Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What a muppet

The Muppet Personality Test (via Mars Hill) says: “You are Scooter. Brainy and knowledgable, you are the perfect sidekick. You're always willing to lend a helping hand. In any big event or party, you're the one who keeps things going.”

Scooter?? I wanted to be Fozzie or Gonzo (when I was a kid). Or Statler and/or Waldorf (when I was a self-consciously jaded student). Recount!

Left vs right and the redistribution of power

Danny Kruger, special adviser to David Cameron, has an intelligent yet tellingly flawed piece in Prospect magazine about the difference between right- and left-wing outlooks (Kruger of course champions his side; I’ll champion mine). He builds his argument around the French revolutionary slogan, identifying the left with (material) equality and the right with (legal) liberty, both contesting the ground of fraternity. This is perhaps a little glib, but I’ll respond within his framework as it’s nonetheless illuminating.

“Where equality and liberty are political abstractions, levered into reality by statute, fraternity is real and self-generating; it has no need of the statutory imprimatur. It is the function… not of the state or of the individual, but of society itself, the messy and plural mixture of our personal associations. … Fraternity is the sphere of belonging, of membership, the sphere of identity and particularity. … It concerns culture.”

Despite the radical 1789 overtones, fraternity is a notion that both left and right have sincerely laid claim to – albeit in different ways. Kruger argues: “The left frequently makes the category error of confusing the state with society, equality with fraternity. … The right disagrees. … It argues that fraternity is self-creating; that it consists of the voluntary association of free individuals.” He obliquely hints (but doesn’t say outright) that the right’s view “that fraternity will be taken care of by liberty” might be an equivalent error (which of course it is). He is concerned to demolish what he takes to be the left’s approach, but with the right he is broadly uncritical, bar one or two fleeting, polite coughs.

He writes of a centuries-long political struggle in Britain between liberty and fraternity, “a process that progressively realised them both. The constant renewal of this dialectic is the task of the right, for the task of the left is to disrupt it.” So not only is state action to promote equality irrelevant to the good, fraternal society, but it positively damages it. Kruger thinks the left’s idea of fraternity, exemplified in Gordon Brown’s occasional speeches about Britishness, is “conditioned by egalitarian statism” and is “an artificial one, which must be brought into law by statute and regulation”.

Kruger here has slipped back into fully endorsing the traditional right-wing outlook. And a little later, he abandons any attempt to suggest the right may in the past have been mistaken in approaching fraternity purely via liberty: “Politicians can meddle with fraternity only if they do so on the basis of liberty.” And he concludes by saying that left and right are engaged in “a passionate disagreement about who owns the ground of fraternity, and whether the state or the individual will lift its banner there”. The failure to understand the left’s viewpoint here is as stunning as his blindness to the logical flaws in his own argument.

Kruger initially says that fraternity is “self-generating” – but also insists that individual liberty is a necessary precondition. The contradiction is obvious; perhaps he misses it owing to a deep-seated assumption, despite his official treatment of them as separate qualities, that fraternity really is just an offshoot of liberty. Well, of course liberty is needed for fraternity, and of course an overbearing state can disrupt and degrade fraternity. But what he cannot or will not see is that equality – backed by the state – is also necessary.

(In a brief aside, Kruger makes the throwaway remark that “equality was discredited with the fall of communism”. This right-hand man of David Cameron’s thinks it too obvious to need explanation that egalitarianism of any stripe is polluted with Soviet crimes and failures. This is a more genteel version of what Nick Cohen and Norm Geras recently experienced when two US Republicans insisted that everyone across the left is ideologically complicit in the horrors of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Such a neo-McCarthyite attitude would explain well why Kruger sees no value in equality.)

The state, when it acts in accordance with the democratically expressed wishes of society, can positively contribute to fraternity in ways that no other agent has the ability or legitimacy to do. The NHS, universal welfare provision and state schooling have operated (and been funded) with the support of people who know that these institutions give them power, flesh on the bones of their legal liberty, to better control their own lives and build their own communities.

Liberty without equality means that the strong dominate the weak, that the rich can act in ways that shrink and distort the social space in which the poor are trying to live. Liberty without equality does not lead to fraternity; it leads to hierarchy. And untrammelled free markets can rip up social fabric as surely as a domineering state. Power abhors a vacuum; the democratic state can be the equalising force that’s needed to guarantee the fair distribution of power (as I said the other day). By ignoring the fact of democracy, the right too often sees the state as alien to society.

It’s been a long time since anyone of significance in the Labour party believed that liberty should be pushed aside and fraternity wholly subjugated to equality – if ever they did. The different views on offer now are: the right, as Kruger puts it, wants “the individual” rather than “the state” to “lift its banner” over “the ground of fraternity” (and never mind how big different people’s banners are, or how strong their arms); whereas the left wants the state to make sure all people have the power to lift their own banners and to sew each other’s together as they see fit.

Moving away from the theory (and from Kruger’s somewhat stilted terms of debate), it’s clear that the Labour leadership shares this latter view. David Miliband has a good handle on the politics of how the state’s role is changing from directly wielding power to redistributing it:

“To persuade people about the efficacy of government we have to make them part of the action… to spread the sense of power and autonomy citizens feel over their lifestyles and values to other parts of their life, notably their interactions with public services, markets, and the community. …
“This is a very clear dividing line with the Conservatives. Their idea is that the state is the problem and the voluntary sector is the answer. Wrong. The state has a role in preventing one member of civil society dominating another; in strengthening the voluntary and community organizations through transferring assets; and in creating policies that build bridges between different communities and third sector organizations rather than deepen divides. …
“Spreading power will not happen without an active state… that seeks not to hoard power, but to disperse power as widely as possible”

And Gordon Brown argued last December:

“Our voluntary organisations should neither be captured by the state nor used as a cut price alternative to necessary public provision…
“Charities can and do achieve great transformative changes, but no matter how benevolent, they cannot, ultimately, guarantee fairness to all. Markets can and do generate great wealth, but no matter how dynamic, they cannot guarantee fairness to all. Individuals can be and are very generous but by its nature personal giving is sporadic and often conditional.
“So fairness can be advanced by but cannot, in the end, be guaranteed by charities, however benevolent, by markets, however dynamic, or by individuals, however well meaning, but guaranteed only by enabling government.”

Cameron’s response came in a speech about tackling poverty: “The difference [between the parties] is highlighted by Gordon Brown’s claim that ‘only the state can guarantee fairness.’ He sees limits on what the voluntary sector, social enterprises and community groups can do. I don’t see limits.”

No limits at all to what these organisations can do? I’ll credit him with enough sanity not to believe that; but if so, then he can only have meant that there’s nothing worth doing in the anti-poverty field that the voluntary sector can’t do. An interesting hint about how small a role he sees for government.

He added: “Fairness… can never be the sole preserve of the state. Any government that sees fairness as a state monopoly lacks the humanity to deliver true social justice.” Which is not what Brown said at all; he said that the state was necessary, not sufficient. Cameron had to misrepresent him, as the redistribution of power is becoming the key political battleground, and it’s ground to which Labour can have a good claim – if the party has wit enough to make its case.

[Update: Chris Dillow has turned his scalpel on Kruger’s “jaw-dropping cretinism”. And David Goodhart thinks Kruger is living "in a Hegelian dream world".]

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bush rushes to help New Orleans

President George Bush has arrived in New Orleans in good time to coordinate the Hurricane Katrina one-year commemoration efforts.

What can you say?

Do I have to spell it out for you?

‘Tom’ stands for Treasure Offering Massage – so says the Sexy Names Decoder (spotted at Rullensberg Rules).

(My middle name, Aneurin, works out better: Adonis Needing Erotic Undulation and Rapturous, Intense Necking.)

It reminds me a bit of the place I used to work, where I sometimes had to give out my email address over the phone. It was tf@[companyname].com. The trouble was that F sounds very like S, and so I had to give example words beginning with those letters to clarify.

For the first few times, I tried “Er, T for Tom and F for Freeman,” which, while technically effective, did make me sound like a witless gimp with a brain made of toffee and cotton wool.

Before long, I had a go with “TF – as in tango foxtrot – at…”. Now, I happened to be the only male in my area of the office, and when I finished the call, I was met with “You’re such a boy!”-type ridicule. So I asked these infinitely wise and imaginative women with whom I worked for a suggestion on what TF might stand for.

This is a family blog, so I’ll leave you to work out the reply.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Labour’s way forward

Labour seems to have lost its way, and to win the next election it needs to buck up its ideas – on both the policy agenda and how it explains itself. (This post looks at the issues within the political constraints I discussed here.)

Blair and Brown

The leadership issue needs dealing with. Uncertainty over when Tony Blair will go means that party and media attention is focussed on this rather than on broader political strategy, and that those in the party who desperately want him out are motivated to try to destabilise him (which of course damages the whole party as surely as Blair clinging on and on and on). So he has to go before too long – I’d say within a year – and he has to signal this clearly very soon.

You might say that Blair has been undermined by his pledge not to fight the next election, and that this would repeat that mistake. But if my reading of the situation is right, it’s the uncertainty that is preventing so many from thinking about anything else. A self-declared deadline would mean that we can all stop wondering when, and that the Blairophobic plotters can know that any plotting is redundant, as they’ll get what they want soon anyway.

Blair should tell the party conference in late September that his speech there will be his last such, and set out a few key issues that he will focus on in the rest of his leadership. Conversely, Gordon Brown should for once liaise with Blair in writing his own speech, which must be strongly loyal and talk up the policy aims of the coming year – as well as, in rough outline, looking beyond.

Competence and security

People need to feel that their government knows what it’s doing and that it can handle crime and the economy reasonably well. Obviously there have been problems on the competence count, and – to take two examples – sorting out the ‘unfit’ parts of the Home Office and the administration of tax credits is vital. So is maintaining steady economic growth.

The economy has been strong for the last nine years. The other day a Treasury spokesperson said that Brown’s record on the economy “speaks for itself”. No it bloody well doesn’t, according to a recent poll. If you want to take credit for something, you have to keep singing about it. That was one of the mistakes that Al Gore made in 2000.

Crime has also fallen, but the media ensure that this is implausible; violent crime indeed has been rising, and this manifestly needs dealing with.

Terrorism and national cohesion

I’ve tentatively put these issues together: the more cohesion there is, the harder it is to recruit bombers; and the more intelligent and carefully targeted the anti-terrorist strategy is, the easier it is to foster a sense of unity. I could go on about this stuff at very great length, but here I’ll just say that a successful government these days needs to deal with both. Disrupting bomb plots is self-evidently good, and the new ‘Commission on Integration and Cohesion’ has at least the potential to take some steps in the right direction.


I would rather watch anti-climb paint fail to dry than go through another argument about Iraq. Opinions about the rights and wrongs of the war are now firmly set (unlike the paint), but on the matter of its politics there is no doubting the resulting ill will towards the government. Time will ease some of this, and so will the change of leader. But more than that will be needed. I outlined in my previous post some of the ways to signal a change of approach on foreign policy (pro-diplomacy noises, discreet distance from Bush), but those baying for an immediate pull-out and a full repudiation will have to be disappointed: such a vast, humiliating U-turn would be political suicide.

Trust in government

This has become a serious problem – largely, but not wholly, embodied by Blair. As with Iraq, his departure will help to a degree. Making changes to how Parliament works will help here, as Michael Meacher has suggested: select committee membership could be decided by ballots of MPs and not the party whips, and the liaison committee (of select committee chairs) could have some power to table motions.

Lords reform is necessary – not only because of the whiff of ‘cash-for-honours’, but also because it’s an outstanding manifesto commitment. Party representatives should have to be elected, and independents with particular expertise should be appointed in a way utterly independent of politicians.

By the same token, reform of party funding will be another way of signalling that political influence isn’t for sale. Whatever role state funding might take, there clearly has to be a cap on individual donations to prevent the appearance of the party (and for that matter other parties) being bankrolled by a few millionaires. The loans rules obviously need tightening too.


This government has done a lot to reduce poverty – not nearly enough, but far more than anyone else would. This is another thing that’s under-appreciated, largely because of fear of alienating the middle classes by shouting about it. What’s needed is a narrative in which further effort to improve the lot of the least well-off is justified on the same grounds as policies to help the middle classes. So…

Government and the redistribution of power

It’s a commonplace that parties of the right tend to prioritise ‘negative liberty’ – the absence of formal, legal constraints on individual action – while the left focusses more on ‘positive liberty’ – the material ability to grasp opportunities and take control of one’s own life.

Despite Cameron’s changes to the Tories – making them the party that will cut tax and spending slowly – and the ‘new’ Labour approach of making right-ish noises while quietly increasing the mimimum wage and tax credits, this distinction still holds true. And given that many relatively well-off people share with those who are poorer a sense that they lack control over their lives, this presents a political opportunity.

Plenty of people resent Labour’s curtailment of civil liberties in certain areas (and there are probably cases in which a rethink is politically workable). But this anger is, in most cases, a matter of principle rather than at tangible obstacles in people’s day-to-day lives. Not too many of us want to make regular protests in Parliament Square. But lots of people of all sorts find themselves, particularly in their interactions with organs of the state, reduced to the status of supplicants rather than empowered political agents.

In Patrick Diamond’s words: “The empowerment of the individual – strengthening freedom and equality to maximise the happiness and satisfaction of the greatest number – will be at the fore. The central theme of politics is enlarging the scope for individuals to exercise greater power and control in their lives at a time of unrivalled affluence – but also unprecedented insecurity.”

‘Choice’ has become almost as horrific a buzzword as ‘modernise’. It smacks of the market, of privatisation – which rings warning bells in lots of people’s heads when applied to public services. But it tries to get at something that matters: the rich have always had the power to get the services they want, by going to private clinics, paying public school fees, or more recently buying houses in the catchment areas of the best state schools.

Redistribution of wealth remains essential, but – as nobody seriously believes in exact financial equality for all – the remaining disparities must be eased by decoupling economic power from other sorts of power. People need control over the public services they use and over the government policies that affect their neighbourhoods. As Jonathan Freedland argues: “On this logic, the next stage in the journey will be nothing less than a refashioning of the state – replacing the top-down, centralised behemoth of today with a looser, more diffuse, even ‘organic’… network of services that fit the people who use them. Citizens won't be passive recipients, but direct participants.”

This approach would be of most benefit to the poorer people with less ability to buy their way out and less knowledge of cunning, covert ways to play the old system, but its beauty is that the same principle will help the better-off who want to be able to believe in public provision, but who might – if it fails them – be tempted towards the right.

The redistribution of power away from the central state is a bandwagon that David Cameron is eyeing with hunger. But if he took the reins, he’d steer in a quite different direction from Labour’s. He will be very happy to go the American way, with private companies and faith groups not only acting as contractors for implementing public policy, but also acting increasingly to shape policy. And he will diminish – perhaps slowly, but surely – the level of state funding, making service provision less egalitarian. The right – and he is most certainly of the right – fails to understand that the state has an utterly necessary role as the guarantor of a durably equitable distribution of power.

I know I said this would be the second of two posts, but I’ve noticed this morning an article by a Cameron crony that looks the perfect background against which to explain the flaws of the Tory approach. Watch this space… [Update: see here.]

Saturday, August 26, 2006

What would a Labour renewal look like?

Following my asking what Labour needs to do to get its head together and get back in the game, this is the first of two posts to try to address that. It contains some groundwork about the constraints within which the problem has to be dealt with, and the features an answer needs to have.

I assume for argument’s sake that Gordon Brown will succeed Tony Blair; I think it’s extremely likely. Not that I don’t have my doubts about him, but then I also have doubts about every other possible contender, and – ever-increasingly – about Blair.

Twelve years ago, Blair, following Bill Clinton before him, realised that there were electoral dividends in persuading the voters to count up to three rather than just the usual left vs right: a “third way … neither old left nor new right”. David Cameron is now trying to pull off a similar manoeuvre. But Brown needs to get people to count all the way up to four. As well as being different from the Tories, he needs to persuade disillusioned Labour voters that he is an improvement on Blair but without falling into the fatal trap of being seen as ‘old Labour’.

To the extent that Labour’s fall in support since about 2002 is due to dislike of Blair personally, then Brown (or for that matter anyone else) can tick that box. More obviously, Brown is seen as less of a spinner than Blair, and this may be a card he can play against Cameron. But in more general terms, the shape that post-Blair Labour takes has to be recognisably distinct from that of the last few years – although not too different, at least in terms of substance (see below).

Plenty of columnists, MPs, think-tankers, unionists, academics and the like have been offering their thoughts on Labour’s predicament. If you’ve read some of them, you may well have noticed the overwhelming tendency for people to treat the question ‘What should Labour do to regain the initiative and win the next election?’ as if it were the same as ‘What is your personal wish list of policies?’

That won’t do. I understand that people in politics like to feel that they’re in touch with the public mood, and of course nobody wants be seen saying ‘I think X is a rotten idea but it’ll win us votes so let’s do it.’ But really, people. Take a few breaths and think about perspective, about compromise. I know that there’s stuff in my own Fantasy Queen’s Speech that would be unacceptable to a lot of the party and/or the public; that’s my tough luck.

The strategy has to be politically viable. That means it must have the following properties:

(1) Enough continuity for most of the leadership to be able to accept it.

I know plenty of us have serious complaints about the direction the government has taken. But to perform a series of massive U-turns would be to invite ridicule; even if Brown somehow doesn’t become leader, we can be sure that most of the people in the new cabinet will be drawn from the existing ranks of ministers. For them to have to go back on a major bunch of their own policies would be to invite deserved ridicule and electoral punishment. There is also the small matter of the 2005 manifesto promises.

Renewal is not the same as repudiation. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be lots of ways of signalling a reorientation: for example, gradual troop withdrawals from Iraq, instituting Parliamentary pre-war votes as a default, having fewer meetings with Bush, and loudly praising the virtues of diplomacy and the UN – rather than bluntly renouncing the war. Or perhaps a Home Office review will conveniently conclude, six months post-Blair, that ID cards are technologically impractical and/or prohibitively expensive.

Inconsistency would be punished. The case for voting Labour at the next election must cohere with, and improve upon, the case for why Labour deserved to win the last three: building upon past successes, identifying new challenges and, yes, learning from mistakes. There’s plenty of scope for changing the priorities without contradicting the record.

(2) Enough ‘Labourism’ for most of the party to be able to accept it.

This means that Brown needs to offer some significant olive branches to that section of the party that feels disconnected from much of the leadership’s recent agenda. It certainly doesn’t mean adopting a bunch of stock leftist ideas like scrapping grammar schools, but it does absolutely rule out ‘über-Blairite’ ideas like scrapping inheritance tax.

(3) A broad enough appeal for sufficient numbers of the public – working-class and middle-class – to be able to accept it.

Both parts of the 1997/2001 coalition need to be reassured and re-courted. The single parent on the inner-city estate working part-time on the minimum wage, and the solvent yet insecure professional couple with a house in the London suburbs, both need to have their concerns addressed. A political agenda tailored to one but ignoring the other will fail.

So those are the broad political requirements that the new agenda must fulfil. Areas of importance are: party unity; spin, honesty and propriety; competence; targeting Cameron’s weak spots; and of course policy. You might wryly note that this list covers pretty much every aspect of politics; well, nobody said that deserving to stay in government was easy.

More specific thoughts in a day or two. [Update: see here and here.]

Friday, August 25, 2006

Mad scientists destroy Pluto

After last week’s suggestion of a reprieve, it now turns out that Pluto is no longer a planet.

Oh well. It’s not the end of the world.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Blogging4Lack of Booze

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not in London right now, which is why I’m not – at this very minute – at the Bloggers4Labour social in a pub near Mansion House.

(Yes, I’m in the Labour party. If this revelation is so horrifying that I lose half my readership in disgust, then bye-bye, it’s been nice having you both around.)

Anyway, while my comrades (e-comrades? Blomrades? Oh, I don’t bloody know) are making merry with whatever it is that modern metropolitan lefties are supposed to drink these days, Muggins here is stuck indoors with a modem and a keyboard. So I thought I might do some, you know, blogging for Labour. Like what it says on the tin.

There was a thoughtful piece in the Staggers a little while back by Nick Cohen, in which he rightly noted that Labour seems to have lost its way lately. After nearly a decade in power, the controversies and the failures and the ‘events, dear boy, events’ are steadily racking up, as they do for every long-lived government; there’s a sense of drift and an uncertainty about what Labour is actually for.

A period of drift needn’t be fatal; but if it goes on long enough, and if there’s an opposition capable of making hay with it, then it becomes a major problem. Or, if you like, a Major problem. Now, Labour in 2006 is in a much better position than the Tories were in the mid-1990s, and while David Cameron is doing reasonably well in the polls, he’s still only in Neil Kinnock/John Smith territory rather than making the sort of advances Tony Blair once did at John Major’s expense.

But you can lose power without losing by a landslide. The fact that Cameron isn’t as far ahead as Blair was doesn’t mean he won’t still win the next election, either with a modest Tory majority or in coalition with the rightward-creeping Lib Dems.

There’s also still a lot of time for things to change in all sorts of ways before the next election. But (to get back to Nick Cohen’s point), that doesn’t mean Labour can rest easy for the time being. If things carry on the way they are for much longer, then the sense of staleness and lack of momentum will grow to the point at which they become near-impossible to shake off, even with a change of leader. Nick reckons the party should, by around the end of this year, be coming up with the following:

* An intelligible narrative of what’s gone well, and badly, since 1997 - and why.
* An understanding of which political issues are now most important, and what to do about them.
* A “progressive language of the common good”, as David Miliband puts it – a way to communicate the agenda in a way that engages people.
* A way of settling the Blair/Brown leadership issue.

I think this is more or less right. Labour needs to think about these things urgently, and to be willing to agree on a way forward. I have some ideas floating around my head, and I’ll try to flesh a couple of them out here over the weekend. Constructive suggestions extremely welcome.

Cheers! [Update: see here and here and here.]

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Running into trouble

I like to go running a few times a week – just through some streets in my part of London, nothing Olympian. But sometimes I stay in Cambridge for a while (as I am now). And I find, again and again, over several years, that I can’t run as far in Cambridge as I can in London. I have to set myself a shorter route, and even then my ankles end up being sorer than usual.

I don’t know why this should be. Both areas are pretty flat, I don’t have a significantly different diet while I’m here, and I wear the same trainers. So what’s going on? Is the Cambridge tarmac somehow denser and so harder to run on? Is gravity stronger in East Anglia? Or is there some reason this would be psychosomatic?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Democracy guarantees failure

Norm and Ophelia, in the last couple of days, have been pondering an old chestnut (I love it when those two get conceptual).

Norm says that pluralist liberalism “makes a claim of its own to moral truth, but it's a moral truth permitting those who believe in competing moral truths to live together, provided they don't try to impose these on one another by violence. Which means that liberalism has to exclude the attempts of antithetical belief systems to monopolize the public domain for themselves. If there is an air of paradox about this, I don't know how to resolve it.”

Ophelia suggests that “there is a difference between a single road to salvation, and a framework based on accepting that there isn't one (or, pluralist liberalism). …a single road to salvation, a single overriding moral truth, and certainty about whatever moral truth there might be, are all on one side of this divide, all fit into one definitional box, while a framework based on accepting that there is no such thing, and plural liberalism, and claims of universal validity, are on the other.”

But Norm isn’t convinced: “adherents of a liberal moral and political framework do also claim a moral primacy - universal validity, whatever - for… the principles inform that liberal framework. The fact that there are relevant differences between liberalism and such other belief systems… doesn't show that there isn't this feature in common between them, or resolve the particular tension I was suggesting.”

Now I’m going to weigh in. This is a longish post, and I’d be shocked if it did settle the issue (as I say, it’s not a new debate, and greater minds than mine have failed to resolve it). But my approach is to make a case for pluralist liberal democracy using as few value-based assumptions as possible – a practical rather than moral argument. In skeletal outline: political fallibility, through human error and corruption, is inescapable; failure is uncontroversially bad, whatever one’s aims; accountability and division of powers minimise failure; democracy maximises accountability and power division; and properly functioning democracy requires pluralist liberalism. I try to say as little as possible about what the broader aims of politics and of government should be.

Let’s start with the principle of human political fallibility: given any set of ideals, any set of institutions and any set of individuals, we can be sure that however those individuals exercise political power through those institutions, the result will fail to live up to those ideals. Failures may be large or small, in terms of competence or in terms of propriety, but you can count on them.

Now people of all political stripes (bar a few fanatics) would acknowledge this, and agree that such failure is bad, and solemnly pledge to do their best to reduce it in order to get closer to the ideal. But what happens when we make the fallibility principle, from the very start, a key foundation for our politics?

As the people who wield political power will fail to some extent, whatever our yardstick of success, what anti-failure mechanisms can be built in to the system? We have to reduce the motive and the opportunity for those who wield power to wield it badly. This means instituting scrutiny of their behaviour, accountability for their decisions, and checks and balances to make sure there isn’t too much power concentrated at any one point.

All of this amounts to people watching, challenging and constraining the actions of other people, to guard against their failures. But, to coin a phrase, who guards the guards? Here, we face the possibilities of: a long chain of scrutiny committees, which is impracticable and merely postpones the problem rather than solving it; simply trusting the second group, which rips up the concept of accountability as surely as simply trusting the first group; or making the second group in turn accountable to the first, which institutionalises a motive for the two groups to coalesce into one unaccountable elite interest group.

The important thing to grasp here is that there is no ideal solution: the accountability trilemma can’t be resolved by any combination of the three options. So, rather than grappling with this to no avail, what happens if we accept – as a corollary of the fallibility principle – that there is no way of achieving full, impartial accountability?

We want to maximise the thoroughness of accountability and to minimise the power of closed interest groups. The way to do is to bring everyone into the process, by means of democracy. Certainly, there can be a number of distinct formal institutions sharing day-to-day power and scrutinising each other, but the ultimate check on this structure is popular electoral power.

In one sense, the voters are not themselves accountable – but by dividing up political power equally between all, the amount of power wielded unaccountably by any individual is minimised. And in another sense, as people end up being subjected to the governmental power of those over whom they exercise electoral power, this creates another circle. Power is still shared within a closed network that is not externally accountable, with the circularity of influence that can create a separate interest group. But as the group in question happens to include everyone, that problem is de facto dissolved.

Other political systems are not based on the fallibility of those who govern; they may pay lip service to the possibility of failure and the willingness to improve, but this is not foundational. Democracy, on the other hand, openly and honestly guarantees failure, and thus can reduce it. It is premissed on a certainty that some policies will be bad enough to deserve abandonment and some governments bad enough to deserve dismissal – and it provides mechanisms for making those changes.

(Of course, these mechanisms themselves are fallible – but they’re also changeable.)

But elections – even free and fair elections – aren’t themselves enough. (Here I’m approaching what Norm and Ophelia were saying about pluralist liberalism as applied to belief systems.) For accountability to be maximally effective, we need freedom of information, and in turn freedoms of speech and association. People must be able to propose new policies, new structures and new candidates for government, to ensure that existing ones are not just judged on intrinsic merits but also weighed against alternatives: a more demanding evaluation.

It might be tempting to argue that total freedom of speech isn’t necessary here – that people could be free to discuss the effectiveness of government as measured against some established set of values without needing the right to debate those values. And if there were a failsafe method of determining the difference between methods and values – between means and ends – then that might make sense.

Consider the following list, in which each item might be thought a means to achieving the one that follows: (1) increasing the minimum wage; (2) improving the take-home pay of poor people; (3) improving their absolute financial position; (4) improving their financial position relative to the average; (5) reducing economic inequality across the population; (6) fostering greater social solidarity.

Which are mere ‘means’ and which an ‘end’? One could use (1) as a means to achieve any end from (2) to (5) while being indifferent to the higher-numbered ideas. Conversely, one could aim to achieve any end from (2) to (6) while rejecting the lower-numbered ideas as means.

As a result, it is neither practically nor conceptually possible to have free debate on government effectiveness while stifling debate on the proper purpose of government. This means that if we want to reap the failure-reducing benefits of democratic scrutiny in the domains of probity and competence, we must also take a liberal approach to pluralities of political and moral values.

Democracy is the best way to minimise government failure, and a pluralist liberal politics is necessary for democracy to endure and to operate properly.

Short work

Congrats to my co-fisker Matt Crowder, who has won third prize in Norm's short short story contest.

His entry, 'The Road from Damascus', is well worth a read. And the first- and second-placed stories, by Daniel Goss and John Williams respectively, are pretty good, too...

Cultural freedom and cultural inheritance

Amartya Sen is bang on the money, again [subscribers-only]:

“The importance of cultural freedom, central to the dignity of all people, must be distinguished from the celebration and championing of every form of cultural inheritance, irrespective of whether the people involved would choose those particular practices given the opportunity of critical scrutiny, and given an adequate knowledge of other options and of the choices that actually exist in the society in which they live. The demands of cultural freedom include, among other priorities, the task of resisting the automatic endorsement of past traditions, when people – not excluding young people – see reason for changing their ways of living.

“Being born in a particular community is not in itself an exercise of cultural liberty, since that is not an act of choice. In contrast, the decision to stay firmly within the traditional mode would be an exercise of freedom, if indeed the choice was made after considering other alternatives. In the same way, a decision to move away – by a little or a lot – from the past behaviour pattern, made after reflection and reasoning, would also qualify as the exercise of multicultural freedom.”

Monday, August 21, 2006

Against the rage machine

I sometimes agree with Gary Younge and sometimes don’t. Today, it’s a mixed bag:

“…fundamentalists insist that we privilege just one identity above all others all the time. Since this is not how most of us live our lives, we tend to ignore them. …
“So, for the most part, they stalk the borders of our communities – the pamphleteers and proselytisers, who harangue and harass. But at moments when an identity feels itself besieged, they will move to centre stage. Fear will polarise people and send them scuttling into crudely constructed camps. When faced with a threat, either real or imagined, the fundamentalists who sounded simplistic will be praised for their clarity; views that were once dispelled as narrow-minded will be embraced as principled. The marginal gradually becomes mainstream.”

One important addition: it’s not just that a group “feels itself besieged” in the face of “a threat, either real or imagined” and then turns to the fundamentalists. In no small part, the fundamentalists themselves are instrumental in creating and magnifying the sense of an identity-based threat. The reason that they are able to do this is that among the group in question – and of course we are not really talking in the abstract here – there is a continuum of views on how central Islam is to one’s own identity and on the importance of the group so defined. It’s not a matter of ‘fundamentalists’ shouting at ‘the mainstream’ across a chasm, and occasionally getting a few people to cross over; it’s a matter of degrees, and of coaxing a little nearer.

(And, as I’ve argued before, aspects of identity that are based on ideology can tend to consume and subjugate other aspects.)

Younge continues:

“Muslims will be more likely to organise around and identify with their religious identity, both at home and abroad, so long as they feel attacked as a result of their religious identity. There is no sensible conversation you can have about Islamic identity that does not address what is happening to Muslims locally and globally.
“For the past five years they have been fed on a nightly diet of bombings and occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon; imprisonment and torture in Guantánamo Bay, Belmarsh, Basra and Abu Ghraib; and tales of alleged wanton murder and rape in Hamdania, Haditha, Balad and Mahmudiya.”

But we have to acknowledge that these examples – in which Muslims are indeed suffering as a result of Western actions – are being filtered through a distorting lens. The narrative couches all these things in terms of the lie that the West is, intentionally and with malice aforethought, out to get Muslims. Because there are plenty of cases in which “what is happening to Muslims” is that they are suffering at the hands of other Muslims, and in some of these cases Western policy has helped; another of the things “happening to Muslims” is that they are being sold an increasingly fundamentalist worldview in which anything other than ‘us against them’ has no room.

The Islamist fundamentalising identity machine is driven by deceit, hatred and the desire of those who maintain it to wield power within a ‘community’. It is alarmingly effective at building and steering a sense of furious grievance out of situations in which Muslims suffer, or can be presented as suffering, as a consequence of Western policies – regardless of the intentions or the other consequences of those policies, and regardless of any other policies that may benefit Muslims.

Dismantling this machine is desperately important. The dynamic that it creates is politically destabilising, pushing an unjustified – yet utterly predictable – swell of anti-Western Islamic anger into the cost-benefit analysis for all sorts of policies. One might think that it would be nice to skew governments’ motives away from war and occupation. But if the machine becomes powerful enough, it won’t stop at that.

He sleeps in mysterious tents

I don’t like being a cynic, you know; I wish somebody would address the root causes of my reactions:

“Instead of taking his usual family holiday, this year [Archbishop] John Sentamu has been sleeping under canvas in York Minster and surviving only on liquids to show solidarity with those who have suffered on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

“He said: ‘I have been humbled by the thousands of people – of faith and of no faith – who have supported me over the past seven days with their presence, prayers and solidarity.’”

Yes, ever so ’umble. If he didn’t actually believe in the causal power of prayer, you’d have to suspect the whole thing of being a self-indulgent gesture.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Will Byers defect to the Tories?

Stephen Byers has written about inheritance tax in the Sunday Telegraph [free registration required – but see also here]:

“Increasingly, it hits people who in life have never been liable to the higher rate of income tax but in death find their assets taxed at 40 per cent.”

Quite astonishing that people whose incomes suddenly increase dramatically should pay a higher rate of tax on them.

“It is a penalty on hard work, thrift and enterprise.”

Income tax might be described in such ways; IHT is a tax on outliving one’s parents. And I don’t think tax rates are going to be much of a disincentive to doing so.

“For these reasons, inheritance tax should be abolished.”

Note that last word: abolished. It’s not that the rate should be reduced, nor that the lower threshold should be raised; the whole tax should be abolished. And nowhere in his article does he show signs of knowing that IHT affects a mere 6% of UK estates.

For discussions of the policy proposal, see Tom Hamilton and Chris Dillow. I want to look at the politics of it briefly.

If Byers is trying to strengthen the chances of an ultra-Blairite challenger to Gordon Brown for the party leadership, such a challenge will fail. If he’s trying to push Brown in this direction in order to head off such a challenge, he will also fail. Byers lacks any power to make the weather inside Labour – partly because of his poor record as a minister, and partly because, when he endorses Tory cut-taxes-for-the-rich ideas such as this, he makes the rest of us wonder why exactly he’s in the Labour Party.

Perhaps, though, he’s just trying to prepare the ground so that a defection, come Brown’s leadership, won’t look utterly opportunistic.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


The Normblog short short story competition (up to 250 words) has produced some fantastic stuff. And, er, some other stuff as well. I haven’t tried to write fiction for a long time, and perhaps it shows. But Norm’s been kind enough to put my offering up.

Also, I have a post at Fisking Central, picking a couple of logical nits about former diplomat Oliver Miles on justifications for and consequences of the 'war on terror'.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The parable of the missing cow

It’s hard to know what exactly to make of David Cameron’s new statement [PDF] of Tory “aims and values”. It’s largely bland and unobjectionable (and by the same token, not the sort of thing with the power to enthuse). The aim of it is to make sort-of right-wing gestures while sounding nice overall, something that Dave usually pulls off quite well in person.

The document has all the ingredients you’d expect.

The motherhood-and-apple-pie: “Encouraging more eco-conscious use of our resources through energy and water conservation, and recycling.”

The spurious waffle: “Choices that were once beyond the reach of all but the richest are now just the click of a button away for everyone.”

The yes-but-Labour-are-doing-that-already-you-muppets-where-have-you-been: “Promoting international trade agreements and debt relief to benefit poor countries.” Or: “Action on public health that helps everyone to lead healthier lives, reduces health inequalities, and ensures that demands on the NHS are more sustainable.”

The Cameron fantasy that the rich and powerful can be trusted to be nice to everyone, and that legal accountability is so 20th-century: “Encouraging greater corporate responsibility by offering a lighter regulatory regime to companies who make a commitment to responsible business practice.”

The indigestible soundbite: “a responsibility revolution to create an opportunity society – a society in which everybody is a somebody, a doer not a done-for.”

The half-baked idea masquerading as a workable policy: “a new Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act.”

The nudge-nudge-wink-wink-we’re-still-Tories: “fairer, flatter and simpler taxes and deregulation for employers and wealth creators” or “Supporting families and marriage”.

The trying-to-have-it-both-ways: “putting economic stability and fiscal responsibility ahead of promises to cut taxes” and, in the very next line, “Sharing the proceeds of growth between investment in public services and tax reduction.”
Or: “Giving schools greater control over their own affairs” but “through the encouragement of streaming and setting, and of much greater rigour in teaching and exams.”

And the come-off-it-you-are-still-Tories-and-we-know-you-won’t-really-do-this: “giving every individual the skills, the resources, and the confidence to take control of their life”.

It will now be put to a vote of party members, who will approve it overwhelmingly – following the pattern of Blair’s 1990s Labour modernisation.

But the point about Blair’s rewriting Clause IV was not that the new version was so striking that people would rally to the new Labour banner; nobody paid much attention to what the new version said (like Cameron’s, it was largely bland). The point was that getting rid of the old “common ownership” Clause IV showed that the party had changed its heart as well as its face, and indeed Blair had a genuine fight on his hands (if memory serves, the biggest three unions and many MPs lined up in opposition). Winning that fight was what mattered in terms of swaying public opinion.

Cameron’s new statement will inspire nobody; he has learned the wrong lesson from Blair. It’s not about spouting ‘modern’ warm words in the hope that voters will forget the past, it’s about slaughtering an unpopular sacred cow, and being seen to be having a real fight in doing so. There’s no sign that he knows what that Tory sacred cow might be, or that he has the courage to pick such a fight.

(Cross-posted at FC.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Unite in disagreement

Apparently, “Muslim MPs will warn John Prescott today that they will not be treated as ‘patsies’ to defend unpopular foreign policies in Iraq and Lebanon.”

And quite right. If they think a policy is wrong, they’re perfectly entitled to oppose it; and if they take their positions with an eye on public opinion in their constituencies, that’s their prerogative as MPs. But there is a serious question about the grounds on which such policies as these are opposed, particularly by many Muslims and ‘Muslim leaders’.

Iraq: dishonest, illegal, unnecessary, immoral, misjudged, incompetent, destructive of civilian life, counter-productive to national security, over-deferential to Bush? Arguably. But it was not a deliberate attempt to victimise Muslims, and nor was Afghanistan. Too much of the opposition to these wars, to any number of domestic security proposals, and to Blair’s disinclination to shout “Not in my name” at Israel over the last month, takes a narrative of grievance against Islamophobic persecution by the West.

Even when the policies in question are wrong, to couch dissent in these ideological, us-versus-them terms is disastrous. Liberal democracy relies for its survival on a common sense of unity among the polity. This doesn’t mean unanimity on policy matters nor agreeing on identical moral values; it means accepting that we all form a legitimate political unit, that our disagreements are to take place within the rules of the game, and that we are all equally rightful players. We must not, as some on the right have long been prone to do, ostracise others for their ethnicity or religion, and we must not segregate ourselves into groups so defined, essentially separated from the rest of the populace and thriving on a fabricated psychology of conflict, as peddled by the Islamist identity spivs.

So please, oppose government policy when you disagree with it. But in doing so, make sure you fight for the more basic unity, the common ground on which we stand, that allows us to disagree freely and peacefully.

When squirrels steal fruit

While sitting in the park recently, I noticed someone chucking small bits of her lunch (maybe nuts) to a squirrel. All well and good. Then she half-peeled a satsuma (or it may have been a tangerine or some such – I don’t really know my citruses that well), ate a segment or two, and put it down momentarily. Then, while she was looking away–

(Look, I wasn’t staring at her or anything like that. I didn’t actually see most of the above; I’m just filling in the gaps between glances.)

The squirrel jumped onto the bench, grabbed the satsuma and hopped off with it. Then he stood midway between that bench and the one I was on, and squinted at this enormous piece of fruit in his hands (adjusted for squirrel size, imagine yourself holding a massive pumpkin), wondering how to approach it. He tried simply sticking his head in, but with little success.

(It may have been a female squirrel; I mean no sexism in my idle masculinising. I promise that the next time I anthropomorphise an animal, she’ll be a she.)

Then, somehow, he figured out what to do. He put the satsuma down, wrestled the rest of the peel off, and then ripped off one of the segments (imagine yourself holding a two-foot-long slice of watermelon). And he started nibbling at it. Curiously, he didn’t eat the whole thing. He just took a couple of bites from each end, and from some of the side – apparently being more interested in the white stringy bits than the juicy part. Then he dumped the remains on the ground and grabbed himself another segment. Et cetera.

By this stage, several of us were gaping with amusement at this animal who was not only displaying an inventive cunning in handling this unusual foodstuff, but also wisely reducing his risk of scurvy. After a while, he scampered off.

There is no point to this anecdotal whimsy; I just like it when animals find themselves interacting with bits of the human world in unexpected ways.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Going postal

Some “British Muslims” have written an open letter to Tony Blair:

”Prime Minister,
As British Muslims we urge you to do more to fight against all those who target civilians with violence, whenever and wherever that happens.
It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad.
To combat terror the government has focused extensively on domestic legislation. While some of this will have an impact, the government must not ignore the role of its foreign policy.
The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.
Attacking civilians is never justified. This message is a global one. We urge the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to tackle terror and extremism and change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion.
Such a move would make us all safer.”

Well, that’s nice; letter-writing is a dying art. I thought I might try one of my own:

Dear Terrorists,
As a human being I urge you to do more to stop targeting civilians with violence, whenever and wherever that happens.
It is my view that current terrorist policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad.
To combat civilised society the terrorists have focused extensively on trying to kill people. While some of this will have an impact, the terrorists must not ignore the fact that killing people is wrong.
The debacle of 9/11 and now the failure to stop launching attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to your ideological comrades who threaten us all.
Attacking civilians is never justified. This message is a global one. I urge all terrorists to start making some efforts to adopt humane aims and non-violent ways of pursing them, to show the world that you value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion.
Such a move would make us all safer.
Love and kisses,

(Scribbles says exactly what should be said, and says it well.)

Friday, August 11, 2006

How to destroy a group

Martin Shaw (the academic, not the actor) writes on genocide (spotted via PTDR).

He follows the émigré Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who “stressed that genocide involved ‘a synchronized attack on different aspects of life of peoples’ in the political, social, cultural, educational, economic, religious and biological fields.”

Shaw argues for a “broad, sociological concept of genocide” under which the destruction of a social group need not involve the killing of its members: “Killing whole groups was more about destroying social institutions and values than murdering individual bodies, although it often involved that, too.”

There is a fair point in this: you can destroy a community by forcibly dispersing its members and/or preventing them from living their lives in the way they have been used to – without actually having to kill them. And this can nonetheless be a terrible thing to do. But when he notes that, in genocide, “groups are targeted because of their particular identities and affiliations”, I start to wonder. (I’ve written sceptically about identity politics before, and will doubtless do so again.)

What about, say, the ban on fox-hunting? People identified themselves as fox-hunters; it was an important part of their lives; they formed themselves into groups based on their shared passion. The banning of this activity (right or wrong) has destroyed the ability of groups to identify themselves (and hence to survive) by their participation in it.

We could hardly bracket this with the mass butchery of Tutsis, though, or the industrial annihilation of Jews. And of course, no doubt, Shaw wouldn’t do any such thing. Preventing people from participating in some culturally prized activity (thus inflicting perhaps ‘fatal’ damage on the groups so defined), even if some force is sometimes used to enforce the ban, is a far cry from forcing people out of their homes, let alone murdering them.

All of which leads me to ask: if the destruction of the group is the only commonality in these cases, and if the differences between these cases are manifest in the degree of suffering inflicted upon individuals, then what role is the concept of genocide playing here?

Do groups have rights over and above the rights of the individual members? If a group cannot be destroyed without harming its members, then does the destruction of the group constitute a wrongdoing distinct from the individual harms done? Does ‘genocide’ then describe a crime or just a motive?

Performance and engagement

Simon Jenkins discusses Stephen Miller’s book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. Jenkins prizes intellectually stimulating interaction over the series of self-projecting mini-performances that you can see on any talk show (and at all too many parties).

But I don’t think this is quite the distinction that matters. Listening to someone perform – whether a long speech or a brief anecdote or explanation of an opinion – can be stimulating (or moving, or amusing). And replying in kind can stimulate in turn. Performance as part of social interaction is not a bad thing as such, as it can inform and provoke any number of thoughts and feelings, especially when done non-aggressively and received open-mindedly. (It can also be dreary and arrogant and competitive.)

Performance also need not be prepared; Jenkins classes spontaneous wit and quick thinking as interactive stimulation rather than performance, but I think that in many ways the intent of both (if not the method of production) is the same. Improvisation may require a sharper mind and perhaps greater confidence than serving up set-pieces, but that doesn't preclude its purpose being self-aggrandising.

The true distinction, I think, is between performance and engagement. With performance, the aim is to share some of your mind with another. An exchange dominated by performances oiled with pleasantries may have all sorts of virtues, and you may both end up with many of each other’s ideas to chew on.

Mutual well-intentioned performance is fine – you may both benefit from each other, by acquiring new ideas and having your own ones propagated. But, putting my Kantian hat on for a moment, to treat each other as ends rather than as mere means to reciprocal enrichment, you must engage.

With engagement, the purpose is not just to go home after an exchange of views, each enriched; it is to mix up whatever you have in your minds in ways that neither of you had planned or imagined. It is to come together and give each other licence not only to get inside each other’s heads but also to bring your own and each other’s thoughts into a shared space in which you sculpt, combine, reinterpret and create together, internalising both the outcome (if clear outcome there be) and the process itself. Neither of you is trying to determine precisely what the other ends up internalising.

A telling difference is that performance depends at least partly for its success on style and method of delivery, and this is quite proper; but engagement is driven by content. True, an effort to engage may be worded badly and spoken clumsily, but this will only really detract from its reception if the listener is still in performance-audience mode.

It’s interesting (and more than I can get into today) that some people find engagement easier and others find performance easier. Many who are natural performers genuinely believe that they are doing what social interaction is all about – although others regret that they have trouble properly engaging with people. And many who are more given to engagement dearly wish that they were better performers.

(One of Jenkins’s remarks seems to take on a new light in this context: “Conversation became a euphemism for sex.” So which is the worse problem: performance anxiety? Or engagement anxiety?)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Wasting time online is evil

Apparently, I am 20% evil. Which, put another way, means I’m 80% good. Although propagating tosh like this probably worsens my score a bit...

(Spotted at Shuggy’s.)

Fakes on a plane?

One to watch out for in the media today:

People suggesting both (a) that the alleged plane bomb plot has been fabricated by the government, with full police collusion, to make us all scared and trust them, and (b) that the government has put us at real risk of terrorism through its foreign policy.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Identity, exclusivity and choice

Norm and Ophelia and Matt have recently remarked on identity, with sympathetic reference to Amartya Sen’s views. Sen is worried about the tendency for people to define themselves solely in terms of one aspect of their being, their membership of one category (nationality, race or, most topically, religion) – whereas in fact we are all multifaceted, with characteristics and plural loyalties defining groups that vary and overlap in all sorts of ways.

Norm thinks that this is less a matter of individual choice than Sen suggests; some aspects of our identities we cannot just take or leave, downplaying or even rejecting them: “that some of them are absolutely central and very weighty may just be a given for me, in consequence of who I already am”. And I think this is true. There are some things about my life and myself that I choose to focus on, but the really important stuff just feels important.

Ophelia finds it hard to understand how the ‘solitarist’ view of one’s identity manages to carry so much clout with so many people, despite the apparently obvious existence of multiple traits defining, in theory, multiple allegiances: “I see the temporary appeal of identifying with other (whatevers) – women, Muslims, Americans, Jews, gays, blacks, Asians, whatever – but I don't fully see how one item on the menu manages to trump all the others all the time.”

I don’t fully see, either, but I think one factor is worth noting: those identities that are a matter of holding certain belief systems (rather than physical traits or accidents of birth) are probably more susceptible to this sort of exclusivity. If I’m proudly British, that doesn’t mean I think the French are cowards and the Americans are vulgar; if I’m a keen footballer, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the excitement of other sports; if I’m white, that doesn’t mean I sneer at Asians or shout at blacks; if I’m straight, that doesn’t mean I think gays are perverted. And, more to the point, none of these aspects of identity mandates anything about other aspects: nationality, pastimes, ethnicity and sexuality per se don’t say anything about each other.

Beliefs are different. If a certain belief system is part of my identity, it may well be that part of it does dictate that I look down on unbelievers, and that other aspects of identity are prescribed or proscribed. This can be the case with the stricter, more literalist religions, and some of the more totalitarian political ideologies.

If I hold such a belief system, then the exclusivity that it mandates, and the primacy within my identity that it demands, will feel compelling – as Norm suggests, this will not be a matter of carefully reasoned choice – and other aspects will be downplayed, rejected and/or opposed in others as appropriate.

Another factor that strikes me as relevant is the brute simplifying power of reaction and counter-reaction. If, say, a small minority of Muslims (of a very specific branch of Islam, perhaps) take it upon themselves to have such a solitarist sense of identity, and if this makes them disparage other identities – in a few cases, violently – then there will be a reaction against them. The nuances of their extremism will be lost on many ‘non-Muslims’ (itself an identity whose prominence is parasitic upon the initial extremism), who will react against Muslims in general.

In turn, many Muslims – including those who might wish to distance themselves from the extremists – will counter-react by defending their Islam, and public debate will increasingly be filtered through this one category and its negation. The circle continues and the polarisation of identities around one aspect grows.

(If a government tried to ban left-handedness, no doubt ‘lefty’ identity would become more strongly held.)

Matt concludes:

“in order for a country to be truly liberal, or even democratic, the general view must be that individuals are of equal worth and that we all share a common, basic human nature underneath the superficialities of culture and upbringing. … It’s this shared nature, the things we have in common, that provides the basis for society – uniting us around common goals and values.
“Identity politics – defining individuals based on just one aspect of their personality – is short-sighted, divisive and (by promoting an Us and Them mentality) ultimately quite dangerous.”

And to that good sense I have nothing to add.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Pape on suicide terrorism

Robert Pape, having researched “all 462 suicide bombings around the globe”, argues thus:

“There is not the close connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that many people think. Rather, what nearly all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.
“Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective. Most often, it is a response to foreign occupation.”

His team’s work has clearly been meticulous, and there is much of value in this report [PDF] and doubtless his book, but some of his interpretation is debatable.

The point that a fanatical religious ideology in and of itself isn’t the driver of suicide attacks is fair enough (although the extremist Wahhabism that draws on the ideas of Sayyid Qutb blurs any clear distinction between theology and worldly politics). And it is also worth remembering that Islam per se does not mandate suicide attacks on unbelievers – although the modern spin put on the notion of martyrdom has been grimly effective. But there are always many facets to an explanation of complex sets of actions.

Pape rightly notes that suicide attacks are mostly not just individual acts, but are coordinated by leaders of terrorist groups, who engage in recruitment, training, target selection, and supplying equipment and finance. The individuals who actually strap the bombs to their bodies may well have no history of violence or even political radicalism, and they may well be primarily enraged by a perception of unjust occupation (although we should note that many regard the mere existence of Israel, within any borders, as a military occupation). But the directed anger of young recruits is only part of the story.

The organisers of the groups are, as Pape accepts, more all-encompassing in their motives. They will certainly cite the more manifest popular political grievances (such as occupations) as means of garnering support, but their agendas go far wider, and are informed by a politico-religious ideology that seeks uncompromising theocracy in – at least – Muslim countries.

There is also the fact that certain ends lend themselves more readily to brutal means. A simple liberation struggle that had no further aims would be expected to have more scruples about targeting innocent civilians on the opposing side than would a campaign to dominate and conquer. And when such a campaign is premised on an ideology in which the death of one’s own people is to be celebrated, and in which anyone ‘neutral’ may be treated as an enemy, then suicide attacks on civilians are all the more logical.

Another factor is religion in the shaping of group identity. Without this, it is quite unintelligible that, for instance, British citizens should set off bombs in London, citing grievances about British actions abroad. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is defined by religion rather than nationality or territoriality in itself. Pape, to his credit, appreciates that “a religious difference between the occupier and the occupied… enables terrorist leaders to demonize the occupier in especially vicious ways”. But this limited acknowledgement of the role of religion doesn’t suffice to cover the globalisation of the jihadi outlook.

He is right that political grievances, notably occupations, are highly instrumental in radicalising people to violence. But as well as this: (1) a violent – perhaps suicidally violent – means of resistance can be legitimated by certain belief systems more than others; (2) those who organise the radicalised into terrorism are likely to be guided by more comprehensive ideologies of conflict; and (3) religion can serve as a prism through which identity – of oneself and hence of one’s enemy – can transcend geography or secular politics. To look for one "root cause" of such a phenomenon - whether religion or hatred or resistance - is to miss a lot of complexity.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Tories still sober after 8 months in brewery

David Cameron doesn’t seem to be very good at running his party – which, after all, is the only thing he’s in charge of and so is indicative of how successful he’d be at running the country.

First, he promises to pull his MEPs out of the European People’s Party in “months, not years”. Then he fails to put together a new non-fascist rightwing group, and announces that it will be in 2009. Hopefully.

Second, he puts together a flashy ‘A-list’ of potential candidates (with requisite numbers of women, ethnic minorities, gays and minor celebs) to make his party more shiny and ‘representative’. Then, he finds himself unable to get the desired results.

And now, after having cooked up a crafty public text-voting scheme to select his party’s candidate for the London mayoralty, he delays the whole process after a singular failure to find any impressive wannabes.

He does do the whole “I seem nice, wouldn’t you feel good voting for me?” vapid spin routine very professionally, but when it comes to organising anything or negotiating to make things happen, he’s about as competent and decisive as Boris Johnson with a haircut.


I have a new post up on Fisking Central about Neal Lawson's latest tirade on crime, neoliberalism, and Labour's record.

The forces of darkness

I needed to buy some new shades, my old ones having been slightly wonkily perched upon my face since I sat on them three years ago and bent them a little out of shape. Oh, and I’d lost them as well.

Now, I don’t like shopping for things (other than books); in particular, I’m generally unable to make decisions on things that affect my appearance. When I’m forced to shop for clothes, I try to find a cool day and wear a light t-shirt, to minimise the amount of panicked, confused sweating involved. Haircut decisions are utterly impossible, which is one reason why I’ve had my hair very short all over for several years.

So there I was, standing in the shop, perusing the various sunglasses on offer. I managed to rule out several on grounds of garishness and cost. I tried a few on, looked in the mirror, and managed to find a couple of pairs that seemed to be more or less OK. But I couldn’t rule out the possibility that they made me look like an idiot.

Out of the corner of my eye, I realised there was a girl a couple of feet to my side, also looking at shades. It struck to me that I could ask her what she thought of them, thus cutting through the painful dithering and also, perhaps, pulling off a neat chat-up line into the bargain.

But then I froze, as something awful dawned on me: What if I’m standing here trying on women’s sunglasses?

She was browsing the same display as me, and there was no indication anywhere of which might be men’s and which women’s. Are shades unisex? I have no idea. And clearly this isn’t the sort of thing you can ask some random stranger without embarrassment.

(I’ve been a victim of this before: once, I was in a shop taking pairs of jeans off the shelves one after the other to try to find some that had a zip fly – buttons annoy me. After a minute or two, a saleswoman came up to me and pointed out – not in so many words, bless her – that I was in fact peering at the crotches of numerous pairs of women’s jeans. I left the shop almost immediately. But there were no 'Men'/'Women' signs!!!)

Anyway, at this point a wholly new and unexpected element of uncertainty had wrestled me to the ground, and I started to think that it might be best if I just didn’t bother, and go around for the rest of the summer squinting – but squinting without looking like either an idiot or a half-hearted cross-dresser. Consumerism was obviously not for me, and I should scurry back home, skulk in the shadows and nurse my fear.

Then, though, something else dawned on me: That’s just what the terrorists want! They want us to be afraid to go about our daily lives, they want to bring down Western capitalism, and they want us to be too blinded by the sun to spot all those bombs they leave lying around.

So I bought a pair. And I’m wearing them right now. Screw you, Osama.

Postures of the ethically cleansed

The world and his dog seem to be demanding that Tony Blair condemn Israel’s military action in Lebanon and call for an immediate ceasefire. I’m not quite sure why, though. Let’s accept, for argument’s sake, that this action is unjustified and worth stopping ASAP, whether or not Hizbollah continue their attacks.

(I do, as it happens, find it hard to see how either Israeli security or Lebanese democracy are supposed to benefit from this beyond the short-term disruption to Hizbollah’s operations – not to mention all the civilian deaths. But I believe the technical term for a unilateral unconditional ceasefire is ‘surrender’.)

So what would happen if Blair called for Israel to stop? Would they stop? Does he have influence with Ehud Olmert, either directly or via George Bush? If he called for the US to call for Israel to stop, would the US do so? Neither country has a record of responding to diplomatic pressure for restraint in these matters.

And in this case, many governments, including those of France and Russia, have already condemned Israel and urged an immediate ceasefire – to no effect. Numerous respected people, from Javier Solana to Jan Egeland, have declared Israel’s actions “disproportionate” but failed to reduce those proportions thereby.

Does Blair have such massive influence that he could make the difference?

A retort may be that it might just be worth a try, and that it couldn’t do any harm. On the first count, though, if it is such a long shot, a tentative proposal whose chances of success are unknown but probably slim, then why is there such furious certainty among those demanding a condemnation? Either they have given no thought to what they are saying, or their primary purpose is to make gestures rather than to achieve an Israeli ceasefire.

On the second count, treating countries as pariahs (North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe) is not usually a good way of stopping them from being nasty. It is a fact of international diplomacy that once you publicly condemn another government strongly enough, you burn your bridges with them. Unless you are then prepared to back up your talk with big economic leverage (which the UK cannot exert over Israel or the US) or with force (and please let us not imagine that threatening Israel would be sane), your opinions will cease to carry weight.

Strident condemnations may satisfy a chunk of popular opinion but they rarely have any effect, other than to cripple the efficacy of any future diplomacy you might try – however moderated, however behind-the-scenes.

But I suspect that isn’t the point. Some of the critics may well want to put the UK on non-speaking terms with Israel (and the US): they are nasty and we will wash our hands of them because we are pure of heart. For most, though, I think consequences are irrelevant; they don’t think that far ahead. They just want Blair to endorse the “not in my name” outlook. Well, that sort of solipsistic isolationism might be a tolerable posture for an ordinary individual to protest from, but it’s not something sensible for a prime minister to do.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

New Blog Mission Statement

I'm going to write some stuff and see how it goes, you know?