Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Blogging off

This blog is ten years old today, which seems a good occasion to announce its death. This will come as no surprise to regular readers, who have been regularly reading nothing at all for the past year and extremely little for the couple of years before that.

The cause of death is simple: I grew bored of writing about politics. I only have so many opinions, only so many ways to rearrange them and glue them on to the events of the day. And it turns out that when I march a phalanx of paragraphs out to say that such-and-such should happen, it usually doesn’t.

(Fun fact! For my first year and a half of blogging, when I was averaging maybe 25 posts a month, I lived in a flat with no internet. I would write pieces on my laptop and then lug it to a coffee shop or a library or my office or anywhere with wifi to post them. That’s dedication. Or possibly idiocy.)

Nowadays I tweet instead. I also have a blog about language and editing, which I post on maybe once a month or so. And if I have anything to say about politics or anything else that won’t fit into 140 characters, I’ll do it on Medium.

Thanks to all of you who dropped by here over the years. You made me feel welcome, you made me laugh, you made me think again, you made me want to write better.

Particular thanks to the late Norm Geras, who was very encouraging when I was starting out. He gallantly didn’t laugh in my face when I emailed him to ask, with the carefully constructed innocence of a newbie, whether it would be OK if I linked to his blog from mine.

So that’s that. Freemania is done. I’ll keep it online, as a warning to future generations. And I’ll leave you with a link to the post I’m proudest of, which managed to combine economic policy, theology and monster trucks.

Take care.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The meaning of a vote

My vote is very nearly worthless. So is yours. And that’s a good thing.

The idea that a single person is likely to ‘make a difference’ in an election would be a seductive myth if it werent so obviously false, because the whole point of democracy is that one person doesn’t make much difference. If you want power in one person’s hands, you want a dictatorship.

I was reminded of this by Michael Regnier, who writes:

voting in a General Election is not a powerful act. When I go to put an X on the ballot paper, it is not with a feeling of political influence coursing through my fingers and that stubby little pencil, it is more with a feeling like the one you get when you look at the picture made famous by Carl Sagan – the pale blue dot that is Earth, suspended in a sunbeam somewhere in the universe. It’s famously humbling, but also rather thrilling, in a way, to be so insignificant!

I think there is beauty in this. There’s something wonderful about the fact that on one day, all the power of the state is smashed into millions of tiny pieces and given back to its rightful owners. We each then take our own tiny piece of power and put them together in the way we think best.

The result can be disappointing – an awkward structure, designed by millions of people with different priorities and different ideas. And once it’s built, chances are that it’ll function in a way that no individual would have ideally wanted.

But democracy has to be about more than elections. The way to make an election as disappointing as possible is to treat it as an isolated act of individual choice. 

James Kirkup has a nice analogy:

democracy isn't a restaurant where every diner gets to order a la carte. It's a family where there's a row about what's for dinner, then one meal gets cooked for everyone: no one gets exactly what they want and everyone is a bit unhappy but eats it anyway.

A vote may be individual but an election is collective. The better the conversation we have before the decision, the better that decision will be. As Michael says:

to actually wield real democratic power, you must do more than cast a vote each time you are asked: you have to be active, engage with other voters, listen and argue with them, and perhaps compromise a little.

The decision is collective. We’re not just making it each for ourselves; we’re making it for each other.

Tomorrow I’ll do my bit, my tiny little bit. It won’t mean much from a national point of view, but it’ll mean a lot to me to be part of something big.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Victory in Europe

Scene 1

OSBORNE: Hello, Europe.

EUROPE: Hello, Mr Osborne.

OSBORNE: You know that recalculation of the national contributions that you do every year?

EUROPE: The one that takes into account changes to each country’s economy?

OSBORNE: Yes, that’s the one. This year, we’d like you to recalculate it going back to 1995.

EUROPE: 1995? That’s a long –

OSBORNE: Yes, we’ve just had our economic growth revised going back to 1995, and it turns out our economy has grown more quickly than we thought. We’re very happy!

EUROPE: You do realise that this will probably mean –

OSBORNE: Look, I’m a busy man. Just get it done and don’t trouble me with details.

EUROPE: Of course.


Scene 2

EUROPE: Hello, Mr Cameron. We’ve recalculated your EU contributions and you owe an extra £1.7 billion.

CAMERON: What? This is madness!

EUROPE: But we’re just applying the formula that you –

CAMERON: Don’t give me your weaselly excuses! This will not stand!
[to audience] We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall
EUROPE: But this is just
CAMERON: Shut up! I’m doing leader stuff!
[to audience] We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!

Scene 3

OSBORNE: So, this payment.


OSBORNE: Does our rebate apply to it?

EUROPE: You mean the rebate that applies to all your payment?



OSBORNE: [to audience] Damn, I’m good.

And could we get an advance on the following year’s rebate?

EUROPE: That will mean that the following year’s rebate is smaller.

OSBORNE: Do I look like a man who cares about the following year?

EUROPE: Fair enough.

OSBORNE: [to audience] People of Britain! I have secured a famous victory and halved the bill!

EUROPE: But that’s not –

OSBORNE: Shut up! I’m being triumphant!

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Excuse me, why is government borrowing £50bn higher this year than you said it would be?

OSBORNE: Shut up, nobody cares! Anyway, it’s Labour’s fault. And Europe’s. And Labour’s. The real story here is that I have secured an unimaginably vast £0.85bn reduction to our bill! So let us –

EUROPE: It really isn’t a –

OSBORNE: Be quiet, man, I’m trying bask in my own peroration here! So let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British membership of the EU lasts for a thousand more days, men will still say: this was their finest hour.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Do leadership ratings matter more in the run-up to an election?

If the public find Ed Miliband so unimpressive, why is his party ahead in the polls? This question, pondered by Anthony Wells among others, is tricky. He calls it the “Ed Miliband paradox”, and says:

Given Labour are ahead now, I think the question is whether perceptions of the opposition and the choice of Prime Minister increase in importance as the election approaches and voting intention becomes less of a way of people indicating their opinion of the government, and more a choice between two alternatives.

I don’t know what will happen over the next seven months. But I can look at the past and see what happened to other leaders.

If perceptions of party leaders become more important in the run-up to an election. we would expect to see a swing to the party with the more popular leader. We can test this theory by looking at Ipsos MORI’s archive of decades of voting intention and leadership rating polls.

In the charts below, the solid lines are how many people said they would vote Labour or Conservative, and the dotted lines are how many people said they were satisfied with each party leader. Note that the final pre-election polls didn’t ask about leader ratings, so the dotted lines stop a bit short.

1979 election

Jim Callaghan’s lead over Margaret Thatcher held pretty constant for about a year and a half, while the Tory lead over Labour bobbed about with no real pattern. The theory would have predicted a Labour recovery, but instead we got the Winter of Discontent, which hit Callaghan’s ratings as well as Labour’s. After that, nothing much changed.

The theory gets no support from 1979, but arguably events got in the way.

1983 election

The Falklands war gave Thatcher and the Tories a big boost. In the year between then and the election, the lines move around a bit but nothing really changed.

The theory gets no support from 1983, although conceivably the war made voters care more about leadership a year early.

1987 election

For about a year, Neil Kinnock’s ratings were better than Thatcher’s, and his party tended to have a modest lead. But both of these things changed. The Tory vote recovery looks to have started a bit before Thatcher’s personal recovery, while Kinnock and Labour fell in tandem. There are no grounds for inferring that the change in leader ratings caused the change in voting intention.

The theory gets no support from 1987.

1992 election

This chart is a bit shorter, because John Major only became Prime Minister at the end of 1990. After his honeymoon – aided by the Gulf war – his personal ratings drifted down, but the parties’ positions didn’t change significantly. The polls before this election were badly wrong, of course, but I’m assuming the wrongness was consistent across this period.

The theory gets no support from 1992.

1997 election

Here we have Tony Blair consistently miles ahead of Major, but voting intention actually shifts a bit from Labour to Tory.

The theory gets no support from 1997.

2001 election

Here, Blair remains well ahead of William Hague, apart from during the fuel protests, after which he and his party recover their previous standing There is a slight trend from Labour to Tory, although this has pretty much stopped before the last year of the parliament.

The theory gets no support from 2001.

2005 election

Another shorter chart, as Michael Howard became Tory leader in late 2003. This is a closer contest, but there is little discernible trend in voting intention, despite Blair pulling ahead of Howard in satisfaction ratings.

The theory gets no support from 2005.

2010 election

This chart is also a bit shorter, because Ipsos MORI changed its methodology in June 2008. David Cameron is consistently ahead of Gordon Brown (although the gap narrows during the financial crisis). Despite this, in the final year there is a decent swing from Tory to Labour. As in 1987 and 1979, this movement in voting intention accompanies movement in leader ratings, but from this we can conclude nothing about causation.

The theory gets no support from 2010.

And that’s that. Eight elections, no support for the theory that perceptions of party leaders become more important for voting intention in the run-up to an election.

You can make various excuses and add caveats and say that many of these elections didn’t provide circumstances that made a good test of the theory. Fair enough; I’m not claiming to have disproved the theory, just to have shown that no evidence supports it. But if you want to hang onto some version of this theory, all you have to base it on is a hunch.

Recent history

All I note from this is that when Miliband’s ratings were better, so were Labour’s. In the last year and a half, both have fallen: it could be that one is driving the other, or it could be that other things are driving both.

I share the view that Miliband is painfully unimpressive. I share the view that leader ratings matter. But other things matter too, and maybe Labour has other strengths – or the Tories other weaknesses – to outweigh this. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Dear Scotland

I’m mostly English but part Welsh and part Scottish, and I don’t want my country to die. If you leave, that will cost me part of my soul.

Well OK, that’s a bit melodramatic. Not very British, eh? Either way, we’ll all survive – but I truly think separation would diminish us all.

Do you really find it so unbearable to be British as well as Scottish? If you do, then I won’t stand in your way. But if you don’t – if there are things about the rest of the UK that you’re glad to call your own – then you don’t have to give them up.

You don’t have to accept the line that self-determination requires independence. Self-determination is you making the choice of what kind of Scotland you want: a part of the UK family, or just apart.

You can stay with the rest of us and still be Scots. Three centuries of being British and you’re still Scots, and you always will be. The question is: are the other parts of this country so bad, so alien, that you need to get rid of them?

Looking at Downing Street, I can see the appeal. If I could flee from this government without moving an inch, I’d be tempted. But I’d rather stand and fight, because I want my whole country to thrive. I want social justice in London, and I want it in Liverpool and Cornwall and Merthyr and Scarborough and Omagh and Inverness.

While I don’t always get the government I want, I would not give up on part of my country for the sake of being able to win easier, smaller victories. So I’m with you – millions of us are – for as long as you want us.

True, Scottish and English politics have their differences, but I think it’s a strength of our union that we can be together without needing to be the same. And we have a hell of a lot in common too. Two episodes from our recent history come to mind.

In 1989, the Thatcher government ignored public protests and inflicted the Poll Tax on Scotland. A mean, unjust tax, its introduction was unforgivably arrogant. But do you know what was even worse? A year later, having seen the undeniable harm the Poll Tax was doing in Scotland, they went ahead and unleashed it on the rest of Britain too.

They screwed us all. A British government, hurting England and Wales as much as Scotland. We were in that same mess together, and eventually we got out of it together.

Sure, democracy’s a wonderful thing and all that, but sometimes an elected government just sticks its fingers in its ears and decides that it knows best. That’s true in the UK, it’s true the world over, and it’d be true in an independent Scotland.

You’d have a sovereign government in Holyrood, run by… politicians. Some of them would be decent people doing their best, but others would be incompetents, cowards, liars, rogues and ideologues. And if you founded that government as a symbol of Scottish pride, they’d have the power to disappoint you more bitterly than anyone at Westminster.

On the other hand, sometimes the Westminster government gets it right.

The G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 still shines like a beacon. It was a time when government policy was in tune with the public mood, shown by a huge popular movement all around the UK.

Some international agreements are warm words that quickly cool and vanish, but this one got results. A big increase in aid to Africa, debt written off, and a longer-term shift in political culture towards fighting poverty. Even the Tories were reluctantly pushed to accept the need for more aid.

This wasn’t the result of Tony Blair’s diplomatic charm or Gordon Brown’s economic arguments. It happened because they were speaking with the whole weight of the UK behind them. We did it, together, and almost a decade on I’m still proud.

For all Scotland’s strengths, you would not have hosted and led a summit of the world’s major economies on your own.

And if Blair and Brown could put their rivalry aside and work to make something good, there’s really no excuse for the rest of us.

I don’t want us to become foreigners to each other. I don’t want to create a new class of immigrants who have done nothing more than move from one part of their island to another. And I don’t believe the problems we all face are going to be solved by creating a new border.

The UK is yours as much as mine. Scots have done so much to make our country what it is, and Britishness is your birthright as much as Scottishness.

I’m glad to share this country with you, and I hope we can manage to keep sharing it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Politeness and the invention of time travel

It’s a curious fact that the invention of the time machine was a feat not just of science but of good British manners.

For many years, physicists and philosophers alike had scorned the idea of time travel, citing the paradoxes that it would create: if you went back in time and killed your grandfather when he was a boy, you would never be born, so you wouldn’t be able to go back in time to kill him, so you would have been born and then would have gone back in time… and so on.

However, one Saturday afternoon, in a discreet and highly exclusive club in Mayfair, frequented by ageing grandees who preferred to avoid the company of the wrong sort, everything changed.

Sir Reginald Burr, who had inherited his father’s air-conditioning fortune and then trebled it by selling the family firm to an internet company in 1999, felt the call of nature and rose from a chair that cost more than your house. He made his stately way across the reading room.

As he reached the doorway that led to the bathroom, he suddenly found himself side-by-side with Sir Mortimer Frowse, whose estates encompassed half the land in one of the less fashionable English counties, and whose imperious bladder was also calling for relief.

They could not both fit through the doorway at once. One of them had to go first.

These two fine gentlemen did, of course, loathe each other for being if not quite the wrong sort then certainly not the right sort. And, of course, they were utterly determined to treat each other with unimpeachable propriety.

Thus began one of the greatest British stand-offs in history.

“After you,” said Sir Reginald.
“No, no, after you,” said Sir Mortimer.
“Not at all. Do go ahead, dear fellow.”
“Why really, I insist, old boy.”

This bout of competitive politeness raged calmly for over two hours, with increasingly vicious exchanges of deference and implacable self-deprecation. But neither could gain the upper hand, and their need was becoming ever more desperate.

It is not known which of them hit upon the idea first, but what is certain is that both of them muttered instructions to passing stewards (they had, naturally, bought each other drinks during the impasse, both to assert their own goodwill and to exacerbate the other chap’s problem). These instructions were identical.

The stewards conveyed to Sir Reginald’s people, and to Sir Mortimer’s, that they were to commit all necessary resources to the construction of a time-travel machine, so that their master could send his rival a few seconds back in time and thereby trick him into going through the doorway first.

Sir Reginald’s people called the physics department at Cambridge, offering generous funding for the work. Sir Mortimer’s people made the same offer to Oxford. The scientists protested that this was a preposterous idea, and that even if it were possible it might take centuries. They were told that this would be fine; once built, the time machine could simply be sent back in time for use in the present.

The universities took the money and set up research teams.

Work was indeed slow, but progress was aided by the Oxbridge merger of 2087, allowing the teams to combine their efforts on the understanding that they would send two copies of their eventual invention back to Sir Reginald and Sir Mortimer.

Breakthrough after breakthrough followed, along with a string of Nobel Prizes, and finally, in 2231, the notorious grandfather paradox was solved, when a work experience student suggested that it would probably be best not to give the time machine to any deranged smartarses.

The two copies were dispatched back to the club on that distant Saturday afternoon, not long before Sir Reginald’s and Sir Mortimer’s critically overfull bladders were due to rupture. Each man set his device to send the other ten seconds into the past. They pressed their buttons simultaneously.

There was a flash of light and, ten seconds earlier, they appeared in the same place, facing each other as they had shortly been.

Assuming that the damned thing hadn’t worked, they tried again.

And again. And again.

Their fate is unknown, I’m sorry to say. But some historians have noted in passing that that area of Mayfair had been agricultural land until the 1680s, on account of the rich nitrogen content of the soil.

(With thanks to Left Outside for nudging me toward the idea.) 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Help to Sell

Like George Osborne, I’m no economist. But I do know that a transaction has two sides: for every buyer there is a seller. And if I decided to sell my flat, I would want lots of ready, willing and able potential buyers to choose from, because higher demand increases the price.

The government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, offering taxpayer-backed guarantees on 95% mortgages for people who are struggling to raise a deposit, will give me what I want. It will put people who might like my flat into serious contention to buy it. I will have more would-be buyers and so I’ll be able to get a higher price. I can pick the one who makes the best offer, and disappoint the rest.

The focus of the policy is on buyers. They are the ones who receive the help directly and they’re the ones who will feel that they’ve personally benefited from it. But the help they’re getting to reach higher will also help me to start from higher. So the people who really benefit are those of us already on the property ladder.

This isn’t really Help to Buy. It’s Help to Sell. And while it might be good for me, I’m not so sure it’ll be good for the economy.

As Osborne has said: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up.” Well, at least he has learnt from Gordon Brown’s mistake and isn’t promising to end boom and bust.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A polling analogy: 2001-05 and 2010-15

Robert Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup discuss the habit of drawing analogies between the next election and previous ones. They mention 1992 and 1983 as options but they don’t seem convinced. And quite right, too: no analogy is perfect and all sorts of things could still change between now and 2015.

But I’d suggest a partial analogy between the current parliament and 2001–05, although with roles reversed.

  • At first, the public gave the government the benefit of the doubt but without a huge amount of enthusiasm. (In 2001 this was because Blair had already had his honeymoon; in 2010 Cameron had a much smaller and shorter honeymoon.)
  • Satisfaction with the government gradually fell, although this didn’t lead to a significant swing between Labour and Conservative.
  • One big event caused a big swing between Labour and Lib Dem. (After 2001, this was the Iraq war; in 2010, it was the coalition deal. And of course the direction of this swing has reversed.)

  • In 2001, Labour had a huge majority; they could afford to lose ground and still win the next election. Now, the Conservatives don’t have a majority and need to gain ground. In fact, they need to gain ground relative to Labour – which the swing from the Lib Dems makes even harder.
  • UKIP are also making life much harder for the Conservatives than Respect did for Labour in 2005. Yes, UKIP have taken support from all other parties and yes, some of that support will return home. But the biggest share of UKIP support has come from the Conservatives and some of that will stay UKIP

So while the dynamics of the two parliaments may have quite a bit in common, the end result – the government re-elected – is a lot less likely this time.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The emptiness and the irrelevance of the legal case for bombing Syria

The UK government’s legal position on Syria says:
If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met: 
(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and 
(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
This is political waffle. One dead giveaway it where says evidence has to be accepted by “the international community as a whole”. No such entity exists. Then the talk about what is “objectively clear” and what is “necessary and proportionate” – who decides? It doesn't say. Not even the non-existent international community.

But then, a fair amount of international law is political waffle, so maybe that’s OK.

The “doctrine of humanitarian intervention” is not a legal document; it’s a family of related political opinions. Roughly, the idea is that it can be justified to use force against another government when that government is inflicting atrocities on tis own people. This upsets the sanctity of national sovereignty, but many people – me included – think this is sometimes justified. National sovereignty can be a bulwark against colonisers, but it can also be a cage for the subjects of tyrants.

The key thing is that this justification is moral or political. It is not legal. The UN charter continues to insist that force may be used only in self-defence or when approved by the Security Council acting under chapter VII of the charter, which covers the use of force.
There are, though, official documents that support the principle. Most notably, Security Council resolution 1674, in 2006, which:
Reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity
And the key part of 2005 World Summit Outcome Document says:

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
This is all well and good, but it still puts the Security Council firmly in charge. And it doesn't commit the Security Council to do anything in any particular case if it doesn't want to. It’s just a statement of potential willingness.

You might say that if the Security Council fails to live up to the aims it has set itself, then that makes it legitimate for others to act. But legitimate is not the same thing as legal. The word gestures towards legality, but also towards morality and popularity.

In practice, what all this amounts to is that world leaders want to do what they want to do, and they want to do it while claiming they’re acting within international law. They want to claim that because it will help to give the impression that what theyre doing is the right thing. They know that no body will ever rule their actions illegal, so they can say more or less what they want on that front and can dismiss any disagreement as politically motivated or subjective opinion.

None of this is to judge whether airstrikes against Syria would be on balance good or bad. Nor is it to endorse the Security Council as a fine collection of wise, well-intentioned, disinterested adjudicators.

All I’m saying is that this “legal” case is purest political humbug.
Today’s parliamentary debate has shown a lot of consensus on the need to pay lip service to legality.
First, David Cameron: 

The very best route to follow is to have a chapter VII resolution, take it to the UN Security Council, have it passed and then think about taking action. … However, it cannot be the case that that is the only way to have a legal basis for action, and we should consider for a moment what the consequences would be if that were the case. We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. I cannot think of any Member from any party who would want to sign up to that. That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which is set out in the Attorney-General’s excellent legal advice to the House.
I agree with the spirit of this, but he really is skating on the very edge of pretending to care about legality here. ‘That would be awful and we’d all hate it’ is not a legal principle.
Then, Ed Miliband. Despite Labour’s disagreement with the government, on this point they are as one:

…there will be those who argue that in the event of Russia and China vetoing a Security Council resolution, any military action would necessarily not be legitimate. I understand that view but I do not agree with it. I believe that if a proper case is made, there is scope in international law—our fourth condition—for action to be taken even without a chapter VII Security Council resolution. Kosovo in 1999 is the precedent cited in the Prime Minister’s speech and in the Attorney-General’s legal advice; but the Prime Minister did not go into much detail on that advice.
 Perhaps because there was not much detail to go into.
Nick Clegg, of course, holds the government line, but what really struck me on the Lib Dem side was Saint Menzies of Campbell, who made his name denouncing the Iraq war as illegal. Today he said:

The effort to achieve a resolution under chapter VII is a vital component of the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, because if no such resolution is achieved—here, I agree with the Attorney-General—we turn to what was once called humanitarian intervention and now is called responsibility to protect. It is a fundamental of that doctrine that every possible political and diplomatic alternative will have been explored and found not to be capable.
 They all agree: Security Council resolutions are optional, and anything they do is legal because they’re good people.