, and consumer spending will likewise fare worse than the 1–1.5% decline forecast for 2009. Fewer sales means that the reduction in VAT will cause the Treasury to forgo less revenue than expected, making the cut cheaper and leaving the public finances in better shape.


Now the bad news: less consumer spending means lower VAT receipts overall, substantially outweighing the reduction in the cut’s effect on the public finances.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Sub traction


Bilateral nuclear disarmament, anyone?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The quality of financial journalism can go down as well as up

The Times is thunderously angry about the Lloyds takeover of HBOS, as supported by the Government:

Lloyds Banking Group revealed yesterday that losses incurred by HBOS, at £10 billion, would exceed expectations by £1.6 billion. Lloyds' share price fell by 40 per cent within minutes of the announcement.

As the Government holds a 43 per cent stake in the company, much of the loss will be borne at taxpayers' expense. The Government invested £17.7 billion in Lloyds and HBOS on behalf of the taxpayer. On yesterday's prices, the loss on that investment to date amounts to £8.3 billion… The responsibility for this perverse and costly outcome rests with the Government.

First of all, fuming about a “loss” to the taxpayer based on the share price on one particular day is meaningless. Back-of-an-envelope calculations of £8.3bn – “or £143 for every person in the country” – tell us nothing, because, funnily enough, the Government didn’t sell its 43% stake yesterday. So this “perverse and costly outcome” isn’t in that way costly, and it isn’t an outcome. To treat it as such is perverse, unless your aim is to scandalise your readers rather than informing them.

(The fact that the overall market valuation of Lloyds dropped by about £10bn yesterday, based on the news that losses had been just £1.6bn worse than expected, suggests that this market response may have been, as these things so often are, a short-term overreaction.)

Second, what would have happened if the Government hadn’t enabled the Lloyds takeover of HBOS back in the autumn? Well, either HBOS would have collapsed, in which case far greater carnage would have ripped through the financial system and we’d now be in a slump that would dwarf the current recession, or we’d have nationalised HBOS to save it, in which case all its losses would now be public liabilities anyway - and the Times would be denouncing the Government for such a “perverse and costly outcome”.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Recession misery for headline-writers as statistic repeatedly refuses to hit round number

UK unemployment hits 1.92 million
The total number of people unemployed is widely expected to have passed two million in the last three months of 2008 - those figures will be released in February.
- 21 January 2009

UK jobless total at 1.97 million
Many analysts had forecast that unemployment could reach two million
- 11 February 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Evolution is like a box of chocolates

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is trying to ally faith and science. He applauds Darwin’s theory of evolution, as a credible modern churchman must, saying that we shouldn’t treat Genesis as a scientific textbook to be read literally. Quite.

Then we get some boilerplate about how science won’t help us with questions of meaning and purpose, which is much like a homeopath saying that geology won’t help us with stomach ulcers, so you’d better buy some of my nothing juice. Ask a philosopher (or a gastroenterologist).

Then, after some well-chosen rhetorical questions, Murphy-O’Connor progresses to his rallying cry:

Christianity… knows that all life, but especially human life, is summoned to a perfection that it cannot attain through natural processes or through human agency alone. That future is God's gift and it summons us to a new spiritual and moral maturity. Could it be that this is the next stage in that evolutionary adventure? The discovery that God is the destiny of life; that Christ is not only the Alpha, the one in whose image we are made, but also the Omega, the one in whom we are completed.

Well. An “evolutionary adventure” is something that happens at the species level; entering God’s embrace is, I’m led to understand, an individual matter. The phrase is metaphor at best here, and so this narrative just won’t work as an extension of actual evolution, sitting smoothly alongside science and borrowing its credibility.

Then I see he slips in “the one in whose image we are made”. This won’t do.

Evolution by natural selection certainly rules out young-Earth creationism; Murphy-O’Connor agrees. It doesn’t, strictly speaking, rule out ‘intelligent design’: it’s theoretically possible that most biological developments have been natural but a few have been, somehow, directed from ‘above’ – although we have yet to detect a single such instance. Intelligent design, it seems, is a hypothesis for which we have no need; Murphy-O’Connor wisely rejects it.

Nor does evolution – or any theory about life – rule out that the universe overall might have been, somehow, deliberately created. However, accepting evolution by natural selection (while not inserting episodes of divine design) makes it very hard indeed to justify the belief that humans are an intended result of creation. You can set the universe going, you can even create individual planets with the right kinds of proto-biological goo, but if evolution by natural selection then takes over, the life you get is going to be as unpredictable as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Atheists mustn’t be so critical, the obsessive bastards

Ophelia nails Giles Fraser very well, and I recommend reading her post in full, but I’m going to chip in as well anyway.

Fraser says:

Contributors to Thought for the Day mustn't attack the beliefs of others. It's a basic BBC rule. This is not a place where Christians can fire pot shots at Hindus or Muslims have a go at Judaism. Which is why it's just not appropriate for atheists. Not that they haven't important things to say. The problem is that atheism is defined by what it's against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of "againstness" would fundamentally alter TftD's character.

The claim that “atheism is defined by what it's against” is true as it stands, but when he goes on to add that “atheism is parasitic upon religious belief, united only by what it is against”, we can see that he’s tiptoeing into rather different territory. It’s correct that none of us atheists would talk much about our atheism – or even think of ourselves as atheists – if there weren’t so many theists around.

But the fact that I don’t believe in goblins plays no part in my self-conception, it doesn’t inform anything I say or do. This is because nobody else believes in goblins. If lots of people did, then I would find myself in discussion taking an agoblinist position is response to the goblinism that so befuddled society.

My conscious public agoblinist stance would indeed be parasitic upon the conscious public goblinism that I found myself facing.

Likewise with theism. Were it confined to a few schizophrenics or children, I’d barely give it a moment’s thought. But no: I believe a great many people to be mistaken on this point, so it’s hardly surprising for me to pipe up on the subject.

Now, while atheism as a belief (not a belief system, it’s just ‘there are no gods’) is defined by what it’s against, atheists as people have a whole panoply of moral, social, cultural and political beliefs – with much greater scope for variation than among a group of theists who all adhere to the same creed (theistic religion is far more than a mere belief in a god). Most of an atheist’s beliefs will not reference the idea of god at all, so perfectly non-negative points of view can be offered.

Indeed, there’s nothing in the atheist rulebook (I could end this sentence there, of course) to say that we must dislike religion. Just as a Christian may applaud other faiths for various reasons, so may we.

Fraser recalls an occasion when “Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD” – with a predictably anti-religious result that proves nothing about what atheists have to say about moral issues.

To discuss moral issues without reference to the supernatural is not only possible but easy, with scope for a spectacular variety of thought. It’s like practising medicine without the use of leeches: you might use antibiotics or radiotherapy or bandages or scalpels or homeopathy or chanting. You’ll get a range of results, but mostly the doctors won’t stand around talking about how useless leeches are until the patient bleeds to death.

An atheist Thought for the Day would, I think, have much the same blend of wisdom, banality, woolliness and and worthiness as most of the religious ones do - but different flavours of each.

My 100,000th birthday

In binary, that is.

Damn, I’m cool.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

There's probably no better way of killing 90 seconds online

Liam is right: the bus slogan generator is a nice bit of fun.

The Remington LadyThatcher

Jo Brand on QI yesterday:

It was great, actually, when she became Lady Thatcher, because then she sounded like a device for removing pubic hair.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Lacking a sense of (dis)proportion

‘Proportionate/disproportionate’ is an utterly meaningless concept without specifying what it is that some response may or may not be in proportion to. The words are thrown around all too casually with reference to the Middle East. A little more clarity would be nice.

Here are three possibilities:

(1) Proportionate to the action that one is responding to. So if Hamas fires six poorly targeted rockets into Israeli territory, then Israel may respond in an equivalent manner.

(2) Proportionate to achieving a valid objective. So if it’s fair for Israel to want to stop Hamas’s rocket attacks, then it may respond with as much force as is necessary to do so, but no more.

(3) Proportionate to achieving a valid objective, excepting that the harm to innocents that occurs as a result of the response is not greater that the harm that would befall (other) innocents as a result of some other response. So if Israel could only stop Hamas’s attacks militarily by means that produce far more civilian casualties than continued attacks would cause, then another response should be chosen.

The first is obviously grotesque tit-for-tattery, although not many people seem to demonstrate a grasp of this (Neil D and Danny Finkelstein being exceptions). The interesting debate is between (2) and (3), pitting the overall humanitarian consequences against special responsibility for one’s own citizens and raising the distinction between deliberate and predictable yet undesired killing of civilians.

Britain’s media paralysed by worst snow since Monday


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Theologians and their imaginary client

Oliver Kamm argues:

theology is not a discipline, because it isn't a branch of intellectual inquiry. How can it be, when the truth is already "known" by revelation?

I think there’s something in this, but the way he puts that first bit is contentious. And, indeed, Norm Geras contends:

As one meaning for 'discipline' the New Shorter Oxford gives 'A branch of learning or scholarly instruction'; Merriam-Webster Online gives 'A field of study'. Theology as a branch of learning? As a sphere of scholarly instruction? Of study? I'd say so, yes - all three.

Fair enough, although I’m not desperately concerned about whether we do or don’t apply this one word.

Unity would clearly agree with Oliver’s sentiment:

Theology is, in intellectual terms, and certainly as an academic field of ‘study’, nothing more than a fraud…
Science is incompatible with religion, and particularly with theology. it is incompatible because science is the search for truth, knowledge and understanding while theology is a wholly sophistic exercise in bending the truth to fit in with a preconceived belief that the ‘truth’ has already been revealed, long ago.

That’s in the territory of being right, but “wholly sophistic” is too strong, methinks.

My take on this: theology is not the same sort of activity as science, history or philosophy (though, as Oliver notes, it may involve these things). The closest analogy I can think of is with a team of defence lawyers.

Theologians may debate with great erudition, impressive command of facts, sparkling insight and logical rigour – but all of these are harnessed in the service of the conclusion that is taken as given: their client’s innocence of the crime of non-existence.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snow joke

There’s some sort of argument going on about whether the BNP (and by extension the Nazis) are far left rather than far right. I have little to add except to say that, as a bit of a lefty, I’m glad that Britain is white today.